Tomorrow is my final day in Peru. It’s pretty hard to sum up everything , plus I sort of did a 180 at the end there, turning in my pick axe and “Buen Hecho” stickers for a laptop and a swivel chair. I suppose my time here allowed me to experience two very distinct sides of the Cusco region. On the one hand I lived in a community way out in el campo where the blip in the daily farming monotony comes when your van driver accidentally hits a crossing cow or stray sheep. The houses were mud-brick and people burned their trash because pick-up was unreliable. The kids – like all kids – latched on to us instantly and were the best at making me feel welcome in a secluded mountain town filled with rather reticent individuals. Still, united through “Inka” blood and an undying love of gelatina, my campo pals weren’t so different than their city-dwelling cousins. Cusqueñans – those actually from within the city limits – live in a place dominated by tourists for 10 months out of the year. Most seem to have a love-hate relationship with gringos: on the one hand they seem to be genuinely enchanted with me and Mads simply because we’re white, and on the other, I get the vibe that many locals are frustrated with the jetsetters who just stop through Cusco and never bother to learn or appreciate anything more cultural than what comprises a Pisco Sour and how to get to Machu Picchu.
Last week I struck up a conversation with a Californian who was sitting in Guido’s café. Excited at the chance to converse in American English I asked him the standard backpacker questions: how long have you been here, where did you go, what did you see… yadda yadda yadda. After three weeks in Peru he said he’d noticed a few cultural differences like how long it takes for your food to arrive at restaurants and how food was lacking that sugary, processed taste. Then he said I must have noticed tons of these nuances during my three months, and asked what my thoughts were. That’s when I realized I’ve been here too long, because I could hardly come up with any of these probably very obvious differences. But, having had a week to think about it, here’s what I got (in no particular order):
- Everyone you remotely care about (like draw the line at cab drivers you’ve had brief interactions with) is referred to with a term of endearment. For instance, I have been called: Katysita, cariño, princesa, gringuita bonita, hermosa, chica bonita…you get the idea. It was a bit disarming at first because I had absolutely no idea how to reciprocate or whether that was even appropriate.
- Everything Peru ever did – or will do – is spectacular, as all the men over 50 will gladly tell you. This country has the finest food, people, history, artists, authors, and anything else you can think of. Don’t fight it.
- The command form. I realize this is ubiquitous in Spanish-speaking countries, but this was my first experience grasping damelo and sientate. Once you get the hang of it, it really comes in handy with unruly children.
- The por favor inflection. When a Peruvian asks you for a favor they conjure up this sweet voice they must have stolen from high school girls, and drag out the two words while they practically bat their eyes at you. Needless to say, it works.
- If someone asks you do wait for “un ratito” or to come out for “un ratito” it’s going to be a few hours. Yes, that word means “a little while” but you might want to clear out your schedule. This coincides with the fact that “ahora” rarely means now, and just because you made plans, does not necessarily mean they will happen.
- Despite the whole cute-name-thing people are pretty conservative here and you’ll get some looks if your clothes expose anything below the neck or above the knees.
- American music is inescapable. It’s impossible to go a day without hearing Tracy Chapman, Queen or Rihanna.
- Cusqueñans are extremely generous and caring and mostly just want you to learn to love their culture.
That’s about it. Ciao Peru. Ta ta for now.
So here’s how you get over your fear of karaoke: Peruvian karaoke bar! On Monday I was invited to a birthday dinner for Pierre – one of my co-workers – who, unlike me, fancies himself a discotec-er and actually participates in Peru’s nightlife. While everyone was congregating outside the café after his dinner trying to decide what birthday round-two would be, I tried to make a smooth getaway to my house. But, Pierre saw me trying to leave and pulled the “come out for ‘un ratito’ for me birthday” card, which was too hard to turn down. So we all piled into a few taxis and drove over to a basically deserted karaoke bar – I think there were six other people there, but then again it was a Monday.
Instead of a front-and-center stage where you go up and try to emulate some one-hit-wonder, this karaoke bar had little nooks for your party, each with its own TV for watching the lyrics. You didn’t even have to get up to sing. After sitting through the first few songs, I realized, even if I wanted to sing, I’d probably have a tough time finding something that was in English. I was clearly out of my element. Not only did everyone know the lyrics to each song that popped up – without looking – but they could tell the South American country of origin too. Just for kicks I flipped to the slim English section in the song book and found the 200ish American songs that double as Peru’s go-to radio classics. Knowing every Peruvian was a big fan of Queen I decided on Bohemian Rhapsody.
