Have I ever told you how much I love the Jorge Chavez International airport? Well, I love it so much that I try to arrive early. If check in goes smoothly I have time to sit outside the security gate to watch Peruvians say goodbye to each other. Entire families go to the airport with their loved ones to participate in the dramatic parting ritual. The traveler tearfully makes his or her way through the group, kissing each person, telling them they love them, telling them “cuidate” (take care of yourself), promising to call the second they arrive, then more kisses, hugs, tears, and handholding while exchanging longing looks. Family members who are staying in Peru cry and hold each other for comfort.
I love it. I hope to someday partake in such a dramatic goodbye. Charlie has little tolerance for the production. He feels it’s excessive and whether the traveler is going for a year or a week, they do the same darn thing. He gets annoyed when they block the entrance to security and you have to push your way through, which we did as we made our way through the airport for a visit home to the United States. To Charlie’s credit, he spends far more time at Jorge Chavez than I do, and I’m sure it gets old. I looked back as a family of seven parted with their young adult. As they wept and held each other, I pretended they were saying goodbye to me. “Goodbye for now, Peru,” I said to myself as I popped a sleeping pill (courtesy of a typical Peruvian pharmacy at which you can get any drug you desire without prescription) and boarded the plane.
After sleepwalking my way through a layover in who-knows-where and customs, I found myself in Logan International airport surrounded by gringos. Finding a bus to my hometown of Concord, NH seemed too easy to be true. I had become accustomed to the simplest tasks taking at least a half day in Lima. The bus arrived on time and the ride was tranquil. No slamming on the breaks, no bumps, no one cutting anyone off and no horn honking. I had almost forgotten that for the most part, in the United States of America (home of the brave), we follow traffic laws out of fear of getting a ticket. I looked out the window and appreciated the cleanliness along the highway, allowing the grass to show its bold green color. Here I was on the other side and the grass was definitely greener!
I looked around at the other passengers on the bus and something felt strange. No one was looking at me. No men making kissing noises, staring me down, or proclaiming “I lub you!” in thick Spanish accents. I waited for the feeling of relief to set in. After months of enduring sexual harassment whenever I left my apartment, after walking around in sweatshirts hiding my identity as a gringa rubia, after daily rants to Brandy about the perverted men in Lima, I could finally relax. But a different feeling overtook me: disappointment. I looked just like everyone else. On this bus, there was absolutely nothing special about me that would cause a person to look twice.
I must say, it was nice being home. Autumn in New Hampshire provides an incredible display of changing seasons causing people to come from all over the country to marvel at…leaves. Ironically, the brilliant foliage is a sign that the leaves are dying and NH will soon enter into another terribly long, excessively cold winter. But the leaves do not accept their fate quietly. They put on a captivating show of fiery reds, oranges and yellows before they go.
I spent three weeks enjoying the foliage, visiting with family, drinking savory beers from local breweries and eating far too much delicious American food. Charlie and I celebrated our anniversary hiking in the White Mountains without need for guides or worrying about being held up or having our packs taken. I appreciated speaking English, feeling safe, the familiarity, cleanliness, and law and order to everything. When I’m in the States, everything makes sense. I have never enjoyed NH or my family as much as I did this past visit.
But this trip to New Hampshire felt different. Over and over again I found myself feeling like a foreigner. I wanted to kiss everyone I encountered which doesn’t fly in the United States. I had almost forgotten that in the USA, we shake hands when we greet. After months of kissing my friends in Peru, my maid, my driver, and anyone else I got introduced to, I felt like I was being rude NOT to kiss my parents’ friends, my brother, or my best friend’s boyfriend. There were several times I found myself going in for a kiss only to have a hand thrust in my direction for a shake. I was constantly reminding myself “Don’t kiss strangers, Danielle. They’ll think you’re weird.”
My cousin Kate thought I was weird when I tried to negotiate the price of a hotdog. This vendor wanted to charge me $3! “Three dollars for a hotdog?” I asked. “That’s ridiculous! I’ll give you a dollar.” The guy paused and looked at me, then replied “Sorry, three is as low as I can go.” I assured Kate, “Don’t worry. I do this all the time,” then said “Two fifty, no more.” He appeared irritated, “Sorry, these hot dogs cost $3.” To his credit, it was a good hotdog, but I could get a whole meal for that price in Peru.
Mom thought I was weird when she noticed me taking pictures of everything from cars stopped at traffic lights to Charlie doing yard work with my brother, Brent. “Act natural,” I told her as she stood elbow deep in a bowl of flour at our kitchen counter. “This will be a great photo. Its so typical. An American making apple pie! I can’t wait to show my friends!” Mom rolled her eyes.
After three weeks, I was sad to leave. I sniffled my way through security checks at the airport and anticipated my return to loud, lonely, Lima. I feared that after 3 weeks of speaking English, I would be back at square one stumbling through words like an idiot. I filled my carry-on bag with enough magazines to last me a month, boarded the plane and popped a sleeping pill.
I woke up as my plane landed at Jorge Chavez. As I fumbled my way through customs and baggage claim I mentally prepared to be harassed by taxi drivers who would approach me the second I exited the airport. On the contrary I was greeted by Carlos, who of course, before anything, gave me a big kiss. Funny enough, that was all I needed to remind me that there are a lot of things I love about this place.
I’ve heard that life experiences that are most difficult are the ones you remember the best. I found that the things I complain most about ended up being the things I missed while visiting the USA. The men in Lima who make kissing noises are jerks, but they sure make me feel attractive, even when I’m in baggy sweatpants and having a bad hair day. There is much less structure, law and order in Peru, making simple things take sometimes days to accomplish, but when I do complete a task, I feel triumphant. While my Spanish has improved, I continue to struggle to communicate all I want to say while projecting my personality, but each time I have a deep conversation in Spanish, understand a joke, or use a new word, I feel successful. I stand out here in Peru, and for that am a target for crime, scams, and higher prices, but learning about and living in a culture so different from my own has been the experience of a lifetime.
I got back to my apartment and took Brandy out to the park. I looked around and noticed the grass was a lovely green. Not the same bold green as in New Hampshire, but bright green. Not more or less green than it was on the other side, just a different shade.