Spades, Medicine, and Homophones

After a month of Spanish language school, I have realized a few things:

  1. I cannot explain the game of Spades in Spanish.
  2. I also cannot explain the U.S. medical system in Spanish.
  3. The English language is ridiculous.

In the middle of trying my best to explain the U.S. medical system to Betty in Spanish (which is something I can’t do in English) I became frustrated with trying to learn Spanish. And then we had a conversation in English that made me realize how much harder it would be to learn English in all of its craziness.

My teacher for the past month has been Betty, a woman born and raised in Arequipa; growing up she wanted to be a veterinarian, but when there was not a university in Arequipa for this, she had to change her plans and so she decided to become a teacher. She teaches Spanish for a living and is fluent in Spanish, English, and Portuguese. But, as any normal person whose first language isn’t English, she would sometimes ask me to explain to her how to say things in English.

So the conversation started like this:

In Spanish you say: “Me duele el estomago” which literally means “My stomach pains me”.

In Spanish you also say: “Me duele la garganta” meaning “My throat pains me”.

However, in English it is a stomach ache and a sore throat.

But we never say a sore stomach or a throat ache.

But you can also have a sore on your leg, and be a sore loser, and birds can soar through the sky.

Different spellings, different meanings, but sound the same.

And it was in the midst of explaining this to Betty, that my already elevated respect for people who speak English as a second language grew even more, and I became thankful that the Spanish language is not as crazy as English. Because we all know…I need all the help I can get.

Avelino: The Vendors’ Market

I started walking from the Smiths’ house at 3:15 this morning to meet Greg and head up to Etelvina’s home. Etelvina owns a tienda in a neighborhood a ways up the volcano. To serve her customers fresh meat and produce every day she leaves her home at 4am to shop at Arequipa’s biggest (and cheapest) open-air market: Avelino.

Our eagerness to accompany Etelvina at 4 in the morning both pleased and perplexed her. There’s no reason to go shopping this early unless you’re a small business owner, and your business depends on buying low and selling high. Avelino is a vendors’ market; it supplies both bodega owners and the smaller, neighborhood open-air markets throughout the city. It costs Etelvina to get to Avelino every morning (about 1 USD, round-trip). In turn, she buys in bulk at a lower price. Her customers pay a premium (really just a slight mark-up), trading the lower prices for convenience. Etelvina’s dedication guarantees high quality.

It is this part of the economy—in a city of 1,000,000 people with hundreds (thousands?) of bodegas—that fascinates me.

We piled into a colectivo for the ride down. All of the public transportation that runs this early is meant specifically for shop-owners and merchants; otherwise the streets are empty. This makes for an easy, traffic-free ride through the city’s central district.

Twenty minutes later we arrived at Avelino, hopped out of the cab, and got to work. The last trucks had just finished unloading their cargo and the vendors were just setting up shop. Etelvina interacts with the same shop-owners every morning. They refer to each other as “Casero” and “Caserita,” designations that solidify her status as a “regular.”

On the grocery list this morning:

  • a bagful of plucked chickens
  • several cuts of beef (cut with a hack saw; prepped with a vertical saw)
  • an assortment of fruits and vegetables
  • eggs (20 dozen or so)
  • rice (110 lbs)
  • soda, and
  • grocery bags

Etelvina navigated the market like a champ. Listening to her interactions was fascinating. Even more impressive is how she accomplishes this shopping trip solo every morning.

Her system: from stand to stand, she fills up big reusable grocery bags. Each time that she gets to her max carrying capacity, she drops it off by a lady she knows who lets her temporarily store her purchases by her stand. After repeating this six or seven times, she hires a carretero (a man with a moving dolly) to go with her to get the monster bag of rice. The carretero follows her back to where she stored the rest of her purchases, loads them up, ropes them up (the rope is conveniently built in to the dolly), and they head out to the street. Etelvina quickly finds a fellow shop-owner from her same neighborhood (with whom she can share a colectivo) and they’re off.

We were back at Etelvina’s home with groceries unloaded by 5:40. It was just starting to get light outside. The whole operation was smooth and impressive, the result a long history of savvy negotiating and networking.

What was for us a morning of “participant observation” for the fun of it was for Etelvina a daily business trip that sustains her livelihood—all before sunrise.

PS - A tienda, or bodega (boh-DEH-gah), is a small grocery/convenience store. They’re located on every street corner throughout the city, offering neighborhoods an alternative to small, local open-air markets which are usually only open before lunch. The super-market (think Wal-mart, Target, Kroger, etc.), though it exists, is still new. This sector is dominated by Chilean retail chains, such as Metro, Tottus, and Saga Falabella (a department store).

The Colectivo Experience

There are several ways to get around the city here in Arequipa and we have been trying as many as we can. So here I will attempt to introduce them to you in order of convenience.

Type 1: the missionary’s car. Always a good choice if available. Very comfortable, roomy, safe driving, free and everyone speaks English.

Type 2: the taxi. Although more expensive, usually costing around 4-6 soles (~$2) to get just about anywhere we need to go, it is a comfortable way to travel around the city.

Type 3: the combi. These are small buses that are made to sit 15, but in Peru can carry up to 30. So what this means is that if you are not one of the first 15 on the bus, then you stand hunched over, holding on with the other 14 people that weren’t lucky enough to catch the combi at an earlier stop. However, they are cheap, costing 80 centimos (32 US cents).

Type 4: And then there’s the colectivo. The colectivo is a cultural experience in and of itself, which brings me to my experience yesterday when Megan decided I needed to have the colectivo experience. Let me set the stage. You pay 1 sol per person. The colectivo is a taxi that has a certain route and picks up people until the car is “full”. “Full” in my North American need of personal space would be 5 people in this car made to carry…oh 5 people.

So here’s the story: This morning, Megan, her two girls, and I head out to catch a colectivo. After a few minutes a colectivo pulls up already carrying 2 women, 1 prepubescent boy, one baby, and the driver, but they had room for the four of us! And so we all squeeze into the back seat with the two Peruvian women, kids on our laps, somehow get the door shut, and all 9 of us are off!

When our stop came, the opening of the door and exiting the vehicle were simultaneous, all while holding a 3 year-old with one arm and saying gracias.

A Week of Firsts

The first week in a new city is exciting. There’s something about the initial disorientation that’s exhilarating. Until you look at a map of the city, your sense of direction (assuming you have one) is a little off. Distances seem further than they really are through traffic-heavy streets, then you walk and realize everything’s closer together.

We flew into Arequipa at sunset and saw the city from above, surrounded by pink and orange desert. The 19,101 ft Misti towers over the city and functions as a massive landmark. Navigating the city depends on the steady incline leading up to the volcano: from the McKinzie’s house, you have to “bajar” (go down) to the town center. To head back, you have to “subir” (go up). In other words, giving and receiving directions depends on your current altitude and that of your destination.

Each new city has a lot to offer. Some experiences you seek out from previous travel; other experiences are unique.

Here are a few of our “firsts” after a week in Arequipa:

  • First crab empanada
  • First neighborhood jog
  • First shopping trip through the open air fruit and vegetable market
  • First taxi ride
  • First combi ride (the real public transportation, vans/buses that take you all over the city)
  • First walk through the city center
  • First coffee at the local café (where you’re soon to become a regular)
  • First grocery store

Since we’re spending two months here, our goal is to begin the transition from “visitor” to “local.” A week in, we’re still learning the right questions to ask in order to make that transition.

That’s exciting.