He worked at the hotel and I was a guest - our connection was purely platonic and maybe he just needed someone to listen to his story. Sometimes it’s easier to tell your story through a screen, to a stranger, it feels less confronting that way. Then again, I only speak a little Spanish so it made sense that his story came to life with the help of Google Translate. Maybe at the end of my time in Peru, when my Spanish is better, I can rewrite this so that his voice can truly be heard in my words.
Yohan was born in the mountain city of Merida in Venezuela, on the 7th of November 1992. Long before the economic crisis of the past decade, he was raised by a single mother, growing up with his five brothers. There had been six, but a brother passed away. A lot of our conversations centred around his family, they meant the world to him and his biggest motivation for moving to Peru.
His younger brother, Daniel, also works at the hotel and moved with him at the same time. He speaks less English than Yohan and more introverted. We did speak but the language barrier was just too much. Daniel has a son and wife back in Venezuela, a son he will miss seeing grow up. Eventually he will need to make a choice if they will join him in Peru, or he goes back home.
There is a bittersweetness in the way Yohan talked about his mother - she raised the boys as a single mother, until her death from diabetes when Yohan was 20 years old. He described her as his superhero, and her photograph one of the few possessions he brought with him from Venezuela. It sits at the head of his bed, a constant reminder of his roots. “She always had a smile on her face, and she was happiest when she listened to us sing Venezuelan songs. The day my brother died, that smiled faded. It broke her heart and she was never the same after that.”
Before her death, he had been studying at a technical University. The aftermath had a big impact on his life - both emotionally and in his studies. Yohan was the third youngest of six and at the time, the youngest was just two years old. At 20 years old, he quit university to raise his youngest brother - working during the day and teaching math and social sciences at night. I asked him why he was raising his brother and not others in his family - his older brothers already had families of their own and he didn’t think it was fair for them to have another mouth to feed when he did not.
The journey to a new life
Yohan and his brother, Daniel, took 14 days to walk from Merida, Venezuela to Zorritos in Peru where I met him. They had walked through Colombia and Ecuador, clocking up almost 2,600 km on foot. I have been to the Peru-Ecuador border and most of the people in the cue were Venezuelans. Men, women, children, old and young, lovers and friends - we were only there for four hours because of our passports, they were crossing the border in search of hope. We saw the first aid tents waiting to receive the aching bodies of those physically able to make the journey. You can help to heal the physical toll of exhaustion and dehydration, yet how many will ever talk about the mental impact of walking such a distance. The uncertainty of seeking a life in a foreign country, leaving behind friends and family, and knowing that there is a chance you will never go back.
“We slept on the streets and that humbled me. It was the lowest point in my life, but it also taught me about my humanity. I don’t think you can ever go through something like that and not see people differently. There are a lot of good people, then there’s also a lot of xenophobia, those who look down on me because I’m Venezuelan.” He is right, I’ve seen Venezuelans walk up and down the roads of northern Peru in search of jobs. Some are openly discriminated, others more subtle in the way they speak.
I asked him if there was a time that he wanted to turn back, maybe, though he said it was more a feeling of melancholy because he had reached the point of no return. An invisible border where his old life ceased to exist, even before he had even left the country.
When you travel and meet people, there will be connections that affect you more than others. Yohan’s story isn’t rare, I have already met a few Venezuelans with similar stories, though in my mind, I can’t begin to comprehend what would motivate anyone to start a journey like they have. What I have learned is that for many, it is to seek hope, to send money home to family. It’s like they have tapped into the deepest reserves of their humanity because the alternative is much worse. Maybe we’ll meet again, maybe we won’t. So here’s to our lives in Peru - a new chapter for us both.
Ronna Grace Funtelar is a thirtyish storyteller, creative, writer and slam poet currently based in Peru. She is a hobby hiker, photography and sunrise enthusiast with a passion for mindfully helping others live beyond their comfort zone.