Thursday, May 23, 2013


Yesterday I didn't feel very well at all. The sore throat that I developed the day before had kept me awake at night and during the day yesterday I could hardly talk because to do so made my throat hurt so much. It felt like I was trying unsuccessfully to swallow broken glass. P was able to make arrangements via his assistant at work for me to see a doctor at the local clinic so when P got home from work, our agent drove me to the doctor. By then, as well as the sore throat and croaky voice, I also had chills and felt really weak, like death warmed up.
The clinic was near the hospital in Yanahuara, a suburb of Arequipa and about 15 minutes from home. Our agent assured me that the doctor I would see could speak English, and said that she was also a translator, which was a big relief for me. I didn't have a phrasebook or dictionary with me and didn't like my chances of being able to explain how I felt if I had to do it all in Spanish.
I saw a very nice doctor from Quebec who asked me if it was OK if a nurse and the local doctor also took part in my examination, as they were learning how to treat patients using medical methods from the "modern" world (I wonder what they had been doing before). Of course I didn't mind. The examination room was very basic, with just a bed to sit on, a blood pressure monitor and a big jar of tongue depressors. The nurse took my temperature by putting the thermometer in my armpit then took it again by mouth (after washing it!) - I had to wait 5 minutes with the thermometer in my mouth before the nurse confirmed that I did have a fever. The doctor decided that I had a throat infection and prescribed some antibiotics. She told me that I could either wait at the clinic for someone to go and get the medicine for me or I could go with my driver to get it then go straight home - I decided to do the latter. There was no fee for seeing the doctor and they didn't ask for insurance.
Apparently there were two pharmacies that could fill the prescription but our driver took me to the one where you don't have to pay. It had a tiny little store front where apart from medicines you can also buy tissues, toothpaste and lots of different toys. Helping the pharmacist behind the counter was a boy in a school uniform. The agent gave the pharmacist the prescription and a few minutes later I was given a plastic bag with the antibiotics (no label with my name on it or directions for taking it, just the box of tablets - luckily the doctor had told me when to take them and how many) and some throat lozenges. Then the pharmacist said something to the agent which I didn't understand. Then the boy from behind the counter came out with a bag and the agent told me that the boy was coming with us. I wasn't sure what was happening but when the agents tell us to do something we trust them and go with the flow. We got into the car and drove to another hospital where we parked and waited a few minutes while the boy went inside and came out with a thermometer for me. He waved goodbye and we drove home (I presume that he made his way back to the pharmacy somehow).

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

No Habla

Yesterday was one of the most challenging days that I have had in Peru so far, because of the problems that I had with communicating in Spanish. I'm trying hard to learn as quickly as I can, by practicing my Spanish as much as possible. There are times when I feel confident, capable and able to make myself understand. When that happens I feel really good, like I can make this experience work and be able to handle whatever comes my way. Yesterday was not one of those times. Here's what happened:

Situation #1: Pest controller (exterminador)

When someone comes to the house, either to visit us or to do work (eg. maintenance, which is happening daily at the moment) the vigilante at the gate calls us on a special phone which rings just once to tell us that we have a visitor. I pick up the phone, say "Hola" then listen for any recognizable words that might give me a clue about what is going on. I didn't really understand much of what the vigilante told me except that obviously someone was at the house to do something, so I said, "Si, bueno" so that they would be allowed to come in.

It turned out that the visitor was a man who had come to place rat poison in the garden. The gardener told us that there were a lot of rats on our property because it backs onto an agricultural area where local people grow onions. Evidently the rats require continual poisoning campaigns because when one group dies, more come and so it goes on. Anyway, the man arrived carrying a bag of pellets and rattled off a lot of words in Spanish that I did not understand. I told him (in Spanish) that I didn't understand and asked him to please repeat, which did not benefit me in any way as I was still totally confused about what he wanted. I went inside and got our Latin American phrasebook which had nothing at all that I could use with which to communicate to this poor man who by now probably thought that he was dealing with some unfortunate house-bound gringa who couldn't even speak basic Spanish. By using gestures, his two words of English (rats and poison), he indicated that he wanted to put rat poison around the garden, but not inside the house, and I told him (lots of nodding, "Si, bueno" etc) that this would be OK. So he left and didn't come back. I was very confused because I thought that we had agreed on what he was going to do, but obviously I hadn't understood as much as I thought I had.

