Small Victories

One of the hardest things about moving to a place that speaks another language is how hard things suddenly become. Tasks that used to be second nature now require twenty minutes with a dictionary, as well as a lengthy battle with doubts that would normally seem ridiculous, but which you’ve now convinced yourself are totally legitimate. Most recently: calling to order 10 kilos of gas to power my stove.

Do I really need to order gas? How necessary is a stove anyway? I can totally get by for the next year with just a microwave.

Well no, actually, I can’t, but congratulations to me for convincing myself to put off calling the gas company for another day.

Most of the time my doubts prove to be unfounded. Take the gas for example. After agonizing for at least thirty-six hours about how much of a disaster I was sure it was going to be, the reality was that I put in a call, gave my address, and within forty minutes was cooking up a pot of cocktail potatoes. Easy. No big deal. Perú 0, Adele 1.


Cocktail potatoes with huancaina

Sometimes, though, things don’t go quite as smoothly.

This past weekend, fully taking advantage of the 80 degree days, I was going to spend the day frolicking about on the beach. It’s worth noting that most trips to the beach involve a bit of ehm, personal grooming beforehand. On a teacher’s budget, this typically means a few hurried minutes in the shower with a razor. However, embracing the “Treat Yourself” philosophy (strengthened, of course, by the 25 soles price tag for a bikini wax, ten more for a full Brazilian) I headed to a local spa on Camila’s recommendation.

She can attest that the whole way there I was asking questions: How do I say this? Should I tip? But wait, how do I say THIS? I thought that if I just had the right vocabulary, the right sentences planned out, then the whole process would be smooth and mostly painless (pun absolutely intended).

Boy was I wrong.

From the moment I began explaining what I wanted to the moment I hobbled out to the register, my Peruvian waxing experience was one long string of awkwardness and frustration, and barely comprehensible attempts at small talk with the esthetician. Those carefully planned sentences? Didn’t use them. The meticulously studied vocabulary? Totally forgotten. I spent thirty minutes pretending to read a style magazine from last August and left feeling as uncouth and foolish as I did the first time I ever tried to speak Spanish. Perú 1, Adele 1.

Even so, just like I did when I was firing up my freshly re-fuelled gas stove, I walked out of that spa patting myself on the back. Completing small, everyday actions (however unsuccessfully) that have suddenly become ten times as difficult and twenty times as awkward feels to me like an absolute victory.

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A sunny February day at the pool

All the fumbling and blushing (and hesitant attempts at using the subjunctive) become worth it upon realizing that yes, I’m fully capable of doing everything I need to in a different language. When every day has its share of victories, how can’t I feel like a winner?




Skills: Haggling (Taxi Edition)

Having just passed the one-month mark, I wanted to write a little about some skills that I’m attempting (with varying degrees of success) to develop while in Lima. Of course there are obvious things like “be adaptable” and “keep an open mind”, but I think these particular skills offer a curious glimpse into the everyday life of this vibrant city…

Okay, so you want to take a taxi, and you know that it’s cheaper to use a combi, but damn it, you don’t feel like spending an hour squished into a seat (if you’re lucky) with some stranger’s crotch next to your head (if you’re not). So taxi it is.

You wave down one that looks okay: it’s clean, it has a yellow-capped license plate, it’s got a few official-looking stickers plastered on the windshield*. The driver peers out the window and you say where you want to go. He tells you a price: 18 soles. You think to yourself, I swear it only cost 12 the other day. You say twelve. He counters with sixteen. You go to thirteen, he goes to fifteen. You’re already pissed that you’re wasting time, and the other cars are honking. You roll your eyes and agree, then proceed to sulk for the next twenty minutes about how those three soles could have bought a nice chicken sandwich at Tambo.

Don’t worry.

Haggling is a fundamental part of most street-taxi transactions. If you’re not a big fan of doing it (particularly when you come from a culture where it’s looked down on), you can choose not to haggle, and either avoid situations where you need to (use an app to call a cab with a fixed price) or overpay. If you’re fine with the price that someone is asking, and you don’t feel like haggling, then don’t. I’m not an economist, but I don’t think that you’re going to singlehandedly ruin the transportation market.

The most important thing to overcome when haggling is embarrassment. The taxista might roll his eyes and look incredulous at your offer (and he might be right, because hey, you’re new to the city after all), but don’t let that make you feel bad enough to give in. Stand your ground, and decide to move on if you must. Frequently, acting like you’re fed up will be the incentive the taxista needs to accept your price; after all, less money is better than none. Also, maybe you’re embarrassed about your (lack of) Spanish skills** and prefer to end the awkwardness of the conversation by capitulating. It’s likely, however, that you will never see that taxista again, so if you’re really concerned with saving money, don’t even think about letting embarrassment stop you.

