Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Happy Feet 2 and Latino Love

November 29, 2011 – Happy Feet 2 and Latino Love
I go with Rodney and Steve to the movies. In our taxi ride over to the theater I try to remember the last time I went out to see a film. It’s been so long that it takes me a really long ride down memory lane to come up with the answer. At the dead end of that trip, I figure it must have been back in the summer of 2010 when I went with this guy Raul to see The Prince of Persia. Throughout the movie Raul kept asking me questions about what was going to happen, what had happened, or why something had happened. I whispered my responses or my “shhhhhh”es and he was shocked when all my predictions came true.

I didn’t go to the theater much, mostly because movie tickets prices had gotten so ridiculous in the States that I couldn’t handle the expense. I preferred to spend my extra dollars on buying overpriced raw chocolate bars, carrots and hummus, and organic coconut products. And when the Colorado Springs library system offered recently released movies for free check out and I could watch them in the privacy and comfort of my own home, I saw no reason to be anything other than a hermit.

Also my latent OCD tendencies tend to raise their fists in protest when I head into a theater room. My shoes stick to the coca-colaed floors and my hair stands on end with the thought of the high lice acquisition potential of theater seats. That doesn’t even bring into account the loud popcorn chewing noise, the seat-kicking or the lightning storm flashes of people texting and the disruption of their making cell phones calls. I’ve got issues, whether latent or not, I acknowledge that they’re still issues.
However, usually once the lights go out and the screen comes to life these thoughts fade behind the curtains. I settle into my chair and absorb the visual enactments of other worlds, other lives.

When Rodney, Steve and I walk into the mall area that houses the theater, I have a feeling of displacement like I’ve been pulled up out of my own life and plopped back down in a zoo. There are strange clusters of people loitering all around. Pods are bunched together around food stands. Packs have stopped dead in the middle of the walkways to talk. Gaggles are waddling about like geese.
Ochlophobia swarms up my larynx and settles like cotton in my mouth. People are so weird, I think.

You’re so weird, I tell myself.
Yeah, I know, I reply.

I act normal, as if I don’t have two-sided conversations with myself on a regular basis. I act normal as if many of the other mall-denizens and movie-goers aren’t staring at white-skinned, light haired me like I really am a zoo animal. Rodney, being over six feet tall, gets a lot of attention as well. What strange beasts we are. Peruvian Steve receives appraising looks as if these people are wondering how he got lucky (or unlucky) enough to be our handler.
This is life in Peru. This is my life in the human zoo.
Thus watched, we wend our way over to the ticket line. Because I don’t view much TV, I have no idea what movies are even out. So when we scan the times and titles I’m pretty clueless as to plots and genres. I’m along for the fun of it and content to let the boys pick something out.

The one movie with Ryan Reynolds that Steve and Rodney had been intending to see for some time won’t start for another hour and forty minutes. We decide we don’t want to wait that long. Happy Feet 2 is only thirty minutes from show time and we all shrug and say, “Sure, sounds good.”

Steve treats us to the movie. While he’s buying the tickets, the cashier sees Rodney and me for the gringos we are and tells Steve that the movie is in Spanish.
“It’s in Spanish,” Steve says.

“That’s okay with me,” I say and look over to Rodney to see what he thinks.
“If I don’t understand it well enough,” Rodney says, “I’ll just buy it and watch it in English later.”

We’re all good with it then and Steve completes the purchase. Rodney buys the popcorn and sodas for him and Steve while Steve and I go to secure seats among the multitude of children and their parents.
The seats have orange cloth covers over them advertising Fanta and as I sit, I think about lice. Yeah, yeah, I know, theaters are lice transferring grounds, I’ve heard it before. “What will you look like with a shaved head?” my imagination asks. I tell it and my paranoia to take a hike. I’ll develop my own eccentricities, thank you very much.

Rodney finds us in the semi-darkness and we all get settled in and ready for the show.
I’d actually, and amazingly enough, seen the original Happy Feet so I know it’s about Penguins and about young Mumble’s discovery of his happy feet and subsequently his place in the universe. It’s with ease that I can jump right back into this animated world.

Happy Feet 2 is much the same as Happy Feet. It’s a sweet-messaged movie about Mumble’s son Erik who can’t yet sing or dance, about working together, doing good for the world, being kind to your neighbors, and learning who you are and how you express that you-ness.
One of the sub-plot points revolves around the Latino penguin character Ramon actively pursuing a beautiful, snobby penguin named Carmen. The audience laughs at his antics. The adults in the theater seem to come to life when Ramon’s scenes come on. They understand this. This is their culture. This is the Latino male-- que romantico--pursuing the Latina female.

I’m disgusted. I don’t like the character. He’s the comic relief, but I don’t laugh along. I prefer the Krill characters Will and Bill.

Ramon’s actions are a little too much like real life to me. His character reminds me of what I’ve discovered to be the hardest part of living in South America; fending off advances and making these Latino guys realize I’m not going to change my mind. I’m not just playing hard to get. I’m not telling them to prove themselves to me. I’m just not interested.
“Latin men make good lovers,” someone recently told me.

“I’m sure they do,” I replied. “But I’ll pass. I just can’t handle the clingy obsessiveness and sentimental attention.”

I’m not anti-love. I believe, as Mel Gibson’s character Jerry says in Conspiracy Theory, that, “Love gives you wings.” And that, “True love is the greatest thing in the world—except for a nice MLT—mutton, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe. They’re so perky, I love that,” as Miracle Max says in The Princess Bride, though I have some doubts about that MLT.

Up until this moment I hadn’t really understood what my problem was.

I’d thought I hated this Latino Attentive Love because it makes me feel like an object instead of an equal. I thought it was my feminism asserting itself. I thought it was my need for freedom and individualism that resisted these guys’ sappy, sugary, clinging love.  
The interaction between Ramon and Carmen is enlightening. The resolution of their story shows me the why which I’d been pondering for so long.

