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Stay Away from the Ninajuanes

December 20, 2008

Oh I was a fool to say yes, but how could I not have accepted the ninajuanes?  I assumed they’d be better, more special cousins of the fabulous juanes: a mixture or rice, chicken, olives and hard-boiled egg, wrapped in a bihao leaf and steamed into a delectable, perfect rice ball the size of a fist.

I mean, I already tried the juanes especiales – the regular juanes‘ bigger cousin with more significant chicken chunks and a super satisfying softball size – and bargaining with the unknown paid off.  So what could go wrong with ninajuanes?  I’ve already inquired about the presence of seafood (none); so I was excited when Asuncion offered it to me during our last visit together at her food stand.

I met Asuncion my first week in Pucallpa and fell in love with her tiny self.  She can’t weigh more than eighty pounds, she can’t be less than seventy years old and she couldn’t be sweeter if she tried.  She has been working for years selling dinners from a picnic table she sets in front of her house on Inmaculada Street.  I’ve been to visit her three times now, and last night was my goodbye meal.

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She made me ninajuanes especially for the occassion.  Somehow, without me advising her, she knew tonight I was going to drop by for our farewell.  So she prepared the chicken on the grill and wrapped it up with eggs and cilantro into that familiar bihao leaf package which I’ve seen so many times before.

I was so excited to try it, having heard they were so delicious – soupy, savory, filling – even decadent!  Why, that’s right down my alley right?

Asuncion sets my plate down in front of me and begins to cut open the leafy greens.

“What goes into ninajuanes?” I ask her.

“Mollejitas, patitas, higado, cuellitito – y le echo un huevito y culantro.  Muy rico es!  Los que vienen a comer a veces chupan las hojas para comer todito toditoooo!” she declares.

Uh oh. Oh no…  It’s my last night with Asuncion and I absolutely cannot offend her but…

Gizzards. Chicken feet. Liver. Neck… Oh man, I don’t want to do it but I start slurping.  Asuncion has just told me that she throws in a little bit of egg and cilantro too and the regular diners love it so much they suck the leaves dry to make sure they’ve gotten everything.

I’m not going to be able to perform the same feat.  Luckily she hands me some yucca because “people like to eat it with the liver.”  I like to do it too, but I’m sure for different reasons.  I ask for more yucca to dilute my mouthfuls.

The gizzard – as much as my dad says he loves it – I just can’t get through.  It’s at turns impossibly chewy and then iron-tasting and crumbly like liver.  I surreptitiously slide my unfinished gizzard in between the layers of leaves and hope it will never be found… I’m ashamed of myself.  It’s just food, Jenny, EAT IT!

The liver is down and not so bad, the chunky broth is super salty and that part I do slurp down happily.  The neck is just like a chicken wing and I dispatch of it handily, licking my fingers.

But the chicken feet are still there, pointing all their toes at me accusingly.  Asuncion sees me looking and nudges to me conspiratorially, “Ninajuanes aren’t complete without both little footsies!”… They are curled and menacing, the ridged skin is still piqued – the cooking has softened the scaly outer shell of toes and talons and it makes me picture an imaginary chicken who’s been in the bathtub too long… I’m not into it; I have to fess up.

“Asuncion,” I answer, smiling conversationally, “you know, it’s funny we don’t normally eat chicken claws where I’m from…”

She doesn’t care, she thinks it’s funny and the lady beside me is only slightly incredulous. I can see her thinking, “Oh, that silly foreigner; but, ah well, they’re all weird.”

Well, she’s right. I’m not Anthony Bourdain; and, up to this moment, I think I was fooling myself into thinking I was a more intrepid traveler eater than I really am.  But, that’s okay. Reality checks are good, because they keep it… well, real.  So I say my goodbyes to Asuncion wholeheartedly and tell myself not to worry about whether she’ll see my hidden gizzard when she dumps the remains of my meal. I am more fixated really on whether I will see her next time I come back to Pucallpa and when that next time might be.

A few minutes later, I’m still ruminating on this subject and – because of things recently brewing at home and at work I wonder if it’s possible to come back sooner rather than later.  The thought – more of the opportunity rather than the reality – makes me merry and I’m swinging down the road past the bumping discotecas and bars briskly.  The nightlife scene hasn’t been a big fixture in my life here – I’ve seen the inside of a bar twice since I arrived in November.  So, I have something way more fun in mind for the rest of my evening:  maybe it’ll be a date with a homemade passion fruit popsicle … or maybe a little paneton, the Peruvian Christmas bun, my fat new friend … or perhaps even, a tryst with the ever-exotic ice cream cone. Mmmmmmmmmm.

