I. Ben and I had been in Lima a week when we decided to take an eight-hour bus ride to the mountain town of Huaraz. There, we would acclimatize for a few days while we planned a three-day trek in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range. Huaraz was known as the gateway to the Andes, and our new friend Rosa’s family lived there. Before we left Lima, she told us where they lived, gave us a note to give them that said, roughly, “Please give my friends your hospitality for a couple of nights. Your cousin, Rosa.” I had never gone to stay with someone on so little introduction before. But then, we were in Peru, and many things were unfamiliar.
We chose the upper deck of the bus. It was a Thursday afternoon in late November. I sat by the window—I always did. Ben liked to read on bus rides but I would not risk carsickness. And besides, I wanted to look out the window. On this day, traffic, road blocks, and detours made the latter part of Lima stretch on for an hour, the city spread out below us like a South American market on grand scale. We eventually inched past an area where sand was piled twenty stories high by the side of the road. Hundreds of people had fabricated dwellings up to the very top of the hill, makeshift houses of cardboard and tin and spare tires. Here and there burned oil drums of garbage. It was, of course, a shantytown, a squat, what in Brazil would be called a favela, and I could not help but wonder what kinds of crimes took place on that hill. I counted 37 dogs running through the gutter at the bottom, a trough clogged with offal and puddles of stagnant water.
That morning, in Lima, a man had come uninvited to the house where we were staying and tried to swindle us into an overpriced trek in the Cordillera Blanca. He must have gotten word through a friend of a friend that we were headed there. Eight hundred dollars, he said, for three days, and when my jaw dropped he added hastily, “well, give or take,” and that’s when Ben asked him to leave. But his visit had delayed our morning’s plans; we arrived at the post office, where we had to pick up a package, an hour later than we’d hoped and found ourselves at the end of a very long line. And when my number was finally called, I was told to wait, and wait, and wait—even though I could see the box, addressed to me, waiting on the counter behind the thick glass that separated the mortals from the post office employees. They loved making people wait. We missed the early bus to Huaraz, and in my frustration Peru had seemed full of crooks and gratuitous bureaucracy.
But that shantytown made me ashamed of my sanctimony. I knew Lima was rough, but those dwellings showed a level of poverty I had never seen before, not even on the streets near where we were staying, in one of the poorest parts of town. In a way I was relieved when the bus passed. And in another I wanted to be invisible, to fly up there and see up close what that shantytown really looked like, to walk around in it, to smell it, to taste it.
Darkness sank down on the bus. After a few hours we pulled away from the coast and headed inland, into the mountains. I felt us get higher and higher, and the bus cooled down and it became harder to breathe. And then around nine we stopped in Huaraz, where at 14,000 feet the simple act of removing my backpack from the hold underneath the bus stole the breath from me. It was cold, the air thin; I shivered, wanted to get moving. I felt rude to be showing up so late at Rosa’s relatives’, strangers to us, and at the same time I wanted to prolong getting there because I felt shy and a little anxious about arriving at the home of strangers at all.
On first glance Huaraz wasn’t unlike mountain towns in the U.S. There was a little green where kids hung out, cafés, gear stores on the corners, tourist restaurants. But Huaraz had a darker quality to it as well, a sense of ghosts I felt immediately: the streets were narrow and poorly lit, and much of the architecture was new and shoddy. The entire town had been rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1970. It looked like it had never gotten out from under the destruction, somehow, like it might just crumble again at any moment.
But to me, the whole day had felt as poorly constructed as Huaraz. Traveling days were the hardest for me, because I was anxious about bus rides on winding South American roads, because I worried my passport in its security pouch wasn’t strapped as tightly as it needed to be to my leg, because invariably my worry caused Ben to snap at me, or me at him. That day had been particularly bad: the swindler at Cara’s house; the two hours in the post office, which I had finally ended by batting my eyelids at a male post office worker; my impatience there, which was met by a scowl and a “chill out” from Ben; the shantytown; and now, Huaraz, ghostly town filled with strangers whose house we were walking towards.
The streets off the main drag were dark and deserted, calm, the air smelling like mountains, and I reminded myself, for the fortieth time since we’d gotten to South America, that I was safe, that nothing was wrong, that things were just different.
“Okay?” I asked Ben, and he nodded. I took his hand, and he squeezed.
II. We knocked at an old wooden door until a slender girl pulled it open. When she saw us she smiled broadly, as though white people with enormous backpacks came to stay at her house every day.
“Buenas,” I began, prepared to explain who we were, but apparently word had gotten to the Alvarezes that we were coming.
“Mami!” the girl hollered, and a short, plump, dark-haired woman quickly appeared behind her.
“Buenos noches,” she said, and she shuttled us into the house in front of her and closed the door behind us. We had to crouch to get through the hallway, and I felt huge—so huge, everywhere in Peru, at five-foot-six-not-counting-the-backpack. Ben, at 6’ 1”, was in another category altogether, and he wore glasses, small square ones like Peter Fonda’s. I always thought they made him seem even weirder.
“Bienvenida,” Mami said once we’d emerged from the hallway into a spacious room whose ceiling ran the entire height of the house, twenty or thirty feet up. As I inhaled in that space, I was hit with a sickening stench of animal. It made me gag, and I cleared my throat as unobtrusively as I could.
