I have my own room here at the Casa Del Gringo. It has a bed, a small table and a chair, a dresser, a couple bedside tables, a picture of a sweeping mouse, a small TV, and its own bathroom. It’s just off the main house, not far from the kitchen I share with Walter. It’s cozy and it makes me feel like I have my own space. This is important to me.The first month I was here Jose accidently rented out my room and I had to move to the small spare bedroom in the main house for a weekend. Fortunately I don’t have many things to pack up and move. So it wasn’t that big a deal. The weekend went by and I moved back into my room.
Walter had warned me when I first arrived that I’d have to move out of my room over the July 28th week when all the Limeños would come to Cieneguilla on their vacations in celebration of El Dia de la Patria (Independence Day). Amazingly enough, the time has sped by and that week is upon me.I’ve been here long enough to know it takes a little time for Geraldine and Jose to get the rooms ready for new guests so when I see them talking together in the yard I go to get some deets, the classic 411. “What day do I need to be out of my room?” I ask them.
Geraldine does some calculations. Jose looks thoughtful.
“If you can be out by Wednesday morning then we can have it ready by Thursday when the guests arrive,” Geraldine says.
“Bueno,” I reply and start to walk away. Then I stop and turn again. “And what day can I have my room back?”They look at each other.
“Lunes (Monday)?” I ask. They are still looking thoughtful. “Nunca (never)?” I ask deadpan.Geraldine looks shocked. “No, you’ll get your room back.”
“No te amargas (don’t be upset), Amanda,” Jose says. “You’ll get your room back. We’re not renting it out forever.”I’m laughing. “No, it was joke.”
“You said it so seriously,” Geraldine says.I take a minute and try to explain what a dry sense of humor is. I don’t know the Spanish word equivalent so my explanation falls a little flat. Don’t quit your day job, I tell myself. Oh damn, I reply, I already did. Yeah, don’t quit your day job.
After my ill-received comedy routine, they consult a little longer and finally decide that by Tuesday afternoon on August 2nd I should be able to reclaim my space.“Bueno,” I say and go get back to work on Walter’s memoirs. Or maybe I just go “like” all my friends’ Facebook status updates.
The day before my eviction I pack all my things and get set to move into the main house. The next day I move everything over. Walter helps me lift my big bag over the glass table in the living room and wheels it into the spare room for me. “You got kicked out, huh?” he asks.“Yeah, until next Tuesday,” I say with a smile.
“Tuesday?”“I asked Geraldine and Jose, they said I could be back in on Tuesday.”
Walter looks troubled. “The guests should be gone by Sunday. You can have your room back then.”“It’s no big deal,” I tell him. “I mean, unless you just want me out of the house.”
“I just want you to be comfortable,” he says.Thursday I go into Lima for the Peru Writers Group meeting. It’s a holiday. I stand at the bus stop and when the bus that says Cieneguilla – Callao comes by I flag it down. Usually I take the Molinero 49 into Lima and then back again. But this bus is the Molinero 30. I’m feeling adventurous so I get on. As I step up into the bus I ask the Cobrador if they go to the Metro Pershing stop. There’s a limit to how much adventure I’m willing to take. He assures me that they do. There are plenty of seats so I sit in one next to the window. I got up earlier than normal and I’ve been staying up later than I usually do, so I’m thinking I might just get comfortable and sleep all the way into Lima. I’ve heard it said that when you can sleep on a bus in Peru then you’re practically a native.
The Cobrador takes my money. The buses charge fifty percent more for the fares because it’s El Dia de la Patria. But I don’t mind. I think if someone has to work a holiday they should get paid more. I hold my ticket between my finger and thumb, settle my head against the window and close my eyes.I do actually doze. But then my mind gets going and I can’t make it shut up. I’ve been thinking a lot about poverty and need and basic human rights and kindness. This thinking is in part a result of my trip to Cusco and subsequent conversations with Matt Wooten and others.
Last week when I’d taken the bus back from Lima to Cieneguilla a guy boarded, took a spot at the front of the bus and started his spiel, “Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize for interrupting your ride, but I’d like to please ask you for help. If I had other options I’d take them, but I have no other place to go. My little boy is sick. He has a disease and needs an operation.” He held up a medical exam with a bill stapled to it. “I can’t afford to pay for his medicine without your help. Please ladies and gentlemen, excuse me for bothering you, but anything you can find to give will help my little boy.”He walks up and down the aisle and gets several donations.
I’m not unsympathetic. I’m not unkind, really I’m not. But I am a little cynical. Also I’m a little poor myself and selfishly I think that if I gave some money to every single asker on the bus (there’s probably at least one person who boards each time I ride who asks for some sort of charity) then soon I’d be in the same position as them. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” I could say from the front of a bus. “Please forgive me for interrupting your trip.”I hate how heartless I feel when I don’t make eye contact with the ones who ask.
While I’m listening to this man I think, what if it’s not real? What if he doesn’t even have a son who needs medical attention? What if he’s just playing on our emotions, on our sense of kindness? What if he made up this story and he’s told it so many times that now he even believes it himself? And when someone like me won’t even meet his eyes he thinks, “Heartless bastards,” and then gets off the bus.But then again, what if his son really does need help?
