The Magical Carpenters of Peru

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I can do it in three days. It will cost you $80 in labor plus materials. You say $50? OK. We have a deal.

Negotiating prices with carpenters in Peru is easy. They will tell you X days and X cost, and if you lower the price they will agree if it sounds pretty reasonable. So you feel great, you found an inexpensive carpenter, and you made a great deal.

Unfortunately, the reality is something totally different.

Day one, the carpenter arrives with a plastic bag in his hand, and says: “Where are your tools?” You scratch your head, and wonder “My tools? Isn’t a carpenter supposed to have tools?”

Somehow, with a lead weight (no level) and your pen and saw, he manages to build a frame for the terrace. Fantastic. Until you realize the connecting frame is uneven, because he says the walls are uneven. Huh? “But don’t worry, it’s only differing 2 centimeters. That’s OK.”

Sure, it’s OK until you have to tell the glass smith that you need a square piece of glass that measures 170 cm on one side, and 172 cm on the other, while the top is 78 cm and the bottom is 80 cm. Of course the 2 centimeters matter!

But Eduardo and I fixed it. While the carpenter went out to lunch, we measured the distances over and over again, until we had figured out where the frame needed to be placed to have even sides. The carpenter was thrilled.

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They say that finding a good carpenter in Peru is like finding a needle in a haystack. No one can recommend a carpenter. While they are called magicians (can make ANYTHING), they often don’t make it well. Perhaps the closet drawers don’t close, the bathroom cabinet is too big to fit into its space or the shelves are uneven. It’s never perfect.

This particular one, Amansio, with the face of a crook, was the epitome of unreliable. After finishing the terrace, we asked him to help us refinish our doors. While others were asking for  $700 for 16 doors, Amansio agreed renovate them for $320. In 10 days. What a deal!

Or so it seemed before he disappeared with half of our doors. 

For weeks we called him day and night. No answer. Either his phone was off, or he didn’t pick up. One week went by without doors on the bathrooms. Two weeks. We were thinking Amansio had sold our doors and had returned to the jungle. We would never see him again.Three weeks went by. Not a word. Four weeks.  

Then suddenly out of the blue Amansio called and asked when he should finish the doors. No apology. No explanation. Nothing. But of course he needed more money. He had left the doors at a workshop, and had spent all the money, so now he needed money to pay the laborers.

Relieved, Eduardo went to pick up the doors and paid for the doors, and finally we could pee in privacy again. 

So, in the end, how long did it take and what did it cost? Instead of 3 days and $100 for the terrace, it took 5 days and $120. For the doors – 2 months instead of 10 days, and $700 instead of $320.

It may be true that Peruvian carpenters are magicians. However, the only trick I’ve seen is how they make money disappear. 

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Hello Fat Girl!

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Hola Gorda! Que dices Narizon? Oye Enano!

In Peru, if you are fat, you’ll be called Fatty. If you have a big nose, they’ll call you Narizon (Big Nose). And if you’re short, they’ll call you Midget. And it won’t be your enemies who will call you these names — it will be your lover, your best friend, your mother. In fact, being called Gordita (little fat girl) is a term of affection, even though any European or American girl would probably slap the person who said it.

When I first met one of my husband’s friends, I only knew him buy the name Gordis. He’s a big fat boy, who has been chubby since childhood, so no one ever calls him anything else. It took me years to find out his real name, and even today I struggle with what to call him. I just don’t remember. Is it Alberto Luis? Alberto Juan? Marco Luis? So I end up saying nothing. Too embarrassed to call him Gordis to his face.

Peru is definitely not the place for you if you’re easily insulted. You really have to have thick skin to live here. Let’s say you gain a couple of pounds. No one will hesitate to say “Hi Fat Girl, you’ve gained a lot of weight. What happened?” The same if you If you look sick, have a face full of zits, or have man boobs. You don’t have to wonder if people notice. Don’t worry. They will let you know.

But of course there some limits as to how far they will go. A guy in a wheelchair will not be called “Four Wheels”, a blind person will not be called “Darkness” and a person on his death bed will not be called “The Dead”. Funnily enough, the remarks are not meant to be hurtful, although they might seem exceptionally rude to us who grew up somewhere else.

