How it all started: Cesar and the procession of faith

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Let’s look back at the first Friends Project experience, when I touched down in sweltering Lima, Peru, on my way to the Amazon. This is how it all started! Look how far we’ve come.

April 4, 2006
I land in Lima sticky and deflated from crossing two continents, and a little shaky from sitting in the flying bird for 12 hours wondering how this is all going to pan out.

Two weeks on a research boat with scientists hunting for caiman, searching for macaws and pink river dolphins and rare monkeys, and finding a good home for $460 along the way. I have pitched in and my friends have given me money to put to good use while I’m in Peru.

Trip jitters.

It gets me every time. I also know it means that I’m doing something new, so it’s good I don’t know what to expect.

As promised, Hotel Espana sends me a driver, no additional cost. In the crowd of people and throng of placards at baggage claim, he’s holding a paper with my name on it. I am an eat-lunch-out-of-the-rucksack, sleep in stacked beds eight to a room girl, so I feel pretty fancy.

Cesar. He extends his hand, shoots me a smile and asks if I speak Spanish.

“Mas o menos. Mas menos.” It was my standard reply when I traipsed around Costa Rica last summer: More or less. Mostly less.

In other words, don’t expect much.

We step out into the Lima night, thick with heat even though it’s past ten. Somewhere the stars are up there, but the city’s constant curtain of smog and clouds shrouds the sky.

Cesar’s cab reminds me of my first car, a small putt-putter with a bit of paneling missing. Sort of like my car now.

I strap myself in tight. I know what’s coming. You never get used to the South American procession: the honking, the tailgating, the heart-stopping speeds and the careening in and out of lanes. A car nearly skims my door on the first merge.

We motor down the mobbed streets, with the ¨crazy drivers¨ (he says), the stray dogs shuffling, girls selling sweets roadside, the horns and music and guns a blaring.

Cesar warns me his English is as good as my Spanish. Despite this, we give it a go. I always land in the wrong country for the languages I know. I crucify Spanish, he throws in an English word or two, and when all else fails we mime.

It works!

We are driving through some of the poorest neighborhoods of Lima. It’s Saturday night and it seems everyone is out, shooting the breeze on the corners, playing cards, moms holding their toddlers on stoops selling pots filled with food, and young couples necking at the doorsteps. The houses are concrete squares with bars on the windows or sometimes clapboard and rubble with no doors. Everyone’s hanging out because there’s nowhere to go.

Life rolls by and I remember Belen, where I lived in northeastern Brazil studying the Amazon rainforest, living with a family and making lifelong friends. They saved me from a skinhead attack my first night out at a metal bar and we were inseparable after.

Some were studying, some were working and some were very poor. I visited Gustavo, who lived in a house like these. Two rooms, with his mom and dad and sister sleeping in the kitchen which was also the family room.

Joey’s spare room was void of all but poured concrete. We took photos of his band in there because it was pure empty space.
It was good to be on the inside, to know them, to be intimate, to be a part of their lives, and not just passing by.

In my new ride, Cesar and I talk about politics, life, poorness, many things.

Election posters are pasted up on every light pole and shuttered storefront. Most are painted right on the concrete. Alan. Ollanta. In the U.S., Peru’s candidates get minimal press. Cesar’s happy to break it down for me and I want to hear it from a resident, not some pundit who pegged Ollanta as a leftie because he wants to give land to the poor, like Chavez. And is that such a bad idea? Cesar gives me a fuller view. Ollanta’s a crazy military man. He wants to fight Chile. Alan was a bad leader; he was president before. Will they give him a new chance? The woman stands a chance too.

I get to know him, in simple sentences.

He works for Hotel Espana for 12 years. Only Espana. He picks up backpackers at the airport, drops them off. Takes them to bars and museums and brings them home late at night. It’s good to meet people from the world. He gets to learn English. He gets to travel by talking to people.

He is married and has three kids. Having a family is expensive in Peru. He points to the people in the shadows as we maneuver ’round the potholes. He lives outside Lima and is paid by the hour. Public schools are free. Which is good, but they are not so good. Families must buy their own books and pens.

The Peruvian government was corrupt. He and his friends don’t like George W. Bush. His dad? He was OK. Apparently, the first George sent down 2,000 old school buses to Peru for their transportation.

“He is nice,” Cesar said.

I peer out at Plaza de Armas bleary eyed and say farewell to Cesar at the door. I don’t have much time before my flight to Iquitos in the morning. He promises to get me after a little exploring.

I’m wowed by the hotel – an $8-a-night gem, as promised by other travelers before me, in an old mansion with a chandelier and statues and giant religious paintings and a view of the San Francisco monastery from my balcony room. I’m glad I heeded the warnings and brought my own stash of toilet paper.

In the morning, I check it out and snap some photos of the sights. Cesar’s waiting for me when I get back.

It’s another mad dash to the airport, jockeying for position on election day. People are lined up throughout the city to vote, and it’s traffic chaos. There’s construction on one street but by some miracle, our drivers have managed to make one lane into three. I suppress my urge to reach out and actually touch the guy’s shoulder in the wagon next to me.

Cesar laughs at the crazy drivers and keeps his cool. You won’t have a heart attack, driving all day, here? No, he laughs, as some other madman lays on the horn.

The traffic gods deliver us to the airport without loss of life or limb and I climb out. Cesar hands me my backpack full of patches from various countries; asks me if I’ve been all these places.

Yes, I said. I ask for his picture. He says, yes please. I take one of my new friend smiling in front of his cab. I tell him about The Friends Project as simply as I can, because I have to do it in Spanish: “I like to travel. When I do, I always meet such good people and love to explore. I want to give something back. My friends and I are not rich. We don’t have much, but together we have some. So I am able to give some on my trip.”

I give him the first $20 so he can do something nice for his family, for which daily life probably doesn’t afford. I know he has enough to live, but I’d bet he struggles for luxuries. No one here is paid that much, at least not a driver who paid all he earned on both my fares on the gas he bought during our trip.

At first I thought, it’s such a small amount. It’s not worth much. He looked very surprised and hugged and kissed me and said “Thank you, it is so nice.”

I knew from his face that the gesture, more than the money, really meant something to him and was a great surprise.

I waved and walked into the airport. The jitters disappeared. This is gonna be good.

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