Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Living On One Dollar

We just watched the Netflix documentary Living On One Dollar, a film made by four college students who try to live on a dollar per day in the tiny community of Peña Blanca in eastern Guatemala.  It's amazing!  Please watch it with your family.  It reminded me so much of the even smaller community of Nuevo San Jose where I lived for five months fifteen years ago.

It's sad to see that so little has changed in Guatemala during fifteen years, but it's very heartening to see a group of young people dedicate themselves to focusing a sharp lens on why it's so hard to escape from poverty.  What's different about this documentary is its extensive use of interviews with the residents of the community and reflections by the students themselves over the course of their eight-week stay, all filmed in "real time".  

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Lima escondida - part 1

Lima has been called the "concrete city".  Walk down any street, and your constant companion is a brick and cement wall, interrupted occasionally by a door, gate or window.  There is no space -- none -- between one house or business and the next.  No grassy buffer -- nothing.  In fact, if your neighbor was very poor at the time he built his house, he may have used one of your walls as part of his own house.  And for the most part, there are no zoning restrictions.  So your neighbor might be a bakery or a hairdresser or a ceramics factory.

Perhaps the very fact that everything is walled off makes me want to know what's behind that wall.  As I walk down a street, I can't resist a quick glance through any open door or gate.  Often a door opens onto a long walkway with many other doors, where a landowner has divided his property into small apartments.  Sometimes there's a beautiful house with a well-kept garden hiding just a few feet behind the wall, completely invisible from the street.  Sometimes there's a business with huge metalworking machines, or a fascinating collection of objects waiting to be recycled.  And all of these can occur together on the same block.

I know this isn't just a personal obsession or voyeurism, because other people (including my wife and my daughter) have confirmed that they share this fascination.  I've held off publishing this post because I didn't have any pictures to accompany it.  And without seeing the variety of things that are hiding behind the wall, it's difficult to appreciate how fascinating it can be.  I thought about buying one of those tiny cameras that you can strap to your head and walking around for awhile, peeking into any openings in the wall.  I'll get some pictures somehow, and include them in future posts, so that you readers can share my fascination.


Trámites are the formal procedures that must be followed in order to get anything done -- especially anything involving the government.  Everyone in Peru complains about the time and expense involved in trámites.  And it's easy to understand why.  Most procedures involve a personal appearance at one or more agencies, usually involving a long wait in line.  My recent experience in applying for permanent residency in Peru is pretty typical.

My first step was to consult the web page of the Superintendencia Nacional de Migraciones, also known as DIGEMIN.  It lists the following requirements for changing my status from tourist to rentista, a visa category for people who plan to live here indefinitely, have a fixed income such as a pension, and do not plan to work:
  • Complete form F-0004.
  • Make a payment of 117.60 Peruvian soles at the Bank of the Nation and provide the receipt.
  • Provide a copy of your current passport.
  • Provide a signed declaration that you have no criminal record.
  • Provide an "apostille" copy of an original document from the country from which your income is derived, which shows a permanent income of no less than $1000 per month, plus $500 per month for each dependent.  Also provide a translation made by a certified translator, if the original document is not in Spanish.
  • Obtain an official "international exchange card" from Interpol that indicates you have no criminal record -- only after having presented all of the other documents at DIGEMIN.
I was still in the U.S. at this point, so I mailed my Social Security benefits letter to the U.S. State Department to obtain their apostille.  It took about a month for them to return it with their stamp of approval to the mail forwarding service that I use in Michigan.  By then I was in Peru, so I had the service forward the documents to me in Peru.  I went to my local branch of the Bank of the Nation and stood in line for half an hour to pay the processing fee (about $35).  It took only half an hour because I was able to use the "preferential" line -- for people over 60, disabled people, and pregnant women.  I made a copy of my passport and printed a copy of a "declaration of no criminal record" that I found on the internet.  On the day that I took all of these documents to the immigration department, their system for issuing ticket numbers to people as they arrived was not working, so there was a security guard who was ushering people into seats, attempting to maintain the queue in order of arrival and direct people to the service windows as agents became available.

