Two years ago this weekend, I had what people refer to as a “breakout” performance, running 1’02’13 for 20km at the Media Maraton de Trujillo. This race validated the training I’d been putting in since graduating college earlier in the year and gave me great confidence that I still had room for improvement, particularly in longer road races.
Not only was this a pivotal and memorable race, the entire experience seems to serve as an appropriate barometer for my life at that point. The trip there, the couple days in the city, and even the race itself all seem the perfect allegory for the unique chaos that I lived as an aspiring gringo distance runner living on a shoe-string in South America.
With my trip to Doha coming up – which will be another long, but hopefully less chaotic, international trip for a competition – I revisited my original writings from that trip to Trujillo and put together a more polished essay, which I’ll present here in two or three parts.
Here’s Part 1 – check back soon for more.
Trujillo, 2013. Part I: El Camino (On the Road)
Just after 3pm, I leave my windowless, basement apartment (dubbed “the cave”) in Quito’s bustling La Marin neighborhood and walk up to the Ecovia – the faded red trolley-bus that runs along the North-South corridor through the center of the city. Changing trolleys, I ride for an hour or so before arriving at Rio Coca, the northernmost station, where I switch buses once more for the neon green Rio Coca bus which carries me and my sixty closest friends to the west, out of the sprawling metropolis, where the new Mariscal Sucre International Airport sits on a great, flat, plateau.
I’m making my way from the high mountain valley where Quito, Ecuador is nestled between snow-capped volcanoes, to the coastal, sand-swept desert-city of Trujillo, Peru to compete in the Media Maraton de Trujillo – a 20km, 12.4 mile, almost-half-marathon race and one of the most competitive in the region.
At the airport, I’m checked in and through security in a matter of minutes. I sit down to eat my dinner but, hearing the announcement for an earlier LAN flight to Guayaquil – my first stop on this multi-stage journey – I decide to see if I can hop on. My original flight doesn’t leave for another two hours, so the earlier flight would leave me with even more time to rest during my overnight layover.
The woman at the counter is young and flirtatious. She smiles at me as she plunks away on her 400-year-old computer; then, simply scribbles out the flight number on my boarding pass with a magic marker and writes in the new one. Thanks.
The last time I had traveled to Guayaquil, I boarded a bus in Quito and arrived after three consecutive viewings of the American film “Pain and Gain,” just over 9 hours later.
This time, in thirty-five minutes, we’ve touched down and in another ten, I’m walking off the plane.
It’s now about 8pm and I can’t even go through international security for my flight to Lima for another eight hours. Too early to sleep, I decide to do a bit of work after finding the airport holy grail of free wifi and an electrical outlet in the same space.
For those who have never had to spend a night in an airport, there are a few challenges you might not foresee.
First comes the most basic question: where to sleep. It turns out that the shiny, modern airport interior may succeed in appearing sterile and clean, but it’s not until one begins searching for appropriate sleeping surfaces that he realizes that these shiny, modern interiors – hard plastic, tile, and metal – do not make great beds. I’m lucky to find a nice leather booth at a down-stairs eatery which (judging by the several others already sprawled out) doesn’t seem to mind the airport-homeless getting cozy.
Second, airports are loud. Someone at the Jose Joaquin International Airport in Guayaquil, for instance, thought that all of its inhabitants would be thrilled to listen to the same half-hour music loop on repeat all day and night. I think I may have flashbacks if I ever hear “Hey Jude” again while trying to fall asleep. Earplugs can only do so much.
Finally, airports are really, really cold. Maybe it was just this airport, since Guayaquil is usually oppressively hot and humid, even at night, and so they felt the need to over-compensate by maintaining the temperature of a meat-locker. But with no sleeping bag and nothing more than my track-jacket and a few t-shirts to wear, I shiver on the bench, cursing the air-condition and trying to will my 115-pound body to generate more heat. Shivering, unable to sleep, I walk outside, trying to steal some warmth from the equatorial night, before returning to my faux-leather bed, donning all four t-shirts I’ve brought and wrapping my extra track-pants around my head, in an attempt at a make-shift scarf.
It doesn’t work. I’ll doze off for a few minutes but I’m awoken by my own shivering or the most recent “Hey Jude” refrain. Around 3am, I give up – you win, Airport! – and decide to salvage the hours lost by getting some more work done. Finally, at 4am, I trudge upstairs to international security and migration.
This should be the easy part. I’ve been in and out of Ecuador a million times since my first trip in 2008, and I walk – groggy and unconcerned – through security and towards migration, where I’ll officially exit the country. But the agent with whom I have the pleasure of interacting this morning has other ideas.
Inspecting my flimsy, seven-year-old passport, she says, “This has water damage. I can’t let you through with this.”
“But I use this passport all the time,” I explain. “I know it has some wear-and-tear, but I’ve crossed many borders (including this one), with no problems.”
She’s having none of it. She really doesn’t even want to stamp me out of Ecuador, but I promise and beg and she reluctantly gives in. I guess I’m not her problem once I’m out of the country. As I gather my things to leave, she says, “well, you’re going to have a problem with that when you try to get into Perú.”
Having been awake for twenty-four hours and having already dealt with a visa-scare in the previous week, I begin having a mild anxiety attack as I walked past the rows of duty-free perfumes and bottles of Chivas and Johnny Walker (no, thank you, I would not like a free sample of Jose Cuervo Margarita at 4:30am).