Carmen spurns Ramon’s advances. Blindly, passionately, oblivious to her cruelty, Ramon chases after her. He spouts poetry and calls her pet names. Through it all, Carmen turns her beak up into the air. Then separated by a suddenly risen snowcapped cliff, Ramon wails, “No! Not a long distance relationship!” In this moment of crisis, his ardor dominates. When Ramon throws himself from the high peak to land at Carmen’s feet, she suddenly realizes that he’s proven his love enough for her to take notice of him.
And I’m sure they live happily ever after. Que lindo (how beautiful). True love conquers all.

Or does it?

What I discover by watching Happy Feet 2 is that my problem is with the “you have to prove yourself to me” nature of the Latino and South American male female relationships.

I contemplate this over the ride back to Rodney and Steve’s apartment, while I say thanks and bye, on my bus trip home, and on the ten block walk back to my place. The next day I tell Katrina about the movie (which I really did like overall) and then about Ramon, my least favorite character.
“I think Carmen would be mine,” she says, not having seen the movie to fully judge for herself. “Because it’s women like her, those types of Latina women who encourage that behavior from these men. They’re enabling it, they’re allowing it.”

I shiver. “And they probably like it.”
It’s a power play. That’s what it is.

It’s dominance and submission from both sides.
It’s male feathery display and female shopping selection.

Happy Feet 2 is a classic example of how it goes here so often in South America. Ramon sees Carmen, become enamored, throws open the love throttles and goes for it. She is suddenly his entire world. For Ramon, he’ll do anything to prove his love. If he’s spurned forever by Carmen, eventually he’ll either kill himself in his efforts to win her over or go find another female to pursue. It gets a bit stalkerish. And this process will go on ad infinitum until he dies or some female accepts his advances. Maybe this is just the evolutionary mating process, maybe. In this movie’s case, Ramon is rewarded with Carmen’s acceptance and his pursuing days come to an end. At least until Happy Feet 3 comes out.

For Carmen (and perhaps the generalized and stereotyped Latina woman), Ramon isn’t even her equal until he risks death for her. Her acceptance of his advances has nothing to do with who he is. Nothing at all. All she knows is that he’s persistent. The value she places on their relationship is based solely on his obsessive attention to her. In reality, she doesn’t accept him for the kind of man (or penguin) that he is, she accepts him for paying more attention to her than she does to herself.
This is what I don’t like. The pedestaled quality of the female. The permission the male feels he has that allows him to pursue a female indefinitely even when told no. The breakdown of resistance due to absurdity. It’s this age-old ancient animalistic ritual of sex and love. For the South American men and women this ritual may work just fine. It’s a routine they know by heart and can throw themselves into, or up-nosedly scorn. It’s a dance and a game.

But not a dance that I want to learn the steps to, or a game I want to memorize the rules for. Let these women be pursued and scorn whom they will. Let these men throw themselves off proverbial ice cliffs for these outwardly cold women. As for me, I’ll continue to have my affairs with words, and if one day I find a love that fits my kind of crazy, I’ll maybe look back on this time and see what a judgmental fool I was and laugh at myself.

And that’s what I learned from Happy Feet 2.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Antisocial and Thanksgiving in Peru

November 27, 2011 – Antisocial and Thanksgiving in Peru

Joaquin and I review the material for his upcoming English exam. We’re matching prefixes with their definition on a worksheet his teacher had given the class. It’s hard stuff. I hardly know what the actual meanings for Dis-, Co-, Mis-, Tele-, De- and Ex- are. And English is supposed to be my specialty. I’m trying to give him words that have Spanish equivalents so he can imprint the meaning in his mind. At least that’s what I tell myself because it makes me feel teachery and just a tad bit smarter than I fear I am. The only Co- word I can come up with on the spot is Cohabitation and I don’t feel up to explaining what that means. So I skip my methodology and just give him the answer.

“Co- means together,” I tell him. I repeat it. “Now look for that meaning on your worksheet.”

“Do we have to do this?” he asks, after he’s put the corresponding letter on the blank line next to Co-.
I’m inclined to say no. But I want him to do well on his test and I want to earn the money his mom has paid me. “It’s hard, I know it. We’ll do a couple more.” I look for a few easy ones. Hex-, Quad-, Cent-, no problem. Anti- is high up there on the list. I scan my memory for words with that prefix and quickly reject antidisestablishmentarianism. Antisocial jumps to mind and I go with it.

“Social is when you like to go to parties and be with people, right? So anti- means the opposite. Antisocial is when you like to be alone,” I explain.
“You’re antisocial?” he asks me astonished.

“No, yes, sometimes,” I stutter. This isn’t about me.
But yeah, sometimes I am.

Case in point:
A few weeks ago, while I’m eating quinoa for breakfast and staring out the window at the blanket-white sky and wondering if summer will really ever come, Katrina stops on her way into the kitchen. “I want to make Thanksgiving dinner and have a bunch of people over,” she says. “But I’m having a hard time with the guest list.”

“Oh?” I ask.
“I’ve got over forty people on it and that’s not even all my friends.”

I manage to keep my mouth from dropping open or myself from falling out of the chair. Forty people? I get biblical in my head and think,” Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” In this instance Judea is the apartment and those who are in it is me and the mountains are someplace I need to find posthaste.
I’m not anti-party, I’m certainly not anti-Katrina, I’m not anti-guests and I’m not anti-Thanksgiving. But I do tend to sink the balance more towards the intro- rather than extrovert side of the scale when I take the time to measure myself. Also I’m a vegetarian.
Katrina loves to entertain. She loves to throw parties decorated to match the occasion. She loves to fix elaborate meals and celebrate the holidays in true style. I admire this. It impresses me. But sometimes, as my grandmother would say, “It makes me want to put a cold rag on my head and lie down.”

I’m still recovering from Halloween. And now it’s Thanksgiving time? Whatever shall I do?

After I express my demophobic dismay to Rodney, he offers up his house as the proverbial mountains. He understands my introvertism, being afflicted with similar sentiments much of the time himself. “If you wanted to work you could bring over your laptop and it’d be quiet,” he says. “We could even have a little vegetarian dinner.”
“I could bring over Pisco Sour fixings so I can practice making them,” I say. I’ve been here nearly six months and it just seems like I should know how to make Peru’s national drink by now. As Willy Wonka says, “There’s no better time to learn.”

