Welcome to ‘La Selva’

1 Oct

“El Proximo Gringo” Arrives

I’m here.

It was a whirlwind 36 hours or so flying from D.C. to Atlanta; Atlanta to Lima; getting in long after midnight and grabbing a few hours of sleep at a hotel in Miraflores; and spending the day with TNS staff in Lima getting a project overview in the office, in between stuffing my face eating tacu-tacu and lomo saltado and drinking chicha morada.  (Seriously, I think any worries about weight loss while living abroad can be cast aside — the cheap, huge portions here and the reliance on a heavy amount of rice, potatoes, and other carbohydrates will see to that.)

But near 10pm last night, walking out of the tiny Tarapoto airport to see a mariachi band start playing (apparently not in my honor, but for the birthday of another arriving passenger), I was finally at my hot-and-humid home for the next nine months.

Some weeks ago I had been dubbed “El Proximo Gringo” (“The Next Gringo”) by the previous volunteer here (a white American), as he was explaining my imminent arrival to one of our local TNS clients.  Of course, as Peru happens to be a country full of shorter, brown-skinned people (like me), I’m not exactly the typical gringo to them.  This afternoon I made an ambling 20-30 min. from my hotel near the edge of town to the center, and popped into a small, crowded corner eatery for lunch — never receiving even a single sideways glance.  As the other American told me last night, “People here don’t look at you and automatically think ‘gringo‘.”

Well, at least not until I open my mouth — though I am trying to remedy that by quickly adopting the ubiquitous Peruvian greeting of “Que tal?” (which I’ve always understood to be like “What’s up?”, but is apparently answered here as if “How are you?” were asked) and sprinkling my sentences liberally with the adjective bastante (used here to denote “plenty” or “a lot” of something).

Office Smooching Etiquette

The other way of exposing myself is if I mess up the basics of greetings and saying goodbye.  This I should have been prepared for having seen my Latina friends from back home, but I was still caught off guard yesterday in the Lima TNS office when the staff member I had just met leaned in for a kiss.  Do I let her kiss my cheek?  Do I kiss hers?  Do I go for the full-blown “Yasser Arafat” huge kisses on both cheeks?

After a number of these fraught incidents yesterday, I’m happy to report that through trial-and-significant-errors I’ve finally gotten it down pat.  Maybe I should have Googled “How to Greet Latin Women With a Kiss on the Cheek” earlier:

As a man you’re expected to initiate the cheek to cheek kiss by leaning in and puller her hand in gently at the same time. You don’t actually put your lips on her cheek, especially if it’s your first time meeting her. What you do is press your cheek gently against hers, and make a kissing sound.

Cool, got it.

Very Small World

After landing last night and meeting up with the local TNS manager here, we headed to a hotel to drop off my stuff, and right after, I found myself whisked on a motorcycle (helmet?  What’s that?)  to grab a “chifa” (Peruvian-Chinese) dinner, and from there to a packed, boisterous open-air corner bar pulsating with loud music.

It was near midnight and just moments before I had been fighting drooping eyes when we came to Stonewasi.  I get the feeling this bar (one of “4 or 5” in the town, I’m told) will become my home away from my-home-away-from-home.  A small room with a giant speaker system, a tiny and sweat-drenched dancefloor, and little tables spilling out to the sidewalk, is the epicenter of social life here.  I met a number of the local staff, as well as the four other current volunteers here — noting with great delight that, contrary to what I had been told that I may be the only volunteer for the length of my duration here, there will be two others (one almost as new as me, one re-signed).  For the next few hours, we drank pisco sours and Peruvian beers like Cusqueña and Pilsen, and danced to music which ranged from Top 40 U.S. hits (of about 18 months ago), to Latin cumbia and salsa, to old-school classics.

And even on this little street corner in a tiny town in rural Peru, I got a reminder of what a small world this is.  No, not by the soon-to-be-departing volunteer (a Venezuelan girl who now lives in Australia) who is a fellow ex-Deloitte U.S. consultant.  Far more surprising, actually, is the other new volunteer who just got here this week: a Swiss girl who it turns out previously lived in the very same apartment building in D.C. I just moved out of!

***

I am certain I will face challenges ahead, especially over the next month or so as I work hard to get up to speed with the work here and improving my language skills to be able to communicate fluidly in a business setting.  But for my first night, everything was perfect — meeting a group of really cool and friendly people, and having a great time.

Near 3am, zipping through the empty, hilly streets of Tarapoto on the back of a motorcycle, my shirt unbottoned to mid-chest after dancing my ass off in a no-A.C. club, the wind whipping in my face — pure exhilaration.

Welcome to la selva (“the jungle”).

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2 Responses to “Welcome to ‘La Selva’”

  1. nj October 1, 2011 at 7:36 pm #

    nice work. would have liked to have seen the awkward greeting trial-and-error. That being said, I am glad I was not in your position; had I been, I would not have written about it :P.

  2. Moose October 2, 2011 at 5:53 pm #

    I am disappointed in the grammatical quality of this blog post. Ending a sentence with a preposition is abhorrent: “a Swiss girl who it turns out previously lived in the very same apartment building in D.C. I just moved out of!”

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