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?
Walking down the street with a fellow voluntario, speaking English sort of loudly. We pass by a store with the lights on. No one comes out of the store, but a voice from inside suddenly begins to bellow over and over:
“Hello! I am Jose! I am fine! I aaaam fiiiiine!!”
Art therapy workshop was a big success. The women in both zones really appreciated it and the therapists are now likely to come out a few times a month work with them. At first all the ladies were unsure of what this whole thing was really about. It’s like, um, okay we’re doing art now? I’m busy. I have mouths to feed, kids to take care of, clothes to launder, whatever. How is this helping me? What am I really learning here? And why? But eventually the women really came to understand what was happening. The head therapist had the ladies go around and introduce themselves.
Each woman basically said her name, and then said she was a wife, a mother, a cook, a cleaner, whatever it is that they do all day. And the therapist was trying to stress, these are all good things, all valid titles, but the point is you spend all day being someone else’s something. Caring for people, cleaning up after them, whatever. So much so, that when asked to introduce yourself, all you have to offer are the titles of your responsibilities to other people. No one said, “I’m so and so, and I really like this, or enjoy that.” They just listed their responsibilities, really.
So the therapist was trying to stress that this one hour or so a day is an hour for you. You. Yourself. Not your kids, or your husband, or your employer. Just for you. And taking that time for yourself will make you a better, happier person. As westerners, we really take that idea for granted. The idea that we need time to ourselves, to decompress, to think, to relax. Here, these women don’t relax. There’s no time for that. They’re up at five a.m. hiking to the top of a tall hill to get water to start the day, cooking, cleaning, getting the kids ready for school, laundering clothes by hand, whatever. Whatever they’re doing, there is never any time for themselves. And really, they’ve never had a reason to even realize it’s something they could have. Or should have. Or deserve.
This little session didn’t cover much, but what it did cover was the value of taking time for yourself, and I felt like you could see in their faces how excited they were about it. That they could come to this place that is usually associated with nothing but work and use it for enjoyment. It seems like a no-brainer to us “rich” Westerners, but to them it was an eye-opener. I hope we have more moments like that.
There is no way to be alone here. It’s just impossible. You share a bedroom with at least two to three other people who are basically always home when you’re home, and gone when you’re gone, and there’s just no escape. So the only way to ever really be alone is to try to be mentally alone. You put your headphones on and stare at your computer screen, or lie in your bunk reading a book with earplugs in. You’re not alone. But it’s something.
The only problem is that there are some people here who absolutely refuse to respect the mental alone time boundaries. The rules are unspoken, but really I feel like any normal person who found me wearing a hat, a scarf, sun glasses, and headphones all while reading a book called “I hate people who insist on speaking to me when I’m wearing headphones” could see that I’ve obviously gone out of my way to erect every barrier possible between myself and the outside world. I don’t want to effing talk to you! And listen, if you’ve got something important to say, a question maybe that only I can answer, or something very specific that must be said right now, such as, I dunno, “FIRE!” maybe , something like that. Then okay, sure. Feel free to say it. But at midnight on Sunday don’t walk over to me when I’m reading, pull my earphone out of my ear-!- and ask if this milk smells funny to me, too. Or worse, definitely don’t open my closed bedroom door some morning, see me half awake and launch into a conversation about Fairtrade regulations. What?! No! No! It’s six in the morning. Six! I don’t even get up to pee before six, we’re not gonna have a jam session about human rights issues. Who are these people?!
The moment you realize you’ve failed as a teacher:
English for 6-9 year olds. Exam.
Question 1: Write out the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 in words.
Eduardo’s answer: One true tree trour trive.
…….I guess we’ll have to go over that lesson again?
Successfully organized a workshop with a group of art therapists fromLima. Got the boss to agree to a taxi. The taxista calls me to say he’ll be in Huaycan soon and to meet him on the corner of the main street where he will drop them off.
– Perfect! Okay, what color is your taxi? I’m in a blue shirt and a red…
– …and you’ll be the gringa, yes?
-..er, well yes….
– Right, so no need to describe your shirt color, then. I’ll find you.
