Thursday, August 21, 2014


For the last 20 years I have struggled to brush my teeth twice a day. At some point I decided the toothpaste taste made me hungry. I thought I’d be able to stave off morning tea until 11 if I didn’t brush my teeth in the morning. I never verified that scientifically, but it was enough to get me out of the morning brushing habit.

My wife, granddaughter of a dentist, also does not brush in the morning and so we never got the boys doing it as a morning routine. A really good brush at night, but nothing in the morning. Wellllll - you are only going to food up your teeth all over again in a few hours aren’t you? Please don't report us.

After a few terse conversations with my modern-day dentist, I vowed to start brushing in the morning again, and cut back on my work-from-home morning-tea and afternoon-tea staple of honey sandwiches. I bought an electric toothbrush, as they are meant to do a better job, and I thought it might be fun.

I loathe my electric toothbrush. Every night I consider just going to be bed unbrushed, as the idea of a hard piece of plastic rattling against my teeth is just so unappealing. I know if you do it right that won't happen, but I am a bit clumsy and so I get that regularly.

Dentists now won't hear of any kind of toothbrush except soft. Soft, softer, softest, extra-softest. Whereas I remember a time when it was OK to have a good, firm toothbrush – in fact it was manly. I prided myself on giving my teeth a pretty damn serious working over with a brush - not a floppy floopy soft thing but a brush.

I have a throwback toothbrush that we picked up at a hotel I think. It is a firm no-nonsense unit that is quite prepared to make your gums bleed, and expects to be thanked for it. And I love it. So - my new approach is that I am going to bribe myself to brush in the morning by making that my morning brush, while I give the enamel a gentle caress in the evening with the electric.

Stay tuned, next week as I'll be discussing flossing and how to successfully lie to your dentist about it.

Monday, August 11, 2014

South America 1989: Lost in Lima

I got off the bus at 8.30am with a backpack, a day pack and a phone number for Manuel's uncle Pancho. We had just flown from Sydney to Santiago, then split up – he had flown and I had come by bus, 3000km north to Lima.

My first problem would have been finding a token for the public phone - in Peru you need to buy 'RIN' tokens to use payphones. Street vendors everywhere sell them so it would not have taken long to find one.

I called the number in my notebook, and a lady answered, in Spanish of course. I asked for Pancho Duharte, and the response, fast and dismissive was "Wrong number". I guessed I had misdialled, so I bought another few tokens and tried again. I got the same lady - I asked her if she spoke English and we got a little further, but it was clear this was not the right number.

I looked around for a phone book but there wasn't one. 25 years on I don't recall exactly what happened next, but by lunchtime I had humped my gear to the Plaza San Martin, and settled into a table at the Restaurant Versailles. The manager was a tall man in his sixties named Eloy, and he was very warm and friendly. He had some English, and I was able to explain my predicament.

There was a public phone in there and some ten-year old phone books. This was really a shock - I had always assumed that anywhere there are phones, there will up-to-date phone books. I rang six or eight F. Duhartes (Pancho is the diminutive for Francisco), but I got nowhere.

I thought I might be able to get Manuel's contact details from the immigration officials. I asked around about this, and I was advised to ask out at the airport where he had arrived. I took a cab out there and started asking questions. I had a photocopy of Manuel's passport, but this just aroused suspicion. Why was I claiming this man who was obviously Peruvian was an Australian citizen? Look, it even says here place of birth: Lima. It gradually dawned on me that I was getting nowhere, and in fact I now had nowhere to sleep.

Back at the Versailles Eloy recommended a hotel, and I took a taxi there. It was in a fancy district not far from the US embassy, but its was pretty basic and I was exhausted so sleep wasn't a problem. In the morning I checked out and returned to the Versailles.

I had a backup plan, but it was going to be expensive; phoning Australia to speak to Manuel's mum. Eloy minded my gear while I went to the international telephone centre.

To make international calls most people in Peru used a place like this. A cashier took my money (it cost me $US20 per call) and the phone number I wanted to ring, then I sat in the waiting area for my name to be called. Then I went to a numbered booth, picked up the phone and was speaking to first a Peruvian operator, then Australian.  Lima is 15 hours behind Hobart, and for some reason I had to make my call in the small hours of Hobart time. I had decided to call my Dad, and give him the job of ringing Mrs Duharte at 3am to explain the problem.  I thought that if I rang her there might be some expensive hang ups and call backs, whereas if I called Dad twice an hour apart at least I knew he should be able to get the job done in that time.

