How to do Everything the Hard Way. . . And Other Lessons From Peru
By: Talor Stone February 2nd, 2018
Ice crystals whipped through my hair as I stood with my back against the cliff wall helplessly watching the scene before me. Traffic zipped by, nearly hit our stalled bus, and barely avoided plummeting to the valley below. How in the world did I get here, and why did I have to do everything the hard way?
I’m a pretty experienced traveler and this trip was supposed to run fairly smoothly, but apparently Peru had different plans for me. Through a series of unfortunate events I learned a few crucial travel lessons that I want to share with you.
But, back to the part about me being stranded on the side of a cliff. To really tell the tale we need to rewind a bit all the way back to the good ‘ole U.S.of A. I spent the day before the flight in one of my favorite cities in the world – Washington D.C. I parked the car at the hotel and I did not return to the hotel until around 1am with the flight departing at 9am. And this is when the trouble began . . . As I returned to the hotel I saw my car was gone! You know, the car with my pre-packed bag, ticket and passport in it. It had been towed due to a date mix-up on the parking pass, but fortunately the impound lot had someone on call and I managed to jail-break the vehicle and its precious cargo just in time to make the flight. Disaster averted, lesson learned.
The Bus Ride
But, when I got to Peru the bad breaks and lessons continued. Bad weather scuttled the original plan to hike Machu Picchu. So, channeling some serious carpe diem attitude I went to the local bus stop, looked at the map, randomly picked a city out of the bad weather, and bought tickets. For someone so optimistic what could possibly go wrong? Well. . .
When the bus pulled up I realized I may have misjudged things. The bus was huge. I mean it was a double decker the size of the Beatles’ tour bus. Let’s review why this could be an issue: Third world country (outside of Lima at least)? Check. Little to no paved roads? Check. People with livestock on the bus? Check. Sure, totally, let’s do it! Of course my seat was on the top deck, so what was intended to be an overnight ride that I could sleep on to save money on accommodation turned into being constantly jolted awake by the sensation of the bus tipping over as it careened through the pitch black night over dirt roads. Again, lesson learned.
Needless to say by morning my nerves were shot. But, as the sun began to rise my hopes rose with it because I was finally able to see that we were in the Andes. My awe at the beauty of snow-capped mountains merged with adrenaline as the bus sped along a one lane dirt road with two lanes of traffic on the side of a cliff with no guardrail. And as the bus leaned with each hairpin turn taken far too fast, those of us in the top deck got a nice long look at the valley below us. But, ever the optimist, I focused on the sun peeking over the lovely mountains. Unfortunately, finding my happy place was quickly interrupted by a disheartening sound from the engine and the bus shuddered to a stop in the middle of the road.
A Precarious Situation
Anyone who travels knows this lesson: When the locals panic, you should probably panic. And in this situation the locals panicked! After a mad dash for the exit the precariousness of our situation became clear. The bus was dead in a blind turn…on a cliff…with no guardrail. If a large enough vehicle struck it, let’s just say it would have been our last bus ride. The rate of bus accidents in Peru rank among some of the most deadly in the world, and I was determined to not become a statistic. So, there I was up against a cliff wall asking myself why it seemed like I always had to do things the hard way. I mean, why couldn’t I just stay in a nice hotel like normal people do when they travel? Or why did I decide on a local bus route rather than one of the many tourist routes available? Why not choose a popular destination rather than some random city on the map like a traveler’s game of pin-the-tail on the donkey?
After an hour of standing in the cold I learned through emphatic hand gestures (at the time I knew almost zero Spanish) that no bus was going to come rescue us. No refunds, no returns as the saying goes. And to add insult to injury, the lower hydraulic hatch which held my bag was jammed shut. (Another lesson: maintain possession of your bags!) I paused for a bit to consider my options, and it turns out there were none to truly weigh. Sleeping on a cold cliff wasn’t exactly an option, so I had no choice but to start walking and try to hitch a ride. I struck out with nothing but the clothes on my back (blue jeans and a pitiful hoodie), a cheap digital camera, my passport (thank goodness), and a small amount of cash. About a mile later a man who didn’t look like a murderer pulled over and offered a ride. Since beggars can’t be choosers, I decided to go for it. He dropped me off outside the next town, named Huaraz, and I trudged in looking about as pitiful as could be.
