I had been antisocial the night before. After two hours of playing cards with assorted travelers from around the world, I rose from my hostel’s plush couch and exited the game. The yellow Christmas lights that hung above enveloped the room in a warm glow, illuminating the red and black patterns of the playing cards scattered before me. I downed the last sip of the Corona that I had been nursing since the beginning of the game and made my way to my room on the edge of the courtyard. A warm desert breeze nudged me inside.
I wanted to get up early to see the sunrise from the top of the enormous dunes that flanked the Huacachina oasis where I was staying that night. The oasis was a small lake situated in the desert and encompassed by foliage situated just outside the city of Ica. Surrounded by resorts and restaurants, it was a true tourist haven. It even felt like me and my fellow travelers were corralled there, fenced in between the dunes. Maybe in some way, by rising before everyone else to witness the sun peek out from beyond the horizon, I believed I could escape the nagging feeling that we were being herded like sheep, contained within the censored comfort of the tourist trap.
When my alarm stirred me from my sleep, I rubbed the fatigue from my eyes, put on shorts and shoes, and began my ascent. The trek was challenging despite the additional red blood cells that my body had generated during my time living in the mountains. Climbing the dune was like walking on a very long, very slanted treadmill made of sand that was set to just under my normal walking pace; what should’ve taken 10 minutes ended up requiring 30. By the end, I felt as worn down as the grains of sand I had just trudged through.
When I finally arrived at the peak, I let out a triumphant exhale. It was 5:31 AM. I scanned the horizon for any sign of the impending light, but to my immense dismay, I found none. The heavy morning clouds had obscured the entirety of the sky, effectively blotting out the Sun. Some desert, I remember acerbically thinking to myself. I sat down in the sand and looked out over the oasis. It was tranquil. The water was calm, and the glowing street lamps competed with the encroaching daylight to illuminate the still sleeping town.
As I took in the sight and accepted my poor luck, a cacophony of sounds broke through my abstraction. I heard the barking of dogs, the cawing of roosters coming from behind me. The dune upon which I was perched separated the oasis from a shanty town on the other side, called la tierra prometida, “the promised land.” It was from this settlement of Ica’s newest and some of its poorest residents that the noises originated. I stood and turned. To my left was an oasis in multiple senses: from the 5-star hotels to the artificially crystal-blue pools to the overpriced foods, it was the picture of western luxury. To my right, however, lay the unadulterated Peru, devoid of commercial facades and illusions. As I stared down at the conflicting landscapes and stood between worlds that existed in stark contrast with one another, I had the overwhelming urge to rush down and explore the desert town, the real Peru.
It was only 6:00 AM; I had a whole day to explore. I turned and made my way back down the dune to my room. I reached the gate of my hostel and smiled at the clerk who hadn’t been there when Id left. Trying not to disturb my roommate, I tiptoed through the room and to the locker containing my possessions. I opened its aluminum door and took out a photocopy of my passport and 20 soles (Peruvian currency), which I would later slip into my sock. I swapped my Samsung Galaxy s8+ for a Galaxy s3 mini, and left my wallet behind. Finally, remembering the rocky-looking terrain and trash-strewn streets that I had been able to discern from the top of the dune, I swapped my flip flops for my more sturdy military boots and departed at once.
When I finally arrived at the town, to my surprise, I found a place seemingly empty of inhabitants. The main street had a sufficient amount of traffic as it was a prime route from the main body of Ica to the sea, but as I walked along its side streets past the thatched walls and tin roofs of the town, I encountered few. I supposed they must have left for work hours earlier or were still sleeping. The few strangers that I did encounter were parents hurrying by me, trying to get their children to school on time, and shopkeepers rushing to open their stores before their customers would arrive. Oddly enough as I strolled by, the ones who were most aware of and interested in my presence were the wild dogs. Some slumbered docilely in the streets, while others growled as I passed, their distrustful eyes never leaving me. Then there were those that chased after me, barking viciously.
Dogs are omnipresent here. Those that live in the streets are called, “Perro Callejeros”. They’re powerful creatures, a prime example of Darwinism at work. Without anyone to look after them, the dogs are left to rule their domain how they see fit: scavenging, howling, and fighting at all hours of the day. In the end, only the strongest survive. No two dogs here look the same, in physique or color, and yet, they’re all powerfully built. They’re as common, if not more common, than squirrels or chipmunks or raccoons back home. They’ve happily greated me. They’ve followed me on my walks. They’ve chased me on my mountain bike. They’ve accosted me on the street. They’ve challenged my right to walk where I want to walk. All this makes them the most beautiful dogs in the world to me, because they are the epitome of Dog, breedless, masterless, and free.
Most of the time they ignore me. However, occasionally one will decide to challenge me. With these dogs though, you cannot back down. It’s a contest of power. I imagine it’s comical to watch a naive gringo yell at a street dog, but my method works. I make myself big, I shout in an unexpectedly deep booming voice, and when that fails, the rock that they spot in my hand is a sufficient deterrent. I’ve encountered hundreds of dogs in my wanderings and thankfully the stone hasn’t left my palm yet.
