Monday, March 31, 2014

To stay, or not to stay, in Peru


I love traveling. I love adventure. I love going places.

I hate planning things. Once I have a general plan, I'm really good at getting the details worked out. I could be a travel agent: "Oh, you want to do this trip? On that budget? Give me fifteen minutes, I'll have your whole month booked." But the planning part turns me into a solid brick of "I don't wanna".

It's the whole Paradox of Choice thing: the more options you have, the more you second-guess whether or not you made The Right Choice.

I've had one hell of a trip, but it's winding to a close. By late April/early May I need to be back in California. I have less than a month left in South America. Two of the remaining weeks will be spent in Cusco and the region, and then I'm back in Lima on April 12th to drop my Aunt--who just arrived in Cusco to join me in hiking to Macchu Picchu--off at the airport.

There's a horrible little part of me that is considering flying home then. And by "home" I mean going to Portland, saying hi to my parents, picking up my car, and making a beeline to the mountains. Maybe the Sierras. Maybe stopping on the way to go play on some of the Cascade's volcanoes.

Why? Why when I have two whole weeks to enjoy exploring Peru would I do that?

Because the mugging in Lima (sorry, still haven't posted that story but I will eventually, this was urgent) freaked me out. It reminded me that, while most of the people I've interacted with during these almost 7 months have been really nice, there are those out there who see me as a walking flea market (the mugger) or as an exotic blonde girl they want to screw (the policemen), or as someone made of money who should be hit up aggressively for every last penny in exchange for things I don't want (over half of the people I have interacted with in Peru).

The latter is annoying, but understandable. Although I don't want more things, I have handed out Nuevo Soles for more things than I usually would (like hiking, tours, beautiful handwoven alpaca stuff, little souvenirs, food prepared by others, etc.) because I feel obligated here to not be the cheapskate backpacker I usually am but to instead support the people in whose country I am traveling. But the former two are scary. And I keep hearing nightmare stories from other travelers, like friends who were also mugged in Lima, the woman who was driven off by a taxi driver and barely escaped an attempted rape, stories of women hiking alone who were followed and killed, presumably for whatever money they happened to have on them. And the woman I sat next to on the plane who said that only her police training saved her from a brutal situation just weeks earlier in Ecuador when, she said, "I beat him up pretty bad. Maybe he's dead now. I don't care." I couldn't tell if she was bullshitting or not, but she looked like she could kill a person.

I've heard similar horror stories everywhere I've traveled. I'm used to smiling and shrugging off, "Young lady, you shouldn't be traveling alone." But until now, the warnings and stories have always been vague "I read this/ saw this on the news" sort of warnings, easy to dismiss as sensationalist journalism and "How many years ago did that happen? And how many car accidents have happened since then in the same area? What's the real danger here?" realism.

But here, everyone I meet has a story. Including myself.

Killer woman (and several others I have since met, all tanned brunettes) told me that I needed to look less like a tourist. To which I laughed. "Really? I'm blonde. Very fair-skinned. I'm carrying a giant backpack because there's a tent and sleeping bag inside because that's what I do. There is no hiding who I am here." She looked me over and reluctantly agreed. Every time I leave my room, I leave it with full awareness that I am a giant glowing target. It's an experience that has made me much more sensitive to what some of my friends face back home, in the land of a white, blonde majority that isn't always friendly to people who aren't that.

I have been an obvious "you're not from around here" this entire time, but elsewhere it made me, as I have written about before, a "target" for kindness.

Is it different here? I don't want to believe it is, but I also don't want to be dumb.

My experience thus far has been that stepping outside my comfort zone has rewarded me a million times over in amazing life experiences. Until I got mugged in Lima and spent the next three hours getting sexually harassed by the police who were supposed to be protecting me.

Normal Carie: "Don't let one bad experience make you jaded when you've had so many good ones."
Paranoid Carie: "It's different here."
Normal Carie: "The majority of people everywhere are kind and helpful and good. There are bad apples, but they are the exception, not the rule."
Paranoid Carie: "It's different here."
Normal Carie: "It'll be fun! You'll come out on the other side really glad you did this, like you always do."
Paranoid Carie: "You're gonna get yourself raped and killed."
Normal Carie: "I hate you, Paranoid Carie."

So here's what I'm debating: do I:

(A) Give South America an epic farewell by heading up to the Cordillera Blanca and going on the longest solo trek I have time for. Upsides: It looks spec-freaking-tacular, I know that in the absence of human danger, it would probably be my favorite thing I've ever done. Downsides: There are people. And there are stories about muggings at trailheads, potential for stalking, etc. It's remote and beautiful and awesome! But people.
(B) Fly home earlier rather than later, call Macchu Picchu my Last Hurrah in South America, and spend that time enjoying mountains where I know I'll feel safe back home. Maybe leave the Cordillera Blanca for an Epic Trek with a future Partner in Fun and Life.

Just one of many mountains in the Cordillera Blanca. You can see why I would want to go. (photo: Wikipedia)

 Sure, there are other options. I could hop on a bus and sightsee. But I'm sick of sightseeing. It's not my thing, and never really has been. I'm here for the mountains. It's either mountains here, or mountains back home. Or I could do the Cordillera Blanca trek with a guided group. That's fine, but it's not what I want right now. I want to be alone. It's how I experience things best. I like having the mountains to myself. I need some mountain time by myself. Given the choice of go on a guided or group trek there or go home, I prefer to go home.

So, my wonderful, supportive, loving friends: what do you think? Has anyone been to that area before? Are the safety warnings overblown (general mountain safety issues aside)? Anyone confident in hand-to-hand combat willing to come down here for a week and be my bodyguard (I'll feed you) while I hike just far enough ahead that I can pretend like I'm alone? Haha.

PS- For all that, Cusco has been awesome. The scenery is incredible, the food awesome, and the people...the nice ones are really nice and the not-nice ones are reasonably easy to avoid. It's a great place.

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