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La Chocolatada

December 18, 2008

Yesterday I got to experience firsthand the Peruvian Christmas tradition La Chocolatada.  All day in the office I heard plans for La Chocolatada in spurts and bursts from Maribel, the excessively busy, yet always pleasant executive director of my branch.

“Are you coming to La Chocolatada, Jenny?  It starts at three.”

I nodded vigorously, but before I had a chance to ask what I was getting into, fifty borrowers crowded through the office door.  It was time for a loan disbursal.  Later, I hear, a couple of loan officers talking:

“They’ll pick us up in the truck in front of the hospital before the Chocolatada… We’ll eat early so we can go help out.”

Hmmm.  The hospital?  But the Chocolatada sounded so pleasant… it was about chocolate, wasn’t it?

And then sitting at my desk, someone finally speaks to me: “Here’s your Santa Claus hat, Jenny, to wear at La Chocolatada.”

Around noon I mustered the courage to ask where we were going.

“To the Chocolatada,” The loan officer replied simply.  “The other Manuela Ramos program in town ReproSalud is having their Chocolatada today and we’re going to help out.”

“Are they going to give us chocolate?”

Chuckles… “Yes, they’ll give you chocolate.  But ReproSalud is a children’s program- the other office of Manuela Ramos operates it out of another location in town.”

This is the first I’d heard of another Manuela Ramos branch in Pucallpa, even though I know they have several programs nationally.  I’m surprised I only found out that there was a whole new set of Manuela Ramos folks in town; except, these people are herding hundreds of children around and wearing t-shirts with funny caricatures of condoms.  At least that’s what they were doing when we arrived at the famed Chocolatada.

I know you’re curious to know what it is too, but let me back up for a moment and discuss the journey there.  We were all to meet up with our ride to the event at the Amazonas Hospital in Yarinacocha, the next town down the road.

The office has been so busy recently and I’ve been so unwilling to disturb the promotoras as they scurry around that I hadn’t asked anymore about our afternoon plans and only knew the vaguest information about it.  I half expected we would be entering the hospital to do some sort of volunteering once we were there.

But after dismounting our mototaxis in front of the hospital, everyone just stood around sipping sodas we bought from a stand outside the hospital and waited around for about twenty minutes.

“Here comes the truck! Wave it down so they can see us.”

Maribel, the executive director, wasn’t kidding when she said a truck was coming to get us. There were a dozen of us and I was expecting a minivan or small bus to come scoop us.  But the vehicle we were to ride in was actually an extended cab, 4X4, All-(South)American pick up truck.

The cab was already full, but some promotoras started packing in anyway and before I know what’s what there’s no room left and they’re climbing into the back.  I’m hesitating – the last one on the truck, in fact – and for my hesitance I’m rewarded with the “seat” on the truck bed’s backdoor.  I know there’s a name for this folding down part of a truck, but I don’t know what it’s called.  For now let’s just say I was seated on the “rim” of the truck bed with my arm thrown around the spare tire.

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And so we bounced and jangled and giggled our way to the meeting.  There were nine of us in the truck bed, most standing but some – like me – seated on the rim.  Arms and heads sprouted out of vehicle from all sides.  I thought half-heartedly, as I do sometimes when I’m turning a corner on a motorcycle without a helmet, “This is it, huh? This is how I end.”

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But half an hour later we were pulling up to an abandoned field which was actually no longer abandoned but teaming with children.  This was La Chocolatada.  As soon as we arrived we saw that a huge circle of children was surrounding a clown putting on contests between the kids.

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Manuela Ramos people were shooing and herding kids here and there and – what’s this! – there was a MAN with a Manuela Ramos t-shirt!  I suppose it makes sense in the end, to have male counselors instructing the boys of the program on sexual health, and healthy behaviours, but I was taken aback.  I’ve been working with women only for months.  I can count the men I’ve seen in the office on one hand and that’s for both offices and in all cases they were either vendors or husbands or insurance agents.

We approach a tent to stand under and watch the dancing contests that are going.  Here I finally ask what this whole thing is about.  It turns out La Chocolatada is basically a Hot Chocolate Party for kids during Christmas time.  The kids will all gather together to receive three presents: a toy, a cup of hot chocolate, and a huge piece of paneton- or Christmas bread.  But in order to receive this present, the children must put on a “show.”

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The show part involves a clown and the skinniest Santa Claus I’ve ever seen leading the children through games and contests where the winners are chosen by audience applause.  The kids in attendance ranged from infants only a few days old, resting on their mothers shoulders to gangly teenagers who probably are in need of some good reproductive health advice.  What was particularly strange about the dance contest that I was watching was that the “dance” that apparently everyone knew but me, rewards the girl with the best booty-shaking moves.

