I’m a hero at the grocery store now

I’ve always believed everybody should have friends at the grocery store. There’s value in being friendly and social with people you don’t know well for no reason other than it’s the right thing to do, especially when those people may be from very different backgrounds than you. On the other hand I also want to make sure the girls at our local grocery store know my kids because the store is on a dangerous highway and I’ve always been worried it only takes a blink of an eye for one of those little terrors to escape or get in trouble. So I flirt with the girls at the store and buy them chocolates in hopes that they’ll pay attention should one of my kids ever decide to run out to the street.

The other day I was waiting to place my order for some meat and one of the girls at the counter looked up from what she was doing to say hi to me. “Hola casero!” The word “casero” is like a regular customer.

No sooner did the girl say hi to me when another customer just tore into the poor girl. “I was here before him, can’t you attend your customers. How dare you disrespect me like that. Don’t you girls go to some schools to learn how to treat your customers?” On and on. The poor grocery store girl responded politely that she was only saying hi and wasn’t going to serve me before anybody else but that didn’t stop the other customer from berating her every which way. The grocery store girl stayed composed and polite during the entire ordeal but the other customer really went overboard insulting the girl, several of her coworkers and eventually took her anger out on some store managers.

Here in Peru there is a lot of economic and ethnic classism and the customer who was scolding the poor grocery store girl obviously felt that she was “above” the poor grocery store girl. I could tell once the irate customer took her case to the store manager that the poor grocery store girls were really worried.

I hate to be all noblesse oblige but here in Peru people who work in grocery stores work long hours for low pay, the reality is I probably make more money than all the employees at my local grocery store combined and sadly that means my word is more valuable than theirs to their bosses. So I walked right into the angry conversation the other customer was having with store managers and told her exactly what I thought. She was fussing and complaining to the managers about “knowing my rights” and all sorts of wonderfullness like that but I interrupted and told her she’s got no business talking to anybody the way she talked to those poor girls. I told the store managers the store girls did nothing wrong, unless politely saying hi to your customers is considered a sin. Told the angry lady I had no time for her bad temper and walked away.

Since that day all the girls in the store now stop and say hi to me like I’m their hero. I didn’t want to be a big hero but I hated how this angry lady thought she could abuse some poor girls just because who she was, where she’s from, how much money her family makes, or what her last name is.

Teachers strike continues – avoid Cusco

Teachers have been on strike in Cusco for over a month. There have been near daily protest marches, road blocks and difficulty getting to or from the airport. Recently parts of the railroad to Machu Picchu and an airport wall have been damaged by striking teachers. In the past few days the tourism industry workers have been protesting against the disruptions caused by the teachers, ostensibly supporting the “peaceful” protests but I’m sure if you asked most tourism workers what they really think about the striking teachers you’d get quite an earful.

Nobody, not the teachers union, not the regional government (who, as I understand, are responsible for the teacher’s salaries) not the national government seems to give a rat’s behind about only ones who are really done wrong here: the kids who haven’t gotten classes in over a month.

I’m done with the “everything is wonderful in Cusco” thingy because it’s not, leadership in Cusco is an embarrassment.

Don’t come to Cusco today or tomorrow

There’s a big strike in the entire Cusco region today, July 12, and tomorrow as well. Roads are blocked, transportation is largely shut down, most business are closed or operating in limited capacity. I believe the reason for the strike is to demand the start of construction of the “new” airport in Chincheros, which on a scale of stupidity 1 to 10 is about a 400. If PPK had a spine, he’d cancel the entire Chincheros airport concession contract and start over.

In fact, at risk of incurring the collective wrath of the internet and Peru at large, I think this might be the first post in a series as to why you should not come to Cusco, period. Essentially 2 reasons: 1) you can probably find better ways to spend your vacation dollars and 2) the tremendous amount of tourist dollars flowing to Cusco, free money if you will, is not improving the quality of life in Cusco, rather the opposite is happening: free tourist money is bad for Cusco, IMHO.

Missed connections

I had a birthday last week so we had a small party at the house with family and friends. If my grandfather were still with us he would’ve said something like “God willing, you’re about halfway there!”

