This experience begins and ends in tears. As a disclaimer: things really have been going well here. I have seen all the Inca ruins within a 20 mile vicinity and I love going to hang with my favorite Pachamamas every day.
For background, I cannot walk through the Plaza des Armas (the town center) without being asked for dinero. Notably, this exact spot was once the literal center of the Inca empire. Now, it is filled with tourists and street children and homeless adults selling trinkets to said tourists to make money.
Since I walk through this area at least twice per day, I recognize almost every vendor and know some by name. And every single day, they all act as if it’s the first time they’ve ever seen me. I either blend in with the cloud of foreigners, or this is a sales tactic. Either way, it’s working. I am honestly embarrassed by the number of llama keychains and alpaca finger puppets I now own.
Anyway, a few days ago, I was sitting in the Plaza on a bench, thinking about if my 3 year old niece will even like all these finger puppets. Thinking about her started to make me homesick. Like very homesick. It was the first time I experienced this feeling since I left.
This whole experience has been so fulfilling, yet I have to admit that every moment is not utter bliss. Traveling alone in a foreign place can feel exhilarating, then isolating. I bought a McFlurry to enjoy a slice of home, and it made me feel even more homesick. I started to cry a little bit, sitting on this bench in the old center of the Inca empire.
One of my vendor friends, Sonya, noticed my emotional state and joined me on my bench of sadness. Her gesture was sweet and I was in need of a morale boost.
She started to share her story with me. Sonya grew up in Ayacucho, a city in Peru known for terrorism in the ‘80’s and ‘90s. Her entire family was killed one night by terrorists. Everyone except her. She opened up about what that experience was like for her.
She is now a single mother of 4 children, living in the outskirts of Cusco, and sells paintings to support her family. But the police recently confiscated her paintings, because she was using an expired permit.
And now she was crying too. My feelings of isolation vanished and were replaced with a deep yearning to help this woman. This is why I came here, and her story touched my heart. I gave her the money I had with me. She expressed her gratitude for ten minutes straight and said she wanted to repay me. She invited me to visit her home the next day and meet her children. Not wanting to be rude, I agreed.
The next day we met in the Plaza and I took the combi bus with her to her home. She and her children rented a room of a unit owned and shared with an alcoholic couple. They don’t allow her access to the kitchen or living room. She was emotional as she showed me the mattresses in the corner of her room, which they roll out on the floor each night for sleep.
I met her 10 year old daughter, Estefani, and her 7 year old son, Jefrin. Her two other children were not home. The kids played on my iPhone while I chatted more with their mom.
I noticed the kids’ shoes were broken, so I asked for their sizes. Sonya mentioned she was scared she wouldn’t have enough money to pay rent. I offered her the difference, as I happened to have the same amount with me. She wept tears of gratitude.
Before I left, she gave me a small gift and asked me if I would be her daughter’s godmother. Estefani had never been baptized and needed a “madrina.” I felt honored by her request, and with my Catholic upbringing, yes was my instant answer. I made plans to meet Sonya in the Plaza the next day.
Before our next meeting, I went to the shoe store and the sweater store. I had a strict budget for my trip, but I was willing to make some adjustments to help Sonya’s kids. Everything is much less expensive in Peru, so I was able to find a good deal on new shoes and sweaters. I found Sonya in the Plaza later that afternoon and dropped off the goodies.
She told me the baptism would be in two days. I asked if a madrina needs to bring anything to the ceremony. Sonya said we could go to the Baptism store. She led the way and we happened to run into one of her friends. Who was carrying the shoes I’d bought for her kids the day before?
Sonya explained that the shoes were un poco grande and needed to be exchanged. Luckily, we happened to be right down the street from the store I had purchased them at. We headed over to make the swap.
As the saleswoman was pulling new sizes for us, Sonya explained that she wants to start selling silver in the Plaza, instead of paintings. I agreed that this might be a more lucrative option for her. But she needed a start-up investment of 3,000 soles to get started. I thought that was a bit steep, but maybe I could do some fundraising from friends and family to help her.
The saleswoman returned after her 15 minute vanishing act, and said she didn’t have the new sizes we were looking for. She could return my money, but we would need to come back in two days for it. I thought this was odd, but many things were very different to me in Peru. So we headed to the Baptism store.
When we arrived, Sonya picked out a pageant-style dress for her daughter with matching shoes and a peacoat. All for the low price of 400 soles. At this point, I finally realized I was being hustled. Not a second sooner.
Things became awkward quickly. I told her I could not afford this baptismal clothing, because I honestly could not. I no longer had an income and had stretched my budget already to help with the rent, shoes, and sweaters.
Suddenly, Sonya could no longer understand my English or Spanish. She attempted to shame me into making the purchase by announcing to the store, over and over, that “the gringa says she has no money” followed by scoffing and eyerolls. She gave me a guilt trip that Estefani was going to cry without her pageant dress. I stayed strong and said I’m sorry, but no.
Then she said Estefani must have jeans for the baptism instead. I bought the damn jeans. Shamelessly, Sonya asked me for my change from the purchase to buy Estefani a new hoodie for the baptism. I came to my senses again and said no. She turned on her heels and ditched me.
I was left standing in a crowded, locals-only market area at 8pm. I assumed the baptism was cancelled. And now, I was in tears again. I cried the whole walk back to my apartment for the following reasons:
- I was scared out of my mind of being mugged. Every guidebook tells you to never go to local market areas unaccompanied at night as a tourist woman. I thought maybe if I cried like I’d already been mugged, I’d trick any possible attacker.
- I felt really, really dumb. How did I fall for this?
- Mostly, I was really sad. Even after my ride on the Hustle Express, I still wanted to help Sonya.
Sometimes people are not what they seem or what you want them to be. And sometimes you just want to see the good in a person so badly that you become blind to reality. Other times, you are just a homesick tourist eating a McFlurry and you need an amiga, even if she only wants your money. She clearly didn’t hear me when I told her I have no job.
Were those really Sonya’s children or paid actors? Do Peruvian girls wear pageant dresses to Baptisms? Did Estefani’s jeans get wet during the ceremony? All of the above will remain a mystery.
I learned another important lesson:
Let the more loving one be me.
In this situation, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I may have been hustled, and Sonya may have played on my heartstrings to open my wallet. But I offered my help to someone and I will continue to do the same. I am not a Peruvian godmother, as much as I may want to be one. But I can be a loving person, in any situation, and that’s all that counts.