Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Cusco and the Sacred Valley

If I had written this post immediately upon returning to Chiclayo I would have been tempted to begin by saying that what I liked best about Cusco was leaving it. Four days of cold temperatures, wind and intermittent rain ranging from drizzle to downpour is not the ideal setting in which to appreciate the fabled Inca city and surrounding attractions. A hotel room without heat and a 50-50 chance of a hot water shower didn’t help. And there’s the altitude to deal with. The altitude issue made its presence known shortly after we checked into the hotel and noticed that our lips had turned purple, and the wrappers of vacuum packed cereal bars we had brought with us had expanded like balloons. The altitude is not debilitating and didn’t restrict us in any way, but heavy breathing became a way of life during our four-day visit. Chewing coca leaves didn’t relieve the problem but perhaps they prevented it from getting worse. At least that’s what the natives claim. I was surprised that I had an easier time prowling Machu Picchu than walking the streets of Cusco until I learned that I’d had a misconception…Cusco at 11,000 feet is actually 3,000 feet higher than Machu Picchu. I thought the opposite was true. But those things aside, and now that the three of us have recovered from the severe head colds we’d contracted in Cusco, in reflection it was a good trip. Maribel had done some quick but thorough planning and we saw and were impressed by everything we intended to see.

What follows is a synopsis of what we did, and in some cases what we’d do differently if we returned, but first let’s talk about when to visit Cusco. Don’t go in December. We went in December as a spare-of-the-moment thing to take advantage of Brian’s university vacation. Though temperatures are pretty much constant year round, November through April is the rainy season. Listening to a guide talk about the Temple of the Sun in the ruins of Machu Picchu during a downpour with your shoes soaked and the wind blowing yours or someone else’s poncho over your face is not fun. Enough about that.

We had contracted an agent in advance to arrange tours; one recommended to us by friends who had been to Cusco recently. There are essentially three standard tours – the City tour, the Sacred Valley tour, and Machu Picchu tour, and there are dozens of tour services who offer them. We paid $310 for the three of us for all three tours which was pretty much all inclusive and delivered the services that had been promised. Still, this is something I would do differently. I would not contract in advance, but instead would negotiate with the dozens of tours operators who are constantly approaching tourists in the principal park. I would do this for more flexibility in dates and for a better price. The tourist police station will furnish a list of who they consider to be reputable tour operators, and will also provide a good map of the city with attractions. 

In the afternoon on the day of our arrival we checked out the principal park and surrounding area. Central Cusco is impressive. It’s so easy with just a little imagination to step back into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and envision the historical events I’d read about. We had dinner at Papillon restaurant overlooking the square and then attended a presentation of native dance and clothing at the Centro Qosqo de Arte Nativo.

Our first full day found us taking the Sacred Valley tour. The tour began at 8.30 a.m. when we were picked up at our hotel and finished at 7.30 p.m. at San Francisco plaza. What better way to celebrate my 73rd birthday than by exploring the ruins of Ollantaytambo; an Inca site ranked second in grandeur only to Machu Picchu. In some ways I was more impressed by these ruins than with Machu Picchu, though that may be because the sun was shining and they were the first Inca ruins I’d seen. In addition to Ollantaytambo the Sacred Valley tour included Pisac, a delicious buffet lunch at Urubamba, and finished at the village of Chinchero. We had planned on going to the Uchu restaurant that evening for alpaca steak, but the altitude and exertion had taken its toll on us so we reluctantly settled for carry-out chicken eaten in our room.

Day two was the City tour, beginning at 2:00pm and finishing at 7:00pm. I don’t know why it’s called the city tour…it’s all about Inca ruins and includes only one site actually in the city (Coricancha) with the others: Qenko, Puca Pucara, Tambomachay and Sacsayhuaman located a short distance outside of Cusco. We used the morning hours prior to the tour to explore the city. That was not enough time…we should have allowed another day for our visit. The churches and museums have limited morning and afternoon hours, and it’s difficult to coordinate their open hours with limited time. The Inka Museum is impressive and should not be missed. The San Blass square and souvenir shops are worth checking out, though I can do without the lamb-carrying women in native costumes constantly badgering me to have my photo taken with them. Street vendors in Cusco, the surrounding towns and archeological sites are very aggressive, some of them obnoxiously so. I don’t like having my arms touched or grabbed.

