Language: Lobsters and Mishaps

Puno Region

The view from the bus on the way to Puno - somewhere in the region before reaching Juliaca.

Given El Arte Sano is tourism focused, much of my Basic 2 course centers around food: food vocabulary, menus, and situations like ordering and taking orders. To spice things up a bit (pun intended) I brought in a worksheet that profiled strange restaurants around the world. One of these, a restaurant in London called the Archipelago,  serves such things as locust salad and crocodile. I was mystified when my students couldn’t figure out which terms for locust and lobster were appropriate, and why they were such close words in the first place. The consensus seemed to be that the words were opposite the indication of the dictionary:  mangosta and langosta (Don’t ask me which is which, I can’t remember!!).

Yesterday I came across an article about the ritual of cooking lobsters by David Foster Wallace and was fascinated to find out that the word lobster in English is thought to come from “a corrupt form of the Latin word for locust combined with the Old English loppe, which meant spider.” Now having knowledge of the roots of the word, the similarity of the Spanish words make a lot more sense.

A tangential, fascinating bit of history from the article:

“But they themselves [lobsters] are good eating. Or so we think now. Up until sometime in the 1800s, though, lobster was literally low-class food, eaten only by the poor and institutionalized. Even in the harsh penal environment of early America, some colonies had laws against feeding lobsters to inmates more than once a week because it was thought to be cruel and unusual, like making people eat rats.”

When I told my students the current status of lobster in the United States as an expensive, indulgent food they seemed to agree with the above opinion. I love learning about these kinds of cultural differences.

Mural

A mural at one of the bus terminals.

Somewhat related is that when learning a new language one is bound to make mistakes – sometimes with hilarious and embarrassing results. (NOTE: Embarazada is pregnant – NOT embarrassed – luckily I learned that before ever saying “Estoy embarazada!”, “I am pregnant.”)

Once when asked for my phone number, I said in response “No me acuerdo mi nombre.” (“I don’t remember my name.”). The ‘b’ in both words makes me think they are the same despite the spanish word for number being numero (like ‘numeral’). I often have to think for a moment before saying the words name and number in spanish or I’m liable to make that mistake.

In the beginning, even the simplest things could be a bit of an ordeal. Getting photocopies was one of those. With my boyfriend in the copy shop, who could generally help me out when I messed up, I repeatedly asked for ‘nuevo’ copies. He and the shopkeeper both looked at me in utter consternation, and I returned their look with my own – NUEVO!! How hard is that?? Well, neuvo is NEW. Nueve is nine. (I still mix them up allll the time.) So when asked again and again for how many I was responding with new instead of nine.

I bought a pastry at the bakery once and, pointedly waving it, asked for the “basura.” Seeing the clerk’s shocked look I realized I must have said something wrong – I meant to ask for “bolsa” a bag, and instead asked for the trash.

Puno region

The somewhat desolate landscape of the Puno region - houses averaged every few miles, nestled into the landscape of mountains and hills.

Tiendas y Hornos Calientes (Shops and hot ovens)

Learning another language in the immersive environment of a foreign country is one of the hardest things I have ever done. After preparing for my English classes, studying Spanish and constantly trying to think in two languages (along with the endless questions that come with learning) I tend to have little energy for other serious endeavors. I usually go for a book or a movie before sitting down to write for the blog and given that, it is updated a lot less than I’d like it to be. Below is a bit about what has been going on here and what I’ve been thinking about.

A typical shop. I like this for the Inca imagery on the poster which is very popular around here. I'd love to know more about that - while it is often used to sell things (the poster is for Inca Cola), people still seem proud of the heritage and legacy of the Incas. I also like the sign Se Vende Miel - This is the construction in Spanish that means one does something: one sells honey. While exact, a more accurate translation is probably We sell honey. It's not uncommon to find these messages scrawled or spray painted all over doorways in the area that vary depending on the item.

Things that still fascinate me about Urubamba and the surrounding region:

  • Most people live in the rooms behind or above their shops. To those of you who fight traffic every day on your way to work, whether it’s 20 minutes (given my intense dislike of driving even this had me cursing) to an hour or more – just think of the ‘commute’ from the back rooms of your living area to the front room of your shop. It’s not uncommon for people to close an hour or so in the afternoon for lunch. In addition, they often take advantage of the close proximity by doing chores or cooking in the back rooms while open – a ‘senora’ or ‘senor’ gets their attention so you can buy what you need. I wonder a lot about the economics behind this and how it impacts culture.
  • I’ve come to theorize that an oven is a luxury item here. I’m not exactly sure what the standard of living is for the average Peruvian in my area though I’m pretty sure it’s nothing like I’m used to. I’m not even sure how many people have access to electricity given how dark many of homes are (‘rooms’ is actually more accurate). But when it dawned on me that there were public ovens that one could bring things to get baked for payment I was stunned. I’m still amazed by this and given we don’t have one I fully intend to partake in the experience of getting something baked. In addition, they aren’t the ovens we are familiar with but rather more like large bread or pizza ovens. People manage them and you leave your item with the specific time – something that seems iffy to me as I’m thinking they’re probably much more powerful.

