For the last few weeks, excluding my expedition to Puno and Bolivia, I've been living with the family of Hugo, with whom I'm working on the Sudamerica Tour website. When I first started working for Hugo, he suggested it would be much nicer for me to live with a family than be stuck in a hotel surrounded by tourists. I agreed; I understood that this was to be part of my payment for working, and I thought it would be good to be somewhere where I never had to speak English. There was no hurry, however - I was quite happy enough in the Casa La Reyna hostel, with its beautiful roof terraces, piping hot showers and friendly people.
Originally the intention was that I would stay with the family of Hugo's rather patrician aunt, in the suburb of Umacollo, on the other side of the river Chili. After paying a visit there, this seemed fine to me, as it wasn't too far away and I would have plenty of privacy, with the spacious ground floor all to myself. For some reason, however (no one ever tells you anything directly here), this plan was abandoned. As Hugo insisted that I couldn't possibly stay another day in the hotel, it was decided that I would go and live with him.
This I was a bit more reluctant about, as his house was a bit further away from the centre, and I already saw a quite a lot of Hugo and Lisbet (his wife, who manages the Incaventura adventure travel agency). I said there was no hurry and I was really quite comfortable in the hotel, but there was no arguing, and before long I was installed in the sprawling, three-floor concrete house on the Avenida Gutemberg in the suburb of Selva Alegre.
The permanent residents of no. 405 Gutemberg at the time of my arrival included: Hugo's extroverted and vaguely eccentric mother "la señora Gloria", who the house ultimately belongs to; Hugo, Lisbet and their 3 1/2 year-old son Gerardo; Hugo's older brother Juan, his wife Vivian from Santa Cruz in Bolivia, and their 2 1/2 year-old daughter Lia; Hugo's younger brother Alan, his wife Erica and their 1 year-old daughter; Teodoro from the Colca Valley, who helps out with chores (his brother Alejandro was my guide on Chachani and has recently moved out to pursue mountain guiding full time); two dogs, two kittens and two parrots.
Hugo prides himself on having lived in Switzerland and being more reliable than other Peruvians, whom he calls "incumplidos". His example of this is the carpenter who was to construct a new desk/counter for the Incaventura agency. On the day it was supposed to be delivered at 12 midday, the carpenter failed to show up, and on being called, promised the counter would be ready at 4pm. This later became 8 pm, then successively 12, 4 and 8 the following day, before in turn being revised to a similar succession of hours after the weekend.
When the desk finally arrived, it was two inches too short, despite the carpenter and his assistant having made measurements of exaggerated precision in the agency office when it was ordered. Delivery of the modified desk followed a similar process of unforseen postponements.
Hugo may not be an "incumplido" (though he delights in telling me of all the important appointments and events he's missed through falling asleep or not waking up), but nevertheless seems to attract disaster. The first day I was supposed to meet him at the agency he failed to show up at the agreed time and called to say that his car was "malogrado" (an expression much-used in Peru, roughly meaning "broken down"). Later we were to move our work on the website to the office in San Camilo market, only to experience a range of delays due to various computers also being unexpectedly "malogradas".
Incidentally, Hugo himself is lucky enough not to remain signficantly malogrado. About a year and a half ago he broke several vertebrae in his back; climbing in the mountains without rope, he fell and rolled 300 metres. He lay there in a semi-conscious state for a day and a half, while his climbing partner broke records descending to get help from the nearest town. A rescue team climbed into the mountains and carried him out, while his mother desperately but unsuccessfully tried to convince an acquaintance air force general to authorise the despatch of a helicopter. Miraculously, Hugo eventually made a full recovery.
I soon discovered that the tendency for mechanical failure extended to the family house. While assuring me that I must move in, Hugo briefly passed over the fact that there wasn't actually any hot water. I noted that the upstairs shower at least had an electric attachment, while on the roof terrace was a solar water heating system. Neither of these seemed to work, however; they were, I was assured, "malogrados".
Also malogrado was the flushing mechanism on the upstairs toilet, while downstairs one worked but the water had to be turned off most of the time because the system leaked. Reassuring me about the lack of hot water, Hugo pointed out the rows of three-litre soft drink bottles filled with water and lined along the walls of the second-floor terrace. These heated up in the sun, he said, and provided an adequate substitute for a real shower. This turned out to be technically true; the strong Arequipeño sun does get the bottles of water to a reasonable temperature - between 2 and 4 in the afternoon. When one works 35 minutes walk away to the south of the city centre, this makes such a shower unfeasible except on weekends...