The final tour on our final day was of Machu Picchu. Even now I’m not sure how to begin describing that day because it still remains somewhat blurry in my mind, perhaps because the day began at 1:00am. Let’s begin with getting to Machu Picchu. I don’t know what all of the possible travel options are to Machu Picchu. I believe that most if not all travel arrangements involve a train/bus combination. What I can say with authority is that trains do not leave from Cusco. They stopped doing that in 2010. If your guide book says differently, you have an old guide book. There are train stations in Cusco. You can buy train tickets at those stations, but trains do not leave from those stations. It is my understanding that tourist trains leave from Poroy; about ten miles outside of Cusco and from other Sacred Valley locations, including among others Ollantaytambo. They depart at various times during the day. Depending on amenities the cost ranges from about $70 to $300 round trip. All trains arrive at Aquas Calientes – also known as Machu Picchu Village, which can lead to confusion. The tourist train is definitely the preferred way to travel. We did not do that.

PERURAIL, who has the tourist trains, also runs a train strictly for Peruvian citizens. The cost is $7.30 round trip; certainly an attractive price. The downside is that it is barebones service and leaves only from Ollantaytambo at 4:27am. Maribel, bless her penny-pinching Peruvian soul had booked us on this train. Which is why we had to get up at 1:00am in order to be ready for pick-up at our hotel at 2:00am for the two-hour mini bus ride from Cusco to Ollantaytambo. More than once while waiting in the station I wondered if Machu Picchu would be worth the effort. But at last the train departed and we arrived at Aquas Calientes. 

Here, whether you arrived by plush tourist train or Peruvian peasant train the gods treat everyone equally. Upon leaving the train what you do; assuming you have booked a group tour is mill about in the considerable crowd, looking for someone with a banner (indicating they are a tour guide) and carrying a sign with your name among others on it. Somehow everyone ultimately finds their tour group and then marches off to wait for the next available bus making the twenty minute trip to the Machu Picchu archeological site. A ticket must be shown or bought to enter the site. Once inside, the guide assembles the group, making sure everyone is present and then the tour begins.

What happens is that the guide marches the group from point A to point B, stopping at each point to describe something significant. There are generally considered to be fourteen points of interest at Machu Picchu. Often several groups have stopped at the same location, making it difficult to concentrate on what the guide is saying, and when the groups are moving competition for space on the narrow paths slows things down, as does the rain by making the steps slippery. I can’t help but look at this photo and think that these people look more like ship wreck survivors than carefree tourists. Granted, we and they hit a bad day.

I am sure the vast majority of visitors have a pleasant experience. And we did enjoy it, and Brian and Maribel are still talking about the ancestral pride they felt walking on that hallowed ground. Machu Picchu is all that has been written about it and more. But there is something I would do differently which for me would enhance the experience. I would hire a personal guide at the entrance rather than taking a group tour. There are many registered guides available at reasonable rates and bilingual as well. I would tell the guide I don’t want to march from point to point, but instead want to leisurely walk through the entire site and have the guide comment on points of interest and answer questions. In other words, I want the guide to accompany me, not vice versa.

Everyone who visits Machu Picchu wants to take the ‘classic’ photo…the shot that is so recognizable worldwide. We along with about thirty other people crowded into a reconstructed Inca house on a high peak hoping that the weather would clear, at least long enough to take the photo. People from England, Scotland and Iran were standing next to us, patiently waiting. Finally after nearly two hours there was a break and all of us hurriedly stepped out and started taking photos. This is mine. Shortly afterwards the sky clouded over again and we boarded the bus in a downpour. The train and bus ride back to Cusco was uneventful.

The next day we were at the airport at 6:00am for our flight to Lima, where we had ten hours to kill before the flight to Chiclayo. We spent the day touring a museum and walking around the Larcomar Mall and Love Park. It felt good to see the sun and be warm again.

Happy New Year everyone!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

If at First You Don’t Succeed…..

This post is a continuation of our last post concerning a neighborhood mystery, but more than that it presents a segment of life dealing with the judicial system, attitudes and behaviors in Peru that the passing tourist would be oblivious to. If you’re going to continue reading this post you really need to go back to the previous post first to make sense of this one. Go ahead…we’ll wait.

