I had just finished a three month placement at an orphanage in Cusco, Peru, when I decided to head to the coast. The work I had done in Cusco had been incredible. I felt so attached to the city it was hard for me to leave, but my time was up and my body craved oxygen. Cusco is over 11,000 feet above sea level and I had sucked on enough coca leaves to knock out a TSA agent.
After a short plane ride and twenty eight hours on a coach, I arrived at the coast. The streets were unpaved and the town was small. A few locals were cleaning their front porches and nobody was selling me a magnet with Machu Picchu on it. Perfect.
I was desperate to explore, so I dropped my bags at the hotel and headed out for some lunch. I passed a small cafe and wandered in. It was empty, and I had landed directly at the owner’s feet. Since I am British and awkward, I wanted to leave immediately. Ironically, because I am British and awkward, to leave then would have been a social, physical and emotional disaster. So I sat.
“Everything comes with rice, I see?”
“Si, everything” He replied.
My Spanish was broken and my vocabulary consisted of taxi directions and formal greetings. Surprisingly, the menu was not filled with any of these buzzwords. Unable to decipher the options, I asked him to choose something for me. I’m not a fussy eater, plus he had a nice Lonely Planet mention back in 1998. How bad can this be? Right?
As he walked away from the table he grabbed an apron and headed back to the kitchen. It was at that point I realized he was an owner\cook\waiter combo. A one-man-band, if you will. This worried me. Surely you lose sight of quality if you’re judge and juror.
Thirty minutes later I was presented with a plate of rice, as promised. No surprises there. Alongside the rice lay fifteen dead octopus babies. BIG surprise there.
Their limp little bodies lay deflated on my plate. Upon further inspection, I realized they were also sporting small purple beaks. If you don’t know what an octopus beak is then Google it. Yeah. They exist, and my plate was now home to fifteen. Not fried, or covered in a sauce, but slowly lulled to death by a warm fish juice. How to eat fifteen small animals without crying? I managed to chew the legs off about seven. The remaining eight needed to be hidden; under rice, under plates, under anything. The owner wandered over for some feedback.
“Delicious. Very unusual” I said. With a hint of ‘WHY DID YOU SERVE ME A PLATE OF FACES?’
“I’m very happy” He replied. Well good for you.
My table was riddled with dead sea life and I was eating rice by the fistfuls. It wasn’t glamorous, this was not a concern. I left, hungry and sweating, and headed back to my hotel.
Damn you, Lonely Planet.
That night was not as expected (or perhaps completely as expected). A few amoebas had jumped into the mix, and now my body was riding a wave of regret. I don’t remember much. A violent fever had taken hold and I was fairly unresponsive. At one point I was trying to retrieve my ‘lost limbs’ from around the room before the ‘door people’ claimed them as their own. This sums up the next few hours of my night until I awoke to sweat and clarity. Home. I packed up my stuff and wobbled to the bus depot, still slightly feverish and pale. The bus driver gave me a ticket and a look of fatherly concern.
The journey was sixteen hours back to Lima. It might as well have been two hundred. The man next to me ate vacuum-packed omelets, on the hour, every hour. Of course.
I longed for Cusco and the time I had spent there. My beautiful trip had ended up in the hands of six million amoebas.
I landed in New York the following day, smelling of seafood and coca leaves. I’m surprised I wasn’t held in a contamination pod by the US officials.
Everyone should visit Peru, or any other country for that matter, because they’re beautiful and unique and filled with wonderful people. Just remember, if you’re British and faced with something uncomfortable – smile, eat what you can, and leave politely with your amoeba.