When it was my turn, the agent received all of my documents, reshuffled them into what seemed to me a random order, and then stapled all of them together.  She gave me a case number that I could refer to if I wanted to inquire about the status of my application, and told me to go to the Interpol office to complete the last step of the process.  She provided this list of requirements for my visit to Interpol:

  • Make a payment of 80 Peruvian soles at the Bank of the Nation and provide the receipt.
  • Provide a copy of my passport.
  • Provide a recent photo.
  • Provide a large manila envelope.
She told me I should go there as early as possible, since they only accepted a limited number of applicants each day.  They opened at 8:00, so at 7:00 the next morning I was in a taxi on my way to Interpol.  There were a couple of guys from Ecuador and Colombia already waiting in line when I arrived.  By 8:00 there were about 15 people in line.  When I presented my documents to the agent, he asked me "Where is the check for the US Treasury Department?" I had no idea what he was referring to.  He handed me a small photocopied piece of paper and said "here is the list of requirements for U.S. citizens".  The list was similar to the one that I had received in the migration office, but included one additional step: 

 "Go to Banco de Credito or Scotiabank and obtain an international money order for US $18, payable to the U.S. Treasury".  

He said that without this money order he could not process my request, because part of the process involved sending my fingerprints to the FBI to see if they matched any known criminals in their database.  And he cautioned me that I should only go to the bank branch on Caminos del Inca street, because any other branch would probably not know how to generate an international money order.  So I took a taxi to the bank and waited for it to open at 9:00.  Having arrived at 8:20, I was of course the first person in line, so at least I didn't have a long wait once the bank opened.  The bank charged me a "commission" of US $12 for the money order, which was just a cashier's check drawn on their Miami branch.

I returned to Interpol, worried that they might turn me away because they had reached their limit for the day, but the agent signaled for me to sit beside his desk while he finished up with another client. When it was my turn, he explained that I would mail the check to the FBI in the large manila envelope along with a form on which my fingerprints were to be recorded, and the FBI would send the results directly to me, which I would then take to the migration office.   He then told me to go across the hall for a dental exam first, then around the corner to have my fingerprints taken.  The dental exam consisted of someone shining a flashlight into my mouth and taking notes about the condition of my teeth, while I sat across a desk in front of him.

After I was fingerprinted, I was told that I could return in five business days with my passport to retrieve the results of their "investigation".  When I returned at the appointed time, I noticed that the "issue date" of their letter was the same day that I had made my application.

The last step was to take my letter from Interpol to the migration office.  I showed the lady the manila envelope addressed to the FBI that contained my fingerprints and the check for $18, and asked whether I really needed to send it to the FBI.  She said that there must have been some misunderstanding at Interpol because the migration office doesn't require a separate FBI background check.  

Needless to say, I was unable to get the bank to refund my $30.  Now I just have to wait "up to 60 days" for my application to be accepted.

A letter to my daughter ... and anyone else trying to learn a new language

(My daughter moved to Medellín, Colombia, just a few weeks before I moved to Peru.  She had little time to learn any Spanish before she left.)

Dear Marta,

It's been four months since you left the States, and I remember very well what it was like for me trying to use Spanish in Guatemala after I'd been there for four months.  There were some days when I would have a headache after a two-hour conversation -- not because I didn't enjoy the conversation, but because it took so much mental effort to do the translation in my head at a fast enough speed to keep up with the conversation.  I wondered every day if I would ever get to the point where I could just think in Spanish, instead of having to think about how to translate the next thing I wanted to say into Spanish.

My experiences in high school (with Latin) and college (with German) had taught me that I was capable of memorizing a large number of words in another language and of learning a grammar that was completely different from English, well enough to be able to read and write in a different language.  But they left me with the impression that conversation would always be difficult because my brain just couldn't perform the "lookups" in my mental dictionary at the pace necessary to sustain an ordinary conversation.  I'm sure your experience with French in high school was similar.

I don't know how long it will take you to get through this torturous period of mental gymnastics, but I do know that you'll soon start to see signs that something in your brain is changing.  The first sign might be a dream, like it was for me, where the dialog is in Spanish.  Or you might suddenly remember that you need to do something, but remember it in Spanish.  Or you'll want to say a word in English but only be able to remember how to say it in Spanish.

There's an awful lot of circuitry up there that needs to be rewired before your brain can process Spanish the same way that it processes English.  You have to reach a certain threshold of neurons all working together before Spanish will start to seem as natural as English.  But I can promise you that it will happen!  You'll know that it's starting to happen when your "bad Spanish detector" starts working.  You'll be saying something, and as soon as you hear what you've said you'll know that it just "sounds wrong".  It may seem like you're regressing because you're noticing a lot of errors, but you're not. Mostly they're the same errors you've always been making, but now your brain is tuned to recognize Spanish grammar, so you notice all those mistakes.

