Sunday, December 31, 2006

Ways of Life

The woman in the chicken stall grasped the whole plucked bird by the neck and deftly chopped it into sections. Whack! Off with the head. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! And we had legs, thighs and breast, just like in the supermarket packets. A few more deft flourishes, and the liver, stomach and feet (minus nails and outer skin) were put in separate bags to use for soup.

After a kilo of eggs, two large wheels of fresh cheese, 500 grams of fresh olives, two kilos of potatoes, a couple of packets of sausage and patty meat, and a sheep's stomach thrown in for good measure, Hugo and I had spent 48 soles (around $16 USD). Lizbeth and the kids were picking up the vegetables; we'd already stocked up on peaches, mangoes, papaya, grapes and pacay from a roadside stall.

We were in one of the slightly pricier of Arequipa's produce markets, which for its premium was clean, orderly, and offered supermarket-style trolleys. According to Lizbeth and Hugo, it costs about 100 soles for the required provisions to feed what is, with the revolving cast of home help, friends and guests, a family of four or five. Adding in things bought during the week such as bread, coffee, takeaways, and other bits and pieces, Lizbeth estimated that they would spend 200 soles a week ($65 USD).

Obviously incomes are a lot lower here. But I couldn't help comparing that favourably with the $12 NZD or so it costs me to buy the ingredients for one meal and some leftovers for the next day - just for one person.

Though the tourist business is precarious, Hugo and Lizbeth also don't have to pay rent, as the rambling house on the Avda. Gutemberg is shared in a complicated way among the family. I'm not really cut out for economics-type stuff, but if someone was to work out a ratio of work required for provision of basics, they might compare favourably with a New Zealand middle class family, even amidst the core struggle of life in Peru.

When I first experienced domestic Peruvian life, I found it hard to deal with the lack of hot running water. Now, Hugo and Lizbeth's part of the house boasts a functioning electric shower head. Though it has unreliable pressure, and seems to battle with the kitchen light for power, with a little patience it produces a perfectly reasonable hot shower.

Either electric head or gas-heated showers are extremely common in Latin America. For the price of a small wait before your water heats, you don't have to pay to keep a large tank constantly heated, and, I would imagine, make a much smaller dent on the national electricity grid.

Dishwashing is also a lower-energy endeavour. Here, it's standard practice to use a cold water with a scrubbing pad and a hard, cold-water soap. Again, I'll give way in the facts to the epidemiologists and environmental engineers, but I would guess that hygiene is maintained just as well, and the overall environmental impact is much smaller, than using hot water and sudsy detergent.

In my gringo ignorance, I also used to silently chortle a little at the house's washing machine, with it's clunky controls, and its single flimsy discharge hose. The machine used to be indoors, and the idea was that the dirty water would be discharged into a drainage hole in the floor. This didn't seem to work well, and a load of washing often ended up flooding the kitchen floor. On one occasion, after some studious work with a stick and a plunger, I improved the flow down the drain by extracting some bundles of lint and a dead mouse.

Now, the washing machine sits outside on the patio. The normal technique is to fill the machine to the level required with the garden hose, run the wash or rinse cycle (less than 5 minutes for each is plenty), then empty the water into one of the large plastic washing tubs and from there into the traditional laundry fixture at the back of the patio.

I now see the practicality of the machine - it's designed for the rambling, informally developed houses of Latin America that don't have comprehensive plumbing. Doing the washing is a nice little 15-minute ritual after breakfast; by the time you've put the clothes through the machine's separate (and very efficient) spin compartment, they only require and hour or two in the sun to fully dry.

For about 9 months of the year, Arequipa's nightime temperatures drop below 10 degrees celcius, but heating is not really necessary. Almost all buildings are made of thick stone, brick or concrete, which soak up the sun and retain warmth to such an extent that a single sheet is all that's needed for most of the night's sleep.

What's my point here? Simply that there's not just two ways to live: modernity, meaning mile-a minute pace, ever-increasing work hours, isolation from fellow citizens, and burgeoning consumption of energy and other rsources; or backwardness, meaning poverty, ignorance, and lack of technology. With simpler, practical versions of existing technologies suited to a region's geography, and more attention to the value of time, it's possible to have the comforts of the modern world without driving ourselves and the environment into the ground.

With its crippling poverty, pollution and poor infrastructure, Peru might not seem like it has much to teach the western world. But as it slowly drags itself into the next stage of development, I hope it pursues its own idiosyncratic path and retains some of the things which are working just fine now, mixing and matching to suit and not abandoning the Latin obsessions of family, community and quality of life.

1 comment:

soph said...

Damn!Their washing machine is newer than ours