Friday, July 5, 2013

A Stranger in No Land

I once bought ice cream in an empty bread bag.  It was closing time and the store had run out of containers.  So we bought a loaf of sandwich bread, let the owner keep the bread and put several scoops of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream inside the bag.  To keep it from melting, we held the bag outside of the car’s window, as Peter our driver raced through the narrow cobbled streets of Arequipa, Peru.  It was August, 1985 and winter in the southern hemisphere. 

Ben’s best friend, Tom had moved to Peru to live out his dream of dedicating his life to serving others and putting to test his belief that “others” were any and all members of the human race.  He taught English at the university in the small town of Puno, high among the Andean mountains. He had also founded a theater company called “El Teatro de Pan y Paz”, where life size puppets representing the local Quechua people, taught the residents of rural communities about health care and literacy.  For months we had been writing to Tom to let him know that we were planning a visit to several South American countries and would love to visit him in Puno.  And for months Tom had been writing us asking when, if ever we would be visiting him.  As it turned out, the postal workers in Peru were on strike and our letters, along with thousands of others, were piling up somewhere in a warehouse, and never being delivered.  This was before email, Facebook, cell phones and in Tom’s case even a landline where one could place a simple call.  We decided that we would continue with our plans anyway. We visited Ecuador and Bolivia first and then took a boat across Lake Titicaca to Peru.  I got the worse sunburn of my life on that trip.  When it’s 20 degrees and you are grateful that the sun is shining, you forget that at 12,500 feet you are a lot closer to the sun that on the beach in Galveston. 

We arrived at a small port on the Peruvian side of the lake and took a bus to Puno, where we knew Tom was living.  Ben left me at the bus stop, which was basically a storefront, with our luggage, while he went to look for Tom.  He remembered from his teenage days in Bolivia, that it is not that hard to find a foreigner in a small town like that.  He would just start asking people if they knew an American man who taught English at the university and be pointed in the right direction.  Confident in my two semesters of college Spanish, I sat on one of our suitcases on the sidewalk.  Few minutes after he left, the thought occurred to me that I knew no one in this town, had no telephone numbers for anyone in the entire country, and really did not speak the language well enough to find my way back to the airport in Lima if I had to.  I don’t remember panicking too much though.  Somehow, I had faith that Ben would find Tom and come back for me.  I did not feel completely out of place.  The people looked familiar, the same coloring and built of those I had grown up with back in the Middle East and the mountains and the arid cold reminded me of my hometown of Tehran.  About half an hour or forty five minutes later, Ben came back and reported that apparently there were two American men teaching English in this little town and the one that he was pointed to was not in fact our friend Tom.  We decided to get a hotel and go back out in a different direction to search further.  It was getting dark when we found ourselves on the streets again and started asking passersby if they knew someone with Tom’s description.  All of a sudden a voice from above asked:  Are you looking for Tomás?  He is in Arequipa.  We looked up to see a young man at the window of a three-story building.  He promptly came down and introduced himself as Daniel, a friend of Tom.  It turned out Tom had gone to the next major city for an operation and was recovering at the home of a friend there.  He had had no idea that we would be coming through to visit him.  Daniel took us to the train station, where the only public phone nearby was kept on a pedestal in the stationmaster’s office.  He gave us a number to call Tom at the home where he was staying in Arequipa.  We got through and realized the only way to see him would be for us to go there the next day.  We bought a train ticket for the next evening and relaxed a bit, now that we knew where our friend was.  Daniel offered to show us around.  By the next evening, that little desolate town became a place where we knew some friends and were invited to go back to, the next time we were in Peru. 

The overnight train arrived in Arequipa at 6:00 a.m.  Tom and his friend Peter were waiting for us at the station.  Peter was also an American but had been living in Peru for many, many years.  His wife and kids had moved to California in order for one of his sons to receive treatment for his special needs.  Peter was finishing up medical school and would soon join his family.  It was obvious that he really did not want to leave his adopted country, where he had become one of its people.  He arranged for us to stay with a couple that were his neighbors. We spent the next day visiting the sights of Arequipa, a colonial town set in a valley.  The next evening, Tom was speaking to a group of young people about his theater project and we went along to hear him.  At the end of his presentation, Peter offered rides to several of the attendees.  I kept looking at Ben to see if he had the same concern as I:  How is he going to fit all these people in his little five-passenger sedan?  But Ben had already reverted to his “we are not in the US” mode and thought nothing of piling in eight people, several on top of each other.  I didn’t even bring up the need for seat belts or safety. Eventually, we dropped off everyone and were back to just the four of us in the car, when Tom expressed a craving for ice cream.  It turned out that he could not get good ice cream in Puno.  By the time the product made it to that isolated corner of the country, it had melted and frozen back up so many times that it was not worth eating.  So Peter abruptly changed directions and turned the car around so we could find somewhere to get ice cream.  Years later when I myself ended up living in South America, I realized that Peter was actually a good driver.  But that night in Arequipa, I was a bit scared for my life.  He not only drove very fast, but I noticed he did not stop at stop signs or traffic lights.  I asked him whether he had ever wanted to be a racecar driver.  He replied that no, but he had driven an ambulance in Vietnam.  I figured if he had survived that experience, then I was in good hands. 

I can’t remember if we actually ate that ice cream or not.  By the time we got home, it had softened too much and we had to put it in the freezer.  I think we might have forgotten all about it, as we got busy talking and laughing and wondering what we were doing so far away from all that was comfortable and familiar.  But I know that despite the physical hardships that both Peter and Tom had to deal with, there was something about embracing others as your own that had made their hearts a little bigger and their souls a little happier.  I know this because like them, I chose to pack my bags up one day and leave my parents and a good paying job to live the same adventure for almost thirteen years.  I ended up in the warm tropics of Venezuela.  I did not experience much material discomfort.  The roads were paved, the cars had seat belts and there was plenty of delicious ice cream.  But just like Tom and Peter, I got to be one with others and got to see friends in the faces of strangers. 


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