w:Sufjan Stevens performing at the w:Pabst The...

Sufjan Stevens. Image via Wikipedia

On my second day in Peru, my iPod died. I was on a bus the size of a Volkswagen, trying to stand in the narrow row between seats as we careened around hairpin turns. People sat on the roof; people sat on furniture that had been tied to the roof. Many passengers had portable radios in their laps, cranked over the din of kids whining, babies crying, couples bickering. One minute, I was safe inside my headphones, and the next, I could hear everything—a cacophony of chaos where my travel playlist should be. On the iPod screen, a sad face drooped over the URL for Apple support.

I restarted, I reset—nothing but the grind-click of a seriously sick machine.

I had three weeks to go; at least six long bus rides, two long plane rides, and countless hours of meandering. Music wasn’t a luxury, it was a necessity.

Music provokes more intense and contextualized emotional reactions to places and allows us better access to the aesthetic of a city or a work of art, or even our own brains. As a solo traveler, I learned this quickly and employ it regularly: Sufjan Stevens in my ancestors’ birthplace, Sigur Ros in the Sistine Chapel, Aphex Twin in the Van Gogh museum. Silence in Auschwitz.

Headphones help me keep my distance, which is especially useful when passing through cities or ports where people try to sell everything from personal services to carpets to baby llamas to hotel upgrades, or when in an area populated by pesky and/or intoxicated men who regard American women as spectacles worthy of dogged harassment. Plug in, check out, and cruise on, (relatively) unbothered.

The iPod drowns out the boy band LPs played in bars and coffee shops, the muzak of stores and trains, car horns, screaming children (and adults), and snoring hostel-mates.

Certain music makes me feel more connected to home, friends, and family, which at times feel so far away that they seem nonexistent.

Thus, my iPod is in the “top five items I can’t do without” list, along with my passport, my notebook, a positive bank account balance, and underwear.

When I got back to my hostel that night, I went online to Apple support. The consensus was that the sad iPod face was a bad, bad sign, and indicative of hard disk problems. A couple of guys at the hostel took a look and listen, and one even made a go of plugging my iPod into his laptop and trying to reformat it, but they supported the terminal diagnosis and we pronounced the iPod dead. I thought about buying a cheap MP3 player, but Peru isn’t known for its electronics, and I would then have had to find a way to download/upload all the songs I wanted, which meant squandering far too much time doing what I do every day at home.

I made a drastic decision: for the next three weeks, I would actually listen to the sounds and music around me.

Myriad street performers play pan flutes and windpipes, many of them dressed in traditional Incan garb. At first they sounded like any random track on a traditional cheesy world music cd, but then I realized that I recognized some of the songs they were playing, such as Elton John’s SacrificeEvery Rose has its Thorn,  and Like a Virgin.

Peruvians have discovered and are almost uniformly obsessed with 80s music. When I first arrived in Arequipa, my cabbie rocked out to Dire Straits’  Walk of Life, which, I had forgotten, is a great song and almost impossible not to rock out to (though, since I heard it at least six more times, I won’t be listening to it again until 2015). And Karma Chameleon! The first time I heard it, I felt like I was reuniting with a good friend from college—I got all nostalgic for my crappy little dorm room and 8 o’clock classes. I heard Bon Jovi, which makes me fantasize, just a little, about feathered hair and mullets and boys who play hockey. Erasure, the band that made me realize at the age of ten my fondness for flamboyance.

Peruvians can’t get enough of Queen; I love Under Pressure anytime and anywhere, and I chuckle a little remembering Vanilla Ice and his ridiculous hair and dance moves. Of course, Michael Jackson was ubiquitous; I was asked at least a dozen times how I was handling his death. Bruce Springsteen, who, despite his Born in the USA stretch, I’ve come to appreciate. Even though Sting has been annoying for a while now, listening to the Police brought back the good times, including the memory of reading Lolita in high school after listening to Don’t Stand So Close to Me on repeat.

In addition to the cultural, historical, social, and environmental characteristics of Peru, the likes of which I’ve never experienced anywhere else, the trip provided an unexpected visitation of my own history and landscape.

I’d be in a remote village 13,000 feet above sea level, catch someone singing or playing INXS, and become instantly transported back to the fourth grade talent show, in which I played the piano wearing a jean jacket over a mustard-yellow knit dress and a shy kid named Corey blew everyone away with a shockingly seductive rendition of I Need You Tonight.  I’d recall the day Michael Hutchence died, and think about how he always seemed like a poor man’s Bono. Then I’d spend far too long thinking about Bono. At the end of these reveries, I’d stop for a minute, look around me and think, holy shit, I’m in the Andes!

The extent to which Western culture has infiltrated other countries, especially developing ones, is obscene. But outside of Lima, there weren’t many McDonald’s, no TGI Fridays, and only one Dunkin Donuts. At times, Peru felt still fairly untouched—until I turned on the radio or went out to hear live music, which invariably would be an 80s cover band. Even the bad asses, like our army vet canyon guide, listened to Van Halen and Journey and Mr. Mister. Unlike with other aspects of Western culture, Peru’s absorption of American 80s music charmed me, especially because through their love of the music they thoroughly embodied the spirit of it.

Surprisingly, for the most part, the death of my iPod enhanced my experience in Peru. It also made me realize how often I’m plugged in, and thus, tuned out. How often I create my own aural landscape rather than listen to the sounds around me. How much I might be missing by effecting, and visibly expressing, that preference. How sometimes, music best exercises its power when we take off our headphones and let the playlist assemble itself.

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