Small town tragedy

A retired policeman went to visit his hometown a few hours outside of Cusco. It’s the kind of small town on a river gringos like me tend to romanticize. A simple way of life, fresh clean air, picture-perfect scenery, all that we miss in our hectic modern lives.

But while life in the small town sounds idyllic to a gringo with a steady foreign income, it isn’t all milk and honey for the people who were born into it. Working the fields is hard and poverty is very real. Alcohol abuse and family trauma are common.

We gringos also like to hallucinate that food in the Peruvian countryside is fresh and healthy but that’s only partially true. While small towns in Peru are mostly detached from the big industrial food chain it’s also a reality that pesticide use is widespread and largely unregulated in small town agriculture. A rarely discussed but tragic side-effect of pesticides in rural communities is that they are often used as poison in a moment of desperation, as was the case with one young woman in this small town.

The young mother had taken poison on various prior occasions but each time she’d been found by someone in her family before it was too late. Small town people have their tips and tricks. They’d make her drink milk to neutralize the poison, vegetable oil to make her vomit, liquids to dilute the poison, somehow she’d been saved every time. I don’t know whether she really intended to take her own life or if it was just a desperate cry for help. Even if it were the latter, it’s not like she would have found any professional help in her small town.

The policeman’s family is well known in the small town. They trace their heritage back there for generations, several of the family live on the main square and even those who moved to the big city frequently come back to visit their hometown. The family runs the only real store and the only hotel in town. The bus stop is in front of their store.

When the young mother poisoned herself again people ran to the policeman’s family store for help. This time she had not been found quickly as on the previous occasions, by the time people found her the young woman was in bad shape. The policeman’s wife is a high-end nurse. She believed the woman could be saved if she were given atropine. They called to the nurse at the local medical post. The post was closed. The nurse said she’d come out but didn’t have a key. There was no way to open the medical post until the next morning. The retired policeman wasn’t going to stop at that. He kicked open the door to the medical post and busted a window to get into the pharmacy. His wife knew every medical post is required to stock atropine. They searched desperately but didn’t find anything. Nada. Nyet. Nichts.

The young woman died, leaving behind a 2-year old and couple of older kids.

Tragic as the story may be, there’s a final twist that says much about Peru today. When the medical post opened again the following Monday and the damage was assessed, the policeman, his wife and all the town’s people pleaded ignorance about the busted door and window. If any of them had admitted to busting the door open to save a young mother’s life they would have been summarily charged. There would have been paperwork, fines, trips to the police station and a long headache. On the other hand nobody will be held accountable for the sorry state of the medical post, the lack of doctors, the lack of atropine, lack of mental health care, none of that.

I’m not sure what the right word is, “authorities”, “bureaucrats”, “powers that be”, “the system”. If they can’t save one life or frankly, care about saving one life, do you expect them to solve the big problems of today?

Quick primer on Verónika Mendoza – likely next President of Peru

Years ago when I had recently moved to Cusco we were out walking behind Larapa. There’s a gated neighborhood behind Larapa where the elite and millionaires of Cusco live. While we were lingering around the gate a taxi pulled up and 3 school-age girls jumped out.

Patricia: “I can’t believe it.”

Me: “huh?”

Patricia: “These girls, they go to that school?”

Me: “huh?”

“That school”, as Patricia recognized the girls’ uniforms, was EESPP Santa Rosa. I had no idea at the time but EESPP Santa Rosa is a unique school in Cusco. It’s a public school but unlike all other public schools in Cusco it’s considered a very high quality school and is highly coveted by the elites of Cusco. Most middle class or elites in Cusco would absolutely die before they put their kids in any public school, except for EESPP Santa Rosa. They line up around the block to put their kids in EESPP Santa Rosa.

