Rubbing my hand twice across the wooden slats of the bench to sweep off the water, I sat, immediately realizing the impotence of the gesture as my pants and back ribbed with damp. The rain had been short and uncommitted, simply glistening the dark grass and gilding the walkway pavers and the cobbled streets surrounding the Plaza de Armas with reflected gold from streetlights, shop windows and the fairytale twin spires of the cathedral. Carmen sat next to me with a smile and no concern for the wet. She had been one of my first customers and my partner most every evening for two weeks. She was seven and spent her days selling chewy candy, two for one sole or three for one sole or “A special price just for my friend,” four for one sole, to the tourists that haggled. Tucking her cardboard box inside her coat knowing she would sell no candy to me, Carmen looked at the clock on the cathedral and said, “It’s almost time.”
“Yes, almost time,” I concurred.
Landing at an early 7:00 a.m. to the rainy, low tourist season in Cusco, Peru, I let my cab driver take me to a hotel owned by a cousin or a brother-in-law who offered a nice room for $30 per night. Declining politely, I tipped my disappointed driver, then lugged my big black bag two blocks further from the Plaza to the Suesia Hotel. There the pleasant woman offered a choice of rooms for 30 soles. The exchange rate was 3.5 soles to the dollar and I’ll let the reader do the math from here on out. Looking around the two-story glass-roofed courtyard filled with plants, tables, and chairs, three couches crowded up to a coffee table scattered with old magazines, all surrounded by a balcony and twenty empty rooms, I said I was planning to stay a month and the woman halved the price of a room, then offered me breakfast.
Wandering awakening streets under a struggling gold disk, a dozen blocks to the teaming local mercado, I purchased a liter of strawberry jam and a baker’s dozen, fresh, full grain brown, eight-inch buns; I returned to my room and made two sandwiches. With a daypack, I hiked the knife-edge ridge of short grass above the Inca ruins of Tambo Machay with Cusco spread out below on one side and mountains folding rumpled green blankets far to the north. In the afternoon I dropped away from Cusco into a lush valley eventually coming across a man and woman with two small children working a flowering potato field. Pausing, considering the photo potential, I sat for a moment. The man wandered over with a“Buenas tardes” and the ubiquitous, “De que pias?” Where are you from? My answer brought a thoughtful response,“Muchos problemas en las Estados Unidos?” The question begged an afternoon’s discussion. I said, “Si, pero es muy bonita aqui.”
That evening the chariot race careened around the Plaza de Armas with taxis darting toward tourists emerging from “Gringo Alley” or the other tributaries emptying into travel central. There are still a few dilapidated Detroit dragons, belching exhaust, held together with wire and duct tape seemingly immortal but most vehicles now are Toyotas or Daewoos with room for three tourists or a Peruvian family of six. The land of the S.U.V., America no longer makes autos for export.
As the melted butter dripped over popcorn clouds candied pink, postcard vendors, cigarette sellers, and shoeshine boys hustled for soles. Refusing a shoeshine for the fifth time in half an hour, I was again asked my country. “United States, capital Washington, first president George Washington, president George Bush, wife Laura Bush, ex-president Bill Clinton, girl-friend Monica Lewinski,” came a recitation that probably doubled this young man’s daily income.
“Please my friend only two soles.” I tried to explain that I would be tromping through mud again the next day and had no need for a shoeshine. I was sorry. “Please sir, for you a special price, only one sole, for my food.”
I thought back on a night spent with a friend just before I left the States. “I don’t know how you can do it,” he had shouted over the surround sound in his wood paneled entertainment room. “I’m lucky if I get home before 7:00 p.m. three nights a week and after I get the dammed kids to bed I spend an hour on the computer. I haven’t had a true vacation since I got out of grad school.” I hadn’t said anything. Bruce Willis was fighting terrorists on the wide screen and my friend’s son came in for the third time to say goodnight. What was there to say? The grind is never grateful, the third kiss is just wanting to stay up unless it becomes a frozen river for two people to skate away on, that I might give it all up for a son that would crawl onto my lap for a third goodnight kiss?
“Please, mi amigo, for my food, only one sole, I make clean your shoes,” he said. “I’m sorry,” I said, as I got up to extricate myself from the uncomfortable situation. After ten minutes in my room I returned to the plaza with eleven strawberry sandwiches.
Muddy shoes, to me a brown badge of pride; I had no need for candy, finger puppets, postcards or cigarettes but now I had an answer beyond I’m sorry when Carmen sat down that first night with her cardboard box. In five minutes ten children surrounded us on the steps in front of the cathedral. As we all munched and licked sticky fingers it started to sprinkle. I was wearing a soft warm green polar fleece and a large grin; I pulled the hood over my head. Three of the girls whispered among themselves and I heard the word sapo then giggles. One of the girls had said I looked like a frog with my knees tucked almost to my chest. “Si. Yo soy un sapo,” I said, and the giggles increased with embarrassment at having been overheard.
