Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas Eve Turkey

One of the most deeply imbedded customs in Peru is eating turkey for the Christmas Eve meal. The very poor will serve chicken or sometimes duck, but most people find a way to have turkey. For whatever reason we’ve discovered that turkey in Chiclayo is pound for pound more expensive than in the States. I don’t understand why that should be.

Supermarkets sell frozen turkeys but Peruvians prefer everything they eat to be fresh, so some raise their own – it’s not unusual when walking the streets to hear a turkey gobble, though this practice has greatly diminished over the years. Others buy them freshly killed from various markets, or purchase live from street venders. The woman in this photo (taken Christmas Eve day) has only two turkeys left, though she may have access to more. This man was trying to negotiate but she was holding firm at 130 soles - $45 each. She’ll probably get her price because the turkeys are ‘black’. Even though both black and white turkeys are raised on farms all over Peru, prevailing wisdom is that blacks have better flavor and unlike the whites are not chemically raised. Frozen turkeys at Tottus or Plaza Vea are less expensive because they’re white, though still more expensive than in the States.

Next is the matter of cooking the turkey. Many if not most Chiclayanos don’t have a regular stove with oven. For every day cooking they have a 2 or 3 burner table top gas stove. It’s much less expensive and doesn’t take up living space. So how does the turkey get cooked? You take it to your local baker. Small neighborhood bakeries like this one stop baking bread and pastries 2 days before Christmas. On Christmas Eve day ovens are devoted solely to cooking turkeys.

Customers are responsible for preparation of the turkey and for the roasting container. The baker’s responsibility is limited to putting it in the oven and taking it out when ready. Chiclayanos all seem to have the same recipe for a thick, brown marinade. I don’t know what the ingredients are but honestly to me the taste borders on terrible (I don’t think I’m going to ask Maribel to proof-read this entry). At the time of this photo the baker had 40 turkeys in 2 ovens. Maribel claims the turkey lower-left is a white because of the large breast and thick legs. She much prefers the longer, leaner ‘black’ behind it. The bakery owner said each turkey took 4 to 5 hours to cook. She said the turkey is done when no liquid emerges from the breast when stuck with a probe. Can you identify the 3 ducks?

Our turkey was a frozen white from Tottus. I’m guessing it was about 20 to 22 pounds. It was cooked in our oven and took only 3 ½ hours at 325F. It was delicious (once I got past the marinade). Usually the Christmas Eve meal is eaten at the parent’s home, but this time the family assembled at our apartment. We did adhere to the custom of eating exactly (and I do mean exactly) at midnight after hugging and wishing each other a happy Christmas. Beside the turkey we had (upper right to lower left) a basket of empanadas de aire which in English translates to air pies, salad, semi-sweet wine, sliced peaches, and the ever present paneton. Hot chocolate is served with the meal. Except for the peaches and salad, these are the standard food and beverage items for Christmas Eve dinner across all of Peru.

Happy Holidays from Tom, Maribel & Brian.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas in Capote

Today, Wednesday December 23rd was Christmas in Capote. Tomorrow and the next day it will be back to normal. There won’t be ‘presents under the tree’ on the 25th because people here can’t afford trees or presents. Instead they’ll make do with eating dinner at midnight on Christmas Eve, which is the custom all over Peru.

Capote is just another one of the very poor desert villages scattered across the north of Peru. It has a small medical clinic, school and modest athletic field but that’s about it. There is no asphalt in sight and if it has a main street I haven’t found it. It lacks the usual principal park. And surrounding Capote are six even poorer villages. Today 300 kids, 200 mothers and a few dads from Capote and the other 6 towns gathered at Capote’s ‘meeting place’ for Christmas.

Christmas began this morning in Chiclayo at the home of Juan and Jessica. Jessica had previously been the doctor at the medical clinic in Capote and is the driving force for the Christmas celebration. From now on to make it simple I’ll be referring to “we”, which includes Jessica and the people working with her. We contracted this custer to transport us, the gifts, and sound system to Capote.

