A vendor passes by the open sliding glass door of the café, pushing his bicycle cart with his friend’s assistance.
“Fresa, naranja, plátano, naranja, plátano, fresa!” muffledly resounds from his electric bullhorn.
As I watch the cart slowly creak by, the pungent odor of cleaning products of bleach and chemicals masked by an imitation lavender scent attacks my nostrils and makes my eyes water. My gaze retracts from the outside world to the busboy next to my table, pushing floor cleaner around with a broom wrapped in a towel.
My appetite for my coffee disintegrates. I stare at the back of Alonso’s head for 30 seconds, thinking maybe his subconscious will get the message and return to clean this part of the café later.
While I attempt to telepathically communicate with the busboy, another customer enters. We’re the only people in the place. As he comes up to the counter, the woman behind it walks off, yelling something about a cake order to someone in the kitchen. He doesn’t seem to mind waiting.
When he goes to pay for his plastic cup of leche asada, the battle for change ensues. I stop correcting number 22 of my students’ 80 writings to pay attention to the scene in front of me.
He only has a 20-sol bill; she, nothing with which to make change. Same old story.
I get up to leave as the two stare in a stand-off. I walk into the dreary, overcast day. There’s no word for overcast in Spanish. I think I’m going to invent one.
A pack of giggling schoolgirls, all dressed in red windsuits embroidered with “Santa Rosa Colegio Privado” on the back engulf me as I try to cross the sidewalk. Like a deer, I simply pause where I am, wait and hope for them to pass by without trampling me. Wait and hope are the same word in Spanish. I guess I’m redundant.
Behind the schoolgirls is a woman in a mid-riff baring top, tight jeans, and black heels. Standard midday attire. As she walks by, the loitering men on the opposite side of the street whistle. One older man makes a wet kissing sound. The woman acts as if she doesn’t hear a thing.
These guys are directly in the path I need to take. As I pass in my sweatshirt and sneakers, I hear, “Hola, bonita,” “Preciosa,” and the most original, “Gringa.”
“Hola, feítos,” I shout back over my shoulder. Ha. Take that, little ugly men. They pause for two seconds then burst into chuckles.
At the corner I wait for an opportune moment to cross the street. I see my chance as the lights change. I dash across the street just as a combi mini-bus flies around the corner.
“Damn it!” I yell as the 16-passenger van honks loudly (which comes out like a tinny police siren), questioning why in the world I would be in its way.
One plus of being a foreigner is that others aren’t offended when I curse. In this moment a teenager passes me, greeting me with, “Hi, Miss!” I look up, force a smile, “Hi…”
I recognize the face, but can’t place it among the hundreds if students I’ve taught this past year. With how recognizable we gringos are where I work, he could be the friend of the sister of someone I taught one day as a substitute.
“Laredo, Laredo!” The destinations are shouted from combis as they fly past. “Avenida Los Incas, Plaza Mall, Los Incas!”
A cobrador points at me as he asks, “Huanchaco?”
It still annoys me when they assume I just hang out and surf in the nearby beach town. Living and working here a year has not made me any less of a visitor to the average Trujillan.
“Dale, dale,” he tells the driver when I shake my head.
I make it home without being crushed by any mode of transportation nor being seriously accosted in any way. So far, a good day.
I enter the house of the señora I rent from, who also provides me with my three daily meals. I was lucky enough to land in the hands of a loving, daughterless older woman with a quick tongue and an often coarse sense of humor. I was incorporated into the family after only a month or so of living upstairs from them.
“Hola, hijita, cómo estás? I hope you like lunch; I didn’t know what to make today.” I hear the same just about every day.
I’m served a steaming bowl of noodle soup (served with a chicken foot if I’m lucky). A minute later I’m given a heaping plate of chicken and rice. The menu doesn’t vary too much.
“Just a minute, I’ve prepared your ensaladita, like you’ve asked,” she says as she brings out a plate of shredded lettuce and cucumbers. At least she’s trying.
What I wouldn’t give to have a kitchen attached to my 10×12 room once in a while. Peruvian food is delicious, don’t get me wrong (and never say otherwise to a Peruvian), but I dream about intricate salads with goat cheese, pad thai, and veggie stir-fries.
My students are always up for talking about food. They’re extraordinarily in love with their regional dishes. I often give them the opportunity to ask me questions to practice their speaking. With classes I’ve only had a few weeks, there’s undoubtedly the question wondering what I think of Peruvian food and what my favorite dish is.
Today, however, I’m with a group I’ve had for four months now, so they already know a good bit about me. Today I tell them to ask me “the most interesting question you can think of to ask.”
I’m expecting perhaps, “What was the most embarrassing moment you’ve had?” and the first to ask, a talkative, curious girl of 15, who looks closer to 20, comes out with, “What do you think of homosexual marriage?”
