Saturday, November 27, 2004

For the love of a good parade....

If there's one thing which unites Peruvians - rich, poor and miserable, indian, mestizo and European - it's the love of spectacle, in particular of a decent parade. Central Arequipa sees an average of about two processions a week; if there's no protest organised, there's usually the feast day of some saint, or the anniversary of a college.

Yesterday in the morning it was the turn of a range of protesters, including the university workers' union, pensioners and civil construction workers. All across Peru, yesterday was a big day of strikes and protests, ranging from Ministry of Health doctors and midwives striking for more pay (sound familiar??) to people protesting against environmental contamination from mining operations. La Republica came up with the snappy headline "Paro, Luego Existo" (I Strike, Therefore I Am").

In Arequipa it was all pretty tranquil. "It's a protest, as opposed to a strike" Tessy explained to me. "Which means we don't have to close the doors when they go past". There were still the usual effigies of Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo and a few shouts of "death to Chilenos!" (Chile slightly trumps the government as the cause of everyone's misfortune).

Later in the afternoon, a smiling crowd of people marched down Santa Cantalina with streams of blue and white balloons and banners proclaiming support for, ah, the Virgin Mary. They sang, and called out "arriba Maria!" and, I think I heard this right, "arriba the Pope!". "You give us hope, Maria!" said one of the banners (I was tempted to ask "how?").

Why are they parading? I asked the girls in the office. "What - don't you know who Maria is?" said Noemi. "She's the Mother of God". Yes, but why today? They couldn't tell me...sorry, lapsed Catholic, can anyone out there tell me what is special about 25 November??

...and off to have an adventure

I have quite a bit to write about, but won't be able to for the next while, as I am off on a five-day trek in the wilderness. We're starting from Cabanaconde, near the rim of the Colca Canyon, and will be trekking to Andagua, in the Valley of the Volcanoes, where there are apparently over 300 volcanoes of all shapes and sizes. On the way passing through remote wilderness up to 5200 metres. I'm going with a French guy, who speaks only a little Spanish and a little English (I've already had to practice my French with him), and guide organised by Lizbeth's father, who is apparently some kind of shaman. Should be quite an experience - will write about it when I get back.

NB #1
Anyone who is interested in reading the stories I've submitted to various newspapers etc, click here. As always, I'd be happy to get any comments, which you can make by clicking on "comments" at the end of this post.

You may have noticed that I've changed the name of this page from "Bidsta Blog" to "South America Bidsta Blog", to now "South America Bidsta". This is an attempt to get Google's robots to notice that the page is about South America, and place relevant ads accordingly. I get paid about 30c every time someone "clicks through" to one of the ads on my page. I am strictly prohibited from artificially generating clicks myself, or encouraging others to do so, but should note that, if anyone sees an interesting ad on my page (especially if they do pick up on the content and put more South America-related ads there), feel free to click on it!

Tuesday, November 23, 2004


On Saturday it was back to Cerro Juli, where we went to watch the bands on Arequipa's anniversary; this time to see Puerto Rican salsa singer Jerry Rivera. Now, despite being a fan of salsa, I have to admit to not having heard of Jerry Rivera - I guess I just like whatever they play. Pretty much everyone else had, though - there were about 10-15,000 people crowded into the bullring at the "Fia" on Cerro Juli.

The event summed up a lot of what is typical about Peru. The tickets said "7pm", and some of my friends were convinced that this meant Jerry Rivera would start playing at 7. I had a tough time convincing them we didn't need to go out there that early. Of course, it turned out that they didn't even open the gates until nearly 9pm, by which time there was a huge line outside.

Inside, the organizers had done their absolute best to ensure chaos at the beer tents. There was a total of 1 tent for each of the three levels, with two harried girls serving in each. They were taking payment in cash, but of course had no change. Naturally there was a glass ban, meaning every person's order had to be laboriously poured frothily into a plastic cup. Division of labour being an unknown concept; both the girls franticly tried to accept money, find bottles and cups, and serve the beer.