Feeling secretive and traitorous I tell Katrina, “It’s nothing personal, but I’m going away on your party day.”

She doesn’t spit in my face or call me rude. Instead she invites me to watch the great turkey opening. “Last year when I opened up the turkey to get it ready to cook I was so shocked to find the turkey’s head stuck inside.” She looks at me. “Oh, will that gross you out?”

Poor dead turkey, I think. “Poor dead turkey,” I say. “No, I’d be interested in seeing it. I’ll probably even want to take pictures.”
Later that day, the great turkey opening moment arrives. Katrina comes and gets me from my study. Poor dead turkey, I still think as I snap the pictures I knew I’d take. “I’m sorry,” I tell the turkey when I lean down to take a close-up shot. Katrina washes it and eventually sticks it in the oven to bake. When I pass through the kitchen to forage for food or fill up on water she asks, “Do you want to see it?”

She’s especially proud of the turkey.
I make encouraging noises when she opens the oven to show me the browning skin, and then I shuffle back to my study.

A meal this elaborate (she has three or four pages of recipes and notes stuck on the fridge) makes the complete overtaking of the kitchen a necessity. Earlier in the day I’d washed some cauliflower and tried to eat a hearty lunch so I wouldn’t have to get in her way. She has taken the kitchen over and there’s hardly counter space for anything else. It’s a veritable feast in the making.
About dinner time my stomach complains that it’s been sadly neglected. Quit complaining, I tell it. You’ve eaten once today, for crying out loud. But I go get my bowl of cauliflower and sit munching it while I pretend to edit my novel.

Katrina knocks on the door. “Can I borrow your camera to take a picture of the turkey in the oven?” she asks. She sees the bowl in my lap. “Ew. Are you eating that raw?”
With more than a touch of irony I think, You just pulled a dead turkey’s head out of its concavity and you think eating raw cauliflower is gross?

“This coming from someone who just pulled out the head and feet from a dead turkey,” I say with a smile and a laugh. It’s all about perspective, right?
Saturday morning (since Thanksgiving is not a South American holiday Katrina is having her big dinner on the weekend so that her friends can be sure to come) when I wake up the apartment is filled with a mixture of smells. Home cooked, holiday smells. My last night’s cauliflower dinner has ceased to satisfy my belly’s longings and I head into the kitchen to grab some breakfast.

“It smells really good,” I tell Katrina when we pass each other in the hallway both of us with coffee cups in hand. And it does.
Later when I’m bustling around getting set to leave the house I overhear Katrina tell Oswaldo, “Even  Amanda said it smells good.”

Even me.
But, it’s like the old saying, “Food, food everywhere and not a bite to eat.” So I shoulder my bag, collect some books, make sure I have some money on me and then go out to catch my old bus friend the Molinero 49.

Rodney has gotten most of his planned work done for the day and although I’ve brought stuff to work on I haven’t made any specific writing goals. We put off writerly productivity (er, at least I do) and talk the afternoon away. We chat about writing and life and travel and dreams and publishing and critiques and friends and movies and vampires. When his roommate Steve rises from his crypt and comes in to cheek kiss me hello Rodney tells him, “We’ve talked all day.”
And we have. I feel almost like I’m out of words. I look over at Rodney sprawled comfortably on his couch and think he looks a little talked out too. I’ve heard it said before that most men only speak about 2000 words a day and that woman usually speak something like 7000. After my classes with Joaquin sometimes I’m not convinced I even know seven thousand words especially prefixed ones, and except in those rare moments when I chatter someone’s ear off, I usually feel I stay more in the 2000 man-talk range for daily talk rates. I prefer to gush in written words. Even so, this post is only just at 2078 words which still leaves me near that lower limit.

Steve glides away.
In the air I sense a need for some silence so I go to the kitchen and start the Daring Pisco Sour Making Adventure. Katrina had given me some Pisco Sour recipes from a snooty Pisco magazine she’d translated and I have them with me. Suddenly, standing over the boiling sugar water, I have this dread that my drink skills will end up in a joke. “A gringa walks into a bar…”
I melt down the sugar, I wash the eggs (one had broken on the bus ride over), I fresh squeeze some limes. Meanwhile, Rodney delves through his cabinets looking for shot glass measuring equivalents and for a mixing glass for us to use in place of a shaker or blender.  

I figure it’ll take me several attempts to get a dry Pisco. I prefer a dry Pisco Sour rather than a sweet one. But I’d like to know how to do both styles. I rub my hands together and crack my knuckles.
Rodney looks over the recipe I’d copied down. “You’re going to want to use about half this amount of Pisco. Four ounces of Pisco is four shots. You won’t be able to tell if it’s dry or sweet with that much Pisco in there. Have you ever had a straight shot of Pisco?”

“Yes,” I say. “Yes, I have.” I remember it as the Fabulous Thunderbirds so aptly say, as “Powerful Stuff.” And I adjust the level of Pisco per his suggestion.
We brilliantly figure out how to mathematically convert convoluted and complicated measurements from gills to cups to pints to gallons to barrels and then down to ounces. With all those numbers running like programing code through my brain I pour the various liquids into the glass.

Rodney blends it up and I dump the resulting mixture into two glasses.
“It looks like a Pisco Sour,” he says, holding the glass up to the light.

I take a deep breath as we toast and say, “Salud.” Rodney bravely sips.
“It’s perfect,” he says. “It’s a little on the dry side,” he prefers his Sours a little sweeter, “but it’s good. I can’t believe it, you got it perfect the first time.”

