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!