I’m listening to the German girl, sitting next to me talk about her travel plans.
“I’m going to Peru for two weeks and then to Bolivia,” says the plain-looking, skinny backpacker in baggy pants and a pair of trekking boots, while complacently working her way through an on-board vegetarian dish of rice and lentils. “Nein, no tour – I’m going by myself!”
By herself?! To countries most people can’t even place on a map?!
Since when are Germans so spontaneous?!
And I thought I was a nutcase.
With a head always full of distant horizons, exciting adventures and unusual people, I can’t count the number of times my parents have tried to talk me into coming back home, landing a teller job and finding a nice local guy with whom to reproduce.
Never had me trained well …
I tell the German girl that I’m going to South America to work as a tour leader for one of the biggest tour operators in the world.
She almost jumps out of her seat. “You’re so lucky! I wish I could just dump my stupid job and travel like you!”
Her admiration makes me feel proud, so I confide in her that it isn‘t all that glitters is gold.
She can’t even imagine the hardships I had to go through to land this job!
Just attending the job interview in London was an odyssey in and of itself.
Due to meager means, flying to London from Prague, where I lived, was out of question.
A bus ride of 20 hours through Germany, Belgium and France would have to do.
When the bus finally spat me out at Victoria Station, Central London, all beat and bleary-eyed, I wasn’t appreciating my first time in England one bit.
And London didn’t appreciate me, either.
Being the very organized person I am (my clients don’t call me “ a little Hitler” for nothing), I had already arranged an accommodation.
It set me back £60, promising to be located inside a vintage Victorian house.
And a vintage Victorian house it was! Not touched since the Queen’s death in 1901, all dark, smelly and with no elevator. The Pakistani guys who run it fitted in very well – they were as gloomy as the establishment’s Hong Kong-sized rooms. Had to ask them twice about everything, and still wasn’t sure I got their answers right.
The interview took well over 2 hours. I was grilled and stewed like a steak well done, wondering at one point if I hadn’t accidentally applied for a Peace Corps job at Golan Heights instead.
And to think that after an hour of frantically running around the scanty neighborhood, looking for the office, too scared to address the occasional woman in a full-length burka for directions, I almost gave up! And missed all that!
An East-European girl in the Big World.
The day I got the ‘email,’ was one of the happiest in my life. Congratulating me on becoming a new member of the proud, award-winning team of tour leaders possessing unrivalled knowledge of South America, it sent me off to my next big adventure. I was so thrilled about going to South America, I jumped out of my chair and threw my hands up in the air.
Triumphantly, like Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon River.
The die was cast.
My first real big adventure just started.
A month before my departure, I attended a family wedding where I overshadowed the newlyweds. Getting married was no big deal in my family – back then, people got knocked up all the time, pretty much the first time they had sex – but going to South America?! For my older relatives, stuck for decades behind the Iron Curtain, that was like going to Mars!
Just 2 days before my departure, my sister gave birth to a baby girl.
I’ll never forget her stunned, post-partum smile, tinsel teeth and bloodshot black eyes (nobody told her she should keep her eyes shut when pushing), giving me her goodbyes. I wasn’t gonna see my newly born niece for 2 years.
The flight from Madrid to Lima lasted a lame 13 hours, with only 8 hours delay.
We landed in Peru well after midnight. Two hours later (a sloth would have checked us through Immigration faster), the German girl and I emerge outside the airport. We smile nervously at each other and wish each other good luck.
I step out into the night and take my FIRST real South American breath. And almost choke, when the stinky air of a third-world city fills my lungs.
It doesn’t succeed in wiping off my big smile, though.
I’m really here! The miracle’s happened!
The dopey smile doesn’t go unnoticed by a short, wiry taxi guy, who – without missing a beat – overcharges me three times over to take me to the “centro histórico,” the old part of Lima.
From his matchbox-sized yellow cab, I’m staring at ugly, rundown industrial areas passing before my eyes. A pretty unpretentious city, this Lima, I have to say.
I’m done in when I arrive at the hotel. Located only one street over from Jirón de la Unión Street, the main commercial zone of the historical center, it has a bunch of dusty, discolored national flags flapping cheerfully above its revolving doors in the dawn breeze.
After 3 days of travel, I’ve reached my destination.
With my head buzzing from lack of sleep, my eyes sore from the dry air on the plane, and my body sleep-walkish from all my burnt excitement, I put my suitcase on the bed (whose frame is fixed with duct tape), my handbag on the armchair (whose armrests are fixed with duct tape), and turn on the electrical lamp (whose cord is fixed with duct tape).
Drowsily, I brush my teeth and watch the sink water drain clockwise.
You’re in the Southern Hemisphere now, I remember, and everything is the other way around.
It’s probably gonna be pretty difficult to tell directions with the sun crossing the sky counterclockwise, won’t it?
And what about telling the time by a watch?!
Maybe I should go digital.