Friday, June 16, 2006

Shopping In Lima

Lima is a huge city (about 7 million people) where the vast majority do not own a car, and public transportation expenses take up a significant chunk of their income. In contrast, almost everyone in the U.S. has a car and the expense associated with it is usually a minor part of personal income. In the U.S., businesses tend to be situated at a distance from other business that sell similar products (with a few exceptions, like restaurants). Here the businesses of one type tend to aggregate in the same area, because people are more likely to shop in an area where they can find lots of choices without spending extra time and money on transportation. When I recently went to shop for furniture, I found dozens of little furniture stores within a couple blocks of each other.

The huge majority of businesses in Peru are very small operations with just a few employees. They operate with very little capital, and their collection of merchandise may have a theme (like cleaning products or kitchen utensils), or it may just be a random collection of things that the owner thought he could sell at a profit. If one business seems to be having a lot of success with a particular item, others nearby may start selling it even if it has nothing to do with the other products that are being offered. For example, here´s a baby products store on a busy street.

In the same block, there is also a bicycle store, a furniture store and a mattress store. All three of them are now selling baby strollers in addition to the products that you would normally expect to find in their stores.

Unfortunately, some of the areas that offer the best selection of certain products are relatively unsafe. I recently went to buy a recycled stainless steel cylinder to build a stove, and was glad to have two friends with me because it didn´t look like a place where I would want to walk alone.

There are lots of ambulatory vendors in Lima who sell products or services. The knife sharpeners are my favorite. They pull a small apparatus that sits on top of a bicycle wheel, and when they stop in front of a home or restaurant to sharpen their knives, the bicycle wheel is operated to power their grinding wheel. They each have a high-pitched flute which they play to announce their presence in a neighborhood, so you always know when they´re passing by. I don´t know how they all ended up adopting the same ¨trademark¨ in a city so huge, but I´ve heard their flutes in lots of different parts of Lima, so I´m convinced that they all use them. Similarly, the trash collectors always bank on the side of their garbage truck with a hollow metal pipe when they come down the street.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Peru - A Country Without An Identity

The most striking thing I´ve learned from my classes so far is that Peru is a country that doesn´t seem to have any sense of national identity. From the Spanish invasion in the 1500s, right up until the hacienda system (essentially a feudal system) was abolished in 1968, it has been occupied by two separate societies that didn´t intermix. And even among the indigenous peoples, there is so much diversity that one really can´t think of them as a single society.

There is also a great deal of distrust of the central government in Lima by the people who live in other parts of the country. History has taught them that Lima does whatever serves the interests of the rich people in Lima and the coastal cities, and ignores the needs of the rest of the country. When the national government finally began a significant effort to build highways from the coast to the interior of the country, it did so without any concern for where the population was located. The goal was simply to provide the shortest path to carry metals and minerals from the mines to the coast where they could be shipped abroad.

The regional and municipal governments sometimes do things in defiance of the central government. When the national government decided to go along with the U.S. policy of eradicating coca from Peru, several municipalities in the south whose population were going to be affected by the crackdown declared that coca is part of the patrimony of Peru, and its production cannot be banned.

Contributing to this identity crisis is a distrust among the different segments of society. The Spanish and mestizos in the large cities feel threatened by the huge immigration of indigenous people over the last 50 years, and the indigenous people in the Amazon region feel threatened by the people who have immigrated from the mountains to exploit the resources there by creating farms and cattle ranches. The experience of the Peruvian people over hundreds of years has been that if you trust someone, you will be exploited by them.

I´m often told by my friends here that I´m too confiado, that I trust people whom I don´t know well. I guess that´s because my experience living in North America has taught me that most people can be trusted, and don´t have any reason to harm me. I imagine that it will take a long time for the people here, whose experience is just the opposite, to be able to live together in harmony.

La Senora Teodosia

I went to San Genaro with my girlfriend Sonia and her friend Lucia to visit a women´s cooperative that´s looking for help in locating a new place for their operations. Along the way we stopped to visit a woman I had met several years ago, who was the recipient of a house built by Sonia´s group of lay missionaries. Teodosia lives with her son Fermín near the top of the hill. Somehow they survive on her sales of popcorn and his work as a laborer, for which he is paid $30 per month. She can´t afford the $200 installation charge for an electric meter, so she has to buy her electricity from a neighbor for $8 per month -- a high price to pay for the single bare bulb that illuminates her living room.

On this afternoon she welcomed us and invited us to sit with her in her house, but she seemed distracted. Eventually she told us that her daughter, who lives in the mountains several hundred miles from Lima, was seriously ill. She had received a phone call from relatives a week ago saying that she should come right away, but it would cost $30 each way for the several dìfferent buses and taxis she would have to take to get there. She wanted to bring her daughter to Lima for treatment, because in the area where her daughter lives, the only medical care available is from the curanderos, who have a good knowledge of effective herbal treatments but a poor ability to diagnose many illnesses. Someone had offered her a loan of $15, but she had no way to repay it. We took up a collection among Sonia´s group and were able to give Teodosia enough money for her travels. I´ll check back in a week or so to find out how her daughter is doing.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Where I Live

I´ve rented a small room on the fourth floor of a family house, just across the street from the Lima Sur shopping plaza in Chorrillos, a district in the southern part of Lima. Water is rationed here, and usually lasts from early in the morning till about 6:00 at night. There are three rooms on my floor that share a common bathroom (no hot water). Mine is about two by three meters -- just big enough for a mattress, a clothes closet and some space to store my bags. The floor is concrete and the roof is corrugated plastic, so it gets chilly at night. My friends Lucy and Walter loaned me an inflatable mattress that I´m going to use until I find a more ¨permanent¨ place. But I can´t complain about the price: $46 per month -- including utilities!

From the roof of my building, looking in one direction I can see two hills, San Genaro and Armapampa, both of which were settled by squatters about twenty years ago. The houses are mostly patchwork assemblies of plywood, corrugated metal, plastic, cardboard and woven straw. Few of the them have access to water or sewer services. People either buy water from a truck that comes by every few days or from neighbors down below who have a city water supply and a hose long enough to reach their house. They store their water in large plastic containers. (You can imagine how much water a family would have to store to last a whole week.) In August I´ll be building a pre-fabricated house in San Genaro with a group of Canadian teachers.

Looking in the other direction I can see a gated community across the street from my house, with a beautiful little park surrounded by an iron fence with four entrances, each of them closed and padlocked. Living in this area gives me the sense that no one feels secure. Everyone who has a decent house lives behind at least two layers of locked doors.

My landlord assures me that at the end of the month I´ll be able to move into a larger apartment on the first floor with a small patio and enough room for a kitchen.

Learning More About Peru

I decided to take a class offered by the Instituto Bartolomé de las Casas called Introduction to the Peruvian Reality. It started today and lasts three weeks. It´s oriented toward foreigners who are working in the area of social development in Peru. There are twenty of us in the class, and I think I´m the only student who isn´t associated with a religious order.

There was no electricity at the institute today because someone had stolen an electrical cable a block away. (It´s not uncommon for people to steal electrical or telephone cables and sell them as scrap metal.) So we weren´t able to view the PowerPoint presentations or videos, but I learned a lot about the early history of Peru. The Incas weren´t the ones who invented the impressive agricultural and architectural methods that we still admire today. (No, it wasn´t extraterrestrials, either.) They evolved over several thousand years and several different civilizations that preceded them.