My last day in Peru, I had a wonderful breakfast with Carmen and Francesco (my Airbnb hosts from my first stay in Lima) at their place, and then spent most of the day in Miraflores, saying goodbye to my feline friends at Parque Kennedy and doing some shopping for the folks back home. Around 2:00, I struck up a conversation with an older gentleman named Javier; a tarot card reader who met clients in the park for readings. He asked if I was feeling all right, saying that I looked pretty worn out. I told him I was recovering from el soroche (altitude sickness), and that I was bummed out because I had tried to go see the herbalist at the Surquillo market for help but she wasn’t there that day. He stood up, grabbed his bag and held his hand out. “Ven conmigo,” he said. “I know a guy that will get you fixed up in a matter of minutes. He’s that good; his remedies are guaranteed. It’s just two bus rides. Can you make it?” Um, sure. Why not, right?
We made our way to the óvalo, the segmented roundabout where the first bus we needed left from, and soon we were on our way. We managed to get seats together and continued chatting on the way. He had lived in New York for about ten years when he was younger, and had traveled quite a bit throughout the United States. He had recently been back for his son’s wedding, in North Carolina, and showed me a picture of the two of them beaming in tuxes at the reception. I showed him some pictures of my own, as well, and he pointed at one and exclaimed “What are you doing there with my little brother?!?” Apparently there was a strong resemblance between Adam and his brother, who lives in Ohio. “All the pretty ladies choose him,” he cried, “it’s not fair!” We had a good laugh about that, and for the rest of the afternoon he introduced me as his sister-in-law.
Soon we were at our stop, and so we pushed our way through the crowded bus and onto the street, where we started walking towards the market. “This place is kind of crazy,” he said. “Follow me, and keep close.” It was definitely a part of Lima I had not seen before. When we entered the market I was assaulted by the unmistakable smells of raw meat and fresh seafood, as we had entered the fresh foods side of the market. “He’s all the way in the back corner,” he explained. “His daughter has a stand right up here, and she’s good, but he’s the one you really want to see.” We greeted her as we passed, admiring the bundles of herbs and potions she had set up in her stall.
As we entered the man’s small shop, a woman stood at the counter explaining to her husband, who lingered uncomfortably in the doorway, that he would have to buy one of the herbs for her; it was most effective when received as a gift. The herbalist nodded and shrugged, and the man came over and paid the five soles that were due. They said their farewells, and went over instructions one more time, and then Javier introduced me and gave a brief outline of my health issues. “She has a tongue problem,” he started (I had told him I discovered the herbalist at the Surquillo market when I had the strange tongue problems towards the beginning of my trip). “Well, yeah,” I explained, “but that’s pretty much calmed down at this point. My main problem right now is trying to get over a bad case of soroche. I can’t seem to shake it, and it’s awful.” “Stick out your tongue,” the man ordered. “Yes, let’s see this tongue,” seconded Javier, nodding vigorously. I could tell they were dead set on seeing the tongue thing, so I decided not to argue. I stuck out my tongue and both men leaned in for a good look. “Aaaaaahhhhh,” the herbalist mused, “You have a liver problem. Have you been abusing your liver lately?” Well, yeah, actually – I just finished a six month course of anti-fungal meds for a toenail infection I got hiking through the rain forests of Costa Rica the summer before (aren’t you all glad you know about THAT now?!). Anyway, they’re hard enough on your liver that you have to have your levels checked every few months to make sure it’s safe to continue taking them. This guy might be onto something, I thought. He was already doing a better job than the doc I saw at the private clinic (the one who told me that benzocaine was an anti-inflammatory, lol), so I gave him a point here. “Okay,” I agreed. “What do I do for that?” He gave me a package of herbs and verbal instructions on how to make the infusions.
Javier was looking pretty pleased with himself. “See?” he nudged me, “I told you he was good!” “Yes, very good, thank you so much,” I said. “But this altitude sickness…” “Oh, yes, of course,” the man nodded. “I can take care of that right now. Give me your hands.” “Excuse me?” I wasn’t sure I had heard him right. “Never mind, I’ll do it for you if you don’t mind me touching your face and neck,” he offered. Um, okay? He reached into a few jars underneath the counter and began making a neat little stack of various dried herbs in front of me. Once he had the combination he was after, he placed the stack in his hands and began vigorously rubbing them together. Bits of herbs were falling our feet, and the smell was intense. He then dropped what was left of the herbs on the floor and picked up a bottle of liquid to his right. He poured about a teaspoon of the aromatic liquid in his hands, rubbed them together, and suddenly his hands were cupping my face, running through my hair, passing across the back of my neck and over my collarbones. He massaged the mixture into my skin and hair for a few seconds, and then placed his hands over my nose and mouth. “Take some deep breaths,” he murmured. I did. After about twenty seconds of that, he massaged the back of my neck again and then clapped me on the back. “That one was free,” he smiled, “because you really needed it. You should feel much, much better within 10 minutes or so. Now, don’t forget about the liver remedy, okay? Here are some coca leaves for the road. Those will help, too. That’ll be three soles ($1).” Javier was beaming. “He’s the best,” he exclaimed, “just the best, isn’t he?” I thanked the man and paid him, and we left to catch a bus back to Kennedy Park, where Javier had a client waiting.
