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Thursday, July 4, 2013

Stayin' alive....

Our first week in Peru was made easier with the arrival of Mike's Mom, Colleen. Also more dramatic than expected; it's a tale worth telling.

Now, you have to behave yourself when Grandma is around, which made little transition blips go smoother than they might. Even better, I had the extremely welcome help of one more adult to keep the kids from getting run over. Which is a real worry.

a moment of kinder, gentler traffic patterns. Watch those tuk-tuks. They're at the bottom of the food chain and, occasionally resentful, get uppity about it.

In case you think I exaggerate the risk of being run over, let me tell you two quick stories as they were told to me. Plenty to convince any mother, I am sure you will agree.

First of all, Mike says just about every employee who has been on this Peru job for a good length of time has seen a body on the road.  Generally with a newspaper over the face and bored police officers standing around, waiting for the ambulance to come take this inconvenience that used to be a living breathing human being away.

Second story: a British acquaintance was behind the wheel, her children in the backseat, when an older man stepped out from behind a line of cars. And she hit him. Killed him. There was no question about it.

So, trembling, she turned herself into the police station. Pause for a moment and imagine yourself in this situation. In a foreign country, no less.

The officer listened to what she had to say, shook his head, and said, quite clearly, "This happens all the time, especially on that road. Go home."

So I have done my best to put fear into the kids of the four-wheeled demons. Also the motorcycles. Especially the ones driven by law enforcement. They stop for no one.

Pedestrians are responsible for their own safety, period.

And sometimes cars drive the wrong way on one-way streets, when it is more convenient.

Thomas has three ways of crossing the road: 1.) no cars = quiet and orderly. 2.) some cars = pulling and "run for your lives!" 3.) real traffic, and / or a cement mixer bearing down on us = a high pitched scream for the duration of the crossing, followed by wiping his forehead and proclaiming, quite seriously "Phew! We made it alive! We could have died!"

Lack of seat belts in taxis also can't be helped, so we limit getting into those as well. Colleen was quite happy to ride in the backseats of said taxis, distracted from the driving by the kids; the front seat was a bit much to expect of her, what with 5 cars in 3 lanes and the like, weaving a brake light, metal and horn tapestry of chaos that,after a time, strangely makes sense.

There is also the threat of being kidnapped if you get into the wrong taxi, but that's another story.
On our first day the kids led her happily to meet all the cats that live in Parque Central de Miraflores and Parque Kennedy.

Colleen is not fond of cats, but she gamely went along. She pretended to pet one, and then somehow managed to step on it.

(note the leather Gaucho hats. A great purchase, and less than $20 for both. Crowd pleasers, to be sure, and they keep the nasty UVs off the kids -who call them their "Indiana Jones hats"- to boot.)

It, being a cat, yowled and promptly bit her on the ankle. More yowling.

Fortunately it didn't break the skin.

The next day we were dressing for Mike's birthday dinner, and in anticipation Colleen dressed up. Then she slipped sideways on our wood floor and went down with a good hard thud on her hip. Cute high heeled sandals were apparently not a good choice after all. We began looking for a massage place for her, and planning how to keep her in one piece for the rest of the week.

This woman deserves a drink: Hello maracuya (passionfruit) cocktail.

The next day there was an earthquake.

Determined to show Colleen a good time, we hired a driver, Jorge, to take us into Central Lima, to the beautiful San Francisco Monastery and the Spectacular Plaza Mayor with its Presidential Palace and impressive Lima Cathedral.

chasing the pigeons at San Francisco Monastery proved to be the highlight of the day for children who are less impressed with centuries-old buildings and crucifixes galore.

In the Monastery we took the tour through the grounds and catacombs. There was a French guy in our group and I don't know how I didn't smack him. Pretentious snob who put our poor little Peruvian guide, trying to give her talk in non-native English, through her paces, insisting on the differences between replacement and restoration, for instance. He would have looked good among the piles of bones down one of the pits, is all I am saying. 

There was one point where she was trying to explain a painting with women in the background that symbolized temptation. (There were children in the front to symbolize innocence.) He insisted he didn't understand. Whores, whores she finally said over and over to him in her rolling Peruvian accent. I thought I would die.
I couldn't think of the french word for prostitute. I did think of a couple of swear words in French, though, and silently lobbed them at him.

The Frenchman and his compadres gave themselves their own tour in the catacombs, and the guide, obviously having given up on maintaining any sort of control of the hooligans, left them behind.

Probably hoping they'd take a wrong turn. Those catacombs go down several levels and the passages tunnel away darkly to who knows what end?

In the Cathedral I first amused Jorge with the story of how Pizarro had not been in his grave for 450 years after he was murdered, then freed Colleen from both children, taking them to go see the ghostly remains of patrons, families long passed away, some of the many victims of Yellow fever, forever together.

