Mistakes abound when you’re frolicking in a foreign country. Language barriers, wrong turns and cultural faux pas are common threads between travelers. I once asked a waiter at a restaurant in Latin America if I should “sentirme” instead of “sentarme,” the difference between “feel myself” and “seat myself.” In Portugal, I took a path less traveled expecting to find solitude in the Algarve; instead, I encountered a colony of wrinkly, sunbaked skin in the form of elderly nudists—my first nude beach experience. I thought “Boxing Day” in the Bahamas referred to celebrating the sport of boxing… It does not.
But perhaps one of my favorite oops-a-daisy incidents to date is one that began like so many others—with a combination of pure stupidity and bad luck.
I booked a six-week trip to Peru on a whim, planning to start off visiting my sister in Lima. In the middle of my Peruvian adventure, my sister and her husband returned to the US for their own vacation. Prior to their departure, they kindly lent me a key to their apartment so I could let myself back in when my nomadic wanderings around the south of Peru came to an end.
I returned late in the night to their apartment four days before they were due back. When I woke early the next morning, clean clothes were first on my mind. I had hiked and slept in the same clothes for more than two weeks, and a sour smell was beginning to emanate from the cotton fibers on my sweatshirt. I threw on a running shirt and floral pattern skirt that had been left behind during my gallivanting. Sure, I didn’t match and yes it was chilly outside but I wasn’t planning on walking the streets anytime soon.
When I heard the ding! of the washer, I piled the clothes into a basket and tromped up to the third floor to hang my clothes outside. I found the key to the terrace on a side table, turned it in the lock, threw open the door and stepped onto the tile to place the basket on a table. Not more than two seconds later, I heard a loud thud.
“Nooooo,” I whined. That thud seemed to say it all, a noise punctuating bad news, confirming the unknown. I checked the handle just to be sure. Locked.
I frantically meandered around furniture and potted plants, checking the windows.
“Yes!” I nearly screamed. They were open. But homeowners in Lima obsess over security, even three floors high. I yanked repeatedly on the bars covering the glass, knowing full well it was a futile effort. Better yet, I could see my phone on the counter inside, mocking me, safeguarding the contact number for the housekeeper who had a spare key. She had cleaned the house in preparation for my arrival, a day earlier than her usual cleaning day—Tuesday. The day I locked myself out on a third story terrace in Peru.
I began rummaging in hanging ferns, lifting up clay pots, doormats and seat cushions in search of a hidden key. Defeat pulling in the reins, I did the one last thing I could think of.
“Cesar!” I whispered, leaning over the railing in the direction of the neighbor’s apartment three houses down. “Cesar!” I repeated to a man I’d met only twice before.
His face appeared in an open window.
“I locked myself out. I don’t have my phone. Can you call my sister to get the number for the housekeeper?”
He scurried onto the street and stared up at me as he tried to reach my sister and her husband on Whatsapp. After 30 minutes of texting and attempted phone calls, I tried to explain to him that they only receive messages when they are connected to Wifi, so they must be on the road. He didn’t quite seem to grasp the concept and continued trying to call them.
Exchanging the skirt for a pair of my clean, damp shorts, I Spider-man climbed atop the roof and surveyed my surroundings. There was no plausible re-entry. Cesar decided to see for himself. He used his homemade ladder to step onto the roof of the neighbor’s one story house. From there, he climbed up the ladder onto the terrace.
He tapped his lips in thought, then suddenly handed me his phone. “I have to go work,” he said. “This is my extra phone. Keep it in case they call.”
He crawled back down, leaving me cold, frustrated, hungry and helpless. I contemplated climbing down but then realized I didn’t really have anywhere to go. So I waited, slipper-clad and looking like a stranded Sporty Spice in the Peruvian winter.
Cesar said he would be gone 30 minutes. I’ve learned timing is grossly underestimated in South America. An hour-and-a-half later, he was climbing back up the ladder.
“This is for you,” he said, handing me a bag with a banana and piece of bread. In a country where my favorite animal is a delicacy, he still remembered I was vegan. And though he couldn’t quite fathom how I continue to live and breathe and enjoy eating without meat in my diet, he was kind enough to think of my growling stomach.
I told him I had not heard from my sister. I asked if he could give me the number to a locksmith, trying my best to explain “a person who unlocks doors” in Spanish. Then I noticed he was busily unloading tools from a zippered pack around his waist. He tied a piece of string to a hook and wedged it inside the door with the help of pliers. I commented that this didn’t look like his first rodeo. He chuckled but didn’t reply.
In the middle of trying to loop the hook around the handle, my sister’s husband called, gave me the number to the housekeeper and wished us good luck. I inked the phone number on the cement wall with the juice from a leaf. I was ready to dial, but Cesar insisted on continuing with his invention. God bless Latinos and their persistent nature. Though a clever method, the handle was too heavy for the contraption and, ultimately, the string broke.
Four hours had passed. Grateful as I was for Cesar’s attempted break-in, I wanted desperately to get back inside, so I punched in the number for the housekeeper. She was more than willing to bring over the spare but was a bit of a drive away. Cesar returned to his home and told me to alert him when I was free.
I spent five hours of my trip to Peru stuck on a terrace. When the housekeeper unlocked the door, I walked to the neighbor’s to report the update. I rang the wrong doorbell.
“Hola?” a woman’s voice said through the intercom. I mistook her for Cesar’s wife.
“Estoy libre!” I shouted excitedly. Literally, that translates to, “I’m free.” I later learned from my sister that, out of context, I basically said “I’m a whore” to a stranger.
Zoologist, blogger and self-proclaimed comedian, Stacey Venzel has rescued sea turtles, bunked with a tribe in the Amazon, built a school in Brazil and performed various literal interpretations to pop songs on-stage. She grew up in Ohio and currently calls Long Island, Bahamas home base.