Grande Araña, EEK!!

Despite being an avowed arachnaphobe I’ve lived a relatively sheltered life in the New York suburbs. I have only witnessed the likes of tarantulas or wolf spiders in the glass cases of a tame place like Petco or the local zoo.

A few weeks ago while walking along a dirt footpath outside of town with a friend I witnessed my first tarantula “in the wild.” I grabbed her, peeking from behind her shoulder and yelling a number of English expletives as it crossed our path, alerting anyone within a five mile radius to the presence of a hysterical gringa. I was in such a lather that I couldn’t put my finger on why it looked so strange until my friend called my attention to the wasp that was dragging the tarantula along. It was, in fact, immobile. When I got home I looked up what we saw and was morbidly fascinated and absolutely repulsed by what Wikipedia states happened next:

The female tarantula hawk captures, stings, and paralyzes the spider, then either drags her prey back into her own burrow or transports it to a specially prepared nest, where a single egg is laid on the spider’s body, and the entrance is covered. When the wasp larva hatches, it rips a small hole in the spider’s abdomen, then plunges into the spider’s belly and feeds voraciously, avoiding vital organs for as long as possible to keep it fresh. After several weeks, the larva pupates. Finally, the wasp becomes an adult, and tears open the spider’s belly to get out. The wasp emerges from the nest to continue the life cycle.

Arco Iris

I think the above description now calls for a picture of a rainbow. It was a double rainbow, with another to the right of it. A beautiful rainy season day.

So. Despite the looming knowledge that huge spiders exist in Peru I’ve done my best to pretend otherwise. The spiders that congregate around the door to my house generally freak me out, but they tend to be New York suburban size. Until today.

I returned to the house this morning only to notice a spider the size of my fist (and from tortured research I’ve done in the past looked to be a wolf spider) on the top door frame. One of its legs was stuck in the door, and I can only imagine, in true trauma producing form, that I failed to see it when I left my house a half hour before and upon slamming the door prevented it from falling on my head. If it had indeed fallen on me I think I would have needed a year of therapy. Hoping the spider’s immobility indicated that it was dead (I was dimly aware of the lack of logic here – dead spiders don’t just appear out of nowhere and then continue to hang out on one’s door.) I carefully unlocked the door and then aimed a kick at it to see what would happen. The spider stirred, at which point I screamed and ran across the street. There were Peruanos walking towards me who looked utterly bewildered at this display. That had to be silly Gringa moment #3752.

I had things to do and I needed to get in the house, or get on with my day. The little courage I mustered in having convinced myself the spider was dead now gone, I camped across the street to watch the door swing on its hinges and see the thing stir occasionally. There was no way I was going to remedy this situation with such a creature lying in wait to eat my face. I had a friend on the phone, but I find that my ability to speak my broken Spanish is all but dashed in stressful situations – I finally managed to yell something like “*MUCHA ARANA EN LA PUERTA NO PUEDO IR A MI CASA!!” (I was trying to say – big spider on my door, I can’t go in my house!) and then send a frantic all-in-caps text “MUCHA ARANA NO ES CHISTOSO NECESITO AYUDARME” (BIG SPIDER, IT’S NOT FUNNY, I NEED HELP).

Finally after a panicked run through of people I might get to help me, (said friend was 40 minutes away – I WOULD HAVE WAITED if I needed to) I called my landlady. I must ponder for a moment the virtues of being friends with one’s landlady – and even though I know that to most people this would be utterly ridiculous, I simply could not deal with a spider the size of my fist. Luckily she was quite close and appeared around the corner in a matter of moments. To my satisfaction, she agreed with my estimation of it’s size – HUGE – and after an unsuccessful attempt to reach her partner, took off her shoe and battered the thing to death as I continued to cower against the wall across the street (yes, I checked for spiders first).

I am still utterly bewildered as to why the spider ended up on my door when there are so many in Urubamba to choose from. When I got home tonight there was a small spider running across the tiles – I suppose as a form of therapy, I took out my rage my stomping on it as hard as I could – only to miss, resulting in it frantically running up my shoe. More stomping to dislodge it ensued. This is exactly why I don’t go for the larger cousins myself….

