South American Vagabonding

The best way to tell how nice your hostel is in Peru is to take a quick look at the bathrooms. Does the toilet flush? If yes, then you probably won’t get too sick just from staying there. Is there a toilet seat? If there is, then it’s a pretty swanky place. Is there toilet paper? If there is, then you’re at a literal palace, you fucking princess. Don’t even bother checking the hot water in the shower. The answer is either “no” or “sometimes”. It’s best not to know until you have your towel in-hand, or you’ll never convince yourself to take a shower.

When I arrived in Cusco, I checked into a place called Hostel Parwa, which had toilet seats but no toilet paper, as per the recommendation of a friend of a friend who has been travelling Peru for a little while now. He actually hated the place. He said it was too noisy and too dirty, but it sounded like everything I wanted. And it was. I planned to stay there for at least a week, but we all know how plans work.

As it turned out, during my night at this hostel, I acquired myself a dirty Argentinian vagabond named Manu. The next morning, he took me out around the city, proving himself to be a good time before inviting me to travel with him to the Sacred Valley. My mom had told me to find myself someone to travel with at least 20 times, so I decided to take her advice (though I’m not sure this is exactly what she had in mind).

I don’t usually write about boys I meet travelling for a couple reasons. First of all, I know that my family, among others, do not want to hear about it. The other reason is because I don’t want said boys reading what I write about them. However, Manu hasn’t owned a piece of technology in 4 years, so I think I’m safe, and it’s kind of essential to the story.

On the first morning we hung out, Manu dragged me around the city, making me try all sorts of strange street foods, not letting me pay for anything, even laughing it off when I couldn’t fit things in my still altitude-queasy stomach. However, after he failed to be able to acquire us a room for the next night in Pisaq with 4 soles ($1.56), it became apparent that he had literally no money. I pitched in the last 6 soles for the little room with a view of Apu Linley and psychedelic posters from South American raves on the walls. There were no toilet seats or complementary toilet paper. I wouldn’t see either for days, but I loved it.

the-sacred-mountain-called-apu-linley-above-pisac-peru-south-america-a35wmn
Bad stock photo, ft. Apu Linley (I miss my camera)

We spent days roaming around the streets and market places of Pisaq, Calca and Urubamba. Manu’s English was just about as good as my Spanish, so we went everywhere with a dictionary in-hand, conversation drifting sporadically between the two languages. We hung out in the main plazas, playing guitar (I’m learning!), trading favourite songs, trying to make friends with everyone who passed, high fiving children, and just watching the world go by.

Aside from the bread that Manu kept on inexplicably pulling out from nowhere (apparently you can just ask and you will receive), I paid for everything we ate and everywhere we slept. It was obvious that he was using me, but I really didn’t care. We even talked about how it was actually great for both of us. We were living for about 20 soles ($8) a day. That was about what I could get a hostel for if I were on my own. Manu was a master haggler, cutting the cost of everything in half. He taught me a lot, making sure I knew how much was too much to pay for everything I needed, showing me which parts of the cities and towns I could find good deal in, and coaching me on what to say to vendors asking for too much money.

After a week in the valley, we hitched ourselves a ride back to Cusco (yes, I got to hitch hike in South America, my trip is complete). The driver happened to have a massive jug of something that has a name I don’t remember, but is basically the Peruvian equivalent of moonshine. We filled an empty 600ml water bottle full of the stuff. After we got to the city, we set off on the mission of finding ourselves a place to stay so we could put down our backpacks and have a drink without having to worry.

In Cusco, where the tourists were more abundant and the rates higher, the vagabond life proved to be a little harder. I told Manu 15 soles (what I knew I could get a bed for myself for)— work your magic. It took a few hours and a lot of walking before we eventually found a room with a low ceiling, no windows, a creepy picture of santa claus on the wall, puddles on the floor, and distinct smell of sewage in the air. What it lacked in charm was made up for only in price. I brought my laptop and passport out with me that night.

That night… To describe whatever that stuff in the bottle was as strong would be an understatement. Those 600 millilitres got the two of us and a few people we met while roaming the plaza de armas completely fucked. It was a damn good time, but when we woke up the next morning, I had what was definitely one of the top 3 hangovers of my life.

We got up at 11, only at the insistence of the hostel owner, who was still bitter about letting us have the room for so little. We roamed the streets with the heavy backpacks, chasing sun and shelter from the rain as the weather changed. “We get through this hangover together, then we go separate ways,” I told Manu. It wasn’t just the shitty hostel and the shitty alcohol. I had been thinking for a few days that I needed to actually do something— trekking, dancing, eating something other than free bread. I didn’t work my ass off this year to do Peru on this extreme of a budget. He understood completely. Once I felt a little better, we hugged goodbye on a street corner and went separate ways in the big city.

I wandered around for a while, unsure where to go, before walking into a place called Colonial Hostel at random. I haggled 5 soles off the price of the bed and checked out the bathroom— toilet seats and toilet paper. I felt like a fucking princess and I loved it.

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