Tell me this gets easier.
Early Wednesday morning I was sitting aboard a plane in Cusco bound for Buenos Aires, surrounded by strangers once again, desperately hoping they wouldn’t notice me sobbing into the seatback in front of me.
The night before, I said goodbye to everyone I’d grown so close to in Peru: my host Manuel, his baby boy Fabio, his wife Stephanie, his father Daniel, and his guest Marko the Estonian. I felt numb. The day had consisted of a 4 a.m. wakeup call, a four-hour tour of Machu Picchu, a train ride to Ollantaytambo, and then a taxi ride back to Cusco late at night. I had no energy left to feel anything.
I was fine just before the Wednesday morning flight, fine as I gave Manuel one last hug before I left his house, fine as I rode in the taxi to the airport, fine even as the plane taxied down the runway–but as soon as its wheels left the ground, out of nowhere, my throat tightened up and hot tears spilled down my face. As I wiped them away with the backs of my hands, I realized what had hit me first only at a subconscious level: I may never see these wonderful people again.
Visiting Cusco was the first time traveling internationally that I felt at home. Every time I’ve gone abroad before–Greece, Italy, Spain, the Philippines–every time I’ve experienced an initial period of disorientation. It never feels right the first night; sometimes I can’t sleep from homesickness. Not so with Cusco. Manuel made me feel at home the second I stepped outside the airport.
I had just gotten used to the routine: greeting Stephanie in the early morning with a quick “Buenos dias” before she rushed off to make breakfast or sweep the floors; walking down the dirt road to the little neighborhood tienda to buy bottled water and sweet empanadas from the lady with the eyes that crinkle at the corners when she smiles; taking a taxi to the Plaza de Armas and practicing my Spanish with the driver; going to San Pedro Market to buy fresh organic fruit smoothies from the woman at stall #62; running into Marko the Estonian in the stairwell or in the kitchen and laughing as he told me stories of his world travels; heck, I was even getting used to the chilly Cusco nights. Just as I was getting into the rhythm of things, it got disrupted.
The night before I left Manuel’s house, I asked Marko how, after six years of traveling the world, he handles the constant goodbyes.
“To be honest,” he said, “I’ve never thought about it before.” He paused for a moment and then shrugged. “It’s just how it is.”
Later that night, Marko and I met in the Wi-Fi room downstairs to say our farewells. The first thing he said was, “Amy, now that you’ve brought it up, I’ve been thinking about goodbyes…” He looked sad and pensive.
“Don’t think about it,” I warned him. It was as though I’d passed my melancholy onto him, like a virus.
“It is hard,” he said. “You meet people–then you leave. But you always meet new people to replace the ones you left.”
Replace. I didn’t like that.
“You will meet more great people,” Marko assured me. “You’ll have fun.”
As a parting gift, I gave Marko a Ghiradelli dark chocolate bar with hazelnuts. He looked genuinely touched. “That’s very sweet of you,” he said as he broke up pieces of the bar and slid them across the table to me. “Tonight, we’ll finish it together.”
I took a piece and chewed slowly because I didn’t know what to say.
“Is this from the States?” he asked me.
“Yeah, I bought some before I left to give as gifts.”
He laughed. “So you were thinking of me even before we met?”
In a way, I was. I anticipated meeting awesome people; I even anticipated the sting of saying our inevitable farewells. At the beginning of anything, I’m always thinking of the end.
We sat in silence for several minutes, while I pretended to work on my computer. I can’t tell you what was going through his mind, but I know what was going through mine. It’s the same thing I wonder every time I meet someone on the road: Will we ever meet again?
For me the hardest part of traveling is leaving–but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Goodbyes are good. They remind us that everyone we know is on loan to us for only a little while. Consider it a blessing to be able to predict a departure, to be able to know it’s the last time you’ll see someone, to be able to tell them how you feel–for there are some people in our lives with whom we’ll never get the chance.
And now I’m in Buenos Aires…
I’ve been here just three days, and already Buenos Aires has fulfilled every Argentinean stereotype I heard before I arrived. Where I was met in Cusco by friendly Manuel who offered a smiling face and a warm, “Welcome to Cusco! Let’s go home!” in Buenos Aires I was met by a stern, handsome man named Javier who gave me a brisk handshake and said, in Spanish, “You’re late.” (Our flight was delayed.) Where Manuel talked to my mom and me and showed us around town during the leisurely car ride home, Javier didn’t say a word as he sped down a packed four-lane highway with a speed limit sign reading “Maxima 100”–at times, Javier broke 120. Where Manuel gave us a full tour of his house and introduced us to everyone there, Javier pulled over into a dark alley and handed us off to someone named Juan Manuel, who turned out to be his brother. Juan Manuel gave us a very quick tour of the house, then left. Needless to say, I don’t think my hosts here in Buenos Aires will be inviting me to any family dinners like Manuel did…
I don’t mean to complain; Buenos Aires is actually, so far, everything I expected: modern, fast-paced, artsy, fashionable. It actually really reminds me of San Francisco–except I can hardly understand a word anyone says here, partly because my Spanish skills are seriously lacking and partly because Argentines have the strangest accents! I’m really regretting not having learned Spanish before coming to Buenos Aires, but alas, this is my punishment.
Oh, Buenos Aires does have one thing over Cusco: It is warmer here.