Situation #2: Interviewing housekeepers (amas de llaves)

We will need someone to be with N for an hour in the morning after we leave for work while N waits for the school bus to come, and also to be with him in the afternoon for a couple of hours while he waits for us to come home. Since we are both working (and it's an expectation that ex-pats will employ home helpers), we might as well employ someone who can look after N as well as help us keep the house clean. Through friends we were able to arrange for two women to come to the house yesterday to be interviewed as potential housekeepers. I was very nervous about interviewing housekeepers and didn't sleep too well the night before. I've never had a housekeeper before. I've been in Peru for a week and I didn't really know how this sort of interview was supposed to go. I didn't know what the applicants' expectations would be and what the normal protocol was, and I worried a lot about saying or doing something wrong that would upset or offend the person whom I was interviewing. I didn't want to be an ignorant gringa. I also knew that a lot depends on us getting someone reliable and trustworthy to look after our son and help us to successfully manage being working parents in Peru (it's not normal for both the husband and wife to be working here, so most ex-pats don't need someone to look after their children for the hours that we do, as most of the ex-pat wives are at home for their kids. Most ex-pats just hire someone to come and clean the house, perhaps cook for them, and occasionally babysit the kids when the parents need to go out). So I put a lot of pressure on myself for everything to go well.

A friend volunteered to be my translator for the interviews and she also arranged for Louisa, the official Freeport Spanish teacher and translator to help me out. So I thought that with these ladies with me, everything would go reasonably smoothly and that I would be able to get through the interviews without too many problems. I'd be able to communicate what I wanted to say and I'd be able to understand the applicant's answers. Except that my friends arrived late - almost 15 minutes after the first applicant arrived.

When the phone rang to announce my visitor I had expected (and hoped) that it would be my friends but instead it was the first applicant, who I knew did not speak English. Hoping that my friends would arrive any minute, I invited the lady inside and did my best to speak to her. We got through the basic pleasantries then (understandably) she looked at me expectantly for the interview to begin. I had scribbled down a list of questions to ask and tried to ask them. I really felt sorry for the lady on the other side of the table. I would say a couple of words then have to frantically look through the dictionary to try to find the word that I wanted, then rack my brain to figure out how to put that into some sort of sensible sentence. Most of the time she had no clue what I was on about and just looked at me with an uncomprehending stare. That only made me feel worse and I got more and more frustrated as I apologized over and over for my terrible Spanish. Finally the phone rang and my friends were able to put me out of my misery. With their help we got through the rest of the interview, and the second one without too much pain.

The minimum wage for a domestic worker in Peru is 750 Soles per month for full-time work (a 40-hour week) which is about US$285 a month. On top of that if they work full-time their employer has to pay for their medical insurance (about 140 Soles per month) and social security. Considering what they do for their employers, it is cheap.

After the interviews my friend left and Louisa, the Spanish teacher, asked me how I was doing, at which point I basically unraveled and dissolved into tears. Her question was like the pin that popped the big balloon of stress that had been building up inside me. It's not that I don't want to be in Peru, because I do. It's not that I don't want to hire a housekeeper, because I do (I wish I'd hired a house-cleaner years ago and who wouldn't want someone to cook for them when they've had a busy day at work?). It's just that even if you want to do it and see it as a positive thing for you and your family, moving to another country, particularly one where you have to learn a new language, isn't easy. 

Even with all the support that we have from our employer and our fellow ex-pats (who have reached out to us like an instant extended family), living here is still a strange landscape to navigate. I haven't started working yet (partly because N hasn't started school yet (I am staying home until a few days after he starts) and partly because we are still trying to sort out the security agent situation so that P and I (who work different schedules and in different parts of the mine) can both get to and from work on time) and although I'm assured that I can take the time that I need to get N settled and comfortable with school and our new living situation, work won't wait forever and I feel a lot of pressure (mostly self-imposed) to get there and get started on the mountain of work that I know is already waiting for me. None of this is made any easier when you add in that just a few days after we arrived, my godmother in New Zealand passed away, and yesterday was her funeral.

