Number of People with Nothing Better to Do

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Airplane! (One of my favorite movies of all time RIP Leslie Nielsen)

I´m not a crook!

Mom, Sam and I on the way to Arequipa.

Flights are good if you’re going to have to spend over 15 hours in an overnight bus and are not that much more expensive. The planes seem fairly new and hopefully well maintained. I haven't done the overflight to see the Nazca lines yet. "But why not?!" you ask. ¨You´re so close to them!?¨" Well, in the last year and a three months since I've been in Ica, two tourist planes filled with tourist checking out the lines have crashed. Chisme (rumor) has it that one of the flights crashed because the pilot had a heart attack but I also heard that they forgot to fill it up with fuel. Most recently, seven supposed tourists hopped on a brand new plane to see the lines and hijacked the plane. The pilot was released about a week later. The plane was never found. It's almost certainly taking off and landing on a clandestine landing strip in the jungle somewhere shuttling blow for American stockbrokers to powder their noses with.

You on the bus or off the bus?

Street vendors selling chicha (sweet purple corn drink), sebada (wheat drink) and sandwiches to the passengers on the Soyuz at the station in Palpa

Fancy bus for overnight long distance trips

Inside of fancy bus
For longer distances, I take a bus. Again, buses range from super nice to super shitty. When I travel from Rio Grande to my capital city of Ica, I’ve got three bus lines to choose from, which ever passes by first. Soyuz is on the nicer side but not super nice (think Greyhound) and Cueva (Cave) is on the shittier side. I’ll let your mind wander on the shitty one – yep you got it (no chickens though – well only one that I’ve seen so far but it was just a chick). I usually take Soyuz between Lima and Ica and generally they’re OK. They have an Ejecutivo (executive) section which means you get a maroon head rest cover and about 4 extra inches of legroom - Well worth the extra 3 soles for a taller bald guy. The busses play movies, generally pirated DVDs of movies that are currently out in the theaters or really bad, loud 80’s action movies starring Steven Segal (for the record, all bad 80´s action movies should be available in pirated form only). You still have to watch your shit on the busses or it will get ripped off.

There are super nice busses that are a little out of my PC living allowance range, although I recently found out that they have super saver discounts if you book in advance that are the same price as taking the Soyuz. They’re safe(r), have more leg room, the seats recline almost all the way, they’re climate controlled, and play current pirated romantic comedies. You get dinner or lunch served up by a semi-hot terramoza (bus waitress) or a semi-handsome gay guy.
The super nice busses have bathrooms for urinating only – but try telling that to the tourist who’s suffering from a case of Tupac Amaru’s revenge.


Me and a collectivo driver in Palpa waiting for the car to fill up with passengers back to Rio Grande
How many PC Volunteers can you fit in a collectivo (7 in this case but you could add one more up front)

Collectivos are communal cabs for lack of a better word. They drive set routes at set points of departure and arrival and at set rates. You just go to the collectivo stand, hop in, wait for the taxi to fill up and you’re off. Collectivos are my main mode of transportation between my site and Palpa. All the collectivo drivers know me and holler at me when they’re driving by me walking around in the street “Beto – Vamos!”. When I’m waiting for the collectivo to fill up in Palpa to come back to Rio Grande, I bullsh*t with the drivers. They’re all pretty cool and friendly. “Habla Beto, quien sospechas?” (Tell me Beto – who do you suspect? I still haven’t figured out what the right response is so I just say “Tu huevon! You - *sshole!”). They’re always asking me if I’ve been to the “nightclubs” yet. Note to self – Nightclub means brothel. Discoteca means dance club.

The larger collectivos are station wagons, not the large 70’s family truckster variety but smaller ones. There are also tiny Tico taxis which are about the size of a Ford Festiva, maybe a little smaller. Usually four people pile into the collectivo before it will leave. Sometimes there are two passengers up front and three in the back. One time I was in a Tico going back to Rio Grande with nine people.


Tico taxi

Tico taxi with station wagon behind.

