2009 will go down as the year I hauled myself all over the place to attend weddings and seek respite from the global financial crisis. Recently, I wrote about my experience attending the wedding of a buddy from graduate school in the Indian city of Jaipur. Later this year, I plan to join another friend from graduate school at her wedding in Sao Paulo, Brazil. This edition of NPR, however, regards a trip I made to Lima, Peru, to attend the April wedding of a former roommate.
The wedding was sort of a homecoming for me. The groom, a Spaniard named Daniel, was my roommate during my junior year of college when I lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Although he now lives in Singapore, his bride, Cynthia, is Peruvian American. Hence, the choice of Lima for the wedding. The last time I had been to Lima was in 1997, when Daniel and I backpacked from Bogota, Colombia, to Buenos Aires over a six week period. Through a combination of bus trips and flights, we worked our way down the Andes over a period of six weeks.
The trip I made together with Daniel represents a true watershed event in my life. Before traveling to Argentina, I had never been out of the United States, save for a day trip to Niagara Falls when I was in high school. Over the course of the trip, we visited Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Bolivia, in addition to the northern provinces of Argentina. As we made our way to Buenos Aires, we lived a number of (mis)adventures that took me outside of my comfort zone. I rode on buses with numerous animals (including chickens, dogs, pigs, and even a cow in Chile), was searched numerous times by border agents and military (including at gunpoint), and climbed over a pile of melons and a crate of rotting fish to cross the Ecuador-Peru border. I also spent 24 hours with nothing more than a jar of peanut butter and a bottle of water after the Bolivian banking system’s ATM and credit card systems went out of service and my pockets yielded less than a dollar of cash reserves. I’m sure my mom will never forget that early morning collect call I made asking her to find a Western Union and bail me out of my temporary famine. Over the course of that journey, I dramatically improved my Spanish and learned invaluable lessons about thinking on my feet and staying calm under pressure.
One of the highlights of the trip was my stay in Peru. At the time I visited, Lima was in the global spotlight as terrorists were holding more than 400 dignitaries hostage at the Japanese embassy. Despite the crisis, I remember Lima for its historic Spanish colonial architecture and a particularly raucous night that ended with me singing the hot Latin song of the moment twice in a row at karaoke. It was my Peruvian Idol moment and I briefly considered a career as a Latin pop star. Thirteen years on, Lima has changed substantially from the city I knew in 1997. Despite the world economic crisis, the economy is booming and Lima’s skyline is dotted with cranes and rapidly rising apartment blocks.
Unlike the Indian wedding, I was far more familiar with the formalities of a Peruvian wedding. The vast majority of Peruvians are Roman Catholic and the wedding ceremony took place in a colonial chapel housed in the historical center of the city. I love attending Mass in Latin America. As with anywhere else in the world, the mass is exactly the same as the countless masses I attended with Father Auger at St. Ignatius. The text of the mass is a direct translation of the English text and the rituals are identical. Until recently, the Catholic Church in Latin America forbid communicants to touch the communion wafer with their hands, so for added atmosphere, nearly everyone takes communion directly into their mouth from the priest’s hand.
The reception was also similar to an American wedding. DJ, check. Wedding cake, check. Tearful speeches, check. There was one notable local tweak. At around midnight, a confetti gun shot a massive quantity of confetti over the dance floor. In the ensuing chaos, guests were handed crazy hats (I chose a lion’s head over a huge replica of Bart Simpson’s head). We were also handed countless long thin balloons. Caught up in the excitement, I summoned up childhood memories of the professional balloon sculptors at the now-shuttered Ground Round in Portland and attempted to conjure up a few balloon animals. Unfortunately, I was only able to produce something along the lines of the hind legs as I attempted to craft a balloon dog.
Having traveled through Peru thirteen years ago as a student, it was strange to visit the country at this stage in my life. As I’m older now and not prone to rough it as I did in those days, I didn’t endure endless bus rides and $5 hotels. Rather, I had the benefit of a comfortable hotel and I even – don’t tell anyone – went to Starbucks a few times. While my experiences this time around in Peru were certainly not as raw as my backpacking trip, I don’t think I’ve entirely lost my edge. After all, who says that seeing a crowd of Peruvians in Bart Simpson hats is less scary than being searched at gunpoint?