Sometimes I forget to breathe when I’m on the Chama buses. It’s not until I start to feel that euphoria from lack of oxygen that I realize I haven’t been respiring for nearly eight blocks. The bus I take to and from the classes in Surco is the IO-50. The IO-50 is like those toy cars popular in the 1980s and 90s—Micro Machines--only smaller.
Wednesday morning I flag one down and take a seat next to the window. I’ve just gotten off the phone with my sister for our weekly Wednesday chat. She was complaining about work and the weather and college loans. The usual. With that in my mind it feels like a growling day. There’s a dark mass over me and it’s not just the normal Lima overcloud.
"Please have your fares in hand,” the Cobrador says.
I pass him 2.50 soles and say, “Caminos Del Inca.”
He glances at the coins in his palm. “It’s two eighty,” he says.I look at him. I’ve taken this bus every day now for a week and I know the fare is 2.50. Katrina has taken this bus who knows how many times and she’d told me the fare was 2.50. I reach in my bag to get thirty more cents and then stop. I shake my head at him and he leaves me alone. I’m irritated. Just because I’m a gringa doesn’t mean you can try and get extra money out of me.
I smolder a little. I hold a tirade in my head. It starts to get riotous up there. Stormy.
Several blocks later, another woman gets on.“Please have your fares in hand,” the Cobrador says as he twists his body around to collect the money.
The woman hands her fare over and tells him the street.“It’s two twenty,” he says.
“It’s not,” she replies.“It’s two twenty,” he repeats. “Señora, to that street, it’s two soles twenty.”
“It’s not. Every day I take this bus and it’s always two soles. I’m not paying you any more. You have the fare. It’s two soles only.”I remember to breathe and I let the cloud over my head dissipate. I watch it vaporize and disappear into the ether. It wasn’t racial discrimination after all. He tries to overcharge everyone. I adjust myself more comfortably on the seat. I shouldn’t get upset anyways.
Class with Giancarlo goes well. He wants to talk more and read more and gain more vocabulary. In order to facilitate these wants I had printed out an article I StumbledUpon from a guy who listed 18 things he wished someone had told his eighteen year old self.GC and I make it through the introduction and the first item. Which is: Allow yourself to make
“I don’t understand this,” he says.
We break the words down and then talk about the overall meaning. It takes a moment, but then he gets it.“Tell me what it’s saying,” I say.
“In English or in Spanish?” He gives me a “how much can I get away with?” kind of look.“In English.” I give him a “not much, but good try,” look back.
He smiles and says, “You have to be a beginner at some point in everything. There’s a first time when you talk, when you learn a sport, when you make love.” He glances at my face to see if I react to this example. I don’t. “You can’t be afraid of being laughed at, you have to try.”“Very good,” I say.
When class is over I walk back to a park I discovered the day before when the Chama I was riding took a detour to try and avoid construction traffic. I cross the grass and sit up against a tree while I eat my lunch. I’d read ahead and know that Number 12 on the Eighteen Things List is Sit Alone in Silence for at Least Ten Minutes Every Day. So I do. I close my eyes. I clear my mind. I inhale and exhale. The sound of traffic is the white noise of the city. Even the honking of horns and the occasional car alarms somehow blend together to create a sweet cacophony. And then I hear it. Something magical. Something I thought I’d lost forever when I stopped being a Country Girl and moved to the Big Bad City. Birdsong. Even in Lima, still, the birds sing.
A while later, I pack up my things and walk down Caminos Del Inca, turn right on Velasco Astete and take a left on Reynaldo de Vivanco. I’ve already made friends with the gated community door guard. He teased me yesterday when I walked past the house and then two seconds later came trudging back. Well, wha ha happened was… the guys working on painting the garage doors that I used as my signal to cross the street had moved down a house. That’ll teach me to use redecorating as a landmark. “You didn’t get lost today,” he says.
“Not today,” I reply. I mean, after all, I learn from my mistakes.The class with Ivonna is fun. We play a flashcard game with words she and Katrina had compiled over their many classes together. Ivonna has to read the word in Spanish and tell me the English translation. I have to read the word in English and give the Spanish equivalent. We each have an equal amount of cards. The ones we don’t know count against us. Whoever knows more words wins the round. We’re playing best out of five.
