Thursday, July 7, 2011
I went to Peru in my 30's on vacation. I went with a friend who left 24 hours after we got there for a job interview in Paraguay or Uruguay or Chile - I can't remember where - and left me alone for about a week. I speak Spanish fluently and had I had done some traveling in my life so I wasn't worried about getting around in a foreign country. I was also staying in Miraflores which is an upscale and touristy area that foreigners pump money into to avoid having to visit Lima. It is like going to Jamaica on your honeymoon and staying at a Sandals resort. I might as well have gone to Atlantic City or Waikiki.
Anyway - when we landed in Peru and walked out of the airport with our bags, we were met by what felt like 3 million taxi drivers or "taxistas" asking us to choose them. I was impressed by a fellow who spoke pretty clear English and who followed us through the parking lot as we pretended we knew where we were going. It was 2 or 3 in the morning so taking a taxi to a hotel instead of a bus was what we were going to be doing. We ended up riding with this fellow who had lived in Dallas and joined the ranks of undocumented illegals who come to the US to make a better life for their families.
We had a long ride - it turns out that to get to Miraflores from Aeropuerto Internacional Jorge Chavez it takes a while, so we chatted in Spanish and he seemed concerned that an single American lady would be puttering around Lima/Miraflores alone. He cautioned me about sightseeing alone because of how dangerous Lima was and warned me to stay to the nicer and ritzier areas of Miraflores. The next morning after my friend left for his job interview, I got a phone call at the hotel. It was that nice taxi driver, calling to ask me if I'd like to come and stay at his house as his guest for the days I would be on my own. I hesitated for only 3 seconds and then I said yes.
I had a wonderful 5 or 6 days staying in a very poor part of Lima, eating local food, visiting local markets, taking local transportation, meeting locals and hanging out with my new friends. This family had 4 children, the older two were 20 and 22, the younger children were 5 and 7. This family was very, very poor. The money the dad made each night driving the taxi, which he rented, first went to pay the $40 dollar nightly rental fee and then the rest was used for buying the daily staples for breakfast , lunch, and dinner. Sometimes there wasn't enough left to pay the bills like the $100 dollars they paid monthly for rent. I heard this story a lot in the 5 or 6 days I was there.
It turned into a continual plea for money. I realized that to these people I was like Donald Trump, I had so much money! I had already told them I would be flying to Cuzco at the end of the week to visit Machu Picchu for a week and then back to Lima and out to Iquitos to visit the jungle. These people had only been to Miraflores (20 minute cab ride away) once or twice in their lives. For me to have come all the way to Peru to visit and to travel around their country made me seem like the richest person they had ever met. It was unheard of.
The money plea started to get really old after the second day. I was tired of hearing how if I didn't help them, they would be evicted and thrown out in the street, how the girls would become prostitutes, and how the husband would have to leave again and brave the dangers of coyotes to get to the US to find work and money. The mother told me that her girls were already considering different kinds of sex work to scrape together money. It was heartbreaking and annoying at the same time. How could I be so callous?
When I left these people's house I gave them the money I would have spent on a hotel during the nights I stayed there. It was more money than they had seen in years. The entire family including the father broke down and cried for a long time and just stared at the money. As soon as their tears dried they began to beseech me to send them money after I got home so that they wouldn't become destitute. It was unending and I just wanted to get away from them. As the Dad gave me the last taxi ride to the airport I thought that was the last of them. Imagine my shock and horror when I returned from Cuzco and the whole family was waiting with big smiles and hugs to greet me at the airport.
The friend I was traveling with had lived in different countries and had seen this a lot. He was familiar with this type of ambush and just walked through the crying family members and went out to hail a taxi. I felt terrible because I felt like I owed it to these people to help them find a way back home. At least I needed to take their father's taxi so that he could have one decent fare that night.
I made promises to keep in touch and to send money. I made promises to not abandon this family and to always keep them in my thoughts and prayers, and my Western Union account. I sent them a package and pictures both of which came back to me unopened. They had moved. I sent them money one time and the money was received but I got at least a hundred emails with requests for money. In the last email I got, the mother told me her daughter had gotten pregnant and they needed money for baby things because she didn't know who the father was and she was raising the baby herself. I wanted to reply that I didn't have money at that time but if I did I would try to send it but to them. I felt like I was holding out, like I wasn't helping or holding up my end of the bargain.
In the end, I never replied. I never sent them anything more. I felt like what I did for them was never going to be enough. I can't help but wonder if they are alright and if they have enough. I can't help but feel sad that all I wanted to do was run away or get them to stop begging me for more and more and more. I hope someday I get to say sorry.