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November 3, 2007

First Day in Peru (Lima)

As the 757 rises above the plains of eastern Colorado, it occurs to me that I am flying to Peru. Like, I’m really doing it. I’m flying to South America for a two week vacation in Peru, a country the state department generously describes as a “developing country?. I am ecstatic at this epiphany of sorts. I have escaped from the collapsing prison that is my home in the Rocky Mountains.

As the fields fall away beneath the plane, I study the patterns in the fields. When the crops were in, the farmers had carved the fields, into a peculiar patchwork of efficient but intriguing patterns in the fields. The farmers plowed their lives into the arid soil, each creating a unique six hundred forty acre canvas, framed by the incorrigibly straight county roads., written in their own unique font.

As we rise above the earth canvas, above the collage of accidental artists, I am reminded of nothing so much as Nazca lines on the plains of Peru.

And now I’m a child again, in the fourth grade, and all of us boys are loosed upon the library, efficiently culling the facts from our modern day Library of Alexandria. Drooling over photos of allied bombers raining countless bombs on Europe, the Blue Flame, the statues of Easter Island.

We’re just waking up. Coming of age. Cherry picking the world, sliding the books across the table, the photos of things too bizarre to be believed and those Nazca Lines in Peru. Why would someone have created them, hundreds of years before man could fly.

This was when we were young, when anything was possible.

But, on that day, when were nine, on that day in the library, pouring over the books that we’d be allowed to peruse unsupervised, anything was possible.

But now, But now we’re older. Some of us, anyway. Tim didn’t make it, but I think the rest of us are still alive. And with every day that passes, the Nazca lines seem further away, somehow. More remote. More exotic. Less likely to ever fall into our direct lines of sight.

When we were 9, it seemed like for sure we could go anywhere we wanted to. Easter Island. The moon. It didn’t matter. All were attainable, and they were. But that was then, and this is now.

As I grow older, it occurs to me that you don’t ever have to plan to “not go to see the Nazca lines?. All you have to do is keep doing what you’re doing. And, odds are that, if you’ve never been, then you’ll never go. We are, in the end, creatures of habit. Each day, our ruts grow deeper.

“I’m going on a vacation.? I told my neighbors.

“A vacation? Vacation from what? You don’t even have a job.?

“Yeah, I know. That’s why I need a break. It’s really stressful being here at home, not working and all. “

“Where are you going??

“Lima.?

“Ohio??

“Peru.?

“Do you have any work lined up??

“Nah. That’s why I’m leaving. I figure if I’m not working, then there’s no real reason for me to hang around here when I could be in Peru. It all pays the same.?

“Of course.?


When we get off of the plane in Atlanta, the little gate agents are standing there barking out connecting gate information.

“Lima,? I say.

I like telling people that I’m flying to Lima, because it’s probably the last place that anyone with any sense would want to go. All of the cultured folk are cruising the Mediterranean, admiring the ruins of Italy and Greece. I’m flying into a third world cauldron of disease and crime. Into a country where it can take “days? to drive 30 kilometers, and that’s during the dry season.

“Gate E3? she replies. “Down the hall, turn right and take the train,? she replies flatly. She’s not impressed that I’m going to Peru. I think if I’d her I was going to the moon she’d have just patiently searched for the correct gate information and read out whatever gate popped up on the computer screen.

Halfway between Terminal T and Terminal E, the train fails to proceed. We’re just sitting here at terminal C with all the doors open and the train welded to the tracks. Not moving. Not proceeding forward. This train is normally fast. Faster than the one in the Denver airport and after about a minute, I’m sure it’s not going anywhere so I get off and I start walking to Terminal E. I’m not going to miss my adventure in South America due to slipshod maintenance on a horizontal elevator.

At the food court, a man and a woman are sitting at a table for two, each jabbering away on their cell phones, ignoring each other. Maybe they’re together. Maybe not. How could I know?

Now, the man’s spilled a handful of pennies and these pennies are rolling around the food court and the homeless people descend on them like pigeons on a French Fry. Chasing them on their hands and knees until all are captured and returned, reluctantly, to their rightful owner who slips them safely into his deep pockets and never breaks stride in his cell phone conversation. Not for a beat.

I don’t like that the train broke. I don’t travel well and I don’t like it when things come undone and the derailed train seems to hint at something more ominous. The clouds are coalescing on the horizon.

Then, I see a penny on the ground in front of me. A penny that they missed. And it's heads up.