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I never thought of myself as a Norteamerica Puritan, but watching those little nine year old girls gyrate and shake their skinny little butts while everyone is just standing there smiling, admiring… I found myself blinking excessively and looking around nervously… Wasn’t this a reproductive health program?  Why are these little kids performing in a booty-bouncing contest?… But whatever, everyone was enjoying themselves and no one was confused but me.

Midway through the show, the credit program Manuela Ramos folks and I went to the gift-giving station set up in front of a neighbor’s house.  I should mention here that we were definitely in an asentamiento humano – or literally “human settlement”.  The homes dot the dusty landscape every half acre or so: they have thatched roofs and either wooden or metal siding.  This land has only been settled for about five years or so.  The children are mostly from this and surrounding settlement and while some of them have nice new sneakers and dresses, many of the children’s clothing is ragged and more than a few are barefoot.

The neighbor that is volunteering her home for our event also lives in a thatch and corrugated metal house.  She has set up a cooking station in her front yard to prepare the hot chocolate.  Above a smoldering charcoal fire, she has set two gigantic pots side by side on a short metal grill.  She stirs the steaming milk mixture with a three foot long wooden paddle.

All of a sudden we hear screams and cheers and five hundred children are stampeding toward us.  The ReproSalud counselors form a protective barrier and start barking, “Stand back!”, “Slow down!”, and eventually “Smallest people to the front”.  They even bring out a bucket of water to dampen the earth and settle the dust the kids are raising.

The loan officers station themselves at the hot chocolate pots, at the toy table and at the paneton table.  Paneton by the way is the Peruvian version of bread pudding – more bread than pudding, a loaf is ten inches tall, circular and filled with raisins and those unrealistic candied “fruits”.  During La Chocolatada, paneton slices the size of bricks are lathered with butter and handed out.

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And so the procession begins.  The kids come up with their cups in hand, receive their chocolate, pass to the paneton table and finally to the toy table.  Mothers are carrying their infants through the lines first, then big sisters carrying toddler siblings, and then finally four and five year olds who can only sort of make their way through a line alone.

There is a ton of directing, shouting, wandering and retracing, pushing, pulling, you name it.  The Westerner in me is thinking of ten different ways I might have organized this line better: spacing apart the stations… partnering big kids with little kids… providing plates so a four year old isn’t trying to hold a toy car, a cup full of liquid and a piece of buttered bread the size of a toaster in his tiny paws all at the same time…  But fortunately/unfortunately, I was given the task of sitting on a stool and holding everyone’s purses and that’s exactly what I did.

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The chocolate was served for hours and I felt bad for the loan officers that were breaking their backs with the bending and scooping, bending and scooping.  The line seemed endless and after an hour I realized why.  Children from the neighborhood who had nothing to do with the program had snuck into line, hoping to mix in with the ReproSalud kids.  Ahaaa, so this is why each camper had a ticket that they had to turn in to receive their bread and toy.

But even with the ticket system, we ran out of toys before everyone got one and the paneton gave out soon too.  Those big pots of hot chocolate were still going though and no one needed a ticket to get in on it.  I was seated directly behind the chocolate station and recognized kids coming back from thirds and fourths and I know the servers did too.  But it didn’t matter, there’s enough chocolate for everyone at La Chocolatada.

Finally, at dusk, the two vats were scraped clean and I wish I’d taken out my camera in time to get a shot of the little toddlers crowding around the pots’ rims to peek down at the, yes, empty, bottom.

It was time to head home.  My butt was asleep and I was ready to go.  Don’t get me wrong, I cherished having somewhere to sit when everyone else had to stand, but I’m not used to stools and chairs that rest just six inches off the ground.  Maybe it’s something common to Peru, or maybe South America, or maybe many parts of the world, but those tiny stools cramp me up good!  Why not build it with taller legs, eh?

The sun is setting and we’re leaving for home.  There was no truck this time, just plain old mototaxis – “Phew!”, I thought.

It struck me that a few weeks ago I was just as wary of those motorized rickshaws as I was of this afternoon’s truck bed.  And in a fit of masochistic nostalgia I wonder – if I was staying – what would I think of truck beds in another month?  Maybe I will get a chance some day to come back and find out.

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It’s 99 degrees and I’m a naughty blogger.

December 17, 2008

Le sigh…

I’ve been bad. I wanted so much to blog frequently and keep my pages up to date… But without even looking at my management dashboard I know I’ve been dwindling.  I don’t know what’s wrong with me?!

Was it my first case of traveler’s melancholy last week? Was that once I got off the one-a-day horse it was just downhill from there?  Is it just inevitable that every travel blogger is destined to recede from the internet, letting slide all contact with family, friends and the former world?

