expectations and realities in Peru

Though my foresworn policy for just about anything in life is to expect nothing at all or expect the worst, unrealistic presuppositions still manage to sneak in to the back of my mind regardless of my best efforts to the contrary. Peru has been no exception. However, happily for me, some of my positive expectations have been exceeded and some negative things I anticipated have turned out much better than I ever hoped.

Spanish speaking abilities: As much as I have always constantly reminded myself that my Spanish speaking abilities are, in reality, rather pathetic and limited, I must admit I had hoped to progress more quickly what with three hours of instruction a day and hearing Spanish nearly every second I am not in class. However, instead of flying through the rest of the tenses and soaking up vocabulary like a sponge, I took four or so weeks of very necessary remedial classes (as in, I had already learned what we were learning) and do not feel as if the words I need are at my disposal when I need them. Moreover, on occasions when I am happy with my level of comprehension, usually after fairly effortlessly reading a literary excerpt, reality sets in again when I attempt to read further without the aid of the, apparently more necessary than I thought, vocabulary footnotes provided in our “lecturas.” For example, after enjoying a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, I purchased a book of more of his short stories. I made it through one. And I understood next to nothing: there was some guy who might or might not have been a Roman or Greek soldier of some sort, and he ended up looking for a fabled city in the desert and found some strange people (naked immortals? zombies?) but ended up with a dog that died. See? Ugh. I really should attempt to read another one of those short stories, which are sitting next to me as I type this, reveling in their linguistic triumph over my poor brain.
But, before you start imagining I am moping around Cusco depressed by my lack of fluency, let me assure you that I do feel accomplished every once in a while. Lately, I will amuse and please myself by mentally constructing sentences in Spanish to say something in English that I could not have expressed a few weeks ago. For example: Class would have been more fun if we had eaten chocolate; and, By August of 2012 I will have started college; or, He is spending money as if he was a millionaire.

Food: I thought I would be suffering through meals based around rice, beans, and potatoes, the former two being foods I tolerate and the latter being just plain boring. Was I ever wrong! I think I just might have mentioned once or twice that I like the food here. Just so there is no ambiguity about the matter, I will say it again: I LOVE THE FOOD IN PERU! I have yet to eat something truly disgusting (except for these two fruits thing I bought this week that had such a sickening smell that I ate no more than a nibble; but those do not count). Speaking of fruits (in the previous parenthetical aside, at least), I continue to be astounded by the enormous variety of edible plant matter that can be purchased at any market. The only foods I have yet to see with my own eyes are blackberries and blueberries, both of which I am certain are available sometime during the year somewhere in Peru and probably in Cusco. The markets have EVERYTHING: lettuce, tomatoes, starfruit, mangos, avocados, figs, strawberries, yucca, at least eight varieties of apples, and dozens and dozens of types of corn, potatoes, and tubers, just to name a small selection of available and somewhat familiar plant foods. Of course, there are quite a few fruits that are foreign to me and which I have made it my mission to sample at least once while I am here. Besides the breathtaking variety of plant edibles, Peruvians seem to have a penchant for packaged cookies and chips of various sorts which frequently appear in staggering numbers of delectable flavors, all for $0.50 or less. Oh, and of course, I mustn’t forget about the pastries. There are lots of pastries. They are tasty. I think I have mentioned this fact before. I shall refrain from waxing eloquent about their lovely, carbohydrate wonderfulness; you already know I love them. I’m starting to salivate.

Communication: I did not want to have a cell phone here in Peru. I just wanted to use a calling card. Dad insisted I have a cell phone. I am glad he did. Yup. I’ll say it: DAD WAS RIGHT. I love being able to text home (something I never imagined I would be able to do even with a cell phone)! And, it’s quite convenient and rather inexpensive! I am not sure what I would do without a phone. Actually, I do know. I would (1) have no way of communicating with my classmates here, (2) have to use the payphones on the street for local calls for things like meeting up with people for dinner, (3) be forced to ask to use Adela’s landline phone with my calling card whenever/if ever I need to call home, (4) be unable to send off a quick text to set up a skype date when I suddenly have a free afternoon, and (5) be without any means of communicating trivialities of life with Hannah or Mother. It would be boring and painful and inconvenient to be without a cell phone. Thank you for insisting, Daddy!
Regarding internet communication, I unrealistically thought that some internet cafes would have wifi, so I could bring my own computer to skype and blog and email from there. What a dumb expectation. Thankfully, the school’s wifi works very well most of the time, so having quality internet access available has not been a problem, though I do wish I had it on the weekends somehow.
I also imagined I would blog much more frequently. Obviously, that has not happened. I guess I neglected to take into account the number of hours it takes me to write up a post and how verbose I can be as soon as my fingers touch the keyboard; I have such noble intentions of brevity and succinctness, really! In addition to assuming I would blog more in general, I hoped I would constantly upload my pictures to Picasa from which I would share ALL of them with you guys. Alas, while the internet is not too slow, it is most certainly not speedy enough to upload the hundreds of pictures I take per week. It barely manages my picture-ful posts. Oh well.

People at school: I expected a wider variety than just liberal agnostics. Really, it seems that everyone I have met at school fits into one or both of those categories, which makes for interesting conversations but is not so great when I want to agree with someone on something, just for once. Okay, I exaggerate: I agree with them on some things, but on occasion I do wish there were a few “like minds” for me here. Do no Christians attend Spanish school?

Weather: Overall, I would have to say that the weather has indeed turned out as I expected, albeit with some lengthy, cold exceptions. From four weeks ago up until this week I had been quite comfortable in short-sleeved shirts and jeans from the moment I got up in the morning until it started getting dusky in the evenings. The days were sunny and warm and the nights were only mildly cold. However, this week the weather has returned to what it was when I arrived and for my first two weeks: only somewhat warmish during the day – a sweater is necessary over the short-sleeved shirt – and cold, cold, cold at night. It has started raining sometimes during the day again. ‘Tis tragic. On the whole, though, the weather here is gorgeous! Sometimes it feels like an eternal, warm spring – at least until the sun sets.

Postal service: Speaking of weather, some of you may know that, due to expectations somewhat founded in reality, I neglected to bring both my rain jacket and winter coat with me to Peru. Consequently, after my first cold week or so in Cusco, Mother packaged both items up along with some birthday presents, and relinquished them to the care of FedEx to be shipped to me here. That was an ill-fated day some six weeks ago. Though the postal service here in Peru has served me well in every other capacity, by delivering other letters and packages within more or less reasonable amounts of time, it has failed miserably with the thing that mattered most: my warm (and expensive) clothing. Oh well. Maybe, just maybe, my jackets will find their way out of Peruvian customs and at least back home to the US before I return. I hope.

Roads: The roads here are amazingly good! I imagined bumping over largely dirt or pothole-ridden asphalt outside of major cities. As it is, I have spent no more than two hours total on some incredibly smooth dirt roads, and the rest of my travel has been across quality asphalt and cement, usually with more or less adequate guardrails when necessary near precipices. I have been impressed.

Toilets: Perhaps you think it exceeds the bounds of common decency to describe the facilities here in Peru. I counter that the quality of bathrooms in a foreign country contributes greatly to the happiness or dissatisfaction of travelers. Regardless, the bathrooms here in Peru are much nicer than I ever dreamed. Though I have admittedly been meticulously, strategically avoiding public or high-traffic “servicios higenicos,” which would probably be the most off-putting, I have yet to encounter a truly gross bathroom. Furthermore, I have not found a legitimate pit-toilet either, even on my few ventures outside of Cusco. All of the latrines I have visited have included actual toilets, albeit without a function handle flush mechanism, obviously. One thing has confused me, though: they take the toilet seats off the toilets, even in restaurants and such. There will be a toilet, but it will just be the porcelain part with the seat removed. ‘Tis odd. Oh, and while I am on the subject of bathrooms, I might as well inform you that here in Peru you do not throw the paper in the toilet but place it in a provided trashcan. As in some other Latin American countries, the sewage pipes are apparently too small to handle paper.

Safety: For all the warnings of pickpockets, various thievery schemes, the dangers of getting money from an ATM, the peril of walking anywhere alone or after dusk, and such from my Peru guidebook, the school, and Andeo, I have yet to feel threatened or unsafe. I never worry about pickpockets on the street and simply hold my backpack by its handle or under my arm when I am in markets. I am never nervous getting money out of an ATM and never wish I had with me the “burly man” that before I left we joked about me needing to find here. And, while I make a point never to walk around the city alone after 8:00 or so, I do sometimes walk home from school right after dark and most definitely wander around the city reasonably late at night with my friends. The streets of Cusco stay quite busy until at least 10:00pm. I feel quite safe.

Health: I expected to feel gross more often. That’s it, really. I have only felt really sick once while I have been there, and that for less than 8 hours. Other than that, my stomach feels a bit odd and churny on occasion, but it neither lasts long nor is overly uncomfortable. Of course, I never eat lettuce or strawberries and never eat the skin of any fruit or vegetable unless it has been thoroughly washed and sanitized. And I only drink my boiled, bottled, or zapped-with-my-UV-pen water.

Living situation: Despite the form I received from Andeo before I left that somewhat ambiguously informed me that my host “family” in Peru would consist only of Adela, I still half expected there would be more people. Nope. Sort of. There is a five-person family that rents the downstairs of the house I live in with Adela, and I think that the 12-ish year-old kid who helps out with various household chores and eats lunch downstairs as well as the older lady who cooks sometimes both live somewhere downstairs, too. I really have no idea, though. The fact of the matter is that I interact with no one besides Adela, and infrequently on that score, too. We do not sit around and chat and lately I have been eating breakfast myself while she does whatever she does in the mornings. She teaches school in the evenings, so if I am at home for supper I always eat alone. It does not really bother me, though; it is just a bit odd.
I anticipated speaking more Spanish at home than I do. Outside of school I speak no more than a paragraph or two of Spanish per day, maybe a page’s worth if I or Adela is especially talkative. I am comfortable, though. And the food is good. And I have my own bathroom. I like it.

