A Trip To The Supermercado

Supermercado Mega
There are plenty of local abarrotes (corner grocery shops) near us, but just like the ubiquitous 7-11 convenience stores back home in the United States, the selection is poor and the prices are relatively high. For bulk shopping we head to a supermercado, just as we would back home. Since there are no supermercados near our San Blas apartment, we shop at the Mega on Plaza Tupac Amaru. This location works for us because can walk over while our kids are at their nightly swim practice at the Piscina Municipal.

There’s a large open-air market near our apartment, where we normally buy our fruits and vegetables, but we have yet to purchase any meat there. While the meat monger seems to do a brisk business, there is something about seeing meat lying on a concrete counter while flies hop all over it that makes us cringe. As such, we buy our beef and chicken from the meat counter at the supermercado, where they even have packaged, boneless chicken breasts. Even though I have no idea where they’ve been previously, I am somehow comforted by seeing chicken breasts that have been wrapped in cellophane. It’s either because of the perceived cleanliness or perhaps it is because I know I can quickly grab a package instead of waiting for a woman behind the counter to help me. The women behind the counter seem pretty disinterested and it is sometimes hard to get their attention.

The delicatessen counter, however, is a different story. It is hard to walk by without one of the women touting their bacon, offering a sample of ham or suggesting a local cheese. It makes me wonder if they are on commission. Despite their hard sell, I tend to avoid the deli counter as most of the meat has a curious orange color and I’ve yet to find a cheese I like. We do like the packaged salami and Serrano ham for sandwiches. Beyond these two items, some of our standbys are the fresh-squeezed orange juice, ciabatta bread rolls and the kid’s favorite -- Piqueo Snax -- a spicy mixture of snack foods. In general, the selection of fruits, vegetables and grains is excellent and – this being Peru – I always have a choice of at least 10 types of potatoes.

I sometimes run into trouble with the ladies that weigh the produce. For example, when I buy the bulk peeled garlic, it is usually for a dish I plan to cook, so I’ll only bag 5-6 peeled clove pieces. When I put the bag on the scale, the ladies shake their head and tell me I need to buy more. The first time I was sent back twice until I had the requisite number. When I asked the lady what I should do with all the extra garlic, she just shrugged. I got my revenge a few weeks ago when purchasing cilantro. The cilantro bin was just about empty but I was able to find a small handful, which was exactly how much I needed. I brought it to the scale and the lady shook her head and said I needed more. When I told her that there was no more she marched over to the herb section and searched it thoroughly while I tried to suppress a grin.

The store is a smaller than we are used to. The aisles are very narrow so I find it easier to park my cart in the back of the store and go back and forth for what I need. There’s also a shortage of shopping carts; weekday evenings my cart is often snatched away just as I pull the last item out to place it on the checkout counter. Once the checkout clerk has rung me up, I find that the bill usually comes pretty close to 100 soles ($33 USD), probably because that’s the amount of food that will fit into 4 bags, the maximum that I can carry back to the swimming pool.


A Visit To The Venta De Repuestos

Venta de Repuestos (and guard dog)
Not long after finding spare shoelaces in the local market near our apartment, my wife asked me to fix her rolling backpack. The bag, an Eagle Creek Switchback 25, had a telescoping handle that had decided to stop telescoping. I took it apart and found a small part that had broken inside the pack. I needed a fairly thin nut and bolt to secure it so that it would again function properly. After a few failed attempts at finding the right part at some local ferreterias (hardware shops), I decided to check out the group of shops down the street where I found my spare shoelaces.

I walked down to the corner and walked straight to number 9, the Venta de Repuestos (spare parts shop). The shop was like all the others: rusty, corrugate-tin roof, fading blue paint, hand-painted sign, very cramped and parts strewn everywhere inside. This shop had something the others didn’t: a watchdog. I thought about petting him, but up close he looked scarred and mangy -- signs of aggressiveness and disease – so I gave him a wide berth.

