Meu Deus do céu, o que é isso?
Five weeks have come and gone and today counts as my last here in Peru. My feet are sore from climbing to Machu Picchu, my skin is darker from tanning while cruising across Lake Titicaca, and my Spanish speaking has improved exponentially. While I have enjoyed my time in Peru, I remain eager to continue my adventure in Chile. However, Chile will bring its own unique challenges, just as Peru did. Chile is infamous for its difficult accent and the speed at which its inhabitants speak. On the bright side, I have been told that if I can master the Chilean accent, I can understand any Spanish accent. In my time traveling in Peru I have met a number of Chileans and for the most part have been able to understand them, which leaves me hopeful of my ability communicate successfully for the next five months.
While my Spanish has improved, I am continually surprised by the amount of English that is present in Arequipa. It is used as a marketing technique, billboards with English phrases plastered across them are common despite the fact that most Arequipeños do not speak English. Buzzwords such as love, smile, and live are everywhere on adolescent’s clothing. One day, one of my students asked me what the English phrase on her shirt meant as she had no clue. Beyond this, American music is hugely popular Peru and I expect, Latin America. Many of my volunteer friends who either don’t speak English or have very thick accents can sing popular verses to hit songs without so much as a hint of an accent because they have heard them so many times.
Between my fellow volunteers a host of languages are spoken, the most prominent being Portuguese. With nearly 30 Brazilians composing the vast majority of our program here in Arequipa, those of us that do not speak the language are quite outnumbered. For the sake of simplicity in communicating, the Brazilians speak Portuguese nearly constantly, which is somewhat frustrating for the 10-15 non-Brazilians in the program. On the bright side, however, it has provided the opportunity for me to learn a few phrases in Portuguese, one of which being the title of this post, which essentially translates to OMG, what is this? I quickly learned that when the Brazilians were engaged in Portuguese, I could say this loudly and they would all laugh and if I was lucky they would also switch to Spanish. This lasted until they got too caught up in their conversation and unconsciously switched back to Portuguese. Other than my annoyance at not being able to understand the majority of what is said when spending time with the other volunteers, it also bothers me from a different perspective. Since Portuguese is so close to Spanish, many of the Brazilians speak decent Spanish. Decent, but not perfect. My frustration lies in the fact that they are staying in a Spanish speaking country with the best opportunity that exists to improve their Spanish and instead they revert to their native language instead of practicing. Of course, we all often spend time together after teaching English or spending time with our host families when they are forced to speak Spanish so it is understandable that they just want a break and Portuguese is easiest. Further, I am hardly guilty of not speaking English with other native speakers, so my bitterness is more a result of my inability to follow the conversation than disappointment in their lack of dedication to learning Spanish.
Just as many of the advertisements cater to English as a business tactic, many parts of where I have traveled have been catered solely to tourists as a source of income. The indigenous groups we visited during our last week of vacation seemed to put up a facade of their native lifestyle instead of showcasing their real culture. This past weekend while going on two separate tours around Cusco on Saturday and Sunday to different locations, we stopped in a town to learn about the indigenous women and their textile production on both tours. During each stop at different spots, we received the exact same speech including the same joke at the end about a llama bone being from a tourist who did not buy anything after the presentation. During the second presentation the phone of one of the women presenting rang and she hurried off behind closed doors to answer it. This is not confined solely to our tours around Cusco, however. On the floating islands, there were no lights in the houses but cell phones were commonplace. While driving to Machu Picchu, big company advertisements were plastered to the walls of dilapidated buildings. The indigenous culture is exploited and put on for sale in the form of alpaca wool clothing, stitched wall hangings, and earrings in the shapes of llamas. Visiting these communities felt more like going to the zoo to see the animals in their cages than learning about and celebrating their culture as it has been passed on for generations. Maybe it was naive of me to think it would be less rehearsed and more genuine of their culture, but it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. Despite my frustration, I understand the rationale behind it. As a woman from a jewelry shop literally chased a family haggling prices as they left the shop, our tour guide whispered to us that a common phrase is “tourism or death.” The indigenous people need money in order to survive and continue their way of life, and selling their indigenous/commercialized goods to tourists like me is the best way to do it. The wall hanging, alpaca backpack, and other souvenirs and gifts that I have purchased in my time here reminds me that I hardly above the tourist industry despite my dislike for how it is run.
Tomorrow morning I head for Santiago and later this week for Valparaiso where I will settle down for the next five months. The last few days have been filled with teary goodbyes but as one of my good friends told me, “No es un adios. Es un hasta luego!”
That’s all for now, folks. Chile, here I come!