Eventually I worked out a way round the hot water issue, by boiling the kettle and mixing the water with that from the soft drink bottles, to be tipped over the head in the traditional manner. Other simple comforts, such as a night's sleep, didn't prove to be so easily obtained. Originally when I moved in, I was going to sleep in Alan's room. This had it's own bathroom with a working toilet (though no hot water), big dark curtains, a comfortable double bed, cable TV, and was on the quiet side of the house furthest from the street. Alan was in Lima with Erica and his little girl, who suffers from a heart condition, and was possibly going to have a definitive operation. Hugo told me that he didn't know how long Alan would be in Lima, but "definitely for at least a week".
The next day Alan was back (the operation had been postponed), and I found that my things had been moved to the small room next door, also on the third floor terrace, which is where Alejandro had used to sleep. In complete contrast to Alan's room, this one featured a big curtainless window, a bed with a surface resembling the Colca Valley, and poisonous fumes emanating from a recently waxed floor. The fumes dissipated after about five days, and when I mentioned the intense moonlight which streamed in the window from the cloudless Arequipan night sky I returned home the next day to find that I had been supplied with a net curtain, cleverly attached to the wall with masking tape.
There wasn't much anyone could do, however, about the other outstanding feature of my room. It overlooks the second-floor terrace, which in turn is bordered by the terrace of the neighbouring building, which houses - you guessed it - a rooster hutch. I estimate that there are about ten to twelve roosters on the terrace, housed in rickety wooden cages with hardly enough room for them to turn around. Not really having many other options, the roosters understandably content themselves with doing what roosters do best.
Some nights there is an hour of two of peace and quiet, between when the neighbourhood dogs wind up their evening chorus and when the roosters start up. Other nights they overlap. On average the crowing commences sometimes between two and three a.m. You just have to hope you fall into a deep enough slumber beforehand to be oblivious to it.
Shortly after sun up the chorus is taken up by the human inhabitants of the house. None of them really make an impression on my consciousness apart from the señora, who addresses all and sundry, wherever they may be in the house, as if she were a ship's captain barking out orders in the teeth of a fierce gale. And Gerardo. Gerardo is the crowning glory of the house, Lisbet and Hugo's 3 1/2 year-old son and possibly the most spoilt, loud, demanding little kid I have ever met. He is of angelic appearance, and in quiet moments quite pleasant, so I don't think he is actually a demon child. But he has been indulged to an extreme degree by Hugo, Lisbet, and in particular his grandmother. Although he can more or less talk normally, his principal method of communication is screaming and crying. Almost anything can induce screaming fits. He cries if he doesn't get a soft drink right this instant, He cries if someone else is spreading their toast and reducing the volume of available jam (it should all be for him). He cries if he doesn't like the way Lisbet is cutting the papaya.
He also seems to have been weaned very late, and still demands to suck on Lisbet's breasts; when he can't he tries to reach into her jumper and grab them. To my horror, I noticed that she sometimes lets him, or at least doesn't push him away immediately. While Lisbet is in every other respect an exemplary person, her approach to mothering Gerardo is not what I would call ideal. She tells him that he can't suckle her breasts because "I've had an operation" (rather than "because you can't"), and when he behaves badly, she sometimes responds with emotional blackmail - for example, once when he refused to say "please" while demanding the butter, she got mad and said "right! I don't love you anymore"
Mamiiii" howled Gerardo.
"I'm no longer your mother" snapped Lisbet.
I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from telling her "you have to make him say please because it's polite, not because you'll disown him if he doesn't". After all, what do I know - she's the mother...
A trip to the bathroom from my upstairs room also proved to be a bit of a trial. It was first necessary to go out onto the terrace, descend the outside stairs to the second-floor terrace and negotiate the entrance to the second floor (I had a key, but for about the first week the señora Gloria would shout out "Who is it!!!" at the slightest noise at the door, no matter the hour, and I would have to explain my presence. "It's just me, Simon". "What's wrong!? Are you sick?". "No, just going to the bathroom" I would mumble. It didn't help that the first week after I moved in she confined herself to her room as she had just had plastic surgery and didn't want to go out in public with bandages all over her face.
Once in the bathroom one had to deal with the fact that the flushing mechanism was broken (though by no means irredeemably), and there was always a variably strong smell of urine. Desperate not to add to this, I always made efforts to flush the toilet by emptying buckets of water into it. This was made more difficult by the fact that both the seat and the cover were broken and detached from the bowl, meaning that really you had to lift both of them off and place them on the floor in order to avoid splashing water all over the seat. Then, about a few weeks after I moved in, the S-pipe leading from the basin began to leak badly whenever the water was turned on. The household response? To place a large bucket under the leaking pipe...
