Dawn has just broken over Lake Titicaca, and the town of Puno casts long shadows as the sun hovers slightly above the horizon. It’s an hour or two before breakfast on the first morning of our ISA excursion, and I have come to the roof of the hotel to observe the city from a high vantage point. Far below, a quiet street corner outside the Mercado Central finds itself once again inhabited.
A couple turns hurriedly around the corner, a man and a woman. He speaks in a consolatory manner, his footsteps dragging slightly behind. She turns to face him and pushes her finger against his lips, raising her voice to say “escúchame!” (“listen to me!”) She has something important to say, but they walk away and their voices fade.
A dog prances awkwardly across the street with a half-sagged tail and finds a place to rest at the corner of the sidewalk where there’s sun. It turns its head to watch the people go by, though they never look down, only straight ahead. Some seem to be in a hurry, others walk very slowly. Most that pass are alone with solemn expressions on their faces, few groups pass who banter and have echoing laughs that peak the volume of the soft morning. It seems many have come here only for a cafecito or ingredients to cook breakfast.
The dog gets up and moves on to another sunny spot, somewhere out of my view, and two people nearly collide at the turn of the corner for being too engrossed in their phones. One apologizes to the other, who in return says nothing and keeps her head down. They walk on, and for a minute the corner is empty and quiet again. Then, I guess compelled by the brightness of the sun, an old woman comes to occupy the same spot as the dog had to sell her tamales.
By night the streets are loud and there are people everywhere, the lights are dimmer and harsher and spill from the buildings rather than the sky. The shouts and stomps of a crowd crawl slowly around the corner of the Mercado Central. The dogs run away and cars come to a stop to let them pass. A group of 50 or so people tramples this narrow street corner holding green flags with the name of their favored politician, Jorge Zuniga. The commotion fades, and I feel there is nothing left to see.
On this day I sat higher than any mountain peak, it was silent where I was. There is an eeriness in the detachment that I feel from heights like that, in lack of truly knowing and lack of being known. It’s been proved to me time and time again that the ultimate danger in my study abroad experience is a corrosive force, never sudden or explicit. It is that I have remained in my country even after I’ve left, in a realm in which I refuse to place myself. This instinct of the foreigner, of the tourist, is one I try to unravel every day that I remain here, in hopes to find within people a place that isn’t nowhere.
Elias Lopez is a student at Western Washington University and an ISA Featured Blogger and is studying abroad with ISA in Cusco, Peru.