What follows is a story of horror, fear, defeat, and triumph.
This is a story of perseverance in the face of adversity.
What follows is mostly me being overdramatic...
but it really did suck at the time, so here's my story:
I love Lima.
Lima is a beautiful city, vibrant and diverse from the glitzy neighborhoods of Miraflores and San Isidro to the hip casual vibe of Barranco to the lovely and well preserved UNESCO heritage site of the historic center, to the gritty place-you-don't-want-to-get-lost-so-of-course-I-got-lost-there La Victoria. Since I visited Peru for the first time two years ago, I have had a special place in my heart for the country. The food is out of this world delicious. The people are friendly but not overly pushy. The diversity of ethnic groups, and blend of Spanish colonialism with pre-Colombian indigenous culture, is endlessly fascinating (I love the stories of the last years of the Inca Empire - check out Turn Right at Machu Picchu). The landscapes from the Andes mountains to the cliffs of the Pacific coast are stunning, matchless.
|Credit: Unofficial Networks|
When I came back to Peru this year, I entered through Bolivia, around Lake Titicaca. While the Lake is gorgeous and definitely worth a visit, I really had a rough time in Bolivia...so when I crossed the border and could immediately feel the difference (perhaps influenced by my preconceived biases), I felt as if Peru was my sanctuary. What I have come to realize, however, is that while I really do prefer Peru to Bolivia, and Lima is a little slice of South American heaven, I can run into some rough situations in Peru as well.
Case in point - my first night in Iquitos.
Iquitos is a really cool town. With a population of 400,000 people but no roads connecting it with the rest of the continent, it has been called one of the world's most remote cities and "the world's largest city than cannot be reached by road." I flew in on a bumpy old commuter plane from Lima, landed at 5:40 pm, and was first struck by the heat. After the mildness of grey skied Lima (66 F/19 C), Iquitos felt downright steamy at 88 F/31 C. The humidity is, in fact much higher in Lima right now - 76% to Iquitos' 58% - but this is certainly a sticky, sweaty place. To compliment the weather, the airport is right of the edge of the jungle, and passengers disembark from their planes onto a tarmac neighboring a dense cluster of vine choked trees with a couple of jungle shanties thrown in. The sun was just starting to skim the treetops in a pink and gold sunset, and I was immediately overwhelmed with my excitement to be in this city on the edge of the Amazon!
|sunset at Iquitos airport|
I was met at the airport by my host. Let's call him Jon. We met through Workaway, which is a website designed to connect travelers (generally long term backpackers) with people who need an extra hand at their farm/hostel/bar, etc. You generally give 4-5 hours of work a day in exchange for a place to sleep, and sometimes also food. I had never used the site before, and after paying the $30 membership fee I was frustrated to find that most hosts had a minimum stay of something like 2 weeks! My total trip is only a month, which I thought was pretty long, but is really nothing compared to some of these Europeans going through all of South America in 3 months, 6 months, a year. So, I found Jon's hostel, and he said they would take me! So I felt satisfied with my set up, and put it out of my mind for the next couple weeks until I actually arrived in Iquitos. Now, it's definitely my fault that I didn't independently investigate the hostel, and just went off the pictures and description on Workaway, but it was really not what I was expecting.
I had been imagining Iquitos to be full of the colonial romance of the rubber barons, straight from the pages of my favorite young adult Amazon romance novel, set in Manaus. The times, however, have definitely changed. The streets of Iquitos are crowded with loud mototaxis (a centaur-like combination of Motorcyle and rickshaw) that spew emissions with no filter and ignore any remnants of roadway paint that might still be clinging to the cracked and potholed pavement. The people are dressed much too casually for a romance novel - in cut off shorts and tube tops and foam platform heels. Couples ride on scooters with an infant wedged them, guys in jeans shorts and fanny packs swerve past each other, sometimes blaring the latest reggaeton track from the back of their motorbike. Every single building we passed on the way from the airport to the hostel was miserably run down except for one shiny, white-tiled, air-conditioned pharmacy.
|from the back of a mototaxi|
We pulled up to the hostel, and the last shreds of illusion I was clinging to faded away. It was a typical building, maybe painted green at one point. The front room was rented out to a tour agency, and long narrow hallway stretched back through the building. The hallway was lined with doors - the guest rooms - and opened at the end to another room, where two hammocks hung in front of a bar and kitchenette. Behind that was an outdoor courtyard space with more hammocks. Spartan, dirty, full of cobwebs and insects, and deeply embedded with the unmistakable scent of hairy hippie armpit. Jon let me choose my bed from the two top bunks in room number 2. I pick the one with the least mysterious black pouches suspended in cobwebs in the corners of the ceiling. I dropped my bags and quickly returned to the common area, forcing myself to put out of my mind images of spiders crawling through my hair as I slept (if you don't know me - I'm super scared of spiders, and insects were my biggest fear coming to Iquitos).
