Panhandling in the Andes
Off the Gringo Trail, Chapter 1.
“Hola.” The small boys in school uniforms had finally worked up the courage to approach me, a strange-looking man in a town of indigenous faces and colorfully-adorned women carrying the day’s haul on their arched backs. I was tucked away in a dark corner of the bus station, now surrounded by wide eyes.
“¿Usted es musico? You’re a musician?”
“Yeah, I guess.” I had been playing Sublime songs on my mini-guitar for the past hour, waiting for a delayed bus.
“Ok, great. Do you know Nirvana?”
“Uh, wait, Nirvana? Like the band?”
“Ha!” The shock bolted from my mouth. An hour before, a woman sitting next to me hadn’t understood me in Spanish, so a man had to translate into Quechua. Just hours before that, I was sitting on a lakeside bench surrounded by llamas, talking with a peasant teenager about her parents’ struggling potato farm on the side of a mountain. This mini-guitar tends to put people at ease and give them an excuse to approach foreign-looking me and just talk. She wanted to know what the United States was like — I failed to come up with an answer that fit into three sentences.
I was overjoyed with my new diminutive audience. “Yeah, of course I know Nirvana. Do YOU guys know Nirvana?
“Yes! We love them. Can you play ‘Come As You Are’?”
“Ha, I’m not sure I remember how. But do you know this one?” I played ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. They hadn’t reacted by the first chorus. I stopped.
“Just one second, sir. I will go get the lyrics.” Good lord, what is going on here?
The group leader returned with a printout of the lyrics to ‘Come As You Are’. Apparently, their English teacher had been using the song as an exercise in class. I held myself back from inquiring as to the value of being able to say “And I swear that I don’t have a gun” as a 10-year-old in rural Peru.
My fingers fleshed out one of most popular basslines of the last 20 years, and thus began what I’d like to think is the first and only grunge singalong session with the descendants of the Inca in Abancay, Peru.
We talked and laughed a bit, and the boys finally disappeared back up the stairs to catch their bus. A tiny girl who had been lurking behind them took this as a cue to make her approach. She was maybe seven, in shabby clothes, with a splash of dirt covering her beautiful pink cheeks.
She shuffled her tiny feet towards me, reached out a tiny arm, and tried to give me a coin.
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have a hat out, and I wasn’t ready for this.
“No, no, gracias! That’s very kind of you, but please, it’s not necessary.” Blushing, I escaped quickly into a rendition of ‘Badfish’.
She crumpled her forehead, stared for a moment, and disappeared.
Ten minutes passed, and she was back. Again she shuffled her tiny feet towards me, leaned on a concrete pillar, and waited for a break between songs. I stopped.
“Do you like this music?” I asked her.
“What kind of music do you listen to?”
“Umm, I don’t know.
“Pero, em… ¿Usted no tiene casa?
But, um, you don’t have a home?”
I wasn’t part of the world she knew. She likely had never seen, and definitely had never interacted with, a person as physically different as me, a person with no local blood or dress, but rather light skin, light hair, a large nose, bizarre clothes, and an accent that doesn’t come from any of the surrounding regions. She may have never seen anybody play music just to play music. And she had certainly never needed to grasp a concept as alien as leaving everything and everyone on one side of the planet to simply explore and see and spend money on another side of the planet.
I failed to come up with an answer that fit into three sentences.