Hats and Ceiling Fans

Cam had lost his hat.

“I can’t find my hat,” he said.

“Did you have it with you when we left?” I asked him.

“Yeah, I think so.” He looked around, running his hands through his hair.

I looked back down into the valley at the city of Cusco. We’d walked at least three miles uphill since leaving our hostel off the Plaza de Armas in the center of town. It was blisteringly hot. I wiped a film of sweat from my forehead, rubbing my hands on the canvas jacket I’d tied around my waist. A woman, carrying her child in a sling around her back, eyed us as she continued her climb up the brutally steep stairs leading into the mountains. The buildings, houses and small shops, seemed to fit together like chipped Legos, clinging to the hillside like barnacles. Think San Francisco, but dirtier, steeper, and add in a few naked kids and stray dogs.

We were hiking to the Cristo Blanco statue, the more diminutive, lesser known cousin of the Cristo Redeemer in Brazil. It perched on a rise in the hills outside of Cuzco, a derelict guardian to a city that had sold its soul to tourism.

“I can’t believe I lost my fuckin’ hat, man,” Cam said. “Dammit.”

He looked back down the winding path of stairs.

“You think you had it when we bought the apron for Roy?” I asked.

“I dunno man.”

I looked in the plastic bag I was carrying. It held a present for our roommate back home, an apron with the recipe for Pisco Sour, a classic Peruvian cocktail, stitched into the front in Spanish.

“It’s not in the bag,” I said. “You wanna go back and look for it?”

Cam kicked at the dusty cobbles. “Nah, let’s just go back the same way on the way out.”

I bought a litre water bottle from a blind woman squatting in an alleyway, and we continued our climb. The water was lukewarm, but we were used to it. The only drinks we’d had cold since we landed in Lima were beers. Even in grocery stores, the wall-length refrigerators only ran barely below room temperature. The country’s trademark soda, a disgusting piss-colored syrup called Inca-Kola, was served lukewarm without fail. Cam frequently asserted how gross the stuff was, but in spite of this, he managed to guzzle a bottle at least once a day.

“Sorry man, she wasn’t selling any Inca-Kola,” I said as I tossed him the water bottle.

He grinned.

By the time we reached the road at the top of the hill, our shirts clung to our skin with sweat, and we were wheezing like the penguin from Toy Story.

“I gotta stop smoking,” Cam gasped, his hands on his knees.

I tried to respond, but could only wheeze and nod. We’d both been smoking Peruvian black cigarettes, I for the cultural experience and Cam because he smoked a pack a day anyway. They were hand rolled, unfiltered, and they hit your lungs like a sumo wrestler. Cam had bought forty for three soles (about one USD) from a man in the market that morning. He felt obligated to finish them off before we left the country, as we probably couldn’t get them back through customs, and I was trying my best to help him out.

After we’d caught our breath, we began to trudge along the road along the ridge above town, past a few derelict buildings and a small, forlorn restaurant. A man approached from the shadowy doorway of the restaurant.

“You like guinea pig? You try soup? Sopa de verduras? Sopa de pollo?”

“Regresamos en la tarde,” I said in my abhorrent Spanish accent, waving him away.

The small, balding man stepped back into the doorway of his restaurant, bowing obsequiously. A hundred yards or so later, the statue came into view. Arms spread, a thirty foot shawled Jesus gazed sadly down into the Cuzco valley. Several other people were clustered around the base of the statue, snapping photos that would all come out looking rather identical. Cam and I took a couple of pictures of our own, then headed back down the other side.

“We’ll swing back around,” I assured Cam. “I just want to see what these ruins are.”

‘These ruins’ were Sacsayhuamán, an old citadel built in the eleventh century. A few alpacas were munching grass outside the entrance, which was guarded by a leathery woman in a little wooden shed marked Boletas. I sidled up to the alpacas, pretending to take photos with them. When the woman’s back was turned, I booked it for the entrance.

“Ay! Señor! You pay! Trienta soles!”

The woman stormed out of her hut, brandishing a broom. She swiped at my feet, cracking me on the shins with the wooden shaft of her broom.

“Disculpe señora! Disculpe!” I stammered, retreating back to the cluster of alpacas, where Cam was doubled over laughing.

“Alright alright, let’s go find your hat,” I muttered, rubbing my smarting shins.

The wind picked up as we descended the cobbled pathway that led down into the valley. I untied my jacket from around my waist and popped the collar up around my neck. The plastic bag with Roy’s apron in it blew wildly in the wind. I looked up. A mass of gray clouds had barged their way into the clear blue sky we’d been graced with only moments before.

“Looks like rain,” I observed. Cam nodded.

We bought a hunk of cheese and two ears of corn for two soles from a ragged street vendor squatting on the side of the path. Cam pulled out one of the wrinkled paper maps we’d been using to navigate the city.

