Saturday, July 30, 2011

Learning to get along with the borrachitos

Often, partially to try to make sense of such an overwhelming experience and partially because of a long love of trashy romance novels and chick flick movies, I compare my tenure in Musho to falling in love. It may seem bizarre or unusual to make this comparison—Musho is a place, not a person, to state the extremely obvious. Even so, the metaphor works better than anything else I might invent.

Like any loved one, Musho is not always perfect. In fact, we often fight and grate on each other. There are many personality quirks that drive me to stuff a change of clothes and my laptop into a backpack and almost run down the hill to Huaraz. The strange thing is, though, that we´ve worked through almost all these quirks. The past tense—drove—might be more appropriate. Through exposure and a little bit of learned patience, I tolerate Musho´s worst habits—and some even bring a smile, as if at an adored one´s antics. While I had, through my chronicling of my love affair, noted this change, it was presented to me strikingly last weekend.

As some of you may know, Peru beat Venezuela 4-1 to win 3rd place in the Copa de las Americas last Saturday. I didn´t watch the game—we didn´t have the channel and I spent the day in my usual weekend relaxation, some house visits, some walking, some lesson-planning, and an hour in the late afternoon, reading in the cemetery. On my way home, I went to buy flour and other necessities at one of the local stores. Walking in, the owner and one of my neighbor´s declared, “We have been drinking soda, señorita!” in a way that assured me they had actually been drinking beer.

When I first came to Musho—to back track—the sight of grown men publically drunk in daylight startled and disgusted me. I would do anything—walk hours out of my way or out of town—to avoid the encounter. On Saturday, though, I just smiled to myself and asked for flour. In his tipsy state, the owner measured, weighed and dispatched the flour far slower than usual so we had time for a long conversation, including the following exchange:

DRUNK NEIGHBOR: Señorita, I have a question

ME: Sure, what? laughing slightly

DRUNK NEIGHBOR: I think you are a spy.

ME: obviously this was not a question, so I ignored it

DRUNK NEIGHBOR: Do you know what a spy is?

ME: Yes, and I am one.

DRUNK NEIGHBOR: bafflement

ME: I count all the cows, chickens and guinea pigs that you have and tell the CIA. It´s a big concern of President Obama´s.

STORE OWNER: catching on Yes, she also registers all the borrachitos (little drunks) and tells the US government about it.

DRUNK NEIGHBOR: believing, stupefied.

With that, I escaped, laughing, and it didn´t occur to me until later that I had actually had an exchange with two drunk men in my community free of judgment, embarrassment or discomfort. Rather it had been enjoyable and sort of a highlight. I´m not sure what I owe my change in perspective to—perhaps learned patience or slightly lessened self-centeredness. After so many months in Musho, I´ve realized that when you set out on any errand, you will probably be waylaid, whether by a friendly neighbor wanting to chat, a grandmother needing help with her burro, school kids asking for English help or someone inviting you to a bowl of soup. Of course, you can rudely press on, but it´s usually not necessary. In the states, I was used to getting things done and being efficient, that I had to learn the value in wasting time. Maybe I go out to do house visits and end up sitting for an hour chatting at the first house. That´s okay. There is another day to finish the houses. It´s taken me a long time to learn this, but the lesson serves me well. Let´s hope this learned serenity lasts me through the August fiestas.

Here are a few scenes from walking around and also teaching:

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Stand-Up, Quechua Style

It would utter arrogance to call myself much of a comedian. My sense of humor tends towards the sarcastic, called the lowest form of wit and not at all understood in most of Péru. However, in the first minutes after I met my host mom, Edita (she was picking chili pepper in the middle of a field; I was exhausted and bewildered), I had her in stitches. The joke? My name: Kaitlyn, then my second name: Keirsey and my last name: Stanhope, each of which she asked for in turn and then realized she couldn´t pronounce any of them. It was a silly moment for both of us, and I knew we would be okay—not really mother-daughter, but friends.

After 20 months here, I would like to say that my jokes have moved beyond just unpronounceable English words and into a more sophisticated realm. I do include some all purpose quechua phrases as icebreakers in a meeting or house visit. Saying something like, this is my friend; he´s come to Péru to find a wife is a sure success when presenting a visitor and, in my case, anything about doing work in the fields, Peruvian men or babies is like a Chris Rock stand-up show.

The sense of humor in my site is similarly foreign. Sarcasm is unknown and not understood (Sometimes when people ask questions like, “Are you walking uphill?” as I clearly walk up hill and I can´t help but say something like, “No, I´m knitting a sweater.” This is incomprehensible). Slapstick humor on tv and movies is quite popular and, in person, jokes range from teasing to anecdotes with punchlines that I never quite get. The teasing is easy enough: for me, it´s usually about finding a husband, or that my 34 year old mom is going to hit me if I stay out late or that I should always wear my pollera, the traditional garb. I can give and take with the best of my “paisanos” (countrymen) from Musho. The anecdotes are tougher. Usually I just stare at the storyteller at the end, thinking there is more to come, as everyone around me bursts into laughter.

