Nick Fitzgerald

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Robinson Crusoe and Jane Friday’s Lock-Down Adventure

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For each of the past 15 years, we’ve escaped the European winter to revel in sun, sea and sand on a glorious beach in Northern Peru.
Our location at Colán, near the important port of Paita is, practically, the most Westerly point of South America.  In a shallow bay, our house is about 4kms from its Southern tip. 
The cold Humbolt current sweeps up past Chile, rendering the beaches of Southern Peru cold, with rough seas, dangerous for bathing.  However, the Northern half of Peru’s coast comprises a great bulge, serving to divert that cold current into the Pacific.  Thus, the waters of the North are calm and warm and the beaches broad and flat, safe and secure for leisure activities. 
During the 1930’s some well-heeled Spanish and Italian imigrants (plus a few Paddys and Jocks) started to build summer houses along the beach at Colán.  Here, the Conquistadores of Francisco Pizarro had first landed in South America.  And here, at Colán, on a plateau well above high tide, the invaders built a church in the style of the time, which is still in use today.

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The Conquistador, Pizarro, landed right here in Colán in 1529 and founded the first city in South America: no other than San Miguel de Piura.  He also built the first church here, on a raised plateau near the beach at Colán, which is still very much in use to this day.  The city of Piura was destroyed and rebuilt three times.  It’s present location is about 60 miles from the coast.


The hinterland between high water and the escarpment a mile back seems to have been regularly flooded as there are salt flats throughout the area.  Perhaps for this reason, these families built their houses, elevated over a grid of piles driven into the sand of the beach at 2m centres.  The piles were of Algarobo trees, which do not rot.  The superstructures were mainly of prefabricated wall, partition and roof panels.  They were neither robust nor well-insulated but were well-suited to summer living.  Some 100 or more such houses were built in due course (many more modern ones were built later).  Many of those old houses had 10-15 bedrooms, with bunk-beds for extended families, their countless children and visiting pals.  The season commenced at Christmas and, regardless of weather, closed promptly at Easter.   

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Arriving at Lima airport in mid-February 2020, we were amused to find immigration officials clad in gloves and facemasks as they vetted our documents.  Less that 3 months ago, the word Coronavirus was little more than a sub-heading of news from China.
As usual, we occupied the family house, where the Pacific waters course below our feet twice every twenty-four hours.  The soporific effect of waves five feet below your ear at four in the morning is a mixed blessing – there’s no volume control!
Family members and friends came out from the city and joined us at weekends.  It was party-time with visiting friends and neighbours and those who spend the summer at their beach houses.  Bliss!

On Sunday, 15 March our world changed forever!  The President of Peru announced a lock-down similar to that of Spain, plus a curfew from 4:00pm until 6:00am commencing from the following morning.  Family members and friends hastily gathered up kith, kin and kaboodle before joined the exodus convoy ahead of the curfew.

It had been our habit to walk to the end of the beach and back most days for exercise; about 90 minutes, if we met nobody en route.  On Monday, we set off as usual only to be stopped by armed police who sent us packing – no discussion!  We tried again the following day only to be swooped upon by more masked police, who were less than sympathetic and promised arrest if they found us out and about again.  Marcela went to see the chief of the local police and explained that we, plus several other families, had been on the beach all summer, were no danger to anybody and so should be allowed to walk there.  He saw reason and so we had “special permission” to go ‘walkies’.
We were indeed safe, for the authorities erected barriers at the entrance to the beach area and refused entry to all who had not been there all summer, save for delivery drivers and the like.  The exit was likewise controlled.
It’s hot in here in March and the first (of many) shocks came when I went to the fridge for a cool beer after our foreshortened Monday walk.  A single bottle jeered at me from within; a relic of the vast stocks we’d gone through at the weekend with my three brothers-in-law.  Greedy sods!
Like all marooned and practically useless people, we took stock of what was available to keep body and soul together for the next week - or maybe two, until the world would surely come to its senses.  As with the beer, so also had disappeared a mountain of good, non-nourishing but delicious grub, fetched out from the city.
We had a “daily” cook and a cleaner.  These were promptly despatched to gather in food and provisions for a fortnight’s lock-down - lots of rice and stuff - but no beer!
Our only early problems seemed likely to be boredom. 
I was wrong again.  The lockdown and curfew were extended as Covid infection numbers grew.  Phone calls from relatives and friends insisted we get rid of the local cook and cleaner.  We offered the cook lodgings for herself and her children on the basis they’d be confined within our rather large garden.  Eventually, she declined and so she now visits 4-days a week for a few hours to do the laundry (no washing machines here) and clean the patios, etc.  On entry, she’s made to shower and change clothes - and shoes; showering and re-changing before leaving.  That seems to work fine for the moment although, initially at any rate, the lady was bemused by the fuss.
We have an abundance of fruit and vegetables here.  Besides, our neighbours own a plantation and provide us with more than we need in that regard. 