And me? They call me Flaca (Skinny Girl). Until I gain weight, of course.

The Rice and Potato People

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Everyone who knows a Peruvian knows that they love to eat. In fact, they’re quite  obsessed with their food. Don’t you dare say you don’t like some Peruvian delicacy, it’s almost a mortal sin.

Kidding aside, Peruvian cuisine is increasingly getting popular around the world. Star chef Gaston Acurio just recently opened his first restaurant in New York City, La Mar, moving into Tabla’s old haunts. La Mar is preceded by very many good and not so good Peruvian joints in the city, perhaps most known is the excellent Pio Pio with 4 locations in Manhattan, 3 in Queens and one in the Bronx. And anyone who’s been to the Japanese Brazilian Peruvian fusion restaurant Sushi Samba can appreciate that Peruvian food definitely adds some flair.

What makes the Peruvian cuisine interesting is that it has been influenced by so many different directions. Immigrants from Japan, Spain, China, and Africa have all added their spices, utensils, ways to prepare the foods to the traditional Peruvian style. In addition, several of the foods we consider staples in our own kitchens originate from Peru and Latin America: potatoes, tomatoes, corn, peanuts and chilies.  The sum of it all is a cuisine that’s quite unique. Ceviche: raw fresh fish/seafood “cooked” in the acidity of lime juice. Aji de Gallina: strips of chicken served with a creamy yellow and spicy sauce. Causa: mashed yellow potato in layers with chicken/tuna, avocado and  mixed with key lime, onion and chili. Pachamanca: a variety of meats, herbs and vegetables that are slowly cooked in a covered hole in the ground on a bed of heated stones. And of course Lomo Saltado, the flagship of any Peruvian restaurant worth its name. Lomo Saltado is a dish of strips of beef cooked with onions, tomatoes, oregano and french fries. Served with rice, of course.

Which brings me to the funny side of Peruvian cuisine. Everything is served with rice and potatoes. Everything. Even pasta, sometimes, is served with rice and potatoes. If you don’t have those two sides, it’s not really a meal.

But potatoes can also be served on their own. With over 5,000 varieties of potatoes in Peru, it’s not a wonder that potatoes are so popular. So don’t be surprised to be served a plate of cold potatoes with a yellow spicy sauce for appetizer. Potatoes and nothing else. That’s Papa A La Huancaina. Delicious, but funny for us non-Peruvians. The other one is Papa A La Ocopa, in a gray-green creamy herbal sauce. Both are topped with slices of a boiled egg and black olives. Voilà – you’re set.

Unfortunately, overeating on rice and potatoes will give you a body like Sponge Bob: skinny legs with a square torso. While there is an emerging revolution of healthy foods and exercise, many people still look like they’re carrying a suitcase under their shirt. And tourists that come for a week or two will most likely gain a few pounds. But don’t let this discourage you from trying Peruvian food. Some of it’s really good. With all the seafood and lime, some of it is actually also healthy.

So go on – indulge. As long as as you stay away from all that rice and all those potatoes…

I Am Not the Colour of My Skin

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I’m a magnet for taxis. All taxi drivers see me from a mile away, speed up, then slow down next to me and honk, as if saying “I am here!”

If I ignore them, they honk louder: “I AM HERE NOW!” They don’t care about the other five taxis that just passed me and that I didn’t stop.  Casually, I shake my head, indicating that I’m not interested. Then they finally drive away, disappointed. Imagine, a white girl who doesn’t want to ride in their cab.

Other than the incessant honking from the taxis, being white in Lima is not difficult. Sometimes I notice people staring at me in the bus or on the street, and often I feel that people trust me more because of the colour of my skin. But the truth is that I’m not that much of  rarity. Many Peruvians of Spanish origin have very white skin, and there are also thousands of tourists and expats in this city of almost 9 million inhabitants.

