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It would be banal to say that moving to Peru has been an eye-opening experience (or any number of clichés that come to mind about learning of life lessons). Often, it’s easier to forget some of the more glaring (if that’s the right word) elements of a developing country. Or, maybe, forgetting is too harsh a word. Possibly I’ve just become more accustomed to living in Lima, which means I’m taking the city’s flattering and less flattering elements in stride. However, one of the aspects of daily life that continues stay at the forefront of my thoughts is how my definitions of what qualifies as a necessity and what qualifies as a luxury have changed. Life in a developing country forces one to confront differences that, while living in what is called the first world, are normally just considered in the abstract.

Clean water is not a given in Peru (image from "Lima Bean" Blog)

The most significant revelation, even for a first-timer in South America like myself, is the necessary distinction between good and bad, clean and unclean drinking water. Now, anybody who has taken a vacation to a developing country—for most people from the States, I would assume this would be Mexico—can understand the need to drink bottled water, avoid wet silverware, and keep their mouth closed while in the shower. Yet, it’s hard to appreciate the daily concerns about clean water and the necessity of it for many actions central to daily life. Recently, I’ve purchased a water jug that can be refilled for around 10 soles or so. This is my primary source of water for drinking and cooking, and it’s a much better solution than my previous routine of trips to store to buy large bottles. It’s amazing how quickly this water gets used; consequently, it’s also amazing how much I pay for the necessity of having clean water. Now, yes, I did pay for water back in the US, but that water was multipurpose. I was never “out” of clean water as I could always just pour myself a glass from the tap.

The result of having to always be aware of clean water underlines how clean water is closer to a luxury, even though I’ve always thought of it as a necessity. While finding clean water isn’t hard, the need to be aware of the distinction between clean/unclean water has never been made clearer to me. Also, my privileged position makes my access to clean water pretty easy, especially when compared to the majority of people in Lima (or the world).

The second aspect of my daily life that has changed has been the difficulty of securing stable Internet access. While obviously not as vital as drinking water, having a stable connection to the Internet is a pretty important thing for many. The Internet is my main connection with my family and friends, as well as my main problem solver for things like directions or useful Spanish phrases. In Lima, whatever speed a company charges you for Internet service, expect to receive only 50% of the actual billed amount. The telecommunications infrastructure of Peru is not as reliable as someone coming from the States would expect (though in some of the wealthier boroughs of the city it’s not too bad).

If you had asked me before I moved to Peru if Internet access was a luxury or a necessity, I probably would’ve quickly placed it in the necessity category. Heck, I’m pretty sure I’ve said it was “impossible” or “torture” to live without Internet service. When I think back about thoughts like this, I just think how silly that they seem now. And it’s not silly in an anti-consumerist Eat, Pray, Love sort of way. Not having internet service at times hasn’t taught me about the need to find myself or any other Julia Roberts inspired drivel about disconnecting from the modern world; instead, it has clearly marked how, in many ways, I was naïve about the condition of the rest of the world.

Overall, my experience in Peru has shown me a nuisanced difference between commodities as luxuries and commodities as necessities. If the value of a commodity depends on the demand as predicated by the totality of a market, then I should be able to create an equation that balances my need for water with my need for Internet access. How many bottles of water make an equivalent exchange for a month of wireless Internet access? In my personal budget, am I willing to go a little a thirsty for access to better communication? In fact, my ability to have the decision to go a little thirsty is a privileged position; as for many, it’s not a decision at all.

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Don't worry, those people are just metaphors. Cannibalism isn't the bedrock of the Latin American Food Pyramid.

Since moving to Peru, I’ve lost weight. Quite a bit of weight, actually. By my estimation, I’ve probably dropped 15 or 20 pounds, which puts me right back at my fighting weight of 165 or so. I can only provide guesses about my weight, as we don’t own a scale. This drop in weight is especially interesting because back in the States I was a gluten-free grad student. In Lima, I’ve relaxed my eating habits and have started to drink beer again. So, I really haven’t gone on any sort of diet since arriving in Peru. I haven’t been able to exactly pin down the reasons, but I have a couple of guesses (and no, it’s not from Ole’ Monty’s Revenge).

