Update from Abancay, Peru

I’m taking a general Quechua class with about 12 other people. Since I only paid 3 dollars for the registration fee, I really can’t complain, although the class is really a grand waste of my time. The class is from 6pm to 8pm Monday-Thursday, so I thought that I would be learning a great deal of Quechua with 8 hours of instruction per week, but I have never learned so little in so much time.

More and more, I have become convinced that the communicative method is the only way to teach a foreign language, but the concept seems utterly alien to most Quechua teachers. The problem is that they mostly teach the language to people who already have a pretty good grasp of the basics of the language, so they don’t really understand how to teach a foreign language starting from zero. Although the class is titled Quechua 1, we started out learning the Peruvian national anthem in Quechua. Basically the teacher assumes that the students already speak the Quechua and only need to learn the writing system and grammar, to prepare them to become expert translators. Since the teacher loves Quechua poetry, dance, and music, our homework assignments are to do translations of Spanish poetry into Quechua. The people who don’t speak Quechua quickly gave up in disgust and quit coming to the class. I would have done the same except for the fact that I don’t want to offend the teacher who is both a friend and participant in Runasimipi Qespisqa Software–the official name of our project by the way. Fortunately, the teacher is very lively and relatively entertaining, so I don’t mind too much, although I find myself frequently frustrated. The worst thing is that we don’t have a book for the class, and the class seems to have no logical order as far as I can tell. We learn advanced grammatical concepts one day, with no practice using them, then switch to very simple concepts like noun-adjective word order the next day. The worse part for me is that often I know Quechua grammar better than the teacher. That doesn’t mean that I know Quechua, but I understand general grammatical concepts very well and have spent a great deal of time pouring over Quechua grammar books. The teacher doesn’t seem to understand the difference between an adverb and an adjective. I really have to bite my tongue when the teacher goes into to some grammatical explanation, which contradicts what I have read in the grammar books. I don’t want to undermine the authority of the teacher by telling him he’s wrong. I experienced the same thing when I was studying Quechua at IU. The teacher simply didn’t understand grammar, but at least he didn’t assume that he understood grammar and try to explain it to the class.

Part of the problem is that most Quechua teachers have never learned a foreign language, so they don’t have a clue about many grammatical concepts that you only learn well when you study a foreign language. Furthermore, they simply don’t understand the needs of the students, since they have never had the experience of learning a foreign language themselves. You just can’t tell someone how to form the future tense in verbs, you have to get students to start speaking phrases in the future tense so the concept becomes vocalized almost effortlessly. Standing in front of the class and lecturing won’t teach anybody to actually speak.

Apart from my Quechua class, my days are pretty uneventful. I get up at 7am and fire up the ole laptop so I can stare until I’m cross-eyed at the pages of dictionaries that we are going to put online. I’ve already copied a dictionary of 928 pages, and am starting on another that is 270 pages. Although I can copy the pages with a a scanner, it is very slow and tedious work because I have to painstakingly go through every line, correcting errors in the conversion from image to text. There are roughly 30 errors per page, so it isn’t a trivial task. It has taken me a month to copy, format, and correct 900 pages and I get very little thanks for what I’m doing. It really ticks me off that I am the one wasting my time with this task. I should be the one doing the programming, and these mind-numbing tasks should be distributed among many volunteers. We have almost 300 people subscribed to our email list, but when I sent out a message this week asking for volunteers to help me, only two people volunteered and they haven’t done any work so far. Volunteers come occasionally to the computer lab, but they do very little real work. Yesterday, one student came, but he only corrected 4 pages in 2 hours. Most of the time, he dawdled on the internet, playing a pool game. I was so annoyed that I couldn’t concentrate to do my own work.

The thing that keeps me going is that people at UNAMBA are very appreciative of the crazy gringo who is willing to do all this work for nothing. They are delighted to have me here; and the reaction among Quechua speakers when I show them a word processor translated in Quechua is really moving. They become very animated and have a plethora of commentary. I wish that that enthusiasm translated into doing actual work, but it does convince me that we are doing something important. It keeps me going when I run into frequently aggravating roadblocks. For instance, last week I walked into the office of the person who produces brochures and posters for the university and asked to borrow his scanner to copy a dictionary. Once in a blue moon, he fires up the scanner to copy an image, but mostly it sits on his desk unused all day. I have borrowed it before, so I didn’t consider the possibility that he would deny my request. But he told me that the scanner was the property of the office of the vice-president and every time the scanner gets used, it gets worn down a little bit and eventually it will break. There were originally 3 scanners in the university, but the other 2 have already broken because they were over-used or mistreated, so he has to guard his scanner “like it is gold”. I’m not sure if he was just playing silly office games or he really thought that I would somehow damage his scanner. It turned out that his refusal to lend me the scanner was a blessing in disguise, because I figured out how to use my digital camera to copy the dictionary, which is 10 times faster than using a poky scanner. But even afterwards, I considered going up the chain of command to force the guy to lend me the scanner, just to make a point. I know that I could have walked into the office of the vice-president and gotten him to authorize my use of the scanner. The fact that I even had the desire to do just that startled me, because I never thought that I would stoop so low as to play silly office games. I never imagined myself as a corporate drone who relishes such petty inanities.