It’s Wednesday morning; the day after the walls came down for the second time and once again neighborhood opinion is divided as to what will happen next. Will there be a third attempt to erect walls? We still don’t know which of the litigants is paying for the work. It could be the old man, the new buyer or the ‘real’ owner. The answer regarding what’s next was not long in coming.

At 8:00am this morning a dump truck pulled up and a different work crew began clean-up of the crumbled walls. Shortly after the truck arrived a second vehicle dropped off rebar and wood planks used to construct forms. There will indeed be a third attempt to build another wall; only this time no bricks…they’re going to pour concrete! Ya gotta admire the tenaciousness of whoever is doing this. He/she is spending a lot of money to erect walls around vacant lots. But maybe this is no longer about property. Maybe it’s about two opposing wills – one who says THERE WILL BE  WALLS!, and one who says THERE WILL NOT!

Would this drama be happening if the judge had rendered his verdict? Probably not but who knows? A more interesting question is what are the people who destroyed the brick walls thinking right now? There is no doubt they already know what is taking place on these lots. Will they attempt to demolish steel-reinforced concrete walls? Or perhaps they have already devised a completely differently strategy that will shock and amaze us with its creativity. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

And the Walls Came Tumbling Down…Again!

This isn’t Jericho and there are no indications that Joshua or ram’s horns were involved but one thing is certain – last night between 12:30am and 7:00am this morning the walls did indeed come tumbling down. And not for the first time. But let me start at the beginning.

I’ve written several posts recently about new housing construction in Chiclayo. In conjunction with that activity is the buying, selling and leasing of existing housing. ‘For sale’ and ‘for rent’ signs in windows are a common sight these days. This is a fairly recent phenomenon. It used to be that if you were looking for a home or apartment, word of mouth is how you found it. Realtors do exist in Chiclayo but they are not nearly as visible as those in the USA, nor do Chiclayanos utilize their services, viewing a middle-man as money spent for nothing.

Occasionally a ‘for sale’ sign will include this verbiage – ‘this property is in litigation.’ That could mean that there are back taxes owed or there is some other problem with the city, but more likely it means that the property ownership is in dispute.  Such is the case with a property in our neighborhood.

The most common version of the story circulating is that an old man who does not own the property but through some shenanigan managed to get his name registered as the owner sold the property to an unsuspecting buyer. When the new owner attempted to physically secure the property the real owner found out and filed suit. A judge arrived at a decision and appointed a specific day to announce his verdict.  In situations like this it is customary for the judge to announce his decision at the site of the dispute with all interested parties present, including a number of police to protect the judge in the event that the loser takes violent exception to the verdict.

One morning several months ago the litigants assembled outside the property. These things tend to take on a festive atmosphere and a crowd of neighbors, mototaxi drivers and others had assembled, along with street vendors hoping to take advantage of the situation. Several hours later the crowd dispersed after word was received that the judge had postponed his decision indefinitely because of a missing document.

Last week one of the parties – we don’t know who, had two brick walls constructed to close off the property which consists of three lots. The middle lot has a small unoccupied house on it so the walls were constructed on the two outside lots to match the height of the house. A two-man crew accomplished the work in one day. That night a person or persons unknown demolished the walls, providing a topic of much conversation the next day. Neighbors could not agree on who might have done it, with opinions ranging from one of the litigants to a random act of vandalism to the work crew itself hoping for another payday. The crew did return the next day and rebuilt the walls. Two days later the walls were painted yellow to match the house. We assumed that was the end of that issue.

This is the sight that greeted our neighborhood this morning. The house is standing; the walls are not. No one saw or heard anything. Not even a ram’s horn. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

No Signs of an Economic Slowdown in Chiclayo

Recent financial figures indicate that the impressive growth Peru has experienced over the past six or more years is starting to decline. For the fifth consecutive month Peru’s growth has been under 5%. The numbers are still respectable but are not the heady 8 – 10% seen in the recent past. In fact this last Monday the Peruvian government sold $230 million US dollars in an effort to prop up the Nuevo sole which has gone from a ratio of 2.55 to the dollar some months ago to the present 2.8. Should this downward trend continue it would be expected that consumer spending and new construction would show signs of slowing but that hasn’t happened yet in Chiclayo. Casual observation indicates a flourishing economy.

