Friday, January 29, 2010

The saxophone player

I was walking tonight on a familiar route I’ve taken hundreds of times to accomplish the mundane task of buying bread. There’s a non-descript small corner tavern I’ve had no reason to stop into before, but tonight as I approached I heard the sweet wailing of a tenor sax playing a bluesy melody I vaguely remembered from long ago. I poked my head in the door and saw a white-haired old guy blowing the horn, accompanied by guitar and cajon players of equal age. There were 8 or 10 guys drinking beer and intently listening to the music. As I walked in they turned their heads to give me the once-over. Though there were chairs available, I quietly stood against a wall and cased the room. What struck me was that everyone in the place was at or near my age. And every one of them was big…bigger than the average Peruvian, and all had that quiet confidence about them.

After a few minutes one of them approached and invited me to sit, which I did. Everyone was looking at me, so I pointed to the sax player, smiled and gave a thumbs up. That broke the ice and the next thing I knew someone had bought me a beer, and a procession started as each man slowly got up and came over in turn to touch glasses and make some welcoming comment I didn’t understand, but it didn’t matter. I knew these guys. These were men from another time...dinosaurs like me who have lived the life, fought the battles and now got together at night to drink beer, relive past glories and tell lies…that world-wide hombre ritual that doesn’t need language. And they liked blues.

It turns out that one of the men...Jimmy, had lived in Virginia Beach for 8 years and was able to do what little translating was necessary. Laughing also doesn’t require language, and we did a lot of that. When I got up to leave it was Jimmy who spoke for the rest of the guys in saying I was welcome to come back. I really hated to go, but I was starting to feel the beer and there was bread to be bought.

The experience tonight at a little no-name tavern on a street corner of no consequence is one of the many reasons why I am in Chiclayo. These men and thousands more like them are the real Chiclayanos; not the punks who stole my camera. Sometimes I forget that.


Thursday, January 28, 2010

I look at things, Maribel looks at people….

……which is why she spotted him following us this morning. He had been following for five blocks before Maribel mentioned it to me. He was probably alerted via cell phone by an accomplice who saw us at the ATM. He made two turns with us and walked parallel across the street, occasionally making brief phone calls and casually glancing at us. This was on Ave Balta at mid-day with hundreds of people in the area.

Now, this is not an unusual situation because as I’ve said in earlier posts, if you know what to look for you can spot these thieves pretty much everywhere any time of the day or night, but I’m feeling more sensitive lately because two thieves just like the guy checking us out this morning stole my camera from me nine days ago. One of them cut the camera case off my belt as I was entering a combi. I didn’t even know it had happened until Maribel yelled, but by then it was too late. I chased after them but I can’t catch twenty year olds anymore.

Everyone in Chiclayo will tell you crime is out of control. If you ask as I did, what percentage of the population will steal if given the opportunity you’ll get estimates anywhere from 5% to 20%. I don’t buy 20% and doubt if it’s even 5, but even if it is only 2%, it is not possible for me to convey to you the degree of influence this 2% has on the daily existence of the rest of the population. What you will wear; what you will carry with you and how you will carry it; what time you will go; what day you will go; what route you will take and whether you will go alone or take someone with you are all determined by the thieves. And whether you’re walking or riding in a taxi or combi, you’re never completely relaxed because you’re constantly scanning for potential danger.

The accompanying Google map shows most of the city of Chiclayo. The area outlined in red is what several people including me consider to be a reasonably ‘safe’ area (though it was in the middle of this area the thief was following us this morning). The further you get outside of this ‘safe’ area the more likely it is that you’ll have problems. The blue X to the left on the map is where my camera was stolen. And if you should happen to find yourself on the very fringe area of the city, while I won’t say it is a certainty that you will be robbed, I will guarantee that you will have been looked at several times as a potential target. I know it sounds like I’m describing a war zone, but no Chiclayano would dispute the accuracy of what I’ve written.

Let me tell you what I would like to see happen to change the situation. Going back to my camera robbery, I wish the law would have allowed me to put a bullet into the back of the thief's head. Then I would like to see a TV crew showing the face of the grieving mother as she cradles the head of her dead son in her lap. I’d like to see them broadcast her comments of outrage toward the gringo who killed her ‘wonderful boy’. Then I would ask to be interviewed. I would say to the woman “I am sorry your son is dead, but you knew damn well your son was a thief, and if you had taught him proper values he would still be alive.’ I would look into the camera and tell the thieves and parents of thieves that this is what is in store for them.

