Wednesday, September 30

The real reason I now watch TV

Sergio and I made the big purchase I told myself I'd never make. We bought a TV. 

I resisted at first, but then Sergio reminded me that the nightly news programs like "Prensa Libre" (Free Press) and "Enemigos Intimos" (Intimate Enemies) would be a good way to keep up with Peru current events. 

Also, they have this great national TV channel that always has a historical, cultural or generally educational program on, specifically about Peru. 

I grudgingly admit that it's been nice for me to have a TV. Also because the primetime telenovelas (soap operas) are easy for me to follow.

But to be honest, the real reason I watch TV is for that one lucky moment when they show this great commercial for Peru's yellow pages. Sergio's brother taught me the lyrics, so I can even sing along:

Tuesday, September 29

"Do they kick you out if you speak Spanish?"

Yesterday was my first private English lesson with Aleja (5) and Joaquin (4).

At the private elementary school they attend, Aleja and Joaquin have English class. And at their age, they have even more potential to capture a new language and speak it correctly. That's why their parents brought me to speak with them three days per week. 

Aleja and Joaquin are excited to learn a new language. They know most of the colors. They can count. They can say a few specific words. Sometimes they even shout out the right answer when they know it!

But the most interesting part of our session yesterday was when Aleja's curiosity got the best of her, and she asked me in Spanish:

Aleja: Miss, when did you learn to speak English?
Me: Ever since I was a baby, I've spoken English. Actually, I didn't learn Spanish until recently. 

Aleja looked surprised and confused. This was obviously disrupting her world view. 

Aleja: You didn't speak Spanish? But how did you talk to your parents?
Me: My parents speak English too. And so does my brother. Where I am from, everyone speaks English. 

She thought about it again, and after a few minutes of reading with Joaquin, she interrupted:

Aleja: Do they kick you out if you speak Spanish?

I laughed, and realized she had really thought this through. 

Me: Oh no, Aleja. They don't throw you out if you speak Spanish. You can speak Spanish there. It's just that most people won't understand you. 

I'll be interested to see what she asks me on Wednesday, after thinking it through for a few days. Learning about someone from another culture, another country, with another language. These kids are in for a treat.

Monday, September 28

The most magic of all hours

My favorite time of day in Arequipa is approximately 5:45 p.m.

The photos speak for themselves:

Sunday, September 27

Raatukama, aka Hasta Luego!

I went with Sergio and La Senora Delia today to drop off the last orders of bread and buy some last-minute supplies. 

To get eggs and lard, we went to a very dark, scary street and knocked on a unassuming metal door. Out came a well-dressed woman with two crates of eggs. I didn't understand what she and La Senora Delia were talking about. As you can imagine, this sometimes happens to me. 

But this time, I realized it wasn't just that I didn't understand, it was that the two senoras weren't speaking Spanish. They were speaking Quechua!

La Senora Delia can speak Quechua and Aymara, the main indigenous languages in Peru. 

And this isn't a small thing. Indigenous peoples, mainly Quechua and Aymara, make up 45% of Peru's population. Most Peruvians don't speak either language. 

Actually, when I told Sergio that the number was as high as 45%, he didn't believe me at first.

This little video from Latin Pulse (25 minutes) gives some perspective about the indigenous peoples of Latin America:

Friday, September 25

The true meaning of cabron, Humala Pt 1

The Spanish word cabron comes from cabro (the male goat); it is used to call someone a coward.  Recently, cabron has dominated the national news. 

One of the candidates for the 2011 presidential elections, Ollanta Humala, called former President Alberto Fujimori and current President Alan Garcia cabrones. Politicians and newscasters are having a hay day with it. It's inappropriate. It's uncouth. It's kind of funny. That's why they love it. 

This cartoon, for example, pokes fun at Humala:

This week, President Alan Garcia put the onus on the Organization of American States (OEA) and Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) to halt the hyper-militarization of Latin America. He said that if these two organizations couldn't do anything to temper military spending in Latin America,  they were useless. 

He did call OEA and UNASUR cowards with a little stately grace, unlike Humala, who evokes vocabulary inappropriate for political settings.  