First—although I could be proven wrong—I don’t really think my slimming down is due to diet (though not having the stress eating caused by finishing a PhD probably helps). Now, plenty of Peruvian food is probably better for my diet than US food as there’s less deep-fried food available; however, fatty food is not scarce and some of the traditional Peruvian dishes are uber-starchy. Hell, that’s the reason why many Peruvian dishes are so good; they understand that all the “really good” dishes are created by the things that aren’t necessarily good for you, like butter. Lomo Saltado, for instance, is grilled steak with onions and peppers, served with rice and French Freedom Dumb-jingoistic-renaming-of-potatoes fries. And there’s no skimpin’ on the rice and fries. Yes it’s delicious, but that’s a lot of carbs. So not everything in this city is healthy like ceviche. Plus, I still have my general laziness when it comes to cooking, which isn’t helped by the fact that almost everywhere in Lima will deliver. So there are a variety of food options available, many of which can be sent directly to your doorstep.

I mean, seriously, the food here is great. The amount of restaurants that look great is just staggering, from little shops or cevicherias to swank Italian/Peruvian fusion places. Not to mention the sushi restaurants. Oh the sushi restaurants! Lima knows my one and only weakness, sushi restaurants.

Cause it's a cute picture: That is all

As for exercise, yeah there’s probably something to that. Since I don’t own a car, I walk a lot. Even if I take a taxi or combi, I usually have to walk at least a bit to get to my destination. Also, taking a taxi everywhere can get expensive, so if it’s possible I try to huff it to my destination. The other major reason I think I walk a lot in Lima is the nice weather. Even during this winter, the weather hasn’t been too bad (especially if you’re coming from the Midwest with its Sub Zero weather).

So, is moving to South America a weight loss plan? Probably not. I definitely don’t want to essentialize Peruvian food or lifestyle as some sort of exotic cure all because that comes with whole lot of yucky stereotypes about the developing world. However, I think that it’s okay for me to state that I’ve changed my diet and increased my exercise; consequently, it is probably fair to say that there’s something about the lifestyle here in Lima has impact my eating habits for the better.

I’ve been thinking about the transportation system in Lima quite a bit lately. Maybe because I spend a decent amount of time in transport, going to an’ fro between the university and my apartment. As I’ve mentioned, Limeños tend to talk about the traffic, with all its congestión and embotellamientos, like Midwesterns talk about the weather. So much that it becomes a type of greeting: “Oh, hello Jim. How about that traffic?” “I know Jane, it’s just so crazy!” It’s a common enough small talk topic that it will serve you well if you’re ever caught in a conversation with a new acquaintance, start with the traffic.

One of the major frustrations for Limeños is that the infrastructure of roadways in the city hasn’t, it seems, been able to match an increased growth of vehicles that use this infrastructure. I want to look at two of the vehicles that are hyper-visible on Lima’s roads: combi’s and taxis.

First, the taxis. As almost any guidebook will tell you, all cabs in Lima are negotiable. You barter with the driver to reach a deal, depending on your destination and the time of day. On a personal note, I sometimes find this a stressful thing because it is always a constant challenge that combines city life and language skills. You don’t really want to pick cabs that are too beaten up (some cabs here are about the size of a bumper-car and are powered by gas; not gasoline mind, but propane) or drivers that look sketchy. Also, no cab drivers here speak English, so both the negotiation and directions (don’t expect every cab driver to know your destination) must be done in Spanish. I’ve gotten to the point where I can give directions and hold small talk with my cabbies (basically about the traffic!). This is an accomplishment, I believe.

Since all cab fare is negotiated in advance, I come to the conclusion that this influences taxistas to drive ultra aggressively, since it will be the same price if you arrive at your destination in 10 or 15 minutes (sometimes they might try and wheedle an extra sole or two). In order to maximize their profits, then, cabbies here depend more on accumulating passengers that accumulating time. This is compounded by the sheer amount of cabs on the road. There is no regulation of cab service, so anybody who so desires can start picking up folks. So not only does a cabbie need high turnover, but also they must compete with the market to hit the right price point. There will always be another cab who might meet your price, always. With no meter, time equals wasted cash for the cabbies as they’re only burning gas; consequently, competition and the barter system means loads of aggressive drivers.

