The tour guide turned to me, switching from Spanish to English.
“Did you catch all that, Brian?” His eyes sparkled slightly behind his glasses and a mischievous, lighthearted grin began to appear on his face.
“Mostly”, I responded. “We are going to be treated to traditional Peruvian dancing and singing during our dinner. During one dance a man will dress up as a woman. Another dance will feature traditional farming implements. The final performance will be the dance of the condor.”
“Yes, not bad,” he replied. He then continued to explain the dances in more detail to me in English while the rest of the group at our table watched the musicians preparing the stage.
When he finished, I turned to the couple next to me. Just a few hours earlier most of our group had spent time at a hot springs surrounded by mountains, their rough and jagged edges jutting like bared teeth from their peak down to the fast-flowing river below. At one point I mentioned to the girl what a beautiful view it was. Her blank, two second stare was enough to deter me. Well, I thought, I guess nobody speaks English but me.
I had not spoken to anyone since the tour started that morning. The tour group as a whole kept to their small clusters, and I noticed no one was speaking to anyone else. From what I could gather during the day, nobody, not one person but the tour guide and me, spoke English.
Back at the dinner table, I put my right hand over my heart, similar to when children recite the pledge of allegiance. I have noticed over my years of travel that this gesture invokes much if not more of my apologetic meaning than the actual words themselves.
“Sorry,” I began to apologize in English as I addressed the couple, then switched to Spanish.
“Hablo Español un muy poco. Poquito.”
They looked at me for a second, then the man responded, “That’s OK. We speak English.”
You’ve got to be kidding me.
Two days previous found me roaming up and down a street called Metropolitis in Arequipa, Peru. I was searching, fruitlessly, for a tour company called “Peru Inside Out”. I had exchanged emails with a gentleman heading the tour office, and he gave me directions to the place as well as an agreed upon time to meet.
Problem was, he gave me a street name, but no specific house number. A quick look-up on Google Maps showed me the tour office, including a label right on the map. No house number, no problem, I thought at the time. However, now as I was frantically scanning up and down the street I was singing a different tune. Not only was there no billboard, no sign, no distinguishing feature to tell me where the tour office was, it seemed as if this whole block was nothing but a row of apartment block houses. Our agreed-upon meeting time was quickly drawing close, then past, without even a hint of where the supposed tour office should be. I resorted to walking into an alpaca clothing store and contorted my face into an imploring Puss ‘N Boots expression, hoping the people working there would help me out and give my man Roberto a call. Luckily he had supplied me with his phone number in case I had trouble finding him. Seems to me, however, that should you not give out a specific house number or instructions on where to actually find said tour office, that said tour should not be deserving of yours truly.
Luckily for Roberto the alpaca store clerks were able to reach him and put me on the phone, where we decided to meet on a street intersection just outside of my present location. Lucky for Roberto because I was one missed call away from scrapping this whole tour and adventure. I had already spent over an hour searching for his office, and come to the conclusion that either a) it didn’t exist, or b) he led the life of a superhero, vanquishing the villains of Arequipa by night while staying in his lair at an undisclosed location during the day.
Thirty minutes later found me handing over some cold hard cash to Roberto and my name being added to the list on the tour the next morning. Cash in hand, Roberto extended a weak if not well-meaning offer to meet for dinner when I returned to Arequipa after the tour. I acquiesced. One never knows what sort of serendipitous connections can be made while traveling on the road. But fast forward, and to this present day said invitation has not yet come to fruition. My man Roberto has since responded with vague excuses of needing to rush here or there and perhaps we can meet a different time.
The following morning I arose at the appointed time, waited for the tour bus to pick me up, then rode along as we collected the other members of the group. Off we went, first threading through the streets of Arequipa, then to the outskirts, and finally off towards our next destination: Chivay and the Colca Canyon. All the way our attentive tour guide gave anecdotes, snippets of knowledge, and the occasional joke as we made our way out into the wild.
Up, up, up we went, the bus undulating as we ascended and descended the mountain passes. We were heading into nature reserves that provided sanctuary to various alpacas, llamas, and vicunas. The bus puttered up to a high pass shrouded in clouds, lurching to a halt at its apex. Out I jumped, and instantly my lungs started screaming for oxygen as I managed to walk a few hundred paces.
I took a few pictures, then gasped for breath as I pulled myself back onto the bus and slouched into my appointed seat. Our bus clamored up steep hills, throwing out a thick, black exhaust that I am sure was extremely nutritious and purifying for the alpacas and vicunas of the land. The llamas, I think, could handle it. We eventually reached the tiny mountain town of Chivay, had lunch in which I didn’t speak to a soul, then were ushered to our separate hotels.
