Sunday, October 30, 2011

Customs and The Peruvian Mail System

October 30, 2011 – The Peruvian Mail System

I distrust the Peruvian mail system. I have this worry that nothing will get past customs, that all the things I really want or need, and that people take the time and money to send me will be confiscated and thrown out. This distrust, formed around past experiences with Central American mailings and a generalized stereotype of South American corruption and third worldness, was unfounded until a month ago. Of course, Walter hadn’t helped my unsubstantiated assumptions when he painted a horrible and dark picture of the system for me when I first arrived to Peru.

“Nothing is ever delivered. If anyone sends you anything, you’ll never get it. I’m lucky if I get my bills.” All this was, according to Walter, due to the ineptness of the TPMS (as I’ve just awfully acronymed it) and to the lurking thieves who snuck furtively around in the street outside Casa del Gringo just waiting to steal anything and everything that wasn’t locked down or gated in. “No Peruvian,” Walter intoned, “is to be trusted.”

With that in mind and having no reason not to believe him (this was most likely before I knew Walter was born in Peru), I warned most everyone against sending me things. And except for a few daring souls, no one did. During my three month stint in Cieneguilla I received two things by post. My friend Tim--brave enough to chance it--sent me his book The Wild Air, and my sister--heedless of my advice--sent me a birthday letter. My friend S--throwing caution to the wind--sent me a birthday card which I never received, thus proving that a two out of three success record was not enough to redeem an unfavorable supposition, although my doubts were rattled.   

When I moved into Lima to a place with a more stable address and front deskmen to receive and guard the post, I gave my address out to those who asked for it.
Almost instantly, one of my Colorado writer friends sent me four paperbacks stuffed rather haphazardly in a large manila envelope. It arrived in record time and was seemingly unmolested by the customs officers. I began to think I’d have to change my mind about the TPMS.

Word starved, I devoured those four books and started to worry about what I’d read next.

Heeding his superb writer’s sense that told him I was in dire need, Tim once again shook his fist in the face of my delivery distrust and put together a care package of six (6!) books, two CDs and a letter. “I’m sending it through DHL,” he told me. “It’s cheaper that way, but it’ll take it longer to get to you.” Tim had needed my phone number to send the package and I’d thought that a little odd, but gave it to him when he asked.
With the beautiful anticipation of new books looming over me I crawled through the days.

I told myself to practice patience, to not get my hopes up, to not hold my breath, to pretend there was nothing making its way over the miles to me. Literature no less! But none of my self-talk worked. I masked a calm exterior while anxiously anticipating the arrival of that box.

One day, while I was slowly murdering time between classes I received a phone call. “Señorita Amanda White?” the voice asked. Before I could answer, my deceptive phone shut off. The battery dead. I powered it up long enough to see I’d missed two calls and that the calling number was unknown. So much for calling them back. “If it’s important enough, they’ll call me again,” I said out loud and then went on with my day.

The next week, while I waited in a park for the start time of my class with a four year old, my phone rang again.
“Hallo,” I said.

“Señorita Amanda White?”


Whereupon followed a strange and incomprehensible conversation in Spanish. I finally caught on to her end of things when the lady told me she had a package with six books and two CDs and asked if it was mine. I claimed it with hope and joy. When she asked for my passport number and email, I hesitated, paranoid about giving information like that over the phone. “Who are you with again?” I asked her. She told me rapidly and I didn’t understand a thing. Since she didn’t ask for my Social Security number, my bank account, or my mother’s maiden name, I decided to go for it. I gave her the information and cursed my email address for being hard to say in another language. “It’s A as in…” I scoured my memory for an A starting Spanish word and came up with águila which means eagle. “R as in rana (frog).” And finally after many repetitions and corrections, “No, T as in tigre (tiger). No, Tigre, grrrrr (I don’t think I actually growled, but it might have helped if I had), she said she’d send me an email with instructions on where to come get my package. At least that’s what I thought she said.

That evening when I got home to my computer there was no email from her. “Dang it,” I said aloud, “I think I missed a Tigre in my email address.”

I was saved however, because the number the lady called from was on my caller ID. I resolved to call it the next day during business hours. And I did. No one ever answered, there was no answering machine and I began to expect that the Deportation Police would show up any minute at my door and arrest me for passport fraud and then ship me back in chains to the United States.
Days pass and that mysterious female caller never called again.

After consultation with Tim, who told me the package was in Clearance Delay and gave me the tracking information, I called DHL.
“It’s in Clearance Delay,” the Rep told me. “You’ll need to call the Peru DHL division at this number to find out what that means.”

Those were the words I was dreading. Making phone calls in Peru is tricky. Not only do the prepaid minutes (called saldo) I buy never seem to be enough to actually complete a call, but with this situation, I also doubted that my Spanish speaking abilities would make the using of said minutes worthwhile.
In a fit of insecurity I talked my roommate into calling Peru DHL for me.

I stood nearby biting my nails while she talked with the representative. Several times she started to give him my number so he could call back if my saldo expired, but he kept talking, preventing her from completing her sentences. And, sure enough, my prepaid minutes got used up and the call ended. For whatever reason (probably because I was having a sudden and unnecessary cash flow crisis in my head brought on because Katrina had just returned from the States and I’d become unemployed again), I didn’t just go to the store to buy more minutes. However, the call wasn’t a complete loss, Katrina told me that the DHL guy said customs had the box and they’d get in touch with me.
That was the problem to start with! I knew that already. Customs had gotten in touch with me and I had no way to correct the email address I’d given them so I could figure out what they were trying to tell me. I raised my hands imaginarily in exasperation and wished for the ease of unlimited phone plans like I had when I lived in the States.

Aargh, as my dad says.
I imagined that poor lonely box sitting in a dark warehouse forgotten forever in some dank corner, the lost books getting moldy in the moist ocean air never to be read again. I wept.

I envisioned a long line of wicked customs officials pawing my six books with malicious glee and then selling them on the black market in exchange for cocaine. I cursed.
I saw in my mind’s eye the whole customs office dancing to the music on the CDs and having a ripping good time. I shook my fist in the air.

