The elevator glides smoothly to a halt, and the ornate doors slide open. Beyond them is absolutely nothing, just a silent, lightless void.
Nervously, the six of us pile out into the darkened hallway. It's eerily quiet, and I'm acutely aware of the sound of every breath each one of us takes. I can also hear my heartbeat, disquietingly loudly.
After a moment, the elevator doors close again, and we're plunged into an impenetrable blackness.
Somebody screams, I'm not sure who. We all start laughing nervously, laughing loudly, laughing to show we're not afraid. Someone is pounding on the elevator call button. We're all clutching each other, groping for one another's hands in the darkness.
In the distance, an impossibly long way away, the pinpoint of a far-off flashlight rounds a corner. An angry voice calls out to us in Spanish as the light grows larger. He's coming towards us. And he's not happy.
Suddenly, we're all bathed in a blinding, disorienting light. The elevator has returned. Gratefully, we all stampede back inside. I'm not sure how far away the man with the flashlight is by now.
The doors trundle closed again, and we start gliding back down towards the lobby. Klaus turns to the rest of us, grinning broadly.
"All right," he laughs, waving an chastising finger in the air, "we'll try again tomorrow, and this time we're all going to be extremely fucking quiet."
It's early September, 2007, more than a year since we returned home from our adventure around the world. A few months ago, we received an email from our beloved Klaus, asking if we'd like to join him on a secret mission in Peru. Jessica and I hadn't left the US since our return to Thailand to adopt Belly nearly a year earlier, and we were very very ready for some more traveling. Plus, as a wise woman once said, "life is too short not to see your friends."
It's ironic that Peru would be the first country we'd return to (other than that quick trip to Thailand) after our trip, because we'd been only too happy to say goodbye to it in mid-2005 when we crossed into Ecuador. Peru had been one of the countries that we'd been most excited to see prior to our trip, and it's the setting for some of our most spectacular memories. But we were always a little uneasy there.
Part of the blame lies with Lonely Planet, our guidebook of choice. They're generally very good, and we've long considered them our backpacking bible of sorts, but they get a bit hysterical in the Peru guide. Every other page, it seems, it littered with callout boxes titled "Warning!" or with unsettlingly ambiguous phrases like female travelers should use caution in this area, as there have been incidents.
In hindsight, I don't think Peru really deserved the paranoia that LP bestowed upon it. Certainly it's no more dangerous than a number of other places we visited. (Klaus found great joy in relating to us that the murder rate in our then-hometown of Washington DC was significantly higher than Lima's.) I think it might in part be because Peru is such a heavily-touristed country that perhaps the authors were writing to a less savvy audience than in some of their other books. Whatever the reason, the "first impression" it gave us threw us off-kilter for most of our sojourn there.
Which is, of course, another reason we were so excited to go back.
In the heart of Lima's historic district is the spectacular Plaza San Martín, home to a statue honoring José de San Martín, the liberator of Peru. Along the northwest side of this enormous plaza is the magnificent and famous Gran Hotel Bolivar, which for three-quarters of a century was the absolute apex of sophistication and elegance here.
In 1924, Peruvian President August Gift B. Leguía decided to build a hotel specifically for visiting dignitaries and guests of honor. The upcoming Centennial Celebration of the Battle of Ayacucho would, he hoped, draw many such noble guests to Lima, and he wanted to awe them with the sumptuous luxury the Bolivar would provide.
For the next 75 years, the Bolivar was the place to stay in Lima for visiting celebrities and heads of state. In 1999, however, they had to shut down the upper floors of the hotel: there just wasn't enough demand in lean economic times to keep the whole place running full-speed. Rather than cut corners here and there, they decided to shut down the top two floors, and close them off to visitors. Downstairs, everything was as luxurious as ever. Upstairs, however, the rooms were stripped bare, the power was shut off, and the cobwebs began to gather.
Enter Klaus and another good friend of ours, a young lady whom we'll refer to only as Secret Agent X. They discovered that those upper floors were still accessible, provided that you could avoid the security guard.
