I blurted it out as a desperate joke after I got robbed on a night bus between the lush jungle town of Puerto Maldonado and the dusty, wasteland of Juliaca near Lake Titicaca in Peru. My money belt had been stolen, including my bank cards, a credit card, my remaining cash plus my Peruvian immigration card and yellow fever immunization card. The only identification they didn’t get was, thankfully, my passport. In my desperation, I blurted out to my father over Skype, “Maybe I’ll have to resort to playing my flute on the street-side with an upturned hat in front me, so I can at least eat today.” But then a light bulb blinked on in my brain and I thought to myself, ‘Just a minute, that ain’t such a bad idea really. Other people do it, so what’s stopping me?’
Shyness is what often stops me from playing my flute in public. When I was 11 years old I learned to read sheet music, but never really learned to play by ear. As a result, I have been confined inside a structure of staffs, treble clefs, and a series of different-length notes all strung together into a neatly tied set of tunes. I always envied those musicians who could pick up an instrument and confidently throw a series of random notes together into a brilliant sounding piece just from intuitive memory. That wasn’t an option for me this day, but fortunately, along with my flute, I packed my Lord of the Rings and easy rock sheet music, as well as some backtracks that I previously loaded onto my iPod and a cheap portable speaker that I picked up from Walmart. All of this, plus a good dose of desperation, forced me out onto the street that day, only the street wasn’t my stage. It was the path that led me to it.
It wasn’t until I attempted to visit the toilet in Juliaca that I realized I had been robbed. Before I was able to walk anywhere near the toilet stalls, I was told by a woman manning a booth that I needed pay one Peruvian nuevo sol. What? I had to pay to use the toilet? Believe me, I have discovered it is a common thing over here. However, after digging through my bag I realized my money belt wasn’t among the contents.
In a panic, I ran down the long concrete hallway, veered around the corner to the left and burst outside onto the dry, dusty road. Where was the bus? Quickly, I looked to the left and then to the right. It was parked way down the street at the next intersection, possibly ready to roll around the corner and continue labouring on towards Ariquipa. As fast as my red sandals would take me, I sprinted the stretch of dirt road towards the bus. Luckily, the bus hadn’t moved any further and the door was still open. I launched myself inside, but the seat I had previously occupied was empty and so was the floor in front of it.
What happened? The reel of my memory played back scenes of my bus ride. My money belt had been with me earlier. When the police officer boarded the bus to inspect our passports, I pulled my passport out of it. At that time the money belt, along with all of my electronics, was stuffed inside my salmon-coloured handbag that was stashed down by my feet. The belt really should have been strapped around my waist like it was intended to be, but it was bulky and uncomfortable.
Scene One: Upon boarding, two Peruvian women sat to the right in two seats at the front of the double-seated row of the coach’s double-decker lower compartment. My assigned seat was directly across the aisle from them at the front of the single row. Could one of them have slipped my money belt out of my bag while I was sleeping? It was difficult to get comfortable enough to sleep. In fact, I don’t even think I did.
At the beginning of the long bus ride my body laid sprawled out in a hot, sweaty mess. My wet back slid against the faux leather reclining seat and beads of sweat rolled down my forehead and between my breasts. The jungle air was heavy with moisture and to top it off the air conditioning in the bus wasn’t working. A pamphlet that I had stashed in my handbag became an accordion fan that I needed to continually wave at my face and armpits.
As the bus laboured higher and higher into the Andes, the air became cooler and cooler. A blanket would have been nice or, if I was thinking earlier, the down sweater-jacket, trekking pants and wool socks from my pack. However at that moment those handy items were stuffed inside my backpack which was stored in the depths of the bus’s lower storage compartment, just like my Diamox pills were on the long bus ride from Paracas to Cusco, as I was launching the contents of my stomach into the onboard toilet. Thinking ahead really hasn’t been a consistent trait of mine on this journey, so I sucked it up and suffered the consequences. My body temperature struggled to regulate itself the entire 12 hours between the sweltering mugginess of the closed-in bus compartment early in the evening and the cold thin air of the high Andes in the middle of the night.
Scene Two: My mouth had been quite parched from sweating so much earlier that I bought a second large bottle of Gatorade and a bottle of water at one of the breaks and drank it all, however later on I needed to pee. Everyone on the bus was asleep, or they seemed to be asleep. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Somebody was quite aware of my movements. My handbag was on the floor hidden behind the foot rest. ‘It should be ok sitting there for a few moments,’ I thought. Quietly, I got up and opened the compartment door and stepped out and onto the bus’s lower stairwell platform. I struggled to pull the door to the onboard toilet open.
I wasn’t gone long. Maybe three minutes, but that’s all it would take for someone to pull a money belt out of a bag, right? I might have taken even longer, but when I saw that the toilet was nearly full to the brim with urine sloshing around and that the flushing mechanism wasn’t working, I opted to hold my bladder until we arrived in Juliaca.
Upon returning to my seat, I casually glanced at my bag. Everything seemed to be there. The women were still sleeping, or so I thought. They looked like nice women, but then again I should have known better. You can’t always tell which ones are the rotten apples from the outside.
