Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Village of Callanca

There are a few interesting characteristics that set Callanca apart from the thousands of other small villages in the Lambayeque Region. Take the shape of the town for instance. Its physical dimensions are 6 miles long by 200 feet wide. There are no side streets and only one row of houses bordering each side of the road. Behind the houses are farmland and garden plots. The larger agricultural plots are devoted to sugar cane which is pretty much the standard crop in the entire region. In the gardens are lettuce, corn, carrots, and tomatoes. Bordering the gardens are fruit trees bearing bananas, avocado, guanabana, mamey, maracuya, ciruela and others.

Adjacent to the gardens are animal pens. It seems as if every house has a collection of pigs, chicken and ducks, and goats. If you’ve never been around pens of goats when they all decide to start baaing….well, the volume and intensity can be a bit unnerving for a first-time experience. There will also be a burro to pull carts and carry things.

Another characteristic distinguishing Callanca is the inordinate amount of restaurants. Peruvians refer to them as “restaurantes  turisticos”.  They are not the typical one room four table restaurants found in most small villages. These are outdoor restaurants usually occupying a large space with the grounds containing a profusion of colorful plants and trees. Tables, chairs and other hardware are constructed of bamboo…the usual theme for these types of restaurants. Callanca’s “restaurantes turisticos” are numerous and successful, attracting many customers from larger near-by cities, especially on weekends.

What accounts for the success of these restaurants in a town that has nothing else to offer? Locals and customers will tell you one of the reasons is the wide variety of fresh vegetables organically grown. Another reason is the variety of delicious juices home-made locally. A third reason, and the locals are careful to stress this, is that the poultry and animals are fed garden crops – not garbage as is done in other towns. We did not eat at a restaurant during our recent visit. We ate instead at the home of Elio and Paula in celebration of Paula’s birthday.

In a way Elio is also an identifying feature of Callanca. Elio is a baker. He has been a baker since age 10. His father, grandfather and great grandfather were bakers, also in Callanca and within a stone’s throw of the present location. Elio’s specialty is empanadas, though he will make any pastry asked for if ingredients are available. An empanada is stuffed bread with a small amount of sugar on top. It can be stuffed with anything bakeable but locals mostly prefer no stuffing at all, in which case it called an “empanada de aire.”

Elio helped his father build this oven in 1954. For fuel he burns bamboo and pine branches. I don’t know what temperature it reaches or maintains and neither does he. For Elio the entire baking process is done by look and feel. The outside of the oven is cool to the touch.

Elio’s custom is to bank the fire to the left and place two trays…no more and no less, of empanadas to the right. He will occasionally stick his hand into the oven to check the temperature, but his indication that the empanadas are ready to come out is when they’ve risen to the right height and the sugar has melted and browned to the proper color; a process I timed at 5 minutes.

We ate empanadas right out of the oven, and then sat down to a delicious meal of arroz con pato. And, as is the Peruvian custom, ate a second meal an hour later (pavo con garbanzo) accompanied by wine and more empanadas.

Elio gets up at 4:00am every day and begins baking. When he’s finished and his cooling racks are full – around 1:00 in the afternoon he will put the baked goods into several large baskets and place the baskets on the rear of his tricycle. He will travel the same route he’s ridden for the last 50 years in Callanca, stopping occasionally to blow a distinctive 3-notes on his whistle to alert his customers. He will return home several hours later with an empty basket and requests for specialty baked goods.

Elio will be the last baker in the family line. He has two sons living and working in Spain and another in Lima. Of his three daughters one is in Argentina and another in Lima. Only Juanita remains and she is happily married and busy in Chiclayo, with no desire to bake commercially. Elio says he is happy for his sons. They are doing well and regularly send money to contribute to the house. His children point out to him that he no longer needs to work and should slow down but Elio won’t hear of it. He says “This is what I do…this is who I am…this is what I like.” He wants to continue baking until he “can’t do it anymore.” I’m sure the people of Callanca would support that.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Have language…will teach

Occasionally I receive an email asking my opinion about relocating to Peru for a time and earning a living while here teaching English. Usually the emails are from young unattached people apparently looking for a bit of adventure. Upon returning recently from an extended visit home I found two such emails. I normally don’t check email while traveling…there is no compelling reason for me to do so. If memory serves me right the last really important email sent to me was in about 1997, and I have yet to respond to it. The emails I receive these days are pretty much from soldiers in Iraq who have found 37 million dollars in some old ammo crates and need my help in getting it out of country, or from young beautiful girls who saw my profile; fell madly in love with me and want to “knowing us much butter.” But back to the relocaters.

I try not to be pessimistic in my reply but with regards to teaching English to earn their daily bread my response is always… “You better have a plan B.” Chiclayanos are not lined up hoping a native English speaker/teacher will be getting off the next plane. Most younger people here want to learn a foreign language about as much as young American students do, and the older folks couldn’t care less. Studying a minimal amount of English is mandatory in secondary schools, and a minimum proficiency is necessary to graduate from universities, but that’s only because English is the universal language…not because anyone has a burning desire to speak it.

So the first problem is finding enough students to pay the bills. The second is retaining them. Lots of luck with that. Peruvians have a very casual attitude toward time and commitments. Just because a student showed up on time for the first class doesn’t mean it will happen for the next session. It’s just as likely that you will never see them again. And for people who are serious and committed to learning English, there are a number of colleges, universities and private institutions that do a very good job of teaching. Like I said, you better have another plan. And it better not be plan “R”.

R is for restaurant. Failed restaurants rank right behind failed teaching as a stimulus for gringos to catch the next bus out of town. There seems to be a perception that Peruvians are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to feast on European and American food. Except for the popularity of KFC here in Chiclayo, that’s not the case at all. Peruvians want the food they are accustomed to eating. You know that inch-thick T-bone steak done medium rare most of us love so much? Peruvians would send it back to the kitchen to be cooked more until it’s the color of ‘burn’ inside and out. And they will cover it with six different types of sauces. They don’t want an American hamburger or hot dog or chili. They want lomo saltado and ceviche, but mostly they want rice.

And forget about differentiating your restaurant with a clever d├ęcor and American ‘customer focus.’ If you were to greet customers at the door with a big smile and a …”Hi folks! are you today?, they would wonder what the hell you’re talking about. And they don’t care if they wait thirty to forty five minutes to be served, and if their dinner companion’s meals are served twenty minutes apart. That is what they are accustomed to. Serving them fast, friendly and efficiently isn’t going to get you anything. Peruvians want lots of the food they are accustomed to at the lowest possible cost. Period. They couldn’t care less about the service or ambiance.  

So is there no hope for a person who wants to experience Peru and needs to earn a few bucks while doing it? I really can’t answer that question. I don’t personally know, or know of, any gringo who is earning their living in Chiclayo. All the gringos I know are retired and living on the fruits of their past efforts.

But let me throw this out as a teaser. Some time ago while in the USA I had an idea for a business in Chiclayo that I think is as close to a ‘can’t miss’ as it is possible to get. And Maribel completely agrees and is excited about it. I don’t think it would take a whole lot of upfront cash to generate a prompt return on investment and a substantial ongoing income. I’m not going to go any further because I just might decide to do it myself some day. But the point is that there are ways to earn a living in Chiclayo/Peru. I just don’t think they include an English teaching restaurant.

As I mentioned up top we’re just back from an extended stay in the USA. We had a good visit and some really great highlights. I’ll be posting a few entries about our visit soon.