Spanish or something like it

Yesterday I had lunch with a woman from church who spends nine months out of the year in Peru and the other three months back in the United States. She and her husband are missionaries in Lima and this is the third year they have been here. In my mind, that makes her somewhat of an expert on adjusting to life in Peru. Her best advice? Embark on small quests and celebrate your small victories. Whether its dedicating an afternoon to finding a famous chocolate shop or successfully finding dill in the supermarket, it’s these quests and subsequent triumphs that have helped her adjust to Peruvian life.

Today I had a small language triumph.

I commute to work with a private taxi company and since I have become a regular customer, I have started to recognize the drivers. This morning, when dropping me off my driver asked if I was taking Spanish lessons at the school, to which I replied, “No, soy una profesora de inglés.” (No, I’m an English teacher). That small admission and my noticeably lighter hair and skin color tipped him off to my American citizenship.

The same driver picked me up to take me to Alvaro’s grandfather’s house for lunch. About ten minutes into the ride he said a quick sentence composed of several words I understood and a few that I didn’t. I replied, “I’m sorry, could you speak a little slower...” and then he repeated the question. He wanted to ask me about the economic crisis in the United States. Oh boy. I don’t know that I am qualified to speak about that situation in English, let alone in Spanish. I tried my best. I talked about interest rates and bank loans and home foreclosures. He asked why a lot of people don’t like Obama and I said because things haven’t changed as much as they would have liked. “I, however, do like him. The country was in a really bad place when he became President and la cambia (change) takes time.” We continued to chat about American policy regarding war and economics all the way to my destination. Before I exited the car I said, “Thank you for helping me practice my Spanish. I really need to speak but I am really afraid to.” He laughed, said that I did fine and reassured me that speaking English like that would be difficult for him.

As I opened the door he said, “Earlier you said la cambia, it’s actually el cambio.”

I said, “Ah, sí. Cambiar is the verb and cambio is the noun. Muchas gracias.”

“De nada, señorita. Feliz año y hasta luego.” (You’re welcome, ma’am. Happy New Year and see you later.)

35 Honks

    My taxi service is always on time or early- but never late.

This morning my driver was five minutes late, then ten, then fifteen and then thirty minutes past my scheduled pick up time. He had the unfortunate luck of getting a flat tire first thing in the morning. Even with the chaotic Lima traffic, I still had plenty of time to make it to my training, though I’m not sure that my driver knew that.

He had driven me once before and I remembered him as the driver who has a certain obsession with the horn in his car. As we sat at a red light, seven cars behind the front of the line, he incessantly honked the horn. I’m not sure why since typically honking is reserved for those in closest proximity and those cars were also blocked in by the five cars in front of them. Peruvian road rage at its finest, honking the horn just because it’s there.

This morning he honked the horn with minutes of driving away from my apartment, “Ah yes,” I thought, “this is the horn guy.” So I began to count. One, two then three in a row. Six, seven, eight, a short break to read the paper followed by a close nine, ten, eleven and twelve. I kept counting and kept counting. He honked while sitting at a red light, while merging onto the interstate, when telling a car to go faster and while warning pedestrians from getting in his way. Some areas of Lima have made honking car horns illegal. That law was established for drivers like him.

By the time I reached my final destination, he had honked 35 times. In a thirty minute drive.

Obviously a gringa

Today we went to our favorite sushi restaurant. It was an emergency mission to cheer up Alvaro after he scratched the side of his car on a pole in the parking garage. In his defense, the other car parked way too close and two light bulbs had burnt out, making the garage unusually dark.

This restaurant has a delicious selection of sushi. Part of what makes it so unique is that they have created a menu that blends Peruvian flavors into sushi rolls. The lomo saltado roll? Heavenly. And huancaína? Simply perfect. They have nearly two dozen rolls to choose from and besides the too sweet Tutti Frutti roll, I don’t think you can go wrong with any of them.

We sat down and a female employee brought us our menus and silverware. After placing my menu in front of me I said, “gracias”. She looked at me and then looked at Alvaro and said, “Your girlfriend looks like a doll, take care of her.”

Our waiter, Jorge, came over to take our drink order. Alvaro ordered the drinks and the only Spanish I spoke was a simply, “yes,” when he commented on my excellent drink choice. Surely such a simple word wouldn’t give away my obvious American accent. Without skipping a beat he looked at me and asked, “Where are you from?”

My light skin and hair color immediately tell a Peruvian that I am in fact a gringa, a slang term for a female of European descent. This term and its masculine form gringo, is used to describe anyone with blond hair, blue eyes and light skin, all markers of a non-Peruvian. I may be able to perfect my accent and hail a taxi like a Peruvian, but I will always, always be a gringa.

