Monthly Archives: May 2012
Because nothing is simple inPeru, a bunch of us have to go to the bus station to purchase tickets for our weekend trip to Paracas. It’s not possible to buy them online. Why would it be? The station is about 45 minutes away inLima. We decide to use a cabbie we know, have him take us to the station, and from there to Miraflores where we’ll get some drinks. Then he can drive us home and we’ll have had a safe and successful night. He’s scheduled to arrive at 8. At8:15he says he’ll be 20 minutes late. This turns out to being the Peruvian 20, which is to say that the real time is about double that. We’re all antsy and we don’t have all night so we decide to take a Combi to a more populated area and try to grab a taxi from there. The night devolves from this point.
We’ll still go to Miraflores though later and have a drink though, right? Right! Totally. Oh. Wait…we won’t be able to find a taxi to take us back. Almost no one will drive to Huaycan.
Okay, well we can go to Chanclacayo maybe and have drinks there. We’ll get our taxi to drive us there and then bus it back. Yes!
We get toSanta Claraand start heading for the taxi stand. I use the term loosely. Almost none of the cabs, well okay probably exactly none, are even licensed. You can just buy the little taxi sign and stickers and wait somewhere and be considered a taxi. Taking a ride with these guys is always a risk. A few years ago a bunch of (very stupid) voluntarios got into a cab in the center of Lima, a place you shouldn’t be caught after sundown, at about 1am and obviously ended up getting dragged to some awful part of town and robbed at knifepoint. So the point is, you have to be careful. We all try to do the Peruvian thing where you look into their soul, but it’s hard. How do you ever know who to trust?
I’ll tell you who not to trust though. Anyone, absolutely anyone who Pollyanna thinks we should trust. Not one minute after we get off the bus, I turn around to find her talking to three boys who could not be more than 16. She points to them:
– They’ll take us.
– You must be kidding me.
– No. Absolutely no.
– Abby, come on. Geez. They said they’ll take us.
– Polly, how is that a good idea? Three children walk up and solicit us before we go to them? Too eager. No. And where the hell is their taxi? Did they tell you they’d drive you there before you even told them where we were going? No. Just no.
I cross the street and the rest of the volunteers follow. Herbie and I begin talking to a guy who actually has the decency to fake being a licensed cabbie. I turn around, Pollyanna is talking to two more sketchy guys near a car. Perfect. NO! No! I signal to her. The cabbie gives us a reasonable price, he even haggles a bit to get more, which always gives me a false sense of confidence. If he was just planning to take all my money anyway, why would he be haggling for that extra 5 soles? We tell him we’re going to the bus station in LaVictoria. He asks, “Javier Prado?” Yes. That’s the road.
A few minutes into the drive he starts going on about how there are two bus stations in LaVictoria. One on Javier Prado and another somewhere else. This is news to me. I tell him no we want to go to the one on JP. I call my house manager to confirm I am not nuts. She confirms. She has never heard of another one. So I tell him just to go to JP. He’s kinda sketching about. He confirmed before that he knew where it was and would take us there, and now he’s all like, oh maybe we need to go to the other one.
– No. No. Just take us to the one we asked for. Do you know where JP is?
-Yes of course. You see we are on our way there now.
Then he pulls off for gas which is always a fun little Peruvian taxi detour. He gets out of the car and says he needs to make a phone call. I start yelling at him not to call anyone and say we’ll get out if he does. This is the M.O. of these guys before they take you somewhere and rob you, they call up some friends and try to coordinate the heist. So he gets back in, muttering about how he just needed to find out some info about God knows what. We’re on the right road, so I’m not worried about him messing with me. We get to the station and buy our tickets and he waits outside. Everyone’s a little nervous. What if he called some friends while we were inside? No one really wants to be the person to bug out and say let’s not go with him. So we don’t.
On the way out I see him waiting and walk back to the car with him. “Ready to go back?” I ask. He answers but doesn’t really look at me. I’m not digging this. During the ride back he keeps checking his rearview and giving all of us the creeps. I find myself looking behind us at license plates to see if anyone’s following us for a long distance. Then he starts to get off the highway where he should not be getting off. I have only done this route a handful of times, and my sense of direction is awful, and even I know that we don’t exit here. I start yelling:
– What are you doing? No. No. Straight.
