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This blog has been, to put it mildly, dead. Earthworm dead. I wish I could say it was due to a massive zombie outbreak in Lima or some other such exciting occurrence, but no. It was just the normal collection of life, work, and laziness. However, I’m going to try and give the blog a little life support. Somewhere, I have the last vacation post about Macchu Piccau, but I think I’ll stick with something a bit less ambitious (until I get back in the swing of things).

A couple of weeks ago, the university began the academic year. Similar to many things in the Southern Hemisphere, the school year here runs backward, if you’re looking at the schedule from the US/Europe model. The Fall semester begins in March and ends in June, while the Spring semester goes from August to the last week of November. You have no idea how many of my friends, upon hearing about the schedule in Peru, immediately made a joke about how the toilet water flushes. I blame the Simpsons.

So, to inaugurate the new semester, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts about the unique qualities and experiences of teaching in a Peruvian university.

  • If there’s one thing you learn when teaching in a country where you are unfamiliar with the language, it’s not to worry about what the students whisper to each other. I’m pretty certain some of the Spanish muttered at my direction, especially when grades are returned, is not entirely positive.  Now, however, my Spanish is slowly improving, but I’m not letting my students know that yet.
  • Many of the students I teach have an unique combination of influences that shape their attitudes and expectations in the classroom. Quite a few of my students have spent most of their academic career in International Baccalaureate schools run mainly by British and/or American ex-pats. This creates a unique classroom culture that mixes elements of Latin American culture (especially the understanding of time) with the eccentricities of British boarding schools (especially the odd formalities like shaking my hand after class).
  • One difference between the US and Peruvian systems that I was not expecting was the grading system. Peru works on a 1-20 scale where 20-19 is an A, 18 an A-, 17 a B+, and so forth. Now, this isn’t really a big deal as the scale matches the US system more or less seamlessly. Yet, the real kicker is the system of evaluation that the university uses to create that scale. Every course must have, at least, a Mid-Term, Final, and a Permanent Evaluation grade, all of which themselves must be given a grade on the 1-20 scale. So, a hypothetical student may have a grade sheet that looks something like this: 15 MT, 17 F, and 14 PE. The final grade would depend on how much of the grade was given to each section (for example, MT could be 30% of the grade). For my first semester, my grading system was based on the US A,B,C,D system and my evaluations were all messed up. Thankfully, this semester, I’ve been able to design my course to meet the Peruvian system.
  • Throughout my time here, I’ve needed to become an ESL teacher on the fly. Although many of my students matriculate from expensive colegios—those IB schools taught by Brits—they still struggle with English. I’ve really had to adjust many of my lesson plans to accommodate the students’ English abilities. Many of the students have a vocabulary limited by classroom and popular culture. For instance, in my most recent English 101 class, the students did not recognize the word “beneficial” but understood the idiomatic expression “tank an exam.” My strategy to accommodate my students is to have more in-class readings and exercises in addition to texts that have a more varied vocabulary. I hope it works.

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Cusco

This will be the first in a series of posts about my vacación to Cusco, Machu Picchu, and así sucesivamente (ugh, Spanglish is for everyone). The university is on break so, like many Peruvians, I went on a trip with friends and family. Our group was relatively small and was pretty diverse in terms of age, with a range of 30 to 65+. This trip was the capstone to almost a month of visitors that turned my apartment into a makeshift hostel. So, while my level of great experiences with great people increased, there was also a concomitant drop in productivity (including writing for this space). However, despite the raging academic guilt that is often present in my head when I spend any time not directly related to producing work, I wouldn’t change a thing (with a special shout out to Karen, Steve, and Bailey!).

The trip began very early in the morning, as we all stumbled, like bleary-eyed drunks, into a van at 4:30 am. From there, it was, mercifully, a quick trip to the airport, which was surprisingly busy for such an early time in the morning. I’m told that Lima’s airport is busy late at night/early in the morning due to the winds off the Andes; it causes dangerous conditions for outgoing flights. The flight to Cusco, which was the first step on our trip, was quick and painless.

