Thursday, September 3, 2009

Modern Conveniences

First, the startling news that Cuerpo de Paz/Peru has issued us cell phones. The idea that our phones might ring and that it might be one of you, dear readers, is both very weird and very welcome. Our numbers are:

Int'l call code 011 + Country code 51 + Department code 54 + 957821550 Jean
+ 957821602 Russ
I have no idea what the rates are, and depending on how the call is placed you may need a “0” in front of the Country or Department codes, or you may not. Feel free to experiment. We have just one word of advice for those who wish to call at minimal expense, and that word is “Skype.”

We also have a new mailing address, which appears on the home page of this blog, but here it is anyway:

Russ or Jean
Cuerpo de Paz
Casillo Postal 228
Serpost Arequipa
Arequipa, Perú

Sometimes life is just very weird. There may be a YouTube video of Peace Corps/Peru 13 performing the dance from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” for instance. We threw a bash for our host families at the end of our training, and entertained them with this bit of highly-rehearsed choreography, which left them scratching their heads in wonder. To spot Russ, wait for the moment when all the zombies bend forward, and look for his bald pate. To find Jean, just focus on grace in jerky, un-dead motion.

So, now we’re at home in Chivay. Have been since Friday, when an overloaded moto—a three-wheeled motorcycle adapted as a taxi—wheeled us, two 50-pound duffels, a backpack, a roll-aboard suitcase, two daypacks, and a queen-size mattress, from the bus station to our new abode, for the Peruvian equivalent of a buck. Now, that’s a bargain!

Of course, our room wasn’t ready. I don’t mean they hadn’t put mints on our pillows, I mean it wasn’t built. Our hosts are super people, very hard-working, but this is Peru, and things just happen on their own schedule here. They are building a 9-by-12-foot brick “cell” for us atop their restaurant. Concrete floor, concrete plaster walls, tin roof and, thankfully, a toilet and a shower. The shower may or may not ever have hot water, which will dictate whether or not we ever use it. In Chivay, at 12,000-and-a-half feet, it’s just too damn cold to shower with cold water, so most of the residents do without, and once a week or so go to the hot springs 3 km. away to bathe. We’re due.

Our cell will probably be finished this week, and we’ll happily move in. Yes, it’s tiny, but we’re here to live like the Peruvians, and this will actually be a notch or two up from most Peruvians. In both host family situations we’ve now experienced, the parents sleep in the same bedroom with their kids—and we’re talking about “kids” from 14 to 22 years old, in rooms not much larger than ours. We’ll have our own toilet, indoors. We’ll have windows to let in the abundant sun, at least in this season, and a “patio” (actually the roof of the house) with outstanding views of Chivay and its spectacular environs. We’ll have a lavatory out on the patio for washing our hands, brushing our teeth, and doing our laundry. We’re ready to count ourselves lucky.

In the mean time, we flop our mattress down at night on the second floor landing, and unroll our sleeping bags, then throw three heavy alpaca wool blankets over them. We crawl into them wearing fleece pants and tops, and sleep very comfortably. Have I mentioned that it’s cold in Chivay? Nobody in this country has heat in their homes—it just isn’t done—and hot water for showers is a luxury item. In a nod to creature comforts, some people put a hot water bottle at their feet when they go to bed, something we may begin doing very soon.

Our hosts truly are wonderful people, and we are looking forward to two years of sharing a rather intimate living situation. They know or are related to everyone in town, so dropping their names is usually a good thing when we want something done. Next door is another restaurant (owned by our host’s sister) with a folkloric show every night, so from 8:30 p.m. until 10 or so, we have a highly-amplified Andean music combo pounding away. Fortunately, they’re very good, and we hope to go see the show, soon.

Random observation: You can wear your clothes without washing them much longer than you think you can. ‘Nuff said on that subject.

We live very comfortably, by Peruvian standards, on a Peace Corps allowance that is now somewhat higher than the $2.75 a day we received in training. Breakfast is a couple pieces of the tasty local bread, some fresh local cheese, and powdered instant coffee. For lunch we have a chef (!) who daily prepares a lunch buffet for 70-150 tourists, and us. For dinner last night we had a fried egg sandwich, and hot chocolate. Tonight it was rice with hot dogs cut up into it, and tea. Contrasts.

We walk around all day long amid scenery and among traditionally-dressed, handsome people who would make a National Geographic photographer drool. Scores of tourists walk around taking pictures of all this every day, but we can hardly bring ourselves to snap a pic, we’re trying so hard not to be the gringo tourists with cameras.

Last Saturday night the restaurant was rented out for a Quinceañera (15th birthday party, a big deal for girls), so to get out from underfoot we stepped outside, then followed the sound of a brass band and found a procession honoring Santa Rosa de Lima, (patron saint of the police), and followed them to the Plaza de Armas. The dozen or so strong men carrying the 12-foot-tall effigies of the saint and the virgin mother had to dip repeatedly to get them under the power lines, a scary sight, but at least they had You-Know-Who on their side—and the policía. That was further evidenced when the guy who was sending up the rockets from the plaza torched off a bomb that nearly blew his clothes off, but everyone survived, Jean’s hair didn’t catch fire, and the city gardener will fill in the crater, later.

When we’d had enough of the festivities, we ambled over to the Irish Pub, had a glass of wine with the (Peruvian) owner, and chatted up a Brit who had been out stumbling around the local Inca ruins for a few weeks. Then we returned to our humble abode, fought our way through the teenagers, and lay upstairs in our sleeping bags until the music stopped at 4:30 a.m.

Due to early linguistic difficulties, Jean is known around the house as something like Jeems, and I’m probably “Bruce” for the duration. Last night we played Bananagrams, and used words in English, Spanish, Quechua, Yiddish and, I think, Ethiopian.

Yesterday we met our Peruvian counterpart at his shop, and helped his extremely charming 9-year-old daughter sort out the right hand-painted tops for the right hand-painted sugar bowls—there were scores of them, all needing to be sorted—then we ambled out to his chakra, or small farm, where he dumped several bags of cuy droppings to fertilize the potatoes, while an eagle banked overhead. For now, this is what passes for our “work,” filed under the heading: “integrating with the community.”

Today we had a meeting with “our” artisans, most of them women in traditional dress, and some of whom needed to have the proceedings translated into Quechua because they speak little Spanish. Our three days’ worth of training in Quechua is getting quite a workout, but I have to say that people are very grateful and impressed that we make the effort.

So, that’s the way our lives go these days. It’s fascinating, challenging, aggravating, and wonderful.

And cold.


  1. Re rice with hot dogs--I knew a man who usually had foreign students renting rooms from him, and they all shared cooking duties. One in particular served minimalist meals, usually pizza. Dave commented that it might be nice if he added a second dish, so for his next production he served pizza and spam.

  2. Wow - the days are getting colder in Vermont but I just got a good dose of perspective. I love reading about your adventures. Sheldon has Skye set up so I hope we can get that figured out to talk with you. Big hugs to both of you from the North.

  3. So glad to live my life vicariously through others! Be prepared, I might call you on the 29th so you can wish Art a Happy 6oth Birthday. (Most people are calling him on their own dimes....)