Not just rooms in one hotel. No, separate hotels. For the record, I believe my hotel was the best. It was perched on a hill at the outskirts, and provided a commanding view of the entire town. I grabbed my key, threw my small bag in my room, then went to explore and grab pictures of a stone watchtower and food storehouses just up from the hotel.
An hour later we were swooped up by the bus and on our way to the hot springs, where I spent an hour admiring the view of the surrounding mountains, soaking up the natural hot spring water which I hoped would nourish and coax my skin and body into becoming ten years younger, and talking to no one but myself. At least the conversation was good.
At the conclusion of said soak and with my skin feeling exactly seven years younger, I exited from the warm pool water to the frigid air. My body protested. My skin filled with goose bumps. I scurried to my loaned locker, pulled out my loaned key, and gave it a twist. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing. My body started shivering convulsively. Still nothing. Great, I thought. My body decided to age fifteen years in that moment. I scampered over to the attendant and gestured in my best English and body language that said key is not getting along with said lock. I finally convinced her to follow me to the locker, where she succeeded in not opening the locker either. Ah yes, it doesn’t work, she gestured. Yeah, I gestured back, and I think I can cut glass at the moment too. In the end wire cutters were needed to cut the lock, freedom of warm clothes were granted to me, and the promise of a long hot shower was a mere twenty steps away. I took full advantage of the shower that was required of all participants upon exiting the hot springs.
Dry, warm, and with most of my sanity back, I roamed around the area. There were three pools, but the water siren of the first pool kept me contained there during my time. Now I was free to explore, and took advantage by inspecting the other pools and admiring the view of the surrounding mountains and fast-flowing river below. My exchange with blank-stare-girl occurred at this moment, too.
Ninety minutes later. Back to the dinner table. My new-found English speaking friends had just handed me the biggest surprise of the weekend. I think I stared back for four seconds before reclaiming my dignity and carrying on a nice conversation. My new friends, Michael and Diana, were from Switzerland and spending a month in Peru. We spent the night chatting. I also spent the night dancing.
I was warned by my mischievous grinning, sparkling eyed tour guide that some of the dances would require help from the audience. Whenever this happens, chances are pretty solid that I will spend some time on the dance floor. It must be my natural charm. Dance one came, and pretty young Peruvian girl decides to pick me as a dance partner. I follow her and proceed to do my best not to make a fool of myself. Once the dance is finished and I am deposited back in my chair, Michael exclaims with an approving smile, “Nice job. You are quite the dancer! Have you been practicing?” I somewhat sheepishly reply, “Thanks. No, no, I haven’t been practicing.”. As the evening draws to a close the dance of the condor makes its appearance. Diana is picked as the lucky girl to participate. And of course I am chosen as the lucky guy to participate. The dance of the condor requires that, yes, you guessed it, I must wear a condor mask and pretend that I am a bird. Putting on the mask, feeling my hot breath against the tiny opening in the beak, swooping my hands around like the agile bird that I am, and dancing all around the floor at high altitude quickly diminishes my lung’s ability to provide oxygen to the rest of my body. I’m exhausted after about four or five minutes of dancing. The performance ends with clapping and smiles and Michael’s admiration of my bird abilities. I laugh, and he also lets me know that he has the whole thing on video. Somehow the video never makes it into my hands during the rest of the tour. Sometimes the lack of evidence can turn out to be a good thing. We alight back to our hotels for an early 5AM wake-up call and the pièce de résistance, the condors.
Sunday morning arrives and it reminds me that I haven’t seen 5AM in a very long time. I groggily step out of my room, but the view is a refresher to the body like none other. Mountains surround me, cool crisp air greets me, and the sun slowly lights the sky, simultaneously lightening my mood. Today feels like it will be a good one.
And it is. Not only do I get to actually have nice, fun conversations with my Swiss friends, but we see around twenty condors that day. Mixed in are stops at another small canyon village and intermittent small walks leading to different view points of the incredible valley below us. The day speeds by, sometimes providing disappointment (as when we reach the traditional condor viewpoint and discover it was wrapped in fog that limited visibility to 50 feet), but other times provided sheer joy that only nature can bestow.
I’m not one for group tours, instead predominantly opting for independent adventures. This tour reminded me of why I have made that decision. But as a tour, it was actually a good one, and one can never be in control of who joins your tour group and the individuals that make up the whole.
I’m glad I was able to have some new, temporary friends for a day (the life of a traveler – new friends every few days), and am reminded once again that Spanish might not be a bad language for me to learn.