However, as anywhere in the world, racism exists. On my street in Barranco, there’s  a stamped graffiti saying “Rubios NO” (No to light-haired people). A popular band, La Mente, sings “Britney Spears, don’t come to Peru, because there are too many stupid foreign white girls here like you.”  In addition to the attitude of these few and ignorant and hostile folks, people automatically assume that because I’m white I have lots of cash. When we go shopping, or get a quote from a carpenter or a cobbler, I hide behind the corner while Eduardo negotiates the price. If I show my face, the price often goes up 20-30%, an addition that is jokingly called “gringo tax.”

But mostly the reactions are positive, friendly, welcoming. As the days go by, I’m becoming more and more accepted as a part of the community here. The neighborhood doormen and security guards recognize me and say hello. The hardware store clerks don’t overcharge me. Some Peruvians even ask me for directions.

So I guess I just have to get used to it.

As anywhere in the world, I will never be able to hide the colour of my skin.

Lovers, Lovers, Everywhere…

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“Don’t you know the Italians are the best lovers in the world?”

I was probably fifteen the first time I had a testosterone-pumped guy with a face full of zits ask me if I had heard the great news. “Hmmm, no…” I said, and walked away. Ugly boys just wasn’t something I was very interested in at that age.

In the coming years, quite a few adolescents tried to seduce me with their national version of the same pick up line: “Don’t you know the French are the best lovers?”, “Don’t you know the Greek are the best lovers?”, “Don’t you know the German are the best lovers?” And so on and so on. I never fell for it. But it made me wonder, is there really such a thing as a country with the best lovers? And where is it?

Finally, in Peru I have found the answer to my question. Peruvians may not be the best lovers, but they are most definitely the MOST lovers. And they are absolutely everywhere. No matter where you turn, there is a couple hugging, kissing, snuggling, holding hands, whispering sweet nothings into their loved-one’s ear.  In parks, in cars, in restaurants, on flights. It’s like the Peruvians can’t exist a minute without human touch. And it’s not just the puppy-eyed youth who have lost their hearts for the first time; the lovers come in all shapes, sizes and ages. Married or not married. Who cares, when you have the need for amoooor.

Subsequently, hostels that rent their rooms by the hour is a big business. All rooms have access to a sauna and a jacuzzi, and of course there’s underground parking so your real life partner won’t find out that you’re having an afternoon nap with someone else.

My mother-in-law told me that when she was young, in a small town called Huancayo, it was normal for men to openly have a girlfriend on the side. They would even have children with their lovers, and the offspring from all different women would meet an get along. Those days may be in the past, and the Peruvians are probably a little bit more faithful these days – or better at hiding their affairs. But the fact remains – Peruvians love to love.

So if you’re heartbroken, Lima is probably not the best place to visit. But if you’re single and looking – come on by!

 

 

You Want To Die Now — Or Later?

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Forget spending money on adrenaline rushes like skydiving, mountain climbing or roller coasters. In Lima, for only one sol (~$0.30) you can take a ride in a micro bus, a thrilling ride that may end where you are going — or at your last destination.

Almost daily, you hear about people dying in accidents with micro buses. And why? Because the drivers operate their vehicles like twelve-year-olds on their first joyride. They pack up to 20 people into a small minivan, then drive from stop to stop taking the curves on two wheels and barely missing the other cars on the road. Forget stopping for pedestrians, in Lima the cars always have the right of way. You either jump out of the way — or (don’t) live with the consequences.

Call me crazy, but I’m one of the few people who loves riding the micros. You have to jump on and off while the vehicles are still moving. If you don’t get a seat, you have to stand hunched in the low-ceilinged van with your back in a knot while hanging onto the railing for dear life. And try not to fall. Because with all the sudden starts and stops, you’re thrown around like a squash ball in the tight space. All the while listening to cheesy Latin music on the radio, and incessant honking all the vehicles your micro almost hit. Whoever has the boldest driving style wins.

But just the same, I’m always happy when I finally reach my stop. Not so much for having made it there alive, but because I can finally unfold my back, push all the joints back into the position they are supposed to be, and stretch.

Can You Tell Me My Future?

