A Christmas in Peru

Christmas is an amazingly huge holiday here, although the way Peru parties you´d think every holiday is the biggest holiday ever. For Christmas here, instead of the usual decorated Christmas tree (although a few people in my town had the small fake ones they decorated) most people make Nativity scenes in their homes. It seems pretty easy, my coworkers made one in the office and I watched – it did involve finding the box of Christmas stuff, then putting some special brown paper covering over some boxes that formed a few steps, then putting the figurines of the three wise men, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, and a bunch of animals. They also have some fake brown straw and little fences to approximate the manger. And of course baby Jesus, although he is kept clear until midnight of Christmas Eve.

On Christmas Eve, the tradition is that EVERYONE (babies, old people, etc.) stays up Christmas Eve until midnight, at which the stroke of 12 a.m. a toast is made, and then they commence to eat a huge Christmas dinner. The dinner always features none other than fruitcake (pannetón). It is really funny how much they love it here, and serve it to all the guests (me) like it is one of their most prized dishes. A volunteer friend told me he tried to tell his host family how much of a joke fruitcake is in the States by describing it as “something you give to your old aunt for Christmas, who may or may not give it back to you the next year” – and evidently they got a little offended, so he gracefully saved himself by following it up with “But no, the fruitcake HERE is much better than it is in the US” (it tastes the same).

Anyways, usually the dinner also includes pig and/or stuffed turkey, as well as hot chocolate and more champagne. The funny thing is most people here just keep drinking after the first toast on Christmas and get trashed to celebrate. Also, after the dinner is when all the presents get opened as well. They aren´t ornate or anything, dolls, clothes, toys are frequent – mainly the kids get presents. I got a pair of soccer shorts and t-shirt from the wonderful family who invited me to spent Christmas Eve with them, which was awesome because I needed more clothing. I left early to head home, and it was 3 AM – most people stayed up most of the night talking and celebrating with family and friends.

Christmas day is most of the same, that is drinking and hanging out. I actually went into the city and met up with some of the volunteers there to celebrate, and we went to the touristy beach to hang out and relax. My Christmas morning was spent on the bus next to a drunk Peruvian man (it was 9 AM) who thought I was from Brazil, and kept telling me how important tourism is and that I should go to Cusco because he kept forgetting where he was in the conversation. But the day was fun, and I spent the night in the city hanging out with the volunteers and a bunch of random travelers from random places who were all in the same hotel as us.

New Year´s Eve was another experience in and of itself … this again started at midnight, when the Peruvians burn life-sized dolls in the streets. The dolls usually are wearing old clothing, may or may not be made to represent political figures, and are doused in kerosene and burned at midnight to symbolize eradicating the old year and cleansing everything for the new. The other traditions practiced here include eating 12 grapes for good luck in the next year (for some reason eating them under the table is better); wearing something yellow, preferably underwear (but you can´t buy it, someone has to give it to you); and if you want to travel more in the next year, you pack a suitcase and run around the block with it. I did none of them, I wanted to make a doll but as previously said I really didn´t want to burn my clothes because I kind of need all of them, and of course it´s not too great for the environment either.

So instead we walked in the streets and watched people burn their dolls, then at midnight had some hot chocolate as well as champagne, more fruitcake and crackers, and conversation with the family. Then around one or two, we headed out to paint the town red (but that expression doesn´t translate, I tried and just got puzzled looks). This consisted of hanging out in the Plaza for awhile, then entering the dance that was held at one of the local elementary schools. Inside they were selling beer, so we got a box of it, then proceeded to basically dance in a circle around it, to prevent anyone from knocking it over and breaking the bottles (although two got broken during the night), and as well so we could do the Peruvian drinking custom of sharing one plastic cup and we all drink out of it. So yeah, pretty much the majority of the town was in the dance; and I left early and it was 5 AM. Most people stayed up until 7 and saw the sun come up. Crazy people.

The next day pretty much the whole town went to the beach, and jumped in the ocean to combat the hangover. The day after, my coworkers finally showed up again (basically between Christmas and New Year´s, no one came to the office except for me because, well I´m living there) and of course instead of working we took the leftover beers to the beach and drank them there.

