Mario Testino’s Almost New Gallery Almost Makes Me Sad

Art gallery on pause.

Mario Testino MATEIt ought to be considered a valid afternoon’s outing, preferably on a Sunday, you’d assume, in that lazy, untaxing way things should be on a Sunday in Barrano. And it is. At the nice end of town, Mario Testino MATE‘s new gallery is housed in a beautifully restored building typical of the area. And the pictures are nice, don’t get me wrong – he may be a fashion photographer but he’s still good.

We went to see Testino’s Alta Moda exhibition. A collection of photos that he took up in the hills somewhere of Peruvians wearing traditional clothing. Taken over the last few years the models are the descendants of a fellow successful photographer and the setting is a studio with backdrops recalling. They are good, colorful and kinda desaturated all at the same time – a style that I like – but there’s not so many of them and you’re soon through the back and entering an annex housing part 2 of this show.

Here’s where it get’s funny. On display are several Galtier, Gucci, I forgot which, outfits from, like, 2007 or something. And some writing on the wall declaring the connection between the full skirts and hats on display and the traditional clothes worn by indigenous Peruvians. Great, my companions, said, Mario’s saying high fashion is inspired by Andean fashion. Kind of a cliche but… hang on.

The story is that Mario Testino arrived back in his homeland a couple of years ago after many successful years photographing royalty of all kinds – the Hollywood kind, the cat-walk kind, even the lizard kind. In a flurry of press releases and social media posts, he announced his attention to turn his eyes to the state of Peruvian culture. With help from the government and sponsorship from a random furniture company he has set up this new gallery and called it MATE; the MArio TEstino center of Peruvian culture and its promotion. Well, we saw just a bunch of his own photos and some frocks from his fashion friends. And got charged $6 (as a foreigner) for the privilege.

Art gallery on pause.

Privilege. Now there’s a word I feel could get better employed in this story. We looked again at the connection between the two parts of this exhibition, the writing on the wall. What Testino actually seemed to be saying was that, while on his high Andean photo-mission, he was struck by the similarity to the fashion designs from his friend a few years previously. Not an inspiration flowing from the old cultures to the new but a kind of ‘Oh, look, those dresses look just like what Jean-Paul did in Paris’. And here, in this rarefied setting of an elitist celebration held in a colonial-era (and now colonial once again?) asset now lost to anyone who can’t afford the couple of hours wages it costs to get in, this almost whimsical after-thought of Testino is wrought into three dimensions for our Sunday enjoyment. It seemed funny and, well, almost sad at the same time but, if I am correct about this interpretation of the exhibition, it wasn’t exactly the cliche we expected it to be. Possibly something even worse.

Looking at the literature then, I learnt that the MATE Gallery is open to school kids and university states. They can come down too and experience the mind of Mario for a couple of dollars each – an invitation that is about as philanthropic as this government supported institution seems to have got in its first year of operation. Early days yet, people.

What Happened To World Car Free Day?

Burning Man bike for sale.

Burning Man bike for sale.Today is World Car Free Day – or Dia Mundial Sin Auto, as they say at this end. Yesterday I met up with Octavio – the brains behind Lima’s Cicloaxion pro-cycling group – to get a heads up on the activities today in celebration of this globally recognized  event. Globally unless you’re in the UK, that is, where, in London, car-free day has long since been rebranded as Freewheel, Skyride  and now Prudential Ride London (sponsored by Prudential) shifted to the middle of August when there are less cars around to be more free of. Cycling in the UK capital has a strong dynamic with the British Olympic success, of course, that Brad Wag guy and London Victoria Pendulum – not to mention Boris Bikes and the long term effort by city-planners to both come up with funds for cycling and try and work out what to spend them on beyond bicycle parking stands. Around the rest of the country, solidarity with the world’s non-auto population is similarly played down: Only a handful of municipal authorities registered events on the World Car Free Day Events directory, a situation that, with the minimum of research effort, I find repeated year in year out..

Well, like a true Brit, then, I managed to miss this year’s Car-Free Day Ride in Lima – the meeting point in Parque Kennedy was too far for the meeting time of 10.30 am was too early and I had some unmissable chores to perform. Truth is, I could have gone for a short time if only my bike had been any good for the demanding Limeño street environment. Say what you like about riding a bicycle in places like Lima, good brakes is certainly a necessity and lacking, too, on my present machine which has a back-pedal brake. Just when you’re committed to a gap in the traffic and you know that Combi bearing down on you is gonna run it close, you need to know you can stop if you have to.