Thursday, September 24

My budget in soles

After being here for about five weeks, I decided it was time to figure out my budget:

Electricity: S/. 25
Water: S/. 25
Internet: S/. 40
Groceries: S/. 150
Eating Out: S/. 150
Transport: S/.150
Peru cell phone S/. 30
Misc. S/. 45
Entertainment S/. 45
Total S/. 660 or $224

That looks great, doesn't it! Or at least until we calculate how much I'm making:

Institute classes S/. 8.50 per hour
Monthly total S/. 484
Private classes S/. 35 per hour
Monthly total S/.420

Total income: S/. 904 or $306. 

Wednesday, September 23

Pisco is Peruvian, carajo!

When I studied one semester in Chile, everyone assured me that pisco (a rum-like liquor distilled from grapes) was Chilean. When I started dating a Peruvian back in the States, the origin of pisco came up one day. I offended him with what I knew to be the true home of pisco--Chile. 

He assured me that I was very mistaken, that Peru instead was famous for pisco. 

He also assured me that I should quickly forget anything Chileans ever told me. You see, Chile and Peru haven't really hit it off since Chile grabbed up some Peruvian land after winning the War of the Pacific. In the 1880s, Chile fought Bolivia and Peru over the mineral-rich border territories. Chile walked away with a large portion of southern Peru, in addition to leaving Bolivia landlocked, as it remains today. 

There is still quite the tension between the three countries. So you can see, then, why the origin of pisco is no small question. 

But today I found official evidence that pisco is in fact from Peru. As it turns out, after the United States, Chile is the second largest importer of Peruvian pisco. 

Touche, my peruano. Touche. 

Tuesday, September 22

Arequipa's guardian angel, Senora Delia, Pt 1

She gets up at 4 a.m. everyday to prepare the bread, cake and cookie orders for the restaurants, hotels and bus lines. At 5 a.m., she and her crew put the orders in the van to deliver. For next hour, she drives frantically around the city, trying to meet every deadline and ensure every customer gets the order they requested. 

Then she returns to the bakery, where again she prepares the bread, cakes and pastries for the two bakeries she runs herself. She does the whole thing over again. 

And of course, as with any business, something always go wrong. The city cuts the water, halting all production until it magically comes back on. A kid doesn't show up for work. The bread was miscounted. They ran out at the panaderia, and we have to drop off more. The accountant's here and has questions about the business plan. Someone arrives at the door asking for work. Then, the electricity blacks out, and the ovens can't turn on. 

She must get 50+ calls per day, on top of all the questions she gets from her workers and sons. At age 52, she juggles it all every day. 

Finally, around 7 p.m., she makes another round of deliveries. She closes all the tiendas at 10 and then buys gas and other supplies so that the boys can keep preparing bread on through the night.

Sergio says that when she dies someday, the million people living in Arequipa will show up for her funeral. They won't be able to fit in the church. But this isn't because of her work at the bakery, the great bread she makes or the clients she has. 

It's because Sergio's mom, Senora Delia is the city's guardian angel. 

Last night at 10 p.m., for example, a poor neighborhood family came by the house. Their daughter was taken to the hospital for a severe infection. They didn't have the money to pay the hospital bills. And what would they do if their 20-year-old daughter couldn't work? They would be short for several months. 

Senora Delia gave them $300 (that buys a lot more than it does in the States), and wished their daughter good health. 

This scene is normal at the Perez house. La senora has helped many local families in their difficult moments.  Even though she is often in need, she never fails to help whoever asks for it. She shares her private bathroom and kitchen with 15 workers. She's exhausted every night. But she never stops helping. 

Another example: Senora Delia took four teenage boys (16-20 years old) under her wing. They came from the campo, outside the city, I think she told me.  One didn't even speak Spanish when he arrived, but instead an indigenous language called Quechua. She taught him how to speak. He and the other boys live here in the house downstairs. Right now, they are even sharing a room with la senora. They work 6-7 hours per day and then go off to school in the early mornings or late evenings. 

She treats them like her kids. Redy sometimes asks for a little forward on his paycheck so he can go get an ice cream or go to a movie. Senora Delia always indulges him. One Saturday night, Juan disappeared and didn't come back until early in the morning. Senora Delia couldn't sleep. She woke up at 3 a.m. worried sick!

They seem like little kids to me, and at first, it worried me that they didn't have their families with them. But now I see that they do have a family. And responsibilities. And an education. Thanks to Arequipa's guardian angel.

Monday, September 21

malo malo malo eres!

Sergio just taught me this song by Spanish artist Bebe. 
Bebe says that she won't accept her boyfriend's machismo anymore.

