I guess it was clear I would need to come back someday soon. When I was in Peru (Lima, Cuzco, Pisac, Machu Picchu) in April 2019, I struggled with the cold temperatures in the mountains (especially at night, with no heaters present in the guest houses I was staying at), the food (whatever I ate went right out again), the strong energy of the country. I escaped to warm and relaxed Mexico, Yucatan and the Caribbean, as soon as my sister who lives in the jungle of Amazon with the indigenous people, and two friends of mine (we met up with in Pisac) both left Pisac for their own further travels. My escape to Mexico meant that I had given up on the prior arrangement of going to teach English for kids in a small school in Colombia, near Bogota.
So this time, eight months later, after my time in Mexico, San Francisco, Laos and several months spent in my homeland, I am back in Peru as a volunteering teacher of English, arts, yoga and music for kids in a local school in Chimbote.
I arrived to the international airport in Lima and spent a day in the beautiful city which I love for its graffiti and stunning quarters with breathtaking ocean views such as Miraflores and Barranco. You can read more about Lima in my previous article here.
From Lima, where I spent the day in the company of my boss Juan Carlos, the “promotor” (owner) of the private school called Mi Segundo Hogar, and his friends, I took a bus (with the Cruz del sol company, probably the most expensive, but also the safest one in Peru: they gave us lunch on the bus and delivered my overweight suitcase without losing/stealing it) with Juan Carlos to Chimbote. It was supposed to take about five hours according to Juan Carlos, but by checking Google Maps I realized it was rather seven.
We eventually arrived after about eight hours on the road where – for some unknown reason – the spare cars and buses would not exceed 80 km/hour. We arrived exhausted and I was very emotional, especially when we reached the school and I discovered what was to be my home for the next quarter of a year.
People often tell me they feel envious when they see pictures from my world travels – but really, life is not just what you see on Facebook pictures. I could barely get in the strong fishy smell which is typical for this formerly little fishermen town, later an industrial, urbanized town of circa 300,000 inhabitants – luckily, this smell usually does not linger past the entrance of Chimbote… Seriously, the smell is bad! But the locals like it as they say it means money – earned in the fish industry. Another smell which is hard to put into photographs is the cat pee smell which suddenly occurs not only around the residential houses, but also – and that is bad – inside them!
I have a room of my own with a small bathroom right in the school. I did my best to make the room pretty and it is pretty and very spacious. I get quite a lot of time on my hands which I use for yoga and meditation practice, learning Spanish, writing my fifth book, my blog and articles for several magazines and web magazines. Yet, sometimes, with that fishy or cat-pee smell waking me up at nights I am asking myself: “Why did I have to come to a town where there are no tourists? Where I stand out as a blonde “gringa” and where it is so hard for me to get around without a car or a scooter or a bike?” Forget about rentals or good public transport system. All I am left with is taxis (expensive) or walking (can get dangerous at dark).
I am lucky enough to have a warm shower, but the water pressure is minimal so to wash my hair is a task for almost twenty minutes with the trickle I get. The wi-fi connection is no good but most locals have an unlimited data access on their phones so I am using hotspots thanks to their kindness.
Also, my Spanish is practically at level zero yet the locals do not understand that you CANNOT learn their language just because they speak louder or more slowly or when you simply listen to their conversations. Yes, you might grasp a few words (thank God I have B2 in French) but it is hard to learn without having at least some basic vocabulary and knowing some simple conjugation of basic verbs. But the locals know better than me – i.e. an MA graduate from Charles University, Prague in the field of English and Czech linguistics and literature who had been a language teacher for more than 12 years… they keep repeating: “Solo escucha, aprenderás!” (Just listen, you will learn.) True, I listen and I learn – but sadly, no Spanish. What I learn is more useful for me as a writer. I observe the locals and their acting and behaving, every little detail which is stripped of words and goes to the core of mimics and gestures. I find that interesting… and appreciate Google translator and have my phone as the best compañero.
Most people in Chimbote enjoy the typical culture of many Latin America locals: drinking beer on the beaches, chilling and hanging around, often listening to loud pop, salza or kumbia music. I like to move around, be active, go and see places. So I am happy that my boss likes to go hiking and be active too, otherwise this cultural thing of constant chilling would not really be much for me.
Another thing I find hard to get used to: there are no proper time arrangements – the closing of a school year ceremony for instance was due at 10 am and there were people arriving still at 11 am or 11:30 … If someone says we will be leaving at 3 pm to go to a beach, it means we will probably be leaving around 5 pm.
