A gray-haired lady entered the restaurant and turned her eyes to me instantly. Her gaze didn’t surprise me. During the eight months I had been traveling in South America, I visited indigenous Andean villages and remote islands where the locals had never met someone from India before. My earthy complexion and kohled eyes always raised a plethora of questions about my origin.
I assumed the lady was another intrigued Peruvian, though instead of being in an uninhabited town, we were in Cusco, a Unesco world heritage site and the tourist hub of Peru. I was eating a set menú, a bowl of quinoa soup and some chicken with rice(back then I ate selected meat), in a modest Peruvian restaurant for five soles.
Unlike other Peruvian women who wore colorful jobonas and polleras usually, the lady was dressed in a white cotton shirt and grey trousers. The vivid lliclla was also replaced by a beige scarf that she had wrapped around her frail shoulders.
She steered herself into my direction casually and stopped up close. I replaced my spoon into the ceramic soup bowl. Gulping down the mouthful of the grainy quinoa soup, I looked up. As she stared into my eyes, her sapphire eyes lit up. She smiled, puckering the skin around her eyes in wrinkles.
“Que bonito! You have beautiful eyes, little girl.”
My cinnamon eyes shone like gold due to the sunlight that had found its way into the restaurant from the glass windows.
I replied, “Gracias, señorita. You are gorgeous as well. ”
I could have called her señora, a respectable Spanish word for an older lady, but a few complimentary words kindle a friendship instantly.
“I have a son your age who lives with his son nearby.” She laughed.
She took my withered hands in her velvety pink palms. When I kissed her hands an earthy chrysanthemum fragrance filled my nose. Then we both stared at our reflections in each other’s eyes.
She looked at me with such intent as if she was trying to find her young years stretched across my face. After telling me to enjoy my meal, she ordered only the soup from the menu and then sat down at the next table.
I devoured milanesa de pollo (breaded chicken) and a generous portion of papas fritas (french fries). Then I asked the young waiter about the directions to Sacsayhuamán, the Inca ruins on the outskirts of Cusco. The shy server mumbled some faint Spanish. Before I could ask him again, the Peruvian lady called me, “Señorita. Come here, please.”
I walked and sat down on the chair next to her. Though she explained the directions to the ruins earnestly, my unsure countenance must have shown that I didn’t understand the way. The numerous left and rights she had asked me to take were hard to digest along with the heavy meal that I had just gorged on. She said that she would walk with me to the bus stand.
She got the rest of her soup packed. Hand in hand, we walked out of the restaurant into the deserted street. I suddenly remembered the lunch recesses during which my friend and I used to stroll in the school courtyard arm in arm.
When I carried her parceled soup for her, she chirped, “Do not take it along with you.” Our laughter filled the empty street.
“What are you doing here in Cusco?” She asked.
“I am traveling in South America.”
“Que valiante! You came here alone from India?”
Her eyes went wide. Soon she smiled in her appreciative way again.
“Travel while you are young. Then you can sit in the sun when you are old.”
As she said this, the afternoon sunlight shimmered on her milky skin.
When we turned left to get on the main road, a roaring bus sped towards us. The lady squinted for a few seconds before declaring that that was the bus I had to get onto. She waved to the bus driver to stop and asked me to hurry on. I gave her a quick hug and promised to see her again.
The bus halted with a jerk. The inquisitive passengers stared at me while I elbowed my way through the crowded aisle.
The Peruvian lady shouted my bus stop to the driver. When the driver nodded, she instructed him to leave me at the stop and not before or after.
The driver pressed down the accelerator. As the bus jolted, I grabbed the overhead handle. When I turned around to get her last glimpse, she was already a tiny figure in the distance waving me goodbye.
I arrived at Sacsayhuamán an hour later. While a woman guide narrated that the Incas conquered the ancient ruins from the Killke empire in the thirteenth century, the sun started setting.
We both sat down in the grassy lawns to absorb the last warmth of the day. When I turned my face towards the west, the guide bantered that I followed the movements of Inca’s sun god Inti.
Soon, Inti melted away under the horizon, filling the vast sky with golden-orange hues. After paying the guide, I took a bus to the central square, the closest stop to my hostel. The bus drove through the cobbled streets, and I searched for the lady.
But she was nowhere to be seen.
Maybe she was having a cup of mate with her son on that cold evening.
Maybe she was telling him that she met a gold-eyed Indian girl who was traveling their country alone.
Maybe she was telling him that that moment when we held each other’s hands felt ethereal. As if we were school friends reuniting after years. As if we had always known each other. As if we were destined to meet in no other way.
I wouldn’t say that she was like a grandmother to me. But I know we would have made great friends.
Do you have a random act of kindness from the road to share? Let me know in the comments.
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