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Don’t Sweep the Walls – or – Things in Peru are Different

The most social place in any house is the kitchen. In this, at least, my Peruvian homestay was like any other home in the world. Life happened while meals were being cooked. It was the specific details of that life that constantly reminded me that I was living in a different culture. I loved living with a local family, but it was difficult to know exactly how to behave, and hard to tell what kind of impression I was making. Feliciana, my host mom, smiles a lot, even when she’s not pleased. I often felt awkward in the kitchen, because she and her daughter Estefani have their own way of doing things, and they are quicker and smoother than I am. When I arrived home before mealtimes, I would often putz about in my room to avoid standing awkwardly in the kitchen, watching them work. I didn’t always understand what they were saying (they speak to each other in a mix of slangy Spanish and Quechua), and sometimes didn’t catch their quick asides asking me to set the table, or grab them a spoon. When they gave me a knife and vegetable to cut, they corrected my technique. Once I caught Estefani hovering impatiently as I finished slicing the potatoes.

One afternoon, determined to be helpful, I cooked lunch with my mom. It was just the two of us. Her older daughters, Estefani and Vanessa were away at university in Cusco, Sabino, her husband, was driving a group of tourists to Lake Titicaca, and the younger kids hadn’t come home from school yet. I had bought way too much fruit the day before, and had a pineapple left over. I’d placed it on the kitchen table with a note scribbled on a square of toilet paper and skewered onto the spiky crown, Para mi familia, un beso, Susana. Feliciana got the hint. Something else about Ollantaytambo that is different from my home in huge, desert-y Utah: tropical fruit is dirt cheap here, and most of it is grown less than 100 miles from Ollanta. But despite the cheap fruit, Andean cuisine consists of starch, protein, more starch, and few vegetables. Potato soup with rice, chicken, and shredded carrots. Fried potatoes with rice, fried eggs, and two slices of tomato. Boiled potatoes with pasta, ground beef, and onions. On this day, we used my pineapple to make a fruit salad, adding apple, papaya, and banana, then pouring fresh-squeezed orange juice over the fruit as an extra sweetener. Heavenly, sweet, and fibrous! Feliciana also made a squash-based vegetable soup (with chicken and potatoes, of course). Feliciana ran out to buy dishwashing soap, herbs, and vegetables, and I sat on the tiny, rectangular stool in the corner of the kitchen and pared the skin away from white and yellow potato flesh with a keen, home-sharpened knife. Dropped the dirt-encrusted half moons and spirals into the brown wastewater, dug the tip of the knife into the odd divots, flicked away the eyes and spots of rot.

Feliciana came bustling through the door. Peruvian women bustle differently than women from the United States. US women sweep through their hurry, rushing with long, efficient movements. Peruvian women scurry, taking smaller steps the bigger a hurry they’re in, holding their body close to themselves as they rush. Like mice. And they smile while they do it, as if amused by their tardiness, excited to get where they’re going, or embarrassed, smiling to let the world know that they’re appropriately abashed and are moving quickly to make amends. Bustling through the door, Feliciana smiled at me, down on the floor. She said something I didn’t catch. “Como?” She paused. “Susana, you can do things! Rebecca” (Rebecca was the family’s very first – and most favorite – homestay volunteer) “couldn’t do anything. You can wash your clothes, you can help cook. Rebecca always said, ‘Oh, I’d love to help, oh, but I can’t.’ She just didn’t know how to work.” This may be the best compliment I’ve ever received.  Scooping the peeled potatoes from my bowl with rough brown hands, she dropped them quickly into the water boiling on the stove. “It goes so much faster with the two of us!”

