It’s our fourth morning in Peru and we’re en route to Aguascalientes, the bedroom suburb for tourists visiting Machu Picchu. Everybody is psyched—this Inca ruin ranks No. 1 in TripAdvisor’s 2013 Travelers’ Choice awards—and even the train ride to get there is considered one of the most beautiful in the world, chugging along the edge of a whitewater stream that plunges through the Sacred Valley.
Our glass-domed railcar is equipped with pairs of double seats and tables. At one end, a party is in progress. Twenty-four seventh-graders from Roland Park Elementary Middle and Deer Park Middle Magnet School in Randallstown play cards, gossip and pass around bottles of electric yellow Inca Kola. They huddle over their phones, flipping through the photos they’ve taken so far—on the surfing beach in Lima, in the freaky bone yard of the San Francisco catacombs, posed atop the labyrinthine ruins of Saqsayhuaman, pronounced “sexy woman,” to their unending hilarity. Others are yelping about the X-rated images spied on the pre-Colombian pottery in the Museo Larco, an aspect glossed over by the docent.
Our Education First Tour director, Lucho Lazarte, who looks like a Peruvian Mark Wahlberg, balances on the arm of a seat, peering at his cards. The kids shout over each other to teach him the rules of Library, a card game that has followed us from one hotel to the next like floating craps.
The other end of the car holds a less raucous contingent—three 30-something teachers who are the trip’s chaperones, six parents, one grandparent and the lead teacher’s mother as well as her best friend. The chaperones nap in preparation for another long day of herding, head-counting, hushing and admonishing.
We other grown-ups are in a gray area—and not just in terms of hair color. We can, say, order a beer with dinner, or leave the hotel without permission. On the other hand, we have no power or responsibilities. In fact, as part of the herd, we are just as subject to counting, commanding and scolding as the kids.
My reaction to this—eye-rolling, muttering and worse— has moved my daughter to comment, “You would not make a good middle schooler, Mom.”
Ah, well, I didn’t then and I wouldn’t now. Nonetheless, I am enjoying myself. Before the trip, I’d met just one of the other parents, and felt shy at first. But by now we are a congenial group, knowing which of us has a good sense of direction, which has first-aid skills, which knows only how to order a pisco sour (me). I expected only to hang out with my daughter Jane and her two best friends, but I’ve made some new connections among the kids, as well.
In fact, the most fun part of the trip for me is getting to know a few 13-year-olds who have for years been just names in Jane’s stories. For example, every morning when I come down to the breakfast room at the crack of dawn, I find one person already there. It is Duncan Parke, who had a recent star turn as Captain Hook in the school play and still regularly bellows his songs. He is the earliest-rising young person I have ever met and one of the most enterprising, having earned almost all the $3,000 fee for the trip himself. He has an amazing memory, instantly supplying names, facts and figures from our itinerary as I write in my journal. My daughter’s description of him—“a 40-year-old in a seventh-grader’s body”—now makes perfect sense.
Another rather brilliant child, Mercedes Thompson, has been feeling homesick and cranky on and off, so hearing me refer to our hotel in Cusco as a “freezing hellhole” and the dinner we were served as “chicken-flavored cat food” created an immediate bond between us. Whenever she needs someone to kvetch with, she just finds me.
I sit with the other parents on the train, sipping coffee, passing around a book about Machu Picchu and musing over the joys of traveling with the kids on a school tour. “It seems like the ideal way to travel with a 12- or 13-year-old,” comments Larry Brody, father of Rebecca and a geneticist with the National Institutes of Health. “You get to share the experiences and the sights, but they also get to peel off and be with their friends. I honestly don’t think it would be as much fun one-on-one.”
He doesn’t get any argument on that from Deer Park mom Debbie Briscoe, who is reading “Fifty Shades of Grey” on her Kindle, while her intrepid mother, Thelma Brookes, plays word games on the iPad. Down the car, her quiet grandson Brandon is engrossed by the hooting, hollering, fussing and flirting raging around him.