It cost me $40 of the $650 I had budgeted for the whole 3 months, but at least it worked. When I phone back Dad had the correct number, and more importantly an address as well. I went back to Eloy beaming with delight, and called Pancho. He put me on to Manuel and I explained where I was and what had happened.

I was overwhelmed with gratitude to Eloy for his hospitality which had meant so much to me in my difficult situation. I thanked him as best as I could and took a taxi up Avenida Salaverry to the suburb of Jesús Maria, where I fell into the arms of the extended Duharte clan, where I would stay for the next month.

During that time I had plenty of opportunities to visit Eloy, patronise his etsablishment and introduce my mysterious disappearing friend, Manuel. Below is my journal entry for Lima.

Lima is a city of around 8 million people. 5 million live in the pueblos jovenes, literally the young towns. There is no electricity, sewerage, telephone or other government services. Travelling out of Lima by train brings you into the heart of the poverty. The main outlet roads are surrounded by a veneer of respectability, but nothing separates the shantytowns from the railway line. The houses are made of woven dried palm leaves, cardboard, fibro etc. Children throw rocks at the trains. 

When I look around the outskirts of Lima now, its pretty tidy and organised compared to what I wrote above in 1989. For instance the fire hydrant in the image above is a sign of municipal pride and progress. 25 years ago I saw a lot of areas like these in Tacna

The predominant car in Lima is the VW Beetle. I would conservatively estimate that 25% of cars are Beetles. 50% of taxis are Beetles. We were catching a lot of taxis, because it meant you didn’t get lost, and they were quite cheap (though later when the money was running low I was more circumspect about just jumping in a cab). After a while, just for fun, I was trying each time to get a more decrepit cab than the time before. None of them have indicators, so that was my starting point. I caught one with no indicators and no mirrors. Soon I was taking cabs with no indicators, mirrors, windscreen, boot lid, rear doors or glove box. But they all have working horns, and Jesus or Virgin Mary decals. Every car in Lima has a fully functional horn, sometimes several. Often they play Colonel Bogey, or something. Peruvians drive very aggressively, and have a finger on the horn constantly. Beep means “Turning left”, “Turning right”, “I’m stopping”, “Get out of the way” and also “I’m just glad to be alive and Peruvian”. 

A classic example. Still on the street and available for hire. Pic by F. H. Ehrenberger
Cars keep to the right in South America. When Limeños want to turn left, and someone else in front is waiting to turn left, they don’t queue behind them. They get up along side them, sometimes four or five abreast. If someone coming the other way wants to turn left at the same intersection, they nudge their way into the same scrum. Soon there may be ten cars lined up facing in different directions, waiting for a gap, revving their engines. When the gap appears, it is like the flag dropping at the start of a Grand Prix, as they burn rubber to get into it.

The sky in Lima is grey for ten months of the year, and the temperature is between 20° and 25° The fog is called the garua. It almost never rains. We stayed with Manuel’s uncle Pancho Duharte, aunt Susana, and cousins Lorena and Panchito. They have a two storey house in Avenida Salaverry, in the suburb of Jesus Maria. The kitchen is open to the sky. It did actually rain one night when we were there, a very rare event. I bought some cheap watercolours and did some paintings in the kitchen. With all that natural light, it made a great studio.

The Duharte residence. Panchito runs his business from downstairs these days.

As I was walking out of the shop where I bought the watercolours, the owner was closing for siesta. He bought the iron grille down on my head, but was very apologetic. Everyone is very security minded. All shops have grilles and security alarms. Many buildings have conspicuous armed guards loitering out in the street in front. Weapons are either big and menacing, or, if small, unholstered and waved around to achieve an equal deterrent effect.

The sewer system of Lima is totally stuffed. Because of water shortages, toilets worked on a small trickle of water. Toilet paper is therefore thrown in a special bin instead of into the bowl. This freaked me out, but I have since learned that this is the way of things all over the world.

With no rain, everyone has flat roofs, which they make the most of. Susana’s laundry is on the roof. There is a good view from up there of the surrounding suburbs, the massive hospital and government buildings nearby, and the incredible goings on in the traffic. Jesus Maria is a fairly solid middle class area. Pancho is a bootmaker, employing about eight people. When he is carrying the payroll from the bank to his workshop, he wraps it around his body under his shirt, so he doesn’t appear to be carrying much.