“I’ll have to open my own Gringa Bar now,” I say, tentatively tasting mine, already having forgotten I’d been worried about being the butt of a good bar joke. It’s not bad. It’s just about the way I like them. “I’ll probably never be able to recreate this. I’d better write down exactly what I did.” Heeding my own advice I do. Just that quick the Daring Pisco Sour Making Adventure is over. Nothing is broken except for two egg shells, neither of us is drunk and Peru hasn’t convulsed in horror at the travesty of a foreigner dabbling with their elixir. So all is well with the world.
I clean up the dishes and then we return to the living room and talk some more. By this time I think I’ve used up most of my next week’s words. I imagine myself--for days on end--sitting in my study in a monk-like vow of silence kind of silence. That doesn’t actually sound bad at all. In this wordy moment, however, we’re discussing movies and neither of us can remember an actor’s name. “I’d probably know him if I saw him,” I say. “I’m terrible with names and stuff.” When Steve comes out to make some dinner (or perhaps breakfast for him, since he’s only recently woken up) Rodney calls in to him, “Hey, Steve, what’s the name of the actor who plays in the movie The Green Lantern?”

Steve whips around the corner and exclaims, “We’re going to see a movie?”
“We could,” Rodney says. He looks over at me with the question in his eyes.

I shrug. “Yeah, sure.”
So we do.
I'd tell you about it now but I'm out of words for today and feeling gently antisocial. Never fear, the tale will store well enough in the fridge next to Katrina's Thanksgiving Meal leftovers and be fresh for another time. Until then, cuidate and chau.

[n.b. The actor who played The Green Lantern and whose name kept eluding us is Ryan Reynolds.]

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Hostile World

November 22, 2011 – Hostile World, or is it?

I’ve stayed in the house too long because when I pass through the apartment complex gates the world is hostile. Everyone I see is a stranger, even my own reflection in the car windows’ glass. The busyness is overwhelming. I’ve stepped from the safety of my apartment into an existential crisis.
Humanity swirls. Noise abounds. Motion, movement, what a mess. Where am I? What am I? Who am I? I cry out inside. A quasi-creepy dude passes me on a bike. He doesn’t stop staring until he’s half way down the block, craning his neck back to watch me. I feel like I’m on display. Did I remember to put on shoes? Are they matching? I know I brushed my hair, I remember doing it. Bike guy turns down the road I’m about to take and I almost go a different route. I feel too visible, too vulnerable. I’m all alone in this vast squirming mass of millions.

I cross the street and a passing car honks. Then honks again. As if I hadn’t heard, the driver leans out and says, “Taxi.” In proper Peruvian style I don’t flinch, I don’t even shift my eyes up from the sidewalk. He apparently has not read the pedestrian handbook. “Taxi,” he says again. I remain impassive and keep on without even a pause in my step. Catching the hint, finally, he drives up a few feet and honks at another walker.
About half way to my class I settle into the rhythm of Lima. This is familiar, I tell myself, you know this place. It’s not so bad. This is just the world. These are just people. Oh yeah.

“You need to get out more,” I say.
“Apparently,” I reply.

“Spend more time with real people instead of just words and made up characters.”
“Hey, ease up. I heard you the first time.”

I’m about ten minutes early for my class so I sit on the stone bench outside of the grocery store Vivanda and watch people surreptitiously. I scowl at the wintry sky and eavesdrop on passerbys.
When the time comes, I head over to the apartment and the vigilante (doorman) lets me in. “Buenas tardes,” he says. He’s an older gentleman and friendly. We have our greetings down pat; with smiles and “You’re a human too, just like me” kind of acknowledgment. We’d even had an actual conversation the other day when I was waiting for Joaquin to get home from school.

“Buenas tardes,” I reply.
The floors have just been cleaned and my shoes squeak loudly as I walk up to the third floor. The pungent odor of the cleaner strikes me strongly. I ring the bell. No answer. I check my phone to make sure it’s Tuesday and six o’clock. It is. I wait a bit then ring again. A moment or two passes and then the door creeps open and a tentative head peers out at me. I try to look familiar. Nice. Unexistential myself.

“Hola, buenas tardes,” I tell the little old grandmother.
“Oh! I’m sorry,” she says opening the door for me to come in. “You’re the profesora. I didn’t recognize you in the darkness of the hall. Come on in.”

She tells me to make myself comfortable at the table and that the family is on their way home. Seconds later, Joaquin comes in. “Hola, miss (meece),” he says. “Do you mind if I change out of my soccer clothes?”  I don’t, and eventually he comes and sits at the table. He and I unscramble words, match synonyms and review collective nouns. He’s got his end of semester test coming up and we’re working on material that’ll be on the exam. We’re right down to business and the hour goes by quickly.
Per his mother’s charge that he be a gentleman, Joaquin walks me down to the main door. We cheek kiss, I bid the vigilante a Buenas Noches, and then walk out into the world.

It feels different. Less alarming. The sky even seems less wintry, more like spring. Much more warm.
With my week’s teaching pay in my bag and my grocery list in hand, I head towards Metro. If I get a few days’ worth of food I can isolate myself in my study for at least another day and chance more existential crises. Sounds great. I weave around people standing still on the sidewalk, couples kissing, solitary souls waiting for buses or talking on the phone. I switch sidewalk sides like a pro and avoid collisions with oncomers. One right turn and I cut through some parking lots.

There’s a bodega on the corner. They have the prettiest fruit. It calls to me, tells me I’m not alone in the world after all. The mangoes are just spectacular and the sight of their succulent orange ripeness knocks my thoughts of mortality right out of my head. Forget Metro, their mangoes had looked used and wrinkly. I end up buying nearly everything the bodega sells (That’s only a slight exaggeration). The girl who’s tending this part of the store is very friendly and even gives me a smile or two as she weighs and bags and calculates costs.

She helps me bag things up and tells me to go pay at the window. There’s a line. Well, not really a line, more like a jumbled up collection of people. Straight lines haven’t yet been introduced to Peru. Maybe they’ll be the next big trend. I don’t know. Nevertheless, I make eye contact with a guy in jumble and he offers me the spot in front of him. When I drop twenty centimos on the ground he’s there to pick it up before I am.

“Gracias,” I say. I pay my bill and tell the guy thank you again for the spot in line. This is human interaction. This is normal.
I collect my multitude of bags out and go sit on the park bench outside the bodega so I can rearrange my fruits and vegetables for the walk home.