“How you guys doin?” asks Lucho, ambling down the aisle to check on his older charges. It is a brave question. In the three days since we landed in Lima, Lucho has won us over with his patience regarding everything from hotel deficiencies and altitude sickness to misplaced iPhones and sudden conversions to vegetarianism (could have been the roast guinea pig, a Peruvian specialty).
While I would have imagined that unruly kids would give him more trouble than grown-ups, he confides that it’s the opposite. Kids are used to following instructions; adults are accustomed to doing whatever they want. In fact, the only person he’s ever ejected from a tour for bad behavior was an adult. Though he does recall once having to shove a pair of drunken 17-year-olds into a cold shower.
As we pull into town, we see a chilling sight: a half-mile-long line of people winding up from the ticket office. Mudslides in the mountains have closed Machu Picchu for two days prior, and now a frightening number of tourists are backed up, hoping to make it in under the 2,500 visitor/day limit.
Thankfully, as a 10-year veteran of Machu Picchu tourism, Lucho has rearranged some things, called in some favors, dragged us to the bus station in Cusco at 3:30 a.m.—and we’ll be up there straightaway after lunch.
This kind of thing makes you very happy to be on a school tour: your kid is cheering about waking up at 3 a.m. for an adventure rather than wailing because you, who have no expertise or strings to pull, have just explained that the highlight of the trip is canceled.
Machu Picchu was intended to be a royal residence—in fact, we can tell which house was to be the king’s by the location of the single indoor toilet. Our squad learns this from a guide named Hamilton, who speaks excellent English and wears a canvas explorer hat. Hamilton leads us through the maze of chambers, plazas, tombs and temples, offering quirky details at every turn. (Like how the llamas that wander the verdant grounds are natural lawn mowers.) But when the Spanish invaders showed up in the 16th century, he explains, the wily Inca abandoned Machu Picchu; it was lost to the outside world until 1911.
Hamilton shows us the astronomical features of the site, popularized by “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” A group of rocks arranged to indicate the precise moments of the solstices and equinoxes is all the more interesting since we are visiting on June 21—the winter solstice here, the most sacred day of the Inca calendar. It is also sacred to my daughter Jane, who was born on it.
When we arranged the trip I thought this coincidence would make the day unforgettable, as long as she didn’t get sucked up into the sky by the gods or something. But even though she texts her father that Machu Picchu is “by far the most amazing thing I have ever seen,” after we return to the hotel I find her lying on her bed looking tear-stained.
“Are you having a nice birthday?” I ask.
She assures me that she is, but I suspect otherwise. I once celebrated my birthday on a train from Paris to Nice and I know that being somewhere cool on your birthday is not the same as having a party, getting presents and being the center of attention. I try to comfort her without spilling the beans, which unfortunately leads her to believe that a cookie from the shop across the street is going to be the big thrill of her day.
But no. I have secretly discussed the birthday problem with both Lucho and Janell Lewis, the Roland Park social studies teacher who organized the trip. Independently, Jane’s friends Julianne Friedman and Ava Taylor have picked up little gifts in the market, inspiring some of the other kids to do the same.
Which is how Jane’s first teenage birthday ends with a wild dance party in a candlelit cafe with a Peruvian folk band who knew both “Happy Birthday” and “Hey Jude.” There were lots of french fries (there are always lots of french fries in Peru), piles of presents, and a chocolate cake big enough for three girls’ names in M&Ms, as we had learned that the birthdays of two other students also fell during our Peruvian week.
I am not the only grown-up who joins the children in the booty-shaking conga line. Jane’s gift to me is not insisting that I go sit down. Na na na na, na na na na, Hey Jude!
Finally, let me say this. When I told people I was going to Peru this summer with a seventh-grade school tour, I got about the same reaction as when I told people four years ago that I was moving to Baltimore. While I don’t deny Machu Picchu its fame, glory and No. 1 rankings, the best things in life, I find, are underrated.