Capote’s meeting place is an ancient adobe structure with a thatch roof. In the photo on the left are the items transported on the custer. The gifts included balls, teddy bears, dolls, toy trucks and guns and a variety of other things. Last year we ran out of balls – the most popular toy with small boys, so made sure it didn’t happen again this year. This is what the area looked like before the crowd arrived.

Jessica had hired a clown and Santa to lead the kids in games and to distribute some of the gifts as prizes. I absolutely love to hear those kids screaming and laughing. The mothers weren’t immune to getting into the spirit either.

After the prizes were awarded and the clown had finished his routine, chocolate milk and paneton were distributed to everyone. Paneton to me is a cross between cake and bread. It’s semi-sweet and depending on the brand has bits of fruit in it. It’s not possible to over emphasis the role of paneton in people’s lives – especially during Christmas. In the north it surpasses King Kong (another cake-type product) as the national snack. I noticed most of the kids drank their milk but saw many mothers saving the paneton. I’m guessing it will be part of tomorrow night’s Christmas meal.

Things got a little out of control briefly after the milk had been drunk and the gifts were being handed out. The crowd kept surging forward…perhaps worried there were not enough gifts. Jessica and Maribel had to get a bit forceful in asking folks to step back and wait their turn. Actually there were enough gifts so that each child received two items and a second slice of paneton. Jessica is upper left with the white blouse and sun glasses. Maribel is in the red blouse and sunglasses.

Ruth (left) and Esmeralda are Chiclayanas now living in Spain. They and their husbands were visiting Jessica for the holidays. They played a large role in this year’s celebration by donating many of the gifts, providing physical labor, and also bringing cash donations from several Peruvians living in Spain.

An example of the types of presents given to the girls. The two boys are drinking chocolate milk.

These boys seem to be enjoying their toys. I don’t want to sound maudlin, but I can’t help but contrast this scene to Christmas in the States, where the kids get so many gifts they unwrap one and rush to the next. And in many cases the value of just one of those gifts exceeds the value of all the gifts given today in Capote. Let’s look at the financial end of today’s event. We rented a vehicle and sound system. We hired a Santa and clown. We distributed 600 gifts, 200 balls, plus I don’t know how many cases of milk, paneton and other snacks. The total cost was $450 US. Divided among all the donors the money is not even noticeable, yet look at the impact it had on these people.

It’s over. The crowd is gone and already the benches and chairs have been moved to wherever they came from. The empty boxes have been stacked and the ‘crew’ takes a moment to unwind. Jessica, Maribel, Ruth and Esmeralda were moving non-stop throughout the entire morning. All I did was take photos, but I notice a slight soreness in my right index finger. Riding back to Chiclayo on the custer we talked about how we’ll do it next year.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Puzzling Building Boom

I’ve mentioned many times that Chiclayo is experiencing rapid economic growth. Nowhere is that growth more apparent than in construction and remodeling, as in this photo where a third level is being added. It is literally impossible to walk more than three blocks in our area without seeing the familiar piles of sand and gravel with bags of concrete stacked nearby. What puzzles me is that some of the major projects have been in progress for over four years.

This is the Lucky Star Hotel on Santa Victoria Avenue not far from our apartment. It’s an impressive looking building that is showing no return on investment because it is not open. Every time we walk past we see some small progress, but it’s happening at a snail’s pace. I assume the interior is either completely finished or is not being worked on at all because we never see evidence of workmen or material. What we do see is small things such as a row of four lights added above the main door, or a portion of metal frame work has been painted.

This is the plaque from the inauguration ceremony. Notice the dedication took place on June 11, 2005….exactly 4 ½ years ago and it’s still not open. The inauguration ceremony itself is interesting. Most medium to large size businesses have one of these ceremonies either at the start of construction or at the opening of business. It’s a religious affair requiring God parents and a priest to bless the building and enterprise.

The Hotel Naylamp is apparently going to open some day as a four-star hotel, though it too has been under construction for over four years. Just as with the Lucky Star above, we see small signs of progress but nothing dramatic.

