(Names have been changed)
Crossing the border from Ecuador to Peru is not a big deal as one might think, although it will take about an hour for all bus passengers to get through the control and it could be in the middle of your inevitable but uncomfortable sleep.
We arrived in Mancora around 4am, shops closed, no one on the streets but some trimoto Taxidrivers begging us to tell them where we would like to go. I just met Charles, a Frenchman with the same problem: where and how? The Couchsurfer who already invited me and gave me his phone number was not awake. I would have to wait until sunrise at least. There was no option for me to follow the drivers to the next hostel, because since my plans were not as perfect as I could say how long I would stay. These drivers ignored my discussion with Charles until I shouted to them that they should have some patience and give us the chance to think before we decide.
We apologised for my tone after we set our future plans (the next couple of hours) to stay together, get local cash and wait for the sun to rise. Happy to receive at least an answer the drivers told us to hang out at a night shop just down the street.
Together with some other local night crawlers we took seat on the curb of the lonely street a beer and coke at hand. We talked; we exchanged social media accounts and even showed us our video material without noticing that the locals would stare at us given our unbiased mistreatment of common How-to-not-get-robbed-rules.
Martin took seat about an hour after we sat down. He is an old crooked American long-time traveller/expatriate with wife and children here and there in the north of Peru. With white hair, open Hawaii shirt and dirty hands he introduced himself as the godfather of knowledge about these people here.
First thing we learned was not to show any of our high-tech stuff around. “They follow your ass.” His manner to describe smallest detail of his eternal endeavour of life in black or white with nothing in between fascinated and scared me really. “They are friendly sure, but they fuck your wife and kill you the next day”, “they steal and live from hand in mouth”, “they even wipe their asses off with their pure fingers”.
How much could I believe? Charles went on his own way soon, telling me via Facebook that this guy was weird, some days after this encounter. Martin was probably the weirdest guy I met during the entire trip.
I lost Martin’s last coins with the public phone, trying to contact my couchsurfer. “fuck him” I thought, “you fucked my last money” Martin yelled with amusement.
We had that problem to change big bills, because in rural areas and in wide parts of Peru people do not trust big bills given their counterfeits and so Martin did his first local guide job for me and stared at the cashier from the late night shop as long as she would go to the backyard and have it changed for me. Without Martin I would not have had any coin at all.
He earns some money with the business of selling handmade braces to tourists, but wintertime is always a disaster and I felt like this day would not get any better without his guidance and awkward stories. So we split up with Charles, leaving two travellers behind. Him, furious about finding that one hostel he wanted to go and me not able to quickly decide what to do with that day, without couchsurfer but Martin.
“Make your life as easy as possible” he said, and I put my backpack and everything else into the children’s room behind the reception of the bus company I purchased the ticket to Chiclayo, this night. That was Martin’s idea, to save money and time here, because my initial idea was to surf. “There are no waves dude! Let’s get a beer”.
I invited him to everything, Beer more Beer and the most delicious market backyard Ceviche of my trip. I do not know what it was but this old crazy guy was happy to have me around and since he made me scared of everything in Peru in the first place I now had to stay with him and listen to his life in order to sort out what the fiction and what the truth behind his stories was.
His kids make him very sad. Up here in the north there is no glamour, no industry, no Machu Picchu. He is afraid that his younger one would go the same way into gangs as the older one. “Here in the north you can feel damn lucky if your sixteen-year old daughter is not a prostitute”. I felt sorry for him, because obviously his scratchy voice and his disbelief originate from the cruel experiences in his life.
But equally, the pessimist put smiles to comment his opinions. He enjoyed my encounter giving him the chance to drink and explain what the anchors of this world are. I gave him his will and played the game while slowly getting drunk in the midday sun.
We walked down the street to access the beach, only with a towel, swimwear and my wallet when the latter somehow fell down on the street. I did not hear anything and my money would have gone if not Martin would pick it up and gave it back to me. “You are stupid dude, if that would happen to you with one of these your money would be gone”. I was deeply impressed by that gesture as he underlined his will to be a good and honest man today and now watched my wallet closer. It was not that I completely eliminated my mistrust but step by step he became the company I needed for that miserable day full of horrible stories in which no one of the locals would look good.
“Try to tell them something Marco. They will not listen. Look at the fridge; they turn it off every night. They are stupid not to know that this costs more money than leaving it on overnight”, he said when we sat at a local shop’s plastic table to consume our first beer. Well, maybe they simply do not know that other people may know better. I did never make such black and white statements, I always believe in the ability of humans to learn from each other. But what I saw evidenced now was that South American people firstly listen to themselves and their family, people from their cultural circle and then to foreigners, regardless of how long they might have stayed in some place.
