Thursday, December 18, 2008

Thanksgiving Week: Wrapping Up the Rest of the Week

After our binge wine drinking on my first day in Peru, we had to wake up at 3:30am the next morning to hoof it to the airport to fly to Cajamarca and then take a "bus" (which is basically a minivan with zero leg room and about 15 people crammed into it) an hour and a half away to San Marcos, which is where Erika's mom's family lived. Erika has tons of stories about this place because it is where her mom grew up and where she spent a month every year while growing up.

We did a little walking tour of the town after we arrived and met some of her cousins in town. We went through the wonderful market that was full of fresh fruits and vegetables (most of which I cannot eat of course), nibbled on chicharron (fried pork, kinda like bacon), and checked out the farm market where horses, cows, and donkeys are sold. The market in general was funny because I am basically a giant in Peru, so I had to walk over all hunched in order to not decapitate myself with the clothes and tarp lines. We also saw a guy meeding some monkeys alcohol, for some reason. It was kinda random, actually.

Then, we went to the family homestead, which was a few minutes drive outside of town to meet the rest of the family and situate ourselves for the next three days. The house was basically up on the top of a hill with a few other houses, a "school" (one or two rooms), and a church and was known as El Cedro. The house was made from adobe (mud and grass mixed and baked), had dirt floors, and had a stove that was basically an adobe cube with a sheet of metal that was heated by a fire, a more-or-less thatched roof, and an outhouse up the hill with no toilet seat. They had one faucet that had running water that we used as our shower more or less and there were animals (like free-range chickens that would be lunch in a few days) running all over the place. It was kinda like camping, only we had misquito-infested bedrooms and a bed. Last year I remember Erika telling me that they were having a party because they had finally got electricity! It was pretty much like camping

