Gallos de Pelea, AKA, Cockfighting

Fantasma

Fantasma (Ghost), gallo de pelea

There’ve been times when I feel like I’m witnessing something straight out of my cultural anthropology classes. I’ll never forget an ethnography we read about cockfights in Indonesia; particularly the spurs they place on the feet of the roosters that are so dangerous they have been known to disembowel their keepers if the roosters kick out. Failing in the “don’t judge, just observe” maxim of anthropology, the practice didn’t sit right with me at all.

Awhile back I was surprised to learn that cockfighting is somewhat popular here and I became ambivalent about my earlier views. Having the opportunity to visit the fights today, I tried to go with an open mind. I was warned there would be blood and death and blahblahblah, but I was interested in the experience more than anything else; to see yet another thing I had read about, albeit in a much different setting.

Baiting to Fight

A man baits two roosters into fighting to show off their ability at a place that breeds and sells roosters for cockfights.

Above all, I’m glad I went and if I have the opportunity I’ll go again. They dropped the roosters to the ground for the first fight I witnessed, and we all sat watching them for almost five minutes as they scratched at the ground, crowed, flapped their feathers and wandered around the ring. I watched the crowd, trying to get a sense of whether this was normal or not and couldn’t gauge either way at all. Finally, one noticed the other and the fight was on. It turns out that this is generally the way fights go and that the roosters usually take time to engage. But at first it was quite comical to think that these two roosters who had been set up to fight one another were just moseying about doing the exact opposite.

Fight

A man baits two roosters into fighting to show off their ability at a place that breeds and sells roosters for cockfights.

Despite all of that, it only cemented and strengthened my earlier views – I just don’t think it’s right, and it seems downright cruel. Of course my understanding of cockfighting is limited given my command of Spanish isn’t 100%. I asked a lot of questions during the fights, and what I learned just frustrated me about the whole process given how senseless it all seems. They use spurs here as well which is what causes all the blood and death. A lot of whether a rooster is good or not also seems to be based on bloodlines and breeding, and I haven’t gotten a handle on what any of that means. One rooster looks like any other to me. You can ‘train’ your rooster, but I wonder how much that really helps. This concentrates on their physical prowess, which still seems more about chance to me. I mean, what if your rooster is having an OFF day?! In addition, they seem like very dim animals in general.

Another pair

Yet another pair duke it out.

In every fight, at least one rooster must die for the other to win, and the winning rooster may have injuries grave enough that it also dies. That means the next match will be fought with another rooster of the owner’s. I had wrongly assumed that one rooster would fight its way through to the end of the tournament, therefore demonstrating it’s ‘the best’, but witnessing the injuries of some of the winners made me realize just how silly that is.

Cages

Cages and cages and cages…. tiny… dark… dirty.

It can be gruesome to see the roosters vomiting blood in their death throes. Luckily, they get a quick death after they’re carried from the ring. The winners aren’t so lucky. They don’t get medical attention, whatever their injuries, which again is senseless and cruel to me. It seems to me that this is really just a revolving door of slaughter, and I wonder how much the odds favor someone who has a huge amount of roosters given quality seems to count for so little (even though the countless conversations I’ve heard about rooster and hen bloodlines should tell me otherwise). Why would one allow the injuries of the winner to go untreated if not?!

Caption contest

This picture needs a caption contest. Pssst…. Fernando, when do we go for the killing blow?

I also wonder about the dynamics of ownership when you’re grooming an animal for something that could result in its death within minutes. The many fighting roosters I’ve seen are kept in small, dark cages. I’ve heard the argument that it’s “natural”, and sure, if two roosters come across each other in a field they will fight. On the other hand, it’s not natural to tie spurs to their feet so that when they kick out at each other they inflict grave injuries. It’s not natural to set this scenario up and ensure that they continue to fight to the death when they seem to lose interest or have had enough (in a few of the fights the roosters were repositioned when they stopped fighting).

Snack Time

It’s “give the roosters a special drink and talk about their condition” time.

I wish I could say I’ve gotten a handle on the cultural dynamics of such a thing in all the conversations I’ve witnessed concerning rooster fighting. Obviously there’s something beyond the brutality of the practice. It’s important to note that the region I am living in is agrarian and animals are often used for utilitarian purposes. They provide food (While this might seem obvious, I think this connection is lost to most of us in the shrink-wrapped, sterilized world of the supermarket.) in the form of meat, plowing the fields, and fertilizer. Not even pets are treated in the often doting manner of pet owners in the states. While I think there’s a limit to animal rights (I always think people should go first.) I wonder at what seems like obvious cruelty to me – is it the difference in viewpoints between those from agrarian and industrial societies? (Factory farming muddies the argument though I think few people would deny that it is cruel and there’s definitely an element of out of sight, out of mind.)