All of which means my present ride, a beautiful classic cruiser/coaster type thing, broken in at Black Rock City, Nevada where that Burning Man traffic did get heavy at sundown and the vehicles were pretty mutant, is going to be sold and its advertisement can be viewed here. I’m catching myself staring at it now remembering riding it for the first time on the Playa where stopping accurately is not essential. We brought it with us on our journey south because I loved its uniqueness – for me, anyway, something different to my usual bikes. God, that was a another world wasn’t it? That little festival of hedonism thousands of miles north and over two years ago, this Huffy- lump of metal switched hemispheres and made it from one desert to another. And the bike’s as cool as can be when the journey is a country lane down to the village store, a beach-side promenade or the leafy streets of Miraflores. In fact, I’m hoping that someone in Miraflores will take it. I can imagine this bike cruising up and down the Malecon, the wide avenues leading out to Barranca, Surco and San Isidrio – just not with me on it; I can not be trusted on a Burning Man bike (I have finally admitted) and we’re gonna sell it and get another.

Volunteer Community Websites Can Seriously Augment Your Traveling Experience

Workaway is one of those traveling volunteer community websites

Workaway is one of those traveling volunteer community websitesSocial forums and volunteer community websites such as can seriously augment your traveling experience, making for an easier integration and a way of supporting local and independent projects. It is one of those win-win situations: The host gets help and the guest gets a deeper encounter with a foreign country – and everyone benefits from the exchange of ideas and energies that occurs when you connect like-minded strangers together. These networking services are becoming so popular, and so appreciated, that their operators can make enough of a living to ensure their continued, successful work.

So it’s kinda like a win-win-win situation, really. It wasn’t like that, of course, back in the day pre-www, when we had to rely on word of mouth, pigeons, glass bottles and stuff for global networking of this nature – and as a result, life just seemed more black and white; you’re either on holiday or you’re working. That rare beast, the working holiday was even honored with its own term – the busman’s holiday. But now, after checking these sites out it’s like we’re all on a busman’s holiday. Life is a busman’s holiday. The distinction between work and play has been blurred for thousands of people who have chosen a more radical experience: We’re hooking up with to help plan our return to Europe from South America – we’ll let you know how we get along.

Workaway has been around since 2002 but  really took off as a proper business over the last four years. They have registered hosts in 120 countries: We’re looking at Brazil and Argentina and the number of hosts we’ve seen is way beyond other websites we have looked at.  Sixty-one hosts for Argentina alone; from permaculture projects to a Patagonian cattle ranch; animal rescue centers, eco-villages, community kitchens and schools; and enough hotels and hostels that need looking after to solve the unemployment problem of a small country. It is truly one of those moments when you realize that life is too short and that there’s so much to do – but completely exciting to be at the precipice and see all these options before you. Just where are we gonna end up next?

David, who first volunteered while traveling in Hawaii in the early nineties and met enough like-minded travelers to realize the Workaway concept, tells me that they can’t say how many connections are made between host and volunteer on an average day.  Interactions come in all kinds of shape and size too – you might volunteer to help bring in a harvest, a short, intense experience, for example. You could just as easily be a host that needs someone to look after their farm through the lonely Arctic months. The Workaway office is getting thousands of messages back from the community, however.  In fact, more than one of them has thanked them for their contribution to a relationship forming from a Workaway connection and a baby being born! They’re doing something right, it seems.

Building on this success, the team at Workaway are currently launching a foundation which will enable both volunteers (aka Workawayers) and hosts to directly donate to some of the worthwhile projects that they have come across around the world. The future is bright for volunteer community websites and the clever people who use them…

Markets in Lima Are More Advanced Than The West

Markets in Lima - the places to get things done.

Markets in Lima - the places to get things done.From the time we arrived back in Central America until we arrived in Lima, Peru to settle down for a few months, we were pretty much on the move all the time. Any jobs or chores that needed doing around the truck were put off – thinking that once we were embedded in our new home, we’d have a chance to catch up on all these things. We had a Lima List. A growing, expanding Lima List which the other day began to shrink as we turned our attention to getting stuff done. You know how it is.

Curtains never got sewn up properly? Chuck it on the Lima List. Holes in shoes? Hand brake wearing out? Door frame getting loose? Weld a storage box together properly? Fix the bicycles? Man, sometimes I think we should move to an eight-day week or a thirteen month year just to give us the time to get our shit done.

