Reading in a Second Language: A New Empathy for Slow Readers

I am a voracious reader. I have never understood how someone doesn’t get the same thrill from reading that I do. Reading transports you to a different world and introduces you to different people, albeit not usually real ones in my case as I much prefer fiction to non-fiction. I was in a book club for years (and still am an absentee member who greatly appreciates that my club will arrange meetings around my infrequent visits) and more than once my friends and I would comment that we missed the characters when we finished a book that we liked. When I was eating my breakfast as a kid, I would read the cereal box if nothing else was handy. In short, I can’t imagine a world without reading.

Some are old friends, some I was given - who says no to books in English when you live in Peru?

Some are old friends, some I was given – who says no to books in English when you live in Peru?

I am also lucky to be a fast reader. In my case, this skill is inherent and learned: in a “gifted and talented” summer school class when I was in middle school, we learned to speed read, among other things. I don’t recall any of the other things but speed reading aided me considerably while I was an undergraduate English major and, later, a law student. I am a hopeless procrastinator, so being a fast reader was even more necessary to my success. And it assisted my legal career as well – I could quickly read or skim many cases or regulations to locate what I needed. In retrospect this skill probably did not help my billable hour requirements…

So in my ongoing effort to learn Spanish, months ago I bought this:

My first novel in Spanish - don't judge

My first novel in Spanish.

Before you judge my reading choice, hear me out. First, I have been trying to find “To Kill a Mockingbird” in Spanish (“Matar un Ruiseñor”) for months. (See this post about my quest in Argentina: http://kerryedwyer.com/2014/01/27/our-highbrowlowbrow-day/.) It is my favorite book, wonderfully written and I know the text well, but despite stopping at every bookstore I pass in South America, I can’t find it. So instead of starting with an amazing classic, I went to the opposite end of the spectrum. I thought a light, chick-lit read would be perfect because I could get fast gratification when I zipped through it, the language would be easy and repetitive, and it would include always-useful slang. I resolved to read the book carefully – not just for the general gist, which would be relatively easy – but to actually understand the grammar and the words. Months later (okay, several vacations interrupted my task) and I am only on page 250 in a book that in English would take me two days to read.

It’s discouraging. I have come to hate this book. I don’t think I would have loved it had I read it in English, but I would have whipped through it, found it mildly amusing and moved on. Now I find it tedious because I am reading so slowly and never gain any momentum. While I have learned some words and improved my recognition of verb tenses, I probably learn more from the primary readers that I borrowed from the school library and the 3rd grade reader I use with my Spanish tutor.

So now I get it: reading isn’t always fun. Book selection is far more important when you are reading at a slower pace because you are investing more of your time in a book. Continuous stopping and starting ruins the flow of reading, so you need to connect more with the book in order to remember what you read several days prior. I can’t imagine reading as much as I read in English if it took me ten times as long to finish a book. I would simply lose interest unless the book was really great. And this book isn’t.

Pure stubbornness is the only reason I will see this project through to the end.

Watertown Senior High School’s Survival Hike: Training for the Inca Trail

As is clear from my prior posts, Matt and I take full advantage of our life in the mountains and hike most weekends. But the truth is that I like walking far more than I like climbing up and down mountains. That said, when Matt, our friend Carl and Carl’s brother Mark decided they were tackling the 4-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu, I decided that I would regret not hiking more than I may end up regretting hiking the trail. We shall see if that proves to be true come early October.

The last time I did an overnight hiking/camping trip was in 1984. Yes, 30 YEARS ago. Watertown (WI) Senior High School had this bizarre right of passage reserved for a select group of decent students: Survival Hike. Led by biology teachers Carlos Alvarez and Dan Herbst (I think another teacher, Tim Gifford was also along for the ride my year), Survival Hike occurred the summer after sophomore year and involved 5 days of trekking up to 20 miles per day in Northern Wisconsin with the “treat” of white water canoeing on the 6th day. The catch, apart from the fact that we carried our own gear, bushwhacked trails, were eaten alive by mosquitos and camped every night: no food. Actually, in the early years food was allowed. First, groups were given $20 to buy provisions for the week. By the time my sister, Mick, went on the hike, provisions totaling a few hundred calories were provided and included a dog biscuit and chocolate. Six years later, we were given nothing – we only ate what we foraged or caught. A few years later, the hike was discontinued.

To this day, I have no idea why our parents allowed Mick or me to participate in Survival Hike. We were not an outdoorsy family and never camped. My mom considered it part of her martyrdom that our vacations were at a cottage with an outhouse. I was not athletic and didn’t own any gear; my mom borrowed a pair of hiking boots that were a size too big for me from a friend’s daughter and I have no idea where my pack came from. Apart from some city walking (we had actually moved to Wauwatosa during my sophomore year but I was given a special exemption to go on the hike, probably because my dad played baseball with Mr. Herbst), I didn’t train at all and never carried a pack.