I’m in international limbo – out of Ecuador at this point, but now unsure if I’ll be able to get into Peru (or back into Ecuador if Peru turns me away). What happens to the poor fool with the damaged passport in that case? Do I get a phone call? Do they detain me? Do I get forced to buy (what would be an extremely expensive) ticket back to the US?
Like a bad car accident, my mind can’t seem to look away from these questions and I start to accept the idea of being deported back to the US as an inevitability. The optimist in me thinks of the silver linings. It would be nice to see my family and friends tomorrow… Even as I board the swanky LAN jumbo jet, I’m overwhelmed by even more anxiety than I normally feel when flying.
I try to sleep on the flight – I should sleep on the flight – and I almost do. I doze off for a few minutes and for those few minutes, I forget to be anxious. Then, just as it fades out of my consciousness, I come to and It smacks me across the face – the polar opposite of the relief felt when waking from a nightmare. I start to rehearse what I’ll say to the Peruvian passport control agent when he tells me I can’t enter the country. “But sir, please, I’m just here for a marathon! Just a few days, please!”
I walk off the plane and have to calm my breath and pounding heart (despite the oxygen-rich air here at sea-level in Lima). I tuck into our herd, trying to place myself in the middle of the disembarking masses so that the agents will be rushing us through. A few fellow foreigners appear and I try to blend into their pack. As we reach the end of the infinite labyrinth of hallways and are spewed out into the large passport control area, I cringe. There’s no one else here. No line. I’m up.
I try to judge the agents, looking for someone amiable, maybe young, or maybe older and motherly. Someone who’d take pity on a lonely, baby-faced gringo.
I’m finally pointed to the one agent I’d prayed not to have. He looks annoyed, tired. Maybe this is good, though. Maybe, he won’t want any hassle either.
I hand him my passport and immigration card. Without acknowledging me, he barely looks at the passport, scans it into his computer and continues to type, his eyes never leaving the screen. Next, he does what everyone seems to do when they’re dealing with my passport. He flips through the pages and furrows his brow. Why does this kid have so many entry and exit stamps from Peru and Ecuador?
My passport is almost full due to my innumerable trips through Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Colombia (not to mention Jamaica, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic) over the past seven years that my passport and I have traveled together. This always seems to raise eyebrows and right now, that’s the last thing I want.
Then, the moment comes. He finds the blank page, picks up the stamp and in one swift motion, the satisfying thump of rubber on paper sweeps all my fears away. I’m in.
Only thirty-three minutes pass from the time the wheels touch down to the moment I pick up my backpack on the other side of customs and walk into the bright airport lobby (see “Travel Splits”, below). With one last multi-hour layover before my flight to Trujillo, I exhale my anxiety, sit down to relax, and then decide to go for an easy jog.
As a solo-traveler-and-runner, long layovers seem like a great time to sneak in a few easy miles, but there’s the ubiquitous and not insignificant problem of where to store one’s bags. I’ve done a lot of running in airports – empty boarding areas, long quiet hallways – but most of the time I’ve been lucky to have company with me who (as normal members of society) would rather read Dan Brown or call home than jog a few dozen laps of Miami’s Terminal D, and thus are happy to watch over my things.
I ask around and – to my pleasant surprise – rejoice in discovering a booth that will watch your luggage for 4 soles/hour (about $1.30). I decide it’s well worth it after a stiff and stressful night, so I leave my backpack and head out into the typically grey Lima morning.
The Jorge Chavez International Airport is actually located in the city of Callao, just north of the gargantuan Lima. The sub-urban sprawl is not beautiful and people and cars and commerce choke the streets. I’m stiff and achy and breathing in the fumes of a million diesel engines, but the movement is refreshing nonetheless.
Reunited with my bag in the airport, I still have a few hours to kill and I occupy most of that time eating a ceremonial Big Mac (a Lima-Airport-Tradition – don’t ask) and trying to find this particular airport’s wifi/outlet holy grail – a real scavenger hunt, even in the most modern of airports.
Nearly six hours after leaving customs, I carry my bag back through the last x-ray scanner of the day and it’s time to board airplane number three of three on my long journey to Trujillo. With the worry about my passport out of my mind (or at least postponed until my return), I’m able to relax and actually doze off on the brief flight over the coastal desert. Now, I can start worrying about my race.
I wake up and look down at the Pacific – the texture of the dark blue water like the worn surface of an old leather sofa. Suddenly, the desert appears below us and the wheels hit the tarmac. Twenty-five hours later. We made it.
Final “Travel Splits”
Walk to Ecovia: 12:25
Ecovia 1: 8:45 (21:10)
Ecovia 2: 24:24 (45:36)
Airport Bus: 1:30:44 (2:16:21)
Waiting in Quito Airport: 1:10:52 (3:27:13)
Boarding Plane #1: 36:37 (4:03:50)
Flight UIO to GYE: 35:36 (4:39:27)
Overnight layover in Guayaquil: 10:21:37 (15:01:04)
Flight GYE to LIM: 1:32:13 (16:33:18)
Layover in Lima: 7:12:12 (23:45:30
Flight LIM to TRU: 55:16 (24:01:46)
Walk to Bus station: 34:09 (24:35:55)
Bus to downtown Trujillo: 44:32 (25:19:27)