Paul does Peru… Part I

December 4, 2008

Woohoooo! Paul and I just had an awesome visit full of twists and turns and surprises… Well I guess the only real surprises were that the Nazca lines – which were supposed to be the highlight – were the definittive lowlight. And then the Islas Ballestas, the redheaded stepchlid on the itinerary were absolutely amazing.


Swarming with thousands of birds, the islands are just a half hour speed boat ride west of the Peruvian desert coast.  Our guide was funnier than he realized: we’d putter around a rocky outcropping and he would would announce brightly, “And here are some baby penguins to keep the Peruvian boobies company!”.


Now I’ve seen sea lions before: lazing around at the San Francisco docks.  But when our motorboat puttered up within yards of hundreds of beached beasts, I was spellbound.  “Look they are mating!”  “Look that one shows us that she is a girl!”  our guide announces, beaming.  The sea lions are fat and curious.  A dozen of them dive into the waves and swim a little closer to check us out.  They pop their heads out of the water like little swimming prairie dogs and eye us inquisitively. “Are you fish?” they ask.

The Islas Ballestas is nicknamed the poor man’s Galapagos Islands, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s not as cool as the famous wildlife sanctuary.  Granted, I’ve never been to GI but Islas Ballestas is not to be dismissed.  It gets two thumbs up for the powerfully overwhelming guano stink, the endless swirling swarms of birds overhead, the dangerously romantic rock outcroppings and the close up encounters you get with the penguins, sea lions, boobies, terns and pelicans.

We also took a hired car into the Paracas National Park.  I’ve never been in a desert like this before.  It looks like the Sahara to me: miles and miles of sand and dunes, and you would never want to be caught out here if the wind kicks up.


Actually, when we were leaving the next day for Nazca, we drove through a sandstorm and it looked like how I picture Iraq to be.  The highway was almost invisible for all the sand.  Thank God we were in a bus and not walking to Nazca! hehe

Paul and I had an awesome afternoon  exploring the desert coast.  We would be driving for miles through up and over the dunes or across flat “fields” or cracked earth and sand and all of a sudden we would crest a dune and the sea and cliffs would come into view.


What made the trip even more special was the fact that we were virtually alone.  We saw a couple of other hired taxis crisscrossing the desert while we were there, but we pretty much had every cliff top and beach to ourselves.  Peaceful, gorgeous afternoon.  We were so lucky to experience it!


Meeting and Eating

November 25, 2008


The Gringo – a sausage also known more formally as salchicha  – is thusly named for his pink, round self. Laura, the socia who introduced me to the fat lil guy, serves him to her customers on picnic tables outside her front door. The Pucallpa people love to dine al fresco and many of the socias I interview earn their livings selling food to their neighbors and passersby at small tables they set outside their homes. They cook el gringo on grills along with anticuchos (beef heart skewers) and chicken fillets. They also serve juanes – or delicious mixtures of rice, chicken, eggs and olives wrapped in bihaul leaves and steamed in their own juices and spices. A touch of aji de cocona, or spicy fruit chili mayonnaise, and you have yourself an amazing meal.


I also like the yuca con paiche – mashed yucca with bits of river fish again wrapped in the bihaul leaf. It’s the size and shape of a tamale but it was has the texture of the humitas that I tried up in the sierras. It’s savory and excellent and the whole experience is made even better when you’re outside sitting at a picnic table with other passersby who’ve stopped for dinner.


It was a night like this when I stopped by Asuncion Rengife Rios’ table to have some yuca con paiche when I met her neighbor and her grandson. We chatted for a while and shared our backgrounds – I’ve noticed that people are extremely friendly and open here – much more so than in Trujillo. Andres, my dinner companion this evening, is my newest acquaintance. He tells me he’s come around tonight because no one is at home and he likes having company. I found him – he’s no more than 18 years old – sitting and chatting with Asuncion, a woman fifty years his senior, as though they were the best of friends. They’ve been neighbors all his life and Asuncion tells me the baby he’s bouncing on his hip is his sister’s child.

Andres leans over his plate and begins to tell me his sister died of cancer two months ago; the illness came suddenly and took them all by surprise. One day she was fine and the next she had emerged from the bathroom with a nosebleed and, then all of a sudden, an earbleed too. The doctors had told them her cancer was advanced and that she would not live. Within weeks she had died and left behind months old Alexandra. Andres tells me he is this baby girl’s madre-padre (mother and father): he feeds her, clothes her, washes her, looks after her every day. All this he does while studying and working too. I watch him feeding her a little of his meal and it’s true! He looks like a natural mother: chatting away with me while calmly ignoring her gurgling and cooing as she squirms in his arms.

