Saturday, December 29, 2012

About Owning a Car

So, you’re thinking about relocating to Chiclayo or some other Peruvian northern coastal town and wondering if you’re going to need a car. Here are some things you may want to consider before plunking down your nuevo sols.

At least 90% of the collisions I’ve seen involve a private car. Commercial drivers… taxi, mototaxi, colectivo, combi and trucks drive in pretty much the same rhythm and know what to expect from each other in the semi-controlled chaos that are Chiclayo streets. For example, Commercial drivers (and native pedestrians) know to look both ways when crossing a one way street. They know that the taxi or combi or mototaxi ahead of them will suddenly swerve left or right or come to a dead stop, because they do it themselves and are prepared to deal with it. Private car owners are on a different rhythm – slower, indecisive and much more cautious. And they do the unexpected, like slowing down before turning and not ‘shooting the gap’ between oncoming vehicles, and stopping on a yellow light. And so they get hit or hit somebody.

Driving isn’t the only drawback. Parking is a bitch. There is no difference between trying to find a parking spot in downtown Chicago or in Chiclayo. And unless you have a private and secure place to keep your car, especially overnight but also during daytime, chances are good that when you next visit your car you’ll be missing your side view mirrors (a favorite ‘midnight auto sales’ item) and whatever else the thieves were able to remove. There are parking garages scattered throughout the city, but unless you know they’re there they are difficult to recognize and are not convenient to get in or out of.

There’s the cost of gas, which right now is on a par with USA gas prices. In Chiclayo for $1.20 you can go to pretty much anywhere you want to go by taxi and even less in a mototaxi, and you don’t have to drive in what always resembles a demolition derby, or worry about a parking spot and if your car will be there in whole or in part when you get back. That same $1.20 will get you to most surrounding towns like Lambayeque and Pimentel, albeit in a combi, which is sometimes not the most comfortable mode of transportation if it’s an older model.

And there’s the expense of auto insurance which is mandatory, though most incidents are minor and unless injuries are involved amount to nothing more that shouting and exchanging insults with each other before driving off as if the whole thing never happened.

Despite the above, there are advantages to having your own car.

Going somewhere at night on a combi or collectivo is a pain because of limited hours, and the often unsafe areas where they are boarded. Taxis are the only other option, and at night they are both expensive and dangerous if the driver has a second occupation as a thief. Secondly, a car is more convenient for long trips, where the only public transportation is by bus and you have to travel on their schedule….not yours. Peruvians have no trouble traveling on a bus from Chiclayo to Lima (12 hours) or to Cajamarca (6 hours), but my restless leg syndrome kicks in at about the 3 hour mark and if I can’t pull over and walk a bit the remainder of the trip is torture.

Still think you may want to buy a car? Okay, let’s look at your options.

If it’s a new car you’re thinking about there are a handful of new car dealers in Chiclayo with modern facilities and showrooms. The Maquinarias dealership offers Nissan and Renault.  Other dealers handle Honda, Toyota, JMC, Daewoo, Hyundai, Volkswagen and Suzuki. To my knowledge the only General Motors brand available in northern Peru is Chevrolet. The Chevy offerings from several dealers include the Sail ($11,500) and Spark ($8,000), as well as a van and SUV. I don’t know the model names of the last two. A new Chevy van at the Real Plaza Mall dealership has a sticker price of $10,500. I have been told that almost all of the new cars sold in Peru are built/assembled in Brazil or some other South American country.

There are several ‘pre-owned’ car lots in or near Chiclayo. I have not visited them so am not familiar with their offerings or operation. Most used cars are bought and sold through either word of mouth or seeing a for sale sign on the streets. It is my understanding that this 1981 Buick Skylark with automatic transmission seen in the photo was owned by a sweet little old lady who only drove it to church on Sunday. The Ford Escort parked in front of the Buick is also for sale.

If you’re going to own a car you’ll also need to maintain it. New car dealers have complete service facilities but are regarded as expensive, probably because they’ve adopted the ‘replace’ philosophy of US car maintenance facilities. Peruvians don’t like to ‘replace’ anything unless it is absolutely necessary…they repair. An old radiator, brake shoe, generator, window crank handle, shock absorber, etc isn’t replaced, it’s repaired. It’s a marvel to me how these mechanics can keep 30, 40 and 50 year old cars on the road. Their repairs won’t last forever but no matter – they’ll repair it again and again until there is nothing left to repair, and then they’ll come up with some other exotic solution.

