Sweet Emmaline

After I finally made the decision to move to Peru, the next question was: What will I do with my sweet Ms. Emmaline? At this point, she had been with me for about nine months and yet I couldn’t bear the thought of parting with her. I began to think about bringing her to Peru with me but was scared by the thought of something happening to her during the trip. After weeks of agonizing discussions and research, I decided that she would indeed survive her extended field trip and I began making plans for her to move with me.

Part of my decision to bring her was influenced by my mom. When my parents were first married, they adopted Amanda, their very first cat. She was a faithful member of our family for over a decade. One of my favorite pictures of my parents is a studio portrait taken at Olan Mills circa 1984, you know one of those portraits with a cheesy idyllic pasture scene for the background.  In front of the pasture are my mom, dad and then Amanda sitting on my mom’s lap. Really, mom? A cat in a photo studio?

Emmaline is more like a cat-dog. She plays fetch, comes when you call her, wants to eat everything I am eating and follows me like a shadow. The disinterested cat stereotype doesn't fit her at all.

Since arriving in Peru, she has charmed Alvaro’s entire family. He has never had a pet, neither have any of his close relatives. Several months ago, his Aunt Carmen said she wanted to buy Emmaline some food. I told her what brand and flavor and the next day, I was given two bags of food. She asked me how long each bag would last and I said about three weeks. Five weeks later she asked, “Does Emmaline have food? Because by my calculation, she is almost out of food.” The very next day, she bought her two new bags.

Two weeks ago, his Aunts offered to buy Emmaline a cat bed. When Alvaro and I went to pick it up, they gave us not only a cat bed but also two different toys, catnip spray and a glove for grooming. She is the talk of every family dinner and Alvaro’s mom finally agreed to letting her come visit his house. The only condition is that she must stay only on the tiled floor.

More of the same

I have bouts of optimism that typically last anywhere from half a day to a full 24 hours. Then I wake up the next morning and realize that nothing significant has changed during my time in Lima and just like that- my optimism is gone. The most frustrating part of my entire experience here is feeling like everything comes with complications.

Obtaining my work visa has been an epic struggle. Thankfully it is now in Immigrations as I wait for my application to be approved. Getting it there was no easy task and I still don’t have it in my hand. I won’t scream victory until I am holding my card in my hand. Which is still anywhere from 3-6 weeks away.

I have now lived here for three and a half months and am better able to understand the reality of my expenses. After taking a closer look, there is no way for me to survive off my soon-to-be job with this particular institute. I had hoped that other Institutes would pay more, and they do, but only handful of soles, which is equivalent to, more or less, one American dollar.

I can’t look for other jobs because: a. I am still not able to legally work and b. I don’t speak fluent Spanish. I feel like I have been sentenced to work in an underpaid, under appreciated job as an English teacher for the rest of my time in Lima.

Teaching private students was both interesting and financially promising, that is, until most of my students decided they were “too busy” and started canceling all of their classes. A private teacher doesn’t make money if there isn’t a class. I went into Business Meghan mode and developed new payment and cancellation policies. These new policies were too late, all my students were long gone by then.

I can’t make friends my own age because the English speaking, 20-something year old, Expat community is small, if not simply limited to me. I need friends but then we have to speak Spanish. Which I could most likely handle at this point, but then comes to issue of transportation. I simply can’t move around in this city. If it’s not close enough to walk, I have to arrange a fleet of taxis to take me to dinner and frankly, just the thought of this arrangement makes me want to stay home.

Even if I decided to deal with the taxis and traffic and stress of going out without my own car, most likely Alvaro’s mom and Aunts would jump in before I could do so. His mom would probably drop me off and pick me up. A sweet gesture because I then feel safe and don’t have to deal with the taxis. However, that also means that I feel like I am 15 again and that I have to coordinate with my parents for every social event. Only this is worse because I’m not 15, I’m 22 and my “parent” is a woman that I hate to inconvenience and that I can barely speak to. His Aunts shudder at the thought of me doing anything by myself. What if I want to walk thirty minutes to their house by myself? It’s unacceptable. What if I want to walk ten minutes to a larger grocery store? It’s too dangerous. What if I want to wait fifteen minutes for Alvaro at a nearby Starbucks? Again, too dangerous, I am to wait in the car with them. Just as I have begun to overcome my fears of this strange, scary city, his Aunts jump in and tell me that what seems perfectly safe to me is simply, “too dangerous”. Even when I am feeling brave enough to embrace my independence, it is strictly forbidden.