Cold blooded? Heartless? A human life is worth more than a camera? If that’s what you’re thinking, come live here for awhile. See, feel and experience it for yourself, then judge me if you must. Chiclayo is a beautiful city with wonderful people and so much to offer, but that constant element of fear is like a cloud blotting out the sun. Something has to change.

What happened with the thief this morning? We stopped in front of a bank and pointed him out to a couple of cops. He quickly melted into the crowd. We didn’t see him again. We never saw his accomplice.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A quaint little custom

Several months ago Maribel and I were out walking and became hungry so went into a restaurant we hadn’t been in before. Every table was taken but as we were turning to leave, a waitress approached and said “la trampa is available”. Maribel declined and we went elsewhere. While we were eating I asked what the waitress meant by la trampa, and was told that la trampa is slang for ‘the tramp’ – a room where a married man takes a woman other than his wife for dinner and/or drinks. I’ve since noticed these rooms are fairly common in mid to lower range restaurants. The difference between them and a private family room is they contain one small table and two chairs and are blocked from public view on all sides. My awareness of la trampa gave a focal point to a subject that has puzzled me for some time – the openness of affairs in Peru.

Men won’t discuss the subject. They’ll joke about it – there are hundreds of standard jokes about roving men told by men and women, but they won’t talk seriously about it. Women talk quite candidly about the subject, which doesn’t surprise me because in my experience Peruvian woman talk candidly about anything to anyone. They discuss affairs with a surprising casualness.

No one is surprised or shocked to see a man they know enter or leave la trampa with another woman. The practice is too common to produce surprise. When these situations occur all parties pretend not to see the others. Women will not inform the man’s wife because “it’s not my business, and she could be a sister or cousin.” When a woman meets the man again both will act as if the incident never happened.

When asked about their feelings toward a woman who is seeing a married man, all disapprove but I don’t sense any real indignation, though they do have names for these ladies. Beside la trampa there is ‘la otra’ – the other, ‘querida amante’ – dear lover, and my favorite…’canal dos’ – channel two. When asked what would happen if a wife should come upon the husband and his ‘la otra’, most women agreed that a younger wife would probably confront the two of them. To the woman she would say something like…”Yo soy la firme y tu eres la trampa!” – I am the original and you are the tramp! Toward the husband her actions are less predictable. Maribel has seen one wife pour a bowl of soup on a man’s head. An older wife may choose to ignore the situation for the sake of the marriage and any children.

It’s not the affairs that surprise me…I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. It’s the openness and attitudes that intrigue me. If I had to summarize the consensus attitude of the wives I talked with, it would be…”we don’t like it but boys will be boys. What can you do?” What was left unsaid is that for every one of the straying husbands there appears to be a willing channel two, so can we also say girls will be girls?

In any event, while researching for this post it was made abundantly clear to me that the liberal attitude toward this quaint little custom does not apply to married gringos whose wives are named Maribel.


Sunday, January 10, 2010

Being born and dying in Chiclayo

Somehow during my first visits to Peru I formed the opinion that being born involved a mother lying in her own bed attended to by a mid-wife and surrounded by family members while the father boiled water or nervously whittled on a chunk of wood. I envisioned the act of dying in much the same way…the central figure peacefully lying in bed, a beatific smile on their face as family and friends provide comfort and expressions of love, while Gucho the family burro poked his head in the window; a dewy eyed expression of sorrow on his face (okay, the Gucho thing may be stretching it). I was wrong on both counts. I’ve learned that 95% of births and deaths from illness in the Lambayeque region occur in a hospital or clinic.

Hospitals have consistantly denied us permission for photos the past 18 months, but we felt we needed a nursery photo for this post so tried the hospital Regional Las Mercedes, which services poor people. Permission denied. Now, Maribel has a way with people and before too long she was talking with a woman whose daughter gave birth to triplets. Following a few more minutes of conversation grandma was insisting to the staff that we be allowed to accompany her into the nursery to take photos of her grand children. This is the result…twenty-one year old mama on the left; four day old triplets and grandma.

