FOREWORD: Peru is a large country. It’s all the more strange then that so many different people, mostly rural indigenous women, could ask me the exact same questions, in the exact same order, day in and day out. At first it was a bit tedious, like how I imagine to be selling clothes to ugly people, but then I became fascinated with this mainframe mentality. How can this be? These women must be connected somehow, something in the air, something in the water. You could roll sixes on a di all day long and surprise me less than how multitudes of Peruvian highland women between Huanuco and Hauta are able to interview me in precisely the same way though hundreds of miles separate them. Joking aside, these women are wonderfully cheerful, good-natured people…even if they talk about me in Quecha, laughing their sinister belly laughs as I watch helplessly.
1. Where do you come from? (De donde vienes?)
I’ve provided a Spanish translation here because Peruvians, without fail, are vague in their most commonly asked question. Do they want to know where I biked from or where I am from? Nine times out of ten they want to know my nationality. Five times out of ten I’ll turn their curiosity into a subtle grammar lesson about the more correct “De donde eres?,” depending on how many times I’ve answered this question that day and how long it’s been since I’ve eaten. Normally, I simply repeat it outloud, rephrasing it in a grammatically correct way that would make my high school teacher proud: where am I from? (De donde soy?). This generally adds intellectual street cred to my already impressive Bob & Surly ride and, if I’m lucky, a small discount on my set meal price. Or at least a free refill before parting ways.
2. Where are you from? (De donde eres?)
Diddo above. In South America, particularly with the street vendors and the small corner store owners with whom I have most contact in rural areas, the simple mention of The United States usually brings a low hum of approval that seems strangely similar to reminiscence. The corn vender on the sidewalk has never been to the States, of course, but she is not so far removed to have never seen the television program Friends, heard Michael Jackson’s Thriller twice a week for twenty years, or been bombarded into submission with Coca Cola ads. I’ve sensed that my presence is much more easily accepted than, say, a European of same age and build, partly because my Spanish allows communication, but mostly because they see me as a northern neighbor whose culture in their eyes, as wrong as they may be, is no longer a mystery. Thanks to the long arms of U.S. media they know us Americans better than we know ourselves. All blacks rap. We all own three cars. We spend more on our pets than we give to charity (true?). It’s become a personal mission—when not exhausted or otherwise uninterested—to provide a dose of reality. I’m constantly explaining, for example, that not all Americans are filthy rich, that sometimes those who appear rich (which is everyone compared to rural Peruvian standards) live paycheck to paycheck paying off debts. I’ve had fascinating talks with farmers, both men and women, who feel sorry for those with big borrowed houses and gas-guzzling cars, their mud shack and skinny horse a backdrop to our conversation. It’s all about perspective.
3. Only by bike?
This is a fun one. Yes, I arrived by bike. Yes, pedalling. Yes, with that thing attached behind me. The shock factor prompts facial expressions from sickening disbelief (“No, no impossible!”) to all-out laughter at the ridiculousness of my undertaking. If it’s hard for my close friends to imagine why I would dedicate a serious chunk of my life to pedalling mountains, how can I expect a 70 year-old-woman who has never walked ten miles past her front door to understand? It’s inexplicable, preposterous, insane, dangerous, crazy, stupid—the adjectives that come from their frail, wrinkled mouths never cease to amaze me. Building up to the fact that I’m biking all South America, not just Peru, is always good for pity points, an extra heap of potatoes here, a larger lamb cut there.
4. When did you leave your country?
About six months ago. Though high on the list as question #4, it never gets much of a reaction, as if it were part of an official script that must be read before continuing with the interview. Many times it seemed as if the next question was already forming in their cheekbones as I babbled unimportant dates, routes, countries, modes of transport….
5. Aren’t you scared?
A simple question, a simple answer: no. Why is this a top five question? Also simple. Many Latin Americans have dealt with fear and violence on a level that most U.S. citizens will never know. Though terrorist groups, corrupt governments, and repressive military dictatorships are becoming a less visible part of the Peruvian scenery, the type of poverty that pushes people to desperate measures continues to dominate the panorama. I read once in a dry, boring United Nations statistics book that one in four people in Latin America has been a victim of violent crime. That is a staggeringly high incident rate for such a diverse, large part of the world that covers most of the Western hemisphere. It’s natural then that the sweet ladies with whom I share daily meals worry about me as a potential victim. I’m their lunchtime adopted six-foot son. In their eyes, I’m a naïve foreigner who lives in a downtown Manhattan studio drinking US $4 lattes all day (see question #2). What they don’t realize is that just as they are concerned for my well-being, so is everyone else. No Peruvian wants a tourist to return home speaking badly of their country. People are constantly giving me advice about where to travel, what roads to take, which neighborhoods to avoid, etc. Most incredibly, they constantly offer me their home when evening approaches. It’s been this way in all the South American countries I’ve visited thus far and I have no reason to believe the kindness will end with Peru.
