Archive | January, 2014

Happy camper

31 Jan

By the look on her face and chatter with her friends, it appears Anna had a great week at summer camp. It was all in Spanish but she had an English-speaking friend to help her out. It turns out that you can swim and do many other activities without knowing any Spanish, but we’re really glad she had the opportunity to learn more Spanish with friends and are also very thankful that she didn’t get sick!

We’ve grown a little discouraged trying to find activities for the kids to help them learn more Spanish before school starts. There are lots of summer vacation programs like sports and art classes, but none nearby. Vicki and I have language school until 1:40 so we can’t be running kids around in buses or taxis until the afternoon. It’s hard to find things here because very few businesses are online, much less summer programs. That makes camp all the more important and special. Daniel will get his turn in a couple week, Lord-willing, and Timothy isn’t quite ready.

We are waiting for our official marriage certificate to arrive from the States before we can apply for Vicki’s visa. It’s been 2 weeks now. We’re not sure what to think about the mail here yet, but overnight shipping is very expensive (~$80+ for one document). Please pray that we would be able to start this process soon!

The War of Southern Aggression (aka the Great Anchove Dispute)

27 Jan

One of the surprising things we learned upon arrival in Peru is that they have a thing about Chile. In our first day in the country, a taxi driver in Lima explained the significance of many of the statues and plazas downtown. They are named after heroes in the War of the Pacific between Chile, Bolivia, and Peru in 1879-1883, in which Chile took some land from Peru and land and the sea from Bolivia (who knew?). Like other places we’ve lived where there was an important war in the mid-1800s, some of the people still, ahem, aren’t quite over it. It was clear that the taxi driver had a disdain for Chileans, and we’ve been really surprised at the frequency with which this subject has come up in our short time here.

So it was with mild interest that we tuned in with the others today at language school to watch the verdict in the case of the border dispute that Peru brought before the International Court of Justice. Unlike most border disputes involving minerals or other resources, this one is about fish. Peru argued that the maritime border should extend southward in a diagonal perpendicular to the coastline. Chile argued that the border should extend due west along the line of latitude. Chilean boats have been fishing for some time now based on the Chilean definition. At stake is the anchove harvest used mostly to produce fish meal for fertilizer. I had no idea anchoves were so desirable, but I suspect that fertilizer is as good a use for them as any.

At any rate, tensions were moderate here in southern Peru (about 300 miles from the Chilean border). Security was increased at the Chilean embassy in Tacna and the military was on alert. Both countries had pledged to abide by the treaty, but of course, Chile cannot be trusted. Peru, on the other hand, can be trusted… because (as one of our observant children pointed out) Peru has a tiny military. Thankfully, the verdict was a non-event. The court awarded Chile the waters up to the parallel extending out to 80 miles. This is, of course, where the best fishing is, and preserves the status quo. Peru now has control of the formerly international waters along a diagonal that begins 80 miles out, which isn’t much of a victory, but if you happen to be piloting your yacht in what used to be international waters near the border, be on the lookout for the Peruvian Navy. Yes, Peru has a navy, including a base on 12,500 ft Lake Titicaca. Bolivia, now a land-locked country, also has a naval base there. Hilarious.

As an aside, Peru is one of the few countries to have ports navigable from both the Atlantic and the Pacific. Ocean-going vessels from the Atlantic navigate 2,000 miles up the Amazon to the port city of Iquitos! This is in fact the best way to get a shipping container from the US to the Peruvian jungle region.

In our limited experience, the Peru / Chile rivalry is not unlike the American Yankee / Confederate rivalry today. Both countries have their pride, monuments, and jokes. Both name their streets, bridges, and plazas after the war heroes. Both speak the same language but complain about each other’s accents. And both have huge investments in the other (for example, one of the biggest department stores in Peru is Chilean-owned Saga Falabella). In reality, Peru and Chile are cooperating rivals today, having the two fastest-growing economies in South America. In addition, both are part of the Pacific Alliance, which will further economic development and ease of travel between the countries. As a relatively recent resident of the continent, I am more conscious than ever of the history and happenings of South America, and even a little bit excited.

