Lat Am wine harvest, surf and Ayahuasca

May 25, 2009

Yess. I have finally finished my story/epic on the South American wine harvest. It was a combination of that, plus finally moving into house and surf lessons, that made anything else – other than lying in bed with Jilly Cooper (the ever reliable Riders) – impossible to contemplate for the last few weeks.

It was only 300 words and pretty straight forward, the harvest story, but it took ages because a) I had no contacts, b) the web kept breaking down, or at least my connection to it did and c) even when I did connect to it, there are vineyards and wine organisations in Paraguay and Venezuala that are seemingly impossible to contact other than by going there. Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, Brazil and Peru are all more or less straightforward thank god.

Anyway it is done. And all the boxes are unpacked. Only a few items currently unlocatable – weird things like a coat and socks and the ‘nez du vin’ (a French kit that has all the different odours of wines in little bottles for you to sniff at). Visions of customs/moving official/person wearing lots of socks, my coat and sniffing/drinking nez du vin bottles.

And then there has been surf. I’ve done my fourth/fifth lesson by now, and I doubt very much I will ever progress beyond lessons, but that is fine. At first I got so nervous before a class my legs were literally shaking. I know because I saw one of them trembling as I was doing warm up bend overs the other day. A bit better now.

Classes are at 6am Tuesdays and Thursdays, or at 4pm when the kids go. Somehow getting up at 5.30 in the morning is easier. You stagger out of bed, into a taxi, then, before you know it, you are on the beach doing pops and stretches, and the sun is coming up.

Last week I did two afternoon lessons and that was much harder. I mean, you’re all dressed and normal and the idea of getting into a wetsuit and jumping into the briny sea seems ludicrous. Plus the place is full of children, including my own, and you are either intimidated by, or worried about, them depending on how good they are.

I’m only worried now I might chicken out tomorrow after the Ayahuasca session I did this weekend. I am still feeling a bit fragile. Must just gird loins and enter sea tomorrow morning early, without thinking too much about it.

Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic herb – or rather vine – cleansing ritual thing. You drink a potion and it helps you open your spiritual gateway, with the help of a shaman. Sting’s done it, and now me.

Was all very strange. Definitely hallucinogenic and made me cry for hours. We started at 10pm and finished at 4am and I must have spent from midnight to 3am in tears. Still feel a bit fragile, but yes, kind of cleansed. Must try and pitch article about it to someone now. More details following when I write up my notes.



April 8, 2009

Went to a school birthday party last weekend. Ate hearts. Actually, a heart. I stopped when I worked out it was not exactly plain old beef on a skewer, as billed by my Peruvian friend. “I only tell people after,” she said cheerily.

The sauce was good. And the taste wasn’t bad. It was just that once I the word ‘heart’ had entered the conversation, eating it was no longer possible. I’ve had them once before and the same thing. In Limerick of all places. We stopped on the way back from Galway and when we asked what was in the ‘meat dish’ the man behind the bar said ’em hars’ or something like that.  As we were eating, I think it was something about the shape, I suddenly realised he must have said ‘lamb hearts’. End of lunch.

Along with hearts the birthday party featured a woman in a very short skirt and thigh high white boots singing to the seven year olds. My son said ‘you can see her pants’. I had to agree. But at least it got us out of Lima central for the first time, east along the Carretera Central to Chosica. Or, as it said on the invitation, ‘at 40.5 Carretera Central’ which means, I learned, 40.5 kilometres from Lima.

Now it is Wednesday and I am trying to find somewhere to go for the four day holiday of Easter Week – Semana Santa – which starts tomorrow. But I think we may end up staying here at this rate. I was distracted from holiday planning by a combination of writing a story on falling Argentinean wine exports, reading about the Fujimori trial and reeling around in a daze after a 700 dollar mobile phone bill.

I am currently on some kind of short term temporary plan, and cleverly, I thought, was using ‘free’ VoIP Stunt number. Well, I wasn’t. Or rather I did use the number but it went via something called IMSAT and I got hammered.  And when I think of all those people advising me to switch to Skype a month ago … Anyway. Nothing like experience as St Thomas must have said, and I have now switched. Talking into my computer doesn’t seem so hard after all.

OK. Back to reservations…

Shrimp on a plate

March 27, 2009

Took the kids to their first surf lesson yesterday. It was not the most relaxing thing I had ever done. The waves here are big and the beaches small, with stony outcrops.

The first thing I noticed was that the instructor had a few gashes on his legs. Next thing was a well meaning other mother who told me in the first five minutes, as they were suiting up, it was unlucky I had come today when there were so many kids.

She added it was also unlucky that the waves were so big and that the best instructor was not there. She went on to say they were indeed probably short an instructor.

