It's a rainy day in Cusco Peru, elevation 3400 meters (11,000 feet). The air feels even thinner than usual, the sky darker and the rain colder. I wrap myself in thick thermals and fleece jackets before dashing into the shared bathroom, praying for hot water and no interruptions.
Neither gets a proper answer. The water starts out hot but 3 minutes later it turns cold no matter how slowly I jiggle the handle, as instructed by the friendly hostel manager a few days ago when I moved in. Lights has gone out too.
"What happened to our lights?" Someone shouts.
"The Internet is out!" Someone else shouts, louder and with more angst.
Something bangs on the bathroom door, sounds of a loud and breathy American moving in. I keep my eyes closed and count to six, before diving back under the shower to rinse off my shampoo. I only last a second or two, but it has to be good enough for now.
Wrapping myself back up in layers of sweaters and fleece, I run back to the bedroom and contemplate skipping the day's activities to hide under the feather down coverings. But hunger and a faint smell of mildew mixed with disinfectant drive me out to the hall. Lights pour in through a row of eastern windows, weak yet abundant, like the watery coffee offered as part of the hostel breakfast. They serve hot toast, matte de coca and omelets, though I've been too busy catching early morning tour buses so far to take advantage of them.
It's my third week of traveling in Peru, and Cusco is my fifth city here. The cold rain, the crowded streets and all the dashing about make me homesick in a way I've never imagined. Yet I've grown a sicking habit of whirling by anything that looks vaguely familiar, hoping among cities, ruins and switchback trails winding up knife like cliffs.
* * *
But yesterday I slow down, noticing the pang inside when I see that Starbucks at the main plaza and its signature green awnings over a patch of ancient Inca walls - a study in contrast and irony. The promise of free wifi seals the deal so I break away from my group and walk closer. A steady stream of young travelers tread in and out of the wooden doorway, leading me into a courtyard and up a flight of stairs to a pair of pristine glass doors. Once inside, I take off my rain coat and inhale the warm and dry air infused with caffeine. My phone chirps at me happily in a tone at once far away and familiar, the tones of an established wifi connection and too many messages from various social networks. So there I sit with a steaming cup in my hand, hungry, thawing and a little dazed. Staring at my chirping phone, I long to touch the next set of keys yet suddenly afraid to see all those messages.
"Is this seat taken?" A sturdy young man with a wide smile gazes at the cozy sofa seat next to me.
"No please go ahead." I point my arm towards the seat inviting him to sit down.
"Oh actually, we are two, oh three more." He smiles again in apology, looking up sheepishly at me.
There are two more sofa chairs across from us, with a small table in the middle. The four chairs are huddled together like an intimate group.
"Oh, it's okay. I can move." I stand up and look around. The room seems to be packed full of young travelers ducking the Peruvian afternoon rain.
"No please, we are only three, total. Please don't move, sit with us if you don't mind?" He grabs my arm and holds it, leaning towards me until his coffee gets too close for comfort.
We both jump back and laugh. He is Hans from Germany. His two friends, David and Clara, join us a minute later. We slip into our seats and easy conversations. Hans studies medicine and will be doing a semester aboard in
Chilli. David, chiseled face with a mess of brown hair, "is gainfully employed but taking a much needed vacation". Clara, blond with a sweet round face, is a student also. They have been trekking and camping through South America for the past several months though besides sunburns and fatigue, they also radiate excitement and curiosity, their faces shining.
"Join us in visiting Chilli!" They chant, showing me pictures of its pristine coasts and colorful cities. Hans launches into tales of his last visit in Patagonia, but David falls quickly behind the conversation as he begin to write onto a thick stack of postcards. The stack comes up to the height of my small coffee cup, and his handwriting was quite neat so I pause to ask.
"Are those postcards?"
"Yes. It's fifty cards, for my family and friends."
"Wow, impressive. No one does that anymore, I can't remember the last time I've seen anyone write with a pen at all."
"Yes it's true." Hans chimed in.
"Well, I like writing it. It takes a long time to arrive home, but it makes them very happy." David points somewhere far away as he explained, raising his eyebrows for emphasis, as if picturing the joy of his elderly parents or a younger sibling receiving one of his cards. I picture it with him, raising my eyebrows and smile into the picture in my mind.
"That's true. No one writes with a pen anymore, but it is much nicer than email or sending an instant message." Hans adds, moving his fingers rapidly as if texting on an invisible phone.
"Yes, I imagine people really like seeing my handwriting and the cards." I nod with my head and my shoulders.
"And they like seeing my words next to the photos of where I have been. Not just in facebook like everyone else." David points to the photos of a famous Inca ruin to which we've all been.
