The unbearable lightness of being

I wasn’t supposed to take night buses in Peru; I’ve been warned against it often enough. But since I’m pro-Peru now, I took a chance on another night bus from Cajamarca yesterday. The ticket seller gave me a senior discount because he liked my eyes, in what I think is my favorite back-handed compliment of the season.

An hour out of Cajamarca, driving towards the sunset on what looked from above like a Scalectrix track, we stopped in one of the prettier valleys to pick up a little family trailing plastic bags for luggage. The bus was full, and the conductor made the man next to me give up his seat. The mother plopped down with her baby, toddler standing at her arm.
    ‘Does he want to sit on my lap?’ I asked. It was a long journey. She swung him over to my side with her free arm. He looked up, bright-eyed, a tiny Benjamin Bratt. Then he fell asleep.

His mother breastfed the baby. She was 16 or 17, and it occurred to me that in these parts I could have been the grandmother. Most of the indigenous women I’ve talked to start having babies at 14 or 15, popping them out matter-of-factly. Unlike Americans, they don’t have a list of things to achieve before babies are planned. They don’t have to lay down career success, or financial stability. Those things aren’t coming anyway, so why wait? For us, those things are a hedge against the lack of extended family or village community, something that’s less necessary in a culture where a toddler will crawl onto whatever lap is available as a matter of course.

Norberto slept through the whole journey, though I rearranged him like a rag-doll several times. He was blessedly clean, unlike most of the grubby angels who roam the Andes—scrubbed for his big trip to the city, I imagine. I had forgotten the slightly doggy smell of a toddler’s sweaty hair, and inhaled it as often as I could without his mother snatching him back. It is amazing, the visceral love a stranger’s child can evoke when they are helpless and trusting in sleep.

We all woke at 7 am to another bus infomercial. Norberto told me he was three, and was going to Lima to see his papi. His speech wasn’t very good, but then he probably thought the same about me. His baby sister suckled, giggled, and bounced.

There was no work in the village, the mother told me. Her husband worked in a factory in Lima and sent money back. Now her mother was dying in Cajamarca, an hour away from their home, and she hated to leave. But her husband called to say he was lonely, bring the children, it didn’t matter that it was two days wages, and so she packed them up. It had been four months since they’d seen him, the baby had changed a lot.

The father was waiting for his country mice at the bus station. He was young too, and very thin. Norberto saw him first and pounded the window with a great shout: ‘Papi! Papi!’

Watching the four of them squat in the dirt of the bus station, it was clear that, yes, two days’ wages spent on the bus fare didn’t matter at all. Norberto gave me a snotty kiss goodbye then turned back to adore his adoring papi.