Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Coming Home

August 24, 2011 at 9:00 am, my family eyed the uncommonly shiny, new taxi waiting for us in the parking lot just down the hill from our Pisac hospedaje. A long seven months ago, on February 8, 2011, we piled into a larger, rougher-looking taxi at the Cusco airport – our first non-air transportation in our new temporary home of Peru. So much had happened in the interim, but in such small increments that we could hardly describe the metamorphosis we all had undergone. We noticed the new car, a rarity in this part of Peru, that was for sure. Our understanding of what is common and what is not had grown more comprehensive each day that passed in the small community of 3,000.

As we started loading our bags into it, I noted that, as opposed to our first taxi ride, this time we had more stuff and less taxi.

The driver managed to squeeze the hatchback closed and the four of us clambered into the available seats, holding the smaller of the bags and satchels on our laps. After more than half a year in this foreign place, we were almost ready to leave – leave Pisac, leave Cusco, leave Peru. The taxi took us down the hill about 6 blocks to a restaurant on the main carretera. The bright orange sign showed a Lambayequan god in a large, ornate headdress, poling his canoe into the sun, his name blazoned over his head: “Naylamp”. We had one more family member to pick up.

We spotted the grey-haired Otorongo, his grizzled face softened by the now-smudged, blue tattoo of a nautical star between his eyes, and his young, pregnant wife Diana sitting outside the entrance. Their boys, Prem and Sebastian, moved about on the sidewalk outside the restaurant like impatient farm animals waiting to be fed. The restaurant owners, Mama Nelly and her partner Angel, were there, but one person was noticeably missing: the namesake of the restaurant, our new godson and soon-to-be exchange student in the United States, 15 year old Naylamp. He was not in the restaurant, but his bags were.

I heaved one of his backpacks into the already-stuffed station wagon, remembering how, upon our arrival, I was not allowed to lift anything over 10 pounds. I had had major abdominal surgery 2 weeks prior to our departure from Portland and wasn’t allowed to do a lot of things, but going to Peru was not one of them! Lucky for me, my husband had been ever-accommodating: he carried two of his own backpacks, plus mine, from Portland to Los Angeles to Lima to Cusco to Pisac. This time, strengthened by months of high-altitude living, lots of walking and simply time passing, I could do my fair share.

Naylamp’s family passed around hugs and kisses and we chatted in limited Spanish as we awaited his descent from his grandma’s living space above the restaurant. All of a sudden, he appeared, racing towards us, wet from a shower, smiling as usual, and looking a little bit frantic. Of course he was frazzled. He was about to embark on an 11-month journey, far from his family and friends, to a strange place, a strange house, a strange family.

The taxi-driver had an appointment to pick someone up at the Cusco airport after he dropped us off, so he was in a hurry. He goaded Naylamp and his family into gathering the loose items that hadn’t made it into the backpack – the poncho, the chullo, two sets of Andean pipes – and herded our newly-enlarged family of five back towards the car.

More kisses and hugs all around, more bags wedged between knees, under feet and above heads. We waved goodbye and blew kisses from our squashed positions within. The doors slammed shut. Through what little window-glass was still unobstructed by luggage, I saw Naylamp’s grandma Nelly, standing in the entrance of her restaurant, wiping her eyes. She is Mama Nelly to Naylamp, having raised him since he was small. With no time for sentiment, the driver stepped on the gas, and we were off! I couldn’t see into the back seat to gauge my new dependent’s expression. How did he feel leaving everything he knew? Who were these strange Americans who would presume to be his parents for the next year? Was he scared? Excited? We were all too crammed together to feel much other than the sharp pang of knitting needles and toothbrushes stabbing us through our carry-ons.

The next three days did not impress me. We spent them in Lima, not the star tourist attraction of South America. Dirty, busy and dangerous, it left no impression in my already richly-filled visitor’s brain other than that of expensive taxis, bad food and noise. It was like drinking powdered skim milk after seven months of fresh buttercream straight from the cow’s udder.

