Thursday, October 18, 2012

Iquitos, Peru: Hostel Birthday Party

One can easily slip into what one man on the road in Bolivia called "hostel culture." I'm sure he didn't think up that expression himself, he being seriously mentally ill, incipient schizophrenia being my diagnosis, and was falling ever deeper into madness by the day in his isolation from Bolivians and his fellow Americans at a hostel in Sucre. What small hope he had of surviving his bouts with bouncers at a local brothel came from what little help he would accept from those of us who value a compatriot simply because he is one of ours. He was at a hostel among us, and as repulsive and mad as he was, we did what we could to keep him from being killed. And then, as happens so often, he left to plunge into his own fate. There is so much one can do and so much one will do, and then it is up to life to sort out the mad. But life can provide, and for the traveler, life provides hostels.

I find myself often in need of company, and hostels give me a chance to live among friends and adopted families, if for only some short time, and give me a centre in life otherwise lacking. Take, for example, a birthday party, mine being solitary as a rule, though I have had a few over the years by chance-- at hostels.

The thin fellow in the photo above works at the hostel in Iquitos where I now reside in some limbo-like life of a myopic traveler. My friend's name is John. I need his company to make my life worth the effort. John and I sit and chat in the evenings when I can't sleep and he has to sit up all night in the courtyard to mind the front gate, letting in and out anyone who requires his key.John pretends to work, as we used to say in the Soviet Union, and Xavier [seated next] pretends to pay him. I sometimes slip John a bottle of soda or buy him a pack of the brutal black Amazonian tobacco, mapacho, for sale at Belen Market. John's gratitude makes me wince.

John is part of this extended hostel family, the lowest man on the totem pole, as it were, he being the cleaner during the day, the night watchman when no one else is around, and the skinny guy who probably doesn't have as much to eat as he might like. But on his birthday he is the man. Those of us who stay here on some long-term basis know him and like him and we are part of his birthday party.

Paula, my pal, cooks and cleans and tends to things like a mother of three, now all grown and gone, Paula being the school teacher who goes off into the jungle for days at a time to teach the kids French and German and painting and crafts of various sorts. I've gone with her, and I found there family, too. But the hostel for now is my closest place to call a home, and during dinner we bond ever more.

One hears, or more likely reads, of "racism" in Peru. I still have no idea what it means. I could ask my friend Jorge, but I suspect he too would be clueless. We just live, and today we have a birthday party for John. There is no distinction here between who is native and who is foreign. We all eat the same cake.

John served in the military, and it was less than pleasant, John not being able to rise to the level of professionalism that the navy requires in this maritime nation of ocean and rivers, and thus his time was hard. He fits in at the hostel as a man without rank in a rankless environment of travelers, a Ph.D. candidate and his M.Sc. companion as happy to share a meal with him as we others are.

Juan Carlos, to the best of my knowledge, has no Ph. D., and he too is happy enough to sit with John and have a birthday dinner. Juan Carlos lives much of the time in the jungle. When he is with us in the city he is one of us. Our cake is his cake.

Being a man of good manners and proper upbringing I thanked our gracious hostess for going to the supermarket to bake us a cake for John's birthday party. I was trying to kiss her to show my sincerity but her husband kept getting in the way. So I thanked him for making the box the cake came in. Living in a hostel requires one pay close attention to manners and social conventions. I do.

Greedy cake pig that I am I ate my slice and wanted another, but by then the cake had disappeared into some back room. I looked at John's piece on his plate. We all had finished our meal and John was still lingering over his dessert, savouring each bite with such a dramatic flair that I realised that he was showing us all his appreciation for this recognition of his life. To me and the others it's just a piece of cake, but to John, a man who has very little in life, it is a matter of place, his being low, and he wanted us all to know, to see quite clearly, that he thanks us for this small favour. I could be angry at him for being so grateful, but I am grateful to him for the small favour of his company in my life so far from my own home forever. It's hostel life, a day or a week or sometimes a few months of friendship, and then we part. John will have other birthdays, none with me present, and I will fall into a ditch somewhere and be lost. Today, birthday celebration day, I have a friend who makes me happy.

Happy birthday, John.

This is, in fact, not John's birthday. I am behind in my writing, and I post now because Paula and I were out for strawberry ice cream and a sit down by the fountain at the Plaza Mayor among young families strolling in the warm evening air after a rainstorm, and I told Paula how much I despise a woman who comes around the hostel to scam and pinch and weasel, all of that making me long for good company at home, for John's company, and Paula's and that of others. Tomorrow it's breakfast, and later it's lunch. And when the day is done, we will have dinner. Another day passing like the great river beside us.  Life goes on.

A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here:

And here are some reviews and comments on said book:

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