Computer Meltdown

The old Kerry was back. With a vengeance. After months of going with the South American flow of a relaxed pace and inefficiency, I was done.

I sprinted across the street, yelling at the Movistar service technician who was doing his best to ignore me while he dialed his phone.

“Excuse me, when are you coming to my house to fix my internet?” I demanded.

He waved a paper, nervously refusing to look at me. “I’m at this house. I’m not the tech for your house.”

“But you were at my house on Saturday. And you left. And I still don’t have internet!”

“Another tech…” he tried to turn his back to me but I stuck with him.

“Who? When?”

“I don’t know. But not me.”

“But it was you. You were at my house. And you didn’t fix anything and now no one has come for 3 days.”

“Ahh.  Matthews, right?” He was trying to placate me and I knew it.

“Yes. There.” I pointed to our house.

“Okay, I’ll tell them.” His eyes darted about, refusing to look at me. I interpreted that as a fear of being caught. I was convinced this guy had deleted our job request for the past 3 days because he didn’t know how to solve our internet problem or didn’t want to deal with it. Matt later said the guy was probably afraid that I was going to drag him across the street to our house. At 5’3”, I’m bigger than he and had rage on my side, so that might have been it.

I stalked back across the street while glaring at the guy on the corner who had watched this entire exchange. Slammed the doors to my house.  ARGGG. Why is it so hard to get things done here? Why can’t I speak better Spanish so I don’t sound like a 5 year old? Olga, our housekeeper, tiptoed around me. She had never seen me angry, much less livid, these past eight months. And I have never seen a Peruvian mad; they go into begging mode when they want something. Not this American. I wasn’t about to beg someone who was screwing me over. But I am no fool. I had tried the begging: I had sent Olga out to talk to the tech when I first saw him across the street because I thought the begging might work. It didn’t. Of course, my in-your-face aggression didn’t either.

I explained to Olga what happened and why I didn’t believe that he wasn’t suppose to be at our house.

“Well, he did have an order for the other house…” she ventured.

“Did you see it?” The lawyer in me was out in full force.

“No, but I said Matthews to him…”

“Hrmph.  But he was here on Saturday and left and no one has come since.”

“The same guy? Here? Oh.” She retreated.

I had a new plan: when he was done with the other job, I would waylay him again and demand that he call his tech office immediately to find out when someone was coming to my house. I looked out the window. Damn, his car was gone. He had snuck away.

The saga began when an electrical storm knocked out our phone, internet, and computer on Friday. The worst part was that about 30 seconds before it happened it occurred to me that I should shut down the computer. But I didn’t. There was a pop on the screen and then no phone, no internet, no computer. The storm was intense and lasted a couple of hours, so I didn’t really expect service to return quickly and I was ignoring the fact that the computer wouldn’t turn on. By the next morning, it was clear that we needed service, but a review of all the paperwork from our provider, Movistar, and its on-line site (via my cell phone, which thankfully has a data plan) revealed that the only way to call for service was from a Movistar phone. Ours didn’t work; that was part of the problem. So we walked to our friend’s house and her housekeeper called Movistar for us and explained the problem. A tech would come within 24 hours.

And he did come, later that afternoon. We explained the problem and showed him that the phone and modem both didn’t work. We also explained that the modem wouldn’t power up at all – clearly it was fried, not that we know that idiomatic expression in Spanish, but he seemed to understand. He checked a few things, confirmed nothing worked and then said he needed to check the lines but had to wait as a strong storm had kicked up. He waited, we waited, and then, next thing we knew, he was gone without a word and nothing was fixed. We hung around the rest of the day, optimistic that he would return. Wrong.

On Sunday Matt returned to our friend’s house and called Movistar while I hopefully waited at home. This time, Matt couldn’t get out of the automatic system because there was already a service code associated with our phone number and the recording said a tech would be out within 24 hours. So we waited around the house all day and no one came.

