Saturday, August 17, 2013

The strange day in Peru, part II

Owen, dancing on Taquile Island
This second chapter has been hard to write as it touches on race, class, religion, and politics, and culminates in a perplexing emotional detonation. But a promise is a promise. 

Ann and Beth (pseudonyms) were the only other Americans on our very touristy boat tour of Lake Titicaca, the vast body of water straddling Peru’s border with Bolivia. We met on the Uros island described in the last post and cemented our friendship back on the tour boat as it motored on to Taquile, the other island on the itinerary. Owen and I gave them hand sanitizer. They gave us hard candies. 

I could tell immediately that Ann was a woman of great emotional intensity, a compulsive oversharer, what you might call a “live wire," probably a little nuts. I liked her a lot.

Ann’s 15-year-old daughter, Beth, was as serene as her mother was excitable. That probably wasn’t a coincidence.  An avid reader, she was carrying around a copy of Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed and we chatted about that and other novels we’d both read. She was one of those rare teenagers who talks to adults like they’re human beings and I liked her as much as I liked her mother. 

Owen’s role: genial bystander. 

Taquile Island, home of the Aymara people, is how I imagine Corsica. It rears up out of the blue-green lake, dry, rocky, and scrubby. Sheep grazed on hills that were gridded with orderly stone walls and dotted with huts. The people wore bright, traditional clothes and they looked prosperous and clean, the children appeared well cared for. (Unlike the Uros people, the Aymara seem to live very long lives.) We hiked 20 minutes up a steep stone path to the town square and I learned a great deal very quickly about Ann: long ago fertility troubles, Beth’s devastating decision last year to spend more time with Ann’s ex-husband, etc. The torrent of confidences was peppered with vehement political comments that did not always resonate with me. Restrictive zoning laws were a particular source of fury for Ann, as was public school funding, and “liberals who get angry when you idle your car.” I mostly just smiled vaguely in response.  We were on a gorgeous island in Peru and I had no interest in arguing.  

At some point, the tour guide ushered us to an Aymara home for an “authentic” Aymara meal. It felt about as authentic as a llama keychain, but was a lovely and happy experience nonetheless.  There was some music and dancing and for the meal we sat at long picnic tables on a patio with a lake view. We were served first a ceramic bowl of thin quinoa soup and then grilled trout. “The Aymara don’t have a source of salt and sugar, so they use very little in their cooking,” explained the tour guide. This was self evident. It is surprising how delicious bland food can be.

Owen and I sat next to Ann and Beth, of course. I wish the conversation had been recorded so I could play it back and analyze exactly how the little drama unfolded. I was only paying half attention and when I tried to piece it together after the fact there were whole chunks missing. What follows is not verbatim, but gives the gist. 
At a certain point in the meal, Ann started describing the resistance among (white) people in her state, including herself and Beth, to learning Spanish. It had something to do with the fact that almost all the Spanish speakers they met were Mexican maids and gardeners.  Somehow it just didn’t make you want to learn the language, said Ann, when all the people who spoke it worked in service. 

Whoa! I thought. Candid! I suspect the “maids and gardeners” bias explains the incredible popularity of French in our own school district, but no one has ever come out and said as much. Ann seemed to be grappling earnestly for a way to explain the anti-Spanish bias and I decided to help. 

“Because it seems lower class?” I said. I actually thought I was bringing clarity to the topic. In this context, wasn't “lower class” a useful synonym for “maids and gardeners?” Hadn't Ann essentially said it herself?

For the record, I think this anti-Spanish bias is silly and short-sighted. Plus, my maternal grandmother is a native Spanish speaker from Latin America. But I don’t think there was judgment directed toward Ann in my “lower class” remark. I know I didn’t intend any. 

This conversation soon petered out.

A few minutes later Ann said a propos of I can’t remember what: “A Latter Day Saint boy was interested in Beth and I don't want her to have anything to do with him.”

“No?” I said cautiously. “Why not?” 

“I just don’t want her going down that road,” said Ann. “It’s dangerous.”

Whoa. Candid.

I couldn’t let this pass. I said, “I should tell you, my father’s family was all LDS. I don’t think it’s dangerous to date a Mormon.” I said this lightly because I was starting to suspect that Ann was not just a live wire but a loose cannon. 

“It’s playing with fire!" said Ann fiercely.

Beth looked like she wanted to crawl under the table. I said, “Is the LDS boy your boyfriend?”

Before she could answer, Ann said loudly and stiffly: “No! We're not going to discuss that here! Let’s change the subject! Maybe we can talk some more about how I’m a bigot because I don’t jump on the Spanish bandwagon.”

Then Beth shook her head and said sorrowfully, “I’m definitely not a bigot.” The two of them climbed out of the picnic table and left Owen and me sitting there.

On the hike back down the hill to the boat we were 12 steps in front of Ann and Beth the whole time. We could overhear them and they could overhear us and while they talked animatedly, everything I said to Owen sounded stiff and forced. Why was I was the one feeling awkward when Ann was the narrow-minded hothead? 