Horno Caliente - Hot oven 24 hours

Below are various stories about my time here:

  • Shortly after my return to Peru in January another scorpion made an appearance. Insects seem to like our outside door jam. Upon leaving the house for dinner, I slammed the door and noticed something dangling – a scorpion by its leg above my head. I kicked open the door (sound familiar?) and let it drop to the ground. A shout brought my new housemate running. At first I was going to stomp on it but figured distance was the best option and ran for the broom. Despite returning and charging in like Rambo, my housemate informed me that the scorpion had ensconced itself neatly under a ledge, just out of reach. In a wildly counter-intuitive move, I jabbed at it with the bristled side of the broom to the point that we could no longer see it at all. Resigned to being unable to kill the thing, we agreed to keep an eye out for it and I left the broom in the hall. I felt very silly, having taken charge of the situation only for it to result in a poisonous insect having free roam of the house. On returning from dinner I kicked open the door (a common theme) and did a careful inspection before entering. Barely visible, it had wedged itself into the molding behind the door. This time I completed my charge, not allowing myself to think about its VERY spider-like characteristics as I went for the kill. Note: In the past week scorpions three and four have made an appearance.
  • Sometimes things go very, very wrong. In November we had planned a camping trip to Lares, hot springs about 2 hours North of Urubamba. I had just gotten a cold that week and I am currently in this years-long phase where colds make me feel like I’ve been physically hit by a truck. This one was no exception, but I was really excited about the trip and I had been talked into going. Two days of soaking in hot baths actually made me feel great – almost as if I wasn’t sick at all. By Sunday I felt well on my way to recovery. I had gone camping with a very bad cold and contrary to what I had anticipated it actually worked in my favor! Well, not quite. It seems I had to pay for brazenly taking such a chance.As we were packing up to leave it became cloudy and began to pour. There doesn’t seem to be any such thing as warm rain here – when it’s cloudy, it’s cold and when it rains it’s colder.

    We got in the combi (public transportation van) and I couldn’t figure out why it was SO COLD!!! I shivered for two hours, only realizing halfway through that I was sitting next to a broken window. By the time I got home I had a chill I couldn’t shake. A shower and hot tea would be just the thing. I generally don’t have a reliable shower in terms of temperature (….which means I go for longer stretches unshowered than I would ever permit myself otherwise….) but for some reason the water was wavering between hot and cold more than usual. I had put the electric tea kettle on so it would be ready when I got out. Well, we lost power in the middle of my shower – showers here rely on electricity to warm up – so this left me fumbling in the dark to turn off the water as it became numbingly cold. If I had a chill before, I really had a chill now and it was pitch black besides. I huddled under my blankets with wet hair and ‘waited’ for the power to come back on. Five hours later, at 1am, the lights woke me up. Relieved that I could finally do something about getting warm, I went to boil the water – except – it seems the loss of power shorted out the electric kettle. In desperation I put on two more layers of clothing and went back to bed in my hat and scarf in an effort to ward off the chill. The next morning I awoke with my cold as bad as ever and was sick for another two weeks. In spite of all this, I still loved being in Peru. If anything I got a funny story out of it and confirmation that I had made the right decision about coming here.

  • It is currently carnaval season. I was disappointed to find out that carnaval isn’t celebrated as much in the Cusco region as in other areas in Peru. The surrounding towns celebrated this past Sunday. I have no pictures and I regret this. A major feature of carnaval is that people carry around buckets of water and randomly soak people. Silly string and shaving cream are also very popular and I spied huge sacks of brightly colored powder in Cusco. I was torn between worry for my camera and the desire to document. I did get shaving creamed by some laughing teen boys, and when I got over my surprise I turned around to go at them with the intent of smearing it on their faces. Marc held me back, which was probably smart considering they had two cans of the stuff and I had…. well, not much. Not something I was considering in the heat of the moment.

Typical shopfronts