The Long Reach of the IRS

Filing taxes isn’t fun for anyone, but I am an idiot when it comes to forms. So for years Matt handled our taxes using Turbo Tax. I would review them, make a few corrections (Turbo Tax isn’t perfect) and generally the process was pretty painless. Then came 2013 – the year we moved abroad.

The United States and Eritrea (no clue where that is) are the only two countries in the world that impose income taxes on the foreign income of non-resident citizens. To the surprise of many expats, this means that even if you have lived abroad for many years and have made no money on US soil, your foreign income is subject to US income tax and you have to file a tax return.

I will spare you the tax details, but in general if you are an expat you are allowed to exclude a certain amount of your expat income from taxation if you meet one of two foreign residency tests. One of the tests – physical presence – we couldn’t meet in 2013 because we spent too much time in the US that year so we had to get an extension to file our 2013 taxes in 2015 – after we lived in Peru for a calendar year.

So last December I sat down to work on the 2013 taxes we would be filing in January. I gathered all of Matt’s Davy pay stubs, actually figured out what everything meant on them, pulled up our W2s from our US jobs in 2013 and logged onto Turbo Tax. Denied! No computer system is available for taxes after October of the filing year, even though we had an extension. Thus began about 80 hours of reading tax forms, IRS guidance, and occasionally IRS regulations all in an effort to figure out how to determine our stinking taxes. I discovered that given our situation of both US income and Peruvian income I actually needed to figure out our taxes using 3 different methods. By hand. It was worth it because under one method we owed about $6,000 and under another, we had a $1,600 refund. Guess which one I chose!

We don’t have a printer here, so at one point in this process, I decided to go to an internet cafe to print off the forms and some of the tax instructions because I needed to complete the various worksheets on them. I had never been in one because we have internet in our home, but they are usually packed with kids playing computer games. This day was no exception although the occasional businessman stopped in, presumably to check email (or surf porn, who knows). It took me awhile to figure out the process, but in the end I had to download the documents I wanted to a drive and then go up to the clerk and ask him to open and print the documents for me. At one point he had to send a kid out for more paper and the kid returned with about 100 sheets – not a full ream, mind you! After about an hour I had about 60 pages of what I needed and called it a day.

Once in Wisconsin, I finished up the Wisconsin return and then encountered my next glitch – the paper size in Peru is slightly different than in the US so scanning and copying wasn’t working properly. After several meltdowns the returns were in the mail. But the fun wasn’t done.

First, the Wisconsin Department of Revenue ignored both the address on our tax return and the cover letter indicating our address and sent our refund to our old home, which we haven’t owned for over a year and a half! Thankfully, the kind new owner tracked me down via social media and got the check sent to Matt’s mom’s house for us. Today, after being on hold for over an hour, I learned that the IRS decided to mail our refund to us in Peru despite the fact that I provided bank information for direct deposit and a cover letter indicating that any correspondence should be sent to Matt’s mom’s house. ARGG. It’s anyone’s guess whether we will ever see that check because mail does not get delivered here, so now we will have to periodically trek to the post office to see if it has arrived. Only after a month can we ask the IRS to “investigate” what happened.

But I did learn from all of this. Our 2014 taxes were filed using Turbo Tax today. It was still several hours of work to tell the IRS we don’t owe them any money, but at least is is done. I hope.

Selling a Cow to Buy a Computer

My housekeeper, Maria, asked me about a month ago if I could bring back a laptop from the US for her nephew. He is hoping to study engineering next year and the family thought it would be beneficial if he got a computer. While he could buy a laptop here, apparently the prices are much better in the US. Generally Matt and I decline to bring back electronic items for people because we don’t want the responsibility or the potential to have to pay import taxes on it when we return to Peru. And because I am usually using a kitchen scale to stuff the last permissible 6 ounces into my luggage. But given that Maria’s family is not wealthy and would not have access to other people traveling to the US, I agreed to help her out.

Magnificent Maria

Magnificent Maria

I asked Maria what computer her nephew wanted. He didn’t know and she suggested that I just pick one out for him – they trust me. Are they kidding? I know nothing about computers except that I pitch a fit when ours doesn’t work properly and whine to Matt until he solves my problem. I suggested that her nephew talk to friends, someone at the university – basically anyone but me. I did contact my nephew, a US college student, to enlist his aid. He came up with a couple of low cost options and I presented them to Maria along with website addresses for her nephew to review them. (Now I know you are thinking, “but Kerry, her nephew doesn’t have a computer, you idiot.” Rest assured that there are internet cafes, and I am using the word cafe very loosely, all over our town.) And I heard nothing more about it.

