Lima Alon-a

tartle n. The panicky hesitation just before you have to introduce someone whose name you can’t quite remember.

So there we were: Lima, staring at the final few days of our five-month journey.  We didn’t really know whether to be sad or just happy to go the hell home.  Either way, we first needed to get through the next few Chris.  Chris would be leaving in three, while I would be hanging around just over a week.

Our night bus dropped us off at Estacion Javier Prado, located right in central Lima.  Lima, however, is a huge city, and even city center meant miles away from Miraflores, where our hostel was.  We piled into the first taxi that pulled over for us and sped off toward Miraflores.  Miraflores is easily the nicest district in all of Lima, which ranges generally on a scale of you’re lucky if you don’t get shot after being outside for five minutes to these people have more money than I will ever see in my entire life.  Even though a lot of backpackers are poor, they are attracted to Miraflores and its slightly less nice southern neighbor, Barranco, simply because they are safe. Besides, we had seen our fair share of ghetto over the last five months, so we weren’t heartbroken to be staying in an area a little nicer for our last week.

Near the beginning of our trip, we talked about splurging on a nice hotel and a fancy restaurant at the very end of our trip.  Well, plans change and having to buy a new laptop kind of put a damper on the Ritz for us, but we decided to still hold to the spirit of our idea and splurged on a nicer hostel than usual. Which was why we found ourselves standing outside the pale blue walls of the Inka WasiHostel Boutique (after the taxi driver got just a little lost).  For two nights, we paid S/240, or $66.82, making it almost the most expensive place we had stayed on our trip.  We hoped it would be worth it.

Of course, seeing as we had arrived in the early morning, we still couldn’t check into our room quite yet and thus dropped off our bags and set out in search of a much-needed breakfast.  For such a nice area, Miraflores was surprisingly lacking in places to eat.  I blame the necessity paradox. For nearly an hour, we wandered the streets searching for anywhere that served even the slightest resemblance to breakfast before we finally found a small café and coffee shop. 

Upon entry, we found ourselves to be the only patrons in the small shop.  After browsing the chalkboard menu, we ordered two combination breakfasts of the unhealthiest things we could imagine: honey yogurt and granola, cinnamon rolls, and coffee.  And just to top it off, we ordered a double chocolate muffin for good measure.  The woman running the shop laughed a little at us, but served us our food with a smile on our face.  We later found out she had lived in America for a while, not far from Philadelphia. 

Upon filling ourselves to an unhealthy extent with caffeine and sugary pastries, we said goodbye and began wandering back toward the hostel.  We still had several hours before they told us our room would be ready and so we surrendered ourselves to aimlessly wandering about the busy streets of Lima.  Lima was by far the nicest and most American city we had encountered on our travels thus far.  Which was strange, considering it was physically the farthest from America of all the places we had visited.  Maybe it was just because we were in Miraflores, the rich district.  The city streets were paved and clean, with lush green center bars separating rows of traffic.  Huge, glass skyscrapers shot up on either side, most of them boasting apartments with rents way higher than we could probably ever afford. 

We found our way to a mini shopping mall, which ended up being more of a giant department store with mini sections dividing the different stores.  After getting a little lost on the rooftop-parking garage, we decided to quit the mall and work our way into the quiet residential streets.  Amid the rows of now low, quaint buildings, we stumbled upon an open air rock wall jutting up awkwardly from everything else.  The sign read PIRQUA climbing and we couldn’t help but go in.  Inside was the climbing gym was had been missing since coming to Latin America: two bouldering caves, an outdoor 15m high top rope and lead wall with over 40 routes, and even a little upstairs café looking over it all.  The downside: It was a little expensive.  At S/40 per person, or about $12 each, it was quite a bit more expensive than the other gyms we had encountered in South America.  I had to laugh at myself thinking of $12 as expensive, as I mentally compared it to the $17 day pass at the Philadelphia Rock Gym.  We had been traveling long enough that our price perspective had changed to fit the environment around us.