Blast them all!
I just wanted my care package.

The next day I got a call. Incoming calls don’t count against my saldo (or lack thereof) and I snatched the phone up eagerly. I held my ancient phone with extreme care so as not to squeeze the battery and inadvertently hang up. “Hallo,” I said.
“Señorita Amanda White?”

The Spanish speaking DHL rep informed me that customs had cleared my package and DHL would deliver it that evening between four and seven. I was overjoyed. He also told me that I’d have to pay the courier and then he said how much. I fainted.

After I came to, I asked him to repeat the amount.
Yep, I’d heard him right the first time. I multiplied in my head with a rounded up and approximate conversion rate. Then I carried, divided, added a little more, subtracted a couple unneeded numbers, converted it to a fraction and then started over because math had never been my strong point.  

I had to have misunderstood him. “I had to have misunderstood him,” I told Katrina later. “Right?”
“You can argue with the guy who delivers it,” she said.  

The courier came around 5:30 that evening. I’d been poised and waiting for the call from the front desk. I took a fistful of soles and went down the stairs two at a time. The courier placed the package on the counter and pulled out a thick wad of papers. He asked me to verify the information, checked my passport and then showed me the amount to pay. I wanted to ask him if I could give customs my first born child instead of cash money, but I was afraid that he’d volunteer to be the child’s father. I decided not to risk it.
“This was a gift,” I told him. “I shouldn’t have to pay for a gift.” While I was doing my best to throw a fit in a second tongue and trying to get out of handing over the dinero, I remembered this old adage that said something about not shooting the messenger. The poor messenger told me the amount was for storage and processing and international fees and coffee, ceviche, and Pisco sours for the customs office holiday parties and also for the delivery.

“Does this look right to you?” I asked the deskman handing him the sheaf.
He shrugged. “You can call the DHL office and talk with them about it,” he said. “But if you don’t accept the package now you might never get it back.”

I wanted that box more than anything in the world. So I paid the courier, thanked him grudgingly and carried my box upstairs.
I have to say, the contents of that box were absolutely worth every last centimo I paid to get it. I mean that. But when, a week later, my mom told me she’d mailed me a care package I shuddered as if someone had stepped over my bank account’s grave and wondered if I should ditch my phone and move to an undisclosed address.


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Ethics and Morals

October 26, 2011 – Ethics and Morals

“What would you do if someone pointed a gun at you and said they’d kill you unless you took drugs?” Joaquin, my ten year old tutoree asks me during class.
“What would I do?” I ask, stalling for time to think by repeating the question.

“What would you do if they pointed a gun at you and said they’d kill your family and you if you didn’t take the drugs?”

“My family and me?” I’m still repeating. Also I’m wondering why they have to bring my family into this--those nefarious gun-toting drug pushers. “Do I only have to take the drugs once or do I have to take them for the rest of my life?”

Joaquin pauses for a beat. “Only once.”
“Well then. I’d take the drugs and thereby save my family and myself.” I applaud this noble choice. Silently.

“But you might get addicted.”
I might, I think emphasizing each word differently, ungrammatically, and specifically in my head, but they got rehab! And, where there’s life, there’s hope, as my dad always says.

“What would you do?” I ask him.
“I’d never take drugs,” he says. “They’d have to kill me and my family.” I look shocked and sad. “But it’d be okay,” he assures me. “Because we’d all be together in the sky.”

I think I just failed an important teacher test. The answer should always be Say No to Drugs. Right? But it’s not that easy. Situations aren’t ever only cut and dry, to use the cliché. Whenever I’m given these situational choices I always want to know the entire story before I commit to anything. Like the time someone asked me if I’d drink a bottle of Tabasco Sauce for a million dollars. My first question was, “How big is the bottle?”
I walk home from class pondering ethics, morals, and just how much Tabasco Sauce the human stomach can handle.
It’s not a new topic of musing for me. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the wrongness and rightness of things.

For instance, is it right or wrong for me to quote people verbatim? Why did I feel it was okay to report whatever Walter, Geraldine, Jose and Mariela said when I feel restricted about doing the same with people I know are reading my blog? Ah, see? A moral dilemma.

Are little white lies ever okay? I got a light reprimand after I blogged of lying to Joaquin’s mother about having another student. Which then made me feel self-conscious about writing honestly about dishonesty. What are the ethics of telling the absolute truth all the time regardless of anything? The absolute truth might get me in more trouble than a selective retelling. “Do these words make me look fat?”
At what point, if ever, is it alright to overlook feelings in order to tell a story? When does art become more important than people? Is it ever fine to tell about how a situation made me feel if it puts the other person in a bad light?

Is this just a new way to worry over fair play?
I torture myself with these thoughts much like the dark and sinister character of Jas. Hook in Peter Pan tortures himself over the idea of good form.

Hook was not his true name. To reveal who he really was would even at this date set the country in a blaze; but as those who read between the lines must already have guessed, he had been at a famous public school; and its traditions still clung to him like garments, with which indeed they are largely concerned. Thus it was offensive to him even now to board a ship in the same dress in which he grappled [attacked] her, and he still adhered in his walk to the school's distinguished slouch. But above all he retained the passion for good form.

Good form! However much he may have degenerated, he still knew that this is all that really matters.”

Good form is all that really matters. Is it really?
Keeping my happy face on is better than admitting dissatisfaction. Is that telling the truth?

Confessing that I was angry or sad or disappointed or worried seems so much less socially acceptable than telling a nice story or just being silly.
But the world isn’t always pretty. The way I respond isn’t always best. The people in my life don’t always make me happy. I don’t always make me happy. Should I share the good and the bad?  

Maybe some things are better left unwritten.
I had a writing teacher in college who said, “You have to write from the abyss. You have to write from the darkest part of yourself. You have to write from your fear and your pain. You have to write the emotions. You can’t sacrifice the words because you’re afraid of how they’ll be received. You have to be true to the story. Only then will you write anything great.” Yet I still I pick and choose in fiction and nonfiction. I protect myself. And I protect others. This is good and bad. This is right and wrong.

