Updated: Apr 29, 2021
(Excerpt from my book-in-progress - Mama's Goin' Backpacking)
As I push myself up from the steps and look at the young men waiting for me to do so, I hear my mom’s last words in my head. “Have so much fun, honey! But…please…don’t go off with strangers this time.
But mom, you know I live to go off with strangers! I know, that sounds like a bit of an extreme statement, but…it’s true. I’m so excited when locals talk to me when I’m travelling, when I can spend time with them, especially when I’m solo, which is most of the time.
Some amazing strangers I hung out with in the Peruvian jungle
I really struggle with the advice I get from friends and family to not do these things. I want to trust in the goodness of people, trust the universe, live large. Without fear. It’s naïve, I know it. But at the same time, I think my spidy senses have been serving me well so far. I’ve refused rides before, not walked down a quiet street when I’ve felt those tiny pricklings of discomfort that tell me, hmmm…maybe not a good idea? Granted, I know those inner warnings don’t always work perfectly. I need to use common sense as well. And unfortunately, therein lies the problem. Though a little wiser with age, I’ve not developed much more common sense along the way.
So here I am. Standing beside two young men who want me to come and play. Listening to my mom whisper in my ear.
I’m going to blame the lack of good, uninterrupted sleep for the decision I make.
I’d arrived in Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, at six in the morning after yet another nasty night bus. And as always, not having had a wink of sleep. All night, babies cried, and fierce, guttural snores had me turning in my seat to search for the culprit. As if my glares might shut them up. I’d contemplated knocking my dozing seatmate up the side of his head, so frustrated with the constant muffled but still loud pounding of heavy metal emanating from his earphones. I couldn’t curl my knees up a bit to get comfortable – the man in front of me had put his seat so far back I could see his crotch – I wanted to smack him but, again I suppressed the gesture - everyone else had someone’s head in their lap too and no one else seemed to be complaining.
From the station, I caught a cab to the hostel that I’d booked the previous night, and then a few measly hours of sleep before wandering out to catch the last of the daylight.
The sun was low in the sky, but the day still warm and muggy, and the streets were filled with people: tall, light-haired ones with cameras outstretched – the omnipresent tourists – and the much shorter, dark-haired locals who walked much more briskly, perhaps focused on the dinner waiting at home for them. In the space between the two, were the jewelry hawkers, the food vendors with their rolling carts from which tantalizing smells wafted, and the shoe-shine boys, their cloths and eyes focused intensely on their customers’ shoes, shining as quickly as they could to finish one set and hustle the next in. Rising above the melee, stately colonial buildings lined the street and I marveled at their intricate balconies and ornate moldings.
A block from the hostel, the narrow street opened into a grand plaza filled with curving pathways through gardens and trees, the latter, crowned with small pink blossoms.
Impulsively, I found a spot on the wide, grey steps in front of the massive Basilica Cathedral and pulled out my mini-travel paints and drawing pad. Flipping to a painting of a similar plaza I’d started earlier, I squeezed a couple of drops of water into the red disc, poked my brush into it, glanced at the flowering trees for inspiration, then, smashed the brush into the paper in quick daubs, hoping that my confident, inspired actions would result in pretty little roses. They didn’t.
A guitar somewhere behind me played softly as I painted. Glancing back, I saw its owner, a young man with shoulder-length black hair, his eyes down focused on the strings beneath his fingers. He stopped playing as I turned back to my painting. Disappointed, I turned again.
Though I’d have preferred to say ‘’I’m ruining this painting, I need your music to inspire me,’ my vocab didn’t include those words, so I said what I could. “Por favor… me gusta la musica. I like the music. Smiling, he plucked another tune out then, when he’d played the last note, came to sit by me on the steps.
“Como esta?” he asked. How are you?
“Estoy bien,” I answered, smiling and putting down my brush. I’m good.
“I am Luigi,” he said in English.
I responded in Spanish, wanting to practice for as long as I could keep up. “Mucho gusto, Luigi. It’s nice to meet you. “Me llamo Caryn,” I added.
Luigi appeared to be in his late thirties and, as I’d heard, an accomplished musician. He spoke a little English and so, with mutual butchering of each other’s language, we talked about music, his success at it and my lack thereof. I told him of my frustrated and, thus far, unsuccessful efforts to learn to play a small flauta I’d recently bought. It’s probably just the flute, not my lack of skill, he said. Perhaps, he suggested, I just need to spend more than ten bucks on one.
