In my first twenty four hours in Peru, I huddled through a nippy night hobo-style in the gritty Lima airport, blitzkrieged my gracious Peruvian host family with questions on how to resurrect my Venezuelan phone that checked out several years ago, gobbled down a delightful plate of eggs, vegetables, but mostly salt, jaunted through Cusco’s Incan streets to find the digital Yahweh who could restore kaput cell chips, and finally reached, after dodging testosterone-pumped drivers who turn intersections into WWE demolition derbies, the pearly gates of the electronics depot where I was to complete my first major transaction in Español; which was when I realized that I had left my phone at the house.
My first reaction was to blame it all on the ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-altitude. My second reaction: Wow, my Spanish sucks!
My time in China was hemlock for my Spanish. During my year in the Middle Kingdom, most of the Spanish I had pumped into my frontal cortex during high school happily whistled out of my brain like air out of a punctured tire. In Latin America, nothing I did could breach the language barrier. Not hand gestures interspersed with “amigos,” not Chinese repackaged with my sincere attempt at rolled r’s. Thus I abandoned those strategies for the tried-and-true method of speaking louder and slower when they didn’t understand the first time.
Luckily foreigners abound here, which softens the sting of my otherwise deaf-mute status. But I found that to really milk Cusco’s Andean udder for all she’s worth, I had to venture to the places where foreign tourists don’t go. So I dropped in on the farmer’s market of San Pedro, where they milk Andean udders for real, and where the horny heads of bulls are piled in decidedly unhorny mountains of slaughterhouse leftovers.
I also went with my Spanish teacher, Ricardo, on a pleasant excursion to Cusco’s back alley, thug-poppin’, gangsta-swagging, Harlem-wannabe plaza, where there are almost enough backward caps and dangling chains to make you believe you’re in a real gangster’s paradise. While we were admiring the view, one of the aspiring fashionistas getto-swaggered toward us, one hand clutching what lay just south of his rather large equator, one hand concealing a small baggy.
“Psst. I got everything for the head.” He said, which as you might guess, is wangsta idioglossia for drugs.
“Like what?” Sometimes Ricardo is a bit loco. His potential business partner rattled off his inventory.
“You from around here?” Ricardo nodded. Then the man continued, “I have family in San Pista, a very dangerous neighborhood of Lima.”
“My family lives on in the most dangerous corner of that neighborhood.”
“Mine too. Which street does your family live on?”
“They just live in the roughest part of the neighborhood.”
“My family has been to prison.”
“Do you want drugs or not.”
“Maybe another day.”
As we shuffled off, Ricardo explained to me that it was respectable, when dealing with these hoodlums, to deflate their blowhard egos with some embellished autobiography. But in my case, with my already bona-fide street cred established as a philosophy student from New York, it’s hard to see what embellishment would add.