On Monday morning, a jovial, well-rested Peruvian border agent brought his children to work with him, read them our names, showed them our passports, gave us our entry stamps and wished us a good journey. From that point, the day was a blur of towns and transport, too many people crammed into a series of white station wagons, the windows open, the roads dusty, the mountains, rivers, high desert plains and planted fields rushing by.
We went through hilly, twisted-street towns, past adobe huts painted with political slogans, along wide, business-lined boulevards crammed with cars, trucks and moto-rickshaws. In some rural stretches there were so many rickshaws, palm trees and rice fields that I wondered if this was in fact Peru and not Southeast Asia somewhere.
Then we found ourselves stranded in a hot, metal-roofed adobe shed in Bagua Grande, waiting for a colectivo that was promised but nowhere to be found. The young woman on duty in the shed put her feet up against the door frame and watched her telenovela. The five of us—the same five who had waited for the hostel to open in La Balsa—avoided saying out loud that we seemed to be in for a re-run.
But a driver did eventually come. By 9:00 that evening, after a long, slow ride up into the mountains, we arrived at last in Chachapoyas. In two long days, we’d covered 189 miles as the crow flies.
Our first morning here, still exhausted and disoriented, I saw a sign that said something like The Office of Provisional Normalization. “I should probably stop by,” I thought. “Some provisional normalization sounds like just what I need.”
Except for the gleaming white cathedral, the buildings that lined the plaza all looked identical to me at that point—two-story, white colonial buildings with wooden doors, red-tiled roofs and wooden balconies under the second story windows. The streets too seemed impossible to tell apart—there were no street signs, not even placards at the street corners. (Later we learned to look for the address plates over individual doors, which also give the name of the family that lives there.) Everything was dusty, and the sun was hot and so bright I kept reaching for my sunglasses before realizing I already had them on.
Everything we needed to do involved learning new words and navigating new systems, and that morning it all felt overwhelming. We worried that if we plugged in the computer, the 220-volt current would fry it. Finding a laundry service and dropping off our dirty clothes seemed an almost insurmountable task. Every word of Spanish abandoned me, and I felt like we were staggering around, confused, bumbling and blatantly out of place in our gringa-ness.
It didn’t help that when we met the director of the school the night before, he didn’t seem quite sure who we were. He appeared surprised to learn we hoped to arrange home stays, and he kept alluding to some difficulties the school had been experiencing. It would open, he told us, five days later than scheduled.
The delay has turned out to be a good thing, though. Now, five days after our arrival, we are well settled into big, thick-walled, wood-floored rooms that open onto a courtyard full of flowers and small trees. We look out over tile roofs to the mountains to the west and south, and at night the sky is full of stars and the courtyard full of fireflies. Our landlady, Andrea, has a warm smile, honest eyes and a lot of patience. When we were moving in, she indicated she’d like me to come downstairs and sign a piece of paper summarizing our agreement. I understood what she said, but could not get a reply together for the life of me. She just laughed and gave me a big hug, as if to say, “Oh, you poor thing! You’re in way over your head, aren’t you?”
We’re getting there though. Staying in one place and catching up on sleep has helped enormously. The streets have started to take on individual identities, and we’re quickly building our web of local landmarks—the school, the market, the vegetarian restaurant, the café with the decent internet connection, the shop with the really good lemon pie.
And our fellow teachers have taken us in hand. One of the first nights, Gregory, the academic director, sent word he wanted to meet us. He was a bit in his cups when we arrived, but kindly and welcoming. He explained the splatters of blood on his shirt with an involved story about a chicken that got caught in a closing door and subsequently needed comforting.
“Where is that chicken?” he asked Fidel, the director of the school and the owner of the pub we were in.
“In the toilet,” said Fidel. I had to hope he meant the bathroom, and in fact, a little later on, Rie discovered there was a live chicken perched on a red bucket in there. Before long, Fidel brought it out to the bar and they all gave it a cuddle.
Then he made us Pisco sours, and Gregory and Tom, another teacher, insisted we carry them to the roof of their lodgings a few doors down. It was a great place, with a view over the rooftops to the cathedral on the square. In the other direction, you could see the lights of the houses climbing up the hill to the west. Gregory pointed out the South African flag he flew from one corner of the roof, the internet router that hung from a telephone pole inside a plastic bucket to protect it from the rain, the few stalks of corn he has sprouted in a pile of clay apparently intended for repairing the house.
A few days later, they took us off on a strenuous but wonderful hike, delivering bits of teacher-to-teacher advice and local knowledge along the way. (“Only eat the cebiche in the market on Wednesdays—that’s when the fresh fish comes in.”) Next up is the trek to Huancas, which Gregory keeps recommending, though in his South African accent it comes out more like “Wankers.”
We met more of the teachers at a staff meeting last night, including the two kind souls who will teach us Spanish, and this morning we went by the school to pick up our books. The secretary’s desk and the bookcases that normally lined the walls were all pushed into the middle of the room and the computer screen had a cloth draped over it to protect it from the dust. A radio was playing and a painter was rolling blue paint on the walls. In the midst of all this, the secretary was registering two little girls for school, that is, until Fidel sent her out for glue to repair the teacher’s manuals he wanted to give Rie and me. The CD for my audio-based class is missing, but I’ve been assured it will be in hand by Monday.
A little later, in the copy shop/laundry service where I went to pick up our clothes, I found, next to piles of pantyhose and unidentifiable pieces of hardware, something I’ve been looking for for days: a notebook! With that and a pen in hand, I’m as ready as I can possibly be to start classes on Monday.
Every day has some kind of mistake in it—Rie asked our landlady’s granddaughter where her birthday was, and I apologetically told a woman we met that unfortunately she didn’t speak Spanish very well. And every day there’s some kind of technological breakdown, whether it’s the electric shower head sending out sparks or the power going out entirely. But bit by bit we are becoming provisionally normalized, even coming close to feeling at home.