Note: Lonely Planet has just published Better Than Fiction 2, a compelling collection of true travel stories written by acclaimed fiction writers. We are pleased to excerpt the story below, by novelist Lily King, about a life-changing adventure in Peru. King is the author of four novels, The Pleasing Hour, The English Teacher, Father of the Rain, and, most recently, Euphoria, a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award and the winner of the Kirkus Award. Her short fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Ploughshares, and Glimmer Train. She lives with her husband, Tyler Clements, and their two children in Maine – when they are not traveling.
I was dating a guy who was hard to read. The first real sign that he liked me, apart from the fact that he asked me out on dates, came when he pulled away from a kiss in his car and said, ‘I want to go on a road trip with you.’
We were in our early thirties, with jobs and rents to pay, but we were nomadic in spirit. Neither of us had ever bought a piece of furniture. What little we owned had been acquired from other nomads on their way out of town. We both wanted to be writers. We wrote in the mornings, and in the afternoons he coached crew at Boston College and I waited tables in Harvard Square.
Our first trip was to Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod. It was early spring, cold. We stopped at a beach and he pulled a fishing rod out of his trunk. We pawed at each other in the sand, everything brand new. That summer we drove to Maine to see my family, Cleveland to see his. Then, in October, we decided to go to Peru.
I had a good friend in Lima, someone I’d taught with in Spain a few years earlier. Marcy was teaching at the American school there and living with her Peruvian boyfriend, Leo. She’d been urging me to get down there for a while.
It was a good time to get away. I’d just finished another draft of my first novel. I needed to leave it behind and clear my head. When I got back, I’d have to decide if it was finally ready to try to publish. It was also a good time to figure out this relationship with Tyler. We’d been going out for eight months by now, but our feelings were nomadic, too, hard to pin down. Or at least hard to talk about. We were very similar. We were wary of commitment. We ached for new experiences. We feared routine, conformity, and, most of all, the end of our youth. Of course we didn’t say any of this – we didn’t know how. We barely knew it ourselves.
Cuzco and Pisaq
We took an overnight flight to Lima. Though there is only a one-hour time difference, it felt like six. My memories of Marcy’s and Leo’s apartment are dim: white walls, busy street. Tyler and I slunk off to our fold-out couch in their living room any chance we got. Neither of us had traveled in a while. We were out of practice.
They showed us all around the American school and took us to a few casinos. Marcy had many guidebooks. We plotted out our trip at their kitchen table.
On Monday they went back to work and we flew to Cusco, the Incan capital. When the flight attendant opened the door and depressurized the cabin, my lungs sucked up air in a desperation I’d never felt before. I could not get enough oxygen. Everything sparkled, grew gray, then slowly went back to normal. My heart was pounding. We’re at eleven thousand feet, Tyler told me.
We walked around Cusco slowly, pausing to gather strength at the bottom of the steep hills, stopping to catch our breath halfway. We drank mate, which was supposed to help with altitude sickness.
In the States I was broke. All my savings had gone into this trip. But of course I didn’t know broke, real broke. The poverty in Cusco was extreme. Children aproned us wherever we went, pleading with us to buy their packages of Chiclets or Kleenex. Once we stopped in an alley to look at a furry rug then moved on, and the woman folded it up in her arms quickly and followed us. No, gracias, I said. Lo siento. But she didn’t stop. She followed us moaning and weeping until we bought it.
We found a guide named José to take us to Pisaq, a town in a valley beyond the mountains to the north of the city, and to some ruins nearby. In Pisaq it was market day, with rows of tables of alpaca hats and paper fans, vegetables, fruits, and poultry. Small children in traditional clothing flocked to us, each with a puppy or two under bright cloaks. They wanted to pose for photos. José told me to buy a big bag of wheat muffins instead of giving them money. They took the muffins one at a time, gingerly, then disappeared. Tyler and I ate at a table at the back of the market: noodles with hot aji sauce and salty potatoes and stuffed peppers. Tyler drank chicha, a beer made from corn. José laughed as he explained that one of the ingredients of chicha was saliva, which served as an enzyme to break down the starch.
Amid the ruins José spoke passionately about the Incas and their beliefs. He told us they had symbols for time: the serpent for the past, the puma for the present, the condor for the future. On the way back to Cusco he pointed out the face of a mountain with Inca terraces and paths that formed the shape of a condor. People, he said, went to the foot of this mountain to die, to be closer to the talons of the condor which would carry them off.
From Cusco we took a train to Aguas Calientes. The seats bounced like mini trampolines. Tyler got into a conversation with a German woman about spirituality and the unconscious. Villages flashed past. We went inside a mountain and came out again. Enormous ice peaks appeared. Tyler and the German woman scrambled for their cameras but it vanished and we were inside a mountain again. I could hear the German woman tell Tyler that now was not the time to discuss her past lives.