On Monday, Matt had a coworker call as the 24 hours was up to 48 hours and still no resolution or return visit. This time, we received a new service code and his coworker told him they had another 24 hours to send a tech. What? They already had 48 hours and no one had fixed the problem, but apparently that is the way it works here. So I again was homebound, waiting for the tech who never arrived. At some point our phone came back on and later there was an automated call from Movistar. I didn’t quite understand all of it, but thought I hit the right number that indicated we still had a problem as the internet was not going to work until we got a new modem.

On Tuesday, Matt had a coworker call another time as 24 hours had elapsed yet again. Same routine: new code, 24 hours. I was ballistic by this point. How can Movistar buy itself another 24 hours just by giving us a new code? I felt chained to the house as I was not going to miss the tech visit and had instructed Olga to be on high alert for anyone at the door. On Monday I ran to the door or window about every 2 minutes as I was fearful of missing the tech guy when he arrived. I was doing the same thing on Tuesday, which is how I saw the tech across the street and accosted him. After that incident and still no tech, I insisted that Matt go to Movistar after work and explain in person what was happening and what we needed. He did and was assured someone would come the next day (today) and that the tech would call first. Matt also asked whether the tech would come with a modem in his car and the woman laughed and said yes.

The first thing I did today was to instruct Olga that her most important job of the day was to answer the phone (I was worried that it would be a recording and I don’t understand those well) so that we didn’t miss the tech’s visit. Yep, she missed the call. I was furious and, while I didn’t yell at her, I did go yell in the other room. After I calmed down, I asked her to call Movistar (as our phone now worked we could call from home) and find out if a tech was coming.  After about 20 minutes she came and told me that Movistar had no record of any problem with our line, but that she had a code and a tech would come in 24 hours. WTF??? By this time, I was ranting in Spanish the best I could (though I really need to learn to say WTF) and asked Olga how that made any sense when the tech was here, on Saturday, when we have called every day for the past 4 days and when Matt actually went to Movistar yesterday. She seemed puzzled by these questions and seemed to find it perfectly reasonable that we would wait another 24 hours now that we had a code.  What?? I had had enough of this senseless conversation when there was a knock at the door.

Yes, it was the same tech- from Saturday, from yesterday- at the door. I went to the computer room when he arrived and politely explained, though I really wanted to wring his neck, that the modem didn’t work and we didn’t have internet. He looked at it and conceded that was the case, but said he didn’t have a modem because he was there to service our …phone. What??? I told him that he knew the internet and modem didn’t work since he came on Saturday (I thought it prudent to ignore our conversation of the prior afternoon). He responded that he was here for the service call from 11 am yesterday that said there was a problem with the phone so that is what he came to fix. (*@!^$&(^$  But, he assured me, he would come back in a half hour with a modem because he knew we had been waiting for it. It is now 3 1/2 hours. I am still waiting.

This whole exchange proves that you can take the girl out of America, but you can’t take America out of the girl. I am still trying to figure out what part of this bothers me the most: the lack of internet, which I depend on for my amusement while I am home alone all day; my loss of independence as I feel chained to the house (despite sneaking out to use my friend’s internet at the moment); or the sheer inefficiency, which my Type A personality can pretend to handle most of the time but really can’t.

Update: The (same) tech showed up, a mere 6 1/2 hours late. But he had a modem and we are connected again. Yippee! Next step: finding out if our iMac can be salvaged. Fingers crossed…

Happy St. Paddy’s Day – Better Late Than Never!

Yesterday I was in Lima obtaining my Peruvian residency card. It was a typical bureaucratic experience with two items of note: the Peruvians determined that I am a green-eyed blond (and here I thought I was a brown-eyed brunette for the past 45 years) and my residency stamp is on the visa page with a JFK quote, which seemed fitting for St. Patrick’s Day. I did not have the luck o’ the Irish when our plane from Lima arrived over Cajamarca, circled a few times, and then flew back to Lima as the pilot determined the weather didn’t permit him to land. Or maybe not landing was the lucky part! In any event, for that reason this post is a day late.

