Plaza de Armas, in the heart of Cusco, Peru, buzzed with energy in the fading daylight. I pulled my jacket tighter around me and sat on a cold stone step near the iconic Spanish cathedral. Taxi cabs crawled along the cobblestone square. A prominent fountain of King Pachacutec glistened fitfully in the background. Gaggles of tourists went from shop to shop. Some stopped for overpriced dinners with balcony views. A woman in cargo shorts snapped pictures of the dramatic cloud formations against the mountains. I watched the light dim and the shadows from the stone court grow longer. It had been a month, and I was still unsettled with my new home. I hugged my knees against my chest.
You live in Peru. Stop moping. No one feels sorry for you.
I tried to push away some of my anxieties. In my mind I reread the email from my mom about my grandmother’s stroke. I replayed the conversation about affording plane tickets home for a potential funeral. There was nothing I could do.
“Gourd?” said a local woman holding out a dried squash etched with a Peruvian Christmas manger scene. She had a toothy smile and two thick braids that hooked together at the ends.
“No, gracias,” I said as I emerged from my trance.
She held out some other trinkets—a clay whistle, a beaded bracelet with a crucifix, a slew of Machu Picchu postcards. I smiled politely and shook my head. The woman went for another group of tourists hanging out in front of McDonald's.
I sighed. I knew my mood had little to do with my grandma, however troubling the news. I’d been in a funk long before the message. For weeks I’d struggled to pull myself out of bed and had ignored emails from friends. On some bad days I never went outside. I stopped writing. I started watching TV series, a habit I’d never indulged in my entire adult life. I’d canceled my Spanish lessons, rationalizing that they were too expensive. But if I was honest with myself, it was about my own insecurities with the language that I thought I’d at least somewhat learned in college and the nagging humiliation I felt whenever I tried to communicate. If I was even more honest with myself, I knew it was my depression. It had always been easier to ignore when I was too busy to reflect.
Maybe it is time to move on, I thought. I’ve given Cusco a shot. I rubbed my forehead where a dull headache throbbed.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a young man watching me. I looked in the other direction. I felt him sit on the step next to me. I tensed, hyper-aware that I was alone.
“Hello,” he said. “Do you speak Spanish?”
I shook my head but caught a glimpse of his face. He had messy black hair, big front teeth, and ripped jeans. He opened a bag beside him and pulled out a spool of wire and some plyers.
“Too bad,” he said with a warm smile. “I’m Miguel. ¿De dónde es?” He asked me a string of questions in a mix of English and Spanish. I acted despondent until I forgot that I’d feigned ignorance of Spanish and answered him with short, gruff responses. As Miguel talked he started twirling a strand of wire around his finger. He used the wire cutters to bend another strand into a star shape. I panicked when a ring started to emerge.
“What are you doing?” I said, thinking of the time a persistent group of men outside Sacré-Cœur in Paris weaved a bracelet around my wrist and made me pay for it. “No tengo dinero.”
“No te preocupes,” he said. Miguel kept working with different layers of wire, his fingers quick and nimble. He asked me more questions about where I’d come from and why I was there to start with. I had a hard time answering them, even without the language barrier.
“I’m not from here,” Miguel said after a long pause. “Sometimes I get lonely.”
I nodded. “Yo también.” More than you know.
He held out the wire ring, now adorned with an intricate flower pattern. “For you.”
“I can’t take this,” I frowned. “I wasn’t lying. I don’t have money.”
Miguel shook his head. “Not for money. Un regalo, a gift.” He placed the ring in my palm. “You seem like you need it.”
As I watched him put the wire cutters and spool back in his bag, my suspicions melted. I thanked him and felt my muscles relax. All this time I’d lamented how hard it was to interact with people, and here was a person like me seeking human connection.
“Thank you for talking,” Miguel said as he stood up. “It helps. Buenas noches.”
“Buenas noches,” I waved as he walked away and disappeared down an alley behind the cathedral.
I turned the ring over in my hand and rubbed the grooves. Every rough end was tucked away. My throat burned. As I watched the sun make its final descent on the city, I recommitted myself to Peru. It was time to acknowledge and cope with my depression on the road and restart language lessons. It was time to stop sealing myself off alone with my fears and bad TV shows.
I never saw Miguel again, but his simple kind gesture gave me the strength to dismantle my suspicions, try again, and find a niche for myself for the rest of my time in Cusco.
Photo by: author