Patricia’s reaction at seeing the well-to-do girls in their EESPP Santa Rosa uniforms was more dejection than surprise. As I understand it, Patricia’s mom – a single mother – tried to get Patricia’s younger sister into EESPP Santa Rosa but didn’t get in. EESPP Santa Rosa supposedly has a charter of providing quality education to the needy but back in Patricia’s school days the school was (probably still is?) administered by Catholic nuns and the long-time director of the school, madre Aurora, had a reputation for selecting the “needy” based on the quality of the gifts their mothers brought to the school. A few genuinely needy families were sprinkled in but overall EESPP Santa Rosa in those days was highly elitist.

Surprising as it may be, EESPP Santa Rosa was also the school of Verónika Mendoza for most of her childhood education. I say “surprising” because Verónika Mendoza is a classic left-wing politician and a hard core anti-capitalist. Madre Aurora’s philosophy does not seem to have rubbed of onto her pupil.

I don’t know Verónika Mendoza personally but people who knew her in her school days say she was nice and likeable. She has French and Peruvian roots, which explains some of her Socialist convictions. Most French are Socialist except for a few uber-wealthy closet capitalists.

Despite the fact that many in Peru have strong reservations against left wing politics I think Verónika Mendoza has a good chance of becoming the next President of Peru. Elections are slated for April, with a likely second-round runoff sometime in June or thereabouts. The field is wide open, with nobody polling more than about 15% or so.

Verónika Mendoza will have a strong anti-vote owing to her left wing ideology but most of the other well known candidates have at least as strong of an anti-vote as she does. More importantly, the anti-vote against Verónika Mendoza is strictly for her ideology whereas most of the other leading contenders have a strong personal anti-vote. And even though many are opposed to her left-wing ideology, of all the leading candidates Verónika Mendoza is the only one who can legitimately claim to have an ideology. The rest (Daniel Urresti, Keiko Fujimori, Ollanta Humala, etc) are just running on populist or personal cult type platforms and this might just be the time that the electorate is tired of those types of candidates.

On the other hand there’s a bundle of people with no name recognition vying for the middle-of-the-road vote. Owing to the amount of candidates vying for that slice of the vote and their lack of name recognition, it’s not at all guaranteed that any of them will even make the second round. Also, many Peruvians feel like they’ve voted for the least-bad or middle-of-the-road candidate in most of the recent elections and only got shafted for it. I suspect there are many people willing to take a chance on someone who isn’t running on a least-bad middle-of-the-road type argument.

With about 2 months to go before the elections the field is wide open but don’t rule out Verónika Mendoza as the next President of Peru. If she wins or even just gets to the second round runoff be ready to recalibrate your expectations of the neo-liberal/neo-conservative policies that have been the law of the land in Peru since at least the beginning of this century.

In Peru, nearly 2.5% of all men over age 60 may have died from COVID-19

Just a quick calculation on my part, if you see any serious errors or omissions please let me know:

  • MINSA is currently reporting 18,589 deaths in men over age 60. See page 5 of the data, the actual nr. will probably be higher when you open the page as the data is updated regularly.
  • The OpenCovid-Peru project is showing that the total COVID-19 death toll in Peru, based on analysis of death certificates filed, is likely to be about 2.4 times higher than the fatalities reported by MINSA. In my opinion that is a reliable estimate. That would put the actual death toll among men over age 60 around 44,000 to date.
  • The population of men over 60 in Peru should be in the magnitude of 1.8 million according to demographic data from the CIA.

Do the math and it appears that COVID-19 has already killed nearly 2.5 percent of men over age 60. That’s about 1 per graduating class if you were in an industrialized country. Peru is just now entering the worst of the second wave, only time will tell what the true impact of COVID-19 will be. So far COVID-19 has been devastating here in Peru and there’s no sign of it letting up any time soon.

Pension reform in Peru

If I’m not mistaken today is the day the Peruvian congress will debate a proposal to suck private pension funds up into the public treasury and vaporize them.