– Oh. Sorry. I didn’t know. I thought we could go that way too.
It occurs to me that I’m anywhere from 6-10 years older than all the other people in the car. Maybe I need to just be the grown-up here and get us out of this situation. After hearing the story with the voluntarios that got robbed back a few years ago, I always wondered what was the moment when they were all in the car, realizing they should say something, but keeping quiet for whatever reason? Like what was the point that they were all like, oh shit, we’re in trouble, but then kept their mouths shut? I promised myself I was not going to be that person.
A few minutes later he tries to exit the highway again. I yell again. Pollyanna turns to me and says, “I don’t like this guy.” That’s all I need to hear. If Polly doesn’t trust him, and she trusts everyone, then we’re getting OUT of this thing. BAJA! BAJA right now! He pulls over and drops us off on the side of the highway near a major bus stop. Forget it. Let’s just take a Combi back. I toss half the fare at the guy and slam the door and we all walk away. “Oh no, Abby! He’s getting out.” Bah! We argue about the fare. I told him half was fine, but he went on and on about how he thought he was taking us to another Cruz del Sur station which was closer and blah blah (Upon further research, no such other station exists). We eventually toss 5 more soles out to him and hop the first of three busses we’ll need to take to Chanclacayo. Everyone still faking excitement about heading there for a drink.
Forty or so minutes into that bus ride I say a phrase I never thought I would: Can we just go back home to Huaycan, where it’s safe? Let’s have drinks there.” Everyone enthusiastically agrees and we all admit that we are tired of being constantly scared out of our minds. Enough adventure for one night. Let’s go back to the bad we know.
There’s a little local bar down the street where one of our students works. It’s beyond cheap and they have the tastiest Pisco sours around. We all feel like we need a few drinks after this evening.
There’s no food at the bar, so after a few pitchers, Herbie and I head to get pollo a la brasa for the group, but everything’s closed. We head to Quince and I try to buy some French fries from a street vendor.
– You don’t want chicken?
– No. Just fries.
– I don’t sell my fries.
– I don’t sell my fries without the chicken.
– Right, but I’m going to pay you for them.
– They’re not for sale.
– They are if I pay you and you give them to me.
– No. Then when people buy chicken I will have no fries to give them. – I take a big, obnoxious look around the empty street. It’sone a.m.on a Tuesday, lady…what people?!
Where am I right now? Germany? Kenkos? What do you mean you don’t sell your fries? You’re a frigging street vendor! What? Is corporate going to come by and audit your till and realize you’ve been just willy nilly selling fries and not chicken? Will you be fired? Demoted? Nuts! But okay, fine. We buy about 6 soles worth of junk food from the lady next door. She looks at us so happily, and thanks us profusely, like we’re the most business she’s done in a year.
We take our sad snacks back to the bar. Tasty Piscos aside, it’s been a fail of a night and we all want to just head home.
On the way we run into the original Amigo. Back in March when I arrived, I was walking down the street with two other girls and the saddest, skinniest little dog stood next to me on the sidewalk. Though he was pretty gross he had such a sweet face, so I scratched him a little behind his ears. That’s all it took. He started following us. He followed us all the way down from our house, and down Quince. Stopping and waiting with us as we ran our errands. We started laughing and saying he was our Amigo. Sad, terrible looking Amigo that he was, he was ours, and really he was so very sweet. Eventually we lost Amigo in traffic, but we always talked about the little guy. I never saw him again until this night. He ran over to us. I can’t believe he’s still alive! He looked worse than before, having clearly been run over, he was now only walking on three legs. His fur is missing in places and he looks just truly terrible. But he walks right over to us and starts wagging his tail.