Feliz Navidad from Peru

I grew up in South Florida and as a result, most of my Christmas memories do not revolve around sitting by the fire or going sledding. It wasn’t until I was sixteen years old that I realized that 60º is in fact quite warm and not “freezing” as I would proclaim. It wasn’t until I was sixteen that I could no longer where flip-flops year round.

In Peru, Christmas occurs during summer. Unlike Florida which just happens to have a warmer winter, here Christmas is surrounded by summer vacation, beach houses, pool supplies lining the store aisles and much warmers days.

For most Peruvians “Christmas” occurs on the evening on Christmas Eve, beginning with Mass around 6pm then followed by an evening with family. Alvaro’s family eats Christmas dinner at 10:30pm. A big meal complete with turkey, apple sauce, rice, fruit salad and limeade. At midnight we toasted to Jesus’s birthday while listening to the fireworks outside. We opened presents and by 1am, while Santa was still circling the globe, Christmas in Peru was over.

The next morning, I had my mini- American Christmas. I Skyped with my parents while opening my presents and then left for a Christmas morning brunch with Alvaro. We then spent most of the morning walking around several parks that are located right next to the beach. We passed the time watching children with their new toys, paragliders and eating ice cream.

To finish the night we watched Alvaro’s favorite Christmas movie: Jingle all the Way, while eating traditional Peruvian Christmas bread, panetón.


Today I woke up with that tired feeling that your eyes have after you have been crying too much. Even after a full night’s sleep, I felt so emotionally wrecked that all I wanted to do was stay at home with Emmaline. That, however, was not an option. Another day of training awaited me.

After the third day of training, we are evaluated to see how we are picking up the method. If we seem to be catching on, then we are invited back for the rest of the training. I was invited back and received high praise during my progress report. Even though I am not terribly impressed by my new employer, this was a good step forward. An important step in getting closer to my work visa.

As I was leaving the school, I met up with a girl named Sandra. She has been training with me and the past few days we have really hit it off. She immediately asked if she would be seeing me next week and then asked for my phone number. She told me that if I need anything with my transition here to not hesitate to call her. We chatted for a minute or two and then when we parted she hugged me and gave me the Peruvian “cheek-kiss”. In many ways, I saw this as a small graduation in our relationship. We’re now more than fellow trainees.

My taxi took me to the apartment of the woman I was supposed to meet yesterday before the iPod incident. I arrived at her apartment and the maid let me inside the courtyard. She actually rents a small apartment that is the second floor of a beautiful, old Peruvian home. The maid works for the landlord who lives in the home.

After she let me, in the maid said that Señora Anne wasn’t home. Hm, interesting. I called her and she told me that  she had something come up and had to leave for the afternoon. Now I was stuck. My taxi just left and I was stranded. I asked if I could wait in the courtyard while I came up with a new plan. She agreed and in that moment the garage door opened and an older gentleman drove in. We exchanged greetings and he went into his home. A minute later and came back out to the courtyard and invited me to wait inside. He directed me to the living room while he ate lunch in the kitchen.

I frantically called Alvaro several times and then finally called his sister who agreed to come pick me up. I set down my phone and started to look around. It was a beautiful home with a very traditional open floor plan. On a table next to the television were stacks of DVDs. He liked Lie to Me, House and Bones. “He would get along with my mom,” I thought.

On the far end of the room were seven large picture frames. The collage type frames that hold 6-10 pictures each. In total, he must have had nearly 100 photographs in those frames. I could clearly see him in several of the photos, taken in all sorts of locations. In parks and homes, at parties and at church. Some of the photos were of ten or more people, crowded around a birthday cake or little baby. I kept looking at these photographs, looking at all the love they had captured and I started to cry. I knew absolutely nothing about this man except that he was kind enough to allow me a place to wait, he likes American television and he has raised a beautiful loving family.

Yesterday, I lost all hope in Peru. I was convinced that every stranger saw me as nothing more than a vulnerable American. I found very little redemption in this country and the people that occupy it. Yesterday, I was ready to give up. Today, however, two complete strangers offered me grace and kindness. Sandra recognized the difficulties of moving to a foreign land and offered her help. This man simply offered me a place to sit out of the sun, such a simple gesture and he will never know the profound impact it had on me. In that single gesture, he invited me into his home that had been filled with so much love over the years. For those thirty minutes, I was a part of that family and in a way, he redeemed all of Peru.

The worst

I was sitting in the lobby of my language school eating a croissant filled with manjar blanco. I was sitting there waiting on my taxi driver to pick me up and drop me off at the apartment of a lady from church. I never carry my iPod around Lima, in fact, yesterday was the first day I had brought it out of my apartment. The directions to this woman’s apartment were quite complicated and before I left I made the conscious decision to bring my iPod to read her directions from an email rather than take two minutes to write them down.