Cusco has many of these charmingly narrow streets

Cusco is an energetic little town tucked up in the mountains with charmingly narrow streets and an abundance of hostels, pubs and restaurants. Cusco is, and yet not, a resort town; yes, much of the industry of the town revolves around the tourist trade, but the town still has a rough-around-the-edges feel. It’s a town that appears geared towards backpackers, not jetsetters. Like most of Peru, the weather really damages the town, as rain, earthquakes and the altitude wears down buildings, treating the concrete to one crushing blow after another. My guess is that you either like this beaten-down charm or you don’t. I think our group was split.

Central Plaza

Truthfully, we didn’t spend much time in Cusco and most of our first day was spent acclimating to the altitude. Any travel book or website will tell you about the horrors of the altitude in Cusco, and they’re all right. Every single one of them. It’s no joke. I don’t think I really appreciated the changes to my body caused by the severity of the differences in altitude between Cusco and Lima. Not only was I often out of breath, but also my legs ached and I had stomach cramps. I tried to follow the rules provided by various travel sites, such as drinking plenty of water and purposefully walking at a slower pace, but I still felt pretty much like how Mickey Rourke looks. In other words, I was a big bag of mashed-up asshole.

Our tour of Cusco began with the town’s main plaza—the Plaza de Armas—and the main cathedral, Santo Domingo. As anyone familiar with Latin culture can attest, the plaza and the cathedral are always connected, forming a conjoined space that represents the merger of a community’s secular and spiritual interests. Cusco’s plaza is one of the more charming ones I’ve encountered: compact and lively. Outside of Santo Domingo, there is another impressive cathedral, Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesus, in the plaza. Both cathedrals are best viewed from the second stories of the many pubs and bars that encircle the plaza. For our visit, the hustle and bustle of the plaza included the arrest of some thieves by the police, which compelled a couple of youths to yell when the police van was safely beyond the plaza, “Hijos de putas” and (I think) “pedazos de mierda.”

Santo Domingo

Santo Domingo is a large Baroque cathedral that features a unique blend of colonial and Andean religious iconography. For instance, many of the church’s paintings of the Virgin Mary depict her as having what our guide called the “triangle shape of Andean mothers.” The real showpieces are the large canvases from the Cusquena Escuela that best exemplify the merger of Catholic and Andean cultural symbols. From a postcolonial perspective, it would be easy to signal these canvases as moments of hybridity, which they probably are. However, these murals also present how hybridity can be contained with the larger symbols of empire—a framed hybridity. The colonial space and pictorial symbols enclose and dominate the Andean influence in the paintings. Or at least so I thought.

From Santa Domingo, we travelled to the outskirts of Cusco to some of the Incan structures that exist in the hill country. The first was Saqsayhuamán, a large temple that stretches out over a plateau in the mountains above Cusco. The view provided by Saqsayhuamán was tremendous, the site offers up a picturesque vista of the city and the surrounding mountains. The long rock formations that compose Saqsayhuamán form a zig-zag pattern that our guide suggested was meant to signify a lightning bolt. The archeological site was our group’s first exposure to the two main elements of Incan architecture: astronomical symbology and precise masonry. The main wall of Saqsayhuamán—the “bolt” of lightning —has blocks of smooth granite so precisely placed together that it reminded me of a giant Incan game of Tetris. Every block, most of which were not uniform, was so snuggly placed against its partner that the wall gave the impression that it wasn’t made from blocks at all, but was one solid piece carved to represent the shape of brick of wall.

Saqsayhuamán

The other memorable monument at Saqsayhuamán has a more modern history than the rock wall. Cusco has a decent number of Arab immigrants who, according to our guide, have been more or less tolerated by the local (highly Catholic) population. In one of the less tolerant periods, the Arab community offered the citizens of Cusco a gift to help express their commitment and gratitude: a large white statue of Jesus in the vain of Rio’s Cristo Redentor. The statue comes at the point of Saqsayhuamán lightning blot, if you will, and is illuminated at night as if it were keeping watch over the city.

Tambomachay

The second Incan monument, we visited was Tambomachay, an aqueduct placed at the top of a small, but very steep, hill. The end of the aqueduct leads to small fountain underneath four of ceremonial nooks or, as we called ‘em in kindergarten, cubbyholes. These nooks are trapezoidal with the base being slightly larger than the top. They can be found many Incan monuments and are believed to have held mummies or gold-plated idols. Also, they’re another example of the precision found in Incan architecture, as each nook is the same size and the same distance separating each hole. The fountain at Tambomachay is a traditional spot for the citizens of Cusco to have marriage ceremonies where the bride and groom each drink from the fountain.