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New Years Eve in Manila

As I walked through the crowded streets of Manila, I received stares but enjoyed my relative anonymity that is nonexistent when I am on the small Sibuyan Island. All around me Filipinos went on with their lives, many crowding the lotto centers hoping to get lucky, others sitting with friends and families at carenderias and open air restaurants eating and chatting. Even the street urchins begging for money seemed happy as they yelled “merry Christmas” and “happy new year” and ceaselessly blew in their horns.

But a domestic dispute in the street with a crowd of onlookers gathered around reminded me that the dirty, crowded streets of Manila are not always joyful. A mother was hitting a teenager with a stick and her hand and yelling at him, while a young girl stood nearby bawling. As I walked past the crowd that was watching them I saw the teenager curl his lip up in raw anger as he fended off the mother, and half expected him to hit her.

At nightfall after pounding a large 500 mL Red Horse I strolled out to the Manila Bay boardwalk, and through the permanent carnival of games, food booths, and entertainment that lines the foul-smelling bay. Many Manileños were trying their luck tossing pesos on a board filled with numbers in order to try and win kitchenware like dishes and mugs. Children ran around and lined up for the small ferris wheel, an electric train, or some of the other rides. Magicians drew crowds of Filipinos – mostly adults – around them as they chattered and showed off tricks. A large Filipino with his girlfriend tried to knock over a pyramid of bottles with a softball and whiffed on all three – he laughed about missing, but looked frustrated with his public failure. Later I saw he using a small air gun to knock over figures and he redeemed himself by hitting several targets in a row, then looked over at his girl to make sure she witnessed his prowess.

Several of the bigger restaurants had stages with cover bands, and one of them launching into Stone Temple Pilots made me stop to listen for awhile; I moved on as they followed up with Alanis Morissette.

I bought some delicious, warm corn on the cob from a smiling girl who wished me a happy new year; and wished I had more room in my stomach for all the amazing food vendors – from green mangoes to peanuts (boiled, roasted, salted), popcorn, to the larger booths with all kinds of meat offerings from fried, to adobo, to bbq. After downing a shwarma I sat down to a meal of rice, bbq chicken, and pork and as I ate the man working the grill looked over and asked with a grin and a thumbs up how the food was. I devoured the food and returned the thumbs up, and later gave him my compliments which made him beam from ear to ear.

I paid 30 pesos (about 75 cents) to try the ball toss, and after knocking down two towers in a row I was kindly informed that those didn’t count because not every single can had been knocked over. The young Filipinos nicely gave me a few extra throws, and I managed to win a keychain but declined going again.

Further up on the shut-down Roxas Boulevard and through the impressive security, who was mostly there to make sure people didn’t walk in without going through the pretty lax body search; booths of Smart and other companies gave away free promos – Emperador Light gave out free shots of their nasty sweet brandy.

A DJ standing front of a Macbook frenzily went through every pop song imaginable, to crowds of a few hundred Filipinos who were quietly standing, watching the stage or big screens, and waiting for midnight. I decided to check out Rizal Park, and on the way passed through a plaza where an emcee was raffling off gifts to barangay members courtesy of the patron who sat nearby.

In the alleyways and empty lots right next to the glitteratzy of high rise buildings and fancy hotels of Malate, the poor stretched out on cardboard and cooked meager meals on open flames from metal cans. They shared meals in groups, and the youth lit off loud firecrackers that echoed against the tall, fancy wealthy buildings around them.

The U.S. embassy had lit up wreaths decorating the endless walls that stretched for longer than any building around; walls which each morning kept hordes of Filipinos at bay as they hopefully wait in line for hours in order to try and secure a visa to the United States.

At Rizal Park thousands of people stretched out on the grass, many of them sleeping as they waited for midnight. Towards the back of the park couple occupied dark nooks away from the lights, and in the front a heavy metal band was replaced by one of the first bands I had heard in 5 months in the Philippines that sang Tagalog songs and not pop music covers. About 30 minutes before midnight a light sprinkle sent hundreds of people streaming toward the park exit, despite the fact that it only lasted for 15 minutes. The lead singer sweetly tried to entice the audience to participate, however mostly the crowd stood and watched, or chatted amongst themselves. The next band culminated with a not very good rendition of Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years” as the male lead singer struggled to hit the notes and failed even more to have the audience sing with him.

As they started the countdown at last the fireworks at Ocean Park had already started. The fairly impressive fireworks display which reflected against the high rise tower that mostly blocked another fireworks show nearby.

