October 9, 2013

I have a new blog, and it's totally different... because I actually seem to be updating it.


October 2, 2009

A Beginner´s Guide to Peru

If you´ve just landed in Peru, or are planning to travel there soon, here is a brief introduction to this enigmatic and eclectic country.

1. Peru is a South American country that may not conform to many of the hygienic standards you´re used to at home. You should drink only purified water and follow basic hygienic and sanitary guidelines (a number of excellent websites give detailed instructions on this issue).

2. Spanish is the primary language of Peru (as with most of South America) but differs slightly from the Spanish spoken in Spain, and even in Mexico to some extent.
- In Spain it is common to ¨lisp¨ consonants, while in South America this is not the case.
- When Spanish is spoken rapidly, B and V can often sound the same to a foreigner, although this is less applicable in Peru than in other countries such as Mexico (in my opinion). So a quick ¨por favor¨ might sound somewhat like ¨por fabor¨ instead.

3. Peru is a fairly casual place, and being overly dressed-up will probably make you stand out - particularly if you wear huge amount of jewelry or wear extremely fancy clothing.

4. The stereotype of the romantically-aggressive Latin American male is often shown to be surprisingly true. Women walking down the street (particularly in larger cities like Lima) can expect to be whistled or called at, even if they are not dressed provacatively. However, unlike in most of North America, you should not return these calls with any kind of response whatsoever. If you respond negatively you are insulting their pride (and will appear somewhat crazy/overreacting since these calls are almost entirely harmless), and if you smile or otherwise look at the caller neutrally, they will follow you and try to strike up a conversation. Occasionally other pedestrians will try to talk to you as you walk, particularly if you appear foreign, asking you where you come from, what your name is, etc. The best strategy is to simply look straight ahead and ignore whoever is trying to talk to you, and they will probably not follow up their advances after you pass by (or cross the road, if they´re being particularly aggressive).

5. The aggressiveness of market vendors varies tremendously, even from day to day. Some days you can wander around freely while other days you can´t enter a corridor without five different people yelling that you should enter their shops. Just do your best to deal with this gracefully.

6. Bargaining. Bargaining is intimidating to those who are unused to it, but it is a fundamental part of much of South American culture and must be understood in order to shop in many areas, such as markets (although in places with posted prices bargaining is not permitted, so don´t try). The goal of bargaining is to find a price that works for both parties, so don´t approach bargaining as a quest to squeeze the lowest possible price out of the vendor.

How to bargain:
**Note that this is based solely on my experiences bargaining around the world for various things. I have no expertise in this area, and I´m sure a market vendor would offer very different advice on the subject - this is just what has worked for me.
1. Indicate the item and ask the vendor ¨cuanto cuesta esto? [Kwan-to kwest-a es-to?], which means ¨how much is this?¨¨
2. The vendor will give you a price and if you don´t understand numbers in Spanish, say ¨no comprendo¨ and indicate that you´d like to see the price written down. Most vendors have a calculator or some paper for this purpose, and you can use it- along with gestures- for the rest of the transaction if you need to.
3. If they give you a price and you´re not sure if it is in dollars or soles, ask the vendor if it is given in dollars or soles (soles are the Peruvian currency and are more common, although American dollars are sometimes used as well and prices may therefore be listed in either). If you simply say ¨soles?¨ in a questioning voice, most people will nod and and say either ¨si¨(yes) or simply ¨yes¨, but you may need to say ¨soles o dollars? [¨o¨ is ¨or¨ in Spanish] to get your point across. This is all relatively simplistic and crude but it should get your point across without you having to learn a number of complicated phrases.
4. Once they have given you a price, use common sense to figure out what to counter-offer. It is not generally insulting to offer them something between 40% and 50% of what they have suggested if the price seems ridiculously high. If the price seems pretty reasonable, offer 10 to 20% percent less. Make your offer with a smile, as this will make the process much more pleasant for both of you.
5. As I mentioned before, this is not a battle - it should be a friendly exchange resulting in a price that works for both parties. This is the moment in which you will discover whether they are willing to meet your price, how much effort it will take, and whether you want to purchase the item.
- Even if you´re bargaining apropriately you might get a response that seems inordinately distressed, pleading, unhappy or unimpressed - this is a technique often used to keep the price from dropping to ridiculous levels. However, you may have given a price that is so low that they feel insulted, so please use your judgement to determine whether they are playing hard-to-get, or if they are legitimately upset because they´re worried you will force the price so low they can´t make a profit [remember that although you are engaging in a strange practice and may be worried about being ripped off in a language you don´t understand while using a foreign currency, remember that they are trying to run a business and they often have to deal with tourists who offer a ridiculously low price then force the sale by walking away, thus forcing them to accept a substandard price - which many people do, since they need sales - or lose the sale entirely].
- Take the number they give you in return and offer something reasonable (but less, obviously) - I´d advise something within 5 to 20% of their response, for the second offer - that you are willing to pay that seems appropriate for the item.
-If they come halfway toward your price, you should probably meet them there (with perhaps 5% less or so). If they refuse to lower their price you can try walking away so that they are forced to accept your price or lose the sale, but be careful that you are not forcing them to take an unreasonably low price.