Ugh. Who cares.  I’m just a little disappointed that it’s my last full week here in Peru and my last five days working with my beloved Manuela Ramos and I have so little bloggery to show for it.

Ah well, there’s nothing left to do but update anyway.  So then -what’s up with me?

Well, the meetings over the past few weeks have been good as always, although now instead of staying through the whole process, I tend to dip in, introduce myself, do my interviews and disappear while the socias argue over tardiness penalties.  I’ve gotten to do more traveling and seeking out of socias in their own neighborhoods and homes than when I first arrived.  This I love – even though it also scares me.

It’s particularly intimidating and exhilirating when a socia tells me that she sells in the Bella Vista market.  This place is a sprawling, crawling, multi-colored behemoth where you can find rows of hair salons, stinky fresh fish stalls, huge bloody pig heads for sale, marmosets and cuys locked in cages, and dozens of old men rambling the aisles selling boxes of matches.  And that isn’t even the half of it.  Grains, fruits condiments, electrical goods.  The whole place is swarming with flies and mototaxis.  I’m surprised I didn’t give up on eating chicken the first time I visited this market.  The birds are laid out on old cardboard boxes in the open air the whole day long.  Sometimes a young child will swirl a towel over the whole arrangement to keep of the flies, but that happens just every so often.  Most times the flies are just feasting and pooping.

At least though, the chicken are always on tables.  The fishmongers work from tarps they’ve laid down in the street, sometimes not six inches from piles of refuse.  I’ve been fortunate never to have been sick (knock on wood); but I also like that, hey, at least I know where my food is coming from.  No one is injecting food coloring in my tomatoes – if they’re that red, they’re ripe!

Aside from occasional trips to the market to find socias, I’m also mototaxing out to the peri-urban areas – the taxi drivers always find it strange that I, a gringa, would want to come out to this questionable neighborhood in search of a random house.  But once they know I work with Manuela Ramos they completely understand.  One taxi driver told me that he is always taking loan officers to the most far flung places in town.  More than several times my drivers have had to ask the way at every other house.  Directions are become obsolete when we arrive at the outskirts of the asentamientos humanos (“human settlements”).  Both the house and the lot has an assigned number but most times either neither or labeled or both are present and it’s up to you to guess which is which.  I find a person’s name is more useful than their address in these cases.

I think it’s so fun – a cool adventure – to go combing the neighborhoods for these women and their businesses.  The goats block the path and the doggies chase the taxi and the kids all stare me down and every man on the block shouts “Morena! Morena! Morena! Morena!” until I pass out of site.  But I do have one steadfast rule: I will not, under any circumstances, make an appointment for after 4:30 pm.  The darkness is not my friend and I avoid it like the plague when I’m out here in the barrios.  So far this method has worked for me, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

One socia arrived at a midday meeting crying the other day and clutching her arm.  Apparently a man on a motorcycle ripped her purse out of her hands as she was walking along the road towards our meeting.

Overall, though I have been very fortunate and have been untouched by crime.  (Pray for me that that continues to be the case for my last seven days here in Peru!)

I have had my brushes with danger though.  Today for instance I crowded into the back of a pickup with nine other people on our way to attend an end of year event. I was in the rear seated on the pickup bed’s back door and clutching the spare tire for dear life as we bumped and bounced over the dirt roads.  It was fun for the first twenty minutes and then just plain old painful for the last ten – if only I’d chosen the sports bra today :(

I also had my first and only mototaxi accident a couple of weeks ago.  It was a simple rearending and I was lucky that I lingered to ask my driver a question instead of leaping out of the mototaxi at the moment that we were hit.  The moto that hit us ended up driving up the back of the passenger car and breaking his side view mirrors off on the backseat, the hood and well… me.  I was lucky and escaped with a sore shoulder.  In the first moments, I thought, this is it! I’m for sure injured and dygin! But a few seconds later I was crying and as much as the hypochondriac in my tried to muster, I admitted to myself that I was pretty much unscathed.

Safety is a matter of luck here, I’ve decided.  It’s been weeks and I’m now accustomed to seeing a motorcycle with a toddler riding on his dad’s lap up-front and the mom holding and infant in the back.  I think seeing children standing in the front seat of a car surprises me more because I’m expecting a car seat.  But what in the world would you strap onto a motorcycle or a mototaxi to keep a kid safe?