Now Peruvians tend to bring up important matters at the last minute. I let the computer issue rest for awhile because I really didn’t want to be responsible for bringing one back with us. But I adore Maria and I knew she felt awkward asking the favor in the first place, so last week I asked if her nephew had decided on a computer. The response? “Well, it depends on whether they can sell a cow.” What?! The long and the short of it was that her brother needed to sell a cow to get the money for the computer. He took the cow to the market but the prices were just too low. The family suspects the low prices are because everyone is saving their money to buy turkeys for Christmas, so beef is not in demand. He tried again this past weekend, but the prices were still too low and he couldn’t take the loss on the cow. So Maria’s nephew won’t be getting a computer this Christmas.

I am reminded that in 2014 Peru is still a developing country where the farm ladies in the market wear traditional garb and yet chat on cell phones and where someone might need to sell a cow to buy a computer.

Vendors

Vendors

 

A Weekend in the Country

From the first time I heard of Granja Porcon, I had no interest in going there. About an hour from Cajamarca, numerous people mentioned it to us as a “must see” tourist site. But when I asked what one did there, all I heard was that it was in the country and had a zoo. In the country? Don’t I live in the country? Roosters wake me up long before dawn, cows graze on the side of the running path, horses frolic along the bank of the river a few blocks from my house, I recognize the burros that carry a farmer’s milk down our street every day…how much more country did I need? As for a zoo, I have mixed feelings about them and was pretty sure a small, private zoo would make me feel less mixed and more distressed. Add to the fact that Granja Porcon is run by Evangelists and had been described as both a commune and a cult and I was not sold.

But as our entertainment options are limited, when some friends suggested we go there for the weekend in order to take advantage of the hiking trials, I was persuaded. We set off Friday after work in Korrine’s dad’s car with Rodrigo as our driver. Our first stop was at the grocery store to buy some wine that we intended to “sneak” onto the grounds. To be honest, while alcohol was not served on the premises, I never saw any mention that it wasn’t allowed, but it added to our high school feel for the weekend: dad’s car and smuggled booze.

The drive out of Cajamarca was pretty and uneventful. After about an hour we arrived at the turnoff to Granja Porcon. Another 25 minutes and we were at the gate, just as the sun was setting. We had reserved a cabin and the guard gave us directions to get there. I tried listening to the directions in order to help navigate, but after he kept describing the roads we were not supposed to take, I gave up. We started up the mountain, darkness descended and we had no idea where we were going. We stopped at one place where we saw lights and the woman there told us to continue up the road. Just as we left, a man ran after us shouting that we should take a left – but left led us back down the mountain. We confirmed that we were supposed to go up the mountain, took a right to do so and then laughed at his “left” direction. 20 minutes later we were not laughing when we could see nothing and were utterly lost. We headed back down the mountain, intending to go back for more directions, when a lady on the side of the road waved us down, introduced herself as Marleny and told us that she had been waiting for us to show us our cabin. The “left” made sense as we had to take a left to go down a small, dark road that led only to the cabin – a left that was only about 5 minutes away from the house where we had asked directions! It was now about 8:00 and there was only one restaurant – back down the mountain – that was open to serve us dinner. We unloaded the car, nervously trying to hide our bottles, called in our dinner order and then began the trek down the mountain. Marleny came with us because she thought we would get lost otherwise. She was right!

The way back

The way back

Despite calling ahead by about 1/2 hour, the restaurant was deserted. A man quickly appeared and opened the place up for us. It was a cold, beautiful, rustic room with windows that overlooked the Porcon main square, but at the late hour we could only see a few lights in the distance. We enjoyed a lovely meal of chicken soup and fried trout and headed back up the mountain to our cabin, stopping to pick up a thermos of hot, boiled water from Marleny’s house. A few drinks later we called it a night. It was freezing in the cabin – the only heat was the fireplace in the main room and the beds had those old fashioned wool blankets that weigh you down so you can barely move. Matt and I slept with our hats on and were still cold!

Warming at the heath

Warming at the hearth

The day dawned overcast, but it was still breathtaking. It felt as though we were on a movie set – gorgeous setting, rustic cabin, cows mooing, lambs bleating and roosters crowing – unreal.

We headed back to the restaurant for a breakfast of caldo verde (my favorite soup) with numerous stops along the way to admire the vicuñas and avoid the lambs. Vicuñas are cousins of alpacas and llamas (and guanacos, another wild camelid in the Andes) and are prized for their wool, which can run up to $3,000 a yard! The animals can only be shorn every 3 years and then only about a pound of wool results from each animal. While they are described as shy, the ones at Porcon are obviously accustomed to tourists because we got amazingly close to them. They were gorgeous – so graceful and delicate. The lambs, on the other hand, were just hilarious. They were all over the road and it was all Rodrigo could do not to hit any of them. The downside of all the lambs was that meant there was no sheep cheese for sale – something I was really looking forward to as I am so tired of the limited cheese selection here.

