Magic Realism of South America

When I first heard about – Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and magic realism, I was at Grammar School and interested much more in JD Salinger, Virginia Woolf and stories like Flowers for Algernon. How could I know back then that one day I shall be living out magic realism, in South America, namely, in Peru?

The Colombian writer, who gained his Nobel Prize the year I was born, knew well what he was talking about in his books which paint a realistic view of the modern world while adding magical elements. Though this literary style is no longer connected merely with Latin-American literature (it is represented e.g. also by Shahidul Zahir or Haruki Murakami), most of South America is all about magic realism, in the minor things as well as in the major phenomena, in the diversity and the extremes in the society.

This article won´t be about the “real” Peruvian magic realism as depicted e.g. in the book Entre Prejimos by Kimberley Theidon or the movie The Milk of Sorrow which draws an allusion to the book and portraits a young Peruvian woman who contracted a mysterious disease that is passed on via breast milk to the daughters of rape victims taken by soldiers serving Peru’s deposed terrorist regime.


A promo picture from the movie The Milk of Sorrow.

Matthew Strecher (1999) defines the term magic realism as broadly descriptive rather than critically rigorous and literally says it is “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.”  Indeed,
I´d claim there are way too many things here in Peru too strange to believe. I often feel like Alice in Wonderland, but not necessarily in positive context only…

Amigo, amiga

Everybody claims to be your friend. They claim it by addressing you, a stranger in the street often, “amigo, amiga.” I´d say it is better than when I am addressed as “gringa”, especially since I am not from the USA, or “rusia”, as my language is of the Slavic family but very different from Russian which I don’t speak or understand, or “la vikinga” (simply as my fair hair, eyes and skin might resemble the common features of people from the Nordic countries), but somehow, I still find it slightly offensive. In my country we say: “We didn’t graze the geese together.” But if I responded to the “hola amiga” in the street by saying that, I could be greatly misunderstood…

Most people here in Peru (and in the majority of other countries of Latin America) use tú always, instead of using the informal tú and formal usted when required, and don´t use vosotros, merely ustedes. Buenas tardes/noches is often replaced simply by Hola. Perhaps for this reason too most people here believe it is ok to address you amigo, amiga.

Having said all this, the greatest paradox is that few people here are truly cherishing their friendships. From what I have seen, one generally has a lot of acquaintances and very few true friends here. I realized this also due to an experience I personally recently had here, when I asked a person I thought was truly my friend, who is regularly commuting in a private car in between Lima and Chimbote, how much would I owe for the transport if a second-hand bicycle I arranged to have was brought for me from Lima. Now, I have to explain that in my country the question “What do/would I owe you” asked to a friend who does you a favour which costs them nothing (as the trip would be taken anyway), is merely a politeness custom and the answer always is something like: “God will reward for me that.”, or “Well, I am doing it to make my karma better please don’t spoil it by money talk.”, or “God will pay me by giving me good kids.”, or “Just get me a beer when you have time.” The answer never is: “Fifty soles, amiga.” – which is by the way what you pay on a luxury coach, a lunch and a drink included, when travelling yourself between the two towns.

Show, but Don’t Show

This was one of the hardest ones for me to comprehend. You see all these women around in the streets with push up bras and sleeveless shirts, showing their cleavage and bellies, wearing tight leggings to show their curves, mini-skirts and extremely short dresses which magically uncover cleavage and thighs, yet, when changing your bikinis at a beach you have to be extra careful that no one sees not even your thighs! No way you would be taking your knickers off under a longish skirt and putting your bikinis on or vice versa, because that means there is actually a short moment when you are without your underwear, something, that is impossible here, while it is certainly possible in Europe, where there is not a more magical formula a lady can say to her man than: “I have no knickers on today,” while wearing a long clingy dress. Wearing a dress or a top braless is impossible here, as your nipples could show, while in Europe it is desirable and more and more common.

Wearing sportswear in Europe for other purposes than sports is viewed as embarrassing because having sportswear on other occasions, e.g. to go shopping, means that you are a lazy housewife who does not even have the decency to get changed when going to public, or you are a jerk that thinks it is not worth showering and changing after sport and you simply went shopping unwashed and stinking. Because, Jesus Christ, if you have sportswear on, you were doing sports or exercising, god knows you must have perspired!

However, wearing comfortable sportswear in all places and for various purposes is absolutely fine in Peru, even though not many people actually do sports here. In fact, most believe that exercising is exclusively intended for professional sportsmen! Healthy lifestyle is simply not a big thing here… It´s a kind of magic, really…

Popcorn, a Fish or a Guinea Pig to Eat in a Cinema?