Today I saw another family’s brush with fate and they, thankfully, were also lucky.  The mototaxi was filled with one small child, a mother with an infant and her friend.  The driver was joyriding (off roading?) in a soccer field when he ran headlong into a bench in high grasses.  The whole contraption stopped short, flipping over, and dumping out its contents on the ground.  We were terrified that no one would get up from that nasty spill.  But we immediately heard the baby wailing and the mother poked her head up out of the side bars of the car and looked around bewildered.  Within seconds, men had lifted the mototaxi upright and freed the friend and child from underneath.  Everyone was walking away scratching their heads and… is that laughter?  Wow.

I can’t believe it.  But, oh well.  This is what you do when helmets don’t exist.  I’ve asked about them before and people shrug saying it’s just too hot here to consider jamming one over your head.  So I’m tooling around town now daily on the back of a motorcycle and hoping and praying that I come home in one piece.  I’ll miss the sun and the fruit juice, but I’ll be welcoming back seat belts and air bags next week, for sure.

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Paul Does Peru Part II

December 11, 2008

Paul here.

Jenny thought it would be fun for me to hop on and guest-blog to share stories from the second half of our mini-vacation in Peru. So allow me to pick up where she left off . . .

The morning after our island fauna tour, we had breakfast in El Chaco before hopping on our bus to Nasca.

We arrived in Nasca in the afternoon, and despite guidebook warnings that we would be hounded by people hocking tours and hotels, there were only a handful of people at the bus station – one of whom was holding a sign with our names on it. We had reserved a room ahead of time at the Walk On Inn, a quiet little hotel with free internet, a pool, and a cool rooftop area to read a book or have an Inca Cola. The rooms are pretty basic and the bed was fairly uncomfortable, but it was extremely convenient, as through the hotel we were able to book our flights over the Nasca lines for the next day and even buy our return bus tickets.

We had a tasty early supper, and then went to the roof to have a cold coke and watch the sunset on our first day in Nasca.

Sunset at the Walk On Inn

Sunset at the rooftop of the Walk On Inn

The next morning we found out our flight had been moved back a few hours, so we headed to the local Museo Antonini to learn more about the indigenous people of Peru, including the Nasca and their famous lines.

The museum was a little text heavy (it seemed like every artifact had a 1000 word essay) but had some cool info on the lines, and some interesting objects, including jewelery, fabrics and trophy skulls. Yes, trophy skulls.

Trophy heads

Trophy heads

Out back, in a lush-landscaped garden, they have recreated examples of a Nasca aqueduct, a scale map of all the Nasca lines, and replicas of Nasca burial chambers. On our way out to check them out, a local peacock decided he wanted to impress Jenny.

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This peacock got swagga like us

We didn’t know it then, but looking at the replica of lines was going to be far more enjoyable then our upcoming Nasca flight.

We arrived at the airport before our flight and ended up getting bumped a slot when a tour group came at the last minute. Luckily for us though, Jenny was able to pass the time recreating Nasca’s “astronaut” figure.

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Favorite photo of Jenny from the trip.

When it was our turn to fly, they originally wanted to split Jenny and I up. However, Jenny’s severe fear of small planes and her kung-fu grip on my arm weren’t having it, so we waited until we could go in the same plane. We met our captain and he went over the flight route – which is I think when the panic set in for Jenny. Basically, because they need to get as many people as possible up and down in those planes each day, they were going to be cramming in a lot of turns in a short timeframe.

Jenny extremely nervous about the loopy flight plan

Jenny extremely nervous about the loopy flight plan

And the flight was as  stomach-churning as advertised. Jenny stopped looking after about the second figure, freezing in a graceful, statuesque pose, clutching the door handle, her eyes glued straight ahead, her sweaty palm laid like a lead brick on my leg. I turned to look at the couple behind us, and the girl had her eyes closed and her face was slowly fading into a shade of light green. A nervous sweat started drenching my clothes too, and I soon found myself counting down the minutes until it would all be over.

So to sum up. The Nasca Lines–scenery to remember, a flight to forget.

(Can’t someone start hot air balloon tours over them, or maybe charge double for a longer flight that builds in a little time for, I don’t know, . . . . turning!?)

After decompressing at our hotel for a few hours, we headed back to the bus station for our 8 hour journey to Lima. This is a good time to discuss the bus system in Peru.

A lot of travel is done by bus, leading to a plethora of service offerings from the bus companies. For our 8 hour trip to Lima, we opted for “First Class” service, which took the form of a small private room that holds about 9 seats on the first story of the bus. The regular class is upstairs. On both levels, the seat reclines wayyyyy back with tons of legroom, and there is a tv that shows fairly decent movies during your trip (During our various bus rides we got What Dreams May Come, The Devil Wears Prada, and Chocolat among others). They even served a hot meal during the trip (although Jenny was not a fan of the runny, appley goo that passed for a dessert). But perhaps the weirdest part of the trip was when they passed out Bingo cards and the whole bus took part in a game of Bingo for the grand prize – a bottle of Pisco. I was one number away from winning before some punk upstairs snatched away my victory.