Lima-markets-sewin-machineThe markets in Lima are a good place to start. It is a massive area with a Chinatown section, a hair-dressing street, a collection of bike shops, an area with stalls selling road signs – you know how these developing world markets go; row after row of stalls, kiosks and stores all selling the exact same things. It’s kinda strange; on the one hand, you wonder why all these establishments exist together by type, surely, they are all in direct competition with each other. On the other hand, you know, it’s cool. Faced with a line of kiosks and holes in the wall full of shoes, their component parts and the machines to fix them – and trying to wade through the crowds of footwear-challenged customers, stepping over the shoe-shine men that are filling all the gaps, it’s like, well, I may be new to Lima but I’ve found out where you go if you need new soles on your sneakers.

We made our choice and rocked up to one blackened, dirty, scruffy store, the walls lined with replacement soles and bits of cardboard, plastic and rubber all over the floor. For $10 I got to watch them rip up my shoes, glue, then put the new soles into place. Working quickly and precisely, it’s always a joy to watch craftsmen at work. I was attracted by the megalithic contraption that they use to sew the shoes together and got to talking with the guy operating it. He told me that this machine was only a few years old and cost $6000 imported from Brazil. And then he asked if there were any like this back in the UK. Maybe, in a museum somewhere, I replied, some exhibit to celebrate an industrial, manufacturing past. These days, we just throw the shoes away and get new ones. And as I said that, struggling to find space in the bustling crowds and buzzing commercial activity of hundreds of shoe-repairers and their clientele, it sounded pretty lame – that we just threw the stuff away and that a market like this wouldn’t even exist in our developed world. The guy just chewed on what I said, didn’t say a word – probably wondering the same thing as me: Where are all the advanced nations on this planet again?

Counterfeit Dollars Come From Peru

The fight against counterfeit cash

The fight against counterfeit cashI thought I was being clever, checking the money they gave back to me in the supermarket or at the money-exchange place, seeing if it was counterfeit or not. That is until I saw everyone else doing it too. You hand over your notes for products bought or services supplied and the cashier checks them, a little rub between the fingers, a quick flick under the UV light, holding them up to the light and then gives back some change whereupon you do the same, going through the same pantomime. At first it seemed like, ‘hah, if you think my money is counterfeit – how do I know that yours isn’t?’ And then it dawned on us after a few weeks here in Lima, Peru: no one does know and everyone checks the money – on both sides of the cash register.

The story is that plenty of the cash in circulation here is counterfeit. Further, that Peru is now the main source of counterfeit dollars in the world – even 20% of counterfeit dollars found in the US originate from this new counterfeit capital of the world. It seems to be the result of a perfect storm: The suppression of criminal activity in Colombia has delivered the enterprise further south which, historically, always had a lively forgery business in the semi-industrial suburbs of Lima, the capital of a country, I am told, that didn’t even have a law against forging foreign currencies. Between the two is Ecuador which has dollarized its economy and provided an easy market for counterfeit greenbacks.

I get to thinking about what happens when your note is found to be a forgery. It happened to us once, paying for a meal in a small restaurant in a dusty town. The waitress had this pen and scribbled a mark on the twenty-sol bill. The pen traced a faint orange line and she announced it a counterfeit and unacceptable, showing us how on other bills the pen traced no mark at all. On this occasion we shrugged our shoulders and paid with another note and I think, to be honest, we lost track of the dodgy one, certainly passing it on to someone exchange for something.

So I imagined that this forged note wound up in the possession of someone very poor; someone at the end of the cash chain, accepting crumpled notes, maybe one or two a week, in desperation. Someone without a magic counterfeit-detecting pen and who isn’t in a position to say, ‘hey, this note feels a bit funny, can I have another?’ What happens to them, here in Peru, when they take their last note to the bank or some office where they have to pay for the electricity, or whatever, and it turns out to be forged and the official behind the desk confiscates it and gives nothing in return? They lose the last of their money, is what happens.

It could happen you go into a bank with a hundred dollars and change them up to new sols. You walk away, counting the cash and then go back to split up one of the hundreds they gave you. They take the note. Give it a rub, under the UV and hold it up to the light. Shit, it’s fake. Shit, you just lost a hundred.

Well, that’s just wrong isn’t it?

