• Maegan Prentice

An Aspen in Peru


Aspen Talbott at home in Washington state

Aspen is the twenty year old granddaughter of my neighbor.. Coming out of a difficult teenage period with a poor self-image and some academic difficulties in school she embarked on a journey with her partner. Now she is back planning to return to community college and then moving possibly training to become a doctor.

You might wonder what caused this drastic transformation.

There were two major events and a life changing journey that lead to this transformation. The first involved meeting her boyfriend Kyle who saw her as someone who could face significant challenges successfully. The second was the decision to leave the US for a year, to get her TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) instruction certification, and teach in Peru with her partner Kyle. That year she spent immersed in a very different culture.

I interviewed her via FB video and like so often happens in an interview she launched into a narrative without much prompting; describing her first impression as she disembarked from the plane in Cusco, Peru, got into a taxi and rode to their first apartment.  The diary of her mind, unwritten, simply flowed.

She was coming from a small university city with hundreds of foreign students and thriving Latino and Muslim communities but she never thought about the diversity of her hometown until she got off the plane in Cusco, Peru and encountered people who were all similar in stature and style.  Everybody had a similar silhouette.  “No one was tall, or skinny, or fat.  No one was wearing makeup.”  No one stood out as she looked around and headed out of the airport with her boyfriend Kyle to get a taxi.

They knew that they were going into a modern part of the city where some places were even owned by foreign investors who hoped to attract tourists, but as they headed to the apartment the school had arranged for them they saw a diversity, not of people, but of living conditions, and it was as equally surprising as the experience in the airport.  They drove through areas where houses were made of crumbling brick and cement, some only had corrugated roofs or plastic.  The streets smelled like trash and garbage.

Finally, they reached their placed and faced the reality of life in a Peruvian city. One that is trying to be modern and comfortable for those Peruvians who are transitioning

Aspen in Peru

to a modern environment and losing their cultural heritage. The apartment she described was both familiar and challenging.  She didn’t have to worry about cooking, laundry, and bathing but the experience was different and had a learning curve.

The apartment was comfortable but she didn’t like the hard, cold tile floors with no carpets.  Everywhere she went she encountered these type of floors.  There were little inconveniences that she gradually learned were just part of daily life in Peru.  There were no stoves, only something that reminded her of a single burner camps stove, "a big plate with hose and tank that was kept under the sink or in a cabinet".

It would be a month before she learned how the locals do their laundry There were no washers and dryers anywhere. During those first weeks in Cusco she found a place that would wash their clothes and charged by the pound.  “We didn't know what to do so we just gave it to these people.”

Most apartments in the area had their own shower, but these showers had their own challenges.  For reasons she was never able to determine the shower heads were much lower and, more importantly, if you touched the showerhead you would receive a memorable electric shock.

First excursions beyond the city

Cusco was the place where they were studying, but they made trips into the mountains above the city. There they had their first encounters with the Peruvians who continued to live in traditional settings. They dressed in traditional clothing, worked the land in traditional ways, used different languages, and held different views of religious practice and what was considered sacred.

​Fashion had been one of the things that Aspen had wanted to see in her travels. In the mountain regions above Cusco, and later Trujillo, she experienced, first hand, the colorful clothing that she had only dreamed about before her arrival. In their travels away from the city they also learned about the way people live off the land without the things that money buys. They also observed how people lived in community.

Moving on

At the end of the first month both Aspen and Kyle had passed their tests and obtained the certification they needed to teach English anywhere in the world, but they planned to stay in Peru.  They researched locations and settled on Trujillo, a coastal city, and left on the three day bus ride across the country to get there.

Lessons from her hosts

"When we arrived in Trujillo and got off the bus, we stayed at a hostel and walked around for two days knocking on doors to look at apartments. Since they don’t use the internet there [all we had] would be pieces of paper just saying "for rent" and we would knock and they would show us the room/rooms that were for rent."

Pilar, the woman who owned the apartment that they decided to rent, helped her settle into housekeeping and life in the city, and Aspen finally learned how the locals do their laundry at home. ​

"You just take the clothes and rub them together.  You use a dry strip of soap.  You take the dry soap and put it in the armpits first, to get the smell out.  They don't have hot water just cold. The odor never really comes out of the clothes and they have a different feeling. They don't have washboards."