But we still didn’t have our climbing gear and we really wanted a shower before we even thought of doing anything else, even if that anything else was just getting sweaty all over again.  Naturally, our room still wasn’t ready upon return to the hostel despite the fact that it was well past the time they had told us.  We waited impatiently in the living room for them to finish cleaning after the last guests before finally being allows to settle in.  The room was

With clean, white walls, a cozy bed, and a beautiful view form the window overlooking the quaint residential streets of Lima.  From there, we overlooked a nearby park and Lima’s hilarious Segway police zipping around the traffic circle below.

After a magical cold shower, we grabbed our climbing gear and headed back to the gym.  The woman there informed us that we would need to take a belay test before we would be allowed to climb on the route walls.  Belay test?  They actually cared about our safety?  Where were we, America?  As belay tests tend to be, it was tedious and full of nit-picky details.  As she demanded we do the test again because of the way I positioned my hands to give slack, I bit my tongue to keep from saying, “Look lady, I’ve been belaying for Chris for months with a lot more tricky belay ground than this.  I think I know what I’m doing.”

I bit down extra hard when she gave me asinine instructions like, “Stand right beneath your climber in the beginning and keep the rope taught until four clips up.”  Four clips?  Unnecessary.  I knew exactly how much our rope would stretch and exactly how much slack I needed to give Chris at any given point, but practical knowledge didn’t much matter to them.  Finally, after jumping through enough hoops, she attached two belay certification tags to our harnesses and we were given free reign.

We climbed for a few hours, though I didn’t make much progress, feeling a dull lethargy in my limbs, probably from a combination of the night bus, lack of sleep, and the unbearable heat of Lima.  We called it an early day and returned to our luxurious room to relax for the evening.

The next day began with a complimentary breakfast by the hostel (part of the reason we had decided to spring for it).  After yet another shower to wash the sweat and sticky feeling form our skin, we set out to explore the seaside stretch of Lima.  El Malecon is a six-mile walking path that winds between various lush and beautiful parks perches high on the cliffs above the Pacific Ocean beaches.  It stretches from the northern end of Miraflores all the way down to Barranco..  Right in the middle is the famous Larcomar, an open air three-tiered shopping mall built right into the cliffs themselves.  We browsed through the many stores, gazing at prices not all that different from those we might find in the U.S. before grabbing a quick lunch and heading back into the city.

With a promising chunk of the day still remaining we decided to return to the climbing gym for the evening.  With the belay test out of the way, we immediately set to climbing, warming up on the bouldering walls before roping in and putting our endurance to the test on the long top-rope routes.  At some point during the day, we met a fellow American who was there climbing by himself, and offered to let him join us on the high walls so that he could get a little route climbing in as well.  We often took for granted that we traveled together and thus always had a belay partner.  I couldn’t imagine being a climber traveling alone.

The next day, we packed up our stuff yet again and prepared to move hostels.  We were moving to a cheaper hostel was had originally booked into back when we didn’t think we were going to be spending quite as much time in Lima.  The downside was packing while in the same city, but on the upside, our new digs were only a few blocks away… if we could find them, that is.  When we reached the spot where the map told us La Casa de Karen was supposed to be, all we found was a high glass building with some sort of architect office on the bottom level.  WE looked around a little lost before wandered down the nearest side street, Callé Ramón Zavala, branching off Ave. Jose Prado.  At #123, the address of the hostel, there was a medium sized orange building with no sign posted whatsoever.  We peered in the barred windows and shrugged.  We could at least ask, even if it wasn’t the hostel.  We rang the bell and waited on the stoop.  A kindly, middle-aged woman opened the door, dressed in bright colored clothing, and warming waved us inside.

“Welcome, welcome!  I am Karen, and this is my husband Jose,” she said pointing to another man sitting around the dining room table. “It’s nice to meet you.”  So we were in the right place after all.  We gave her our names and asked if we were able to check in to our room yet.  She looked around hesitantly before informing us there was a slight problem.  “You see, the people who were renting your room the past couple nights left on a trip yesterday and haven’t come back.  We told them they needed to be out this morning, but they still haven’t returned.”