Our first night in Lima was spent huddled up in a single twin bed at a nice hotel Jenny had found for us. When we found out there wasn’t any way to switch to a room for two, we switched hotels the next day. Which turned out to be wonderful, because our new hotel was an awesome colonial style building, with a HUUUGE bed (California King suckas!). We even had our own balcony.

Balcony of our hotel room.

Balcony of our hotel room.

We spent our time in Lima eating delicious dinners and getting our learn on at a museum and wandering through Jenny’s favorite cliff-side mall. We even squeezed in a couple games of bowling!

The Museo Larco was our first stop, located inside an old mansion with perfectly manicured gardens and a fantastic on site restaurant. Jenny wanted to show me all the great gold, jewelry, and pottery, and the museum didn’t disappoint. This was also the home of the erotic pottery museum that Jenny mentioned earlier. Let’s just say, not a lot has changed in the thousand or so years since those pots were made.

Gardens of Museo Larco

Gardens of Museo Larco

After that, we grabbed a taxi back to our hotel. A note here about taxi drivers in Lima. Apparently, stop signs are just a suggestion here, and drivers instead just give a toot of the horn as they speed through. Well, there are a lot of intersections in Lima and a ton of taxis, so pretty soon your driver is honking his horn every other second as you zip through streets, risking near collisions with other honking cabs. But, cabs are super cheap and every fare is negotiable – so it is worth the tradeoff I think.

That night we had a phenomenal dinner at Huaca Pucllana, a beautiful restaurant whose outdoor seating area overlooks the ruins of the same name, which are lit up at night for dramatic effect. And the food was “muy rico”

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Dinner at Huaca Pucllana

The next day Jenny and I did work at the Inca and Indian markets buying up souvenirs for all our friends and family. We saw every thing there is to buy in Peru, and found some good deals along the way. No photos of those, as some of you readers may be getting one for Christmas this year.

On my last night we had another delicious dinner, including sampling what our guide book called “the best pisco sour in Lima”. It did not disappoint. For the curious ones out there, Pisco sours are the national drink in Peru, and are made with the locally produced brandy known as pisco. They mix it with lime juice, ice and egg whites, and blend it all up into a margarita-like drink.

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The aforementioned "best" pisco sour

After dinner we snapped a few action shots by a brilliantly lit fountain in the park outside the restaurant. After that it was back to the hotel, a prolonged goodbye, and I was off to the airport for my 1:30am flight back to the States.

Goodbye Peru

Goodbye Peru

Overall it was a remarkable trip. The Islas Ballestas and their bounty of birds and marine mammals was the unexpected highlight of the trip, while the Nasca lines ended up losing some of their mystical attraction for me thanks to the ridiculous flight plan the tour company forces you to endure to see them.

I was struck by the intense poverty we saw along the way–surprised by the huge populations of squatter like settlements on the far outskirts of all the cities, miles from any services or source of income. At the same time, the people of Peru are definitely inventive in their repurposing of materials and in the ability to find unexpected sources of income. In those squatter communities, many of the houses had already upgraded from thatched walls to brick houses, with wooden fences and gardens. And so it goes . . .

I think my favorite moments were stumbling upon the small pockets of natural beauty throughout our trip – the oceanside park in El Chaco, the deserted cliffside dunes of the Paracas National Park, the colorful gardens of the museums in Nasca and Lima.

And as a side note, let me point out that Jenny’s spanish is bomb – she got looks of disbelief multiple times when she said she was from the States. “But your castellano is so good?!”

Yes, yes it is Jenny.

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Excursion on Lake Yarinacocha

December 10, 2008

I finally went on my first boat excursion! Ever since I came to Pucallpa I’ve heard about the beautiful Yarinacocha lake and the Shipibo tribespeople who populate the area.  I’d been itching to finally see the lake and take a boat tour and last Sunday I got my chance.

Lori and I – a Kiva fellow in town for a couple of weeks working for another organization – took a mototaxi down to the waterfront in the nearby city of Yarinacocha.  From here dozens of peki peki boats are docked along the lake waiting to take passengers to nearby lakeside towns.

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The day started out cloudy which – trust me – is a blessing.  We started to putter out onto the lake with Miguel “Pituco” on his boat also named Pituco meaning “that annoying guy who doesn’t have any money but huffs around like he’s got tons of it.”  I love that word and asked Miguel if there is a Peruvian word for the annoying hippie kid who acts like he has no money but actually has gobs of it… There wasn’t one as far as he knew.

