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Saturday, April 13, 2013

'cause I'm still in love with you, come back.

...and then I went back to Peru.

My husband has been bouncing like a pinball, pulled back and shot to ricochet between the North and South American continents for two years now, on and off. Our youngest assumed that whenever anyone left for vacation it was to go to "Peh-woo."

3 days before Easter, I met his expectations, using the few zillion air miles my spouse had accrued to do just that. Free tickets. Off to Lima.

2:20 am. The alarm begins to wind up but I'm already out of bed, silencing its call before it's above a whisper.

The house is dark and still, children and dog indistinct warm lumps on their beds, husband murmuring "have a good flight, see you in a few days..." before drifting back off to well-deserved sleep.

No sleep for me. The airport shuttle was coming.

It was perfectly on time, but it was no shared shuttle; instead, a purring black Town Car with buttery leather interior was sweeping up our driveway, tires crunching on the gravel. A nattily suited driver leapt jauntily out into the darkness, taking possession of my backpack and suitcase, opening the car door for me with easy courtesy and a cheerful hello.

Well, now, this was a good start.

The driver was a chatty sort, which kept me awake to enjoy the view as we swept past the lights of Seattle. He'd dropped off a VIP near our house, he explained, and it had made sense to pick me up on the way back to the airport. No extra charge.

Yes, a very good start.

At Sea-Tac my luxurious steed dropped me off to make my own way to the airline counter. Which was....closed. Actually, everything was closed. There were a few people queued up with their luggage, all wearing the blank stare of the early morning airline passenger. No one knew what time the counter opened, but all trusted that it would.

Suppressing the urge to moo like a cow, I joined the herd and stood, patient and stupid, in the hopes that someone with take my suitcase and send it on its way.

40 minutes later, the counter did open, no worries. I'd like  to say, as the airline requests their international passengers to present themselves 3 hours before departure it seems rather unsportsmanlike of them not to be there to welcome said travelers at that time.

But no matter. The  second TSA gate was just opening as well. A cursory glance at my passport, my face, and an "it's still you," comment from the officer. Reassuring.

A theme was becoming apparent; Seattle's Best Coffee wasn't open either. Fellow caffeine junkies and I stood there for several minutes before being shooed away ("we open in half an hour").

No coffee? In Seattle?

How uncivilized. I could have hit up the Starbucks before security, but then I would have had to gulp my coffee before going through, and that's not the right way at all.

Just before 6 am the plane was ready to go. I had found my seat between the aisle and an empty seat with a military guy on the other side of that. Good deal.

Were the seats getting smaller or had my legs grown six inches since the last time I flew? It was like origami to find a semi-comfortable position, and I'm average height for an American woman. With a long torso and short legs, no less.

There was a lot of military on this flight, a point made when the flight attendant asked my fellow passenger if he would switch with someone else. Yes'm, he said, jumping up, to be replaced by an air force soldier...and an Armed Forces dog. A large, slender German Shepherd. Both of them appeared combat ready.

Thank you ma'am, said the soldier to the flight attendant, I sure do appreciate the help, one seat just ain't gonna fit the two of us.

No kidding.

He was stocky young man with big arms and a syrup sweet Georgia accent. Now with more room, the dog wanted to sit on the seats but would have taken up all three.  His partner spoke few words in a tired but calm voice while the dog gazed up with obvious adoration. Without so much as a sigh the canine obeyed his orders, getting down onto the floor where he tucked himself in with obvious practice, head resting on paws, and sank out of view; no one would even have known he was there.

What a good dog. The nearby passengers, who had craned their necks to watch, grinned and turned back around.

I felt kind of special.

Five hours later, after giving up on my "entertainment" system that had sound that either worked sporadically or not at all, and wanted me to feed it credit card to watch anything good anyway, the soldier introduced himself and his dog. Billy and Arco. Yes, like the gas station. Neither of them had stirred in the 5 hours, except once when I dug a biscotti out of my backpack on the floor to go with my little cup of airline coffee. Arco lifted his head three millimeters and moved forward an infinitesimal amount, toward the backpack. Billy redirected his dog with his boot, gently. He'd appeared fast asleep but perhaps he was a light sleeper. A useful trait for parents with dependents of all kids.

