Friday, November 26, 2010

How the Asian Squat Saved My Life

I have been in Peru a month, with a couple more to go. I have one more week of spanish classes before they turn me loose into the wild. I'll be meeting up with a friend in Arequipa in a week and a half and we'll spend some time bumming around before another friend flies in and the three of us take Machu Picchu by storm. Things of late:

  • I have officially graduated from the Karen-to-Rosario spanish. The word "travel-o" has been dutifully replaced by "viajar" and the gesture of me spoonfeeding myself has been replaced with "comer."
  • There are two distinct ways in which Mississippians and Peruvians (at least of the Andean persuasion) are akin to each other. First is, of course, their common love of Jesus Christo and the proliferation of crosses anywhere someone might be looking. Second is their tendency to walk excessively slow. In Mississippi, our slow way of doing everything is often chalked up to the heat and humidity. It's pretty dry and mild here, but the elevation demands that people take their time. I believe the tale of the tortoise and the hare might have originated in the Andes - they tend to take it pretty seriously.
  • My homestay mother seems just about as concerned about my looks as my actual mother. When I got my fellow student to give my hair a little trim before she left (perhaps the first time in my life I have gone only 6 weeks between haircuts), my host mom exclaimed with a despondent look, "¿Porque, Margaret? ¡Tu no tienes pello!" (For those of you who don't speak spanish: Why, Margaret? You don't have any hair!)
  • For those followers of my blog while in Asia, you may remember a comment or two about the "Asian squat." It is, quite simply, a squat in which your feet are planted flat on the ground. I attempted several times in Asia, but my center of gravity was a tad off from most Southeast Asians (directly related to my weighing 150% what they do on average), and I never quite perfected it. It seems it is a stance reserved for children and those of Southeast Asian stature. However, in the last few months I have realized that I am now somewhat capable of the stance (thank you, weight loss) - it also helps if I am on a hill of some sort. And, you'll be pleased to know that this stance - the ability to squat so as to hover one's bum just above the ground - practically saved my life this week. I was volunteering at a project in a poor barrio just outside of town. They have a little mud brick school where they have classes for neighborhood kids for a few hours in the morning. The school is on a hillside and backs up against some government land where they are excavating some pre-Inca ruins. Turns out, you can cultivate this government land as long as you're not in the way of the excavation. So I spent one afternoon this week helping a poor woman in the neighborhood, Señora Modesta, prepare some of the land for planting papas (potatos). It's nearly 12,000 feet up here so each surge of energy is carefully balanced with a rest. I took to the Asian squat for my preferred resting position. As I am squatting there, Mario (the dude in charge of the school project) tells me to make sure I don't sit down in the dirt. "¿Porque?," I ask. "Las arañas", he answers, "the widows." Sure enough, at that very moment I look down and no fewer than a few centimeters below the crotch of my shorts are three, yup three, black widow spiders - one the size of a quarter. Turns out the government lets you cultivate this land for free because working in the land is basically poisonous - black widows are all over the hillsides.
  • Señora Modesta is a local woman who lives in a mud-brick house close to the school. The plan is that half of what the school cultivates they'll give to people like Señora Modesta and half they will use in the school. Modesta is a hearty sort - she takes her time with that shovel, but she knows how to use it. At one point in the afternoon we're both working when the silence is broken by a muffled cry. I felt like the narrator in Edgar Alan Poe's "The Man Who Wasn't There" who is shocked when the lumpy bag on the floor begins to talk to him. Turns out, this whole time Señora Modesta has had her baby on her back, carefully wrapped in this colorful cloth she wears around her shoulders. Here I was taking a break every couple of minutes thinking I was doing fine because I rested no more frequently than the local. And all along she's basically been carrying around a 25 pound backpack. Gringa duped again.

  • Thursday was, of course, Thanksgiving. Now, Thanksgiving happens to be my favorite holiday (this may or may not be because it is one of the few holidays that merits time off from school but doesn't require going to church). Cusco has a fair amount of tourism so it wasn't hard to sniff out a restaurant serving a traditional turkey dinner. It just so happened to be a British pub. I am sure the owners undertake the Thanksgiving feast to make a little money. It seems rather doubtful they take pause to think that the holiday, in its original incarnation, is to celebrate a bunch of fanatics literally dying to escape the English crown. History aside, the meal was actually pretty close (biggest fault: no cranberry sauce). I made my reservation for one, since I don't have any other American friends. So the restuarant (of course) sat me at their version of the kid's table - a couch, around the corner of the bar, with all the beanbag chairs basically walling me in (usually the bean bag chairs are all around the room, but they brought in extra tables to accomodate these hefty Americans, and therefore put all the beanbag chairs around my little table). It is perhaps the only Thanksgiving dinner I have ever had (and ever hope to have) where the only words I uttered for the entire meal were, "La cuenta, por favor" (the check, please).

  • Before my turkey dinner I attempted to watch football. This has never been a big part of my family's Thanksgiving, but there are a few bars in town that advertise NFL so I struck out, with an Austrian in-tow, to spend a little time trying to be as stereotypically American as possible. At the bar where we ended up, the DirectTV package only included one football game, which we had already missed (who wants to watch the Patriots, anyway?). We ended up watching sumo wrestling, drinking Peruvian beer, and talking to the bar's pet parrot. Nothing says "Thanksgiving pre-game" like some fat Japanese dudes duking it out.

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