The proprietor greeted me and I showed him the broken bolt and I asked if he had something similar. He started looking around his tiny shop, moving aside fuses, screws, coils of wire, gas canisters, bolts, clamps and nails. The interesting thing about his shop was that there did not seem to be any rhyme or reason to his merchandise assortment.  It was if each of the parts in his shop arrived there via some unique circumstance and not ordered from a parts catalog.  The shop was about 8’ x 4’ and it did not take him long locate a nut and bolt that looked like it fit my needs. I held it up to my broken bolt and it looked like a match. I got home and used the new bolt to fix the telescoping handle. My wife had her backpack fixed and I felt good about using a local resource for the solution.

Searching For Shoelaces In Cusco

The Master of Shoe Repair
About 30 meters from our apartment in Cusco is a local fruit and vegetable market where we bought our produce a few times a week. Next to this semi-covered market on the outskirts of San Blas, is an open-air courtyard with a dozen small shops offering anything from appliance and shoe repair to the sale of spare parts and second-hand goods. The tiny shops blend into the blue walls and terracotta tiles of the courtyard walls and I walked by them for months before I had occasion to stop by and explore.

The first occasion was to stop by for a pair of shoelaces at the shoe repair place. I stopped by number four, named “Shoe Repair – The Master,” and greeted the 50-year old man working on an antique sewing machine while his adult son hammered tiny nails into the soles of shoe. In front of the shop was a hodgepodge of chairs, spare parts, a metal workbench and a large vice. The roofing was terracotta tile extended by haphazardly-placed metal corrugate sheets. Fortunately it was not raining as the downspout – which looked ready to fall at any moment – was aimed directly at where I stood. Inside, shoes were shelved on the wall, strips of leather, wooden heels were stacked and there were a few dozen plastic containers full of nails, tools and parts essential to shoe repair.

After exchanging greetings, the owner, who peered at me through rheumy eyes, politely asked me what I was looking for: “Senor, que busca?” I held up some shoelaces that were dirty and ready to fall apart and asked if he carried any spares. As he told me that he doesn’t normally carry shoelaces, he started looking under piles of leather squares and in the many bins placed beneath the counter. He kept looking, while explaining that the money was in the service of repairing shoes not in selling spare shoelaces. He kept looking and repeated this to me as if to reinforce that he was losing money just by helping me. Just as I thought he was going to reiterate this idea again, he found a pair of laces that looked to be about the same size. While they were just as dirty as mine, they were in good shape so I said I’d take them. I paid him the equivalent of a dollar. Yes, it was too much for pair of dirty shoelaces in the Andes, but I figured I’d paid for the right not to hear him complain again.


Miguel Angel's Choice

Wood carving detail on my chair
In some ways, Miguel Angel is much like the city in which he was born. The 28 year old Cusqueño with a cheerful countenance and easy manner seems torn between the same two worlds that divide Cusco: the world of the traditional and world of the tourist.

Miguel Angel was named after his father, the Italian translation of which echoes the name of one of the world’s greatest sculptors: Michelangelo. Miguel Angel’s father is a well-known wood carver and sculptor who makes pieces of wood come alive with intricate and detailed workmanship. The father makes altarpieces, armoires, picture frames, headboards, doors and all types of furniture (see photo). As I write this I am sitting in one of his chairs, a beautifully carved, high-back dining chair. He is particularly well-known for his altarpieces which adorn many churches in Cusco and one of his best sits in a museum in Denver, Colorado in the United States. The father has been able to support a large family through his work and they live very comfortably by Cusco standards. He’s done well enough to build 3 floors above his house to rent out: we live on the third floor. I’m guessing that there is some degree of pressure on his sons to follow in his footsteps: Miguel Angel carries on the Michelangelo name and his older brother is named David, after one of Michelangelo’s greatest works. I occasionally see Miguel Angel working on small pieces, just like his father; the other day he was gold-leafing a small carved picture frame downstairs. He’s also shown me a large painting that he’s done that is pretty good.