So, some complained to the Peruvian government that the popcorn you can buy in a cine is expensive. Right, we all know it is, everywhere across the world…

Well, unlike other countries though, Peru is magical. Peru can do things for their people. Like: Put “alto en azúcar” in huge letters on the packages of chocolate and candies and biscuits, so that people know there is sugar, not honey, for example, in there, right, because many suffer from diabetes, right, or obesity, right? If I were the Peruvian government, I would write on the packages of sweets in huge letters: “Get the f*** out of your house and la calle and move! Do sports, exercise!” Well, I am no the Peruvian government… I hold no magic in my hands…


Guinea pigs drying on a line with clothes, to be cooked and eaten later.

Anyway, so they put this law into force, yeap, another magical one, which allows anyone to bring THEIR OWN FOOD INTO THE CINEMA. If you are a vegetarian and the person who bought a ticket next to you eats a T-bone steak, you have to put up with it. If you don’t like the smell of fish (Well, in the first place, what are you doing in Chimbote then, the Mekka of Peruvian fishing industry…?), sorry, the person next to you is eating a ceviche, así es la vida. And if you are an animal lover and rescuer, blame it on the bad luck if the person next to you is eating a guinea pig (a real delicacy here) or a lizard!

Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me

Like seriously, the Incas – and all the preceeding civilizations populating Peru – loved it and appreciated it. The Sun was the Creator, the Lord. The inhabitants of Peru nowadays though fear the sun. They hide from it. In their houses which basically allow no light in. There is humidity and moulds forming in many apartments, especially here, by the Atlantic, and especially in the winter, when the ocean brings not only more wind (the minimum speed is around 25 km/h) which helps spread the smog created by the industries in the city, but also thick and heavy morning and night fogs. It gets cold over the night, around 12 degrees, while during the day the temperature is warm, around 19 to 23 degrees.

When I go to a pharmacy asking for a sunscreen with a factor lower than 50 or 45 which are common here, they look at me in disdain and shake their heads. Nothing like that. And even if they had one, they would not sell it to a gringa like me with fair skin and fair hair. I should be protecting myself better! Obviously, they have no idea what the number of the factor means and explaining to them that I was using 50 only in Australia and Chile, as these are the countries where the ozone hole over Antarctica is usually more pronounced, just like in New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina (countries I haven’t yet travelled too), would be useless. Not to mention the fact that your skin can only absorb the vitamin D emitted by the sun when it has no sun protection on…

The Covid Extremes

While the whole world is talking about conspiracy theories, while there are strikes against the usage of face masks and other preventions that actually work unwell with our immune system, while renowned scientists and doctors bring more and more proves that this is not actually a pandemic that the numbers are comparable to those of annual numbers of flu cases (including those of mortality), while the borders and schools are reopening and while many countries claim to be having mostly just asymptomatic cases now thanks to the end of lockdowns etc. people actually got the chance to immunize themselves against the illness (naturally, just like it happened with the Spanish flu in the past) and thus don’t even need the vaccination anymore, Peru is “more papal than the pope” and for six months now has been “pouring water from the tub with the baby too” (two sayings hard to translate that are common in my language).

You have people here who voluntarily remain locked in their houses and apartments (which generally have tinted windows, lack of sunshine, and in winter times lots of humidity), work from home, order everything through deliveries, and accept peacefully the fact that their kids lose one year of schooling as online education is really impossible here since only a few families would actually own a computer and only a few kids own a mobile phone. These people, when forced to walk out, would be covered in protective wear just like doctors at clinics and pharmacy workers (and many shop assistants in supermarkets which are opened even in those regions where there is still quarantine), which means: goggles, face mask, face shield, gloves and a protective overall which covers their head too, so they look a little like Kenny from South Park or practising astronauts or aliens. There you go with magic realism!

On the other hand you have those people, and that seems even more supernatural to me, who party overnight and on Sundays, when there is still a curfew in force for the whole country! In an incident last week 13 people got killed during a police intervention in a disco club in Lima, where they were partying (illegally, as all the social distancing measurements still apply to the whole country). There are news every week about police interventions in the streets where there are fiestas going on – and people drinking from the same glass! Certain Latinos simply cannot abandon their customs so connected to the microcosm of “la calle”, the street… The locals would not mind that they cannot travel freely, that there are parts of the healing nature totally inaccessible now due to “la pandemia”, that they cannot buy books (as many shops remain closed or bankrupted), that they cannot go to a gym, that they have to go running and jogging and cycling with a face mask on, that parks and gardens (if there are any) are closed, that churches are closed, that theatres and galleries (if there are any) are closed… they just need the street… beer in a hand and chatting about everything and nothing with a couple of neighbours – that is what they cannot let go of. Now, to be just, this only applies to circa 45% of the population. Another 25% are those living in fear and panic. The remaining 30% are those, who have no idea what to think of this all, and wake up in the morning shaking their heads… that´s where I am, too.