Taxis are the most expensive way to get around town and you can also wind up looking down the barrel of a loaded gun pointed at you by some dipshit trying to rob you. When picking a cab, you have to be careful you get someone that looks reputable, has a permanent taxi sign on the roof and the car number painted on the side. If you have the luxury of planning ahead, you can call for a taxi which is pretty safe. Once you hail a cab, you have to know more or less what it costs to get where you’re going. The taxis don’t have meters so the taxi drivers quote you a price which you then haggle down a couple of Soles. The fares will increase if it’s rush hour or late at night.

Funny anecdote (because it has a more or less happy ending) – a couple of friends of mine were coming back from a discoteca after a night out and needed some late night munchies. The boy was passed out in the back and the girl told the taxi driver to take care of him while she ran in to pick up some burritos (yes, there is a late night burrito stand in Lima but they’re not good-ole-fashion burritos made by real Mexicans). When the girl came back out, the cab was gone along with the friend. The taxi driver woke the boy and dropped him off somewhere safe. As the taxi sped off, the boy realized his I-phone had been stolen. They may have got his wallet too but I can’t remember. Of course we had to give the guy a ration of shit and laughed at him for being a dumbass but it could have easily had a not so happy ending.

Not-so-funny anecdote - A friend was coming back from a concert with some Peruvian friends and did all the right things you’re supposed to do while hailing a cab. She, unfortunately, wound up getting robbed at gunpoint and got dropped off in a shitty part of town sans wallet and cell phone. Fortunately she had a little cash stashed away and she and her friends somehow made it back home safely.

The cabs here may not have the leg room or climate control of a good old American cab. But at least they don´t smell like curry and body odor.
Mototaxis lined up in front of the mall in Ica
Jason Lopez and I in the back of a mototaxi. We´ve both probably lost about 100 lbs. between the two of us since this was taken so we could probably fit another Volunteer in the back now.
I´ll post a blog about the giant arachnids in Peru at a later date
Mototaxis (or tuk tuks in Thailand) are pretty fun to roll around in for short distances if you’re not on a major a thoroughfare, otherwise it’s pretty terrifying. A mototaxi is a three-wheeled 2-stroke motorcycle with a cab on it. The driver sits up in the front of the cab and in the back there is room for two passengers (unless you’re a Peace Corps Volunteer and you cram 3 in the back and one on the jump seat in front next to the driver all to save a couple of centimos).

The fare is generally less than 2 soles and I`ll take them to avoid walking around in the baking Ica sun or if I’m in a hurry to be on time for a meeting that’s going to start 30 minutes late. Mototaxi drivers sometimes have a reputation of being on the shady side and have been known to drive by and snatch purses off pedestrians on the sidewalk. The other problems with mototaxis are they exponentially add to the decibel level on the street with their high pitch scream and blow blue exhaust everywhere they go. That’s why you don’t see mototaxis in nicer neighborhoods of Lima like Miraflores or San Isidro.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Travelling in a Fried-out Combi

Combi the mean streets of Ica (one of the loudest intersections in Ica)
Micro in Ica
Micro in Lima

I always wondered what they were talking about in that ‘80s-ass Men at Work song. Now I know. A combi or micro is a mini-bus that can be as small as one of those tiny 80’s Toyota moon vans or larger bus that holds about 20 or 30 people. Knowing which bus to get on is a trick initially. The busses are painted different colors depending on the route. The origin and destination points are on a placard on the front of the bus and the streets along their route are painted on the side. The best way to figure out the route is go with someone who knows. If not, you have to ask someone and pray that you understood what the hell they said and that they actually knew what they were talking about. Ultimately it comes down to trial and error.

At the paraderos (bus stops), a number of micros will pull up at the same time with the cobradores (fare collectors) hanging out the side door with one arm yelling out “Sube! Sube! Sube!” (Get on!) and yelling the streets on their route. Meanwhile, you’re trying to listen for your street and reading the street names on the sides of several moving busses to try to pick the one that’s going your direction. It’s really very confusing if you’re unsure of which one you need to take.