I will never complain about a job again after this experience. To think about what a huge complainiac I was about the stuff I was required to do at my previous jobs is completely laughable to me now. Like now I wish my biggest issue all day was that that the subway to work takes 40 minutes. Or that I have to work late, so my company pays for me to take a pretty luxurious Mercedes Benz cab home directly to the front door, of my own personal house, that I only live in with one other person, instead of 10. I wish the copy machine was jamming and that we were running out of tabs. I wish that I needed to make a few more binders for a presentation and it looks like I’ll have to pull an all-nighter. I wish some jerkface boss would hand me a stack of documents that he’d helpfully organized “in reverse alphabetical order based on feeling” and asked me re-order it and turn it into a pdf. God do I wish.
Instead, my work day stresses run the gamut from being chased down the road by a pack of ferocious stray dogs, trying to find a moto-taxista who will not rob or kill me to take me up to Zone Z after being pushed out of four separate Combis because there is no room for me and my huge gringo backpack, taking children to play in an abandoned building for “gym” class when the “court” isn’t free for us to use and hoping to hell that no one falls through the floor and dies. Those are just the standard worries. Then there are the things you can’t even plan for. You think the day is going in one direction, you think you’ve prepped for all possible contingencies, but you haven’t. You’re wrong.
Today I wait an hour for a Combi to take me up to Zone Z. Four pass by, and there’s absolutely no room for me. For Peruvians to actually tell you that a Combi is too full for you to get on is a pretty serious situation. I’ve been on Combis so crowded you’re literally covered in other people’s sweat. These people have no qualms about maintaining personal space. So if the cobrador says it’s full, it’s full. Okay so eventually I get on one that is full by all normal human standards, but not full as far as Peruvians are concerned. There are no seats so I have to stand and hang on. This Combi is actually the smallest of any I’ve been on, and even I can’t stand up straight. I also can’t wear my backpack, nor is there any room for it on the floor, so I hang the strap around my neck and it dangles in front of me.
Eventually we get to another stop, and, amazingly, more people get on. Now there’s a woman crouching next to me and as soon as we start moving she is literally being repeatedly whacked in the back of the head by my dangling backpack, and there is nothing I can do to stop it. I don’t have a free hand to hold it (you can’t Combi surf with any less than both hands, and I wish I had a third in most instances) and she can’t move. I keep telling her I’m sorry but I also can’t stop laughing, so it probably sounds a little bit insincere. We ride this way for the better part of 25 minutes. Thwack. Thwack. I crack up. She turns to looks angry and possibly yell at me. The bag whacks her directly in the face. I apologize. Thwack. I laugh. I apologize. Thwack. I laugh. This is awful.
I get off the Combi and go about my business. Today I have to go from house to house to pick up the various items the women in our artisan program have made for us. I run into one of the women I am looking for on the road on the way back from the market. She and her five year old son are carrying huge bags and I offer to help them and follow them up to her house….except…we don’t seem to be going the way I’d normally go to get there. She lives pretty far uphill away from the main strip. “It’s a shortcut,” she tells me. Oh well, good. Who doesn’t like a shortcut?
What she doesn’t explain is that this shortcut involves a death defying ascent up a path just a little bit wider than my foot, with sheer cliffs on either side….oh, and did I mention I’m in flip flops…and now I’m lugging her huge grocery bags and my huge backpack, and I’m clumsy and not a fan of heights to begin with, and the rocks are sliding out from under my feet. I slip and fall, and lose a few platanos out of her bag into the ravine.
– Sorry! I’ll pay for those.
– No, I’m sorry. Maybe this is too dangerous for you. And those shoes…
– Those shoes are no good for this.
– Right, well, I didn’t plan on mountain climbing so… I’m okay. I can make it.
She and her son, who are in sneakers and are clearly experts from doing this every day, hop around the path from rock to rock like a couple of mountain goats, and here’s the big, clumsy, stupid, gringa teetering behind them and dropping their groceries everywhere. At one point, she directs the five year old to come back over to where I’ve stopped and take the bag back from me. Low point. I need to be rescued by a five year old. I bet he doesn’t understand what the word disdain means, but he sure looks at me like he’s feeling it. Can these damn gringas do anything?
I will never complain about my job again. I will never complain about my job again. Just let me live through this hike. Just let me make it to this woman’s house. We get there. I’ve managed to live which is pretty awesome. She hands over the sweaters she’s made and tells me that she’s one short, but that I can come pick it up tomorrow. She looks at me and then back at the path we’ve just walked.
– I’ll come down there and meet you this time.