His friend arrived while we talked, a man who appeared slightly older than Luigi, with jet-black eyes and a mop of dark hair. His smaller stature and rounder face identified him as indigenous, from one of the original cultures living on the continent before the Spaniards came.
“Se llama Quechua-Chicho,” Luigi told me, introducing his friend. His name was Chicho, Luigi said, but he was called ‘Quechua-Chicho’ because he spoke Quechua, the language of the ancient Incas, and a language that’s still spoken by indigenous people throughout the Peruvian Andes, Bolivia, and Ecuador.
Chicho spoke not a word of English, and so, limited by bad Spanish on both sides, Chicho and I had to rely on Luigi to translate. He seemed very shy so I tried hard to put him at ease with lots of smiles.
“Es la cumpleaños de Quechua-Chicho,” Luigi said then. It’s Chicho’s birthday. Did I want to come and have a drink and play some music with them? “Tengo una flauta en mi hostal.” I have a flute back at my hostel, he said, following up with an offer to show me how to play it.
And so… here I am, standing beside two nice young men who want me to come and play. Listening to my mom whisper in my ear.
I’m hesitant, thinking of my mom’s reminders to not do dumb things when I travel (I really should stop telling her of my adventures), but so tempted by the opportunity to socialize with some locals, and get some flute lessons.
And, as usual, the fun-seeking portion of my brain overpowers my caution. I agree to join them.
I’m not from Arequipa, Luigi explains. Just visiting. Staying in a hostel just a few blocks away. We’ll go there first, he says.
Thank god there’s a part of my brain that’s developed properly and makes my mouth say “No, I don’t want to do that.” Of course, I apologize after saying no, knowing I shouldn’t be apologizing but unable to stop the sorry from coming out of my mouth. I explain to Luigi that mi mama es muy nerviosa about me being on this trip and that she’d asked me before I left to promise not to go into strange boys’ homes. Luigi laughs at my explanation, which makes me feel bad for not trusting them and then mad at myself for feeling bad. Why should I feel bad for saying no. After all, why would any woman with half a brain agree to go to a hostel with two strange men? Regardless, I do. I tell them that I won’t go to the hostel, but I’ll have a drink and sing with them.
We head to the opposite side of the plaza and into a grocery store. Luigi picks up two quarts of orange juice and has the owner pull down a bottle of pisco, a strong Peruvian brandy, from the shelf above him.
Back outside, I follow them down several dimly lit cobblestone streets until we find a big bench at which we can all sit. We spread out on it and Luigi pulls out his guitar while Chico starts mixing cocktails in the small plastic glasses he pulls from his bag.
It's a fine place to sit, out in the open where lots of people are passing by and soon, I’m humming along to the music, the previous tightness in my chest gone.
I sip the tasty citrus concoction and smile as I contemplate the surrealness of the scene. Passersby glance at our trio curiously. What are they thinking, I wonder? Tourist girl with local guys? Bunch of renegades? Who knows? As I drink my second pisco, I stop wondering what they think. I’m having a wonderful time!
Drinks continue to be poured and, as I watch the two guys laughing together, the fuzzy, warm feeling I always get when I’m with nice people doing happy things rises in my chest. Chicho, though he doesn’t speak a lot, has a huge smile and he flashes it often.
Over the next hour, the music, the comradery, the warm night, the alcohol, and the dregs of guilt I still feel about saying no to them earlier work on me. And when Luigi again suggests we go to his hostel to get the flute, I spend only a moment contemplating whether it’s a good idea before saying ‘okay.’
Though some nervousness returns as we walk, it fades when I see tourists and locals going in and out of the hostel. It’s like being at my hostel, I think. This is what I do - hang about with new friends. With that reassuring thought, I follow Luigi and Chicho up the stairs to Luigi’s room. He’s not in a dorm room as I’d supposed. It’s a big private room, and as I enter it, they close the door.
My chest immediately tightens. Only a single chair and a large unmade bed offer a place to sit and with Luigi taking the chair, I’m left to perch on the bed with Chicho. Its okay, I tell myself. I’m still in a hostel and there are a lot of people around to hear me scream if I need to.
“La flauta?” I ask Luigi, reminding him of what we’ve come here to do. He rummages through his pack searching for it. Chicho, in the meantime, scooches closer to me on the bed. He looks at me for a prolonged length of time and my chest tightens even more. Luigi brings the flute over and sits by me on the bed, pulling it to his lips to play a simple tune. I focus my attention on the instrument and on Luigi. He shows me a few notes. I bend my head to the flute.