I also met Asuncion’s grandson who shows me a picture of his grandfather, an ex-Nazi soldier who fled to Peru in the closing days of the war. He says his abuelo barely escaped “the enemy” (US soldiers? Russian? British? Allies, to be sure!). Here he found safe haven and settled down with a Peruvian woman and had his family. I wonder if he’s talking about Asuncion’s husband or his paternal grandmother’s husband. I’d known before that a lot of Germans fled their crumbling empire for Argentina or Brazil but it’s the first I heard, or considered, them coming to Peru. Strangely enough, I met a young man named Hitler last week. I had asked him to repeat his name a couple of times because I found it so unexpected though he didn’t think it was remarkable at all.

I’m through with my yuca con paiche by now and Asuncion has loaded up my plate with juanes.  *siiiigh* I’m noticing that I’m getting fattened up by all the socias’ friendliness and generosity.  When I go on home visits I’m not permitted to leave the house without eating the jello, drinking the soda or having the meal that the family has offered me.  I’m loving the conversations we have although my own story is boring me to the teeth having heard it from my own mouth at least a hundred times already.  So two days ago, still full to the gills with food and drink from the day before, I joined Erika’s Spa – a gym a few blocks from my hotel.

Today I tried out a step class – or tried to try a step class.  The stereo wasn’t working and we showed up at 6:30 am for naught.  But instead of trudging to the elipticals everyone stayed around in the exercise room and gossiped and chatted.  I met a nurse and a (what a coincidence!) a woman who used to work for Manuela Ramos.  The instructor practiced her English on me and I suggested a little intercambio.  The regulars make me promise to return next week to try out the class and in return they promise to help me with the routines which they say are quite advanced.  Oh man what am I getting into?… Hopefully a cute bathing suit at the nearby Yarinacocha Lake next weekend, I guess.  Anyway, at the end of the half hour when I broke away to run off last night’s cheesecake on the eliptical machine I had an invitation to a Christmas party and two new friends.  What fun, no?


Yesterday, I met this adorable monkey in a restaurant where I was having lunch.  His name is Lolo and you can’t tell from these pictures but his diaper has a hole cut out of the back for his little tail!  He coos to me and I love him.  The waiter – or rather, son of the restaurant’s owner – and I get to talking  and the monkey all the while is playing jungle gym in his dreadlocks.  He wants me to come to the bar tonight to meet his friends and tell me about his upcoming trip to Bolivia but I say no.  The last three nights I’ve been out and about drinking and socializing with the uber-friendly, ultra-social Pucallpans.  I need a night to curl up with my book for goodness sakes!

But when I get home there’s a immediately a ring on my telephone.  It’s the hotel advising me that my friend gringo friend Erik is downstairs waiting to pay me a visit.  Yesterday, he dropped by with Caricia, Winston’s daughter and we spent the evening drinking beers outside Caricia’s friend’s bodega down the road.  Tonight it’s just him and we go to the hamburger place to grab some dinner.  We’re mulling over his lovelife: he has a new girlfriend (of two weeks!) that he’s considering marrying and taking to Canada with him.  Afterwards we pass by the tiny amusement park on the Plaza de las Armas and decide to go in for a game of foosball.  We ended up shooting some BBs at a photocopy of a Bullseye taped to a wall for $0.75 per round.  When all our BBs are out we get to keep the paper perforated with holes.  I love that at the top of the photocopy are the capital letters “…BULL…”.  I think I’ll keep it forever, but I end up throwing it away almost immediately.  It became my makeshift napkin when Erik and I got threw up on when we wandered under the ferris wheel.  Can you believe it?!  Vomitosis!  Erik got it worse than me, which was only just dribbles and droplets anyway, but we’re thinking maybe it’s time to call it a night and hit the showers.  But first a trip to the Ces Si Bon coffee shop bathroom to sponge off and while we’re here why not a cup of coffee?

Today I’m ready for my long-awaited meet and greet with Paul!  He arrives tonight and I’ll be there in the airport fresh off the plan from Pucallpa and waiting for him!  We plan to head down south to some national parks and cities.  We’ll also be fulfilling Paul’s longtime dream of seeing the Nazca lines.  I probably will be posting sporadically if at all till next week when I return.  So till then….



I love you, Pucallpa

November 22, 2008

Blue eyeshadow, I love the way you match the shirt and the shoes just so.  And I love how you pay no mind to that tired faux pas rule cuz you look damn good and you know it, too!

