"I hope you never lose your sense of wonder, you get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger... Promise me that you'll give faith a fighting chance, and when you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance." - Lee Ann Womack ("I Hope You Dance")
The biggest festival yet was going on my last day in Cusco. I ventured out for an hour to get cash and some last-minute travel necessities, then hastened back to the hostel, driven by a taxing atmosphere of pressing bodies, clogged streets, pedlars, marching bands, and just too much noise in general. The air was thick with aromas of roasting meats, fried dough, corn and aji chiles. Vendors lined the streets selling chiriuchu, a celebration plate mounded with corn, crispy brown cuy, chicken, jerky, sausage, cheese, tortillas and rocoto peppers. It was impossible to walk ten steps without being offered cotton candy, popcorn, chicha or ice cream.
In the spirit of festivity, I bought an Inca Kola, the sickly-sweet, bubblegum-flavoured soda of Peru. It's the intense neon yellow of Inca gold, or urine of the severely dehydrated, and I half-suspect it contains methamphetamine. You can't drink more than one or it might just give you diabetes on the spot. Industrial-strength stimulant in hand, I retreated to the peace and quiet of the hostel.
I had a final dinner with Edwin that night, during which I was surprised to learn he'd been more places in the States (and perhaps in the world) than I had. He'd worked on a horse-breeding ranch in Montana, spent time in California, Colorado, Austin, New York, Seattle, Hawaii, even Thailand. Latching on to his travel experience, I confided in him some concerns about my departure the following day. It was another three-flight endeavour with a layover in Mexico City lasting fourteen hours. None of that bothered me so much. What gave me pause was the one hour I had between flights in Lima. I much prefer a layover that's too long over one that's too short. Lima was a customs-patrolled entry/exit point, and one hour didn't seem like nearly enough time to disembark a plane, get through the airport and catch my connecting flight.
"I'm trying not to worry," I sighed over my plate of rocoto rellenos. "There's not much I can do about it."
Edwin seemed to agree. He merely shrugged in that typical, unhelpful South American way. "Pray for a tailwind," he suggested.
When I got back to the hostel I double-checked with the front desk about my transfer to the airport early the next morning, then went straight to my room. At least it was nice and comfy-cozy-roasty-toasty thanks to the space heater I'd sublet for three dollars a night. I'd had enough of being able to see my own breath while falling asleep.
I collapsed on the bed. My bags were packed, my clothes for tomorrow set out, my flight details and emergency numbers written down and my carry-on organized. All that was left to do was stress. I ran through the process for the thousandth time in my head: arrive in Lima, pick up bags, go through customs, recheck bags, go through immigration, go through security, find the gate for the departure to Mexico City. There was no way I could do all of that in one hour. Not in Lima. Maybe if I asked someone as soon as I got off the plane they could fast-track me through... I opened my eyes and stared at the ceiling. Or maybe I would get lucky and my flight to Mexico would be delayed or HOLY MOTHER OF GOD!
I sprang from the bed and bolted back across the courtyard to the reception area, where I approached the poor red-eyed desk attendant. "I'm so sorry to bother you again," I said in my sweetest voice, working to keep it from shaking. "There is a HUGE spider in my room."
"A spider?" He confirmed, seeming surprised.
"Yeah," I brought my hands together to form a ring, as if I were holding a baseball. "Like this."
The clerk went to the storage closet and grabbed a spray can (that's not gonna do it, buddy) and a baseball bat (that's more like it). "Okay," he said, "vamos."
If you know me, you know I'm not afraid of spiders, but I wasn't about to have this sucker take a chunk out of me while I was sleeping, or stow away in my suitcase. It wasn't like the bird-eaters I'd seen in the Amazon, but it was a respectable-sized tarantula.
We entered the room like two people breaking-and-entering, the bat poised over the clerk's shoulder. I pointed (probably redundantly) to an upper corner beneath the window frame. "It's there."
He blasted the critter with aerosol poison three times, bludgeoning it with the bat intermittently as it scuttled down across the wall and onto the floor in a panic. I almost felt bad for it, but this wasn't exactly a water-glass-and-slip-of-paper situation. He delivered the final blow with his shoe, then waited. When he was satisfied it was dead, he motioned to my heater in the corner. "Has that been on all night?" He questioned, and I realized the poor creature's blood was on no one's hands but mine. The clerk waved me toward the door. "Okay," he said. "We're gonna change you rooms now. Hurry."
I hardly thought this was necessary. Then it occurred to me that it wasn't the floor smeared with spider guts he wanted to get me away from, but the toxic fumes from the spray can. I scrambled to gather my things and followed him out. It's funny - whenever I start to worry about the future, the universe sends me a little (or gargantuan, fanged and furry) reminder to pay attention to the here and now, to (have I said it enough?) focus on the journey rather than the destination.
It was a lesson I carried with me into the next day. My flight out of Cusco was on time, but I knew it would be nothing short of a miracle if I made my second flight. I resigned myself to the certainty that I would arrive at the gate after it had closed and be forced to wait around for hours - maybe days - for the next plane to Mexico. I fully expected to then have to untangle the clusterf*** that would undoubtedly ensue regarding my subsequent connecting flights. The prospect was exciting, I decided, not at all grim. It was just another thrill. I didn't even think about my eventual arrival in Arizona.
