The Northern Coast

The Northern Coast
The Northern Coast--photo by Zack Thieman

Monday, March 18, 2013

Sh*t My Host Dad Says; Part Three

My host family has become a very important part of my Peace Corps service, and my host dad's wit and commentary both a blessing and a burden.

I've been posting funny quotes from my host dad on facebook and on here, but I haven't told you much about him. My host dad grew up here in my site with 12 brothers and sisters, a few of which have passed away over the years. He went to college and got a degree in physical education/sports. He mumbles like crazy and kind of sounds like Marlon Brando in the Godfather, and often my friends who visit have a hard time understanding him. He is a jack-of-all-trades and has so many different jobs and hobbies I can't keep track of them, from working in the school system, to building tombs in the cemetery, to bouncing at my host uncle's discoteca. He has 5 false teeth and occasionally he'll take them out and surprise me with a big grin. He is the definition of chismoso, a person that revels in gossip and other people's business, and when walking around town I occasionally run into him shooting the shit with neighbors. He has to put his two-cents in about everything. He's smart, a good father to his children, and a hard worker. He is an atypical Peruvian dad, as he takes a huge interest in his children's education, cleans the house, and has been known to make a meal for the family every now and then. We have a lot of interesting and fun conversations, and equally as many fights and disagreements, but it is always water under the bridge at the end of the day.

Many of you have told me how much you enjoy the posts about my host dad and feel that you like him and would love to meet him. It is nice to hear that our conversations can be translated into something that others can enjoy. Without further adieu, here is the third installation of some of the funnier shit my host dad says.

On appearances
Host dad: So, are you going to iron your sweater, or is it supposed to look all wrinkly and disheveled?


Host dad: ¡Que feo soy! [I am so ugly!]
Me: [stare blankly]
HD: All of my white hair, ugh, it’s so ugly. White hair is super ugly, huh?
Me: No, no, it’s not ugly.
HD: ¡Bien bandita eres! [You’re mischevious, lying, etc] You tell me, “No, no, you’re not ugly, it’s not ugly,” but you’re smiling the whole time you say it!

Proper eating
[Zack was over at my house and my host dad and host siblings were snacking on animal crackers, so they offered him some. He started eating them and my host dad interrupted him suddenly]
HD: Whoa, whoa, slow down! You’re doing it wrong! First you eat the head. Then you eat the feet. Then you eat the rest.
[Zack follows suit]
HD: See? Tastes better, doesn’t it?


Host dad: I want a tamal
Host mom: A tamal? At this hour?
HD: The stomach knows no hour.
H. Mom: You’re going to eat it cold?
HD: Hot or cold, the stomach doesn’t care. It’s all the same temperature when it reaches the stomach.
Me: There are other reasons to heat up your food, like texture, taste, and killing bacteria.
HD: All bacteria is killed the first time it’s cooked. The rest is psychological.
Me: And then more grows on it as it sits out. There are bacteria everywhere, and that’s why you have to heat your food up to a certain temperature to kill it.
[At that moment I took a sip of me tea, which was way too hot] “HOT!”
H. Mom: Did you burn yourself?
Me: Yeah, super hot.
H. Mom: That should kill all the bacteria!

An eye for an eye
HD: You know what I think they should do with criminals?
Me: What?
HD: Put them all on a boat, take them far out into the ocean, then put weights around their feet and throw them overboard.
Me: That's what the mob does.
HD: Well it's what the police should do. 
Me: That's a little extreme, don't you think?
HD: No. We should also cut the hands off of thieves.
Me: Uhmmm...

After weeks of various different symptoms that never really added up to a cold, the flu, or anything that antibiotics could be prescribed for, the doctors suggested I give a stool sample to see if I have a parasite.

The last time I had a parasite (giardia) my host family all but didn’t believe it was possible. “Giardia doesn’t exist here,” my host mom said as she looked at me confused when I told her the diagnosis, which of course isn’t true.

So when I went in to give another stool sample I just told them I had a doctor’s appointment, because they tend to freak out when I’m sick. In fact, until I can demonstrate that I am completely healthy it is nonstop suggestions and ideas on what’s wrong with me and how I can fix it. After coming back from my regional capital, the questioning ensued.

Host Mom: And? How’d it go?
Me: Fine, I have to wait for the results.
Host Dad: How are you feeling? What’s wrong?
Me: I’m feeling fine right now.
HD: And your stomach? How is your stomach?
Me: Fine, it doesn’t hurt all the time, just sometimes
HD: Are you on your period?
Me: …No.
HD: You’re not? Because sometimes when women have stomach issues it’s because of her period.
Me: Well, it’s been going on for a long time, it’s not my period.
HD: I know what it is, you’re stressed. You’ve been very stressed lately and this is causing all your problems.