When I’ve shouldered the weight, a grizzled, middle-aged man with a cigarette in his mouth and a wavering half-drunk stagger comes close to me. “I gave them five soles,” he says. “And I got ten soles back in change. That’s good handling of my money, right?”
“Uh, yeah. That’s great.” I have no idea what he’s talking about but, okay. I all but give him a thumbs up sign. He repeats himself, and I smile then go.

“That’s good money,” he calls after me.
It’s about a six minute walk to the house from where I am. The sidewalks are dim with the gathering night. I’m working up a sweat with the oppressive weight of my newly purchased food and my fast paced walking. I’m not a paranoid person, but I try to be smart when I walk alone, especially at night. I try to be aware of what’s around me and use common sense. That’s just smart living.

Just ahead, two guys are coming towards me. They’re taking up the entire sidewalk. I inch over as far as I can to the right. The guy in front of me doesn’t move. They come closer. Now we’re in position to have a head-on walking collision. I could maybe fall into the shrubbery, but I’d rather not with my mangoes and peaches. I don’t want to bruise them.

“The hardest part about playing chicken is knowing when to flinch,” one of the best lines from The Hunt for Red October comes to my mind. Yet nearer, the guy still doesn’t move. He must be thinking the same line. Darn it. Then suddenly, just as he comes parallel to me, the left side guy stops. At the same moment, the right side guy stops in front of me.

Hardest part of playing chicken is...
If they’d caught me in my primary existential moment when I’d first left the security of my home I might have screamed. But I’m calmer now.

“Can we ask you a quick question?” the left side guy asks me in Spanish.

I’m not scared. I’m not even alarmed. I don’t have creep-vibe sirens going off in my head. There are no flashing lights in my brain with neon orange words of Danger Danger. But I do think it’d be a good trick of distraction to stop someone for a question and then rob them. Please don’t take the mangoes, I think.
“Okay,” I say. I keep watch on the right side guy, who’s bigger, out of the corner of my eye. Left side guy pulls out a microphone.

Holy smokes. I thought they’d ask for directions or something, I wasn’t expecting an interview. Dear Spanish Speaking Gods, I pray, please don’t let me make a fool of myself. I practice conjugations and declensions in my head feverishly.
He holds out the microphone. “What do you think is the biggest problem in this neighborhood?”

I hate on the spot questions. Being interviewed is so nerve wracking. Of course it’s not worse than being robbed, but all the same, I do much better with the written word than I do with the spoken. That goes doubly when I’m talking in Spanish. 
“Probably the traffic,” I say, coming up with the easiest answer I can think of.

“Are there any other problems that you have with this neighborhood? Do you have any concerns about safety?”
I want to tell him that no, I don’t. At least I didn’t until he and his friend blocked my way, stopped me on a dark pathway and started asking me random questions, but I don’t know how to say all that quickly enough.

“Do you feel there are things in this neighborhood that could be better? Regarding safety? Security?” He has a whole slew of questions that he plies me with. And I kind of just smile and nod. “Just the traffic? That’s what you feel is the main problem?” I nod. “Everything else is normal? Okay? Not so bad? You don’t feel unsafe?”
“No,” I say. He’s pretty much covered the whole interview with his words, thank goodness. “Todo normal (everything’s fine).”

He reiterates everything again, just to make sure it’s only the traffic I’d like to improve. Then he and his friend thank me and walk away.
As I resume my own trip home--kind of in interviewee shock--I wonder if my words will be aired on some late night radio show. At least it wasn’t for TV. Even though I did brush my hair today. Did I sound like a dumb gringa? Did I say the right words? What did I even say? I think I pulled off the appearance of knowledge by letting left side guy do all the talking, but I’m still insecure. Blocks away, my curiosity comes up with all the questions I wished I’d asked them. “What is this for? Is this for a school project or for your work? Why are you going around in the dark? Don’t you know it’s alarming to approach someone the way you did?”

The strangeness of it all hangs with me until I walk most of the way down Nicaragua Avenue and espy the Bread-Cart Man. The world rotates on its axis. The earth orbits the sun. The planets dance their celestial dance. The Bread-Cart Man is in his place.
I come up alongside him.

“I’ve got apple pie, plain bread, and a few filled breads left still today,” he tells me.
I look into the cart. “I looked for you the other day,” I say. “But you weren’t here.”

“I wasn’t?” he asks. “What day was it? I work every day until 8:00.”
“It was in the afternoon.”

He looks puzzled. Then he gives me his entire schedule--early in the mornings, all through the day, until eight at night. Monday through Saturday. I smile and nod just a bit. And I buy two pieces of plain bread from him.
“Cuidate, chau,” he tells me and he means it.

The Bread-Cart Man is like a friend. Now that I know he’s out there every day except Sunday, my existential crisis doesn’t seem so bad. I’ve anchored to something solid and dependable. I can handle the craziness of the city when I know that just around the corner, if I need him, the Bread-Cart Man, with his cart filled with a variety of bread and slabs of apple pie, will be there.
And if he’s not, well, that’d be okay too.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Amanda Jane Puddin 'n Tane

November 21, 2011 –Amanda Jane Puddin ‘n Tane

When I was a teenager I worked at a little shop in Bennington, Vermont called The Mexican Connection. One day when I was tending the place by myself a dark haired, forty-something  woman breezed in. She hovered over the chess sets, fingered all of the silver jewelry, vigorously sorted through the ponchos and baja hoodies, and chattered like we’d known each other for years. I can’t remember if she bought anything or not. But her fluttering was exhausting and I was relieved when she finally decided to leave. She wasn’t done with me yet. When she wrenched the front door open, making the bell peal in protest, she turned suddenly to me and asked, “What’s your name?”
“Amanda,” I told her.

“Well, you should have people start calling you Mandy. You need to reinvent yourself. You need to be something new. Goodbye, Mandy!” she said. Then she waved dramatically, bounded out the store, down the street, and out of my life.
I’d never been a Mandy. Amanda had always fit me. I also had the narcissistic luck to like who I was. I didn’t feel a need for reinvention then. So I made a face after the woman and repolished all the silver.

