“Wanna free flight to Peru?” my buddy, Gee, messages me out of nowhere.
One of the perks of having worked in the outdoor adventure industry for most of my twenties is being well connected to like-minded adrenaline freaks who offer me cool opportunities like this out of the blue. At the time, I’m waiting tables at a pizza joint in New Mexico and living in a tiny bubble trailer with no running water (I shit in a bucket outside like the fancy lady I am).
Normally a $1,000 plane ticket and a week’s worth of hostels isn’t in my budget. But when Gee, whom I’d been a raft guide with in Wyoming eight years ago, also offers to let me crash in a sleeping bag on his floor all week in Cusco, how can I refuse? In exchange for the free ticket and housing, all I have to do is escort some upper-crust teenagers from the Houston airport to the Lima one and then back after their overpriced, Peace Core-esque “service” vacation is over. I’d be crazy to say no.
In fact, saying yes is something I’m almost too good at.
After high-fiving my group of teens goodbye, I set off for my week of Melanie-type adventure, which means having zero plans, being stupid cheap, and wandering aimlessly until something cool or crazy happens. In Cusco, I explore a huge market selling the severed heads, feet, and tongues of cute farm animals, then buy a juice served in a plastic bag with a straw. While lounging on a park bench outside, sipping my flabby bag of fresh squeezed OJ, a twentysomething dude with enough gel in his hair to pop a balloon comes up and asks me to buy him an ice cream.
I admire his boldness but say no.
“Why no? You rich American girl!”
He’s got a point! My passport and skin color alone mean I’m privileged as hell. And of course I can totally afford to buy this dude an ice cream. But I don’t like his demanding approach, so recite a list of excuses (instead of just saying no and moving on like a not-overly-codependent human being would). He doesn’t seem to understand my “shit in a bucket” and “sleeping on the floor of a friend’s house” explanations for a low cash flow.
“You, beautiful woman. I, cute man. Why no ice cream?”
I’m not sure what the connection is between the two but awwww. He thinks I’m pretty!
Men almost never say such things to me, so I’m tempted by the compliment bone he’s thrown this here insecure dog. But I say no, again, which is not like me at all. I’m a yes girl, all caps plus seven exclamation points. I’ll go along with pretty much anything and everything, especially when traveling, because saying “fuck yeah/sure why not” almost always pays off and hasn’t gotten me murdered (yet!). There are only a few circumstances in which I’ll say no. Usually it’s because I either can’t afford said proposition or my intuition thinks it might result in my decapitated head being tossed into a wood-chipper. I also put up a fight when a push-your-head-down kind of guy tries to make me do shit I don’t want to, in or outside of bed, whether it be giving a blow job or buying a Nutter Butter.
I almost leave because I’m annoyed now, but just as I start to walk away, he asks if I want to go horseback riding to some sacred Incan ruins that are allegedly up in the hills above Cusco.
Now we’re talk’n!
After our unnecessarily scary cab ride, I find myself on a brown stallion named Firecracker looking over the city of Cusco with Gel Guy. It’s super cool actually. See! Saying yes pays off! Until he convinces me to dismount my horse and go check out the secret cave-like ruins, in which he wants to now, uh, make out.
Gel Guy’s all disappointed it takes more than some pony ride (on my dime not his) for me to wanna mount him like my beloved Firecracker here, so he abruptly cuts his losses, speed walks back to his horse and trots away. When Firecracker and I catch up to him not 10 minutes later, I find him chat’n up another chick... on a horse! (Where did she come from!?). I can’t understand what they’re saying because my Spanish sucks, but after a few minutes of flirty banter, they turn around and gallop off into the sunset together like we’re in goddamn Westworld, leaving me and Firecracker to fend for ourselves. I’m not good with horses, I have no idea where I am, and I find it disturbing there is no guide or anyone to show me how the hell to get back to that old lady selling potatoes on a blanket where we first started this weird-ass “Inca Ruins” tour.