Gorgeous sunsets, you’re the best. How do you do it? Is that what the afternoon rainstorms are for? To set the stage  – everyday without fail – with clouds to hang a gorgeous golden, purple, and rose sunset – a Michaelangelo sky.

“People of the Jungle” – is that what you call yourselves?  Well, that I love – it reminds me of Tarzan.  And you do love that platano, I’ve noticed.  But above all I love your iambs and your dactyls – yes y’all, i had to look up my metric feet (poetry not centimeters) to find those words, but you don’t have to.  Just imagine a linguistic lovechild of Italian, Shakespearean iambic pentameter, and maybe also a dramatic telenovela actress.  That’s what you sound like: sing-songy delicious.  “VA-moose haa-CER una CO-zaa” Le *sigh*, I swoon when you talk to me.

Two hour lunches, you are perfect.  You are the exact amount of time needed for a little stroll, a lolly-gagging lunch, and then that sweet, sweet heat-induced nap with the fan set just so it lulls me to sleep.  And still – you’re so good to me – you fit in that extra fifteen minutes at the end to get up, shake it off and squeeze in an ice cream cone during the brisk walk back to the office.

And, oooooh Socias of Manuela Ramos- you’re so generous and so affectionate.  You make me feel at home and I knew from the first day that I’m the most lucky and most rapidly fattening girl in the world.  You guys bestow more honors and food on me than I deserve.  The chocolate demonstrations complete with tastings! The juanes – leafy packets stuffed with rice and chicken and olives – that stuff me in turn!  When I visit your fruit stand you ask me if I’ve ever tried the juice of the “fill in the blank” (camu camu? cocoma? aguaje? guayabana? maracuya?) and when I say no you’ve produced a brimming glass for me to gulp down.  You even help me up and sponge off my backside with a washcloth when I fell today in the mud in front of your house!  You even give me a ring with your initials for me to remember you by! I feel sheepish when you applaud my introduction in meetings and when you serve me the first slice of birthday cake before the birthday socia.  But I hope you know how much I appreciate and am flattered to meet you.  That it’s nothing of consequence to be from America, which you say it is, but I think it’s far more impressive to have three businesses, five kids, and still enough time and courtesy to accompany me to my next stop in the road. Plus you got that blue eyeshadow thing going on, so you know I have a thing for you!

And my darling, scalding hot sun.  You want to beat it out of me, but I refuse to keep loving you!  I’ve been waiting for you through three constant years of San Francisco “fall”.  If I’m going to give up seasons it’s going to be here with you, Sun!  You start the sweats right out the shower and you remind me of swampy summers in DC and North Carolina.  You’ve browned me out, and thank God because I thought I was fading to a forever yellow beneath the San Francisco fog!  I don’t care if the weather channel says it’s “88, but it feels like 97” for as long as I’m here I’m stepping out in the sunshine!  Just don’t judge me when I walk in the shade.

And last but not least, Pucallpa… What is it about you?  I swear you remind me of Greensboro, North Carolina.  Is it the red mud and the green grass and the quiet streets?  And then sometimes I think I’m in West Africa or Thailand, though well, I don’t know what either is like – but it’s the swirling dust and then the sudden crazy storms and then even crazier swarms of mototaxis (which are basically motorized rickshaws) that infest the streets. I want to take a walk next week through your night markets with your random mix of animals: guinea pigs from the sierras, thousands of chickens, and the poor turtle-soup-doomed turtle that they don’t bother to chase when he lumbers away at his useless pace.  You’re filled with evangelical missions and Catholic churches.  And lunch and dinner are served outside under the sky.  There’s just enough of you to have some nice music and bars and you’re just small enough to still retain a star-ful sky…. Just quit with the moths/cockroaches/mosquitos, eh?



November 20, 2008


poor paul had to listen to me screaming and then heaving and grunting as i murdered this the largest cockroach i’ve ever seen.  paul says he’s seen bigger, but he’s not here to kill it for me!  so i whacked it once with my flop and thought i got it, but when i went to scoop it up it had disappeared, scurrying for its life under my bed. i made sure the second time around that it was dead for sure.  on paul’s good advice (who was – poor guy – still with me through the whole ordeal) i dumped it out the window to ward off an invasion of ants that would surely have poured in through the cracks under the doors to feast on that big old carcass.


Bout It

November 20, 2008

The women in these banks are about their business.