* Mucho/Mucha actually means something like “a lot.” My friend declared he would come to my house and kill all the spiders for me, and while I thought this sweet I was confused as to what prompted this, until I realized I had been using “mucha” all along: a broken version of “muchas arañas” – a lot of spider.

Short Update

Aside

Given I haven’t been posting to the blog nearly as much as I’d like I’ll be using some of the different features that enable me to provide short updates. My general goal has been to post something once a week, but it’s been rather difficult to accomplish. In the meantime, look for shorter updates that indicate I’m generally alive! I do have a lot of different things in the works and I hope to get something out soon. At the moment I’m doing my best to recover from 3 weeks of cold/flu/food poisoning.

Vignettes on Adjusting

It’s hard to believe I’ve been here for a little over a month. It feels like much longer, while at the same time I am still adjusting and experiencing new things everyday. One thing that has come as a relief with the shock of new experiences is that homesickness has almost completely abated. I’m truly enjoying my time here and despite difficulties that made me want to take the next plane home a few weeks ago, I like Peru more every day. I intend to write more on that, but in the meantime this post has been sitting in my draft box. The following are some interesting things that I’ve had to or am still getting used to.

Sunset in Urubamba

Sunset in Urubamba

Trash pickup: Elsewhere it might be unremarkable. Here, on my first morning living in town I was mystified by the blaring music that came closer and closer at 6am. I thought for certain I was in for a parade passing under my window. So of course it was a “WTF” moment when the garbage truck pulled up, blasting music out loudspeakers. It turns out that trash is not something you can put out the night before because of the dogs that roam the town – they tear it apart in search of an evening meal, strewing trash all over (I have seen it, and to my utter embarrassment it turned out to be housemates who put the trash out….). The garbage truck plays music to wake people up so they can put the trash out before its arrival. This seems laughable to me, as the three times I pondered rushing to the door to get my garbage out for the truck I decided hell would freeze over before I made it and rolled over to go back to sleep. I’m sure there was some heavy bias clouding those decisions. I really like the song they play too. It might be a shame that I’ll always think of it as “the garbage truck music.”

Aloe

People in the U.S. carve silly stuff into trees. People in Peru carve them into... aloe plants? I admit it, I was charmed. (Translations: I love you Luzero and You know that I love you.)

It’s 6AM, and I really have to pee: I totter downstairs to the shared bathroom, barely awake when I notice something relatively large on the ceiling just before the bathroom door. I think I should probably pay attention just for a moment only to realize I’m getting my first real life glimpse of a scorpion in the “wild.” I grab a broom and think to sweep it off the ceiling so I can bash it on the ground but this plan seems rather fraught with possible things gone wrong. I opt to wake up the Colombian housemate, who rather smartly crushes it on the ceiling from ten feet away with the broom handle…. Gringa moment #296.

Peruvian Girls

Yes, I got a bad, blurry picture of the scorpion. I present a picture of cute little Peruvian girls instead.

Comfort food: If french fries were a rarity in Peru I might be pining for them now. But given the pounds of lettuce I must consume on a yearly basis and its penchant for being extra microbial, it has become the holy grail. It was a moment of personal triumph when I found balsamic vinegar in a Cuzco supermarket. I’d been daydreaming about salad, which is a serious culinary affair back home. So, upon deciding with sheer stubborn will that I would purchase the ingredients and make myself a salad, ingredients I threw together back home in 20 minutes became part of a paranoid fixation in an elaborate hour long process of washing and rewashing to insure I wouldn’t get sick. Luckily, it worked – I had a really good salad and I didn’t get sick. On the other hand, I don’t appreciate the sudden intense fear of (extra) foreign bodies and their potential ill effects.

Salad

A salad from the vegetarian place on the top floor of the market - they make some of the best salads I've ever had, and I must have been too intent on eating it to choose a proper focus point....