“Amanda Jane Puddin ‘n Tane, ask me again and I’ll tell you the same,” my uncle Jeff used to tease me. He was the only one who could get away with saying that to me without making me upset. He also called me Snaggle Tooth for ages. I’d knocked my front teeth out when I was really young and it seemed like it took years for my new ones to grow in. Actually I think it really did take years. “Hey Snaggle Tooth,” he’d say. “What do you want for Christmas?” Then he’d launch into All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth. In reality, I wanted his attention, all of us kids did. He was fun and he played with us. He could get away with a lot; like nearly breaking our hearts when he left from a visit.
Uncle Jeff in a Hat
“Show me one tear,” he’s say when my sibs and I pranced around his truck trying to talk him into staying longer.  “One tear and I’ll stay.”

I could never get my eyes to cooperate. I practiced too. I tried to teach myself to cry on demand. I’d look hard in the mirror, think about sad things, and not blink, but it only dried out my eyes. I begged and tried to cry when he left, but Uncle Jeff used the unfair tactic of silliness to make me laugh. He’d wave to us out the window of his truck as he drove away. And we always missed him instantly. I loved him despite the fact he had a dog named Hannah Banana and he and other members of my family called me Amanda Banana after the dog. He had me all wrapped around his little finger.
Amanda Jane Puddin ‘n Tane. Ask me again and I’ll tell you the same.

I might need counseling at some point in my life for who knows what. However, up to this moment my crises have never had anything to do with my name. Not so far. And yes, I’ve heard the “Hey! It’s A Man Duh,” line more times than you can perhaps imagine. So there is that.
Amanda Panda. Amanda Fanda Bo-Banda Fee-Fi-Fo-Fanda. Amanda Banana. Amanda’s Fonda (a restaurant in Colorado Springs). Manders. Manda.  

These are cutsie names. They’re alright, but I don’t feel I’m a cutsie sort of person. On the forms where they ask for “Your Preferred Name” I always have this slight inclination to put down Captain. Because I have D.O.G.s (delusions of grandeur). Big time. Which is probably why my mom calls me Mando – for Mando Commando.
I should get that stitched on my underwear.

Okay, so yeah, I do need counseling.

“What’s your full name?” my friend Charles asked me once when we were getting those Get to Know You kind of details out of the way.
“Amanda Jane White,” I said.

“Can your name be any more  boring?” he asked.
To which I probably just shrugged and grinned. Boring? Maybe. To the point? Certainly. Fitting? Absolutely. My parents chose my name because it means Worthy to be Loved. That there probably explains some of my narcissism. Love Thyself, right?

Here in Peru, I’m grateful that my name is easy to say in Castellano. Uh-man-duh translates easily to Aaah-mawn-da. Sometimes I get the questioning, “Samantha?” which is closer than the “Amber” which quite a few people in the States mistakenly called me after being first introduced. Because the name started with an A. Close, but no cigar.

My BFF Stevie Martin calls me Mandie. In our Judo days he started calling me that in an effort to get a rise out of me after I’d mentioned I didn’t like to be called Mandy, only to discover his weapon backfired when I started calling him Steven.

I used to bristle over being mis-called. But no more. Maybe that’s the settling into yourself which comes with age. I know who I am.
Which is good, because here many people call me the Spanish equivalent to Mandy.

There’s a patronizing affection easy to add in to  the Spanish language. Almost any word can be cute-ified.
Your name is Juan – you can be Juanito. Little John, so to speak, or Johnnie.
Que precioso.

You’re an arbol (a tree)—you can be an arbolito. Little tree. So cute.
Me? My name is Amanda – I get verbally patted on the head and called Amandita. Little Amanda, so to speak, or Mandie.
Que preciosa.  

Several months ago I met a lady named Maura in the park. I’d gone to wile away a few hours between classes, to drink my green smoothie, and to turn my face up to the seldom seen winter Limeñan sun.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw a woman approach. A shadow fell across my face, blocked my sun, paused there, and then moved slightly over. Something like amused astonishment struck me when this woman sat down right next to me. On the same bench.  Even though the park had many other empty benches to choose from.
“I’d wanted to sit in the park for a minute and saw this bench,” she told me after about an hour’s worth of conversation. “Then I saw you sit on it, but the other ones were too far away so I decided to sit with you.” Many Peruvians think nearly any distance is too far to walk. A lot of Lima city folk get on the buses and pay fifty centimos to go half a block. I’m not kidding.

I’d wondered why she settled down next to me, but hadn’t figured out how to ask politely how it was that of all the seats in the park she chose this one. I find people so wonderfully strange and sometimes can’t make up a good enough reason in my head for their actions. With Maura I’d figured she just wanted someone to talk with and that I had looked approachable or foreign enough to chance it.
But, my musings and evaluation of human behavior aside, she and I had a good conversation.

“I don’t need a single drop of alcohol to make me happy. I love to dance,” she told me after asking me my name and questioning me about my partying habits and lifestyle.  
On this day I was still in the midst of my great conversation crisis of September and needed some one-on-one with more than just the Cobradors asking for my bus fare. I was clutching my own happiness to my heart while I tried to find the steps to my own dance. I was in the upward rise of a learning curve. The city life was turning out to be a hard adjustment for me. The time with another human being filled a spot in my loneliness and I appreciated the chance (and odd) encounter.

As if my name meant Worthy to be Told Maura related stories to me of her children when they were young. How once her son gave some of his favorite cars to a poor street child who’d been playing with only the wheels of an old car. Her son came inside, went upstairs, cleaned up one or two of his toy cars and then ran back out to give them to the kid. Maura worried after several hours when her son didn’t return home. When he finally came back she asked what had taken so long.

“It was far away,” he told her. “But then I got there and decided to stay and play with him for a while.”

The next day he came into the kitchen and said, “You know what made me happiest?”
“What?” she asked.

“Playing with that boy.”
Maura turned to me and put her hand on my arm, “You know what, Amandita, when I remember that time and what he said, I always get so happy with emotion. He was such a kind boy.”