This shopping mall has actually shown signs of going backward in its short life. The only work we’ve see recently has been the demolition and remodeling of one wing – even though it hasn’t had one single tenant and has never been open.

We watched this condo go through several start and stop stages during the last four years. About 3 months ago the exterior plaster and paint was applied. That was the only work done in the past year. The entrances are bricked up so I don’t imagine it will be completed anytime soon.

Maribel has explained to me it is not uncommon in Peru to build until the money runs out, and resume when there is money for the next phase. I guess I can understand that logic. Weather isn’t going to affect the structures, and these properties usually employ security guards at night, but still I can’t help but think of all that money just sitting there, especially now for those uncompleted hotels when there are so many tourists in Chiclayo.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

A lazy Saturday afternoon in La Victoria

It was hot and humid in the apartment today so Maribel and I decided to take a slow walk to La Victoria, a district I had not walked in before. As I understand it a district is equivalent to a ward in a Wisconsin city and perhaps to a borough in the east. La Victoria is one of the poorest districts in Chiclayo and has the reputation of a high crime and dangerous area. It took some convincing to get Maribel to accompany me.

Weekends in areas like this generally means socializing with neighbors, which involves grouping chairs outside someone’s house and talking while drinking beer if you can afford it, or just talking if you can’t. It reminds me of Milwaukee’s south side in the late 40s and early 50s.

The poverty in La Victoria is apparent as you walk the streets, but the principle park is impressive both in size and architecture. It’s different in that the focus is on concrete and tile rather than on foliage. I think the intent was to create a naval ambience because the park is dedicated to Miguel Grau Seminario, a Peruvian naval officer killed during the War of the Pacific with Chile in 1879.

I was surprised at how casually Maribel mentioned she was related to Grau. He apparently was an uncle to her grandmother who was a Seminario from Paita, Grau’s birth place. Grau is a real hero in Peru and every school kid can recite his accomplishments during the war. There’s a ton of information available about him on the internet.

As mentioned earlier it was hot and humid today so most of the park’s visitors were sitting and talking. This older couple decided to forgo the talking in favor of catching a few winks. Their eyes would close as their heads slowly dropped. When their jaws contacted their chests their heads would snap up, and then the process began all over again.

This photo represents an average street in La Victoria. If you click on it you’ll see that the housing is modest, and if you look close you might notice something else. Peruvians don’t miss anything. Everyone in this photo is looking directly at us except for the walking couple, and I’m sure they also know we’re there. Every time I stopped to take a photo I would hear a loud groan from Maribel. She thought her conspicuous gringo husband stopping to take out his camera every 5 minutes in this neighborhood was asking for trouble. I never felt threatened. Maribel never felt comfortable. She claims I am blissfully ignorant and incredibly lucky. Maybe she’s right.

Usually a group of boys this age would be playing soccer in the street. I’ve never seen boys playing cards before. Perhaps they were taking a break before returning to whatever they had been doing.

This house is about the best we saw. Even though La Victoria is not a desirable area, housing values in Chiclayo are skyrocketing so I have no idea what it would be worth. It’s unusual to use tile on the exterior of a private house, and only once before have I seen it used beyond the first level.

Here we have the low end. There are many adobe homes like this in La Victoria. I have no idea who lives here or what their circumstances are, but I would bet my last nickel that they are honest, clean and friendly people.

I was surprised to learn that this building is a medical clinic providing 24 hour service to pregnant women. To my western eyes it looked completely inadequate and out of place, but as I thought about it I quickly changed my mind. It’s located exactly where it should be…among the poor people. And how sophisticated does it have to be? Mid-wives are still delivering babies all over Peru in much more primitive conditions than this.