Modern Banking 2

22 Jan

Yesterday, I discussed my scheme for minimizing the fees associated with sending a wire from the US to Peru in the national currency. Today, I tried it out. The wire showed up in our Peruvian account about three hours after I phoned it in to our US bank. The local bank even sent me an email informing me of the transfer.

So I walked to the local branch and talked with the money changers outside. My language instructor had advised me to get to know the people a bit, to express my intent to work with just one person regularly, and to let them know I didn’t want any trouble with false bills as I would be walking the bills straight back into the bank. I thought it would be a good idea to get a business card or phone number for each of the four independent vendors standing outside. None had a card and only the lady in the semi-official looking booth gave me her phone number by writing it on a scrap of paper. This made me a bit nervous. On the plus side, the spot exchange rate was posted on her booth, which is a very fair price. There are a dozen money changers around every banking center here and they all offer a price within 0.2% of the spot rate. Still, without even a business card….

I was headed into the branch to make the withdrawal when I remembered that when we first arrived in Arequipa, a Christian friend here had introduced me to a money changer downtown and I had kept her business card. She has a little booth along with five or six others, is very friendly, and I distinctly remembered her telling me that if I had a lot of money to change, she could give a better rate than spot. So I abandoned the local branch plan and headed downtown. As it turns out, her booth is right across the street from my bank. She did indeed offer better than the spot rate. I asked about false bills and she showed me her machine that inspects and counts the bills, just like the banks use. Hers is a professional operation.

So i made the withdrawal, walked across the street, did the conversion (she invited me into the booth for security and to watch the machine count the money, pretty cool), then walked back across the street to deposit my newly converted soles. The only thing that could be smoother is if the bank itself were to offer such a great rate so I wouldn’t have to go outside with a wad of cash.

Later in the day, I realized I would need a bit more in the soles account to pay the rent next week, plus I wanted to show Vicki how this is done. So we headed downtown on foot and bus, made a withdrawal, did the exchange, crossed the street to deposit the soles and… the bank had just closed! Oops. I hadn’t realized it was getting so late. This made us quite nervous, but there was really nothing to do but walk home with a wad of cash in my pocket. I crossed the street and changed direction a couple times, then waited in a highly secured tourist area to make sure we weren’t being followed before resuming our walk home. Security is much, much better now than it used to be. In the old days, someone would discreetly put a chalk mark on your jacket when you walked out of the bank, and thugs down the line would be watching for the marks… Thankfully we made it home safe with the cash and will try to get it to the bank first thing tomorrow.

It is really a blessing to be able to deal with a trusted person situated right next to the bank. I did not realize this when I chose the bank, but this is just another way (besides no monthly maintenance fees and the lowest fees to receive a wire) in which it seems ideal for us. It also happens to be our landlord’s bank, so we can start paying the rent online instead of messing with cash every month. Perhaps most importantly, the lines are about as short as I’ve seen anywhere in Peru 🙂

Also today I took my diploma to the notary to get a legalized copy. I am getting quite good at the notary. There is one within a 10 minute walk from the house. The office is orderly and efficient. It usually takes only 10-20 minutes to get a document stamped, but today I just dropped it off and it should be ready when they open tomorrow. The copy of my diploma will allow me to teach at one of the universities. More on that soon.

On the visa front, we have ordered an apostilled copy of our marriage certificate from the Iowa Secretary of State. Thankfully, unlike most Peruvian institutions, all they needed was the electronic copy I scanned before moving to Peru, which I sent via email. “Apostille” is the name of an international treaty signed in Apostille, Netherlands (I think) and is a special stamp on official documents like birth and marriage certificates that is recognized by foreign governments. In most states, the only place you can get it is from the Secretary of State. As soon as we receive it, we can apply for visas for Vicki and the kids. After a few more trips to Banco de la Frustración and two more trips to Lima, we should be all set.