For my part, I fall prey to the embarrassment curse more times than I’d care to admit, but I’m trying to toughen my resolve. Hopefully by the end of the year I’ll be immune to haggling shame. I only hope that upon my return I won’t get into any altercations with some poor Uber driver.

*There are a whole bunch of things you should check to make sure that a taxi is safe, especially at night. I know maybe half of them, so a Google search is your friend on this one.
**One way to avoid this is to perfect a few carefully chosen phrases about how close something is, or how ridiculous the price is, etc. Also, make sure you know your numbers in Spanish! If all else fails, just shout numbers at someone until you agree.



I made it back?!

My first thought on touching down in Lima was a curious blend of excitement and disbelief. I love to travel; it’s the first thing that I write under the ‘hobbies’ section on applications, and what I spend most of my time thinking about doing. I’ve been to a fair share of countries, but I’ve never actually returned to any of them. Until now.

Walking through the airport, I’m struck by a certain duality. On one hand, I’m 100% aware of being in a different country: the food stands are selling empanadas and causa, there are pictures of couples in traditional dress dancing the marinera norteña on the wall, and I’m surrounded by Spanish—on the signs, over the speakers, spoken by the people in line with me. On the other, it feels so familiar, like a routine that I wasn’t aware I still knew. Trying to push past a group of businessmen blocking the luggage carousel, I mumble “permiso” before I even think of saying “excuse me”. I check the stalls in the bathroom for toilet paper (there wasn’t any) before I even think of closing the door.

And it goes on.

I leave the airport, gratefully bypassing the cluster of middle-aged men shouting “Taxi?”, and get into the car, as Camila reminds me to put my purse on the floor between my feet. On the whole ride back to her house, little things come back so quickly that I’m surprised I’d ever forgotten them: the car alarms that all sound the same, the rickety mototaxis that swerve precariously around the luridly painted combis, even the way that the street signs are written. I lose track of where we’re driving, and then suddenly I see the Hotel Orquídea, and think oh, are we there already? But we’re still thirty minutes away. I used to live two blocks from here, and used it as an easy landmark when taking a taxi.

The duality strikes again. Here I am, in a city that feels so familiar to me, while I’m starting an adventure in Lima that will be radically different from my last one. I’m sitting next to one of my best friends, thinking of the places (mostly restaurants) that I’ve missed which I can visit in minutes, and in my bag is an immigration form which now lists ‘profesora‘ instead of ‘estudiante‘ under the ‘Ocupación‘ section.

I know that my expectations about my experience here are going to change, just like my job title, but I also find comfort in those things (good and bad) that have stayed the same. Those details that seem so trivial, but collectively form a base from which I can start a new adventure. One that, if I’m lucky, will be even grander than before.

Bonus: Peruvian Drinks! (Part I)

Having been here for about seven weeks, it seems like a good time to explain how I’ve been staying hydrated. The water in Perú is a tricky little thing; although it’s fine for bathing and brushing your teeth, drinking it straight from the tap is akin to gastrointestinal suicide. So what do you drink when you just don’t feel like boiling a pot of water?*

Inca Cola. Ahh, the magical, golden, fizzy beverage that looks like pee but tastes like bubblegum. This stuff is fantastic, in that it’s available everywhere, tastes like candy and make you feel extra cultural. Served whichever way you like, in a glass bottle, plastic cup or pitcher, Inca Cola is the #1 selling soft drink in Perú (Take that, Coke!). I favor Inca Cola ‘Zero’, because it is a tad less cavity-inducing than the original, but I still consume enough of this carbonated treasure to rival the locals.

Ponche. Now this one’s a little less common, but I love it so much I can’t avoid a paragraph. Ponche, first tasted in Ayacucho, is a hot, creamy beverage whose closest comparison is eggnog…but ponche is a totally different story. The taste (and texture, for that matter) is similar to liquefied rice pudding, complete with the appropriate spices and heavy cream. It’s best drunk when it’s piping hot and the weather is freezing cold, making it, in my mind, the perfect winter pick-me-up. I’ve determined to find a recipe for this stuff, so I can perfect my ponche in time for Thanksgiving.

Limonada Frozen.  More popular in the warmer months, Limonada Frozen is exactly what it sounds like: limeade, loaded with sugar and blended with ice to make a limeade slushie. Ordering a pitcher of this stuff in a restaurant is the best decision you could make; sweet and sour flavors complement any food you’re eating (kind of like Inca Cola), and the frigid temperature gives you a nice, refreshing burst. It’s also insanely amusing to watch people try to pour it without splashing themselves.

(The next time I go out, I’m planning on ordering a pitcher of this…and five shots of tequila. It’s been frustrating, not encountering a single bartender here who knows what a “Frozen Margarita” is. If I can popularize “Tequila Limonada [Frozen]”, my contribution to the discos of Perú will be made.)