After Tambomachay, honestly, the rest of Cusco was numbing blur due to the altitude and general travel exhaustion. We ate a restaurant, Incanto, which was okay (though I have the terribly snobbish gustation of a true Limeño). I think everybody in our group, myself included, was asleep by 9:30 or so.

Cusco at Night

Essentially, my experience in Cusco and it’s surrounding areas left me wishing that we’d spent more than just a day in the area. One of the downsides of being a part of a guided tour is spending the trip on rails, being led from one destination to another like the character in an old Nintendo game. Of course, there are upsides to a guided tour and it was probably for the best since I was the only person who could, at times, pass for a reasonably coherent Spanish speaker. My role as translator was, as my teacher would say, good for my Spanish but annoying for everyone else.

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Ramblings

"I may be a thousand years old, but I still made Piers Morgan look like a twat recently. So suck it!"

The internet in Peru has been a bit patchy lately, which has put a bit of a damper in the regular scheduled blogging. So I’ll do a quick, Larry King style bullet point rundown of some of my thoughts/experiences of Lima life.

Limeños are very found of those little stick figure drawings of a family that people attach to the back of their cars. Y’know ones; they’re the stickers of the kids, dogs, cats, or whatever, all with big, stick figure grins. Also, in the drawing the family is usually holding hands. I actually think they’re sort of cute too, in a chintzy manner. But they’re not cute, in any way, when a taxi with the stickers nearly sideswipes your car into what Mike Tyson would call “Bolivian.”

One ESL language issue that I’ve noticed in my students is a desire for overly long sentences. I believe this stems from the fact that Spanish is a language that doesn’t mind verbose sentences. English, however, doesn’t really like the way in which Spanish constructs its long sentences. My students’ writings can be, when viewed as pieces that were translated from Spanish to English, overly wordy and addicted to the semicolon (even when there’s no need for a semicolon).

Well, I want to talk a bit more about Lima traffic, since it’s a bit of national topic here in Peru. In the Midwest, where everybody talks about the weather and how it’ll change one moment to the next, in Lima everyone makes small talk about the traffic. My observation is that the cultural formation of personal space in Lima, which is much closer than your typical Anglo-Protestant notion of space, transfers over to driving styles. In Lima, people here will stand closer to you than folks would in the US, UK, Canada, Ireland, etc. This is not a bad thing…until you get in a thousand pound death mobile driven by a person who thinks they’re Jason Statham. The rules of Latin America personal space are transferred over to their driving style, which, for this gringo, can cause some underwear changing moments.

I’ve come to really enjoy Pisco Puro or Pisco “Shot” (which is often how it’s referred to here in Spanish). The really good Pisco has a flavor close to Tequila. Granted the Pisco Sour is still fantastic, but Pisco itself is a fine sipping drink. It’s flavorful, aggressive, and, if you get a good brand, quite smooth. Drink it pure, with a little ice (no more than 2 cubes) and it’s delicious.

I had my first experience at a Peruvian disco. It was fun. The most interesting experience happened when I was returning my empty glass to the bar and my bum was grabbed by a nice Peruvian lass. I know it was probably just the general atmosphere of a bar that is a well-known gringo hangout, but I’m just going to attribute to my general super attractiveness. Yeah, that sounds right. My attractiveness. It’s curse, really.

Well, that will do it for this blog post, but I’ll make up for with another post soon.

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Hmm, tasty. So tasty.

Tonight I indulged in two of my most favorite, and somewhat secret, pleasures: going to gringo places and watching the UFC. The latter I’ve enjoyed for awhile, much to the dismay of many of my friends who treat the UFC with a basic shrug that says “Why do they have to wrestle so much?” In Peru, I’ve actively tried to go and experience many things, especially at places (restaurants, shops, etc.) where I would be forced to speak Spanish. I enjoy these experiences. If I didn’t, then I probably have made a very bad life choice. Yet, I do miss somethings about the good ole’ USA; namely, chicken wings and sports bars. Oh Jaysus do I miss chicken wings. So, after I moved out of the hotel I went in search for a place that would serve chicken wings and brewskis.

At the Corner: NORM!