In the meantime, I’ve been marveling at all the anthropologists who have gone to live in cultures different from their own where they cannot speak the language, only to be able to piece together how they work and analyze what is going on around them. Either that, or there are a lot of tomes of bullshit on the shelves. I often feel utterly lost given the language barrier, and when making an effort to draw conclusions tend to second guess everything I think (count the use of the word ‘seems’ in this post). I suppose I can console myself with the idea that if I had the time to note everything I saw and heard given it was my intent, maybe I could synthesize it into something coherent. In addition, I can feel proud of myself that I’ve achieved something I used to daydream about in those anthro classes – going off to a foreign place to live in and learn about it.

Mummy

A mummy with future breeding hens/fighting roosters.

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

ER: Farm Animal Edition

I seem to say this phrase at least once a day: “Life never gets old in Peru.” Something is always happening that is interesting, different or captivating. I had committed to making an appearance at a going away party last Friday, but other than that it promised to be a relatively uneventful, quiet and relaxed night hanging out with the Peruvian guy I’m dating, Marc.

Mother and child

A goat roots around for something to eat at the feet of the mother and child posing for my picture!

Instead, the night took an abrupt and rather fascinating turn when a mutual friend called Marc to ask for his help – one of his young chickens was badly hurt. We rushed out of the house and I assumed we’d be taking the animal to the vet a couple corners down from my house. It didn’t dawn on me what was intended until we stopped in one of the many little shops along the way and Marc purchased black thread, a scissor and a set of needles. The next stop was the Botica (pharmacy), where an anti-inflammatory usually intended for human consumption was purchased. Marc spoke to the woman and asked what dose he would give to an injured chicken – while I couldn’t understand all of the Spanish, the conversation occurred between them in a manner that suggested this was a perfectly normal topic and that the discussion wasn’t at all out of the ordinary. As I live in a relatively rural area where farms and roaming livestock are a stone’s throw away, this begins to make sense*. I try to imagine the same conversation taking place in a US pharmacy and can only wonder what kind of look I’d get from the pharmacist.

Lamb

I somehow managed to catch the attention of the lamb I was sitting next to for just a moment before it returned to looking for bits of food on the market floor. Despite seeing how cute they are in person, they still remain my favorite food.

So we arrived at our friends’ and I could feel the blood draining from my face as I walked into the yard at even the idea of being in close proximity to a seriously injured animal. This was noticed with laughter and the comment of “tienes miedo” (roughly – you have fear/you are fearful). Yes, indeed – word was that its chest and stomach were ripped open and I steeled myself to look at the injury full on – I mean, my American friend killed the duck we had on our Thanksgiving celebration a few weeks before. The least I could do was woman up and really look. I mean, I’m in Peru. We settled on the couch, the operation to take place on the coffee table. I took a good look at the injury, felt slightly whoozy and think that any blood that remained really left my face at that point. I never knew one could actually feel the sensation of being as white as a sheet.

sheep dance

A dancer participating in competitive folk dances costumed as a sheep.

Regardless, I was in much better shape than the chicken and my curiosity mostly began to overcome lightheaded wilting. Our friends tied the feet and held the animal down while Marc prepared needle and thread. The injury was positioned to expose the stomach (Which I had to ask about – “Que es eso?” – “What is this?” with a point of the finger!) so it could be stitched up first. After this Marc closed up the outside wound. The chicken was obviously in a large amount of pain and this was somewhat difficult to watch. During this time a more detached part of my brain marveled that 1) I never thought I’d miss a party to attend an operation on a chicken and 2) I never thought I’d admire/swoon over a guy because he demonstrates prowess in sewing up farm animals.

As far as I know, the chicken was in good shape the next day. Unfortunately I left for a visit to Florida two days later and haven’t heard anything about its condition since. I highly regret not having had any sort of picture taking capability to record the incident but it was the last thing I was thinking about as we rushed out the door. It also seems there is a general lack of chicken photos in my collection despite my constant delight at walking into yards they roam.

*A somewhat related side note: In teaching the usage of “can” and “can’t” to my Basic 1 English students I aimed to pose culturally relevant questions, one of which was “Can your mother grow corn?” – the most popular crop in the Sacred Valley. All eight students answered “Yes, my mother can grow corn”, an answer which might be met with some humor and disbelief in the U.S. To them, it was a completely serious question and answer, reminding me of how much more I have to learn about my new home.

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.

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.