IT’S 8:30 IN THE MORNING BY THE TIME WE HIT THE STREET. Most of the other volunteers have already headed out. With woven plastic shopping bags folded under our arms, we stand on the side of the avenue with our hands out, squinting towards the west.
This road, Avienda Las Americas, has four lanes — two eastbound and two westbound. A wide low divider separates the lanes, crusty with dried grass, a recently struck street dog, and bike parts. Eventually, a couple of tuk-tuks (one red, one yellow) crunch to a halt in the gravel by the gate.
We clamber in, someone shouts for the market, and we hit the road. The driver of the red one cranks Don Omar and we roll down las Americas at 8:41 a.m. like some don’t-give-a-fuck homegirls in a D.I.Y. raggaeton video. Lindsey sits up front behind a pair of aviators and puts her hand out the window. Carole wiggles to the music next to me in the back seat. Behind my head, a pair of busted low-fi’s slap bass straight in to my molars. The sun’s not high yet, but already it’s warm.
Today is November 24, Thanksgiving, and we — the Americans — are making dinner for the other volunteers, around 60 of them, Brits and Australians mostly. Though we call ourselves Team America and make jokes, it seems to me that we all are feeling the distance in our own way. Carole’s mom sent a box filled with cans of cranberry sauce all the way from Texas. She calls the post office obsessively to check on the status of the package. Lindsey talks about her family back in Pennsylvania, football on the lawns and white wine.
Looking out the window on the way to the market, I’m thinking about what Canadian Jen said to me the day after I arrived in town, that everyone here is running from something. Jen is originally from Toronto, where she worked as a waitress and dealed. She also dated an asshole who, one night, dragged her up a flight of stairs by her hair. She got on a plane for South America the next day, but not before she punched him so hard that she fractured his jaw.
Carole’s mom sent a box filled with cans of cranberry sauce all the way from Texas. She calls the post office obsessively to check on the status of the package.
This town spreads, dusty and flat, from the Pan-American Highway. It wears San Clemente up north like a piss-stained straw hat, has its downtown farther west, and reaches lazily down the coast towards Paracas. The Pan-American highway transports foreign walk-abouters, gap-yearers, and wanderers like so much lymph. They stay with us on the compound and do volunteer work, staying anywhere from two weeks to a year. Eventually, they’re injected back into the Pan-American blood stream, sent north to the airport in Lima or Bogota, or south to Titicaca or Chile.
Everyone, Jen had said, except for maybe the Australians, is running from something. The Australians just travel because it’s what they do.
In the end, we get the meal done, more or less. We haggle with a local down the street for two scrawny turkeys — probably the only ones in town — and he kills them for us, and Carole and British Anna pull out the feather nubs with needle-nose pliers. In the kitchen, Lindsey and I make a pitcher of Pisco Sours for the Americans, and then another, and another, until we’re just drinking straight Pisco and lime juice, shredding stale bread for stuffing in the courtyard under the afternoon sun. We peel potatoes, hundreds of them, and drink some more.
The Brits have made Jell-o shots, a teasing red white and blue in honor of the American holiday, and I have one, then two, then four or five.
I may or may not take a moment to log onto Carole’s laptop and send off an email to someone back home. It is both desperate and furious, flapping around with its neck cut, garbling in its own blood, its hopeless little feet in the air. Go Fuck Yourself, it slurs, and Have a Truly Fantastic Thanksgiving. I forget to call my family.
Night comes, the meal approaches, and everyone puts on hoodies and sweaters and gathers around the fire pit in the concrete courtyard. We drink Brahma beers and suck on chupetes. Before dinner, Lindsey makes everyone — even the Australians — go around and say what they’re thankful for. The food is served: there’s not enough turkey to go around, but the mango-lime cobbler is a serious hit. There isn’t any cranberry dressing because Carole’s mother’s package got detained by customs. The Brits have made Jell-o shots, a teasing red white and blue in honor of the American holiday, and I have one, then two, then four or five. I lose my sweatshirt, snort a completely unremarkable line of something, have a few more shots, then go down like a ton of bricks.
That morning, though, outside the tuk-tuk’s plastic window, the town, and myself in viewing it, had for a moment achieved a sort of lightness: it became a montage of tarp roofs and unfinished second stories, rebar reaching for the sky; it became kids on bikes, men pulling carts piled with fruit, discarded Inca Kola bottles and piles of rubble that were almost five years old now, cracked clay bricks that no one bothered to clean up after the quake. KEIKO PARA PERÚ: bold letters on a whitewashed wall. Burning piles of garbage and the flat smell of sewage flapped past, folded into a whirl of rising dust.
Featured image from the Library of Congress.