We got talking with some money changers hanging outside the banks at San Miguel La Plaza, a sprawling shopping mall between downtown Lima and the airport. Perez showed me his stamp that he uses to mark every high denomination note that passes through his hands and his test of authenticity. It is a seal of approval and kind of ironic too. Not willing to trust the high-tech security features, holograms and raised, intaglio printing, the note in question is only genuine if it has been stamped with a $2 stamp that anyone could get made up in ten minutes down the market. So anyway Perez doesn’t use the stamp much these days. He says that the latest counterfeit notes are quite easy to feel as soon as you rub them in a certain way. At the moment there doesn’t seem to be many counterfeits in circulation. $24 million was seized in 2012 – nearly $16 million in the first half of 2013. That’s just the US dollars. The government has also been pushing an awareness campaign that focuses counterfeit detection down to three easy steps: “Look” for the watermarks, “feel” the ink and “tilt” against the light. Not that the Peruvian public need encouraging. The counterfeits are still there and you still have to check every one. Perez’s colleague, Beto, came over and showed me a fake dollar bill that he’d been given the day before. It was a hundred and it looked good until they showed me how the green ink felt different to a true hundred-dollar bill. Pretty subtle – and I’m not sure I would have noticed it. Then they told me to smell it and, yes, it did have a different, kind of gasoline smell. Great, another step in the pantomime performed at every cashier in Peru; sniffing the notes.

Once upon a time, street money changers were often blamed for the proliferation of fake currency although, of course, it is the big demand for dollars that fuels the counterfeiting industry. Perez has to wear a yellow jacket identifying him as an official trader allowed to tout for custom in designated areas – and these days the traders are the victims too. Beto had been given the fake $100 bill at the end of a long, chilly day standing around outside in the Lima winter – he’d fallen for the scam I had imagined might happen the other way round. A guy (who no one could describe) had bought two hundred dollars, receiving from Beto, a hundred-dollar bill and five twenties. Beto had thought that everything was done for the day – and making to go home when the guy turned round and asked for the hundred bill to be changed into five twenties. It had been a long day standing around outside in the Lima winter and Beto was tired. That’s when the guy must have swapped over the real note that he’d just been given for the counterfeit note now sitting in Beto’s hand. ‘That’s why we stamp them,’ Perez says.

Out one night, we stop at an ATM to take out some cash and I find myself automatically giving the notes a quick look, feel and tilt. And then a sniff, yeah, I look round to see no one was watching that. No one around too, of course, to complain to if I did detect a counterfeit note spat out from a machine – and, thinking about it more, no one around to check them if you pay at some kind of automatic cashier like they have in supermarkets in the West. Money is intentional, surely, a symbol of something intangible, a promise on paper and, without the human check, its actual authenticity becomes more about what the person, the only human around, ferrying the money over between machines, thinks. If they think it’s a real dollar, it’s a real dollar.





Will Our Next Dog Be Hairless And Peruvian?

Peruvian Hairless Dog

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The first time I saw these kind of dogs

was the blurry morning after arriving in Mancora, Northern Peru. I was coming back from the bakery and there they were stretched out between the market stalls and some fenced-off roadworks, blocking my way.

Hmm, what’s this, I thought? I had a camera on me and as I got it out, I made eye contact and they started growling. I put it away and squeezed past them, clutching the fresh pastries I’d bought. No treats for these guys then!

Not so much aggressive , more kind of like they just don’t have much time for strangers. I could understand that – strangers can be annoying sometimes – and I began to really appreciate these hairless dogs. They started to come in all sizes and with a wide range of hairstyles. I asked a restaurant-owner if I could take some photographs of her dog which I’d seen sniffing around earlier. She yelled “Draco” and this black, muscular thing like a jackal tinged with flames came bounding over a small wall and skidded to a halt before us, head turning sharply to take in the scene. Before I knew better I’d been calling them Devil Dogs, pointing them out as we drove south through Peru. Draco, she called this one, the restaurant-owner. Not Devil, Dragon.

This is an ancient breed; pre-Spanish, pre-Incan and possibly as old as any of the civilizations that existed here in Peru, judging by pottery remains and paintings that depict a wrinkled, rubbery dog. And looking around the old google seems to suggest that the Hairless Peruvian is of extremely ancient lineage. Genetic analysis of Amerindian dogs have found that 30% of their DNA came from Asia – a far higher figure than supposed given the catastrophic cultural changes during the European colonization. Yes, this means that that recognizable dogs may have traveled with the first humans from East Asia to North America 20-odd thousand years ago rather than being breed anew from indigenous wolves. Not only that – according to this report, they have found the same sequence of DNA, containing genes that regulate hair growth, in both Chinese and the Peruvian versions. In the past, similarities between Peruvian and Chinese hairless breeds was traced to the immigration of Chinese people that occurred when the slavery was abolished in South America. But a hairless dog may well have come via the arctic land bridge between Siberia and Alaska, thousands of years before. A breed that old? Definitely dragon.