On the boat back to the mainland,  I went over the interaction with Ann and Beth again and again. What had happened? What had I said or done? Bigot? Where had they come up with bigot? It hadn’t even crossed my mind. We disembarked and didn’t say goodbye to Ann and Beth, nor they to us. 
Back at the hotel, I went straight to the internet and looked up the definition of “bigot.” I had always thought it meant “racist,” which it does. But the Merriam-Webster definition is broader than that: 

Definition of BIGOT
: a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance 
I don’t think Ann was a racist. But take out the “especially’ clause and there’s no question she was a bigot.

After a thorough review that lasted well into the next day and involved a long conversation with Owen, who had observed the incident, I concluded that Ann was off her rocker and that I had behaved acceptably. Owen, however, argued that I should have disagreed with Ann the first time she said something objectionable. He said the only way to have a real relationship with someone is to lay your cards on the table from the start and if it’s not going to work out, you’ll know right away. (He just read this over my shoulder and says he's fine with me making him sound more articulate than he actually is.) I countered that you have to pick your battles. Moreover, if I’d disagreed with Ann earlier I would have ruined the whole afternoon, not just the last hour. 

But perhaps Owen is right. 

We left Lake Titicaca the next day and went to Cusco where we saw a cathedral that features a painting of the Last Supper with a guinea pig on the platter. We ate pizza topped with alpaca prosciutto followed by delicious, delicious alfajores and I sat on a park bench in the sun and read an excellent Peter Abrahams novel. Day before yesterday, we visited Inca houses built into the sides of cliffs and yesterday we hiked around Macchu Picchu and decided not to climb Huayna Picchu because we are scared of slipping and plunging to our deaths as people occasionally do. For dinner I ordered guinea pig confit. This morning I'm trying to decide whether one of my friends would ever wear a baby alpaca wool poncho and am thinking probably not. All of this has been enjoyable (except the guinea pig confit), but none of it has challenged my assumptions or forced me to think like that sad morning on the island of the Uros and the confusing afternoon with Ann. I hope the last few days of the vacation continue in this pleasant and unchallenging vein.


  1. Wow. I wouldve handled it exactly the way you did, including the postmorteminh. But i think owen is totally right. I'm jealous of his good instinct.

    I would wear the poncho! Even though ponchos are like clogs, and i probably shouldnt. But i would!

  2. I think in my ideal world I would always find a way, when confronted with a "vacation talker," to express my disagreement in a genial and nonthreatening way. Like, I would be able to convey my opinion in a way that makes it clear I am 100% on board with this person as a fellow human but that my opinion on the matter is totally different than theirs, and that I think that's fine and even a little fun. In real life this sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. Often when you drop a hint that you disagree with someone they just drop it, maybe they're embarrassed or they had assumed you would agree. Sometimes they latch onto it, and that's usually when I make a joke and change the subject. I suspect some people are more open to conflict, or more defensive about their views, and it seems like Ann might fall into that category.

  3. Ugh. I think I've met Ann. Not literally, but ugh.

    I've very much enjoyed reading about your trip.

  4. It's too bad that you had to share part of your time in Peru with someone so, shall we say, overbearing. I feel sorry for her daughter. I'm sorry you wasted so much mental and emotional energy trying to figure out what went wrong, when it seems obvious to me that this is the kind of person who jumps down your throat the minute you question their opinions. But that just proves your high levels of thoughtfulness and integrity.

  5. After living in the Bay Area for the last 5 years, I sometimes find it refreshing to meet people with a different view point. People here can be a bit militant in their views. Having said that, Ann is perhaps not the best representative of an alternative political views.

  6. I love the way you chew over stuff (in addition to food) -- Owen is learning every time you question yourself. It helps him figure out his own levels of tolerance. You're a good mom.

  7. I think I've met "Ann" also, or at least her sisters. As soon as you described her, I had a bad feeling that I knew how this was going to end. Not the specifics, but the sudden, unprovoked change in the emotional weather. It's so easy to get sucked in by that particular kind of crazy lady. And it always seems to be a woman, too. Are there men like this? If so, I haven't met any.

  8. Oh, Ann, you rascal, you are everywhere!

    This is a good reminder that when beginning an acquaintance I should ask questions, not make declarative statements in which I assume that the other person shares my values.

  9. Maybe you are more fortunate in your neck of the woods than we are here, but there are lots of female and male examples of Ann. They are angry people, angry that their lives did not turn out as they planned (whose does?), angry that everyone's world view doesn't match their own. It is tragic for them that they have decided to live that way, but there is no reasoning with them, so I don't try. It's nothing to do with you, other than the fact that you don't accept everything they say without question. I try to avoid them, as I don't think my attempts to interact with them help either of us. Thanks for showing us Peru!

  10. Thanks for your candid, interesting look at a different culture. Peru looks amazing and fascinating. Owen seems like the perfect travel companion, even with the e-game thing. That happens everywhere with kids these days (at least, with mine)! I laughed out loud when I clicked on the link of the Peruvian "Last Supper"! Kind of dismaying what happened with Ann, but not surprising. Hopefully, it just embellishes the tapestry of your travel memories.

