I have to admit it. I was scared. And I don’t get scared. Or at least I don’t like to advertise when I do. But the wording of the e-mail from the U.S. State Department was so… harsh. Violent armed robberies are on the rise in Peru. These crimes…are common in Lima and other large cities. U.S. citizens traveling alone should be especially careful to avoid situations in which they are vulnerable due to impaired judgment or isolation.
In just three days I was going to be a U.S. citizen traveling alone to this apparent hotbed of crime called Peru, starting out in big, bad Lima. And if I wasn’t already freaked out enough by the State Department’s e-mail, I had a whole slew of pointers coming at me from other directions. Keep your camera strap wrapped tightly around your wrist, carry a decoy wallet, and never take your passport out of your hotel’s safe, were just some of the warnings I was given.Apparently Peru was a land devoid of morals, and I was beginning to wonder why I was going.
Of course I knew why I was going. I had several weeks off from grad school and was going to spend part of them volunteering at a wild animal sanctuary just outside Cusco. I couldn’t wait to get up close and personal with Andean condors, pumas, llamas and all sorts of other animals you don’t see every day in Brooklyn. That is, if I made it from my host family’s home to the sanctuary in one piece…
As it turns out, during the two-and-a-half weeks I spent in Peru I never once got the impression that someone wanted to harm me. But I did get the surprise of a lifetime.
The people on the street in Peru were supposed to be out to get me. They were supposed to be reaching into my knapsack with the malicious intention of pulling out my wallet/camera/phone. They were not supposed to be kind. They were not supposed to show respect for human beings. And they were certainly not supposed to be teaching me a lesson in how to properly do chesed.
There is a flip side to the menacing image of Peru, and it can easily be seen by hopping on a local bus in Cusco. But first we should probably be more specific about the word “bus.” Get that image of an MTA bus out of your head. Egged bus? Not even close. These types of buses do exist in certain areas of Peru, but they just cost too much for the average person in this poverty-stricken nation. Instead, combis, rickety vehicles caught in a gawky stage between van and bus, zip through the streets at mach speed, transporting passengers for around 25 cents.
And there is almost never enough space. The seats always seem to fill up immediately, and the driver- and his assistant who handles fares/announces stops/attracts potential passengers by screaming out the names of upcoming destinations- have no problem packing in people like sardines. Sometimes it seems worth walking the extra twenty minutes in the rain to save yourself the ordeal of riding a combi. But sometimes it’s worth being squished between someone’s armpit and the window of the combi just to have a refresher course in human kindness.
Those of us who are products of a yeshiva education have the words mipnei seiva takum ingrained in our minds. We rise from our seats when a rabbi ascends to the podium, we stand as a principal enters the classroom and we offer our seats to elderly people on the bus. Or at least we know we’re supposed to. Sometimes we look around the bus first, hoping someone else will give up their seat, because after having been on one’s feet all day who really wants to stand for another half hour?
But that doesn’t seem to be a problem in Peru. The moment an elderly woman boards the bus, her back hunched under the weight of a colorful blanket bulging with goods to sell, young people spring out of their seats. They don’t ask themselves, will someone get up first? They tell themselves, I am going to get up first.
Their eagerness soon rubbed off on me. I found myself becoming excited at the sight of an elderly person boarding the bus because of the opportunity to do a mitzvah. And I only needed to travel 3,600 miles to a place nearly devoid of Jews to experience this.
Combis don’t have a button to push or string to pull to let the driver know you want to get off at the next stop. They don’t have a printed map of the route. But they all have a sign plastered on the window next to the seats by the door, indicating that they are reserved for the elderly, the disabled, for pregnant women and women with small children. Peruvians certainly have their priorities straight.
And the assistant working at the door? He/she is doing a thousand things at once, often half-hanging out of the bus because the door won’t close due to overcrowding. But in one instance I saw the assistant do something remarkable. He was counting out change for passengers that had just gotten off, keeping track of who still needed to pay and what stops people needed to get off, and he was shouting out the bus route in an attempt to squeeze even more people inside the combi that couldn’t possibly fit anyone else.
And yet, he stopped all he was doing to make an announcement as an elderly woman squeezed her way onto the bus. Passengers! He cried. There is a señora who just boarded the bus who needs a seat. Who can give her their seat? Within seconds the woman had her choice of seats.
The assistants wowed me on more than one occasion. It seems as if combis never come to a complete stop, even when letting passengers on and off, and slowly roll away while the assistant is out on the sidewalk, attracting passengers. The assistant had just hopped back onto the moving bus this one time when he flung the door open and made as if to leap out once more. He shouted out onto the street, Señora, you dropped your scarf!
This is the country so infamous for stealing people’s possessions? Apparently they forgot to mention how good they are with returning lost possessions. I learned a lot of things in Peru- animal care, Spanish, independence… I just never expected one of those things to be the proper way to do chesed.
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