Life Cracked Open
Thoughts of the novel I’d written came to me in waves, like a disturbing scene I’d witnessed and could not forget. That novel had been my life for nearly six years. In that time, I’d moved from New York to Spain to California to New Hampshire to Massachusetts, but the novel had been my home. I’d had nine jobs and a few boyfriends, but the novel had remained steady. I didn’t know who I was without it. And yet I didn’t know exactly what it was. Was it any good? What if it stank and no one wanted to touch it? Would I do it again? Would I keep moving from place to place, keep switching jobs and boyfriends, keep waiting tables, smiling for tips, kowtowing to managers, overdrawing my bank account every month? My friends were starting to have real salaries. They were starting to send me wedding invitations. Some were even having babies. Their choices were incomprehensible to me. But my own were starting to feel incomprehensible, too: I was tying on a black apron every afternoon; I was sneaking mushroom soup and crème brûlée from the kitchen to the wait station when no one was looking.
Leaving your life, leaving the country, cracks you open. You start hearing a voice inside that you haven’t been listening to, or that you’ve been listening to so long that you no longer hear it. Mine was, I want. I want I want I want. I wanted so much. I wanted my own life of my own design. I wanted my own apartment (I couldn’t afford it – I lived with my sister and her boyfriend) and a dog. I wanted a relationship that worked, that lasted. I only half-believed that existed, and if it did, I wasn’t sure I was capable of it. I wanted to publish my novel. I wanted to begin my life as a writer, whatever that meant.
Tyler was struggling with the same questions. He was having similar thoughts about his writing, his job at BC, his future. But we didn’t talk about this. We were writers but we didn’t yet know how to say the most important things out loud. Since we’d arrived in Peru, we seemed to be not coming closer, not bonding as nomads, but moving apart from each other.
On the train I felt him getting dreamy and abstract, drifting farther away. If I weren’t there I wondered if he would go off with the German woman, learn about his own past lives.
Aguas Calientes sits at the bottom of a gorge. Mountains, the eastern edge of the Andes, bear down on the small village from all sides. We got off the train and I felt some sort of pull. I could instantly imagine staying here, teaching at what must be a tiny school, giving children more than change or wheat muffins. It was just a tourist spot, the only place from which to catch a bus to Machu Picchu, but I was entranced.
But within a few hours Tyler was sick. Very sick. The chicha, we decided. The saliva beer. All evening I went back and forth to the little store, for water and Gatorade (he was dehydrating from all the vomiting and diarrhea), for Tylenol (he was burning up), and anything else the woman at the counter told me would help. At one in the morning, I woke up the man in the room behind the front desk to ask for a doctor. I was scared. He’d gotten so weak so quickly. He was lying on the tiles beside the toilet bowl, pale green and slick with sweat. The doctor never came.
By morning the crisis had passed. He was not going to die. I was not going to have to call his mother from a payphone in Aguas Calientes and tell her that her son had died from drinking a foamy beer with spit in it.
At breakfast when the food came, the anxiety I didn’t feel the night before flooded through me and I had to leave the table. I walked around the square several times to get my heart rate down. The sun couldn’t get past the mountains. The whole town was cast in blue-black shadow. These mountains seemed sinister to me now. They seemed nearly alive and knowing.
We took the bus to Machu Picchu. We climbed the fifteen hundred steps slowly, both of us sapped of energy. At the top the sun was bright and strong, while all around us on every other peak clouds darkened the trees and patches of bare rock, moving in a great wheel. It seemed like this was the reason the Incas had chosen this spot on which to build their city of stone. I couldn’t feel the Incas’ presence, but I could feel their strength, and their desire to be left alone.
We went back down to Aguas Calientes to wait for the afternoon train. The mountains seemed to be rising. I began to panic that this train, the last train of the day, wouldn’t come. But it did, and the same German woman got on with us.
The train rattled loudly as it turned around the mountains. The German woman talked to Tyler about love, but I couldn’t hear all her words. Then it quieted down and she said she liked to travel because everyone was a stranger, which felt right to her because we were all strangers on Mother Earth.
The couple facing us on the train were Peruvians from Arequipa. They were in their early forties, and tender with each other. He stroked her fingers, one by one, and the two of them seemed to fit together like pieces carved for that purpose. To sit together on a train.
A moon rose over the mountains, just past full. We flew by chipped stucco houses, squat windows, small, ribbed dogs. People stood in doorways and windows and watched the train pass. Tyler was writing. I was writing. The train seemed to speed up in the growing dark. We looked up at the moon, at each other. We were separate. We did not fit together then like carved pieces of wood. But we were sharing the same exhilaration, and it was exactly what we’d come for.
And then that connection slipped away. From Cusco we went to Paracas, a fishing town on the coast. After a few days we met up with Marcy and Leo and their colleague Barbara and flew northwest to Iquitos.
