Thrilled to be in our sketchy Combi- the bane of any Latin American traveler

The following story is a flashback to when I worked with the NGO ProWorld in 2008, an organization that sends volunteers (usually American college students) to impoverished indigenous communities, where they work in tandem with the locals to make change within the neighborhood.  These jobs ranged from assisting with reforestation projects to building clean burning stoves for families.  Every trip was different, but every community had demonstrated a real need for assistance, and willingness to work together with the volunteers to better their region.  The following story is a bit long, so I’ve split it in to two parts, with Part 1 being posted today, and Part 2 following next week.  While I did not fully appreciate this experience at the time, it is now one of my favorite memories from Peru, and has really changed my outlook on life.  Let me show you why…

It was a trip from hell.

The morning started with our group of volunteers obediently waking up at 530 and scrambling to get ready- shivering as we brushed our teeth in the outdoor bathroom before the sun had risen high enough to warm our bodies.  We packed our bags for a several day trip to the entrance of the Amazon, where we were going to provide a free health campaign to the local community there.  Any man, woman or child would be welcome at the clinic, and could receive health and dental care at no cost to them.  ProWorld had arranged for our group of gringas (white women) to work with Peruvian doctors, dentists and lab technicians to treat the local population, which was nice considering we were all Spanish majors and were completely incompetent when it came to anything remotely scientific.

By 6 am our small group stood outside the adobe gates of our rural office in Peru, armed with latex gloves, medical equipment and thin mattresses to sleep on, patiently awaiting the 6 am bus we were taking to Quillabamba.  But the bus never came.  630, 700, 730 passed before the two beat up, old combis rolled around the corner, drivers bright eyed and smiling as though they are not two hours late and not being greeted by a gaggle of hostile gringas.  I had gotten used to Peruvians running on their own magical schedule, where everything can wait five more minutes, and nothing ever begins on time.  In fact, I much prefer that to the judging promptness of Americans, where every minute not spent diligently working is a wasted minute.  That being said, on this particular day in Urubamba, Peru, I was cold, I was tired and I was sick of their crap.

We loaded our supplies into the two mini-buses; our mattresses precariously perched on top of the van, and all of our possessions crammed into every free corner of the car, leaving precious little space for those riding inside.  To anyone who has ever ridden in a combi, you have my sincere condolences, as you too know that there is nothing more character building than sitting on a cloth-covered steel bench for some hours, as the viejita next to you is practically sitting in your lap, and a child is screaming in the backseat.  Having leg room means there can be less potential passengers, which means less money, which means you better believe that you will be abandoning all creature comforts in order to ride in that God-forsaken combi, as the Peruvian drivers have no intention of missing out on potential earnings.  Needless to say, we were not riding in style.

It should have come as no surprise when the axle fell off our van as we crossed over a bridge within the first half hour of our journey; apparently resenting it’s connection to the heap of rusty metal impersonating a car.  The Peruvians in the group laughed at our misfortune and called in a replacement, content to explore the small village and buy new batteries for their boom box so they could continue to thump cumbia beats into my skull.  The group of doctors chatted up the locals, ate sandwiches and enjoyed the scenery, not at all phased by our setback.  I was not as amused.  We were already running two hours late, and of course this sketchy Peruvian combi couldn’t make it twenty miles before dying and abandoning us in the middle of nowhere.  My friend and I sat on a heap of rocks, cursing our luck, and lamenting our decision to hop aboard this doomed combi instead of taking the second one, which was currently zipping along the mountain side.

Our new and not-really-improved combi, weighed down with all of our goods (photo credit- Alicia T)

Some hours later, a tow truck brought us a new vehicle, and we were back on the road, only to find that our new combi’s engine tended to overheat and would literally burn the rubber off the bottom of our shoes if we kept our feet on the floor.  The smell was so unbearable that we had to lift our legs for the rest of the eight-hour ride, lest our lungs be filled with toxins.  Once again, the Peruvians in the group were not phased by this, and continued to sing along to the same three songs on their beat up, old stereo as they kept their feet off the floor.  And so, with our knees pressed to our chest in the fetal position, and Grupo Cinco’s La Amante on repeat, we trekked onward into the Amazon.

(Stay tuned next week for Part 2)