“Sometimes cultural understanding is just about acceptance of other values” I hear my former Cultural Management Professor say. I delete that thought although I know that a little more acceptance could make Martin’s life easier than it already is.
He loves his Peruvian wife, the sex is the best, but she has no order, no sense of money control and she is fighting with him all the time. Bottom line: Martin’s life is fucked.
Let’s drink a beer.
On top of that, he has money problems. Somebody hacked his local bank account and withdrew all the savings. So the coin I used for the public phone really was his last money. What would one do to survive? Everything: even asking good willing young backpackers with too much high-tech and too less mistrust for beers and food in exchange for great stories.
We sold two braces on the beach, simply walking from scarcely scattered group to group, asking, begging everybody. Now even his children made the braces to increase trust and compassion for this crazy old man. A befriended local who sells coconuts on the beach gave us some splinters of that fresh and saturating fruit.
His house close to the beach is a bamboo wrack fenced with brittle bamboo sticks, with a mattress the cat had a piss on and open space with a hammock and kitchen in the backyard. He did not sleep here for months and that bastard of last couch surfer stole his goddamn TV, the only high-tech he possessed. I am different he ensures me and offers me some maracuyas falling from his trees with a spoon not washed with real water since I-do-not-want-to-know-that. I just opened it with my fingers and sucked the inner life of that sour but extremely refreshing fruit with my mouth.
His cat strolled between us not eating the food she was offered, sensing around, not sure where to go, not even sure what it was that made her so nervous and disorganised. She was pregnant Martin told me, she was looking for some space to get her babies. “that is going to be the dirtiest mess you ever saw in your young life” he laughed, not hiding the fear in his voice that she could try to have her babies on his pissed mattress or some other soft underground in his house. “Outside, in the sand or for god’s sake in the kitchen area she shall have them” he yelled. The cat did not seem to listen, again and again trying to sneak into the house before his big dirty hands would grab her softly under her belly and throw her out.
In this moment I saw Martin as the caring father he would like to be, ready for this life and ready to give tenderness to the creatures he loved. The cat got her own small space, fenced with some random material. Martin the caring father, the crazy old man, the friend…
Let’s go for a beer and pick up Lupo.
On the way to Lupo he told me about the water problems that exist in entire Peru. Mainly due to commercialisation of fresh water sources, prices went up significantly and to add a specific case: the only fresh water source for Mancora, a small river was bought by a company some time ago. That means that people there and in other regions suffer under bad quality self-supply of water or high prices of bottled water. Additionally, the dry ground in the north makes it even more difficult to preserve fresh water sources.
Lupo is Martin’s friend. The former architect now lives a somewhat creative hippie live in the town centre not far from the bus station. In the first place he answered our shouting for him at his window with grumble but as he heard Martin yelling that there would be beer for him (which I paid) he eventually came to see us.
The guys are very talkative and I did not feel any problems to get me into their heated conversations about women foreigners must not look at or the latest news of the simple Mancora-life.
I began to really enjoy the company of these old guys who are somewhat outdated but life a live many of my travel fellers dream about. Even Lupo, the architect exchanged his fast-paced life for selling handcraft long time ago. With his Hawaii shirt and big-brimmed hat he seemed a very eccentric person, not to forget his switching voice play or weird gestures.
We all took a piss into the flowers next to his house and had a last beer. We looked at the stars and I felt really thankful now for that day.
Both they would warn me for ugly looking people along my way who somewhat seem originated from incest. “They still do it here” they insisted as I could not believe it. Some days ago I just came back from Ingapirca, an old temple ruin built by the Cañari and the Inca, whereas the latter practiced incest to keep family heritage and create beautiful people. Alicia, the owner of a hostel in Quito and historian just gave me some more information on what they used Gold for. Incans where dedicated to keep golden family treasures, which were utilised to evidence a specific bloodline. So it was actually very common to reproduce with mates originating from the same family.
As I gave a hug to Martin, the crazy, old but passionate man, I felt free to tell him that this day was special to me. I knew I would not meet him again and I took notes to write this homage to him.
I hoped his children will be fine and that he will get problems solved with his wife so that he could start to see things not only black or white.
The fear they created deep in me, about the people, about getting robbed or followed, about not looking at women, about health problems, would pass by, but not until I would arrive in Lima after a couple of days full of unsatisfied sleep.