With about twenty fellow tourists, all wearing bright orange vests in case of sinkage, the boat heads out into that great blue vastness known as the Pacific, just one little corner of our planet’s most notable feature: the global great blue.
We scheduled the tour the day before, not knowing how delicious pisco sours would be and how much I’d need to self-medicate. Still, as the boat runs farther into the sea and the equatorial sun beats down, I sober up. And, fortunately, the Pacific is living up to its name. So far, the ride is smooth, and the fear of losing my breakfast passes as our destination comes into view, the Islas Ballestas, or crossbow islands.
These crumbling, implausible peaks rise out of the marine waters like desiccated shells left out in the sun too long. Their outlines seem to squiggle. It is only as I grow closer that I realize that this isn’t a mirage brought on by overindulgence in the sun; these are birds, their number uncountable. As we pull in closer, Guanay and red-legged cormorants—the latter unmistakable due to their carrot-colored legs—peer down over the cliffs at us like little condescending lords. Their wings splay wide to dry off in the light and the heat.
The boat slows and bobs as the driver steers us around the islets’ edges where waves curl and end in white froth. Every time the water descends, sea stars and many-colored anemones appear, clinging just below the tideline, living lives wholly unimaginable to two-legged hominids.
Suddenly a Peruvian booby, which lacks the sea-blue feet that makes the other unfortunately named seabird famous, dive-bombs into the water a mere two yards away. It pops up moments later, having missed the fish it spied from above. But more boobies plunge into the sea from the sky above, like shafts of arrows sent from a heavenly army. Some hit their mark, gobbling up the living. Others bob on the clear marine waters, breathing momentarily after their exuberant, though unsuccessful, attempts.
They fill the air with their cries, as does the heavy smell of ammonia from their guano that covers the islands in a whitish powder, almost like dirty snow.
Our driver takes us deftly under an island archway, and we see our first group of Patagonian sea lions. They lounge on slick rock, soaking in the tropical sun, seemingly unperturbed by our presence—this is, after all, a daily tour. We drive through a little cavern, and there, with his harem, is the king: Pepe. He is as big as a goddamn grizzly bear and sports the thrifty mane that gives sea lions their common name. The rascal towers over the females like a Great Dane over a pack of yapping corgis, his voice booming against the cavern’s walls and drowning out the cries of all others, including our own ooohs and ahhhhs.
Turning another corner, we encounter a bizarre sight: penguins. Yes, penguins chilling—pun intended—on the jagged, sunny, rainless islands. I’ve never seen a penguin in the wild before and would not have expected it here, of all places. But four penguin species inhabit the tropics, including these well-dressed Humboldt gents.
For the first time since landing in Peru, I spend several hours feeling no anxiety or trepidation, only wonder and awe. And on the way back to port, dolphins appear suddenly, their blue backs sliding up through the surface before disappearing again, paralleling the ship and guiding us home.
In the years to come, this morning excursion will prove to be one of those travel memories that becomes a jewel in my pocket I can take out anytime, even decades later, to lift my spirits or remind me of the beauty of our little planet, third from the sun.
I feel like maybe I might make it out of Peru alive after all.
A year after we leave Pisco, the town is hit by an 8.0 earthquake. The San Clemente Cathedral in the center of town collapses, killing 187 worshippers attending a memorial service for a much-beloved Piscoan. The town itself falls: 85 percent of Pisco, mostly made of adobe buildings, is in ruins. Across the region, 540 people perish.
Even in my morbid imagination, it’s difficult to square my memory of our twenty-four hours in Pisco with the reality that must still exist today, more than a decade after the earthquake: the heartache, the rubble, the shattering of so many lives.
But here is the luxury of travelers: We are ghosts, here one moment, there another, never around long enough to become truly intimate with the places or the people who pass their lives there. Our experiences are fleeting, our famil- iarity only superficial, our connections momentary and illusory. It conjures up one of my favorite lines from Pride and Prejudice, when Mr. Bennet confesses the heaviness of his sins as a father: “I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough.” Here is a brutal condemnation of the human species, but an honest one.
Indeed, Tiff and I are soon climbing the stairs of another bus headed for Haucachina. And as we do, Pisco recedes into memory, devastation still a year away.