But I survived. Oh, I whined and probably cried, and threw up when the only thing we found to eat for the entire trip were unripe apples and raspberries (to this day I despise raspberries) on the first day, got about 50 mosquito bites and several blisters, hiked in the rain (I hate wet grass), and lost 15 pounds in 6 days, but I did it. I still don’t exactly understand why I did it, but I have some great memories from the trek: like when two of the guys had to share my friend Katie and my tent because they lost their tent poles and then one of the guys slept walked during a thunderstorm and knocked our tent down. You can imagine the ensuing teenage-girl hysteria. Or when some other kids were getting sent home due to health issues and Mr. Alvarez gave me the option to leave (I really was whining that much) and I made the decision to stay. I like to think that I stopped whining quite so much after that point, but that may be wishful thinking. Or the fact that a guy from Mick’s year, who cried and blamed her when their canoe tipped in the rapids, came along on my year (I think he was doing a bit for NPR) and acted all cool, college-guy when I knew the truth – he just wanted redemption. Plus, it was in the days where your parents signed some waiver and then you got to do totally dangerous, unhealthy things AT YOUR OWN RISK and they didn’t check up on you during the week. And it was long before cell phones so you were in the moment doing what you were doing (hiking! starving!) and not taking pictures and posting every two minutes or calling your parents (or your sister to tell her that cry-baby guy was on your trip although that would have been fun). In fact, I don’t have a single picture from the trip although I am sure someone took a few that I would love/cringe to see.

So with that questionable history, I am signed up for the 4-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu. Compared to Survival Hike, it should be a piece of cake: no bushwhacking, porters to carry the heavy gear, good meals made by the camp cook, decent hiking boots, 26.5 miles over the course of 4 days and no white-water canoeing. But the reality is that the altitude is a killer for many people, the hike is very steep both in ascents and descents, and I am 30 years older. This time, though, I am training and Matt and I have stepped up our weekend hikes to add more altitude. I am even carrying my daypack despite the fact that Matt is usually my porter on our hikes. So maybe my whining will be kept to a minimum on this hike although be warned Matt, Carl and Mark – I am not promising anything.

Local Art

Matt’s former secretary, Elvira, is a lovely woman and a talented one too. Last year she was learning traditional weaving at a school in Cajamarca. The school’s main purpose is to provide training to young people in an effort to provide opportunities for these students who otherwise would likely continue to live in poverty. The girls in the skirts come from traditional farming families. The school’s additional purpose is to promote traditional weaving techniques. Elvira invited us to come on a day when the students were learning to dye wool using both natural ingredients and dyes. The instructor was delighted that we wanted to observe and mentioned that she thought our presence and interest would also reinforce to the students that these skills are valuable and interesting.

This batch was made using twigs from a type of pine tree. Notice the final product with all of the debris – I would not want the task of picking all the particles off the wool!

The green and hot pink colors came from synthetic dyes. The pink and purple batches used a type of crushed beetles.

Elvira’s current artistic endeavor is jewelry making. She takes classes at Koriwasi the Center of Technological Innovation in Jewelry that is funded by the Yanacocha mine in conjunction with the Peruvian Ministry of Commerce and Tourism. Its purpose is to teach jewelry making so individuals can set up small businesses and also to produce high quality jewelry for sale both in Peru and in international markets. Elvira invited me for a tour and as my prior manufacturing clients know, I love shop tours and this one far exceeded my expectations. Sarah joined me and we were treated wonderfully with many of the instructors taking time to explain (often in English!) the various stages of the process to us. We first saw the manual work room where the jeweler would create the object.

Next stop was the kiln, where the silver is melted and a copper amalgam added to strengthen the silver, which is otherwise too soft. Jewelry from Koriwasi is certified 950 silver, meaning it is 95% silver. Sterling silver is 92.5% silver.

Just as we were beginning to think this was a low tech process, we got to the design room. They have several computers and use three specialized softwares (Type 3, 3Design and Rhinoceros). But the coolest part was seeing the 3D printer that prints a mold in wax. A small item takes almost an entire day to lay down the layers of wax to create the mold. They also have 2 other computers that create a mold the opposite way – wax is cut away to create the item. We learned that there are literally millions of dollars invested in the equipment of the school. Very impressive.

We then went to the casting room. I have always had a hard time understanding the casting process despite countless museum visits, including several to the amazing Rodin Museum. So for me it was fantastic to have the process explained to us and to be able to see many of the steps in the process. As I understand it, the process is as follows (any errors are my own and not due to the patient instructors and Elvira who explained everything very carefully to us and answered my many questions).