I’m a pretty traditional party food guy – the pizza and wings type – but this time around we’d decided to get Chifa for our guests, Peruvian style oriental food. Mamacita Linda called in a big take out order to Chifa Status and my brother in law and I set out to pick up the food. The restaurant was busy so we sat down and had a drink waiting for our order.

A large group was seated at the next table. The group consisted of about 12 or 15 young men and one beautiful young girl. The men were all dressed alike in black leather jackets and the girl also dressed in black. The men all acted confident, almost cocky, as if they owned the place. Rarely any of them made eye contact outside their group. I started to get a bit suspicious. If you’d ever been to a restaurant owned by the Italian mob in NY, you’d expect the mob family to look just like the group of young men I was seated next to. Was I seated next to a gang? Or maybe not? Peruvian gangs don’t exactly get dressed up to go out to the best Chifa in town. The guys all looked confident and slightly cocky but didn’t look they were up to anything.

When one of the guys got up I had a chance to look at the design on the back of his black leather jacket, and the words “Rosita de Espinar.” Wait, what?! All these guys were wearing “Rosita de Espinar” jackets. And I’m her biggest number one gringo fan! So 12 guys with one girl, the girl has to be Rosita de Espinar right?

Unlike me, many middle class Peruvians would rather die than to be caught listening to Peruvian folkloric music. Me, on the other hand I’ll go nuts playing air-banjo, air-guitar, air-drums and air-anything else in the car when some Peruvian folk music comes on the radio. With the kids all yelling “change the station you’re embarrassing us!”

Now I wish I could tell you I ran over, got a picture and an autograph from Rosita de Espinar for my best birthday present ever but I didn’t 😦

I couldn’t believe this group of guys who – save for polyester pants – could’ve come straight out of “Saturday Night Fever” were a group of Peruvian folkloric singers. Frankly, I wasn’t even sure if the girl was Rosita de Espinar. I’ve never seen her perform live or seen her pictures other than where she’s always dressed in traditional folkloric costume promoting her shows. Here she was all cosmopolitan, the girl in black dressed to the hilt, looking nothing like those folkloric images. In fact, she’s much prettier in real life than in the pictures where she’s in costume.

Right about this time the group started to leave and our food was ready so we left as well. We got to the house and of course Mamacita Linda was fully understanding of my idiocy:

“What do you mean you didn’t know if it was Rosita de Espinar??? Do you think 12 guys with Rosita de Espinar jackets are going to be hanging out with Dina Paucar or Lady Gaga? You missed your chance you big idiot!!!”

Hey Rosita, come back and have Chifa with us another day, my kids would love to meet your musicians!

My Tractor Driving Skills

The Chicago Cubs won the World Series! Nothing’s sacred anymore in this world, not even 108 year losing streaks. Just kidding, congrats to all the Cubs fans out there!

I have a great arm, had I grown up in the US, Cuba, Dominican Republic or any other baseball crazed nation I would have been a pitcher. I remember tossing a baseball in an event when I was 6 or 7 years old, all the other kids were throwing underhanded, 8 meters, 10 meters. I think the longest throw was 14 meters by another kid. When it was my turn I threw the ball overhand, 28 meters, nobody could believe it.

Another time when I was only 4 or 5 years old all the kids in the family went out to the field on my grandpa’s farm to help harvest potatoes. My grandpa had one of the first tractors in town, I think it was a small Farmall or something of that nature. We picked up the potatoes by hand and threw them on the trailer while my dad was driving the tractor. By the time the trailer got fuller, most of the kids could no longer throw the potatoes on the trailer. I picked up a potato and since I was a little kid, everybody on my side of the tractor thought they had to encourage me:

“Throw it as hard as you can!!”

So I hurled the potato as hard as I could, it went sailing wide over the trailer and hit my uncle Hubert in the head on the other side of the trailer. He comes running around the tractor yelling that I hit him in the head with a potato but nobody believed him, they couldn’t believe I could throw the potato all the way over the trailer. After the commotion died down it was decided I would ride on my father’s lap and “help” drive the tractor to avoid any further unpleasantness, thereby starting my tractor driving experience.