Well, that’s what writing is, wrestling with the words and figuring out which ones to leave in and which ones to kick out. So what’s the moral to this story?

“‘Perhaps it hasn't one,' Alice ventured to remark.

'Tut, tut, child!' said the Duchess. 'Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it.' And she squeezed herself up closer to Alice's side as she spoke.” (Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carol)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The World Wide Web and Marriage Proposals

October 25, 2011 – The World Wide Web and Marriage Proposals
My niece eating a giraffe
The internet has shrunk the world down. I imagine it like a giant piece of tin foil that’s gotten wadded up into this pea sized ball. Which I then hold in my hand and move around so that the light makes funny reflections on the bare walls. I’m easily entertained, as my dad would say. But all crazy imaginings aside, the internet pulls us all together, cuts down distances like trees, spans the years and creates fodder for endless trouble. Now with ease I can use the powers of the World Wide Web to talk with my friend in Sweden, video-chat with my friend in China, watch my five month old niece eat the edge of her play area blanket in Texas (or a giraffe), call my mom several times a week, listen to my sister tell me about the hardships she faces living on a boat, check in with my grandmother and read her pages of my new story while she keeps watch over my grandfather as he’s healing up from a nasty bacteria, and of course stalk nearly all my friends and acquaintances on a variety of social networking sites. All this I can do from the comfort of my own apartment in Lima. It’s great. It’s the passive-observer’s dream come true.

Every now and then, though, the tin foil world uncrumples just a tad and an unexpected someone from my past digs their way out of the pea sized ball core and finds me.

This isn’t a bad thing per se.
There’s the catching up of the years, the sudden spark of reconnecting, the gentle fading into oblivion again, or the continuation of something lost that now is found thanks to the thrilling reach of Cyberspace.
It just depends on who they are and what kind of bond there was, and is still, between us.
On Sunday I get a friend request from a man I knew before I moved from Texas to Colorado, before I moved from Colorado to Peru. I can’t pinpoint exactly how long it’s been since I’ve spoken with him —but I estimate it at roughly twelve or thirteen years. That’s a pretty long time. 
Over the decade(s) I morphed into more of me. I lived my life. The time passed.
A few years ago a mutual friend told me the man and his wife had gotten a divorce and that he’d started spending more time with my friend’s family. I felt bad for his heartache and then put him out of my mind.

So, all that to say, when I get online and see his friend request Sunday afternoon I accept. Then I turn off my computer and go for a walk. I toil away as I do and eventually come back to check my email, spy on some friends, and see what has happened out there in the world while I was unconnected.
To my surprise, on my page from him-- there for all the World Wide Web to see--are the words: Will you marry me?

My first thought is, “He doesn’t know about direct messaging.”

My second thought is, “Oh my god.”

My third thought gets interrupted by the other post on my page in which he says he knows this is sudden but that he means it.

I pick my jaw up off the floor, slam my computer shut and go to the kitchen to cut vegetables.

Then I call my mom.

“What is it about you that attracts older men?” she asks me.

Which isn’t exactly the response I was looking for. My sister has said that it’s because we’re old souls. Whatever that means.

Now I’m not against marriage. I just have my own ideas about it. Which, by the way (so far), don’t include online proposals. Even the crazy guy I met in the bar in Cuzco who would have gotten on a plane the next day with me (or so he said) told me that face to face. I know I’ve said I’m looking for a certain kind of crazy, but this ain’t it. I think I should feel flattered, I should feel…

But what screams out in my head is, You don’t know me. What are you thinking? What are all you men thinking?

With those two postings and one he actually sends to my inbox, this man breaks apart my theory regarding how the South American and North American men are different. I thought it was only the South American men who utilized the three questions:

      1.       Are you single?
     2.       How old are you?
      3.       Will you marry me?

This man already knew one and two (or could have gotten the answers off my social networking site personal information page if he'd forgotten) and so all he had to ask was the third.

The moral of the story is… I’m completely flabbergasted (oh, and also, I said no).

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Day in the Old Country

October 24, 2011 – A Day in the Old Country

I’ve got to get out of the city. I need something that I can’t quite put my finger on. I’m locked inside my own head and getting antsy. So Tuesday morning I email Walter and ask if I can come spend Wednesday afternoon at Casa Del Gringo. He emails me back, “My house is your house.”
Bueno! I think. Wednesday morning after a breakfast of quinoa and banana I pack some snacks, a book and my flip flops and go catch the old familiar Molinero 49. It’s been just shy of eight weeks since I moved into the big city and this is my first time back, but I still know the way. I watch the sky clear as we head over the mountains and then down into Cieneguilla. It’s like traveling to a different country. It’s like instantly transitioning from winter to summer. Here there isn’t a cloud to be had, the garúa is a distant memory, the sun, as they say, always shines in Cieneguilla. Today that’s definitely true.

I get off at the ovalo and walk the rest of the way. The air feels fresher, the omnipresent noise of the city is gone like a bad dream, even the dirt seems just a little bit cleaner. Negra greets me at the front gate, pressing her nose through the bars to say hi, wagging her stubby tail with delight. “Well met, old friend,” I say. I ring the bell, and soon a woman I’ve never seen rounds the corner and walks toward me.
“I’m Amanda, a friend of Walter’s,” I tell her in Spanish when she’s close. Walter had said he’d let everyone know I was going to come because he had some business in Lima in the morning and wasn’t sure if he’d be back before I arrived. I didn’t know he’d hired someone new.

“I’m Gisa,” she says.
“So nice to meet you. You’re working here now? How do you like it?” I’m chattering foolishly. “Is Jose here?”

“It’s his day off,” Gisa says.
Of course it is. And it’s too early for Mariela to be here. Walter’s car is not in the driveway so I know he’s not back yet. Looks like I’ll have the place to myself. I’m delighted.

“Thanks for letting me in,” I say. Lulu has joined us and the dogs and I walk to my favorite spot at the table by the pool.
It’s just the paradise I remember.