 The clean laundry was carried to the roof above the fifth floor to dry.

Like most of the women Aspen met that year, Pilar had a very particular way of doing things especially in the kitchen

​"There was always a right way and a wrong way, a right pot, a right pan, dish, or right utensil to use. At first I thought it was just her but then I realized that other people were just as particular. They don't all do it the same way but it's kind of a family thing. Their mom teaches them this is the way you do it."

Personally I found myself smiling as I realized that this is not a particularly Peruvian trait. Kitchens are, for many women or chefs, a very personal domain that functions best with only one person in control.

Their flatmate, like many other locals, raised guinea pigs up on the roof to sell to the local restaurants.  

"They had really cute guinea pigs but I never wanted to say hi to them because they might soon to be dinner some night. I didn't want a relationship."

First job in Trujillo

​Kyle began working for a school in the area.  Aspen was uncomfortable with the people at the school and stayed in the apartment for the first two weeks.  Her concerns about the program turned out to be justified.  Kyle left when he realized that the program mixed different age groups together in an inappropriate learning environment.  The owner made it clear to the faculty that their first and only concern was the money they could make. Kyle quickly found a job with UK Vivential, a program he and Aspen were both enthusiastic about.  As soon as another position opened up Aspen joined him working there.

Appropriate language

"I learned from the people in the neighborhood that Argentinians are known for cussing a lot. Every other word was a bad word. Because of this situation My first experience learning Spanish was mostly curse words." "The Peruvians don't curse. If you curse in front of a Peruvian he will think you very upset.  A Peruvian wouldn't say a cuss words unless they were very very angry and they never use cuss words nonchalantly and you would never use it to describe an object like a f**** water bottle. It wouldn't make sense of them they would think “why are you so angry? Why are you so upset?” "The Peruvian girls are very reserved they would never use a cuss word. They don't know anything about sex. Americans are just a whole different species you accept them. We were accepted as a couple because we were American."

Despite the language it was “kinda cool” staying in with the Argentinians at first.  Aspen met a lot of new friends there.

"The college students had what they called pensions. Their Mom’s mom called the restaurants nearby and paid for them to come for meals on a daily basis. The Argentina couple had owned a juice bar, but they closed it down and served the students from their apartment. Whatever they were serving they would serve the students.  The students would come to the house and eat in the dining room when the shop was closed.  Sometimes Kyle and I would come out of our room and eat with them, but since the couple had closed the juice bar they were home all the time and they were just fighting and fighting and fighting and fighting. We decided to move when I came out of the shower one day and they were fist fighting and breaking chairs and glass. The women called her ex and had the man thrown out. A week later he's coming back. He was really creepy showing me the porn on his phone and coming on to me. I didn't like that at all. I couldn't be left alone with him."

It was obvious to Kyle and Aspen that they needed to find a new place.


Grandmothers

Aspen noted that not everyone wants  their children to be raised by the grandparents. One of the teachers that Aspen worked was thinking about having a child and told Aspen “I want to stay home with my child I want them to call me Mom.”When Aspen and Kyle decided they had to move they stayed in contact with the students.  Over time their circle of friends included some of those students from the university, the teachers they worked with, and some of their students from the language program.

She chuckled as she told me that they found an apartment in another building.

"“It was run by an old lady who forgot everything and thought our place was hers. A million times she would just walk in and say hello and how are you guys doing I haven't heard from you in a while. She was home alone all the time with a child of her son…. We didn't mind staying there with the crazy old lady she was so sweet. She would just check up on people and wanted to talk all the time because she was kind of bored and alone all day."

She did note that there was one teacher who felt differently about raising children.  That teacher was thinking about having a child and told Aspen “I want to stay home with my child I want them to call me Mom.”


Daily routine

Aspen and Kyle could walk to work at UK Vivential. “On the way to work we saw lots of people selling hard boiled eggs, churros, popcorn and every street had a ton of restaurants that all served the same thing. There were 5 restaurants in a row.”

All of the restaurants have the same menu on Monday they would have the same thing Tuesday there would be a new menu but every restaurant had the same thing. Every meal included a soup, an entree, french fries and rice.  Juice would accompany the meal.

Aspen has a keen awareness of how people dress.  She has been interested in clothes and fashion for years and was one of the reasons she has wanted to travel to India, Japan, and parts of Europe.  Our conversations were seasoned with observations of the clothes in the city.