The highlight in Lima was meeting and saying goodbye to more of Naylamp’s extended family. Other activities included visiting a military museum that offensively celebrated the very weapons used to subdue indigenous Peruvians and bring their race close to extinction; and walking through a famous shopping mall, famous for no other reason than it is ridiculous for people who earn so little to spend so much on stuff they so don’t need. We hailed cabs, packed into rapid transit busses at rush hour and generally spent most of our time getting to and fro within the gigantic maze that is the typical urban setting in developing countries.

Matt and the girls flew to the US on August 28th. Naylamp and I followed on the 29th. Getting away from Lima was a blessing, in more ways than one. Escaping the city itself was a relief. But moreso, it felt good to eliminate the ambiguity caused by being the responsible ‘parent’ for Naylamp, which started when we left Pisac, while his real family was also present. I felt like I could finally be the authority and the responsible adult without guilt. And then there was immigration. We were a bit nervous as we approached the border-crossing immigration officer stationed just before our boarding area. He looked unkindly at Naylamp’s long hair and paperwork. He silently noted my skin color and my American passport.

“Where are your parents?” he asked Naylamp in Spanish.

Naylamp explained that his mother was outside in the airport right now, having just seen us off, and that his father was in Pisac.

“Who is this notary?” the man asked, pointing at the notarized form authorizing a minor to travel. It was an Asian last name.

“He is in Supe.” Naylamp responded, “Outside of Lima.”

The officer went away to check with someone else about the notary and the documents. The two of us stood there, apprehensively waiting to see if Peru’s infamous make-them-up-as-you-go rules would come into play here. The man returned. He silently stamped Naylamp’s passport. He folded up the original Authorization to Travel and put it away in a drawer, then waved us on our way without another word.

As we rounded a corner, we both let out the breaths that we had been holding. We could finally breath easy. From that point on, we could let down our guard knowing that we had cleared the biggest hurdles. All that remained was US immigration once we landed in LAX. I had heard that, even there, they could decide to send you back if they didn’t like your attitude. But I thought that was pretty unlikely. So we enjoyed the long airplane ride, the raunchy movie selection and the two and a half meals served during our 9 hour flight. Naylamp asked two fellow passengers to take photos out the window for him (we were in the center seats). We made it to the US pleasantly and uneventfully.

Landing in LAX, passing through immigration bleary-eyed at 10 pm, dealing with a small-potatoes hotel chain and their aggravatingly limited shuttle service, even eating at the diner close to our hotel – it was all a blur. We went to bed at midnight and awoke less than 4 hours later to catch our final flight, destined for Portland.

By 8:00 am on August 30th, we had made it home. Matt and the girls had already dived in to the long lost of things necessary to jumpstart our old life in the house. Over the next few days, the five of us visited doctors, filled out paperwork, registered for classes, organized our stuff, cleaned, cooked, visited… It was real. We were back home. As surreal and as jolting as it was, it was shockingly easy and familiar. I once again understood people – truly understood them – when they gave me directions. I knew how much a loaf of bread should cost. I didn’t worry about getting ripped off, or getting lost, or hurting someone’s feelings inadvertently. I didn’t have to look around at others to know where to stand, where to sit, how long to wait, which side of the street to walk on.

I felt empowered, like a long-estranged master of my surroundings. Every traffic movement, every social interaction, every simple custom bowed to my command. The things I took for granted before our travels, when we were completely familiar with the culture and the language, had reappeared, magically fat on the vine for the picking. The frustrations of being less than fluent, idiomatically and socially, fully dissolved the moment I set foot on that loud, American carpet of red and blue at the Portland International Airport.

How easy life can be, how at-rest my mind, securely running on auto-pilot as the complex rituals of time and place once again become background noise. But I never would have known how much I know, how competent we all truly are in our own cultural setting, had I not flung my poor flailing brain into the equally complex culture of others. As I now rest my overworked brain, Naylamp’s is the one swimming in that confusing vat of foreignness. We should be patient with him.