Once we tore ourselves away from the vicuñas, I then became fascinated by a hummingbird feeding outside of the window at the restaurant. It was quite a dramatic scene when another hummingbird appeared and they began fighting. In addition the view was breathtaking.

Fight!

Fight!

After breakfast, we wandered into the town to check out the weaving shops, dairy and zoo.

I found the dairy products to be disappointing – while there were some decent fresh cheeses with herbs and a brick that was sharper than anything else here, nothing came close to amazing Carr Valley or other Wisconsin-produced cheeses. The others were hyping the ice cream and I, lover of Kopps frozen custard, couldn’t wait. What a letdown! The so-called “ice cream” was really ice-milk on a stick and not at all creamy. There were many exotic fruit flavors, but that was little consolation for me. After that crushing disappointment, we headed to the zoo.

 

Zoo Sign

Zoo sign

The zoo was interesting. One the one hand, the old-fashioned, small enclosures were incredibly depressing. But all zoo enclosures are depressing – no matter how big the enclosure, the lions and tigers still pace in captivity, the birds can’t fly free and many animals are far from their natural habitats. On the other hand, it was unbelievable how close we could get to the animals. As I was watching the spectacled bears, native to Peru, walk along the fence, a little girl stuck her finger into the enclosure and I started panicking, wondering if it is socially acceptable for a stranger to yell at a kid when you think she might lose a finger (and then, to try to think of how to say it in Spanish!). Thankfully, her mother saw her in the seconds these thoughts raced through my brain and pulled her away. Yikes!

After the zoo and a mediocre meal in town, we headed back up the mountain to our paradise. Marleny, who was parking cars in town, tried to persuade us to stop at the trout farm or come back to see the 4 o’clock milking, but as neither of those things are novelties to us, we declined and relaxed the afternoon and evening away. Well, except for the parts where Rodrigo smoked us out of the house by trying to start the wood stove in the kitchen, not realizing that he had blocked the flue and that we didn’t have the key to the kitchen door so there was no ventilation and then, when Marleny showed up unannounced and we scurried around trying to hide our wine bottles and glasses!

We were all in bed by 10 pm, but that allowed Rodrigo, Matt and me to get up early and climb to the summit of Mt. Porcon the next morning. It was only an hour hike on a dirt path to reach the top and the views were amazing. After all my reluctance to go, I completely fell for Porcon and would love to go back to do more hiking. It was peaceful and picturesque – the perfect getaway weekend.

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.

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

Computer Meltdown

The old Kerry was back. With a vengeance. After months of going with the South American flow of a relaxed pace and inefficiency, I was done.

I sprinted across the street, yelling at the Movistar service technician who was doing his best to ignore me while he dialed his phone.

“Excuse me, when are you coming to my house to fix my internet?” I demanded.

He waved a paper, nervously refusing to look at me. “I’m at this house. I’m not the tech for your house.”

“But you were at my house on Saturday. And you left. And I still don’t have internet!”

“Another tech…” he tried to turn his back to me but I stuck with him.

“Who? When?”

“I don’t know. But not me.”

“But it was you. You were at my house. And you didn’t fix anything and now no one has come for 3 days.”

“Ahh.  Matthews, right?” He was trying to placate me and I knew it.

“Yes. There.” I pointed to our house.

“Okay, I’ll tell them.” His eyes darted about, refusing to look at me. I interpreted that as a fear of being caught. I was convinced this guy had deleted our job request for the past 3 days because he didn’t know how to solve our internet problem or didn’t want to deal with it. Matt later said the guy was probably afraid that I was going to drag him across the street to our house. At 5’3”, I’m bigger than he and had rage on my side, so that might have been it.

I stalked back across the street while glaring at the guy on the corner who had watched this entire exchange. Slammed the doors to my house.  ARGGG. Why is it so hard to get things done here? Why can’t I speak better Spanish so I don’t sound like a 5 year old? Olga, our housekeeper, tiptoed around me. She had never seen me angry, much less livid, these past eight months. And I have never seen a Peruvian mad; they go into begging mode when they want something. Not this American. I wasn’t about to beg someone who was screwing me over. But I am no fool. I had tried the begging: I had sent Olga out to talk to the tech when I first saw him across the street because I thought the begging might work. It didn’t. Of course, my in-your-face aggression didn’t either.

I explained to Olga what happened and why I didn’t believe that he wasn’t suppose to be at our house.

“Well, he did have an order for the other house…” she ventured.

“Did you see it?” The lawyer in me was out in full force.

“No, but I said Matthews to him…”

“Hrmph.  But he was here on Saturday and left and no one has come since.”

“The same guy? Here? Oh.” She retreated.

I had a new plan: when he was done with the other job, I would waylay him again and demand that he call his tech office immediately to find out when someone was coming to my house. I looked out the window. Damn, his car was gone. He had snuck away.