Probably the most visible sign of continuing growth is the construction taking place at Chiclayo’s Real Plaza Mall, which opened its doors just eight years ago in 2005. Last year Promart; a home improvement center became Real Plaza’s latest tenant and above it was constructed a six-level parking ramp. At the time many people questioned the need for such a large parking facility, until recently when the outside parking area was cordoned off and construction began that will double the available retail space of the mall. And while that construction is going on the food court has seen the addition of Chili’s restaurant, with a Popeyes restaurant soon to follow. And Pardo’s Chicken, one of the original restaurants in the food court has temporarily closed to remodel and expand.

But it’s not just retail construction taking place. This recently completed condo is one of dozens that are in various stages of construction in a relatively small area of the city, and it seems that every day new signs are appearing on vacant lots indicating that another four to five floor condo will soon be ready for occupancy. And many owners of existing housing are remodeling and expanding upward.

This salon and spa complex is one of several to open recently in Chiclayo featuring 20+ chairs, uniformed staff and multiple rooms for various treatments. Obviously beauty shops have existed in Chiclayo for some time, but they are much smaller and ‘rustic’ in their furnishings and equipment.

The Garza Hotel, previously one of Chiclayo’s ‘big four’ hotels is no more. In its place is the completely remodeled and expanded Win Meier hotel and Casino. A delegation from Columbia is there now while taking part in the Bolivarian Games being held in Chiclayo and elsewhere in Peru. Meals in the Win Meier restaurant are not inexpensive but Chiclayanos are eating there, and shopping at the mall, and getting their hair done at the salons, and buying new cars at one of several newly opened car dealerships. One wonders if an upper-middle class is just emerging as a result of the booming economy the past few years, or have they always been here with no place to spend their money? Not that Peruvians are into conspicuous consumption or display of wealth. The opposite is true…they tend to be very unpretentious.  Well, that is unless you consider the designer dog breeds showing up as being pretentious, and the pet salons opening on every other corner to care for the dog’s needs including designer leashes and pet clothing.   

New construction is largely limited to retail and housing…there is no money being spent on new manufacturing facilities. In fact there is very little manufacturing remaining in Chiclayo.  There was a time when Chiclayo could boast of many factories producing everything from noodles to car parts. Several bottling companies produced beer, soft drinks and rum, and food processing plants packaged tons of rice, sugar and other food products. A huge Nestle plant that employed hundreds existed on the spot the Real Plaza Mall now occupies. All are gone now, most swallowed up by that behemoth Lima to the south. What remains are a few huge empty lots where the factories once stood, and it is likely that even these reminders of the past will soon be occupied by a new condo complex or retail outlet.

The face of Chiclayo is changing, probably more rapidly than many older residents would like to see. Whether that change persists if the national economy continues to slow remains to be seen.

One construction project that hasn’t begun is the new house in La Raya for Luzmila and her girls. We’ve got $210 toward our goal of $1500. We need your help. Please visit the Promesa Peru web page to donate. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

About Bakeries and Baking in Chiclayo

Small neighborhood bakeries in Chiclayo, which are mostly what this post is about, typically fire up their wood or gas ovens at 4:00am. They open their doors at 6:00 and stay open until they’re sold out, somewhere between 10:30 and 11:00am. The cycle repeats later in the day, opening between 4:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon and closing somewhere around 7:30pm. These bakeries are numerous. It’s nearly impossible to walk in any neighborhood without being tempted by the aroma of fresh, just-out-of-the- oven bakery. Maribel and I often succumb and enjoy a snack while walking.

This internet photo is very close to what a neighborhood bakery in Chiclayo looks like. Though small in size, these bakeries offer a surprising variety of products. Some of the more popular varieties of bread include French, coliza, de yema, integral, marraqueta and mica. My favorite is ciabatta.

These bakeries also make sweets. In this category would be empanadas, conitos, alfajores and many types of cookies. Of the sweets I like biscochos. Bakery doesn’t cost much in Peru. For example, eight ciabattas cost 35 cents. Biscochos are 35 cents each, sometimes less. You can walk out of a bakery with a large bag in each arm for less than two dollars. All of these products are slightly different from bakery to bakery in size, shape and flavor but are essentially the same. 