The fireworks lasted about 15 minutes, then as I walked back to the pension the streets echoed with loud reports as people lit off their own firecrackers, several of which shot horizontally out of control and so I opted for a longer route out of the way of the amateurs and as their fireworks exploded loudly overhead I wondered how the tall buildings around weren’t hit.

Back at the pension a group of young Peace Corps Volunteers were sitting around and I offered a quick smile but headed straight up to bed without stopping to chat. Late, late, late in the night a drunken Peace Corps Volunteer stumbled into the dorm, and when I woke up the next morning he was naked and inadequately covered by his sheet – my first sight of 2015.

Puerto Malabrigo

Ahh, how to describe Puerto … it is a tranquil fishing town (a little bigger than a pueblo but definitely smaller than a cuidad) nestled against the Peruvian coast. North of Malabrigo lies the town´s largest source of employment – five large fishmeal factories that like so many other large businesses in developing countries employ the majority of the locals but are owned by foreigners. Separating the factories from the town is a long pier, from which commercial fishing vessels unload their catch, and from which many fish from. One day I watched the sunset from the pier and at the same time watched a man next to me, unconcerned about the setting sun and more with the simple net that he lowered over the side of the pier, then pulled out and plucked out a good number of purple crabs the size of my hand.

As the town walks south it climbs up, until the last buildings (two hotels) before the town ends are perched upon cliffs that overlook the ocean. Past the hotels sits an ultra-modern wind generator – which sticks out like a sore thumb (or a gringo in Peru) and that the locals fittingly call a mariposa, or butterfly. Even beyond the steel butterfly is a small mountain that I have yet to climb but that promises a great view of the sunset.

Life here appears tranquil as only a small fishing village can be; and like the Porteños here it seems to meander more than run. By 7 a.m. the street closest to the beach is already busy with people grabbing breakfast on the way to work, the local open air market vendors hawking their wares, and the general bustle of a new day. A few days I have woken up early and either walked or ran along the beach, and wading in the surf as well as climbing on the rocks are locals hunting for shellfish and crabs in the low tide, to either bring home and eat themselves or to sell, usually to the local restaurants.

The average breakfast consists of fresh juice (most commonly mango, pineapple, or a combo or both) and bread or a small chicken sandwich. The norm is to work until anywhere between noon and 1 p.m., after which the Peruvians attack their biggest meal of the day here. Just about everyone I work with eats out at a restaurant every day of the week for lunch, while the kids usually eat at home – the reason being that is it cheaper to eat out than to cook for yourself, but if you have a full house than it´s more cost effective to cook at home. The menu here ranges from S/. 3 to S/. 10 (that´s about $1 to $3 American) and includes an entrada, which is soup 90% of the time, and a main dish along with a glass of whatever drink the restaurant has prepared that day – you don´t choose, and there really are no menus you just ask what they have prepared that day. The main dishes don´t vary much from day-to-day, and usually include the choice of fried chicken, fried fish, fillet fish, shellfish, pig or cow meat, and of course the national culinary pride of Peru – ceviche, which consists of raw fish or shellfish that is marinated in a juice of lime, onion, peppers, garlic, and salt. It is actually really good, and about three-fourths of the Peruvians I have asked name it as their favorite dish. It usually served with yucca, and like every other single dish I´ve ever eaten in Peru, a heaping mountain of rice – because number one rice is very cheap, and number two it is very filling. I´d say it probably composes at least 50% of the Peruvian diet.

What does vary is the type of fish used (since it depends on what was caught that morning), and my coworkers always ask and know which fish is good and which is too bony and not worth ordering. Interestingly enough, beginning next week there is a national ban on commercial fishing of I believe anchovy (although I´m still trying to learn the names of the fish here) because it is the spawning season and only artesanal fishing is allowed – score one for small business.

This massive lunch is the last meal until about 7 p.m., so it is quite big and weighs in your stomach. After lunch is a descanso that lasts usually until about 3 p.m. or so, although it is not uncommon for it to last longer. Officially work ends at 6 pm in my office, although this too commonly lasts longer as well. Of course many people have little tiendas that are attached to or part of their houses, and these are open for as long as the people in the house are awake.