The saga began when an electrical storm knocked out our phone, internet, and computer on Friday. The worst part was that about 30 seconds before it happened it occurred to me that I should shut down the computer. But I didn’t. There was a pop on the screen and then no phone, no internet, no computer. The storm was intense and lasted a couple of hours, so I didn’t really expect service to return quickly and I was ignoring the fact that the computer wouldn’t turn on. By the next morning, it was clear that we needed service, but a review of all the paperwork from our provider, Movistar, and its on-line site (via my cell phone, which thankfully has a data plan) revealed that the only way to call for service was from a Movistar phone. Ours didn’t work; that was part of the problem. So we walked to our friend’s house and her housekeeper called Movistar for us and explained the problem. A tech would come within 24 hours.

And he did come, later that afternoon. We explained the problem and showed him that the phone and modem both didn’t work. We also explained that the modem wouldn’t power up at all – clearly it was fried, not that we know that idiomatic expression in Spanish, but he seemed to understand. He checked a few things, confirmed nothing worked and then said he needed to check the lines but had to wait as a strong storm had kicked up. He waited, we waited, and then, next thing we knew, he was gone without a word and nothing was fixed. We hung around the rest of the day, optimistic that he would return. Wrong.

On Sunday Matt returned to our friend’s house and called Movistar while I hopefully waited at home. This time, Matt couldn’t get out of the automatic system because there was already a service code associated with our phone number and the recording said a tech would be out within 24 hours. So we waited around the house all day and no one came.

On Monday, Matt had a coworker call as the 24 hours was up to 48 hours and still no resolution or return visit. This time, we received a new service code and his coworker told him they had another 24 hours to send a tech. What? They already had 48 hours and no one had fixed the problem, but apparently that is the way it works here. So I again was homebound, waiting for the tech who never arrived. At some point our phone came back on and later there was an automated call from Movistar. I didn’t quite understand all of it, but thought I hit the right number that indicated we still had a problem as the internet was not going to work until we got a new modem.

On Tuesday, Matt had a coworker call another time as 24 hours had elapsed yet again. Same routine: new code, 24 hours. I was ballistic by this point. How can Movistar buy itself another 24 hours just by giving us a new code? I felt chained to the house as I was not going to miss the tech visit and had instructed Olga to be on high alert for anyone at the door. On Monday I ran to the door or window about every 2 minutes as I was fearful of missing the tech guy when he arrived. I was doing the same thing on Tuesday, which is how I saw the tech across the street and accosted him. After that incident and still no tech, I insisted that Matt go to Movistar after work and explain in person what was happening and what we needed. He did and was assured someone would come the next day (today) and that the tech would call first. Matt also asked whether the tech would come with a modem in his car and the woman laughed and said yes.

The first thing I did today was to instruct Olga that her most important job of the day was to answer the phone (I was worried that it would be a recording and I don’t understand those well) so that we didn’t miss the tech’s visit. Yep, she missed the call. I was furious and, while I didn’t yell at her, I did go yell in the other room. After I calmed down, I asked her to call Movistar (as our phone now worked we could call from home) and find out if a tech was coming.  After about 20 minutes she came and told me that Movistar had no record of any problem with our line, but that she had a code and a tech would come in 24 hours. WTF??? By this time, I was ranting in Spanish the best I could (though I really need to learn to say WTF) and asked Olga how that made any sense when the tech was here, on Saturday, when we have called every day for the past 4 days and when Matt actually went to Movistar yesterday. She seemed puzzled by these questions and seemed to find it perfectly reasonable that we would wait another 24 hours now that we had a code.  What?? I had had enough of this senseless conversation when there was a knock at the door.

Yes, it was the same tech- from Saturday, from yesterday- at the door. I went to the computer room when he arrived and politely explained, though I really wanted to wring his neck, that the modem didn’t work and we didn’t have internet. He looked at it and conceded that was the case, but said he didn’t have a modem because he was there to service our …phone. What??? I told him that he knew the internet and modem didn’t work since he came on Saturday (I thought it prudent to ignore our conversation of the prior afternoon). He responded that he was here for the service call from 11 am yesterday that said there was a problem with the phone so that is what he came to fix. (*@!^$&(^$  But, he assured me, he would come back in a half hour with a modem because he knew we had been waiting for it. It is now 3 1/2 hours. I am still waiting.

This whole exchange proves that you can take the girl out of America, but you can’t take America out of the girl. I am still trying to figure out what part of this bothers me the most: the lack of internet, which I depend on for my amusement while I am home alone all day; my loss of independence as I feel chained to the house (despite sneaking out to use my friend’s internet at the moment); or the sheer inefficiency, which my Type A personality can pretend to handle most of the time but really can’t.

