An American in Peru

Six months ago, I was living in Seattle with roommates, working as an occupational therapist for a home health company.  Now, I am a housewife in Lima, Peru.

I am delighted to finally be living with my husband who has been working as a geotechnical engineer at a mine here for the past year. We were married in October, but he has continued to work his schedule of three weeks in Peru to 10 days in the States since). When Charlie’s company offered to move us to Lima, we were thrilled as we both love international travel and getting to know other places and people.

On the other hand, I enjoy being an occupational therapist and I’m good at it. My Spanish is not strong enough for me to work as an OT in Lima, and while there are other things I can and will do, part of my self identity comes from my work, so I’m feeling a little lost.  Also, being financially dependent on Charlie is a concept that I am having a very difficult time getting used to.  As if all of this isn’t change enough, I have a different name here too. Peruvians struggle with calling me Danielle as it’s only used as a male’s name; Daniella is much easier for them.

Despite the changes, I am determined to make this a great experience. My goal is to quickly become fluent in Spanish and take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way.  We are living in a beautiful, brand new apartment in San Isidro. Assuming I stay in this area of Lima, I can be fairly secure using basic travel safety guidelines (always know where you are, always know who’s behind/around you, don’t get too wasted, etc.). This is important as Charlie will continue to spend some time (no more than a week at a time) at the mine in Cajamarca, during which I will be on my own. The main thing to be concerned about are pick pockets, scammers, and muggers. I just happen to be a main target for these crimes because I look like a tourist.

I am a blonde, twenty-never-mind year old who took French in high school and American sign language in college. Although the color of my hair may not seem important, please consider the population make up of Lima: 40% Mestizos (Mixed Amerindian with Spanish or Asians), 38% Amerindians (Aymara and Quechua), 11% white, 5% Asians, and 4% Afro-Peruvians. With the average José Schmoe you see walking down the street having dark skin and black hair, I stick out like a sore thumb. My favorite answer to the suggestion of friends and family members to dye my hair is what I told my friends in Colorado: “That would be like going to Africa and painting my skin black.”  The fitting-in factor does not help when I have Charlie with me.  Although he’s got fairly dark hair and speaks far better Spanish than I, he’s 6 feet, 3 inches tall. Average male height in Peru: 5’5”.

The third member of our family, Brandy, is the most obvious American of all. She’s a Chesapeake Bay Retriever and although I don’t have a statistic, I would guess about four times the size of most Peruvian dogs. Getting her through customs was a nightmare and I hope not representative of how things are done in this country. Brandy and I came into Peru on the same flight arriving at 11:30 pm one week ago today. Charlie had flown in several days earlier for work and thankfully was able to complete most of the paperwork needed for Brandy earlier in the day. Even so, we did not leave the airport with her until around 6:30 the next morning.

The process involved going back and forth between four different buildings to get a series of authorizations and signatures.  I am guessing that it is not very common for people to bring dogs into this country because most of the times we arrived at a building and told the clerk we needed a signature to claim our dog, they were unsure of what they were supposed to do, or where we needed to go next.  After waking from their nap, the clerk at each building would make several phone calls, disappear for a while, come back (sometimes with another person), make photocopies of our paperwork, and send us somewhere else.  One man in the customs building fell asleep in front of us while entering our information into the computer.  I suppose you can’t blame them, as it was the middle of the night and some had very inviting beds or cots in their office.  In the end, Brandy made it safe and sound and was very eager to get out of her crate and drink some water.  I, on the other hand, was exhausted and traumatized.

Later that same day, Charlie had to return to the mine for 3 days, leaving Brandy and I to our own devices. Being sleep deprived and scared to being here alone, I decided that I would not leave the apartment until Charlie returned on Friday. I felt bad for myself, not knowing Spanish and having no friends, job, or purpose, and cried about it for about an hour. Then I got bored, started making to do lists, and experimented with the phone Charlie left me.  I tried to learn the different Spanish words for “settings,”  “tools,”  and most importantly “messages.”  I texted “te amo” to Charlie, and frustrated with not getting an immediate reply, texted it again.  About 10 minutes later I received a call from “privado” and stared at the phone while it rang, trying to build up the guts to answer in Spanish. “Hola?” I said meekly.  Hoping to God, it was Charlie calling from a different “private” number.

The man’s voice on the other end of the phone was speaking quickly in Spanish and I could not understand one word of it, but got from his intonations that he was asking me multiple questions.  I sputtered  out an “um, no entiendo,” and was about to hang up, when I heard, “Daniella?”  I answered, “Um, Si…” and was relieved to hear “Soy Carlos!”  The driver from Charlie’s work who had dropped us off earlier that morning!  My relief was immediately replaced with humiliation when I realized from his laughter and the small bits of language that I could understand, that I had texted “te amo” to Carlos, not Charlie. Oops.

I turned the phone off immediately left the apartment for to walk off my embarrassment.

Posted by Danielle L. Krautmann, 15 January 2010