Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Birthday Parties

I got to celebrate my birthday twice this year! Once on Saturday with the kids at Lucy´s project, and again on Sunday with Sonia and our friends. Sonia and her friend Malena cooked pollo al sillao(chicken with soy sauce, ginger and garlic), rice with raisins and nuts, and potatoes. And the birthday cake had fillings of manjar blanco (caramel paste) and guanabana (a fruit). In Peru they always sing Happy Birthday in English, with a very bad accent (¨hoppy beerthday ...¨), then they sing Feliz Cumpleaños.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Water For San Genaro -- part 2

After gathering all of the necessary documents to present our proposal to the water utility, SEDAPAL, we held a meeting for all of the neighbors who will be able to use the new water source, to explain what we´re planning to do and to gather their signatures. All of the people who showed up signed the proposal, and Fredi will continue to collect the remaining signatures so that we can deliver it on Wednesday. Supposedly we should get a response from SEDAPAL within just a few days, telling us what the cost will be.

The municipal elections are coming up in just a couple of weeks, and the walls of most of the houses on the hills of San Genaro have been transformed into campaign billboards. Almost all of them display the name of the incumbent mayor, Miyashiro, who is probably spending city funds and using city workers to paint the ads.

The Language of the Incas

It´s a shame that none of the pre-Incan civilizations nor the Incas themselves had a written language. The Incas did succeed in imposing a common spoken language, Quechua, on most of their empire, which stretched from Argentina to Colombia. But many of the advanced techniques of construction, metallurgy and agriculture that they and their predecessors developed have been lost. The little that we know with any certainty about the Incas comes from oral histories which were captured in Spanish by the conquistadors.
Because Quechua is spoken only in countries where Spanish has become the predominant language, almost all of the resources for learning the language are written in Spanish. So to learn Quechua well you must first learn Spanish. I´ve been sitting in on an introductory Quechua course at San Marcos University, and it´s a fascinating language. It has an alphabet of only 16 consonants and 3 vowels -- depending on how you count them, and who´s version of written Quechua you use. There´s no b, c, d, e, f, g, o, v, x or z. The various Spanish linguists who developed written forms of the language use slightly different notations, but all add the Spanish letters ch and ñ. Five of the consonants, ch, k, p, q and t, have three variations each. One variation has an extra puff of air when it is voiced, and another has a brief stoppage of air following the consonant. One of the big challenges is tuning your ear to hear the differences between these variations.
Verbs take different endings to distinguish person and plurality, as in Spanish, but there are fewer tenses and all verbs are regular -- no exceptions to remember! Nouns have conjugations as in Latin. The biggest difference between Quechua and other languages (at least the ones I´ve been exposed to) is the extensive use of word endings to add information content that is independent of the meaning being conveyed. For example, there are endings that mean ¨I know this to be true¨, ¨I´m referring to something that you just said¨, ¨and also¨, etc. In all there are eleven different endings, with as many as five strung together at the end of a word. But the stress (with very few exceptions) is always on the second-last syllable. So the most difficult part for me in listening to Quechua has been separating the base word from the endings. If you´re interested in knowing what the language looks like or sounds like, here´s a site that has a lot of information: www.andes.org.

Women´s Club in Pamplona - part 1

One of the best organized forces for helping to alleviate poverty in Peru are the Clubes de Madres, tens of thousands of small groups of women who get together every weekday to cook a big meal and distribute it to their neighbors at cost. Those who work in the kitchen receive free meals for their families, and certain other people who are disabled or have recently given birth are also exempted from payment. The clubs are partially supported by the government with free rice, and occasionally some beans or canned fish. But they have to pay for their own rent and other expenses. One of the biggest expenses is fuel for cooking.
A friend of mine, Martín, who recently graduated from San Marcos University, is serving as a teaching assistant for an anthropology class that decided to do a project investigating a women´s club in Pamplona, a community in southern Lima that sits high above the rest of the city. Martín knew of my interest in building energy-saving devices and asked if I could help them come up with ways to conserve fuel. They currently spend almost $20 per week on gas for cooking, which represents a large percentage of their variable costs. If they could achieve substantial savings on gas, they could afford to cook more nutritious meals, containing more meat and green vegetables. Or they could afford to buy the materials to build an oven, which would allow them to expand their offerings to generate more income.
A few days ago I spent a morning with six women at their comedor watching everything they do to prepare the meal, to get some ideas about what interventions help them to reduce gas consumption. They started out with these ingredients:

33 pounds of potatoes
44 pounds of olluco (similar to potatoes)
33 pounds of rice
7 pounds of pumpkin
7 pounds of onions
7 pounds of sémola (wheat-based thickener)
3 pounds of carrots
2 pounds of tomatoes
2 pounds of garlic
9 pounds of chicken feet
1 whole chicken (7 pounds)

They spent most of the four hours peeling and chopping the olluco and potatoes, and one woman spent more than an hour picking through the rice to remove impurities. They cooked in three huge pots. In one they made a soup of the chicken feet, pumpkin, carrots, and spinach. In another they cooked the rice after sauteing some garlic. In the last they cooked the chicken with onions and spices, and then added the olluco and potatoes. It was delicious, but not very nutritious, consisting almost entirely of carbohydrates and fat. Imagine serving more than 100 people with a main dish made from one chicken!