6. Are you a bachelor?
In a family-based society such as Peru’s my answer is perplexing. Their faces return a blank stare when I reply yes, I’m alone in this big bad world. A stern, disapproving blankness abounds, as if the math doesn’t compute. My age times perceived wealth plus average to above average handsomeness and lack of visible deformities should equal a wife. I should have two children by now, at least. It doesn’t make any sense, they ponder with suspicious scrunched-up eyebrows. Suppressing their laughter during the delivery, a few women have asked if I have husband—which is quite a daring joke given the thick Andean conservativeness common to the area. It always gets a chuckle. I say no husband either. They serve me another drink, whisper something in Quecha. This is where I settle into my rant about youth and responsibilities and the need to live adventures while you can but always cut the line before reeling them in. It’s obvious they’re not really listening. It doesn’t matter what I say. The math doesn’t compute.
7. Do you have family?
With no wife, this answer should be obvious, but I understand these Peruvian womens’ round-about ways. They want to know exactly how many brothers, sisters, cousins, and nephews I have; my parents’ occupations without bringing up the sore subject of death, if indeed they are deceased; whether my grandparents have a respected last name; whether wedding bells are on the horizon after this ludicrous adventure. When it comes to family, bigger is better, and the details should support this hypothesis. Nothing brings them more sadness than hearing I only have only one older brother. Their cosmovision includes a house, shaking at the foundation with baby shrieks, toddlers grabbing at ankles, and a table full of fertile sons, daughters, and grandchildren eating hefty potato portions to energize their collective procreational purpose of expanding the family name. They suggest I have many little cyclists when the time is right.
8. Why don’t you travel by car?
At this point in the conversation they may have noticed my sweat-stained shirt or that I haven’t showered in a few days. Perhaps a bus flew by with the familiar swoosh and waning horn, reminding them I am not normal. Maybe they took a closer look at Bob and realized he’s not exactly slim and definitely not feather-light. “It’s easier, don’t you think, to drive?,” they say, loading the question with suggestive power. Yes, it’s easier, but on a bus you only get to know point A and point B. On the bike I get to know everything in between, including the people. If I would have taken the bus, we never would have met. This last point makes my sweat, Bob’s bulge, the easy breezy buses seem in perfect balance with the grand scheme of things, like the Coke products on their shaded shelves that the angled sun through the windows can never touch.
9. When will you return to your country?
This is where I get revenge for the gay joke (see question #6). Since I know its coming, it’s delivery is perfect every time: “I just arrived and you already want me to leave?” I too get my kicks. This has been recited with various tones of seriousness, for which my already serious face provides the perfect cover. On one long day through desert and dried-out riverbeds, I stopped for a juice at a corner store—actually the entrance to someone’s home advertising with a marked-up cardboard sign—, and answered all the above questions in short form. I was a spring-loaded cat in high grass when question #9 eeked into conversation. I responded gravely serious, offended by her unwelcoming ways, stern in face and body, looking as if I’d storm out of her business/livingroom without slapping down coins as payment. Less than a minute had passed, but the poor woman had already begun to apologize profusely. Taking a drink, I smiled and told her it was a joke. I guess it wasn’t that funny though: she didn’t give me a refill.
10. When will you visit us again?
No point in lying here: “Probably never.” I’m heading south towards Argentina. I like to think the reason they ignore this onward suggestion is because they love my company, repeating instead: “When will you return to Lima?” No, no, Argentina, I’ve never been to Lima and won’t return….Ahhhhh they sigh lost elsewhere while dream-walking their country’s capital, the far off city that represents all that is wrong and right, traditional and modern, moving and static. Most have never been to the foggy city, preferring instead to simply imagine how it might be. Climbing back on the bike sometimes I feel like I’ve left them disappointed since I couldn’t offer a more detailed city description, some minor color or smell to keep their urban dreams from drifting away.
Have you been to Hollywood? Las Vegas? Disney Land?
Is it true the U.S. is still fighting the war for oil?
How much do you make per year?
Did you feel sad when Michael Jackson died?
Why do Americans hate our coca leaf?