Driving rules in Peru
I imagine all driver’s ed classes in Peru go something like this:
Rule 1: Never be happy in the lane you’re currently in. Every second you spend not trying to get into a different lane is a second wasted. The best thing to do is attempt to drive most of the way straddling two lanes so that you never have to feel that you’ve committed to either. It’s very important to switch to a lane that is going even 1 mile an hour faster than your lane is going. Even if you have to come to a dead stop in your lane for a many minutes in order to switch, it’s still totally worth it.
Rule 2. Never brake. Braking is for pussies. If you come to an “intersection” and you’re thinking about stopping to avoid a collision, just stop thinking. Braking is not the answer. The proper way to proceed is to simply lean on your horn, and sail through the intersection on your hopes and dreams. This is all you’ll have for protection because of course the seat belts don’t work.
Rule 3. Constantly use the horn. In other countries, people use horns for two reasons (1) to alert other drivers to your presence when they seem to have not noticed you, or (2) to say: Hello, I’m outside your house, waiting to pick you up. Come outside.
Horns in Peru are used differently, because people here drive with their ears as much, or more, than with their eyes. So when you’re switching lanes in other countries, you check your mirrors and then your blind spot. Here it’s different. You maaaaaybe check your mirror, but for the blind spot you don’t have to turn around and look. All you have to do is listen for anyone blaring their horn and know they’re coming at you (see rule 2). Then you know not to change lanes. And/or more likely, you’re skilled enough at detecting how close the horn really sounds, and you’re going to gamble with the lane change thing anyway.
Rule 4. Attempt to come as close as possible to the cars in front of you without actually touching them. There is never a reason to leave any space whatsoever. Treat driving as if it were a lesson in how to approach infinity, surely you can get just a little bit closer? If, at any given point you find yourself in traffic, and realize that you can’t determine what the driver next to you had for lunch, you’re not close enough.
Rule 5. Always be in a rush even when there is absolutely no reason to be. Even if you’re just a bus driver and you have to do this route all day, anyway so why the hell does it make a difference to you when you get there? Yes. Even then. Even if you have no where to be, you must get there immediately, if not sooner. Second place is losing.
I teach a computer class for four women in Zone D. They’re all about in their 50s and have never had contact with a typewriter or anything even approaching a computer. Ever. Maaaybe a radio. Maybe. But even then, it’s the old timey kind with the rolling dials. Digital is mind blowing. So these women are all very sweet, and very eager, but very confused and extremely frustrating. There must be some special fine motor skill that all computer users develop in order to manipulate a computer. Or some synapse in our computer using brains that allow us to do it. Whatever it is, these women do not have it. And listen, these are smart capable people, who I’ve seen knit beautiful sweaters, make backpacks on a loom, baskets out of grass. They obviously have the ability to use their fingers and eyes, but hand them a mouse and a computer screen and holy god it’s a nightmare.
Most of the class is spent with the women clicking wildly around the screen as I try and point them to the day’s lesson. I point my finger directly at the little “-” to minimize a screen.
-No here. Right near my finger. The line. Click the line.
-No. Do you see my finger?
-(nasty look) Of course!
-[Well you could’ve effing fooled me.] Good then, click here. Click!
Then she will inevitably click the x and close the whole damn thing. Awesome. It’s going to take us 35 minutes to get to that point again. What about right click, you ask. Forget about it. Just forget it. It took me two sessions to get the left double click down. They’d click once, and then maybe a full second later click again. No! This is not a double click. Quick. Quick. Right in a row. Bum. Bum. 1. 2. Click click. They will inevitably then highlight something and accidentally drag it somewhere else. Noooooo! Right click is for next semester.
The best part about the class is that the women just want to keep learning increasingly more complicated, and totally useless (for their purposes) programs. We should be focusing on typing and games that teach them how to use a mouse, but we’re onto Word and Excel, and most recently, blogs. Yes. Blogs. What seems to be happening is that these women go home each week, tell someone they’re learning about computers and someone will tell them about some program or site they should be using, and then they come to class and want to learn about that. Okay. Listen, I’m here for you ladies. If you want to learn something, I’ll show you. If 57 year old Luz Maria Jose Gutierrez Santos wants a Facebook account, okay. Fine. Sure she’ll never really understand what it means to “friend” someone. But whatever makes her happy. If she wants to use all five of her names strung together followed by her birthday as her username for her gmail account then okay, sure, you can be firstname.lastname@example.org all day if you want to be. I keep trying to lead them back to typing practice to no avail.