A painting by Peruvian artist Ernesto Arrisueño.

Plastics rule!

… Especially in the time of Covid… The Chinese must love South America as this is where they seem to love their products. Most products available come from China, synthetic, best if plastic, including shoes, the Covid-wear (as described above) and all food packaging. Paper bags or recyclable bags are scarce, in shops, they put your shopping into plastic bags (unless you say you don’t want them which hardly anyone does), and now, during “la pandemia” into more and more bags, just to make sure! Going to a market, which I used to love, has thus become an environmental nightmare for me! Unlike the locals, I do mind the waste – mostly plastic – in the streets, in the nature, in the ocean, in the rivers, in the lagoons!

In the past, I would come with my recyclable and reusable bag, asking the merchants to weigh the fruits and veggies I wanted and then put them directly into my bag, where I would be forming layers from old newspapers (also reusable) to avoid dirtying of e.g. strawberries by potatoes. Now, this is impossible. The merchants would be touching your fruits and veggies only with a plastic bag serving as a glove, into which they would then pack it, and all these individual bags they would then place into one big plastic bag which they would spray thoroughly with a 95% pure alcohol which is being used as disinfection, is richly being sprayed onto money and which you must put also on your hands whenever entering any shop (So, if in a shopping mall in a region where there is no more focalized quarantine, just the general state of emergency, the assistant will spray it on your hands in every single shop you enter!)! If you have any skin allergies or issues, your problem. The disinfection is required by law and there are simply no exceptions. A protest in the shop will just molest the shop assistant who simply does their work. So, if you don’t like the constant dryness of your hands, stay home or use plastic gloves (onto which the alcohol will then be sprayed).

When I try to persuade the merchants to please avoid at least using the big plastic bag and the alcohol spraying, they look at me doubtfully and some, who don’t know me so well, refuse. Others, who have known me for a while as I am a regular, do it, though they are risking a penalty…

As the restaurants in the regions with focalized quarantine – and even in the regions merely on state emergency – are open only for take away or delivery, the usage of plastics has grown dramatically. Sauces and juices are each put into a small plastic bag, which is simply cheaper than recyclable cups, and the food is packed in plastic boxes – rarely recyclable. If you come with your own reusable containers asking the staff to please put your food there, they would not do it, worrying that your containers are not sufficiently sterile and that they could bring an infection into their kitchen. Plastics are also used to cover the home made marcianos, sauces, juices etc. available at markets.

The magic realism here comes with belief of certain locals that “if you can´t see it, it does not exist”. So, some people would be burning their garbage (which is mostly plastic) in their tiny yards, which are basically in the streets, more rarely behind the house. Things like smog, dioxins, furans, mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls etc. just don’t matter… they have burnt the garbage, they are good people, the waste is no longer there, god will be pleased seeing how well they are protecting la Pacha Mama…

Give us Money to Eat and We Will Buy a TV

I have been asking myself this question for a long time: “Why, knowing their people and their thinking and acting, was not the Peruvian government stricter when issuing the overall quarantine on March 16th, why didn’t they close everything except for hospitals for three weeks, sending the army into the streets (not just the police which is often corrupted) to make sure everyone observes the rules?” I mean, if it worked in China and most countries of South-East Asia it could have worked here…

Recently, I have been given the answer. – With a mention of Colombia (a Colombian writer) I began this text, with it, I shall conclude. – The Colombian government, seeing that the Covid numbers are not getting any better in the state, due to people disregarding the preventive precautions, decided to announce a three-week complete lockdown. That of course, in a country where people live for today, not for tomorrow, and don’t have any saving plans etc., is not easy to do, as it would leave many foodless as yes, the majority of people in many countries of Latin America simply get paid by day or week and buy food for the day only… The Colombian government has released a large part of money from the state budget to help families that really would not have anything to eat for 3 weeks. What did these families do with this money? They bought a television…

Isn´t that hard to believe? The magic of TV industry, soap operas and the magical lives of the rich which the poor can be observing on their apparatuses, was simply more important to them than feeding their children…


A window display of a closed florist shop during the Covid state emergency.


The cover photo of this article is a painting by Peruvian artist Ernesto Arrisueño.

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