Archive for the ‘Snapshots (Everyday things)’ Category

Everyone runs in Iquique. That’s the first thing I noticed when I arrived here 17 days ago.  They run early in the morning, in the afternoon when the sun is burning, and in the evening when it’s dark out. You can run here any time, really, because all of the cars are new! There are no big trucks leaving behind thick clouds of black smoke that burn your lungs like in Cusco. The air is clean and filled with the musty, salty scent of the sea.

Atreyhus and I have been staying here with his cousin, we’ll call him El Gran Jefe. He was nice enough to let us stay at his place, which is right near the beach.  I’d never been to Chile before, and since my 3- month visa was up in Peru, we figured it’d be a perfect opportunity to get it renewed again by going to Chile and then re-entering Peru.

Iquique’s a beautiful town, pleasantly sprawled out along the coastline. It’s got a movie theatre, big shopping malls, bars and restaurants, even a Casino (Iquique’s a port town so it’s a tax free zone). The only problem is getting around. Their bus system is seriously limited and a “collectivo” taxi, which you share with other passengers going to a destination near you, costs 500 pesos a person. So whenever Atreyhus and I want to go somewhere it ends up costing us 6 soles just to get there. That might not sound like a lot, but compared to the 3 soles I’m used to paying in Cusco for a private taxi, it is.

Chilenos are very nice people, though I’ve only met a few of El Gran Jefe’s friends. Their accents were tough to make out at first, but I’ve gotten the hang of it, po. They eat a lot of red meat and (much to my delight) drink a lot of red wine. Chile seems more developed than Peru- at least in Iquique. Like I said, everyone drives new cars, the cars actually yield to pedestrians, and supermarkets have frozen goods like meat and vegetables. The streets are clean and well- lit, there are bike lanes on the sides of the roads, Iquique’s even home to South America’s biggest skate park (which Atreyhus was just thrilled about).

Despite all this modernity, I miss Peru. Neighbors aren’t very neighborly here. I don’t even think El Gran Jefe knows his neighbors. Everyone on his block is so concerned with keeping people out. They have high metal gates and high tech security systems. A lot of them also have aggressive dogs that bark at any passerby. In Peru, you’ll see friends hanging out on street corners, neighbors dropping by to say hello, children playing in the street. Chile reminds me of the U.S. a little in the way that it has a lot of nice, expensive things but it lacks the grit and grime that I love about Peru. It’s like comparing Brooklyn to Boston.

One thing I never realized was the large divide between Peruvians and Chileans. In the 1800s there was a big war between Peru and Chile, which resulted in Chile gaining some Peruvian territory, now called Arica and Iquique.  Apparently, both sides are still pretty sore about it. So much so that our first few days here, Atreyhus was speaking Spanish like a gringo, so no one would know he was Peruvian. El Gran Jefe seems to like it here and when I asked if he felt like Peruvians where discriminated against, he said no. But then again he owns a successful auto parts business, so I doubt anyone treats him badly. Chile has a pretty strong army and just a few months ago there was a big scandal when it was discovered that a Peruvian military official was giving insider information to Chilean spies. Now that’s just downright playing dirty.  Atreyhus told me a quote Peruvians often say, “Chile makes a great student, but an awful classmate”. Well, maybe in politics anyway.

Unfortunately, I can only stay in Chile for a short while, so that doesn’t give Atreyhus and I any time to visit Santiago or any other Chilean cities. We’ll just have to leave that for another trip! Well, that’s all for now- time to hit the beach!


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Currency is a peculiar thing in Peru. The break down’s pretty similar to that of the states; there are bills for 200 soles (or s/. 200), 100 soles, 50 soles, 20 soles, and 10 soles. Then there’s a 5 soles coin, a 2 soles coin, and 1 sol coin. Then we get down to centimos, where there are 50 centimos, 20 centimos, and 10 centimos. These are the most common types of money used.