Although the month of Carnival festivities had worn us out, we decided to throw a St. Patrick’s Day party last Saturday for our expat and Peruvian friends. The Peruvians were quite interested to know what a St. Paddy’s Day party entailed, and we were at a bit of a loss – uh, drinking and wearing green? But we stepped it up and made corned beef (from scratch, no handy pre-brined meat here), potato salad (okay, not entirely Irish, but the potatoes count), oatmeal cookies,  and Irish cream brownies (courtesy of our friend Sarah), greeted everyone at the door with a shot of Baileys or Jameson and had the Irish tunes playing. Matt boss, Peter, contributed some Pogues and other contemporary Celtic tunes that complemented our Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem collection quite nicely.

It was pretty cool to have 5 countries represented : USA, Canada, Peru, Colombia and Mexico and everyone enjoying a typical American St. Patrick’s Day party. But the Peruvians like to sing and dance.  While I was tempted to teach them all Weela, Wallia, I was concerned that this group of educators might not see the justice in the song but instead wonder why I was singing a song about killing a baby. (My kindergarden teacher wondered the same thing and called my parents for an explanation.  True story.) We put on some YouTube videos teaching Irish dance, but as all I know about Irish dance is that you have to keep your arms down and shoulders straight, that was short lived.  We gave the Electric Slide and Boot Scootin’ Boogie a shot (thank you, Mistina and Sarah), but in the end, Latin music prevailed. One of the teachers noted, “you Americans dance with your legs, not your hips” and I think she understood why learning to salsa is not natural for us! The party went until the wee hours and a good time was had by all.

Clean Up

Clean Up

Goodbye to Carnival – The Davy College Unsha

The last party of Carnival is the Unsha, where a tree is cut down, moved somewhere else and “planted” in the ground, street, wherever, and then decorated with presents, danced around and chopped down at which time there is a mad dash for the presents. We asked several Peruvians the origin or symbolism of Unsha and were told it was just a Cajamarca Carnival tradition. So whatever the initial meaning was, it is apparently lost! Different neighborhoods, or barrios, have their Unsha celebrations, as did Matt’s school. The Davy Unsha operates as both the traditional Carnival celebration as well as a staff party and newbie hazing. We were warned, so we knew to have an extra change of clothes although I managed to decline the hazing ceremony, so avoided the eggs on my head and was just sprayed with water and dusted with baby powder.

Matt did a fantastic job with the pictures and a video on his blog, so I am now going to cheat and direct you there.

Be sure to watch the (short) video – it is well worth it and you get to see eggs cracked on Matt’s head!

One Parade Too Many – Cajamarca Carnival Part 2

I hate parades. I like the crowds, merriment and people watching before the parade, but I get bored silly sitting on the sidelines and watching endless streams of paraders. Until attending Markesan’s June Dairy Days parade became a cottage tradition that I was shamed into by my young niece and nephew, I had managed to avoid parades for a good decade. Then we moved to Cajamarca. There are parades for Saints, Patria (Independence), Carnival and endless other reasons, or so it seems. Because we want to participate in cultural events, we have gone to most of them. For Carnival alone we attended 3 parades, the paint parade and two “normal” parades.  We were under the impression that Sunday and Monday’s parades were distinct, but with the exception of some floats, generally carrying the barrio (neighborhood) queens and princesses, Monday’s parade wasn’t much different than Sunday’s parade. On Sunday, Matt, Mistina and I went to the parade early and managed to get a good standing spot near the beginning of the route. The vendors were hawking everything from food, toys, super soakers and plastic, hats and umbrellas to protect from the super soakers, balloons and pails of water that are customary at all of the Carnival events (including the burial of the Ño Carnivalón!).

After waiting about 1 1/2  hours, the parade began and even I was impressed.  The costumes were fantastic and so different from what we have in the US (or at least at June Dairy Days).  The only major irritation was that despite staking our spot for 2 hours, we were battered by people shoving past us. We lasted at the parade for about 1 1/2 hours before I got bored.