“Oh, that’s okay.  We don’t mind waiting.  Is it alright if we just leave our stuff here for the day?”

“Of course.  I’m just worried they still won’t return by tonight.  If they don’t, we do have another private room downstairs here that we can reserve for you just in case they don’t vacate.  Is that okay?”

“Yeah, that sounds great.  Thanks so much.  We’ll see you later!” we exclaimed, grabbing our climbing gear and heading back to the gym one final time, where I made several strides, sending my first 5.11a and completing my first real lead (technically I lead an easy outdoor climb in Huaraz, but this was the first long, significant route). 

After exhausting ourselves, we returned to the hostel, where the old guests still hadn’t vacated our room.  Luckily, Karen had prepared the downstairs room for us and had even moved our stuff there. The stuffy, windowless room wasn’t nearly as nice as our last, but for $20, less than half the price, we couldn’t really complain.  We took cold showers (for once not complaining that the water never really got hot) and settled down for one last, relaxing night together.  Relaxing, however, became difficult for Chris once we discovered moths fluttering around the light fixture on the ceiling.  He spent the next fifteen minutes with flip flop in hand, swatting the little white creatures against the walls until he was certain they were gone.  It wouldn’t be an appropriate last night in Latin America had he not had one final horrific insect encounter.

At breakfast the next morning, a simple meal of bread, butter, jam, and instant coffee, we met a colorful cast of characters also staying at the hostel.  First, there was Mayra and Jorge, siblings who grew up in New Jersey but were of Peruvian ancestry.  They came to the city to visit their relatives on a yearly basis.  There was Ornella and Kane, a couple from Italy and Manchester, respectively.  They had just arrived in Lima to begin a six-month stay there while Kane taught English to local students.  They immediately captured our hearts by offering us real Italian espresso, the best coffee I had had in months.  Over the next week, I grew quite fond of Kane’s almost hourly offers of “Café?  Café?”  And finally, there was Pascal, an unusually friendly Frenchman who loved telling stories about his months of travel.

After breakfast, we set out to see the beach.  Even though neither of us were particularly big fans of the beach, we decided we couldn’t possibly visit Lima without stepping foot on just briefly.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a way down there!  Since Lima is perched on the cliffs high above the ocean itself, there are few access routes down to the shore, and the one we picked was unfortunately closed for construction.  Only slightly disappointed, we headed back to the hostel to prepare Chris for his departure that evening.

We cleared out our room and I moved my things to the six-bed dorm upstairs where I would be staying for the next five nights.  I couldn’t really say I was excited about returning to hostel dorm life, but for only $7 a night, the money saved was worth it.

That evening, we asked Jose to call Chris a taxi for the airport, a ride that would cost us a hefty $50, but was well worth the price given the ill repute of the airport district of Lima.  The taxi arrived just as night fell over the city.  I helped load Chris’ pack into the taxi and wrapped him in a tight hug, choking back tears as I said goodbye.  I knew it was only for a week, but as I watched the taxi taillights disappear around the corner, I felt as if it had already been months.

As I crawled into the top bunk that evening, feeling the lumpy mattress beneath my back and the sweat drip off my skin, I found myself surrounded my something other than still air and stick humidity.  I found myself surrounded by loneliness, dark, all-encompassing loneliness.  I felt a little pathetic for missing Chris so much after only a few hours, but in my defense, we had literally spent the last six months in each other’s company, twenty-four seven.  Being alone felt…strange.  It was the instinctive urge to keep turning around to common on something only to find no one beside me.  It was the cold wall beside me, instead of a warm body.  And it was knowing that the next six days were going to be long.