  11. Whoa. By the most charitable interpretation possible, Ann seems over-sensitive. I for one didn't "hear" any condemnation of her in your "seems lower class" comment (FYI, I teach Spanish for a living). And if one is going to be negative about an entire religious, one should be prepared to get some blowback. Yours was very temperate and polite. I think both your and Owen's reactions and strategies are intelligent and thoughtful. And while I'd love to be the kind of person who can speak up right away when someone says something disagreeable, sadly I'm actually the kind of person who only thinks of the right thing hours later.

    Elsewhere: alfajores! YUM YUM YUM.

  12. I'm glad you shared this story. I've run into people with similar mindsets (one on last election day who told me she paid more in taxes last year than I made and then said - without irony - that her husband should just quit his job and then they could go on welfare and have just as much money). I just sort of gaped at her and urged the plane to fly faster. I never know what to say.

  13. Is it being "trapped" in the middle of nowhere- somewhere foreign- that makes the most strident conservatives- feel forced to express their personal and political feelings? And before any one comments- yes conservatives- what else can I call them? Those that always seem to be frightened of difference. Those that forget their grandmothers and grandfathers were once immigrants. I have been on a Greek Island and in the jungle of Venezuela and both times have had someone- always an American try to educate me on their views of the local population, poverty, Obama's ties to Nazis (yes) and I have tried to just smile and take it- to keep peace. I once was on a plane from NYC to Los Angeles and was regaled by a born again Christian's view of the world- a view I don’t share. That is the only time I spoke up and asked: why it is ok for you to tell me your views for the last 4 hours and yet I decline to tell you mine? Why is that ok? I wish conservatives or whatever they want to call themselves would read what they say in print. They would then learn just how narrow minded they can be. I find it interesting that one of their own becomes ill or is gay or is struck with some malady they usually decry as “awful” suddenly they are accepting and somewhat tolerant. Thank God there are “liberals” out there beating the drums to give voice to our continued need to be open and tolerant of differences that don’t truly threaten our personal lives.

  14. Amie C- yes there are men out there with these views. They seem to like to "educate" women like me. If you are also young, from NY, and in the arts they seem to look at you, me, pitifully as if they want to say you poor unenlightened foolish east coast liberal. You’re just destined for a life time of failure.

  15. You have reminded me of just how interesting Peru is. I visited in 2004. Its contrasts are profound. I arrived very late at night and for some reason took the bus into Lima. The bus drove through some very poor parts of Lima. Sort of like the parts of Harlem NYC. Then I arrived at my hotel which was so opulent. This began my journey of experiences the wide swings of poverty and wealth that one sees at every step throughout Peru. If I went to the travel agent it was an office behind a high stuccoed wall. The beauty of Cuzco on a late Monday evening was amazing. Machu Pichu enthralling. Locals selling me huge pieces of corn made me both sad to think buying a piece might help just a little and feeling hopeless for their lives. A vacation filled with many emotional contrasts among the different sites I visited.

  16. I just love, love, love your writing and while I never comment, I had to this time. I think you and Owen handled the whole thing very well. And while, I agree with Owen about putting it out there, being trapped on a tour with people like that makes it difficult. But, that is something you learn only as you get older. Honestly, you probably couldn't change Ann no matter how hard you tried or how right you are. Beth, maybe, but not in that setting. You are right about picking your battles.

  17. I know no one else has really commented on this, but I have a real problem with everything being said and written in spanish. As someone above said, most of our ancestors came here from somewhere else, and what did they do, learned the language! If you don't want to learn English, don't come here. It is our national language. You are speaking English today because your ancestors came here from Italy or Greece or Germany or Russia and they learned English and assimilated. And I am not saying that you cannot have your own culture and traditions, those differences are what makes this country a melting pot. I feel like this is part of the divisiveness and inability to come together that is happening in this country.

  18. I suspect that I am not your target demographic (a little young, a little middle class, a little urban). That said, Ann is a bigot. Ann is probably also a racist.

    BTW, Mexicans (and Peruvians and Guatemalans and Salvadorians, etc.) really get screwed over. You know, we go vacation in Ixtapa and we can't get enough of Rick Bayliss, but suddenly Mexicans cease to be interesting when they're cleaning ladies or insulation guys or landscapers. I don't get it, because these are the same people who grow up cooking with their abuelas and going to churches infused with mesoamerican traditions and straddling cultural intense American cultural divides. It's more culture than most of us have.

    My grandparents were illegal. They spoke crap English and didn't even finish elementary school. But they were European and "white" (more or less), so it was okay. And I'm okay, because you can't tell I'm descended from nothing. No one stops me from getting a JD or an MLIS; it's my birthright. Owen is right. You don't have to be nice to bigots. Prejudice isn't charmingly bougie.

  19. ha! i wish i knew how to get this post to ann. my family chides me for it all the time when we vacation abroad, but i have a strict policy of avoiding engagement with other americans, precisely because of incidents like this. it could've been even worse if pisco sours had been involved. you can always meet more americans at home, i figure. you and owen obviously make quite a pair.

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