We’re heading back to the US after what is probably our penultimate trip to Peru. Somehow twenty years has gone by since we settled in the beachside neighborhood of Barranca. As we leave, I hold on to my memories and stories from the neighborhood.
When we first visited, the house had been empty for three years. It was owned by San Antonio, a big fish processing company in nearby Supe, as a residence for the plant manager. After a number of years in the house, the manager’s family moved to Lima for the children to attend high school, and the manager decided to live in an apartment close to the plant. We believe he imagined moving back into the house when he retired, so it sat empty. When we visited, it seemed the caretaker rarely entered the front rooms. They were dark and empty, with a single light bulb dangling from a cord in the center of each room. From the almost palpable gloom, he invited us to the back yard, where we stood blinking. It was full of palm trees, flowers, and birds. He told us there had been three full-time gardeners.
During the early days, when the house was still largely empty, Fernando, the caretaker, asked whether we were afraid of ghosts, as the ghost of a small woman dressed in white appeared in one of the front rooms. We dismissed the idea, but the story stuck, and once we had enough beds made and blankets purchased, our field crew moved in and we got to work. Back from our field site one afternoon, the three young men who slept in the front corner room rushed out. One of them felt the ghost!
He laid down for a short nap, and after a while someone sat down beside him. He assumed it was one of his roommates, and heard some low murmuring, but couldn’t understand what was being said, so he opened his eyes, and…..No one was there! He was sure it was the ghost, and swore the mattress had compressed where the phantom sat. He took harassment ever after about it.
Humidity and Salt
The sea breeze is blamed for everything. Plants that don’t grow, paint peels, doors stick, metal rusts. We learned that the best towel bars are wood, not chrome, that handles and hooks should be brass. Marine paint should be used whenever possible, with annual repainting of every surface.
[Years of garage sale finds of brass door handles and extravagant hooks. One is from a subway or train car, one pair comes from the door of a bank.]
Shrine of appliances
We seemed to need a new microwave and toaster oven every year. Somehow, they shorted out after just one season of use. It was quite frustrating, but we view a microwave and toaster as essential appliances. Finally, Dalmira, our housekeeper, explained that the humidity was ruining the appliances, and if we covered them with a towel when they were not in use, they would be protected. It seemed silly, but we tried it and–it worked! We now have a microwave that is a few years old. When it began to short out this year, Fernando took it apart, rinsed some of the wires with fresh water, put it back together and got it to work again. I was astonished. Rinsing wires in water? He says that salt accumulates on everything, and now I believe him.
Size and Shape
We’re selling our house furnished, in part because the dressers and closets were built for this place. There was a good carpenter, Arquinio, who took on the job of building all the pieces out of wood that wouldn’t get woodworm (cedar?). Jonathan made sketches and measurements. Everyone looked forward to the arrival of furniture. The beds had come first, and we were all tired of keeping our clothing in cardboard boxes or open suitcases on the floor of our rooms. Finally, the dressers began to turn up. They were so big! Everyone was happy to have space to store their clothing, and all were moved in. Next came the closets. A few rooms have built in closets, but they are small and damp, thus a free-standing armoire is very useful. As we moved them it, again they seemed bigger than expected, and when we got to the one for our room in the far corner of the house, it wouldn’t go through the door.
We wrestled the closet in various ways, but it couldn’t bend around the corner, so we took it out and tried coming in through the adjacent storage room. That almost worked. We removed the doorframe, and got the closet in at last. Jonathan could not understand how he could have mis-measured the dimensions, and got out his sketches and measured the finished pieces. The pieces were all equal-sized, but when he compared them to the drawings, he found they were all larger than the specifications. In frustration, he returned to Arquinio and asked how it was that all his furniture was built to different dimensions than those agreed upon. Arquinio shrugged and looked sheepish (very briefly) and said that he hated to waste the high quality wood. Rather than cutting off the boards, he made everything a bit bigger. He was doing us a favor.
We had to replace our refrigerator after the time we unplugged it, thawed, cleaned, and dried it out between seasons. The wiring all deteriorated from rust or salt. In subsequent years we left the refrigerator running at all times, and that seems to make them last longer. Still, a few years ago we had to purchase a new refrigerator. There is not a lot of choice, and there is usually only one of each model in stock. We found a floor model that was large enough, a few minor dents, but nothing to be concerned about, and we brought it home, only to find that it would not fit into the kitchen through either door or the windows. Returns aren’t generally a thing in Peru, so we were stuck. A lot of measuring revealed that if we removed the door frame, the fridge would fit through. At that time, one section of the door frame was in poor condition, and that decided it. Fernando and Carlos removed the decayed half of the door frame, the fridge was moved in and a carpenter came and replaced one side of the frame. Once plastered and painted, the door was better than before.
That was good for a few years, but we’ve begun to have trouble with the fridge not staying cold. Fernando called a repairman, who after visiting and assessing the situation, said he could repair our fridge in his shop, but would need to take it there. This is a huge appliance, and initially he said he’d tie it to his motorcycle, a laughable image. We finally agreed and went to take the fridge out, which is when Fernando remembered what it had taken to get it in. After much conversation, the repairman agreed to a repair in place, and eventually it was fixed. I’m not sure what will happen when it reaches the end of the line.
It hasn’t all been repairs. There have been some sensational parties. During our field work, we held an annual pachamanca, where food is cooked over heated rocks. By the time we invited all the crew, our workmen and their families, and our neighbors, there were up to 50 people at the peak moments. One year, our neighbor Gaim brought in a band, and insisted that Jonathan and I have a dance. Other years we put up marquees, and yet another time the students created a “quipu” that recorded all the food, each in a different color or type of yarn or number of knots.
There have been some lovely holiday parties with our daughters and our neighbors’ families. For New Years Eve everyone cooked a dish to share, and son-in-law Neil’s brussels sprouts converted me to actually eating them. Our other son-in-law, Jim, made a Serbian dish popular with his relatives that was a kind of polenta with lots of cheese and cream. (We fought over the leftovers.) Jonathan roasted pigs, I made cake, and everyone celebrated. It is a house full of happy memories.
4 thoughts on “A Houseful of Stories”
Jonathan and Winifred, what priceless memories and great stories to share of those wonderful years in your house! Just wish I’d kept in better touch and visited. Hope you sell to a worthy family or group. 👍
Katherine, I agree, it would have been fun to have you visit! That being said, the older we get, the more tiresome it is to travel all that way, then drive a half day north….. we will miss it, but don’t regret the change.
There are a lot of facets to the bright side, right?
I am so glad to have experienced the joy of your house, the company and of course Jonathan’s cooking.
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