So someone came up with the idea that we should be “having a blogging,” so fine. We’ll have it then. I spent two class periods showing them examples of Spanish language blogs and trying to explain the idea behind them and what they’re used for. I showed them travel blogs, and movie blogs, and personal blogs. This week I asked them to come in with some ideas for a blog topic of their own and we could go from there.
I sit down with one woman. She’s not sure what exactly she’s going to be having a blogging about.
– Anything you want, really. It could be a blog about cooking and recipes you like. Or a blog about your kids. Or a blog about flowers. Whatever you like.
– Okay. Recipes.
– Okay then let’s start. Okay your blog needs a title. For my sample blog I’m going to title it “Clase de Computadoras.” Now you pick a title for yours.
– I have to think.
I give her a few minutes. She types something. I look back over. The title is “Recipes.” I start to explain to her the purpose of the title, maybe it should be something catchy. It’s got to make people want to read….oh forget it. Recipes it is. She tells me she knows some good recipes for arroz con pollo and can type them up and share them with her friends. Good! She’s getting it. Okay now we’re getting somewhere. She understands the concept of a blog.
– Okay. Step two requires us to choose a web address for the blog. They already give us .blogspot.com, you just need to add something before it.
– Like what?
– Like anything you want. Okay for example, I’ll call mine computers.blogspot.com. Okay now you pick one.
– Anything I want?
– Yes. Anything.
I look over at her computer. She’s typed “movies.” I nearly fall out of my chair laughing. None of the ladies understand why. It’s going to be a long semester.
There’s a new boy in the house who is about 19, very sweet, very green and very 19. Sometimes, there are so many different people of different ages in the house, all doing the same sort of work, it’s easy to forget how old people really are and what that might actually mean. We’ll call the new boy Herbert. Ooh, or Herbie? I like that better. Okay so on Herbie’s third or fourth night in the house a few of us decide to buy some bottles of wine (read: cardboard containers of wine called “Gato” ) and have a few drinks on the roof. Sidenote: we’re not allowed to drink in the voluntario house. So the way we circumvent this rule is to drink on the roof of the classroom building, two feet from the house. We’ve never specifically been told not to drink there, but let’s face it, it’s probably even worse to be drinking where we teach, and I think we all know we really shouldn’t be up there.
So, with that in mind, we head up to the roof and have a bunch of cartons of wine. Herbie is starting to slur a little bit, but big deal, I think. We’re two feet from home. Let him slur. Most of the others leave about1am. I stay with Herbie and another voluntario who we’ll call John. Herbie goes to the classroom to go to the bathroom. He returns. One minute later he gets up to go to the bathroom again. Shortly thereafter we hear a loud crash, like something shattering. I guess we should check on him. I let John go ahead of me. I stand aside, wanting to give Herbie privacy if he needs it. John opens the bathroom door and just stares in disbelief.
-What is it? What’s going on?
-Herbie! What the f___ is going on in here? Herbie. Jesus!
I peak into the bathroom and there is Herbie. A tallish, skinny, lanky, effeminate boy of 19, standing in the middle of the bathroom surrounded by shattered ceramic, bleeding profusely from his foot, and trying unsuccessfully to stop the high powered stream of water that is shooting out of the wall and all over him/the bathroom. John just stands there, frozen.
– Well don’t just stand there! Help me!
The bathroom’s not big and there are already a few inches of water on the floor. I push past them and start crawling around looking for the knob to turn the water off. There isn’t one. Why does every damn thing have to be different here? I crawl around on the floor, intermittently being shot in the face with toilet water, as Herbie and the John shout unhelpful suggestions from outside. Great. Thanks for the help dudes. This is totally how I envisioned my night going. We eventually locate the off switch.
– Herbie, go home and deal with your foot and go to sleep. John and I will stay here and clean up.
John’s not pleased. So what I’ve gathered from the forensics here, is that Herbie got sick, found that the toilet did not flush for whatever reason and so he proceeded to remove the lid off the tank to fix it. He drops the lid and it shatters, stabbing him in the foot. That much is crystal clear. What is not quite so clear is how or why he managed to rip the pipe connecting the toilet to the water source completely out of the wall. Like, it’s not just disconnected, it’s ripped out. Broken. Awesome. Perfect. So now we have a toilet full of vomit, with no water in the tank, or water source with which to flush it. So John and I spend the next hour or so filling up the tank with water bottles that are so small no comedy writer could have written a more amusing set-up. So we fill up, and dump. Fill up and dump. Eight ounces of water at a time. Eventually I get the toilet to flush. I Huaycan-rig the remnants of the tank lid, and we dash out of there, hoping we can just blame it on a student the next day, like any responsible adult would.