At over 3,000m in elevation, Huaraz is an outdoorsman’s paradise and considered base camp for climbers attempting to summit the Huascarán snow peak – the world’s highest tropical mountain. While normally I would be in heaven here, let’s suffice it to say that with only a hoodie, blue jeans and tennis shoes (read: lesson learned) I had none of the proper accoutrements necessary for any of these extreme outdoor activities. The next bus to Lima wouldn’t arrive for five days, so I was effectively stranded.
Freezing cold, I spent half of my remaining cash on a large wool blanket at the market. With little money and all the hiking and cold weather gear left with the bus, there was no way I could do the typical outdoor activities Huaraz had to offer. So I improvised. I woke up every morning, hopped onto a different local commuter bus, and rode the route to the end and back. At least this way I got to see parts of the beautiful and mountainous Ancash region.
In the end, I thankfully made it back to Lima one day before my flight home! I was completely filthy from having no access to showers and wearing the same clothes for a week, and I was desperate for some small amount of luxury. I bee lined for the nearest nice hotel, but of course Peru wasn’t done with me just yet. The second I hit the lobby I was immediately accosted by hotel security who had, understandably given the circumstances, mistaken me for a street vagrant. I’m not exactly proud of it, but it took a bit of waving with my U.S. passport for the manager to finally speak with me. I looked, in his own words, “like I had really been through something,” and he upgraded me to a suite for free. In the end I made the flight home with all my lessons in tow and survived to tell the tale.
When I reflect on this story a few important lessons stand out that I have carried with me ever since.
Lesson 1: Don’t Panic
If there’s one lesson I learned on this trip it’s not to panic when you suddenly find yourself outside of your comfort zone. Here’s a perfect example. When riding the local bus routes from Huaraz, I caught one to Chavín de Huántar, a UNESCO World Heritage site of the ruins of an early civilization. The archeological site was fascinating in its own right, but the part of note was the bus ride. It was terrifying to say the least. So terrifying, in fact, that I had a totally irrational reaction and began laughing hysterically while crying – a true One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest moment. I’m usually pretty cool in stressful situations, so that’s really saying something.
In hindsight I should have realized something was up from the get go. Once everyone boarded the bus a clipboard was passed around and everyone had to write their names and ID numbers down. Then a uniformed officer walked on and took a video of everyone on the bus. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but after the harrowing ride someone explained that it was so our bodies could be identified if the bus had gone off the mountain. Apparently it happens frequently enough that they took these precautions. Nothing quite like hearing that to sober you up in a hurry! But the point is that I survived. In the moment I should have just remembered that the bus driver and many of these passengers took that route every day. So take a deep breath, trust the process, and remember to enjoy the experience.
Lesson 2: Embrace The Suck
When it comes to travel things rarely go as planned. If you travel frequently enough, eventually you will have an adventure like mine where nothing went right. But, the right attitude can change everything. For me, often the times of my greatest plight were also the source of my greatest laughter. Things will happen outside of your control, and sometimes you have to choose between laughing or crying. Always choose to laugh (or in my case sometimes both)! Recognize that these trials often make the best memories and you will learn a lesson and have some great stories to tell when you get home.
Lesson 3: Kindness is Universal
Even though I survived some very serious trials, there were quite a few moments when things could have really gone wrong if not for the kind people who stepped in to help. Take this lesson to heart: Don’t travel in fear! The vast majority of people abroad, just like the people at home, will stop to assist you if you ask humbly. Case in point: When I showed up in Huaraz it was freezing and all of my warm clothes were lost with the bus. But on the second day, a random woman handed me a pair of freshly knitted wool socks. Those socks made all the difference in my journey and were with me every step of the way. I have even repurposed them and they now serve as my Christmas stocking! Kindness is universal, so remember that people are generally good. Be brave enough to reach out to a stranger when you are in need and be humble enough to accept help when it is offered.
In conclusion, I hope that the many trials and lessons I learned along the way made you laugh. But most of all I hope they provided you with hope that no matter what you face on the road you will most likely be just fine and you will return home with some amazing stories to tell!