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.

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.