There probably isn’t enough difference about being born in Chiclayo to write about, though you may be interested in a few details. Pre-natal care involves the same medical care in terms of examinations and frequency of hospital visits as in the States. When delivery time arrives, if everything proceeds normally mother and baby are home in 24 hours. If delivery is cesarean the hospital stay is 5 days. During and immediately after delivery the mother will be attended to by a gynecologist, obstetrician, pediatrician, 2 registered nurses and one student nurse. I’ve been told circumcision is never done. The total cost can range anywhere from $0 for the poor at the national hospital to $1300 for a 2 day stay at a private clinic. If the mother has been contributing monthly to the national insurance program and has her baby at hospital Naylamp (ESSALUD), beside there being no charge the government gives her $700 for having the baby. I have no idea why. The standard follow-up care applies in Chiclayo also.

Customs associated with dying in Chiclayo follow the same general path as in the States with some interesting deviations. The biggest surprise for me was learning that a terminally ill patient is not told they are dying. Medical personnel will absolutely not do that nor will family members. Even if the dying person asks the question or voices the opinion they are dying, everyone will deny it. There was a recent death in the family of a friend. As I understand it the following is the sequence of events.

The individual died in a hospital at 3:15am. A number of family members were present and had been for several days. After spending a few minutes alone with the deceased, the body was taken to the hospital morgue and the family was given a temporary death certificate. The family returned home to inform others, and by 5:00am four of them were at a funeral home (in Chiclayo most are open 24 hours) to make arrangements. Decisions were made regarding which cemetery, the coffin, church or home viewing, number of cars needed, and above or below ground burial or cremation. No arrangements can be finalized without the temporary death certificate. This apparently prevents a person from maliciously making burial arrangement for someone who is living but whom they don’t like.

Incredibly, by 7:30am the funeral director had the body on display in the coffin at the person’s home (they had no money for a church funeral). This individual had died only 4 hours ago. Also at this time friends and family began arriving with flowers and expressions of sympathy. They continued to come and go non-stop through the next 48 hours. It is customary to serve lunch and dinner to anyone who happens to be in the home at the time and to have snacks for odd hour visitors even at 1:00am. In the case of poor people it is typical to serve only coffee.

I am told that, unless mutilation has occurred it is mandatory for the body to lie in an open coffin for a minimum of 48 hours. This practice apparently exists to allow the deceased a chance to ‘wake up’ if they are not really dead. This requirement, plus the custom of hiring people to inject the body with some substance during the first hours of viewing (I'm told to prevent odor) leads me to conclude that no embalming process or refrigeration took place, at least in this case.

Following the viewing a funeral procession takes place. First is the funeral hearse, followed by family members who carry the coffin 5 or 6 blocks to a predetermined destination (in this case it was a home where the deceased had formerly lived as a child). Behind them march the rest of the mourners. Traffic must yield to these processions. A brief ceremony takes place after which the coffin is placed in the hearse and driven to the cemetery. The procedure at the cemetary is almost identical to those I've seen in the States.

Chiclayo has 1 public and 3 private cemeteries. The public cemetery is huge, very old and dilapidated. To me it is depressing. I am familiar with only one private cemetery – Jardines De La Paz where Maribel’s mother lies. It is actually very beautiful and peaceful. It is one of the few places in Chiclayo where you can see acres of green grass and listen to birds singing – not a bad place to finish life’s journey.

Tom & Maribel

Ps… If you’re curious this is the url for the cemetery pictured above. It’s in Spanish but lists the options and prices.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Chiclayo’s Pyramid Heritage

Even though one of my passions here in the Lambayeque region is exploring the many historical sites, I haven’t written about any of them except in passing while talking about mountain climbing. I’ve avoided it because for many people history and archeology are subjects to snooze by. But the thing is, we’ve covered a lot of ground these past 4 months and it feels like it wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t at least touch on the literally hundreds of physical reminders of Chiclayo’s past, located within minutes of the city.