1. Start with a metal master model of the piece.

2. Press into rubber molding material to create a mold of the model.

3. Very carefully remove the model, leaving the mold intact.

4. inject wax into the mold to create the pattern.

Wax Patterns

Wax Patterns

 

5. Attach the wax patterns to a trunk to create a tree.

6. The tree then gets placed into a cylinder and is covered in a plaster mixture,  leaving the base of the trunk uncovered. Once the mixture has hardened, the cylinder is heated. The wax melts and runs out of the mold, leaving a hollow mold in the plaster.

7. Molton metal (silver in our case) is poured into the trunk opening in the plaster, filling the void. Once cooled, the plaster is washed away. Violá – metal trees!

8. The jewelry is then cut away from the base and finished.

Finishing Room

Finishing Room

One of the most interesting things is that even for items that are “mass” produced, it is still a labor intensive, hand detailed process. Very impressive. Our only disappointment was that the store was rather empty because many pieces had been taken to an out of town show!

One Year Ex-Pat Anniversary

One year ago today Matt and I and 17 suitcases/boxes arrived in Peru for our new life of international living.

 

While our new life has had its challenges, what has surprised us is how easy it has been to make the adjustment. We have both improved our Spanish and can navigate the basics in Peru with relative ease (sometimes even on the phone!), we have grown accustomed to livestock in the road and stray dogs everywhere, our opinion of acceptable cleanliness has been necessarily modified, and we have learned to live without some of our favorite foods and luxuries. While we miss our family and friends, with the internet and wifi phone it has been so easy to keep in touch that almost seems as though we aren’t missing out on anything. A far cry from when I lived in Italy 25 years ago and my only method of communication with anyone stateside apart from my parents (whom I was allowed to call for about 10 minutes every 2-3 weeks) was writing letters.

It has been wonderful to immerse ourselves in local culture by hiking in the mountains near our house, traveling within Peru, enjoying the food (with the possible exception of cuy) and celebrating local customs and traditions. We have made good friends – both Peruvians and other expats. Spending almost a month in Buenos Aries and taking a wine trip to Chile and Argentina were both spectacular. In short, we have made the most of this past year.

So Cheers! to our 1st Anniversary of our new ex-pat life. We wish for many more great international years to come.

World Travelers

World Travelers

Peruvian Foods I Will Miss While I Am in the US

Now don’t get me wrong. There are MANY American foods I miss while I am in Peru. Cheddar cheese, decent hamburgers, frozen custard, good wine, chocolate chips… the list is not short. Then there is sour cream. I don’t even like sour cream, yet it is in many recipes, including most dips. Haven’t seen it in Cajamarca since last September. But there are many foods I enjoy here that will not be available, or as good, in the US. No, cuy is not on the list!

1. Fresh Tropical Fruits.The markets have fresh, local fruits. The mangoes here are out of this world. Yes, we can get mangoes in the US, but in Wisconsin they are shipped countless miles and the taste is evident. Same with the pineapples and pomegranates; they are delicious here. Then there are the weird fruits that we can get here: tuna (or prickly pears), mamay (looks like a coconut on the outside and a cantaloupe on the inside, but tastes nothing like either), pacay (it has big dark seeds but you eat the super sweet white gauzy part around the seeds), pepino (relative of the eggplant but has the color and consistency of a pear on the inside and tastes kind of like one too), cherimoya (custard apple, sweet with a soft consistency). We have been here almost a year so we have seen the fruits cycle in and out of season. I will also miss Maria, our amazing housekeeper, who washes and cuts all of the fruits for me. It reminds me of Italy where my great aunts would peel and feed everyone fruit for dessert.

 

2. Avocados. Maria brings me avocados from the tree in her yard. Delicious and because they are as fresh as you can get, even if they feel a little mushy, the inside is still perfectly fine.

Huge Avocado

Huge Avocado

3. Caldo Verde. It is an herb-based soup made with potatoes and eggs that is typically eaten for breakfast. You add fresh cheese and cancha (freshly roasted corn nuts, see below) at the table. I have Caldo Verde almost every week. It isn’t hard to make, but it takes three herbs, parsley, paico and herba buena, and I am not sure whether the latter two can be found in Wisconsin.

Caldo Verde

Caldo Verde

 

4. French fries. Yes, I know I can get french fries all over Wisconsin, but honestly, they are so much better here. Likely because they are freshly made and not frozen and mass produced, but even the freshly made ones at home are not as good as the ones here. Everything is served with french fries.

 

5. Pisco Sour. My cocktail of choice in Peru. 3 parts Pisco, 1 part lime juice, 1 part simple syrup, egg white and a dash of angostura bitters.  Tasty and packs a powerful punch!