In the words of those advancing the proposal it sounds more noble and nuanced. The proposal is to create new public entity “Autoridad del Sistema Integrado de Pensiones” (ASIP) which will manage pension funds that are currently managed by large private entities. The current system consists of private (individual) accounts, the proposal by the congressional committee (Comisión de Reforma de Pensiones del Congreso) led by a Carmen Omonte intends to turn that money into public funds for the ostensible purpose of providing a fair pension for everyone, including the poor who typically don’t contribute to the private pension system.

Approval is probably a matter of when not if. Noble theories aside if you know anything about the Peruvian public sector you know the funds in your private pension account that you worked hard for are about to disappear into thin air. That’s just the reality of life in Peru.

Take it away Tom.

Why is the word “shampoo” always the smallest print on the shampoo bottle??

Happy New Year! Like everyone I hope the turn of the calendar brings good things. Love, hope, healing and solutions to the big problems of the world as well as the little issues in our own lives.

Speaking of problems of the world, let’s start with one that’s easy to solve. The new house we live in here in Calca has a fine solar powered water tank for the hot water supply. This baby is glorious. I mean, it’s a bit of a drag in rain season when the sun may not show for 3 days straight but on a sunny day, we’ve got hot water ranging from scalding hot on the low end to microwaved lava on the high side, what with the UV factor here in the Andes mountains totally of the scale. Forget about medium to lukewarm hot water heaters and low flow save-the-world shower heads, with our solar powered tank we can burn skin totally guilt free and I love it.

There is one detail though. For some reason I love washing my sexy naked body in scalding hot water but I don’t like the scalding hot quite as much during those crucial 15 minutes while I’m trying to find the shampoo bottle, picking up bottle after bottle after bottle to try and find that lucky one.

Once upon a time when I was young and single finding the shampoo bottle was easy: there was no more than one or two bottles in the shower. Nowadays there’s about 18. Shampoo, conditioner, body wash, salt and oil something. Separate instances for colored hair and frizzy hair and shiny hair, plus a half a dozen near-empty bottles that must remain in the shower but never be used again, for some reason.

Not that I’m picky – at one point I resorted to washing my hair with bar soap no mas – but according to everyone else who lives in this house each and every one of those bottles is special and there’s only one designated winner that papi can use. So I have to pick up a dozen or so bottles and read the hallucinating verbiage on every one of them.

  • Extracts of coffee and avocado
  • Brilliant and radiant
  • Repairs and heals
  • Full of vitamins and beta kerosene
  • Moisturizes (moisture, shower, what am I missing here?)
  • Free of gluten and beaver liver products

And somewhere in the middle of all the exotic words and pictures, in teeny tiny little letters, the word “Shampoo”.

Here’s a suggestion for all you P&G type multinationals, a slam dunk product idea. I know you can’t do anything about the small print on the back of the bottle but on the front of the bottle, just a one-liner, 3 words:

“SHAMPOO FOR DAD”

Specialized Riprock meets Sacred Valley of the Inca (and my son Milan)

I had no idea what I was buying the other day. We’d set out to buy a new bicycle for our son Milan and ended up walking half way around Cusco. The first bike store we’d gone to was closed, the second store was closed, on our way to the third store we got side-tracked into the Post Office, a vain attempt to find an Ali Express package that went missing back in March. Long story short we found a Specialized Peru bike store around the corner from the Post Office and out of their last 4 or 5 bikes in inventory(*) they actually had the right size for our son.

I had no idea Specialized was a brand name leave alone that they are actually the brand most credited with inventing the mountain bike but walking into the store it was obvious these were high-end bikes. We’re not wealthy but we’re comfortable and there wasn’t any way I was going to walk to 3 more stores. Since we live in the Peruvian countryside now splurging on a good bike for the kid seemed like a defensible theory so we picked up a Specialized Riprock for the little dude.

To be abundantly clear my son would have loved any other new bike just the same and how much fun your kids have with their bike has nothing to do with the price of the bike. Taking them out to play is all that matters.

