Living in Peru has a way of making everyday activities into epic misadventures. Things you barely take time to consider at home — mailing a letter, getting a cellphone, buying a sandwich — can leave you confused and in need of a stiff drink here. Case in point: friends in Peru often ask me to tell “the belt story”, a harrowing morality tale of hardship and frustration involving one man’s mission to… return a pair of pants.
It all started when I decided to buy some new jeans. You see, I packed lightly for my Peruvian adventure, caught up as I was in a kind of Jack Kerouac fantasy of hitting the road free from worldly possessions. That worked fine at first, but eventually I realized that living and working in a foreign country would take more than a fleece jacket and a pair of pants. I’m working in an office, after all, not hitchhiking my way through the Andes.
So I set out for Ripley, a sort of Peruvian answer to Macy’s, to buy a pair of bluejeans. I found a decent pair, paid and went home, figuring I’d just bring them back for a refund later if they didn’t fit.
Turns out, the jeans made me look like a backup singer for Bon Jovi, so that weekend I headed back to the store to get my money back. I figured I’d be in and out in 15 minutes, tops. Maybe I could grab a cup of coffee afterward.
The returns line was the first sign that all was not well. A line of women stood in front of me, each carrying mammoth stacks of sweaters, pants and blouses. Bad 90′s love ballads with curiously explicit English lyrics played over the speakers. All signs pointed to a long, painful wait, as I shuffled back and forth impatiently, pants and receipt in hand.
The first woman temporarily lifted my hopes, clearing the line in 10 minutes flat. Those remaining, however, each seemed to take issue with whatever the cashier was telling them. In all, it was over an hour and three Enrique Iglesias songs later that I finally reached the counter and placed my jeans in front of the cashier.
“I’d like to return these, please,” I said in polite, but broken Spanish.
A series of unintelligible words came out of the cashier’s mouth. She awaited my reply.
“Uh… si,” I said.
She nodded, took my receipt, and began to type furiously into a computer for a few moments, before getting up and walking into a back room. I tapped my foot to “Hero” as I waited for the cashier to return with a stack of money. Instead, she came back with a white slip listing a dollar amount. I quickly realized that I’d been given in-store credit, which wasn’t what I wanted. The store didn’t have the pants in my size, after all, and I didn’t need any other clothes.
“No, I’d like cash instead, please,” I’m pretty sure I said. More unintelligible words. I stared back in befuddlement.
“One moment, please,” the cashier said as she stepped into the back room. Another woman emerged who patiently explained to me in English that the store did not grant cash refunds, only in-store credit.
And so began the next chapter of my descent into Peruvian department store hell. I wandered the store aimlessly in search of items of equal or lesser value to the ill-fitting jeans. I fumbled through electronics. I sauntered through the shoe aisle. Nothing looked remotely appealing, and all the while my afternoon was slipping away.
An hour and a half later, my energy and spirits sapped by love ballads and harsh flourescent lighting, I staggered triumphantly to the checkout line, a sweater and two t-shirts of exact value to the ill-fitting jeans in hand.
I waited, patiently now, for the man in front of me to finish arguing with the cashier. A few minutes later, my turn was up. I trembled in anticipation of emerging into the outside world of organic noise and natural lighting.
I stepped up to the counter. A cursory glance at the cashier revealed him to be having one of those Very Bad Days. Not wanting to spoil my chances of freedom, I said nothing and handed him my items and credit slip. He rang them up and looked at me wearily.
“You’re 15 soles short,” he said.
No, I thought, this can’t be! I added them up exactly! There must have been a discount on one of the shirts. Damn you discounts!
Utterly defeated, I stepped away from the counter and begin diligently searching the store for items of 15 soles (about $6) or less. A few minutes into my search, I realized that getting out of Ripley’s immediately was worth much more to me than 15 soles, so I walked back empty-handed to the checkout line.
The cashier looked at me disapprovingly.
“Esta bien,” I said. “Keep the 15 soles. I couldn’t find anything for that price.”
“No,” he said impatiently. “You need to use all of your credit or you can’t buy the items.”
“But that doesn’t make sense!” I said, switching to English out of complete anger and frustration. “I don’t need anything else. Just give me my clothes and I’ll leave.”
The cashier was ruthless and unyielding. He looked to the items around him, and abruptly grabbed the first thing he saw: a cheap and enormous black belt. Its price was 20 soles, five over my credit amount. He rang it up as I looked on in total exasperation.
“That will be 5 soles,” he said, a no-nonsense look on his face.
What insanity! What injustice! What waste of precious resources that went into the creation of a belt that I neither needed nor wanted. I suddenly felt that this cashier was testing me. I gave him my best Clint Eastwood “make my day” stare.
“But I don’t need a belt,” I said coldly.
He shrugged and looked at me in silence. We had reached our limit. The impasse. Two weary souls in a final standoff over the absurd purchase of an unwanted belt. The total anguish of hours in a sterile environment between us was palpable. A moment passed as I stared into the abyss. Would I stand up for what I believed in and tell this cashier to get lost with his belt, or would I give him the money and emerge free but defeated into the outside world through the beckoning nearby doors?
In the end, I chose freedom over principle.
“Alright, give me the stupid belt,” I said, handing him 5 soles.
“Have a nice day,” he said.
I walked out bitterly, an unwanted belt richer, four hours and 5 soles poorer.