You'll continue to have days where you doubt that it's really possible to become fluent, where you think that "maybe you're just not one of those people who can do it".  But then you'll remember a conversation you had with a little old lady at the bakery, or an encounter with a child in the park, that you know you could never have had if you didn't speak their language.  And you'll want more of those experiences, and that's what will sustain you through this period of frustration.

And when you have children, you'll be able to give them the enormous gift of bilingualism.  They won't have to struggle as you did, because they'll learn both languages at the same time.

So hang in there, and get lots of sleep.  Your brain does most of its reconstruction work while you're sleeping.  I know that you won't believe this right now, but you're even going to get to the point where all of those "fancy" tenses that you're afraid to touch right now will come rolling right off your tongue without any effort.



Friday, August 12, 2016


Spanish as spoken in Peru has adopted many words from the predominant indigenous language, Quechua.  Uquspa is a Quechea word that means the first rain of the year.  If it occurs in August, it's considered a sign that farmers will have a good harvest.  The earlier that it arrives, the better the prognosis.

The uquspa arrived today, the day that we found a house to rent in Huaraz.  So we'll consider it a good omen for our stay here as well.

The rainy season -- when it rains almost every day -- won't begin until late September or early October.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

In search of whole wheat flour

Ah!  Organic whole wheat flour, freshly ground an hour ago!  Who would have thought this possible in Lima?

I love to bake, and I prefer whole wheat flour because it's healthier than white flour.  My search began on the internet, and turned up only opinions about where it might be found in Lima -- in high end supermarkets, at organic food fairs, etc.  I searched all of the nearby supermarkets, and stores that sell "healthy" things like granola and yogurt.  I asked friends who have lived here their entire lives, but no one had any idea.  I even asked at a bakery if I could buy a few pounds of whole wheat flour from them.  Their response confirmed that the "whole wheat bread" that they sell is not whole wheat at all, but is made with white flour to which a little wheat germ and bran has been added back.

So I was thrilled when Sonia (who always manages to find what I can't) turned up an article in the newspaper El Comercio that contained a guide to health food stores in Lima.  Among them was a bakery called The Seven Dwarfs that is just a few blocks away.  

The Seven Dwarfs - German Ecological Bakery
It's owned by a German family, who imports wheat from Germany and grinds it every morning to make whole wheat breads and pastries -- baguettes, loaves, strudels, and many others.  They also sell honey, various kinds of oil, and yogurt.  And it's the only store I've found here that offers paper bags instead of plastic ones.  

Now, back to my baking.  I'm going to try several types of bananas to see which ones make the best banana bread.

Friday, July 01, 2016

Money matters

There are lots of things you have to learn about money in Peru besides where to get a good exchange rate for your dollars.  The standard currency in Peru is the Nuevo Sol.  Right now a dollar will buy about 3.3 soles -- near the all time high of 3.5.  Coins come in denominations of 5, 10, 20 and 50 centimos (cents), and 1, 2 and 5 soles.  Bills come in demoninations of 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and probably larger ones that I've never seen.

Coins of 5, 2 and 1 nuevos soles
When you withdraw money in soles from an automatic teller machine, you generally get bills of 50 and 100 soles.  But unless you live in an expensive neighborhood and shop only at the malls and supermarkets, the vast majority of your transactions are with small, one-person stores in the markets, and with taxi drivers.  They tend not to have change for anything larger than 5 or 10 soles.  So you have to always think ahead and try to keep a few small bills in your wallet.  Whenever I go to a large store, I always pay with my larger bills of 50 or 100 soles, no matter how much the item costs, because I know they have plenty of change and won't complain.

Another money issue you have to deal with is counterfeiting.  Both coins and bills are often counterfeited here, so vendors are always on the lookout and carefully examine every bill and coin you give them.  If a bill has the smallest tear in it, they won't accept it.  (The central bank will accept them, so they're not worthless, but who wants to go downtown just to change a bill?)

Yesterday I tried to pay for an ice cream cone and was told that my five sol coin was counterfeit.  I compared it to another that I had, examining every detail, and couldn't see any difference, so I thought the vendor was just being overly cautious.  I tried to use it for another transaction later, and it was again rejected.  So I asked the vendor how she could tell it was false.  She told me that it didn't feel like a real coin -- its surface was rough instead of smooth.  And I had to admit that she was right.