More on pee: I went to a local restaurant the other day and there was a dog wandering around under the tables foraging for scraps. I have to say, I was somewhat delighted and when he came by sniffing my bag I reached down to pet him. Then I realized he was poised to pee, which was a big “oh crap” moment but if he was angling for the bag he missed. Instead, there was a neat little puddle of pee left on the cement floor of the restaurant. Half shocked, I continued to eat and reflected on how hilarious it was as the more astonished part of my brain jabbered on about health standards and this and that and blahcleanlinessblahbacteriablah.

Meat Market

Meat Market: The corner of the market in Urubamba that is dedicated to meat stalls.

Día de Mercado (Market Day)

So, I am sitting here sipping hot chocolate that I made from the 100% Cacao bar I bought from the market. It’s cool tonight, which means I’m cold given there’s no heat but luckily the hot chocolate has done the trick of warming me up. I’ve been thinking a lot about the market lately. Despite my short time here, memories that I enjoy thinking about have come out of the place already.

I love the market in Urubamba and I’m lucky to live only a block away from it. While it is open everyday with the same cohort of vendors, people come from the jungle three times a week to line the streets outside the building with all kinds of produce. I’ve been pondering why I like it so much when a trip to the supermarket at home is often conducted at as rushed a pace as possible and if not completely avoided, met with dread. My answer surprises me – markets here are a distinctly human experience. Sometimes this isn’t necessarily good, but on the whole I’ve found that my interactions in Peru have been wonderful and inspiring. Whereas at home I go to the store in the morning or at night to avoid the crowds and lines, fiercely disliking having to deal with the crush of people going about their individual business, I truly relish the prospect of a market trip here.

Scenes from the Market

Scenes from the Market - Note the woman with the top hat and dress with slightly bustled skirt, a traditional indigenous Quechua style around here.

My first trip to the market with the intent to buy something was very intimidating. With only a smattering of Spanish words and a large list of things I wanted to get (with their Spanish names as well) I wandered around, not sure where to try my luck first. While peering at an item with brow furrowing concentration, trying to figure out if I had finally found plastic garbage bags, a child boldly exclaimed about my camera.

I knelt down to show it to him and he asked me questions about it, miming in a natural fashion when he realized I didn’t understand Spanish. While I’m growing used to seeing children in the States perfectly comfortable with technology given the ubiquity of handheld devices, I have to admit I was surprised by the intuitive understanding the boy had for the way the camera worked given electronics are not as common here. I let him snap a number of pictures of his friends, bewildered looking shoppers and a rather cantankerous old woman merchant who yelled at me, miming that we were blocking the way.

One of the boy's pictures of his friend. Seems he caught the woman's evil eye instead, which makes me cringe everytime I see it!

One of the boy's pictures of his friend. Seems he caught the woman's evil eye instead, which makes me cringe everytime I see it!

I snapped a picture of him and his friends, because how could I not?? They were adorable and I really appreciated the way that the boy approached me. Rather than look at me from afar as something of an oddity he made me feel welcome and part of the place with his interest in my camera and his easy way of communicating. I have been growing ever more conscious of people’s reactions to me as Caucasians are on the whole tourists in this area and are not found in the more “pedestrian” parts of the town. It’s really my first time living in a situation like this and it’s providing a new perspective.

    The boy on the right hand side, pulling up his friend's hat is the one who approached me!

The boy on the right hand side, pulling up his friend's hat is the one who approached me!

Girl

Girl

Sooooo, yesterday I went back to the market with another huge list of things to get – I figured it would be much easier given my command of Spanish is better and I’ve been back there several times since. I still found it to be an incredibly overwhelming place and once again had no idea where to start. But one woman had caught my attention last time and I had taken a picture of her beautiful lettuce piles (below) so I decided to purchase from her specifically – she selected her best ones and exclaimed “muy bonita” (very pretty). We then carried on a 5 minute “conversation” in which she asked me where I’m from and I struggled to tell her I had been here three weeks and would be staying for six months. She told me she has a daughter living in Florida and I told her I had a Peruvian friend from Arequipa (a city Southwest of us) there as well. She was kind enough to speak slowly for me and correct my pronunciation and verb tenses as I responded to her. Thanks to many interactions like these I am becoming somewhat better at speaking, though I still have a lot of trouble picking up what people are saying!! I’m intensely grateful that people have been patient enough to interact with and correct me. On the whole, communicating with people here has been very positive.