Update: The (same) tech showed up, a mere 6 1/2 hours late. But he had a modem and we are connected again. Yippee! Next step: finding out if our iMac can be salvaged. Fingers crossed…

Happy St. Paddy’s Day – Better Late Than Never!

Yesterday I was in Lima obtaining my Peruvian residency card. It was a typical bureaucratic experience with two items of note: the Peruvians determined that I am a green-eyed blond (and here I thought I was a brown-eyed brunette for the past 45 years) and my residency stamp is on the visa page with a JFK quote, which seemed fitting for St. Patrick’s Day. I did not have the luck o’ the Irish when our plane from Lima arrived over Cajamarca, circled a few times, and then flew back to Lima as the pilot determined the weather didn’t permit him to land. Or maybe not landing was the lucky part! In any event, for that reason this post is a day late.

Although the month of Carnival festivities had worn us out, we decided to throw a St. Patrick’s Day party last Saturday for our expat and Peruvian friends. The Peruvians were quite interested to know what a St. Paddy’s Day party entailed, and we were at a bit of a loss – uh, drinking and wearing green? But we stepped it up and made corned beef (from scratch, no handy pre-brined meat here), potato salad (okay, not entirely Irish, but the potatoes count), oatmeal cookies,  and Irish cream brownies (courtesy of our friend Sarah), greeted everyone at the door with a shot of Baileys or Jameson and had the Irish tunes playing. Matt boss, Peter, contributed some Pogues and other contemporary Celtic tunes that complemented our Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem collection quite nicely.

It was pretty cool to have 5 countries represented : USA, Canada, Peru, Colombia and Mexico and everyone enjoying a typical American St. Patrick’s Day party. But the Peruvians like to sing and dance.  While I was tempted to teach them all Weela, Wallia, I was concerned that this group of educators might not see the justice in the song but instead wonder why I was singing a song about killing a baby. (My kindergarden teacher wondered the same thing and called my parents for an explanation.  True story.) We put on some YouTube videos teaching Irish dance, but as all I know about Irish dance is that you have to keep your arms down and shoulders straight, that was short lived.  We gave the Electric Slide and Boot Scootin’ Boogie a shot (thank you, Mistina and Sarah), but in the end, Latin music prevailed. One of the teachers noted, “you Americans dance with your legs, not your hips” and I think she understood why learning to salsa is not natural for us! The party went until the wee hours and a good time was had by all.

Clean Up

Clean Up

DIY – What Was I Thinking?

As part of my mission to make our Peruvian house a home, a bedroom makeover was top of the list.  Here is why.

Clash of the Colors

Clash of the Colors

The duvet cover was ours, but the rest of the room was this hideous when we arrived (and the balcony doors had full-length, red and blue curtains too).  I couldn’t stand waking up in such a horrible space and when I returned to Peru in September, I resolved to have it redecorated by Christmas.  But I wasn’t sure how to start – when I was in the central market I would stop in curtain shops and look at fabrics but didn’t see anything I liked and wasn’t sure how to find more options.  As luck would have it, a departing Peruvian teacher friend, Jocelyn,  offered to sell me a gray curtain and sheers.  Because I also needed a shade, Jocelyn graciously offered to take me to the central market to buy the fabric and have the shade made.  And so it began…

One curtain replaced...

One curtain replaced…

We went to the market and Jocelyn took me to a particular shop on a fabric street.  One interesting thing about the central market (which after much confusion and discussion I determined is really just the main shopping district in Cajamarca) is that similar stores are clumped together – so the stores on one block all sell cookware, and the stores on another block all sell fabric, and on another block they all sell eyeglasses.  It was odd to us as we initially expected there to be a variety of wares on a block, but apparently that isn’t how it is done here.  It makes sense on the one hand because if you are looking for an item you can go to one street and look in all of the stores for it.  But it’s a huge hassle when you don’t know where that one street is!  So while I had found a street with curtain shops, they weren’t exactly the fabric shops I needed as those were on another street.  Jocelyn was amazing in action –  I had learned to barter with handicraft vendors and taxi drivers, but I had no idea that one could barter in a fabric store.  But barter Jocelyn did and we left with 5 meters of the same fabric as her curtain for $36.  Then we went to another shop around the corner where Jocelyn introduced me to Jhon who Jocelyn said would make my shade for a good price.  John said he would have the Roman shade ready by Tuesday and would come to my house to install it, all for $24 – sold! The last time I bought a Roman shade in the US it was 1/3 the size and cost over 3 times as much.

My excitement was short lived when I realized that I needed to paint the room before the shade was installed and  I had 4 days to do it.  Matt wisely wanted no part of this project and urged me to hire someone to paint the room.  But we were booked most of the weekend, so we wouldn’t be home to let someone in the house and supervise him.  Matt then suggested I move the delivery date of the shade to give me more time to hire someone.  But I was too excited to get the room renovated so I stubbornly forged ahead.

