Reflections on living in a big city – or welcome to my existential crisis?

I feel I can now say that we have acclimatized to the big city life in Lima.  I probably noticed it a few weeks ago.  It probably helped that the weather had become cooler so the shock of the heat when I would step out of the apartment building wasn’t there anymore.  I have also noticed quieter evenings in the park behind the building.  There are less folks hanging out on the grass with their dogs so now there are less people and less dogs in conflict.

Of course it takes a while to get into a routine.  It has been years since I have had to do a 9 to 5 (40 hour work week) job routine.  I honestly don’t know how I ever did it.  I was “spoiled” in my early 30s when I landed a job at a student union after I completed my graduate studies.  It was a unionized worksite of more than 30 years, with beginnings founded on strong feminist principles due to the fact that the majority of workers were women and this was during the 1970s.  Depending on which job you had you either worked 28 (4 days) or 35 hours/week.  Even with the 35 hour/week job I managed to arrange a fortnight of work – working 9 days out of 14 instead of 10.  Needless to say we had great pay, benefits and vacation.  We even had our birthdays as a holiday for ourselves when I began work there but which we lost in the round of contract negotiations that were taking place as I began the job.  You might be thinking that is crazy getting your birthday as a day off.  Why?  As someone who rarely celebrates this day, I have always thought everyone should get this day off to spend it as they please if we value people’s birthdays which most people do.

I recently found out that Peru has a minimum monthly wage, not a minimum hourly wage as we do.  It is set at s/.800 which is more or less equivalent to $320. The common work week is 48 hours, usually working on Saturdays.  No wonder most folks have to live with family members in households of multiple generations.  There is a regulation that you are to be paid for overtime but you have to hope you have a good boss.  I have been told that in the corporate world there is more adherence to the labour laws but I have my doubts.  I have also been told that most folks don’t know their rights as it pertains to work – no surprise there unfortunately.  Was there ever a time that all students in elementary or secondary level had a requirement to take a course in labour – history & contemporary – or that this content was included in mandatory history courses?  Why would that be included?  Heck we don’t want folks questioning their working conditions. Thank ‘god’ for unions I say despite the problems in that world.

Side note: As I walk around the city and watch all the cars I wonder how does anyone afford to own one of these things.  Owning a car is a luxury out of reach for the vast majority of folks.  I guess in a city of 10 million even if there are only 1 million cars that is enough to clog up the city.

The hours of work for all the different organizations that are housed in the building are 9 to 5.  Most folks seem to come in at after 9, most likely because we are a bunch of non-profits sharing the space.  Because of the academic working world, I am used to working at various times of the day, e.g. very early in the morning or into the evening, but essentially setting my own hours and doing the hours to get the work done.  I do sometimes feel I should work the 9 to 5 regularly so that I am in solidarity with the other workers in the office.  But for a variety of reasons I still choose not to do this at least not always:  I am not a child that needs to be supervised, I am a volunteer, I always get the work done, I have the experience to know how I work best and I will support myself in this.

I guess when I started thinking about writing another blog post, after not having written one for a while, I decided to write about why I wasn’t feeling that great in general but also about this city.  Now that the newness of all this place has worn off, the mundaneness of city living is stark – the drudgery of 9 to 5 living. You know that expression about working to live or living to work?  I always have been perplexed by that one since I don’t like either case.  Of course I wouldn’t just live to work but I also don’t just want to work to live.  Am I the only one that feels this way?

When I have looked up info about living in this city before we came here and since being here, I find blog posts, articles, etc… that appear to be overall painting a quite positive picture, of course noting the initial challenges.  And I find myself thinking really??  I realize that folks who are aspiring writers or looking for work in said new country/city need to focus on the good and not be negative in their depictions.  But city living is not always good or great – at least for the majority of folks – unless you have the funds to do the things you need and want to do.

Some of these stories come from the perspective of someone marrying a native and thus they are thrust into the bosom of a large family and will be welcomed accordingly.  Others come from folks who are garnering a good income far above the average worker and so they get to enjoy delicious food, cultural and recreational endeavours, a car perhaps, a view over the ocean from where they live, vacations, etc..

I don’t know if Peruvians are shy and reserved or mistrustful because of the time of violence 1980-2000, or is this just their way. With the tremendous influx of rural folks into a foreign world that was not desired but forced in order to escape the violence there is a clash of cultures – the Limeno urban world and the Indigenous rural world.  I know that family is at the core of any community, society, culture.  It is the same everywhere in the world. However, I can’t help but feel I am once again living a place where you are either a local or a stranger – a come from away to use the Canadian Maritime equivalent saying.

I have known for decades that all I have ever sought was a sense of belonging (this is at everyone’s core), not a feeling I had necessarily with my family as I learned when I lived on my own and entered the world of activism.  With my predilection to travel, being part of one community for a lengthy period was just not going to happen for me, as every few years I would find myself in a different part of the world willingly but also often by chance – following an opportunity that was presented to me.  However, I also learned that I had to make the effort to make friends and I would do this almost always by getting involved in some community organizations or social causes with my activist interests.  I made lifelong friends this way.