I don’t want to sound arrogant. I am well aware that this technique isn’t perfect. I know the rule will not always work. Bondermans have been bitten in the past, and I know that all it takes is one aberrant dog to ruin my day. But that same could be said for life. One misfortune can change everything. But if you spend every day worrying about your chances of encountering misfortune, you miss out on the opportunity to live. You miss out on the experiences that make life worth living. If you spend your life in fear: afraid of getting in a car accident, afraid of a terrorist attack, afraid of natural disasters, afraid of being robbed in the street, you ultimately refuse to indulge in life. To me, that is more unfortunate than any one of those things. No matter where I go here, there are dogs, and the same is true for life. But I refuse to let them dictate where I can go, and what I can do.
Walking through that shanty town. I was expecting danger, but I didn’t tread timidly. I walked with confidence. My eyes scanned the doorways and corners. I was perpetually aware of my surroundings, unafraid, with a hint of curiosity. And I had no problems. It actually surprised me how safe I felt as I walked. I expected to find scowls, dirty looks, and maybe a few shouts, but in reality all I encountered was children playing in the street, and families going about their daily lives, in difficult circumstances.
Fear made me misjudge the place, especially as I stared down at it from my lookout atop the wall that separated their world from mine. And I think the world is equally judgmental towards poor places.. I remember how surprised one of my taxi drivers was when I told him that I had taken that walk, but when I asked him if he had ever done the same, he told me no. So often we equate poverty with crime and danger. But this is unfair. Yes, one engenders the other, but they are not inseparable. And I must say that I have always felt the most welcome in the poorer parts of the world.
When I worked on an ambulance in Detroit, my favorite patients weren’t the people from the rich areas of town, but the ones from the worst parts of the city. In general, they were nicer, less demanding, and more relaxed. I remember having a patient with five gunshot wounds who asked me how my day was going. I also remember having a patient the same day in one of the nicer areas of town who went on a three minute long expletive laden rant because it took us 12 minutes to arrive for her sprained wrist.
People here are more hardworking as well. After seeing the work ethic of many people here and in less fortunate parts of the world, of people who have far less than we do in the United States. I can’t help but feel there is a prevailing laziness in my home country. The thing about poverty is that it teaches flexibility and ingenuity. I imagine that if we had more people with those skills in the US and could combine them with our vast resources, our society would be immensely more productive.
It’s a paradox that our wealth and access to resources is the same thing that ultimately prevents us from utilizing them to their full potential. We become so comfortable with our technology, our energy systems, and our highly interdependent society that we use these privileges as a means for useless ends because we’ve never not had these advantages. I think there’s a lot we can learn from interfacing with those parts of the world that have never had the same comforts as us in the United States. How many Einsteins have lived and died in rural India? How many people with brilliant minds and incredible abilities have gone unnoticed because they didn’t have the resources to make their way to the developed world? And how asinine is that? We have an untapped resource of human potential that, because of the petty limitations of money, nationality, wealth, race, we refuse to use. It's as stupid as the US national soccer club trying to recruit a world class team out of the exclusively the upper echelons of American society, and just as effective.
Why do we allow this system to persist? I think it comes down to fear. We are afraid of each other. But fearing someone for their difference is nonsensical. And maybe that sounds obvious but I think it is the root of a major problem in my home country: racism. The ideology of racists is just so stupid to me. In the context of the world, no matter how distinct two groups are, those differences pale in comparison to the common challenges that we all face; nuclear war, rising sea levels, food shortages, depleted energy sources, epidemics. I find that I have such disdain for bigotry, because all it is are is a distraction from those important things. In the grand context of humanities existence, cultural and even racial differences are a miniscule aberration, and in that context, insignificant (in the grand scale, that’s not to say there isn’t beauty in differences). To me people who are different are not scary, but those who focus on differences, those who fear differences, are. They start wars, justify atrocities, and create chaos and civil strife. And why is it necessary? Bigotry can be boiled down to a lack of confidence. People that indulged in the rhetoric of hate are cold blooded. They don’t have the confidence to be comfortable with who they are in any environment, so they feel the need to create a world in which the external matches the internal. And that is frustratingly primitive.
The fact is that at this moment in time, we live and die in one tiny place. Earth. We all do. And since we live in an age where our technology could destroy it 200 times over, that should really be the only thing that matters. The fact is that humanity: rich, poor, educated, uneducated, agricultural workers, industrial workers, politicians, clerics, generals, activists: we’re all in this together, and we all face the same challenges. We need every great mind and great worker to be able to tap their full potential to accomplish the single goal of all living things. To persist and survive.
And that starts with cultural understanding. We need more interpersonal connection, more cultural context, we need to see each other as humans. We need to see how similar we really are.
I think for that reason I love standing at heights, on a dune, on a hill, in a tower, because when I look down, I’m reminded of how small each one of us is and how petty our differences are. I remember staring out at Santiago from the tallest tower in South America, sitting on the dune in Huacachina, admiring Cordoba from a rooftop and thinking about how much those views remind me of a colony of insects, small creatures going about the daily tasks of living and contributing to something much larger. And a colony spread across this planet is really all we are. Every little seemingly insignificant deed we do contributes to the much larger wellbeing or disease of our home. And I think we have an imperative to protect this place and develop new ones. We will need everyone for those ends. In the context of our species, in the context of humanity’s long-term, that is the only thing that matters.