I waited for an hour to buy two glasses of beer. It was a short, but extremely packed queue, with the crush growing greater as time went on as everyone tried to manouevre themselves into better positions for when the next person would extricate themselves from the counter area. There was no limit on the number of drinks that could be ordered, meaning that some people spent 15 minutes at the counter, handing an endless chain of drinks back to their friends.

Meanwhile, as the series of lukewarm opening acts finished up, there was absolutely no indication of when Jerry Rivera would appear. Recorded music was piped out from about 11:00 without comment, and by 12:30 I was fully expecting Jerry not to show at all. About 12:45, he finally made his appearance on stage, and I was deafened by the screams of all the girls around me, inspired to sever their tonsils by the sight of a short, chunky guy at the distance of about half a kilometre...

An hour of bouncy salsa later it was all over and everyone traipsed out. Thanks for coming, Jerry...

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Trouble on the Streets...

Last week Arequipa experienced what I believe is normally called "unrest". There were 48 hours of strikes, headed by the transport workers union and principally intended as a protest against rises in petrol tax. But diverse groups also wedded themselves to the strike, and it became a general outpouring of frustration at unemployment, the cost of living and the perceived incompetence/corruption of the government.

The first 24 hours were notable in the centre of the city mainly for the eerie peacefulness of the streets, empty of the normal bustling traffic. Roads in and out of Arequipa were blocked by pickets and stones strewn along the roads (in Peru they're not as full on as in Bolivia, where they like to block roads with wrecked vehicles). People arriving from other towns had to walk several kilometres to get into the centre. La Republica reported that there was trouble around the "pueblos jovenes" (shantytowns) of the Cono Norte area and incidents as some vehicles tried to cross the pickets.

On day two the protests spread to the centre of town as strikers marched, making laps of the central eight blocks. All the businesses along Sta Catalina had their doors pulled a little way down, and as the marchers appeared at the top of the street everyone hastily started dragging things inside and closing doors. Wan't that a little excessive, I asked the others inside our building. Aren't there protest marches all the time, without problems?

Turned out they were wise, though. On the first lap round the march was peaceful - a group with a manner proclaiming themselves as the Young Socialists handed out anti-government pamphlets with a silhouette of Che Guevara and the chants were "down with (Peruvian president) Toledo and his government" as well as "down with Cerro Verde" (the large copper mine 34 km from Arequipa; it's owned by an American company, but I don't know what exactly the principal complaint against it is)

On the second march past we were closing everything again; Lizbeth was dragging in our sandwich board where the tours are advertised, and I was sitting at the computer. I heard a couple of loud crashes and turned round in time to see the second of two sizeable stones strike the sign. I was angry - why the hell were they throwing stones at us, I wanted to know. "They say we're amarillos (yellow); we're not supporting their strike" said Tessy. "Bloody ignorant..." I spluttered, suddenly feeling less sympathy for the whole strike.

By evening the marches had mostly dissipated, but what remained was decidedly uglier. A rag-tag group of protesters made their way down Santa Catalina; one was dressed in military fatigues, giving a somewhat chilling suggestion of the Sendero Luminoso. They stopped outside Lan Peru (Lan Chile's Peruvian arm, it has been involved in various legal battles over its status as a domestic carrier) and tried to get some of the people in our shop to help them down the Lan star, which they said was "Chilean". They chanted "Death to Chileans", "Death to Lan", "Chilean Interests Out", "Viva Aero Continente" (the Peruvian national carrier) and "Death to Cerro Verde", while between times a soemwhat wild-eyed woman led chants of "El pueblo/unido/jamas serĂ¡ vencido" ("The people/united/will never be defeated")

Eventually they contented themselves with painting a slogan on the closed door of Lan, and moved on. The police were conspicuously absent during all this, but then that's hardly unusual.