Everyone gets excited. The original Amigo! We must bring him home and feed him. He’s slow on only three legs so Herbie picks him up and carries him some of the way. He follows us the ten or so minute walk up to our house. Everyone is drunkenly excited to save Amigo. We’ve had a bad night, but geez, this dog has had an awful life and he’s still so sweet and adorable and loving. After all the awfulness that has clearly happened to him. Maybe we should stop complaining. So now we’re on a mission to save Amigo…wait…AmigA as it turns out. She’s a she! Okay so everyone wants to save Amiga. Herbie carries her past Rex, the huge guard dog that lives next door. I run inside and pull out all the food I purchased today. Cheese, turkey, crackers. We give her a bowl of water. She gobbles it up like crazy and then sort of wants to cuddle, but really she’s just way to gross to be cuddled with. She looks awful. I realize that she has these awful ticks all over her and start pulling them off. Herbie starts to help. We’re officially the Huaycan drunken veterinary service.
After an hour or so it’s time to go inside. We bring Amiga out a little towel and wrap her in it. She seems happy and passes out. Amiga has brightened everyone’s night. I tell myself that she will live here as the house dog from here on out. It seems even the worst night can be redeemed.
Eleni is hands down the prettiest and most well educated girl in Huaycan. Obviously, this is a little bit like being the tallest midget, but she wears these superlatives like badges of honor, the way big fish in small ponds the world over do. Like an asshole. (I’m sorry mom but sometimes only a bad word conveys the meaning I’m looking for.) So far, she’s failed to be my favorite adult student. Every word she says to me is in this disdainful tone, like it pains her to even have to speak to me. The only time she smiles when she speaks to me is when it’s to say something mean.
– I heard from Jose you got your bag stolen. – (To be read in the tone of “I heard you just got a new job.”)
– Yeah. It sucked a bit, but I’m okay and really, it’s just stuff. What can you do? I’m really only mostly sad about my diary.
– Hmmm. Well, really you should be more careful next time. How do you say ‘naïve’ in English?
Um, I think it’s “you’re an awful bitch.” I think that’s how you say it.
For our second trip back home from the bus station, I decide we’re not taking any chances. We’re gonna splurge on the one secure taxi company inLima. The taxi driver arrives, he’s a cute little old man, maybe approaching seventy, and reminds me very much of a Peruvian version of my grandpa. I ask him to confirm the reservation name for me, and he does, assuring me that we’re safe with him and his taxi. “With us. No problem.” He squeezes my hand. Then we tell him where we’re going.
– Huaycan? Huaycan? Sure?
– Yes. We’re sure. We live there.
This is basically the format of every conversation we have with people when you tell them where you’re going. Huaycan is a notorious ghetto, and most people fromLima, even most taxi drivers won’t go there. They just won’t. And they can’t believe you want to go there either. They think that maybe you’re mispronouncing it.
– No, it’s M-i-r-a-f-l-o-r-e-s. Say it with me. Miraflores. Not Huaycan. No.
– Yes. It is. I live there. Truly.
So this poor little old man cannot believe his (lack of) luck. Here it is, 1am on a Thursday, and he’s managed to pick up a fare to the worst place he can think of. He tells us he knows how to get to the entrance, but not how to get us to where we need to go, and we assure him we can lead him from there. He looks nervous but nods and starts driving. He looks petrified.
– Have you ever been to Huaycan before?
– No! — It’s like I’ve asked him if he’d ever been to Mars before…. if Mars was a horrible scary place that you’d never want to go ever, even if you were being paid a large sum of money.
As we drive and begin to get into the sketchier parts of town the poor little driver is starting to look panicked. We all joke amongst ourselves about how this is the total reverse of our normal taxi situations; since here, I am pretty sure our driver’s worried that we’re taking him to the ghetto in order to rob his ass and drop him off in the middle of sketchville with nothing. He keeps asking: “Are we close?” “Will it be much further?” in a high pitched tone that I’ve heard myself use a number of times while fearing for my life and safety. We try to assure him we’re close. He drops us off and we give him a tip that is maybe the equivalent of $3, and he is shocked and very grateful. Then the role reversal continues while I make sure he knows how to get back and that he’s okay. When Peruvians aren’t robbing you, they’re really a helpful sweet bunch, so I hope our taxista will feel that way about Americans he’s got to drive to Huaycan in the future.