We then went to two teachers’ house for additional festivities that included throwing water balloons off the balcony at departing parade attendees. Note: there was major retaliation when a guy threw a bucket of water at us and then a flatbed truck spotted us and drove down our street to douse us with water. We also had the special treat of a homemade Cajamarquino meal: Chupe verde (my favorite herb soup with potatoes, egg and fresh cheese), chicharrones (fried pork), sweet potatoes, yuca, corn and delicious Peruvian condiments.  Dessert was fresh cheese with honey.  Delicious!  As if the food wasn’t amazing enough, we also had very pure cañazo, 14 year old beer and chicha de mani (a peanut based liquor) that had a smell reminiscent of Chinese food and an interesting smoky flavor. After eating, the karaoke machine was set up and we listened to our friends sing Peruvian songs. Then the dancing began and we got some salsa lessons. Honestly, I think Latin Americans are born knowing how to salsa; I clearly was not as I am usually thrusting the wrong hip!

On Monday we were off to another parade, but this time we were prepared.

Prepared to Play Carnival

Prepared to Play Carnival

Mistina, Sarah, her 2 1/2 year old twins (Emma and Beau), Matt and I went to the parade route and after a block of scoping out the crowds decided that paying 20 soles each ($7.20) for front row seats was worth it!  Later we realized that a front row seat with a plastic roof might have been a better idea.  We were generally exempt from intentional water attacks due to Emma and Beau so we didn’t get to use our balloons as that would have prompted an attack that would have certainly involved the kids.

And then the parade began and apart from the floats and the fact that some of the marchers looked like they had been drinking all night (and probably were), it was just like the parade the day before!  We lasted about 2 hours (after waiting 2 hours) and then decided to leave.  Little did we know that leaving was not easy as access to the route is blocked off by viewing stands, makeshift structures, trucks and the like.  We walked several blocks before there was a small opening that we were able to climb through, with the help of many kind strangers, to get out. The parade lasted several more hours, so we were all happy we left when we did. Next year, two parades will definitely be my maximum and one might even suffice.

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Today we have another Carnival Celebration: the Davy College Unsha.  A tree is erected and then you have a party to chop it down!  Last night we watched a tree get dragged down our street and then a few hours later Mistina and I walked down the block to see what the commotion was.  With the world’s dullest ax they were cutting branches off the bottom so that the tree would fit it into the hole in the middle of the street.  I was not convinced the power lines were safe so we left as they erected it.  Apparently these trees are “planted” in the streets all over the city!

Ding, Dong the Ño is Dead – Cajamarca Carnival Part 1

Cajamarquinos know how to party! Cajamarca is the Carnival Capital of Peru and the official Cajamarca “Programa Carnaval” has events beginning on January 23 and ending on March 9. To the uninitiated (us) it was a little hard to figure out what is Carnival related and why, but here are the main events that we experienced.

Water, Water everywhere.  This phenomenon actually began before January 23 when my friend Mistina and I were on a walk and got sprayed with water from a passing vehicle.  She bore the brunt of the attack and looked at her soggy clothes with a shocked expression . “What was that?  Is this water?” We decided to assume the best, that it was water, but were confused by the experience. We had never encountered any anti-American animus but wondered whether something had happened while we were on Christmas break that would lead to random, anonymous aggression. A couple days later I was walking my usual bike path route when WHOOSH!  A bucket of water was thrown at me. Thankfully, the aim was off so I was merely splashed with the aftereffects. I turned and yelled at the passing vehicle (maybe even made a nasty gesture, it was instinct, I swear) and the guys in the truck bed were busting a gut. Matt did some investigation at work and learned that water antics are a part of Carnival and start sometime in January. So attacks with water balloons, super soakers, buckets and hoses are all in good fun, condoned and to be expected. Despite this, we didn’t have too many other experiences with random acts of water until the parades this past weekend. Matt inadvertently stumbled into a water fight in our neighborhood last week, but as some of the participants were his students they respectfully gave him a pass. The same thing happened this weekend as we were walking from one of the parades.

