“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.”
Can you believe that in January I celebrated my one-year anniversary of living in Peru? This country and I have had a turbulent relationship with many ups and downs. I personify Peru and can’t count how many times I’ve found myself directly cursing it for its defects…and sometimes for my own. I once forgot the keys to my apartment in a taxi and screamed “I hate you, Peru!” as the taxi quickly drove away.
Peru has long lines, every task is far more complicated than it needs to be, and the men can be terribly rude. But I think, just maybe, the best relationships happen when you can love someone (or a country) deep enough to see past their faults. I know I love Peru because when I reflect on my past year, its hard to remember what was difficult. All I can think about is what I’ve gained.
Alone but not lonely
Whether you like it or not.
Alone will be something
you’ll be quite a lot.”
Upon arriving on January 4th, to my new apartment in Lima, Peru I had two hours with my husband before he left for four days to go work at the mine. I found myself with a cell phone and no one to call. As I paced around my sterile living room, I immediately understood what my new life would be like…lonely. Charlie would be at the mine in Cajamarca most of the time and I would be in Lima, alone. With no friends, afraid of everything outside the apartment, I decided to sit for four days and wait for him to come back.
I spent weeks walking around my block and eventually my whole neighborhood looking for friends and things to do. I would run home in tears after being kissed at, followed and harassed by men in the streets. I would sulk and stew inside the apartment over the loss of my family and friends, my career, my independence, and my former last name. And for what? To be sexually harassed, to watch TV, drink wine, cook, and be a housewife. How had I gotten here?
I was so lonely. I wanted to go home where I had friends, people to call on my cell phone, people who spoke English! Charlie was working hard at the mine. He was too busy during the day to chat and too exhausted at night. During one heated discussion I told him, “When I agreed to move down here, I had no idea how much you would be away at the mine. I’m alone all the time. I hate this.” His reply? “You’re not alone. You’ve got Brandy (our dog). You can talk to her.”
“She doesn’t speak English either!!!” I screamed with frustration. Poor Brandy, who was listening nearby, hung her head in shame. I’m sure she understood.
At some point that first month I remembered something. I had come to Peru with a goal of my own. I was here to learn Spanish and it wasn’t going to happen on its own. I joined a running group, started Spanish classes, and began talking to everyone I could. I baked desserts for the guards in my apartment building for the sole purpose of initiating a conversation. I would hand them a plate of cookies and if they replied “gracias” and I replied “de nada,” I felt successful. I spoke to Brandy in Spanish. I began wandering further and further from the apartment on foot and by bus. I got lost all the time, giving me perfect opportunity to ask for directions on how to get back.
Despite my slow accumulation of the language, friends, the ability to run long distances, and a job tutoring English, I still found myself alone a lot. The evenings were the worst. I was by myself in the apartment at least five out of seven nights a week. Rather than wallow, I began to fill the time. I ruled out TV and drinking alone and replaced it with books, cooking, exploratory runs around Lima, and a job I loved in the rainforest. I refused to get bored. Little by little, I began to enjoy my alone time. As nice as it was to have Charlie around (of course this is what I would prefer), I minded less and less when he left for the mine. I had a job, friends, and a purpose here of my own.
Marilyn Monroe said “I restore myself when I’m alone.” To be able to be alone, without TV, booze, a cell phone, or other distractions is nothing but an opportunity. In fact, I now find myself craving solitude and taking pleasure in it. Peru has taught me that alone is not lonely.
On learning Spanish…
Learning Spanish continues to be a humbling experience I would never give up for instant fluency. I still furrow my brow when trying to understand, botch verb formations and tenses when I speak and have yet to master the sexy rolled “r”…maybe I never will. But at this point, I can understand most of what people say to me and can express just about everything I want to…sometimes it just takes a while.
Recently, I went searching in Cajamarca for a curtain rod for the shower in the apartment. When I arrived to the ferreteria (hardware store) I realized I didn’t even know how to say curtain in Spanish. I figured I could improvise. I approached the sales clerk and began, “Estoy buscando algo para mi ducha, pero no se como se llama en Espanol.” (I am looking for something for my shower, but I don’t know what you call it in Spanish). If this hardware store was anything like a grocery store, pharmacy, or anywhere else I have played the guess-what-I’m-talking-about game, the clerk would begin guessing until he got it right. I would then jump for joy as he showed me the adjustable curtain rod. Instead he stood silently looking and me waiting for more. “Well…” I continued, “No quiero agua en mi piso.” I don’t want water on my floor. “Ah! He said! “Cortina!” Okay, it was a start. Now that I knew how to say curtain, I could surely get to “curtain rod”, and from there, “adjustable curtain rod.”