Draco, the Peruvian dog.

Why are they hairless, though? Why have they been bred that way? A common view is that the hairless mutation was allowed to flourish when, left to the demands of natural selection, it wouldn’t have. Whether you’re talking about Chinese traders, Aztec priests or the Peruvians today looking for a typical breed that symbolizes their heritage, the hairless pups have been artificially selected to survive. The FOXI3 mutation is part of a selection of genes that control development of teeth, hair, nails and teeth – and many of these dogs have reduced dentition to go with the higher risk of skin cancer. It is assumed that many pre-Incan people kept these dogs as a source of food – maybe these hairless dogs kind of looked cleaner, more free of parasites and bigger than a guinea pig. Also, they were (and still are) prized as hot-water bottles on legs, offering relief to ailments because they are much warmer to the touch than a coated animal. In Peru, another variety is the Incan Orchid dog which is the same thing but with mottled skin displaying patchy colors of pink or gold. These were highly prized by Incan nobility and kept indoors in rooms full of orchids, away from the sun. More recently there was a trend to use hairless dogs in cosmetic animal experiments until it was shown that, while  they might be more bald than a human, they were not suitable models for human skin. Multipurpose dogs anyhow – won’t bring fleas into the home and completely trainable for hunting, protection or just to look fancy.

Getting back to our bus, the only dogs around are in the pictures on our cameras – it sure feels strange, still, months after our own Vaga passed away. Especially now, we have slowed down, stopping in small towns down Peru’s desert coast. She would have loved all that sand. We can’t help but find ourselves at the gates of animal refuges or pausing for a minute or two in dog-exercise areas or at the pet store. There’s a bunch of dogs that are always hanging out on a roundabout on the way to Lima’s Customs Office – a trip that we’ve had to make a few times – and one time, a rare sunny day, I had to really resist the temptation to get off the bus and hang out with them. Ah, well.

Considering the dog as the pinnacle of human technological achievement means you are always going to be disgusted at the sheer waste when you see lots of unloved dogs around but first impressions for Peru say that dog-life here is pretty good. They generally look in good condition compared to their tropical relatives and less of them dead on the road compared to Mexico, say. Whether hairless or not, half of them are clothed in old sweaters or coats – protection against the chilly coastal winter as much as the cold nights in the highlands. Of course, such comforts are not enjoyed by every dog and a few charities and organizations have stepped up to the task of administering care for the dogs of impoverished owners. They also struggle to replace traditional methods of culling like mass-poisoning or drowning with a more humane approach. Such groups exist in Iquitos, Piura and Cuzco while in Lima we went to visit Animazul – a well-run animal refuge on the outskirts of the capital. In as big as city as this, it doesn’t matter how well the authorities sterilization programs or how accessible general pet care is; there are always going to be cases of abandoned or suffering animals. Animazul looks after 46 dogs at the moment and, when they can, they offer dog-care to the local area or support various community initiatives. Their base is in a valley between Cieneguilla and Pachacamac, Lima suburbs that are dry and hot away from the coastal fogs and municipal water networks. Just up the road is a Dog Hotel serving the wealthier folk downtown and we stopped by that too. It was strange to compare the conditions of these Miraflorean mutts – a few more blankets in their kennels and a bigger, greener exercise area than their more cramped and frugal brothers and sisters living at the refuge not far away. Along the way, we had passed many luxurious villas behind high brick walls – a hundred yards on and there’d be a collection of more humble homes, huddled together under corrugated roofs, hidden behind drying clothes or the dust clouds of passing buses… The different kind of lives for the same kind of animal. All of those animal welfare groups, by the way, are accepting donations.

So I find myself wondering how a Peruvian Inca Orchid dog would handle the European weather. You know, if a little pup or other managed to find a way on board the bus. Wouldn’t be the first time – we’re on the way home to Europe and we’re one dog down… I really appreciated their no-nonsense kind of attitude – the big ones, anyway; the toy versions are like toy dogs everywhere – they, for sure, had a Pariah Dog personality – a street surviving and intelligent. They might enjoy the absence of a strong sun back in Central Europe but they sure gonna look cold waiting outside the shop for me in  the winter time. I’m told that these hairless dogs will carry around their own blankets around from place to place, without being trained to and if they can survive the long march from Asia thousands of years ago, they must have qualities of endurance and hardiness… desirable traits for a traveling animal, surely…