Above me vines wove like serpents through the grid of a wooden terrance, while the vine’s leaves shivered in the wind. In the sky was thin spread of Peruvian clouds hardly deflecting the sun’s radiation. On a cushioned bench I reached forward and adjusted a perspiring bag of ice on my left ankle. Once the bag was settled over where my ankle was swollen the most, I draped a towel over the bag, then I dropped back onto the pillows I’d piled behind me.
Marta, the hostel attendant made her way down the stone pathway. As she did I adjusted myself again, stuffing a pillow below my left elbow so as not to have a conversation from my back. Marta’s face, heart-shaped with flattened features like most Peruvians, was addicting to look at. Occasionally light fell on her in such a way to reveal a childlike engagement with the world. For a moment it would appear she was only eight or nine and in turn I would feel suddenly youthful too. The net effect was such that as I spoke with her I was waiting for a liberation from adulthood, something I hadn’t realized I needed to be liberated from before.
“How is the ice helping?” she asked.
“It’s helping, a lot. I just need more rest, and to not walk for a while. Finding a place like this was lucky.”
Marta glanced to my elevated foot with concern. Mottled light fell through the terrace, striking Marta’s face and revealing by way of her dark eyes that she was more alive than most. In the light especially her eyes were like underground lakes.
“I’m going to a different pharmacy tonight,” Marta said, her hand straying to the bun her hair was put into. “They might have one of the bags we were talking about. Do you still want one?”
Marta was talking about a cold pack. “That’s alright. Ice in a plastic bag is working. If you did find a bag it’d probably be expensive anyway.”
“I think so.”
“Have you been studying English?” I asked.
“Not today. I was suppose to have class but the teacher cancelled for some reason.”
“But you have a book don’t you?”
“For learning English?”
“I have one, but there are things to do around here today.”
As though remembering she was on the clock Marta straightened and put on a more formal air. I speculated that childhood was hidden behind a veil of correctness in adults.
“Do you need anything?” she asked.
“The ice is perfect,” I said.
She smiled close-mouthed then went off. I stayed on the sofa for a good while longer. The day before the Eagles had given the Steelers a whomping so other than the pain in my ankle I was in high spirits. To keep the victory dopamine coming I kept Philadelphia sports radio on throughout the day. The radio was a one to one between substance and commercials, but the thrice hourly hit of Wentz hype was enough to keep me from turning it off.
I didn’t mind my lot in life at all. With a bum ankle I was forced to take a day or two off, and with nothing but desert and sun outside, that sounded quite reasonable.
After a single day back on the road my ankle had swollen like it’d been struck with a golf club. With my good friend Arturo living in Lima I was able to relax rent-free for a month, but the time off had made me soft. I tramped a mere fifteen miles from Lima then woke the next day unable to bend my foot. Since I started my global peregrination only a vice-like pair of shoes I had in Costa Rica was more painful.
I thought the swelling would fall after a day or two, but once that day or two passed the swelling had worsened to the point that even standing was a struggle. At my best I could manage forty minutes of hobbling; a dishonorable distance for a professional walker.
For four days I tolerated the pain to reach the curved road into Chincha Alta – a city in the high desert off the ocean.
Wanting to stay downtown, and despite my ankle, I passed up promising hostels as I walked the outer tendrils of the city. Approaching city center I stopped in front of an alleyway where at the end was a freshly painted yellow metal garage door with Hostel written on it.
To the left of the yellow garage door was the entrance to a workshop. Flashes of electrified metal went off like paparazzi behind a Kardashian. Trash was collected in a corner, and above the trash, in a miniature watchtower, was a black dog with mange across its snout.
The right side of the alleyway however, was lined with rose bushes and lights.
I recognized straight away the promise of calm. I knocked on the large door and was brought in by Marta.
“Your dog can’t go in the room,” she said once Savannah bounded around the cart. Shade was already covering us from the trees along the walls.
“No, it’s okay, she’s very clean, I’ve taken her on airplanes, in the seats of airplanes! She’s calm. She’s from the U.S. She doesn’t bark. She has all her vaccinations and will sleep on the floor.”