You can also flag down a combi on the side of the street and they’ll pick you up pretty much anywhere, though the cops are kind of cracking down on that practice. The combi slows down, the cobrador slides opens the side door, you hop in, hold on for dear life as he zooms off, and try to cram yourself into one of the small seats (well, small to me anyway). If there are no seats you gotta stand hunched over and keep an eye out that people don’t try to pick pocket your sh*t. I won’t ride a combi during rush hour traffic because they’re generally pretty packed – and I mean packed to the point that the cobrador is hanging out the side of the bus with both hands holding on for dear life and trying to keep everyone in the bus. Rule of the game for combi drivers – pass the combi in front of him so he can collect more fares. They are, after all, privately owned and trying to make a buck.

The fares are very reasonable and generally run about 1 or 2 soles (<75 cents>Fare charts are generally posted inside the bus but I’ve yet to decipher one. If you don’t know what the fare is, ask the guy next to you because the cobrador might try to aprovechar (take advantage) of your ignorance and gringoness.

Some of the newer micros are really nice, large and comfortable. Others are literally “fried out”, have been around for 30+ years, and still have “Kilroy was here” written in Korean. Sometimes they smell like sex that’s been left out in the sun too long.

Public transportation is public transportation anywhere you go. If you don’t know the system and the area, you’re going to feel lost and it will always be packed during rush hour. After learning my way around Lima and figuring out how the system works, I can get to pretty much wherever I need get without getting too lost, at a good price and, outside of rush hour, relatively comfortable. It’s actually pretty surprising how efficient the system is. It almost beats waiting forever in the dead of winter in a foot of snow for the 154 to take me to downtown Chicago and piling into a bus that has the heaters blowing 90 degrees or turned completely off with a ton of other people.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Planes Trains and Automobiles

The mean city streets of Ica.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’m forbidden to drive cars or motorcycles. For good reason - I wouldn’t survive 10 minutes behind the wheel in Lima or Ica without having a wreck. They drive by a whole different set of rules down here. And by rules I mean there aren’t any - well, there are but I don’t know what they are and when I think I’ve got it figured out, it turns out that I don’t. So how do I get around without driving? Well, I walk a lot and take a whole array of public transport (I say public but it’s nearly all privately owned) which include taxis, collectivos (shared taxis), mototaxis, combis/micros (mini-busses), busses, etc.

According to Hernando Soto in El Otro Sendero (The Other Path), his book discussing Peruvian informal economies, nearly all of the means of transportation started out extra-legally. In other words, they didn’t register their businesses, pay taxes, get licenses to operate, etc. They simply identified a need, staked out routes, payed off cops, and began running their routes all outside of the formal economic system. Soto’s book was written during the 1980’s and things appear to be more formal in the economic sense - vehicles have their insurance stickers, fares and routes are posted, etc. But you get out on the open road… Look Out! It’s every man for himself.

The object seems to go fast, pass the car in front of you, and go even faster. When you’re at a red light, get right up on the bumper of the car in front of you so some jagbag doesn’t cut in front of you but then of course you’re stuck there when the car in front of you breaks down or doesn’t go when the light turns green. Another rule of the road – honk the living sh*t out of your horn even though you’re stuck in traffic and not going anywhere soon. The noise in busy streets in larger cities is maddening. Quick aside – when I arrived in Miami a few weeks ago I had a couple of hours to kill until my flight to Dallas so I went outside to sit in the warm sun for a while. When I got outside there were a ton of cars and busses dropping off, picking up. No noise whatsoever. No horns. No high pitched scream of mototaxis. Just silence. I felt like something was seriously wrong and felt disoriented, like something wasn’t right with the universe.

The age, comfort of the vehicles range from something built in the 70’s that’s being held together with Bondo, firing on two of its eight cylinders, and billowing blue exhaust out the tail pipe to vehicles that are brand new, very clean, and comfortable.