As we walked down the bustling street, my head beginning to clear and the soroche fog starting to lift, I realized that I was actually starting to feel much better. With my headache fading away, I felt as though I had been released somehow, not just from the grip of el soroche, but from Peru, perhaps, to the life that awaited me back in the States. I was going home. Back at the park, I kissed Javier goodbye, exchanged contact info, and took one final stroll through the downtown area before jumping on a bus back to Casa Nuestra. I had just enough time for a final dinner at Canta Rana and one last walk around Barranco before heading to the airport for my midnight flight home.
I slept most of the way from Lima to Houston, thankfully, and made it through customs with no problems (which was good, since I wasn’t exactly clear what the policy was on bringing back herbs, coca leaves included). On the flight from Houston to Chicago, I talked awhile to the woman seated next to me, a physician from Texas who was traveling with her family to Ireland. I told her a little bit about my time in Peru, and naturally she asked me if I had gone to Machu Picchu. “Of course,” I told her, “and it was amazing. My only regret is that I was so sick at the time.” “Oh, altitude sickness,” she nodded. “That’s tough. You know, it’s a lot like the bends, actually, the way the pressure affects your body. It’s sort of like what happens to divers, but in reverse. It’ll take some time to fully get over it, so go easy on yourself.” I told her I would, and then pressed her and her teenage daughter for details about their impending trip abroad. They were happy to oblige.
Finally back home, it was indeed hard to adjust. I was physically out of sorts, I missed Peru, and it was strange to be surrounded by my lover’s things (he had just moved in before he left) when he was not yet back from his residency in New York. Another adjustment in altitude made me feel worse rather than better, and when Adam’s flight home was delayed for a day, I felt like things were moving further out of focus. As I would soon find out, they were.
I knew something had changed when I picked him up on the airport. It was like a flip had been switched, placing him on one side of an invisible line and me on the other. We fumbled around awkwardly for the next few hours, trying to force a sense of normalcy, but something was obviously wrong. Later that night, he made dinner and we finally got down to it. As it turns out, my ever-so-patient, oh-so-perfect, sweet-as-can be boyfriend wasn’t so perfect or patient or sweet, after all. As so many of us are during points in our lives, he has proven in this chapter of his to be weak, and selfish, and plagued by doubt and fear. He is also no longer mine, if he ever really was, a fact that I am slowly coming to terms with.
Moving so quickly from the dizzying heights of the heart of America to these unforeseen, unmeasured depths, I have felt shaken, unbalanced, outside of myself. Like the bends in reverse, I thought at one point, a shock to the system from sinking so fast, plummeting so quickly into this subterranean space of despair. It has not been a graceful fall, I admit, and at times I have been ashamed of the version of myself that I became during the days that followed. In many ways, it has served as a painful reminder of all the ways in which I have been labeled as excessive in my lifetime: too big, too wild, too sensitive, too intense. In almost all ways, simply too much. And yet somehow, inexplicably, also not enough.
But still, I refuse to tame either myself or my feelings, or to will myself to the surface quite yet. I will not force a sense of balance or steadiness that is not yet mine to claim. As psychoanalyst Adam Phillips maintains in On Balance, it is that which most unbalances us that signals what matters to us most; in this case, the value I place on love, honesty, compassion, and kindness. Discovering these things to have been feigned in exchange for that which I gave of myself so fully, I do not yet know how to steady myself. I don’t believe that one should. According to Phillips, a forced assumption of balance is not necessarily beneficial, either. In his view, “it is not always clear in which areas of our lives it is realistic (or even optimistic) to aspire to the balanced view; or indeed in which parts of our lives the balanced view helps us to get the lives that we want. Balancing acts are entertaining because they are risky, but there are some situations in which it is more dangerous to keep your balance than to lose it.”
In reflecting on the risks of emotional balancing acts, I have again come face to face with one I have encountered before: that of defining myself through my relationships with others. This trip has reminded me, as have so many others over the years, that I am more than capable of walking alone, and of finding joy in all sorts of different relationships and experiences. I have learned languages, climbed volcanos, hiked the Andes, explored Machu Picchu, and done a whole bunch of things that scared the living daylights out of me, pushing my boundaries further than I ever thought possible (that mile-long zipline in Monteverde is still towards the top of the list, by the way, though arguing with a bunch of soldiers pointing guns at my head in Barquisimeto just might have that beat). I’ve met some truly amazing people, felt intense love for those around me, and learned what real gratitude is, all on my own. I’ve found my own way and solved my own problems and come out a stronger, more self-reliant person on the other side. I’ve learned that I don’t need to be partnered to be happy, and I certainly don’t need validation from others to measure my self-worth. Perhaps the real danger to be revealed here, then, is the act of balancing myself too comfortably against someone else; allowing another’s love for me to validate my own. When that person suddenly moves away, as this one has, it’s impossible to remain standing. Well, no more. I’m tired of falling down. It’s not lost on me that this works both ways, of course, and that the particular balance I might provide for someone else might also be revealed to be falsely steadying. Perhaps Adam needed to move away from me and from a committed relationship to find his own two feet; I sincerely hope that he finds his own balance in the process. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt, of course, or that I don’t wish things had turned out differently. There are many things I would change if I could. But here we are anyway, at the end of the road. Luckily for both of us, there are a countless number of paths to follow from here, and an infinite number of them lead to happiness.