Almost all of the ‘reminders’ I’m referring to are the remains of adobe pyramids. It’s nearly impossible when riding on the outskirts of the city to view the horizon and not see 2 or 3 of them, once you know what you’re looking for. Most of them were built during the Moche culture generally dated from A.D. 100 to 800. Take a look at this photo. Would you recognize the formation as a pyramid? It is, and it’s part of the Tùcume complex of 26 major pyramids in the Lambayeque Valley. Centuries ago it would have been easily recognizable as an impressive step pyramid. Today it looks like a mud hill. It was probably given a cursory look-see by archeologists, but I’ll guarantee it has never been thoroughly explored except by looters. It’s entirely possible the adobe bricks used to construct the homes in the photo came from that pyramid. Peru does not have the money to excavate and protect all of these sites. There are so many of them I doubt if any country could do that. The policy is to excavate and protect the major sites, and let the others disintegrate. I’m not going to go into any detail about the site. If you’re interested in further reading, doing a Google on Tùcume will get you more than you want. The same holds true for the site names that follow.

Collud and Ventarròn are lesser known sites but each has a fairly recent claim to fame. A 1500 year old mummy of a young woman was found at Collud about 5 years ago. She was found in the pyramid in this photo. It saddens me to think that at the time she was buried there was probably an impressive ceremony and this pyramid was a shrine. Now it’s a garbage heap. In the distance to the left are more pyramids.

Less than 50 yards from the mummy pyramid is this temple excavation. Work was stopped last year due to lack of money. There is a security guard on site to protect it from looters. Whether work will resume some day, or the site will slowly fade away is anybody’s guess. The protective covering that covered the steps has already badly disintegrated.

What looks like a lunar landscape in this photo is actually the work of looters. Nearly every site we’ve seen has suffered this same desecration or worse. When I first learned of the extent of looting and resultant destruction to these sites my thought was to ‘shoot on sight’ but I’ve since tempered my view after meeting several of the people responsible. Most of them are just ordinary people trying to earn a few extra dollars. Looting is not their full time occupation. It’s not a large scale, organized operation, instead it’s something they occasionally do, hoping to find something a tourist will buy. I don’t condone it, but I understand it. The ‘mummy’ pyramid is center in the distance. The larger pyramid to its left has a small chapel on top.

Ventarròn is only a 10 minute moto ride from Collud, but is getting attention unlike anything since the discovery of Señor Sipan. During excavation in 2006 the oldest documented temple and mural in the Americas, estimated at 4000 years old, were discovered in an obscure pyramid. To put that time frame in perspective, Egypt’s Ramses the Great would not be born for another 700 years – Plato and Socrates 1600 years later. When we visited the site some months ago there was an American architect leading the effort to excavate, protect and eventually construct a museum on the site. Looters had visited this area many times over the centuries. It was pure luck they missed the mural.

It is only in the last two years that serious measures were and are now being taken to conserve the tomb of Señor Sipan. Everyone is familiar with the riches discovered in the tomb of Egypt’s King Tut. Almost no one has heard of Señor Sipan or is aware that, in terms of gold, it was the second richest discovery ever. The treasure and other artifacts are ’supposedly’ on display in a museum in the city of Lambayeque. I say supposedly because Peruvians tell a different story. According to them the treasure was on a world tour exhibition and when it reached the United States was kept by them in partial payment for the debt owed by Peru. I’ve heard this story repeatedly. It is never told with rancor or indignation, but instead with a resigned sadness. Though I don't believe the story, I do know that Peru has filed suit against Yale University for the return of artifacts, but the objects in question came from the Machu Picchu area far to the south and have nothing to do with the Señor Sipan treasure.

All of the above mentioned sites are less than 45 minutes from our apartment. One of my most enjoyable activities is to pick out a pyramid I haven’t been to and spend the day walking in the area trying to envision what it looked like. There’s never anybody else there. It’s a good place to sit down, pick up a pottery shard, and think about who these people were.


Sunday, January 3, 2010

Getting an Education in Chiclayo

Structurally the educational system in Peru differs somewhat from that of the States. How the end result – a quality education matches up I’m not sure. We’ll get into that a bit later. Right now our task is to identify and describe the differences.

Even though education including university in Peru is “free” (another issue we’ll discuss later), the vast majority of children in Chiclayo attend private schools. The cost can be considerable, but I can say without hesitation that education is a priority and if humanly possible parents will do whatever is necessary to get it. The perception is that public schools have inferior facilities, administration, teachers and educational materials.