However,  the currency breaks down even smaller than that, into itty-bitty silver coins that are as light and plastic-y as play money. Yes, my friends, meet 5 centimo and 1 centimo. Think of 1 centimo like 1/100th of a penny. Now most places don’t use these coins. The super market called “Mega”, for example just rounds off. If your bill is s/.10.27, they charge you s/.10.30. If it’s s/.10.23, they charge you s/.10.20. I think it’s much simpler this way. A lot less messy. But the supermarket right near my work, “La Canasta” calculates everything down to the last centimo. This is a problem, because I always pass by it, and always stop in on my way home from work. Don’t get me wrong, their prices are great and they sell things like small bags of pureed garlic for 50 centimos, rather than like in the Mega where they only sell large tubs of it for about 5 soles. What are ya gonna do with a huge tub of garlic!?? Anyways, back to my point. As a result of going to the Canasta, I have a change purse filled with these little, silver- colored, plastic coins. It wouldn’t be so annoying, if it weren’t for the fact that NO ONE ACCEPTS THESE COINS. Is it legitimate national currency? Yes. Do 10 little 1-centimo coins equal 10 centimos? Yes! So why doesn’t anyone accept them? Beats the heck out of me! I guess they’re small and easy to get lost, but hey, so are diamonds, and you don’t see anyone refusing to accept those!

I did get away with using 2 5-centimo coins on the combi once.  But the guy gave me a really dirty look, like I was being cheap or something. A few days ago I tried to give a 5 – centimo coin to pay for a roll of tape. DENIED. “No lo aceptamos”.  I informed the casheir that they’re legitimate Peruvian currency, and that there’s no reason not to accept it, but she simply replied with another “No lo aceptamos.” So now, I’ve devised a plan to save up all the little 1- and 5-centimo coins I can and cash them into the bank. If I get denied there, I think I may finally snap.

These troublesome coins are annoying, but they’re also another reason why I love Peru. It’s another one of those quirky things that make absolutely no sense, but that the people firmly believe in (well, in this case they believe in their refusal of them!).

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I have many a combi story and have heard many a combi story, whether it involves getting lost, felt up, pick pocketed, or finally figuring out the winding routes. Combis are dirty, sometimes rather uncomfortable, fast moving modules of transportation. And I take them whenever I can.

They’re small vans, usually from Japan, that have been gutted on the inside and replaced with several bus- like seats, but smaller. Sometimes the seats inside match, and sometimes they’re all different colors and it looks like someone went junkyard shopping. I’ll never forget the first time I was in Cusco and I saw a combi drive by, packed with Peruvians. I mean, there wasn’t an inch of room in that van.

Combis can be intimidating at first. There’s no convenient map, showing each combi’s route, like in New York. You just have to get to know it. Throughout Cusco, there are small blue signs with a picture of a bus on them and the word “paradero”- Spanish for bus stop.  That’s where you get on. A speeding combi will come to a quick halt as someone hangs out of the open sliding door, shouting a flurry of words that would be indiscernible to the average tourist. “Ayacucho, Maruri, Calle Nueva”. The cobrador1 shouts out the combi’s stops so quickly the words sort of melt together. But after a while, you start to be able to pick them out.

Getting on and off combis can be sort of scary. First off, if the combi is packed and you happen to be sitting in the back, you better yell “bajo” pretty loudly because no one’s going to make room for you. (Bajo is what you say when you want to get off at the stop they’re yelling out). Instead, you have to squeeze your way past people, some sitting, most of them standing in the narrow passageway, and finally you make it out the combi. It’s like traveling through the birth canal. You also have to be careful not to hit your head on the low door way. Most combis are smaller than an average mini-van.

Then there’s payment. A combi ride is 60 centimos, less than 50 cents. Having change is crucial. In Peruvian currency, there is a 5- sol coin, a 2- sol coin, a 1- sol coin, and then centimos which are little gold coins (50, 10 and 20 centimos coins). From 10 up, the soles are bills. I usually try to have exact change. If not, any coin is acceptable. If you try to give them a 10-sol bill, they’ll usually give you a dirty look and then change it. Some passengers try to give them a big bill they can’t change, so they’ll pay less. The ‘ol “either change my 50 sol bill or accept the 40 centimos I have” routine.