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I got to drive the peki peki for a little while which had us meandering back and forth across the lake in a wildly wasteful zig zag.  We’re paying by the hour so I give up soon enough to get this show on the road!  We have some wildlife to see!  Here we are looking for iguanas and sloths in the trees lining the riverbanks.  It’s impossible to spot an iguana as far as I’m concerned.  Miguel had to cut the motor and double back with the oar just so he could point out their forms in the branches.  They’re huge, but without “jungle eyes” like Miguel, there’s no way I can spot them on my own.  We were super lucky though and got one awesome glance at a sloth.  Miguel whistles him awake and he slowly slowly sloooowly lifts his head and swings it around to look at us. i want to hug his happy smiling face – he’s so cute!

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We also saw alot of different birds and some dolphins! (albeit from afar).  The lake is a gorgeous storybook setting:  wide expanse of peacefully lapping waters, birds swooping and diving for fish, eagles soaring hundreds of feet over head and lush green trees bordering the lake for miles.  It was especially nice when Miguel cut the outboard motor and we could relax to the the sounds of the jungle.

After about an hour we made our first stop at the village of Santa Clara.  We docked and what to me looked only like a grassy opening in the brush, but what Miguel called the Santa Clara port.  We were the only “ship” to “dock” there this afternoon.  From here Miguel lead us up the embankment and straight into the jungle.

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Here is Miguel leading us through shoulder high grasses.  Thank goodness I was in pants, Lori ended up getting hundreds bug bites on her legs.  So through the grasses we crashed, striking through the meadow in the full sun and heat of the day.  To say I was sweating is an understatement.

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We also spent a smaller portion of the walk traversing these rickety footbridges where the plain was flooded.  The Shipibos built all this so that they can transport their daily catches of fish inland from the lake.

We came across a woman doing just that when we were returning.  These fish look super scary: like smaller catfish with sharp fins and longer whiskers.

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Finally, we popped out on a dirt road lined with banana trees and ran smack into a young man carrying a machete and a barefoot woman.  Their young bull, a juvenile seven months old, was following along behind them without a leash or any physical touch.  Miguel – who has lived on the lake his whole life doing boat tours and who has also run for mayor – knows everyone in these parts, including this family.  He introduces us and asks them if we can stop by for a visit.

The man agrees and we follow along behind them just a few minutes walk up the road to their family complex.  There are four or five thatch shelters spaced out in a cleared area just a couple of acres in size.  The man and the bull (he knows his place too) moved off to the middle building to go hang in the hammocks with another couple of men.  We were led to a second building off to the side to meet the rest of the women and children.

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Here we are seated in the shelter that seemed to me to be the living room.  At least, this is where the grandma, sister and the kiddies were seated relaxing when we arrived.  The structure is totally open to the elements which here include torrential rains, floods and blistering heat.  But inside under the thatch, I feel great.  The roofs are elevated at least fifteen feet from the platform and all the hot air rises to the ceiling.

Once we arrive, we are offered seats and the two younger women spread cloths on the floor and begin to lay out all of the bead work and embroidery they have been working on for the past few months.  I wonder if Miguel brings every tourist group here and when I ask him he shakes his head emphatically,  no.  He says he alternates towns he visits so as not to overwhelm the people and outstay his welcome.  He hasn’t been to this hamlet in two months.

The ladies tell us they go into town seldom and only then to sell their wares and stock up on supplies.  Even though the boat ride is just an hour and a half to the town of Yarina, the families live secluded for weeks or months at a time here in Santa Clara.  The embroidery work is gorgeous and Lori and I are both in love with it.  Grandma is sitting off to the side working on a larger piece that she started a month ago and will take her another month to complete.  In the end, she will charge the buyer $30 for her efforts.

Lori and I browse through the different necklaces, purses and knick knacks they offer.  Of course it feel obligatory that we buy something during our visit, but there is also a lot that we like and genuinely want.  We make some purchases and continue to chat for a while about the embroidery work and the beautiful skirts the women wear.

Someone (not Lori or me, we’d never have the audacity!) suggested we try some skirts on and before we knew it, Grandma was stripping down to nakedness to hand off her clothing for a dressup session.  The other women pulled modern clothes off shelves and changed their outfits so that we could try on their blouses and skirts.  The children seemed to think it was quite funny – I agreed :) .

A photo shoot commenced and Miguel had us modeling inside the building, outside in front, with just the children, with just the women, seated, standing… everything we could do pretty much.

And, here’s our best shot (props to anyone who can guess the TV reference).

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Lori and I managed to get behind the camera ourselves and take family potraits of all of the members together – digital cameras are an instant hit everywhere I’ve visited in Peru.  We had a lot of fun and by the end it wasn’t just the children who were giggling.

