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

My friends urged me to stay behind and rest the next day. Ava offered to keep me company. But something—maybe the howler monkeys that roared like lions—got me out of bed, into a steaming shower, into my jungle gear and then to a rattan chair in the lobby, clutching a mug of coffee. Peer pressure, I suppose. I didn’t want to let my daughter down. I wanted to be game, up for anything, committed to my companions, all the things I never had to be and never was when I traveled alone.

It was a two-mile trek through the rain forest, and my hazy vision seemed to freeze the capuchin monkeys as they leaped across branches. We spied macaws and kingfishers wedged among the foliage. Soon we boarded an open boat and sailed dreamily onto Lake Sandoval, where river otters paddled in the blistering sun and caimans, camouflaged by tree roots, sunned themselves. The scene was imbued with the mystery and exoticism that I continually jump on planes to search for. At the time, though, it barely registered. My delirium was interrupted only by short bouts of paranoia. The waterways hung thick with vines from which I was sure dangled whole colonies of fer-de-lance.

“We’ve got to get you back,” said Ann.

“I’m starting to think we should get you to Lima and a doctor,” said Natalie.

“Just take it slow,” said Val.

“Oh, Mom,” said Ava, “it’s awful you’re sick.”

By the time I limped the same two miles back for lunch, I had spiked a fever of more than 103. After tucking me back into my simple, perfect bed, my friends delivered tea, water, Theraflu and updates. We debated whether I should start the Z-pack or the Cipro I’d packed for emergencies (I’m a doctor’s daughter, used to diagnosing and treating myself in the wild). The other mothers slipped in and out, sat cross-legged on my bed and recounted every detail of the quinoa, avocado and mango salad and spicy chicken stew with yucca and chilled papaya that I was missing. My daughter breezed in occasionally, taking a break from girlfriend time in the hammocks that were draped throughout the hotel.

“This is what it’s going to be like when I’m in the rest home,” I said. Ava kissed my head, exactly as I had kissed hers 10,000 times: She groomed my hair, tucked it behind my ears and smoothed out the pillow underneath.

If I had been alone, I would have stayed at the hotel to recover. But early the next day my friends packed for me and propped me up, and we all departed Tambopata. Ava snapped pictures of our boat’s propeller, stuck in a fisherman’s net in the muddy depths of the Madre de Dios, and the out-of-nowhere men with machetes to slice usfree. I recall my state of utter dependency as someone offered me ice cubes and poor Ava lugged my computer bag to the plane to Lima and then on a six-hour bus ride down the coast to Ica. I wanted to be surrounded by strangers, not so I could disappear into the landscape, as I usually do on trips, but so I could stop pretending I was OK while nonetheless being a total, burdensome drag. I wanted to get Ava into better hands than mine were at present, skip the planned sightseeing the next day and head straight to the resort in Paracas to steam away whatever infection had me in its grip. At midnight we pulled up to the tidy Villa Jasmin hotel in Ica, and early in the morning, even I emerged for breakfast.

Piedad, the mother of our daughters’ friend Stephanie, whose quinceañera we had traveled so far to celebrate, sat at one of the breakfast tables. None of us could seem to believe we were actually here in her hometown, and I felt terrible that I had neither the will nor the strength to explore with them that day.

“I can’t go,” I announced. The plan called for us to board the bus again for the sights: a boat trip, some marine wildlife, a fishing village.

“It’s supposed to be spectacular,” Val said. “You’ve come this far.”

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