Saturday, September 30, 2006

Wood-Burning Oven

I´ve really missed being able to bake my own bread since I got here. The LPG gas stove that I borrowed from friends doesn´t have an oven, and anyway a gas oven would be very expensive to operate. So I´ve been working on building a wood-burning oven using some recycled barrels. The design is from Aprovecho Research Institute, a group that also designed the wood-burning stoves that I used to build in Central America.

The oven consists of one barrel within another, with holes in the bottom and top of the outer barrel for the smoke to enter and exit, and some baffles made of fiberglass insulation covered with aluminum foil that form a pathway for the smoke so that it makes contact with most of the surface of the barrel. That little white gadget on the door of the oven is a fancy digital thermometer that I brought with me from the U.S. I´m still looking for a cheap, simple dial-type thermometer to reduce the cost.

The oven still isn´t quite finished (it needs a layer of fiberglass insulation on the outside, covered by another barrel that is split on the side), but it´s far enough along for a test. Last weekend I baked a couple loaves of banana bread and served it to the neighbors.

This is the man from whom I rent my apartment, Miguel, who always lends me a hand with my experiments. Here he´s chopping wood to feed the fire.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Unfettered Capitalism

Ever wonder what capitalism would look like if you took away the worker protections imposed by governments like minimum wages, hours worked, age discrimination, and things like that? It would probably look a lot like what you find here in Peru, because none of those protections are enforced. The minimum wage is officially about US $140 per month, but people commonly earn as little as $80 a month working six days a week. And if they complain about it, they simply lose their job to someone else who is eager to have any job at all. If they miss a day of work for whatever reason, they´re often charged two days of pay. In other words, not only do they not get paid for that day, but they pay their employer a day´s wages for the inconvenience that he suffered.

There´s officially a work limit of 40 hours per week with extra compensation for overtime, but in practice you work for as many hours as your employer tells you to. And forget about overtime. You´re lucky if you get paid for all the hours that you work. My friend Freddy has quit his job twice because his employer kept delaying payment of what he was owed. But each time he has eventually gone back, without receiving all the pay he was entitled to, because it´s the only job he can find that he knows will provide some income every week.

If you´re over 30 years old and don´t hold a ¨permanent¨ job in the profession that you studied for, forget about ever finding one. There are plenty of younger unemployed people who don´t yet have families, willing to work for lower wages. I´ve had lots of interesting conversations with taxi drivers who used to work in industry or taught in the universities, but can´t find anyone who wants to hire them because of their age.

In Peru (like most other Latin American countries), capital rules. If you don´t have an excess of money, it´s almost impossible to join the small club of people who do. The rich families continue to get richer, and the poor continue to increase in numbers. According to the measures that capitalists like to use, Peru has one of the ¨healthiest¨ economies in the world, with a growth rate exceeding 5% for five years in a row. But during those five years the poverty rate has barely changed, and still hovers at around 50%.

The other day I heard a woman say that she would like to have a small business selling tamales, but didn´t have the capital to do it. She wasn´t talking about the money necessary to rent a space or to buy equipment. She meant that she couldn´t gather together the $20 or so that she would need to buy a large pot and enough ingredients to make a big batch of tamales in her home, so that she could go and sell them on the street.

Tómbola in Esquivel

My girlfriend Sonia belongs to a group of lay people associated with an order of nuns based in Canada that has three convents in Lima, one of which is just a couple of blocks from where I live. The asociados get together every couple of weeks to organize small projects to help people in need. Last weekend some of us went to a tómbola that was organized by a group at another convent in Esquivel, north of Lima, to raise money for maintenance of the school that they operate there. A tómbola is sort of a random sale of donated items. People donate things ranging from sacks of sugar or rice to clothing to toys. Each item is assigned a number. Then they hire a band, cook a bunch of good food, organize games for the kids (like ¨fishing¨ for prizes, above), and entice people to come and buy the things that have been donated. For 30 cents you can draw a number and receive the prize associated with that number.

They were serving pachamanca, a dish that is baked underground in banana leaves and usually consists of pork, chicken, lamb, potatoes, sweet potatoes, fava beans and corn. Unfortunately this particular pachamanca included only pork and sweet potatoes, but is was pretty tasty.

This is Sister Gladys, the coordinator of our group of asociados, stirring a big pot of carapulcra, a dish that is made from dried potatoes, fresh potatoes, onions, pork, and a bunch of other good stuff. I think the sisters are going to be eating the leftovers for several weeks!

Saturday, September 09, 2006

A Quick Trip To Ecuador

Last week I made a quick run to the border to renew my visa. You have to leave the country for at least 24 hours every 90 days in order to remain ´legal´. From Lima it´s about the same distance to either Chile or Ecuador (about 19 hours) and Chile charges US citizens a $100 fee for an entry visa while Ecuador charges nothing. So I headed north hoping to escape from the winter for a few days. The tourist buses are very modern and comfortable. For $24 you get the best service, with food and drinks, movies, air conditioning. For ten dollars less you get the same comfortable seat, without the food and movies and air conditioning, but the bus stops in a lot more places en route, and even picks up or drops off people along the highway (including people who want to sell you tamales or tell you the sad story of their life and ask for money), so it takes a couple of hours longer and it´s a lot harder to sleep.
The northern coast of Peru is dotted with beach resorts but dominated by plantations of rice and bananas. Although it´s all desert and rains very little, the ground water in some places is just a few feet from the surface, so it´s economical to scrape off some sand and plant rice.
Most things are more expensive in Ecuador (about 50% more, from what I could tell in the short time I was there) but wages are also much higher, drawing many Peruvians to try to find work there, legally or not. Any citizen of an Andean nation can enter any other Andean nation with just a passport, but getting a work permit is difficult.
One of the few things that is much cheaper in Ecuador is gasoline, and people often try to bring it across the border, which is illegal (other than the gasoline in your gas tank). As we approached a customs check point on the way back, we saw agents board the bus in front of us and unload dozens of containers through the windows. When we pulled up for our inspection, we saw that they contained gasoline. I had to take these pictures from the window of our bus, because government workers are very camera-shy, especially with all the recent hidden camera videos that have been published showing officials in prisons and other institutions accepting bribes.