The hostel was nearly full - clearly it is livable! Long term travelers stay in places like this all time time. It's normal to smell bad and not shave your legs for a week and wear the same bathing suit top and sarong everyday. This is what real backpacking is all about! The community of travelers, the casualness of the common area, the spontaneity of everyone who comes and goes at their will instead of on the strict schedule of an office worker with 10 vacation days saved up. I've rarely and barely done this. I'm not the typical party hostel traveler. When I travel alone - I generally stay alone! I've never glommed onto a pair or group for a few days. I've never been part of the ebb and flow that the serious travel communities is made of. Yes, I travel a lot, but in a lot of ways I don't really fit into the mainstream young long term backpacker culture. This culture is particularly prevalent in South America, I've noticed, as the circuit is packed with wandering Europeans in their early/mid-twenties. I've grown really accustomed to hearing Spanish with a German accent.
Although it's not my scene, as established, I can be flexible! I can adapt! So I decided to embrace the lifestyle for the first time and enjoy the hostel culture. I took a seat at the bar, and Jon and I crushed 4 cans of Cristal (Peruvian beer) and talked about our families, careers, traveling, and Peru. Then we went and got awesome street hamburgers a few blocks away and I got my taste of Iquitos nightlife (dog fights, mototaxis, and more skin showing). Jon and I had good conversation, and I got to practice my Spanish. We got back to the hostel and that's when things started to go awry.
|Workaway hostel common area|
Eventually the commotion dies down and the woman and tour agency man leave. I figured everything was sorted and if I needed to do anything, someone would have told me. It was almost 11 pm, and I was supposed to be at "reception" at 6 am, so I decided to head to bed. But Jon stopped me. He said they are still working out some logistics and if I want to sleep now, I can't sleep in that bunk, but I can sleep in his bed. In his room. I was really confused. We were speaking English at this point and Jon's is not good. He said he would be out at clubs, partying (aka not using his bed) so I could sleep in his bed. He didn't say where he would sleep...was he not planning on sleeping? A hammock? My original bunk once they got the logistics sorted? A friend's couch?
My biggest concern was that he would roll into the hostel drunk at 3 am, forget I was using his bed, come into his room and we would just end up sharing his bed. Maybe under other circumstances I could have coped with this possibility - maybe if I was single and attracted to Jon (travel culture is well known for road hookups anyway), maybe if the room was clean and lovely, maybe if there was AC...but no. The room was messy and filthy. The bed was a thin mattress pad over a metal frame with a fitted sheet half stretched over it. The stench of armpit was stronger here. The light fixture was coated with two inches of dust and spiderwebs. A pair of boxers hung on the back of a chair. I couldn't do it. I was having flashbacks to the time in Armenia when I was couch surfing and my host somehow ended up in the same bed as me (after a night of heavy drinking) and I kept poking me all night and telling me my skin was softer than Armenian girls...I wasn't going to be polite and timid and let that happen again. I wanted to be tough and deal with an uncomfortable situation (the grossness of the hostel) in a mature, cool way. But it was just too much.
There wasn't much objection when I suggested that maybe it would be best for me to find other accommodations. He said there was a hostel nearby that probably had a private room available. He walked me to the corner to point my way, and suddenly, like he just remembered it existed, offered me to stay in his other apartment in town (what?? there's another apartment??). I just shook my head no. I had firmly made up my mind. It wasn't going to work out.
I started walking the "about 6 blocks" towards this other hostel, scanning the signs above the doors for its name or the Chinese restaurant that was supposedly across the street. I don't know how many blocks I went, but it seemed like enough, and the street was totally dark - no businesses open. During this whole time I was texting Bacho (my boyfriend, who currently lives in Holland), telling him my saga. He quickly started sending me Booking.com links to affordable, clean looking hostels in Iquitos. I clicked the first one, and quickly decided to book it. Private room, private bathroom, decent price, didn't need a credit card to book. Within 5 mins I was in a mototaxi headed to the new hostel.
I must have looked as hot and tired and frustrated as I felt, because when I arrived a nice old lady gave me a bottle of cold water and had me sit down to wait for the owner to emerge (it was about 11 pm at this point). He informed me that they didn't have a record of my booking, and couldn't in fact because the hostel was full...turns out, Bacho had searched for "today" his time, which was already "tomorrow" my time, so I had made the booking for the next day! I stupidly hadn't checked the dates before booking...the owner helped me find another place nearish by on Booking.com, that had an available room for that night. I said hasta manana and trudged on to the OK Hostel (not a great name...). When I got there, however, they said they didn't have any rooms available, despite Booking.com showing several I could book! The 15 year old kid at the front desk just shook his head "sorry" with a weird sort of pity smile, and I walked out. I sat on the sidewalk outside with my pile of bags and collected myself.
Tired and fully out of patience, I did another search on Booking, this time in the $50-100 range (instead of just sorted with lowest price first). I ended up finding a hotel (an actual hotel!) with a twin bed for $30. I booked it. I arrived at Hotel Golden Star with low expectations, just hoping they actually had a room available. Although the floors were lined with huge dead horseflies and they weirdly had a pool in the second floor hallway...the place was clean, had AC, a TV, and wifi (that night, at least). I finally flopped into bed around 12:30 am and let the stress fade away.
- Do your research (or probably just don't use Workaway)
- Know your limits and stick to them
- It's okay to say no
- A phone with a data connection can save your butt