Modern banking

21 Jan

Problem: I need to move a lot of money (about $4,000) into my newly-opened bank account in Peru (denominated in Peruvian nuevo soles) to pay for language school. I have the money in my bank in the States. I just need to move it. And… I need to convert most of it to Peruvian nuevo soles (PEN). There are several options:

  1. PayPal doesn’t work with bank accounts in Peru. Sadly, not an option.
  2. I heard that MoneyGram offers efficient transfers; however, someone would have to withdraw the money on the US side and go to a MoneyGram agent (Wal-Mart?). I would have to do the same in reverse, leaving me carrying more cash than most people here make in a year in a country known for pickpocketing. But with good security and an agent with high enough limits, this could work.
  3. Withdraw the entire amount on successive days from the ATMs of one of the two local banks that charge no ATM fees (Caja Arequipa and ScotiaBank). Due to local withdraw limits of ~$250 per ATM transaction, this would require at least 8 trips with multiple transactions and would incur excessive ATM use charges of ~$50, which, combined with the bank’s 1% charge for foreign transactions, would cost about $90, or >2% of the total. It is reported that CapitalOne doesn’t charge the 1% foreign transaction fee for US accounts, so for small amounts of money, it’s the way to go. However, I despise CapitalOne because of their credit card practices and couldn’t bring myself to open an account. And for larger amounts of money, limits still get in the way.
  4. Wire the amount in Peruvian nuevo soles. Isn’t this what wiring money is all about? I located a Peruvian bank which charges a flat $18 to receive foreign wires. This is better than most, which charge 0.5% of the wire amount. My US bank also has one of the lowest international wire transfer fees, only $45. Since my bank always gives an excellent rate to withdraw soles from ATMs, I figured the same might be true of wires so I could send the wire in soles for $63, or 1.5% of the total. This is cheaper and safer than using ATMs, especially to send larger amounts. Unfortunately, my bank uses an intermediary bank that charges a whopping 2.5% for currency conversion, bringing the cost to $163, or 4% of the total. Completely unacceptable.
  5. Wire the amount in dollars. This avoids the currency conversion penalty on the sending side. Unfortunately, since my Peruvian account is denominated in soles, the local bank will convert the wire into soles at the bank’s rate, charging roughly the same 2.5% + fees, or more than 4% of the total. Unacceptable.

Fortunately, after a trip to the bank with the shortest line ever this afternoon, I found a solution. I will now tell you the modern, cost-efficient way to transfer money across borders. I have opened two accounts at the same Peruvian bank, one denominated in dollars and the other in soles. I wire the money in dollars from the US to my local dollar account, go to the bank window and withdraw the amount of the wire in dollars, walk toward the door and take literally two steps outside the bank, change the money into soles at the spot exchange rate with one of the three uniformed people sitting on stools outside the bank by the little booth, then take two steps back into the bank to deposit the money into my soles account. Total cost: only the wire transfer fees of $63 and a tiny bit of risk. Since the same people sit on the stools outside the bank every day, they are probably not cheats, and if they are, I know where they work. A security guard with a gun normally stands in the doorway of the bank within view, so it’s a reasonably safe location. This little bit of risk saves me well over $100 in useless fees, and if there are problems with the bills of either party, the bank officials will be quite interested in them.

Lessons learned:

  • Even banking in Peru still works better with paper.
  • As I used to work on Internet banking software, I have a vague recollection that wire transfers were a major profit center for our customers (banks). Now I know who was writing my paycheck all those years.

In other news, today was Vicki’s birthday. At lunch, we celebrated with oven-roasted leg of lamb (yummy!) The language school had a cake for her, as did Daniel (good job, son). Fortunately, Vicki’s birthday this year fell on a Papa John’s 2-for-1 day, so we had friends over and enjoyed our favorite pizza. It tastes exactly like it does in the US, maybe even better. It’s the first time I can remember picking up pizzas using a bus and taxi. The nearest PJs doesn’t deliver to our area. There is a closer one opening soon, but it would no doubt be too dangerous to walk half a mile with hot pizza 🙂

Also today, I met with one of the two universities where I have been invited to teach computer courses. Despite some bureaucratic snags, things are moving along. i will spare you the details until they can be enjoyed in all their glory.

Oh! And Michael got engaged yesterday, but you already saw that on Facebook. The wedding will be next January, which is during our summer break and thus the ideal time for us to travel (albeit US winter could be a bit of an adjustment). This should get us home for Christmas and Daniel is already counting the days.

I reside in Peru!