The official at the check-in counter said he would send my luggage straight through to Mexico, so I could skip waiting for it at baggage claim and checking it again in Lima. This certainly helped my chances, but now I definitely had to make sure I got to my gate on time. Otherwise my luggage would end up one place and I another.
South American airports are notorious for being poorly laid-out, and Lima is no exception. It was confusion incarnate. My flight to Mexico was blessedly late, but there were multiple departures at the same gate, and it was unclear which boarding call was in progress. Also, there was no chute from the terminal to the aircraft, just a cluster of ambiguous shuttle buses idling outside the doors. When I handed him my ticket, the gate attendant pointed vaguely, and I prayed I was getting on the right bus.
"This plane is going to Mexico City?" I confirmed with the stewardess when I reached the top of the stairs near the cockpit. I knew how stupid I sounded. I didn't care.
"No," she shook her head, deadpan. "Caracas."
The colour drained from my face. "WHAT!?"
The stewardess' countenance cracked. "I'm kidding!" If only she knew how unfunny this was. "Where are you coming from?" She laughed, picking up on my lack of humour. That was such a complicated question I just shook my head and walked to my seat as if to say, "you don't want to know."
But I did it. The extraordinary reality didn't hit me until I was seated with my seatbelt buckled looking out the window at the grey tarmac. It was a miracle.
I'd planned to rough it in the Mexico City airport for the night. I'd saved most of my writing for the monster layover (writing could reduce hours to feeling like seconds) and thought I could find a quiet enough corner to curl up and sleep for a good chunk of it. But by the time I entered through customs into the terminal, I felt grungy, my eyes were already stinging and I was flustered from navigating the huge, loud, crowded and (again) confusing airport. I saw a sign for a Courtyard Marriott across the skybridge, and caved.
Instead of the bright and bustling terminal, I got to pass the next twelve hours in a private room with a king bed, cable TV and en suite bathroom all to myself. There were, like, a BILLION pillows, good God almighty the shower was hot, and the room was tarantula-free. It was the best $120 I ever spent.
I unpacked my toiletries and took a shower, first and foremost, then laid down for a nap. After a few minutes I realized I was too hungry to sleep. Having paid for the silence and solitude of my room, I didn't want to leave it to look for food. So I room-serviced a bowl of tortilla soup and something called 'Green Juice'. I ate in bed, connecting to the complimentary in-room Wi-Fi to check my e-mail and catch up my blog. The cactus, grapefruit, celery, pineapple and parsley smoothie didn't taste nearly as good as it read on the menu, but I downed it anyway, knowing what a difference the vitamins would make in my mood. When I felt my eyelids beginning to droop, I slept.
I was dreaming Sufa and I were swimming in deep water when the alarm on my phone woke me three hours later. I packed up my things and walked back across the skybridge to the US Airways check-in counter.
I was beaming standing in line at the gate for Flight 502 to Phoenix. "You are way too chipper for five in the morning," the guy ahead of me remarked. I didn't bother telling him about the hotel room.
"I like Arizona!" I responded simply. Until now, I hadn't thought about how it would feel to leave the world for the sheltered bubble of America, where people had everything and nothing, where no one wanted to steal from me, sell me something or see me naked, or if they did they didn't say it to my face. It was the land where bread and water were free, everyone spoke English, and everything was easy. The real adventure, as far as I was concerned, was over.
The thrust of the plane gathering speed just before it tilts upward has always been my favourite part of flying. It was the first time I'd had the window seat, and it was the most stunning flight of the entire trip. We climbed up through the storm clouds into the sunrise, into storied pillows of cream-coloured cotton balls, tender seashell pinks and, eventually, baby blue. There were no sharp, vibrant reds or yellows or purples like in Peru, only soft, cradling colours. Gentle colours. You're-safe colours. I'm in heaven, I thought.
When I imagined navigating day-to-day life in North America, I likened the feeling to taking back your stirrups after riding without them for a while. Without stirrups, you're forced to rely on your own strength and balance to stay on the horse. It can be an exhausting, frightening and even painful experience. When you get your stirrups back, suddenly you feel infinitely more in control than you did before you dropped them.
Before too long the clouds thinned to wisps, then dissolved completely into the big empty sky of the Southwest desert. Red and green mountains swelled out of the landscape individually and at random intervals that I recognized all too well. The first winding subdivision came into view, and my vision began to swim. Home.
My ears began to pop, and the captain made an announcement that we were beginning our final descent into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. "We'll be landing ahead of schedule," he chimed. "Current local time is 8AM. Weather is clear with sunny skies and ninety degrees."
It was perfect, easy. Too easy. I kept expecting to be royally screwed over. I had to be at some point. I knew it was unrealistic to think I could travel non-stop for three months without a single hitch, without at least one lost bag or missed flight. The fact that I'd gotten this far without something going wrong told me one of two things; either I was being given the divine gift of a free pass, for the sake of a good experience, or the universe was waiting until the very last minute to administer its biggest test yet, to get me tantalizingly close to home-free, and then throw me a curveball. If it didn't, it would change my spiritual outlook forever. If it didn't, I would know without a shred of doubt that this life was governed by more than luck. It had to be.