One Night in Puno

by Kate McCahill

For six hours, the bus creeps south from Cusco towards Lake Titicaca, crossing arid, wintered plains and sprawling Peruvian cities littered with plastic bags in a hundred colors. It’s late afternoon before we reach marshland, and then we round a bend and here is the lake, ocean-blue and ocean-huge. The road tips down into Puno, a rippling, clay-colored city pinched into the shore. The woman beside me says that you can see Bolivia from here. 

 

In the bus terminal, I get in line to buy my ticket for the morning, a one-way to Copacabana. The old man in line in front of me speaks in stumbling Spanish to the woman selling tickets. He is tall and thin, with long ears and a white beard. She is telling him when his bus leaves; he shakes his head and switches to English. Now, she is shaking her head. He unzips his pack, roots around, removes a battered dictionary. 

I step forward and translate the woman’s message for the old man: his bus leaves at eight, he should arrive fifteen minutes before, and his fare, to a destination I didn’t catch, is thirty soles. The woman waits, her hand outstretched, while he counts out the bills. 

Outside on the sidewalk, the old man thanks me and suggests we split a taxi into the city center. 

“Do you have a hotel already?” he asks, and I shake my head, hold up my guidebook and shrug. 

The woman at the ticket counter gave him a flier for a hotel in town advertising rooms with lime-green walls and fuzzy sunlight leaking through the windows. 

“There’s breakfast,” he says, pointing to a picture of toast and a fork and knife at the bottom of the flier. The driver has his window cracked and the lake smells salty, gamy, the sharp cries of looping gulls piercing the air.

 

    We check into the hotel, taking rooms opposite each other, and then the long-eared old man comes and taps on my door and invites me to dinner. I am grateful for the invitation, for in a near-empty hotel room, I have learned, a buzzing bulb can sound so loud. A night can last so long. Outside, the sky has already grown dark. We walk through Puno, past tour agencies and pharmacies and bakeries, past the three-story market as it is closing for the night, women packing up raw chickens and steaks and wiping down white counters. A massive cathedral dominates the plaza, and the old man says, “Let’s go inside.”  

So we slip through the heavy double doors. The cathedral is dim and gorgeous, with old wooden floorboards and an arched, whitewashed ceiling. We admire the shrines of Mary Magdalene, of the Virgin, of Jesus on the cross and then again, bleeding, in Mary Magdalene’s arms. Behind glass panes, we see figures of the saints, the doctors of the church, the disciples. The air is thick with incense. Candles flicker before every statue. Our feet creak over the floor, and a few people in pews turn their heads. Their eyes move past me and settle on the old man, whose legs and arms cast long shadows against the church’s soaring beams. 

 

    We eat our dinner at an upstairs café on Puno’s main drag. We order trout with avocado and salad and French fries, and the old man invites me to share a bottle of wine. He orders red and the wine tastes thick and good, warming us.

“Tell me about yourself,” he says, and so I say that my journey began eight months ago in Guatemala. I tell him my pack gets heavier every time I leave a place, and then, after a second glass of wine, I admit that sometimes I miss home so badly I can’t think. I’ve come this far, I say to him, yet sometimes all I want is a familiar face, a familiar room, a meal I’ve had before. I miss my mom, I admit. The old man listens gently, taking tiny bites and savoring his wine in little sips. He refills our glasses, mine first. 

    When his turn comes to talk, he explains that he is German and has traveled much: he rode his bicycle for seven months from China to Athens a few years ago. He’s seen all of Europe, much of North America, some of Asia, a little of Australia.  He’s been in Peru since May, with another two months scheduled in South America. 

“In my previous life, I was a civil engineer,” he tells me, but he never mentions kids, or a wife, or a house. He says only that his German home is near the Black Forest, and that it is very beautiful there.

    He tells me that he spent one night on the Isla del Sol, the most sacred island on Lake Titicaca. He woke early in the morning, and he couldn’t get back to sleep. So he packed his bag and left the hostel and walked. 

    “How wonderful it felt,” he says. “I am an old man, and there I was, walking in the moonlight, alone.” He grins, remembering. 

    “I’m an old man,” he says again, “and I was free.”

 

    It’s hailing as we make our way back to the hotel. This makes the old German man laugh.     “Snow!” he exclaims. “Rain!” When we get back to the hotel, he gives me a kiss on the cheek, and then a long, tight hug. “I like to feel you,” he says, but I’m not embarrassed for him. It’s not so bad, a hug. My hotel room has lurid green walls, a buzzing bulb, traces of stale cigarette smoke leached into the bedcovers and the carpeted floor. 

“Good night,” I tell the old man, and watch him cross the hall and enter his room, a room identical to mine, and close the door.

 

Kate McCahill’s essays have been featured in Best Women’s Travel Writing and Best Travel Writing (Travelers’ Tales), The Lowestoft Chronicle, Wellesley Magazine and elsewhere. Born in Lake Placid, New York, McCahill now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is a member of the English faculty at the Santa Fe Community College. Read more at www.katemccahill.com.

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