I was captivated by the bright piles of lettuce and the woman's indigenous Quechuan hairstyle - 2 braids tied together at the bottom.

I was captivated by the bright piles of lettuce and the woman's indigenous Quechuan hairstyle - 2 braids tied together at the bottom.

Culture Shock – Urubamba, Week 2

Urubamba: The view from my Window

Urubamba: The view from my window. I know that to some people it might not be the prettiest, but *I* enjoy it.

One of the things I really enjoy so far about Urubamba is the ability to walk anywhere I need to go within the span of a few minutes – whether it’s to the school, the market, to get something to eat or to run an errand. This is also something I loved about Hong Kong – the efficient subway system and the ability to walk anywhere once in the district of choice.

It seems counter intuitive that one would feel such freedom when using public transportation or walking as opposed to using one’s own car to get places, but I’ve come to learn that I really dislike car culture. I think that the very reliance on cars in the United States is predicated in part due to strong beliefs about individualism and self-determination. Hence, the “right” to ownership extends to such things as cars and consequently we’ve built a society centered around them. As a result, not only is access to public transportation severely limited (95% being concentrated in the NY Metro area), but it is also not a priority when it comes to policy and improvement.

But enough with that tangent!!! There have been a number of big and little things I’ve needed to learn about day to day life here – from the best way to get a hot shower (trickles!!!), learning the basic things I need to say to anyone when going about my business (getting easier with each day), how to make toast without an oven or a toaster (frying pan), trying to figure out if the yogurt I just bought should have been refrigerated in the shop (Yes, it should have been, I ate it anyway.). I bought a bottle of vinegar this morning and I have no idea how to open it. I bought an avocado yesterday and had no idea how to tell the man that I prefer to eat them before they’re ripe and just bought the one he insisted on (nicely) instead. Things like this are utterly bewildering and somewhat of a mind trip; one wouldn’t give a second thought to them at home, and yet I’m sitting at the table tonight trying to figure out how to open a bottle and was unable to do so (I violated my rule of not using stuff that isn’t mine and went for the already opened one).

What do they do if the water is not safe to drink?

Given the tap water remains unsafe to drink I wonder what it is that they do exactly. Though I suppose there are a number of angles to sanitation.

Today I went about my daily shopping, which probably took all of 20 minutes, got back home to make something to eat and could not find matches or a lighter anywhere in order to light the stove… In utter frustration, I tried to figure out if there was a “creative” way that I was overlooking and realized yeah, no – matches or a lighter are non-negotiable.

So, it seemed a visit to the market down the street was in order. Again, faced with another situation that seemed utterly astonishing given how ordinary, yet not: I had no idea what kind of shop might sell matches or where I might find them, so I decided to bring a used match with me to show and ask shopkeepers directly “Tiene?” (Tee-eh-nay – Do you have…?) And in addition, rather than falling back on my Spanish dictionary it forced me to ask “Como se dise?” (Como say dee-say – How do you say…?) to learn the words for match and lighter (Lighter is “encendador”, but even after the shopkeeper said it twice I still couldn’t catch the word for matches.). I picked up a bunch of other things I thought I might need, and I know that being here is really changing the way I think when I balk at 1 kilo of sugar for 3 soles (1 dollar) because it seems too expensive to me.

I bought it to go along with the 100% Cacao bar (2 soles – 66 cents) I got the other day – thinking it was dark chocolate, I’m lucky to have been warned beforehand by my neighbor that there’s no sugar in it!! I took a test nibble and it’s the most bitter thing I’ve ever tasted. Apparently you melt it in boiling water and then add sugar and milk for hot chocolate. I figure it will be a nice way to keep warm, especially now that I’ve begun knitting again at night.

To some extent it’s fascinating that such familiar things can be so different from one place to another. It’s definitely forced me out of my comfort zone and I can appreciate that to some degree. It’s amazing to be put in these situations that are so familiar, and yet are so different by the slightest change of say, a bottle cap.