The combi system, Lima’s collection of buses and vans, is similar to the cabs. It’s not an organized bus system as some might recognize; instead, it’s a collection of privatized companies and small owners who operate their own vehicles. The combis themselves can range from a nice standard size bus to a small van—I mean small, like no bigger than a midsized SUV. While not as noticeable as taxis, there are still plenty of combis on the roads. Former President Fujumori completed altered the transit system when he opened up bus transport to the market, allowing business to create their own people carriers. As a result, combis exploded on Lima roadways like reality television shows on the airways (Topical Blog humor Alert! Zing!).

Riding the combi is very cheap, often a single Nuevo Sol or so. As you can imagine this creates a ton of pressure on the combi company/driver to maximize profits. Combis can be packed with people to the point that the barker (each combi has a person who tells you the price at each stop) hangs on to the outside of the bus. And this gets us to a very interesting point about transport in Lima because, if we look at the taxis and combis, the free market nature of traffic puts the passenger at risk. The emphasis both taxis and combis place on speed and passenger turnover help influence the aggressive driving and congestion for which Lima is famous. The roadways of a free market are interesting as an example and to some extent an effect of deregulating the rules of the road. It’s more than just a simple case of “Los conductores son locos” but of how the economics of a situation trickle down to our everyday experience on the road, in which speed is emphasized over time as normal characteristic of driving.

"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.

Sign in the makeshift library at USIL (they're building a new library)

I have begun (finally) the teaching job that was the reason I moved to Peru. Although it was only little over a month, the time between my arrival and the start of the job felt interminably long, a sort of purposelessness wandering that fell somewhere between a vacation and a relocation. Thankfully all the people at USIL, both my bosses and colleagues, have been really wonderful. It’s no small exaggeration to say I couldn’t have survived without them. (On a side note filled with extreme nerdery: the pronunciation of USIL sounded, early on, like “USUL.” If you get that reference, you get a free ride on the giant sandworm.)

Beginning to teach, plan lessons, and interact with students has given my days a nice rhythm (though dealing with commute is still a royal pain). As much as I’ve bitched and moaned about teaching in the past, there is a certain pattern that has come to order my days and keep me motivated in other areas of my work. This post is about some of my initial experiences teaching in Peru. Think of it as sort of a gringo diary.

One of the first things learned about teaching overseas is actually more of a flashback to my days teaching as a graduate student. I’ve gained a new appreciation for all the non-US teachers I met during my grad student days. I didn’t ever really understand their difficulties, fears, or anxieties. Not that I totally understand them now, but at least I’ve been given a little glimpse. I guess it is, in a way, very appropriate since it’s such a gringoesque sort of viewpoint and matches with the spirit of this blog (or at least it’s pasty writer).

The Main Building on Campus B

The feeling of cultural difference I’ve experienced is not the product of one major element; instead, it’s more like an accumulation of little differences. For example, greetings and personal space are understood here on a more intimate level. Students routinely shake my hand after each class and female colleagues greet me with a hug and a brief peck on the cheek. I get embarrassed sometimes about the latter because I’m still not quite accustomed to the greeting. The greeting itself doesn’t bother me, but I am insecure cause I think act like a robot when it happens (it still catches me off guard). In the classroom, the students are also more “touchy-feely,” which is a change from the more Protestant version of personal space exhibited by the students I taught in the States. Neither form of personal space is qualitatively better, of course. It’s just different or, more accurately, different to me.

Having worked in another country earlier in my life, I think I sorta shrugged off these differences because I didn’t realize how they would alter my life. Not only does it show my naivete, but also it reveals how being a world traveler is always different from living in a place. When you live somewhere you have the time to notice the little things about a culture and, more importantly, the need find your place within that culture.