I went to buy the paint on Friday morning.  First stop was the hardware store around the corner from our house that has a large sign out front advertising paint.  After some confusion, despite the word for paint being “pintura” they say “latex” here, I was informed they had two colors: white and beige.  On to the next store down the block.  There the clerk gave me paint brochures and I picked out an okay color only to be told that they had two colors: green and white.  What the heck?  Wouldn’t it make sense to tell that to me before showing me the brochure and discussing the color I wanted?  At that point I gave up on buying from the mom and pop shops and caught a cab to the “big box” hardware store.  I quickly found a color I liked and the guy started mixing it – by hand with a 2×4!  It took about a half hour.  When I asked about a stir stick to mix the white paint I was also buying, he had no idea what I was talking about, which should have been obvious to me as he was using a 2×4 to mix the paint.   I rooted around my backyard and found a 1×1 stick that I used. Matt and I got a good laugh about how quaint this process was until I actually went to use the paint.  Obviously, that 2X4 had been frequently used as my paint had old dried paint pieces throughout it.  It was awful –  with every paint stroke I had to pick off the paint chips.  It definitely made me regret doing my own painting.  Of course, if something like that had happened in the US, I would have returned the paint, but 1) something like that wouldn’t happen in the US and 2) I didn’t see managing that conversation in Spanish.  Despite the setbacks and the need for 2 base coats, I managed to have the room painted by Tuesday.

An hour before Jhon was scheduled to arrive, he called and asked if he could come on Wednesday.  About an hour after the appointed time on Wednesday, I called Jhon and he assured me he would be there in 20 minutes.  Over an hour later he arrived and installed the shade.  It looked great, but by then I had realized that I needed a new curtain rod for the curtain that had started this project, so Jhon, Matt  and I discussed what we needed and Jhon said he would be back on Friday with a new curtain rod.  A no-show on Friday, Jhon said he would be over on Saturday afternoon.  Saturday morning I happened upon his shop while I was in the market, so I stopped in to see if he was coming over later.  He showed me the rod and then asked if I wanted the supports for it.  You think?  So that delayed the project until Tuesday.  You guessed it, Tuesday came and went and another call to Jhon confirmed that he would come on Wednesday.  Delays are the norm here, so it honestly didn’t bother me much when Jhon didn’t come when he said he would.  But then he did arrive and this is what he brought.

He seemed genuinely confused that I would want the curtain rod and supports to match.  He also neglected to put the knob on the end of the rod, but by this point I was so sick of waiting that I had Jhon install it and planned to deal with it later.  About a week later, we ordered a rug for the room from a department store, so that gave me the incentive to pull out the paint and finish the job.  The date for the rug delivery came and went and when we called we learned that our order was canceled.  Matt went to the store and then was told that the rug wasn’t available in Peru!  So I am considering the room done for now, even though we would still like a rug.  Lesson learned: next time I think DIY – don’t!

Almost Done

Almost Done

And if you are wondering about the bare bulb, I am not even going to try to find a light fixture here as most houses have bare bulbs throughout and I do not know whether there is a street in the market carries fixtures!

Happy Thanksgiving

Tom Turkey

I love Thanksgiving.  It falls around my birthday so the 4-day weekend always feels like a special birthday present.  I come from a family of great cooks and the Thanksgiving menu has evolved over the years to include the traditional favorites along with an awesome pumpkin curry soup (thank you, Nikki) and my grandma’s antipasto (because we cannot have a family meal without an Italian dish).   For the past decade, Matt and I escaped to our cottage the Friday after Thanksgiving to relax before the rush of the Christmas season.  We would pull out the sofa bed and watch movies, eat turkey leftovers and not have any company. A real treat!  This year is obviously different.  Matt is working on Thursday as Thanksgiving is not a holiday in Peru (although I noticed that the stores do have “Black Friday” sales).  So I am feeling a little bereft about missing Thanksgiving, while at the same time recognizing that my life is one long weekend and we have a lot to be thankful for.

Because I am not the only expat to feel this way, the American and Canadian expats held a Thanksgiving dinner on Sunday night.  My friend Sarah, the school librarian, and I went to pick up the turkeys on Sunday morning.  We took them to the host’s house to clean them and get them in the oven.  While Sarah and I were each cleaning out the inside of a turkey (no tidy giblet bag here!) and plucking stray feathers, I realized my turkey still had its head!  Thank goodness Sarah is from Alaska and no stranger to cleaning animals, so she gamely lopped off the heads of both turkeys.  Interestingly, the feet were already off but included in the bag.