If one more person tells me to “be patient, it will all work out,” I just might lose my mind. From what I have learned so far about Peru, being patient provides zero promises.

Attitude Switcheroo

I have been feeling pretty defeated lately. I don’t want to stay at my current job. Besides the meagerly low pay, good employee relations seems to be low on their priority list and my schedule changes every day. As I have been looking for other employment opportunities, I have been increasingly frustrated because my Spanish simply isn’t good enough to work in a Spanish speaking environment-yet. I am getting sick of my pity party so surely dear Alvaro, the most patient boy I know, is too.

The more I research grad schools, museum internships and galleries in Lima, the more I realize that what I really, really want is to work in a museum. Teaching English is a means to an end and I am fortunate to have any job, but as I look towards my future, I want to be in museums. When thinking long term about my resume and strategic career moves, I have realized that being able to say that I worked at a museum in Lima, would be memorable. I can’t do that, however, if I don’t speak Spanish. So I have set attainable goals. I want to be fluent in Spanish by October of this year. In October, the US Embassy Association puts together an art exhibition featuring hundreds of Peruvian artists. This charitable show is a huge success every year and I have already requested to be on the volunteer list. By October, when I am surrounded by hundreds of artists and gallery owners and art dealers, I hope that my Spanish will be good enough to network and land a job/internship in a gallery. That’s the plan.

In order to make this happen, I am starting to work on my Spanish today. I am no longer going to say, “I will work on my Spanish when I get a tutor.” or “I will work on my Spanish when I get a job.” or my favorite “I will work on my Spanish when it rains in Lima.” (because that last one will never happen). I will work on my Spanish right now. Which means for the next several days I am going to spend most of my day at Alvaro’s grandfather’s house, surrounded by his mom and three Aunts. There’s no better way to immerse myself in the language than with four Peruvian sisters who talk wwaaayyy to fast. But it’s safe there and I know that they love me. When I have blank stare on my face they laugh, take a seat and try to tell me again.

Another terrific (though slightly less honorable) reason to work on my Spanish is because of Javier, Cecilia’s boyfriend. When I eat meals at Alvaro’s parent’s house most times his parents will say, “Let Meghan tell the story,” in a very sweet gesture that shows me they will be patient with my butchered Spanish. Every time Javier has joined us for a meal and someone says, “Let Meghan tell the story,” he has to add “En Español...” Even just writing that, I can see the little smile on his face and it makes me want to retaliate. Every time he says that I start to cringe and have to stop myself from releasing a few sentences of witty English remarks that he probably wouldn’t understand. I start thinking, “Yes, Javier, in Spanish. Why would I tell a story in English to a table of Spanish speakers? Isn’t that obvious? I don’t need your commentary, it’s insulting.” Instead I look the other way and very calmly tell my story in terrible Spanish. Each time it makes me feel like he won in this little unspoken game. So now,  I have another Spanish goal, to be able to respond to Javier the next time he says with a smirk, “En Español...”

“Sí, Javier, obvio en español. How about you come to the States and we play this game on my turf.”

Take that. Meghan: 1, Javier: 0.

The Grammys Cure

The greatest thing I have learned so far: I need a routine. Without a routine or a schedule my productivity (and attitude) seriously plummets. Unfortunately, I have endured the last 101 days with absolutely no routine. My visa is taking forever, my privates students are unreliable and the glimmer of light- a yoga studio- has mysteriously not opened. My days consist of blogging, reading blogs, reading novels, watching Bones with Spanish subtitles (I am now addicted), searching for recipes, making these recipes, thinking about cleaning and the occasional walk around the block. The multi-tasker, type A personality in me is going crazy.

Everyone (well, mainly Alvaro’s mom) is telling me to be patient. Be patient and things will get better. There’s only so long you can tell yourself to be patient. And when every seemingly good opportunity goes awry, it’s hard not to lose hope. This is how I was feeling yesterday.

