Keeping Up with the Cusquad: The Strange and the Familiar

*NOTE: This is a catch-up post that covers events from May 22-23

The Spanish word for “foreigner” is extranjero. Derived from the Latin root extra – meaning “outside” – the word connotes a sense of strangeness and isolation. Back in the United States, all eleven of us were natives. We spoke, dressed, and acted in line with American norms. Here, we’re outsiders – extranjeros.

We had been warned about this dynamic many times during our information sessions. Alex and Mily told us that we would be prime targets for swindlers and robbers simply because we stand out. In other words, we speak, dress, and act out of line with Peruvian norms. We carry cameras, flout Duke sweatshirts, and wear expressions of wonder and uncertainty. But I guess it never really hit me until Katy, Davis, and I accidentally purchased six kilograms of corn for 2.3 times the regular price.

Let me explain. Alex and Mily split us up into three groups for a city-roaming exercise. The idea was to mingle with the locals and learn to use the public transportation. To that end, each group was assigned a set of objectives to complete. At the word “Go,” our little trio headed off: Riya the Photographer, Katy the Navigator, and Davis the One-Man-Cheer-Squad. Our mission briefing instructed us to find a sixteenth-century temple in Yucay, learn about its history, and then purchase three different types of corn.

We reached Yucay via a shared minivan, after which I made a minor spectacle of myself by unabashedly taking photos of everything. In true tourist fashion, we asked at least a handful of people for directions on our way to the temple. Once there, we encountered our first shocker: the “temple” was actually a church. Mily later explained to us that, in Peru, the term templo (temple) was synonymous with iglesia (church). Now, I’m used to churches because I attended a Catholic high school – but I always drew a careful distinction between churches and temples. The former was exclusively for Christian places of worship; the latter, in my experience, referred to Hindu places of worship. The tall, off-white building that we visited in Yucay struck me as a stone-hewn paradox – strange, but familiar.

We didn’t linger long by the church-dubbed-temple. Within half an hour, we were back in Urubamba shopping for corn at the local market. The first vendor we approached was an elderly woman sporting two silver braids. When we asked to purchase some corn, she replied, “¿Medio kilo o cuarto? (Half a kilogram or a quarter?)” The three of us gazed at each other in confusion for half a second. “Un cuarto (A quarter),” I responded. She nodded, gathered some corn from a large sack, and filled our little red shopping bag. “¿Cuánto cuesta? (How much does it cost?)” I inquired. “Cinco soles (Five sols),” she told me. After paying her the designated amount, we asked her what that type of corn was used for. She answered us in rapid-fire Spanish. Davis and I hung back, perplexed, while Katy nodded as though she were following every word. As we turned to leave, I asked Katy, “What did she say?” Katy looked me dead in the eye and replied, “I have no idea.” I snorted in laughter. At least one of us was a good actor.

We repeated the same ritual two more times. By the end of our market spree, we had accumulated three bags of corn – maíz de jora (large-grained corn kernels with tails), maiz morado (corn of a dark purple hue), and maíz posco (tiny popcorn seeds). And our purses were 14 sols lighter. Just as Davis began to crow that we were the ganadores (winners), I noticed that the bag of maíz de jora was at least four times as big as the other two bags. “Guys, I think she gave us cuatro (four) kilos instead of un cuarto (one-fourth).” Almost instantly, the smiles slid off their faces. “Oh,” Katy replied. “Eh well, let’s just bring it back to the hotel.”

And we did. We arrived forty-five minutes before the other two teams – much to Davis’ satisfaction. When we presented the bags to Alex, however, we didn’t quite get the reaction we were hoping for. “¿Cuánto pagaron por el maíz? (How much did you pay for the corn?)” he asked us. “Catorce soles (Fourteen sols),” I replied proudly. He promptly doubled over in laughter. It took him a little while, but he finally composed himself enough to inform us that we should have paid no more than 2 sols for each bag of corn. According to Alex, the marketplace vendors had noticed that we were foreigners – extranjeros – and had marked up their prices accordingly. Six sols to fourteen sols: a 130% markup.

No sooner had we found the humor in our corny little debacle than we boarded a bus bound for Cusco. The kilometers of rustic mountain scenery soon gave way to the fences, streets, and alleys of the city. In a small, two-storied school on Calle Ahuacpinta (Ahuacpinta Street), we finally got to meet our host families.

With that, it’s high time that I introduce the Acuña Reynosos! Fernando Oscar – my host father – is a civil engineer with a penchant for puns, American music, and the Guitar Festival of 2004. His wife, Yony, is about as much a mother hen as mi propia madre (my own mother); she’s an architect by trade. They have one son, who – like his father – is named Fernando. He’s a certified doctor but currently studying for the Brazilian medical reevaluation exam (think MCAT in Portuguese). Oh – and they have a dog named after an American music icon.

Though our conversations were entirely in Spanish, elements of the family dynamic felt very familiar. My host father cracked jokes just like my own father, and my host mother shook her head exasperatedly like my own mother. We discussed every topic under the Peruvian sun – from education to politics to cultural norms. That’s how the family dynamic works at the Acuña Reynosos’ dinner table. Incidentally, that’s also how the family dynamic works at my home in California. Strange, but familiar.

My trip to Peru thrust me into a paradoxical limbo. I am at once an extranjera and a family member; an experienced traveler and a novice bargainer; someone who came to give and someone who came to receive. And, through it all, I can’t shake this feeling that there’s something uncanny about Peru – something strange, but familiar.

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8 Responses to Keeping Up with the Cusquad: The Strange and the Familiar

  1. Sangeeta says:

    Another intresting read. I am enjoying this blog and loving all the details shared. Keep it up

  2. Sushma says:

    Love every word of what you write. While the narrative is very interesting to follow (literally), the little nuances that you share through your familiar yet unfamiliar (paradox again!) experiences are good insights. I now feel like learning Spanish. Keep the posts coming!

  3. Anagha Vaidya says:

    What a nice read!! Loved the way you have captured the small nuances and summarized it so well at the end. Enjoying the virtual trip to Peru

  4. Neeta Kapoor says:

    Riya, another great read. What an experience! What did you do with all that corn? Just curious.

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