Luckily for me, La Casa de Karen was a warm and friendly environment, and the friends I had made over the last couple days were there to take my mind off how much I missed Chris and how much I wanted to go home.  After breakfast and a relaxing few cups of Kane’s precious espresso, Jorge, Mayra, Ornella, Kane, and I set out to explore the mercado.   Outside on Avenida Jose Prado, we hopped a bus that took us past the Oval de Miraflores (a great directional landmark if you need to get anywhere there) and dropped us off in front of El Mercado Ricardo Nrol Surquillo.  We wandered around the giant indoor arena for a little while, gandering at all the odd merchandise, from bags of coca leaves that I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be allowed to take back to U.S. if I bought to strange fruits I had never seen before.  With Jorge and Mayra there, we had personal guides to practically everything we saw.

“Here, try one of these.  These are my absolute favorite fruit and I can only find them in Peru.” I took the orange like fruit and peeled a hole in it open to see a mass of slimy grey matter inside.  “You suck it out,” she told me.  Feeling a little on the zombie side as I sucked out what I could only assume to be fruit brains, I tried it.  The seeds were bitter but the grey matter surrounding them, though slimy, were surprisingly sweet.

 Because friends aren't real until you take a group selfie together.  From the front: Mayra, Jorge, me, Ornella, and Kane.

Because friends aren't real until you take a group selfie together.  From the front: Mayra, Jorge, me, Ornella, and Kane.

Finally, we stopped for cheap lunch of menu del dia at a little booth on the side of the market.  For about $3 we dined on the finest street seafood, rice, and chichaChicha is a staple among Peru’s menus.  It’s a sweet drink name from fermented corn, colored either yellow or purple depending on the variety of corn used to make it.  To me, it tasted like a combination between simple syrup and cider.

The next day, I set out on an eight mile round trip trek on my own to explore Barranco, the district just south of Miraflores.  While Miraflores was the rich, business of Lima, Barranco was its opposite: a bohemian, artsy place that refused to conform to the rest of the city’s rules.  Years back, when lima issued a public initiative to clean up graffiti and street art, Barranco issued public encouragement for artists to paint the walls of the neighborhood, something that had since continued and lay evident in the beautiful art on almost every corner of the neighborhood.

Aside from the street art and generally charming, old buildings, a stark contrast to the new and polished look of Miraflores, Barranco was also a good food magnet.  And because most of its residents were poor artists, everything was cheap.  After wandering around for a while, I finally settled on a little hole in the wall restaurant called Sabor y Delicia just north of the Parque Municipal.  I picked the S/15 menu del dia, which consisted of a ceviche appetizer and a huge portion of arroz con mariscos (rice with seafood) main course.  Peru is known for its wonderful native food, but if there is one dish you have to try while there, it’s ceviche.  I had had ceviche several times by that point, but this was by far the best.  Ceviche is the signature dish of Peru, especially along the coast.  It consists of raw fish (typically white fish like sole or sea bass) that had been marinated in lime juice and chili, giving it a spicy flavor.  It is then mixed and served with raw onion, choclo (hard corn kernels), sweet potato, and sometimes a bit of seaweed.  Being a lover and all things spicy and lime, I was absolutely obsessed with ceviche.

Of course, while on the subject, I must also recommend another classic Peruvian dish: aji de gallina.  A simple dish of shredded chicken in a creamy yellow sauce (made with spicy yellow peppers, walnuts, milk and cheese) and served with rice and potatoes, aji de gallina is a more mild traditional food for those who are a little put off by the raw fish and limy flavor of the ceviche.

Upon returning from Barranco, I came back to find Kane and Ornella cooking a typical Italian meal in the kitchen for the whole hostel, as well as a few new faces scattered around the living room. There was Rich, a young Dutch guy briefly visiting Lima before heading to a volunteer job in the northern jungles of Peru.  And there was Brad, a fellow America who had just arrived to South America to begin a solo backpacking journey.  As solo travelers tend to do, Brad and I gravitated together immediately, and we spent the next four hours chatting about travel experiences and debating all manner of things.  It was a wonderful way to take my mind off how much I missed Chris and off how bored I was otherwise considering my computer had basically refused to connect to the hostel wifi for some inexplicable reason.