One day I boarded a combi and half way through my ride, realized I only had a 50- sol bill on me. My stomach dropped, my hands got a little sweaty, I started planning my strategy. I didn’t want to give the cobrador my money too soon, because if she couldn’t change it, she’d make me get off the combi. I imagined her yelling at me, onlookers chuckling, thinking I was some dumb gringa who didn’t know anything about proper combi etiquette. Finally she asked me for my “paisaje” and I slowly handed it over. She said (in Spanish, of course) “you don’t have anything smaller?”, chuckling in disbelief under her breathe. “No” was my sheepish reply. She yelled up to the driver to change 50. He gave her 5- 10 centimo coins. No, 50 soles she replied. That’s when I heard a few chuckles. He handed over the change and she gave it to me. Not too painful. Once my face stopped burning.

But today I saw something that made my 50- sol fiasco seem like nothing. There were 2 gringas on the combi, and they tried to give an old, dirty, crumpled up 1-dollar bill to pay for their paisaje. The driver just looked at them, smiling at their stupidity and said “no”. The one gringa’s reply was “ es 2.80 soles”. The cobrador just shook his head again and said “no”. They had to get off the combi early. I mean come on, I don’t think any tourist is that stupid, especially not those 2 because they spoke Spanish pretty well. Any tourist who has the balls to try out the combi system has to know that no one in Cusco is going to accept an old dollar bill. Even a new one with a tear on the edge is unacceptable! I think they were just playing the clueless foreigner card and trying to get a free ride. But hey, who knows? Maybe some people really are that stupid.

I first became really reliant on the combi system when I was teaching English and Atreyhus and I moved kind of far from the institute. Too far to walk. Let me tell you, getting the combi system down made me feel like a bad ass. Within 2 weeks, I vaguely knew the route of just about every combi that passed my way. I want to go to the post office, I take Pegaso. For Molino, I take Satelite or Wimpillay. San Jeronimo, I take Chaska. ( I forgot to mention that each combi line has it’s own name).

Luckily, I live on a busy street, so there is a large selection of combis at my disposal. Little ones, even big ones that would qualify for bus status in U.S. terms. The best thing is hopping on a combi and knowing exactly where it goes, even the names of the stops before the cobrador calls them out. I’ve seen a couple of girngos on combis before, but it’s not something that’s too common. I, personally, try to take a combi whenever I can. They’re inexpensive, fast, and reliable during business hours. So the next time a taxi slows down and honks it’s horn at you, turn your head the other way and have a little adventure on a combi. Once you get it down, you’ll feel like you can do anything!

1 A cobrador is the person who works in the passenger part of the combi. They open and close the door, collect money, and yell out all of the stops. The person driving the combi is called the chofer.

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Last weekend, Atreyhus and I went out with some of my friends to celebrate my boss’s birthday. We went to the Plaza de Armas (Cusco’s main square), which has about 10 bars on every street. At night the plaza lights up; there are people on every cobblestoned corner. A lot of them are handing out flyers or free drink tickets, trying to lure you to their club. I’d had a few drinks. Just enough to make things a little hazy.  But what happened after we left the club still burns in my mind.

We had just stepped out of Kamikaze, into the crisp night air, walking arm in arm. That’s when I heard it. At the time, it sounded like a million bottles breaking. What happened? I wondered. Did someone knock something over? Was it a street vendor? We walked closer to the source of the sound. That’s when I saw the body.  I saw him. His light brown hair. Blue sweater. Black jeans. Studded punk belt. My mind went into over drive, grasping at thoughts as if objects in the dark. Did he knock into something? But then why is there so much glass?  Then Atreyhus pointed up. He fell from the bar window above.  There were worried faces looking down.  The police were yelling ”Nadie lo toque! Nadie lo toque!” And no one went near him. Not even the police. They just stood there, keeping the onlookers at bay. Didn’t even bother to check the man’s pulse.

People frantically dialed 116 (Peru’s 911). My eyes were glued to the body. Where’s the blood? And then I saw it. Trickling from his head like a slowly moving river.  Shit. My mind fought against the woozy affect of the alcohol. What the hell is going on here!? Is no one going to do anything!!!?????? Anger welled up inside me, and tears lingered on the edge of my eyelids, threatening to spill over. I whined at Atreyhus, as if he’d be able to do something. Then I started yelling to the police, “Porque no hacen nada, imbeciles!? Porque solo lo miren!?” Then some other onlookers started yelling, “llame un ambulancia….todavia esta vivo….llame un ambulancia!”. He’s still alive. But his body hadn’t so much as twitched the entire time I was watching. Atreyhus went over and joined the throng surrounding the body.  A pick-up truck rolled up. It said Policia. Three cops lifted the body and placed it face down, the way it had landed, in the bed of the truck. Like a bale of hay.

