Sunday, December 27, 2009
I am struggling to find an accurate and appropriate way to describe my Christmas. It was easily my worst Christmas ever, but that’s hardly fair with the basis for comparison. I’ve always spent the holiday in comfort, at home, with my family (who I not only love but also get along with well and share interests with), opening presents and eating delicious food (usually a menu which my mom and I planned with all of my diet quirks and cooking curiosities in mind). None of these comforts were possible here, something I realized going into the holiday. My new Peruvian family was kind and made efforts to please me, and my own disappointments came from me, not from any outward threat.
On Christmas Eve, the rain came late. At 5 pm it was still sunny and beautiful when I set out with my host mom and dad to my grandmother’s house (carrying a bag of goodies, including 2 live guinea pigs). It’s about a 20 minute walk away, in neighboring village (along one of my favorite running routes). Once arrived, we joined in the general dinner preparations (mostly I sat awkwardly, but did try to help whenever I could figure out what was going on): cutting up a freshly killed chicken, boiling water, scrubbing potatoes, peeling garlic and sat and chatted for several hours as my host aunt (only 18 so more like a cousin) took charge of the preparations for “pachamanca a la olla.” Pachamanca is traditional prepared in the ground, cooked with heated rocks, and is a blend of meat, potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn and sauce. It’s delicious. This time it was with chicken, a garlic cilantro sauce, and cooked “a la olla” or, in a pot. Cooking here requires a lot of patience, as woodstoves heat much more slowly, and (not unlike many Thanksgivings I remember at home) the food was done later than expected, around 9 pm.
Normally, I am snug in my sleeping bag at 9 pm, sometimes already asleep, so I was fading fast. Also, my stomach has been a bit strange lately (I suspect I might be harbouring some parasites), and I was ready for some rest. However, there was no refusing an enourmous bowl of pachamanca with a heaping side of rice. By the time I finished my last mouthful of potato, I felt more full than the time I tried to beat the Dot Roll record at CJL, with general quesiness to boot. Then came the Peruvian Christmas tradition of chocolatada (chocolaty, cinnamony, sugary, hot milk, which is actually delicious) and paneton (terrible, enormous, packaged fruitcake. Though there is some debate over whether all paneton is terrible (which I maintain) or if you spring for the 20 soles one (about $7) it is more delicious).
After this round of festive treats, I was exhausted and it was pouring rain outside. We decided to stay at our grandmother’s house and my sister and aunt/cousin ran off to find a mattress and prepare a room for me. With the best of intentions, they showed me to a room with a door to the outside of the house, with dirt floor, dirt walls, beamed ceiling and a straw mattress, heaped with blankets. They left me, first kindly asking if I would be scared sleeping alone (I lied and said no). Even though I had been on the brink of sleep in the kitchen, I suddenly found myself at a loss. I was fully dressed, long underwear, filthy jeans, two shirts, a sweater, a jacket and a knit hat (courtesy of my ever talented oldest sister) and had no book to read or other entertainment to distract me from my surroundings. However, I unlaced my boots, took off my jacket for a pillow, sent a last minute wish to Santa Claus (to never eat potatoes again. Don’t be surprised to find out that the jolly old elf did not oblige me), and was asleep almost instantly. The first time I woke up I had to set out to the bathroom; unfortunately, I had no idea where this was, as the night before my sister and I had just gone in the fields. Despite my best intentions as a health volunteer, after a cursory glance through the downpour by the light of my cellphone, I squatted and fertilized a nearby cornfield. Later I awoke from a nightmare in which guinea pigs (raised in almost every household here for meat) began to creep out of the walls in my room until they covered every surface.
The next morning I awoke with a strange stomach and a lost sensation, but soon recovered my presence of mind and made the resolution to go on my favorite walk as soon as I could get away. The sky put that thought to rest: it was grey and still raining (an almost unheard of phenomenon in the mornings). I didn’t miss stockings or presents too terribly, but, as I sat at a table, understanding one word in ten of the conversation, I was ready to be done with Peruvian Christmas. Santa, in the form of my generous hosts, brought me a bowl of boiled potatoes and rice. The highlight of breakfast was when one of my site mates gave me a call and I could flee the table for a few minutes and speak English.
In the plaza of Musho, there was an all-day, evolving celebration, starting with a mass and procession, and eventually ending up as a drunken fete, complete with two live huayno bands. When I stopped by the party, my host mom and a couple of women I know pulled me into their dancing circle, which was fun. Unfortunately, this was also their drinking circle, which I was not ok with (Peruvian drinking circles involve sharing one cup and one bottle, passing from one to the next. In site, I plan to be a teetotaler, strange as it is). It was strange; women I knew slightly were falling over on top of me and it was only 6 pm. Early, I made my excuses and ended my first Peruvian Christmas in my room, over a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of herbal tea. Later, from the comfort of my bed, I heard my host parents bring the party back to our house, in the room next to mine (evidenced now by our living room smelling like a frat house).
Unfortuately, I am not sure that this challenge has taught me any important life lesson or expanded my cultural horizons much. I don’t have much endurance for Peruvian parties (at least not with my present stomach issues; I also left one early last night) and appreciate my actual host family’s house much more than I thought. The holiday also lead me to cherish my site mates (we had a boxing day lunch and hang out yesterday) and appreciate, yet again, the ease I have in contacting home from site. Still, I am happy to be here, trying to this, but I am even happier that Christmas is over. Happy New Year.