When I was young I had learned to close the back of my throat and by inhaling tiny bites of air to make a recognizable imitation of a frog. “Rribbit, rrribitt,” I said and ten children crowded closer demanding I make a bigger fool of myself. Always prepared for this I had a second trick. Pulling my tongue deep within my throat I pressed the tip firmly into the roof of my mouth expanding the muscle below my chin three inches. Thirty years of practice had gained for me a double chin and a fascinating talent guaranteed to elicit screams from little girls and the desire to poke it from little boys. I ballooned three times then rribbitted proudly. A swampy chorus erupted, girls puffed their cheeks and two boys jammed sticky fingers at my throat.
The next evening, after sun splattered hours hiking and reading in the mountains I spent four soles on a huge bag of bread. As the sun pinked towering clouds the bells of the cathedral tolled six o’clock, Carmen and two others met me at the fountain with “Senor Sapo” and “rribbit rribbit.” One of the youngest that night, a girl perhaps four or five, pulled her sandwich apart staring at the red filling inside not sure what to do next. I said, “Good, now you have two.” This became the method for the night as twenty children split their treats in half, nibbling edges and licking the filling like so many Americans savoring Oreo cookies. Shy at first, several teenage shoeshine boys held to the back. Half way through my bag one approached with, “One for me?” He was fifteen or sixteen; over his shoulder he carried his shine box and footrest. His hands and pants were black from his trade. My first response to the young man towering over the others was, “No, solo para los ninos.” As he stood dejected his buddy waded through the crowd on his knees with a big smile indicating he was just a child like the rest. Realizing my arbitrary stupidity I passed out another handful. The boldest of the young men asked if there was going to be a war with Iraq? I admitted I didn’t know but hoped not. Another asked why America wanted everyone’s oil? A good question from a fifteen year old. A month earlier in Huaraz my hotel host had presented a similar query. Romano was a college educated comparatively well-off middle-aged man with tourist English. He explained that gas prices in Peru had risen twenty percent in three months and Peruvians blamed their new president Toledo and America for a hardship Peru could hardly afford. I explained America was not after anyone’s oil but could not convince myself of this. Discussing terrorism with a man more closely familiar with it than I will ever be, I felt like a school child arguing who pushed whom first on a recess playground. Romano concluded our conversation stating, “The rich and powerful will become richer and the poor will suffer.”
Back in Cusco, a ten-year-old asked if America would come and take Peru’s oil next. I answered unequivocally, “No, absolutely not.” Knowing Peru produced very little oil and would certainly not be next. By this time several of the children were ready for seconds. One bright girl said, “One for my brother,” another chimed in with, “One for my sister.” One or two, or three, I was not likely to satiate anyone’s appetite. Many of these children would be on the street late into the night trawling the bar hopping tourists. For the price of a Cuba libre at Norton Rats or Cross Keys Pub or a twelve-inch pizza in Gringo Alley I spent an hour eating strawberries and teaching children to croak.
On the fourth night, swelled with success, I tried something new. At a bakery I bought large crunchy bulky rolls of white bread, then orange marmalade. Though no one complained, Carmen whispered to me, “I think we like fresa (strawberry) more good.”
Over the next two weeks, I wandered the days in mountain sanctuary and made friends in the Plaza de Armas as war started half a shrinking world away. Tonight the tranquil plaza glistening from gentle rain reverberated with anti-war protest speeches and chants of Bush es assinto, is an assassin. Few tourists wandered the golden streets and only Carmen joined me on the wet bench.
At the first bell I looked up at the clock on the cathedral, the hands aligned perfectly, the long thin one pointing straight up, the short fat one pointing down. The cathedral was started in 1536 by Francisco Pizarro, the “discoverer” of a land already inhabited by 12 million people. On the second ring, I looked to the right at La Compania, a church built by the Jesuits in 1571 on the foundation of an Inca temple, then thought of the two-dozen churches within a mile of the plaza that was once the navel of the Inca Empire. On the third ring I thought of the half million, mostly desperately poor people living in Cusco today where one in fifty houses has a flush toilet. On the fourth ring I thought of the coming generation where one in three can afford to pay for schooling, yet one in ten teenagers has an e-mail address and everyone has access to television. As the ancient bell tolled I thought back over twelve years to my first visit here when everyone wanted to be American. On the final ring I thought about spending a month sharing jam and bread, wrestling childish questions about the greatest country in the world and croaking like a frog.
Carmen looked up at me and asked, “Is it time?” “Si, mi amiga, it is time.” I opened the large plastic bag, she reached in and drew out two strawberry sandwiches and being a smart little girl she handed the sticky one to me.
Scott Bernard is a writer currenty traveling in Peru.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For an archive of these stories go to the Editors’ Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.