It's not as if this is a poor family struggling to get by. Hugo at one stage had no less than three four-wheel drive vehicles. Both Juan and Alan have modern motorcycles, and Alan spends all of his spare and time and money on restoring a 1968 Fiat sports coupe. As I mentioned, their mother had just had cosmetic surgery when I moved in. It just seems that things like simple comforts don't rank high in anyone's list of priorities.
The general sense of chaos at no. 405 also extends to people and animals. One weekend morning there was general alarm and recriminations when it was discovered that one of the dogs, a Siberian husky, had gone missing. The dogs live in the back patio and it was no surprise that this one had taken its first chance to escape. The other one is a squat little mongrel with an unfortunate facial paralysis which makes its teeth appear in the manner of a canine possessed when it's just trying to be affectionate; it seems quite happy waddling round the patio.
The husky, however, must have been going insane. When I asked if anyone exercised it, the answer was "Well, Alan used to take it for runs...but what with him having a baby now and everything, he doesn't have much time..." The dogs eat human food - during my first dinner in the upstairs kitchen I asked what I should do with the chicken bones, not seeing a rubbish bin. "Throw them to the dogs" was the answer. "What - just throw them down into the patio?" I asked. "Yup".
This doesn't always seem be to the dogs preference, however. When discussing the husky's escape with Vivian she told me with a puzzled expression "You know what - sometimes they don't eat, either. We prepare food for them specially, but they just don't want to eat it..." The concept of "dog food" is not one which holds much currency in the household.
The same morning as the husky's disappearance, there was more serious alarm when it was reported that the señora Gloria's 80 year-old aunt had also gone missing. She had disappeared from her house in Miraflores, last being seen wandering in the street outside her front door. Gloria's sister and niece came over to the house for a panicky council of war, and they spent the afternoon calling the police, hospitals and morgues.
By the end of the weekend, things had normalised. The husky had inexplicably returned, while the señora's aunt had also shown up. She had wandered far away from her home and had apparently ended up spending the night in a brothel, where she reported that she had been treated very kindly.
When I came back from Bolivia, the configuration of animals had changed. The husky was nowhere to be seen, and one of the kittens, the tiny cute one, seemed to have been exchanged for an annoying but rather irresistible spaniel-cross puppy. Vivian explained to me what had happened. The little kitten had unwisely wandered into the dog' compound, where it had been killed and dismembered by the frustrated husky. Little Lia had the misfortune to witness this, and was rather traumatised. To make up for it, Juan had decided to get her a puppy, which was the spaniel.
Meanwhile, the other, scrawnier, uglier, slightly smarter kitten had found its way up to the third-floor terrace, into my room, and had completed its ablutions all over my blankets.
The parrots are also relatively new. There was a previous parrot, which Vivian had brought from Santa Cruz. It was very clever and spoke quite fluently, being able to imitate the various household members. One night Hugo's father showed up drunk at the front door of the house. He is separated from the señora Gloria and lives in Ilo. On this occasion he was quite inebriated and for some reason convinced that Gloria was with another man. He was banging on the door and shouting "Open up Gloria! I know you're there! Let me in!".
As a matter of fact, the señora wasn't in the house at the time, but from the terrace the parrot answered. "No! I don't want to!" it squawked. This threw Hugo's father into paroxysms of fury. He battered at the door, shouting "Open up, Gloria!" You're with another man, aren't you?" "Ahahahahaha!!" cackled the parrot in response. Hugo's father left, convinced that his estranged wife was in the house with a man.
The parrot was unable to fly, but waddled happily around the second-floor terrace. It liked to climb up into the bougainvillea which creeps up next to the terrace wall. This proved to be its downfall, as one day it was climbing in the bougainvillea, lost its grip, and tumbled into the downstairs back patio. There, of course, it met with a pacing, restless husky, which ensured that it was soon converted into an ex-parrot.
The new parrots are young and can't talk much yet. They are kept in a cage, and Juan takes them out and carries them around the terrace on the weekend. They're learning some basic vocabulary, though, principally "Alan!" (in the voice of the señora shouting up to the third-floor terrace; Alan seems to get more phone calls than the rest of the family put together). Their other favourite vocalisation is an imitation of Gerardo screaming. When the parrots are bored, hungry, or want attention, they start up a chorus of "Alan! Alan! Aaaaaaaaggghhhhhh!!! Alan! Aaaaaaaaaaggghhh!!!" Somehow, that seems to sum up life at the Avenida Gutemberg 405 rather well.