“No,” I explained, I was not looking for a curtain, but it was “a thing to put the curtain on”.
He engaged in the tango that I have become quite familiar with.
“No, it goes in the bathroom.”
“No, its for the curtain that goes in the shower.”
“No. Something for the curtain that is long and made from metal or plastic. It holds the curtain.”
“Si! Si! Si!” I exclaimed jumping up and down. I was overjoyed to have figured out the word and could have kissed him. While this particular ferreteria didn’t happen to carry cortineros, there were about 8 more on the same block. I left the store and bought a coke to prepare for step two of my mission: the purchase.
The next three hardware stores carried curtain rods, but not the adjustable kind. I wandered down the block slowly examining the clerk in each store until I found a friendly and patient looking female whom I was sure would help me. Her name was Violetta, and I was convinced that a chick working in a hardware store would be compassionate with my situation.
“I am looking for a cortinero…” I started…
“Ah! Cortinero!” She replied and went on to show me three different models (all the type you need to install). “The thing is,” I explained, “I need a cortinero that has a size you can change…” She tried to understand me, listening and watching patiently (along with everyone else in the store) as I used my arms and body to try to lead her to the word “adjustable”. “Ah!” she said finally, “cortinero a pression!”
“Si!” I hugged her, I couldn’t help it. While ferreterias generally don’t carry cortineros a pression, my new BFF, Violetta, wrote the words for me on a piece of paper and gave me directions to a block filled with shops that fabricated curtains. After asking in four of them, I found my cortinero a pression, and after that morning, I will never ever forget how to say ‘adjustable curtain rod’ in Spanish.
Learning the language has been humbling and rewarding. My confidence increases with every conversation. Fortunately I love to talk and practice makes perfect, right?
A new career?
The most difficult part of moving to Peru was leaving behind a career I loved and was good at. Occupational Therapy does not exist here the same way it does in the States. The job market barely exists, the income is minimal, the patients are not the same, in fact, most people don’t even know what an OT is. Perhaps one day, when I am completely adjusted to Peru, I will start my own private practice here. Probably not.
I tried teaching English, and it was nice to find work, but it didn’t satisfy me the way rehabilitating a brain injured patient did. Gaining the trust of a privileged Peruvian child was nothing compared to gaining the trust of a rebellious twenty year old who wanted to party but couldn’t because she was dying from cancer…or gaining the trust of a person suffering Schizophrenia…or a woman with 70 years on me. My English-teaching job was too easy.
Things turned when I found Rainforest Expeditions and agreed to spend a month in the jungle of southern Peru gathering content for their Facebook page. I breathed the air of Tambopata and felt immediately restored from the pain of living in the city. I began to learn about marketing (I am still learning), about ecotourism, and about birds and mammals I never knew existed. I am no longer holding the fate of vulnerable sick patients in my hands. I am vulnerable, attempting to do something I didn’t study for six years, trying to speak in Spanish with my co-workers and fit in with an all-Peruvian staff who refer to me as “the gringa.”
A different culture
Things are different here. Even after a year, I struggle to understand certain features of Peruvian culture. But I’ve learned that I don’t get far by focusing on what’s different. I can be an ex-pat or a resident. I choose resident.
Why not focus on what I love about Peru? Everyone here drives like I used to in the States and they aren’t considered bad drivers. Being late to meetings and parties is accepted…almost encouraged. Everything is negotiable. The language is beautiful. The people are warm, welcoming, and kind. The terrain is incredible. From high peaks, to mountain valleys, desert oasis, to my favorite: the rainforest. Peru is a country with never ending possibilities for exploration. Oh yeah, and the parties rock.
A year ago, I found myself a lonely housewife in Lima, Peru. Now I’m a marathon runner, a friend, an explorer, a teacher, a gringa, a social media marketing manager, a writer and a cook. I shop at the mercado, kiss everyone I greet, play volleyball in the street with the neighbors, and take combies to town. I cook Lomo Saltado, Causa Rellena, Chifa, Pachamanca and Anticuchos. I can speak Spanish, buy live chickens, make a Pisco Sour and walk in high heals.
Despite our many struggles, I want to thank you, Peru, for an amazing first year together. I look forward to (hopefully) many to come.