I do like the food here (yes, this time so far I have actually been able to eat something without it leaving my body almost immediately) which mostly consists in ceviche, sea food, fish, yucca, potatoes, sweet potatoes and rice (I have seen the rice fields as little oasis among the desert that spreads to the north from Lima). But my problem is cilantro (coriander) and parsley which are obviously present in almost all the dishes (and generally loved in South and Central America as well as South-East Asia). I love the fresh fruit juices people drink here with their food, be it passion fruit, papaya or chicha morada. From the desserts, I am obsessed with the churros – especially the ones with tamarind filling.
Currently, I am going through a lot of socializing events that are connected with the New Year celebrations. Among them, there are trips to the seaside. I will write more about the beach life in the surroundings of Chimbote, such as Tortugas, Besique etc. in the following article. Forget about lush green forests and turquoise sea, the sand hills around are of volcanic origin, there are no plants, no gardens around houses even. I miss the green colour like never before. Yet, there are unique breath-taking spots such as Caleta Colorado beach with golden sand and blue-green waters.
The locals keep complaining about hot weather and yet, January (the warmest month here and the first of the two months of the summer holidays) has not even started yet. It is only around 22 – 25 degrees Centigrade, and in the evenings the temperature falls down to 19 – 15 degrees with a lot of wind coming from the cold Pacific Ocean. I had to ask for a warmer blanket for the nights and by 5 pm I change my summer dresses for jeans, jumpers and jackets as I really like it hot. This is another thing the locals cannot understand. They keep repeating: “But you COME FROM a COLD country, how can you feel cold here?” They obviously do not realize that our second half of spring and first half of autumn is basically similar to what they are having now; the four to five months of cold weather – around the winter time – simply make them think all Czechs must love cold weather. It is useless explaining to them that we use heating system (a very good, really warm heating system compared to e.g. London) and warm clothes.
And of course – ALL gringas in their eyes are rich. Even if you had not been earning any money in the last year and a half, since you were travelling the world, volunteering, using up your life savings which are running low by now, you must be rich, because you are blond and your skin is white. Explaining to someone that for you it is expensive to pay 20 soles for ceviche in a bistro is useless. Comparing that price to a cost of a menu lunch (soup, main dish, sometimes even a dessert) in your country won´t work. Because you are blond and your skin is white. And your eyes are green. You must be rich. Saying that you will walk because you cannot afford a taxi is – simply good for nothing. I guess you got the idea. And if any of you guys e.g. from Germany, Benelux, the Northern European countries, UK, USA, Canada, Australia etc. are reading this and shaking your head now trying to scream at me “Come on, Peru IS CHEAP” just like I have heard you saying many times before, even in other countries of Southern and Central America (not to mention South East Asia), I am just pleading: “Please!”
- Cigarettes and tobacco are under high taxes in Peru, so a bottle of beer (the most common ones are Cusqueña and Pilsen – which has nothing to do with the Czech Pilsner) is worth about 15 soles (to me as a Czech person this is extremely expensive) and a package of ten cigarettes about 10 soles (happy I am not a smoker).
- Those Peruvian citizens who do not vote in the country´s elections have to pay a fine of 100 soles.
- A monthly mobile phone contract with unlimited data, calls and text messages in Peru is worth less than 90 soles.
- The minimum monthly earnings here equal to 930 soles. In the Czech Republic it is double the amount.
- The monthly payment for a private school (elementary level) equals to approx. 250 – 450 soles.
The homes of thousands of Chimbotanos were uprooted when an earthquake struck in 1970. After the earthquake people moved 15 minutes south and established Nuevo Chimbote: a cleaner, more organized, wealthier city. The Plaza Mayor in Nuevo Chimbote boasts a beautiful newly constructed Cathedral, designed by an Italian architect.
Most people in Peru are Catholics. So for example the school leaving ceremony that took place in December, at Christmas time, started with a prayer – and continued with the national anthem and the anthem of Chimbote. Christmas decoration here is very different to that we have in my homeland, where it gets very artsy and traditional, with real big Christmas trees, lovely hand-crafted decorations and of course – delicious Christmas cookies present in every household. Most of the decorations here would have the image of a Santa Claus on them and are made of plastic.
I know this article may sound a little mocking but really, I am sure I am in the right place at the right time. And differences are what helps us step out of our comfort zones and really make the world unite through understanding, acceptance and compassion. Chimbotanos are proud of their fish, food and music. There is always a celebration. Because Chimbote is a young city, the population is very diverse, made up of people from all parts of Peru. The few foreigners that find their way to Chimbote are not tourists but have arrived here to do some sort of development work or pursue some kind of volunteering mission – just like me. And I do not complain about the place I have chosen. I know it can teach me a lot and help me grow in many respects. I don’t mean this as a cliché – I really want to start with the person in the mirror…