Talk to me, I pleaded silently to the two kids at the end of the couch. They glanced up then back down, continuing their conversation as if I wasn’t there. Suddenly, I was that kid in the sandbox, alone. It’s not about you, I told myself. You know why they’re not talking to you.
I was in a hostel in central Peru’s jungle, three months into my year-long trip through South America. I’d been sleeping in a lot of hotel rooms. Lonely places. My trip was turning out to be far from the magical, friends-filled solo trip I’d expected when I’d planned it — the trip I’d had when I was twenty-three.
No, I know it’s not me. It’s because I’m old now. I look like their mom. Who wants to talk to their mom? Yeah, I understood their rejection. Didn’t like it but I understood it.
Maybe I should couchsurf, I thought.
I’d hosted a lot of backpackers members of the online traveling network. I loved listening to their stories, enjoying their happy faces as they dug into a home-cooked meal, remembering the endless Ichiban noodles I’d eat as a young backpacker.
Yeah, maybe I needed a homestay with people my age. I sent off a request. A few hours later, Josefina and her husband, Alex, emailed that they would be happy to host me.
A day later, a lovely, slim woman with big dark eyes rimmed with thick lashes and shoulder-length brown hair looked at me from the door of her home.
“Hola. Josefina?,” I asked.
“Si. Caryn?” I nodded.
“Your profile said you speak English?” I asked as I followed her through the door.
“No hablo ingles, lo siento, she said. Solo mi esposo,” she said, turning to me, her face apologetic.
I kept my expression neutral but cringed inwardly. What? Only her husband spoke English? Then I grinned. Well, you wanted to improve your Spanish, Caryn.
I was her first couchsurfer, Josefina told me, her hand to her chest, as if to still her nerves. My kids signed me up, she added.
I smiled. “Gracias,” I said shortly, wanting to comfort her but without the words to do so.
She returned my smile, warmly.
Josefina and I spent a lovely week getting to know each other although I understood only about sixty percent of what she told me and she laughed constantly as I butchered her language. It was a fascinating immersion into their world. And at times horrifying. The things they ate! One night I got barbequed heart, and on another, my plate was covered by a tiny roasted creature, paws intact. “Cuy,” Josefina said — “guinea pig,” translated Alex.
While Peruvian culture was so different from my own, Josefina was like every woman I’d known. Just a girl trying to navigate this ‘middle-age thing’ that had crept up while she wasn’t looking, working to figure out who she was now that her kids had left home, searching for something to take the place of them and her husband who spent more time at work than at home.
I was lonely too, I told her. Too many hotels. I missed my family. I’ve needed a friend. This stay is un regalo, I told her. A gift.
The week went quickly. As I packed up, my heart was heavy. Why? I wondered. I’d travelled forever, seldom sad to leave people, just excited to move on to the next adventure. But this time, I was so sad at the thought that I’d probably never see this new friend again.
At the terminal, I gave a quick hug to Alex then turned to Josefina. My throat was thick. I hugged her hard and we clung to each other for a long moment before I said a last “Gracias,” and climbed into the bus.
Why was I so sad? I wondered, my eyes welling with unshed tears as I looked at Josefina through the window. We’d connected, that’s why, I realized the next moment. Even though I’m sure neither of us understood half of what was being shared. But…we’d been there for each other. At a time when we’d both needed a friend.
Solo travel is still magical, I realized as we pulled away. No, it’s not the same as when I was young. It doesn’t bring the hoards of new friends like I’d expected it to. But, it’s still the best way to learn about myself, how I deal with tough situations, what’s important to me.
I can’t go back in time; I’m fifty-four. I won’t find magic in the things I found magic in when I was twenty-three, young and naïve. But the connection I’d found with Josefina made my heart soar.
Maybe I’d been looking for magic in the wrong places.