Life in the Sacred Valley – Week 1

The Sacred Valley

The Sacred Valley

I promised myself that I wouldn´t be writing ridiculously long posts with minutiae about my travels, but alas, I just did.

While this is not a substitute for one on one communication, a lot of people have been asking me the same questions about Peru so I wrote a run down of some of the basics here. Sporadically visiting internet cafes isn’t all that conducive to the way I write, so admittedly it’s been somewhat difficult to sit down and get this going. I expected to be so distracted by the change of scenery in Peru that I’d have no time to reflect on the more difficult aspects of living in a foreign country. This is how I felt in Hong Kong, though my short time here has made me realize that even with all the difference between Hong Kong and New York, the two are still very similar given the easy access to modern amenities (well, at least for a privileged foreigner).

Both language and the lack of access to modern amenities have been the most frustrating, daunting part of my stay so far. Immediately upon arriving in Colombia for an overnight layover I ran smack into the language barrier. People would speak to me in Spanish and I would be at an utter loss – their blank, somewhat unfriendly looks in response only made it worse. This continued throughout my trip down to Cusco, and to some extent I began trying to avoid those situations. It definitely allowed me to gain a new perspective about immigrants who come to the US and don’t know English!! It was completely daunting and somewhat scary.

Despite that, now that I’ve been here a week, have begun Spanish classes and am studying on my own I’m becoming much more confident about my ability to communicate and learn the language. Learning Spanish while being immersed is an incredible experience – it’s so much different than sitting in a classroom day after day without the benefit of using it in every day life. It’s gratifying and exciting to see my knowledge of something with so practical a use expand daily. In addition, it’s pretty amusing that as I study Spanish my French is resurfacing… I hunt for how to say things in Spanish and come up with the French instead – I would hope that seven years of endless drilling wasn’t for naught!

As for the weather, a typical day in Urubamba seems to be a roller-coaster of temperatures. I expected to be basking in sunny warmth during my time in Peru, but that’s not really the case. The mornings are chilly though they tend to start out sunny. As the day goes on, it gets warmer and warmer and you regret the way you bundled up to go outside. Yet if you’re inside in the shade, the chill remains – there doesn’t seem to be any sort of heat or AC in the houses. About mid afternoon the clouds roll in and it rains for a bit of time, becoming chilly again. But wait!! It will probably be sunny and warm again before night falls, but will get progressively colder. Nights are cold. It’s normal for me to huddle under 5 blankets and still be freezing, but I’m also pretty sensitive to cold weather…

A typical street in Urubamba

A typical street in Urubamba

Compound chilly weather with the lack of hot water and ohhh my… the aforementioned lack of modern amenities: I have a sink full of dirty dishes from this morning’s breakfast because I can’t bring myself to suffer cold hands for the next few hours due to the icy cold water. The showers have electric showerheads that supposedly heat up the water as it goes through. Yeah, no. You might get some lukewarm water if you’re lucky but this is generally cold to me anyway. You have to throw out the toilet paper you use because the infrastructure can’t handle it – while I’m happy to have the use of toilets, I was stunned when I was first told that!

Transportation is rather sketchy, though I’m getting used to it everyday. Not sure if that´s such a good thing! On my arrival, the bus ride from Cusco to Urubamba featured a move that happens to be quite common – the driver cut into the opposite lane (seems double lines don´t matter here) to pass a slower moving vehicle and I gulped to see a truck coming at us in the other lane. There are only a few lights in Urubamba from what I’ve seen so far, directing traffic around the main square and no stop signs. Most of the streets are one way and when getting to an intersection a vehicle will honk to indicate it will be coming through. I guess it works, but I have to admit I hold my breath every time I’m in a vehicle that is speeding through an intersection. A popular way of going a short distance is to hail a moto-taxi, which is a motorcycle with a tent like seating area on the back of it. Buses are voluminous, though they are actually minivans and station wagons. The tourist vans and buses seem much more posh, so not to worry if you’re planning a trip.

Plaza de Armas and Moto Taxis

Plaza de Armas and Moto Taxis: I get amused when I see the batman symbol moto taxis.