Once Billy started talking and found me a sympathetic and interested ear, I got to ask all sorts of questions about Arco. They had come from Afghanistan through Germany, then Seattle and now finally Atlanta.
How was Afghanistan? I asked.
"Cold. Windy. Really windy."
"Wow." I said. There was a pause. "What was Arco's job in Afghanistan?" I asked. 
Billy hesitated, so I quickly suggested "A little of everything?"
"Yeah," he agreed, "that's it. A little of everything."
Time to change the subject. "How can he ride on the plane so long without water, or going to the bathroom, or anything like that?"
"This is nothing," Billy said, "he's been on 10 hour flights; longer, even. He don't mind planes at all. Hates helicopters, though."
I could imagine; I don't think they make ear protectors for dogs, and helicopters are loud.
Billy told me about his personal dogs "back home," and the time he left Arco alone with a plate of gumbo on the coffee table. When Billy got back not only was the gumbo gone, but the paper plate and the plastic spoon had disappeared into Arco as well.
Arco heard his name one too many times and decided that it was time to sit up and take a visual survey of his surroundings. Billy let him, but kept a hand on Arco's harness at all times. I asked if I could take a photograph, afterwards Billy thanked me for not trying to pet Arco.
"Well, he's not my dog," I explained, "and, he's working."
"Y'all would not believe what some people do," he replied. He told me some hair-raising stories of parents encouraging their small kids to run up, uninvited, to touch Arco.
Sounded a bit like Darwinism to me, but I kept that comment to myself. Billy did not invite me to pet Arco, and I didn't ask, though I would have loved to stroke that beautiful, long-nosed dog; I'm a sucker for a canine in uniform.
Billy also mentioned how TSA had given him a hard time before letting him though with Arco. "Aggravatin', those guys.  Pissed me off. They never know what to do with us."
"Honestly?" I asked him. It seems to me that no one would voluntarily fly with a dog, especially a big dog like Arco, unless they had to. They're like kids; no matter how much you love them, it's just easier in so many ways to leave them at home. And who would give a hard time to a soldier, in uniform, with the proper identification? They deserve first class treatment stateside, if you ask me.
I suppose Arco sets off the metal detectors, what with his harness and all. It'd take a braver, or stupider, person than myself to ask Billy to take them off his dog, though.
I apologised for my city; I've found SeaTac's TSA employees to be friendly and competent, not something to complain about in the least, but then, I'm a regular sort of passenger, no one to get excited about.
The plane began its descent through the warm Georgia air, a rough, jouncy one. I started sweating and felt a bit nauseated from all the movement. Arco began to pant and made an urping sound. Billy entreated him, "don't puke on me, bud," stroking the silky ears. I followed Arco's lead and breathed in and out deeply. We all made it to the ground without anything unsanitary happening, and said out good-byes and good lucks.
Atlanta's airport is a pleasant one for a layover. A little light on healthy food selections, perhaps, but otherwise nice. Very cool displays, from copies of Gone With the Wind in several languages:
to an exhibit of MLK Jr's personal effects. I walked and walked and walked the different concourses, to kill time and be kind to my body, listening to the accents and enjoying the creative braids and colorful shades of the hair swirling over the heads of the women working there. Eventually I ended up at a massage place.
I know. Whoops, how did that happen?
Actually, I know how it happened; the crick in my neck led me there. And into the capable hands of a slender, hunched, soft-spoken and very pale fellow of Puerto Rican and Italian descent named Eccardo.
First I was invited to sit a aggressive massage chair which then pummelled the heck out of me, fixing any big problems I might have had and probably creating plenty of smaller ones.
The neck crick fled for the hills.
Eccardo wisped over to me and turned off the pummeller and began to work his magic, pressing my temples, stroking my hair and eyebrows, complimenting my "beautiful skin" and telling me how to cook Pollo Guisado "with arroz or pasta, depending on which of my genes are talking to me while I create," admonishing "you must always use Goya products when you cook this, without fail you understand?"
In a dreamlike state I assured him I would. I'd purchased 15 minutes of relaxation but he gave me 28, not including the thumping by the chair. I also got the impression that he prayed over me for a safe journey as he cradled my cranium in his hands.
morning mist, Lima, Peru  
Back on another plane, the entertainment system, though included with an international ticket, went the way of the first and didn't want to work terribly well. I gave up watching Les Miserables; feeling it was too good of a story to ruin with lousy reception. My book had no such issues, and I read or silently practiced Spanish to myself. My seat partner, Kim, currently from Tennessee, was a yoga instructor on her way to Cusco and Machu Picchu with a group of yoga devotees. I found myself babbling to her about what to expect in Peru, as though I were some sort of expert, and we talked family and kids and spiritualism until touchdown in Lima.