At this point I was staring at her slack jawed wondering if she had any particularly evil intent. I also wondered if this was some kind of ‘game for a laugh’ set up, and whether someone was going to leap out of a bush with a camera. It would have been a relief.

Before I had time to wonder further though, she was saying she had taken the precaution of hiring a private, one on one, surf instructor before exposing her kids to a group lesson like this one.

I was literally ready to grab them and run at that point. But seeing the little figures currently having surfboards strapped to their ankles and heading for the water, all full of confidence, made me hesitate. If they had shown the slightest flicker of hesitation I would have put an end to the whole escapade. But they didn’t.

Off they marched – with me interrupting things to say wild eyed, but quietly to the chief instructor that my six-year-old son had only actually swum in pools before, never waves. He said fine and that was it.

The next hour was pure agony. Having said they were going to stay near the beach, they were soon two or three breakers out. It made sense as the water was calmer there, but it was further than I could swim in three minutes I estimated, cursing myself for ever even contemplating this as an ‘activity’. Why not violin?

They seemed to be managing however, and the ratio of instructors to kids levelled off at one per two kids, once the experienced guys had peeled off to other classes.

They just looked so tiny on their huge boards – like a shrimps on plates – with the waves crashing all around. I endured an hour and a half, squinting into the sun, gripping the plastic chair handles, with all muscles poised to leap into the sea if necessary, before they were finally released back onto land, demanding ice creams.

We are to go again next Tuesday. Must I watch?


March 23, 2009

I am going to marry Maria Luiza. Today not only did she shop and cook lunch, she came with me to pick up kids (soon she will do it all on her own), sorted out their snack – which seems to take me an hour –  did the washing, ironing and washing up. And, since she made enough lunch for dinner –  it’s so good I can’t wait – that’s sorted too.

Lets face it, although most women in third world countries never get ahead, the ones that do, get far ahead, thanks to the affordable labour they have as back up.

They did a study on it somewhere last year, in the Philippines I think. Affordable labour and/or grannies at home were the two things that made a major difference to a woman’s earning power. I saw it in South Africa too, where most middle class households had ‘help’. Beauty treatments and lunch are always options, but the women that wanted to work got on with it with almost zero time constraints.

So, although I still didn’t make the two calls I meant to make, I have paid off this apartment and organised for a quieter one up the street, at almost half the price, where we can stay up to two months.

That way if they  keep buggering around with the rent before/if we sign I can just say sod off, instead of feeling bedevilled.

We are currently at a stand off. The ‘mistake’ in the rental is now a forgotten piece of early history, but mysteriously, the rent is still up by 50 dollars per month with neither the requested dishwasher or microwave included.

Of course I now understand how these might be seen as hardly necessary in certain houses, thanks to the cook/housekeeper/chief bottle washer all being on hand. Indeed, when we asked for the dishwasher on Friday night the maybe landlady (who runs a shirt factory) said she had never bought one in her life and would have to do some research. I assume she found the price to be higher than a human.

Rent again

March 23, 2009

Oh my god, it has happened again. For the second time. We agreed a monthly rental amount Friday night with our prospective new landlady, plus a list of changes we needed, but when I call to confirm this morning (after a weekend of agonising whether this is the best compromise so far, because even this is not quite right) I am told, there is a problem with the rent.

The problem is the rent is higher than what was agreed Friday by another 150 dollars. Have decided to move to another short term rental, the WIFI here is too dodgy and the noise from the street – as well music from another apartment somewhere nearby – plus scratchy sheets are driving us all mad.

At least I finally have a contact for my coca beer story. They make it here, legally, and someone is planning to export the stuff to China, South Africa and Australia.

The legal organisation that represents the coca growers is however difficult to contact. One of the reasons might be that while growing of coca leaves for certain products such as tea, beer, or herbal remedies, is legal, 90% of this apparently legal production is said to end up as cocaine.

Still have not called Tacama wine person. Must also do that this afternoon. Have terrible feeling will spend four years in Lima living in short term rentals.

At least have hired housekeeper, who has gone off to buy my lunch and then cook it. The unimaginable luxury of this will carry me through a great deal of other things. She is called Maria Luiza.

Am off alcohol for Lent so no wine news other than to say the last bottle I had was an Argentinean Pinot Noir, Navarro Correas, Coleccion Privada. It was very good, but 14% alcohol and definitely needed time in an ice bucket.

Only started Lent on Patrick’s Day this year, and actually drank nothing at all for the 17th – I felt it made up somewhat for the delay. The brief time lag between the actual start of Lent, whenever it was, and Patrick’s Day can be blamed my forgetting, in my Pisco Sour/moving to Lima haze, when Lent actually began.