Of course I thought it was the greatest thing, driving the tractor. Little did I know at that time that in a reasonably clean field the tractor pretty much drives straight down the field on its own accord. I did learn a few tricks about driving tractors later on, my dad for some years kept farming on the side and when I went to live in the US I’d help out a bit here and there on my friends farm.

All this came to mind a while back when I decided to drive up to Alto Q’osqo to drop of a bunch of no longer needed baby stuff – no more babies for us!! We piled some stuff in the car and I drove up to Alto Q’osqo with our maid Delia who lives there, so she could give it to people who have better use for it. Driving the car up that hill I had to pull out my best tractor driving skills not to get stuck. On the way back down I started to think it was a bad idea to drive up that mountain, it’s not comfortable at all. I’ve flown single engine airplanes over the Atlantic Ocean, the smallest planes I’ve flown over the ocean have less horsepower than many cars nowadays. Driving down the hill from Alto Q’osqo feels more dangerous than flying a little Cessna over the ocean.

I feel bad for people like Delia who ride up that hill in combis every day. If I ever change careers again I’m going into public service, try to do something meaningful.

Rock and Roll

These kids know just what papi likes!

The Gold’s Gym debacle in Cusco

I don’t work out, I probably should but I stay pretty active walking to the office, taking the kids to school, lifting my coffee cup, etc. Soon I’ll do a post on where to work out in Cusco, for all you fitness fanatics out there.

Mamacita Linda had been working out at the Gold’s Gym in Cusco, which turned into a hot mess here recently. Mamacita Linda worked out at the Gold’s Gym because it was the biggest, nicest gym in town. Had new machines, nice looking trainers and above all, it was located in a prime space in the only real mall in town, Real Plaza.

As all gyms do, Gold’s Gym in Cusco was quite aggressive at selling long term memberships. Mamacita Linda re-upped her membership for another year just 2 months ago.

Then word got out a few days ago that the Gold’s Gym franchise in Cusco was closing effective Sept 30. Mamacita Linda went to the gym to see what arrangements were being made for members only to find a mob of angry customers. So far there has been no agreement from Gold’s Gym to refund any partial contracts or transfer the contracts to the new gym that is set to take over the location. The next nearest Gold’s Gym is 8 hours away, so that’s not exactly an option for existing customers either. Some customers had signed 2 year agreements with Gold’s Gym Cusco as recently as 2 weeks prior to the announced closing. Surely the gym management knew they were signing customers up and taking payment up front for services they had no intention of delivering.

Every customer who came to the gym to see what arrangements were being made only ended up being hounded by Gold’s Gym staff to sign the piece of paper below, effectively saying “I acknowledge my membership is being terminated and I have no complaints with respect to the above.” In return for signing said piece of paper, the customers got a few discount coupons to the gym franchise that is set to replace Gold’s Gym. Of course, since no gym memberships ever sell at full value the discount coupons you get for giving up your entire Gold’s Gym contract are effectively worthless.

Should Gold’s Gym change their mind and do right by their customers I’ll let you know but for now it’s not looking good.

Update 10/3/2016: The new gym at Real Plaza, Smart Fit has offered Mamacita Linda a comparable membership to her previous Gold’s Gym membership at no cost for the remainder of her original Gold’s Gym contract. It’s not clear to anybody to what extent, if any, Gold’s Gym facilitated this or if it’s just “good business” on behalf of Smart Fit. The perception among customers is the latter. I’m glad that Gold’s Gym customers aren’t left with nothing but the transition was handled very poorly by the Gold’s Gym Peru franchise.

golds-gym-cusco

This is what your 4-star hotel in Cusco is built on top of

Have you heard about the latest archaeological “discoveries” at the Plaza de Armas in Cusco? Road work has been going on between Av. Sol and the Plaza de Armas, in the heart of historic downtown Cusco. As the old road was excavated, a number of historic Inca Walls have been “discovered” below the surface. Cusco has been abuzz about the new discoveries for the past few days, take a look:

Inca walls discovered in Cusco

Inca walls discovered during roadwork near the Plaza de Armas in Cusco

Inca walls below Plaza de Armas Cusco

Ongoing work/excavation between the Plaza de Armas and Av. Sol in Cusco

While it’s great these historic walls are being exposed, the word “discovery” seems to be a bit of a stretch being that 50-year old underground utility pipes appear to have been routed in and around these historic walls. “Discovery” in this case implies not something we recently found but “creating buzz to attract tourist $ that will help us clean up the archaeological treasures we covered up 50 years ago”. Or something like that.

