Dingy sunlight began to fill the room as I slowly pulled the heavy red curtains open. Blinking away jet lag and the fogginess from coming off pharmaceuticals, I surveyed Lima from the fourth floor of some hostel I couldn't remember the name of. The room was simple, but clean. There was a bed and bedside table made of the same dark wood against the wall and a tidy whitewashed bathroom near the door that was shared with another room. I had certainly been in much worse places. I vaguely remembered someone telling me that all South American hostels were infested with cocaine dusted rats and rolled my eyes. Below, the city's natural hustle and bustle was happening without a thought to the young girl, fresh off a plane and prescription drugs, surveying it from above. Everything seemed distant and not quite real, like so many things do when you have dreamed them for so long.
“I’m free.” I thought. Then I ran to the shared toilet and threw up.
Months earlier I had purchased a ticket to Peru with the intention of moving to Cusco after a friend had died, less than suddenly, from HIV. Not really a death sentence anymore, there were a number of guesses as to what the official cause was, but cause-of-death doesn’t really provide closure. Before the toe tag, this friend had been to Machu Picchu, mostly because his aspirations included following in the footsteps of Che Guevara, but he had found a sense of peace on the journey that I envied. My own life was marked by a distinct lack of peace. To describe my teenage years as “angsty” seems to dismiss the amount of systemic pressure to be a certain way and follow a specific path that we place on our youth - besides it not being a strong enough word for my particular journey as a young person. Since roughly infancy, I had an immense desire to travel, but was always instructed that there were more important things: people, school, jobs, expectations of success and a white picket fence. The things that are placed on all good working and middle class Americans to keep us in line. Except, I discovered, I wasn’t a good working or middle class American. So the southbound plane ticket I purchased was one way.
A taxi to the Lima bus terminal was easy enough to facilitate with my basic Spanish, though the driver did stare at me when I handed him double the fare. He then forcibly returned all my money and said in perfect English “Keep it, you’re clearly out of your depth.” The woman behind the ticket counter was less friendly and regarded me with disgust rather than pity as I struggled to understand the soft subtle Spanish influenced heavily by the local indigenous language of Quechua that everyone but me seemed to speak flawlessly. The waiting area benches were individual seats made of hard blue plastic that was invented with the sole purpose of keeping people from sitting on them for too long or, god forbid, trying to sleep. With my ticket white-knuckled in one hand and a grossly stuffed backpack slung over my shoulder, I wandered from end to end of the waiting area for over an hour until they called my bus number.
Following a goat, three chickens, and their presumed owner up the stairs of a two level bus, I found my way to the last seat on the left, just before the bathroom. I watched through the window as the line to board the bus eventually grew smaller and an indiscernible announcement was made over a blown out speaker. Everything shivered, like the bus was unsure about whether or not it really wanted to partake in a 21 hour haul to a new place, I empathized. The goat bleated once, as if to christen our journey, as the bus finally lurched forward and we began to make our way slowly out of the city. My fear, confusion, and fogginess seemed to lift more and more as we got further out into the countryside. There was a short jaunt along the coast as the sun dipped a toe in the vast expanse of shining blue ocean before we swung inland. Darkness crept in, eventually enveloping the landscape, and the motion of the bus shifted to tilt upward. Switchback after switchback, I found myself being rocked to sleep.
A one way ticket was maybe more of an accurate corollary than I would have admitted. I struggled with depression or something of the sort for most of my teenage life. There would be seasons of good times and eras of bad, bad, bad times. I was medicated and therapy-ed, but it just seemed to make whatever was wrong with me worse or more pronounced. The weeks before my trip I quit my job and spent most of my time lying nearly catatonic in bed. I didn’t eat and barely slept, taking medication on cue in order to feel better. But feeling better implied I would first need to feel something. By the time my mom dropped me off at Seatac airport, she assumed it would be the last time she would ever see me alive. I had traveled on my own before to Europe and Canada and Mexico on group trips, and while my parents tried to be supportive of my dreams to travel more broadly and by myself, it was difficult for them. There is a route laid out before each of us from a young age and to divert from it causes all kinds of “problems” and “trouble.” People call you insane, irresponsible, and obsessive because they fear what they don’t understand and cannot control. It’s a terrible cliche we all live into. This speech sinks into the psyche and either molds your reality or creates a schism of irreconcilable truths. For me it was the latter, but this one way trip was about to change all of that. And as I wandered through security and found my gate in a haze, I had a sudden moment of clarity and dumped all my medication in the trash bin across from my seat. While this is not the approach I would recommend to others without first seeking the advice of a licensed physician, it is exactly what I needed.