I was miserably homesick. I yearned for the winter, my friends, Mexican comfort food, a job, the YMCA, my car, my parents’ warm home, Target, roommates, recycling centers, libraries and washing machines. Generally speaking, I am out of touch with American culture happenings but thanks to Lady Gaga’s egg performance (I never thought I would be thankful for that) and CNN’s live coverage of her strangeness, I realized, “The Grammys! Tonight! America!” I wasn’t sure that my TV would air the show, because only very big events are transmitted live, most everything else is a day or two late. My Peruvian cable provider, Cable Mágico, thought that the Grammys were big enough and they were live.

In the States, I rarely watched big award shows like the Grammys or the Oscars. Mostly because my Sunday nights were reserved for Phi Mu meetings and homework. Every award season I had big plans of finishing my homework early so that I could watch the red carpet guilt free, but that just doesn’t happen in a busy college girl’s schedule. Since in Peru I don’t have a schedule, I watched the show guilt free. If I ignored the Spanish overdub, focused really hard on the English and didn’t look at the buses driving by my apartment, I could pretend that I was in the United States.

For those few short hours, the Grammys cured my homesickness. I could pretend like all the celebrities were my friends. Nicole Kidman- I saw her at Bongo Java! Dierks Bentley- I met him! Martina McBride- She shops at Banana Republic! I grabbed on to every connection I could find, anything to let me experience some of the Americanness that I so desperately missed. I didn’t recognize some of the performers or winners and thought, “Have I really been out the States for that long?” Thankfully, the blogging world told me that I wasn’t alone: Esperanza who? I followed Facebook and Twitter feeds to soak up every bit of American commentary I could get my hands on.

Now I am post- Grammys. It’s another week in Lima and since all my students are “too busy” my schedule consists of the above mentioned activities with a Valentine’s date and coffee with a friend thrown into the mix. How long until the Oscars?

Peruvian Food

In all of my travels, I have never before been in a city that takes such pride in their food. And Limeans aren’t the only ones noticing the terrific variety of tastes available in Lima, but Food & Wine magazine recently named Lima one of the Three Food Cities to Watch.

Lima sits on the coast of Peru and receives a cold water current that provides delicious fresh fish. Seafood restaurants are scattered throughout Lima, serving dishes such as rice and mixed seafood, fried fish with potatoes and the Peruvian icon ceviche. Traditionally, ceviche is made of raw fish, onions and peppers that then “cooks” in lime juice. A true ceviche is also served with corn and a side of sweet potatoes to help cut the tartness of the fish. Though the raw fish can be unsettling, I have never before had such a light, crisp meal of a hot summer day.

Peru is almost twice the size of Texas and within its boarders contains three distinct climates: the coast, the Andes and the Amazon. Not only does this make for breathtaking sightseeing, one can visit the ocean, endless sand dunes, giant mountains and a lush jungle, all in one country, these different climates also create an array of unique produce. One small part of this variety is that Peru is home to over 400 different varieties of potatoes, which explains why potatoes of all sorts show up in almost every traditional Peruvian meal. Young Peruvian chefs are experimenting with flavors from different climates in order to give Peruvian food a truly unique taste.

When people ask me how I am adjusting to my new life in Lima, I usually respond by telling them that I like the food. This answer then garners a very excited, “Yes, the food! The food is wonderful!” They then go on to ask if I have tried a variety of Peruvian dishes for example: antichucos (cow heart, yes I’ve tried it but now if I eat it with every bite all I can think of is: “heart, heart, heart, heart, heart”), cuy (guinea pig, I won’t be trying this), lomo saltado (beef with onions, pepper and tomatoes in soy sauce, my favorite!) and the list goes on and on. Peruvians have a national pride when it comes to their food and now this reputation has become international.

Over the past few years, several magazines and new organizations have announced that Peru is a new hot spot for “gastronomical tourism,” a fancy term to say “tourism based on food”. Nearly every tour organization has some sort of tour package that brings tourists to the best restaurants in the city, all the way from a five star restaurant down to a hole-in-wall with the best potatoes. When in Peru, there is no shortage of amazing dishes which could keep these foodie tourists occupied for weeks.

The only warning is this: with rice and potatoes served during traditional meals, everyone needs to watch out for the Peruvian 15.

