10 Funky Facts #1PERU

It crept up on me, without me realising what had happened until it was too late.  The weird and wonderful things that just two months ago had seemed so alien had suddenly become normal.

Here is a Top Ten of things that you may not know about Peru

washing up 'liquid'

washing up ‘liquid’

1.  Washing up liquid comes in solid form in plastic tubs. It looks like the 1kg margarine tubs that you would buy in the UK, although its green colour and very strong bubbly smell will ensure that you don’t ever mix the two up.  To use, simply swipe the dish washing sponge over the green gloop and take care to rinse thoroughly or you will be tasting it for days.  Fairy liquid eat your heart out – this stuff dissolves grease by the bucket load: – and fingernails.

2.  Cute and tasty.  Don’t be fooled by the cute little guinea-pigs which you see scampering around in their cages.  Bubble, Sqeak and Gertrude are not pets. They are dinner. And they will arive at the table looking rather like their former breathing selves but undressed and sort of, well, flat. They sprawl across your plate with eyeless sockets and their itsy bitsy ears. It is as fiddly as hell to get the tiny morsels of meat off their tiny bones, but it is worth it, so swallow your inhibitions and get stuck in.  Unless of course you are a vegetarian.

3.  All babies and children and I mean ALL babies and children without exception in Peru are stunningly cute, adorable and basically all look as if they should star in the baby ads. They have the longest eyelashes and rarely cry or grizzle. The young ones are often plugged into a breast while mum goes about her daily business but why oh why are the new borns carried and covered under a blanket. It s hot here in the summer so why do they risk cooking their babies?

4.  Driving could have a blog entry all to itself. In fact, I think it will some time in the future, but here for now, is a little something to consider.  Many people will only have ten minutes behind the steering wheel of a car before being issued with a certificate so it is little wonder that the roads resemble scenes from Whacky Races.  If you want to turn left, logic surely says that you should get in the left hand lane and if you want to turn to the right, stay on the right.  If you are at a red stop sign there is no need to honk your horn and if I have just got out of a cab why on earth would I want to get straight into another one?  I love that rules don’t count for anything here although I do wish that one-way street signs would be observed as that gets a little hairy.

something fishy

something fishy

5.  Uncooked fish.  I like my fish and meat cooked so cebiche was an unexpected hit for me. Raw chunks of fish are ‘cooked’ as they marinate in lime juice. The result is surprisingly unfishy as they explode in your mouth accompanied by a cloud of fresh citrus and finely shredded onions.

6.  Walls. Walls are built for the sake of it and in the desert with no visible habitation for miles, somebody will have built a wall. Or to be more precise, four very long walls in a rectangular shape enclosing nothing but empty sand. And then people come and paint the walls white and often add some political slogans  in red paint and three foot high letters. The amount of bricks in some of these walls could build a small hotel. I just don’t understand the time and effort put into the walls.

7.  White dog poo . Only people over a certain age will appreciate this weird fact. White dog poo.  Why is it white and why can it no longer to be found in the UK?  No need to dwell any longer on this one. It’s white and on the Peruvian pavements. Fact.

8.  Numbers. Shops and public spaces generally have two posters displayed. One shows where the safe area is should there be an earthquake. The other indicates the maximum number of people who should be inside the establishment although I don’t think that the two are linked. The old fashioned barber shop around the corner from me may contain five people. The supermarket several hundred. I don’t know who counts you in and out because the security guards just stroke their guns and try to look cool, but short of an earthquake I can’t think what harm cam come to person number six who decides to join the queue for the barber.
Numbers do not count at all however in cabs or combis. Basically you just keep on shoving until limbs pop out the windows and the conductor is hanging out of the door on the bottom step.  Two in a front seat and two in the boot are quite normal in a cab and anything less than five on the back seat is luxury.  In the country near Chiclayo people travel on the roof of combis (garishly coloured camper vans) and the man in front of us had a bag of live chickens (including a crowing cockerel) on his lap.

9.  Puddles of Blood.  Long distance buses will often play a film if they have televisons and decide to ring the changes from ear splitting salsa music,but there is often little concession for children. Horror films are avidly appreciated and blood and guts abound.  The front pages of the newspapers usually display the previous night’s body count with little privacy afforded to the poor victims.  Perhaps the idea is to shock and discourage crime but I reckon it is just an acceptance of life and death – and a love of the gruesome

10.  Full volume.  Life is conducted at full volume but nobody complains because nobody notices. From the marines who jog around the city centre at six thirty in the morning chanting marine chants as they stomp through the streets, to the fireworks which are set off at any time of the day or night – it is all perfectly acceptable. Somebody doesn’t answer the front door? Shout. Dogs bark and music blasts out from homes, buses and cars  and from our next door neighbour’s ridiculously massive speakers which play all night. But I find the noise strangely comforting and I am learning to sleep through anything.

