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

This is what I dreaded. Responsibility. Structure. Obligation. My scenario was to hire a car for the one-hour ride to the Hotel Paracas and then wallow in the high thread count. I would return the following afternoon while my friends courted their demise on dune boards. Then we would get dolled up for the party. I wasn’t going on any boat, and no one would pressure me into dune boarding, not the next day, not ever.

“The point is, we’re here,” said Liz.

“When are you ever gonna be back?” added Natalie.

“Please come with us,” said Ava.

My group-travel nightmare had come to pass. I boarded the bus but feigned sleep and sulked all the way to the coast. When we arrived at the bay of Paracas, however, the smell of salt and baking bread and a great canvas of turquoise waves jolted me upright. The wind seeped through six layers of clothing as we sailed toward the Ballestas Islands, ripe with guano and covered with birds and sea lions. The coast was an undulating strip of dunes that ended at the ocean’s edge. My hands were stiff from the cold when we returned to the port village of El Chaco. Vendors hoisted trays of sliced chocolate cake and hot empanadas through the crowd, and I scraped coins from my bag to sample one of each. Our driver, Rolando, ferried us to the National Reserve, a sweeping stretch of desert flats bordering the sea. The sand was once the ocean floor, so it was a grainy mixture of salt and shells, marked with fossils and the memory of waves where one day the water ebbed and never returned. Ava and I supported each other like drunks leaving a bar as we made our way against the wind toward the point where the desert met the Pacific. We wondered at the rich blues and lemon yellows for as long as we could remain wordless—maybe two minutes.

“Can you imagine that such a place exists?” I said.

“Aren’t you glad you came?” she asked.

“Honey, you have no idea,” I said. “Are you OK with my spending the night away tonight?”

She shot me a look I’ve seen before that said something like Get real, Mom.

At lunch in the tiny cove of Lagunillas, the girls sipped glasses of deep-red chicha morada, a sweet, nonalcoholic drink made from purple corn. I watched as my daughter, her friends and my friends were served plates of ceviche and grilled fish. Our restaurant was sheltered, but there was no door, and beyond our covered terrace, pelicans squawked and the wind whirred. The faces around the table were pink and healthy, and everyone’s hair was a nest of tangles. Rolando motioned to me and said something to the waiter, who returned with a small measure of gold liquid.

“This will be good for you,” he said, holding out a tumbler.

I downed the pisco, neat, and for the first time in days, my throat scalded in relief rather than agony. After lunch, I strolled with Liz around the cove toward the van.

“You know, you have pneumonia,” she said, trusting her mom-based diagnostic instincts.

“I’m pretty sure,” I said.

“You’re smart to go off alone and spoil yourself tonight,” she said.

The problem was, I no longer wanted to be alone. What I wished for instead was that time would stop. I wanted our girls to remain 15, for us never to be old and stricken with illness and grief. I wanted the wind from this ancient coast to preserve the afternoon and emboss a memory of Ava’s perfect innocence into my brain. I wanted to overcome whatever convinces me, against all proof, that I have all the answers and that I know what is best for myself. I wondered what else I had missed in my countless solo journeys, with no one urging me beyond my own wishes. That morning my companions did what friends are supposed to do: They saved me from myself. Not all voyages have to be a total surrender to the unknown. Togetherness might be as good a reason as any to take to the road.

“You know, I’m not going dune boarding tomorrow,” I said.

“You are too,” said Liz. “Do you know why?”

 “I will be scared out of my mind,” I said.

“Me too,” she said.

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