If you told me that I would become close friends with a 54-year old male from Peru that does not speak English, I probably would not have believed you. And had you told me that I would share the last 6 weeks of his life with him, I would have thought you were crazy. But that is exactly what happened in Huanchaco.
Tom and I received very sad and very shocking news a few days ago; the man that made Huanchaco a home for us, died just days after we left. We are still in shock and deeply saddened.
On paper there was no reason to believe Alberto should have been anything more than an attentive host that we paid to rent a room from while we stayed in town. But he became so much more than just a host.
We lived with Alberto. We shared meals with Alberto. He took me to the market, frowned at my choice of limes, and stubbornly insisted from which lady I should buy my avocados; “not the woman with the basket on the ground, but the lady to her right.”
In Huanchaco, like most Latin American cities, the early mornings are quiet. Most people don’t wake up and get going till well after 8 or 9am. But Alberto, wasn’t one to sleep in and neither was I. So in the quiet of the early morning hours, with the lights still dimmed in the house, we exchanged morning greetings, spoke about our plans for the day, and more often than not, Alberto returned from the market with fresh juice, an avocado (because they were “muy rico hoy”), or a tamale as a gift for Tom and I. Hospitality was such a part of him, it was like he didn’t even have to try.
We got to know each other in the little ways that you don’t know someone unless you live with them. I learned his routines, his idiosyncrasies, his preferences, what he ate, and what he refused to eat. These are the little details that make someone real and make someone like family. When you know someone in this way, it’s intimate in a way that chatting over a beer or having lunch once a week just can’t get you.
For example, I know that Alberto woke up every morning, meticulously cleaned the patio tile floor, and rode to the market on his red motorbike to buy his breakfast at a stand owned by a man named Martín. For breakfast, he typically just drank juice, but occasionally ate a tamale or caldo de gallina, his sworn remedy for every ailment.
Then he returned every morning about the time I was making coffee and breakfast in the downstairs kitchen. He would walk over and curiously peak into my pot of quinoa porridge, sniff its aromas, and comment “que rico huele!” But he always refused to eat some (I still don't know why).
He lunched with Herb and took a nap every afternoon. Then at sunset every evening, as Tom, Herb, and I welcomed dusk with a glass of wine or a beer, Alberto always drank milk (often from the carton) and ate bread because of his acid reflux.
He also snubbed his nose at coconut. Apparently, he was once stuck somewhere and due to flooding, the trucks couldn’t get through with food. As a result, all he could eat for days was coconut. He was full of stories like that. Another included a time that he was trapped under a wall after an earthquake. And then there was the one about his pet Labrador that saved a young boy drowning in the ocean. The stories always seemed wildly unrealistic, so much so that I questioned whether I really understood him correctly.
As he spoke only a few words of English, and I was just learning Spanish, our communication with each other included a lot of pointing and gesturing. We developed a sort of sign language that the two of us could understand.
Alberto had more than just patience for my elementary understanding of Spanish; he actually exhibited enthusiasm for it. I can’t remember one story he told me while he was sitting down. About three words in to every story, he would leap out of his red plastic chair and act out the incident as if it was fun for him, and not a chore to help me understand.
And once I finally understood, he would fall back into his chair with a look of both satisfaction and exhaustion. “Entiendes?” he would ask. And I couldn’t lie, because if he was asking me, it was because he already knew that I didn’t understand. So up he would go again to tell me the story one more time.
But if there is one area in which we could always communicate, it was food. We bonded over a mutual love of Peruvian food and cooking. I wanted to try everything and he wanted to teach me how to make it all. He took me to the market and taught me how to buy fish for ceviche, he taught me how to prepare other various Peruvian dishes, and he encouraged me to taste the food to know when it was ready, to trust my own preferences, and to always make it with love.
He talked of opening a restaurant, but said he liked his life as it was; it was “free” as he called it. He worked some, but not too much. And when he worked, he worked hard. But then he soaked in the days. He came and went as he pleased, his door was always open to the sound of the waves, and when the sun was out, so was he…on the patio without a shirt soaking in the rays like he soaked in life.
One day he took us to the Valle de Piña (Pineapple Valley) and Otusco, a small mountain town. He spoke with so much excitement about the foods of these places. In the Valle de Piña, he led Tom and I to the spot where he used to camp with friends. He picked fruit and other produce along the way, teaching us about them, their flavors, and how to eat them. In Otusco, he couldn’t stop talking about the ham, the trout, and the cheese.
In fact, the only time he would stop talking about food was when he was eating it. He ate all his meals with fervor and full enjoyment. And after he finished he would sit back with his hands on his stomach, comment on the richness of the meal, and then proceed to tell me I talked too much and ate too slow. I was never more than a few bites into my meal when he was already finished and his dish cleaned.
Knowing these small details about someone makes them like “family.” The big plans, the nights out, and the special occasions, you share with friends, but it’s the mundane details of life, the daily living, that you share with “family.” And it’s in these details that you feel most poignantly the loss of someone special.
I know all the people that lived life with Alberto in Huanchaco will miss him dearly. Martín will miss him every morning when he fails to come for his morning juice. Those that live in his house will miss him when they feel a slight layer of dirt beneath their feet on the tiles he so meticulously cleaned every morning. And Herb will miss him every day at lunchtime.
Tom and I are now in Ecuador, so we won’t be there to live life in Huanchaco without Alberto, to feel his absence while we drink our morning coffee or sip our wine or beer at sunset. But for me, when I see a black fanny pack, hear the hum of a motorbike, or savor good Peruvian food, I will always remember my unlikely friendship with a man named Alberto.
We expected to make friends on this trip, but we never hoped to loose them.
The loss of Alberto is a harsh reminder that you never know when death will come to you or to another. Sometimes there is warning, a slow decline. But at any time it can come swift and with surprise. In either case, when it comes it is final. The finality of it is the most difficult part for me. It draws a line that cannot be undone. So if I have relationships to mend, forgiveness to give, prayers to pray, people to embrace, or words to speak, there is no better time than now.
Alberto, our time with you was short. We lived it together intensely, and we will miss you the same.
I'm Jaime. My husband is Tom. Suburbanites, backpackers, and expats...we've been them all!