So my community and my sense of belonging was never set in a specific geographic location.  I always considered myself a citizen of the world first, of Canada second, of wherever I would be living third.  I often noted how I would consciously start to say ‘I’m going home” let’s say after a night out or after a day of work, and this to me was a sign that I felt at home wherever I found myself living.  I do chock up a lot of this to my ability to adapt and to embrace change, new cultures, making connections with in essence strangers. I found it interesting that in a recent study of Maritimers, they felt themselves first to be a citizen of the place they were born and raised so this could be a rural community, a rural region, e.g. Cape Breton, and secondly a citizen of the province of regional area, e.g. Maritimes, and then only thirdly a citizen of Canada, and of course there was no mention of the world.

As a result of feeling at times disconnected from people or communities, even my family, and from my experiences spending time with different Original Peoples, there was a time during my 40s I believe it was when I began to wonder ‘who are my people’.  I don’t mean going back to one’s European ancestors – I have this info on my father’s side – the van der Veen clan (I recently found out that this is the most common family name in Holland – go figure – so I would be related to most people in Holland?). I mean going even farther back say a few thousand years.  I remember having one acute but painful realization after having participated in a sacred circle, that these people, the Original Peoples who were in the circle, were ‘not my people’.  I have some shame in having felt an attraction to First Nations but this was a false connection, more about yearning for their deep connection to mother earth, that they know their histories despite the traumas they have experienced thanks to colonization. Because of my love of landscapes but in particular desert or semi-desert landscapes I have wondered if there is some ancestral meaning in this.  A former colleague of mine once suggested that ‘my people’ might have come from the Steppes.  It is interesting to note that I have lived in two such places, Kelowna, BC, and now Lima.

I know there would be pros and cons to being posted in any remote rural village in an African country compared to the big city in any nation.  I hear in the former situation in some cases you are automatically part of the community but thus having no privacy or time to be by oneself, whereas in the city anonymity is easy but alienation, aloneness are the flipside of this.  It remains to be seen whether I or we will make any lasting friends beyond some of the volunteers. I am not hopeful.  This isn’t to be a judgement of Lima or of Peru in general.  Simply an observation.

Peruvians can be very friendly.  I have no trouble going up to someone on the street to ask directions or similar.  An aside. I have been told that since Peruvians don’t want to be rude, they will try to answer your question even if they don’t actually know the answer, e.g. I have felt like I was going around in circles when I was looking for a certain street since different people kept telling me to go here and others would say go there.  It seems funny now.  I have learned to go up to police or similar since they seem to have a better idea of the city.  Security guards do not unless they are from the area and you obviously can’t tell this from looking at them.

As with Canadians and Americans I find the friendliness somewhat superficial or rather it stays on that level.  I know I can’t expect open arms and being welcomed into someone’s home although that is exactly what I would do.  It takes being a traveler and wanderer (I mean someone who experiences wanderlust so wandering with intention, not someone who is lost) to know what it feels like to not know anyone so I will make every effort to make people feel welcome.  I have learned over the years, there is an interesting dynamic if one is a couple or single and in the latter case a woman or a man.  As a couple there must be this assumption that you have things to do, you are part of a group – a group of two.  Obviously having kids would be a different story because then you are immersed into the world of school, daycare and similar so connections are made whether you actually like the people you are connecting with or not. I know I am disappointed in that we are not and most likely will not connect with locals, especially since the meeting with the country resource person at the Cuso intensive training told us one is invited to all family social occasions – she neglected to mention the fact that this would happen because you are part of the family to begin with.  Pretty misleading info which I have been needing to mention to my voluntary mobilization advisor – how’s that for a job title.

Well this was a bit of a ramble but that is where my head is at. I haven’t really talked much about my existential crisis but it is tied into that sense of belonging, looking to find one’s place in the environments one find oneself in. I am still intermittently struggling with the project I am doing – finally scheduling some interviews – and questioning what is the real purpose of my posting, or my role in the organization’s work. Some of the struggle is similar to what I have experienced back in NS when I was part of a group of folks looking to set up community food hubs.  The issues are uncannily the same – how do you provide organic food to those who have limited means, how do you get more folks into (organic) farming without going into debt. There are solutions but in my view this means changing the whole economic system which just won’t happen.  So I am left wondering is there an expectation that I am a wonder woman who will come up with some magical solution?!?!  Okay I will stop now.  Any thoughts out there??

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4 Responses to Reflections on living in a big city – or welcome to my existential crisis?

  1. Lucrezia Borgia says:

    Humans are like inverted turtles. The only home we have is the one we carry around inside ourselves.

  2. Linda says:

    Echos of how I have felt in my nomadic life! At the end of my own peripatetic wandering, (i.e. having returned to my native country/province), I now discover that the result is I have learned how to feel comfortable always being an outsider. Not ideal, but it does make transitions easier somehow. Looking at it as taking a more “objective” perspective on what is going on around me.

    • wwolfvan says:

      I appreciate your thoughts on this. I too am comfortable with being the outsider although it took a while to get to that point. It certainly does lend itself to having a different and unique perspective. I have learned that home and community is what you make, rarely is it what you fall into, and thus you don’t take for granted your connections with people, and you need to make an effort to find connections that support you. I wouldn’t trade this experiencing of life – embracing wanderlust – as this is what life is all about.

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