I enjoy all of the bread type products, and many of the sweets. I am less enthusiastic about cakes and torts. Most neighborhood bakeries don’t offer cakes. You need to go to the specialty bakeries; the bakery department of the large chain stores, or to “…the woman down the street” who makes cakes in her home.  

But whether from a specialty bakery or a chain store, to my taste most cakes are coarse, dry and lacking in flavor. Some I equate to chewing a mouthful of cardboard. And I have yet to taste a good cake from “…the woman down the street”. I don’t care for most cake frosting. They’re either a bland paste with a cool whip consistency or are similar to a piece of rubber that I (and I’ve noticed some Peruvians also) peel off and leave on the plate. Examples of popular Peruvian cakes would be chocolate con manjarblanco, chantilly, pionono and probably the most popular, tres leches. Pies are scarce and pretty much limited to lemon meringue or apple. Some are okay; some not.

It was an urge for a slice of German chocolate cake that had us returning to La Casona De La Abuelita, a restaurant that was the subject of an earlier post. To our disappointment, Bill had sold out the German cake earlier in the day. During our walk home Maribel, who is a good cook but doesn’t have a lot of baking experience casually said that we’d have German chocolate cake tomorrow because she was going to bake one.

The next morning she sat at the computer and watched and re-watched and watched again a Betty Crocker video. Next she went shopping and returned with all the ingredients including the hardware…baking pans, wax paper, etc. I expected her first attempt to be a flop. I don’t know what she was expecting but it turned out great. This was a cake that any bakery or restaurant in the United States would be proud to offer. Maribel wasn’t satisfied. She tweaked the recipe and made another one. It was even better… the chocolate flavor more subtle and the texture a bit finer but firm. Now she says she’s ready for a new challenge and I intend to give her one.

My mother was a good baker. When she baked bread she made three loaves. One loaf would disappear in five minutes. We’d sit at the kitchen table and butter a slice as fast as she could cut them until the loaf was gone. She baked excellent coffee cakes, torts and cakes. Of all the delicious things she baked, my absolute favorite was cherry nut cake. Maribel has promised to try it. Maybe she’ll become“…the woman down the street” who makes cakes in her home.

On a more serious matter, as of this writing we have received $210 in donations for a new home for Luzmila Valdera and her girls. That is 12% of our $1500 goal. This family needs your help. Please visit the Promesa Peru web page to donate. Thank you.

Monday, October 28, 2013

A Broom Factory in Sasape

Don’t bother to look for the caserio Sasape on a map. None of the maps I have or have found on the internet show Sasape. It is visible on Google maps but it’s not labeled. If you’re curious, paste these coordinates: -6.510802,-79.904206 into Google maps. A green arrow will appear in the center of the village square. The large building complex below the arrow is a school that serves the surrounding area. If someday the village is included in Peruvian maps, I’m not sure what its name would be. Technically it is Sasape, but if you ask the residents they will tell you they live in “Hacienda Vieja” which translates to ‘old hacienda’… hacienda being a Spanish word for ‘estate’. I don’t know why they call it that and neither do they. Just another example of a community name lost in the past.

There isn’t much in Sasape, but there is a broom factory, although the word ‘factory’ may be a bit pretentious. Manufacturing businesses in small villages are ‘cottage industries’, usually located in one small room of a house and that is the case with the broom factory we visited. This shop is owned and operated by Herminio along with his son (left) and wife.

The broom making equipment is hand-made and manually operated. The raw material is inexpensive and gotten locally. The straw-like substance is sorghum, grown throughout much of Peru’s Pacific coast. It has a pleasing fresh-mown hay aroma. The wood staves are gotten locally and can be from several kinds of trees. The metal wire and strap and red twine probably come from Chiclayo’s Mercado modelo. At the time of our visit I didn’t think to ask how long it takes to make a broom; how many they make in a given time period; how they market them, etc. I wish I had, but it had been a long morning and we were tired. Perhaps we’ll return to ask those questions someday.

Several of the manufacturing steps probably date back 1500 years. For example, the sorghum stalks are pounded with a wooden mallet and anvil to soften and separate the fibers.

When the broom has worn down to the wire - about three months of everyday use, it’s time to dismantle it. You don’t throw it away. There are uses for the wood handle (herding cattle, cooking fuel, etc), the metal strap and wire, and even the red twine. Some of it could even end up as another broom.

