30 Oct

I’ve been back in the U.S. for a few months now, time enough to re-acclimatize to the pleasures of being home yet not so long that nostalgia hasn’t already set in for many parts of my time abroad.  I recall realizing upon arrival that the jungle was a terrible place to be bug-phobic — those first nights I stared at things crawling on the walls and started every time something buzzed by me.  Yet only a month or so later, a huge spider dropped onto my head as I sleepily brushed my teeth one morning, and I simply brushed it away and carried on — realizing then that I had “made it”.  Similarly, I remember not being able to sleep in the stifling, humid nights without a fan on blast, and being unable to go jogging without being chased by street dogs — but I overcame those problems too.  By the time I left, Tarapoto was a real home to me, and I knew I would miss it and the people there.

I miss the personal way in which everyone greets and says bye to each other (though at times in large groups it seemed cumbersome) with guys handshaking and backslapping each other and girls getting a cheek kiss.  I appreciated people’s comfort within their own skin and how that manifest itself in direct descriptions of one another — friends and co-workers would refer to each other as flaquita (skinny), gordo (fat), moreno (used often for me: dark-skinned), or chinita (narrow eyes), with no insult intended or taken.  I liked having convenient cheap lunch at roadside parillas (grills) or at any number of local menús where I could choose from a cheap (~S/. 5, or under $2) prix fixe selection that included a fruit punch, a soup/salad, and a main course (like aji de gallina, chuleta de cerdo, estofado de res, or pollo milanesa), always accompanied by heaps of the big, puffy white rice seasoned with garlic, onions, and olive oil that I could eat plain.

Jean splashing into the pool at recreo Isla Bonita as Vero looks on

I loved cooling off on a hot weekend afternoon at one of the local recreos, recreation parks featuring food and drink, a palm tree-lined swimming pool, and other amenities such as a soccer field or volleyball nets.   I grew fond of the customary way of drinking beer at a nightclub or most bars, which at first seemed strange and later wonderfully communal: a group of friends shares a large bottle and one cup, with one person filling and drinking the cup before passing it on to the person next to them.  This process continues in a strict order until the bottle is finished, at which point on to the next bottle!  I wish I could still hack into a coconut at any time to drink its cool fresh water, or have access to a staggering variety of fresh fruits and their juices — pineapple, mango, passion fruit, papaya, orange, and watermelon among my traditional favorites, but more exotic jungle offerings abounded, like cocona, taperiba, camu-camuchirimoya, and aguaje — the latter the folkloric secret to the local womens’ curves!

I definitely miss racing around on my motorcycle, which I wound up giving to Jamie, our office’s night watchman, to use or sell for commission.  Jamie, a simple and quiet man who has scarcely traveled even outside of Tarapoto, was a good friend to me and I was happy to be able to help him out after he had sold his own bike to pay for bricks for his house.  Early on, I’d once laughed when he asked me if I was related to President Obama (people often made the joke about us looking similar), but when I realized he was serious, I asked him why he thought we were related.  Well, he pointed out, Americans are white people like Dan (my fellow consultant), whereas Obama and I were dark-skinned, like Jamie himself.  Moreover, both Obama and I live in Washington D.C., so what were the odds…?  I can’t argue with that!

I also came away with a newfound appreciation for agriculture.  It’s difficult without having lived in a rural area to appreciate just how much effort is involved to get food for your table — how much hard manual labor it takes; how little money farmers make (and how while they sell kilos of, say, avocados or pineapples, for pennies, those fruits individually cost $1 or more); how poor farmers at the mercy of nature (droughts or torrential rains or plagues can all be ruinous); how nice it is to have really fresh produce; and how unlike in American grocery shelves fruits and vegetables aren’t all a uniform, giant size with perfect shape and no deformities.  I think a lot more now about my food and where it comes from.

On the flip side, I don’t miss not having hot water, don’t miss mosquito bites nor ants getting into everything, and don’t miss the occasional G.I. distress I experienced.  I don’t miss the torrential downpours of the rainy season that turned the dirt streets of my neighborhood into rivers of flowing mud, and the weekend that flooding in my house knocked out the power.  I’m glad to be back in a country where yogurt is a solid, not a liquid, and where milk is a refrigerated product with a short shelf-life — to this day, I have no idea what quantity of preservatives go into the milk cartons that sit unrefrigerated in 90-degree jungle heat for weeks or months on end.

And I don’t miss the daily struggle to maintain a stockpile of loose change — in tiny Tarapoto small coins are a necessity, for paying mototaxis or at many stores and restaurants, where they look askance at anything bigger than a twenty-soles note, sometimes ten.  I became quite used to going to the big supermarket in town, La Inmaculada, and paying for a cheap stick of gum or other tiny purchase with the S/. 100 bills I received my work stipend in, just because they were one of the very few places in town that would accept a large bill!