My iPod was on top on my folder which was sitting on the table.

A young man walked in holding a letter and a bag of candy. He placed the letter on top of my notebook and held out the bag of candy, asking me to buy some. I repeated the word “no” what must have been two dozen times. In the fifteen seconds that he stood there I remember thinking, “Why is he being so insistent?” After five more seconds of my repetitive “no,” he left. At that moment my taxi driver arrived and I hurried to gather my belongings. I was no more than fifteen feet outside of Berlitz when I thought, “I don’t remember putting my iPod in my bag.” And like, right under my nose, my iPod had been stolen.

It’s a thirty minute drive from the school and I cried the entire way. My mind was racing with thoughts of giving up and going home: How long is the lease on my apartment? Good thing I didn’t pay for my work visa yet. Surely I could get my job back at Banana Republic. I could live with mom and dad for a few months. I still have a return flight to use. What about Alvaro? Could we do it?

After getting back to my apartment I scrambled to figure out what to do with my life. I wasn’t ready to go back to retail full time, therefore grad school seemed like a solid option. I researched both the Art History and German programs at Vanderbilt. I felt a huge sigh of relief when I realized I had not missed the application deadlines. “I know a few professors there,” I thought, “hopefully this is when those connections become important.”

After getting off work, Alvaro came over to my apartment. In those moments I let out my greatest confession. I started to censor myself, after all, it is his country, but he told me to be honest. What followed was a twenty minute monologue of everything I find strange, uncomfortable, ugly, illogical and outright ridiculous about Peru. I have a handful of friends who have traveled to Peru and they all said that they simply, “fell in love with the people.” I recounted those stories to him and said, “The truth is, I simply haven’t.”

We left to indulge in my new bad day food: drinks and appetizers at Chili’s. The familiar menu and decor makes me feel like I’m at least a little bit closer to the United States. On our way out, his mom called and asked if we could stop by his grandfather’s house. We arrived and were greeted by his mom, three aunts and a tray full of Bailey’s and cookies. A welcoming sight after a day like that.

His Aunt Carmen picked up a small gift and held it in her hands and started to say something to me. Alvaro translated and it went something like this:

“I know that this will not replace what you had because your parents gave it to you and it was really special. But we want you to have this anyway. Hopefully it will make up for the bad that happened to you in our country.”

I opened the gift and it was a new iPod.

My iPod was stolen at 1:30pm and I opened their gift at 8:30pm. In just those seven short hours, they replaced my iPod. I was speechless, in Spanish or in English and all I could do was cry.

It wasn’t about the iPod, truthfully, it never was. iPods get lost and stolen and they can be easily replaced. Since I have arrived in Lima, I have struggled with finding my place and feeling secure within this huge, strange city. I was sitting inside the lobby of Berlitz when this happened. Berlitz, along with my home, is supposed to be one of the few places where I feel safe and in those few moments, my security was stolen from me. Just the day before this happened I had promised Alvaro that I would be braver. How am I supposed to be brave when I don’t feel safe in the place where I should feel most secure?

Delivery, Veggies, Mayo & Doormen

 Admittedly, I have spent the better part of the last six weeks being overly critical of my new home. As I have waited and waited and waited for news regarding my visa, I have only become more frustrated by the inefficient, mysterious systems of Peru. I am learning that in some parts of the world a stern voice and generous tip can create an array of satisfactory results.

There are plenty of systems and customs in Peru that are completely illogical to my American mind. Why does a city of 9 million people have only one post office? When purchasing items from the pharmacy, why most you bring a slip to the cashier, pay and then take your receipt to the pharmacy to obtain your item? Why is the public transportation so chaotic? Why are law students required to intern some forty, fifty, sixty hours per week?

My list of questions could go on. I do realize that the very things that frustrate me now are the things that will make up my most vivid memories once leaving Peru- like the inconvenient, über efficiency of German office hours.

I am convinced, however, that in some things Peru has gotten it right. These are the things I love:

  1. 24 hour Pharmacy delivery. Best. Idea. Ever. The idea is simple, call the pharmacy, request a few items, order more than S./ 35 and in thirty minutes the delivery man arrives at your door with contact solution, a receipt and your change, placed in a plastic bag and stapled to your receipt. Amazing.

  2. Fresh vegetables that are incredibly inexpensive. Last week I went to the grocery store to purchase vegetables for a sandwich: lettuce, avocado, tomatoes and bread. All for just about $2.

  3. Mayonnaise. Peruvian mayo comes in a plastic pouch that stands upright. Instead of a wide opening like American mayo jars, there is a small, squeeze top opening. No extra utensils required!

  4. And doormen. I love this type of city living that allows me to come home to a “Buenas tardes, Señorita,” every afternoon. My building has three doormen that rotates on what I believe are twelve hour shifts. They open doors for me, press my floor in the elevator when my hands are full and hand deliver all of my mail.