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A crowd had gathered in the middle of the sidewalk on Avenida Tacna in Central Lima. I pushed through the people to see what was going on. On the ground, an old toothless shaman was sitting on a blanket covered with sacred red/black huayruro seeds, glass beads and tarot cards. Men and women, young and old, were standing around him, shuffling to get closer, excitedly stretching their hands out with two soles for a reading. “Me first!” “No me first!”

With the speed of a cobra, the shaman grasped the coins, put them in his pocket and gave back a tarot card. Once he had collected money from everyone, he grabbed one hand, dropped the tarot card and closed his eyes for a second. Then he looked briefly at the lines in the hand and almost shouted, “You have a brother, right?” The lady mumbled, “No”. The shaman, now with his eyes wide open, serious, growled, “Speak up, or I can’t hear you. You have a brother, right?” Then he laughed at his own spiel. His client, now louder, answered, “I don’t have a brother.” Unmoved, the shaman continued, “Maybe he died, yes?” Confused, the woman said, “No, I don’t think so.” “So your father perhaps went with another woman, and you don’t know about your brother?” The lady shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t know.” “You see,” said the shaman, very content, looking into the eyes of his audience. “See how I knew this!” And the crowd roared with laughter.

The next person in line got the same reading. “You have a brother? Good. You are going to be very successful and have a long life. You will live until you’re 80-90 years old.” If the client was a woman, he added “You think a lot about love. You have a man. He is taller than you.”

At every “No” the crowd laughed. At every yes, more hands with coins were begging the old man for a reading.

When it was finally my turn, my reading went pretty much like this: You have a brother? No. You had a brother? No. He died. Ah, perhaps yes, my mother did have a miscarriage. Ah, see! Good. You’re not from Peru. Duh. No, I’m not from Peru. You’re from Europe. Yes. See! See everyone. You think about love. Sometimes, I guess. You have a man. Yes. He’s taller than you. Yes. He’s a very good guy. Yes, a very good guy. You’re going to travel. Duh. yes, I’m going to travel. See everyone, see, she’s going to travel! You are very lucky. You have lots of luck. And you’re going to live a long life, maybe 80-90 years…

When I got up and told Eduardo that we should go, Eduardo got a free reading, too. He also has a lot of luck and will make lots of money. And live a long life.

In the end, this shaman wasn’t so much about giving readings and telling people any news. It was a show. But it was a really good and funny one. And the best 50 cents I’ve ever spent.

Letters to Santa Rosa

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“Dear Santa Rosa, please bring me a new bike…

In all fairness, the letters bought for 1 sol (approx. $0.30), and thrown down the well in Santa Rosa’s garden most likely aren’t requests for a new bike, a Dior handbag or a brand new BMW. Looking at the anguished faces of the thousands of people lining up to pay their respects to Lima’s own saint, they probably aren’t asking for frivolous things. They’re praying for a miraculous cure for their dying husband, relief from agonizing pain, or perhaps that their straying wife and mother of their six children will come back home again. Kissing and caressing the hands of Santa Rosa’s statue, they do sincerely believe that she will fulfill their wishes. Because in the end, she is their last hope.

On the 30th of August every year, the Limeños celebrate the first South American Saint. From a very young age, Rosa spent her time praying and fasting, and helping the sick and poor in her community. When her parents wanted her to get married, she cut of all her hair, and disfigured her face with lye and pepper so that no man would want her. She chained a chastity belt around her waist and threw the key into the well, the same one where people now throw their letters with their wish-lists. Defeated, her father gave her a private room in his house where she could live in total seclusion. There, she slept on a stone pillow, nailing her hair to the floor so that she wouldn’t be able to sleep more than a couple of hours per day.

Still not feeling she was doing enough, Rosa built a cave in her family’s garden where she spent her nights praying and flogging herself. Finally, her dedication and martyrdom payed off. One night in sleepless deliriousness she saw a vision of baby Jesus. He offered her to drink his blood (like a vampire) and then asked her to marry him. Shortly after, her wishes came true when she died at the age of 31.

The Catholic Church of coursed loved her story, and fifty years after her death acknowledged her as a saint.