“Find a penny, pick it up, and all day, you’ll have good luck,? I say as I collect the penny and slide it into my pocket. I’m not normally superstitious, but for some reason, I go out of my way to get the penny.

On Terminal E, flights are departing for all four corners of the earth. Munich. Bogata. Amsterdam. And, it’s really fascinating to think about that. When I’m at home in bed at one in the afternoon, so little seems possible. But here, in the airport, it seems as though anything might be possible. All you have to do is walk through the right door, and in a few thin hours, you’ll be in a country you’ve never seen before. I could have gone anywhere in the world, and I chose Peru.

I go into the restroom and put on my money belt. From here on out, I’m going to have to be on my toes. In a land of short dark people, I’m excruciatingly white and six foot two. I have a laptop, cell phone, GPS, ipod, digital camera. And, of course, I will be driving a rental car.

I may as well have “TOURIST? tattoed across my forehead like that guy in ?Snow Crash?.

I’ve seen video of gangs moving in like pirannah, slashing at the victim with shives to free up whatever they can…wallets, cameras, etc. One minute, the guy is standing there unsuspecting in the crowd, and then they move in on him in all at once and in seconds, his clothes are hanging on him like threads and every material possession had has been liberated from him with surgical precision.

I’m sitting at the gate, with a penny in my pocket, guarding my electronics, waiting for the plane to start boarding. There’s a chic here and she’s got her digital camera plugged into the outlet and fiddling with her camera.

“What are you doing there, genius?? I ask pointedly.

“I’m deleting some of my pictures,? she replies.

She’s wading through her digital camera, deleting the memories she can’t afford. She doesn’t have a laptop and her memory card is too small, so she’s scrolling through the photos, scrubbing away at her past.

“Are you going to Lima?? I ask her. I don’t really care what she’s doing. I’m just bored. Just waiting to climb onto the bird and get down to the other side of the equator.

“Yeah. You??

“Yeah. What are you going to do in Peru??

“They had some earthquakes back in August that pretty much wiped out some villages down near Pisco….?

“Sucks to be them, huh?? I offer.

“… and we’re going to go down there and help them rebuild their houses.?

“Good for you.? I offer. Like cry me a river. A few thousand people died in an earthquake? Yawn.

“How about you?? she asks “Are you going there on business?? I have no idea why she asked this. I’m wearing blue jeans and a knit cotton shirt with a crew neck. Camoflage hiking boots.

“Nah…I’m going to take a couple weeks and go play in the Amazon jungle.?

“Did you get vaccinated?? she asks.

“Nah….They recommend you get vaccinated, and carry your yellow card with you, but you don’t have to. It’s not a law or anything.?

“I have no idea what I’m going to do when we get to Lima,? she opined. “I think I’m going to crash in the airport. Then, I have to get to the bus station in Lima somehow,? she complained.

“What are you going to do when we get to Lima?? she asks.

“I dunno. I don’t really have a plan or anything. I rented a four wheel drive for two weeks, but, other than that, my schedule is pretty open.?

“Do you want to crash at the airport with me?? she asks.

I look at her like she’s crazy, which she clearly is. Crazy as a loon. Like, believe you me, I’m not going to be sleeping unarmed in a public building in a third world country with a strange woman. That’s not going to happen. Not unless someone drugs me on the plane.

“Negatory Rump Ranger. I’m allergic to shives. I’m going to get a hotel for the night. I’m not sure where though.?

“Aha. OK. Well, if you could give me a ride, I’d sure appreciate it. I’ll look for you when we get into Lima.?

“Ah. OK. Sure. Roger that.?

She gave me some fake name, and I gave her my real name because I’m stupid and then I called my brother.

“I think we got a player here,? I began. “Look...I’m supposed to meet some chic at the airport in Lima…I only know her first name....this chic has latched onto me and we haven’t even left the country yet. I’m sure it’s a scam.?

“She’s going to rob and torture you. Didn’t you see hostel? This is exactly how it started out. They had chics go out and bring back the marks. Did you make out your will yet??

“No.?

“OK. How long will you be gone for??

“14 days.?

“OK. I’m going to get in there and salvage all the guns and the toys. What have you got up there??

“Uh…let’s see, there’s the DUKW, three weasels, an M37, two trailers, the XR, and two four wheelers…and the guns. But talk to Bud first. If he doesn’t know you’re coming, he’ll kill you, and I’m not kidding. He’s got a grave already dug on he land between our properties. And he’s not afraid to use it.

The gate agent announces that we are pre-boarding the flight and I bolt to the front of the queue.