Pisco sour

Pisco sour

6. Cancha. I come from a family of popcorn aficionados. My parents made it most nights and each of us kids has a special popcorn pot, seasoned to perfection. That said, I always preferred the burnt kernels or unpopped ones. Cancha is perfect for me – the seeds roast and expand a little, but it does not pop into a fluffy kernel. I love it and unfortunately always finish the bowl!

7. Sauces and condiments. On one of our early dates, Matt was mortified because I sent back a sandwich 3 times because the kitchen kept putting mayonnaise on it. I despise American condiments – mustard, ketchup, mayo, ranch dressing, Nitty Gritty special sauce… but I love Peruvian ones. Many are made with peppers, but not all of them are hot, and the chimichurri (herbs, garlic, vinegar and oil) is also amazing. Maria uses a rock mortar and pestle in our backyard to make a rocoto (hot pepper) sauce for us. She believes using the rock makes for a better final product. Who am I to argue?

 

8. Fresh cheese.  While I pine for cheddar, triple cream brie, any Carr Valley cheese and more, the mantecoso cheese is amazing. It has a strong flavor, a firm yet creamy texture and can be bought packaged in the store or straight from the producers.

World-wide, Peruvian food is currently all the rage and for good reason.

 

Gorgeous Gocta Falls

The third day of our weekend road trip (see http://kerryedwyer.com/2014/07/01/roadtripping/ and http://kerryedwyer.com/2014/07/02/kuelap-the-city-in-the-clouds/) was hands down my favorite – we didn’t set foot in the van. Instead we embarked on a fantastic hike from our lodge to the Gocta Falls. We were warned that the hike was challenging and took 2  1/2 hours each way. It was challenging, but with Kevin’s coaching we managed to do it in closer to 4 hours including about a 1/2 hour at the base of the falls. In order to support the local economy, we hired a guide although he unfortunately didn’t tell us much of interest. It was interesting, however, to first walk through farm fields, then woods and finally arrive at the falls. It was absolutely beautiful and I realized how much I miss water. Living in the mountains is great, but the river that runs through Baños is not impressive, so to hear the sound of rushing water and to catch glimpses of it through the trees was magical. We didn’t see wildlife with the exception of hordes of beautiful butterflies. I have never seen so many different types of butterflies in their natural environment. Unfortunately we couldn’t capture their beauty on film, but this tag-a-long hitched a 45 minute ride on my pants leg.

Hitchhiker

Hitchhiker

I had to walk funny to avoid smooshing him and he flitted away at the base of the falls.

I brought our swimsuits because I was determined to take a dip when I arrived at the base of the falls. I chickened out. The frigid water, strong winds and jagged rocks were my somewhat valid excuse. The roar of the falls and their power was incredible.

The hike back to the lodge has a very long uphill stretch and we huffed and puffed our way through it. Once at the lodge I relaxed in the icy cold pool to make up for my wimpiness at the Falls. It was cold – Matt didn’t make it all the way in – but I loved it. We had a wonderful afternoon of cocktails and lunch by the pool and games on the terrace.

Reward

Reward

 

The next day we left the lodge at 7 am to head back to Cajamarca. We stopped for gas at the local gas station – someone’s house! The proprietress hauled out gas in 5 gallon pails and filled up the tank with a funnel.

Our drive home was not uneventful. Shortly after filling up the tank, we were on the “decent” road running alongside the river. We pulled over to the edge of the steep embankment on the river side to let a large truck pass on the mountain side when WHACK! We were hit?! My mind tried to process how that could be true given our precarious position on the embankment, but when I looked out my window, sure enough, there was a car. Thankfully, the car was stuck, all four wheels spinning and off the ground, on a large rock. Had the rock not stopped the car, it would have plummeted into the river. Unbelievable how reckless and stupid the driver was and how lucky. Thankfully, the rest of our drive was without incident. We kept our stops to a minimum, and arrived after the road construction in Celendín was done for the day, so we shaved 2 hours off our time and arrived home in 10 hours.

I am thrilled that we made the trip, particularly that it is a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Kuelap for me because of the horrible road. Now if they build that tram that is being considered it could be another story, but a tram across the valley may be as terrifying as the road.

Kuelap – The City in the Clouds

The closed eyes, earbuds and raft-envisioning (http://kerryedwyer.com/2014/07/01/roadtripping) aren’t working. We are about 2 hours into the ride to Kuelap from Gocta Falls, a ride that we thought would last only two hours, and Kuelap is nowhere in sight. Well, actually it is, but we aren’t looking in the right place as we don’t know yet that we will wind up, down and around the same canyon for an hour and half before we get there.