Thankfully, I discovered The Corner Bar. It’s  Miraflores only US style sports bar, complete with TVs and cable. The Corner, as it’s called by the locals, specializes in sports for both the US/Expat and Peruvian taste. It’s the sorta place where half the TVs will be showing Barcelona or Universario (arguably Peru’s most popular soccer team) and the other half will be showing the Jets or, even, the UFC. It makes for a nice mix of people, but it’s definitely a place that caters to the gringos.

If we get to the brass tacks of the place, the chicken wings are pretty good. A bit dry, but not too bad. The beer is nice and cold, however. They only serve Cusquena on tap, but, and I mean this seriously, Cusquena is all you really need. If in Ireland you really only need to drink Guinness, then in Lima you only need to drink Cusquena. So it was very comforting to eat chicken wings and drink beer, while indulging in my secret pleasure of watching guys smack each other in the face. While wearing shorts. With shaved chests. Hmm, now that I think about it, I feel like somebody should ask me if I like gladiator movies.

"It's so good! Once it hits your lips, it's so good."

The point of this post, which I think may have slipped away from me, is that I think it’s okay to enjoy things that remind me of home. I feel somewhat guilty, as I really enjoy throwing myself into Peruvian culture. It’s always a learning experience, and it’s always something that, despite it’s difficulties, provides a certain level of enjoyment. Having a place that will, for lack of better word, remind me of home seems like a good thing. It does, I’ve found, make me feel a little sheepish, like I’ve chickened out about living here. It makes me feel like I’m retreating into a zone of comfort that keeps me from learning/getting accustomed to Peruvian culture. But screw these feelings. I think these are just foolish thoughts, or so I hope. I feel like it’s okay to hold on to bits and pieces of the things about my home. Even chicken wings and dumb UFC guys.

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So, I moved out of the hotel and, therefore, have put aside much of the postmodern, David Foster Wallacesque guilt or anxiety. Unfortunately, the postmodern anxiety (or what my pal Kevin might call “false” anxiety) has been replaced by a more banal, yet no less pain-in-the-but-inducing, troubles.

 

Similar to most things about living abroad, moving into the apartment has had its benefits and difficulties. One of the most enjoyable benefits has been the relocation into the district of Miraflores. Unlike where the hotel was located in San Isidro, Miraflores is a much more densely-packed district of the city, with clusters of stoes and restaurants populating the districts. Each restaurant, incidentally, looks absolutely delicious, from a place specializing in crepes and waffles to others focused on traditional Peruvian fare. The only thing keeping me from eating out every night is the budget. Also, the district has more options of shops and stores in close walking distance.

 

Major difficulty is that I’m now really—for absolute realises—living in Lima. There are no more pleasant and helpful staff members to guide or bailout the clumsy gringo. Now I’m truly on my own, for better or worse. This exponentially compounds my, oft-frustrating, inability to navigate or create a normal life. For instance, I now lack a stable internet connection. I’ve tried to set one up, which has pretty much been a disaster. As a result, I have to piggyback off a weak signal. On a more material level, the initial payment required to rent an apartment was sobering (1 month rent + Deposit equal to 2 months rent).

 

At the core, moving into the apartment can be boiled down to one simple formula: typical moving issues + cultural differences + bureaucratic issues = massive frustration. Oh well, I guess this is one toughest parts of moving, so it should all be down hill from here. But we’ll see…I’m cleaning and cooking vegetables for the first time tonight.

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Treats! Given to me because...well, I'm in the room, right?

These past 2 weeks–man, has it been that long already–have been the longest I’ve ever stayed in a single hotel. Trap yourself in a room, for two weeks, and watch Lost in Translation and you’ll start to get the idea. Living in a hotel only magnifies and distorts the experience of living abroad. This gets compounded the longer you stay in the same hotel, grounded in the same spot. It’s not just that everything is catered for you, though there definitely is something to that feeling. All the bed making, room cleaning, shampoo replacing, towel drying, and servicing (not in that way, sickos!) all hide the essential component of living in a hotel for any length of time.