"They have no culture… In the cities women and the girls wear tight tight jeans, regardless of their size.  Young girls wear crop tops, but older women wear blouses and the men wear big jeans and t-shirts…. You also see many people with uniforms.  Companies have uniforms with their names on them and you will see people in these uniforms at lunch time in all the restaurants. But as you go out into the country where they don't have so much money and other things associated with city living you see more of the traditional culture."

When they went out into the countryside that's where they came in touch with the traditional cultures and clothing that she had hoped to see while she was there.

"Girls wear skirts that are very thick.  They were actually two or three layers of skirts sewn onto one band and they often wore pink blouses.  The women carry their children and other things on their back with beautiful Peruvian scarves tied across their body.” “There was a one woman with her scarf full of flowers. It looked so heavy and she was hunched over to carry everything.” She remembers being particularly amused by the men. “The men wear knitted hats with a pom-poms. A big pompom means he’s single.  A small pompom worn on the side means his married. They wear big white blouses with black vest, pants and sandals."

But her cultural observations went deeper as she talked about a homestay near Titicaca.  The language was different but she observed the people of that community, and others.  Each community had its own colors, and individual religious traditions.  She described the pilgrimage that people would take once a year.  They would go to a structure up higher on the mountain that had stone walls, but no mortar.  The walked around the building three times carrying three stones; a red, a white, and a black.  They would pray for something and circle the building then place one stone into the wall.  This was repeated two more times with a different prayer and stone each time. These were interesting observations of dress and ritual, but what impressed her most was how hard they worked and the ways they supported each other. They worked very hard but then they had friends there that they enjoyed. They worked together using their hands to grow things and craft by hand the things they needed and created a close knit community.


Discouraged

A typical conversation with a student. Student - "I'm just going to be here forever" Aspen -   “Oh. Do you like the city?” Student – “No. I don't like it here.” Aspen -    “Are you going to go somewhere else?” Student – “No”

The students in Aspen’s English class were there for three main reasons; to add to their job resumes, college entrance application, or school. The students had access to the internet at the school and she noticed a remarkable difference in the students who used the internet and those who did not.

"The people who used the internet saw other people and how they live. It's interesting to see how the technology changes them; just knowing what other people were doing around the world. The people who used the Internet were usually more excited do something, help their career, work hard.  The students who didn't use it were bored all the time and watched tv and soap operas."

While Aspen was teaching in the city she became very discouraged. She would come into the classroom and ask them what they did for fun and they would tell her they watched television. She would ask is there someplace else you would like to go and they would say yes. But when she asked if they would ever leave they would tell her that the family was more important even though they never did anything together except watch TV.

To explain more about how she drew this conclusion she told me,

"People in city saw what they wanted but wouldn't go and get it. They say they want to have tourists come to the city.  There is construction workers building and expanding the area.  People spend a lot of time in small businesses, but they are not service-oriented at all.  If you go into a business they ignore you. They don't know that {no service] is why people don't come into the shop or restaurant.  They understand that something's wrong but they don't understand that they are part of the problem.. The city is losing its culture, but it hasn't found anything new to do. No swimming, no park use, only movie theatres. Nobody is happy. People are on their phones twittering, but no one goes out of the house to do something. They say family time is very important then go home to watch tv. I would ask my students did you do anything fun? Different?  They would say ‘No. I listened to music but didn't do anything." If Kyle wasn't there I would have gone home after 3 o4 four months. They don't work hard, they just work all the time. If you go into a restaurant they're not working, they're watching television as if the customers weren't there. They work all the time but they're frustrated because their business does not grow."

Insights

As I listened to Aspen I began to realize that she described three different cultures in her experience;

​1)the traditional culture in the mountains outside the cities and in small pockets inside the city.  All her descriptions of the traditional areas were full stories of how people who did not have much money but found ways to have fun and make life happy by doing things together, giving presents, hanging out, and just enjoying living.

2)the stay at home culture that pervaded the city, a culture of people with no imagination and who relied on being entertained or distracted rather than doing something 3)the internet culture that spurred interest in change and growth.

She describes the experience of teaching as “eyeopening”. “It showed me my own values. They have things to do. They choose to stay home and be bored. If you want your life to change you have to do it yourself.”

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