“Um…Dr. Kiser….You’re in Zone 9. We’re only pre-boarding at this point.?

“I’m Medallion? I insist, swinging my backpack in her general direction. She checks the luggage tags and, sure enough, they say both say Delta Medallion with my Frequent Flyer number engraved in plastic. True, that was from back in 1993, and I’m sure they’ve had seven different versions since then but she didn’t say anything at all. Just sent me down the jetway, where I fled, away from the crazy woman that wanted to rebuild houses that had been destroyed by divine intervention. Like building sandcastles at low tide.

Now I’m n the second leg of the flight, the six hour leg from Atlanta to Lima, and the bastards stuck me right next to the bathroom in the middle of the 767-400 ER. I am in seat 14E. Beside me is the bathroom. Something goes in there and gets trapped and now it’s knocking to be let out and I just put on my headphones and pretend that I don’t hear it somehow.

“BAM! BAM! BAM!? Now, this animal caught in the Boeing leg trap has garnered the attention of a flying waitress and the flying waitress is trying to free this frightened beast.

The problem is that the signs on the bathroom are all in English and these people apparently don’t speak a word of English. That’s my guess anyway.

“BAM! BAM! BAM!? and she’s bleating and squealing in Spanish or possibly Quechua, I can’t quite make it out and the flying waitress is trying to free her and everything slows down. Everything gets distorted and pulled into polar coordinates and time slows to a crawl and now Jennifer and I are flying back from Paris. That horrendous hopscotch of flights of Paris, Dublin, Philly, Chicago, Independence, Denver and on one leg, they put us next to the bathroom on the flight and I finally manage to get the bathroom locked from the outside so no one can use it which suits me just fine because I don’t want the pigs anywhere near me, but now the flight attendant comes back and, with Herculean effort, and much muttering and consternation, forces the bathroom door open while Jennifer and I cower and giggle in exhilarating fear.

But now, we’re back…somewhere over Panama in the dark and the flying waitress has freed the bleating housewife and she scurries out of sight into the bowels of the plane and the flying waitress turns to glower at me.

Before she can say anything, I remove my headphones and say “Un café, con dos azucar y leche, por favor.?

She’s glowing with hatred, but she doesn’t speak Spanish, so I’ve just made it perfectly clear that she and I will not be able to communicate in the foreseeable future, so she may as well just go stew somewhere else.

For the rest of the flight, some Peruvians gather in the aisle and banter in some indecipherable dialect, glancing at me and then laughing uncontrollably. I shrink behind my laptop. I’m sure they’re going to fillet me when we get off the plane. I imagine the strange girl crashed out in the lobby of the airport in Lima, drooling on the carpet, and then we wake up and the Peruvians are carving us into long lean slabs of bacon like in that movie “Alive?. What have I gotten myself into?

We land at the airport in Lima, and I bolt from the plane. The goal is to get through Immigracion the firstest. So, I bolt and clear Immigracion and then clear customs as well. (I have no luggage except what I carried on the plane.)

And when I get to the Budget Car Rental counter, things start to come apart. There’s no one at the counter and I’m standing here, taking it all in.

The airport is nice. Modern and clean and well lit. Nothing wrong with the airport at all, but the police are guarding me here. I’m still inside the airport, and "they" are out there - are the fearl, teaming masse.

Out there is a raucous jungle of humanity, all holding up signs and peering in and I’m standing here like a fish in an aquarium. With that human zoo waiting just on the other side of the thin blue line.

Some guy shows up at the rental car counter and he says “Dr. Kiser…someone is here to meet you.?

And I’m like “Really??

And everything pulls away and now it’s six years ago and I’ve just landed Jose Marti International Airport in Havana and those drug dogs are sniffing my suitcase and everyone is wearing a uniform. Everyone. No one is smiling. No one.

They all work for various government organs and they’re not smiling. No one’s smiling and the drug dog is sniffing my suitcase for the third time and I don’t do drugs and there are certainly no drugs in my suitcase but Lord God nothing good can come from the third time a drug dog sniffs your suitcase and why did I think I wanted to come to this oppressive police-state anyway? And now, we walk outside of Jose Marti Internacional Airport into the warm December air and now more uniforms and more police and more agents. Agents of what government orifice I do not know and now, up come two men to me and I'm really petrified now and then it dawns on me that these are our guys.

They are here to help me.