People stayed at the scene a while. Not sure what to do with themselves. Some police had stayed behind. The blood remained amongst the sea of broken glass, and twisted metal rods, changing its shape as gravity pulled it this way and that. So this is what death looks like. Some were saying he’d committed suicide. He’d done it on purpose….ran through the glass. Others said he was narcoleptic and fell asleep, breaking through the glass. That’s Peru for you. Never a straight story. Always a strange rumor. I wondered what the paper would report, if anything. The crime scene hadn’t been taped off.  People started walking through it, stepping in the blood as if it were dog piss.  I pulled Atreyhus towards a cab. I wanted to get out of there. We rode home in near silence. I was still drowning in the disbelief that the police hadn’t done anything, they’d just let him lie there, maybe dying right in front of their eyes.


Two days later was Monday and I was telling Carmen, a girl I work with, what had happened. She’d heard. She’d been in the hospital on Sunday visiting her aunt when the man was pronounced dead. His friends were there, and she thought his girlfriend, too. They were Australian. Apparently he was high on heroine and his friend, also high, had accidentally pushed him. I told Carmen that the police didn’t even touch him to see if he was alive, didn’t even take his pulse. She just shrugged her shoulders and said that he was a foreigner. I didn’t ask Carmen what she meant by that, but as I walked up the stairs to my office I started wondering if the police were afraid they’d be investigated for touching him, maybe blamed for his death. The anger rose inside me again as I thought of the stupidity of it all, and then I felt fear as I realized that perhaps the police would act the same if it were me bleeding out on the ground.

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Yesterday I went with Atreyhus to get his hair cut. We went to a place near the San Pedro Market, probably the biggest market in Cusco. In that area, all the streets are made of cobblestone and the sidewalks come up about a foot from the street, and are about a foot and a half wide. Walking is no easy task. Especially when you factor in the people busily scurrying about with their wheelbarrows full of strawberries, or sitting on a sliver of sidewalk with stacks of that fresh, salty Andean cheese I love so much. You rarely see a tourist in this part of town. I should know. I used to live in this neighborhood. We walk into a small barbershop, which hovers about 3 feet above the street.

Atreyhus sees his haircut lady and makes a scissor-like motion with his fingers; his way of asking if she’s free to cut his hair. Of course she is, and he sits down. I make my way to the small, plastic- covered chairs, designed for people waiting. They’re comfy enough, but a little too close to one of the barber chairs. Because of this, I get sprayed every few minutes with the spray bottle the barber is using to wet his client’s hair.

Almost every chair is occupied with Peruanos. I watch as the barbers expertly maneuver their electric razors. There are tufts of hair all over floor, all exactly the same color. They look like little, sleeping, black cuys (Cuy is the word for guinea pig in Peru, which they raise to eat. It’s considered a delicacy). From where I’m sitting I can see Atreyhus’s face in the mirror. Occasionally our eyes meet and he makes funny faces at me. I look at him and pat my head. A little more off the top.

The place is plastered with old posters of men and boys, showing different hairstyles. I see JC Chasez sporting a gelled back do’, circa 1998. There’s one of Jesse from Full House. Also, a large collection of blond-haired, blue-eyed boys smiling out at me. In the middle of the floor there are two chairs, designed for younger customers. One in the shape of a red truck. The other, a horse. The floors are made of unfinished, old wood.

No one speaks much, and a special on September 11th plays on the small television, in English. No one seems to pay it much attention. I glance over at Atreyhus again and I see he’s taken the electric razor from the lady and has started shaving his own face. She busies herself with dusting off the stray hairs. I laugh. He’s always doing something silly. He pays the 3 soles and we’re out on the street again, as I pull Atreyhus towards the market to buy some cheese.

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