Why did I ever leave? What possessed me to move into the city? What was I thinking?

The dogs turn their circles and lie near my feet. Peggy sees me from across the pool but doesn’t find me important enough to come over to greet. I’m not sure where Gringo is--probably sensibly in the shade. I take my tennis shoes off, remove my jacket, roll my jeans up to my knees, pull out my book and prop my bare feet on the table.  
Next time I’ll remember sunscreen, shorts, and maybe my swim suit.

I catch myself thinking of later and I chastise myself. This moment, here, there is nothing more important than watching a leaf fall from its height down into the pool’s water.
The avocado tree is in bloom. There’s a large lemon sitting yellow in the grass under the lemon tree. After a while I’ll go pick it up and take it inside. I read for a bit. I think for a bit. I save a moth from drowning in the pool and listen to the birds sing and gossip above me.

Looking around I realize what it is that I’ve been missing so much in Lima. Contrast. This place is rich in color; blues, greens, yellows, browns, ochres, tans, grays, gray-blues, reds, soft oranges. In Lima it’s always gray, always white like the brick wall of the building I see outside my living room window. I’m thinking in absolutes and I know it’s not true, but it seems that way.

I take my small towel and go lie belly down on the grass. I watch the bugs, smell the green scent of the earth, swat the flies away, doze in the warmth. When I’ve communed enough with the ground, I take my place at the table again.

Mariela arrives dressed in her school uniform. She doesn’t see me as she walks by and I decide to let her get changed before I call across the yard to her.
I’m feeling moody and content to be alone. I’m deep into The Master by Colm Tóibín, a fantastic and wistful telling of Henry James’s life. I find almost too much of myself in the words, in the depiction of a writer’s world; the selfishness of a word thief, the craving for solitude, the joy in certain friendships, the delicate balance between loneliness and societal glutting. I read a paragraph or two at a time then put the book down. Then I pick it back up again.  

Later I climb the avocado tree. I go up high, stretch over a flimsy limb, wrap a leg around a thin trunk so I can use both hands to reach as far as I can. My fingertips graze the fruit; they’re fat and tantalizing. I pull the branches down to bring them closer, snag the ones I can and covet the ones I can’t. I get a few for Walter too. That seems only fair. Half way down the tree, my avocado greed urges me to climb even higher on the opposite side. See those! it cries. Climb, get, take, have. My rational self vetoes the plan. The branches don’t look supportive enough, I’ve got enough for now, it’s a long way down.

I leave Walter’s avocados with the lemon on the kitchen counter.
I’ve got my nose back in The Master when Mariela darts around the corner of the house. “Amanda!” she calls. She’s smiling. I smile back and go to meet her half way. We press our cheeks together and then she pulls me into an enthusiastic hug. “Gisa was saying that we had a guest--an Amanda. And then I was like, ‘Amanda!’ so I had to come and say hi! How is Lima? How’ve you been? Have you talked with Geraldine? How is your teaching going? Are you going to stay the night?”

I answer the barrage of questions and ask about the same amount back.
When we’ve gotten up to speed, Mariela goes back to her work and I go back to my book. I’m starting to think about the bus ride home. I’ve eaten my snacks and although I’m not hungry, I’m also thinking about dinner. Walter still hasn’t returned and I’ve just decided to go write him a note and leave when I hear the jingle of the front gate chains. A moment later the blue nose of his Mercedes pulls in followed by the rest of the car.
I watch as Walter goes about his getting home rituals. When he’s finished he comes and sits with me by the pool. While he’s talking, telling me about the never-ending drama of the land related lawsuits and money worries and car troubles he’s all caught up in, I remember why I chose to move. He’s easier to take in small doses.

“Do you have a parking garage at your apartment?” he asks.
“There’s one outside my window.” I hear the car alarms every day.

“Do you have a car?”
“No.” He should know this.

“Does your roommate have a car?”
“No, we take the buses.” We’d be insane to drive in this nest of snakes.

“Do you have a parking space with your apartment?”
“I’m not sure, why do you ask?” Where are all these questions leading to?

“I got an Order to Capture from the police for both my cars. They want me to pay nine hundred soles. I already parked my white car at Terry’s apartment but I need a place to hide the blue one. I saw the order and it’s real, they have permission to cut the locks on the gate and come inside to get the cars.”
“Why? How can they do that? What is the nine hundred soles for? What are you supposed to do?”

“That’s what I have to find out.”
All these things are such a mystery. I’m never exactly sure when Walter tells me these stories if the government is just corrupt, if he’s not paying things he should be, if it’s a misunderstanding or a combination of all of the above.

“I’ll ask my roommate about the parking space and get back with you.”
Walter stands. “That reminds me that I need to go call my lawyer.”

“I picked some avocados,” I tell him as he starts to walk off. “I hope you don’t mind. I left you a couple in the kitchen. Next time I come I’ll climb up with some clippers so I can get the ones farther out. I didn’t get very many, most of them were just out of reach. My arms aren’t long enough.”
He goes away and I read for a bit longer. The magic has dissipated a little bit, the sun is thinking about setting and I’m ready to go.

Mariela walks by with her backpack on.
“Are you leaving?” I ask.

“Yes,” she replies. “How long are you staying?”
“Not much longer. Maybe ten minutes.”

“If you leave now we can walk to the bus stop together,” she says.
Sounds like a good plan. I go in to tell Walter goodbye.

He walks out on to the patio with me. “You don’t look any different,” he tells me.
“That’s good,” I say.

“Have you been exercising?”
“I just started working out again this week. I don’t want to get fat.”

“You’ve got to watch the butt,” Walter says. “That’s where it all starts.”

I’ve got to get back to the city.


Friday, October 21, 2011

Because Hippies do Drugs

October 20, 2011 – Because Hippies do Drugs

He meets me at the front door to the apartment complex and walks with me up the three flights of stairs. He comes up just shy of my shoulder. He has dark hair, dark eyes and that all-knowing self-assuredness of a child.