From a chronology perspective there isn’t much difference between public and private schools. Mandatory education begins at age 3 when children enter ‘kinder.’ Uniforms are required from kinder through secondary – the equivalent of high school in the States. Kinder hours are 8:30am to 12:00, or 1:00pm to 4:30. Parents usually are given their choice of morning or afternoon. Classroom size will vary between 30 and 40. There may be as many as 5 classes. Teachers have university degrees, and there is an assistant for each teacher, normally a senior university student hired by parents. The primary focus is learning letters and numbers. Kinder is a 3 year program ending with graduation into primary school. During those 3 years the cost at an average private kinder school would have been $175 to enroll and $50 per month not including uniforms and other extras.

Let’s stop for a moment to talk about the difference between public and private schools. Most parents in Chiclayo seem to fear public schools. Beside the poor academic reputation is the belief that drugs, alcohol, knives and guns are present. I have no way of knowing how much if any of this is true. Regarding ‘free education’, what this means is that the government pays teachers’ salaries. What they don’t pay is building maintenance, utilities, text books and other educational requirements. Every operating expense excepting teachers’ salaries is the responsibility of parents, through a parents association. I don’t know what that cost would be at kinder through the secondary level but it is supposedly much less than private schools. It is necessary to apply for admittance to a public school because of limited space. It is also necessary to apply to a private school though as I understand it, if you can afford it you’re in.

There are separate primary and secondary schools but the vast majority include both levels. Primary begins at age 6 and is a 6 year program. Discipline becomes strict. Students without the proper uniform are sent home. Hair not conforming to school policy is cut at the school…something I do not agree with. Courses are the standards – reading, writing, arithmetic, geography and history. By the third year the higher mathematics have been added as well as civics, biology, chemistry, literature, physical education, computer science, psychology, philosophy and logic. You can probably identify the courses pictured on this secondary ‘report card’. Pre-military is really just another form of physical education. By the way, the grading system in Peru is from 1 to 20. A score of 10 or less is failing. In addition to standard primary/secondary schools there are also schools referred to as polytechnic schools that offer standard courses plus woodworking and mechanics.

At about 12 years of age a student graduates to secondary…a 5 year program. Generally the courses are the same but more advanced. The cost for a private primary and secondary education will range from about $150/mo down to $60/mo not including enrollment fee, uniforms, etc. The hours at these schools vary depending on school policy. Many are from 7:30am to 2:30pm. Others have those same hours plus a 4:00pm to 6:00pm session 3 times weekly. This last group assumes the students will not do homework so makes them do it at school. Toward the end of the secondary program aptitude, ability and pre-university readiness tests are administered. At the ripe old age of 16 or 17 a student graduates and chooses one of 6 options. They can:

- Go to work
- Apply to the police institute
- Apply to a nursing institute
- Apply to a teachers institute
- Apply to a trade institute
- Apply to a university

This post will go on forever (seems like it already has) if we explore each option, so let’s finish our education at a university. To my knowledge there is only one public university in the entire Lambayeque region, appropriately named the University of Lambayeque. The yearly enrollment cost is $110 with a $45 monthly fee. Most students graduate after 5 years. There are no living expenses to deal with. Only in Lima do the universities have student housing.

There are a ton of private universities in Chiclayo and the Lambayeque region. I am not in a position to discuss them in depth, other than to say that Maribel’s niece (pictured as a grape eater in the previous post) attends one of them and is majoring in international marketing. Again, I am impressed with the level of knowledge and professional demeanor she displays in discussions with me. Course offerings appear to be what I would expect to find anywhere in the world, and all of the universities seem to be bursting at the seams with students. You’ve probably guessed that graduation normally occurs after 5 years. Typical cost would be $450 annual enrollment with a $125 monthly fee.

The dream of any parent is to have their child attend the University of Lima in Lima. This school enjoys a prestigious national and international reputation. Many of its graduates go on to careers with major corporations or governmental agencies in Europe and the States. Not many applicants are accepted. The entrance requirements are strict, vacancies are few and the cost is far beyond most budgets.

Okay…. we’ve completed our education. It’s time to wrap this up with a couple closing observations. A commonly asked question by people considering moving to Peru with school age children is – “How do you find a good school?” All I can say is good luck with that one. In the States there are reams of data to slice and dice any way you want to compare schools. Here there is nada. If you go to a school to investigate, all you will get is slogans. Every school director will tell you “We are the best!” Ask them why and you’ll get more slogans but nothing with substance. To my knowledge statistics are non-existent. The highest priced school is not necessarily an indicator of the best school, nor is the lowest priced an indicator of the worst. My advice is to ask the opinion of as many professional people as possible. Narrow the list to a handful of schools and then tour them. Finally, go with your gut feel.