My lack of humor, at least in certain situations worried me until I remember the all-purpose Peace Corps out: it´s cultural. It is, though. As there are certain things here that I find hilarious and cannot share with my host family, the reserve is also true. This makes telling and sharing jokes a sort of challenge and surprisingly rewarding. Never in my life have I been the sort to think of a joke and eagerly anticipate the telling. However, now, when I think of a funny line to tell to a quechua grandma on the street, I find myself giggling as I walk up to her.

A killer from yesterday: I saw a giant, nice SUV parked on the dirt street in Musho and one of my quechua-speaking neighbors coming down the road. I asked her (in quechua): “Is that your car?” It was amazing. She laughed and laughed, then said that no, it must be my car and I said no. Translated it´s not particularly funny, but walking away from my still giggling 70 year old neighbor, I felt so cool—the nerdy girl who has managed to get into the popular crowd. In a way, it is the same sort of thing. The likelihood of a vegetarian, sarcastic, academic-oriented, city-raised, American foreigner being able to laugh with a quechua-speaking, subsistence farming, semi-literate woman, is wonderful.

Two of the Peace Corps´s three goals are about a cultural exchange—Americans learning about Peruvian culture and Peruvians learning about American culture. We do this through food, through sports, through dance, through music, through manners and, a little bit, through laughter.

And here are some moments I have found hilarious:
My house mom dancing with her baby bundled onto her back.
And here are some moments I have found hilarious:
My house mom dancing with her baby bundled onto her back.

The tradition of shoving a birthday boy´s (or girl´s) face into their cake.
And this absurd looking pig.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

We are Family!! I got all my sisters and me...

Family is a fairly flexible term. It can mean the nuclear unit that you are related to, can extend to cousins, aunts, uncles—and outward, for genealogists. To others, family means the people that you choose to spend your life and time with. In theater, work units are often described like a family. In Ancash, the Peace Corps volunteers refer to “our Ancash family,” only partly a joke, because the support system is as powerful as a blood tie. Over the past few years, I´ve had host families in Santiago, Quito, Lima and Musho. Naturally, my Musho family is the closest connection, but in each case I found support, caring and something special in the connection over the months I lived there.

After living here, in Musho, my definition of family has changed. I´ve mentioned before the custom here: that parents, children, grandchildren often continue living in the same house for years after the children grow up and, often, marry. The idea of living alone, or moving far from parents and siblings, is strange and marveled at. This I learned, laughed at, and then accepted (and now sort of like—next year I will definitely be in my parent´s house) long ago. Lately, though, I´ve been more and more intrigued by extended family connections. The term “tia” (aunt) or “tio” (uncle) can be used for any person of the right age. I often use them when somebody´s real name escapes me; it´s quite convenient. However, it can mask true family connections. A couple weeks ago, I learned that about 75% of Apa Grande, the community in which I am working on an improved stoves project, is related. Fairly closely. It´s a small community of about 30-40 households, and it makes sense. Sort of—10 out of the 17 families in my stoves project are aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters or first degree cousins of one another. I wouldn´t be surprised if the other 7 are second or third cousins. The amazing thing here is that, aside from addressing one another as tio and tia, they are as gossipy and backstabbing as the cast of characters from Mean Girls.

This shock started me thinking: if family can act like this, does it even matter? If a tia can spend a good 20 minutes trash-talking her niece, daughter-in-law or cousin, what do family ties even mean? It took a visit from one of my oldest and best friends, Roseanna, to set me straight. We had a great, eventful trip to the jungle and also spent a couple of hangout days in Lima. It was fantastic; despite awkward sleeping arrangements, a canoe voyage similar to Monster´s Plantation and lots of weird food, I felt relaxed and happy the entire time. The day after Roseanna left, my mom spent an hour on Skype talking me through an awful case of Lima-glumness and Roseanna-withdrawal.

Suddenly, I knew what family is. Partially, and importantly, it is, as my sister Sally defines it, the people who love you when you are unlovable (depressed, belligerent, frustrated, withdrawn, etc.) and partially, it is the people who love you enough to allow you to be yourself, to relax. Family is what you make it; an aunt who you trash talk and wouldn´t invite to even one boiled potato is nothing, yet a foreigner who you invite into your home, teach about strange food and customs and consult on important decisions (like whether to sign up for cable—weird, right?) becomes something. Perhaps I am not actually the gringa daughter that we joke about, or the sister of the soul that my friend Lidia called me during a toast the other night, but I´m something. Similarly, I know that I have so much family at home, not only the ones who are actually related to me, but all the wonderful people who have supported me throughout my life and, from afar, for these years. That´s what will bring me back to the States—but the same sort of connections are what tie me to Musho.