When I’d ask my mother about him, she would immediately change the subject or regurgitate her usual responses, “I already told you, he’s dead.” I never believed her. I’m glad I didn’t.
By the time I was 18, my oldest sister arrived to the U.S. from Peru. In one of her conversations with my mother, she mentioned my father had visited her a few years prior to inquire about us. She told him that my mother and his two daughters, Olivia and I, had moved to the United States to start a new life. As she continued relaying the story, she described him as having aged tremendously, her exact words were, “He was unrecognizable – he looked like a man of about 65.”
Instantly, two thoughts crossed my mind, one: he was still alive, and two: he didn’t forget about us. I didn’t feel elated as perhaps an orphan may have upon discovering the news she had living a parent – I felt vindicated, and validated, but more than all, I felt confident one day I would run into him.
1999 was an awesome year for many of us who saw the turn of the millennium as a significant timeline in our lives. For me, it meant a year to return home after 17 years, and the time to find out more about my father. My journey would commence at one of the places my mother talked about most – one of the highest mountains in the world, Cuzco, Machu Picchu. In many of her stories, she would discuss the popularity my father had among the locals in Cuzco. As she would say, “his fan club began there.” Although my mother wasn’t aware of my true intentions – she was kind enough to have paid for my trip. She thought this was the best Christmas gift she could give me since I always talked about returning home.
I’ll never forget the day my ex-boyfriend Mark and I landed in Cuzco. The small city was in total chaos – unraveling before the preparations for the New Millennium. The ratio of tourists to the locals was approximately 12:1, commercial trucks shared one-car roads with the llamas, mattresses being carried on people’s heads – the madness and commotion reminded me of a crazy Mardi Gras evening, but a lot less colorful.
Our tour guide suggested Mark and I go to our hotel room to rest and to drink some mate the coca (coca tea). Gracefully we followed, but unfortunately we found ourselves sharing a deep connection with the mattresses earlier seen on the streets. Our newly erected hotel had yet to be furnished – so as a result, we were forced to use our rest period to find a descent hotel to accommodate us.
We barely made our two o’clock tour bus bound for Sacsayhuamán, another Incan spot. Once there, I watched Mark move ahead of me to hike the ruins before us. As I tried to keep up with him, I began to feel a shortness of breath – in fact, by the time I had reached the top of a small pyramid – I was certain I was having a heart attack. Here I was thinking … oh shit! this can’t be happening … no freaking way I returned here to die! The rapid chest pains and my gasping for air were unbearable. I looked for help, but no one was around me. My eye lids were blinking faster than the heart beat of a six week fetus, and right there and then, all I could think of was YOGA – do YOGA exercises!!! So … I began to pace my breathing as I struggled to take in more air. I still don’t know how I managed to count mentally, but I pep-talked myself into regulating my breathing.
I was not alone in my misfortune. Mark was almost rushed to the hospital later that evening. His fate struck him right after dinner…
The next day, we got up early to tour Cuzco and to do a little investigation about my father’s whereabouts. I tried to recollect to the best of my ability some of the places my mother had mentioned in earlier conversations … the shops around plaza de armas, the ambassador hotel, old fabric shops, bars, even city hall to find out or inquire about a crazy, old Brazilian who had settled there over 25 years ago. I knew my chances were slim and for a brief second, I experienced a feeling that I’d been casted to play a role in a horrible B-movie about a woman looking for her long, lost father …
So if this was my movie, I was going to determine the ending. I was not leaving Cusco without giving my very best effort. Since nothing turned up, we carried on as regular tourists: we shopped and dined the rest of the evening.
The following morning we were to leave for Machu Picchu. We had been waiting in our hotel lobby for our tour guide. 11:00 a.m. came quicker than expected, and there was no sign of our guide. I called the agency, and our guide had not been informed that Mark and I had changed hotels. When he finally arrived, he told me that if we didn’t hurry we would miss the last train leaving for Machu Picchu, and the following train would not leave for another two days. We jumped inside his beetle Volkswagen and took off for the train station. As soon as we arrived, we bolted for the platform area, but the doors had just closed. The train was in motion and in route to Machu Picchu without us; it couldn’t be stopped! I screamed, STOP THE TRAIN, STOP THE TRAIN … Mark chimed in … the locals standing nearby looked at me as if I was a lunatic. I looked at the tour guide, and he stood motionless shrugging his shoulder. I asked him, “where is the next train stop?” – he said about 2.5 Kilometers away.
I grabbed Mark’s hand…and said, let’s go! We got back inside the beetle and sped off … but not even ½ a mile into our journey, we were forced to stop. A catering truck was unloading their serve ware into a restaurant while taking up the entire road to do it. I was going nuts!!! Here we were trying to catch the last train to Machu Picchu right before the New Year and we were being hindered by some evil inertia. The guys didn’t know what to do so I put my traffic police hat on and began to direct them. I told Mark and our tour guide to step out of the car and to help the guys to unload. Actually, we all did… and the truck finally moved on.
We arrived at our final destination: a pole with some sort of sign hanging from it. I asked the tour guide, “This is a train stop?” He said, “Yes! – but usually people don’t board from here.” I continued, “How are they going to know we need to board?” He said, the train will probably slow down and you’ll have enough time to jump in. “What? This is crazy!” I said, but Mark said, “No, this is fun!” I felt for a second we had somehow ended in a sequel of an Indiana Jones film… and sure enough that’s exactly what ended up happening. The train approaching began to slow down when the tour guide signal the conductor … we threw our luggage inside first and then we jumped in …
I couldn’t believe it … We actually made it!!! We were going to experience the change of the millennium on top of Machu Picchu
The encountering of so many obstacles made me feel more confident that something was about to happen. I didn’t know how or when, but it was an unexplainable feeling continuing to grow within.
Hours later, we arrived at Aguas Calientes, a small town at the foot of Machu Picchu. From there, we would be bussed to the top of the mountain.
When we entered the halls of Machu Picchu, I anticipated something great would happen – in fact; I was looking for something out of the ordinary to occur, but nothing did. I walked to an isolated area and sat by myself. I leaned on my arms as I reclined myself to look at my surroundings and at the sky … and for the first time I experienced nothing –the most perfect silence I had ever taken in. The world stood still for elongated seconds and I was a part of that…my only contribution to that moment were the thoughts I left behind.
On the train back to Cuzco, I leaned my head on Mark’s arm. He asked me, “Are you disappointed about your dad?” I responded, “I don’t know…- maybe this is a journey of acceptance.”
Suddenly, a gray-haired man entered our wagon and started to walk towards us … the mental blurry visions of my father became clearer and slowly my lower jaw began to drop. I felt the temperature inside the train turned cold … Mark asked, “What’s the matter?” I looked at him, and said, “That man looks like my father.” He said, “no way” … I rebutted “Yes, he does … and if he sits right next to us, I’m going to shit on myself.” The stranger took the seat across from us and smiled when he looked at me. Neither Mark nor I could believe it.
For the first time in my life, I was speechless – the motor mouth expelled the same silence experienced on top of the mountain! My eyes did all the work.
My eyes took turns looking across and below … and he finally caught me staring at him. I was so embarrassed I didn’t know what to do. The temperature suddenly cranked up as I felt my cheeks turned apple-red. I breathed in and said, I’m sorry … you remind me of someone I used to know. The stranger replied in perfect Spanish, “really?” “Yes,” I said … “someone from long time ago” He chuckled, took a deep breath and said, “He must have been a lucky man.”