My computer troubles got even worse the next day, as I attempted to start some writing only to find an error message about some problem with my computer’s hard drive.  I tried everything, booting it in recovery mode, turning it off and on, and nothing would work.  All signs pointed to a dead hard drive, meaning I would have lost everything on my computer as well as a significant chunk of change, needing to replace both my battery and the hard drive now.  Rich, conveniently a computer science student, tried to reassure me that it was probably just a bad cable connecting the drive, a cheap and easy fix, but I was still inconsolable.  Computers had given me so much trouble on this trip that I was half tempted to just chuck it out the window and be done with it.

Brad tried to take my mind off the tragedy and convinced to take a walk to the beach with him, where we spent a couple hours sitting on the rocky shore, getting soaked in the occasional salty swell and searing our skin.  After only a couple hours, my legs stung with the second worst sunburn I had ever had (second only to the only I had received at Quilotoa).  After dinner, both Brad and I lounged in the living room, wincing at the way the slightest movement stretched our lobster-like skin.  

Finally, we decided that sitting around in pain wasn’t any better than going out and doing something in pain, so we headed out to see the evening lights of the “magic fountains” of Parque de la Reserva at night.  Just past the ovalo at Estacion Ricardo Palma, Brad and I boarded the metropolitano bus toward the center of Lima.  Getting off at the stop Estacion Estadio Nacional, we crossed the busy streets to the park, massive sprawl of greenery, people, and various fountains lit in all manner of lights.  It truly was a magical sight and we looped around the park two times until it closed and the security guards ushered everyone out.

Unfortunately, the mad rush of people toward the metropolitano meant there was no way we were going to get a bus before they stopped running.  It looked like we were stranded in Central Lima, over three miles away from the hostel.  I looked at Brad.

“Well, it’s three miles.  How do you feel about walking?”  So off we went.  Over the next hour, we wove through intermittently nice and shady blocks in the quiet darkness, looking terribly out of place and I’m sure terribly vulnerable.  Even still, I had seen much worse neighborhoods on my travels and wasn’t terribly worried.  Along the way, we passed Huaca Pucalla, an ancient Inca archeological site right in the middle of a residential area.  At night, the crumbled remains of the stone pyramid were illuminated in white lights at the base.  It wasn’t intentional that we had routed there, but it was a happy accident, nonetheless.  Finally, Brad and I made it back to the hostel to regale everyone there with our tale of misadventure.

By the following day, also known as day eight, I was over Lima.  I was over the heat and humidity.  I was over South America.  And somehow, not having Chris there to share in my misery made it all the worse.  Misery loves company, after all. I spent a rough and lonely day trying to hide from the heat in the hostel common room.  My computer miraculously started working again, though for how long, I couldn’t say.  Finally, that evening, Brad, Ornella, and Kane convinced me to go out for drinks with them. 

“No, I don’t really drink,” I tried to protest, but they insisted and practically dragged me out the door.  Joined by Pascal and a few other new guests at the hostel, we set out into the night, walking along well-lit streets to who knew where.  There were eight of us total, so chances are that somebody had to know where they were going, right?  Eventually, we found ourselves in the nightclub district of Lima, a couple block radius of narrow, walking only streets lined with dark clubs pumping out heavy bass (all to the same, patented Latin American beat, of course).  We stared timidly into a few of them before settling on a low-key bar with a bunch of empty patio tables that we pushed together and sat down.  I had wanted to try a Pisco Sour in Peru and, while a little expensive at that particular bar, it was my chance.  Brad and I ordered two Pisco Sours, one each, in order to get a special price on them.  Over the next couple hours, we all relaxed in the warm night air of Lima as I drank in my Pisco and, more importantly, my last night in South America.