It really wouldn’t do to explain to the boss that while the teachers were getting drunk, in the classroom building, we also broke the bathroom beyond all simple repair.
Okay, so that isn’t great, but no big deal. We’ve all been 19. It happens. John and I head back. Shortly thereafter I hear ruckus coming from John and Herbie’s bedroom. Herbie got up to go to the bathroom, and in his absence, John noticed that not only had Herbie !pooped! – in his bed, but that it was actually leaking down onto John’s bottom bunk. Herbie comes back and we point this out. He bursts into tears. He had no idea. So the three of us go into frenzy mode, ripping off sheets and mattresses. I’m not sure what else to do so I just star pouring massive amounts of bleach on the mattress. It’s the only cleaner we have. It’s bad. Obviously. And Herbie can’t stop apologizing and I feel bad and we try to make it so it’s not a big deal. We’ve all been 19. I’ve never been “poop-in-my-own-bed-19,” but I’d be lying if I said I don’t know some pretty respectable people today, who have pooped in some less than desirable circumstances. You all know who you are.
Then, today, I asked Herbie if he could cover a class for me so I could attend another meeting and he whined about having to do it! It was very hard, but I refrained from pointing out that here, in this program, we all help each other out. I cover for you, and you for me. Sometimes I clean your vomitty, poopy, toilet-breaking ass mess up for you, and you spend a half fricking hour in a computer class for me. Fair trade right?
I’m scheduled to begin teaching an English class to a group of teachers who work at a local private elementary school.
Day One: Huaycan is just about the dirtiest, dustiest place around and for the most part the voluntarios only wear t-shirts and shorts and ratty old sneakers that no one cares about. We’re mostly only teaching a bunch of dirty, dusty children and/or adults, so it wouldn’t make sense to look nice anyway. But since I’m teaching at a private school I put on a dress and black flats. It’s hardly the nicest dress around, it’s somewhere between a summer dress and a business casual one, but hardly fancy. I walk downstairs and all the voluntarios are shocked. It’s not often any of us even showers to go to class, so this is a big deal.
I walk down to the school. The director meets me and tells me that on account of Semana Santa, most of the teachers have either forgotten about the class or don’t have time. I tell him that’s fine, I’ll come back next week. But no, he wants me to wait, just in case. He takes me to the classroom, sits me down and says he’ll be back shortly. He comes back an hour later. No one’s showed up. He apologizes profusely and we agree to start next week.
Day two: Because it’s a private school it’s basically on lockdown. It looks more like a prison than a school. It’s surrounded by an 8 foot high cement wall and steel gates. There are a bunch of parents standing around the entrance and pounding on the gate when I arrive. No one is answering. The parents are freaking out. Eventually the steel door opens, a little girl with pigtails lets us in. Inside, there are children running wild everywhere. In and out of all the classrooms. Throwing things, fighting each other. Slamming doors. Standing on desks. Total chaos. Hmmm, little different than last week. I walk to my classroom, the door is locked. I knock on the director’s door. No answer. I stand around awkwardly for a bit and watch the madness. A little girl walks over to ask me what I’m doing here. I tell her I teach English (or well I would if anyone would let me). I ask her why all the kids are running around. “There are no teachers. They have a meeting.”
Hmm. Okay so I guess the teacher’s just sequester themselves in a soundproof room somewhere and leave the children to run amok and take over the school. Every child’s dream, really, but how is this allowed to go on? After awhile, the only adult I’ve seen in a half hour walks over to me and informs me that she’s the admin assistant and she can let me into the classroom. She says the teachers are almost out of their meeting and won’t be too late. I enjoy that the fact that they’re already a half hour late is not considered to be “too late” at all by Peruvian standards. We walk by a group of kids hurling rocks over the school walls, she doesn’t say anything and neither do I. There are no rules in Peru. Even in private school.
I set up the classroom. Take chairs off desks, write some grammar points on the board. “Hello my name is Abby,” etc. I watch the kids go nuts outside. A child runs by me chasing another with a broom. Two kids are sword fighting with plungers, while their friends cheer them on. A kid pops into my classroom, takes a broom and a dustpan and then looks up and sees me there. He freezes.