Besides learning how these brooms are produced, what I enjoyed most was the slow, easy pace of assembly; the soft tap-tap of the mallet and the sound of birds outside. No power equipment, no conveyor belts, no assembly lines and no time clocks. Just a father and son earning a living with their hands doing what their ancestors may have done hundreds of years ago.

On a more important subject, we’re stuck at $160 in donations for Luzmila’s new house in La Raya. If we’re going to do this project we need lots of help, and soon. Please visit the Promesa Peru web page to make a donation.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

More about the Village of La Raya

La Raya is an interesting village primarily because of its history and location. There’s more to say about it than was written in our original post, but before we do that…we’d like to report that as of this writing we’ve received donations of $160 toward the building of a new house for Luzmila and her girls. That’s already 10% of our goal. Also, several Chiclayanos have come forward with offers of food for Luzmila and medicines for the clinic. Hopefully we’ve got some momentum building. If you have a few dollars to spare please visit the Promesa Peru web page to donate. Okay; back to La Raya.

This is an aerial view of a small portion of the Lambayeque Valley. In the upper left corner is a part of the city of Tùcume. To the right in the center of what looks like a large white circle is Purgatory Mountain. The village of La Raya is the long, narrow strip of dwellings to the right of the mountain. The mountain is surrounded by 26 pyramids and mounds. The outline of many of them is visible in the photo. Some of those sites are under active excavation…others have deteriorated and been lost to time. 

These cows are grazing atop what may have once been a royal tomb or majestic pyramid rising hundreds of feet into the air. There is an excellent English language article discussing the history of the pyramids here.

Modern day residents of the area including La Raya are mostly indifferent to the pyramid complex and its historical significance. There is a site museum, but tourists are few and little to no income is generated by the ruins. In fact some residents in La Raya resent the ruins, because the area was declared an official historical site not too many years ago, which means land use including new construction is strictly governed. Residents also claim that the historical designation is used as an excuse by government agencies to ignore their needs. While there may be some truth to that, it can’t be denied that La Raya has a modern medical clinic staffed by a full-time doctor, and an impressive school… two advantages that many larger villages don’t have.

And speaking of the school, we were impressed with the vision and candor of the teachers we met. They voiced the opinion that there are some aspects of Peruvian culture/customs that need to change. They hope someday to have the electronic equipment to “…show educational videos to the students and residents about hygiene, trash disposal, nutrition and respect for the environment.”

I took this photo as we were leaving the school grounds. Shortly after, the woman holding the plastic jug asked Maribel if people in the United States would see the picture. When told that people in many countries of the world would see the photo she seemed momentarily stunned, but when Maribel asked her if there was anything she wanted us to say to the people who would see the photo, she quickly recovered and holding up her jug said, “Tell them I sell chicha!” So someday if you happen to be in La Raya, look her up. She sells chicha! For those who aren’t familiar with chicha, in our area of Peru chicha is a beverage made from boiled ground yellow corn to which sugar is added. It’s a refreshing drink sort of like lemonade, however if it sits awhile it ferments, and then you’ve got an alcoholic beverage with a wallop to it.  The making and selling of chicha is an activity common to many women in small villages.

Agriculture in the form of rice, sugarcane and corn is the area’s economic base, though there are also small scale industries including broom making and adobe brick manufacture. Adobe brick is the primary material Luzmila’s house will be built of. It is easy and inexpensive to make and will last for many years. If protected with a coat of plaster it could last a lifetime.

Many of La Raya’s residents also have a fair number of goats and pigs, which they sell when money is needed or keep for personal use. Nobody is wealthy in la Raya, but people seem generally content with their lives. We’re looking forward to our next visit.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Caserio La Raya

Last February we were contacted by Gilberto Santa Maria, a police officer who works in Tucume. For many years he has helped needy families and sponsored Christmas parties for poor communities at his own expense. Gilbert had learned of Promesa Peru’s charitable activities and invited us to visit La Raya, a poor community located just east of Tucume at the foot of Purgatory Mountain. We finally had the opportunity to do that recently. Gilbert was in Lima on the day of our visit so we were escorted by several village leaders and curious residents; all of them eager to show us their town and answer questions.

