Sunday, January 28, 2007

Crime Pays

After much struggle and hard work, and a bit of family capital, Marcos and Giovana made a success of their business, mainly specializing in buying and selling leather. They were able to save, and gradually expand their space in a crowded gallery amidst the dust and rubbish of a commercial market a couple blocks from the roaring traffic ofLima's Via Express.

One evening heading home in their truck, the traffic was jammed up and they had to take a different route through the Barrios Altos area of central Lima, notorious for robberies and assaults. They were crossing a bridge, when out of nowhere appeared two chorros, or petty thieves, and whoosh! ripped off each of the side mirrors, then scuttled off.

Giovana says she was shaking with fright; despite having been born in Lima and living there all her life, she had never been robbed before or since - a feat which would put her in a virtually unique situation among the citizens of that city.

But Marcos thought quickly. He brought the truck to a halt, poked his head out the window,and shouted after the departing chorros: "Hey, I'll give you twenty soles for those!". "In the cachinas, the markets where they sell stolen goods, they ask up to 150 soles for wing mirrors like those", he explains.

Giovana was trembling, but noticed the chorros hesitate, and heard one say to the other "hey, he's offering us twenty soles". They stopped, and tracked back towards the truck. "Thirty", said one curtly. Giovana, fearful, watched as the chorros craned their necks to peer into the truck's window to see if there was anything else worth nabbing. There was a brief negotiation, and it was agreed that the price would be fifteen soles for each mirror.

The chorros took the cash and went on their way; they had cut out their middle man, while Marcos and Giovana kept their mirrors. A peculiar kind of Peruvian efficiency.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Ghost Stories of the Sierra. I: Teodoro and the Chinchilico

When the Señora Gloria Cabrera Villafuerte needed domestic help, she walked a couple of blocks from her house in suburban Arequipa to a corner where the dilapidated buses that bounce and grind along the dusty gravel road winding down from the sierra make their final stop.

There, she found Alejandro and Teodoro getting off the bus, tired and wide-eyed. “Do you want to work?”, asked the Señora Gloria. Alejandro answered in Quechua: “Arí, mamay” (“yes, ma'am”).

By the time I first arrived in Arequipa a couple of years later, and started helping Gloria's son Hugo with his adventure tourism business, Alejandro and Teodoro spoke fluent enough Spanish, though with a thickish accent. Alejandro had become a competent and patient mountain guide, and accompanied me when I struggled up to the peak of 6,075-metre Nevado Chachani.

Younger brother Teodoro was still frowning over pots in the family kitchen, struggling with lowland ingredients like rice, lamb and coriander. He wanted to be a mountain guide too, and took any possible opportunity to go on climbing expeditions. I bought him some proper boots, to help get him started.

“Thanks”, he said. “Now I just need a decent sleeping bag”.

People from the sierra of Peru are periodically bedeviled by spirits and ghosts that disturb, threaten, or simply irritate. It's not a question of believing or disbelieving; for them the spirit world is just as much a constant, shadowy presence as the monumental peaks of the Andes that hover over their steep, terraced plots of land.

Last year, Teodoro and Alejandro's father was possessed by a gentíl, described as “a spirit, an ancient one, from the times before the Spanish or even the Incas”. The gentíl is said to gradually suck the energy from the person it occupies, to maintain its own life force.

Teodoro made the long trip back up into the mountains, but there was nothing he could do. His father had seen doctors, but they were unable to find either diagnosis or remedy for his wasting illness, and he eventually passed away.

In the months from December to March, which is the low season for mountain guiding, Teodoro now often works in an old, nearly exhausted gold mine near Nazca. The company pays a reasonable wage by Peruvian standards, but one that rapidly disappears in exchange for the inflated food and accommodation costs in that isolated locale. Most of the rest is sent to Teodoro's mother, back up in the sierra.

It’s hard, grinding work, as the miners hack into the earth, breaking up, shifting and dynamiting rock, then sifting through the rubble and dust for the few specks of metal. Chewing coca is compulsory. It fights off hunger, tiredness, and the omnipresent dust. The slog continues day and night.