I’d gotten tears in my own eyes at her retelling and at the sweetness of children. At love. Maybe I’ve learned how to cry on demand after all this time after all.
“Well, Amandita,” Maura told me again, “I guess I’d better go.” She’d wiled away my time for me and yet, she didn’t leave. She stayed a little bit longer. She told me other stories--of her childhood in the jungle, of how she and her husband met, of her husband’s health, of her daughter and her job, of past pains and joys. And through it all, Maura told me, she leaned on God. “Life can be hard,” she told me. Her son hadn’t always made her happy with emotion. His choices as an adult gave Maura pause and a little bit of grief. “Sometimes you pray for things and nothing happens. But, Amanda, Amandita,” she amended, “have you heard the story of Santa Monica?”

I shook my head.
“Santa Monica prayed for her son for thirty-five years. Then finally he was saved and purified and made into a saint himself. You have to have faith like Saint Monica. You don’t know how long it’ll take for your prayer to be answered. The bad things that happen, God doesn’t do those things. The good things in life are from God. After I heard about her, I prayed for God to give me strength to be the same way.”

I listened to Maura, I listened to the birds, I thought of good and bad things. Car alarms went off in the background. Dogs ran. Children laughed, screamed, played. Lovers loved. Workers worked. Maura and I sat on that bench together with the sun in our faces and thought about life.
“We all have this life,” she told me, gesturing to the grass and the trees and the sunlit sky. “Look around at how beautiful everything is.”

Yeah, I thought. It is beautiful. “Yes,” I told her. “It’s an amazing life.”
She hugged me tight when we bid each other chau. “Cuidate (take care),” she told me when we kissed cheeks.

As I walked away from that park I felt my name tight around me like a blanket. I felt worthy to be loved. I didn’t feel like a reinvented Mandy or even like a sweet Amandita. I felt just like an Amanda. For me, that was enough.
That was, until Katrina’s boyfriend Oswaldo started calling me Amandis (Pronounced Amandeece).

I tried the name on like a jacket. Turned a bit to see how it made me look in the mirror. I liked it. It made me feel like a plural. An Entity. The Royal We.

 A simple name ending goes straight to my head. You don't like it? Okay, no problem, you can just call me Captain.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Cast Thy Bread Upon the Waters

November 17, 2011 – Cast Your Bread Upon the Waters or the Great Bread Quest

I’ve got a sudden hankering for bread. I abandon my ironing board desk, turn off my music which has been drowning out the screams of The Screaming Kid and burst out of my study.
“You want some bread?” I ask Katrina.
“Sure,” she says.

“I’m going to see if the Bread-Cart Man is at his spot around the corner.”

I’ve had a minor stomach bug since Monday and not very many things sound good yet for eatin’. But finally my appetite has returned and I figure I need to keep my strength up now that I’m caught up on sleep, pretty well had my system cleaned out, and am nearly back to hydrated.
Since my resolve to get back in bad-kick-ass-ninja shape a month or so ago, I’ve been working out every morning, stopped with the bread consumption I’d lapsed into since coming to Peru, and gotten back to a higher raw diet. I feel better this way. That is until I fell under the weather.  In this moment, with my stomach saying it’ll cooperate once again with food type things, I figure a piece or two of bread won’t undo my hard work, especially since all I’ve had in the past forty-eight hours is two bowls of oatmeal (yes, cooked), a mango (perhaps an unwise choice), and a bowl of blended cauliflower and potato soup (which Katrina made and was absolutely fantastic).

I grab a handful of Nuevos Soles and head out. It’s gonna be a short venture so I don’t even check my face or hair in the mirror. I’m more or less dressed. I mean, I’ve got on jeans and a fleece. I’ve got my flip-flops on over socks. I’m really styling.
The Bread-Cart Man
Down the stairs, out the front gate, around the corner. I scan the street. The Bread-Cart Man isn’t there. He’s always there. What the heck? I used to always see him in the mornings when I caught a bus to Surco to cover Katrina’s classes while she was in the States. These days I see him when I come back in the evenings from my own classes with Joaquin. I figure he’s like a permanent fixtures on that street. Now he’s nowhere in sight.

He must be around the next corner by the Bodega.

Well. Heck.

I’m at the San Felipe corner Bodega so I duck inside and ask the young guy if they have bread.
“Only bagged loaf bread,” he says.

Not exactly what I’m wanting.
“Thanks,” I say, and flit out. There’s a gas station about half a block away. They have a variety of things as gas stations so often do, and sure enough they have croissants. But they’re overpriced and look greasier than what I’m wanting. Bleh. So I continue on my Bread Quest.

From some rooftop a wolf whistle floats down to me. Seriously, dude? I don’t think I’ve brushed my hair in about three days. But hey, whatever floats your boat. I just shake my wild haired-head and trudge on.
There are about eight hundred little Bodegas (like corner stores) in the Jesús María district where I live. I’m out, I’m walking, I might as well go a little farther. The first Bodega smells like dog food. With reason too, for right beneath the wooden produce shelves are open bags of dog and cat food. The smell isn’t helping me return to full strength and health. I grimace, avoid holding my breath, and leave.
I get two strikes for swinging at the next two Bodegas. They’ve got a little more going for them since they don’t smell like dog food, but neither one has the bread I’m looking for. I decide to go four strikes for an out even as I remember that I’ve seen an actual Panaderia (Bakery) somewhere in this complex of buildings.

My excursion isn’t a wasted venture as I’m getting adept at assessing the contents of Bodegas. This next one is cleaner. More organized. No dog food that I see. No bread either, but I spot some avocados in the produce stand. I’d made a spinach, carrot, zucchini raw blended soup the night before and it hadn’t quite hit the spot--tasting more like a green smoothie than a smooth soup. I know an avocado will help cream it out. And since I’ve eaten all the avocados I climbed and picked at Casa Del Gringo I’ve got no other recourse than to buy my paltas now.

I pinch and squeeze the avocadoes trying to feel out if there’s one ripe enough for today’s use. They aren’t quite as soft as they should be. There’s one though, that feels close.
“Un sol cincuenta (1.50),” the lady behind the scales tells me. She puts my avocado into a clear plastic bag and hands it to me.  I give her two soles. My merchandise in hand I start to walk out.