Meanwhile, the first of several civil trials of Abimael Guzman, the imprisioned leader of the Sendero Luminoso, began in Lima. There were particular efforts to ensure that he couldn't make any televised discourse, which might be transmitted to his potential followers.

The next day everything was back to normal; the streets were choked with extra traffic, as everyone tried to get things done they hadn't been able to in the previous 48 hours. For now at least, it's business as usual.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Mid-term Report

I've now been in South America for a little over six months, so it's time for the mid-term report. Before going away, I set myself some goals. This was kind of mandatory - spending a year sampling local beverages and chasing female fellow travellers might be acceptable at age 22 or 23, but at 30+ it's necessary to set down some kind of life-improving, career-advancing or at least time-justifying Strategic Framework with Terms of Reference. Here's how I've done on the Key Performance Objectives so far:

Improving my Spanish: 8/10

This is one area where I give myself pretty good marks. The best things for improving your language skills are: staying in one place and getting to know people, getting a job, and involving yourself with local people of the opposite sex. I've done all of those things rather avidly, at the expense of other objectives. And my Spanish has improved: I feel relaxed and comfortable in most situations now, and in Arequipa often forget that I'm speaking my second language. Of course, there are still moments when I find something incomprehensible, or struggle to get words out...but then, that happens to me in English as well.

I've been quite good with books - have read once piece of serious literature from Chile, one from Peru, and am half way through another Peruvian one (how many pieces of serious literature do you read per year anyway??). Think I will read some thing Argentinian next. Bit more slack with movies - have watched far too many in English with subtitles. But there's really not that many Spanish-language movies at the cinema, and when I'm watching cable TV in my apartment in Arequipa I'm normally really tired.

The one area I haven't really challenged myself and am still lacking in confidence is speaking on the telephone. I really only ever call people I already know, and even then reluctantly. This is perhaps forgiveable, since I've always disliked the telephone. Nevertheless, this is an important area to work on.

Travel Writing: 7/10

This gets reasonable marks, if only for sheer volume. I've been quite good with the blog, after a slow start - I think it takes you a while to get the feeling for what to write, how much, and about what. Since I put the hit counter on my blog I've also noticed that regularly posting seems to have a big impact on the number of visits I get, which is obviously motivational - one must satisfy one's public...

I also wanted to put together some punchy travel stories that I can sell to magazines or newspapers. This is proving to be much more of a struggle for two reasons. One is that I haven't put quite enough effort into it - I keep getting distracted by other things. The other is that I just write too much. Whereas the ideal length for travel stories is around 1200 words, what I put together always seems to drift on to 2500-3000....well, I've always been verbose. I don't think I've got the style quite right either, and my research isn't as in-depth as it could be. There's a lack of experience there. I'm going to put in a significant effort on this one in the coming weeks.

Having Crazy Adventures and Seeing Exotic Places: 5.5/10

I scrape a bare pass mark here. I'm not being too down on myself, since some of the objectives are incompatible, and this one has been sacrificed for some of the goals listed above. In six months, I have ticked off the bare minmum of "must dos" in the countries I've visited: Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, the Colca Canyon, San Pedro de Atacama and the Salar de Uyuni, the La Paz-Coroico road, Lake Titicaca. People on tight schedules, of course, sometimes do all these things in a month. I also get some extra ticks for the mountain climbing - Chachani and Misti might not be "technical" mountains, but how many people get above 6,000 metres at all?

However, I really haven't properly got off the Gringo Trail; almost all the places I've visisted are well-known tourist destinations. Sure, in Arequipa I've got away from doing purely gringo things (I get marks for that elsewhere). But it's still comfortable and touristic. I haven't taken the slow route from small town to small town in any country, soaking up the authentic culture and exploring little-known places. I haven't gone to any of the more impressive-sounding countries (Colombia, for reputation; Paraguay, for obscurity; Venezuela, for a bit of both).