I realized in part that my desire to do such things stems from my general annoyance that I don’t have a fixed place to work and have such limited access to things like printers and copy machines. I can sit in the computer lab, but class is being conducted at least half of the day there, and there are a constant movement of people in and out of the lab even when class isn’t in session. I have become rather adept at blocking out the droning class lectures, but the rules of Andean social etiquette dictate that you aren’t allowed to ignore people when they enter the room. You have to pump their hand with a friendly “buenos dias” or “buenas tardes” or kiss them on the cheek if they are female. It is considered rude to make it clear that you don’t want to acknowledge them because you are trying to concentrate. The greeting can be short–often only 20 seconds–but if you are programming, you have to waste several minutes getting back mentally into the task because you have to keep in your head so many sequential logical steps. Because I’m the one sitting in the lab, students frequently ask me questions, thinking that I am the person in charge. Then the secretary down the hall comes wandering in when her computer stops working. Not wanting to be rude, I find myself answering their questions.

Then there are the little annoyances like the fact that internet never seems to work properly, and I have to deal with all sorts of needless hassles like firewalls which don’t permit me to do what I need to do. If I was only writing an occasional email, it wouldn’t be a problem, but when you need to upload 100MB to the website or download a 4.7 gig DVD of software libre, these little technical obstacles become nightmares. Doing simple things in an educational institution in the developing world can be a downright hassle. Since I don’t have any official status at the university, I don’t have the right to print things out or make copies I need to find a sympathetic professor who will print files for me. Most of the professors like me–I guess I’m a pretty interesting person to talk to in an intellectually stultifying place like Abancay. A group of the younger profs frequently invite me whenever they go out for a drink or have a get-together. So it isn’t too hard to convince one of them to print something for me, but when I needed to print out the 900 page dictionary that I copied, it became a real bureaucratic chore. After asking around for several weeks, I was finally told that I could print it out in the office of investigation, when we presented the research budget for our project to the university.

Daniel, my partner in crime, wished for the moon and presented a hefty budget of $4000 dollars. I told him that he was crazy–professors only get paid 1200 soles ($370US) a month here, which is considered a pretty good salary when the janitors and doormen only make 300 soles ($92US) per month. I just wanted a simple desk where I can work, but this is a pretty big request in an institution where the professors don’t even have desks, much less offices. The professors have a general room with about 10 computers where they can work. Everyone carries around USB memory sticks to store their work since they never know which computer will be available for their use and they all carry cell-phones because it is the only way to communicate when nobody has a fixed space to locate someone. Needless to say, there isn’t much real research being done at the university, at least as far as I can tell from what I have observed in the computer science department. You can’t read or write anything serious in a general room with a plethora of distractions and the noisy little room which passes for a library is more a place for students to greet each other than concentrated study. I never realized how lucky I was at IU until I tried to study at UNUMBA. At any rate, it takes very little to pass things off as “research” in a provincial university like UNAMBA. Somehow, translating software into Quechua, creating a Quechua spell checker, and copying Quechua dictionaries to publish on the web is considered an exciting research project around here.

To avoid the distractions at the university, I frequently hide away to work in the room I’m renting, but then I have to deal with the 2 year old baby screaming outside my door and the obnoxious parents who scream at her for doing the things which any 2 year old would naturally do. Some people simply should never be parents, and I have never been more firmly convinced that corporal punishment should never be used after observing how these parents hit their 2 year old for doing things like wetting her pants. If I was in the US, I would say something, but I’m not and it isn’t my place. When I’m not listening to the racious family, I have to endure the blaring music from next-door discotheque every weekend night until 5 in the morning. For the rent of 85 soles per month ($27US), I can’t complain too much that the shower only has cold water (which means that it is bone-chilling cold in the Andean mornings) or that there is frequently no water at all during the middle of the day when I most want to take shower so my lips don’t turn blue from the frigid water. To avoid turning into a blue popsicle, I’ve learned to run the water at a trickle and only expose one part of my body at a time to the icy water. I’ve learned to do most of the cleaning with a vigorous scrubbing of the soap, and only use the water for hastily rinsing away the soap afterwards. I get some moral satisfaction from knowing that I am wasting very little water, unlike the average American who uses 400 liters per day, but I would prefer a good hot shower over the limited sense of environmental self-superiority I get from a icy dousing. I didn’t come to Peru to be comfortable, but Chinese water torture every morning isn’t high on my list of ways to pass my time. I could go and look for another room, but it is simply to much of a hassle to contemplate.

All of this is part of the fun and challenge of what I’m doing here in Peru. I think it is very edifying for me to experience the vicissitudes of being in a provincial Peruvian university. It gives me a deeper understanding of life here that I never observed as a long-haired, hippy tourist.

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