And because of this, tens of thousands Limeños make their way to her garden every year to pay their respects, throw coins into her praying cave (for money), buy cheap religious tchotchkes from the nuns and write letters on rose-covered stationary to the saint that has become famous for fulfilling your every wish. Just like Santa Claus.

I wonder if Santa Rosa would be devastated, if she knew…

The Mysterious Pyramids of Caral

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How can it be that 5,000 years ago people as far apart as Egypt and Peru came up with the same idea – –  to build pyramids?

In the Supe Valley desert, four hours north of Lima, there’s an excavation going on that might change the history of the world as we know it. Initially discovered more than fifty years ago by an American scientist, no one really paid attention to the site until Peruvian archaeologist Ruth Shady started excavating the site in 1994. What she found was unexpected — an sprawling urban complex of pyramids, temples, amphitheaters, plazas and ordinary houses across 150 acres. To date, this pre-ceramic metropolis is the oldest known settlement in the Americas.

The size of the site is staggering. Only five of the many pyramids in Caral have been excavated and renovated so far, but they have discovered an additional 19 pyramid complexes along the Supe Valley. Who knows what else they will find if they keep digging. And there are still a lot of unanswered questions hanging in the air: Who were these people? Where did they come from? Where did they go? Why were no weapons found at the site? And maybe most interestingly – why were no graves found here?

The last two questions blow my mind. A peaceful people with no weapons? How is it possible that they had no fear of invasion or attack? The only feasible answer to this in my mind, although incredible, is that they must have had strong mental powers. Obviously religion also played a huge role in their lives, what with so many pyramids that were constructed purely as sacred ceremonial sites. They have also found numerous flutes, instruments, recreational drugs and aphrodisiacs. Did they just enjoy life and cherish a good time? And if it’s true that the original Egyptians also were a peaceful people, does this mean that war is a relatively new invention? Were all ancient people closer to God than we are? Did greed and envy not exist before modern time?

And what on earth did they do with the folks who died? The archeologists believe that Caral was inhabited by 3,000 people at the time, and was an active city for at least 600 years. If so, there should be tens of thousands of graves in the area. But there are none. The only bodies found on the site are the sacrificial remains of a couple of children and a young man. Our guide said that five thousand years ago Peruvians did not have the custom of burning corpses. So where did the bodies go? We joked that perhaps they were beamed up to a UFO and carried into space. But we just don’t know. No one knows. Maybe one day the archeologists will find out. But after 17 years of excavations, isn’t it strange that they still don’t know?

And why pyramids? Perhaps it’s just a logical shape to build to reach as high as possible into the sky, before they had the technological savvy to build high towers like churches. So maybe the Caralians, like the Egyptians, didn’t need the help of aliens to build their edifices – they just built up, up, up…

What’s That Shaking?

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Suddenly the whole apartment is moving. Shaking. The windows rattle as if a big truck would be driving by. But there is no truck, and the shaking doesn’t stop. I run to the window to check what is going on, totally aware that I have no clue how to act in the event of an earth quake. On my computer a video is blaring, and I run to turn it off. Why? Not sure. I’m looking out over the ocean, thinking – will there be a tsunami? Should I film this? And then the shaking stops as suddenly as it had started.

I email Eduardo: “Was that an earth quake?” And minutes later, after checking the news, “Yes it was. A 5.9 degree earth quake in the jungle.”

My first. Weirdly enough just a day after an earth quake on the East Coast of the USA, where we used to live. And even though I had anticipated experiencing tremors in Lima, which is in a seismic zone, it caught me totally unawares. I was clueless. Should I stay in the apartment or run out? Should I hide under a table or under a door post? Instead, I was moving around like a headless chicken. Maybe not so much frightened as excited or confused. But nothing broke and no one was hurt. Luckily this was an earth quake “light” that didn’t cause any real damage anywhere. A good training situation for me.

Next time, and hopefully there will be no next time, I will know better. Stay calm. Stay away from the windows and from the big lamp in the high ceiling of the living room. If it seems to be a severe one, try to calmly leave the apartment and walk down the stairs. Screw the video camera. Don’t worry about not turning off the computer.

Just stay safe.