As to the quality of education, I have to say that I’m impressed. Students I’ve talked with of all ages display to me a surprising depth of knowledge on a wide range of subjects. Also, their knowledge and perspective seems to be more global than American students. I should point out that many Peruvians including those at professional levels believe the quality of education in Peru is poor, especially at the younger ages. They are critical of administration, curriculum and teachers as being inferior. Probably most Peruvians I am acquainted with would reluctantly agree. However I know of one instance where an American government worker was transferred to Lima with his wife and two teenage children. While enrolling the children in school, they were told that testing showed them to be two years behind their Peruvian counterparts. I was not surprised to hear that.

Tom & Maribel

Friday, January 1, 2010


Hundreds if not thousands of muñecos suffered fiery deaths in Chiclayo last night. Gleefully set aflame by cheering men, women and children, most of these unfortunate creatures were less than one week old, and had either been purchased like slaves or raised by families with the intent to end their short lives. Muñecos truly are born to die. And that’s a good thing, because muñecos represent everything bad that happened the previous year, which is why they are burned.

Burning muñecos is not as widespread as it once was, primarily because city authorities discourage the practice due to the tremendous amount of thick, black smoke, the obvious fire hazard, and because many of the dirt roads have been covered with asphalt which is damaged by the intense heat. The process usually starts two to five days in advance with families constructing muñecos from old clothing and stuffing them with straw and just about anything else that will burn, including plenty of fireworks.

Others buy ready-made muñecos like these for about $4. On a dirt street such as the one in this photo there were probably muñecos burning in front of every house. Last year was my first time seeing this tradition, and for a moment I actually thought the entire neighborhood was going up in flames.

But burning muñecos is only part of the New Years Eve tradition. It really starts with yellow underwear. Everyone – man, woman and child wears new, never been worn yellow underwear the day of New Years Eve. It is an important part of insuring good luck for the coming year and doesn’t seem to tarnish the macho image. Less common is the custom of bathing in yellow flower petals before putting on the underwear. Yellow flowers were being sold on many street corners yesterday. A lesser seen but still common custom is to literally run completely around the block carrying bags of clothing while the meñeco is burning. This is done by people who hope to travel to another country during the year.

At exactly midnight you and your yellow underwear set fire to the muñecos. While the muñecos burn and the fireworks explode, everyone – family members, neighbors and anyone else in the area hug and wish each other a happy new year. When the hugging is done grape eating begins. Every person eats twelve grapes – one for each month, and makes a wish as each grape is eaten. As I understand it, for the wishes to come true it is vital to be wearing your yellow underwear.

After the grapes have been eaten and the muñecos have turned to ashes (though fireworks continue to sporadically explode…muñecos die hard) the families enter their houses and a champagne toast is proposed by the family patriarch asking for a blessing and good luck for the new year. It is my theory that the yellow underwear, hugging, grapes, and toasts don’t work, because if they did, there would not have been any bad luck the preceding year and thus no reason to burn a muñeco. Maribel does not accept this line of reasoning. I am not certain how seriously Chiclayanos regard these customs, but there is an undeniable degree of belief as they perform them.

Somewhere around 1:00am dinner is eaten. The menu for this meal is much less strict than for Christmas, though turkey is still a popular item and paneton with hot chocolate are mandatory. When dinner is finished and plates are washed and put away dancing begins. Most families dance in their homes or in the street and the sound of Latin music blaring from nearly every house doesn’t begin to diminish until sometime after 4:00am. Others elect to dance at a disco, which entails changing into different clothing and arriving at the disco at about 2:00am. Still others – the youthful crowd, go to Pimentel and party on the beach, which is also their bed for the night. What did we do? When dinner finished at 1:30 we skipped the disco scene and were in bed by 2:30.

Today will be a slow day. People sleep late, stores are closed and except for blowing muñeco ashes there isn’t much movement on the street. Later people will be visiting families. With no football available to me, I’ll probably take a nap.

Happy New Year.

Tom, Maribel & Brian