One of the student computer lounges

In my role as a teacher, I’ve often had to rearrange and adjust quite a few elements of my style. I have to think about how everything, from classroom analogies to entire lesson plans, might need to be changed in order to better accommodate the cultural references and learning styles of the students. This can be especially tricky or annoying when I need to change any of my “go to” lesson plans. Every teacher worth their salt has a set of successful and time-tested “go to” lesson plans, and having to change those plans is both frustrating and difficult. “I spent three years getting this damn lesson correct, now I need to change the goddamn thing,” I’ve often thought. Even this early in my teaching experience I’ve had to redraft my “go to” plans, handouts, and lectures. This revision needs to be done not so much to adjust for any cultural sensitivity, but for simple effectiveness. It still comes down to finding the best way to help the students understand and use the concepts presented in the course; to get them from point A to point B in the best possible manner.

Another interesting element, which is tied to teaching in a developing country, is that here it’s much more difficult to teach on basic material level. Finding certain things can be pretty difficult. Each classroom has a whiteboard, but you must present your ID to a staff member in order to get markers, which must be returned immediately after the class. I decided just to purchase my own set of whiteboard markers as it was just easier that way (and now I guard them like Gollum guarded the One Ring). The rooms also have the basic projector set up found in many universities, but teachers have no access to the remote. You’ll need to wait (or go hunt down) the remote guy who goes classroom to classroom turning on and off the projectors. Most classes here work on a photocopy basis, as it’s very difficult to order books in Peru. Consequently, most books are photocopied and dispersed among the students. Depending on the class and the instructor, this is either done in accordance to copyright laws or not.

Yet, it’s not all alienation and difference, struggle and frustration. For the most part, 16 to 18 year old students seem pretty much the same. Some are hardworking, some not. Some really enjoy the class, some don’t. Some do all the readings, some just look bored. They’re all attached to their cellphones, so it’s the same battle to get them to not text during class. So to present everything like I’m a stranger in a strange land would be disingenuous. Thankfully, the job still comes down to teaching the students the best you can in the most honest way you can. The good feeling you have when a student grasps a concept is still there, just remember to purchase your own markers before the semester starts.

Oh, and the student restaurant Don Igancio’s is absolutely fantastic. The students are all the sous-chefs, and it’s better than any restaurant, including the private ones, at my old university.

We screw things up for everyone!

I have written a bit about how difficult it is to acquire a workable visa for yourself. As per the request of my friend Leslie, who’s awesome by the way, I’ll write a bit about traveling/moving internationally with pets. First, I should state that I only dealt with one half of the pet traveling equation, the receiving end (which sucked enough, but we’ll get to that). I was not the one who had to put my dogs, Miranda and The Stray, on a plane. (Sidenote 1: The second dog’s name is Stray, but “The Stray” sounds cooler, no? Sidenote 2: I imagine, because I can’t speak to it, that it was incredibly tough to put the dogs on plane without getting on it yourself. Like painful tough.)

So, my story is all about how the system here in Latin America works from the destination side of the process. Well, where should we start? How about the fact that due to the Andes, international flights to Lima arrive between 11 pm and 4 am. The dogs were lucky enough to arrive on one of the earlier 11 pm flights. Actually, they arrived at the warehouse around midnight. I know this because I was there, and saw them unloaded from the truck. Was able to stick my fingers through their kennels and everything…before they were yanked away on a dolly into a loud warehouse full of God-knows-what (Fun Fact: Later we saw a truck delivering boxes and boxes of live baby chickens. It was not funny. Not even in a surreal, 5 in the morning sorta way.) In the end, it didn’t really matter when the pups arrived, because they were going to hanging out for a long time.

Basically, there are three main players that you’ll need to placate to get your pets into Peru. A) The Airline B) The Government’s Agricultural wing or Senata C) The Warehouse/Storage company. All three of these main wings form a basic procedure that can be distilled, however vaguely, into the word “customs.” Customs sucks. It sucks so, so hard.

The Pups.

