Carmen Liberatore was awarded the IVHQ Travel Blogger Scholarship in 2016. Here she talks about her experience volunteering and traveling in Peru
I dashed onto the train just as the doors slid closed.
Gasping for breath and covered in a sheen of sweat, I looked around at the empty train as it gently picked up speed. As we rounded a corner, the entirety of the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport came into view. The vast expanse of asphalt, the steel and glass terminals, and the waiting airplanes seemed worlds away from the place I had just left behind. A mental image of the jungle, the desert, the mountains, and the city at night flashed into my sleep-deprived mind. Rocky, potholed roads winding into the jungle, the reaches of the sandy desert dotted with vicuñas, the noisy, colorful markets, and the thin air and warm sun of the mountains all seemed to reach their tendrils of memory out to me in the present, inviting me to get off this train and go back.
As the train hummed along, I found myself drifting away into the memory of the places I had been. I remembered waking up in Ollantaytambo, that little town nestled in the Sacred Valley. I remember walking outside and being faced with those impossibly high mountain faces. I remember the early-morning train winding through those faces, some of which were still adorned with snow and cloud. We climbed Machu Picchu that day, although our burning legs and gasping lungs urged us to give up. The sense of accomplishment when we reached the peak of the mountain was better than anything else I’ve ever experienced—better than pizza, better than running a 5k—better than graduating high school, even.
In spite of that sense of achievement, traveling across Peru was truly one of the most humbling journeys I’ve ever embarked on, even after spending two weeks in the jungle without electricity or running water (you can read about that here). It was quite a shock, going from the isolation of the jungle where the days were dictated by the rhythm of nature and the weather to the hustle and bustle of Cusco, with its bright street lights, honking cars, and streams of talking people. I craved the silence of the trees, the sea of greenery, and the sound of the river. It was like moving from a tiny mountain town in Albania to downtown New York City. But as I adapted to the different place and lifestyle and began seeing more and more interesting things every day, I left nostalgia behind.
I took in the incredible ancient Inca sites of Machu Picchu, Sacsayhuaman, and others. I negotiated finding a combí to Ollantaytambo, and a bus to Lake Titicaca and Arequipa, and I bargained on prices in the local food markets. I asked for directions when I needed it, although it was often difficult to decipher the rapid-fire Spanish that was spoken at me. My favorite parts were finding combís to ride to different areas. They were often crowded and just a little too warm to be comfortable, but they were incredibly cheap and surprisingly easy to negotiate (as long as you tell the driver where you’re going!) Although these methods of transportation can be crowded, hot, and uncomfortable at times, I would rather be there, sweating and happy and attempting conversation in broken Spanish than on a tourist bus with a guide yakking in my ear (unless that tourist bus has refrigerated water, in which case you can sign me up right now).
The bus journey from Cusco to Puno wasn’t too bad since we upgraded our seats to first class. It sounds luxurious, but all it meant was bigger seats that reclined and were partitioned away from the other passengers in an airless compartment. The journey was supposed to take about 8 hours, but with our stops and food breaks, it took somewhere around 9 or 10. I was worried as we boarded the bus for two reasons: I didn’t want someone to potentially take my backpack from the luggage hold, and I had no food with me. Thankfully, we stopped at a tiny bread shop on the side of the road about ten minutes into the journey and I was able to buy water and bread, and when we arrived in Puno, my backpack was still in the hold safe and sound. I liked Puno only because it was smaller than Cusco and a little less noisy. The hostel was clean and comfortable, and the lake was just a short walk away. While admiring the lake one day, we were approached by several boat captains, who asked if we wanted a ride out to the various islands. I explained to them, in my rudimentary Spanish, that we only wanted to look, and as we chatted, they relaxed a bit and became friendlier. They asked where we were from, how we liked Puno and asked once more if we were sure that we didn’t want to go out to the islands. That’s another thing I loved about Peru: people were always friendly and hospitable, but not overwhelmingly so.
In Arequipa that friendliness persisted, although it seemed as if we encountered more expatriates than locals. For some reason, I was expecting Arequipa to be a quaint little colonial town, with hikes within walking distance of the town and charming little streets and restaurants in the square that served amazing food and wine. I have no idea why that image was in my mind but it was painfully proven wrong the moment our bus ground to a halt in the evening traffic. There is nothing worse than spending a long bus ride in an uncomfortable seat, only to be stopped in standstill traffic just twenty minutes from your final destination. That is the moment when you consider climbing off the bus and attempting to negotiate the road by foot. But thankfully, our stay in Arequipa was lovely. A few blocks from our hostel was a fantastic burger restaurant, and just up the street, we found an awesome little brewpub run by an Oregonian man. His quinoa porter was excellent, and he was happy to chat about our mutual love of Oregon, the brewing process and the beauty of the country.
There are a lot of things I miss about Peru. I miss the colorful culture, the amazing food, and how everything was so incredibly cheap. I miss the landscape and its stunning variety. I have wished for a lot of things in my life, but most of all I wish I’d been able to spend more time in that incredible country. And I wish I had another quinoa porter.
I snapped back to reality as the train doors slid open at my stop. Glancing at my phone, I noted that I still had twenty minutes to find my gate. Still sweating a little in the hot sunlight streaming from the high windows, I set off across the shiny floors towards the escalator. As I stopped to fill my bottle with fresh, cold water, I remembered how I used to have to purchase clean water in plastic bottles on dusty roads in the middle of nowhere or purify it from a river with iodine drops. This is how life would be now, I suppose. Every time I used a flushing toilet, poured a drink of clean water, or took a hot shower, I’d be reminded of all the times I did not have these luxuries, and of all the people who live that way every day. These experiences and these memories will impact how I live my life, no matter where I am. I will carry them with me forever, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.