I seriously consider whether I want to get out of the van and wait for them to come back for me. But then I realize that I will be left on the road that is causing my panic and will likely get run off a cliff by a passing truck. When we arrived at the Gocta Lodge the prior night, I thought the worst roads of the trip were behind us, until we returned to Cajamarca that is, and the first hour and a half of the drive to Kuelap retraced a less-terrifying part of the prior day’s trip. Then we hit the turn off for Kuelap and started down the narrow dirt road that is considered one of the most dangerous in Peru.

Lest you think I am exaggerating, here is video proof.

About 45 minutes into the dirt-road portion of our drive, we stop in the tiny hamlet of Choctamal for some liquid courage. I am not the only traveler fearing the roads, just the most vocal. The proprietresses could not be nicer and the 3 year old is a sweetie. The ladies laugh at me when I confide that I am petrified of the road and reassure me the road is fine. But we are all disappointed when they tell us we have 45 minutes to go.

I am more relaxed after a few shots from a $2 bottle of rum. And then we hit a rock road block. Just a pile of medium sized rocks in a line across the road right before a curve. Fearing thieves, a few of the guys get out of the van to remove the rocks while the rest of us keep watch. We round the curve and confront a large mound of rocks blocking the road. Now more concerned, the men get out and Miguel asks two passing kids what is going on. The kids say it is a prank by some other kids and help remove the rocks. We give them some coins for their efforts as we had passed them on the road and don’t think they did it. We pass a few more small towns and the reward is in sight: Kuelap.

Kuelap is amazing – it is exactly the place I would have loved to play in as a child. Within the terraced site are 420 circular, 1 square and 4 rectangular buildings. Houses, trees, paths, the view, the mystery…for me, a big part Kuelap’s charm is its unanswerable questions. Why was it built? While originally considered a fortress, due to its mountaintop location, walled perimeter (60 feet high in parts) and three, narrow entrances, it is now generally considered to be a residential complex, but no one knows why the walls exist. How did they make it? Getting those huge rocks to the top of a mountain was no easy feat. Who made it and when? It is believed to be constructed in several phases, beginning in the 6th century and ending several hundred years later, by the Chachapoyas, the Cloud People, but no one is really sure from where the Chachapoyas originated. Instead of pondering these questions too much, we just wander about and enjoy the experience.

If you want to learn more about where Kuelap is situated, read this description from the visitor center. Or just skip to the pictures.

Kuelap summary

Kuelap summary

 

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The ride back seems less terrifying, but as I want to be off the dirt road before dark, we don’t stop to visit our friends in Choctamal although they wave to us as we pass. We also encounter two more rock road blocks and as we arrive at the second one, two young guys on a motorcycle ride up behind us. They converse the entire time our party removes the rocks and we are not sure whether they intended to rob us and decide we outnumber them or the fact that we didn’t leave our van unattended and two of us are staring at them while the others move the rocks deters them. Regardless of whether they were the culprits, the experience increases our desire to get back to the Lodge to relax. We enjoy a nice dinner and then sit outside and star gaze. I see 5 shooting stars and, of course, use all my wishes for a safe journey back to Cajamarca!

Next: The Fantastic Hike to Gocta Falls

Roadtripping

My eyes are screwed shut, my earbuds are playing happy tunes and I am trying to pretend that the jolting motion of the van is the cottage raft swaying gently on the waves. Welcome to a Peruvian Road trip.

Loading the Van

Loading the Van

We are trying to make the most of our time in Peru and decided to take advantage of the 4-day Corpus Christi holiday with a trip to Kuelap and Gocta Falls. Kuelap is an ancient stone complex, the largest in South America, that pre-dates Machu Picchu and is perched 3,000 meters above sea level on ridge overlooking the Utcubamba Valley. Peru is attempting to make Kuelap the next Machu Picchu of tourist destinations and as we live relatively close to it, we decided it was worth the trip. Near Kuelap is Gocta Falls, which by some accounts is the 3rd highest waterfall in the world (apparently there is some controversy over how to measure the heights of waterfalls). So together with fellow Americans Mistina, Teresa, Kevin and Kristen, our Spanish friend Miguel and our Peruvian driver Adderly, we set off early on Thursday morning for the anticipated 10 hour drive through the Andes Mountains.

Those of you who know me know that I DESPISE car rides. I barely tolerate the 5-hour drive to Northern Wisconsin from Milwaukee and have sent Matt off with his friend Pete on road trip adventures. Peruvian roads are notoriously dangerous and before we arrived here, every week Matt would read some story of a bus or van plummeting off a cliff. It quickly became evident why.

The first hour of the trip was pretty good, the views were gorgeous and I was beginning to be lulled into thinking my life wasn’t in danger. Then we hit road construction and were told we had to return to Cajamarca and take the long way, which would add 4 hours onto our trip. Miguel sprung into action, collected our ID cards and somehow managed to convince the road crew to let us through because we were American tourists. Shockingly, we didn’t even have to grease any palms to make that happen. But we did get stuck behind machinery and had a very slow drive to Celendín.