Finally, there was the funny, awkward, and bizarre episodes which made me think “only here!”:

  • The two chickens living on my roof, property of another tenant in my house
  • Discovering that braces are a status symbol which well-off locals in their 20s and 30s were proud of getting
  • Coping with Tarapotans’ ridiculous fear that having a fan blow directly on you caused severe illness or death — all the times I had a well-meaning co-worker or client scold me and move my fan, while I was sweating in the jungle heat…
  • Being startled on a number of occasions walking back to my house at night by the prostitutes who worked in an open lot in my neighborhood and solicited business by hissing at anyone who walked by
  • Feeling briefly alarmed when a striking group of workers marched through town, forcing shops to close “in sympathy”, and spray-painting their slogan everywhere
  • The curious names many people in the region have — never mind the multiple Darwins and Wagners in our office, I used to play basketball with a guy named Stalin, once saw a mother scold her son Mohammed (no, they weren’t Muslim, and had no idea of the etymology of the name), and the kicker: Dan let me know recently that he found Tarapoto’s Hitler!
  • Conversations with the few tourists who came to the area, virtually all there to try the hallucinogenic drug ayahuasca in groups with a local curandero (shaman).  It’s a spiritual experience for many, including some friends of mine who swear to its safety and legitimacy, but I also heard first-hand horror stories, such as the French tourist who told me of a man in his group who while tripping thought he was a jaguar and tried to bite someone’s face off.  Not long before I left, the death of an elderly American woman dominated the news
  • Never hearing the word adios — despite that being a staple of elementary Spanish vocabulary, I’m pretty sure I never once was told goodbye in that fashion.  The European influence is strong here (perhaps via Argentina or Chile?) — everyone says ciao, or as it’s spelled commonly-spelled here, chau

Tarapoto continues to change, of course.  The much-anticipated and much-delayed first movie theater had to open one week after I left of course.  I’m amazed that they show 3D flicks and the latest Hollywood blockbusters, and can only imagine how many hours I would have whiled away there during the rainy season or to beat the heat.  A shopping mall has come up around the theater, a national pizza chain has opened an outpost, condominiums are being built — I am sure I will find Tarapoto hard to recognize whenever it is the next time I’m back.

*   *   *

For those interested, more information on my work with Technoserve in the area can be found in an article published on their website (which I wrote largely based on posts on this blog):

* * *

Regarding the free software sales/expenses/inventory tool I created for my entrepreneurs’ use, I have dubbed it Empresalta, a play on the Spanish words empresa (“business”) and salta (“leap”) or alta (“high”).  I want anyone to be able to use and customize this Excel tool, whether they are in Peru, another Spanish-speaking country, or even are a Spanish-language business here in the U.S.

A beta version of Empresalta can be downloaded by clicking on the screenshot below.  Please make sure you have macros enabled; also, the tool will only run on PCs.  I continue to work on this in my spare time and remain open to your feedback.

Empresalta by Jay Nargundkar

Empresalta is an Excel-based software tool I created that uses Visual Basic to allow Spanish-language small businesses to track sales, costs, and inventory


5 Responses to “Epílogo”

  1. Andrew T October 30, 2012 at 5:26 pm #

    Way to release Empresalta! Nice work.

    Cool wrap-up, especially the note about the body comfort thing – that’s an interesting little miscellaneous observation that never fit into your previous posts 🙂

  2. TheSITuation October 30, 2012 at 9:34 pm #

    Amen on how under-appreciated farmers are. One of my HS friends who’s a farmer by profession now opened my eyes to all the logistics into getting food onto the table!

  3. véro October 31, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

    Great post Jay! I also miss my time spent in Tarapoto. Great memories! One of my own fond memories is eating ice cream at Anonas and hiking to the water fall!!

  4. neharustagi November 3, 2012 at 1:19 am #

    sounds like an awesome adventure! congrats on makin it by becoming a cardholding Tarapoto-an by the end. hah while this doesn’t compare to tarapoto, i similarly have a hard time adjusting to the third world esque features of being in india- bugs, lizards, and (worst of all) lack of climate control. unfortunately, i never adjust by the ends of my trips hah. mad props that you were able to- adaptability is def a super valuable trait to have. i also like the communal nature of third world societies in general. think that’s hard to come by in american suburbia, but you find that in lots of other countries (ex. india) and even rural or super urban societies here. and i like the lack of political correctness you’re referring to. in india you can also call people fat or dark or w/e and, usually, it’s not a big deal. i’ve seen mixed reactions to that- some people who grew up in india much prefer American political correctness, while others prefer the bluntness. i personally think that, to an extent, being able to say such things makes being fat/dark/whatever less of a big deal.

    also agree on the extent to which food production is foreign to most of us. few of us have an understanding/appreciation for the tremendous resourcs that go into making food, and the manner in which advancements in the farming industry that make food cheaper impact its employees…not only in the way of wages or job security, but also in the way of job satisfaction. many such advancements/practices that can be necessary to make a dcent living in the farming business, at least in america, remove the enjoyable/satisfying aspects of farming life; the quintessential old mcdonal farm doesn’t really exist anymore hah.

    anyway, congrats on successful travels!

  5. Jay November 6, 2012 at 2:31 am #

    Editor’s note: The list of “funny, awkward, and bizarre episodes” was added to the post on Nov 6

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: