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.

  • Mike

    I said it before you left, and I’ll say it again. I’m envious. I am happy with my life, but wish that I’d had taken the chance for experiences like that at one point.

    I’m pretty sure I’ve made that kind of hot chocolate for you before, Mom keeps the same kind of bars. I don’t bother with the sugar, once you melt it in milk it’s pretty nice, and if you can get marshmallows, it adds all the sweet you’d need.

    Also, I was camping with the scouts this weekend, and my friend Tim had a great flint/steel striker. If you get care packages from your mom, ask for one of these (or a cheaper one, but this one is pretty handy.) It should light a gas stove just fine.

  • Erin O’Rourke

    That’s funny, I was going to make a stupid joke like “if this were a fantasy novel I’d have flint!” or if I were a boy scout, too. ;x Admittedly this is a more difficult experience than I anticipated, but I’ll be fine. And hey, when you make it from the bar do you get it to dissolve fully?? I think I boiled it on high for about 4 minutes, and I still had these weird little bits of bitter chocolate. Honestly, I think you REALLY NEED sugar with this stuff – it’s crazy bitter. And I don’t think marshmallows exist down here. I’ll just mix in dulche de leche instead!!

    • Mike

      Yep, when I dissolve it, it usually is totally gone, except maybe a little residue on the bottom of the pan. I guess that one may be pretty different, since it’s so bitter. The one I’ve got doesn’t need anything but milk…

  • Jason

    I completely agree with you regarding the car culture. I’ve developed somewhat of a hatred towards it. It completely is a by-product of American attitude. The city I live in is completely walkable, and that’s one of the reasons I like it so much. I can walk to the store, to restaurants, to work – my car can sit unused for weeks at a time. Yet, there are still too many cars crawling around, threatening the peace, tranquility, and the lives of pedestrians and bicyclists. It led me to find the “list of car free places”, where cars are disallowed or illegal. Among the most interesting of those places is the “Isle of Sark”. It’s also listed as a “dark sky” location, because there is so little light pollution during the night.

    That’s so cool that you found 100% cacao! That’s supposed to be the greatest superfood in the world – something about it having the greatest concentration of anti-oxidants. I’m really curious about what it tastes like! There’s a huge amount of history with cacao and human culture – it being used as an extremely bitter drink during religious ceremonies going back thousands of years.

    So – what was this vinegar bottle cap like? I’m having trouble envisioning why it couldn’t be opened…

  • Erin O’Rourke

    I must concur – I LOVE being able to walk everywhere, but the moto-taxis are constantly zipping around, honking as they reach every intersection. I will have to look up this Isle of Sark. Sounds quite fascinating.

    Also, it’s funny you say that about cacao being a super food – I actually went to a chocolate museum last week, and I had no idea why there was one in the first place until I checked it out. It chronicled much of the history you allude to, pretty interesting stuff. It is NOT good by itself, but mixed with sugar and milk it becomes really incredible hot chocolate. I wish I had it in me to make some now.

    Voila – the cap in question. I asked someone, you can snip it with a scissor or cut it with a knife. Doesn’t seem all that sanitary, since once it is opened it can never be closed. And with a knife (no scissors) I have to lay it on its side, and that’s just asking for a mess… Mystifying.

  • Pingback: Día de Mercado (Market Day) | Erin O'Rourke