In the two months before we left Arizona I rarely got to bed before 11pm (working full-time and trying to do as much as possible at home to get ready for moving, with P away for 6 of those 8 weeks) so my immunity seems to have taken a major hit. I have been fighting off a medical textbook of minor illnesses and infections that seem to take much longer to resolve than they probably would if I'd been getting the right amount of sleep and eating properly. When your body's physical resources (energy, immunity etc.) get depleted, it seems that the emotional resources take a hit too, and I think that's where I ended up yesterday. The physical, mental and emotional stresses all got the better of me.

In some ways I think about it (moving to another country) as a bit like being a new parent. In each week there will be a day that's not as good as the others, and within each day there will be an hour that's more difficult than the others in that day. But in the end I hope that we will be able to look back on this experience and be happy that we did it and that it will be a positive experience for our family.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Book Gets Judged

P: "Why do people look at us and assume that we can't speak Spanish?"

A: "Why do people look at Mexicans and assume that they can? How does it feel to be ethnically profiled?"

Friday, May 17, 2013

A Bird in a Gilded Cage

This is the front of our new home.
This is my first post from our new home in Arequipa, Peru. We left Arizona on May 14 and had a fairly uneventful trip here. The only hassle was that one of our suitcases didn't make it onto our flight from Houston to Lima, and we are still waiting for it to catch up with us, three days later. Hopefully it gets here soon because it has N's Lego and books in it and he is missing them.

Arriving in Peru to start our new life reminds me of when we moved to the USA from Australia. We had to figure out where the supermarket/school/hospital/bank were, how to get N enrolled in school, how to organize child care for him, and so on. We had to learn which familiar foods we could still find in our new home town, which ones we would have to substitute and which ones we would have to do without. This time there is the extra complication of having to do it all in a new language. I am trying to practice as much as I can so that I learn as quickly as possible. I know that I am going to make mistakes but so far people with whom I have spoken in Spanish have been very patient and understanding and seem to forgive my errors.

This is the view from our bedroom window: looking out over the city of Arequipa.
One of the interesting things about moving to a new country is finding out all the quirks. Here are a few things that I've learned about Peru so far:
  • Houses here do not have central heating, (or reverse-cycle air conditioning) so we have to retain heat in the house by natural, eco-friendly means (eg. use thermal curtains and keep them closed to keep the heat in; put rugs and mats on the floor) or put on extra clothes. We do have a few space heaters in case it gets really cold.
  • It's generally not safe to drink the tap water, so at home we drink bottled water or boil tap water to kill any bacteria. We also use bottled water when brushing our teeth.
  • Sometimes the power goes out for a few days so the pump that feeds the house with water doesn't work. We have extra water on hand and wet wipes for keeping clean without showers. This hasn't happened to us yet but it's only a matter of time.
  • Nothing happens in a hurry. It gets done when it gets done. Impatient people have to learn patience quickly.
  • Supermarkets here have many of the same items that supermarkets in the US have (but they do not have Marmite or Vegemite, to their detriment), but American brands often cost much more than other locally-sourced brands.
Toilets in Peru warrant a special mention. In many places (including the airport and restaurants) there are signs in the restrooms asking patrons to please NOT place toilet paper in the toilet bowl. It is generally held that sewerage systems in Peru are not designed to accommodate toilet paper (which ironically is designed to be put into sewerage systems). So rather than placing the soiled paper in the toilet bowl, there is often a large garbage can inside the toilet cubicle, in which the toilet paper is to be placed. You can imagine that this doesn't smell too good. It is also a really good idea (especially if you are female) to carry tissues with you at all times because some restrooms do not provide toilet paper in the cubicles. Instead, there is a dispenser outside the cubicle area from which you are to get the amount of toilet paper that you think you might need before you go in to the cubicle to do your business. If you underestimate your requirements and end up short of paper, you are out of luck unless you remembered to bring tissues.
Driving in Peru is pretty amazing. In our particular situation we do not drive ourselves (our security agent drives us where we need to go) but we still get to witness the spectacle and sometimes contact sport that is driving in Arequipa (I assume that it's the same in other cities). Where there are two lanes for traffic but three cars will fit, that's how many cars will be competing for space. There are few traffic lights in Arequipa. It's funny that when the pedestrian crossing signal at the traffic lights turns green, the icon for the pedestrian is a person running (not the typical Walk symbol). At some intersections there are traffic police (usually female) who direct the traffic and with their whistles and hand signals almost look more like referees. Where there is a space to pull into another lane or make a turn or overtake another vehicle, the Peruvian driver will go for it. What amazes us is that there seem to be very few accidents. There seems to be an understood code of conduct between drivers but to us newcomers it looks like chaos.
Part of our front garden.

