The taxi’s headlights smudged a yellow blur through the drizzle. “Buenas Dias,” I said as I got into the taxi, even though it was not yet morning, but still madrugada, that time between midnight and dawn. I couldn’t help but think about the other early morning taxi rides, past rainy madrugadas. I was travelling alone in South America, was now on my way to the Lima airport to catch a plane back to Quito.
And that’s what I would have called myself—traveler, not tourist.
The taxi driver looked at me, nodded, asked me where I was going.
“El aeropuerto”I said. The driver glanced into his rearview mirror and nodded. We passed El Malecón, the black night lifting, the ocean tumbling gray onto the shore. We left the coast highway, and Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” blared from the taxi’s radio. Hotel workers waited on the corners for buses in the gray bruise of dawn. Stilettoed young women spilled from discos, huddled together, whispering to each other behind cupped palms. The Hollywood Casino flashed orange with dancing lights.
An old woman pushed a small broken boy between the lanes of traffic. The taxi stopped at a light, the woman knocked on my window. The driver told me to ignore them, the pobrecitos, he said. Poor little things. I couldn’t help seeing myself as they must have seen me, another rich American woman, off to the airport.
Just another tourist.
I held my breath for a moment, sucked my teeth, understood that the forces that allowed me to be on one side of the glass versus the other had nothing to do with me. There wasn’t a story I could tell myself that would make this okay.
I memorized the woman’s face, her dark eyes, the way her soul seemed to come up to the lids of her eyes. I wanted to help her but felt relief when the streetlight turned from red to green, glowed in the field of fog, and we accelerated past, leaving them behind.
The driver asked where I was going again. I said airport, even though I knew he meant, which country? I pretended not to speak Spanish, pretended not to understand. My Spanish was good by then, but I was tired of making small talk, wanted to stay in my head, watching the night sky dissolve into dawn.
In Quito, I booked a room at the Magic Bean Hostel, a quintessential 20-something gringohangout; I was in my 30s then, but the hostel was in my budget. I sat in the café, listening to other travelers exchanging stories—the jungle in Cuyabena, the Galapagos, telling each other of good eats—Mexican food in Ecuador, Thai food in Lima. They complained of early morning flights, long bus rides, the burden of malaria pills. I recognized these as the same conversations I had had with my classmates from language school in Cusco—how very banal they had started to sound.
The television replayed NFL highlights. Armed guards in bullet-proof vests kept out a man selling sunglasses and a woman exposing an injured foot, begging for change, so we tourists could drink our cappuccinos, eat our special organic waffles in peace. I thought about the woman and her son in the median of the Lima highway.
An older man with a jet-black mohawk and spiked bracelets asked me where I was from. I told him, and he said he was from Brazil, traveling through South America alone. He asked me to take a picture of him, and I agreed. He asked if I wanted one of me, since this was in the days before the ubiquitous selfie, but I said no. “We’re a lot alike,” he said. “Traveling alone like we are.”
I agreed that we probably were, though back at home, I would think we had nothing in common. Travelling does that.
Some young gringos at the next table were having the “traveler versus tourist” conversation. One young man said that what distinguishes tourists is the fancy places they stay. Another young woman with a German accent said that it all depends on how much you bring—a backpack means you are a traveler, but a suitcase makes you a tourist. Another man said that it depends on the length of your travels, and that two weeks is a vacation whereas two months is traveling. I knew they counted themselves as travelers, but I wondered whether they thought they seemed any different from the “tourists” to the woman begging outside, the man selling sunglasses.
The more I traveled, I saw that these were just labels that made us feel better about ourselves and our relative wealth as opposed to the people in the countries where we were traveling. While it’s true that budget traveling sometimes gets you closer to where the locals live, eat, and drink, it doesn’t mean you become part of the culture in any meaningful way. The more I traveled, the more I struggled with it all.
Travel had taught me to look inward—and that was important—but I also needed to start looking out. I wanted to give back to the places I visited, rather than being a voyeur.
In Peru, I had volunteered at a disabled children’s home—it seemed like a good thing to do, though I have since learned that sometimes, though well-intentioned, volunteer work turns out to be more for the volunteer than for the people who need help.
I had spent my mornings in Cusco learning Spanish and some of my afternoons reading to disabled children and playing games with them. The children were badly broken, some mentally, others physically. A boy named Javier had been badly injured in the car accident that killed his parents. He spent his days slumped in a wheelchair, watching fútbol, listening to the grunts and groans of the other children in their cribs. A little girl named Mariela shouted “afuera, afuera.” I asked the nurse if I could bring her outside, but the nurse said it was too cold. I told Mariela I wasn’t permitted to bring her outside. I expected her to cry, but she didn’t; she had become accustomed to daily disappointments.
I often read to a boy named José. One day, he asked me how old I thought he was—maybe I was reading a book that was too young for him. He wore a diaper and was in a wheelchair; one of his arms was bent like a pretzel and folded behind his back. His legs were like broken matchsticks. Though he had a hard time speaking, I could tell his thinking was clear. When I screwed up my Spanish, he would laugh, drool running down his chin. He smiled when I took his hand. I didn’t want to insult him, so I guessed older than I thought he could be. Twelve, I said. He laughed again, “No, much older,” he said.
“No,” he said. “Older.”
“I can’t guess,” I said. “Twenty.”
“I’m sixteen,” he said.
I felt like I had swallowed my own heart.
“Old enough to drive,” I said, knowing he would laugh, and he did.
That afternoon, when I was getting ready to leave, José tugged at my sleeve. He asked me if he could take my picture with my camera. I said yes, and after a number of tries, he got a good one, and I showed it to him on the digital screen. I told him he was a fine photographer. I told him I would use the photograph as my Facebook profile picture. And I did.
“Take me with you,” he said when I got up to leave.
“I’ll see you again.” I told him.
“I want to go home with you,” he insisted. “Take me.”
“I’ll be back,” I said and left. He began screaming, and one of the attendants had to wheel him away. I could still hear his muffled cries as I walked down the street. I told myself I would go back.
I never went back.
I would have left for the last time at some point, I told myself. Volunteering there helped me feel like a better person, but it didn’t help those children, not in any meaningful way. Maybe it was even hurtful. It didn’t matter if I was a traveler or a tourist or a volunteer. What mattered is that I had failed.
Gray clouds climbed the sky. I walked toward the Avenida de la Cultura, bought a cherimoya from a street vendor. I peeled the thick, green skin, swallowed the ripe, white fruit. I rolled the seeds around in my mouth before spitting them into the gutter. I walked home in the rain. The sweetness of the fruit made me sick.
BIO: Suzanne Roberts is the author of the award-winning memoir, Almost Somewhere, as well as four collections of poetry. She teaches for the low residency MFA in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College, and lives in South Lake Tahoe, CA.
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