Repair shops come in many flavors ranging from a complete facility at a new car dealer to somebody’s back yard. Jam Motors is one of the newer and more modern. Several of their mechanics were wearing coveralls with “certified GM mechanic” embroidered on the back. They were working on three Chevy Spark taxis parked on the street when this photo was taken.

The majority of auto repair shops in Chiclayo look like this one. Most of them have been around for a long time and are trusted by locals. Their hours of operation are iffy and they may not be able to accept your job immediately and it will probably seem to take forever to get your car back, but the job will get done and at a cost that will be laughably low.

There is one remaining item ahead of you...and it’s a huge one. Three years ago the then President Alan Garcia signed legislation making the attendance of a driver training school mandatory to obtain a first-time driver license. There are several “Escuela De Conductores” that will be happy to teach the rules of the road during a three-month course at a cost of $785. When you’ve completed the course your next stop is at the Department of Transportation where you will undergo a physical examination and then be required to pass a written and road test. This at an additional cost of $392. It’s hard for me to believe that this system is enforced as stated…the average Peruvian would not be able to afford it, but true or not there is probably a substantial amount of time, money and red-tape involved.

Are you really sure you want a car?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Graduation Night

For Young people in Peru there are several milestones that are major league activities. For a girl, the biggest single event in her young life is her 15th birthday. It’s her ‘coming out’. It’s a formal dress; rent a hall and band; take a ride in a horse drawn white carriage in Parque Las Muses; invite 150 guests at $12 per plate; let the liquor flow; party all night and bankrupt your parents type event. Parents start saving and planning 3 years in advance. For a boy it’s his 18th birthday and pretty much follows the same script, except now he’s legal age and can drink with the rest of the ‘adults.’

Lesser events but still up there on the importance scale are school graduations. Peruvians celebrate graduations with an impressive display of pomp and circumstance at four levels…kinder, primary, secondary and university. Common to all of them is a ceremony in a hall or some other suitable facility that has been tastefully decorated. In the larger cities and for wealthier families the graduates, parents and guests will be dressed to the nines. In small villages the kids will be dressed in the best clothing their parents can afford, which is often hand-me-downs from older siblings; borrowed from a neighbor or relative, or sew by mom or some other family member.  There will be formal introductions as each graduate with escort enters the hall individually and circles the standing/applauding attendees before coming to a halt at a prescribed location. It’s heartwarming to watch kinder graduates of five and six years old trying to act just as officious as university graduates. After several speeches by faculty and parents the graduates and their escorts will dance center stage, to be followed by dancing with parents and finally the other guests. Following several hours of dancing, food will be served followed by more speeches and the cutting of the graduation cake(s). These activities last to the wee hours and often see the sun rise.

The graduation Maribel and I recently attended in Puerto Arturo for primary students in the 11 to 13 age range was different in that there were just four graduates. And these are poor people…there were no 3-button suits, evening gowns or horse-drawn white carriages. Still, the formal ceremony as outlined above was followed to the letter.

The four graduates are in this photo, taken on our first visit to the school in October. Can you can identify them from the following photo?

They clean up pretty well, don’t they? Jaime Diaz (left) intends to study mechanical engineering. Next to Jamie is Luis Diego Fernandez who wants a future as a medical doctor. Their teacher Ninfa Milian apologized during her speech for sometimes “being too hard on you.” To Ninfa’s left, Cintya Cotrina has her sights set on being a policewoman, and Eliana Castrejon wants a nursing career. They will be going on to secondary school in Reque when school begins again next March. They are personable and intelligent kids. Maribel and I were proud to be their Padrinos de Promociòn (graduation Godparents).

The event was still going on at midnight when Maribel and I and three others opted to leave. We walked about a mile through quiet village streets to the highway where we lucked out and stopped a passing taxi that was returning ti Chiclayo from Puerto Eten. We were home at 1:00am, feeling good about the evening and happy for the kids.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Makings of a Chocolatada

A typical Chocolatada/ Christmas party lasts from 2 to 2½ hours. Preparation time is considerably longer. The following is a laundry list of things that need to be accomplished, and is applicable to all Chocolatadas we’ve sponsored.

The process begins with a visit to schools that have requested our help. We normally receive 3 or 4 requests every year beginning in September. The first consideration during our visit is to try to gauge the financial condition of the school/community. Would there be no Chocolatada without assistance, or are they just looking for a free ride (it happens)?

When need is established the next issue is transportation. What we’re looking at is how far and how difficult is it to reach this community. In October we were invited to a beautiful little village located in an isolated mountain valley where we would have loved to sponsor a Chocolatada but the location made it a practical impossibility.  We were able to locate only one man with a suitable vehicle who would take us there but he wanted $315 round trip, which was not unreasonable given the distance and terrain but that was nearly our entire budget.