If you’re a pedestrian, you have to walk con ojos en el trasero (eyes out your rear end). You basically have no rights. You’d better look left, right, left, right, and left again before crossing the street because drivers don’t give a F*****CK about you and won’t slow down to let you cross unless they’re about to hit you in which case it’s probably too late. It’s even worse than St. Louis.
As crazy and arbitrary as the public transportation system seems as soon as you first get here, once you figure it out it does make sense and you can get around pretty efficiently and economically. The next couple of posts, I’ll describe the various forms of transportation I use to get from Point A to Point B while hopefully not ending up at Point C which is not somewhere you want to be day or night.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Peace Corps 50th Anniversary

US Ambassador, Peru´s Minister of Foreign Relations, and Peace Corps Chief of Staff addressing the group at the Ministry of Foreign Relations
Ministry of Foreign Relations
Environment APCD, PC Chief of Staff, PC Regional Director for Latin America, me and the Country Director in front of the US Ambassador´s Residence (they didn´t let us take pictures inside)

Fifty years ago this past Tuesday, March 1, President John F. Kennedy signed the Executive Order creating the Peace Corps whose mission was to promote peace, strengthen the bonds between nations, and provide technical assistance to developing nations. During the past 50 years, over 200,000 volunteers have served in over 70 nations world-wide. The Peace Corps came to Peru in the early 1960s and stayed until the early 1970’s when they were unceremoniously booted out by the Velasco dictatorship. The Peace Corps was invited back to Peru in 2002 during Alejandro Toledo’s presidency and has been here ever since. There are now over 200 volunteers serving in Peru along the coast and in the sierra working in the areas of water and sanitation, small business, environment, youth development, and health.

We celebrated Peace Corps’ anniversary here in Peru by throwing a number of receptions in the capital cities of our regions. The main celebration was held in Lima and I was fortunate enough to attend. On Monday, a group of current and former Volunteers, Peace Corps staff, US Embassy staff, Peruvian diplomats and the press attended a reception hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Relations in their offices in the center of Lima. I say offices but the building they occupy is a beautiful two story palace built during the colonial area. Prior to the reception, the Minister of Foreign Relations, US Ambassador and Peace Corps Chief of Staff visiting from Washington gave speeches. The reception was held on the balcony of the second floor overlooking the courtyard where we drank pisco sours, wine and ate tasty finger foods.

The following day, a larger group of Volunteers, who clean up very nicely by the way, went to the US Embassy to hear a state of the Peace Corps discourse given by the Peace Corps Chief of Staff and the Peace Corps Latin America/Pacific Regional Director. We then went to a reception thrown by the US Ambassador to Peru, Rose Likins, at her residence. The Ambassador’s residence is a stunning two story mansion occupying an entire city block. The residence was built in the 1940’s specifically as the US Ambassador’s residence and was crawling with security that night.

We entered the residence, met the Ambassador in the reception line and entered into the main hall. The first thing you see as you enter is a painting of George Washington which, as cheesy as this sounds, made me feel proud to be an American. To the right of the main entryway is a living room with some large comfy couches and a grand piano. Adjacent is a beautiful library with wood paneled walls and leather high back chairs. Out back is a large garden with a small swimming pool. We weren’t able to go upstairs and see the living quarters but I’m sure they were impressive as well.

The Ambassador and Peace Corps Chief of Staff said some nice words and we toasted the 50 years of Peace Corps. Among the invited were former and current Volunteers, staff, Peruvian counterparts, NGOs and Embassy staff. Alejandro Toledo, the ex-president and current presidential candidate also made an appearance.

There were plenty of pisco sours and wine to go around and the Volunteers behaved themselves pretty well in the face of free booze. To the left of the entryway was a beautiful dining room with perhaps the largest dining room table I’ve ever seen laid out with a terrific spread of food which was, of course, attacked (civilly mind you) by the Volunteers.

It was a truly wonderful event and further strengthened my resolve to serve my country as a diplomat (I’ve already passed the Foreign Service Exam and the next challenge is the interview/Oral Assessment in June so send some good thoughts my direction)