“What’s your name?” I ask.


“I’m Amanda.”

He nods. We take a flight in silence.

“How old are you?”


“That’s a great age,” I say and I mean it. My tenth year stands out as one of the best years of my life. I remember thinking then that I was really old, really cool, really wise and that all people liked me. I had no self-esteem issues at that age. Sometimes I still think I’m ten.

Joaquin rings the bell at number 301 and his mom eventually lets us in. She and I had spoken on the phone but this is our first meeting. She asks me if I’ve taught any other children who study at the Británico. I can honestly tell her yes since one of the girls I subbed for while Katrina was gone goes to that same school. I may have only taught her for a month, but it’s something. Joaquin even knows Ivonna which validates me a little in their eyes.

I hand Analy the little paper I printed up with my contact information and my teaching rules (made with the help of, and modified from Katrina’s own rules). These include my rate, request for payment for the week on the first day of the teaching week, cancellation practices and tardiness toleration. She glances it over and I pray that it’s not too severe. After a breath-holding moment, she goes for it. She even pays me for the class.

“Do you have other students?” she asks me.

“Yes, I have one other.”

I feel like Sister Simplice in Les Miserables when she tells her first lie in order to save Valjean.
[Jean Valjean: God bless you, sister.
Sister Simplice: I lied!
Jean Valjean: Then may this falsehood be placed to your credit in paradise.]

Only this isn’t my first lie and I won’t get in credit for it in paradise. I just want Analy to feel more secure about me tutoring her son. I have a nagging memory of a story read to me as a youngster called Jimmy and the White Lie. I hope my lie doesn’t grow into some giant blob.
Joaquin and I sit at the table and look over his schoolbooks. His mom explains that they lived out of Lima the last year and that he missed one year of English in his schooling and has a little catching up to do. He’s not getting perfect marks in class and she’s wanting me to help him to advance more in his learning.

“This we can do,” I tell her confidently. After I’ve given the best impromptu inaugural speech I can manage, she has enough trust in me to leave the two of us to start.
Joaquin is not shy about speaking in English. During our getting-to-know-you conversation I find out he has an older sister who is 19 and an older brother who is 12. He used to have a dog named Lola but they had to leave her with a friend when they left the province they’d been living in. The friend later told Joaquin that Lola really missed them and even once made the way from her new home back to her old one to try and find her people. I think the movie was called Homeward Bound.

Joaquin likes to skateboard--Skate, they call it here. He’s good, but he doesn’t know how to do all the tricks yet he tells me.

Thirty minutes of our hour class has passed and I’m learning that my conversational skills are merely passable. I rack my brains for more questions.

“What do you want to do when you grow up?” I ask him.

He gets serious. “I wanted to be a hippy or rasta. But then I found out what they do.”

“What do they do?” I ask. I need to know. I want to be a hippy too.

“The majority of them do drugs,” he says.

“Not all hippies do drugs,” I assure him.

“They don’t?” he asks incredulously.

“No.” I run through the Teacher’s Handbook in my head and decide to divulge anyway. “I’m a hippy.”

“You are?”

At least according to one of the definitions on the Free Online Dictionary site I am.

Hippy: someone who rejects the established culture; advocates extreme liberalism in politics and lifestyle.

Most (though not all) of the synonyms also seem pretty spot on: hippy, hippie, flowerchild, bohemian, dropout, free spirit, beatnik

I relate all this to my friend Audrey later that night via chat.

you hippy, amanda,” she types back. “did you put in dread locks yet?”

No, no dreadlocks, but one laundry day when I was living at Casa Del Gringo I was wearing an eclectic combination of garb and Walter said, “Amanda, I’ve got to tell you.”

I waited. I was never sure exactly what would come out of his mouth.

“You look like you stepped right out of the sixties.”

Clothes make the hippy, right?

Joaquin and I talk about the dangers of drugs. This naturally leads into a discussion about music. How could it not?

“What kind of music do you like?” he asks me. He leans in. His eyes gleam. This is an important question. “What’s your favorite band?”

“Ooh,” I say. This is always such a hard question for me. “My favorite band? I like a lot of different kinds of music.”

“Like who?”

“Coldplay. The Beatles. Karen Carpenter. Carole King.” I could go on and on with a list of those long past singers and groups I love and whose rock ‘n roll I “cut my teeth on,” as my dad used to say. I could grow my list exponentially with the rappers and singers and bands of today that I also like to jam to. I don’t have one easy answer. So I turn the tables. “What’s your favorite band?”

“Led Zeppelin,” he says without any hesitation. He talks with enthusiasm about Jimmy Page and Robert Plant and Stairway to Heaven and Dazed and Confused and the way that Page played his electric guitar using a violin bow. He talks it out and then there’s a moment of silence between us.

I remember I’m the teacher. “Where would you like to live if you could live anywhere?”

“I’d live in the jungle,” he says. “I’d build a house and invite people to come live there. They could live there even if they didn’t have money. I’d have a lot of rooms. Then I’d teach them how to find food and to live in the jungle. I’d teach them about the animals. And I’d have some animals of my own.”

“What kind of animals?”

“Dogs and cats and panthers.”

“And what else would you do in that place?”

“I’d write music and teach the world about peace.”
I’d live there.

The class ends. His mom tells him to be a gentleman and walk me downstairs. So he does.

“Chau,” I say. “See you next class.” I walk home thinking about hippies, rasta, and writing songs to teach the world about peace.

A few days later I go back for our second class. We review his schoolwork and start to go back over the lessons to complete the work he’d never finished. He’s making simple sentences into compound sentences when he looks up.

“I didn’t use to understand this line in Stairway to Heaven until I learned what ‘glitters’ means.”


“There’s a lady who knows all that glitters is gold,” he sings. Then he asks me, “Is everything that glitters gold?”

“No, it’s not. And actually the line is a change of the saying, ‘All that glitters is not gold.’”


When he walks me down the stairs after class he seems meditative. “What’s the name of your other student?”