With that disclaimer out of the way and not to mince words, my son’s new Riprock is freaking awesome.

Since we live in the Sacred Valley now there is literally 1 paved road within a 3 mile radius of our house, everything else is rock, dirt and gravel. Back when we lived in the city my son was still riding his little 12″ bicycle but it was already too small for him, even in the city. Here on the country roads he really couldn’t ride it any more, 3″ rocks everywhere was just too rough on the little 12″ tires. With his new Riprock my son eats mud for breakfast and slings rocks at lunchtime. I honestly thought the oversized tires were a bit silly when I first saw them in the store but they really help with his balance on slippery mud and when hitting rocks. Now we can easily ride from our house to the main square in Calca, splashing through every puddle and mooing at every cow along the road.

The first time we took him out on his new bike he was afraid to get it dirty. About 3 days later you could hardly even see the bike’s original color anymore. I’m sure most kids fortunate enough to ride a Specialized bike live in nice suburbs and not on dirt roads but that’s OK too. Living in the Peruvian country side isn’t better per se than living in a nice suburb, or vice versa. Everyone should live their life. But if you do live on a dirt road, your kid needs a new bike and the price tag doesn’t affect your way of life, get a Riprock and make sure your washer machine is tuned up 🙂

(*) Many stores in Peru have had inventory shortages due to COVID-19, imports have been bogged down since March.

Peru’s COVID-19 vaccine debacle explained

Vaccine buyer dude(tte): “Hi Minsa, we need some money to buy the COVID-19 vaccine.”

Minsa: “Fill out the request.”

Vaccine buyer dude(tte): “Here you go!”

Minsa: “No no no no. You have to take it to Mesa de Partes, around the corner over there.”

Vaccine buyer dude(tte): “Hi Mesa de Partes, I have a request here for some money to buy the COVID-19 vaccine.”

… stamp stamp sign stamp finger print copy of DNI …

Mesa de Partes: “5 to 7 business days”

Vaccine buyer dude(tte): “Sweet, so in 5 to 7 business days we get the money to buy the COVID-19 vaccine?”

Mesa de Partes: “No no no no. In 5 to 7 business days we will get this to the right person.”

Vaccine buyer dude(tte): “Wait, so you’re telling me it will take you 5 to 7 business days just to take this request back to the guy who gave it to me 2 minutes ago? That’s so outrageous.”

Mesa de Partes: “Next!”

Vaccine buyer dude(tte): “Wait wait wait. There’s a pandemic going on. There’s got to be a way you can expedite this?!”

Mesa de Partes: “Next!”

… (5 to 7 business days later) …

Vaccine buyer dude(tte): “Hi Minsa, did you get a chance to approve the request for funds to buy the COVID-19 vaccine?”

Minsa: “Well let me see….”

Minsa: “Says here this vendor isn’t registered to do business in Peru. We’ll need their application, ficha RUC, 3 years of tax returns and a sworn declaration of something.”

Minsa: “Also a sample of the product they want to sell so we can evaluate if it meets criteria.”

Vaccine buyer dude(tte): “But how am I supposed to get a sample of the vaccine if you don’t want to provide any funds to buy it?”

Minsa: “Surely you must know someone who lives in the USA who can buy a sample for you?”

Minsa: “If their ficha RUC is a RUS then we’ll also need the individual owners’ sworn declaration of something.”

Minsa: “As soon as you have it all ready take it over to Mesa de Partes, around the corner over there.”

Vaccine buyer dude(tte): “But there’s a pandemic.”

Minsa: “Next!”

Riding a Trinx Striker from Cusco to the Sacred Valley of the Inca

After 13 years in the big city we recently moved out of Cusco to a house in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. We live near Calca now, about an hour away from Cusco by car. The Sacred Valley isn’t comparable to the truly rural villages of the Peruvian Andes but it’s still relatively “country”. A world of difference from the city for sure.