Cusco: At least around where I live and in the various parts of the city I frequent, Cusco is very clean. A small army of uniformed municipal workers masked against dust can be seen scattered about the city with their brooms and rolling trashcans, constantly sweeping up bits of trash. In addition, I am fairly certain that there is daily trash collection here. The work of both the street sweepers and the trash collectors pays off; there are no piles of refuse and relatively very little floating litter in much of the city. I have been told that things are less clean on the outskirts, but from what I have observed, it still is not too bad.
While I was pleasantly surprised by the cleanliness of the Cusqueñan streets, I was unprepared for the ghastly quality of the air. As if it is not enough to have less oxygen to breath, Cusco seems to be determined to pollute every spare cubic foot of air with dark, choking, vehicular exhaust. Thanks mostly, I think, to my altitude sickness preventative medicine, I experienced very little difficulty with adjusting to the altitude and being out of breath. Rather than suffer from that more normal problem, I have been unable to accustom myself to breathing exhaust. Ugh. It is horrible. I think I could and would go running here if only I could put out of my mind the thought of coating my lungs with all the black stuff that the cars around here emit. There is no way they would pass smog tests in the US.
I was warned that Cusco would be touristy. And it is. But, I do not think it is any worse than I expected, though it is certainly the most touristy place I have every visited. Foreign “gringos” are usually more plentiful than Peruvians in the Plaza de Armas, and passing other white people in the street is perfectly normal for me. Depending on where I am, I sometimes hear as much English, German, and other languages being spoken as I do Spanish. It is different but not bad.

So, that, my dear people, is what has been bouncing around in my head lately: expectations and realities.

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10 comments

  1. I feel like I have experienced your life with you. You did a wonderful job of titling and then explaining that area of interest. You picked out special things to talk about also. It makes me want to be young again and experience it with you. So much for that, huh? So glad you are enjoying and learning.
    Love, Grandma M.

  2. I like that you are making up sentences in your head that have some difficult contrived verb conjugations. Keep that up. I can only suggest to keep working on the names of foods that you think you’ll encounter in other Spanish speaking places–food is universal. In Peru do they eat crickets (grillos), or ant eggs (escarmoles)? They are both very good. My only other suggestion is to find a coffee house near your place where there are absolutely no English speakers (or students who are learning English–they’ll always want to speak English). Then just struggle along until you start to feel more comfortable. It should only take a decade or two. If you can tell a joke in a foreign language and make someone laugh, you’ve made it.

    1. Thanks for the suggestionsl, Uncle Jeff! As far as I know they eat neither crickets nor ant eggs here. One thing I have found interesting is that they call some foods by different names here than I have been taught. For example, the call an avacado a “palta” instead of an “aguacate” and corn “choclo” instead of “maize.”

  3. “Though my foresworn policy”” – don’t you have to be married to forswear?
    “staggering numbers of delectable flavors”- wow a life time of cookie heaven :)
    ‘”DAD WAS RIGHT” – ok Claire you don’t need to buy me a b-day present for 3 years and your position in the will is secure :)

    Thank you for sharing all of your compelling observations!

    Paapaa

    1. I will note that that “Dad was right” came about partially by my encouragement after our conversation on Sunday but of course she will reply to this and say it isn’t so… BUT IT IS. no, no, thanks is unnecessary… Just maybe a section in that will??

      1. NO IT DID NOT EITHER! If you recall CORRECTLY, you will remember that I told you that the blog post I WAS ALREADY WORKING ON had that statement in it. So there. Ugh. I KNEW you were going to try to claim something like that! Thou shalt not recieve any credit whatsoever. I am tempted to delete your comment for its slanderous suggestions.

  4. Amazingly long and interesting blog! We loved hearing about all your various encounters and experiences. Do not lose hope with Spanish (as one who should be speaking way more fluently, advises). I’ve determined it takes immersing oneself in only Spanish for a very long time to have the correct word and verb tense at the tip of your tongue during conversations. You are doing way better than you think, I’m sure.

    Love all your other observations and I know your dad is walking around with a smile on his face to hear his daughter give him praise for his advice! That’s worth around gazillion soles, I’m sure. We love you lots. Grandma

    1. Well these days I can tolerate them better than in the past, but I still don’t really like them. Rice is fine, though, as long as it’s drowned in something saucy. Funny thing is that it was just those two years in Uganda, eating beans and rice with some level of frequency, that taught me to really dislike them, granted I didn’t like them in the first place. I SHOULD come to Congo, though, if not to see you at least to try the rice and beans! :)

      1. yes, please, come!! :) But there’s no Spanish here, sadly…. But LOOOTS of peanut butter that we roast and pound ourselves (it is totally the best, in my very unbiased opinion).

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