It’s hard to tell from the pictures (taken over construction barriers) how much of the walls is original, quite a bit appears to be later work built on top of Inca ruins but some of the walls are clearly original Inca structures in very good condition. You can easily tell the difference because the original Inca walls are of exceptional quality, the form and fit of the rocks is nearly perfect, as are the angles and dimensions. Also, the Incas used no cement or filler of any kind between the rocks. In the pictures, the stairway and adjacent parts are clearly original Inca architecture. Later walls that were built by the Spanish Conquistadores or restored in later times aren’t of the same quality as the original Inca walls.

I don’t know what the plan is for this site going forward, now that it has been laid bare again I hope the site gets a full restoration. It’s sad to see such a piece of history strung full of sewer pipes. Of course any archaeologist, historian or architect worth his salt could tell you that the entire historic downtown area of Cusco must be sitting on top of similar Inca structures. When the Spanish Conquistadores first brought “their” God and King to the New World, they built churches on top of the existing Inca temples, to show the superiority of “their” God and King. Here in Cusco you can still see some original Inca structures but sadly most of the original Inca architecture in the historic downtown has been covered up with buildings from the Spanish Colonial era and beyond.

Progreso para todos – I’m part of it today!

If you know me, I can be a bit direct. I’m not proud of this but if you catch me at the wrong time you may get the non-sugercoated version of what’s on my mind. So it was the other night when I was taking the garbage out and a group of neighbors stopped me with “Sir we need to talk to you”. The “president” of our neighborhood was with them and I had just fussed at her a couple of days before because she lets her pitbull run loose, which is not OK. However turns out this wasn’t a dog issue.

The “president” of the neighborhood said they were making a list of the days where each neighbor would be supplying water and electricity to the construction crew of the “region” Cusco who are refurbishing parking areas and sidewalks in our neighborhood. The crews have been working for about a year, typical inefficient and slow Peruvian public works. I had mostly ignored the ongoing work because trying to improve anything would literally be like fighting city hall.

My not-sugercoated answer to the group of neighbors was something about the taxes I pay in this country and that if they wanted me to do the project they’d better pay me and get out of the way because I sure as cielos wasn’t going to support the cl********k that was the project in front of my house. Then the most startling thing happened: the neighbors explained to me that this is what they had agreed on with the leadership of the “region” Cusco, that if we wanted our 40-year old falling apart sidewalks to be fixed, that the people in the neighborhood would supply water and electricity to the workers. It had to be done like that because there are no other options, they said.

I always thought the utter incompetence of the Peruvian public works was “just the way it is” but it startled me to find out that educated people actually make high level decisions to make it be that way. It’s not the result of a bunch of guys being sent to a job without instructions or plans, it’s the result of a bunch of guys being sent to do a job with specific instructions how to screw it up. Educated, career bureaucrats who couldn’t milk a cow if you gave them a bucket, deciding how to do things they have no clue about whatsoever.

By that time I’d mellowed out a bit and I told the neighbors I really don’t care about the water or electricity that the workers may need, just knock my door and you can have anything you need. What startled me was the utter incompetence. Our sidewalks and parking lots need to be refurbished but the relevance of that project pales in comparison to what Peru really needs, there are people here who don’t have basic services. Forget about schools, health care in rural areas, traffic safety, etc. Those very necessary projects will never happen unless there is a wholesale change in how public works are accomplished.

Some neighbors argued this was the right way to do things. How else could the workers do their job, without electricity or water? That is the type of thing that bugs me about Peru. I don’t know if it is the long working hours for the middle class or the silly emphasis on education but there are many people who are quite clueless about life in general making decisions about things they are entirely not qualified for. My neighbors were amazed when I explained to them the correct way to do the project would have been to get in touch with the utility companies and set up temporary connections for water, power, 220V, 480V, whatever the needs of the project are. Give the workers real tools (they are doing this with hammers, chisels and 1 electric jackhammer), machinery, training, safety gear, etc.