After work relaxation and the night time meal that they call ¨lonche¨ revolves around watching the television, which many Peruvians seems addicted to. Usually the culprit is one of the many telenovelas (think of a grandiose soap opera) – the one I have usually seen here while eating is called ¨Te Voy a Enseñarte a Querer¨ which roughly translated means ¨I´m going to teach you to desire¨ and that pretty much says it all. Most often the meal is bread and a type of spread; usually butter, marmalade, or manjar blanco which is a type of sweet creamy spread which I have yet to figure out what is it made of; or soup; and coffee or tea.

Following the meal, many of the youth roam around the streets like restless animals; and the cool thing to do is cruise the Plaza de Armas with your enamorada or your homies. Unlike many plazas in the U.S., the Peruvians actually make frequent use of the big central plaza that is built in every town – probably the main reason being that for financial reasons it is common here to live with your parents and family in the same house well into your thirties or forties, as well to share a single room with multiple family members. So privacy (and space) are at a minimum, and most prefer to be outside the house at night.

The other thing to do is just chill in your barrio, and just sit on the corner with your neighborhood crew and chew the fat. They actually make the distinction of which neighborhood they live in quite often, despite the fact that the whole town is only a few neighborhoods big. But the people here know the people in their streets more, and make a point of trying to shop in the stores in which they know the owner and have more confianza.

And what do they talk about? Who knows, since I only understand maybe 50% of it – on a good day, of which there has been a fair share of, as well as bad ones. But in general the people are as eclectic as any group would be in the United States, however with just different background and idiosyncrancies.

Above all however, the people have been incredibly open and friendly … several families in Puerto have offered to host me as another son and share what little they have without even knowing that I receive money to pay them. Moreso, they are naturally curious about me since while they have seen gringo surfers and perhaps talked with a few, they haven´t ever really known one. A typical conversation will pretty follow the same pattern:

Me: (trying my hardest to pronunciate everything perfectly in Spanish and failing) Good morning, I´d like to buy [insert item name].

Peruvian: You´d like to buy what?

Me: [item!, and usually pointing at it]

Peruvian: Ahh, [item] (and pronouncing it exactly the same way I did)

Me: Ja.

Peruvian: Where are you from?

Me: Los Estados Unidos.

Peruvian: Ahh, Estados Unidos!

And here they will invariably say the one English phrase they know, in thickly accented English of which I realized my Spanish probably sounds just as bad. As we converse, they will continue to throw in English words and phrases they know, regardless of the situation. While in a crowded store in Trujillo, I was talking to the battery boy (he runs around and sells batteries) and another guy, and the second guy points at a woman and yells ¨My lover!¨ in English. They all ask me what I think of Peru so far, and then the second question is invariably ¨How can I get to the United States?¨. It is all quite hilarious and often times involves a lot of laughing in their end on my part.

Journey into Mt. Guiting-Guiting – Part 2

The next morning at 6 am as I listened to a dove call, I tried to push my sleep-befuddled brain to remember which of the 5 doves found on Sibuyan Island it was. I turned to Rebecca. “Alimokon?” I whispered hopefully, and she shook her head. “Porongan” she said, then turned to Nino the young IP guide with us who confirmed Rebecca’s assessment with a silent nod. I had mistaken the white-eared brown dove for the black chinned fruit dove, which has two types of calls but usually employs a slower “coo” that almost sounds like an owl.

Rebecca woke the camp up at 4:30 in the morning so we could get a quick meal of instant coffee and leftover rice before heading out. Since the forest foliage is too dense to see most of the birds, the staff generally relies on vocalizations for identification. Nino confirmed or corrected every identification that Rebecca made, while I practiced identifying the 2 dozen or so priority bird species that the park service specifically looks for during their monitoring. Rebecca and Andy stopped often to point out various plants used locally for medicine, as well as which trees illegal loggers commonly targeted for lumber.

While Nino led and helped Rebecca with the bird identification Melvin, the vice-chieftain of the local indigenous group, stayed with the rest of us and pointed out critters to us way before we saw them; including a surprising variety of snails as well as some unusual insects such as a stick bug, a blue ant, several spider species and of course, numerous leeches.

Back at camp we ate lunch, which mostly consisted of rice, and then everyone curled up to catch some sleep. I headed down to the Cantingas River, which for years had won awards as the cleanest river in the Philippines. After about an hour I was joined by most of the group, many of which proceeded to pull out soap and wash their clothes and themselves in this beautiful stream winding through the mountains.