See, I knew that lying was never good. There’s a part in the movie Spy Game where Robert Redford reprimands Brad Pitt for some white lies he used to get information. “You just gave her four pieces of personal information for one dubious impersonal fact.”  With the moral being if you lie once and the person becomes an asset for a spy mission than you have to remember the lies for the entire time you use that person.

“Matias,” I say, using the name of the four year old I subbed for while Katrina was gone.

“Does he go to Británico too?”

“No, I’m not exactly sure what school he goes to.” At least this is true.

Joaquin processes this information and I wonder when I became such a liar.

“Chau,” we say.

The third class we read his class assigned book The Nutcracker. Joaquin is amazed to learn that I know the story, that I read it when I was a kid in school. The world becomes just a little less large. One of the bolded facts on the side of the page informs us, the readers, that there are some nutcrackers that are the size of children. I tell him about a giant-man-sized nutcracker I once saw at a mall in the States at Christmas time.
“Really?” he asks. “Could it crack a coconut?”

“I don’t think it was a functional nutcracker, but if it were I’m sure it’d crack a coconut.”

We look at the pictures of the nutcrackers, soldiers, and the rats in the book.

“I want to be a soldier in the army,” Joaquin says.

Ah, how quickly are gone the gentle dreams of peace and harmony and hippy living in the changing morph of a young thing.

“And then I’d collect people from the house that I told you that I want to build and I’d train them and then we’d travel around the world and kill all the bad people who hurt the earth and other people.”

Okay. So he didn’t stray too far.

“That sounds very noble,” I say.

“What’s your favorite Led Zeppelin song?” he asks me in an abrupt conversational shift.

“Probably Stairway to Heaven.” I don’t tell him he probably knows more Led Zeppelin songs than I do. I resolve to go home and catch up on English Rock Bands and all their songs.

“I don’t understand all the lyrics,” he says wistfully.

Lawd, son, I don’t think anyone totally understands all the lyrics. “Look,” I say, “how about if during our next class we translate all the lyrics so you understand them?” His eyes light up and I write myself a note so I won’t forget and disappoint him. Kids remember promises. I know because I remember promises too.
The next day I look up the lyrics and find an online translation. I write out the first two stanzas in English and Spanish. I read up on Led Zeppelin history. I scan an analysis of Stairway to Heaven (Far out, man). I began to think that all song writers take drugs. I make my notes. Knowledge is power, right? And soon enough I feel I’m more or less prepared. I figure we’ll take the song piece by piece as a fun class activity around the actual homework and school related learning we’re to cover.

When I arrive for class, our usual table is taken up by the older brother and his math tutor. Joaquin says that the math tutor is supposed to be finished at 6:00 and that we can sit at the table when he leaves. It’s just now 6:00. The tutor doesn’t leave and Joaquin and I sit on the couch. Joaquin’s older sister passes through the room and notices us. She takes charge and helps us get settled in at a smaller table in the same room. “You’ll be more comfortable here.” She adjusts her bag on her shoulder, waves goodbye and leaves the apartment.

“What did your teacher say we should work on?” I ask Joaquin. They’ve just started a new semester of school and Joaquin’s task was to get some insight from his teacher about what he should be focusing on with me.

“My mom has the note the teacher sent home with me and she’s not here.”

“Where are your books?”

“They’re at school. The teacher kept them today.”


“What do you want to do?” he asks as if this is a playdate.

“Well,” I pull out the lyrics papers I’d stuck in my bag. “Let’s translate Stairway to Heaven.”

“You brought it?” He’s excited. We move the computer over to the table and he brings up a You Tube video. “You want to watch it and as it goes I tell you what it means and then if I’m wrong you correct me?”

“Sure.” I hope we don’t disturb the other tutoring class.

The video buffers and Joaquin clicks play. The first stanza isn’t so bad. He’s worked those words over before and has more or less a handle on them, especially since he figured out what glitters means in Spanish. The second stanza takes a little bit of time because we have to clear up the confusion around that sign whose words we’re never told although they can have two meanings. We also have to look up pictures of brooks because he doesn’t believe me that it’s a type of river. When I type ‘brook’ in the search engine box and press enter pictures of a bunch of dark haired women pop on the screen.
“What the heck?” Joaquin says.

I thank my lucky stars that they’re all headshots and or clothed. Sheesh. I rapidly amend my search to say brooks and rivers. The right pictures can definitely be worth more than a thousand words. We talk about the differences between rivers, brooks and lakes and then forge on to “there’s a songbird who sings: Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.”
The math tutor leaves, but we’re too absorbed to worry about moving to the big table.

Misgiven is tricky. There is no one word Spanish equivalent to the English word misgiven. The closest we get is nos hacen dudar ([our thoughts] make us doubt). That translation eventually makes both him and me more or less happy. I bless the English language for its fantastic subtlety and wish I knew how to play the Spanish words equally well. One day perhaps.

Although the third stanza gets really abstract with rings of smokes and a lot of voices, Joaquin zips right through the lines.  

We’re blazing away through the fourth stanza after we review North, East, South and West until we reach “Then the piper will lead us to reason.”

“I don’t understand this,” Joaquin says.

I pull up an image of the Pied Piper of Hamelin and tell him the story.

“Oh yeah, I know that story,” he says. “Oh yeah?” I ask and have him recap it to me in English.

“The Piper isn’t very good is he?” Joaquin asks.

“No,” I agree. “He’s not completely good. But the town’s people weren’t completely good either, were they?” I get meditative and ethical until The forests echo in laughter. Then, suddenly, my palms get clammy. We’ve reached the fifth stanza.

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now

What in heaven’s name were you on when you wrote this, Robert Plant?

I have no idea what this means. I’m thinking bustles like the derriere enhancers that Cinderella’s evil stepsisters had on their ball dresses rather than an ado or to-do. Which is very confusing.
“Now,” I tell Joaquin. “Not all songs mean something complete. Not all songs make total sense. And a lot of songs were written by groups or musicians who used drugs. So don’t expect every song to be perfectly understandable.”