The floors in Feliciana’s house are painted concrete. Stone and mud mortar make up the bottom two thirds of the walls; the upper third is adobe brick covered in plaster. Trying to be helpful one morning, I swept the kitchen floor, then the dining room floor, then the hall, then my downstairs bedroom. I ran the broom over the rafters to break loose a few cobwebs I’d seen. I poked at the plastered bricks near the ceiling, and then swept the stone walls. Chunks of dried mud crumbled and fell, and brown flowers of dirt dust bloomed. Ah, I thought. Don’t sweep walls made of dirt. The ceiling is wooden and doubles as the floor of the upstairs rooms: round eucalyptus trunks support simple two by six planks. There is no insulation. Heels clicked and tromped over my head as I wrote in my journal at night. Jeans with change in the pockets thumped onto the floor. Light dripped through the cracks. Pillow fights made the bed creak and the kids shriek. Feliciana and Sabino have four children and three bedrooms (including the one I used), but only use the two upstairs, even when their volunteer room is unoccupied. The kids (aged 6 to 24) sleep three or four to a bed and often climb in with their parents, well beyond the age when American parents strictly establish the importance of personal space. During a visit to the Awamaki weaving cooperative in Patacancha, I met a girl named Magdalena. She and the other women of the cooperative were learning how to make placemats, a piece of household frippery that doesn’t exist in Peru. Sixteen years old, Magdalena is already the secretary of the cooperative. I admired her placemat design, and she began to ask me questions. “Where are you from? And your parents?” Still living, I explained, but in a different part of the country. “But…” her serious dark eyes were perplexed. “How will you know when they die?” I didn’t have the words to explain that in my culture, it is expected that children will leave their parents and forge a life apart.

Toilet paper goes in the trash can instead of in the toilet, and hot water for showers trickles from a terrifying electric shower head. I washed my hair three times in the four and a half weeks that I lived with Feliciana. Differences abound, but in the end, Ollantaytambo felt like home. This is the challenge that keeps me traveling. Plopping myself down into a foreign situation and figuring it out is thrilling, because it’s always different, always new, always enlightening. Learning how to respect and enjoy the way of life in Ollanta and other towns and countries makes me a better, stronger, broader person. I’m addicted. Viva la diferencia!

3 comments to Don’t Sweep the Walls – or – Things in Peru are Different

  • Brett

    Great to read about your experiences. Fabulous writing, as always. Looking forward to hearing more about your recent South American adventures.

  • Jordan James

    I always enjoy your writing, however in this particular piece something resonated with me. When I first read the comment “…and hot water for showers trickles from a terrifying electric shower head.”, I was immediately transported back to my stay in Heredia, Costa Rica. I never did quite figure those infernal things out. Too little flow wouldn’t complete the circuit to heat the water and too much would just overwhelm the heating capapcity. Not to mention I too was terrified of them. While I was enjoying my mental-vacation I continued reading and came upon the last paragraph. The statement “This is the challenge that keeps me traveling. Plopping myself down into a foreign situation and figuring it out is thrilling, because it’s always different, always new, always enlightening. Learning how to respect and enjoy the way of life in Ollanta and other towns and countries makes me a better, stronger, broader person. I’m addicted. Viva la diferencia!” summed up for me quite succinctly why I feel such a strong urge to travel myself. Thank you for sharing your gift of the written word with those of us that only dream of living the lifestyle that you live every day of your life. You are an inspiration and a wonderful person to call a friend.

  • warwick

    Hi Susan,

    Great article and site. Glad you are enjoying your guiding work.

    Just to let you know Yasmin and I are finding the notes your jotted in our travel guide a real boon. We spent about a week in the wonderland of northern Peru in and around the dusty pueblo of Chacapoyas (as you recommended!). We walked four days around a part of the ‘gran valaya’, a hike through the cloudforest mountains following Chachapoyan ruins. We elected to do the hike independently rather than one a tour. Only a few dozen people – tour or independent – do the hike each month so it remains a real adventure. We had it all, lost ruins, sweeping mountain views, deep gorges, alpine grasslands and a deaf local guide who insisted on ´’listening’ to the radio as we walked.

    Anyhow, wishing you many more happy travels,

    Abrazos!

    Warwick

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