No need to congratulate me on the new house, it’s just another rented place. Once I win the lottery I’ll actually be able to buy or build a house, with the way the prices of land are here. But I digress.

First order of business once moved in was to get some new bicycles. In the city of Cusco it’s next to impossible to ride a bicycle but here in the Sacred Valley riding a bicycle is perfect for short hops to town or the store, or just to ride around with the kids. We didn’t find any bike stores in Calca so we bought a machine for my son Milan (more on that one later) and a full-size Trinx Striker mountain bike in Cusco. The former fit in the back of the car to take to our new house in Calca but the full size bike didn’t, so I decided to ride it from Cusco to Calca.

How hard could it be? I used to ride 100+ kilometers in a day when I was younger. I hail from the very same country as Eddy Merckx and I owned a bicycle as recently as 1994. There’s no sarcasm in that, for middle-aged guys like me 1994 does seem recent.

I personally haven’t seen the inside of a gym since high school but a friend of mine who ran marathons told me that the secret is to not exert yourself. If you exert yourself, you’ll get tired. If you don’t exert yourself – he said, run at a pace that allows you to talk without being short of breath – you won’t get tired but have all the endurance you need.

The ride from Cusco to Calca starts of with about an 1,800 feet (550 meters) climb, starting around 10,800 feet elevation up to about 12,600 feet elevation. From there it’s downhill to about 9,800 feet (Pisaq) and about 20 more kilometers relatively flat to Calca.

I heeded my friend’s advice and rode as effortlessly as possible up the hill leaving Cusco. About halfway up the hill a bunch of really cool mountain-bike pro dudes came flying down the hill and gave me a friendly wave. I could tell they were cool and professional by the expensive bikes and fancy gear they were using. I told myself I was even cooler because I was actually riding up the hill, not just down the hill.

About 60 percent up the hill I noticed a distinct weakness in my friend’s “don’t exert yourself theory”: namely, if you don’t exert yourself the darn Trinx doesn’t move up the 12,000 foot hill. About 80 percent up the hill I seriously considered waving down any station wagon taxi (there’s a lot of them in Peru) pay them a hundred Soles to take me to Calca and another thousand Soles to swear to everlasting secrecy. Proud to say I managed to get up to the top of the hill without having to walk or hang on to the back of a car. I wavered a few times on my friend’s “don’t exert yourself” theory but I mostly stuck to it and in the end it paid off.

From there it was literally all downhill. I had firmly committed to riding downhill with extreme care, as a responsible father of 3 should. However the flesh is weak and after the first two curves I got the Trinx up to near-supersonic speeds, brake discs glowing red all the way down to Pisaq. In Pisaq my better judgment returned and I decided to take the back roads from Taray, not the main highway through the Sacred Valley which has too much traffic. I’ve got a Trinx and a bottle of Gatorade, 20 km of dirt roads can’t hurt.

As soon as I got to the house in Calca my very understanding family immediately asked me to take them for a ride, accompany them to their friend’s house, walk the dogs, fire up the grill and a few other minor things. Just another day 🙂

Peru coup update

Manuel Merino, the crooked bully who orchestrated last Monday’s illegitimate ouster of Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra has this morning resigned as interim president.

Initially the thug appeared to have support of the Lima oligarchy and the military but widespread street protests ensued. The Peruvian national police (PNP) repressed the citizen protests with excessive force, allegedly on orders that “nothing is off limits”. Last night 2 protesters, Jack Bryan Pintado Sánchez and Inti Sotelo Camargo, were killed. All indications are they were shot by police.

Subsequent to the deaths of Jack and Inti the Peruvian political class massively abandoned Manuel Merino. My guess is he’ll seek exile in Brazil before sunset tomorrow.

Peru is still in the midst of its most severe constitutional crisis since at least the beginning of this century but the people of Peru stood up and drew a line in the sand for the thugs and oligarchs. Sadly 2 young men paid for it with their lives. I hope Manuel Merino rots in jail for the rest of his days.