The other big issue is the banks.  There is plenty of competition in Peru, with lots of international banks and many large national ones.  But that doesn't mean that banking is easy or inexpensive.  Sonia opened a savings account here at Scotiabank when we arrived, because they belong to a network of international banks that waive transaction fees at the ATMs of all of the banks in the network.  They created two accounts for us -- one in soles and one in dollars.  We can freely transfer money between the two, but the exchange rate on transfers is about 3% less than the market rate.  So in order to take advantage of the currently high exchange rate, we have to wire our money in dollars from the U.S. (which costs us half a percent on each end), then withdraw the money from the bank, carry it across the street to a money changer -- who will give us a slightly better than market rate if we're exchanging thousands of dollars -- and then carry the soles back to the bank to deposit them.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Getting to know Huaraz

Huaraz is a small town in Peru (120,000 people) about 250 miles northeast of Lima that lies at 10,000 feet in the tropical zone (10 degrees south of the ecuator) -- probably one of the few places where you find palm trees growing at this altitude!  It starts to get cold as soon as the sun sets, down to about 40 degrees in the middle of the night, but then warms up quickly after the sun comes up, to a little over 70 degrees.  And the sun is intense at this altitude, so it feels much hotter than 70.  If you need to go out early, you put on a couple of extra layers and then pull them off within an hour or two.  White skinned folks like me have to wear sunscreen when I'm outside for long periods of time.

We're in the dry season now, which lasts roughly from April to November.  It's just a few degrees colder than the rainy season, and the town is full of tourists interested in hiking or mountain climbing.  During the rest of the year, it's sunny in the morning and rains for a few hours in the afternoon, sometimes intensely.  The average daily rainfall during that season is about a quarter of an inch.  The mountains, which are now a dull light brown, will become a lively green, with flowers blooming everywhere.

We've been walking around several neighborhoods, looking for a house or apartment and asking friends for any leads that they have.  There are a couple of places in the center of town where people pay to place notices -- about cars for sale, houses or apartments for sale or rent, etc. -- but for the most part the only way to find places for rent is to walk the streets and look for notices posted on buildings, or ask people who live in the area.  We plan to rent for several months until we get to know the area and find a place that we want to buy.  There are plenty of places for rent, but most are on the second or third floor -- not good for Sonia -- and are not furnished.  We have to go back to Lima on Monday to continue the immigration process for me and Marcos, and we'll probably make one more "short" trip here before we move here for good.

Plaza de Armas (main square)

A woman selling freshly squeezed orange juice near the plaza.  She's peeling each orange first in order to be able to squeeze more juice from it.

Typical adobe houses in Yarush, a community just above Huaraz

Marcos's favorite playground near our hotel

Huascarán, the tallest peak in Peru, as the sun is about to set behind me

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Travelling to Huaraz

The trip to Huaraz is long, but comfortable on the Cruz del Sur bus that has reclining seats with plenty of leg room.

At $26 per person for an 8 1/2 hour trip, it's about the price we would have paid for the three of us to take a taxi to the airport from our house in Indianpolis.

The first two hours of the trip follow the coastline, with enormous eroded sand dunes on the east side of the road that look like they could come sliding down at any minute.

(Yes, that's Jesus waving at us from the back of the truck.  You see a lot of religious imagery everywhere in a country that is officially Catholic.)

We pass the Hari Krishna complex just before the road turns eastward and we start climbing through the high desert.

We occasionally pass an enormous chicken farm or a settlement of families living in makeshift houses (who probably work at the chicken farms).  We see foot trails in the sand where people have walked long distances over the dunes, and "private property" signs placed by mining companies to mark their claims.  There's no vegetation at all as far as the eye can see.

As we begin to follow the course of one of the rivers that flows down from the mountains, we see lots of greenery in the river bed, but the rest of the land remains barren.  Where the river valley is flatter and wider, there are large plantations of sugar cane.

We see many places where corn -- yellow, orange or purple -- is being dried by the side of the road, spread out directly on the rocky terrain.

As we proceed further east, we make the transition from desert to forest.  The hills are still barren at the top, but we see more and more plant life -- first grasses, then bushes and trees.  The last part of the trip proceeds much more slowly, averaging 20 or 30 miles per hour, as we wind our way into the Andes mountains.  The bus driver pauses and honks at each curve of the switchbacks to alert other vehicles that he's about to make a wide turn into the oncoming lane in order to navigate the curve.  

When we're just an hour away, we pass through the high plains where the hills are completely covered with grass -- dead grass since we're in the season when there's almost no rain.  The snow-capped peaks of the highest mountains come into view. 

The bus has arrived on time, and it's just getting dark.  The hotel has sent a taxi to pick us up, and Solano, the taxi driver, greets us with a sign on which he's written my name.  We'll spend the next week deciding whether this will be our new home.