Lucindo fought in Angola and worked for the Ministry Del Interior for forty years and now he’s my bodyguard while I’m in Cuba. In a land where no one has a gun, Lucindo has a pistola and he is our guy. He is “Our Man In Havana? and I’m glad he’s here and we climb into his little Russian LADA and he whisks us away from all of the nosy government organs.

But that was six years ago, and now I’m in Lima, Peru and the guy at the rental counter is talking. His lips are moving but I’m not getting it.

“No comprendo. Ingles, por favor.?

“Juan is here to meet you Dr. Kiser.?

“He is?!!?

“Si.?

“Excellente!? And then I’m like “Do you know Juan??

“But of course. Everyone knows Juan, Dr. Kiser.?

And how great this feels. What a relief it is to land in a developing country, where you don’t speak the language, and have someone show up that’s on your team. And not just anyone, but Juan.

Juan greets me with his daughter and I’m so glad to see them I want to jump up and click my heels together, but I don’t’ and instead they show me my rental car, explaining to me in Spanish how to unlock the spare and how to disassemble the radio lest someone smash into the truck to try to steal it. All of the rental cars are corralled behind this steel wall you couldn’t drive a tank through. He walks around the car with a flashlight and takes detailed notes on every mark on the 4wd vehicles before he releases it to me.

And now, I’m following Juan through the streets of Lima, Peru at 12:30 at night and it looks bad out there. Really bad.

“If this is a developing county, then I wonder what it’s developing into?? I wonder aloud.

Both sides of the road are all neon and razor wire. Sirens sound and dissolve into the night. People huddle in groups, plotting who-knows-what, as battered cars roll by the spray painted buildings.

Outside the car windows, an urban nightmare scrolls by. Short dark people wearing short dark clothes stream across the roads in the night, oblivious to, or intentionally ignoring the signals.

It reminds me a little of Detroit, Havana, Ensenada, Montego Bay, and Mexico City. But it’s worse than all of those. Lima makes Mexico City seem like a theme park. Makes Ensenada feel like Disney Land.

You lock your doors. You lock them again. You keep making sure they’re locked about six times a minute. You rap the car’s glass windows with your knuckles to gauge how tough they are.

All I have to do is follow Juan, though. That’s all I have to do. There’s a light mist falling outside and I put the nose of my SUV on Juan’s rear bumper and follow him for about 30 minutes, and gradually, Lima gets nicer and nicer and finally, we’re at the hotel I’m supposed to stay at. Some ritzy hotel on a golf course on the outskirts of Lima off of the Panamerican Highway.

And I thank Juan and his lovely daughter for meeting me and send them home and I’ll meet them in the morning and then I try to check into the hotel and now there’s a problem. The woman tells me my hotel room is going to be $200.00 a night which is crazy and not what Juan and I had discussed and I tell her several times who he is and nothing matters. The rate never comes down and she tells me to go to another hotel and it’s 1:00 in the morning and I’m really tired and finally I can Juan and Juan says “let me talk to them?. Like, I swear that I get the feeling that it doesn’t even matter who I hand the phone to. Juan can fix anything.

Only, I’m sure I’ve made the lady so mad that I’ve mucked it all up beyond repair and even Juan won’t be able to fix it, but instead, I hand the lady my cell phone with Juan on it, and, I mean, it could have been anyone. She didn’t even dial the number. I just handed her the phone and I have no idea what Juan said to here. I really don’t. I have no clue. No clue. She just spoke to him for a minute in Spanish and then closed my phone and said “I found your company in here now, Dr. Kiser? and the rate was cut in half and that was all there was to it, and suddenly, people were falling all over me to park my car and carry my luggage and they put me in this huge suite with a kitchen and now they’re pouring me Pisco Sours and I swear to god it’s the best drink in the world and I think how happy I am to finally be in Peru.

Posted by Rob Kiser on November 3, 2007 at 1:24 AM

Comments

I may as well have “TOURIST? tattoed across my forehead like that guy in ?Snow Crash?.

Raven had the phrase "Poor Impulse Control," not "Tourist" tattooed on his forehead. But that would work for you too...

Posted by: Robert R. on November 3, 2007 at 7:17 AM

Hey,
maybe a stupid question but when were you at the atlanta airport? cause I was at E to (recently)

Posted by: Fleur on November 3, 2007 at 5:17 PM

I was at the Atlanta airport on Friday. The train broke down at probably around 4:30 p.m. EDT I think?

Posted by: Rob Kiser on November 4, 2007 at 2:04 AM

What about the women??

Posted by: Biloxi Bachelor on November 6, 2007 at 4:51 PM

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