– Um, can I?
– Are you going to use that to clean up or to fight someone?
– Um. Yeah, okay go ahead.
I think I’m getting the hang of this no rules thing.
Like everywhere in Huaycan, dogs abound. Classroom dogs, much like roof dogs (see previous post) are actually pets that are well fed and basically cared for. Two very friendly classroom dogs come and hang out with me and I name them Naranja and Cicatriz, because let’s face it, Amigo’s been taken. “Do you want to learn English,” I ask them. They just stare at me panting and wagging their tails. “Sit,” I tell them in English and they do. Wow. They must’ve had this class last semester.
So I sit there. The classroom is all set-up. The name tags and attendance sheets are out, the lesson is on the board, the worksheets are all ready to be passed out. I’m even dressed up . Still no one comes. I have this ridiculous feeling that I’m being stood up for a date. Class is over. No one shows. I erase the board and put everything away. In the movie of my life there will be sappy music playing as I clean up. The soundtrack to life in Huaycan, now available for download.
At the airport on the way back from Arequipa, I catch the news over breakfast. On the screen are images of a terrible landslide/flood that happened this week in Chosica, a town just about a half hour from Huaycan, where we go out sometimes.
Holy oh my god! I grab Tricia and point her at the tv. Oh my god. If this is happening there, what about Huaycan. What about the roommates who are home now? And the people there? Is everyone okay?
I call my boss and apologize for bothering her, but ask if she knows about what’s happened and if everything is okay in the big H. She says it happened a few days ago, and that she “didn’t get any phone calls from Dina [chef] or Queta [cleaner]” so she assumes everything’s fine. Right. Unless they’re under a pile of rocks and couldn’t call you. Wouldn’t this be a good time to call them?
When we land I chat with our resident taxista about it. He lives a few towns from us, where landslides are not an issue. He tells us the government has been trying forever to get people to stop building in these areas, but that the people have no where to go. It’s been over 15 years since the last one, but you just never know. Since it rarely rains in Huaycan, he says, we’ve got nothing to really worry about. But he points to the hills surrounding our house as we get home and says, “If you ever notice that it starts to rain really hard here, you get to your roof as fast as you can.” Great. Like I need another thing here that could potentially kill me.
Everything in this house shocks me. Like electrically. I’ve been shocked four times today. The computer cord, the light switch, the other light switch and now the my camera charger. AHHHHH.
People in Zone D, where I live, have a little bit more money than the other zones. The houses are more legit and they can afford life little extras, like pets. The thing is that, even with a bigger home, it wouldn’t be fair to say anyone’s house is really big enough for a pet, and no one has backyard. So you want a dog and you don’t have the space…how do we solve this problem? You get a roof dog.
That’s right folks. A roof dog is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a dog. That you own. That lives on your roof. All the time. It’s kind of awesome. They’re kinda like guard dogs because when you get near a house that has one they run to the edge of the roof and bark at you. And for a second, you’re afraid. And then you’re like, wait, that dog is not going to jump off the roof to fight me. For sure. But then you aren’t sure. Because they always seem like they just might do it. Go ahead. Just give ‘em a reason to jump off. Make his day. And then you’re not so sure. So you back up. Ingenious! I want one for the house.
I brought my Kindle into the library today to read to the kids. I have Twilight in Spanish and they all take turns reading it. One kid named Enzo is so excited about the Kindle he can barely stand it. But he’s excited for all the wrong reasons, because no matter how many times I explain it to him, he can’t get the idea out of his mind that with this magical device I can turn any movie into a book.
– Can you get me that movie “300” on here? I love that movie.
– Right, Enzo, it’s got to already be a book. This doesn’t turn movies into books. It’s just the electronic version of something that was already a paper book.
– What about the Fast and the Furious?
– Yeah. Sure. I’ll look for that one.
Things I’ve been asked to hold on the Combi:
- A backpack
- A sack of onions
- A baby
- A plastic bag that leaks an unidentifiable liquid onto my toes/flip-flops. But there’s no where to move so I just keep holding it and letting it drip all over me.
- A potato sack containing a screaming animal. Well now I have to ask:
– What’s in there?
– My cat
– To eat?
– (Horrified.) No! No he’s my cat.
– Oh, well. I’m okay to just hold him, maybe we should take him out of the bag? He seems upset.
– Oh no! We can’t do that. He’d run away. He hates the Combi.
Hm. That makes two of us.