I never really thought about traveling as something I could do. Like any woman of color, when you see blonde influencers and their green juices (I have nothing against the green juices), you start to believe you can’t do this.
Even worse when you’re being a digital nomad with a precarious budget and almost nonexistent network.
But I did. Sure, not the way others did. I was digital nomading around Perú after a tumultuous time in Chile last year. 2018 was tough.
So many people say they find themselves in Perú, and I’m sorry to say I didn’t. But I did have a good time in Rainbow Mountain and Cusco. When you’re brown and treated like a person’s servant and free Spanish teacher, and when people are consistently badgering you about where you’re really from, it’s impossible to feel magical.
I still remember when I was going up Salkantay. I immediately felt inferior to everyone around me, but thankfully there were four Brazilians.
I had never actually hiked before but I had been in Cusco for 3 months and did okay in the altitude.
I had purchased a pair of child-size hiking boots to save money and had literally the $1 version of everything you were supposed to have.
I had 50 soles for the road ahead.
My first day was okay, but then came dinner time. Just when things were going okay, I was asked the same annoying question: Where are you really from?
And I became immediately irate. I was in a country where most people looked more like me than the people I was hiking with, and they still felt it was okay to destroy my time to be free of white privilege.
The guy who asked this question offered to buy me a beer but I didn’t want one at that point. With my hiking inexperience, I didn’t want anything to distract me from my already terrible balance.
Some girl eventually told me I should brush this off because “everyone was trying to get to know me better,” but the beer guy kind of got it and I explained that I’m annoyed at getting this question asked so much everywhere I go.
(Not to mention that absolutely no one from Cusco ever thought I was from there!)
But we kept hiking, and I have blurry memories of days two and three except that I was mostly alone because I didn’t quite connect with anyone from my group. And even though I tried, my hiking ineptitude and fear of heights kept me from being a part of everything.
Everything and everyone seemed to pass me by and I just kept staring at the awesome nature.
Day four was a bit better. Walking through hidroeléctrica is a lot easier and you’re at less altitude than Cusco. You’re in the Amazon and the road is mostly flat. The trees are great, and I was able to talk to a few people, but I could tell I was already not a part of the group.
Because I bought my tour from a different company, I stayed at a different hostel but that was just as well. I had friends who worked at that hostel and I was able to talk to them and hang out.
I woke up late the next day and got on the bus line by accident. I had no money for the bus—duh!
So I walked up to Machu Picchu using my phone as a flashlight. It was around 5 AM when I realized my mistake and Aguas Caliente was still dark out. I loved it. The cool of dawn was no match for the 1800 stairs up Machu Picchu. Whenever I felt tired I remembered: I’m from El Salvador. Machu Picchu was my present to myself for my 32nd birthday.
I moved to the United States in 1989 with my mom when I was 3, who felt it was better for us to stay than to go back to El Salvador. She felt we were both better off in Los Angeles.
I didn’t get my green card until age 15, and my citizenship until 2011 or so. I was 24 or 25. I don’t remember.
So—I, a formerly undocumented immigrant from Central America—was still doing this thing that so many people around the world dream about.
That’s what kept me going when I was at Salkantay trying to make my 50 soles last the whole way.
That’s what kept me going when a horse bumped into me and caused me to fall in front of everyone.
That’s what kept me going when beads of sweat ran down my back. And I made it up to Machu Picchu.
So many Europeans were talking about how “it’s only okay” because they had been to Angkor Wat, and some people were worried about their Instagram pictures. I, for the record, had really bad pictures of myself.
I spent all of Peru listening to ungrateful people complain that things were dirty, that there were “too many tourists” in Cusco, and being asked where I’m really from, or being told I’m lucky to be tan.
I looked down at the city of Machu Picchu, remembered how hard it was to get there and couldn’t get over it. Hiking there was tough, but it was a meaningful experience for me, more so because I didn’t find myself. Because no one else has the duty to help me do that but me. Because brown salvadoreñas are not supposed to be backpackers, or influencers, or to be seen.
But I will be seen.