After mulling over both scenes, I thought it more likely that scene two is how it all went down. Luckily, two travelers who I had met in the jungle, Chris and Tom, were kind enough to pay for my taxi to the mini-bus which took me to a hostel in Puno on Lake Titicaca where I could begin to sort myself out. That’s where I met Musje from Germany. He was in a similar situation, without money, except for him, his bank card wasn’t working. He thought the bank may have put a freeze on it due to possible suspicious activity.
As the saying goes, “the more the merrier”, so I told Musje about my plan to play my flute out in the streets, or at the plaza, and invited him to come along and be the entertainment. I joked with him and suggested he could dance. He laughed and said, “Why not?”
The woman running the front desk at the hostel overheard our plan and she suggested a different place to play, a more unique and bustling place…the cemetery. It seems like a strange and morbid place to play music doesn’t it? One, when I picture a cemetery in Canada, there are not many people bustling about in it and two, the mood is quite somber, so I wouldn’t expect anyone to toss any coins into my hat. However this is a different country with different customs and it just so happens that this day, November 1st, was a celebratory holiday called, “The Day of the Dead”.
Musje and I ventured out to find our way to the cemetery. As we got closer the streets began to bustle with more and more activity with street-side food vendors and flower stands. Further along, a concert band played enthusiastically. Trumpets blasted and drums beat. We reached the gates to the cemetery. It was definitely bustling with activity. Many colourful flowers decorated the stacked plots and grave sites.
We weren’t the only ones who decided it would be a good place to play music. A man played a guitar at a junction in the cemetery pathway and a brass band with a big drum played at the north end of the cemetery.
Musje and I picked a spot far enough away from the other musicians so that my flute wouldn’t clash with the other sounds. It was time. I took a deep breath, sat down beside a plot and prayed that whoever laid under this grassy mound, plus whoever strolled by, would like what I had to share.
With my Lord of the Rings sheet music and flute case laid out in front of me, I turned on my iPod and let the speaker gently deliver the instrumental accompaniment to Gollum’s Theme Song. Quietly, I counted out the rest, brought my flute to my lips and revealed the melody. People stopped to observe and listen. To my surprise, one by one, they leaned down and began dropping coins into my case. Wow! It works and I smiled inside as I played.
“Muchos Gracias!” Musje exclaimed as the coins came in and we looked at each other in amazement and laughed between songs. More and more people leaned down and tossed coins into my case as I continued to play songs such as My Immortal and Stairway to Heaven, which I thought were appropriate songs to play at a cemetery. And what was even more amazing to me is that these weren’t rich tourists with money to toss around. No, these were local Peruvian folks who don’t have as much as a gringa like me is considered to have. I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. People even stopped to share food and beer with us.
The robbery on the bus by the two women had initially put a negative taste in my mouth towards the Peruvian people, but after witnessing the generosity in the cemetery, I snapped out of it. Just like any grouping of people there are those who partake in positive actions and those who partake in negative ones. Which of those actions people choose to partake in is a moral choice, but my experience that day confirmed there are many more people willing to give rather than steal.
Musje and I began to move around the cemetery visiting different families. We had noticed that the brass band moved around and played in front of different plots, so we thought we should do the same. Family members invited us to dance with them and drink beer with them.
Peruvian’s have an interesting custom when it comes to drinking beer. Whereas we would take a bottle of beer only for ourselves, they do not. One person will take a bottle, open it and pour a small amount of beer into a small glass. Then they pass the bottle to another and they salud each other. Sometimes, before the person with the glass drinks, they pour a little bit of beer onto the ground for Pachamama, who is the earth mother the Inca’s have worshiped for centuries. When they finish downing the glass of beer they flick the remaining froth onto the ground and pass the glass on to the person holding the bottle. Then the process repeats with someone else. It was a really neat custom of drinking and sharing.
It didn’t take long to become quite tipsy with all the beer sharing and dancing. Musje and I spent most of our time with one family who was celebrating the life of a father/grandfather. While I was filming the family dancing to the music of a five-piece Mexican-style band, I was pulled into the circle to dance. Musje took the camera from me and continued to film. Take a look. You can also see a little bit of the beer drinking custom in this clip.
We continued to dance, party and socialize with the Peruvian people as we got tipsier and tipsier.
The Peruvian family we spent most of our time with (below) invited us over to their house for dinner that night. We were served an amazing assortment of Peruvian food and continued the beer drinking custom of pouring a little into a glass, passing the bottle, saluding each other, drinking, flicking the froth into a bowl in the middle of the floor and then passing it on.
At the end of the day, I felt so incredibly enlightened by what I had experienced with these wonderful Peruvian people. There was so much love, celebration of family, generosity and companionship. This yearly tradition of celebrating the lives of the loved ones who have passed on is something that I wish we celebrated in Canada. Although we do celebrate the lives of our loved ones after they pass, we don’t celebrate them each year in this same way. It was such an incredibly wonderful day, so I guess in the end, something really good came out of my bad situation.
And, by the way, we made 42 Peruvian nuevo soles that day…enough for 4 meals! Yippee!!