“Rosa—” Mami and I began, simultaneously, then blushed as we each stammered and looked at one another.
“Rosa says hello,” I said eventually, and Mami smiled at me. “Good,” she said. She put her hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “This is Veronica.”
Veronica stared at me with a small smile. I knew I was a strange bird in that house. My practical short hair, rapidly growing shaggy, my pants, my sneakers and fleece jacket, my massive backpack, all made me feel clunky and boyish, unlovely. By contrast, Veronica and her mother emanated a femininity that seemed easy, natural, like something they were born with. They both wore skirts and shiny, gorgeous long hair; Mami had on the traditional layers of skirt that touch the floor and look like they house a hundred things: animals, pots and pans, a petticoat or two. I could count the things we had in common on one hand: breasts, reproductive organs, brown eyes, Rosa.
“So this is our house,” Mami said as we looked around. The house was made of stone: stone walls, stone ceiling, dirt floor. I couldn’t find the correct word for where we stood, tossed around “cellar” and “great room” in my head and found neither quite accurate. I turned behind me as Mami chattered away about the house, very old, almost historic, and how was our bus ride?—“fine, just fine,” we said—and I saw a sink and a clothesline and then a curtain across a doorway that must have led to the bathroom. Then I located the five-foot high pen of guinea pigs in the corner. They rustled and shrieked anxiously, strewing dirty straw, and every movement of their claws stirred up that musky scent. It was so awful I sighed with relief when Mami said, “Come, come!” and led us up a set of wooden stairs and into the living room, where the guinea pig smell was very faint, almost overpowered by the bouquet of something stewing, cabbage perhaps.
The rest of the family was sitting in there, waiting.
“Buenas,” Ben and I said, smiling at the people in the room.
“Buenas,” they said back.
“Por favor.” Mami gestured at a couch propped up on one leg by a brick. It sagged so low my butt nearly touched the ground. Ben sat beside me. There were spider webs of cracks leading from floor to ceiling, and the entire room seemed to slouch. A skeletal Christmas tree presided over the corner with a few odds and ends of presents underneath it. It reminded me that in the chaos of the morning’s events we’d forgotten to bring them a gift.
The family consisted of Veronica’s older brother Dani, who had a kind face and was nearly as tall as Ben. There was a younger brother, too, Pedro, about seven, with pools of chocolate sauce for eyes and a long brown body he draped over the arm of a shabby easy chair. In that chair, nestled deep, sat Papi, and his posture is what first gave me the impression he was kind of a deadbeat. He had a broad smile and giant aviator-style glasses. Papi punctuated his speech with big belly laughs, showing very white, maybe false, teeth, and he liked my name, saying Susi in the way only the Latins can, so it trickles from the mouth like honey.
We made small talk for a few minutes before I asked about the guinea pigs.
“Are those for eating?”
“Of course!” Papi said, teeth blinding me. “Do you like cuy?”
“I’ve never tried it,” I said, glancing at Ben, hoping I wouldn’t have to.
Ben offered: “In our country, they’re—” he fished for the word, looking at me.
“Mascotas,” I said. Pets.
“Mascotas?” Wise Veronica asked, incredulous, shaking her head like she’d never heard anything so silly. At that point it seemed silly even to me: if you didn’t plan to eat them, why would you want those odious creatures around?
“Would it be a crime?” Papi asked, his face very serious.
“To eat cuy? In your country?” Ben and I looked at one another. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to say, I don’t think it’s come up.
After twenty minutes of chatting about Christmas plans and trekking guides, things to do in Huaraz, Ben and I asked whether it would be okay if we stepped out for a bit. We wanted to get some tea, maybe a little something to eat.
“Go get yourself some maté de coca,” Papi said. “For the altitude.” He tapped his head, and I realized mine was throbbing.
In a little café, Ben and I each ordered a cup of coca tea, and shared a piece of pie. Ben was the love of my life; I knew that. But traveling together for a year was elongating the spaces between us. His face that night was calm, whereas, I suspected, I was tensing and releasing my eyebrows, an unconscious habit I had gotten into in South America.
“What do you think of the Alvarezes?” I asked.
“They’re nice.” He chewed his pie.
“I think Papi is pretty funny,” I said.
“Yeah.” He took another sip of tea.
“And that house is intense, eh? With those guinea pigs? And that bathroom?” Please, I thought. Please find their house as horrible as I do. Before we left I’d stepped into the bathroom hidden behind that soiled curtain: wet floor, cracked toilet seat, curtainless shower and one of those electric shower heads that terrified me. It smelled of stale pee, of stale shit. It was like nothing I’d encountered in a house before.
“I guess,” Ben said, noncommittal. “I think it’s fine. They’re very nice,” he said again.
“Well, yes, of course,” I said quickly, feeling small. “I’m grateful to them,” and we chewed in silence. “I wonder what they’re saying about us right now,” I ventured after a minute, and Ben looked at me and just shrugged. “Want to go back?” he asked, and thinking, not really, I nodded yes.
Susie Meserve is a 2007 Literary Awards Program finalist.