12 July 2007

Life in Peru

Today there is a strike over the price of petrol. You might just as well protest the rythm of the tides, but the result is no Spanish classes today. Instead I have diligently worked through several revision exercises to secure my command of the present tense and gender. This evening I will work on the past tenses - all three of them.

Fans of the Hitch Hiker´s Guide the the Galaxy will know that an interstellar hitch hiker is one that really knows where his towel is. In Peru it is equally important to keep a firm hold on your toilet roll. The existence of a toilet is no guarantee of little luxuries like paper. In fact I have not yet been too inconvenienced by this.

It is harder to remember that Peruvian plumbing is allergic to the paper. Do not drop your used tissue in the pan! There is a (usually smelly) bin beside the john to receive the used paper. I live in daily fear of forgetting and being responsible for a massive blockage.

Showers are a trial when you are used to lavish jets of hot water. The commonest system is an electric device that incorporates the shower head. It allegedly heats the water on the way through. At anything more than a trickle the water arrives on your skin quite cold, so you turn the tap down really low so that the miserable flow is at least warm.

The homestay shower has three wires looping across the cubicle, all of them sporting a connection bandaged in duct tape. I wish I were making this up, but here is the evidence.

While I am on the Spanish course I am boarding with a local family. Breakfast is a hot drink with bread and jam. The choice of drinks is instant cofee or a similar beverage made from barley. Since Peru borders Brazil and grows some coffee itself, it is rather mysterious that I have not yet encountered properly brewed coffee. The bread is either a traditonal style of soft roll made from maize flour (it tastes the same as wheat flour bread to me) or ´tostas´, thin sliced bread toasted until crunchy. The jams are made from either familiar or local fruits.

Lunch and dinner are invariably a soup followd by la secunda, which will include meat and lots of carbohydrate, often potatoes and rice on the same plate. Rosana, the maid, appears to cook up a double quantity in the morning, because the evening meal is a repeat of lunch, except for the drinks.

Lunch is always accompanied by ´una refresca´ such as a fruit juice or chicha morada, made from purple maize and retaining the colour. I mentally categorise these as cold drinks, but they may be served warm. Dinner is followed by a hot drink, either a coffee, tea or mate (herb tea). My favourite is mate de coca, made from leaves of the wicked coca plant. Despite the frequent jokes, it is non-addictive and may help with adjusting to the altitude.

Hot drinks are invariably made in the mug at the table. The hot water is available to the diners from vacuum flasks.

Yesterday I changed the routine and had lunch with my Spanish teacher in a restaurant. I sampled cebiche, a local delicacy of marinaded fish served with sweet potatoes, and accompanied it with a very pleasant local beer.

I have also tried Peru´s famous Inka Cola. This is a very sweet soft drink that tastes of bubble gum. It is quite horrible and my opinion of Peruvians has dropped with the knowledge that it sells well.

Green vegetables appear in minute quantities in the soups and fruit usually not at all. This is not because they are unavailable or expensive. I have supplied myself with fruit in my room for ridiculously small sums. Oranges are currently in season and available from the supermarket at 1 sol (45c) per kilo.

Motor vehicles
Cusco steets, like those of Lima, are dominated by public transport. The vehicle of choice for taxi operators is a Daewoo Tico. If it was any smaller it would be sold in toy stores. These bounce around Cusco´s mainly cobbled streets for a fixed fare of S/.2.00 (90c), so it is a matter of discipline to get out of the house early enough to walk to class and pretend that I am getting prepared for next week´s trek.

I see quite a few VW Beetles and oddly enough they are all private. I haven´t seen one as a taxi. Cousins Iver and Pam Theilmann have a strange and violent game that revolves around VW Beetles. Maybe they should visit Peru.

No, my Spanish is not yet good enough to follow the news, but the screen has been dominated recently by futbol. The Copa America is being played in Venezuela and the whole family plus cousins, neices and grandsons squashed into the lounge when Peru played Argentina. Rather as expected, Argentina won 4-0. I can follow nearly all the commentary because it is usually just the names of the players as the ball is passed around, with frequent repetiton of the score (cuatro para Argentina, cero para Peru).

A goal, sorry ´gol´, is greeted with wild shouts and, except when it is scored against Peru, a long, drawn out "Gooooooooool" that lasts as long as the commentator has breath. This is clearly a well established routine because there is a commercial that takes the mickey out of it.


Peru is tropical, but I am having to re-learn what tropical is. High-altitude Cusco in July is typically sunny days that support a short-sleeved shirt and cloudless, cold nights. That pattern held for a week and then clouds moved in. Now it is cold all the time. It even rained on Monday, which is exceptional for the middle of the dry season.
Plaza de Armas, Cusco, in the sunshine.

What is staggering is that houses are not heated. We all sit down to dinner in woollies and jackets. On one occasion Alcides, the head of the household, put on gloves after the meal.

The blankets on my bed are heavy and effective. Nonetheless I have taken to sleeping with a jumper over my pyjamas, and socks. I am saving my thermal underwear for next week, when I will be sleeping in a tent.

This is reasonable in Cusco due to the altitude. What I cannot properly explain to myself is why Lima was so cool. It´s not far from the equator, but it was no warmer than Auckland. Maybe it´s due to the cold Humboldt Current that washes the Peruvian coast. Please add a comment if you can explain this.

I am findng out about trips to the jungle. The prospect of being hot and sweaty is really appealing right now.


Ricardo said...

My official geotechnical opinion of the terraces is that "they don't build 'em like they used too!"

Sounds like you're having a some fantastic adventures. I look forward to your photos and hearing about the upcoming trip to Machu Picchu.

John Charlton said...

Bill - Great blog, will tell all who know you about it. Re Humbolt Current, basically you're right. It is so cold that no water evaporates from it, so no rain falls on great tracts of the west coast of Sth America when a westerly blows. As the easterly winds rain on the other side of the Andes, this coast is one of the dryest places on Earth.

Look forward to your next post..