But alas, out of nowhere, some teenager named Pablo shows up to guide me back while also drilling me about the husband and kids he can’t believe this not-so-spring-chicken doesn’t have yet at 32. When we finally reach the lady selling potatoes, I bid Firecracker adieu and ask Pablo how to get back to Cusco. He just shrugs, so I start walking down the hill towards town. But wouldn’t you know, about a mile in, a tiny van stuffed with locals stops and gives me a lift and I’m now convinced it was all worth it. Random experiences with strangers is what I live for.
The next day Rica, my Spanish teacher back in New Mexico, emails me to ask if I’d go visit her family out in Bumfuck, Peru, where she grew up. Sure, why not?! I take several overcrowded buses out to the country and end up at a farm with the most amazing views of snow-covered peaks. I pet their pigs and shuck corn with them for a few hours and it’s quite lovely. My Spanish is awful but my amazing pantomiming abilities get me farther than you’d think. Before putting me on my bus back to Cusco, they tell me to kiss their beloved Rica for them. Another yes, another cool day.
The next few days are full of more random experiences and conversations, which involve me miming and speaking baby Spanish to anyone with enough curiosity and patience to put up with me. One night I end up at a super cool clown performance (think Cirque du Soleil not The Bozo Show). Near the end of my trip, I realize I have enough money left to go to Machu Picchu.
Holy hell this place is beautiful. I do a long-ass hike that’s straight uphill for two hours because it’s the most challenging and totally free one. At the top, I find some killer views and a tall skinny guy with a beard and a bad case of bedhead playing the ukulele. He claims he’s a French doctor hitch-hiking all over South America. His origin story starts to seem a tad fishy, though, after he tells me he snuck into Machu Picchu because he “couldn’t afford” the admission. He’d also pitched a tent next to the train tracks last night because he couldn't afford a hostel (what the hell kind of doctor is this!?). We explore the rest of Machu Picchu together, take some goofy pics near llamas, then head to the exit, which he has to sneak out of because, again, he didn’t pay (which makes him worse than begpackers). Part of me thinks I should maybe ditch this dude now and ride the bus back to the hostel I already have booked cuz even I am not this goddamn cheap. But when he asks me to walk back with him to the village nearby instead of taking the bus he “can’t afford,” I say fuck it, why not.
I soon learn that village ain’t so “nearby” when you’re on foot.
Despite my knees buckling under me several times on this path that’s steep as hell, hippie doctor amuses me with crazy hitch-hiking stories, so I’m glad I said yes. When we get to town, he admits he doesn’t know where he’ll sleep tonight but isn’t too worried about it. There’s always train tracks!
He convinces me to go to the town’s hot springs, but, shocker, he doesn’t want to pay full price, so I stand outside the front gate waiting for him to hustle some shady deal. It actually works, so now I feel bad for not trusting French hippy doctor here. Until we get inside and I realize I’m basically taking a bath with 75 strangers in lukewarm water that smells like rotten eggs. After a cheap dinner, we still don’t know where we’ll sleep, as I’ve canceled my hostel bed reservation and agreed to end up wherever he does cuz I’m smart like that. We finally score a meager private room with two beds in a hostel, which he tries to split with me 70/30 like the frugal ass he is.
Despite him being a charming goofball, I can’t will myself to wanna bang this mop-headed hippy. Not my type. We sleep in our respective beds all night, but when I wake up the next morning, my groggy self vetoes my rational one and whispers across the room, “Wanna cuddle?”
“Cuddle? What diz zat?”
“Ya know… like... you spooning but not doing stuff...”
After I fail to effectively explain “stuff” and “spooning” to him, he finally asks, “You want me over zhere?”
He leaps out of his bed, jumps into mine, and holds me the way I usually do my body pillow and it’s fabulous. Within minutes, though, he starts tracing the tips of his fingers along my arms and begins his slow descent down yonder.
“No-no,” I say lacing his fingers in mine. “Just cuddle.”
“I’m sorry...,” I say like a woman with so much internalized misogyny she thinks she owes men things they don’t inherently deserve.
He says I shouldn’t apologize for not doing what I don’t want to do—a phrase no man has ever said to me before this moment—so I let him finger bang me. Oops!