“Your change,” she says.
“Oh yeah.” Apparently I left my mind at the apartment. “Gracias,” I say with an embarrassed smile and a different shake of my head as I take my fifty centimos. She smiles back and bids me a good afternoon.

Next stop, the Panaderia.
As if I’ve got a magnetic homing device in the bridge of my nose I find it with no problems. I gaze longingly through the window and see with delight the exact bread I want. It looks warm, fresh baked, desirable.

Of course, the bakery is closed.
Maybe God doesn’t want me to have bread. Maybe a few pieces of pan will actually ruin all my hard exercise and right eating. Maybe. Nah. By this time I’ve made quite a circuit. I’m only a few blocks away from Metro Grocery Store. Well, I tried to buy local. I tried. Right?

I keep on.
Through the park. Past cuddling couples. Past playing little ones. Past dog walkers and skateboarders. I glance cursorily at two people on a bench. I’m not looking to make eye contact, but I inadvertently do with the lady.  

“Yo tengo espárragos (I have asparagus)!” she exclaims. And to prove it she shoves forward a bound cluster of shoots. Sure enough. It’s asparagus.
“No gracias,” I say. I’m looking for bread. If you’d had the bread market, girl, I’d have been all over that. It’s about niche marketing and meeting customer needs. On another day… I cut myself off from my internal dialogue, leave the distracting asparagus pusher behind me and keep on my Quest.  

The avocado is swinging happily in its bag from my fingertips. Oh! The avocado in its plastic bag. And I’ve got no purchase receipt for it. Bodegas don’t give out receipts for just one thing, if ever. And I’d left the apartment so quickly I hadn’t grabbed my purse-bag. After all I was just going around the corner for a piece of bread. I don’t want the Metro employees to think I got the avocado at Metro and try to charge me for it. The avocado is too big to fit in my jeans pockets. My fleece doesn’t have any pockets. I don’t think the front security guard will hold it for me until I come out again. So I do what all sensible people do—I stick the avocado up my fleece’s sleeve and hold it as unawkwardly as I can under my armpit. That’s not suspicious.

I exude Honesty as I tong some bread into a paper bag and go stand in line at the Express Checkout. The cashier and I exchange pleasantries and I avoid wiping the sweat from my brow as I pay for the bread, take my receipt and pray that the avocado stays put for just a little longer. I don’t think I can run very fast in my flip-flops if I have to make a quick get-a-way.

I’ve never felt so guilty for not doing anything wrong before in my life.
No one suspects a thing.

I act normal as I pass the front security guard. I fall into step with another just-finished shopper.  I’m safe. I walk three quarters of a block before I let the avocado fall to the end of my sleeve and dig it out. I drop it into my Metro plastic bag and walk guiltily home.
I dole out Katrina’s bread and take mine back to my study with me. It’s no wonder I gave up bread. It’s way too much work to get.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sleeping Beauty

November 13, 2011 – Sleeping Beauty

There’s a community room above the apartment’s parking garage. Tenants can rent it out for 60 soles a whack. They often do. I spy on them while they set up, while they party, and again-- usually the next day--when they clean everything up. I’m amazed by the extravagance. These are usually themed parties which I imagine don’t come at small expense.

Some nights I curse the partiers because Peru has no noise isolation. No sound absorption in the walls. It all bleeds out into the night. Into my room. Into my head. However, that aside, these parties provide me with plenty of observational entertainment.

I’ve seen parties emceed by a giant Minnie Mouse. I’ve seen parties with an illuminated disco ball to encourage the Saturday Night Fever. Once there was a bridal shower. At least that was my best guess. A man decorated what looked like a princess bed with this veil like curtain. A trio of women came and went bringing plates and trays of food. I watched this party prep very curiously because other high heeled, dressed up women kept arriving with these giant suitcases, double teaming to get them up the two flights of stairs, across the patio and into the room. They seemed heavy enough to be filled with gold bars. I never did get a glimpse of what was inside them.
I need binoculars.

On Halloween the room got decked out with spooky webs and plastic spiders and then the children, dressed in mostly Disney character costumes, trooped in and ran about happily. That night Batman, Snow White, Jasmine, a Cowgirl, a Gypsy, Woody (from Pixar’s Toy Story), a Pink-Caped Wonder and even Captain America showed up.  

If I’d been invited I’d have wanted to go as Batman. Or Zorro. Wearing a cape is always cool. My delusions of grandeur swell when I have a cape on. Not that I go around wearing a cape…

The highlight of my Halloween was when Captain America lost his pants. One second he was defending South America, the next he was advertising skin. With a little bit of panic he grabbed them back up and then ran off to find his mother to help him secure the drawstring.
I also need a camera with better zoom.

Last night the room got decorated with Disney Princess cutouts. Pink and white balloons made the room’s bland interior more festive. A huge pink frosted cake sat on a table in the corner like a fat Buddha to be worshiped. People of all ages arrived; grandparent types, parents with small children, parents with older children, teenagers. Many came with gifts in hand.
Some little girl was getting the birthday party of a lifetime.

Or some little boy was having all his princess dreams come true.

In the gym, only a beeline from the party room, two young ladies began to don the apparel of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. A young man eventually put on some sort of Aladdinesque costume. When Sleeping Beauty had her hair arranged, the three royals walked regally, all the while being filmed by one of the partygoers, from their dressing room to the party room. Enthusiasm marked their entry. Soon the sounds of merriment completely filled the air and I watched the children vigorously wave elongated balloons in time to the music. It was a strange and colorful and frenetic dance.

Later, peering out into the gathering darkness, I saw Sleeping Beauty’s blonde wig abandoned. Left hanging on a piece of exercise equipment.

As I spied on the remnants of the festivities, I hummed I Know You, I Walked With You Once Upon a Dream under my breath. Maybe now Sleeping Beauty is off sleeping somewhere just waiting for True Love to come wake her up. I only hope her prince recognizes her with her natural hair.