How much we have to transport and how many people are going determines the mode of transportation. Often we’ve needed to charter a combi (van), which gets expensive and depending on distance and total time can cost from $50 to $75. For the just concluded Puerto Arturo Chocolatada this truck was our transportation. Maribel and I rode up front with the driver. Milkito the Clown rode in the open back with the food, toys and other gear. He didn’t mind, and it saved us the cost of a second or larger vehicle. The driver…a friend of a friend charged us $27 for the 30 mile round-trip plus the 2 ½ hours wait time. That’s a pretty good price; better than other offers we received. I still hold out the hope that someday someone will offer to transport us for the cost of the gas alone.

If transportation looks doable we look next at the number of students enrolled including ages and sex. This information tells us how much food we’ll need and what kind and numbers of toys to purchase. Toys are usually the biggest budget item. We know that a school with over 60 or so students will be beyond our financial means. Purchasing toys is also the biggest time consuming activity. Big department stores such as Tottus and Plaza Vea are avoided as they tend to carry the larger, bulkier and more expensive toys. Our toys are purchased at very small family owned stores clustered just outside of central Chiclayo. They don’t have large inventories so it’s a case of buying 2 or 3 toys at this store, perhaps 5 at the next, and so on. It’s also the custom to negotiate at these stores. Maribel is a fierce negotiator and will get the best price possible.

The food items…paneton, chocolate, milk, sugar and candy are bought from whoever is offering the best price at the moment. Empanadas are ordered two days in advance from a small neighborhood bakery and picked up the morning of the Chocolatada.

A clown is standard, and finding one is not always easy. There are lots of activities going on in December and good clowns are booked far in advance. We’ve been fortunate so far in finding reliable clowns. The going rate for an experienced clown is about $70.

And finally, there are the on-site logistics to deal with. Does the school have an outside area sheltered from the sun to stage the Chocolatada? If not is there a large enough classroom? Will there be enough chairs for the students, and tables for food and gifts? Who is preparing the chocolate milk and will it be ready when food is distributed? Is there a CD player, speakers and microphone for the clown, and someone who knows how to operate it? I’ve noticed that clowns tend to get very temperamental when their act is disrupted by missed music cues. Do all the teachers and students know a Chocolatada is taking place on this date at this time (it’s surprising how often someone doesn’t get the word)? These are just a few of the picky details that need to be addressed to insure a successful Chocolatada.

Like all organized activities, whether it’s a college reunion in New York USA or a Chocolatada in Puerto Arturo Peru, a lot of up-front time and effort is required. For us 99% of that time and effort falls on Maribel. She does all the purchasing; makes all the arrangements and coordinates and oversees everyone’s efforts including those at the school, and when we’re on site she’s in the thick of things, handing out toys, serving food and doing whatever else needs to be done. I know it’s cliché but without Maribel there would be no Chocolatadas or medical campaigns or donated school supplies. 

When Maribel got into the truck to return home after the Puerto Arturo Chocolatada she said “mission accomplished.” She looked tired but there was a big, proud smile on her face. Later that evening she fell asleep at the theater during El Hobbit.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Mission Accomplished

“Mission accomplished”…those were Maribel’s words as we drove away from school I.E. 10043 in Puerto Arturo this morning at the conclusion of a fun Christmas party. We had arrived at 10:00am and by 12:30 it was all over.

As always, the clown was the featured attraction. The voices of 40 excited kids inside a classroom responding to the antics of ‘Milkito the Clown’ were deafening. Milkito did a good job of involving the kids and teachers in his portion of the activities. An outbreak of measles prevented 23 kids from attending. We left presents and food to be taken to them later.

After the kids had burned off some energy they were ready for the paneton, empanadas, candy and hot chocolate that are part of every Christmas party. They were also ready for the toys they knew were coming. It is always a pleasure to watch their eyes light up and see that initial burst of excitement when toys are handed out.

The faculty at I.E. 10043 are probably the most enthusiastic and friendly group of educators we’ve dealt with. They obviously have a good repoire with the kids, and certainly made us feel welcome and part of the family. Pictured left to right are Zenaida, Isabel, me, Maribel, Joselito (the school’s director) and Ninfa.

This is the 5th chocolatada Promesa Peru has sponsored, but it came very close to not happening. It was generous donations at the last moment from the Wednesday Morning Riversbend Golf Gals (thanks for coming through for us again, ladies) and the Greendale Monday Morning Weight Watchers Group that allowed us to go forward. A big thanks from us and the kids! 

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!