I look up a moment later to see that Luigi has evaporated and that I’m alone with Chicho on the bed. Jesus. Did they make some silent signal, a decision without words about who would get the girl? Chicho moves close to me, his eyes on my face.
“Un beso?” He asks for a kiss. “No,” I say, quickly rising from the bed, but smiling, always the polite Canadian. I walk out of the room.
Luigi’s in the hallway, playing his guitar.
“Que pasa? Por qué se va?” What’s happening? Why do you leave? I ask him, my voice tense. Before he can answer, Chicho comes out to the hallway. He mumbles something and then leaves abruptly.
“El está triste,” says Luigi.
My brows knit together in confusion. Why is he sad?
“Because you no kiss him, Luigi tells me.
What?? “Why would I kiss him?” I ask.
“You say you like Chicho, no?” Luigi says, a question in his voice.
Jesus, that doesn’t mean I want to kiss him!! Frustrated, I try to explain my earlier words with my elementary Spanish but neither Luigi nor I have enough English and Spanish, respectively, to work through this cultural impasse, and I, again, feel bad. And like I’m in high school again.
“Yo voy,” I tell Luigi. I’m going. As I turn to go down the stairway, wanting to leave on a better note, I tell him to tell Chicho that I thought he was very nice and that I am sorry to have hurt his feelings.
My head is heavy the next morning after all the pisco drunk and the lingering bad memories of the night. How quickly a fun night can go downhill, I muse as I stare up at the wooden slats of the bunk above me. What the heck went wrong? DID I say anything that might have hinted I was interested? Aagh! I sigh. I’m doing it again! Feeling guilty for saying ‘No.’ Crazy. I wonder if other women do that?
A nice long walk will rid me of the doldrums, I think, and with that thought, I flip my top sheet off and crawl out of bed.
The sun is bright in the sky when I set off and I realize it’s Mother’s Day. I wonder if my babies are thinking of me on this sunny Mother’s Day? I’m sure they are.
I walk back to the plaza, thinking to start my day in a place of gardens and flowers. Oh dear…there’s Luigi on the corner of the plaza. I hesitate, looking quickly around me for a street I can duck down. But he sees me and calls out. “Carina!”
“Hola Luigi,” I say, walking toward him with a small smile.
A wide one beams across his face. “Es genial verte!” he says. It’s great to see you! As if nothing happened. He leans in and gives me a hug, then calls out to…oh crap… Chicho. Chicho walks up then hugs me before I can move back.
“Mañana es la cumpleaños verdad de Quechua-Chicho!” Luigi says. Today is the real birthday of Chicho. “Tomar una cerveza con nosotros!” Have a drink with us!
“No,” I tell him. “Mi cabeza me duele.” I tell them no, my head hurts.
Just one, “por favor,” they beg.
“No,” I say again, more firmly. “Son las diez de la mañana!” I say. It’s ten o’clock in the morning.
“Caminas con nosotros, entonces,” Luigi says. Walk with us, then.
I succumb again, not able to say no when they’re clearly so happy to see me. God, I’m such a patsy! “Un agua,” I say, resigned. I’ll have a water.
And…off we go again. I follow the guys into the grocer and watch as they grab some beers and bring them to the till. Seriously! They’re really drinking beer at this time in the morning? This is stupid. I don’t want to be here. I’m just gonna say no. I can do that, can’t I? Back outside, I open my mouth to tell them I’ve changed my mind, but before I can say anything, Luigi hands me a bottle of water. Damn. I can’t just take the water and walk away. I close my mouth in resignation and walk beside them, my mood dark and my heart heavy.
We walk up and down one street after another and the crowd thins a bit. No tourists anymore. Mostly moms laden with kids and shopping bags, and locals heading who knows where.
A bare dirt lot dead ends the street we’re on and Luigi walks on to it. “Donde vamos?” I ask, hesitant to follow them. Where are we going?
“A la casa de Chicho,” Luigi says. To Chicho’s house. “He wants to show you his garden.”
I sigh, so frustrated with them. What part of ‘I’m not going to your house,” do they not understand? Not cool. And frustrated with myself for succumbing to their wily arguments. But it’s daytime, I remind myself. Bad things don’t happen in the daytime. Do they?
On the other side of the lot, a dilapidated shack sits at the edge of the hill overlooking the river. It’s surrounded by a high chain link fence spliced by a high iron gate. Chicho climbs the gate and Luigi follows him, beckoning to me to follow them.