Everyone here wants exact change. It’s super annoying. If you try to pay with anything larger than a five people bug out, and just forget paying with a 100. Just forget it. The most annoying part though is that all the atms dispense 100s, so you’re always stuck trying to figure out how to break it. Overheard in Lima: frustrated American yelling at a cashier in broken Spanish: “Por que…. bancos….cocinan…cien?! Por que?!” (Why…banks…cook…hundred?! Why?”)
I saw a blind man wandering around Quince the other day trying to get on a Combi. Whoa! Bravest blind man on earth/or unluckiest blind man on earth. Successfully getting around Huaycan using all my sense is still pulling off a daily miracle. How he is doing it without his sight is beyond me. Maybe his other improved senses help. Sniff. Sniff. Yep, I’m in Zone Z…
Lowlight. On the way back from class I saw a dog get hit by a Combi. No one flinched. I turned around and walked in the other direction, away from home so I could cry for an hour.
Counterfeit cash is a big issue here. Anytime you hand over cash, even in the smallest amount, even in the form of coins people triple check to make sure it’s real. It’s pretty tough to determine if what you’re looking at is real because the government decided to just ever so slightly change the format of their currency every year. So if you’re looking at a 20 from a year ago and a 20 from this year, they’re not the same. You just have to know what the bill from that year should look like and what the watermark should look like. It’s ridiculous really. In any case my boss went to a Citibank atm inLimathe other day and withdrew a bunch of cash. Counterfeit cash, as it turns out, and so far they’re not going to refund her the money. If this was some local El Sketcho Banco de Peru, maybe, maaaybe, you could see this sort of sh*t happening. Although even then it seems pretty ridiculous. But a big huge international bank? Really? Your atms dispense counterfeit money and it’s our problem? She’s trying to get it resolved at the moment. I told her to threaten to write to some major paper about it…gotta be bad press for a huge bank to be screwing a poor little NGO like that?…
Don’t play Monopoly with Peruvians if you can at all avoid it. Peruvian monopoly is not monopoly as we know it. It’s basically a bunch of people sitting around a board screaming and yelling as if they’re watching a soccer game. Go! Go! Take it. Take it! It’s your turn. GOOOOO! It’s like whoa, slow down…I have to count my bank here and see if I can afford this hotel.
– Afford it? Nah. Listen, you can pay half the money now, and pay the rest when you get it.
– I don’t think that’s how it works….
– It works however you want it to work. Or you can give me 20 soles.
– What? I’m not giving you real currency in exchange for a monopoly hotel!
– Your watch?
In the end, since, for a change we’re not betting on the winner, nobody really cares who wins.
– I dunno Gringa, let’s just say you win since you care the most…..
Geez. I know some people who would literally explode with rage at this scenario. You know who you are loved ones who take the rules for games super seriously 🙂
Another voluntario and I get to the corner in time to see what could be our bus pulling away. The cobrador looks at us “Zona T?” Yes! Ha, they’re really getting used to the gringos around here. They even know where we’re headed. We can’t see the front of the bus to see what line it actually is, but we both confirm with him that it’s T. A few minutes into the ride the bus hooks a left it wouldn’t normally, but I assure my companion that there is one bus that does take this route, it will come back around to where we need to go in a minute. So for whatever stupid reason we just stop paying attention. The cobrador walks over to take our money and I look up.
– Wait. Where are we? You said T.
– I said G. – He’s laughing like he’s just messing with us.
– You did not. You said T. I said T. You said T.
– I didn’t say it. I said G. – He keeps laughing. Most of the Combi joins in, turning to laugh at our dumb asses. I’m so annoyed. He totally gave us the wrong info on purpose. G is not T, that’s not even close, even to my gringa ears. Baja, I yell, and we get out without paying.
So now we’re in a zone I’m not familiar with. I want to take a bus back to Quince where we came from, but we’re already late and the girl I’m with lacks a sense of self-preservation and wants to just hop in a mototaxi. We’ll call her Pollyanna. This is a bad idea for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that we don’t know where we are, and we won’t know if this moto is taking us the wrong way until it’s too late. Additionally the only motos in this area appear to be the soft-top ones. These don’t have motors powerful enough to sube up these 45 degree angled hills. But despite my protests, Pollyanna stops every moto that comes by. The first three say no way, the last guy insists he has a magical powerful mototaxi that can make it. I’m not so sure but rather than have major conflict I just hop in.