Three hours into our trip, we took a short, necessary break.

Potty Break

Potty Break

After Celendín the roads narrowed and lost all pretense of handling two-way traffic. Thankfully Adderly is young and has his whole life ahead of him so he was a very cautious driver. It also helped that he had excellent reflexes and apparently a strong thumb as he had to toot the horn on every curve to make sure we didn’t get run off the road.

In addition to the traffic there were also animal impediments.

The roads got worse and worse and every time I opened my eyes it appeared we were plummeting off a cliff. We finally took a late lunch break in Leymebamba. It apparently has a wonderful museum, but we still had 3 hours to go until we arrived at Gocta Lodge so we had to pass on the museum.

The roads between Leymebamba and Gocta Falls were actually not terrible and toward the end we were on a decent one along the river. And by decent I mean that it was paved, slightly wider and had signs warning us of falling rocks.

Twelve hours after leaving our house, we arrived at Gocta Lodge in the dark (sunset in Peru is around 6:30) and after settling in we broke open the wine and snacks for a well-deserved happy hour. The next morning, we awoke to these beautiful views.

Little did we know that our relaxation would be short lived as we had the most harrowing drive of all ahead of us!

Next up: Kuelap.

A Trip to the Doctor

It’s 7:00 am and I am hitting redial on my phone as though the local radio station is giving away $1,000,000. I wish – instead I am trying to get a follow-up appointment with my doctor. Added to the list of things that are just different in Cajamarca, is healthcare. Not necessarily worse in all respects, just different.

My situation started last week when I decided it was time to see a GI doctor for my on-going stomach issues. I got a name from a friend and toyed with having Matt’s school nurse make the appointment for me, but I decided to be a grownup and do it myself despite my anxiety over talking in Spanish on the phone. I called last Monday around 9 am and was told that the doctor’s appointments were full for the day. Fine, could I please make an appointment for another day that week? After asking for the response to be repeated several times, I thought I was being told that appointments could only be made for the day one is calling. When I asked when I should call, I was told “earlier.” As this seemed bizarre and inefficient to me, I assumed I was misunderstanding and asked Matt to have his nurse make the appointment for me. He came home and said she would be calling the next day. Apparently, my Spanish was dead on and you have to call on the day you want the appointment. The nurse did so and my appointment was for 8 pm on Tuesday.

We had been to the doctor once before (the nurse made the appointments and those were in advance, go figure), so we knew that we needed to get to the clinic early to pay and check in. In this respect, the Peruvian system is better, at least with our school-provided insurance. You pay upfront for everything, so there are no surprise medical bills 3 months later. My co-pay for the specialist visit was $12.50, and this amount includes the follow up visits as well. I pointed out to the clerk that I was a woman – my form listed me as a man – and she told me it was the insurance company that incorrectly coded me and pointed to their office and told me to talk to them but not to worry about it for the appointment. The insurance clerk was busy, so we stepped aside and waited with everyone else.

We soon noticed that a nurse was coming out of a door and calling a few patients at a time. They would step inside for a few minutes and then go down the hall and wait by various other doors or go to another floor. We deduced that she was likely taking the basic information: temperature, blood pressure etc. Miraculously my name was called after only a few minutes. But when I stepped up, the nurse looked startled, asked me if I was a woman and, when I confirmed that was the indeed case, told me to wait a little bit. A little bit stretched into 20  minutes and my anxiety rose. One of our friends waited for her doctor appointment for an hour the prior week only to be told that the doctor had gone home because she was his only appointment. I didn’t want to have that happen to me although the place was teeming with patients.

By now we had figured out that I missed my first chance because the nurse was calling men back into the room. So the next time she came out and called for another woman, who arrived long after I did, I stepped up and said that I had been waiting. The nurse was very apologetic and I went in with the other lady. We were seated next to each other and all of our vitals were taken (is it bad that I was happy that I was taller and weighed less?). After living and breathing HIPAA, this was a very odd experience! The nurse then walked me to the doctor’s office, but it was empty and she placed my file in the middle of a stack of files and told me to wait in the hallway. At this point, we were standing in a narrow hallway with a bunch of other people. Thankfully, many of them had infants and we surmised that they were all waiting for the pediatrician, not my doctor. Once the doctor arrived, things moved pretty quickly. The first guy went in for a little while, came out, and called the name of the next in line – again, no HIPAA concerns here. It also became apparent that all appointments were made for 8:00 pm and you wait your turn (designated when you made your appointment) beginning at 8:00.