But now cooking ain’t easy here!

Firstly, and for a reason I cannot fathom, there’s a dearth of fish, whereas we were used to buying fresh daily off the beach.  Meat hadn’t been a problem because the family usually brought out what we need at weekends.  But on this beach the most popular meat is kid – as in goat.  Well-butchered, it makes a lovely stew.  But we haven’t got good butchers here.  In the result, we get nice meat interspersed with splintered shin and thigh bones.  Nasty!
Marcela sends a WhatsApp to a local shop with our grocery requirements a couple of times a week.  The shop sends the stuff out on one of those “moto-taxis”, which are ubiquitous in Peru.  Mostly, it works fine but “quantities” are a bit of a problem. 
Marcela asked for prunes and was told they only did sacks of 10kgs.  Sugar comes in 5kg bags – 1kg would do us for a year in Javea!  One day she requested “a piece of fillet steak”, as we hadn’t had any beef for a month.  No problem – out comes a beef fillet the length of your arm weighing about 4kgs, clearly having been wrested from the bowels of a 2 ton Brahma.  Never mind, I thought, I’ll grill a couple of nice steaks and freeze the rest.  Well, tough as old boots they were!  I think they’d killed the bullock that morning.  Nobody heard about hanging carcasses in a fridge for a few weeks.  See what I mean about butchers?
Despite the unexplained scarcity of fish, we were presented one day with the grand-daddy of all fishes.  A few days earlier, we’d been given a few smaller ones, which I thought I could fillet and fry on the ‘plancha’.  But you need a sharp knife to fillet and I had nothing of the kind.  In the end, I steamed them and they were great.  But, as to the “grand-daddy”, I took a long look between him, his scales and huge head and my best available knife.  Idecided very wisely: “freezer for you until we get really hungry”.  A month later, he languishes in the freezer, while we get fat on other stuff - but one day …

Happily, after the first week, boredom left us and we settled down like happy campers.  Our first Red Cross parcel from the city contained a large jigsaw puzzle, which kept me quiet for a week or more.  I’m very proud of the finished article and can’t understand why Marcela wants her table back now …
Years ago, I used to bring six or eight books to read because, in those days, luggage weight wasn’t a problem.  Also, Colán beach was boring if you were neither a granny nor a 5-year-old.  Most men shunned the place during the week.  But in recent years I’ve had a Kindle; a godsend.  Happily, we have an internet connection; feeble but enough to rustle up Amazon for more and more books every few days.  I haven’t read so much in years!

What about domestic violence during lock-down?  We read a lot in the news of several countries about this issue.  Happily, I’m like putty in my wife’s hands and do everything she says, complying with all the rules, so we get on fine.  She deals with the shops and the various tradesmen who inevitably have to come by – plumbers, carpenters and electricians are indispensable here, lock-down or no lockdown.  But Marcela handles them all flawlessly and the work gets done cheerfully, well up to the local standard, rarely needing to be re-done more than once.  I make a point of admiring the work and congratulate myself on having such a clever wife.  I do all of the cooking and, happily, Marcela is completely non-fussed about food.  She’ll eat anything – and does! 
We’re also blessed with our next-door neighbours.  We don’t visit but communicate across the 12ft. gap between terraces by shouting at each other over the roar of the tide.  They send us in cooked food several times each week.  They’re of Chinese extraction have 2 live-in cooks, so they know what they’re up to.  They’ve declined my offerings to them in return – except for some figs from the tree in the garden, which they stew, for some reason.

At the time of writing, we’re 61 days into the lockdown and the indications are it may be extended into June.  Are we bovvered?  Too right we are!!

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Good meat on their terrace in Colan in happier times!

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15 May 2020

On Lockdown 68, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/may/20/peru-coronavirus-lockdown-new-cases

gives a disappointing report on how, despite quick & strict Lockdown measures, the number of Coronavirus cases in Peru continues to rise

More Tales of lockdown