The feast was really nice; everyone chipped in with a dish or two and we  had a traditional meal.  A few Peruvians were invited as well as a peace corp volunteer, Michelle, who Sarah met at the grocery store.  (When you hear someone speaking English around here, you tend to strike up a conversation.)  My favorite non-traditional part of the meal was a pineapple salsa that Michelle’s Peruvian host mom made for her to bring to the event.  Delicious and perfect with turkey.  If I am ever home for Thanksgiving, I might just have to make this dish a new staple on the family menu.

My favorite part!

My favorite part!

So those of you at home, enjoy it all: the Macy’s parade, football, friends, family and food!  Happy Thanksgiving!

Q&A Part 1

Many of my faithful readers (okay, friends) have asked questions about our day-to-day lives.   This post will answer that burning question on everyone’s mind: “Matt works, Olga cleans your house, what do you do all day?”

Good question, and Matt is probably reading to find out the same thing!  During the week, I get out of bed around 8:00.  Note “get out of bed” not “wake up.”  Given that one of my reasons for not having children is that I couldn’t stomach the idea of sleepless nights, it is pretty ironic that we have yet to sleep through a night here.  Honestly.  First, our street is the route for heavy vehicles and they rumble by all night long.  While that in and of itself is loud, there is a speed bump in front of our house  that these semis bounce over, adding to the noise.  Sometimes the semis don’t slow down for the speed bump (they always ignore the stop sign) and the vibration of the truck coupled with the banging of the load sets off the car alarm of the red Toyota two doors down.  (This also happens all day long.)    Trucks = average of 3 nightly sleep interruptions.

Then there are the dogs.  They bark all night.  Sometimes it is the dogs across the street barking because a truck woke them up, sometimes it is street dogs fighting or taunting the dogs across the street and sometimes, who the heck knows, they are dogs.  Dogs barking = 3.  Not to be outdone by the canines, are our neighbors the roosters.  It is complete fiction that roosters crow at dawn.  They crow ALL NIGHT LONG!  Roosters = 1.  Next we have bands/music.  At 10:40 last night a band started playing and marching down  the street.  I’m not sure the occasion, but my cabbie earlier this week told me that bands are hired for birthdays.  Perhaps this person was born at 10:40 pm.  Bands/Music = 1.  We also have fireworks and the military.  It is not unusual for the military exercises to start as early as 5:00 am, though I am not sure how safe it is to have gun training in the pitch dark.  Yesterday, in an opposite direction from the band, there were fireworks (more like M80s) going off all night. Random loud booms = 1.  Finally, we have a guy that pounds on a neighbor’s door every morning around 4:30.  Booty call, drunk stumbling home, worker rousing a friend – no clue but it is &%$? annoying!  Door banger = 1.  The beauty is that no one EVER yells at anyone to be quiet.  Apparently Peruvians sleep like the dead.  We don’t and our average nightly tally of being awoken is 10!

After I get up, I putter around a bit, assess whether Olga has arrived so I can determine how guilty to feel over lollygagging in bed and then go on my walk, which is usually between 1-1 1/2 hours, depending on whether I run an errand or two on the way home.  Once home I do my PT exercises and additional workout exercises for a half hour to an hour, shower, dress and eat breakfast, all while dodging Olga.  Olga and I usually have some stilted conversation at some point in the morning,  which counts as a Spanish lesson, and the next thing I know it is almost noon.

For the past three weeks, I have been volunteering at Matt’s school on Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons.  I leave the house at 12:10 to catch a cab (another Spanish lesson!) and begin at 12:45.  Each day I assist in 3 different elementary classrooms for 45 minutes each and end my day reading for 15 minutes to a class of first graders.  I then hang outside with Matt while he says goodbye to the students and parents and subsequently amuse myself until we leave around 4:30.   While I have always admired my friends in the education field, my admiration has increased dramatically.  Well, not for those that lack classroom management skills.  For those my admiration has plummeted.  I know it has been a really long time since I was in grade school, but I swear we had to sit in our desks during class, not wander around to our cubbies or get drinks of water.  Okay, I also have to admit that on more than one occasion, in high school no less, I had a teacher drag my desk and me to the corner because I wouldn’t quit talking, so maybe these students behave just fine!

Wowing the 1st Graders

Wowing the 1st Graders!

Although I enjoy volunteering and the children are darling, I do not think elementary education will be my next career.  Not only do I find it exhausting being “on” for that long (and I am only there a 1/2 day), but practicing law is very goal oriented and I am accustomed to deadlines, projects, and endings.  And winning.  Learning never ends and I find it frustrating that at the end of a class you can’t measure what has been accomplished and that projects continue ad infinitum.  Matt notes that a child progresses over the course of a year, but I am not known for patience.   While I will continue to volunteer, I plan to scale back to two afternoons a week so I have more time to focus on writing and studying Spanish.