Will be third year and is particularly good thing at the moment, otherwise I would be lying face down in a drain somewhere with an empty bottle of Jameson nearby.

Lima taxi 2

March 16, 2009

Soon I will forget how to drive. The Lima taxi system works so well, there is almost a case for not having a car. It is cheap, it is efficient. Step onto a street corner anywhere from Chorrillos to San Isidro and in less than five minutes a car with a removable taxi sign will pull up with a screech of wheels, and a scream of horns from behind.

Good days, or good afternoons or good evenings (there’s no one size fits all times of day greeting here that I can find) are exchanged politely, the destination is discussed – often with reference to a map in my case, as I roam all over the city – and a price is agreed. The traffic behind grows restive but is ignored.

As I look like a tourist  the negotiation will generally go like this: him – ’10 soles senorita.’ Me, happy to be called senorita – ‘No es posible, 5 soles.’ Him – ‘7 soles.’ And away we go.

To help the negotiation on its way a second taxi normally pulls up behind the first, in case things don’t work out. Either because the price cannot be agreed, which has happened a few times,  or because the guy does not want to go where I am going. Could be too far or – once – too dangerous. I was only going to Chorrillos, and in the end he took us after I started walking towards taxi number two, but he moaned all the way and kept putting a gun shaped fingers to his head and saying ‘robo’.

The kids – it was on the way home from school –  loved it and are now very proud they have friends in ‘Robo Land’. Robo, by the way actually means ‘robbery’ and a robber is a ‘ladron’, according to my dictionary. Not sure though if that is Spanish Spanish, or LatAm Spanish.

The downside of the taxi system is that driving styles vary from risky to insane. Few have the right number of seat belts and many have that iron cage around the driver that would be very unpleasant to slam into in an accident. I am tempted to carry a pillow. More wisely I think I will ring Antonio, the taxi man I met last Friday – no cage, soft seats and three seatbelts in the back –  and see if he can do the school pick up with me today. We all love Mario, and he does drive comparatively carefully – but his cage/seatbelt situation do not bode well for the long term.

30 soles a day

March 10, 2009

Ok, major mistake in last post was that 30 soles is a good day wage, not hourly. Have been conned by apartment cleaning woman. Well, not conned. She just told me that was what she got per hour from the woman next door.

Further investigations on the household employment front have revealed that 500 to 800 soles a month for a housekeeper is a good wage. Meaning about 7 soles and hour, about 2 euro an hour, with food and accommodation included.

Still hunting house and must flee out door for 10.30 viewing. Have written first local story on the Argentineans cutting wine export taxes, this morning, and nearly finished clever barrels, so feeling quite productive, even if can’t find dwelling.

Have met Super Mario, and getting to know him. He is nice, but fast, and only two seat belts in back. Lots of holy medals on rear view mirror, which I find comforting.

Went shopping for food yesterday and discovered there is such a thing as white watermelon. Am also rediscovering all the American candy I love. Hershey bars, Milk Duds, Twisters, Doritos etc..

Upside is it’s fun to taste again with kids, and have them say, how do you know about this already? They don’t really realise yet how much time I have spent in America. To them it is just ‘where mum was born and their uncle lives’.

Downside is that anything that is not fresh seems to be filled with salt and/or sugar. The Chinese/Peruvian food – chifa – I bought yesterday was so salty the warm water from the tap actually tasted good afterwards. The empanadas and roast chicken I bought for dinner last night were the same. I know this is all early days, but how long will it take me to find organic food? Or wine? A glass of  Argentinean red I was drinking the other night got spilt and the stains will not come out. What is in there?

Still, sun is shining (forgot sunblock on kids, dammit) and I am looking at the sea (waves breaking from the right surf sister, and by the way, does that mean coming in from the right as I look at sea?). The tennis players on the courts below have been hard at it since 6am and, the surfers – as seen from 9th floor apartment – look happy. School meeting later plus Spanish lesson and few calls to make.

Lima wifi, Lima taxi

March 6, 2009

What a difference a wifi makes. I was forced out of my temporary abode due its breakdown yesterday. Despite working perfectly for two days, it is now only stable for about 10 minutes at a time. A bit like mobile phone calls here which start fine then stop or descend into pile of static. I thinks that is why everyone is using ‘push to talk’ a free system that turns phones into walkie talkies. I haven’t worked it out yet but you can see everyone walking along holding phones in front of their faces and chatting away, which looks mad until you know – which I did thanks to sister’s recent surf trip here.

