Christmas in Peru

December, 2003 - Christmas in Peru

We had the Christmas from hell. Pepa and Jesse went to Arequipa to be with Pepa's father Guillermo on his 85th birthday Dec 8. He was in pretty good shape then, considering, energetic enough to dance to the tunes of the caperos they hired for his birthday party and to go down to the beach for a few days.

Meanwhile I was slaving away in Dhaka (Dhaka the caca, as Pepa calls it) and barely maintaining because I had a serious visa problem, the details of which are too tedious to go into. In spite of having applied for not one but two visas (a plan A and a plan B) months previously, I didn't have even one until late in the day before I was to leave to go to Peru, at that point having overstayed my entry permit by 75 days. Not only was I facing a $1000 penalty to get out of the country, I also anticipated not being allowed back in on my return, ie, no job. I watched this developing for a month in high anxiety, helpless to make it happen any faster. You've no idea about idiotic faceless venal bureaucracy until you've dealt with these crooks in Bangladesh, judged to be the most corrupt country on earth for the last three years running by Transparency International. My latest expense claim items are mostly "visa facilitation, no receipt".

Then there were the 28 hours flying time plus languishing in airports to get from Bangladesh to Peru. I overnighted in a hotel in Lima, where I got the news about Guillermo. He'd started feeling poorly three days before, irritated that he was sick just when everyone was converging for Christmas, so they took him to a clinic and then to a hospital. He died on the 19th, when I was over Uzbekistan, I figured.

Guillermo Vassallo

December 8, 1918 - December 19, 2003

Claudia and Pablo had us stay with them in their lovely house in Cayma ... thanks Cloudy!

The next couple of days were filled with the logistics of burial. More family trickled in from Venezuela, Argentina and Chile. My only job was to take some turns in the velorio, a parlour at the cemetery where Guillermo lay in his (closed) casket and the family stood about receiving condolences.

Guillermo's four daughters: Jota, Lucia, Pepa and Claudia, with his brother and sister-in-law Miguel and Titi.

By now, Dec 23, the day of the funeral, more than twenty Vassallos and hangers-on were massed in Arequipa. We sons-in-law and grandsons hoisted the casket on our shoulders and lugged it unevenly to a chapel ... some of us were taller than others and I could tell that Guillermo was going feet-first because he was definitely heavier at the back end. The mass was well-attended. There were no eulogies except for the young priest's generic observations. Then we carried the casket to the graveside and did some more ritual there. A contraption lowered Guillermo into the ground. Lucia threw her flowers in after him, then four cemetery workers uncovered an impressively large pile of desert soil beside the hole and in a ten-minute frenzy of shoveling filled it while we watched.

Pepa had months before organized Christmas dinner remotely, taking the turkey task herself. Shifting abruptly into Christmas mode next day, we drove Guillermo's 4x4 (if attitude were all that mattered, he'd have lived forever) to a big market and bought two 11kg frozen turkeys. Next morning, Christmas Eve, we stuffed the birds and at noon took them to within 100m of a bakery that roasts things people bring, walking the rest of the way on a street too narrow for vehicles. At least ten people were fussing about outside the oven, a brick igloo at least 3m in diameter inside which had had a bonfire alight in it earlier and was now radiating back the heat. The attendant had a long pole with a half-hoop of steel at the end, with which he pushed pans in or pulled them out through the door at the request of the squabbling patrons. Eventually we got our pans in and resolving to check back in two hours for basting, etc., took off. At 3 we were back again, and again at 5:30, this time leaving with the turkeys.

The Vassallos prefer Christmas Eve midnight mass, but they'll compromise on an earlier one, so that's what we did. The church was an ancient stone cavern of a place with the usual grisly guilt-racking kitsch catholic cult decor: mournful saint mannequins, paintings of Jesus with eyes rolled back dripping with gore from spear-thrusts and thorns, an elaborate creche populated with plastic farm animals and wise men all focused on the Baby Jesus, and behind the altar a huge gilt edifice emblazoned with arcane symbols (alpha and omega, JHS) and studded with windows into saintly peep-shows. We got pretty close to the front. The priest was elderly, very mestizo, with a resonant slightly impedimented voice. We stood up, we sat down, we stood up again, we kneeled, we sat. A woman with a beautiful voice sang Ave Maria while the money-bag was going around and I got a little teary. We sat for a long time while the priest administered communion, and finally when all the communed sinners had returned to their pews he brought a wafer to an old women a row ahead of us. Just before the show broke up, a small androgynous person lifted the Baby Jesus from the creche and approached the priest at the altar. Baby Jesus was about a foot and a half long, made out of a beige prosthetic material and swaddled in a diaper. The priest did some mumbo-jumbo over it then the two of them went to the same spot where the communion was given, and again everyone queued up, TO KISS THE DOLL. The priest held it and one at a time these people leaned in to plant a wet one on its knee. After each kiss the little weirdo dabbed the doll with a cloth on the spot, for reasons of hygiene. Just as the line petered out and I was thinking, if I wasn't going to get up to be a false communicant, I'm sure not getting up there for this, (s)he took the Baby Jesus to the old woman in front of us, and after she had her turn he thrust it at ME. I got a really close look at the shades of lipstick and specks of spittle on it before I dodged in demonic disgust. No, actually, I'm such a wuz, to avoid offense I tried to fake him/her out with an air-kiss but the little weasle pushed the filthy thing right against my lips. Coming from a place where everything is sticky from unwashed hands, I'm fastidious in my later years. Incidentally, after the service Pepa took me to meet the old woman, in her 90s, who had attended our wedding 30 years ago.

As we approached the 4x4 a taxi driver stepped up and described how he'd discouraged some thieves who moments before had broken into the vehicle and made off with the radio face plate. He wanted to be rewarded. Pepa said, "Give him 5 soles." My smallest bill was a 20 (about $8) so heaving a sigh I gave it to him.

We reassembled for Christmas dinner at Claudia's house, where Jesse, Pepa and I were staying. The turkeys were a big hit, although people were a little leery about the stuffing, which we'd made in huge quantities. They got to like it though because it disappeared smartly next day at Lucia's left-over lunch.

These are Jota's and Alfonso's daughters Maria Paz and Maria Belen.

After Christmas dinner Jesse was Santa. I got a peach-coloured alpaca sweater from Claudia and Pablo which at first I was dubious about but now wear with dash, especially here in Dhaka where 10 C is usual at night, deep in winter as we are. Inevitably on a Vassallo Christmas eve, the party didn't break up until 3am.

Christmas dinner at Claudia's and Pablo's house.

Pablo sings Christmas.

Claudia and Lucas cuddle early Christmas morning.

We took Jesse to the airport next day. I won't be seeing him for a while unless he comes to Asia or the oath he extracted from me comes due before Dec 2005, that I attend his first CFL game.

The guinea-pig is a traditional dish found in many restaurants in Arequipa, called picantarias. Here's one little fellow's trip from the cage to the plate.

Somehow we stayed in Arequipa until New Year's Eve, though I wanted to go to the beach much sooner. Going to parties would have been unseemly for us so soon after Guillermo's death so we watched the fireworks from Claudia's beach house as our time zone slipped into 2004.

Pepa and I went to a wetlands bird sanctuary called Las Lagunas a few kilometers down the coast from Mejia.

Pablo's and Claudia's son Lucas is getting handy with his Christmas boogie-board.

I was looking forward to soaking up some sun but the weather was untypically overcast until I left on the 3rd, on my way back to Dhaka the caca.