I landed in Lima without forethought or reservation.
I had been here before, after all. The officer at immigration's first question was "when are you leaving Peru?" I answered truthfully - March 12th, 2013 - after about one hundred days. He didn't take this too well. I am told the absolute maximum is ninety.
"Do you have family in Peru?" he asks in Spanish.
I didn't lie. I don't know of any.
"Do you have a job here?"
I do not. He is confused.
"You are coming for over three months and don't have family here, or a job?"
He doesn't believe me. I am starting to question my non-plan.
"Yo gusto Peru," I tell him. This often curries disproportionate favour.
He doesn't bite and asks for my plane ticket out of the country. My next one way, to Madrid, I hadn't bothered printing.
"No tengo ahora," was understood as I had made no such acquisition, I realized too late.
He began leafing through my passport.
I'm cooked, surely.
As was now inevitable, he paused on the stamp that indicated last time I entered Peru I overstayed my legal allowance by two-hundred and forty-five days. I started to wonder whether they would detain me or let me buy the next one way ticket to anywhere but here.
That is until a senorita sidled to his right. She is making fun of me. At least I know to which intersection in Lima's affluent Miraflores district I am heading.
She is hanging off of him. He is brightening with every passing moment. She tells him what I am, a backpacker. Some rapid exchanges are lost in translation. He is practically radiating now.
"Tu gusta Peru?"
"Entonces daré cien ochenta dia. Esta bien?"
"Mucho gracais senor mucho gracias."
I saved the ten dollar fine had he let me in with the stamp for ninety. Potentially much more, had he decided to turn me around. They were laughing and smiling, the end of their shift maybe? She cajoled him to say something in English.
"Welcome to da jungle."
I walked through immigration to find a cab.
Men volunteered themselves, speaking quickly, flashing badges that indicate nothing.
Sit in the front seat, humanize yourself, make small talk.
I don't know how to stay safe when traveling.
But I have been safe.
And I can tell you what I do. Foremost, I am young and I carry a penis around. These natural advantages are difficult to duplicate.
Small talk runs out of course and every cab driver eventually says something to me that is some combination of unintelligible and meaningless. You would be surprised how often silence is accepted as a type of answer. In this, I have much practice.
I felt safe driving into town, because this time, I knew the way. I wasn't so concerned hopping from collector to centre lanes, using all the backstreets, braking, shifting, gunning.
I dress poorly. I wear my clothes until they split, up the armpits, in the knees, holes expanding, seams unraveling.
I plan when I am going to take out my camera and I do not take many pictures. In the city square, I stand beside the Japanese couple wielding a tripod mounted telephoto lens. I sit down before I look at a map. I put my leg through my backpack strap. I walk during the day where I am going at night. And most of the time, I only carry the cash I need.
I look at people in the eyes, constantly, and for longer than their natural curiosity sustains. No menace -no Phil Ivey death stare, no Tom Dwan glower - my lower lip firmly attached to its counterpart. I stare with all the urgency of a cat at rest. I return the beggars' gaze, as I walk by. And I walk with purpose, as if I know where I am going. But I seldom do.
With what coefficients these amalgamate I do not know. But in all my travels, no one - nearly without exception - messes with me. Busy markets, impoverished neighbourhoods, canyon roads, I walk alone. Most hardly care and the rest stare until they look away.
It was almost midnight.
The woman in the seven seat slumped over her cards, under the gun, hardly peaking at them before pushing them forward in disgust. The youngster in seat one folded his hijack, a bit of a surprise. It had dawned on me about an hour ago that I was the only one with energy. I had started open raising more hands, in earlier spots. I didn't quite have the stack to do so when I started, but my opponents had ceded more and more ground until I did.
I was prepared.
I had run every day, miles upon miles. I had played every day, hand after hand, both online and at the casino. I ate better. I slept well. I didn't drink. I hardly went out at night. I woke up every day sore and loped along the malecon, the cliffs that brink Lima, until I was too tired.
And I wasn't tired now.
It was level ten of the first day of PokerStars' LAPT Lima. I had battled all day, a real slugfest. And now, having taken my first shot at a four-figure buy-in tournament, a 2500$ buy-in no less, I was ten minutes away from making day two with an above average chip stack.
It folded to me on the button and I min raised ten seven offsuit. My accelerating larceny hadn't been ticketed yet. The big man in the big blind called, forgoing his opportunity to consider his options. His gut had lurched over the table when he unloaded his big chip stack thirty minutes ago. He sipped an espresso that resembled a thimble.
The dealer spread out the flop.
Eight. Nine. Six. Two clubs.
I should have suddenly been happy that I had taken an unnecessarily large risk to my bankroll, playing for seventy-five percent of my own action. I felt nothing.
I arrived at Dragonfly hostel unannounced, and it was as I had remembered it. Yan, the owner, recognized me, perhaps two years removed from the last time I had seen him. His daughter had been born and his wife no longer worked at reception. Yan had taken up microbrewing his own beer, selling it at the hostel's bar. He was in my ear smiling, about how I should write something for him - the only hostel in Lima with a microbrewery - in exchange for a few free nights. I tried the darker of his two varieties and it was surprisingly good, not that removed from a hearty Munich wheat. I had had low expectations.