“I think if we turn left here we’ll run into the stairs we climbed on the way to the Cristo,” he said.

I looked up at the darkening sky. “Sure man, let’s do it.”

The first drops of rain were thick, heavy blobs that dropped from the sky like acorns. They came slowly at first, but within a couple of minutes we were amidst a torrential downpour. We sprinted through the zig-zagging alleyways towards where we thought the staircase had been. We were both soaked to the bone within a handful of minutes. My thick canvas jacket hung wet and heavy, and what felt like a litre of water sloshed around in my sneakers. Cam dashed under a tiny plastic awning, barely a four feet wide, and I followed.

“You still wanna go for this hat?” I yelled over the downpour.

Waves of water were sloshing down the streets towards the town square, some of the side streets were under almost six inches of water at this point.

“No way is it still there, man!”

Cam scowled. “That hat was rare! I got it from a special surf company, it was twenty-five dollars!”

I shrugged. I didn’t care that much. I was already soaked, and we’d come so far back to the east that the route we were taking down was pretty much the fastest way back to the hostel anyway.

Cam pulled out the paper map, which dissolved into a wet, pulpy mush in his hands almost instantaneously.

“I think it’s that way!” he muttered grimly.

He pointed up a staircase across the street, which at this point in time appeared to be closer to a waterfall. Waves of muddy water were flowing down the rounded cobbles, sloshing into the air almost knee high. There appeared to be no quick way up this obstacle, and I knew that if I attempted to run I would end up breaking a kneecap on the slippery cobbles. I looked at Cam, and we started to trudge up the staircase. Band-Aids and beer cans sloshed past my ankles. A long strand of what looked like used toilet paper wound itself around my leg before dissolving. My soaking jacket hung from my shoulders, feeling like a million pounds.

At the top of the stairs Cam pointed down an alleyway. “Down here!”

We headed down the alleyway, running once again, and came out into a large square dominated by a looming church. I recognized this square, and darted quickly into an overhang, where a handful of unlucky Peruvians were huddled. One man with a sad, soggy mustache stared at me. I nodded to him. I turned around. Cam was nowhere to be seen.

I looked around the square, trying to spy any small archways where he might have taken refuge, but I couldn’t see him. I pulled out my phone. It was soaked, and wouldn’t turn on. I knew how to get back to the hostel from here, so I clapped Mr. Sad Mustache on the back and headed out into the rain again. I jogged down the steep road towards the hostel, and soon began to break into a sprint. I wasn’t sure why I was running. I was already soaked to the bone. Out of the corners of my eyes I could see Peruvians huddled under awnings and archways, watching me with a mixture of awe and contempt as I dashed by amidst the downpour. My boots splashed in puddles that seemed to be at least a foot deep. Several times I almost slipped on the cobbles and went down, but I managed to recover my footing and stumble on down the hill. The plastic bag holding Roy’s apron was filling with water, so I dumped it out as I ran.  At one intersection I darted out in front of a car, not because I didn’t see it, but because for some reason I didn’t care. A horn blared at me as I slid across the hood.

Ahead, I could see the Plaza de Armas. Lines of tourists were cowering under the stone walkways ringing one side of the plaza. These Americans and Europeans looked at me just like the Peruvians did. I sprinted past them. I wasn’t tired. I didn’t feel the rain anymore. I hadn’t run like this in years. I was outrunning the rain, outrunning Cameron (wherever he was), outrunning the cookie-cutter people who watched from the archways and overhangs. Most of all, I was outrunning the chronic pain that, since I was fifteen, had slowly crept from my back to my legs to my face. It couldn’t catch me. Not out here in the wet, thick rain that was plummeting down from the skies.

I was running so fast that I ran past the hostel, realized this, and then had a moment akin to something Shaggy would do in a Scooby Doo episode, where my legs kept moving but my body stayed still. This sent me sprawling face first on the wet cobbles, cracking my nose against the raised stoop of a grocer’s shop. I got to my feet and walked inside, kerchief pressed to my bleeding nose.

Cam wasn’t in the room. I promptly took off all my clothes, threw them in a pile against the wall, and climbed onto an empty top bunk in the corner. I lay there naked and looked up at the wooden ceiling fan. It turned slowly, barely stirring up a whisper of a breeze in the little room. One of the blades was broken, stuck on with duct tape. The fan turned and turned and turned. I didn’t follow the blades, I just watched the center, a metal circle, spinning slowly. After a while, it didn’t seem like the fan was moving at all.

Cam arrived, as soaked as I was.

“I lost my fucking hat,” he said dejectedly, and slumped against the wall. He glanced at me.

“Why are you naked?”

I didn’t answer him. I was breathing deep, ragged breaths. I looked back at the ceiling fan. It was still turning.

Cusco, Peru 3/9/17

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