Based on what I observed, I think that placing a ¨pot skirt¨ of galvanized steel around the pots while they cook would help to conserve heat and reduce gas use, and using a ¨retained heat cooker¨ (essentially a box lined with styrofoam) after bringing the rice to a boil would allow the rice to finish cooking without consuming gas. I´ll start to build these next week after the students finish their initial interviews with the women.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

We´re Eating WHAT???

Peruvian food varies greatly from one region to another. This isn´t surprising since Peru has more biodiversity than any other country in the world. Of the 104 different types of ¨life zones¨ that exist on Earth, 84 are found in Peru. Generally, on the coast you encounter more food containing fish, in the mountains more potatoes, lamb and pork, and in the jungle more fruit and vegetables. Very little of the food is spicy, but a hot pepper sauce is often offered ¨on the side¨.

One of the striking things about Peruvian food is the extensive use of organ meats. They don´t let anything go to waste here! So far I´ve tasted the following body parts in one or more forms: beef heart, lung and stomach, lamb testicle, chicken gizzard and fish head. I´ve also seen sheep heads and chicken feet for sale in the market, but haven´t yet had the pleasure of tasting any preparations that use them.

I really like the heart, which is served shish kebab style and called anticucho. I´d have to say the lung was my least favorite. It´s really hard to chew, so you pretty much have to swallow it as it is. (Fortunately they cut it in tiny pieces). The testicle wasn´t bad -- until they told me what it was!

So what is that stuff in the picture above that vaguely resembles meat? It´s a dish that you can find being prepared over a grill on just about any street corner on a weekend night, called combinado - a combination of chicken gizzards and cow stomachs, with lots of seasoning, served over boiled potatoes. The stomach is really quite tasty and tender!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Water For San Genaro II - Part 1

This is how a family typically stores water in San Genaro II (the upper part of the hill that forms the ¨human settlement¨ known as San Genaro) - using an odd collection of tubs and garbage cans with some sort of cover to keep the dirt out. This community was organized as a legal entity more than eight years ago, but there are still only a handful of houses that have connections to the public water supply, and just one ¨public¨ connection shared by 20 families who occupy one block.

When the Canadian teachers left after their reconstruction project here, some of them were interested in donating money to help with the other problems, besides housing, that face the people here. They were particularly moved by the fact that most of the people in San Genaro II had to pay more the double the usual cost of water because the only way to obtain it was to pay a downhill neighbor, who had a connection to the water supply, to let them fill their containers using a hose. The typical charge is more than $3 per hour of use (just about enough time to fill all of the containers in their house), and a family usually needs to fill their containers a couple of times each week. A private connection to the city water supply costs more than $300.

I told the Canadians that I had been interested in doing a ¨microcredit¨ project where a group of families would finance the installation of a shared water access point using the savings that they would realize on the cost of the water. They agreed to donate the money for the installation. A group of friends from Lilly who participated in a Spanish class that I taught are providing the funding for the paperwork and other miscellaneous expenses. So lately I´ve been spending a lot of time visiting with Freddy (one of the residents in San Genaro II who´s going to represent the group of neighbors), SEDAPAL (the water utility) and SUNARP (the public documents registry) trying to understand and compile all of the documents that we need to present just to perform the first step: a feasibility study that will determine the cost of the installation. Tomorrow we should have everything we need except for a cover letter from the directiva of San Genaro II authorizing the project.

The plan is to get each of the 24 neighbors on Freddy´s block to agree to buy their water from an access point that we will install, and to pay 1/12 of the water bill each month. In this way we will collect twice the amount of the water bill each month, and put the excess into a fund that will pay off the cost of the installation and generate money for another installation on another block. When the second installation has been financed, the neighbors can stop subsidizing the installations and just split the water bill each month. But even during the period of subsidization, we estimate that they will see at least a 30% reduction in their expenditures for water. Over time we should be able to provide cheaper water to everyone in San Genaro II. There are still a few details to work out, like buying and replacing hoses, and what to do in the case of nonpayment, but we´re optimistic that we can work through those.