The Joys of (Not) Going it Alone

A mother of two prided herself on navigating the world solo—on her own terms. So when she set off for Peru with her daughter and a bevy of friends, she expected the worst. What she got instead was a warm surprise—and breathtaking vistas

by Marcia DeSanctis
peru image
Machu Picchu, the crowning glory of the Inca Empire, is seen here at dawn’s light. Built in the 15th century by people who worshipped the sun, this city, high in the Andes, seems to touch the sky.
Photograph: Diane Cook & Len Jenshel

When I travel I like to do it my way, and my way is alone. There is a moment after takeoff when I suddenly feel I need no one and am, in turn, completely unneeded. For me, that means no voyages en famille. I prefer time off with the kids, who are 15 and 18, to consist of Law & Order marathons in our PJs. I’ve tried to impart the concept of self-sufficiency—pack your own bags, keep track of your own passports—but still I become their personal logistics assistant, shuffling behind them and my husband as I wave documents and itineraries.

I like to wander invisibly through new terrain and have grown reliant on the knowledge and confidence provided by these solitary stretches of anonymity. There seems little point to travel if you’re in familiar company.

And then I got sick in Cuzco.

For eight years, I had indulged my daughter’s chatter about traveling to Peru for a classmate’s quinceañera, the 15th-birthday rite of passage in Latin American culture. We always knew the party would take place in her family’s home country, but I’d felt equally certain our participation would never come to pass. OK, hoped it would never come to pass, because this voyage also involved several other classmates and their parents—in short, a platoon of pilgrims advancing to a party in South America. So I was stunned to find myself one August afternoon at Sbarro in the churning bowels of Newark airport, hauling a trayful of calzones, awaiting the overnight flight to Lima.

“Mom, do you think I remembered to bring my red sunglasses?” my daughter, Ava, ventured. If she’d forgotten them, they were the only object in her room besides her bed that wasn’t coming to Peru with us.

“Don’t worry, someone will have an extra pair,” I said. I wedged myself into a seat at the table with Ava, her friend Phoebe and Phoebe’s mother, Ann, with whom I am close. We were about to embark on the journey we had been inching toward for years. Five 15-year-old girls, five mothers, one husband and 11 different rolling duffel bags stuffed with 11 different fantasies.

Our itinerary—an arduous crisscrossing of Peru’s waterways, highways and airspace with the appropriate boats, hired vans and planes—had been cobbled together via several hundred million e-mails. As friends, we were mindful of one another’s requests and idiosyncrasies, financial and otherwise. Some of us, for example, would forgo the death march up the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and would instead take a day trip by train from the city of Cuzco, once the capital of the Inca Empire, where we would be staying. On this point, my daughter and I were in complete agreement, since I had raised her with the good sense to opt, wherever possible, for flush toilets rather than soiled ditches. In a few days we would all meet up at 8,000 feet in Machu Picchu, and the real touring would begin, culminating a few days later in the western town of Ica, where the birthday celebration was being held. Even as I dreaded the prospect of wall-to-wall togetherness for a week, I dreamed of Paracas, a beach town where I had planned one night’s solitary escape at a swanky resort. I would go when my friends were still in Ica dune boarding over the sands, an endeavor that struck me as nothing short of suicidal.

Ann and Phoebe were, to my relief, the easiest of travel companions, and my daughter was so pleasant and undemanding, I had to wonder whose child she was. Ann has a relaxed style of mothering quite unlike my own, and I’ve learned a lot from her over the years. When, for example, Phoebe said she was hungry at 5 pm, Ann suggested we stop for dinner. My tendency is to quote from the rule book—“Dinner is in two hours”—and ask the hotel to recommend the best Quechua pumpkin stew in town. Instead, we ducked into the nearest pizza joint, and the kids were fed and content.

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