TMI -Welcome to Life in Peru

TMI Cheat Sheet -Welcome to Life in Peru

My turn came and I met with Dr. Albán who shook my hand, chatted with me about my symptoms and prodded my abdomen a bit. He ordered some labs, gave me a prescription, shook my hand and sent me on my way. Later I realized that there were no gloves, no sink in the exam room, no Purell, no paper on the table… no sanitary measures whatsoever! And he only poked my tummy – where did he poke the guy prior to me? I shudder to think…

We had to go back to the check-in line to pay for both the medication ($1.80) and lab work ($4.50) and then take the receipts and paperwork to the pharmacy and lab, respectively, to get what I needed. Again, no health care cost surprise down the road.

Pros: Kind workers, upfront costs, no fake HIPAA privacy (come on, if you are all sitting in the waiting room, you are seeing each other, right?).

Cons: Inefficiency in appointment making and waiting times (although overall the waiting was not really worse than in US and maybe it is better to wait in a hallway with your clothes on than in the inevitably freezing waiting room in a paper gown).

Disgusting factor: Lack of sanitation. I noticed on the follow up visit that the bathrooms have no toilet seats, were filthy, have no hot water and no towel/dryer for one’s hands. UGH. It is no wonder that I have stomach issues here!

 

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

I fired my first employee a month ago. The irony is that I spent almost 19 years as an employment attorney and in that time advised countless employers on how to properly terminate literally hundreds of employees. I gave seminars and wrote articles on the subject. But I had never fired anyone, a fact I admitted when giving advice to my clients. And I gave good advice; my problem was that I didn’t follow it with respect to Olga.

Rule #1 – Hire Well. Olga wasn’t our first choice of housekeeper, called an “empleada” (employee) or “chica” here although I never referred to her as “chica” as I find it utterly disrespectful to call a grown woman “girl.” When we visited the school before moving here we had secured our housing and, we thought, a wonderful empleada, Esther. But as our now-friend Sarah was moving here with 2 year old twins, Matt’s boss decreed that Esther, who is great with kids, would work for Sarah. So we were out of luck. Matt’s coworker, Robert, offered to have Olga work for us – his wife and daughter had moved to the US and he was planning to leave Peru in December, so he didn’t need her anymore. Robert said Olga was honest, reliable and quiet. As we had no idea how to find someone suitable, and I was tired of cleaning our house after 2 weeks (hey, it’s dusty here!), we went the easy route and arranged to meet Olga.

The meeting didn’t go well. We had a horrible time trying to communicate, but attributed that to our Spanish deficiency. But we agreed to hire her because it was the path of least resistance – even though everyone from the maintenance workers at Matt’s schools to cab drivers to Esther herself had a wife, friend, cousin, who needed a job, it was too daunting to think about having the awkward interview again. But from day one I bemoaned that Olga was no Esther.

Rule #2 – Set Clear Expectations. Obviously, housekeepers are not the norm in the US, so I had no experience with having someone in my home 5 days a week. Yes, you are rolling your eyes and cursing me under your breath right now, but realize that in Peru it is the culture to hire people if you are middle class (and they usually work a half day on Saturday for you too). Even Matt’s teachers who complain to me about money and have to work extra jobs all have empleadas. Normally, an empleada does EVERYTHING for you – shops, cooks, cleans, does laundry, deals with service providers, pays bills, watches the kids, etc. Olga told us she didn’t cook, and I didn’t realize the full job of an empleada, so when she began she cleaned and did laundry. Matt and I joked that she had the best deal in town as with only two of us in the house, half the house is basically unused and our laundry minimal.

After about 6 weeks I went home for Angela and Craig’s wedding and their Colombian friend Jorge asked me how things were going in South America. I confessed that I was having a hard time with Olga – she cleaned okay, but she was obsessed with laundry – she would spend hours every day washing our clothes and we have a washer and dryer! Jorge tried to explain the culture of help and assured me that Olga wanted more to do and that I had to be firm about asking. He even made me practice some phrases. And he told me to fire her if I didn’t like her.

I returned to Peru confident that I could improve the relationship and feel less awkward in my own home. Because that was a big part of the issue – I was tiptoeing around Olga, who would take over 2 hours just to wash some dinner dishes from the prior night. Meanwhile I would be starving, waiting for her to get out of the kitchen so I could eat my breakfast. So I tried Jorge’s suggestions. I asked her to do laundry less often, to pay the one utility bill that can’t be paid on-line, to clean the dining room when I was having guests for lunch, to buy the cleaning supplies when she told me she was out of them … and had mixed success. She would never shop for me (except when I was terribly ill because  I think she knew she had to as Matt was at work) and would never do something when I asked – usually a few hours or days later – and she continued the incessant laundry. But she wasn’t a bad person and as I didn’t want to clean my own house and had plenty of time to shop and clean, I just complained instead of taking direct action.