Ño Carnavalón.  This guy shows up everywhere and can best be described as the Life of the Party (or, in this case, Carnival). For awhile I understood him to be a demon but I am not sure that is the case although he was dressed like a devil when he got married to the Doña Carnavalón in Baños a couple of weekends ago and he generally looks pretty scary. Saturday’s parade was the Ingreso de Ño Carnavalón (Arrival of the Carnival Ño), the event that really gets the party started. Sunday and Monday’s parades featured the Ño (or various versions of him), last night was his wake (yep, he died. Probably from too much partying) and today was his cremation in Baños. RIP until next year Ño Carnivalón, and maybe we can finally get a full night’s sleep! Last night the music started in Baños at 11:30 pm and this morning on Matt’s 5:30 am walk to work he passed three guys, one holding up his friend, who was holding a beer, and the third playing a snare drum. The party never stops!

The Ño and Doña Arrive

The Ño and Doña Arrive

Ño and Doña

Doña and Ño

Ño cremation

Ño cremation

The Paint Parade.  “Stay home,” we were warned, “It’s dirty. People are out of control.” Saturday’s parade, while technically called the Ingreso de Ño Carnavalón, is locally known as the paint parade. Apart from the truck carrying Ño and Doña, the rest of the parade is comprised of gangs of people, who sing, dance, drink and throw paint at everyone and everything. People, cars, houses, the police – nothing is sacred. We were invited to our friend Maribel’s house, which is conveniently located on the parade route, for breakfast and to enjoy the parade.  And by “enjoy” I mean lob water balloons and, when those ran out, buckets of water at the parade participants from the roof of her building!

Not that we were safe. First, I will never engage in bomb making as I managed to soak myself (and Matt) by overfilling balloons. Kiera, Maribel’s niece, was worse and changed her clothes 2 times before we even began (of course, she is only 8). Then the neighbors decided to wage water war on us (and they were slightly higher up and had better throwing arms) and finally, this truck was in the parade to retaliate against roof watchers like us.

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After the parade passed we had a nice, traditional lunch of fried trout, corn and rice and then decided to join the fray. I was a little nervous given all the warnings, but wasn’t going to be the party pooper. So 8 of us packed into a sedan cab (9 counting the driver) and buzzed off to the fun.  And was it fun!  Being conspicuously paint free, we were quickly accosted and painted. People literally surrounded us and slapped, threw, dabbed or dumped paint on us. And then they offered us shots! We were invited to tag along with one group and at every turn they would herd us along with them. It was hilarious – singing (the same endless tune with different verses, which Matt and I faked knowing as people urged us to sing), dancing, drinking (okay, I declined the shots for the most part as I think the bottles had as much paint as alcohol in them). Eventually we ran into some friends of Maribel’s and we ditched our first gang and joined our second one. We ended up in front of someone’s house and the carousing continued, including the homeowners bringing out chicha de jora, a traditional corn beer, cañazo, distilled sugar cane, and a pan of rice and sausage. Apparently these street parties are common as we saw many of them.  Of course, now that we were part of the parade, we were doused with water, which was karmic payback, no doubt!  After a couple of hours, the crowd was getting drunk, it started raining and we decided to call it a day on a high note. The paint parade got two thumbs up from Matt and me and was our favorite parade of Carnival.  To get a complete feel for the event, check out Matt’s blog where he posted videos of the day.

Clean Up

Clean Up

Money, Money, Money – Navigating the Blue Market

The pesos are sticking to my boobs as Matt and I race-walk the mile back to our apartment in the 100 degree heat after our first “blue market” transaction. We exchanged $700, which translated to 7700 pesos. 77 bills to stuff in our pockets, Matt’s shoe and my bra. While walking around with a few hundred dollars in the US would not put us in a tizzy, Americans are constantly warned of the perils of carrying large sums of money in South American countries. The cost-benefit analysis promotes the robbing of tourists in countries where an average monthly wage likely is far lower than the few hundred dollars a tourist has in his pocket. Adding to our, okay, really just my, paranoia is the fact that we have left a “cave,” an illegal-but-condoned private money changer, and anyone hanging around clearly knows that we each have a wad of cash somewhere on our person.


