Dispatch 2

My first class began inauspiciously with only seven students and a locked classroom door in the middle of a rainstorm, causing us to hold that evening’s class in the town hall. Senora Munoz is undertaking a crusade to feed me well (and prodigiously), so the food has improved a great deal. Without the fiesta as a medium for socializing, it’s difficult for me to connect socially with the villagers. Sometimes I’m on top of the world, and sometimes I’m profoundly lonely and frustrated. I think that means it’s just right.

Highlights of the last couple of weeks included Peruvian independence day and a trip to the amazing Kuelap ruins. Living in a village gives me glimpses of life that I couldn’t have seen, or appreciated, simply traveling around. My classes go reasonably well, but there is no consistency in attendance. About seven students attend nearly every class and five more come half the time. According to my inscription list, 39 individuals have signed up. To my alarm, many adults whom I encounter in the village say things like “Ah yes, I will start taking your class when I get around to it.”

There is no postal service outside of Chachapoyas, the big city in this area. On the way back from Chacha my first week, a man in a neighboring village asked me to deliver some mail to the Maria primary school teachers. This came in handy the following day, when I discovered that night that the room designated as my “English class” lacked a chalkboard. I used the mail delivery to wheedle the key to a far more suitable room from the primary school principal.

Informing me that the room lacked niceties like chairs, he directed me to a nearby house, where I could obtain the key to the original English class room, which did indeed have chairs. “Which house?” I asked. “The brown one,” he said, gesturing vaguely toward a large cluster of homes constructed of mud. I looked at him quizically. “The house . . . [here my Spanish failed me miserably] . . . fire . . . It’s possible that he isn’t there, but he definitely has the key.” I thanked him and wandered off. “Great,” I thought, “I’m going door to door looking for a man whose name I don’t know who might not be there, but if I ask nicely maybe they’ll give me some fire.”

Maricela, a woman in the first house, gazed at me sympathetically. Wiping her hands on her apron, she took a break from plucking deceased poultry to escort me to six more houses. I took each opportunity to introduce myself and plug the English classes, to the amusement of the housewives as they wove blankets and burned garbage in their yards.

Eventually, Maricela passed me off to the vice-mayor, who was thrilled to show me around the village. Manuel is a lively, cheerful man, and we got along instantly, telling jokes that the other only half-understood and discussing linguistic disparities. “English is harder to learn than Spanish because it has a strange accent, no?” he asked at one point. He also sheepishly shared that he knew a bit of English himself: “House,” he said. I encouraged him. “Chair. Blacksboard!”

After hours of searching, it emerged that the man who had the key lived across the valley. A woman indicated the distance using gestures that are usually accompanied by expressions like “nigh-on three days, if’n’ you got a strong mule.” I coaxed Manuel into letting me use the town hall chairs instead, and we carried them together in shifts from the town hall to my new room on our heads. Later, he accompanied me to the regional high school, where I agreed to teach English classes about ten hours a week. I already feel fond of and interested in Manuel, who walks (there is no car in the village, only a daily bus service) to all the pueblos in the region several times a week to check up on things. We parted congenially. “Hasta luego,” he said, “‘friend’!”

In contrast to the first class, the second one was attended by twenty-six people, the third by thirty-one, the fourth by twenty-four, and so on. The variety in age and ability is staggering. The youngest student is five, and the oldest is fifty-five. Only one student speaks more than a few words of English, but several learn very rapidly and others struggle with even one word at a time. It is obvious that I need to divide up the class, but even after two weeks, it is impossible to determine who will be there the next night.

The absence of light during about half of my night classes also challenges our efforts. The candles and flashlight I bring don’t create enough light for the students to easily read the chalkboard, so on electricity-free nights, we focus on conversation. I invented a guessing game to use in the dark: “What is it?” says one student, holding up mystery fruit or vegetable in the dark. “Is it a tomato?” asks another student. “No, it is not a tomato. It is green.” “Is it a cucumber?” “Yes, it is a cucumber.”

Peruvian Independence Day happened this week, which meant a big fiesta in Maria. I attended the parade seated next to the mayor and Manuel. While we waited for the parade to start, Pancho, the official dispenser of fermented sugar cane beverage, made the rounds with a big bucket and communal cup. I dread the communal cup of ferment, but I enjoy the camaraderie. Protocol requires one to down the liquid in one drink and pour a bit on the ground. I’m not sure if this last part is meant for some unnamed spiritual presence or because the last bits are chunky and rank.

The people of Maria, and indeed most Peruvians I’ve encountered, take patriotism very seriously. There’s a beautiful ideal of the Peruvian national spirit transcending the vast geographical differences within the country (according to Footprint, Peru has 84 of the 117 types of recognized life zones on the planet). For the parade, children dressed as figures integral to this national spirit (farmers, statesmen, soldiers, musicians, more soldiers, milkmaids, indigenous women, more soldiers, and, inexplicably, butterflies — I obviously need to brush up on my Peruvian history). The little boys dressed as soldiers were ecstatic. Each carried a huge toy machine gun and one sported a black ski mask. I marched with my fellow high school teachers holding the school banner, after which goosestepped all the high school students. I have noticed that there is a strong military aspect to every official activity in Peru.

A couple days ago, I hiked to the Kuelap ruins, an enormous fortress and residential complex built c. 900 AD. It had excellently preserved remnants of stone walls and huts half overgrown with jungly vines, ferns, and bromeliads. I was exhausted after my two and a half hour hike there, but it put things into perspective to find that one of my high school students lives there.

Very few tourists wandered the grounds. I joined a group of Peruvians taking a tour of the ruins, whose male members subsequently made it their priority to climb over every ancient structure with a yellow ribbon across prohibiting entrance. Most of the disrespectful tourist activity I’ve seen here is being done by Peruvians. Foreigners who make it this far north tend toward culturally and environmentally respectful tourism. Lots of Peruvians travel around here, though, possibly because it is far more affordable than visiting big-ticket sites like Machu Picchu. While most are friendly and earnest, many litter and show no interest in the local communities.

Having taken the Kuelap tour, which totally spent me, I would have had to then hike all the way back to Maria in the afternoon. Luckily, some Peruvians with room in their van gave me a ride back. This is something that fascinates me about this country: by my standards, interactions between people are fairly impolite. People sometimes say ‘please’ when they want something, but rarely say ‘thank you,’ and virtually never say ‘you’re welcome.’ Yet they are friendlier than any nationality of people I’ve ever encountered: you can hardly sit next to a northern Peruvian without him wanting to know your life story, share food, exchange email addresses, and help you in any way he can. On a recent four-hour bus ride, the old woman sitting next to me in the middle seat didn’t move over to the free window seat when the guy in it left. As a matter of fact, she cuddled right up to me.

I keep discovering that patterns of behavior that I would have called contradictory exist here in harmony.

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