I take a breath to try that daunting fifth stanza and am saved by the bell. The clock chimes 7:00. Class is over.

“We’ll tackle the rest of this later,” I tell him.

His mom has returned and we all ride the claustrophobically small elevator down together. I assure Analy that we’ll get Joaquin up to speed with the semester requirements and kiss her hasta luego. They turn left and I turn right. I zip my jacket up to my chin. Although the sun came out for a while, now that it’s gone the air has a chill nip to it. I tuck my hands into my pockets. The sound of wheels on cement makes a racket behind me. I turn. It’s Joaquin on his skateboard. “I didn’t say goodbye,” he says. I stop myself from tousling his hair. He’d already told me he doesn’t do high fives. We press our cheeks together for the Peruvian goodbye kiss and part ways until the next Tuesday.

I walk the mile home thinking about music, drugs and what Audrey had told me in our chat conversation the week before:

“there's a boy in my class who asked his mom what hippies are, and she told him that hippies are people who don't think they need to do what everyone else does, but follow their heart and live the way that they think is the best even if no one else does it.. so he said WE ARE ALL HIPPIES!!!!!!”

Monday, October 17, 2011

Pueblo Libre

October 16, 2011 – Pueblo Libre

“I don’t think I could ever live in Lima,” I told quite a few of my friends while I was making preparations to move to Peru. With a population of nine million people? Forget it. Colorado Springs has just over 400,000 people and that was a little too crowded for me.  “I’m going to Cieneguilla. It’s about thirty miles outside of Lima. It’s more in the country. Just my thing.” And so I did. I breathed the fresh air, I made the outdoors my office, I listened to the parrots squawking, I endured the all night barking of the dog pack next door, I was amused with mild indignation at Walter’s inappropriate remarks, and I occasionally rode the bus in to the city to visit friends or explore.  
“They really roughed you up bad, didn’t they?” Walter told me on several occasions when I shut off my computer and went to go absorb the sunlight. He never defined the “they.” But if he meant the Rat Race and the Corporate World and the Caged Life then sure, I felt roughed up by “them.”

Each time I returned from a Lima day trip back to Cieneguilla--as I made the trek from the bus stop to Casa Del Gringo--the weight of the city would drop off me. It was like leaving a dystopia with the relief that I was never really a part of it.
Three months later I’m living in an apartment in Lima. Go figure.

The complex where I live

Adjusting to city life is easier than I thought it would be. The constant noise blends into something I always hear but can ignore like white (very resplendent egg-shell white) noise. The sirens, the horns, the alarms, the whistles, the crying children, the screaming children, the playing-laughing children, the streaming zoom of cars, the public address system carried voices, the scraping of the upstairs chairs on the floor, the roar of descending airplanes all combine into a cacophonic orchestra piece. I’ve mastered the transit system enough to be able to get to nearly any place I’d like to go. And then back home again. If I’m not sure, I’m comfortable enough to ask someone. Despite my gringa appearance I must look at home enough here, because on several occasions people have stopped me on the street to ask for directions.   
“Disculpa (excuse me).”

I glance up from my ignoring posture to find a young man with a backpack waiting expectantly for a response. I raise my eyebrows. It’s my last week subbing for Katrina and I’m heading to my last class of the day. I’ve just crossed the busiest street and am about to shift from first gear into second in my walking pace.
“Do you know if there is a Banco Continental nearby?”

“There is nothing nearby, not for miles,” I say. Oh no, just kidding. That’s a line from The Princess Bride.

It’s really funny that he asks though. I’d just scouted the area for a Scotiabank because I needed one to pay a bill later in the week. I also know there is a BCP on the corner of Benavides and Caminos Del Inca. I scour my memory for a Banco Continental. It’s no good. I come up blank.

“Sorry,” I tell him. “I don’t know. It’d be better if you asked someone else.” I feel I’ve failed him.
“Gracias,” he says and canters off.  

I resume my walk and make it through several more weeks of city living.

At times, the tall buildings and cement and dirt and cars and noise and the overcast sky oppress me. I’ve reached another transition point in my life and I haven’t quite got it to fit the shape of me yet. I worry about wasting my time. I’m bumbling through the days and always, always always, dreaming of the sunshine. Am I writing what I should be writing? Am I not being disciplined enough? How many projects can I work on simultaneously? What about money? What about my friends and family? What about dinner?

Adjusting to city life is much harder than I thought it would be. I want to--as Christians say--be in this world but not of it. This bustle, this craziness, isn’t me. I miss the Colorado mountains. I miss the deep blue of the high altitude sky. I miss nearly constant sunshine. I miss the chimera of silence that I crave, that eludes me. And yet, but yet, I want to be here in this moment. Living everything up. Being here, enjoying, loving here.
Am I zen enough to be the tranquilidad I desire?
I don’t know.

I can live in Lima because I’ve accepted some things as constant.
1. It will always be noisy. 2. The sun never shines. 3. It’s dirty and busy. 4. People are not outwardly friendly. 5. I will be honked at, whistled at, talked at. 6. It’s going to be chilly and damp and cold because it’s still winter time. 7. I don’t have to live here forever if I don’t want to.

I expect items 1 through 6 and that takes the pressure off. My expectations don’t set Lima up for failure in my eyes. To my delight, every now and then I’m surprised by quiet, sunshine, cleanliness, friendship, real connection and warmth. And then I rejoice.
Por ejemplo (for example), as everyone says here, just when I begin to truly doubt the existence of the sun it overthrows the garúa and sweeps the sky clear of clouds. And in those magical moments when the pale blue of the coastal sky gets unveiled, all the pressing worries I cart around in my head vanish. The air calls my name and I have to answer. I have to go outside. I’ve spent too much of my life locked up indoors. I shed the walls like a winter coat and dance.