The next morning, I got to work packing up my stuff and prepping myself for the long journey ahead of me, which mostly consisted of me cramming every conceivable remainder of my perishable food in my body under the explanation that I was storing food in my body for the long flight ahead.  Once I was ready, I bid goodbye to everyone at the hostel, giving Karen a big and thanking for her warm hospitality. A lot of my ability to trust humanity had been called into question over the last five months, but Karen was a reminder that there still were kind and selfless people in the world.  It was a good note to leave the continent on.

“If you take the bus, you need to go in daylight.  Not at night,” Karen had warned me.  I knew I could go Chris’ route and take a taxi for the ease of getting to stay in the hostel a few hours longer, but the thrifty, self-sacrificing part of me simply couldn’t resist making myself miserable to save nearly $50.  And so, for the low, low price of S/2.30, I found myself on the Blue IM-18 route (caught right across Av. Jose Pardo from Karen’s) at 3pm. My flight wasn’t until 1:10am, which meant nearly ten hours in the airport.

As the bus drew closer and closer to the northern end of Lima, where the airport was located, I began to understand why Karen had so strongly suggested I make the journey in the airport.  I had spent the last week in the rich and safe nest made of Miraflores’ fancy buildings but here was my reminder that South America was still the same place I had come to know, and even Lima could be fucking terrifying.  The pavement faded to patchy slabs and dirt and the buildings melted into low, crumbling brick structures.  As I got out of the bus across the street from the airport, I tightly hugged my daypack to my check as I hustled over the overpass to the safety of the security-guarded terminal.  Who would have ever thought I’d be thankful for airport security?

I made it through the Lima security quickly to find myself at the terminal with nine hours still remaining until my flight.  I worked on some photo sorting and writing for a little while, before surrendering myself to the hard benches for an attempt at sleep.  Nellie worked as a fine pillow, but still I tossed and turned under the harsh, fluorescent lights for a while before pulled my jacket hood over my head, tucked my daypack of valuables tightly against my chest, and fell asleep for nearly six hours, on and off.  It wasn’t the best sleep, but it was definitely better than nothing.  By the time my alarm blared in my ear buds at 12:30am, I was ready to tackle the two flights ahead of me.  First, I would fly to Houston, arrival at 6:40am, for a two-hour layover, before my final flight to good old familiar Philadelphia.

As I prepared to board the first flight, I encountered something odd; unlike any other airport I had been in, Lima didn’t even allow large liquid on the plane.  Before boarding, I endured a mini bag check for any full water bottles or any other prohibited materials I might be carrying.  The lesson in this: If you are taking anything questionable back, just bury it more than six inches deep in your pack because they won’t bother with going that far in.

Other than that, however, everything went smooth.  Suspiciously so for me, actually.  Given the free movies on both flights and the fact that I had prepared myself a stack of frozen chicken patties before leaving the hostel, I was set with all necessary things to survive the journey.  I arrived at Philadelphia’s airport just after 1pm.  As I set foot into the cold, February air on the train platform, I breathed in the air of familiarity for the first time in what felt like ages.  Even as I boarded the dreaded Septa train to Glenside, the station I was so familiar with from my college days, I felt a strange comfort.  Philadelphia wasn’t exactly where I had envisioned myself returning to after college, but for the time being, it was nice.  The month we spent in the suburbs of Philadelphia at the beginning of our relationship had been the easiest one thus far, and we were a little excited to get back to that, even if only temporarily while we saved up money and figured out the next step.

But still, even though Latin America had given us so much trouble and headache, we couldn’t help but already look back a little fondly at the funny memories made and hard lessons learned.  If nothing else, the troubling times made for good stories, and the lessons made us stronger.  I had come across a quote while in South America but climber Jason Haas: “When you’re in the middle of it, you wish for it to be over.  When it’s done, you can’t stop thinking about it and wishing you could have another experience like that.”  While I didn’t necessarily believe it at the time, I suddenly found truth in the inexplicable urge to wander once more.  Sure, I was happy to be home, but I was also excited for the next adventure, whenever that may be.