The above is by no means a conclusive list – I could have added the adult slush puppies, the complete unawareness of the concept of personal space or menus which just about everybody eats for lunch and cost just a pound.  But after just two months here my senses have readjusted and this is the normal

Trujillo and its surrounding area

Plaza de Armas, Trujillo

Plaza de Armas, Trujillo

The Plaza de Armas – the main square in Trujillo is a stone’s throw away from where I am currently living in a home-stay.  The massive square is dominated by a large central sculpture with fountains and statues and is surrounded by vividly coloured buildings which squat around its perimeter.  The sky blue and white of the town hall vies with the glaring gold of the magnificent cathedral in the opposite corner.  Terracotta, royal blue and eye-searing whites add to the palette whilst multi-coloured flags and palm trees flap in the strong breeze.

Casa de Urquiaga

Casa de Urquiaga

Casa de Urquiaga is a compact but beautiful museum (free entrance) which is housed in a curious location.  People queue to gain access through tight security to a courtyard off which is housed an outlet for the Banco Central de la Reserva del Peru.  After showing my passport I was allowed past the bank and through to the inner sanctum where a series of small courtyards are surrounded by a small number of rooms stuffed with dark brown wooden furniture and paintings.

Casa de Urquiaga

Casa de Urquiaga

I usually whizz past any displays of pottery in a museum but the small collection of pots and jugs here really slowed me down.  They were collected from the various regions of Peru and were mostly in the image  of little fat people or strange creatures and were oddly endearing.

The bare brown mountains form a backdrop to the square, rearing up out of the strange hazy mist that appears to sit over the entire coastal area of the city and the whole square reverberates to the din of traffic horns and sirens.

A Moche pot

A Moche pot

Image of the mountain god

Image of the mountain god

On Sunday I went with a couple of friends to visit the complex at Huacas del Sol y de la Luna (the temples of the sun and the moon) which was a bone shaking taxi ride a few miles outside the city.  The Cerro Blanco mountain dominates the dusty sandy landscape, rising out of the desert and towering over the surrounding desert and the two temples.  It is an excellent museum containing shed-loads of the little terracotta pots which I had so fallen in love with and it occupied us for a good hour.  The pots were all in pristine condition and excellent and interesting wall posters explained and described how the artifacts which were on display portrayed the Moche way of life.  The Moche society had its heyday between 100 and 800AD and was a society ruled by priests.  As leaders they structured the lives of the population around the temples, performing many human sacrifices to appease the mountain god who they believed controlled the weather (among other things), with the sacrifices ramping up during periods of increased el niňo activity.  We then had a guide around the Temple of the Moon – in Spanish – and were shown initially around clusters of adobe (mud) bricks.  We were then taken into a covered area where we saw mosaics and frescos on the walls.  The colours were so bright and fresh it was hard to believe that they hadn’t been touched up at all.  There were large portions of the wall painted with repeating patterns of the mountain god and then behind the whole structure, the entire gable end was decorated with murals and scenes.  My photographs simply don’t do the colours or the size justice.  You really should come and visit and see for yourself.  The Temple of the Sun is currently closed to visitors due to on-going excavation work but that in itself is an impressive sized sandy hump.  Between the two temples you can see the outlines of what would have been the buildings of the town traced out in patterns of excavated bricks on the desert floor.

mosaic wall at Huacas del Sol y de la Lunes

mosaic wall at Huacas del Sol y de la Lunes

There was a lovely little artisan market in the courtyard selling replica pots, jewellery and clothing and also one of the Peruvian hairless dogs was lying in the sun.  This one was an eleven month old puppy.  The breed has no fur but the skin of the dog is amazingly hot – they were bred and kept in part to keep people warm in winter or would be cuddled so that the heat would relieve arthritis.  This particular dog only had two teeth and its owner was proud to show it off.  I couldn’t establish whether the lack of teeth just related to this particular dog – but I have since found out via good old Wikipedia that lack of teeth is a characteristic of the breed.

On the other side of Trujillo over by the airport, Huanchaco beach sprawls along the coastline.  This beach resort has its obligatory parade of shops, hostels and restaurants, a pier and a good little craft market tucked away down a tiny alleyway.  There is a pier and it attracts surfers and travellers from all over the world.  Racks at the back of the beach contain dozens of reed canoes which are propped up to dry out in the sun.  These boats date back to pre-Inca times and were first used by the Moche culture.  The people of Huanchaco are the only ones who still know how to make them which is just as well as each boat only lasts a few months before becoming waterlogged.

First Impressions

The volunteer house which lies behind a wooden door set within a high wall is a crazy place.  The building is a rabbit warren of rooms which scootle off in all directions and it is full of people and noise. A wooden staircase climbs up to the bedrooms on the first floor at the front of the building whilst a steep, stone, narrow spiral staircase twists up two floors at the back of the house with a final vertigo inducing flight to the large roof terrace.

After being dropped off by the taxi driver I was greeted at the gate by a couple of the volunteers and I was then immediately swallowed up in a whirlwind of activities with introductions and instructions all around.  About twenty volunteers live and work from the house with others based in nearby apartments or home-stays.  I had been placed in a home-stay for the interim as the volunteer house was bursting at the seams.  I was taken there by one of the volunteer coordinators.  I spent an hour or so catching my breath, wondered about the likelihood of frying to death in my shower and then went out for a wander in the immediate vicinity to get my bearings.