“Round one!” Ivonna calls out.
“Who will win the first round?” I ask in an announcer’s voice.Ivonna laughs.
“Are you ready?” I say with building enthusiasm.“Yes!” she says. “I am ready to win!”
She beats me with five unknown out of forty-five total words to my eleven unknown out of forty-five. I think I might be getting more out of this class than she is. We play through all the rounds and she beats me soundly. In all fairness to me, she’s seen these words before. I learn “asqueroso (revolting)” and “chueco (crooked)” and “herramientas (tools)” among others. I hope her parents don’t realize that their nine year old daughter is teaching the Sub and decide to charge me for the classes instead of paying me.Children, as a rule, love to teach adults. I’ve found this to be true on more than one occasion. I also think that when they feel they are contributing they end up learning more. The lesson becomes a circle instead of a single straight line. Children want to succeed and learn and they also want others to succeed and learn too. Ivonna is no exception. She is a great teacher because she doesn’t judge the same way many adults do when mistakes are made. This wouldn’t matter to me, of course, since I live by rule Number One of the Eighteen Things. Ivonna is also great because she lets me ask as many questions as I want (which incidentally is Number 13 on the list: Ask a lot of Questions).
Her dad, Ivan, comes in close to the tail end of our time. It’s weird to get a kiss on the cheek from a student’s father. Ivonna tells him we’re playing a word game and I try to act professional like I’m in charge. “Ivonna is doing very well,” I say. Which translated means: “Your daughter is totally kicking my butt at this game.”
He leaves us to finish up.
Between the two of us we’ve conquered a multitude of words by the end of class. I bid her goodnight, bid her parents goodnight and go out in the rain to catch a Chama IO-50.“It’s just started to rain,” the gate guard tells me. “Where do you live?”
“In Jesus Maria,” I tell him.“Oh. Do you have far to walk to catch a bus?”
“No, just up to Caminos Del Inca. The buses go from there all the way to Jesus Maria.” I zip up my coat and cross my arms against the chill. “See you tomorrow.”“Cuidate,” he tells me. “Chau.”
“Chau.”I don’t have to wait for very long before the Chama comes. Palm down with my hand bending at the wrist, I fan my fingers toward me in the Peruvian bus stopping gesture.
The IO-50 swerves over to the curve. “Sube, sube (get in, get in),” the Cobrador says. The bus is moving before I’m completely inside. I’m lucky to get a seat. I cozy in for the fifty minute ride and think about the things I need to get from Metro. Carrots for my dinner, sugar for my Saturday Class students’ coffee, maybe a bottle of red wine for after my dinner. At each stop the bus fills up or empties out. At Ricardo Palma the passenger in the front seat disembarks and the Cobrador offers the seat to one of the older ladies crammed in the back. She doesn’t take it. When the Cobrador’s not paying attention she tells the person next to her, “A mi dale miedo a estar en frente (It scares me to be in the front).” Which I find to be funny since the front seat has a seatbelt and the back seats don’t. Maybe it’s safer to be belted in by bodies.
We’re jolting and jiving along. But then we pull up to a light right behind another IO-50.
Oh no.One day soon I’m going to ask one of the Cobradors approximately how many buses (ie., the IO-50) run each route. I don’t know how many there are, but when they encounter each other on the road, the race is on for who can get in front and get the fares.
It’s like the Indy 500 only with about two millions cars, five million big buses, four million chamas, 7.5 million pedestrians, some crazy-as-heck-bicyclists, and about double that number in roaming dogs.
This driver is already a little wild, but with the incentive to win, he’s taking chances that would freeze Satan’s blood, I nearly cross myself and say a prayer. Then I realize I’m not Catholic and that it’s been eight streets and I’m not breathing.
I chant the words to Anna Nalick’s song and then I smile. It’s just incredible that I’m here. In Peru. Living this life. Being. Doing. Existing. Absorbing. Imagining. Writing. And, through it all, breathing just breathing.