First, the airline, in our case Continental; they were the easiest part of the process. They received all the paperwork, charged you a fee (get used to this), and sent you on your way. Not too bad, all things considered. The only annoying thing is that most live animal custom papers are required to be processed by hand, so you’ll need to wait for the guy to deliver the paperwork to your local office. In our case, this was done via foot. Yes, that’s right; the guy ran the documents from the runway to the office, which was probably a good 6-7 minute car ride.

After that, began the numerous trips to and from the warehouse to the customs office at the airport (even though there was a customs office there, at the warehouse). It was during this point that the hardest thing happened: I was able to see the dogs taken back into the warehouse. That was tough. All I wanted to do was take them home, and there they were! Ugh, even now, thinking about it sucks.

The rest of the night was spent going back-and-forth from the airport to the warehouse, getting various papers stamped, sealed, and so forth. Like many things, there were several layers of bureaucracy that needed to be managed in order to get the dogs out of the warehouse. The only process is compounded by the necessary late-night arrival, as everyone is angry, sleepy, hungry, and simply doesn’t want to deal with anything at 2 in the morning. This goes for both myself and all the custom agent/warehouse personnel.

The biggest pain was that many of the custom agents really just wanted me to wait until 8 am to process the dogs release. However, that would have resulted with them being in their kennels for something like 13 hours. No way. So, in order to get them released that night, not only did I need to get several things signed and resigned, at two locations, I had to fork over a bunch of extra dough to make it happen. Ugh. Eventually, 6 hours later at, roughly, 5 in the morning, the dogs were able to be released to us and got to come home to apartment.

Despite the ordeal, the central things is that the dogs are safe and happy here in Lima. They’re able to drink the water just fine, and get plenty of walks around our neighbor. There is one our doormen who really likes them, and always needs to say hello to his little amigas (it’s pretty sweet).

Who knew, an old NES game called "Montezuma's Revenge"

As in shit. And other fluids. I have been in Peru just over two months, and have been inflected with my first case of food poisoning. Or the dreaded Montezuma’s Revenge as it’s more commonly known (though Peru is the wrong country). And yes, it’s as bad as everyone says. Fortunately, my episode only lasted about 24 hours, which at least made it painfully brief. Unlike me, however, it did create a bit of a blockage  in my blog posting (Zing!). I’ll post about my experiences teaching soon, as I’ve had that post in the hopper for awhile now.

Throughout my stay, I’ve been incredibly careful about what I eat and drink. Hell, I even keep my mouth clamped shut in the shower. I’m not kidding. It’s like I’m a little kid at the dentist who is refusing to open his mouth (Spoiler: I totally was that kid). Yet, I think that an episode is unavoidable. If you’re traveling, it seems pretty easy to take enough precautions here in Lima to avoid any real contact with the dreaded “la venganza de Moctezuma.” Basically, if you avoid tap water, ice, and eat at nice places you’re pretty much in good shape. Yet, if you’ve decided to relocate here, your chances of getting stomach problems is probably 100%. Given enough time, all results will trend toward zero. Many ex-pats often speak of it as a sort of right of passage. Get it, deal with it, and then move on.

Actually, I find it pretty funny as almost everyone, from family to friends, has made a joke about it. Something about moving to a South American country elicits jokes about the shits. That said, it’s not the most terrible thing. Most good restaurants in Lima–even the cheap ones frequented by many locals–are very clean establishments. Of course there are dive bars/restaurants you want to avoid, but they’re pretty easy to spot. As I’ve mentioned earlier, Peruvians take their cooking really seriously, so most restaurants are clean, well-run, and offer delicious food. However, mistakes will happen. In my case, I don’t even think it was the actual food. From our deduction, we think it was from breakfast, which was basically just tocino y huevos (bacon and eggs). No fruit, uncooked meats, or fish. What probably happened was that the plate wasn’t completely dried off before they served me. Or, maybe, I just had a bad reaction to something. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m not exactly known for having an iron stomach. In fact, I’m pretty famous for weak stomach. Or infamous. Or notorious. But, without a doubt, always embarrassed by it. Ah well, as a great man said: “It happens.