Today the workers are back at it, they’ve duck-taped a water hose to a faucet in the back of our house (there aren’t any in the front patio) and “routed” their water hose through our living room out to the parking lot. I’m not kidding: there is a water hose duct-taped to a faucet as I’m writing this. And the project is managed/implemented by “region” Cusco, not even our local municipality or city of Cusco. These are supposed to be the “big guys”.

Rant over. Sorry for the venting.

parking lot work

Parking lot work in front of our house


water hose

Water hose to the works in front of the house

Merry Christmas

Brianna: “I want Santa Claus to bring me everything I like (in the commercials) on Disney Junior.”
Me: “Isn’t that a lot?”
Brianna: “Santa Claus can borrow my suitcase if he needs one, so he can bring everything I like from the North Pole.”

Vivasa!

A Merry Christmas to all, from cold and rainy Cusco.

THE THING

6:00am

Papi Papi.

Papi Papi.

ZZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Papi! Wake up. We have THE THING at 9:30!!!!

Erggh? The thing?

No, not that thing. THE THING!!!

Now I’m half awake and it dawns on me. THE THING is today at 9:30!!! But wait a minute, I try to explain to mamacita linda that it takes 10 minutes to get ready for the thing and another 15 minutes to actually get over there, so I don’t see the big deal with sleeping in another half hour.

But papi, it’s THE THING! We’ve got to be sure we’re ready!

“The thing” was our interview with the director of the new school where we are planning to send Brianna next year. Getting your child into a good school in Peru is a big deal, it’s hard to convey just how serious parents stress out over getting accepted into a good school. We had our interview with the director this past Wednesday and next Monday we find out if our goose was accepted. Before the interview we also had our psychological evaluation on Tuesday.

Both parents and the child. Think about that for a second. A 4-year old must pass a psychological test to get into pre-school. And then me. I quit a job at a Fortune 500 company to go live on top of a mountain in Peru but some girl with a degree in psychology thinks she can figure me out in a 23-question multiple-guess test and a drawing of a person in the rain? I smiled and went through the motions but the Peruvian faith in these psychological personality tests is just mind boggling to me.

I don’t stress out over getting accepted to a school but most of the other parents do. The psychological test was administered to a group of parents and kids, in the group was one of our friends. Like many parents, our friends were applying to various schools, hoping that their kid would get into first grade at this or that good school. While we were waiting to take the exam, Patricia asked her friend “How did the other interviews go at your-first-choice-school and your-second-choice-school?”

Our friend went SSSSSSSSSSSSSH!!!! “Don’t say that so loud in here!!!”

I laughed out loud and said “I’m telling the director this is our first and only choice but you people are just hedging your bets!!”

Our friend nervously giggled back and responded “I’m telling him at least we actually live in Larapa” (the name of the neighborhood where the school is – we live a bit on the other side of town).

All through the group of waiting parents, parents who overheard us horsing around nervously looked up, in their minds undoubtedly going over the perceived weaknesses in their own case for enrolling their child.

Is my child smart enough?
Will my baby do good on her entrance exam? Will she remember how to spell her daddy’s name?
Is my child cute enough?
Do I make enough money?
Are we Catholic enough?
Will they find out about my brother who drinks too much?
Did I buy a nice enough gift for the administrator?

The director at this school didn’t go anywhere near questions of this nature and insisted the school doesn’t discriminate against anyone. I talked to him about their other schools in both the ritzy part of Lima and another in a poor area of Lima, and I believe they are sincere in that respect or otherwise I wouldn’t send my goose to this school. But I know in other private schools these kinds of questions were/are routinely asked.

Silly me, I thought every child should have the right to a good education.

Getting into a good school is a big deal here in Peru because the public schools are said to be very bad. Class sizes in the public schools are at least 50 kids to a class. Even some of the private schools have large class sizes. The private schools can be expensive and typically fill up fast, there is only a short timeframe during the year where they accept applications. Most of the private schools are Catholic schools. In days past some Catholic schools wouldn’t accept children of single mothers or parents who were not married by the Catholic church but now I believe most accept anyone as long as the person respects the school’s religious vocation.

We’ll find out on Monday but I have faith. Wish us luck!

desfile plaza de armas cusco

Did you know I was a magician?