This is the last photo I took, and it’s my favorite though I can’t tell you why. There’s something about it and the collection of things in it that seems to summarize La Victoria better than words can do. I’ll be visiting this district again. We saw only a small portion of it and I’m sure there is more to see.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Behavioral Differences II

In an entry last month we talked about behavioral differences, touching on the lack of personal space, vehicle and pedestrian relationships, and women’s fashion. These are just surface issues. Now I’d like to tell you about some fundamental cultural differences it is important for you to understand if you’re going to spend any time in Peru, but first I want to emphasize this post is not about being judgmental. The context of this entry has to do with cultural differences – not good, bad, right or wrong. My advice is to leave your personal social norms and beliefs at home when visiting Peru or any other country.

Secondly, it may seem presumptuous of me to speak about Peruvian culture, but I have been in this country close to two years; have meet a lot of people and have been in many different situations. And while my experience has been in the north, I have had enough conversation with other expats in other parts of the country to convince me that I’m on solid ground for what I’m about to say, so let’s get started.

One basic difference I noticed early has to do with planning. The wedding in this photo was well planned, but there is a tendency among Peruvians to do things at the last moment. Say for example someone at a meeting or family gathering mentions a social occasion is coming up in one month. I am a planner…a list maker. I will immediately start asking questions about what, where, when, who and how. I don’t let it go until I understand the smallest detail. As the day of the event approaches I’ll inquire about the status of things. The response will normally be…’Well…we (meaning the family or anyone else involved) really haven’t talked about the what, where, when, who or how.’ It’s as if the previous discussion never took place. You see, to a Peruvian, one month before is too early to talk about anything. The proper time frame seems to be from 1 to 3 days – or even the day of. Right about now you may be wondering how it all comes together. From my viewpoint it sometimes doesn’t. Not enough chairs? People will stand or take turns sitting. Not enough food? Serve smaller portions and/or ask family members to share plates. The musicians showed up an hour late or not at all? So what? From my perspective everything has gone wrong. From a Peruvian perspective, nothing has gone wrong.

I just realized that most of what I’ve written above and what I think will follow can all be grouped under the heading of the Peruvian attitude toward time. More examples.

We had some printing work done at a local business similar to this one. When we showed up at the agreed upon time we were told it was not ready and to come back ‘same time tomorrow.’ Ditto the next day. We could have cancelled the order, but it would have been no different at any other printer. On the third day it was ready – but it was wrong. Which brings us to another basic cultural difference. A Peruvian will never admit to a mistake. Nor will they say ‘I’m sorry.’ In a case where either is called for, there will instead be an uncomfortable silence. If we had gotten angry with the man about the delay or mistake, he would not have understood our anger. To him this is business as usual in Peru…again, from his perspective nothing has gone wrong.

And finely, there is the Peruvian attitude toward schedules and appointments. If you agree to meet a Peruvian somewhere at a specific time, take a book or some other means to occupy your time. They will be late. If a governmental activity is scheduled, there is a chance it will start on time but probably not. If it is a private function it will absolutely not start on time. It’s a guessing game as to when to arrive.

On an intellectual level I have come to accept these differences. On an emotional level I’m still working on it because they conflict with my long held social customs. But that’s my problem….not the Peruvians.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

What the hell am I doing in Peru!?

I’m sure every expatriate has asked themselves that question. I’ve had those moments….for me usually triggered by the language issue. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever achieve conversational Spanish. For instance, this morning we were talking about the parade we watched yesterday commemorating Armed Forces Day in Peru, when Maribel mentioned another upcoming parade to celebrate (what I thought she said) ‘El dia de la lavenderia’, which in English is ‘The day of the Laundromat.’ I immediately had visions of legions of goose-stepping laundromat workers proudly marching with laundry bags slung over their left shoulders while brandishing fully loaded irons in their right hands. I imagined military trucks displaying the latest models of washers and dryers. What she actually said was ‘El dia de la Bandera’ - Flag Day. Einstein was wrong. There is one thing faster than the speed of light…the Spanish language spoken by a native speaker.

There are other, more serious times when I’ve asked myself if I’ve made a mistake by coming here. When those occasions happen I take a moment to remind myself that the States aren’t frustration free or perfect, and that this city – Chiclayo, really is beautiful and offers a lot more positives than negatives. Yesterday for example we watched the military parade. All branches of the military were represented including…….