Essentially, you are never alone. Ever. You don’t have a single scrap of space that is, for better or worse, yours. The level of cohabitation is much more intimate than even your typical cramped apartment block. Whenever I leave, someone comes into my room to clean it. Leave my clothes out, don’t think so. Someone is always going to see how exactly you live, and even worse they know all the nooks ‘n’ crannies of the room more than you do. Their presence lingers, right down to the fact that they change the shampoo after every use or iron the bed clothes (no matter if I still have half the bottle of shampoo left or need a new pillowcase). Life in hotel accumulates into a truly unnerving experience.

The most biting and accurate piece on the unnerving feeling of living in a space of service (like a hotel) is probably David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” In the longform essay about his time on cruise ship, Wallace talks about how pampering becomes an existential itch that compounds into full blown anxiety that you can never scratch. You are informed, implicitly, that you can make an absolute mess of your  room because, let’s face it, it’s someone’s job to clean up after you. It’s your job to do whatever you want. You paid for that privilege after all. No matter what you want or what you do (within reason), it’s permissible because you are the client who is to be pampered in this space. And yet, you see the people who make this zone of pampering possible. You don’t want to give them extra work, even if it’s their job to do that work.

This creates, in Wallace’s view, a type of anxiety that makes you aware of the effort that goes into making you feel pampered. Any glimpse of this effort, then, undercuts the entire illusion of being pampered, of being able to do what you want. Some (and they may not be wrong) have criticized Wallace’s view as an extension of privileged guilt. However, for him this type of pampering is an infantilizing gesture. During my time here, I get what Wallace means.

That said, my time at the hotel has not been bad. I have been treated great and the hotel staff has been routinely wonderful. My time here has not been awful, by no stretch. And yet, and yet. I’m ready to leave. This conflict–of not being treated badly but being so ready to split–also adds to the weird experience of living in hotel. I’m never uncomfortable, but I’m never quite really comfortable either. In a way this must be what the Olson twins feel like all the time–minus creepy Dave Coulier, of course.

Also, I now understand why my room has a large zebra-style rug, a jacuzzi (but no shower), and mirrors everywhere in the bedroom–seriously, one whole wall is nothing but mirrors. It seems, on Friday and Saturday nights, this place turns into a “love hotel.” A love hotel with thin walls. Thin walls that spare no ears from the licky boomboom down.”

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Today was a rough day. The original apartment I selected was snatched out from underneath me; as a result, I had to look for another apartment today, which was stressful. This was added to the fact that I planned courses today without exactly knowing my schedule. As anybody who has taught a class on Tues/Thurs or Mon/Weds/Fri will tell you: that’s a big difference. 3 days or 2 days a week changes a lot when it comes to day-to-day course planning. Eventually, I settled for the first apartment I was shown in Lima. It’s very nice, and I will post pictures as soon as the apartment becomes a reality (I’m not jumping the gun this time).

Me, Freaking out

The central theme of this post, however, is an off-shoot from the stress of trying to rent an apartment in a big city. I was very bummed when I didn’t get the first apartment. This is probably one of those things that can get chalked up to the urban-shock element I’ve talked about earlier. Lima is a big city. People want nice apartments. People will move quickly for those nice apartments. We’re all sharks when real estate is concerned.

So, today, I went for lunch at one of the restaurants close to the hotel. All of them were packed around 1:00 pm. Lunch in Lima is a big deal, and for many it’s the biggest meal of the day. Basically, I was scared. Terrified, even. I felt really uncomfortable sitting down in one of these restaurants because I thought my Spanish would be so bad that I would (a) be laughed at, (b) create problems for the server, (c) interrupt everyone’s meal with my ignorance. At a certain level, I understand that all of these concerns might have a narcissistic element to them (I’m soooo important that everything would stop because of me!!!). I think, however, my fear about the language barrier has less to do with this narcissism, but is more concerned with my desire not to interrupt the daily processes of Lima-life. I just really don’t want to cause a problem. This makes simple things scary. You get scared of causing a problem, of being a problem.

Eventually, I walked past the restaurant twice. I probably walked an entire mile–circling around the block a couple of times–to pump myself up to eat at a restaurant 50 feet from my hotel. I pretended to examine menus. I pretended to walk out in search of other food options. Yet, I came back.

And I’m glad I did. The staff was very polite and provided great service. I was able to order, respond to questions, and discuss basic meal options with my server. I didn’t interrupt anything. I was just another customer. Being just another nameless customer was as great a victory as I’ve had since I moved to Lima.

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