What is our obligation to others?I thought a lot about this when my sister started her own get-out-of-debt campaign. She set up a website and offered a service. http://icanhaveanopinion.wordpress.com/ Need an opinion? Well, for ten dollars she’ll give you one! I thought her idea was genius. I still think so. So I asked for several opinions and willingly paid the ten dollars to get an answer. I posted her link on my social networking pages and was very disappointed that none of my friends helped her out. What was ten dollars? Shouldn’t we be more willing to help those we know? Or is it easier to give money to a face of a child on some postcard in some country we’ll never go to?
Maybe we get overwhelmed by being asked so often for our hard earned cash that we close off our hearts to any giving.
Unless you’re my dad who is perhaps the most generous person I know. I revaluated my ideas on giving after hanging out with him. And not just after one instance either. Recently though, my dad and I were driving home together from Whole Foods. There was a woman, probably not much older than me, standing on a street corner in Dallas. I don’t know if she was holding a cardboard sign, but she was there begging. Someone in the car in front of us said something to her or gave her something. But whatever happened, it made her cry. My dad had already reached in his wallet and pulled out a bill. “I don’t know what she’ll do with it or if it’ll help her,” he said. “But I figure if I have this to give then I should.” Tears were streaming down her face as my dad rolled down his window and handed her the cash. “Thank you,” she sobbed. “God bless you.”
I had to fight back tears. I wanted to get out and give her a hug.If you have it to give. Then you should. Which means to me, that first I have to be responsible to my own needs, to my welfare, but if I have it give, if I have extra, then I should give. There’s a lot of freedom in that. Sometimes what I have to give is just a hug.
When I was in Cusco I hung out one afternoon with Matt Wooten. We passed a shriveled up old woman who was sitting against a wall with her palm opened. We passed her. Then Matt stopped, rummaged in his pockets, found a coin and turned back and gave it to her. “I’m almost out of money for giving to them all,” he said to me. “The need is so great here.”
All I could see with my cynical, American “look out for the scammers” eyes was people exploiting the emotions of naïve and rich tourists. Their voices tuned to that begging whine, “Por favor (please), por mis hijos, por mi familia (for my children, for my family).” How arrogant of me. Does an often used spiel mean that the words are any less true?
I’m naïve. I don’t know what poverty is. I’ve been poor. I’ve been really poor, but I’ve never slept out in the open trying to stay warm, trying to keep alive. I’ve never gone days without a meal. I’ve never missed a payment on a bill I owed. I’ve never gone without shoes or not had a coat to wear during the winter. I’ve got the quintessential American “If you work hard you can achieve anything” attitude. This is both good and bad.What is poverty?
Who is truly poor?Is poverty all about perspective?
Is poverty just about money?Some people think being poor means they can’t have cable TV, for others being poor is the inability to keep their children alive.
For me true poverty has little to do with money, it would be having no hope, feeling I had no choice but to be in whatever situation I found myself in. But then, I’m speaking with a full stomach and with a blanket wrapped around my legs to keep me warm.The other night I ask Geraldine if she thinks the poverty in Cusco is really bad. I tell her what I had seen, what I had experienced. “You see a woman selling the hats in the square,” she says, “and if she’s got a child on her back that means there are more at home. She has to feed them. And maybe she sells one hat. But everyone is selling hats and who knows if she can make a living or not.”
Someone somewhere recently told me about a word in another language. I think it was a word in Irish, perhaps told to me by Colin Mooney, which means just enough, but not too much. The word was in reference to what you’d say if asked if you wanted more beer. You’d use that word to mean just enough (always more), but not too much. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had just enough to make us happy, healthy, whole, but not too much to keep us tied to things?
I get off the bus with more questions than answers and go to Katrina’s apartment where we have a nice Writers Group meeting.
When the others have gone I stay behind and talk business with Katrina. It’s all about me making money, go figure.I pay even more for my bus fare to get home. When the young boy gets on the bus and asks for money for him and his family I make eye contact with him, but tell him, “Sorry.”
The weekend passes. Walter makes Geraldine cry on Friday. I have a quiet Saturday and Sunday in which I get a lot of work done. When Walter returns from Lima on Sunday night he asks, “Is your room ready?”“I don’t think so,” I tell him.
“I told Jose to get it ready for you. Did you not talk to him?” Walter asks and storms off.The management sometimes just does not understand how things work.
Monday afternoon Geraldine is making me some rice (because she’s nice and knows she makes it better than I do and had offered when she saw me looking hungry) and we’re talking. “What does your mom think about you staying here so long?”“She thinks it’s great,” I say.
“She doesn’t mind that you’re going to stay in Lima?”“No. She's excited that I'm here.”
“You’ll have to send us orders to send you things from here, like the avocados.”“Or I’ll have to come visit every now and then to climb up and get my own! I climbed the tree yesterday and picked some more,” I say.
“Did the clients ask you for any?” she asks.“No. They didn’t. But if they do ask, I’d climb back up to get some. Only one sol for each avocado,” I tell her. “You know, for my family, for my kids.” I stick out my hand as if to take some change.
She laughs at me. “You’ll have to say that with your serious joke face,” she says.Maybe she understands my dry sense of humor after all.