The Duhartes are blancos - pure Spanish blood. The majority of the population are mestizos, mixed Indian and Spanish blood. The Duhartes worry about the millions living in poverty in the pueblos jovenes. They think that once they get organised, they will flood into the city and the army will be hopelessly outnumbered. This is a common feeling, and explains why so much of the national budget is spent on internal police and military strength. The fight against the Maoist terror organisation Sendero Luminoso is the other reason. Since we left Peru their leader Dr. Abimael Guzman has been captured. The terrorists are trying to extort his release by attacking civilians and tourists targets as well as the more common military and paramilitary targets.

Once when I was in the main plaza, I was approached by a young guy who asked where I was from, and had a bit of a chat, and then tried to sell me marijuana. I said no and took off quickly before I was framed up for something. Later, when I was out on the town with Manuel, Pancho and his friends, we ran into the guy again - he was a mate of José’s or something.

Pancho and Lorena’s friends were all quite well off young students or professionals. Many of them had been to the USA, or at least learned to speak American English. Manuel and I were often told how clever we were, speaking three languages (English, Spanish and Australian). One night we went out with them to a big dance hall by the beach, called Canta America. Down two sides were cafe tables and chairs everywhere, crowding the edge of a long dance floor. At either end of the dance floor was a big stage. There were three bands on the night we were there - as one would finish at one end, the next began at the other end. The first band were a small salsa band, singing in Spanish. Next was a big band, doing swing, salsa and rhumba gear - all the kids got into it just as much as the older people.

The ages were about 16 to 60. The last band did Police covers in phonetic English. Eg ‘So loo-loo-loo-loo-loonly without yo’. There were three bars.

The Peruvian kids were generally great dancers. They taught us to salsa, which for us meant mostly standing around pouting and looking mean while the girls danced around us, interspersed with some pretty close cuddly moves. Just for the hell of it, Manuel and I tried to teach them to jump up and down and pump their fists, the way Australian kids dance, but they couldn’t get into it.

Miraflores is the new centre of Lima. The old city is completely decrepit, dirty and uncared for by the Government, apart from the presidential palace, the old cathedral and a few other landmarks.

My favourite place in the old city was the Plaza San Martín, because it was easy to find, had cheap places to eat, no armed idiots, lots of taxis and usually something interesting going on.

In Miraflores, things were pretty different. Begging was discouraged with a bit of boot and baton work to the back of the head.

People there flaunted their wealth, whereas in the city, people took off their watches to go out in the street. We went to lunch once with some of Manuel’s relatives, and they brought their car stereo in with them, so no-one would break into their car.

There is a craft market in the evening in Miraflores. Plenty of jewellery, that’s all I can remember. In the old city, the whole city is a market. Everywhere people are sitting on the footpath, or on folding chairs. Some have a well organised spread of interesting looking stuff, some have a few pencils, a few avocados and a hair dryer for sale. Some have nothing - they just sit with their children around them with their hands out. 

Beggars were a new experience for me. At first I was making eye contact with them all the time, and when you do that it is very hard to not give them something. But I was on such a tight budget, I couldn’t afford to keep doing that. I ended up giving something very small about once a day, but resolving to take a real interest in the country and its’ problems when I got home. I’ve actually done nothing.

Some of the streets east of the Plaza San Martin are given over to special markets, such as books, or plumbing supplies, or electrical gear. The things you can buy at any market are; RIN phone tokens, warm Coke and Inca Kola, Sublime chocolate bars and Suave toilet paper.

There are no beggars in sight these days. Everyone in these pictures is pretty busy going somewhere, doing something. 

There is a pedestrian street in Miraflores called Calle Pizza, which is all pizza and pasta restaurants. As you walk along, waiters pull out chairs, beckon, smile, turn and head inside waving for you to follow, or just thrust a menu into your hands.

Manuel and I had pizza at another restaurant in San Ysidro, with his Uncle Oscar. The restaurant was in a very swish shopping centre, full of leather, furs and brushed aluminium. There were some children begging outside the front door, which was guarded by the usual brutish types. I made the mistake of meeting the eyes of one boy, who then tried to follow us in. One of the guards simply coshed him on the back of the head with his truncheon, and dragged him out by the arm.

This was Manuel's family's neighbourhood church when they lived in San Ysidro.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Not terribly bright

Winston forgets things sometimes, like how to sit on the stairs. Suddenly his front legs don’t seem long enough for the job. “I'm ... er ... at a funny angle and I don’t know why”.

Friday, August 01, 2014

August arrives with snow

It must be time for my annual snow pictures.