Rule #3 – Don’t Ignore a Problem. As our Spanish improved, it became clear that while we were (and are) by no means fluent, we were generally understandable to other Peruvians. But not to Olga. Eventually we realized that she seemed to have a hard time communicating with other Peruvians too, not just us. She would look at the speaker and silently form words before responding. Needless to say, I was not learning any Spanish from her and our communication didn’t improve. In fact, I would clean things myself instead of asking her because it wasn’t worth my effort.

Rule #4 – Terminate Don’t Procrastinate. This is the most important rule of all and I sure broke it. For years I counseled clients to swiftly terminate when warranted because who knows what might happen in the interim between the decision and the act. I had decided to fire Olga – her performance had deteriorated.  She was spending endless hours in our house but doing little more than basic cleaning and laundry, she told us late one Friday night that she would be absent the following Monday and Tuesday due to a doctor appointment in Lima and I had been home all day but she hadn’t mentioned it (and honestly, we would have likely offered to pay her airfare so she could have avoided the 18 hour bus ride each way), she brought a stranger to the house to help her one day because she was leaving early and only told me her plans because I saw the woman and asked who she was… I was ticked. I had inquired about her doctor visit, not sure how much was appropriate to ask, and she gave me some vague answer about a problem with her spine and her stomach and assured me she could work. But I had finally had enough and an American friend who was returning to the US wanted me to hire her empleada, Maria. I had met Maria and loved her – another Esther, warm, friendly and could more or less understand me! The problem was that I couldn’t hire Maria for another few weeks and we were going on vacation and didn’t want the house vacant, so I wanted to keep Olga for just another month.

And then it got worse. Several times I saw her on the street when she was supposed to be working and once she left a workman in my house unattended. She always looked guilty when I saw her and would say she was getting lunch or that she had a bill she had to pay that day. I joked to Matt that I thought she had a boyfriend she was visiting. Finally, one morning I returned to the house unexpectedly and caught her leaving the house. When I asked where she was going she told me she was getting a friend to come help her. I asked why she would need help and she made a lame excuse about not reaching the high windows (mind you, she had never cleaned the windows before). I told her no, which shocked her as I had never said no to anything, and laid into her about leaving the workman unattended and where she was going all the time. She got very defensive and again said lunch. I would have fired her on the spot, but I didn’t have the cash to pay her and Matt had the ATM card. But I resolved to do so as soon as possible.

Rule #5 – Be Prepared for the Termination Meeting. This was the one rule I didn’t break. Once I knew I was firing Olga, the attorney in me sprung into action and I got everything lined up. I was paying Olga severance and had been told to have her sign a document saying we had paid her all of her wages in addition to the severance, so I had one of Matt’s teachers write the document for me. Sarah agreed that we could hire Esther to watch our house while we were all on vacation and talked to Esther who was willing to do so. On the way home Matt and I stopped for cash and I told him that if Olga was there I was firing her that night.

She was and Matt made an immediate beeline upstairs, where he would spend the next 1 1/2 hours while I did the deed. I sat Olga down and told her that it was her last day. She was shocked and asked why and I told her that we didn’t communicate well, that her performance had been slipping and that she didn’t seem interested in working lately. She started silently crying and I felt absolutely awful but stuck to my guns despite her pleas that she would improve. And then she played her trump card and said “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” or at least that is what I understood, with a very expectant look on her face. I responded that I didn’t understand and then she said the words every employer dreads to here “Estoy embarazada” – I’m pregnant. Crap. I understood that one and asked her why she hadn’t told me. She gave a vague excuse and then added that she wasn’t working hard because she was in danger of miscarriage and that she was also going to doctor appointments when she left my house. Double crap. My mind was racing – in the US I could still fire her as I made the decision before I knew she was pregnant but I don’t know squat about Peruvian employment law. I then said the stupidest thing ever, something like “well maybe it will be better if you aren’t doing this kind of work then.” Thankfully, I doubt she understood me. I stuck with the plan and fired her anyhow. She asked if she could return the next day to get her things and I said no as I knew she would show up with an ultrasound or something and then I would feel like an even bigger jerk. So she got her things together and then we awkwardly waited 30 minutes for the cab I was sending her home in to arrive. UGH.

I lived in fear for the following week that someone would show up at my door and beat me up or worse, tell me that Olga had a miscarriage, but it has been over a month now and these things have not occurred (knock on wood). Even better, Maria began working for us a few weeks ago and is amazing. She works only 4 days a week and much shorter hours than Olga and does everything I ask her – including shopping and some cooking – and is excited to share her Peruvian recipes with me. We chat every day and sometimes even eat a meal together. It is wonderful not to feel uncomfortable in my own home and to be able to enjoy this big perk of my new life.