I awoke to the sun coming in through the tinted bus window, creating strange light and long shadows. Careening downward through terrain that looked like pictures I had seen of the moon landing, I was eventually able to discern a river flowing below us as trees began to appear along the alien landscape, making everything a bit easier to take in. We burst suddenly from the ravine into a vibrant green valley full of farms and dirt roads, groves of mango trees and the occasional family of four piled onto one bicycle riding next to the bus. As we wove through this new scene, the movement and energy were catching. I could feel my spirit lifting as we began to ascend a mountain on the other side of the valley. The clouds closed in around us or, perhaps, we simply breached their boundaries and the windows began to frost from the corners. After what seemed like an eternity, the bus shed the clouds like clothes after a long day, burdensome and not quickly enough. And there we were, on the top of the world. If I thought freedom had been the mere act of arriving in Peru, this was enlightenment.
Fields of glittering golden grass covered the mountain and the sunshine poured over it all like honey or heavier matter. The bluest sky went on forever over the tops of of the rolling clouds. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t breathe. It was perfect peace, everything I had been searching for.
Except that I couldn’t breathe, not just metaphorically, but actually could not inhale. My mind swam in the heavy sunlight and it occurred to me that perhaps none of this was real and that I was simply dying. A young man on the other side of the bus aisle reached over and handed me a cluster of leaves. Neither dry nor fresh and light in my palm, I stared at them.
“Chew them.” He said in halting English.
Bitter and strange on my tongue, the taste brought breath and clarity back to my body. My eyes returned to the window, but we were already descending back into the cloud cover. A last glance and the moment was over. Nirvana was gone. But I remained hopeful as I tongued the spine of a particularly pungent leaf and watched the frost return to the window corners.
“What is this? Que - que es esto?” I asked through a mouthful.
“Coca leaves,” He laughed, “They help with the altitude sickness.” I realized that while English was not his first language, Spanish was not either. Germany, somewhere near Munich, was where he and his friend hailed from. They were photographers, heading to Cusco on their way to the Inca Trail, Machu Picchu, and the Sacred Valley. Only two years older than me, they had been to 26 countries and didn’t think I was crazy at all for deciding to go to Cusco for no reason whatsoever. It was the first time anyone had affirmed my choice.
Miles and years later, it would seem obvious to me that the reason I had never met anyone who shared my yearning for places I’d never been until that moment was because the majority of those other wander-afflicted individuals were already out in the world. But such clean straightforward wisdom is never visible in the mess of self discovery.
Unable to remain still after such an event, I stood up and meandered forward down the aisle to stretch my legs. Other passengers aboard seemed content with their napping and reading, seemingly disinterested in the backdrop of the august dipping slopes. Each person tranquil, as if the awakening I had just experienced in the back seat was an just another scene in the humdrum of daily life. And perhaps, for them, it was. The majority of the commuters seemed to be local, speaking to one another in the low lullaby that is Peruvian Spanish, window curtains drawn to block out the sun and ever changing view.
The rest of the trip was halcyon as I watched the scenery change, mountain to valley and back again. Eventually the road became lined with houses and then shops, until we had finally reached the Cusco bus terminal. There was a slow consistent whine that continued several minutes after the engine noncommittally coughed off, another mysterious noise from the speakers, and then passengers filed into the aisle and down the stairs. My seat being at the back on the top level, I was the last to deboard. The driver sat blithely in his seat, waving absent mindedly as people departed, and seemed startled when I addressed him.
“What is the highest elevation on the ride?” I inquired, the question having sat on the edge of my mind since our amble through Elysium.
“We get well above 15,000ft above sea level on the trip from Lima. Some people swear they’ve seen heaven up there. The Incans knew that, it’s why they build so many sites up high, but didn’t live there.” He mused. “Welcome to Cusco.”
“Yeah,” I replied, thinking back to the taxi driver and stepping off the bus, “way out of my depth.”