Last night I spent the evening with friends who are planning on retiring to Cuenca, Ecuador, high in the Andes of Ecuador, in the next few years. They had just returned from an exploratory visit to that colonial city. We spent hours talking of our impressions of the city, the food, safety, and what retirement would be like living in a land faraway.
After they left, my thoughts wandered back to more than a decade past when I was living in the jungle of Peru. Memories that had been tucked away returned; thoughts of living in Iquitos, the traditions, foods, friends, cultural memories and unusual experiences raced through my mind. As I stood in the kitchen putting away the leftover food and drink, I thought how different life is living in a foreign country, the challenges, the surprises, the curiosities. As I was remembering the good and bad times from living in the Amazon, a memory of yellow underwear jumped to mind that gave me chuckle.
It was the morning of December 31st and I had been invited to join friends at a street party that evening. I had readily accepted. This would be my first New Year’s Eve in Peru and from the celebrations I had attended since arriving to the Amazon, I could only imagine that New Year’s Eve in the jungle would be one wild ride. One thing I was certain of was that there would be lots of “beverage”, endless dancing, and very loud music with scantily dressed young chicha dancers moving their hips in syncopation to the Latin beats. That New Year’s Eve celebration under the stars ended up being one of the most memorable nights I can remember, but that is a story for another day. This story is about yellow underwear.
As I sat in the courtyard of the house where I was staying when I first arrived to Iquitos, enjoying my morning cup of instant Folgers coffee with heated milk and sugar, Juanita, the owner of the hospetaje, explained the yearend tradition which included flowers, grapes and yellow underwear. She told me that I needed to acquire those items, in order to be ready for that night, and told Charo, the housekeeper and cook, to take me to the market to get what was needed.
In the heat of mid-morning sun, with sweat streaming down my body from head to toe, Charo headed out of the house to the market with me in tow. “Let’s go to the market. I’ll help you get what you need,” Charo said. I nodded in appreciation. “Gracias.” My Spanish language skills were still limited, as I had been in Peru for only a short time, so Charo would be my market negotiator and guide, as we collect the necessary items for the evening tradition. We needed to move fast, as the flower concoction needed hours of preparation.
Heading across town in the heat of the day, Charo and I arrived to the mercado. The hustle and bustle of the market and the excitement of the impending festivities was palpable. Market stalls were filled with people searching the merchandize, fruits, vegetables, and plastic products of all kinds. The smells of fish and platano being grilled filled the air. I noticed, unusual to the regular market items, stalls filled with the tallest stacks of yellow underwear that one could imagine. Some were plain yellow and others had small embroidered little flowers off to the side. All were cotton. No problem getting what I need, I thought to myself. We should be done and back to the house in no time flat.
We weaved our way through the crowds to the flower stalls. Charo, without hesitation, selected the appropriate flowers and in minutes we had five bunches of varying colors. Flowers for flower shower. Check. Off to the fruit stands we went to find the grapes. After careful examination of the produce, we purchased a little bundle of green grapes that were placed in a small plastic bag and tied at the top. Grapes. Check.
It was getting hotter in the mid-day sun and the market was so filled with locals that the air was still and thick. Back to the entrance we maneuvered until we found the tables mounded with yellow underwear. A slight breeze moved past and I felt a sense of relief that we would be done shortly and back in the house to cool down and rest before the evenings festivities. I let out a sigh.
Charo dug through the pile. Pulling them out and holding them up, she looked at me and shook her head. Nope. That won’t fit. Over and over again came the look and the head shake. We moved on to the next table. Again, more looks and more shaking of the head. Charo dug and pulled and tossed yellow underwear. Each was paired with the same shake of the head. The lady vendor, sitting in the shade under a tarp, watched Charo’s determination to find a pair that would fit me and would glance over at me occasionally with a pleasant smile mixed with a “none of these will fit you” look. “Gracias, Senora,” we said as we headed off for yet another mound of yellow. Oh, please, let us find some soon.
After every yellow underwear vendor in the market was aware that I couldn’t fit in the underwear on their tables, we headed just around the corner and down the street to the underwear tiendas. Yellow cotton underwear was not the norm for the these stores. The merchandise they sold would put Victoria Secret to shame. Inside of the open store front was a special table of yellow underwear, very out of place in the midst of sensual, sexual merchandise. A middle-aged woman asked if she could help. Charo looked at me and back at the woman saying, “Grande por la mujer, por favor.” She’s asking for a large. Ugh. I had lost so much weight from living in the heat of the jungle that I would have easily been a small back home, but here I was a large.
The woman dug through the endless pile, shaking her head. Grande. More digging. Grande. Looking at me and mumbling grande, the sales lady turned to Charo shaking her head. “Ella no es grande.” I am not a grande? A large won’t fit me? The woman walked to the front of the open air store and yelled to the people in the street in Spanish, “I need GRANDE, GRANDE for the gringa! Anyone have GRANDE, GRANDE? Everyone in the street stopped to look. I was horrified as I retreated into the shadows, hidden by lacey bras and underwear that hung everywhere. How in the world would I go back out into the street again?
Now, just let me say right here and now that I was thin, having lost weight from the unrelenting heat of the jungle. And I was considerably smaller in size from walking all over the city on a daily basis. So a grande was a surprise and a grande, grande was completely unexpected. What was even more unexpected was everyone on the entire market street knowing it.
I turned to Charo and said, “The grande will be just fine.” Charo looked a me in disagreement and I responded with, “Let’s just buy it and get out of here.” Reluctantly, Charo made the purchase and handed me a small plastic bag with the “grande” yellow underwear and we slipped out of the store quickly, quietly, and I thought stealthily, as everyone on the street turned to stare.
Bundles of flowers, a bunch of grapes, and grande yellow underwear in hand, we headed back to the house with all the necessary items to bring in the new year. Charo gathered the flowers and took them to the kitchen for preparation. The grapes were plucked, and twelve plump ones were counted and put in a bowl for later. I returned to my room, unwrapped my purchase, sat on the bed and looked at the yellow underwear, wondering just how in the world I would ever get them on. Note to self: next visit back to the States buy yellow underwear that I can actually fit in to.
The continued saga of the yellow underwear will be shared in a later post. For the time being, think tingling legs and a tumble to the floor in the darkness of the night.
As my mind returned to the task of cleaning up after entertaining my friends, I thought how wonderful other cultures are, how much can be learned, what lovely memories are created, and how much humor needs to be ever present in every little thing you do. And, yes, it’s always an adventure, even when going to the market to buy a pair of yellow underwear.
What wonderful memories do you have from living in or visiting other cultures?