...Y tu inseguridad machista
And your machista insecurity
Se refleja cada dia en mis lagrimitas...
Is reflected every day in my tears

Malo, malo, malo eres
Bad, bad, bad you are
No se dana a quien se quiere, no!
People don't just hurt whoever they want, no!
Tonto, tonto, tonto eres
Stupid, stupid, stupid you are
No te pienses mejor que las mujeres.
You aren't smarter than women.

Sunday, September 20

The Story of Marcela, the Giant Bear-Like Dog, Pt 1

Once upon a time (approx. 23 years ago) in a land far, far away (Peru) lived a little boy named David. 

David (pronounced Dah-veed) loved his pets. He had a rabbit, a hamster, a dog and a cat. 

One day, David grew up. He moved away, and left his little pets behind. David was sad. David felt alone, so he bought a new pet. A BIG pet. A giant bear-sized dog. Her name was Marcela.

Marcela and David were happy together. Then one day, David had to move. His boss said so. So he put all his things in his suitcase and moved to a new house with Marcela. 

But in the new house, there wasn't enough space for Marcela. She grew and grew, and the house got smaller and smaller. David didn't know what to do. He felt sad for Marcela, and a bit squished. 

So he took Marcela far far away to his parent's house. It had a large patio with lots of dirt and plenty of space for a growing giant bear-sized dog. Marcela was happy! David felt better, and less squished. 

Marcela grew, and Grew, and GREW! Until one day... she was so big that she couldn't share the house with the other pets anymore. So she ate David's pet rabbit.

But she didn't stop growing. The house got so small one day that Marcela pushed by David's mom, and David's dad and pushed herself right out the front door and onto the street. There she found other dogs! They were all shapes and sizes, and had new and exciting smells! She loved being outside. 

There on the street, she met a very special dog (type stray extraordinaire). They fell in love. 

But Marcela didn't say a thing, until one day David's brother Sergio noticed something was different about her. She was getting a belly, and lying around a lot. She looked ready to feed her babies milk---wait...BABIES?!?! 

David doesn't know about Marcela's love, or her future babies. David would be mad because he picked Marcela for her pure blood and elite breed, so Sergio doesn't tell him. Neither does David's mom or dad.

So Marcela sits around and waits for the right moment to tell David her big news. Everyone waits to tell David the big news.

~To Be Continued~


Saturday, September 19

I drank cocaine?

Most people know that cocaine is cultivated and processed in the jungles of South America; Colombia is an especially well-known example. 

But what most people don’t know is that the coca, the main ingredient in cocaine, has been and is still used medicinally in most of the jungle region. Coca leaves are in many Andean kitchen cupboards.

Have a stomach ache? Chew one a coca leaf for awhile, or boil the leaves in a cup of hot water to make mate de coca. You’ll feel better pretty quickly.

Here in Peru, many people use coca leaves to help with the high altitudes they climb into each day. 

Puno, which is at 12, 500 feet above sea level, was my first occasion to try mate de coca. I had nausea on the bus ride from the rapid change in altitude and booted my breakfast in the bus bathroom.  But when we arrived, Sergio’s cousin quickly brewed me some mate de coca and I felt much better.

Because of situations like mine, it’s really difficult for governments to monitor narcotrafficking in countries like Peru. There are many legitimate coca farmers, who grow the leaves and then bring them to the cities to the sell. The narcos, however, who grow the leaves and then sell them to drug lords, or process then with kerosene, are the ones to catch. Many times, it is difficult to differentiate between the two. 

Now in Peru, the domestic terrorist group of the 1990s, The Shining Path or Sendero Luminoso, is having a comeback, mainly because the drug crackdown in Colombia has pushed some of the cocaine business to the Peruvian jungle—one of the few places the senderistas still operate. Now they have their violent agenda and drug money to fund it.  While there have been few terrorists incidents in the past five years, the situation still concerns many Peruvians.

But it's impossible to put laws over something as wild as the Amazon. Especially from a South American perspective, it seems so futile to attack the drug trade from the supply side.

Friday, September 18

Lake Titicaca at 5 a.m.

The view from our window at Sergio's aunt's house towards the east, which gives you just a hint of the enormous Lake Titicaca. Looking at the map below, we were in Puno looking east, seeing only the western-most section of the lake.

For centuries, the people here have believed that Lake Titicaca is sacred, and that the Incan gods were born from the waters here on the Altiplano. Looking at this map, you can see why this high-altitude sea might seem to have special powers.