Tonight I visited with the Las Americas communal bank.  They are thirty women strong and have a history of being behind in payments.  Mind you, this isn’t all of them, but some three or four women have fallen behind this currrent cycle.  In order to stay in good stead with Manuela Ramos, the members of the communal bank have withdrawn money from their communal savings account to cover the amounts owed by the delinquent socias.  But now the non-paying bank members owe their debt to their fellow socias.

As is often the case when a socia has had a financial or familial problem that causes her to default, these defaulted socias have retired from the bank and no longer attend the meetings.  How will the remaining socias recuperate their outstanding savings you ask?

By rolling up en masse on the former socia’s house!  That’s right, ten socias and the loan officer and me in tow sidled up to not one but two ladies’ homes tonight.  They are polite during their unannounced visit, of course, but it is also obviously intimidating to have a dozen women roll up in your house to ask you when and how you plan on satisfying your debt (which you no longer owe to Manuela Ramos but to your neighbors’ savings accounts).

Carmen, the loan officer, tells me that one of ex-socia is “fresh”- she literally said fresca! – and it reminds me of my grandmother scolding me for my bratty attitude.  Nevertheless, the pressure is on, and by the end of our visit the woman agrees to settle up by the end of the month.

Now, I don’t want to promote the picture that these women are descending on one unfortunate woman whose life has been derailed financially for some reason or another while they heartlessly swarm round her and harangue her for her misdeeds. No, it’s nothing like that.  The point is that the delinquent socia – “fresh”, repentant or otherwise – sees and understands the number of people that depend on her.  There’s no opportunity for out of sight out of mind: here we are and yes we know you’re in a tough spot but so are we and when will you bring back our money?

With the “fresh” ex-socia, the bank members leave triumphantly, but at the second woman’s house it is a different story.  She is uncomfortable upon our arrival and she seems torn between indignance and shame.  Her family is struggling and she explains to all that she is having trouble week to week with her husband’s sporadic work and several mouths to feed.  She is one of many perfect examples of what happens when misfortune befalls people on the border between stability and poverty.  An illness, a robbery, a death, or even more lives – in the form of babies – can tear down what these women have worked so hard to build up.  The socias don’t want to embarass anyone here; the shift their feet and uncross their arms. And yet, they say gently to the woman, no matter what happens to any of us which Lord knows what could happen to any of us, don’t we still bear that same responsibility to one another?

I interviewed a woman today who tells me proudly that she still made her payments to the bank even though she was incapacitated for several months.  During this period, her small grocery store folded while she was in the hospital battling typhoid – and yet, she still found a way to satisfy her debt obligations.  She plans to restart her store in January once she has rested and fully recuperated.  For now, she is attending meetings as an ahorrista or “saver” and joining the home visits to make sure her fellow socias honor their debts just as she did hers.

And so goes the process.  Each holding the others accountable through thick and through thin.  I find myself vacilating between  thinking debts should be forgiven or paid based on the individuals’ situation.  But I suppose more and more I realize that being steadfast, as these women are, is the only way to keep themselves faithful and the bank intact.


Welcome to the Jungle

November 19, 2008

Well here I am! The sweltering, tropical, humid jungle capital of Pucallpa. A former Kiva fellow hooked me up with a family here in the heart of the Amazon and I’m staying with them for the next couple of days.


The father picked me up from the airport and ushered me (mercifully!) through the hoards of mototaxi drivers out to the main road where we caught a ride for less then half the price hawked at the airport’s front doors.

I notice immediately that almost all transportation here is via mototaxi- where Trujillo had seven taxis for every car on the road, Pucallpa has the same ratio of mototaxis to regular cars.


The sun was setting just as I arrived and the air was muggy, but still fresh. It’s hotter than a Florida summer here and I think my existence in Pucallpa is going to be defined by a constant and hopefully light sweat.

As we buzz down the road in our mototaxi I notice how different this town looks from Trujillo. It’s much newer having sprung up since the 1950’s when the paved highway linking the rivertown to Lima was completed. There are no colonial buildings or pedestrian byways around here. It’s dusty and full of people walking, running, chatting, eating, laughing.

Winston my host and I arrive at his house where he generously offers up his daughter’s room as my quarters for a couple of days. He and his wife entertain me over a couple of cold mangos and dang they’re delicious!

The next day, Sunday, I trekked all over the city looking for housing. Here in the Amazon basin where the temperature wavers around 88 degrees ona daily basis, rooms with airconditioning are double the price of rooms with fans.  The prices are surprisingly high and I decide my budget will allow for a non-airconditioned room only.  I will think of my new home as a breezy sauna where I’m sweating out all of my toxins nightly. I traipsed around town for several hours and finally – a bucket of sweat, a heat rash and a few breaks in the shade later – I decide on the Hotel “Happy Days”.  The name bodes well doesn’t it?

