Monday, January 25, 2010

Yellow Underwear & An Inconvenience, Rightly Viewed

The holiday season has departed, swirling counter-clockwise down the toilet bowl of time, but we thought it would be instructive to discuss some of the new customs we acquired, or at least encountered, here in Chivay, followed by some of the frustrations, large and small.

Christmas was a revelation: almost nothing happened. In Chivay, there was little acknowledgement of the approaching holiday, no Christmas tree in the Plaza de Armas, no tinsel in the Mercado. You could buy figurines for your crèche in a few market stalls, and many hotels, restaurants, and no doubt homes, had such displays, with krumpled kraft paper, brown for the earth and indigo for the starry night sky, and odd assortments of animals unknown to Bethlehem, but no baby Jesus in sight.

We were in Arequipa a few days before Christmas, and there the bustle was more apparent, the shopping frenzy building, but never to the level of the States. Amid northern European and patently American images of Christmas, snow and sleighs, we were walking around in shirt sleeves among palm trees. We paused to watch families pose, in the unsmiling Peruvian way, with a distinctly Andean Papa Noel, in front of the beautifully-illuminated Cathedral. It was all somehow oddly pleasing.

Christmas Eve, we bathed a pavo (turkey) in secret Peruvian juices and spices, and took it over to the bakery, where a flotilla of turkeys floated in similar baths, awaiting their turn in one of the few ovens in town. We finally feasted with family at about 10:30 or 11 p.m., and presented our hosts with a few gifts, including a Montana Grizzlies sweatshirt for Enrique. They had nothing for each other or for the (teenage) sons, and nobody really expected anything. We finished dinner with hot chocolate and a paneton, chased by a bit of wine and champagne.

Midnight was greeted with scattered fireworks in the streets, and baby Jesus was brought out and placed in the manger. That was about it. Pretty low-key by American standards.

Christmas Day we spent in Yanque, a town of about 1,300 people 8 km. down the road, with Jenny, who has a small restaurant, and a few of the other Peace Corps volunteers from the area. Jenny baked her first turkey, and Russ introduced the concept of gravy to the Colca valley, with some success.

That was Christmas—no binge shopping, no wallowing in gifts, no big buildup to the Big Day . . . just a chance to spend a pleasant evening together with family and enjoy a nicer-than-usual meal, and then the company of a few other muy simpatico volunteers.

New Year’s Eve was a bigger deal. Chivay and Yanque both planned bashes in their Plazas de Armas, and went to the same sources to finance them, engendering some less-than-friendly competition and a few hard feelings. Very Bitterroot, very Colca. The markets were full of everything you need to celebrate New Year’s properly:

Candles—blue for peace or tranquility, yellow for abundance, red to bring passion, green for health, white for purity or clarity in your endeavors, orange for intelligence, and so forth.

Food—the table is set with the best tablecloth, plates, glasses, and cutlery possible. That may just be the same as ever, but wiped extra-clean with a paper napkin. Pork was the universal choice for dinner, with lentils, chocolate, and a paneton. Champagne (a bargain at $3 a bottle—but undrinkable. We should have opted for the $4 stuff) at midnight. You should also eat 12 grapes at midnight, one for each stroke of the clock or each month of the new year, and make a wish with each one.

Yellow underwear—best if a gift, it should be worn at midnight. Some traditions say that wearing your underwear inside-out will bring new clothes in the new year. Our Peace Corps medic advised us that wearing white underwear until it turned yellow doesn’t count.

At the Mercado in Arequipa, Jean bought a secret mix of herbs from a kiosk staffed by “brujas,” (witches, shamans, herbalists . . .) and then a batch of flowers for her baño de florecimiento, a flower bath to bring good luck, deter evil, etc. The flowers and herbs are boiled, and then you bathe in the water. As with so many things, everyone has an idea of which herbs and flowers are best, and in what proportion. If Jean encounters any bad luck the rest of the year, it will probably be a result of bathing with too much rosemary and not enough yellow carnations.

Amanda also told her fortune using coca leaves--the leaves speak if you pay a small propina (tip), breathe on them to inspire them, and respect the ritual. Short version: the road ahead looks good, with job satisfaction and improving Spanish, everything very “tranquilo” with lots of signs of “florecimiento,” or flowering. Nice. Russ prefers to be surprised by life, so he didn’t ask the leaves anything, but they threw in an advisory, gratis, that he’d probably be seeing the doctor about something, but nothing serious. Thanks, leaves.

Jean has also been busy giving language lessons, and one of her most eager students is a young woman who works at the restaurant. She took the opportunity to use cookie ingredients sent by a friend in Hamilton (thanks, Christine!) as a language class as they baked cookies together. A major success!

Since our arrival in Chivay, we’ve been looking forward to the first visitor from the U.S., our first chance to show off the place and get a reading on how it appears to an unbiased observer. To no-one’s surprise, Skip Horner got here first, but only just barely. Skip’s a guide, and he was leading a party to Machu Picchu, but as long as he was in Peru, he figured he could drop in on us.

It should be so simple.

A few days before he was due to arrive, the transportistas declared an indefinite “paro,” or work stoppage, to protest a great injustice, we were never clear on what. There would be no buses, no taxis, no colectivos, no nothing. Great. We hadn’t had a paro since last July, and the first visitor to come visit gets sent to purgatory, instead.

Skip arrived in Arequipa on Wednesday. His bags did not. Russ had planned to meet him at the airport, but couldn’t leave Chivay. We set up a ride for Skip with a tour operator (tourist vans were getting through the blockade if they left at 3 a.m.), but he elected to wait on his bags instead. They arrived Thursday, and early Friday morning he rode from Arequipa to Chivay in a truck offered by a local NGO, arriving 48 hours later than planned.

We packed all the fun we could into one afternoon, then in the evening he gave a great slide show into which we inserted some useful and inspirational material for the local guides, and interested townspeople. This is the very bright side of our lives in Chivay.

We got up early the next morning to go birding with Skip, successfully enough. Breakfast, though, was demoralizing: the restaurant staff displayed every annoying customer service issue we have ever fought to eliminate in Chivay, like they had been practicing the “bad service” part of an instructional skit, resulting in a comically-awful experience. Make no mistake, we eventually got enough to eat (though not exactly what we ordered), and even got our correct change back the same day (not always assured), but between the paro and the experience of breakfast, we were reminded that one cannot expect a seamless, stress-free tourist experience in Peru. It might happen that way, but you can’t expect it.

The other lesson, though, is that it all works out. Skip got here, after spending a couple extra days in Arequipa, certainly not the worst place in the world to get stuck, and though our visit was shorter than hoped-for, the joy of contact with a good friend from our “old lives” was undimmed, perhaps even enhanced. It’s all about flexibility, comfort with uncertainty, and that G.K. Chesterton quote that Skip introduced us to, more than a decade ago: an adventure is merely an inconvenience, rightly viewed.

Lastly, here’s an adventure, rightly viewed: we were invited to participate in the “Concurso de ciclismo de alta montaña,” part of the town of Sibayo’s annual anniversary celebration. It was a 10k bike ride that involved crossing a suspended bridge, fording a river, and dodging cows (surprisingly, not alpaca!), all at 12,600 feet. We had a great time, and everyone thought us good sports, stretching toilet paper across the street for us to break as we came in last.

We had been drafted off the street the week before to portray a couple of tourists in a "socio-drama" they were staging to try to win a grant to bury the ugly power lines in their beautiful village. They actually have a law against tin roofs, requiring instead the traditional thatch roofs and stone walls. They won their grant, we were cheered, so we had friends when we got there for the bike race.

Sometimes, too, life in Peru is very gratifying!