As soon as we get to the rocky, unpaved bit of the hill the car starts teetering around and the engine is audibly struggling. The soft –top motos don’t have doors, and we’re fully going to fall out and to our death. The driver then starts yelling something to us and patting the side of the taxi. I can’t hear him. What?! He yells it again and I realize he’s saying he wants us to each move to the sides of the seats to keep the thing balanced. I go from keeping myself under control to livid. And it’s not really all this guy’s fault, but he is about the get the brunt of the anger I would have liked to show to every cobrador/taxista around since I’ve arrived. I start telling him we want to get out, but the engine’s so loud he can’t hear me.
-Baja! Baja! Señor! BAJAAAAA!
Nothing. So I begin to just slap him in the back through the thin piece of plastic material that separates the driver’s seat from us.
– F*cking BAJA!!!! – He stops and we get out. I throw half the fare at him.
– You’re angry?
– Yes! Yes I’m angry! I am. You said you could make it up the hill, you obviously cannot. Forget it! Just forget.
Pollyanna gets out and is laughing hysterically. She has the sort of laugh you can hear from miles away, it’s loud and long and full of her screaming voice re-capping whatever just happened to make her laugh:
– You…hahaha….we…..could have fallen…hahah…out….of the …hahah…he wanted us to move…hahaha
We’re in an area that still a 15 minute walk from where we work. No one knows us down here and I really don’t want to attract more attention to ourselves, but Polly will not quit. A car full of guys passes by very slowly and mimic her maniacal laughter while yelling random English words: Hello. Niced to meeet jou.
I try and calm Pollyanna down so we can not be attacked. We sube uphill on foot. It’ll be good practice for the Macchu Pichu trek.
Still more ghetto children’s games/toys
– I am playing hide and seek with a group of children outside the classroom so that the women can have some peace and quiet during their seminar. After a little while, everyone is tired of it and they yell out other games we can play. It seems like the two most popular choices are between a game called “Rabid Dogs” and what I can only assume is the Huaycan version of “Cops and Robbers,” called “Robbers and Hooligans.” Note the lack of a “good guy” role….
– Adrian plays with a little gecko during class until he manages to kill it. Great. Thank you. Now can we get rid of that thing and pay attention? He puts the dead gecko into his shirt pocket, patting it he looks up, “For later.” Oh great. At home this would be the moment in a child’s life where we’d predict that he’ll be a murderer. Here it’s just what passes for a toy.
– A little girl in Zone Z sees me walking to class and starts yelling for me to come over and see all her dolls. She has lined up about five of the saddest looking dolls on earth. All are naked, exposing their filthy cloth bodies, and there are only about six eye balls and 15 strands of hair between them. If you were living in a horror movie it’d be just this sort of creepy doll that randomly keeps appearing in your child’s crib after you know you’d thown it away. Then one night you wake up and find the doll in your room, it pops its eyes (eye) open and starts speaking to you and you scream and throw it down the stairs. That kinda scary. “You wanna hold one,” she asks me….Uh, thanks kid, maybe later.
I slept through an earthquake the other day. All the other roommates woke up and I slept through it. That’s how loud it was in that hostel. It was literally louder than an earthquake.
I’m eleven years old. My boss is giving me directions somewhere:
“It’s right next to the Combi stop. You’ll know it because of the huge Wang on the corner.”
Wang = large grocery store that I have never heard of. It doesn’t stop me from laughing for five solid minutes, and then again, every 40 seconds or so, for the rest of the meeting. The harder I try to suppress it the worse it gets. It’s not even really funny until you’re trying to behave like a grown-up in front of your boss. Then it’s as if I’ve never heard anything funnier.
“There is officially nothing that could happen on a Combi anymore that would surprise me.” Not even an hour after announcing this to my housemates, I walk down to Quince to grab a Combi up to Zone Z. I wait and wait. The Z Combi pulls up. It’s full. Half of the Combi is full of people. The other half is full… with a tree. Not like a small tree that someone could buy and maybe plant in their yard, but a giant–headed-to-the-lumber-mill log, that extends the full length of the vehicle. Leaves pressed up against the windshield, through right on out of the back door of the Combi, where the tree, roots and all, extends at least two feet out into the street. The cobrador looks at me: Sube?
