Most places in the world are not dangerous. This is easy for me to say because the places I have traveled through have all been peaceful, leading me paint the rest of the world through my lens of a safe experience. This lens was tested during my recent trip to Peru.
I flipped through bookmarked pages of Vagabonding by Rolf Potts as I left Lima, Peru on a charter bus. I was going to Chilca, a small city outside of Lima, known for its curative mud baths and frequent UFO sightings. Finally putting Lima behind me I was enthusiastic for the unexpected twists and turns that I would surely encounter.
The landscape was a foggy, brown desert placed along side the Pacific ocean. The buildings continued to shrink in size as we left the city, and soon the only man made structures in sight were what I can best describe as shanty towns. I learned that this is the most common form of living in Peru. The contrast between American surplus and Peruvians eking out a living was noticeable during the whole trip.
The bus slowed down and pulled off the road. The driver yelled, “Chilca!” looking directly at me, I suppose because he remembered that I was the only one getting off at that stop. I threw my backpack over my shoulder, maneuvered through the isle, and got off the bus. The door closed quickly behind me, and I thought to myself, hm, this can’t be right.
Most of the world isn’t dangerous, but this idea offered me no comfort as I judged my surroundings. I thought that the shanty towns were slums of Lima, not what all the towns looked like. Most of the houses were made of crumbly bricks slapped together to make anything but smooth, straight wall. Uneven rebar still poked out of the tops the houses. But most of my attention was consumed by the group of men 50 meters in front of me, who, since my arrival two seconds before, began clambering together, obviously discussing their plan to rob me of everything I carried.
I was really scared. I came to terms with having my cash and clothes taken from me, thinking that perhaps my Spanish could convince them to leave me my passport so I could at least return home. With no other options, I marched towards the men. As I approached, to my terror, every single one of them turn whirled around, clearly waiting for me to enter their mugging range. One of the men wearing a Real Madrid jersey started walking towards me and yelled, “Taxi, taxi, caballero!” They were taxi drivers. Every single one of them.
Like what any guy would do, I pretended I knew they were taxi drivers the whole time, and asked to be taken to the nearest hostel. It cost me one sol, and I was there in seven minutes.
After settling down, I couldn’t understand how my first impression of Chilca was so harsh, and how potent the fear was that filled my mind. I am a traveler! I should know how to handle myself in these situations! But this was my first time alone, and despite all my past travel experiences and all I had read, the totally unknown environment and my ignorance to what it feels like to be alone is what caused my emotions to take over.
I spent in Peru, but my fours days in Chilca were undoubtedly the most meaningful. By day, I wandered the surprisingly vast beaches, rocky dunes, and pre-Incan ruins. By night, I participated in lengthy chitchats with shop keepers, learned to ride a motorcycle, and got a feel for a corner of rural Peru. It was an organic adventure free of tour guides, trekking, and over priced bottles of water. Despite the fearful first impression, I left realizing that Chilca, like most of the world, is not a dangerous place.