-A couple hours later-

HD: I know what’s wrong with you, you drink way too much coffee.
H.Mom: No, it’s not the coffee, the coffee just keeps you from sleeping, and she hasn’t been drinking coffee at night.
HD: I know what your problem is, you eat too much aji [hot sauce]. Too much aji can upset your stomach!
Me: I hardly ever eat aji.
HD: Yes you do!
Me: No, I swear, I barely ever eat it.
HD: Then whose aji is that in the fridge?
H.Mom: That’s mine.
HD: What in the world are you doing eating so much aji? Why do you need aji? Aji is only going to make you sick!

-One week later-

HD: What’s wrong with you? You seem down.
Me: I’m just not feeling very good.
HD: Still? What did the doctor say?
Me: That everything came back normal.
HD: You see? I told you, you’re fine, it’s just stress. Stress can cause stomach problems, headaches, fatigue and all of that.
Me: You’re probably right.
HD: I am right. And why are you stressed anyways? You don’t have kids, you eat 3 meals a day, your life is easy. Quit stressing out!

My host dad headed out for one of his many random jobs; night security at a well.

Carnaval! Throwing baby powder at each other at a party.

Host dad and I, covered in baby powder from carnaval craziness

On the important things in life
HD: You should buy a house here. Actually better yet, buy land then build your own house, that way you can have it how you like it.
Me: Okay, sounds good.
HD: But just get the basics; don’t go buying a bunch of fancy stuff, just what you need to live. The most important thing is food and to eat, am I right? Don’t go buying expensive furniture, expensive things. Some people buy couches and they get upset if it gets dirty and say, “Hey don’t put your feet on the couch!” But what happens if I have a couch I barely use? I keep it nice and clean and then I die, my wife remarries, and then some other guy is sitting on my couch. Better I enjoy it now and put my feet up. Because you can’t take it with you when you die, am I right? They give you a nice white shirt and then put a blanket over your legs because no one looks below the waist at someone in their coffin. Nope, you can’t take it with you.


HD: All of our children are weak and don’t know what it is to suffer, am I right? Before women used to have 10, 12 kids.
Me: Yeah…that’s a lot of kids.
HD: Now, women only have one and they don’t even want to push out their baby! They don’t even want to deal with pregnancy! Look at you, how old are you? You don’t have any kids, and why? Because you’re scared.
Me: Umm….it actually has to do with the fact that I’m not ready to support a child, nor am I in a position to take care of a child.
HD: How old are you, 24?
Me: 26
HD: Well you’re not getting any younger. When you finally get married and have kids, you take care of yourself, you and your husband. Neither of you should drink for at least 5 months. You don’t want your baby being born a drunk. You want your baby to be strong.
Me: Yeah, when the time comes.
HD: Well, don’t wait too long, cause you’re what? 23?
Me: I’m 26
HD: And your boyfriend?
Me: 26, the same.
HD: Well…just don’t wait too long.

Host dad: Kayla [my host mom's nickname] was so shy and quiet when she was young.
Me: Yeah?
HD: Yeah, she would blush and hide her face whenever I walked by her.
Me: How did you two meet?
HD: Here in town.
Me: You just both grew up here and knew each other?
HD: Yeah.
Me: So how did you start dating?
HD: She called me up one day and invited me over to her house for candy.
Host mom: [from the other room] LIAR!!

HD: Ugh, cebada is gross, am I right? It only tastes good cold, am I right?
[Cebada is a drink made out of barley. I can’t drink it since I’m gluten free]
Me: What about emoliente, the hot drink with cebada in it? What do you think of that? [Emoliente is often used to cure and prevent ailments]
HD: No. I’m old. My body is old, my organs are old, my heart is old, there is no reason for me to drink that. You? You’re young. You need to maintain your health. Me, I’m done. There’s no saving or maintaining any of this.

[my host dad is 54]

What I suspected all along…
HD: I like to talk and have conversations, but I also like to say the contrary of the other person. If everyone agrees in a conversation, it’s boring and short. You, you don’t always agree with me, and I like that, and our conversations are better and longer because of it.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Mi más sentido pésame

Cemeterio de San Francisco
My good friend Becky recently came to visit (Becky will talk more about the trip in her upcoming guest blog!), and we went on a lot of walks in my town, and I took her on Piter and my usual route out to the cemetery. Becky and I share a love for cemeteries, so it was fun to walk around and also share with her a part of my everyday. I showed her my host grandpa’s tomb and told her about the parties we often have around his tomb on the anniversary of his death, his birthday, and día de los muertos, and how the whole family will come together and take a day off of work to celebrate him and be together. It has been five years since my host grandpa’s passing, and in my almost-two years of service I have been to a handful of these celebrations and always enjoyed them. I never knew my host grandpa, but they are comforting and my host family speaks of him so fondly. When I told Becky about this we talked about how this is so different from things back home, but it seems in many ways better. It seems like a better way to grieve.