Through customs and baggage, carefully keeping my immigration slip that you must give back at the end of your trip, and the gauntlet of the red or green light. This is a funny thing: in the airport, just before the exit, when you can see freedom from the machinery that is international plane travel, you must press a button. If the light turns green you sweep out through the gates and out. But if the light turns red, your baggage in searched with accompanying questions. 
This system is supposedly random. I wouldn't know. Regardless, I've gotten green light every time, so I can't complain.
Out the doors to the throng of people waiting to welcome tired travelers, I see the sign with my name on it.
There are few things I like better than that. The holder of the sign is, surprisingly and gratifyingly, a woman. An attractive woman, the tallest person in the crowd, wearing slacks and a white sweater of some soft material, she smiles and begins to speak in rapid fire Spanish. I feel like I'm drowning in words, and hold up a hand to stop the flow and shake hers in greeting. "Despacio..." I murmur, slowly.
She flashes a smile of understanding and speaks, slowly, and clearly, and I don't catch a single word.
I think she's asked me to wait for a minute, but that's based solely on body language. Now we're outside, and she disappears into the darkness. I remain behind, nicely and repeatedly telling the taxi drivers who continue to ask, no gracias, I don't need a ride, no necessito.
It's well past midnight and the night is fragrant and dark, smelling of fuel and exhaust, and further on, impressions of cooking and something unknown and pungently sweet. Kipling once famously wrote "The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it," and it is always these, the odors and temperature, that make a lasting impression once the recycled, lifeless air of the plane is left behind. I would know, blindfolded and deaf, that I am in another country.
She returns, parking ticket validation in hand, and I follow her out to the parking lot, the suitcase obediently bumping along behind me. She has forgotten exactly where the car is parked, but de nada, I tell her, shrugging to convey my lack of displeasure and quickly running out of Spanish.
We find the car after she beeps her remote several times until we find it, and I hump my suitcase over the intervening concrete curb, causing her more embarrassment, which I try to turn into a "hey, sister, we're all just trying to get along" moment. It seems to work.
Out on the road, and my driver is surprisingly conservative for a Limeño, driving only 60 in a 40 kilometer zone. She has me put my backpack on the floor, rather than my lap, and now it is my turn to be embarrassed; what a rookie mistake, making us a target for smash and grab thieves. I cover by asking for the word for backpack, mochilla, which I forget along with her name.
She asks some questions and we get along; I learn that she has an 18 year old son, and I manage to share my parental shame that the next day is my son's 7th birthday and that I shall miss it; that he is with his abuella back in the States, in Seattle. She tells me she has a sister in Seattle, who is married and doesn't work. She can't visit her sister because she does work. Si, si, I nod vigorously, is claro.
The radio croons, mostly Latin American songs with the occasional Flashdance or Talking Heads track. The 80s still rule.
Mike, the thoughtful husband, has equipped me, not only with the address of the company apartment and instructions on how to get in, but also a full page color photo of the apartment building. We miss it the first time out and many of the streets are one way only, so we end up in each other's company longer than perhaps was planned, but my driver is extraordinarily patient, both with the streets and her tired passenger of nearly unintelligible Spanish. We make it, and I give her 10 soles for a tip. Her dark eyes open wide and she blossoms into the biggest smile I have seen yet; most in Lima don't expect a tip. She certainly didn't. This, all of $3.86 after an hour ride and perhaps 2 hours of waiting for me at the airport, is considered generous.
We are buzzed in and I get my key from the guard after confirming my name, stumble into an elevator that I learn later is in the running for the slowest in the Western Hemisphere, which takes me to the 13th floor. There I unlock the front door, flush with the elevator shaft, and my suitcase and I find our room. I want nothing more than to collapse into bed, but first I fight with my laptop to try and send a "made it" message back home.
The internet simply won't cooperate, so I collapse onto the bed. Then I recoil. The stench of the linens is, shall we say, off putting, in marked contrast to the crispness of what appears to be a freshly made bed. Redolent of cat urine and something else. Had I not been so tired I would have declined to sleep in such a stink, but I'm so worn out I decide I can deal with it in the morning and sink into grateful unconsciousness.
I made it. I would get to spend 11 days in warm, welcoming Peru. Without children, without responsibilities. A malodorous bed for one night? Small price to pay for such fantastic novelty, such opportunity to nourish my traveler's soul.

A good start.


  1. Such an entertaining story about your journey! Encounters with fellow passengers (and their dogs) often leave lasting impressions. Can't wait to hear more about your adventures!

  2. Yay! More Natalie travels! I eagerly await more :)