On Friday, only moments before I wilt from solar deprivation, the white wall outside illuminates with rays. My eyes brighten and I go exploring. Out the front gate, to the left and I’m off. Katrina had told me about a museum in Pueblo Libre within walking distance of our house and I’m going that direction. It’s been ages since I’ve seen the blue sky. It’s been an existence since I’ve felt the sun on my skin. It’s been a lifetime since the air felt this warm. I can accept that Lima seldom has sun, but suddenly, in this new light, I feel fully alive. I’m living the dawn after the proverbial dark.
I walk past several parks, past the museum, up to a church. I sit for a moment on a bench outside the church and think about what I want to do. My consensus is just to sit in the sun.

A group of school children rounds the corner of the church. They’re holding balloons and being shuffled along by some effective adults. “Stay with your partner.” “Hold hands.” “Stay together.” I watch them from under the brim of my baseball cap. One little girl catches my glance and gives me a shy return smile.
After they trudge by and successfully cross the street I stand to take stock of where I am with a few pictures. A taxi drivers leans out his window, “Ay, preciousa (ay, precious),” he says to me. This is only to be expected so I let the words go in one ear and out the other. When the way is clear I cross the street and head back to the park in front of the museum. I scout out the sun spots and take a seat on a ledge. I pull out a book; it’s like my spy cover. I pretend to read while I people watch.

There are trees. There is grass. There’s less franticness in the air. I breathe. I feel some tenseness ease from my skin.
Two old men sit kibitzing on a bench off to my right. The hum of their voices filters over my way though not strongly enough to make out the conversation. They remind me of a line in an old country song, “As long as old men sit n’ talk about the weather/as long as old women sit n’ talk about old men.” I imagine they’re talking about the weather now. If they asked me, I’d say that it is a very fine day! I turn my face up to the sun and close my eyes.

Then I read a paragraph or two.

There’s a fountain in the center of this park. Apparently the museum brings in a lot of tourists. They’re milling about, eating lunches and snacks, waiting, going inside the museum and coming out from the museum. They all stop to have their pictures taken in front of the fountain. Oswaldo once said that all Peruvians love to have their pictures taken in front of fountains. “I don’t know why,” he’d said.

It’s more than just Peruvians; a gaggle of French tourists take turns getting pictures in front of the fountain. One poser twists my way, the photographer swivels, and I’m sure I just ended up in their picture. I wish I’d made a funny face.
When they’re done with the photos they circle around the park to come sit on the ledge next to me.  
There’s about ten or so people in their group. They’re conversing happily in French, taking a break from tourism while waiting for their bus to come to pick them up. One guy hands his camera to his wife and goes to stand at the end of the platform. He wants a picture of him with the Peruvian flag waving in the background. She tells him to be careful as he’s one step away from the edge. He perches safely and strikes a pose. He says, “Whisky,” and she presses the button. They inspect the digital display and both decide it’s not a good picture. So he goes back again. Another check, another rejection. The poser takes off his jacket and looks at me. I’m caught red-handed, so to speak, as I’m staring again. He smiles, holds out his thumb and two fingers. “Three times a charm,” he tells me in a language I understand. I laugh.

The man next to me tells the poser to take a step back. It’s only one step down, but a stumble like that could turn an ankle, crack a tailbone. “Go on,” he teases (I interpret by their gestures). “Just one more step back.” They’re a bunch of jokers.
Whisky Man
I pretend to not be so nosy and eventually they amble off.

The two old kibitzing men leave. A lady pushing a baby stroller takes their bench.
Across the park a young pair of lovers intertwine their limbs and pretzel together. The girl has the boy’s jacket on backwards; it must be chillier in the shade. The boy talks into her ear and then they kiss.

A few feet from me, a boy of maybe fourteen tries to win over the pigeons with an out held palm and clicking sounds. The birds don’t go for it. He follows them across the park, trying to get near, trying to befriend them. I want to tell him taming would work better if he had some food.
Speaking of food. I pull out an apple and munch away.

The square is coming to life, the area restaurants’ maître ds come to stand outside in order to entice people to come and eat. It’s lunchtime. The aproned man at the restaurant across the park, across the street from me waves. Each time I raise my head, each time I look around he waves again. Dude, I think, I’m not going to wave back and I’m certainly not coming over to your restaurant to eat. Another aproned man joins him and I imagine they talk about me. The first one waves again with more gusto. Nice try, no cigar.

It’s a perfect day. I’m really lucky. I don’t forget this. I remember sitting at the front desk at my job, gazing longingly out the window, wishing I were outside, wishing I were free. Now I am.

Skimming through my journal I run across my own words from June:

I feel like I’m living a life I’d
once read about
and wondered about
and here I am
really living.

This is still true in the city. I haven’t forgotten. I just got covered by a little bit of my own garúa.

“There are your fog people & your sun people, he said. I said I wasn’t sure which kind I was. He nodded. Fog’ll do that to you, he said.” – storypeople


I know what kind of people I am. No question about it.

Two siblings run across the park. Chasing each other delightedly. They take a moment to stand in front of the fountain. The older sister puts her arm across her brother’s shoulders. When the moment has gone too still for too long for the little boy, he shrugs his sister’s arm off and goes to jump through the puddles. Puddling is fun.

Puddling is Fun
I read a few more pages. Just as I’m thinking about leaving, the two old weather-talking men return. They pause when they see their bench is occupied. I hear their brief conference. It’s amiable and without any remarks about a proprietary claim to their previous spot. They settle on a bench across the park. Where did they go? For lunch? For coffee? To get a paper? They’ve certainly chatted the morning away and now they’re aiming to do the same with the afternoon.

We’re lucky aren’t we, old weather-talking men? I ask them in my head. We’re just so lucky.

But not everyone can live the way we do. The lover boy passes by me calling out his girl’s name. Absorbed as I’d been in my book and my other spying I hadn’t seen her pass. I look over my shoulder. There she goes. She’s off at a fast pace, shoulders rigid, head held chin up, angry. She doesn’t look back. She’s no longer wearing the boy’s jacket. The boy calls after her. His big diamond earrings catch the light of the sun, glinting. He changes his walk into a jog, yells a line in his defense and then they vanish from my sight in the dusty throes of a tornadic lover’s tiff.
AsÍ es la vida. That’s life.

Ain’t it grand?