With the mic in hand, I started in on “Is this the real life, is this just fantasy…” and it went smooth enough (besides the spelling errors on the screen) until the song started to pick up at “I see a little silhouette of a man.” Maybe the Peruvian karaoke company assumed this part was too quick and too English for anyone to possibly follow along, because they completely nixed it from the sing-along words. Instead they were filled in by the backup track and all I had to do was come in with the occasional “Mama mia…” Needless to say I didn’t exactly rock the house, but for all most of my fans knew, I sang every word perfectly.
I’m not sure I fully understand how this whole office job works. I get the feeling that I could do the bare minimum and I’d still be showered with praise as usual. I understand I’m there to make procasasac.com but I think my second purpose is mostly ornamental. Like the kids at Almeria, I think my co-workers enjoy having a gringuita around whom they can show off.
Today I was invited to a business lunch. Our client Raul invited us to his house to talk pricing on a condominium project that he commissioned Procasa to design and construct. Now, why was I invited? I struggle to string Spanish sentences together and my grasp of the past tense is still really shaky. To say I chimed in from time to time is probably an exaggeration.
While I tried to focus on the Spanish and could understand mostly everything that was said, halfway through the first course of our meal my mind drifted toward worrying about whether my stomach could handle the food. Raul’s wife had prepared a kilo and a half of white fish ceviche and placed a glass baking dish brimming with spicy lime juice and raw fish chunks right in front of me. I slowly chewed my way through the juice-logged fish and politely denied seconds.
Ceviche anxiety aside, I perked up at the mention of Los Estados Unidos. Ah ha, perhaps I could contribute! Turns out Raul and his wife frequent the states and have lots of family living in Las Vegas. They even talked about opening their own Peruvian restaurant in Sin City. But that turned out to be mostly talk, because both Raul and his wife said living and working in the U.S. is basically impossible unless you can speak English.
I sort of nodded along to the rest of the conversation, pretending I could relate as a native English speaker. Although I didn’t exactly exercise my conversation words today, at least I better understood my role within Procasa. USA connection.
Dave helped me move out of Almeria this week. With only two weeks left in Peru I’ve decided to work full time for Michael’s company, Procasa, dedicating the rest of my stay to making procasasac.com.
Walking with Dave up the dirt road the kids could barely contain their giggles triggered by la gringuita’s red-headed companion. He was probably the tallest guy they’ve ever seen, let alone a man with long hair. I’m sure he was quite puzzling. The other Katy – in second grade – gave him a once-over after I explained he was my novio. She sort of studied him, decided he was acceptable and then gave us an excited “Ciao.”
While it was hard to say goodbye to everyone, I’m sure the ducks, dogs, rabbits and bees will be in good hands with Baltezar. I was too afraid to count the ducks before I left because each week we seem to lose one or two, but quickly looking them over I could still pick out all my favorites. Adios todos: Coco, Runty, Crazy Girl, Adam, Adam Lookalike 1, Adam Lookalike 2, Steckles, Dave, Lady Dave, Fo-hawk…
After living in Cusco for about two-and-a-half months, I can finally say that I’ve been to Machu Picchu. Usually that’s an initial point of conversation when chatting with a Cusqueñan. I’ve surprised (and disappointed) a few cab drivers by saying that I’d been putting off Cusco’s greatest tourist attraction for so long. But, with Dave here last week we were able to hop on the schmancy PeruRail train and ride the three-and-a-half hours up to Aguas Calientes – or quite possibly the most expensive place in Peru.
What they don’t tell you about the lovely Vistadome train is that the distance to Machu Picchu is only 57 miles from Poroy and so you’re going an average speed of about 16 miles per hour. This was great for Dave who appreciated the sluggish pace because it was conducive to taking pictures out the window, but I found it a bit slow. Nonetheless, it was one smooth ride.
Like the rest of the tourist population in Aguas Calientes, which is to say just about everyone in that one-train town, Dave and I woke up around 4:30 on the day we were scheduled to enter Machu Picchu. After paying $18.50 American dollars to ride up the hill we scrambled to get in line and await our turn to enter. When we finally got to the head of the line I gladly pulled out my printed-out reservations only to be informed all I had was a reservation number, and not actual tickets. (Here’s where I made a mental note to stop making online transactions from internet cafes in Izcuchaca. Apparently they don’t go through very well.) But, of course, nothing is impossible for tourists in Peru. We found a guy, who called a guy, who was able to scrounge up two entrance tickets. Actually, all Dave and I had to do was just had to sit there and wait, and then pay a convenience charge. Not too shabby. The two of us were able to enter around 7 a.m., and the fog even lifted about an hour later.