The rest of the day consisted of re-walking the monitoring transect with Rebecca in order to help her take a GPS point of the eight points along the route that they use to orient themselves. After dinner Nino constructed what looked like a rake out of rattan, a sturdy plant with sharp edges, and then clambered 15 feet up a tree in order to wait for bats to fly by. When they fly by, it was explained to me, Nino would essentially club them down and then the IPs would cook and eat the liver. I should mention that these are not small bats that we see in the United States, but large fruit-eating bats. As we sat around the campfire passing around the bottle of brandy, the only evidence of Nino above us was the red glow of his cigarette when he took a drag. Finally I crawled in my hammock to drift off to sleep.

The next morning I sat on the hill while I finished my coffee and watched dawn creep over the horizon. Facing southeast, four other islands were visible across the ocean including ones much bigger than Sibuyan. Behind me, clouds and the near-full moon hung over the Mt. Guiting-Guiting peak and it was beautiful no matter which way I looked.

When we arrived at the valley where we began our climb we stopped to pick some more pako fern and a local man climbed 30 feet up a coconut tree to knock a few loose so we could drink the coconut water and eat the flesh.

We then proceeded in tricycle (a motorcycle with a sidecar attached) to the next monitoring site; arriving as it got dark so we had to hike with our headlamps to the campsite. Fortunately it was only a short, flat 45 minute hike. After setting up, I went down to the river and laid on my back to watch fireflies float through the trees above, and occasionally saw the shadow of bats flit about overhead. To bolster dinner Pboi and Nino caught fresh crayfish from the river and cooked them in a delicious, oily sauce. The next morning we left at 6 am to begin the transect walk, and returned a little before noon. After a swim in the river, lunch and a quick nap, we packed up the campsite and headed back to the park headquarter; tired, happy, and looking forward to sleeping in a bed.

Journey into Mt. Guiting-Guiting – Part 1

Leeches are pretty amazing creatures. The way they can inject an anticoagulant enzyme into their hosts is incredible … but it was hard to fully appreciate their evolutionary biology as I plucked them, squirming and fat with my blood, off my feet and ankles.

The day-long hike up to the park staff’s biodiversity monitoring campsite was slippery and steep, but that was the fun part as we slowly rose from rice fields and coconut farms at sea level to secondary forest in the lowland hills.

About halfway up, I paused to rest and wait for the others at Haguimit, a community of indigenous people (or “IPs” as they are informally called here). It looks like any other rural, poor Filipino community: the few scattered houses were mostly huts built out of local materials; a sad basketball court had a beautiful view overlooking the valley we had climbed through; and dirty, adorable children with very little clothes ran up and stared at us.

My attempts to talk to the children in broken Tagalog were met with confused looks, and when the others arrived they explained that most of the people in this community speak a different dialect than the Filipino national language.

As we ate crackers and rested, Andy – one of the Mt. Guiting-Guiting park staff who is from the lowland town where we began our hike – chattered away at some of the community members who had emerged from their homes to greet the group. He and Rebecca, a forester working for the park, introduced me to a friendly-looking guy by blunting stating they had cited him for illegal logging – one of the biggest threats to the park, as poor people constantly are trying to cut down trees to sell for money or to use to build their own homes. The man’s accomplice was AWOL, as he had already been cited once and therefore was facing a fine or court case for a repeat infraction.

The sun had already set by the time that we reached our campsite and we hiked the last part with headlamps. This was also the part where leeches were prevalent, so we sat and pried them off our feet while our three IPs guides set about cutting vines and poles with their bolos in order to construct impromptu benches, provide firewood, and cleared areas for the tent and hammocks. Meanwhile Pboi, our cook who hauled a cast iron pot up the mountain, set about making dinner that consisted of a giant mountain of rice and pako, a local edible fern. We added canned tuna and ate as Rebecca blasted music – a random collection of American pop music, electronic remixed versions of American pop music, and some Filipino tunes. Since we would wake up at 5 am the next day to begin the bird monitoring transect, most people curled up in their hammocks after dinner except for Andy and the IPs, who set about polishing off a bottle of brandy (in essence we were paying the guides in rice and alcohol for their help). Not exactly serene camping in the woods, but I was tired enough to pass out pretty quickly.

To be continued …