In the interest of trying to catch up on my blogs, I will truncate the small details for the rest of the week and provide some insight into my psyche while I was there. But first some bulleted details of activities:
  • I visited the grave of Erika's grandparents, which was way up on top of a remote hill. Interestingly, that was actually the first time I had been to a cemetary and, though it wasn't elaborate, Erika's mom and uncle took time to clean it up a bit and added some palm leaves (courtesy of graves nearby) to cover the entrance of the little tombstone house where they lit candels.
  • On the way to the cemetery, at 9:30am, Erika's dad was hanging out with the neighbors drinking beer, community-style. This is where you have one cup that you pass around, filling it up with beer, passing the beer bottle to the next guy, drink the cup of beer, then shake it out and pass the cup to the guy with the beer. This activity can go on for hours, with other people dropping in and leaving as time permits. But people have time to stop by for an hour or two, pretty much no matter who they are. I thanked them for the invitation but Erika and I stopped by on our way back from the cemetery for an hour or two, drinking some brews.
  • People just plain and simply have time for anything in this place. We dropped by the school house across the street one morning to say hi to the kids and it wasn't like we were interrupting anything. The teacher, Erika's cousin's wife, was holding her baby (who accompanied her to class everyday) and was more than happy to let us chit chat with the little toddlers. Another example of this was when we went into town to walk around for a bit. We ran into one of Erika's old friends (who we met the first day as well), so we started walking with her and a friend of her's. Further into town, we ran into Erika's cousin. So, we were talking with her cousin for a bit while Erika's friend and the other friend just hung out on the sidewalk and talked. For like an hour. I concluded that people here, unlike in New York, don't necessarily have a destination when they are going for a walk. They are just walking to pass the time and talking. I clearly have different intentions when I go walking. I am going somewhere. There is a destination in mind, something to do, time to keep. It made me wonder if I should spend more time just....walking.
  • Towards the end of our stay, Erika's cousin took us and the family to some thermal baths nearby. When I think of thermal baths, I think of Yellowstone Park when I was a kid with my grandpa. A river with a swimming hole that had really warm water and people kind of chilling next to it. This thermal spring was pretty small, a very tiny creek where locals came to wash their clothes. Watching people wash their clothes in this water with their soap made me suspicious of the water quality, for sure. We went down to the river and hung out for a few minutes, since the water was comfortable and the scenery was wonderful. The water was moving pretty quick, but I jumped in and rinsed off, since I hadn't had a shower in a few days. I think I was the only one who could swim, and I fet kind of embarrassed about that. What do these people think of the gringo who can afford to fly the family down here, who uses an electric toothbrush and razor (when the others don't seem to brush their teeth, judging by the lack of teeth) and who has the waterproof boots during the torrential downpour? People there didn't seemed to be overawed with my gadgets and luxury, but I still felt out of place.
  • The thermal baths were surprisingly nice, though. Or seemed to be. They were like little private rooms that you rented with a "hot tub" of hot water. It wasn't disgustingly dirty like I expected. In fact, after every use, they drain the water, scrub the whole thing down with soap and water, and refill them. All for like $1 a person, not bad.
  • As nice as it was to clean off, I can't help but think that it had something to do with the terrible cold that I woke up with the next morning. Besides just a runny nose, I had sinuses full of fluid that I could feel all the way to my ears. Considering that we were leaving in another day on an airplane, I had to get some drugs to help me out because flying with ears like that is pretty painful. We went back to the main city of Cajamarca to check out the tourist sites and I was dizzy and more or less disoriented the whole day, feeling like I was in a daze. I think it was something with my ears, I'm almost positive. That night, I felt like I was feeling better but Erika told me I had a fever and rushed out to get some medicine for me. More mystery pills were ingested and I was feeling much better the next day, but the flight was indeed painful when we finally left town. Even when we got back to Lima, my ears were in and out of equilibrium for a few days.
  • Before we left San Marcos, the "rich" cousin (who was the only one who had a computer), took us on a tour of the areas farms in search for fresh cheese and just for our interest. Well, really it was for my interest since the rest of the family already knew about the area. But the cheese was great from this area. I asked why it was special and apparently it's because all of the cows are organic, free-range, grass-fed, etc. You know, the kind that we pay $5 for a gallon of their milk. It makes you feel kind of strange that we have to pay so much for something that is so natural in a place like this. These people are not trying to make something special for a small sub-market of yuppies. But, I suppose they are still making it for a small market - the local area - hence the fact that they need to industrialize cow and cheese production like they do here.
  • The final thing that struck me when I was here was just how disconnected people are from the rest of the world and how slow and difficult life is. When I left NYC, housing prices were plummeting, the stock market was in turmoil and my employer (the largest financial institute in the world) was on the verge of bankruptcy, which would have financial consequences around the globe. Down in San Marcos? I had a hard time even finding an internet cafe to find out what was going on up in NY. The people here were more interested in making sure there was food on the kitchen table (whether it be guineau pig or hens that were just running around the yard) and, importantly, having daily family gatherings. Each and every day, relatives were frequently popping in to say hello, stopping by for lunch, or bringing the kids over to run around the property. The kids didn't have toys to play with, there were dirt cliffs to climb, dirt roads to run around, and they were just playing random games with each other. As nice as all this is, life is hard here. One of the family members finally found a job as a teacher in a town that was a three hour walk away that had a monthly salary of $65. My jaw hit the floor when I heard that.
And I'm not sure why, but I just couldn't stop thinking about one thing that these people wouldn't have: dental insurance! And lord knows with the mouth I've got, I certainly need that!

After returning to Lima, we had quite a few wedding meetings to wrap things up as much as we could while we were there. The only other major event that I took part in was going to the Clasico football match between the two largest teams in the country with the most violent fans in the most dangerous part of Lima with Erika's dad, grandpa, and cousin. There something about being outside my comfort zone that attracts me to these kinds of events! The game was awesome and we were sitting close enough to the Ultra fans (basically hooligans) that we could hear their M80s explode when they lit them on fire, we could hear their chants, and could see the brawl that broke out at the end of the game. It was awesome! Erika didn't want me to go at first because people get knifed or shot at these games, but we didn't have any problems.