Pre-Incan ruins or the most profitable joke ever?

Our second day in Puno with Sergio’s two brothers, we woke up too late to visit anything more than 20 minutes away. Thinking I could be of help, I pulled out my Lonely Planet to find another option, and there it was. It sounded great! 

“On a small promontory on the southern shore of Lake Titicaca, Chucuito, a small Aymara town, is one of the oldest in the altiplano region....Said to date pre-Columbian times, Inca Uyo is composed of dozens of large, mushroom-shaped phallic stones, most a few feet high, which locals claim were erected as part of fertility rituals....At the center of the ring, lording over the temple is the king phallus." 

Ha! Perfect! Close by! Historic! Pre-Columbian! Quaint! A "king phallus" included! What more could we want for a half day trip that would get us back in time for lunch with Sergio’s very anal-retentive aunt?

The combi (bus) dropped us off in front of a colonial church. With the two Brits we met on the combi, we went in. The paint had chipped away. The benches were dusty, as if no one had attended service there in quite some time. What little I know about the Catholic tradition frustrates me in moments like this.   I don’t understand the paintings, nor the little glass boxes with doll-like saints locked in them.

And I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one because within a few minutes we were outta there. We walked down a few blocks to a beautiful mirador (lookout) where we could see over the farms to the south to the expansive lake east of Chucuito. We took enough pictures to supply National Geographic for a year, and the finally were on our way to the main event—the king phallus!

We arrived to discover that it costs 10 soles ($3.30) to enter the dinky courtyard the size of a city block. Luckily, Sergio convinced the Senora to let us in at the “Peruvian rate” of  two soles ($0.60).  Quite a charmer, that boyfriend of mine. 

On one side, there was a row of booths selling woven hats and trinkets to take home. In the middle, was the supposed main attraction. 

But the real attraction was Panchito, the baby alpaca, whom the site managers so cunningly relocated to this little courtyard. Sergio’s 23-year-old brother must have played with Panchito for 10 minutes. I had to give him a little hug too.

After little Panchito started to bore us, we entered the kingdom of the phallus. 

Sergio thought it was hilarious. Everyone laughed, took pictures and sat on the stones, which supposedly helps you to be fertile.

Sergio asked me if I wanted a picture. It occurred to me that the Incan sun god might be a little offended by my making light of this ancient homage to his greatness, so I declined.

The Brits laughed at that, and then proceeded to tell me how the whole temple was just a rouse, a tourist trap made to bring money into Chucuito.  They had read it in a guidebook. 

After we had our fun, we left to wait for the combi, where we met the man who cares for another Catholic church just off the plaza. He showed us around, even though the church was closed down, and then explained to us the “true” story about the phallus kingdom:

According to him, the garden was originally an old stone ruin, possibly pre-Incan. But before that could be documented, someone thought it would be really funny to adjust the stones just bit so they looked like penises. 

It was just a joke until some foreign anthropologist came along, and without consulting any locals, publicized his interpretation of the place as a pre-Incan/Incan fertility garden. This interpretation, while antagonizing at first, finally benefited the community of Chucuito. Peruvian and foreign tourists have come flocking to see this odd “ruin.” At $3.30, it’s been a good thing for the community.

But some are not too happy with this farce. For them, it ignores the centuries of ancient culture, from which some of them descended. It’s not right, they say.

I took my picture, and enjoyed the novelty of it all. It will be interesting to see if this little "ruin" will exist into the 22nd century, or if the rouse will be discovered.


When I read my Lonely Planet again, it did say:

"..some contend that they, or at least the manner in which they are displayed, are fake, a hoax perpetrated by locals to rustle up  tourist business. Spanish missionaries did everything in their power to destroy all symbols and structures they considered pagan, and it is highly unlikely that they would have constructed two churches nearby but left this temple intact." 

That'll teach me to read a little bit more carefully. 

Wow, Laura, you've gotten...uh...bigger?

Many things are smaller in Peru than in the States—the cars, doors, streets, the people. It’s something I noticed immediately when I arrived. The national highways are two-thirds the size of the two-lane highways back home. 

"But isn't it impossible to maintain the safe and regular flow of traffic?" you ask.  Why yes it is. But the cars are smaller too. They have to fit through narrow cobblestone streets from the Spanish colonial area, and squeeze by commuter buses on the highway. It makes sense, then, that the VW beetle (escarabajo) was practically the national car at one time.

