lent a little money to a woman she's been working with in Peru. She's been working off the debt bit by bit, and this woman invited my wife to lunch at her house yesterday. They went to the market together and bought ingredients, including the meat, from the open air market. They were making lomo saltado together, and the total cost was seven Soles (about $2). To save money on housing, the woman lives with her family outside the city limits, where the city just turns to a desert and there aren't really permanent structures, per se. The houses are made of reed mat walls and reed roofs: kind of what we might describe as a shanty town, since the structures aren't permanent. But I don't mean that in any derogatory way. To them, it's just their homes.
Her husband was asleep when they arrived, as he works the night shift at the bus station. The family doesn't have much, but they do have a ten week old puppy. This is like the greatest possible temptation for my wife: I am sure she'd have left me waiting at the altar if there was a puppy in the back row. The family was surprised that Mrs. DB40 was so interested in playing with the puppy, which, in their culture, isn't supposed to be the center of attention. "You sure like that animal, don't you?" they asked. Pets are treated very differently in Peru than in America.
At the house, there was no city water. The water they cook and wash and flush their toilet with is just in big buckets. A simple act like washing hands was kind of an ordeal.
The woman is a cook at a restaurant, so family just kind of shows up when she's cooking. Different members of the extended family arrived during the meal prep. The restaurant is actually just in her house: there is a little bar and some chairs which customers come up to. And the house is kind of more "outside" than in, with a courtyard and two different buildings: one for the kitchen and one for the bedroom, with the whole property surrounded by a reed fence.
Mrs. Done by Forty brought some American candy for the son, who was crazy excited about the prospect of sweets from the states. He was so kind, too, sharing the candy with the family and even trying to get Mrs. Done by Forty to eat some. Their favorite: Whoppers. It turns out when you're Peruvian and poor, you don't have a lot of experience with "malt", and malt is kind of a hard concept to explain with limited Spanish skills.
The conversation then turned to how much this candy costs in the States. (They were flabbergasted by the price when converted to Soles.) As you might imagine, they then wanted to know cost of everything else. How much can you make as a doctor? As a lawyer? As a teacher? How much does college cost? How much is rent?
Mrs. Done by Forty explained that while everything costs more in America, people do make more, and this kind of evens things out for most people. A lot of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Still, the family rightly noticed from the figures that you could do pretty well in America if you had the right job and managed costs. They then discussed the possibility of sending one of the family members to America.
How do I get to America? And what does it cost to do that? What paperwork do I need to get there? Can I go to college? What happens after college?
My wife told them that, sometimes, college kids go to Europe after graduation, and just travel around for a few months. Some kids even take a year off, backpacking. The idea of traveling around Europe after earning a degree, instead of working, was inconceivable to them. Not only for the actual costs, which are astounding enough, but also for being away from work for months at a time. Opportunity costs were very real to them. I think the notion of paid vacation might also be a totally new concept. The family spent the rest of the meal eating lomo saltado and learning everything they could about America...trying to figure out if it was possible to send one of their own, someway.
I know this is kind of a rambling story, but I tell it only because it struck me how this family viewed our country. America is this unimaginably desirable, almost dreamlike place that is still totally inaccessible to them. In America, people earn enough to pay really high rent and buy expensive groceries, and maybe send their children to college to be doctors and then, somehow, to Europe. And they still have enough left over to buy Whoppers candy to give to the little ones.
It broke my heart a little, hearing about this conversation because my mom would always tell me the same sort of thing. That she was really lucky to be able to come to America, and I that was really lucky that I was growing up in Pennsylvania, and not in the Philippines, like she did, in a single room house on a dirt floor. That my cousins, her brothers' and sisters' kids, had so much less than I did that I wouldn't believe it if she described it to me. Most of the time I just rolled my eyes because I was just some stupid kid. I knew nothing.
My words aren't really capturing much here, but I figure it's as a good a time as any to really try to feel gratitude for where we live. To realize how lucky we are. We have all won the lottery just by being born in this country, with flushing toilets that you don't need to haul water for, and walls that don't fall over if you lean on them, and disposable income to buy things or go places, just for fun. I am lucky, in an incomprehensible way, just to be here. God bless our little lives. God bless America.
*Photo is from Seattleye at Flickr Creative Commons.