Pizarro's Tomb. All scientific evidence now supports that the guy in there is actually the guy. I don't know what happened to the fellow that they thought was Pizarro and had been on display forever...

Mothers, fathers, children, babies. These wealthy families had paid dearly to spend eternity ensconced in the hallowed ground of the Cathedral. Who would have thought that a few hundred years later little kids and tourists alike would gape down at their clothed bones, whiter than white beneath a shroud of lime?

Thomas was really getting into it. In fact, from that day on, whenever we even went near a church in Peru he would pull at my hand and whisper excitedly, "let's go see some more dead people!"

Our outing seemed to be going well. Colonial architecture, colorful characters on the street, we still had all our possessions and everything. Right until Jorge told us to hurry into the car; a large demonstration was gathering; signs, serious faces, police in riot gear, military vehicles.

It could turn ugly, Jorge said, and would certainly delay us if nothing else.

We drove away behind the darkened windows of his sedan.

I tried to make tuna melts in the toaster oven that night. The toaster oven and I have not yet reached an understanding. Also, mayonnaise in Lima almost inevitably comes with lime in it. Peruvians. They love thier limes. I was distracted by the mayo being sold in a bag and had overlooked the "limon" part of the label. So we had lime-ish tuna melts which, first as toast, slid out of the toaster oven and onto the floor. I put the other things on, topped them with ridiculously expensive cheddar cheese, and they promptly slid to and off the back of the toaster oven, dumping all the tuna and gooey cheese. 

If you ask for "tuna" this is what you get: prickly pear cactus fruit. Tuna fish is "atun". You will also get lots of tiny spikes in your hands if you're not careful, which we weren't.

I scraped them back together and felt like a doofus. Colleen, bless her heart, told me at least four times how delicious the tuna melts were. Talk of your pity compliments.

The next night I attempted the toaster oven again. I thought I had cleaned it out well enough but instead it began smoking up with some residual bit of fish or bread. I yelled for help and Colleen dashed to open windows and get a cross breeze going.

The front window, one of many, to take advantage of the view, opened as one expected it would.

The back window, also one of many and a rather large window at that...popped out.

We are on the 13th floor.

the view down

Everything happened in slow motion. I have nightmares like this and it was strangely surreal; Colleen tried to grab the glass as it began its inevitable descent. I was moving toward her and there was the longest moment imaginable before the heart-stopping crash of glass smashing far, far below.

¡Dios mío!

The parking garage is open beneath that window, so the pane fell 14 stories. Colleen's hands were bleeding, and I remember saying in a voice not my own, "Oh, Mom!" which brought Mike into the kitchen on the double.

Then we had to go and look to see what lay below.

As I explained to the maids later as they hesitantly queried Señora, ¿la ventana dónde está ? -where is the window?- making the sign of the cross as I did so (Peru is 82% Catholic so, even if I'm not, if helped make my point), there somehow managed to be nothing below but the mass of shattered glass and the shouts and footfalls of men running to see what had happened.

No people, no cars, nothing. Just pavement.

We cleaned and bandaged Colleen's hands. They were painful but, as Darth Vader said, not permanently damaged.

"You don't know the power of the aji amarillo!"

I would love to tell you that the rest of Colleen's visit was incident-free, and technically I could...

but not really.

I had ridden with her to the airport to dropped back off. All was well. Or so we thought.

The charming small but powerful vehicle called a tug which maneuvers airplanes out onto the runway first refused to let go of Colleen's plane, then broke down entirely. None of the flight staff including both pilots had ever even heard of such a thing happening. The passengers spent the wee hours of the morning waiting on the tarmac before being taken back off the plane, into a confused muddle of what to do with them and then finally back through customs, and into a hotel until the next day.

So the bright side was that we went back downtown and got to spend one more day with out beloved Colleen. Unfortunately she was dead on her feet and too polite to say so.

But eventually she made it home. Basically in one piece. I'll take that.

Postscript: We found out from others who have stayed in this apartment that the exact same window had fallen out before (!) ...but into the apartment. No one was even in the room when it happened and the sound scared them to death. Now we are without said window...no one seems terribly motivated to replace it. Which makes sense, since it'll probably just fall out again...


  1. Egads! Your poor MIL! At least she has some good stories to tell, and that a reason to travel, no? ;)

  2. Wow! What a breath holding stay for poor Colleen! Do you think she'll come back :)

  3. It's a good story, no? Well, she survived, and we aren't "really" living here, just for 6 weeks and a bit, so she won't have the chance to visit us in Peru again...it seems, anyway. But knowing her, no matter where we ended up, she'd brave the trip.