When I got back from my vacation with Becky (we went to a couple places out of my site), I arrived early on Sunday morning. I readied myself for a quiet day of unpacking, napping, and getting ready for the week when my host mom came into my room. She asked me to go with her to the house of her sister’s father-in-law because he had died. Whenever my host mom asks me to do something, I do it. I asked her what clothes would be appropriate, and despite feeling wracked from a 12-hour overnight bus and the temperature reaching somewhere in the 90º’s, I pulled out my black slacks and a nice button-up shirt. I hadn’t been to a wake or funeral in my town before but I had seen the processions walking by my house and walked by the groups of people sitting in chairs outside of the deceased’s home for days. I knew at the very least that this would be a long day.

I walked with my host mom and my host grandma a mere block away from my house to reach the wake. Within the short time it took us to arrive I already felt sweat on my brow and upper lip and my legs felt suffocated with the first time I’d worn pants in months. Outside of the home there were at least 50 people sitting in plastic lawn-chairs under a small temporary awning structure built to offer some cover from the sun. We quietly greeted everyone, some I knew, most I didn’t. As we went to enter the home my host mom held me back to tell me how to give my sympathies in Spanish. “Mi más sentido pésame,” she instructed me, a phrase that can loosely be translated as “feeling the weight” or the pain of those suffering the loss of their loved one, or being their to take the weight and pain. When I entered the house I saw why so many people were sitting outside, as the entire house was filled with mourners, and I was directed to a smaller room next to the main living area.

The room was filled with large and beautiful bouquets of flowers and the closest family members sat along the edges. My host grandma walked in before me so I just followed her lead and waited my turn to give sympathies to the widow and others. In the middle of the room was the casket, open, with a piece of glass laid over the top. I assume the glass has something to do with the embalming practices, as well as the customary two-days the family spends with the deceased in the home. In regular embalming practices the fluids are drained from the body and replaced with chemicals, and it is made sure that the eyes and mouth are shut. However, that is not always how it is done here. In this case, the deceased appeared to be at least partially embalmed, however his mouth was open and filled with cotton, as was his nose, and it appeared as though his eyes were sewn shut.

When it was my turn to give my sympathies, I hugged those sitting closest to the casket and said the words my host mom had told me to. They received my hugs and thanked me sincerely, and I made my exit as many more people had come in behind me. As I was leaving a woman stood over the casket and laid her head down on the glass and sobbed.  

Outside the crowd had grown larger. I was offered a seat right next to the door to the house and I settled in for what I knew would be two-hours of waiting until we moved on to the church. More and more people came and entered the house, returning outside to find a place to wait. Sweat ran down my back and soaked my shirt and I fought off falling asleep as the heat baked all of us in our nice clothes. There were murmurs of quiet conversation, weeping and whaling, and the people kept coming.

In my time in Peru I have been in so many situations that made me uncomfortable or that I felt awkward and unsure of myself. I have found myself in situations in which I had felt like an intruder on a private moment. I have wondered out loud, “what am I doing here?” And somehow at the wake of a person I hardly knew, hours in and not even halfway through its completion, I realized this wasn’t one of those moments. I realized that I no longer have those moments. While this person was a neighbor that I had passed on countless runs, I did not know him well, but I did not feel like I did not belong. It did not bother me to see him in his casket. The community had come together to bear the weight of the loss of a loved one, and I am now a part of that community.

When it came time to move on to the church, to carry the casket and the man out of his home for the last time, there were hundreds of people present. Being a small town the church is only a few blocks from anywhere, so the group walked slowly on to the church following a marching band.

The funeral continued with a mass at the Catholic Church (which was filled to the brim) for another two hours, and then followed by a procession to the cemetery. I handed kleenex to my host mom and host aunt as we exited the church and watched as people clung to the casket, kissing their hands and touching it, and cried as it was carried out. My host mom and host grandmother decided it would be okay to leave at this point although the ceremony would continue on for at least another two hours. 

We parted ways with the group heading to the cemetery and my host mom continued to cry and tell me how the funeral had reminded her of her father's. We stopped at a bodega on the way home and she bought us popsicles and we ate them in silence as we walked home.

It may seem strange to say, but in many ways the wake meant a lot to me. I’m glad my host mom invited me. It immediately put me side-by-side with people in my community and grounded me after returning from vacation, which can be difficult. It gave me an opportunity to participate in a part of life that I often stay away from. It allowed me to realize how much I’ve grown personally, and within my community as an honorary member. It showed me how much my host mom appreciates my presence, even in times of sadness.  In my first months of service I would not have been able to handle a wake or funeral, but I also wouldn’t have been invited.

There are many things about the small Peruvian community I live in that I have come to really appreciate. Yes, it is humble and still developing, but their interconnectedness as a community and willingness to bare the weight of others, to share the load, is one I admire and hope to emulate. Maybe Peruvians are less disconnected and separated from death because they don't have the privilege and opportunity to do so, but their customs are something I would never change. I am humbled and honored to become apart of it.