Which brings us back to where we started this tale.
The elevator doors glide open as before, and again an inky blackness awaits us beyond. Klaus and Secret Agent X step out quietly into the corridor, and the rest of us follow. This time, when the doors close again and we fall into shadow, no one screams. We all clutch tightly to one another as we're led down the hallway by Klaus and Secret Agent X. The two of them make their way through the darkened hotel with a practiced ease that speaks of how many times they've done this before.
We're all holding each other's hands, like the iconic image of the children in the museum in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Someone loses their grasp, though, and Jessica and I are cast adrift into the abyss. We try to catch up to everyone else, chasing after people we can't see who probably don't even know we're not with them anymore, maintaining a strict code of silence as we go.
Then we bump into a wall. Hmm. It seems we're lost in the dark.
We try retracing our steps, and soon it dawns on us that we have no idea where we are, no idea where everyone else is, and no idea where the elevator is. Nor, for that matter, do we know where Flashlight Man is.
Then, off in the distance, we see a beacon of hope. Secret Agent X has pulled out her cellphone to help guide us, and the gentle light it gives off is clearly visible off in the distance. We make our way towards it and are reunited with our friends.
Together, we make our way further through the labyrinth of abandoned corridors. Our fearless leaders have something they want us to see: the view from atop the hotel.
We turn a corner, and come across one of the spookiest things I've ever seen. (And that includes this place.) At the far end of the hallway is a door.
It's about 3pm right now, all bright and sunny outside. That's something I've nearly forgotten in here, but I'm reminded of it because the room at the end of the hallway seems to have at least one uncovered window in it. The door is surrounded by a bright white outline, tiny shafts of light that penetrate into the hallway. It looks like the hydrogen bomb is going off in there.
By silent consensus, we decide to go check out The Door.
Moving towards it is eerie, because it's too dark in here to have any frame of reference. I just know that the glowing door is getting bigger and bigger, closer and closer.
And then we're there. Klaus quietly opens the door, we all scurry inside, and then he closes it again. And then we're all blind for a moment, while our eyes adjust to the sunlight.
The room is bare except for the heavy curtains on either side of the window. Outside is a marvelous view of Plaza San Martin (see the header image at the top of this post). We all rummage about for a few minutes, exploring the room together. I realize that these heavy curtains are the reason light wasn't coming from inside any of the other rooms. They must be closed in every room but this one. For some reason, someone's left them open here.
I suppress a small shiver. When Klaus and Secret Agent X ask in muted tones if we're all ready to continue on to the roof, I'm more than happy to move along. Together, we all plunge back into the void.
A few minutes later, we emerge into sunlight again, out onto the roof of the hotel. It's a maze of rusting iron and weathered wood planks up here, the kind of place where they'd set the chase scene at the end of the action movie. Brad Pitt would be sneaking along over there, his gun pointed at the shadows under that overhang, when Christopher Walken's voice would ring out from the other direction, taunting him about how he'd killed his partner. Something like that.
We all split up and go off to do our own exploring. Klaus shows Jessica and I the jury-rigged wooden shack just past the generator before moving off, leaving the two of us to ponder who might live up here. Across the street, atop another stately old colonial building, we see a veritable jungle of a private garden, one that you'd never suspect was there from ground level.
The view from up here is astonishing, an intimite little peek at a seldom-seen side of all these buildings. Off in the distance towers one of the mountains surrounding us, and it feels like the city stretches from here to there. Lima is called El Pulpo ("the octopus") by its inhabitants, because of its sprawling metropolitan area. It's just a massive, massive place.
Standing here atop this roof, looking out over a city that's been nothing short of spectacular (they don't call it the new Paris of South America for nothing), I'm thrilled beyond belief to be back in Peru again. The old demons have been exorcised, the nervousness we had as newbie travelers has been washed away, and I'm looking forward to coming back here time and time again.
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