When it came time to go, the women of the house presented Lori and I with several of the bracelets and necklaces that we’d been pouring over before.  I was definitely touched and the cynical me admitted that perhaps the enjoyment of each other’s company was mutual.  I had – when we first arrived unannounced – felt like we were encroaching on their quiet afternoon.  But Miguel says that among the Shipibos, “when gifts are given they are from the heart.”

So we said our goodbyes and promised them we’d get their family portrait printed and sent back to them with Miguel on his next trip out.  “Send candy too!” they added as we waved goodbye.  Miguel says they love chocolate and he has a trick to keep it from melting.  I love both of these ideas.

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And as if the trip couldn’t get any better, we launch out onto the lake just as the sun starts to set.  The birds are in full flight, taking advantage of the buzzing insects and bubbling fishies of the late afternoon.  And we’re puttering back at a snail’s pace enjoying the last of our afternoon.

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The Hustle

December 9, 2008

The socias have a lot going on – I know I’ve written before how impressed I am with their ability to leverage every opportunity and connection, no matter how slim or tenuous – but I feel like the topic deserves a little more attention. I mean, I can write “Senora so and so is hardworking” or “Senorita Tal y Cual is thinking of going into autoproducts to supplement her husband’s mechanic business”; but, I don’t think I’ve yet been able to describe the variety or ingenuity of their ventures.

For one thing, these women are not just borrowers – they extend credit themselves. I didn’t realize this at first. I would meet sellers of bedding, clothing, towels, beauty products, household goods and when it came time take their picture, they might have very little of their product to show me. I assumed the socias were using their loans to buy their wares in bulk from wholesalers or for travels to larger cities to buy directly from product makers – this is occasionally the case. But most times when I would visit their businesses, there was no sizeable stock of products to be found.

“Where are your blankets/blue jeans/teapots?” I ask.

“Oh, I don’t have any right now. When I need goods I just buy there at the down-the-block market and sell them here.”

or

“No, I don’t buy in bulk, I buy what people order from me and I just keep a few items to walk with door-to-door when business is slow.”

I would wonder why her customer wouldn’t just take the ten minute walk to the market herself.  I mean she’s already there buying teapots/blankets/blue jeans to sell from her own house.

Last week (I’m ashamed it took me so that long to ask the right questions), I realized: these women are running full-scale businesses based on extending credit and lay-away programs to their neighbors, families and friends. The socias negotiate payment plans with their customers: bargaining the price, whether Senor Shoebuyer will pay monthly, weekly or even sometimes daily; and, after the deal has been struck they purchase the agreed upon product using the capital from their microloan.  A pair of shoes or a set of sheets might be paid off in a couple of months.  A teapot or a week’s worth of groceries could be paid off in a matter of days.

Some socias keep running accounts for customers at their bodegas.  They tell me that even though the maintenance of these accounts can be time-consuming, it keeps their clients loyal to their stores.  And they are fully invested in the business of keeping tabs.  Socias visit clients on scheduled payment days to collect the equivalent of perhaps $2 or $3 per week.  If clients are behind, then they must make up their missed payment the next week or the week after.  In this respect it’s very similar to a loan officer’s work.  The socias tell me they must be very careful not to extend credit to clients who won’t pay; they can’t afford to absorb losses especially when – even after all their legwork – they are working on profit margins of just a few cents.

I’ve even come across a few instances where a socia will use part of her loan to become a money lender herself.  Granted, I have to wonder if this is bending the rules (I think it is) or if it borders on the unethical (here, I don’t think so quite so much). Still, when it comes to money-making, I’ve come to understand that the socias will adapt any opportunity they have to feed the families, build the extra bedroom, or pay the tuition.  Credit programs are just one of the many tools they employ to squeeze a living out of Peru’s drastically poor economy.

And, without these women, the customers would go without for lack of two five dollar bills to rub together.  With around half of the population living on less than $2 per day, their role as creditors is providing a vital service to their customers.  The socias in turn depend on Manuela Ramos to  continue to provide low cost capital to finance their endeavours.  And, finally, Manuela Ramos relies on international bulk credit providers like Kiva to help them increase their lending capital, and consequently, their reach.  And so the chain of capital and credit flows.  So , you Kiva lenders out there can be sure that your capital is going to good use.

In the words of a socia I interviewed last week, “Give a Manuela Ramos socia seven dollars and she’ll turn it into a hundred!”

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Monkey Caca

December 7, 2008

I just got pooped on by a monkey. That’s what you get for trying to take pictures with wild animals in your arms. It’s okay though, the guide said the monkey poop was “pura fruta”.

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