I haven't ridden on the back of a truck for twelve hours across some obscure part of the Andes or into the jungle. Hell, I haven't been to the jungle at all (it's a rather curious fact that I've managed to pass now about a year of my life in Latin America without going to the jungle at all; in fact I've only spent a few days in a truly tropical climate - in Puerto Escondido in Mexico). I haven't done any real independent tramps, carrying all my gear and food, pitching my own tent etc. I haven't been on a trip down the Amazon on a riverboat sleeping in a hammock. I haven't really taken many risks....

So, there's a significant amount to work on there.

Meeting People, Getting Work & Understanding the Culture: 7/10

On the surface, this is what I've done best. I've settled down in Arequipa and made lots of friends. I think I've picked up quite a lot about what makes Peru tick (which is a whole lot of incomprehensible things that nobody really understands). I fond that I've been involved in doing things which really interest me and use my skills (no English teaching or bar work thank god).

However, in some ways my experiences have been rather superficial. It's not only that my friends are all middle-class, but also that I've noticed that I really don't know many people who aren't involved in some way in the tourist industry. I often don't make the effort to get to know people or find out about their lives (only a couple of times have I talked to people on buses). In my experiences with "ordinary people", especially from the countryside, I recognise that I tend to focus on how dirty and rude they are, and forget to consider or ask about the circumstances of their lives, which often in Peru are incredibly difficult. I've on several occasions discovered things about everyday life in Arequipa through reading the paper, to which I'd previously been completely oblivious.

This lack of effort has to an extent limited the kind of material I have for my stories and articles - I could make *much more effort* here.

I also find myself being pretty judgmental about people ("why don't they get off their asses and stop bothering me or sending their kids to sell sweets") when I'm a fundamentally lazy and lacking in initiative myself, being fortunate enough to come from a country where there are cosy and well-paying bureaucratic jobs in which people who are occasionally rude to their superiors and often late to meetings are not only tolerated, but given pay rises.

Physically & Financially Staying in One Piece: 7.5/10

It's hard to know how to mark this, since it's largely about avoidance of disaster. By and large, I have (avoided disaster), though of course it can strike at any time and I' m probably tempting fate. Money-wise, well, I've spent about $8,000 NZD in seven months - that might sound impressive, but I could easily have spent less. It's difficult to overstate how cheap the cost of living can be, at least in Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. Anyway, it's far more important *what* you spend money on, than how much you send (see "having crazy adventures, etc") I haven't lost any of the trip-destroying things - air tickets, wallet, passport - and have managed to keep hold of the things of secondary value - camera, electric shaver and trekking boots. Heck, I even have most of the clothes that I left NZ with.

Physically, my teeth and eyesight are still fine, which were the things I was most worried about. I got really sick once - the mandatory Lake Titicaca food poisoning case, which drifted on for a week or so and had a violent aftershock the night of my birthday in Arequipa. I regret to report that my cigarette intake has steadily increased since I've been in South America, but to counter that I think my alcohol intake is significantly lower than back home - which is not to say that there hasn't been the odd day spent in a dazed hangover. At times I've found myself a bit unfit and out of shape - while paradoxically at other times I've been in more or less the best shape of my life - after doing the Inca Trail, for example. This is an ongoing one.

So, I get pass marks in all areas, but there's quite a lot of "could do better", Mr Bidwell!!

Key Objectives and Milestones for the Rest of My Time Here

>>Work on telephone Spanish and speaking confidently to people I don't already know; seek out more Spanish-lanuguage movies

>>Get some of those punchy 1200-word stories out!>>Take the slow route through some more obscure places (North Peru??), take a riverboat trip in the jungle (to Iquitos??) and tick off one more impressive-sounding country (Colombia??)

>>Pitch my own tent at least once

>>Be more patient and interested in the campesinos and their somewhat miserable lives

>>Don't lose anything major (my passport, a limb)