Traveling Abroad

Last week while perusing CNN.com, my eyes caught the title Why More Americans Don’t Travel Abroad. The opening paragraph states that only 30% on Americans have a passport, a statistic that startled me. The article makes several wide sweeping assumptions about Americans and our to-travel-or-not-to-travel culture. Not all of those assumptions are entirely correct, I think that the American travel culture is much more complicated than the four bullet points laid out by the author. He does, however, provide a few valid insights into why Americans stay near the amber waves of grain.

When I was ten years old, I took ten days off from my fifth grade classroom and embarked on a trip to London with my dad. It was very important to my parents that myself and two siblings grow up with an attitude that is very welcoming to international travel. My dad took each of us to London around our tenth birthday. Not only was this a memorable trip to celebrate finally reaching the years of double digits, but moreso, it was to teach us to not be afraid of travel. As part of the trip, before the end of the week, I was solely responsible for the plans of that day. My dad asked me to pick out what sites I wanted to see, what restaurants we would go to and also what Underground stops we would need to use. I had complete control of that day and even if I were to chose the wrong Underground stop, my dad wouldn’t say anything. For him, it was all about learning how to navigate another city.

After high school I accompanied my dad on a ten day mission trip he was leading to Warsaw, Poland. This was my first venture to a country that didn’t speak English and I learned how to cope with a new level of travel difficulties. I was the youngest member of the team, by at least fifteen years. The day before our flight back to the United States, my dad had a serious issue with his contacts. By the time we arrived at the Amsterdam airport for our connection, he could barely open his eyes. He then entrusted me, his eighteen year old daughter, with the responsibility of finding a pharmacy and directing our twenty member team to our new gate.

In the Spring of 2009, I left to study in Germany. This was my first big trip without my parents. Three girls from my university were going with me so I wasn’t entirely alone. It wasn’t until several months into my time there that I began my solo traveling. My dad encouraged me to skip class (coming from a professor?) and said that the real advantage of being in Germany was to travel to the surrounding countries. I took several solo trips: Bern (Switzerland), Berlin & Hildesheim (Germany) and then to Prague, London and Paris (I traveled alone but met friends in each of these cities). I know that my dad was worried about me, but his constant encouragement was, “This is why I took you to London, so you would do something like this.”

In my Senior year of college, like most soon-to-be graduates, I was struggling with what I wanted to do with the next few years of my life. I wasn’t quite ready to go to graduate school and working in retail lost its appeal long ago. Traveling abroad seemed like the only logical option. My whole life has been centered around being encouraged to leave home, see the world, and experience new cultures, so this type of transition seemed very natural to me.

One thing that I think the article does well, is emphasize that the United States is a country focused on working. Our students incur thousands of dollars worth of student loans simply to get an education worthy enough to land them a job that will pay well enough to pay back the loans that got them there in the first place. We become grown-ups at age 22 and then enter into the lives that we will lead for the next six decades: work, marriage, mortgages, and children. When I tell my international friends that more than a dozen of my college peers have gotten married, they can’t believe it. For most European and Latin American cultures that I have encountered, marriage isn’t even a possibility until one nears the end of their 20s.

And our employees receive minimal vacation time, hindering their freedom to take a couple of weeks for an extended trip. When you are given a meager two weeks for vacation per year, a trip to Europe is out of the question. Who wants to spend 2-3 of their precious vacation days stuck in airports?

Though I knew this before, reading the above article made me even more grateful for the opportunities my parents have given me. My love for travel and language and new cultures can only be attributed to their constant encouragement from the time I was a little girl. Even though my passion takes me thousands of miles away from my home, they have always been encouraging and never once hesitated in their support. Perhaps most importantly, they have graciously given me the freedom to leave my American life and build one in another country. I consider it a great gift that I am not carrying the burden of student loans nor the pressure to find a job. That is one of the sweetest gifts they could have ever given me.

When I read that only 30% of my fellow Americans hold a passport, I am reminded that what comes natural to me, doesn’t necessarily come natural to everyone else. It makes me thankful that I am able to experience something like this and shows me that it really is my parents who made all this possible.

Super Bowl XLV

My non-American boyfriend is more obsessed with American football than any of my previous American boyfriends. For Alvaro, Super Bowl Sunday is better than Christmas morning.

