The Business of Misrepresentation

The house we use here in Urubamba is falling apart, it has been since the very beginning.  The list of defects seems boundless; the showers are of glacial temperature, all of the faucets run, our stove shoots plumes of ash, and within our first week here the sink in the boys bathroom fell off its hinge and shattered on the floor.  We’ve been confronting our landlord about these problems around twice a week for two months, pleading with him to get all the facilities running properly.  “Yes, of course,” he says, as if his responses are always pre-recorded, “I’ll have someone on it tomorrow afternoon.  The most important thing for me is that you’re comfortable!”

To this day, nothing has been fixed.  It hasn’t even received inspection.

Our trash collector is a five minute bike ride away from where we live.  With a house that lodges 25 people, 20 of which are teenagers, you can imagine how much garbage we accumulate (it’s a lot).  We’ll call him in the morning to confirm the pick up: “Please come by in the afternoon, we’ll be waiting here with your payment.”

“Great!  I’ll be there!” he usually replies, only to never show up.  His excuse?  “Oh, my apologies.  Today wasn’t a good day.”

You may be starting to sense a pattern, so allow me one more parable.  Last year when I was traveling around South America I would always tell the bus company I wanted a direct route, no stops whatsoever.  I’d buy the ticket, and the common outcome would be six or seven stops, the complete opposite of what I had requested.  A girl I met was telling me her tagged luggage was stolen from under the bus during one of those unspecified stops and how nothing was done about it.  Their reaction towards our complaints?  Essentially, it went like this: “Whoops!”

I find this aspect of the culture, how businesses function, to be one of the most curious.  That’s because if any of the aforementioned situations transpired in the United States, they’d be out of business.  Fast.  The landlord wouldn’t be able to find tenants, someone who actually collected trash would collect the trash, and the bus company would have zero passengers.  Yet here it seems as though falsifying information to please the client – and subsequently not following through – is accepted.  Even when I ask directions for somewhere simple, like a restaurant, the person I ask will point off into the distance and say: “It’s over there.”

“Over where?” I’ll inquire further.

“There,” they’ll point.

“Do I need to turn anywhere?” I’ll ask, confused.

“Just go that way,” they’ll reply, finger still outstretched, “you can’t miss it.”  And needless to say, I always seem to miss it.

Over the course of my time living in Urubamba, though, I’ve come to the conclusion that this distorted truth stems from a good place; that they want to please you.  No one wants to look you in the eye and say I don’t know, instead they’d rather give you an answer and try to lead you down the right path.  As Southern Peru is a shy culture, perhaps they just feel uncomfortable letting you down.  As for some of the larger companies, it could be that there isn’t an infrastructure to deliver astounding customer service; like in the example of the bus company, maybe there simply isn’t a way to recover the bag.  “Whoops!” just might be the best answer they have.

I don’t know what the real answer is, and maybe I don’t need one.  Cultures differ, and this is just one of those characteristics that contrasts what I’m used to.  It’s these small nuances, the pockets of diversity, that make our species so interesting; I don’t have to understand it to enjoy it.  In the interim, I have no problem taking advantage of “Peruvian time” and showing up 30 minutes late.  Instead, I finally might have found a culture that goes by my schedule!

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2 thoughts on “The Business of Misrepresentation

  1. Sounds like you’re getting the real experience! I humbly offer another perspective on the inconsistent quality of service you note. Anywhere in the world you go, there will be shoddy businesses where making a quick dollar is the only important thing. This leads to poor quality, and so long as customers keep purchasing they will keep providing the minimum effort necessary to maintain the cash flow. Locals quickly take note, and in North America, the average purchasing power is so high that we can avoid sketchy services – hence they die out quickly. Not so in Peru, where there are many people who simply cannot afford the better services. Slightly better off locals might be able to get the straight dope on who is reliable, but as a foreigner it will take some time to sort these things out. As well, many people take on all kinds of jobs to make ends meet, and can pick and choose where they put their effort. Since you keep calling the garbage man, he’ll assume you can be counted on for work when he wants it – many latinos grow up with a far less “ambitious” bent, and are satisfied with “enough” money, and would then rather relax than spend more time working. This is true in any culture, but there definitely seems to be more acceptance of this lifestyle among certain groups of Latinamericans.

    Good luck with the landlord and hope you can smooth out your living arrangements soon.

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    • Thank you very much for your comment! I appreciate you adding on and shedding more light on the topic.

      I agree with everything you said, from my experiences here in Peru I can say that your observations are consistent with what I’ve gone through. This is especially true when you mention locals picking up odd jobs to earn an extra dollar, where I’ve noticed that everyone has some kind of “side hustle”. To illustrate, our cook doesn’t just work as our cook, she always owns a bread stand and does laundry from time to time. Our project coordinator is also employed as a tour guide whenever he has the chance to take on a group of people. Like you said, many only have the resources to get by, and therefore don’t have as much of an “ambitious” drive like you mentioned. I haven’t talked to anyone here who has looked me in the eye and said “I have dreams of starting a company and turning into the next Facebook”, instead they’ll look at me and say “I hope my children can get a legitimate education”. It’s VERY interesting to witness this difference in culture. I often wonder how one would react if I could show them a solid year in the hustle and bustle of New York City.

      Thank you for the good wishes! Everything will turn out fine I’m sure.

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