I’m really happy and pleasantly surprised to say that the food is very good here, which is completely different from my experience in Hong Kong. There is a bakery on my block that makes wonderful croissants and Ciabatta bread (4 for 1 sole = 33 cents). I love croissants and it’s a habit to eat them wherever I can back home to see if I can find good ones (almost never). I came across a woman at the organic market today and came away with a haul of homemade: peanut butter, pecan nutella (I wouldn’t have taken a second look if not for the PECAN part.) annnnd passionfruit jam (oh passionfruit, how I love thee) for 40 soles ($12 USD).

Generally I’m really enjoying my time here. I can’t say I don’t get hit with homesickness – like when I’m trying to wash dishes in ice cold water, at a loss for something to drink because the tap water isn’t safe (You can buy bottled water but I keep saying I’m going to boil a pot so I don’t go accumulating plastic waste.), trying to figure out if the cheese I bought is still okay due to the refrigeration being so unreliable, or pecking at a Spanish keyboard in a dark internet cafe and totally cranky about it. It’s really when I’m wrestling with these new ways of living more than anything that I wish I were back in my comfort zone.

Peru: Ear to the Ground

Life has taken an unexpected but quite welcome turn for me. I’ll be spending the next three to six months in Peru teaching adults English for the purpose of expanding their job opportunities while I learn Spanish for much the same reason: ideally so that I can work with immigrants upon my return!  The school is El Arte Sano and I will be living in Urubamba, which is in the Sacred Valley below Machu Picchu and an hour outside of Cuzco, a major Peruvian city. Central and South America have long fascinated me due to the intersecting issues of human rights and economics. Both have had an impact on the regions quite deeply. I am SO EXCITED!!!

During the past few weeks I’ve been reading whatever I can about Peru and have teased out at least a couple of topics I’d like to keep an eye on while there:

  • A friend was kind enough to point me to a law Peru’s president signed regarding indigenous rights and natural resources: Indigenous people must be consulted before natural resource deals proceed on their land. I’ll definitely be following developments about this.
  • While the US has initiated Coca eradication programs it has not stemmed the flow of Cocaine. On the other hand, it has disrupted Peruvian indigenous life in which Coca leaves play an integral part in the culture.
  • Language and colonization: The indigenous language of Peru is Quechua (Keh-choo-uh) and for some it remains their first and only language. I was dismayed to read that Spanish has been used as a method of control in much the same way that illiteracy has been used to keep people from voting in the United States.
  • The influx of tourism is resulting in the degradation of native arts and crafts. The global demand for cheap goods results in the use of lesser quality materials for things such as textiles so that local artisans can compete.

Last but not least: Martin Chambi, a Peruvian photographer in the 1920s, was quite taken with Machu Picchu and took over a thousand photographs of the ruins. Quite a feat in itself, it’s important to remember that photographic equipment was heavy, large and fragile in those times and there wasn’t the regular bus service or roads to Machu Picchu that there are today!!

Martin Chambi: Cuzco's Plaza de Arms

Martin Chambi: Cuzco's Plaza de Arms (The main square)

He gained quite the notoriety with the Cuzco elite and began to receive funding and commissions. One of these Cuzquenas was a socialite who required that he bring she and her thirty or so friends along, complete with a group of musicians:

Chambi amused himself with the bright young things of Cuzco, many of whom had never been in the mountains before, by killing snakes with his machete for dramatic effect. A photo survives of the party when they finally arrived at the ruins: the musicians play in the background as couples tea-dance in the overgrown and deserted buildings. It is an intensely romantic and unreal image. But this is perhaps the most distinguishing feature of a photographer whose work tried to document the light shining through the mundaneness of Peruvian daily life.

Story and quote from The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland by Hugh Thomson. I wish I could find the picture he speaks of!!

Martin Chambi: Cuzco

Martin Chambi: Cuzco

Policeman with boy; Cuzco, 1923.

Martin Chambi: Policeman with boy; Cuzco, 1923.

Self-portrait near native village of Coaza Carabaya, Puno, ca 1930.

Martin Chambi: Self-portrait near native village of Coaza Carabaya, Puno, ca 1930.