Yesterday started pretty normally. I had a delicious, home-cooked breakfast made by the hostel owner, Maria. My college friends know that I am a breakfast creature of deeply entrenched habit–back at Kenyon, it was common for me to wait in line for freshly-cooked omelets for upwards of half an hour some days. I would do this even after long-run Sundays.
Imagine my happiness that not only does this super-affordable, super-inclusive hostel come with free breakfast, but that breakfast is exactly the same each morning: A hearty, good, delicious fare that makes me so, so happy. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I have an almost-panoramic view of mountains and a volcano around me as I eat on the rooftop with the sun shining down on me (who am I?). Yet even with all this natural beauty around me, every morning I can’t help but appreciate how lovely the breakfast spread is.
So, back to the story. While I was eating breakfast, I received a little note on a hostel business card saying I’d had a telephone call from a relative. On the note was a phone number and a name: Constanza. I finished breakfast thoughtfully and then made my way to the front desk to return her call. Even though this is what I’d really, really wanted to happen, to be able to get in touch with Peruvian relatives I’ve never met, the prospect of calling Constanza back and speaking with her in Spanish suddenly seemed really daunting. But, I did it, and even though there were a few halting moments where my brain went out and I struggled with the language, I hung up with words scribbled in the margins of the card that I convinced myself I mostly understood and felt confident that I could puzzle together into an address.
I’m sure you see where this is going, but that just goes to show you how embarrassed I was to call Constanza back and ask her to repeat her address. But literally, that’s all I would have had to do. A two-minute conversation.
After plugging different combinations of words written on the card into Google Maps, I finally found a place that seemed to make sense. An hour walk? Sure, totally doable. Never mind that my phone is in airplane mode for the next four months and free Wi-Fi here is scarcer than street signs (more on that later). I would just route myself to Constanza’s house and then follow directions back based on screenshots of directions (again, here I appear to forget that Arequipa is not nearly as well-labeled as I’m used to).
I set off four hours early, thank God, because if I’ve learned nothing else, I have learned to anticipate myself. And by that I mean, on some level, I really did know that:
a) There was a good chance I was not going to the right address.
b) I was probably going to get lost.
c) When I finally found my way back to my hostel, I was going to have to call Constanza.
And I shit you not, that’s exactly the progression the day took. The house I finally buzzed was inhabited by an old woman, but that’s where my luck ran out. She also didn’t really know where I was trying to go, which was problematic because I couldn’t exactly elaborate. After awkwardly thanking her for directions to where she thought I was trying to go, I speed-walked out of the sleepy suburb and back in the general direction of the city. I walked for so long that eventually I just hopped on a combi, one of a system of terrifying buses that races around the city with a door half open and a person hanging out of it trying to cajole people into riding instead of walking. For one sol, you can experience that deathtrap. Oh, and don’t forget to hang on to your personal belongings because, you know, pick-pocketers.
I paid my sol, rode the deathtrap, held onto my purse, got off at the last stop closest to the Plaza de Armas, and started wandering again, trying to feel my way back. At one point I stopped in a Pastelería and got a piece of chocolate cake which I ate slowly, feeling sorry for myself. Eventually, I found the street my hostel is on, and then, the hostel itself. Thirty minutes to spare after a three-and-a-half hour city ramble. I did my penance immediately, calling Constanza, and this time, with my brain too tired to over-think, I was able to get an exact address no problem. Hanging up, I went back outside, flagged a taxi with a confidence I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t taken the combi, and about twenty minutes later was ringing the correct doorbell. Two little kids hung out of the upstairs window, chattering at me in Spanish and excitedly asking my name.
An older woman came outside, and when I looked at her I saw my Abuelito’s eyes.
I am not kidding.
Constanza gave me the warmest welcome, and then ushered me inside. We sat and chatted on her couch for a few minutes, and then the older of the two little ones hanging out of the window, a boy, came downstairs and, in universal child-speak for “Don’t pay attention to me, but actually, pay attention to me,” flopped across a large armchair face-down.
Soon after, his little sister came downstairs, their mother, Constanza’s daughter, came home, and I was meeting and talking with four family members at once–Constanza, Diana, and Diana’s children, Mathias and Isabella. It was amazing how quickly my brain was able to switch into Spanish mode with Spanish flying around me as the kids roughhoused and Constanza and Diana asked me about everything from my family back home, to my volunteering, to what I majored in. After a little while, as tends to happen when you’re hanging out with an older female relative, we wound up in the kitchen. Constanza gave me a bowl of pineapple that was the brightest shade of yellow I’ve ever seen. In that moment, it felt so much like I was back home visiting the Abuelitos I’d grown up visiting–chatting idly while accepting whatever food was proffered, even if I wasn’t that hungry.
Eventually, we all got our things together and piled into Diana’s car, dropping Constanza off at mass on the way back into the city. Diana and I chatted as she wound the car through the traffic-jammed streets, with Mathias butting in every 47 seconds or so with “Claire? Tengo una pregunta.” When he wasn’t questioning me, he was harassing his little sister or retaliating to something she did to him.
We eventually unloaded at the Plaza de Yanahuara, where we walked around,and made our way into a restaurant for dinner. Again, I can’t express enough how big of a difference being surrounded by Spanish made to my ability to speak it. It was like gears were clicking into place and suddenly I could respond without taking the extra couple beats to think about tense-structure and vocab. After dinner, Diana drove me back to the hostel and dropped me off, where I waved goodbye to a sleepy Mathias and asleep-with-her-mouth-open Isabella.
I can’t wait to see all of them again.