Sans wifi, I had breakfast in a local cafe, very good. I also changed the 100 dollars I had been carrying around for a week or so, preferring to wilfully ignore the 3 euro charge per withdrawal that is building up in my French account. Had a chat with Pedro the moneychanger, who said he would be there every day for me. He also upped his dollar buy rate from 3.2 to 3.21 after a bit of pressure. I got a grand total of 321 soles instead of 320 and went away very full of self.

This evening, still without wifi despite urgent appeals, and unable to do even the most pressing of emails,  I heard the story of the taxi driver who returned my husband’s forgotten laptop.

I am not sure if there is a thriving secondary market for laptops in Lima, but I imagine it could earn you a few soles. 30 soles an hour is a good wage here – just over 6 euro – and this man returned something that could have earned him at least, what, 100 soles? 200? 500? 1000? No idea. But he returned it. Sometimes people don’t return things.

His name is Mario, but from tonight he is Super Mario and the question now is whether our children could be left in his charge for the journey to and from school. I am not at all sure about this, but among people who go to the French school here it’s quite normal  –  to hire a taxi driver on a regular basis for the school run – because the place is miles from the centre of town where many parents live and work. You see them all lined up outside the school waiting when you arrive. Some people send the nanny along too, but others don’t bother.

So the question now is, does returning a laptop make you 100% safe as a child taxi driver? We are not only thinking road safety here. We are thinking, though not quite saying because it sounded too over the top, does it mean you will never consider kidnap? Perhaps we should offer him a live in job first. And all his family. Would he trust us? We don’t even have house yet, dammit.

Still nothing concrete on that front, though two definite possibilities. Must actually lash of a few calls now.


March 3, 2009

Moved to a weekly apartment rental in Miraflores last night as house hunt continues. First time living high up with kids, bit nervous of balconies. Rule is they are not allowed out by self. Big plus is park and seafront are two minutes walk away – not including elevator ride from 9th to 1st. Then is about four minutes away.

Can see waves, surfers, joggers, tennis players, mad traffic and it is only 8am. Actually could see all that at 6am too, only less traffic.

It is grey and misty, and today was the day I managed to remember to put sun block on the kids before they went to school. Typical. Beautiful sunset last night and a feeling of sky and space and sea. A relief after the hotel. Must go buy paper – project in itself as it was delivered at hotel – then make way to Aurora where first house is. Actually have three, on paper, potential nice places.

Must write up clever barrels this afternoon. Did great interview yesterday with the director of Seguin Moreau – who was very gung ho about the intelligence of his barrels. None of the poo-pooing I got from some of the consultants I talked to.  He told me Seguin Moreau is launching a new, extra intelligent one in Argentina in a few months time. Might even be worth a trip. Now that would be exciting.

Gaah. Is 9.30am all of a sudden. How did that happen. Must leave 9th floor, throw self into elevator and brave world.

The weekend

March 2, 2009

One pisco sour is good. Two is OK. The four I had on Friday night in Chorillos, following the collapse of a house to rent deal, was too much. They were the first homemade ones I had ever tasted though – we were invited for dinner by a friend – and they were really good, and I was really tired and singularly pissed off.

I also managed to polish off a good half bottle of Peruvian red, Tacama Gran Tinto – a malbec, tannat, syrah blend – the first local wine I have tried. It was very good and cost something like 4 euro.  Tacama – – seems to be the biggest and oldest producer here, and since, happily, someone has given me the name of the owner, I will be calling him next week. At least I will if the bloody house thing gets sorted.

The problem still is where exactly to aim for. San Isidro is commercial/residential, full of shops, offices, restaurants and parks. The green area we know best so far is Olivar, various green squares full of olive trees, and wonderful old houses all around. This is perfect apart from the prices – 3,100 dollars here is a very minimum monthly rental – and the fact that it is quite far from the school. It is also quite European and sheltered.

At the other end of my knowledge scale is Barranco and Chorrillos. Streets in Barranco remind me of the French Quarter in New Orleans, although the charming old houses have street level balconies, full of tropical plants, instead of second floor ones. If Truman Capote popped his head of one, I would not be in the least surprised. The problem here is no houses at all. All full and no one wants to let go of such a prize.

Chorrillos is further down the coast from Barranco and is full of life. Wedged between the sea and a barren hillside – a monument, someone said, to a terrible battle 200 years ago between Peru and Chile – it is even more charming, at night at least, but way too far away to even consider. The pluses here are the climate, which people say is the best, e.g. least damp, in Lima, and the atmosphere. People talk of living here as though it were a frontier – the ones who don’t live in apartments that is. ‘My kids play with the kids from the favela,’ the pisco making Frenchman who lives there told me proudly. ‘They are part of the barrio.’ I immediately understood what he was on about: in authentic living terms, the ex-pat who lives in Chorrillos wins.