Taxi, taxi!

Hailing a taxi in Peru is an adventure unlike any I have ever had before. To be fair, before my time in Lima, I don’t think I had even taken a taxi by myself. I remember a few taxi rides from my first trip to London when I was just a little ten year old, but of course, my dad was with my. During my time abroad, I mostly took other forms of public transportation: trams, trains, buses. The few occasions that I did take a taxi was due the to unbearable weight of all of my luggage and that was only to move from airports to hotels to dorms. Even then, myself and several other people all crammed into one taxi.

Unlike the bright yellow, easily distinguishable taxis on New York City, Lima’s taxis are much more subtle, usually the only identifiable symbol is their taxi number in yellow on the side and perhaps a light on top that reads “taxi”. Though New York City has an abundance of taxis, it is quite possible that Lima has more taxis per one hundred people than even the Big Apple.

And what about those fares! They are outrageous, sometimes several dollars just for stepping in the cab and then more than a few cents extra for each quarter mile and passing minute. In Lima, it’s all about the bargain. After hailing down a taxi, you tell the driver where you would like to go. He’ll usually tell you a price one or two soles above what it should be. At that moment, it is up to you to decide whether you want to bargain or simply get in the taxi. If the transaction doesn’t work out, the taxi driver then drives away, the pedestrian flags down another taxi and the process starts all over again. It’s usual to overcharge tourists, my light brown hair and American accent give me away, so Alvaro has kindly given me the appropriate fares for each of my destinations, I’ve been channeling my inner Peruvian and lately have been quite a successful bargainer.

The biggest rule of taking a taxi in Lima is always, always agree on the price before you get in. Otherwise you’ll end up paying a much larger fee once you reach your destination.

Favorite taxi moments so far:

  1. The driver who called me “preciosa” as I got out of the cab. You can make the translation. Not necessarily my favorite moment, but it was nice to have Alvaro waiting for me on the sidewalk.

  2. After leaving lunch, two days ago Alvaro hailed a taxi for me. I sat down and immediately realized that the taxi driver looked like a Peruvian version of my dad’s brother! The resemblance was uncanny. And better yet, he was listening to the Micheal Bublé Christmas Album.

Thanks to the ogre

Since my visa and steady employment seem to have run off together, I have started to look for more innovative ways to support myself while in Lima. The most practical way to do this is by teaching English in private classes. Since I began planning my move to Lima, Alvaro has been telling me that I should try to do this. Not only is there an unlimited supply of students, but they come with an unlimited supply of income. Works for me.

I found my first student by accident. Last Saturday at the church Christmas bazaar I was introduced to a young woman from Seoul, Korea, who upon hearing that I am an English teacher exclaimed, “Ah, you can be my teacher!” Just like that, I found my first student.

Today was our second meeting and I had planned for us to read an article from an English magazine. I purchased the recent edition of TIME and chose the article entitled “Shrek: Mr. Influential” due to its relatively entertaining subject matter, especially when compared to the articles regarding the 2000 election blunder, War in Iraq and Napster. If you haven’t read it, please do so, it’s an interesting analysis of why Shrek was so successful and how it generated an entire new genre of animated films. Here’s where class became interesting.
    “Fashioned by an army of writers, directors and animators under Katzenberg’s acute eye, Shrek took the serious animated musical and farted in its general direction. As Mel Brooks’ The Producers (another 2001 smash hit) reminded Broadway that there’s nothing so buoyant as a musical comedy, Shrek showed the movie industry that ‘animated feature’ is just a fussy phrase for ‘cartoon.’”

I imagine that you can guess exactly which word from the above quotation Maria had a question about. Yep, you guessed it: farted. There I was, sitting in a Starbucks in Lima, Peru, trying to explain the verb to fart to my new Korean friend. Unfortunately, in this situation I couldn't provide her with the Korean equivalent and just move on, but rather, I had to explain to her through several awkwardly formed sentences, just exactly what farting was. My explanation went something like this:

“Um, well, it’s when. Hmph. Sometimes when you eat something that isn’t good for you, it makes you not feel well. You then have a physical reaction and-uhhh- well, a polite way to say it would be to pass gas. So you see, it’s a verb.”

I’m not sure she really understood me but to make the situation worse she asked, “So is this literal? What does it mean for Shrek to fart in its general direction?” To that I replied:

“Well, um, Shrek isn’t very polite, he’s rude and often does things in public that you shouldn’t do in front of others. So this is saying that he, um, farted in the direction of the serious animated movies. Like he was making fun of them.”

Her response? “Oh? So it’s funny? That’s why you are laughing? Ok, yes, I see. I will look it up in my dictionary.”

I can’t wait to hear what she found.