Our front garden. If you look carefully you can see the electric fence above the front gate.
I mentioned that we have a security agent. Unless we are at home or at work, the security agent has to be with us. They drive for us because it's safer and means that our employer doesn't have to keep fixing the cars that we would probably eventually damage (the agents are good drivers). At home the house has a tall wall around it, which is topped with four rows of electric wire (some houses have barbed wire, some have broken glass set in the top of the wall, ours has an electric fence). Outside the house there is a vigilante, an armed guard who watches the houses in our street. We can call them from a special phone in our kitchen if we need help or if we need the agent to come and take us somewhere. The vigilante calls us if we have a visitor or to let us know that the agent has arrived. When we go out (eg, if we go to a restaurant or to the supermarket) the agent drives us where we need to go, then follows us as we walk through the store (if we go to a restaurant they usually wait outside, but sometimes come in and sit at a different table so that they can eat too - they usually refuse our offers to eat with us). The agents keep as much distance from us as they can and try to respect our privacy. We were told that the distance between us and the agent is a good indicator of how safe the location is. If the agent is far behind, it is generally a safe area. If the agent is close by, or even walking right beside us, then the area is probably not too safe. Sometimes when we go out, the patrulla (security patrol) follow behind us in a second vehicle. It is a bit strange at first but in time we will probably get used to it. The security is probably not necessary but it does make me feel safer, and in many ways we'll probably be safer here than we were in the US - I don't know if I'll ever forget being just a few blocks away from the Safeway supermarket in Tucson when Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in January 2011.
The house that we live in is beautiful. It is two-stories, has beautiful wood framework and tile floors. The kitchen is huge with much more storage than I've ever had in a kitchen before. The garden is huge and kept looking fabulous by the gardeners who come twice a week (part of being an ex-pat here is that there is an expectation that we will employ local people as home workers - eventually we will also hire a maid/nanny). Every bedroom has an ensuite bathroom and tons of storage. Our master bedroom has a walk-in wardrobe and a spa bath. This is not a typical house in Peru. There is an enormous gap between the rich and poor. The poor are still the vast majority but with mining expansion boosting the local economy, the gap is gradually closing. There are shopping malls in Arequipa now when just a few years ago there were none. The variety of foreign products available here is increasing. I talked about this in a previous post. The kind of house that you see in these photos is not the kind of house where the average Peruvian lives. Many people don't own a car, which explains why there are so many taxis on the roads. Some of the agents have to catch a couple of buses or ride a bicycle to get from their home to ours so that they can drive us around in our car. I'm hoping that while we are here, N will get an appreciation for how the majority of the world lives, and how different their lives are compared to the life of comfort and privilege that he has enjoyed. Our home is beautiful but we live in it behind a wall, an electric fence and an armed guard. When P arrived (he was here for a month before we moved here), friends of ours from Honduras would often come and take him out shopping or sightseeing. They would ask him, "Do you want to sit in your golden cage or do you want to come out?". Our new life has a lot of creature comforts but the price is somewhat restricted personal freedom and much less spontaneity.