We checked in at Hotel Safari on Calle Napo, then walked down some steps at the end of the street. Beneath another, smaller moon we found the Amazon. I couldn’t see it well in the dark but I could hear voices coming up from the shacks down at its edge, and long croaks and gasps of animals I didn’t know. The river was just a streak of light. I barely knew what I was seeing or hearing. After a while everyone else went back up to the bar for a beer, but I stayed there, just above the smell of the water and the raised shacks and the noises that made no sense.
In the daylight the river was narrower than I had imagined; the jungle closed in on either side. We took taxis to explore the city: Belén market, Casa de Fierro, Plaza de Armas. The taxis were two-seater open carriages pulled by motorcycles. Marcy and Leo always went together. Tyler would sometimes go with me, sometimes with Barbara, and sometimes alone so that Barbara and I went together. He didn’t want her to feel like a fifth wheel. Each time he chose to go with Barbara or alone, I was absurdly devastated.
But much later, after we have been married sixteen years, this will be one of my strongest memories of Peru, and one of the stories I tell our children, how kind Tyler was to Barbara, how sensitive he was to her situation and how at the time I could not see it through my own insecurity and selfishness.
We found a guide, Guido, which in hindsight probably wasn’t his real name, who took us in a small motorboat four hours up one of the many tributaries of the Amazon. His camp, he said, had showers and three bedrooms.
Away from Iquitos the river thinned, the air thickened. When we got there, it was impossibly hot. Irrationally hot, like it was a joke, a machine that someone would soon shut off. But it didn’t shut off. It was hard to breathe. We were slathered in sweat. And Guido had lied. There were no showers, and the ‘bedrooms’ were five narrow mats tented with mosquito netting on a screened-in porch. So much for sex, private conversation, reconnection.
In the back of this shack there was a kitchen where people were making dinner. Being a server, I was always aware of service, of being served, and it shamed me. It was a cheap tiny rickety camp with a lying guide, but I felt I had come all this way and paid the last of my savings to feel like a lazy, rich American.
There was a baby inside crying and chickens chortling out back, and insects sawing with what sounded like slivers of steel. Further out there were birds cawing and whooping, hundreds of them, loud and garrulous, with none of the reserve of the New England birds I was used to.
Guido and his partner, Enrique, took us through the jungle, informing us of the medicinal value of every plant and tree, and of the poison in certain ants, snakes, and spiders. They led us on a paddle down the river in dugout canoes to a tiny village on stilts. It was the dry season so their houses were two stories until the rain came and the river rose. A few women were out in their yards combing the dirt with homemade brooms. There was a volleyball net in the center of town and Guido arranged a bet between us and some of the village women. Marcy was an excellent player. Tyler and Leo were strong, too, and they poached every ball that came in my direction, but we still lost.
Guido took us the next day to a larger village, with an infirmary and a school. We looked up at the school from the ground. Long blackboards hung on one wall and wooden desk-chair units stood in rows. Maybe I could teach here. I wanted to climb up and see what was written on the board, on scraps of paper, but we moved on.
The next night we went back to Puerto Miguel for their Saturday night dance. It was in the bodega, the only hut with a generator. They had cold beer and a disco ball. They were playing Latin pop music. We bought beers and sat at a long table. Marcy and I made friends with the teenage girls sitting on a bench nearby. With them were a few younger girls. The tiniest of them was bawling. When I asked why she was crying, a girl told me that she was scared. Scared of what? I asked. Scared of you all. I told them not to be scared of us, and two of them asked Tyler to dance. The three took to the dance floor, smiling madly the whole time. An eleven-year-old boy named Johnny asked me to dance and after a while even the way cool older boys, in their button-down shirts and high tops in the corner, shuffled out onto the floor under the disco ball.
On the way back, Guido drove the boat full throttle. The only light was a flashlight Enrique held, indicating with quick jerks the place Guido should go, making sure the path was free of caimans, then shutting it off so we could see by natural light. The stars exploded above us, every inch of sky lit.
On our last morning on the Amazon, alone in my little tent, I wrote in my journal. I wrote about how much I missed writing. I made pledges to send out parts of the novel to literary magazines, to start volunteering, to start saving for more travel. ‘It has been a good trip,’ I concluded, ‘if only for making me want what I already have.’
We packed up and got back in Guido’s motorboat. We would fly to Lima the next day. But in a basement hotel room in Iquitos that afternoon, alone with Tyler for the first time in six days, I broke down sobbing as hard as the little girl at the bodega, and we finally said so many of the things we’d been feeling but not saying for so long. It was an imperfect conversation, unskilled as we both were at really expressing our emotions. But it was a beginning.
From Lima, Tyler and I continued on to Boston, where the condor took us up in his talons and carried us swiftly into our future.
Reproduced with permission from Better Than Fiction 2, 1st edition, edited by Don George, with contributions by M.J. Hyland, Francine Prose, et al. Copyright © 2015 Lonely Planet.
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