The everyday conversations I have in Peru are often hilarious. Junior, the eleven-year-old I live with, is unintentionally funnier than 90% of the comedians I’ve seen, even after three years of the Edinburgh festival. For example, he explained to me very matter-of-factly that everyone feels comfier when they have something on their head; I’d have understood it if he meant fluffy hats or scarves, but at the time what he had on his head was a kitchen chair. He also thinks that Laurie, Imogen and I should never be separated, because British people should talk to fellow Brits rather than Peruvians, and that when I do the washing up I’m practising for when I get married. Marriage isn’t a sure thing though; Junior has told me that my eligibility as a bride depends entirely upon how much I weigh and whether or not that weight is acceptable to my future husband.
When Imogen sat cross-legged a metre from a cliff edge, Junior ran over to warn her that the wind was going to blow her off it. When she moved to sit with her legs dangling off a wall, he told her she was safer there because only her head would be blown off. He’s also tried to teach us that if we laugh too much our insides will explode, and has asked whether the reason Laurie has short hair is that a piece of limestone fell onto his head when he was a child. I can’t even begin to understand that last one. I looked up ‘limestone’ in two different Spanish dictionaries before letting myself accept my original translation.
Peruvian adults ask some very strange questions too. Last night Carlos asked me why I have brown hair instead of black hair, why I haven’t visited Russia, how many British people live in Russia and, when I couldn’t answer him, why I’ve never thought to look for this information on Facebook. The same evening, when I was teaching Imogen to tell the time in Spanish, Gloria’s sister misheard my English to an impressive degree and thought I was saying I didn’t want children. I had to try to justify being 22 and childless to a group of Catholics while avoiding any mention of my very non-Catholic views on contraception. I failed.
I still don’t fully understand the Peruvian mindset. When I went to the gym with Juan Carlos (another member of my Peruvian family – I know he’s some sort of cousin, but I’ve lost track), he was adamant that I had to do the same dance class as him because he couldn’t leave me upstairs without a man to look after me. But I was only a metre away from the stairs – and if I’d shouted for help I would’ve been rescued (by a boxer, no less) in under thirty seconds. The explanation Juan Carlos offered for his paranoia (my word, not his, obviously) was that Peruvian men don’t respect women. I can’t argue with that, but even in Peru, spending ten minutes alone on a cross-trainer is not dangerous.
Peruvian views on danger are almost unbelievable. Other things I have been told are dangerous include walking too far, catching buses and taking taxis, which leaves me with exactly zero forms of transport. If I do make it out of Villa el Salvador, I have to remember that returning home late at night is dangerous – but so is staying in a hostel in Lima, the nearest city. Going out on my own is dangerous, but if I brave it and anything does happen to me, nobody would blame me; it would be Laurie’s fault for not going with me, even if I didn’t want him to and never told him I was leaving. He’d be held responsible purely because he’s a man. Doing anything special for Halloween is dangerous because it’s a celebration of the Devil’s birthday, and some of my students now believe I’m going to hell because they saw me making a skeleton costume out of duct tape. Cross-dressing is dangerous, not having a hot drink in the morning is dangerous and putting my bag on the floor for any length of time is incredibly dangerous and irresponsible, even if it’s just the floor of my bedroom. Not wearing shoes is the most dangerous thing of all; even when I’ve just woken up and I’m sitting on top of my duvet, I get told off if I’m only wearing socks, and Gloria’s reaction if she sees me coming out of the shower without my flip-flops on is priceless. By now, I’ve learnt to ignore the warnings, because I have done all these things (well, almost all of them – I left the cross-dressing to Laurie) and SURVIVED.
On the other hand, things that are not considered dangerous include letting unsupervised children open tins using massive carving knives, eating fruit that’s been soaked in bleach, using plugs that give you electric shocks and dancing with scissors (part of a traditional Peruvian dance that I got to see last week; you can’t see the scissors in my photo, but trust me, they’re there). I don’t understand this country, but at this point I don’t think I want to. It’s so much funnier this way.