Ten soles. Nine soles. Eight soles. Seven soles. Six soles. Five soles—the magic number. When I arrived to the southern Peruvian city of Arequipa after a bus ride from the Chilean border my Couchsurfing host told me the taxi fare to his home should cost no more than five soles—about US $1.80. Having played the game and won with everyone’s dignity in tact I threw myself into the backseat mercy of the driver with a plastic Rosary that swayed back and forth like an inside window wiper.
Under the orange glow of street lights the taxi dodged pedestrians by inches, flashed hi-beams on any vehicle not matched perfectly to his velocity, and swerved through the other lane’s oncoming traffic to shave seconds from the route, the opposite equally bullet-like traffic barreled in our direction with unchecked speed, throwing hi-beams back like high-fives.
We arrived to a brick gate with an aged wooden door, just blocks from a cemetery and white church steeple tucked behind a well-kept plaza that shined in some mysterious 11pm natural light. My napkin-written directions matched the address, 105 Mergel. I was home. As is common protocol, the driver concluded our first two-word conversation with the same two words, “Buenas noches.” A heavy coin passed from my hand to his. He was still checking its weight and fine lines for counterfeit irregularities when I closed the door.
Back in Peru, I thought, tired and emotionless after a long day of conversation with single-serving bus friends and an older couple who picked me up earlier that morning while thumbing north out of Chile. The street was the same dim glow as the rest of the city’s lamplight grid. A security guard observed me silently, half in shadow, half illuminated by electric orange. Dogs fought behind the brick wall, and after what seemed like many stretched-out minutes I could tell from the loser’s rhythmic wails that flesh had been pierced, dominance established.
Instead of entering immediately to meet my host Felipe, I stopped, breathed deep with my neck craned toward the few visible stars, then exhaled, my breathe sounding like a formal complaint pushed through a chimney. A sickness was entering my mind, one that if not dealt with urgently had the potential to end a trip, send one into silent spirals of confusion and hate, to kill the many joys of travel.
The diagnosis: culture shock, with a slight homesick fever.
Despite having biked almost the entire length of Peru and intimately known its cultural intricacies—some of which are an acquired taste—I was now fresh off two months in Chile, and the Chilean boat is more modern, cleaner, safer, with an elegant charm in the way it treats its foreign passengers.
Either Peru or myself had changed in the past sixty days.
Not better, not worse, just different—that’s my mantra when culture shock knocks on my door. Meditation that calms the mind and puts everything into perspective is the only solution, the only way to regain a healthy attitude toward the world and your place on its parceled skin. Right then and there I began to re-wire my brain. Again.
Back in Peru, I thought once more as the security guard wordlessly pushed open the gate.