All season long he painstakingly listened to various podcasts, advising him of the best picks for his fantasy team, the Peruvian Guinea Pigs. I listened intently and learned the ins and outs of fantasy football. For the first time in my entire life, I can name several football players, what team they play for and what position they’re in. I now know the specifics of a pass complete and that once a knee hits the ground, the play is over. Previously all I knew about football was “ten yards in four downs” but now I have graduated to the über-cool, supportive, football watching girlfriend. Now that’s true love.

Unfortunately, NFL.com isn’t able to ship gear fast enough to Peru and desperate times call for desperate measures. In order for my dear boyfriend to have his true Super Bowl experience, I used my sorority girl crafting skills to make two jerseys supporting Alvaro’s beloved Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers was the Quarterback for the Guinea Pigs this past season so our Super Bowl loyalties were strong. During our adventure to find all the supplies needed to make the jerseys, we came across yellow construction hats. Alvaro quickly picked out two and said they were to be our helmets, we adorned them with the Green Bay Packers logo and just like that, our outfits were set.

A couple of Steeler’s fans (um, I mean friends) joined us for our Super Bowl fiesta. Typically we order pizza from a Peruvian chain but since it was the Super Bowl, Alvaro insisted that we order from Papa John’s as he yelled: “it’s the official sponsor of the NFL!” I whipped together these wonderful Baked Southwestern Egg Rolls and we enjoyed the game with crisp, cool Peruvian beers.

Thankfully, Aaron Rodgers and his Green Bay Packers came out victorious, otherwise dear Alvaro would have been sulking until next season’s draft. Our Steeler friends accepted their loss with grace and even adorned our construction hat helmets for a photo op. Thanks for the win, Rodgers, see you next year!

Bag Boys

The bag boys at Wong, one of the largest supermarket chains in Lima, are unlike anything I have ever seen before. And they are just boys. For some reason, Wong has distributed its employees into very specific roles based on their gender. All cashiers are female and all baggers are male.

Wong prides itself on its superior customer service. In fact, their motto is “Where shopping is a pleasure.” Sound familiar to anyone? Like its American cousin, Wong employees are there to serve your every need. They go to great lengths to direct you towards the product you are looking for and are always willing to answer your most absurd questions.

At the checkout line, a female cashier wearing an ensemble consisting of red and white (which happen to be the colors of the Peruvian flag), scans the items. What I find most interesting about the cashiers’ outfits is that it immediately tell their position within the company. Cashiers wear white shirts with a red collar and black pants. Their hair is slicked back into a ballerina bun and wrapped around the bun is a red knit scrunchie, circa 1994. In addition to the cashiers, there are other women walking around in slightly different uniforms. They wear red shirts with a grey collar, black pants and the same ballerina hairdo but with a grey knit scrunchie. These women, from what I can gather, hold a title similar to supervisor because if there ever is a problem, they come over to fix it. Alvaro has been shopping at Wong since his was a bebé and claims that he never noticed the difference in the womens’ uniforms. I think four years of retail work is to blame for my overly observant eye for clothing.

Eleven months out of the year, the bag boys wear a very simple red, button down shirt and a red hat. In July, however, they wear a fabulous outfit to commemorate Peru’s independence, celebrated every year on July 28th. The picture above was taken on my trip in July and the bag boy is wearing a traditional Peruvian poncho and hat, a style typically found in the Peruvian highlands. For the whole month of July, the bag boys wear this ensemble in an obvious display of Peruvian pride. I absolutely love it.

What makes these baggers different from those of Publix, is that at Wong they will take your groceries all the way to your home. Most costumers walk to the supermarket and the bag boys will then walk home with the client, even going up the elevator and into the customer’s apartment. While driving through Lima, I have seen these bag boys in their bright red uniform, pushing their iconic grey cart walking down the street and sometimes they are eight, nine or even ten blocks from the closest Wong. This is why I think that the separation of the genders into pre-prescribed roles is more of an issue of safety rather than discrimination. It simply wouldn’t be wise for a woman to be in that sort of role.

It makes me wonder: Do the bag boys at Wong take a detour on their way back to the store? In my days at Banana Republic, when my friend Megan and I needed to run an errand within the mall, we almost always grabbed our debit cards for a stop at Starbucks on the way back. After all, happy employees means happy customers.