Like Cusco, I think it’s been hard for Miguel Angel to resist the allure of tourism and the money it brings in. One of the University of Cusco’s most popular degree programs is tourism, which combines history, language (English), cultural anthropology, archeology and business. The number of travel agencies in Cusco and the number of Cusqueños who speak some English has increased greatly since I was last here 23 years ago. Whenever I talk to someone working in a travel agency and ask them where they learned their English, they usually reply “in university.” Miguel Angel and his cousin have had plans to start a travel agency for some time now, but it has been slow getting off the ground. They have an office space downstairs with desks, phones, printed literature and some large posters of the various sites in and around Cusco. With his personal charm, good looks and ease around people, I think he would be very successful.

One of the pre-requisites of running a successful travel agency is being able to speak English. Miguel Angel was studying at a language school for a while but had to postpone his lessons in order to help his father build out the apartments upstairs. When I asked him about this, he smiled quickly, shrugged and said “My father needs my help.” Now that the apartments are finished and rented out, it will be interesting to see which direction he takes: the world of the traditional or the world of the tourist.

The Best And The Worst Haircut

Peruvian barber shop
One of the things that I did not have time to do prior to leaving for South America was get a haircut; there were just too many things to do, plus I figured that I could always get a cheap one in Peru. Right about the time we arrived in Peru in late April, I noticed a brand-new hair salon two doors down from our Spanish school. It had 3 barber chairs, a full accompaniment of hair paraphernalia and a large poster with Brad Pitt and Megan Fox grinning and showing off their well-coifed hair. The proprietor was a woman in her late 20’s and when she wasn’t standing in front of the door waiting for customers, she was in the back room taking care of two small kids. I’d walked by each day for a week before impulsively deciding to go for it. I plopped down in the chair and said “Quiero aparacer como Brad Pitt.” (I want to look like Brad Pitt)

Sometimes an impulsive decision in Cusco turns out to be a great story: a chance visit to a non-descript panaderia reveals their awesome onion bread rolls or extreme thirst makes me enter a “hole in the wall” restaurant that serves outstanding chicha morada. This was not going to be one of those stories. She nervously started cutting one side of my head and I could feel her hands shaking while my daughter was documenting the experience with her new camera. I started to wonder whether she had ever given a haircut before. Once the ordeal was over, I surveyed the damage in the mirror: on the left side of my head the hair stood straight up and only copious amounts of water would make it lay down. I left thinking that it was the worst haircut I’ve ever received.

Usually my hair grows back pretty quickly and I often make the following joke “What’s the difference between a good haircut and a bad haircut? About 2-3 weeks.” Well, three weeks and then four weeks went by and it still looked bad. After about 6 weeks I stopped thinking about it. A few months later we returned from our vacation in Bolivia and it was time for another haircut. My son accompanied me to a busy barber shop a few blocks from the Plaza de Armas and as we walked in the next available barber motioned me over. Romulo was one of 10 barbers working in the shop and he sat me in his chair and started snipping at my hair. The first things I noticed about him were his severe limp and his forceful way of positioning my head while cutting hair. He grabbed my chin and moved my head to the right while snipping away with dull scissors. The scissors pulled on my hair a bit and I had flashbacks to my earlier experience, but as I watched him at work, I gradually began to realize that he really knew what he was doing. He was very thorough and the haircut took almost 30 minutes. My son was so impressed that he decided to get a haircut as well. I gave Romulo a big tip and my son and I left thinking that we’d just had our best haircuts ever. I found it amusing that both my best and worst haircuts were both here in Cusco. It was no surprise to me that the hair salon run by the woman who butchered my hair was no longer in business.

About a month later, at a point where I had a 3 week growth of beard, I decided I would go back and get a shave from Romulo. I walked in, sat down and made eye contact with Romulo. He let me know that he’d be with me shortly by holding up one finger so I leaned back in my chair and looked around the barber shop. I looked at each barber in the shop and then my eyes rested on the barber working the chair next to Romulo and…it was the woman who gave me my worst haircut. Not only were my best and worst haircuts given in the same South American town, the barbers were now working 2 feet from one another.