It seems I can’t stay away. The shiny machines and all-knowing internet has scooped me back up. This month I traded in my English teacher’s cuaderno for Michael’s laptop after agreeing to make a procasasac.com for his company Procasa. I’ll spend my last two weeks in Peru pretty much doing what I did in the states…sort of.
I’ve come to realize office life is quite different in Peru than in the U.S. Although it’s a 10+ person office, at times, I’m the only one who comes into work. Not that I’m complaining. My work is extremely independent and it’s somewhat of a struggle to talk with my co-workers anyway.
While the internet in the office is top-notch for Peru – and most of the time it works lightning fast – there’s just one catch. You get disconnected when the phone rings. This is really unfortunate when you’re trying to upload or download large files.
But so far, I’m more than content. The hours are…come as you please (I think), lunch usually lasts about two hours and is provided by either Michael or Guido and to top it off there’s free instant coffee!
We did it. We actually, finally went to one of Cusco’s infamous discotecas. For more than two months this has been a lofty, elusive plan, suggested by both Oscar and Michael (Guido’s son), but like many plans in Peru it never materialized. And, it’s a good thing we went last night because we were starting to become the weird Americans who would rather get in bed at 8:30 and read a little, as opposed to experiencing Peru’s nightlife. But, after working at Michael’s office until way past our 8:30 bedtime, we realized it was in fact Friday night, so why not do as the Peruvians do. That, and Michael’s office is right next-door to a bar that employs a gentleman who will walk over with a tray of hot toddys for a minimal fee.
Around midnight, the four of us –me, Mads, Michael and Michael’s co-worker Cali – all headed down the two blocks to a small cobblestone alley that blared a thumping techno beat from all sides. We slipped into one discoteca and started dancing to the synthesized salsa beat. For the most part Cali, a former salsa instructor, showed us up on moves and lyrics. And, having done very little physical activity in more than two months because of the altitude here, Mads and I were struggling with some chest pain that eventually subsided. But, we didn’t let that stop us. And we were egged on even more when the DJ threw in a few songs that had somewhat recognizable English lyrics. Clearly appreciating that gesture more than the Cusqueñas, Mads and I had no problem belting out some classic Journey tunes.
Ain’t no party like a Jesus party!
So we partied with Jesus last night. Rather, Jesus – our friend the cheesemonger – stopped by with his two friends and a nylon sack filled with beer. We had made very loose plans earlier in the day, which ended with “If you’re not at our house by 8:30, we’re going to sleep.” Poor Mads got in bed at 7:30 and was just getting comfortable when we heard the obnoxious ring of Almeria’s bell. Jesus said he had forgotten his friend’s birthday, so I suppose as retribution he brought the crew to our place. We are a novelty act, after all.
Waltzing in like he owned the place, Jesus started handing me crap that had recently made its home on our kitchen table, and I hurriedly found places for our English workbooks, Toy Story stickers we use as rewards, empty tea cups, etc. Once we dragged a now very snarky Mads out of bed, we all sat down to play a game of cards. Not really big on playing cards, we decided to teach the boys an easy one – asshole. But, the name presented a bit of a translation problem for us. The two of us know “good” Spanish, “school” Spanish, if you will. Besides the occasional joder bomb from Oscar, I really have no dirty words in my foreign language arsenal. So Mads dug deep and retrieved the one she knew that was probably the most similar to asshole – cabrón. When we announced this translated name to the boys, they just about fell out of their chairs laughing. And the best part of this game called cabrón, is each round there’s a cabrón who usually ends up doing silly tasks and generally making a cabrón of himself.
After about the 10th time Mads and I had doled out this word in a very declarative way, Jesus let us know that in Peru, it was a particularly bad word. And, thanks to Wikipedia, I’ve just realized what our asshole translation actually means. Apparently cabrón literally translates as male goat, and in many Latin American countries it does in fact means asshole. But, in Peru – according to Wikipedia – our lovely card game title is: a reference to a homosexual, hence cabrón is a superlative form (“big faggot”/”flaming faggot”). Yowsers, sorry Jesus et al. Plus, add in the fact that Peru is fairly big on the whole machismo thing, I’m sure these boys got a huge kick out of our little game. Ah, gringuitas. Always good for a laugh.