After my marathon trek around the city I settle down for happy days and take a quick glance in the mirror – phew I’m looking beat! This heat is going to wilt me daily, I cant tell!  The weather channel always says, “85 degrees but feels like 95 or 96 or 98”.  That hot sun is no joke and only gets better when it rains.  I got caught in my first rain shower yesterday and it was a ducha abierta or downpour the likes of an “open shower”.  I was caught totally off guard and literally had an ankle deep dash through streets in mid-miniflood as I raced for my hostel and my umbrella.  From now on I’m carrying around my raincoat and sneakers should the skies open up and let loose on me again.

On Monday, I was presented most graciously to all the women of the Manuela Ramos branch here in Pucallpa.  The office is located in the city’s center which is humble as far as downtowns go.  That afternoon I took my first trip out to the asentamiento humano Bolognesi.

Asentamientos humanos, or legalized squatter settlements, are formed when immigrants from other parts of the country invaden, or literally “invade” an abandoned section of land outside the main urban perifery.  These immigrants may come from other Peruvian metropolises or more often from villages in the nearby jungle; but, all come with the dual purpose of finding work and owning their own home.  The groups of families – two to five hundred people at a time – organize among themselves and form a neighborhood council that is charged with dividing the unused land into equally sized lots, one for each family.  Once the land is equally partitioned, the families purchase the lots and register titles with the city government.  Invasions have been occurring in Peruvian cities for decades; some asentamientos are decades old while others, like one I’m visiting Tuesday are only two or three years old.  These days families are paying around $400 for a 2,300 sq.ft. dirt lot.

This photograph was taken in the asentamiento Villa Oriente where an al fresco meeting of the Damas del Oriente was held Tuesday.


The socias are listening to Rosa, the loan officer, explain the five “P”s of marketing – it’s like business school classes all over again!  These women own and operate all types of businesses: roadside restaurants, door-to-door beauty product sales, lingerie shops, fish shipping, cheese making – you name it and a Manuela Ramos socia is doing it.  I know now that I will continually be impressed by their creativity, energy and sheer will to work several jobs, take care of several children and support this unbearable heat!


I met 71 year old Asuncion Rengifo Marin (pictured above) at the Damas del Oriente meeting yesterday and interviewed about her Kiva loan.  We talked about her restaurant business where she works seven days a week from dawn to 11:00 pm preparing and selling breakfast, lunch and dinner.  She tells me her daughter asks her all the time when she will retire and that always responds: “when my fingers and arms fall off my body, I’ll quit the kitchen!”

After a month in Trujillo, I’m really looking forward to being in the office with a little bit more experience under my belt.  I’m so excited to go find the bank members and find out about their lives, their families, and their business plans.  Mirtha, Winston’s wife tells me that the women of la selva (the jungle) are dangerously beautiful and fiercely hard-working.  After this first meeting, I see it and believe.


Zooming Through Lima

November 19, 2008

Before I move into Pucallpa for the next month, I took a quick dash through Lima compliments of Cesar, a local chauffeur I got connected with thanks to JenGuss. He scooped me at the bus station and for $5 per hour whisked me through breakfast, two museums, two malls and finally the airport parkng lot.

The first stop after breakfast was the Spanish Inquisition Museum. It wasn’t large or detailed, but it did have life size figurines re-enacting various forms of torture employed by the Inquisition.


Next we headed to the Museo Larco, or Archaeological Museum which is gorgeous and totally worth the $10 to get in. The pottery and jewelry collections are extensive. It’s also set in a lovely garden and has a modern, fancy restaurant-café attached to it. I have tons of pictures from the museum that I will make into a separate gallery for anyone interested in seeing some of the pieces. The erotic pottery exhibit was the most interesting and surprising. The pieces depict everything from sex between animals, to necrophilia, to venereal diseases, to masturbation, to breastfeeding, to hermaphrodites. Crazy.


The ancients didn’t mess around when it came to jewelry either. The nose ornaments and earrings are so big they made my face ache just looking at them. The gold and silver work is intricate and gorgeous. No wonder the Spanish were so eager and greedy to get at their riches.


After the museums I returned to the one cookie shop I’ve found in this country and treated myself to a chocolate chip cookie at the Cookie Factory at LarcoMar mall. It was a gorgeous day and I thoroughly enjoyed my outdoor lunch and stroll.

From there it was on to the airport and on to the jungle. I can’t wait to see what Pucallpa is all about!