I learned after enough rejection that the best way to get Savannah in the room with me was to simply say she could then spew out her credentials.
Savannah jumped up on Marta and Marta yipped in a moment of fear.
“She doesn’t bite,” I injected.
For a minute Marta was silent.
“It’s fifty soles a night.” Marta said while keeping Savannah upright, balancing Savannah’s paws on her thighs. “She’s cute,” Marta added.
Presently, ice on my ankle, Savannah was on the bed in my room and no one minded in the least. Savannah was an endless stream of pleasantness. She loved people and given a day or two even the most stubborn could be made to come around.
At night I ate dinner with Marta in the tiny kitchen while a telenovela played from an old television bolted to a high corner.
My Spanish had abruptly reached new heights. Suddenly I could hold conversations on anything from politics, to herbal medicine, to geography. It was as though for the past year I’d been putting together a giant puzzle without any pattern emerging then I plug in a piece and I can finally see the picture forming.
“Chile is nicer than Perú,” Marta said. “The cities are cleaner.”
“There’s trash all along the streets here. Our neighbors are always throwing trash out front and I’m always begging them to please clean it up. If one person sits a bag of trash in the street suddenly everyone thinks that’s somewhere to leave trash. Then an hour later there’s a pile of bags.”
I feigned ignorance by saying nothing. Perú was one of the dirtier countries I’d been. I didn’t hold that against the country or its people though. Waste management is a whopper of a problem, especially when there’s always a strong wind to take your loose wrapper out of sight.
“Are there garbage trucks here? I saw trucks in Lima.”
“Yes. They are here. But people don’t think to use them. They just throw their trash out the window as they drive.” Marta scowled towards the telenovela playing over my shoulder. “It makes me so sad.”
The conversation lulled. I’d seen garbage flying out of open windows every day since walking in Perú, but commenting on that felt unfair.
With my spoon I turned over a piece of chicken protruding like an iceberg in my soup. Why anyone left the bone on their chicken in soups was beyond me. Who could pull apart an oily chicken breast in a bowl of soup with a spoon without getting splashed on? Perhaps I hadn’t had enough practice. I pinched out the chicken and ate it from between in fingers.
“You must be careful with thieves when you leave,” Marta said.
I glanced up from the chicken, soup dripping from my fingers. “Always.” Even while talking about dark topics Marta seemed younger than she really was.
“Because you’re white they’ll target you. They’ll stop you to see what you have.”
“That’s why I keep to the main road. With more cars passing it’s safer.”
“They don’t care, they’ll rob you anywhere. One night we had a woman staying with us, she was from Canada, I went out to the market to prepare for dinner, someone knocked on the entrance and when the Canadian woman opened the door thinking it was me there were two men with guns.”
“Really? Here? What time was it?”
“Early, maybe four.”
“They robbed you at four in the afternoon?”
“It’s why I’m telling you to be careful. Trust no one.”
I plopped the chicken back in my soup, considering for the millionth time how far from home I was. Marta’s tale didn’t scare me, it was just so different from anything I’d hear back in the suburbs of New Jersey.
After dinner I showered. Then I laid in bed with my foot propped up. Usually I tried to read, but the book I had jumped between characters like an unmedicated schizophrenic. I couldn’t keep on for more than a few pages a night.
In the morning I was up at six. In the kitchen I boiled water then poured it over coffee powder. Then back in my room I turned on a podcast and went to work on a Spanish workbook I started carrying with me. For a few hours I worked like that, drinking a majority of my coffee at room temperature. At every in-between moment I thought how I could live like this indefinitely; a garden outside, coffee in the morning, something to study, a friendly girl to have dinner with at night. Added up there was quite a lot.
There were many places with quite a lot though. That was the thing about walking around the world. I could see myself settling in just about every country I passed through; on the waters of Lake Atitlan, in the Colombian highlands, buried amongst the Costa Rican rainforest.
When Marta got in she said hello and Savannah leapt from the bed to greet her. I moved my foot from its elevated position on a chair to the floor. One more day wouldn’t hurt.