One night, Teodoro was on the graveyard shift. He and a handful of companions were making slow progress in the dark, advancing no more than a couple of metres over several hours. They stopped for a break and a cigarette.

The men were sitting down, resting silently. Suddenly, before Teodoro appeared a a little man, less than waist high, with a long beard reaching to the ground – a creature that the miners call a chincilico. The chinchilico grabbed the startled Teodoro by the leg and, with surprising strength, dragged him a body-length or more across the ground. Then it disappeared. Roused by the kerfuffle, Teodoro’s companions asked what had happened. They had seen nothing. Shaken, Teodoro simply shrugged and muttered something evasive. But later, another man watched a big rat run past, which no one else saw.

The next day, Teodoro fell sick. His entire body ached and he was laid low. People from the mountains are as strong as oxen, and never stop work frivolously. But he had to go to the company office and ask for three full days off. He couldn’t tell them what had happened – who would believe it? Instead he said that a large stone had fallen on him.

Teodoro says the legend is that if you see a chinchilico in the mine, you must not be afraid. You must not panic but remain completely calm. Politely, you ask the chinchilico to exchange his lantern for yours. If you are not afraid, he will agree. You then request that he also exchange his helmet for your one. When you leave the mine, you find that your new helmet and lantern are made of solid gold.

“So, for this to happen, you have to have absolutely no fear when you meet the chinchilico?”, I asked Teodoro. “That’s right”, he said. “But the thing is, you always get afraid”.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Not Worlds Apart

It’s a provincial, parochial town whose geographical isolation strengthens its insularity. It lays claim to being the country’s second city, a title disputed with a town of similar size further to the north

Surrounded on most sides by mountains, the flip side of the spectacular views is that the city suffers from significant air pollution. The climate is dry; nights are crisp, and sunny days are often quickly cooled by a breeze that springs up in the afternoon. Residents learn to take a sweater with them most of the time.

The centre of the city is dominated by architecture from a specific colonial period, with the outstanding structures belonging to the establishment religion. Locals have a strong regional identity. While they are proud of their distinctiveness and see themselves as well-bred, cultured, and orderly, outsiders who spend time there find the place rather stuffy, snobbish, conservative and gossipy. More self-aware locals, especially those who have lived elsewhere, quietly concur.

A centre of agriculture and commerce, the city was settled with the endorsement of the political and religious authorities of the colonizing nation, who laid down a rigid grid pattern for the city centre, disturbed only by the winding river. The orderly centre, with its pleasant parks, has been extended in recent times by a not particularly attractive urban sprawl, which is eating up the surrounding green belt.

For much of its history, this has been a culturally monolithic, and overwhelmingly white, part of the country. Recent immigration is radically changing the ethnic and cultural face of the city, but integration is stilted. There is some suspicion and hostility towards the new immigrants, and a tendency towards voluntary segregation.

Despite the patrician culture and strong sense of class – or perhaps because of it – the region overwhelmingly votes left in national elections, and has historically been the centre of working-class activism. Radical politicians of all stripes have hailed from the region.

There’s a particular touchiness towards the big city to the north, which locals love to hate. They despise the big city's sprawling messiness and rampant individualism, and what they view as its culture of greed, arrogance and bad manners.

Yes, I’m afraid it’s undeniable. Arequipa is the Christchurch of South America. My sneaking suspicions have been growing the more I listen to both local and outsider assessments of the city that I've adopted as a second home. They were confirmed when I met up with some friends here over New Year who also grew up in Christchurch, and my friend Paul - who has travelled in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and now Peru and Bolivia - said out loud what had started to germinate in my thoughts.

So, have I managed to unwittingly come full circle? In seeking out exotic places to escape from the perceived conservative priggishness of my home town, have I ended up subconsciously choosing a location which subtly mirrors many of its characteristics? Such a tendency is certainly not universal, because my younger sister wound up in Miami - in many ways the direct opposite of Christchurch.

But, plumbing my conscience, I have to admit that part of what appeals to me here is a certain conservatism and reserve, which take the edge off the the craziness of much of the Latin American world, and gives assurance to the timid, Cancerian side of my personality. Perhaps a humbling reminder that, however, far you travel, some things are difficult to escape.

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