Sometimes if you have a backpack or suitcase with you that’s too big, they make you pay for the space that bag is taking up too. So if I get on with a full bag the cobrador will analyze the size of it very seriously and then quote you whatever extra price. And they’re always all official when they’re quoting you the extra cost. Like as if he’s not just pulling that number out of thin air. Like maybe there’s actually some chart somewhere he’s memorized:
Bag – 12x15inches = 10 cents.
I would love to have been on there when whoever it was Sube-ed with that tree.
Arbol? – 2 soles!
So I sube, because whatever, it could not be any weirder than this, and I need to be somewhere. I step over the tree and hang on. A few minutes later the driver veers off to one side of the road, and starts screaming maniacally out the window. I look out to see that we just missed killing a man crossing the road on…wait for it….STILTS. Stilts. Yeah. The full on circus clown, parade type of stilts. Although I assume he’s using them to paint houses or some other something that’s way less fun than a parade. But all the same. It’s STILTS. And what makes it even better is that he’s carrying two bags filled with groceries, purchased from, what I can only assume must have been an outdoor market without a roof…or possibly a very large Wang…..
What I carry with me when I leave the house normally:
– The equivalent of 75 american cents
– 3-4 rocks to defend myself from dogs
What I had when my bag got stolen yesterday:
– Cell phone
– A two-ish pound wallet containing 16 different types of credit cards, 3 forms of ID, and about 75 random business cards
– Somewhere on the order of 7-10 pens
– Huge bottle of water
Obviously, I’m the most torn up about the loss of the snacks….
One of the women in our program has a flower shop, and I go by once a week and buy a big beautiful, bouquet for the equivalent of 2 USD. Anytime anyone sees me walking with them, even total strangers, they will just stop and ask me, “who died?” It’s sorta sad that there’s never a happy reason to buy flowers here. When I tell them that no one is dead, they don’t really believe me. They figure it must be a failure of my Spanish, so they just annunciate a little harder: “Whoooo is deeaad?” No one. No one is dead. They shake their heads at me. “I’m buying them for decoration for the house.” This doesn’t go over well, because I must seem like a rich, wasteful gringa buying this stuff for decoration. So now I just kill off a relative a week and try to keep track of who went last…
“How many great-aunts do you have exactly?”
Once a week, I bring leftover food up to Zone Z to feed a few of the hungrier, friendlier dogs. Usually it’s food that’s going bad from earlier in the week. This week there wasn’t much, so I supplemented it with some crackers and milk I bought from a local market. I was up there at a different time of day than usual, so this time, a few minutes after I started feeding the dogs I was surrounded. By dirty, sad, starving….children….
One little girl, maybe four or five, extends her hand out to me shyly:
– I saw you were throwing away food.
– I’m not. Um. I’m not throwing it away. I am um, feeding, the, um….dogs
She eyes me quizzically.
– You are throwing it away. On the ground.
– Yes. But. Um. (I’m sweating like I’m in an interrogation room, now and probably looking as guilty.) I’m not throwing it away, I’m feeding them.
– Feed me?
I give her and the rest of the kids the food and slink away feeling like just the worst kind of jerk. How am I feeding dogs when people are hungry? I dunno. I try to make excuses about it. You can’t just walk up to random children on the streets and give them food. I mean, at home, it’s exactly the sort of thing our parents warn us about. Don’t take treats from strangers. So am I going to now go and be that stranger. Hey kid, want a Zagnut? Futhermore, most of the food is rotten/rotting anyway. It’s okay for dogs, but I’m not going to proudly hand over food I’d have thrown away to some growing child, right? I give it to the dogs because they’re, well, dogs! They eat whatever…And what if their parents were around? What an insult for a parent working hard to provide for their child if some self-righteous gringa just showed up and started bringing their kids food. You can’t provide well enough, so let me? I dunno. I don’t feel right about it. It doesn’t make any of it seem any less like an excuse though.
So what do I do? Stop feeding the dogs? Hide it better? Feed the kids too?