The rest of us look sheepish suddenly. We drape our heads low thinking of the facebook photos we all post of that same site. It only takes a second, and hardly any thought. We mentally check that mark and move on with our lives, rushing towards another famous relic, oblivious to the relics of our own lives, leaving it to social media web sites. We take a vacation to get away from it all -- the rushing, the exhaustion and the mindlessness. Only we rush our travel agendas just the same, racing towards mindless check marks that exhausted us in the first place.
"That's true. You are right." Hans adds again, nodding heavily with his head and shoulders as well.
We stare at the tall stack of cards, falling into silent agreement for the next few minutes. The rain clicks on roofs and windows, yet I can hear David's pen scratch against the surface of the cards. I hear the sound of his thoughts pouring like the rain, inking into memories of a time, a place, and a version of him long after he signs and mails them. I chew on the edge of my coffee cup, as if the drink mixed with these thoughts have grown too thick to swallow.
* * *
I think about their friendly faces and talks now, filling myself back up with coffee, inspirations and warm thoughts. Electricity has come back on and the smell of shampoo in my hair has grown so faint I could hardly smell it any more. I sit down at the large breakfast table with a smile on my face and a notebook in hand. At the bottom of my backpack I find a pen and so I scratch out my first written words in three weeks.
As if river water finally pushing through a badly clogged passage, thoughts rush through me and turn into lovely rivets of phrases, scenes and stories. My frustration over the lack of internet and computerized writing tools dissipates as I write, ink blots smearing into my fingers and the back of my hands. The aroma of coffee tickles my nose, and the rough-hewn wooden table reminiscent of the antique market in Paris. My imagination takes flight as my senses soak into the richness around me.
"Is this seat taken?" A tall young man points to the seat next to me and asks.
"No it's free. Please go ahead, but excuse me as I'm writing something for now."
"Ah, another writer. It's tough to keep writing...everyday, isn't it?" He sets down his cup of coffee, a notebook and a pen onto the spot next to me.
"Yes..." I said.
"You look so happy... What are you writing about?" His blue eyes flashes with curiosity and amusement.
I tell him the postcard story. He nods and waves his pen in camaraderie. "I love writing with a pen, even though..., sometimes, my hand is too slow for my thought!" He declares with a wide smile.
He is a writer from France and he has been traveling through South America, experiencing the ruins and the difficulties in traveling and home sickness just as I have been. "You need to slow down." He stares at me intently as if lecturing a small student, yet the sincere crinkle around his eyes softens his face. "It's not the way, you won't feel inspired to write if you are so tired." He glances over me as if checking for broken parts, then adds a shot of hot water into my matte cup.
I nod and thank him for the water. "I tried, I'm trying." I say, filling him in on some unsuccessful attempts at breaking free from "The Schedule". Then we decide to let the subject drop, gripping onto happier thoughts as I grip the handle of my coffee cup.
A friend of his walks up to join us a few minutes later. We trade stories of explorations and favorite books. We share a love for Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia, Carlos Fuentes, magic realism and a suite of other South American writers. Outside clouds hang lower and the rain grows heavier as the day whirls by, but our supplies of hot drinks and heated conversations never run out. Without announcing it we all decide to stay in, writing side by side on that big table. Our notes, books and coffee cups spread wide, our ideas sparkle like the lightening flashing across the sky outside our small windows, our mind won't stop running.
* * *
Yesterday after Starbucks, I stroll through the narrow streets towards my hostel, letting the world around me seep in slowly, even the
rain and the rich muddy earth beneath my feet. Back home, in perpetual sunny California I'd always
wanted and whined about not having the opportunity to walk in the rain,
or to jump in puddles. Yet somehow the daily shower in Peru has become a nuisance rather than an answer for my prayers.
So I look up towards the sky then through my rain soaked lashes, at the golden fringes around the leaden clouds, at their menacing yet magnificent purple, navy, gray, black and silver shapes spread low across the sky. I feel like I can reach out and touch them. Perhaps it's all in the attitude. Then I realize that I did reach into the clouds, while walking across the ancient city streets in Machu Picchu yesterday, when clouds and mists turned into rain from one minute to the next.
So I laugh, appreciating and thankful for all I've seen and experienced, and for that moment of stillness and reflections. I open my mouth, letting in the rain, tasting its raw and sweet perfume, full of the fragrance of quinoa, potatoes, and alcapas - the signatures of Peru. I let my hood down, wind up my
trousers and skip home, into puddles and over rough stones, until my hair is wet, my legs are muddy,
and my spirits are full.