So what led me, generally a stickler for the rules, to illegal trading?  Economics, pure and simple. On the day we arrived in Argentina, the official exchange rate was 6.7 pesos per dollar. At our local cave, to which we were directed by our landlady, we got 11 pesos per dollar, which allowed our dollars to stretch an additional 64 percent. All guide books, websites, Argentines and just about anyone who had ever been to Argentina told us to exchange our money on the so-called blue market, and when we arrived to Buenos Aires, the blue market rate was published in the newspaper and stated on the television newscasters’ money reports alongside the official rate. So we were initially confused – was the blue market the same as the black market? After all, the second time we walked out of our local cave, there were about 10 police officers in front of the place and not one of them gave us a second look. And our cave had no front business – the door said Consultancy and it was a small lobby with two teller windows. We would hand over our dollars, they would get passed off to someone in a back room and a wad of pesos would come our way. The only added consulting service was when the cashier taught us how to spot counterfeit pesos, which just added to my paranoia about getting ripped off as a tourist.

And then there were the caves on Florida street, the bustling shopping district that had about 10 people on every corner shouting “exchange,” “dollars,” “buy dollars” and the like. We were intimidated by Florida street as we weren’t sure how to avoid getting ripped off or counterfeit bills (honestly, when you are getting that many bills are you going to sit in some back room and look at each one?) so we stuck with our local “consultancy” and grew more relaxed about the walk back to the apartment with our cash.

The blue market exists because Argentines distrust the stability of the peso and prefer the relative stability of good ol’ greenbacks. Stashing dollars under the mattress is no joke. Although most Argentines use a house safe, we literally stuffed our dollars and pesos under our mattress.  In 2011, in an attempt to curb this behavior, the government essentially forbade Argentines to own dollars except for travel abroad. Even then, the individual had to apply to obtain US dollars for a trip and such requests were not always granted, or were granted in a stingy fashion. One Argentine told us that people began booking cheap US flights they never intended to use just to obtain some dollars. Going across the river to Colonia, Uruguay, where dollars can be withdrawn from an ATM is also popular. Foreigners can not withdraw dollars from an Argentine bank or ATM, and charging purchases makes no sense as you will get the official exchange rate. So we arrived in Argentina with our entire vacation budget in cash and hit the blue market.

About a week after we arrive the peso plummeted, falling 17% in two days, raising the official exchange rate to 8. The government first decried the blue market, admonished newspapers and television stations for publishing the blue rates, and cracked down on the caves with a series of raids. The government then announced that the restrictions on owning dollars would be loosened and a plan would be announced in a few days. Unsure whether the changes would render the blue market obsolete, we quickly exchanged a few hundred dollars and got an abysmal 9.9 pesos to dollar rate. The following week the government announced that the loosened restrictions would allow Argentines to buy a certain amount of dollars per year based on income, but those dollars must saved in a bank account for a year or be subject to a hefty penalty for early withdrawal.  Our “consultancy” had a padlock on the door but Matt and I needed to exchange a few more dollars.  We headed to Florida Street and the mood was subdued – no one hawking their rates or shouting “cambio,” but quiet people hanging around with calculators in hand.  We asked our Peruvian friend to come with us and she was amazing in action: approaching various exchangers before negotiating an fantastic 12.2 rate for us. We followed the woman down a side street and into an actual travel agency where we were buzzed in and the door locked behind us.  Matt and I would have freaked out on our own in that situation, but we felt fine with our friend, particularly after she discerned that  the owner was Peruvian and chatted him up.  He was tickled that we lived in Peru, so we dispensed with checking the cash for counterfeits and hoped we weren’t ripped off (we weren’t).

We are headed back to Argentina in May for a wine trip to Mendoza, so I checked to see whether the blue market remains alive and well.  It is.  As of today, the official rate is 7.88 and the blue rate is 11.25.  Apparently, Argentines still want their dollars.