The Cathedral at Plaza de Armas, Trujil

The Cathedral at Plaza de Armas, Trujillo

It turned out that my home was just a couple of blocks from the main central Plaza de Armas and a multitude of cafes and coffee shops.  Later I made my way back to the big house and we all set off out for a party. I thought that it might be wise to keep away from the cocktails that first night but I managed to last out until three thirty am which was quite impressive considering the travelling that I had recently done and was up dancing for much of the night to the rather good live band

Reed boats drying on the beach at Huanchaco

Reed boats drying on the beach at Huanchaco

The following day was a Sunday when all the volunteers have a day off and after a relaxing introduction to the nearby beach resort of Huanchaco the following afternoon, I reported back to the volunteer house on the Monday morning for my induction to teaching and the place where I would be spending the next three months.

The non-profit organisation helps economically-disadvantaged children in the north of Peru realise their right to an education. The group works to educate and empower parents to take control of their lives and to improve their own living circumstances. They are currently based in the impoverished districts that surround the city of Trujillo.  I will go into a lot more detail about my work and what the group achieves in future blogs but for now, consider the following.

Trujillo is the second largest city in Peru.  What we would probably term ‘shanty towns’ are popping up around its perimeter as people are attracted to the city to find work, as they are doing in cities all over the world. Trujillo is a bustling cosmopolitan city with colonial architecture, large shopping malls and manicured parks and gardens.  There is the usual Plaza de Armas (main square), nice museums and sports facilities.  In the districts of El Porvenir and Alto Trujillo where I will be working, the majority of streets simply consist of sand and most of  the houses are very small, one storey square boxes, built of simple mud bricks. A large proportion of the homes lack roofs or solid doors.   Luckily it rarely rains in the north of Peru but consider the security options – if nobody is home then a thief only need jump over the top!  Volunteers are advised not to move around in the districts alone and should never carry any valuables, also many cab drivers refuse to drive up into the barrios.

El Porvenir – the facts

  • Population in 2011: 164,931
  • % of the population which has migrated from their birth place: 45%
  • Population in extreme poverty: 8%
  • Population in poverty: 33%
  • Population with no running water: 14%
  • No latrines or sewer drains: 8%
  • No electricity: 18%
  • Cooking on wood-burning fires: 20%
  • Houses with earth floors: 58%
  • No phone connection (or mobile): 41%
  • Illiteracy rate in men: 2%
  • Illiteracy rate in women: 9%

I was excited but a little bit apprehensive about what I might find when I went to work the following day.  My role would be to initially deliver English teaching to the primary school children whose families have signed up to the project, deliver English lessons to the children in the outreach scheme in one of the public schools and to support the Economic Development project which works with some of the mums who make and sell products.  After Christmas and the schools have broken up for their long summer break I would be involved with the holiday clubs for the children and ongoing English teaching.

Huanchaco beach

Huanchaco beach

The organisation offers holistic support to families and works in partnership with them. The aim is to empower them to be able to make positive decisions in their lives, in order to improve their current situation and to provide the best possible opportunities for their children.  Unlike other NGO’s which I had researched before choosing this one, the whole family has to commit to the project and must support the children who attend additional lessons after their normal schooling.  Children here usually attend public school either in the morning or the afternoon and those children who belong to the group attend two sessions (half days) per week in their spare time.  Support and a a space for them to complete their public school homework is available, there is a library, additional English and Maths classes are delivered and they also play sports.  They have the chance to let off steam in the playground and generally run around and be children in a safe environment.  Psychological support is also an important side of the facilities offered as many of the children have emotional and behavioral problems.

Workshops are offered to the mums and these provide a safe space where the ladies can gather and chat together and share ideas.  There are three types of workshops where mums can make jewellery, bags and purses from cloth or knit and crochet.  Help is offered with materials and sales outlets are provided. There is also a small micro-finance scheme available to the families to enable them to get small businesses off the ground.

The weather here is warming up every day and people are getting excited about the sun coming out.  The temperatures are due to rocket any day now and the foggy cloud is lifting for longer each day already.  Come Christmas and the temperatures will apparently be in the thirties and stay there for a couple of months.  After Christmas the children will attend holiday clubs at the centre and will go on various outings and trips.

After my induction morning I went along with some of the other volunteers for ‘menu’.  I have come across this in Spain in the past.  It is a lunchtime menu offered by most restaurants and cafes at a very reasonable price and consists of two courses plus a drink.  There are usually a couple of starters and about five main courses to choose from.  A group of us walked a few blocks away to a small basic cafe where I had soup and a dish of chicken and rice.  Wine would have been the usual tipple in Spain but here in Peru the drinks are fruit squashes.  The whole lot amounted to the grand sum of S/.7 – seven soles which equates to approximately £1.75.  Portion sizes as I was soon to find out are on the large size and doggy bags are willingly given out.

After lunch I was to go up to El Porvenir and see for myself what I had let myself in for

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