A Floral Misunderstanding

By Katie Nehlsen ’11 / Peru

During the winter break between my first and second trimesters at Thunderbird, I finally had a chance to relax after four grueling months of academic boot camp, Orientation, and my Data Analysis class. In true T-bird habit, my relaxation quickly turned into an uncontrollable compulsion to travel.

One of my best friends from school, Cynthia, was spending the break at her family home in Lima, Peru. She had invited me to visit. Gladly accepting her hospitality, I bid my family in the United States a warm adios and was on an airplane headed south the day after Christmas. 
My first trip to South America turned out to be a wonderful adventure.

The bustling city of Lima offers great food, fabulous ocean views, and ridiculously fun nightlife. But outside of the city borders is where the magic really happens. Peru is full of exotic treasures taking visitors back thousands of years to some of the earliest civilizations. However, like other things in life, the best parts are the hardest to reach. With little public transportation available, the best, sometimes only, way to reach some of the most intriguing points of interest in Peru, including Nazca, Las Islas Ballestas and Caral, is by car. There is an infrastructure of roads, and even rest stops along the coastal highway, but the journey is intense, especially in a compact car with no air conditioning in the middle of the summer.

On a particularly sunny, hot day, Cynthia and I hopped in the car with her brother Eddy and another friend to take a day trip to Caral, 200 kilometers north of Lima, and the most ancient city in the Americas dating back to 2600 BC. Nearly five hours later, we arrived at the archeological site and spent a few pleasant cooler hours exploring and learning about the early culture. On the drive up to Caral, our little car had blown a tire. Eddy insisted that we stop to replace the spare, because he was doubtful that it would survive the drive back to Lima. We stopped in a small local town to get another tire as dusk approached. We had told Cynthia’s parents that we would be back in the late afternoon, so we were not surprised when the cell phone rang and the caller ID showed their home number. However, when Cynthia answered the phone, she was shocked by her mother’s pleading wails for us to come home immediately. “¿Qué pasó, Mama?” Cynthia asked what had happened over and over again to her mother on the other end of the phone. She received no answer besides the directive to return home between sobs. Cynthia became frustrated and handed the phone to her brother. Maybe he could find out what had happened and try to get their mother to calm down. Eddy fared no better than Cynthia had; no one knew why their mother was so distressed.

Once Eddy got off the phone, he finished with the llantero, thanked the tire repairman and we were back on the road. Worried and confused about her usually even-tempered mother’s emotional outbreak, Cynthia told us that it would be at least another three hours until we arrived back at home. The three hour drive seemed to last a week. All of us were anxious to face their mother and find out what had upset her so greatly.

As soon as we parked the car near their home, we all rushed up the stairs of the high-rise. We were greeted by hugs and kisses of thanks that we were alive. Alive? They were worried that we were not alive? Through the flurry of activity and everyone talking at once, my mediocre Spanish skills could not keep up. Thoroughly confused, I stood there accepting her mother’s embrace over and over again, smiling to show that there was no need for tears or worry. To make matters more confusing, there was a gigantic bouquet of white flowers on the kitchen table that seemed to be part of the uncertainty because everyone kept talking about “las flores”, the flowers. I could not begin to put two and two together.

After a few minutes, emotions died down and everything seemed to normalize again. Cynthia looked at me and, noticing the dumbstruck look on my face, started laughing hysterically. “Can you please tell me what happened?” I begged her. Through her choking laughter she explained the situation. My boyfriend, who was deployed in Afghanistan at the time, wanted to send me flowers to wish me a buen viaje, a good trip. He does not speak Spanish, so one can imagine the breakdown in communication while ordering a flower delivery in Peru via phone from Afghanistan. My name, Katie, does not translate very well in Spanish. In fact, Cynthia’s dad called me Heidi for most of my trip. So the card on the flowers simply read, “For Kyate, with love.” Unbeknownst to my sweet boyfriend, who always sends me white roses and lilies, in Peru white flowers are used only at funerals. All of this resulted in the scenario that while we were on a slightly dangerous all-day excursion to the middle-of-nowhere, Cynthia’s poor mother had answered a knock at the door to receive a bouquet of white “funeral” flowers with my name on it. Cynthia continued on with the story in between laughs, telling me that the deliveryman had even been so polite as to say “my condolences” when he handed the flowers to her mother. Not knowing whether I was already dead or if it was a sign from God that I soon would be, she panicked, and started calling us on the cell phone to come home right away. I now understood why I received so many hugs when we first arrived – I was still alive!

Cynthia’s mother is a very sweet woman and did not blame my boyfriend or me for her day of woe.

I learned a very valuable lesson that was not taught in my Cross Cultural Communication class on campus: never send flowers in a country without considering the cultural differences first... and proper translation!

Katie Nehlsen, a 2011 graduate of Thunderbird School of Global Management, previously worked in the wine and spirits industry for several years. At the time of this writing, she was residing in Germany.