Combat units…….a very formidable looking bunch of guys

Veteran’s organizations…….this one representing veterans from the 1981 war with Ecuador known as the ‘War of the Condor.’

Military schools…….look how young these boys are. I hope they never have to march as part of a veteran’s organization.

Medical combat units. This unit of nurses is from the city of Lambayeque

After the parade we walked to Las Musas Park. Chiclayo has many parks. This is one of my favorites. The canal is dry most months, usually containing water only during the ‘rainy season’ from December through February. The water comes from the highland region to the east. Chiclayo averages less than ¼ cup of rain per year. The canal water will be tapped for irrigation purposes many times before reaching the Pacific some 14 miles distant.

An average street. The moto driver is taking time out to clean his vehicle. The buildings on the left are either apartments or condos. On the right is a small neighborhood park. There’s nothing in this photo that says “Wow!”, but for me I see beauty.

Just before arriving home we saw this girl and her dog leaving a market. The dog was carrying the groceries. They were moving at a brisk pace and I had to run to catch up. I think the dog wasn’t too impressed with the photo idea.

So why the hell am I in Peru? All I have to do is take a walk with my wife or visit a friend or family member to answer that question.


Monday, December 7, 2009

Rocio’s birthday party

You know what we haven’t done yet? We haven’t taken you to a birthday party. Peruvian birthday parties have three things in common – lots of food, plenty to drink, and music for dancing. Rocio’s party had an unusual twist that we’ll talk about shortly.

Here are your hosts Rocio and her husband Anton. The party is being held at the home of Rocio’s parents in Posope, which is a small town not far from Chiclayo. The food we’re being offered is rice with pork….but not just your routine everyday pork. Twenty four hours ago this pig was doing whatever it is that pigs do. Today it’s the featured menu item. That’s what I call fresh! Anton did the cooking over an open wood grill and did it well. The meat was soft yet crunchy (if that makes sense) and had a sweet, tangy flavor. Don’t bother to ask him for the recipe. When I asked him he mumbled something about the sauce. Obviously he’s one of those temperamental chefs who is not about to give away his methods.

Now that we’ve had our fill of pork it’s time to start dancing. This is when most guys get uncomfortable, but don’t worry about it. Number one, we’ve had enough to drink to reduce the natural anxiety brought about by even the thought of dancing, and two, we’re all in the same boat. It’s my experience that men on a dance floor the world over, including me, look like we’re either having seizures or stomping out forest fires. There are no exceptions at this party.

To provide the music it is customary to rent one or two speakers slightly larger than the average refrigerator…..

…..together with equally large sound boards that are so complicated you need a technician to operate them, then crank the speakers so that eight bazillion decibels of heavy Latin music washes over the guests. Fortunately Anton and Rocio elected not to play them at that level so I was able to preserve what little hearing remains to me.

Sometime around 4:00pm Rocio received a text message on her cell. It was from a friend who was one of 11 university students that had hired a guide to take them to an historic Incan oasis in the desert known as ‘Laguna del Inca.’ They were lost and in trouble.

Because of my lack of Spanish I am not clear on the details, but as I understand it the combi (mini-bus) dropped them off short of where they should have been. The guide became disoriented and the group started wandering aimlessly. This was at 9:00am. Any provisions they had including water were long gone by the time the text message was sent. Rocio phoned the police, who sent a rescue vehicle and were able to locate the students within a short period of time.

The young woman (fourth from right) sent the text message and is relating her experience. She said several of them were experiencing dizziness and felt close to passing out. It is nearing summer in Peru, and the last place you want to be lost in is the desert. We have cut back on our mountain climbing and are usually off the mountain by 11:00am because of the brutal heat. Those students were wandering in it for over seven hours. Fortunately it all turned out okay. The dancing resumed, and the party finished with the traditional cake cutting.

One word of caution in closing….never attempt to leave Posope late on a Sunday night. There are too many travelers and too few vehicles. Trying to get a seat on one is like running a timed obstacle course with 50 other contestants. Make that 100.

Tom & Maribel