Yan was into the precision brewing required; he liked improving upon his craft. It was a scientific inquiry he said, but his hurried expositions betrayed passion. I liked him the first time I met him. He had seen the world in the French navy. At some point he came through Peru and met Mabel, settling here, his wife's family sharing their home ten blocks east. He had bought the hostel in a prime location and had worked hard to improve it. But he always found time for a beer and a conversation. His friends came over and started the nightly buzz on weekdays and weekends alike. Australian hippies, British drunks, Thai postgraduates, (frugal) German mining consultants, and French succubi, you could meet anyone here if you attended the hostel's bar consecutively.
It was Friday night.
Perfect legs bookended by heels and short shorts, her hair had spent at least two hours this afternoon in the company of a curling iron. Suggestive lipstick. At least it was to me. But suggestions don't carry much guarantee, as I was caught leaning in unsuccessfully that night, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. There is not much coy remaining in a man's arsenal after being shown the deft recoil of the other cheek.
She was short.
Short enough that during our conversation my focus wandered to a calculus of non-exotic, erotic situations.
I had decided to grind in the hostel's common room that evening, a decision based purely on the strength of the location's wireless internet. Her, and her mother, interrupted my session with unsolicited questions from another table.
"Where are you from?"
"What is your name?"
One thing led to another. I introduced her to Kanye West on Youtube (I went with Gold Digger) after we established the language of the night was to be Spanish. I then discovered she was the niece of the man on shift, Fernando. Her mother had wandered off. And now Fernando was saying we were being too loud for this time of night. He escorted us up to the rooftop terrace, where we found a table, and some candlelight.
I told her I worked as a writer and played poker as a hobby, a reverse fiction. It came to my attention that she graduated from university a translator, and given the poverty of my Spanish, this provided an opportunity for mockery that I could not on good conscience turn down.
This was a set-up surely, but with whom in mind? I had just gotten into town. Fernando had not been a sentry for my evitable return. Was this her regular Friday night hustle?
My harpy radar went silent, probably overheated.
Perhaps because I didn't care.
When the big man checked I bet an inviting amount and instantly faced a substantial raise. The ideal scenario would involve him holding the second best straight, drawing dead to a chop, as opposed to having a set or a flush draw. My course of action was simple enough. I re-raised and we were quickly all-in.
Short stacked at various points in the day, I had gotten all the money in with the nuts and a good chance to start day two with a big stack. The big man flipped over nine eight offsuit with all the false confidence in the world. I was a four to one favourite.
The nocuous three of clubs came on the turn. I hadn't moved but my opponent was standing, leaning over the board, urging on the cards like he was sweating a cock fight. Things were dicier now: he had one club in his hand and I had none. But I was still seven to three.
They always want to see you the next day. I woke up at five thirty. Yan came into the room and shook the guy in the next bunk, telling him to do something about her. She was loitering in the street outside. She was ringing the bell ceaselessly. I was up now so decided to get to work. She was being interviewed by two local policemen. She was gesticulating and stomping her heels. A thought penetrated my morning stupor; I must avoid his fate.
Mine wanted to go to karaoke, to salsa dancing, and to the beach by moonlight. Instead I took her to a restaurant on the beach with a live pianist, then to watch Skyfall. She talked during the movie, trilled really, with each banter, twist, or explosion. This was going to be exhausting.
Our second date I asked her to help me with apartment hunting. Our third she asked me to move in with her. Five days later, I did. The price was right, the promise, inebriating.
I think a good test of a woman's vanity is whether she thinks her singing is worth hearing. That and whether her desktop background is an encompassing close up of her own face.
One morning she showed me how to best prepare mangoes. One night she blindfolded me at the door. She had cooked my favourite Peruvian dish, lomo saltado. Candles and camera flashes lit dinner for two. Four glasses of wine later and my hands were still not allowed their fullest expression.
She wasn't like the Peruvian women I knew -she didn't work like a dog - in fact, she didn't work at all. She drove a little red Yaris, badly. The pillow stacked driver's seat pulled up to the wheel. Middle class girls working eighty hour weeks, while in school, had treated me to dinner before. She never paid for anything; she never offered.
She took light English classes and was spoiled. I asked her about Lima in the nineties. She told me about her childhood instead, the time she represented her school by running an Olympic torch around. Everyone watched her, of course. Her mom had attended the hyperinflation lines alone. More and more she reminded me of that Louis CK phrase, "non-contributing zero."
She asked me to proofread her two paragraph assignment, write about someone you admire. Here is a context clue; one of the sentences read "I think he would make a good father." I began formulating my exit strategy before I shut my eyes the first night.
The dealer flipped the ace of clubs onto the felt without emphasis, but it lifted off the table like a drummer's hi-hat. The big man was pounding both fists on the rail, shouting something that reached my ears but not my brain. His espresso gyrated violently in its saucer.
I stood up to leave. The hijack took his sunglasses off and didn't feign his pained expression. We knocked knuckles and I walked out, my only other memory, the four minutes left on the tournament clock.
The sympathy bounced off me. I had prepared for this. I had surrendered my expectations long before I woke up that morning. And it felt good.
It felt good to play so well for so long, to lose a much-too-large portion of my bankroll, and to experience an absence of regret. Lima was where I became strong again. Perhaps my return had been inevitable. This time, so was my escape.
Gareth Chantler is a PokerStars player and frequent traveler