Most bargaining occurs in a competitive environment where the vendor is competing with others for your business, so keep in mind that they will usually accomodate your demands if you refuse to pay what they´re requesting. However, this can result in an exchange that they aren´t entirely satisfied with, so don´t abuse this flexibility of pricing, and only force a sale if you are certain that your price is realistic and their unhappiness is either due to their own particular personality or an attempt at hardcore salesmanship. Personally I´d rather be polite and friendly and risk being marginally overcharged (which I´m sure I have been at many points) than turn it into a fight where I´m forcing them to accept my price. This is not to say that I happily hand over whatever they ask, but that I simply try to determine the lowest possible price they find acceptable and to settle on that. There have been times I´ve met a price but chosen to raise it slightly afterward because I´ve seen various cues that it was too low, and there have been times (not too many, of course) where vendors have actually offered me a better price than I expected simply because I embraced the process as an engaged interaction in which we could both win. Of course not every experience will be full of laughter and happiness, but if one of you is upset or frustrated at the end of every transaction, you may want to work on your bargaining skills.

Peruvian food is excellent, but can be intimidating to the uninitiated. Here is a quick guide to Peruvian cuisine.
1. Ceviche - ceviche is, amazingly enough, raw seafood that is not actually cooked but just marinated in lemon juices, which do ¨cook¨ it to some extent. It IS possible to become sick or contract diseases/parasites from ceviche, but this is also possible with cooked seafood and depends on a number of different factors you should investigate if you´re concerned. Ceviche is amazing, and can be ordered with any combination of seafood including (or excluding) different types of fish, octopus, shrimp, and other sea creatures. Strangely enough, Peruvian ceviche often has a sweet potato (similar to a yam) or corn at the bottom of the dish. Give it a try - it seems peculiar but works surprisingly well.

2. Potatos (papas) and corn (chocklo) are staples of Peruvian cuisine. If you speak to a Peruvian cuisine enthusiast they will tell you excitedly about the thousands of different varieties of potato grown in Peru, and the fact that Peru invented the potato (I say invented rather than discovered, since the cultivation of most modern potato breeds involved so much dedicated, selective cross-breeding over thousands of years that it would be unfair to imply that the Incas simply wandered on to wild potatos waiting to be dug up and eaten).

3. Corn seems to mysteriously find its way into everything, and can be found in a purple, sweet drink called chicha morada and a kind of thick, corn jello pudding called mazamorra morada that actually tastes quite a lot like pie filling.

4. In Peru, chillies are called ¨aji¨ [ah-HE], not ¨chilies¨. If you order Chile in a restaurant you may get some very strange looks since this generally refers to the country, not produce.

5. Rocoto is a type of red pepper that looks very much like a regular red pepper but can be very, very spicy. It is often stuffed with other ingredients, and can be served either as part of an entree or as an appetizer.

Some very basic, helpful Spanish phrases:
1. ¨Donde esta el baño?¨   [Donday esta el banyo?]  = Where is the bathroom?
2. ¨Por favor¨ [Pour fa-voor] = Please
3. ¨Agua¨ [A-gwa] = Water
- Aqua purificada [A-gwa purr-if-icada] = purified water
- Water in Peru is often carbonated/fizzy. Fizzy water is ¨con gas¨, while flat water is ¨sin gas¨.
- Hielo [Yay-low] = Ice  (although ice may not be purified, could possibly get you sick, and should be used with caution).
** Helado [Ay-Lad-O] means ¨frozen¨ - often simply used to mean ice cream, and ¨frio¨ means cold.
4. ¨Que Rico¨ [Kay ree-ko] = an expression of enjoyment that literally means ¨rich¨ but can be roughly translated to mean ¨nice!¨ or even ¨awesome!¨. It can have many meanings, including sexually suggestive ones, but is generally used to innocently demonstrate how great something is (and can be used to describe anything, like food, music, or when an environment is generally great). This phrase can be used by itself, so someone eating a fantastic ceviche might simply say ¨Que rico!¨ without adding anything else to the sentence.

Some helpful Spanish tips:
- In Spanish, describing words like cold¨ must match the gender of the word they describe, which is why words like ¨frio¨ (masculine) might suddenly become ¨fria¨ (feminine) instead if it is describing a word that is feminine. There are no logical rules about which words are masculine or feminine, so you can´t tell just by looking at them.
- The letter ñ (n with a tilda/squiggle on top, said ¨enyay¨ in the alphabet), sounds like ¨ny¨when it´s in a word. Therefore Puno (a city in Peru) is pronounced ¨pu-no¨, but puño (a fist) is pronounced ¨poon-yo¨ (which is why baño is pronounced ¨banyo¨ rather than ¨ba-no¨).