I COULD SMELL THE SWEAT on myself from a long day in the jungle followed by a plane ride back to Lima. All I wanted was the luxury of a hot shower, but as usual city traffic was backed up, and I was stuck in a taxi. I rolled the dusty window down and rested my head in the opening, using my sweatshirt as a makeshift pillow.
There was a CRASH and I awoke violently. Gino yelled. Then a gunshot. Instinctively, I hit the deck. From my crouched position in the tiny floorspace of the backseat, I watched one man running away over the median of the road, followed by another with a pistol. In hot pursuit, the second man fired another round into the air.
The robber had shattered the side-rear-window in the back of the station wagon, less than a foot from my sleepy, blonde head. He grabbed the bag with my laptop, camera, all my lenses, and two weeks’ worth of photos I had yet to back up. He would have made off with it had Gino not been quick enough to yank it back into the car. Gino, my Peruvian friend turned bodyguard. The straps broke and the robber fled. Somebody (a cop? who knows?) ran after him with a gun.
Covered in tiny pieces of glass, I thought about my dad — how he’d wanted to mail me my pepper spray. I was scared shitless the rest of the night and continued to look over my shoulder the rest of the drive home. We passed a sign: Bienvenidos a Lima. Welcome back to Lima.
In February, I embarked on a three-month photographic exploration of Peru. The cities. The countryside. The donkey-worn dirt paths in between. By plane. By car. By bus. By motorcycle. By boat. By foot. By the end of April, I’ll have barely scratched the lush, green surface.
I’m grateful to see all that I have, though the sensory overload can be exhausting. To keep my sanity I sometimes escape, in my head, back home to Elma, New York. But before long, the sound of potatoes frying and the smell of cuy bring me back. I realize that when I finally go back home, I’ll be daydreaming of Peru.
I am a gringa. Fair skin, blonde hair, green eyes. I’m used to people staring here. Sometimes it’s impossible not to laugh when I feel their gaze. In the small mountain pueblos and the jungle I often have a good eight inches on the average Peruvian. I try a friendly wave. Sometimes they smile and wave back. Sometimes they just stare. Most of the time, I feel like what I am, an outsider.
It’s nighttime in the Plaza de Armas in Trujillo and I’m photographing some crazy good breakdancers. The dimly lit park has a yellowish haze that contrasts against the blue glow of the main statue in the center. Their excitement is contagious. They ask me if I dance at all. Yes, but my breakdancing is worse than my Spanish. For the next half hour they crank up the tunes and we all take turns. A remix of “I’m sexy and I know it” bumps through. They demonstrate a move and I mimic it. They start spinning on their heads and doing bouncing handstands. I laugh and shake my head.
I hear “gringa” amidst a slur of rolling r’s and rapid-fire Spanish slang and raise my eyes to find the source. Who’s talking about me? We’ve drawn quite the crowd. I guess all the fun made me temporarily oblivious to everything else. It was the first time I felt included.
At times I wish I could teleport back to the familiarity and comfort of my small Western New York town. Where I know I can find the world’s best hot wings ten minutes from my house. My extended family lives next door — five houses in a row and two others close by. It’s easier than trying to live somewhere new.
Then I remember the hot springs I cannonballed into in Picoy, while the cool rain fell on my damp skin. I taste the sweet fruity syrups drizzled over shaved ice on my favorite raspadilla. I think of my newfound love for bananas — fried, cooked, raw, sweet, salty. I relax my shoulders to this slower pace of life. I smile at the sound of my friends calling me their gringa.
I travel to truly appreciate home. To experience a different spring and figure out how I want to live the rest of my life.
The photos that follow begin that figuring.