Of course, I might get fired from volunteering  as I accidentally wrote a naughty word on the board.  The teacher had me lead a discussion on the lessons learned from the class’s popcorn and chicha morada sale and I got confused as the students were spelling the word “chicha” for me and wrote chichi instead.  The class went crazy and I knew enough to quickly erase it.  Yes, I wrote the equivalent of “boobies” on the board.  Although in Spain this slang would have been much worse (think female genitalia).  And what about the restaurant chain Chi-Chis?  Apparently they were way ahead of Hooters!

FYI, chicha morada is a fermented, non-alcoholic drink made with purple corn, pineapple rinds and spices.  I’m not a big fan as it is cloyingly sweet.

David Gets My Vote For Smartest Student!

David Gets My Vote For Smartest Student!

On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons I usually run some errands, sit outside and study my Spanish, work on this blog and other correspondence, and research random things.  Most exciting random thing to date was finding the NFL Game Pass, which will allow us to watch Green Bay Packers games!

Go Green Bay!

While none of that sounds too difficult, everything here takes longer than it does at home.  For example, our plumbing issues continue and about once a week the plumber shows up and we engage in difficult conversation (Spanish lesson!) for about 15 minutes before he leaves, promising to return to fix the things that are broken.  Last week Tuesday we were discussing a leaky kitchen pipe for the third time and he said he needed a de-clogging product.  By some small miracle, I actually understood him and had some, so I retrieved it for him, fully expecting him to dump it in the sink.  Nope, he took a towel and swabbed some on the outside of the pipe.  As you can imagine, this did not fix the leaky pipe and he has not returned to date despite saying he would be back last week Thursday or Friday to fix the other faulty items.  In the States, we would simply call another plumber, but as this is our absentee landlord’s plumber, we are uncertain of the protocol, and she has not responded to us.  So here we sit with a leaky kitchen pipe that stinks up the cabinet and leads me to fear bugs, a broken toilet, a non functioning cold water pump (the same one spewing water in a prior post) and a broken shower head.  ARGGG.

Then there is grocery shopping.  We shop at Metro, which is a Target-esque “little bit of everything” store but smaller, in the El Quinde mall in Cajamarca; the Castope grocery store in Baños, which is tiny compared to a US grocery store; the other Castope near our house, which is the size of a very small gas station convenience store; the Central Market in Cajamarca;  the market in Baños; and sometimes a fruit or vegetable stand on the street.  Why so many stores?  Because none of them has everything we need at any given time.  Castope doesn’t have any decent fish (although yesterday it also didn’t have any chicken) and sometimes no lettuce; we can only find fresh nuts at the Central Market; produce is hit or miss, even at the grocery stores, so sometimes you need to go several places; for two weeks no store had Matt’s favorite soda, Inca Cola Zero; the list goes on.  You cannot assume that because you found an item at one store that you will ever find it there again.    Add the fact that trips to Cajamarca require cab rides and we can only buy what we can carry, and shopping takes a long time.   Not infrequently I go to Castope multiple times a day just to get everything I want (because I know it might not be there tomorrow).  While I try to do most of the shopping while Matt is at work, we usually run some errands after work at least once a week on a day I am volunteering and on the weekends.

Our evenings are pretty boring.  It gets pitch dark by 6:30 pm, which puts us in hibernation mode.  So unless we are invited somewhere or running errands, we are usually home by dark, eat dinner and then work on the computer or watch tv for the evening.  We have yet to find a bar in Baños and vanishing restaurants are the norm. For a week I thought I was losing my mind as I passed this sign, which had me very excited!

Disappearing Bar

The first night at 6:10, Matt and I walked to the place and . . . I couldn’t find it.  We walked around a few blocks while I insisted that I had seen this nice bar (I didn’t have the photo at the time).  The next afternoon, I again attempted to find it with no success.  On the third day it miraculously appeared and I took the photo for proof.  That night, Matt and I again set off, but no bar.  We subsequently did see the door open one weekend afternoon, but  there was no one inside.   I did some internet sleuthing and believe this bar is actually in Cajamarca, so I am not sure why the sign is in a place in Baños.   Many restaurants have no signage and irregular hours so unless you know where you are going and when a place is open, you wander about feeling like a fool!  We found one place that looked very nice and asked the woman who was cleaning when it was open.  9 to 5, Friday through Sunday.  I repeated it twice to make sure we understood and indeed, those are the hours.  So we eat and drink at home for the most part.

Weekends have had no set pattern.  We were in Lima last weekend (stay tuned for that post) and Matt is off this Friday so we plan to do a long walk or excursion at least one of the days and likely will run some errands.  A gardener from school is coming over to cut our grass (we think by hand with a clippers) and trim our bougainvillea (which requires him to climb out our second story window and perch on the porch roof) at 2:00 on Saturday so we will need to be home all afternoon while he is here.  And who knows – maybe the plumber will show up!