About Erin O'Rourke

Anarcha-feminist-socialist pinko commie red something or other.... I'll get back to you.

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.


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.

Being a teacher: Grading fairly

A little Peruvian boy coming to deliver a puppy at my feet.


While I hesitate to post this, I’m genuinely interested in what other people have to say – particularly other teachers. When I first began teaching I would grade all the tests of my students as uniformly as possible. This came from the belief before I was a teacher that this was the fairest thing to do. Now having just a bit more time under my belt and in my second round of classes, I began to notice a big change in my grading process. Grading is modified depending on the student: While one student diligently comes to every class, working hard to understand the material but still struggling, another only comes sporadically and fails to take the classes seriously when present. I’d find myself marking the former’s test more easily while being harsher with the latter. One can’t deny that personal opinion plays into this: I really enjoy the student who struggles and don’t want her to feel discouraged. The other girl’s flippant attitude and space cadet ways annoy me to no end. Another example regards my best students. My first instinct when they make silly mistakes is to go easy on them: They know the material, this is just an instance where they slipped up. And then I decide they will be far less careless the next time around if I take off more points than less.

**A clarification that I wrote below in the comments: I probably should have clarified that the maximum points are all the same – if a struggling student differentiated correctly between “do” and “does” but didn’t conjugate the verb correctly I might take off a point out of 2 instead of all. If my best student did that I might take off the whole 2! Don’t know if that makes sense.

I’m still not sure if this practice is all right, but I’m happy to hear your evaluation – thanks!! Admittedly I didn’t even think about the idea that it’s a disservice to other students. I feel that because some of my struggling students work just as hard as some of my best but it comes less easy to them, they deserve the recognition when they’re on the right track. Some of my students got in the 70s on the last test – a grade range that I balked at before I started teaching. But I was really excited for them, because I could see the basic concepts were beginning to sink in. The number didn’t really matter so much as they were getting there! For me, their tests were great!**

Tiene Pulgas

Upon depositing the puppy at my feet, both children solemnly warned me 'Tiene pulgas' (It has fleas.). I really wasn't sure what was cuter.

When I first began to observe this new process, basically a unique mental calculus for every student, I was horrified. As mentioned previously, before I began teaching I believed that assignments and tests should be graded as uniformly as possible. To some extent, one could say this is the very rigid, black and white view of a person who never taught before. At the same time I wonder if this is the kind of slippery slope that leads to things like low marks for things such as political disagreement (As an ESL teacher, nothing I think I’ll have to worry about.). In addition, this does factor in my personal opinions just as much as it does the habits and abilities of each student. While somewhat less horrified by the realization of the change in my method of grading, I´m still ambivalent about it and interested in what other people have to say.

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

The devil is in the details


The photos and random pieces of writing keep piling up, I just need to synthesize them into something presentable. Always the most difficult part. Being a painfully slow writer anyway, learning another language just seems to complicate matters. My brain doesn’t enjoy grappling with English after grappling with Spanish. This is my favorite photo from the week:

corn girl

A little girl in Urubamba's outdoor market.

Letter to the Editor: Re: Obama contraception rule goes too far

Domestic workers march in the Pro-Democracy parade on Hong Kong's anniversary of independence.

Re: Obama contraception rule goes too far

As a 28 year old graduate student I spent time in Hong Kong as a legal advocate for Filipina domestic workers. The majority of them, younger than I and with multiple children, were separated from their families for years in order to support them. When I read about sparing the Catholic Church a “crisis of conscience” I wonder when they will suffer one for their part in contributing to the poverty of Catholic developing countries where there is no access to birth control. I find it disingenuous to laud their work with the sick and the poor when their stance on contraception promotes poverty in the developing world.

99% of women in the United States have used some method of birth control. 98% of Catholic women in the United States use birth control. This isn’t about a government mandate that goes too far but rather about an archaic, impractical policy on the part of a church whose leadership is comprised of men who have never had to navigate the complexities of marriage and family life. It’s time for the Catholic church to enter the 21st century and amend its damaging stance on contraception.

More reading:

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.


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.

Short Update


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.”


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.


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.