J. Riley, Life is simple in San Marcos, but life is hard.

Isn't It Ironic, Don't You Think?

I got an email this week from my volunteer organization. They were looking for a co-team leader for a project that takes place literally across the street from my apartment, so more or less guilt-tripped into volunteering me to be the team leader there. The project? Having conversations with adults learning how to speak English. Yea, I think I might be qualified for that one.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Happy Wife is a Happy Life!

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So last year Jeff started a huge debate about unisex bathroom etiquette. When leaving the bathroom after urination, should a male: a.) Put the toilet seat down so that if it's a girl that follows, she doesn't have to touch the toilet seat (Chivalrous); b.) Leave the toilet seat up so that if it's a girl that follows, she knows you're not the one that just pissed all over the seat.

Personally, I stick with method B. Please discuss via the comments!

Completely unrelated other than the fact that it deals with etiquette, I have another conundrum. I live on the third floor of the building. I always take the stairs so as not to appear lazy in the event that someone else is in the elevator (it's a pet peave of mine if someone takes the elevator when they live on floor <= three) and just to stretch the legs. The resident does not pass the elevators when entering the stairwell. Unlike the manners in NYC, if I walk through the front doors with someone, sometimes the person will go in the elevator and hold the door while I quickly get my mail. So I'm stuck. Do I: a.) Take the elevator so that I can thank the person for holding the door, and be the annoying person who takes the elevator to floor three; b.) Take the elevator to floor five so that I can thank the person for holding the door and not be the annoying person, exit, and walk down two flights of stairs; c.) As per normal, take the stairs and do not aknowledge someone's manners; d.) Take the stairs after yelling down the hall to the elevator "Thanks, but I'm taking the stairs", making the assumption that they are holding the door for me, when in reality maybe the door just hasn't shut yet. This question is much more difficult as I have a 25% chance of making the right choice compared to a 50% in the first question. Personally, I still have some NYC in me and go with option C :) Please discuss via the comments!

J. Riley, I saw a pygmy dump truck today that I failed to capture on my phone camera. Short and stout, I believe it is a member of the species Bobus Belfryus.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Thanksgiving Week: Wrapping Up the First Day

After my wonderful haircut earlier in the day, we had a lunch/dinner date at Erika's cousin's house, which was nearby. Erika had told me that Orfelinda (Orfi) takes very good care of her mom when she's gone and is a great cook. Eating is high on my list of favorite activities in Peru, so I was definitely looking forward to this event.

We walked over to her house up a rock-strewn dirt road near the highway and I was blown away when we got to her house. It looked pretty much like a normal house from the area, but after walking in, it was a really nice house with carpet, living room, big glass windows between the rooms, it was really nice. And Orfi was there preparing a FEAST for us: potato and chip appetizers, tequenos with guacamole, arroz con pato (rice with duck), salad, and mousse de lucuma for dessert. Normally, I won't be caught dead eating salad because of the problems with the water there, but I was assured that this was a fully organic salad and everything was cleaned with bottled water, which is how she prepares all of her food. I was still doubtful, but figured I'd give it a fair review and, sure enough, I can proclaim her food gringo-friendly!

And given that it was a celebration type of meal (for my arrival, of course ;o), there were some fine beverages, such as passion-fruit/pisco (pisco sour, with passion fruit replacing the sour) cocktails, and oh boy, was there wine. And more wine. And then some more wine. We were having a grand old time, everybody was laughing and having fun, my Spanish was better than ever, and there was even some dance moves being thrown down to the Peruvian folk music that was being blasted. Once we finished her four bottles of wine, her husband then went down and bought four more bottles from the local liquor store. Man, was that day a riot.