On our way to the train station, I make sure he knows that “stuff” we did this morning definitely wasn’t the English definition of cuddling. As I wait to get on my train with a ticket I already paid for, he starts to pontificate out loud about how ever will he get back to Cusco. Between intermittent toots on his little wooden flute (how many instruments are in that backpack?!), he casually recalls this generous Argentinian girl who gave him money for a train ticket the other day.
“How nice of her!” I say, not taking the bait, then kiss him on the cheek goodbye forever.
While strolling alone around Cusco that night, I bump into one of the clowns I recognize from that Cirque du Soleil show, except now he’s wearing a suit and fancy leather shoes. He asks if I wanna grab a drink at a bar he swears no tourists would dare go. Sure! We walk way up the hill to a room with a dirt floor, only two tables, and a lady who looks 129 years old sitting in the corner. Over drinks he pulls out a tiny leather book of poems he keeps in his pocket and reads me some. After, he asks me if I don’t mind stopping by his house on our way to dinner so he can grab some vague item. I say sure because my intuition doesn’t get the serial killer/rapist vibe from him. I also weigh more than him and could snap his neck in two with my legs.
I’m also dying to know what a clown’s house looks like.
Nothing special, as it turns out!
He takes me into his bedroom and shows me his newest clown outfit, which sounds really weird now that I type that out. We leave after he grabs some weed and then have dinner at a local shithole, just as I’d hoped. After the plates are cleared and we’ve split the bill halfsies like people who aren’t freeloaders pretending to be doctors, he pulls the tiny journal out of his pocket, starts writing a poem about how Melanie is the perfect name for a strong beautiful woman, then tries to hold hands.
OK, time to go!
I lie that I’m supposed to meet a friend, dash out the door, and find a local bar with live music a block away. Not two minutes after I settle into a seat, I look up and see none other than the French Hippie Doctor drinking a beer. I guess he got some poor schmuck to pay for that train ticket after all. We chat for a bit, during which time he buys several more beers and shows me the weed he’d just scored.
No wonder this “doctor” never has any money.
As he’s fishing for a free place to crash tonight, a beautiful man with a kind smile plops down right next to me and says hello. While French Hippie is fetching himself another beer, this sweet guy, Ricardo, and I finally get to chat. He convinces me to join him and his friends out dancing afterward and I’m psyched. I love me some dancing! When French Hippie comes back to continue his line of questioning about free housing, I look up and see just behind him the clown from dinner, staring me down. I feel kinda guilty now because I take on men’s disappointment like it’s my full time job to fix.
Just then Ricardo starts gathering his stuff to leave and I realize I’m about to miss out on something I really want to do in order to do something I feel like I have to do and that’s just stupid. I don’t owe any dudes anything. Not a place to crash, a hookup, train ticket, an ice cream, an explanation, or my goddamn time. Not hippie doctor or this clown. Fuck it, I’m going dancing!
“Sorry! Hope you find a bed,” I say to French Hippie then skedaddle outta there with Ricardo and his friends.
The rest of the night is pure magic. We dance until 3 a.m. then head back to my place since he’s staying at a hostel bunk bed with 12 other people in the room. I wouldn’t dare wake up Gee, though, so I grab my sleeping bag and bring it out to the backyard, where we spend hours making out, cuddling and laughing on the ground right next to a chicken coop, surrounded by dried-up dog shit. Not everyone’s idea of romance, but for me, it’s perfect. Since he doesn’t push my head down or expect anything at all from me, I let him put even more than his finger in me. We pass out all cuddled until the damn rooster wakes us up.
We’re still friends on Facebook.
The next day I escort my privileged teenagers on a plane to the U.S, then head back to my trailer with the bucket I shit in. This adventure was more than I could have wished for and only cost me maybe two hundred bucks. More importantly, it gave me experience saying no to things I don’t want to do. I’ll always be a YES!!!! girl. But in order to say “yes/fuck yeah/why not,” I need to make sure I’m paying attention to both my intuition and motives. From that place, I can genuinely give more to people worth my time and (fingers crossed!) avoid getting murdered.