But the people? Yes, the people are smaller here, generally. They don’t eat hydrogenated high fructose TV dinners with loads of saturated fat five times a week. I think I may have seen ONE person I could classify as obese. Everyone else enjoys bread and tea in the morning, a nice big soup with a main course at lunch, and bread and tea again in the evening. Snacks are available, but Peruvians must not eat them or they’d be our size.

These are all interesting things to observe, but it's started getting old. EVERY time I get in a taxi (usually ticos), I bang my head on the door frame; EVERY time I get in a combi (bus), the ceiling is too low for me to stand up.

It will be weird coming back to the States. I remember arriving back from Chile, my first excursion abroad, to what seemed like an inflated country. Some poor idiot was in a corner somewhere blowing real hard so everything would be just a little bit bigger. 

My mom picked me up that day from the airport in her little Chevrolet Jimmy. I felt like I was riding in an army tank to my first battle. 

Tuesday, September 15

Chicharrones and a Pottey Break in the Altiplano

On the four-dollar, six-hour bus ride, I definitely got my money’s worth. Beyond the nausea, the lack of air conditioning and the smell of coca leaves and alpaca poo, the largest value-added bonus on the trip was the potty break.

We were traversing the “Altiplano,” the 12,000+ mesa in southern Peru and northwestern Bolivia that claims Lake Titicaca (Peruvians say their half is “titi;” the Bolivians got “caca”). 

After we lost site of Puno, the lakeside town where the majority of Sergio’s family lives, it was only the Altiplano before us,  the territory of alpacas, lllamas sheep, cows and vicunas. At one point, the bus driver even had to honk the horn so a group of llamas would get off the highway.

Every once in awhile I saw a human figure on the top of the hill behind a herd of llamas. Women sometimes, they hid under layers of the traditional Quechua skirts—voluminous, bright and hand-stitched. Both men and women carried all their belongings on their back in a colorful cloth.

I couldn’t figure out if the homes I saw were in construction or decaying after decades of use. Most were incomplete stone homes with aluminum roofs held down by rocks and boards, usually with a stone fence surrounding it for when the sheep come home.

But when we approached the turnoff to Cusco, a little “colonia" appeared. I related it more to an I-40 truck stop—Peru style. The gas station, just as in any U.S. truck stop town, was the nicest building, freshly painted with advertisements. There were two restaurants I could make out from the worn letters on the doors, a few grocery stores and rows of adobe homes. The littered streets were patrolled by the local muts--a pack of homeless dogs characteristic of any Latin American town from Mexico to Chile.

The bus slowed to pass by the highway police station. There, sitting on the side of the road was a 20-something girl in worn sweatpants and a pink cap that said “Angel” in gems. With her bag, she approached the bus driver and asked something I didn’t understand, then hopped on.

Two minutes later, the bus pulled over and the girl who boarded the bus started selling chicharrones, fried chunks of pig meat (including the skin). For two soles (about 60 cents), Sergio bought a little sandwich bag full of chicharrones with toasted hominy. The girl really cashed in on the bus. At least half of the people on the second floor of the bus with us bought chicharrones.

The other half of the passengers went outside. Men, women, little girls—all went out to pee about 30 feet from the bus, in full site of their companions on board. What a sight, there in the dry, flat Altiplano. It actually seemed to me that the Quecha women had it the best. Their layers of bell-shaped skirts provided the most private and easy pottey break. I actually had to go too, but figured my big white ass would be a little harder to ignore. And I had no wool skirts to hide under. Instead, I shamefully watched the hilarious scene out the window, wishing only that I was brave and rude enough to take a picture.

Within four or five minutes, everyone was back on and we were on the road, the chicharrones girl with us. Once she had sold her beach bag full of merchandise a few miles out, the bus pulled over again and she departed with at least 40 soles and a smile. I imagine she walked back to the truck stop, at least three-four miles back, and then waited for the next passenger bus to come.

Sergio’s reaction was funny. He ate his Peruvian fast food and cursed the bus for not having a functional bathroom. I wondered how he felt. I could watch with interest, a smile and a degree of distance.

But this country--where stray dogs rule and young girls walk miles in the cold desert for less than $15 is his. In all its spectacular geographic diversity, rich indigenous culture and poverty, Peru is Sergio’s home.