Welcome to Pisco
As mentioned previously, I planned to go from the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu to the modern ruins of Pisco, Peru.
A bit more background on Pisco and Pisco Sin Fronterras (aka PSF, the non-profit where I was slated to volunteer for two weeks) in a bit. This post is a bit more of a narrative (with no pictures, as it was all in the dark of night… and in an environment where displaying anything of value would have resulted in a guaranteed mugging).
So, the journey to Pisco:
1. Step one is a bus from Lima to Pisco, which is a relatively straightforward, if unpleasant, four hour endeavor.
2. I arrive at the Pisco bus station around 9pm. The place screams dodgy. Think dark, shadowy, with lots of shady looking characters everywhere.
3. I find a taxi driver that looks like he will not kidnap me (i.e. he could be my grandfather). We negotiate a rate and head off. He claims to know the location of PSF.
4. Some thirty minutes later, we are stopping random people on the street asking if they know where PSF is located. Example #849 of people always answering yes to any question in Peru.
5. After multiple queries of random street folk, we finally find PSF. I grab my luggage and knock on the door. No answer. It seems eerily quiet. I knock again. No answer. I emailed the day before to confirm my arrival, but never received a reply. The taxi driver is getting impatient. Young men in hoodies lurk menacingly.
6. After almost ten minutes of futile knocking, I ask the taxi driver if I could borrow his cellphone. “Sorry, no credit” comes the reply. He suggests I go to the gas station across the street and use the pay phone.
7. Imagine the sketchiest gas station you have ever visited. Multiply by three. I put some coins into the phone and dial the PSF number. No answer. I try again two more times with the same result.
8. It is now around 10pm in a town that resembles Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I’m alone with a taxi driver who speaks no English and is rapidly tiring of playing chaperone. I have not seen a single other hotel in the city. I don’t quite panic, but I definitely feel a wave of helplessness washing over me.
9. As I’m about to ask the driver for a safe place to stay for the night, two people covered in red body paint walk up to me and ask me what I’m looking for — in a British accent. They say they are volunteers at PSF and that everyone else is down by the beach for a burning man party. I’m relieved to have been rescued, but no less skeptical of the overall endeavor.
10. I thank (and tip) the taxi driver, drop off my bags, and we take a tuktuk to the beach. I’m told to never walk alone in town after 6pm, no matter what (even in a group), and never to carry anything of value. Volunteers have been robbed walking across the street to buy a bottle of water — in a group. Fantastic.
11. We arrive at the beach, which more reminiscent of a Jersey construction site dump than paradise. Much of the rubble from the earthquake was dumped on the beach out of convenience. Everyone is intoxicated and most are cross-dressed. Coming off a ten hour (sober) journey from Cuzco, I have a hard time getting into the party mood. My newfound British saviors sense this and bring me back to PSF headquarters.
12. When walking in the door, I’m greeted by a cross-dressed Australian wearing little more than ladies underwear. He wants to give me a tour of the place. Sensing danger, the Brits say they’re going to take me to their place (a second PSF property) to stay, as it is supposedly a bit less chaotic there (which in my mind seems to be a low bar to surpass).
13. We arrive at the other property, the “school house”. The room consists of a number of bunk beds crammed together with a piece of plastic sheet separating the bathroom. I didn’t expect much, but this was pretty basic.
14. I ask my British friends what I should know about Pisco and PSF. At this point, I am already wondering what I have gotten myself into and mentally working out how I can get on the first bus out of Pisco the next morning. Most of the conversation centers on digestive illnesses. During the earthquake, the water and sewage pipes mixed together. The city has been perpetually sick since then. Parasites are the norm, as is e.coli (more on this later). PSF had a massive typhoid outbreak the month before. Dysentery is not uncommon. I have a strong stomach, but for some reason the thought of parasites in particular freaks me out.
15. We go to bed around midnight. I am freezing cold since there were no extra blankets and put on a motley array of random clothing for warmth. The person below me has a snore resembling a freight train that suddenly has a massive engine failure every five minutes or so. Stray dogs are barking wildly outside. Mattress coils are poking into my back.
At this point, the overwhelming feeling I have is a desire to flee; more so than I can recall having at any other moment on the trip (even Cotopaxi). These people seem crazy and life seems awful. I’m leaning toward making up some excuse the next morning and hopping on the first bus back to Lima.
The next morning, I decide to give it one day. Sometimes the hardest experiences are the ones you learn the most from, I tell myself… not particularly reassured.