This should be an interesting class. Reminds me of the time I went to a student’s 16th birthday party (bad idea? Who knows?) and the party game involved opinions on controversial issues. When the question, “Who’s in favor of homosexual marriage?” was asked, my skinny, white arm was the only one up.
After my three classes, I’m free for the rest of the evening and decide to visit Carolina, my closest Peruvian friend, without whom I would have invariably been utterly lost in this culture multiple times. She suggests getting papas rellenas, our favorite shared vice, and we decide to meet at our usual place in thirty minutes. I wait the half hour before even leaving the house, knowing that her “thirty minutes” will inevitably become forty-five.
As I open the perpetually locked front gate to the house, I notice what seems to be a thin ray of sunlight courageously beaming onto my sleeve. I look up and sure enough, I see the sun threatening to break through the overlay of clouds. The clouds win.
I spend a minute feeling tricked by whoever christened this place “The City of Eternal Spring.”
I start walking and pass two matted dogs lounging on the sidewalk in front of the entrance to a parking lot. Only one looks up as I practically step over them.
At the next corner I patiently wait as a bicycle-powered wagon arduously passes by, carting an old rotator fan, some black trash bags of scrap metal and two small children. “Fierros! I buy metal! Licuadoras, cocinas, fierros! I buy metal!” he lazily but loudly drawls to anyone who might be waiting behind their doors with useless appliances.
I remember I want to sell my hair dryer that no longer works. The two kids stare at me wide-eyed for a moment, then lose interest. There’s not a word for “stare” in Spanish.
I’m almost to the papas stand when I pass a group of young men huddled together. I feel my nerves tense up.
Just as I suspect, my passing is followed with low whistles and the inevitable, “Linda” and the clever, “Hey-lo.”
My desire to be here, in this city, in this country, rapidly vanishes and I wonder, as can happen sometimes various times in the same day, why I’ve chosen to come here, and more, why I’ve chosen to stay so long.
I feel one of my melancholic bad moods creeping up on me when I get to the entrance to the alley, where a small chalkboard sign advertises, PAPAS, SALCHIPAPA and CHICA MORADA. A waft of fried potato reaches my nose. I close my eyes to take in the smell and find myself smiling before I know it.
I duck into the alley and make my way to the end. Oddly, there are only a few people outside the tiny galley kitchen.
I’m in luck today. Carolina’s not here; I’m obviously early, Peruvian time. I go ahead and order. When I ask for one papa rellena and nod “yes” to ají and mayo, the round old woman gives me a warm smile and yells to a younger version of herself to get a stool for the gringita.
I take my seat on the sidewalk outside. In a couple of minutes, the señora brings me my freshly prepared plate and a glass of sweet corn-based chicha morada.
As I make the first cut into the ball of lightly fried mashed potato, exposing the perfect blend of ground beef, cilantro, egg, olives and raisins to the light breeze, the señora takes a seat inside the shop, close enough to lean out the window next to me.
“Está bien que hayas regresado.”
She remembers me from the last time I forced my way through the never-ending train of line-cutters to savor her city-renowned delicacies.
“It’s good you’ve come back,” she tells me. “You’ve gotten skinny.”
She begins to ask me how long I’ve been here, leading into a story of how her youngest daughter married an American and now they live in Utah, she thinks it’s in the west, and how she’s coming home to visit soon.
We continue chatting, including descriptions of how her daughter-in-law was cursed by an ex-lover, causing her to always have bad luck in love. I feel a lone ray of sun strike the side of my face.
I look up to see the blanket of clouds miraculously swept away, revealing an ardent yellow sun, and my friend making her way down the alley.
The señora‘s daughter (not the one living it up in Utah), or perhaps a niece or the daughter of her aunt’s best friend (Peruvians keep in touch) joins us at the window, as my friend makes fun of me for being fat and already eating without her.
The younger woman begins telling the señora that her daughter-in-law needs to be cleansed by a healer so that her luck can change. Bouncy cumbia music leaks into the air. A neighbor from the third floor opens her window to flirt with a young guy that has sauntered up to the papa window. A laugh bursts out from somewhere and my body starts fidgeting to the music.
“Ah! A la gringa le gusta bailar!” the señora says to no one and everyone, showing her one gold-capped tooth as she heartily adds to the laughter from inside. I’m sure I blush whole-heartedly at her comment on my affinity for dancing. Carolina, determined to embarrass me more, starts going on about how I dance salsa like a Peruvian, she’s never seen anything like it.
As I soak in this pleasing snapshot, I remember why I chose to move down here and why, for the moment, I’d rather be here than back in the States. I remember that on a one-on-one basis, Peruvians are some of the friendliest people one can meet.
Included in all the annoyances here, all the feelings of absolute and obvious otherness, is the interest, the challenge, and the eventual joy of experiencing something new, something completely distinct from any other period of my life.
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