Dad's Perspective on a Daughter's Trip to Peru

 

I suppose I'm like most parents whose child is about to embark on a long journey to a South American country. Issues of personal safety and health come to mind. What if this daughter has her father's intestinal constitution that makes him vulnerable to traveler's diarrhea even when the journey is less than an hour's drive away? What if she gets bitten by some mysterious fanged creature that injects a vicious toxin? What if she's in the Amazon when this happens? No first aid kit. No "real" doctors (persons with an M.D.) accessible? No Benadryl. Only witch doctors whose remedies require an overnight foray into the dark moist heart of the jungle to procure a special medicinal herb that grows exclusively along the bank of a murky stream stirred by beady-eyed caimen. Effective only if collected precicely at midnight when the stars flicker through the rubbery leaves of the rainforest canopy, it must be ritually prepared with the blood of a freshly-killed monkey and sipped by the victim from a wooden chalice etched with sacred carvings obscured by feathers of the hoatzin as the witch doctor, face flickering in the firelight, mutters incantations to the beat of a primitive drum.

Perhaps she will be spared this fate, her life having ended in a heap of tangled metal which only minutes before had been a rickety tour bus whose teenaged driver, in a moment of indecision brought on by the sudden darting of a wild pig onto the pair of ruts which the locals call the "boulevard to the Heavens" stabbed at the soggy brake pedal and yanked the steering wheel to the right, forgetting that the such a move would launch the bus over a thousand foot precipice, its landing cushioned only by the tress emerging from the boulders that churn the snow-melt waters into a bluish froth in a canyon so narrow that the bodies of its victims remain unretrievable. High above, the site of departure is marked only with three crude wooden crosses, one for every seven that died below on that morning filled with anticipation.

These things happen routinely in South American countries, you know. You read about them in the newspaper all the time, but you give these articles little contemplation until it is your daughter who is about to undertake such an undertaking. Suddenly, as a parent, you consider the possibility that an undertaker may be needed, and fantasy grows strong wings.

How could parents ever foster foreign travel for their beloved begats when these horrific images spring so easily to the imagination? I've been in the Amazon. I've seen what they eat there. I saw a shaman and through an interpreter I've learned of potions prepared from plants that will cure what ails you. And I've sat on the down-hill side of a tour bus as it teetered on a gravel mountainside trail long overdue for a landslide. So, how could I have rationalized this adventure for Alicia?

It's easy. I think of all that I saw and learned and appreciated during my trips to Latin America. I think of the weathered tanned faces of the people I saw, the spectacular snow-capped volcanoes, the dusty unmarked roads, the lush green of the forests, the reassuring signs of civilization in the form of Coca Cola advertisements, the mysterious foods I ate, the amazingly colorful birds and flowers and costumes, the lively yet melancholic rhythms of the music performed on wooden flutes and flimsy guitars and drums made of tree trunks and dried animals skins. I recall the sounds of the night, uncluttered by television or the drone of air conditioners. I see the desperate vendors assembling in the town square, anticipating the sale of a few trinkets to the affluent tourists sheperded by bilingual local tour guides who assist with the negotiations. I smell the mixture of diesel fuel and mildew in the coarse blue, brown, and yellow yarns of the boldly patterned woven goods hung from rickety wooden walls of tiny dim stalls where leathery-skinned "Indians" beckon with their brown eyes and hands for me to consider their wares and make an offer, any offer, or at least show interest and appreciation of their craft. I think of how rich I must appear to them, coming from The United States, and returning to a lodge at the end of my tourist's day where running water, heated for showers, and electricity would be virtually assured, while they close their shops and assemble in a room lit with a single bare bulb to eat a meal prepared in dented sooty pots over a gas flame. I'll slip between the sheets of a bed and pull up a blanket so thick and heavy that I have to sleep on my side because the weight is too much against my vertical toes. And I'll wake up to a breakfast that has been prepared to meet the expectations of a tourist, and wheel my suitcase to the cargo bay of the tour bus where our guide and the driver (who speaks no English but smiles incessantly) assist with the loading and head-counting before we motor to the next stop of our enchanted journey. While the scenery scrolls past my window, I'll think about those shopkeepers of yesterday, and what they might have done after dinner, and whether they bathed before sleeping or braved a bracing chilly water splash to start this day. What are their goals for today, or do they even have goals? Do they hope to reach a sales quota? To what degree do they fret over inventory or taxes? What worries do they have? How bad will that decayed tooth ache today? How sore will that back be? (No MRI to confirm a degenerated disc. No board-certified physician to put a name on a diagnosis. No physical therapist to suggest exercises to strengthen the affected muscles. No nutritionist to recommend dietary supplements that will delay the inevitable. No Medicare to absorb some of the expense.)

It's easy for me to justify this trip to Peru for Alicia. What she'll see (if she's attentive and observant) will cause her to sympathize with those less fortunate, will prompt her to appreciate the great bounty that we tend to take for granted, and might motivate her to live in such a way so as to be more mindful of the dreams and dreads of other human beings. Some travelers only see the differences between themselves and the people they meet. I hope Alicia sees the similarities. I hope she contemplates and speculates and ruminates and reflects. And writes! I hope she will stake out a portion of each day to record her thoughts and observations. Not just a list of where she's been and what she's done, but what she's sensed and what she's felt and what she's imagined. Otherwise the details of her travels will be diluted by so many events that memory will exceed capacity and much of the experience will be forever and shamefully lost or obscured. I hope she makes pictures, lots of pictures that will trigger her recollection and serve as a documentary of her experiences. I hope she tries strange foods with an open mind. I hope she considers strange customs with an open mind. I hope she listens carefully to stories told by local guides and considers their evolution rather than their implausibility. I hope she sleeps just enough to be rested and ready for each day's activities. I hope she is inquisitive and asks questions of her teachers and guides. I hope she spends most of her time listening and looking and watching and smelling and tasting and touching. I hope she takes time away from her fellow travelers to spend time in contemplation. I hope she makes several life-long friends among her fellow students. I hope she discovers she can endure hardships, inconveniences, and deprivations with a cheerful attitude. I hope she grows tolerant and respectful of differences. I hope she treats her hosts honorably and shows appreciation for their attempts to accommodate and teach her. I hope she greets each day with enthusiasic hunger for knowledge. I hope she becomes immersed in the experience and wastes no time considering petty issues or complaining. (Do these clothes match? Is my hair completely dry? Have these sheets been washed? Do these socks smell? Is my make-up smeared? This Coke isn't cold enough. I don't like onions in my eggs. Why do we have to wait so long? When will we stop to eat? Is there a McDonalds in this country? When can we buy some souvenirs? I need to wash some clothes. These seats are too cramped. Why don't they play some American music? Why can't we stay at a place with cable TV? Who has a CD player I can borrow? Does it have batteries? It's too hot. It's too cold. It's too humid. It's too dusty. It's too bright. It's too dark. I'm too tired. How much farther? Do we have to?) I hope she doesn't get bitten by some mysterious creature or die in a bus accident. I hope she returns enlightened.

 

G.R. Davis Jr.

26 December 2003