“Porque no tienes un llave?” I ask, asking why they don’t have a key. Now I am nervous. Thoughts are racing through my head. This doesn’t look like a good idea. Who doesn’t have a key to his own house? I can’t just leave, that’s just weird. Can I get out quick? And then…a last, stupid thought…They’ve been nice and respectful – I’m sure I don’t need to worry.’
And with that, stupid me hoists myself up and over the top of the locked gate. I’m immediately distracted from my nervousness by their looks of awe at my efforts.
And there really is a garden on the other side. Chicho proudly shows me the plants he’s stolen from around the city and the firepit where he cooks his meals. And then, despite my polite objections that I don’t need to see the inside of his house, he pulls me into a room off the small dirt courtyard. A big messy bed takes up most of the room’s space – it’s clearly his bedroom. Unbelievably, he sits on his bed, patting it in an invite. Seriously? I look around for Luigi. He’s disappeared again. “Nice,” I say, with a tight smile, then walk out of the room back to the garden.
Outside, there’s still no sign of Luigi. What the hell? Chicho comes out of the room with a joint in his hand. He lights it and offers it to me.
“No, gracias.” I’m beyond uncomfortable now, my chest tense with anxiety. Wiping off a log, Chicho gestures at me to sit. Not knowing what else to do, I sit. And then I stand, needing to stay on the move, and wondering where Luigi is. Chicho comes toward me, all five feet four inches of him, then leans in to hug me.
“No,” I say. “No me interesa.” I’m not interested. I walk toward the gate.
He follows me, grabs for my arms and leans toward my face. I’m angry now – and scared.
No! I shout at Chicho, pushing him away. “Luigi!" I shout. In case the jerk is somewhere around. "Me voy!” I’m going! I put my foot onto the first rung of the tall iron gate. Luigi appears out of nowhere.
Por qué vas, Carina? Why are you leaving?
In muddled and panicked Spanish, I shout at him. I’m not interested in Chicho! Why did you leave?
Luigi shouts back at me in mixed languages. “Que es la problema? Last night, you say he is hot!”
I go silent, my eyes wide with disbelief. Does he really believe I said that? I know his English is good enough not to believe that ‘I think your friend’s nice’ means ‘I think your friend’s hot.’
“Fuck off!” I shout, no other words coming to me in my frustration. Clambering up the last couple feet of the gate, I haul myself over and walk away fast.
Tears come to my eyes as I stride across the lot, so relieved I’m outside the gate, my steps getting faster as the relief turns to anger at them and at myself for getting into such a situation.
I walk, fast and furiously toward a bridge then across it, trying to separate myself thoroughly from the scene I’ve just escaped. Frig! Why is it so hard to be friends with a man? Can’t I accept an invitation to have some drinks and play music with one without having to fight him off? Why can’t guys just think ‘What a friendly girl she is! Might be fun to hang out, maybe practice my English. Love that she’s lovin’ my music – I’ll play her some more.’
A sudden thought of Chicho leaning in and grabbing me, suddenly, makes my breath stop and adrenaline pump through my chest. That could have gone so badly, I realize. My heart stops as I think about how badly it could have gone. So stupid of me to climb that gate. And I knew it was; so, why did I climb it anyways?
Because they seemed like nice guys. I don’t know…maybe I’m judging myself too harshly. Clearly, Chicho’s intent wasn’t sinister. If it had been, I wouldn’t have even made it to the gate. Maybe I sensed that.
But next time, I might not be so lucky.
Maybe my family’s right. Maybe I can’t just travel fearlessly, going where the wind takes me, making friends with everybody. Maybe I can’t simply trust in fate to keep me safe.
But…there’s gotta be a balance. I don’t want to be afraid to talk to locals when I’m travelling, afraid to hang out with them, get to know them and how they live. I refuse to believe that people aren’t good and kind for the most part. So how do I do that and stay safe? I suppose I could trade in my rose-coloured glasses with some of those clear safety glasses to start. That is so sad. I love those glasses.
But that’s the balance I guess. Staying open to adventure and new people but doing it with clear eyes and paying attention to thoughts that should be red flags. Like, am I saying ‘yes’ out of delight….or guilt? Are there dueling conversations going on in my head while I’m contemplating an invite? Am I asking myself how I’ll find my way home…or whether there’s some potential that things might not go well? What would my mom say?
With these purposeful thoughts, I begin to feel my chest relax, my brow unfurl, my pace slow. I’m still pissed that those hombres ruined my Mother’s Day, but the sunshine and blossoming trees along the river path I’ve been stomping down are doing their work. I’m finally starting to look around again, get out of my head.
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