There really isn’t anything that sets La Raya apart from dozens of other caserios we’ve visited, other than that it looks a little poorer and a lot older, which it is. The village has existed in the same location for over 100 years, and the land has been continually occupied for at least 1500 years. Purgatory Mountain is surrounded by 26 pyramids and mounds dating back to the Moche culture. In fact parts of La Raya appear to have been built atop mounds.

We began our visit at the school. Our first stop was at the kinder, where we found 35 happy young kids; many of them surprisingly in uniform and in a bright cheery classroom. Carlos Fernandez is their teacher. He has been there 22 years and obviously enjoys his work. He’s got an enthusiasm about him that shows in the kids and in the atmosphere of the class room. The school’s primary grades have an enrollment of 80 students for a total of 115…unusually large for a village the size of La Raya. 

Our next stop was at the medical clinic where we met Dr. Corrales, a young woman who is at the clinic 6 hours each day Monday through Saturday. She sees on average about 15 patients daily, and if there are no patients she visits the homes of people with medical concerns. She told us the single biggest health concern is malnutrition, caused primarily by poor diet and contaminated water. She said that a lack of vitamins is also a problem.

The subject of malnutrition led us to the community kitchen where Maria Sandoval (green vest - the kitchen is behind her) runs the show. The purpose of a community kitchen is to prepare and feed to the poor food supplied by the government. Usually the parents take turns with the cooking. Maria told us that she receives only enough food for 60 people each day. The village has a population of 1000 people, and though not all of them need free food, decisions have to be made as to who gets fed. Maria indicated that there is one family whom everyone agrees is a priority.

This is the home of Luzmila Valdera and her daughters Ruth (9), Romelia (7) and Ariana (2). Luzmila is 27 and is a single mother. Five months ago her husband abandoned the family. The rumor is that he took off for Argentina.  Frankly it’s hard to understand how she’s any worse off without him. Based on what we saw he obviously didn’t contribute time or money toward the upkeep of the homestead. Perhaps there are circumstances we’re not aware of.

Luzmila’s income consists of a few soles for tending a neighbor’s goats and when work is available in the fields she earns a few more coins. The kids get a glass of government milk every morning, and the community kitchen feeds her and the kids a noon lunch Monday through Friday.  Weekend and evening meals are less sure.

The condition this family is living in has to be seen to be believed. She has hung old sheets, potato sacks and plastic bags over most of the holes in the walls in an attempt to keep out the wind and sand, but she can’t cover the gaping holes in what remains of the roof. And after repeated urging from the neighbors that had gathered, that is what she asked us for…a new roof. The problem is a new roof won’t do it. The walls of her home are constructed of cane and mud. They have deteriorated badly and there is no way that house is going to survive another rainy season, which has already started.

And yet despite her poverty she is doing all she can for her girls. If you look closely at the photos you’ll see freshly washed clothing hanging to dry, and the inside of the house with its few meager possessions is as organized and as clean as possible. That is the Peruvian pride and dedication to children we’ve so often commented on in this blog. But Peruvians sometimes also feel shame and despair which, according to Maribel is probably what prompted the tears from Luzmila and her oldest girl during much of our visit in her house.

After leaving Luzmila’s house we had a brief discussion with some of the village leaders. We were told that a replacement house could be built for her at a cost of about $1500. It wouldn’t be fancy…the walls would be adobe brick and the roof corrugated plastic, but it would be large enough for her and the kids and with luck would provide adequate shelter for the next 20 years.

We don’t have the money to do that alone. If you would like to help us to literally put a roof over the heads of Luzmila, Ruth, Romelia and Ariana please visit the Promesa Peru web page to make a donation. If we’re successful in raising the money we’ll post updates and photos of the construction progress. If we’re not successful we don’t know what we’ll do, but it’s not a situation we can ignore.

Monday, October 14, 2013

An Entertaining Weekend in Piura

October is the month the University Of Piura (UDEP) holds its annual internal Olympic competition. The competing disciplines are Business, Engineering, Communication, Education and Law. The competition begins with a parade starting on campus and finishing in downtown Piura. Each discipline constructs its own float based on a theme assigned to them. There is obviously a lot of time, money and effort that goes into these creations. During the parade each float is accompanied ahead and behind by students from the respective career; all of them chanting rehearsed routines at the top of their lungs.  The schools of business and engineering have the largest enrollment, and both of them had at least 500 marching students. The noise and enthusiasm as these groups passed was absolutely incredible.  