Seeing as how we had to get up at 3:30am the next morning to head to the airport, the sober person at the table (her mom) was smart enough to make us head home at around 9:00pm before too much damage was done. Lucky for us, waking up wasn't so bad because the drinking was spread over six hours or so and we stayed well-hydrated all day. We had to be ready, we were heading out to Cajamarca that morning for the main-event trip!

J. Riley, there are rumors of a pre-wedding meal/cultural experience at Orfi's house being offered for Friday night...


Before I continue, let it be known that on Sunday, December 7th, 2008 I was really really pissed off because it's around zero degrees (Celsius) outside and I have to actually use my oven to heat my apartment. Is this really what $1700 a month gets you in Astoria?

J. Riley, drinking hot tea and wearing my wool scarf. Indoors.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Thanksgiving Week: Barber Shop

Ahhhh, Thanksgiving week: A time for cold weather, hanging out with the family, shopping, and eating an inappropriate amount of delectable treats and meals given your body mass. It happens every year for me, with little exception. There were some minor logistical differences this year, in addition to the fact that I didn’t eat any turkey.

This year, not unlike last year, I took a few days off and migrated south in search of warmer weather. Like always, I found it in Lima, Peru where my wife had been for the month, planning our wedding. We had plans to fly up to the northern city of Cajamarca (historical note: it was the city where the Incas first made contact with the Conquistadors in the 16th century) and experience the distinct culture there and visit her extensive family that still lived in the area after both of her parents had moved away to the big city of Lima. But before we left, we had a day to kill.

One of Erika’s, like most girls I suppose, favorite things to do was to go to get her hair cut by her gay hairdresser and get her nails and toes done at the beauty salon. You could spend about three hours at the beauty salon getting full manicures and pedicures and massages done and walk out paying less than $10, it’s so cheap there. She had joked with me a few times that men could be found in such places and that I should give it a try. At risk of being mislabeled, I asked myself, “WWDBD?” Of course I knew the answer to that. David Beckham would get a haircut, a manicure, and a pedicure! I had arrived sufficiently shaggy, without a haircut for a few months and had worn my retainer enough the week before to prevent me from chewing my fingernails until they bled, so I was totally focused on getting a suave new haircut from a gay guy and having beautiful fingers and (maybe) toes when I met her extended family.

The only problem was, we had some errands to do, Liverpool was playing soon, the beauty salon to go to was a good 1.5 hours away on “mass” transit, and we had dinner (more like lunch) plans with some of her relatives nearby. CRAP - all that preparation work for nothing. But I REALLY NEEDED a haircut, and Erika told me I could go to her dad’s local shop to get a haircut. Her dad always looks presentable and I had never been to a, shall we call it, “lower income” barber shop before. So of course I would give it a try. I am generally of the opinion that nobody even notices that you’ve had a haircut except for you, so a “bad” haircut that anybody notices is extremely rare. On top of that, they told me the haircut would cost me S./3. That’s ONE DOLLAR, people. Holy crap, that’s awesome.

So off to the barber I went. Erika went with her mom to exchange some dollars for Soles, and I was actually called up by the cute barber while they were gone. My Spanish skills + her lack of bilingualness + describing how to cut my hair: Not good! Where the heck was Erika and why was she taking so long? Well, somehow I described how I wanted my hair cut and Erika came back shortly to further refine any instructions so all things turned out pretty well. This was the first time that I had gotten a haircut from a barber who actually used scissors – as in the kind you buy at Office Depot – along with the electronic shears. She finished it off with the old fashion shave on the edges – you know, the shaving cream along with a slightly dull, possibly rusty, non-disinfected straight edge. It was quite awesome and a decent haircut to boot. When I finished, I looked down at the few morsels of blond hair clumped together on the floor with all the black/dark brown hair with pride and threw down S./ 5 ($1.66) for a job well done.

J. Riley, this is the first half of the first day? I've gotta lot of writing to do!