*Don’t say, “bottled water”. That’s boring, and you’re cramping my creative style.

Ayacucho + Semana Santa

10259795_857627964252321_3337145153417698768_nWhoo, what a week! After hastily writing an exam on the gender spheres of the pre-Colombian Andean cultures (and, more interestingly, how the Incas ruthlessly manipulated gender perceptions in order to legitimize their conquest!) I packed up my stuff and travelled twelve hours to the lovely Ayacucho. Out of those twelve hours, the majority was spent driving up: as Ayacucho is in the Southern Sierra region, at an altitude of about 9,000ft, the going was slow, and the temperatures were low. Indeed, on our return journey, we were treated to thirty minutes of snow!

The running joke is that Ayacucho isn’t really a city—it’s more of a large town. The buildings weren’t very tall –the highest that we encountered were the thirty-three churches, which are what makes Ayacucho famous – and the streets were surprisingly quiet after dark…except for those closest to the Plaza itself, which is never silent during Semana Santa!

We toured the city and surrounding areas, and participated in the festivities: think roaming bands of musicians, water-spraying bomberos (of the non-stripping variety, sadly) and one very confusing bull run. I held my first baby llama and tried my first coca tea; I resisted the urge to kidnap the former, and thought the latter tasted like grass (before the sugar). I ate my first cuy and attended my first mass (the former was fried and wonderful; the latter’s grandeur was dampened by one enterprising camera-thief). Truly, considering I was only there for four days, I had more new experiences than I’d have thought possible!

All in all, it was fascinating to experience Easter in Perú. Here, there’s an interesting duality: one moment there’s a solemn procession in which statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary are slowly carried past larger-than-life images of the crucifixion; and the next, there’s high-spirited dancing in the streets amid tiny old ladies tottering about, shouting, “¿Cerveza?” Ayacucho has easily been the most interesting place I’ve visited (and her people the most curious), and I fully intend to return.

*Special thanks to Trotamundos, the excellent student group that organized our trip!*

Bonus: Food


Since I skipped a week with the blogging, I thought I’d cheat make it up with a bonus “What I Have in My Kitchen” post. Inspired by this fantastic photo collection, here’s my month’s worth of groceries, because I’m too lazy to go shopping every week:

Here we see some carbs in the form of beans, potatoes, bread, rice and pita pockets. In the back are the beverages: drinkable yogurt for those “I was supposed to have gotten up an hour ago” mornings, something that I thought was orange juice but turned out to be “Tampico Punch”, Manzanilla tea and some delicious $4 USD wine from Lunahuná, which is probably going to be gone after the ordeal of next week’s controles.

Fully taking advantage of the wide selection of produce here in Perú, we see to the center/right some grapes, mangos, aguaymantos, avocados and beets, along with the uncooked version of my (left) Pot O’ Potatoes.

Add to that the miscellaneous goods – cookies, honey, pollen (hey, it’s supposed to be good for you!), cooking oil, garlic, salt, pepper and CHEESE – and it’s a wonder that I have room in my fridge.

Not Just Lima (Part I)

I’ve frequently heard it said that when visiting Peru, one has to realize that Lima is not representative of the entire country. It’s easy to hear such advice, but it’s another thing to understand where it comes from. Ironically, it’s only after traveling to a few tourist hotspots that I feel I have a better understanding of at least two aspects of the country.

Peru is poor. Not in culture or beauty, in which it is incomparably rich, but in the traditional, economic sense of the word. In Lima, it’s easy to write off homeless people and low-quality housing as products of living in a city: whenever you have 9 million people living in one metropolitan area, wealth distribution is bound to be skewed. However, upon leaving the city, it rapidly becomes apparent that for the millions of people living on less than $2 USD a day, poverty is a very real issue. Relaxing in the padded seats of our air-conditioned tour bus (seriously, for anyone planning on visiting, Cruz del Sur is the way to go!), we can initially ignore the cardboard roofs and grueling agricultural work outside the windows…at least until the same scene repeats itself for the next 250km.

Peruvians have more trust in others than the US could even imagine. This doesn’t refer to the absurd confidence that leads WAC students to abandon their iPhones in the Dining Hall while they fill up on mozzarella sticks. Here, that’s the equivalence of madness (see above). Rather, I refer to trusting that most people have at least a little common sense and are generally able to make intelligent decisions. There aren’t a million rules governing what you should can and should not cannot do.

Although Lima’s insane traffic hints at this, this lack of hand-holding is most apparent at the tourist attractions. Where the beauty of a national park in the US is hampered by warning signs and security guards, the nature reserves in Peru are just that: natural. There are no signs prohibiting you from leaning over the edge of that 300 foot precipice…it’s just assumed that you’re smart enough to be cautious. Coming from a place where coffee cups have warning labels, such confidence is pretty novel.