Maribel’s son Brian is studying business at UDEP and participated in the celebration (he is holding the second ‘E’ in the photo). That bias aside, it was our opinion and the initial opinion of whoever was judging that the business float was the most impressive.

The theme was American jazz music. At the front of the float were two couples dancing the Charleston. Unfortunately, after at first declaring it the winner the decision was reversed and the float disqualified because, as I understand it, there was an issue about the music played on the float or the music sung (or not sung) by the students.

In the rear ‘Ray Charles’ was playing the piano accompanied by a trio of jazz-singing beauties. The photos of this and other floats do not at all do them justice. They were so large and elaborately detailed on both sides that it was impossible for one picture to capture it all.

At the conclusion of the parade the second phase of the Olympics began in various locations of the city. The games included competition in swimming, some track events, volleyball, basketball and soccer. The school of business triumphed in four of seven events; however this success did not satisfy some of the business students who were already vowing revenge for the loss of this year’s parade float award.

This weekend also marked the anniversary of Piura’s founding 481 years ago. Part of the celebration involved a series of 3-round amateur boxing matches on Saturday night next to the Plaza de Armas in a boxing ring constructed in front of the city hall. The large crowd was very vocal during and after each bout in support of the contestants. The boxing ended at about 10:00pm and shortly after there was an impressive fireworks display lasting until after 11:00.

Sunday morning we watched the flag raising ceremony and parade in Piura; an event that happens every Sunday morning in every town in Peru, and then boarded a combi for the 30 minute ride to Catacaos; a town with a reputation for the unique and beautiful creations of its artisans. There isn’t much to see in Catacaos beyond the 3-block area of artisans shops but it is worth the time to walk through the nearby outdoor market and the principal park for a taste of local culture.  

At 4:00pm we were back in Piura aboard the bus for the three hour ride to Chiclayo. It was a good weekend.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A Birthday to Remember

Saturday evening October 5th at 8:30pm marked the beginning of a two-day event Maribel had been both looking forward to and dreading. It was an occasion when friends and family from Chiclayo, Lima and elsewhere would come together to help her celebrate her birthday. That part she liked. The part she didn’t like was that the occasion marked her 50th birthday. Fortunately as of this writing she has made the mental transition (she doesn’t have to worry about a physical transition…she still looks like she’s 30) and we can look forward to another 10 years of peace until the dreaded 60th looms on the horizon.

Following weeks of planning the party began at the Perla de las Flores (Pearl of the Flowers) banquet hall. After most of the guests had arrived, as is the custom Maribel was formally presented to the guests; first by her son Brian and then by me. The remainder of the evening consisted of dancing, dinner, lots of conversation and laughter, and a clown for entertainment.

A wide variety of music for dancing was played, and Maribel danced with every man, woman and child who attended. At one point I found myself singing the words to the Bee Gees ‘Stayin alive’ and disco dancing with our family dentist. 

When the banquet hall closed its doors at 4:00am the party moved to a private home where the festivities continued to about 6:00am, when everybody agreed to go to their respective homes/hotel rooms for a few hours sleep. The celebration didn’t stop…it just paused while people recharged their batteries for the next phase.

The party reconvened on Sunday the 6th at1:00pm; the exact time and at the home where Maribel was delivered by a mid-wife 50 years ago. During the afternoon Maribel was surprised (so was I) and serenaded by a mariachi band that her friends and family had chipped in to hire. Following the entertainment there was dancing, and then a delicious lunch of heaping portions of fresh duck and rice, topped off by what seemed to be an infinite supply of birthday cake.

It was in the early evening, when the people from out of town began to leave to catch planes and busses that the party finally wound down. After helping with the clean-up the local people said their goodbyes and the celebration was officially over.

Though I am sure she doesn’t need them, Maribel has a ton of photos and gifts to help her remember this birthday. What I will remember most is how much my wife is loved, respected and appreciated by so many people. When I married Maribel, not only did I gain a great wife…I acquired a large number of quality friends and family, all of whom will be talking about this past weekend for some time to come.

Happy birthday Maribel!