16 Jan

Great news! Just over four months since our arrival, I received my official residence card. Now I can open a bank account, get a postpaid cell phone plan, avoid the 100% tourist tax on LAN and TACA airlines, become the legal manager of my own company in Peru, and most importantly, legally work here. I am now a Peruvian resident.

There were only a few hiccups this trip to Lima. For the first time in my life, I missed a flight. I arrived early for my flight in Arequipa last night and checked in. The city was in disarray as it was raining. This is a major event like a severe storm in the Midwest or snowstorm in the South. The taxi driver turned on the radio and people were calling in from all over town describing the conditions. In reality, it is a bit serious as there is not proper drainage in the streets. But still, people, it’s just rain…. Anyway, about half the airport was without power and there was a lot of buzz about flights getting cancelled. I understood the flight monitor to indicate that my flight was delayed 20 minutes.

Then I discovered I was out of minutes on my prepaid plan. Panic. Won’t be able to call a taxi in Lima and no one will know where I am. I searched in vain for anyone selling Claro refills at the airport. I bought a soda at the airport cafe so I could connect to the wifi and sent an email to Vicki asking her to go up the street and buy a recharge. I tried reaching the three kids at home via Google Chat. Nobody online–probably the first time in months that’s happened! Finally, I remembered about a remarkable invention that lets you make calls with only a coin. I found the airport pay phones, dropped in 50 centimos ($0.20 US), and dialed our 6 digit home phone. Vicki answered and told me the power was out (hence no one online). I explained my predicament and she set out to find a store with power to do the recharge. Whew.

I headed for my gate through security. “I’m sorry, sir, your flight is closed.” Huh? It was still 40 minutes before the delayed boarding time. It turns out the flight wasn’t delayed, and Peruvian Airlines REQUIRES you to be in the boarding area 45 minutes before the flight. I went back to the check-in counter, where there were thankfully only a few people waiting. They called the gate. Too late. They offered to rebook me on the 8:50pm flight and wanted to charge me for the difference, but I explained something in bad Spanish about why I was late and I think they had pity on my Spanish if nothing else. After 20 minutes or so, they changed my flight for free. Thank you, PAL!

Then I began to worry. Other flights were getting cancelled due to the rain. The flight I had just missed left with no problems. Did I just lose my opportunity to get to Lima tonight? I had prepaid my hotel to get the discount rate, ugh. And Kenneth was supposed to meet me in the morning to help translate if needed. Thankfully, about 9:30pm, we were able to depart. Upon arrival in Lima, I inquired about a safe taxi inside the baggage claim area and they wanted $40 for my hotel. I knew that Taxi Satellital charges only 40 soles (about $15) so I declined. But last time I had trouble connecting with Taxi Satellital at the Lima airpot. Thankfully, Taxi Green, another secure service just outside the baggage claim area, also charges 40 soles and we went straightaway, arriving at the hotel at 11:30pm.

I had breakfast with Kenneth at 7am, then off to Immigration. We arrived just before opening at 8am, got straight in, and there weren’t many people in queue. They don’t allow in translators except when really needed, so Kenneth told me not to speak any Spanish, which I did. But just before getting called upstairs, a clerk came to gave us instructions, and I did what she asked right way. She caught it and said, “You understand me,” and I was on my own after that. About 9am, I finally got to the window. I was a bit nervous about the required copy of my passport because I had forgotten to make one. I had a worn color copy in my back pocket which I always carry. Then I discovered a nice copy in my folder, but with the entry stamp also on it. Would one of them work? She didn’t even look at my photo, just the payment receipts, and said I was missing one payment for S/.41.90, about $15. What on earth, I thought? I protested that in Arequipa, they told me… and that was as far as I got. “Oh, you’re from Arequipa! One moment….” She went off to another room, found my papers, stapled stuff together, reviewed my details on screen with me, and said I was good to go… to biometrics. That was about 9:45am. After 20 minutes or so, they called me in for fingerprints, and after another 40 minutes, finally printed my residence card. I checked it VERY carefully before leaving the office.

I’m very thankful to the Lord and to many new friends in Peru (Steve, David, David, Kenneth) who have helped us to get this far. Vicki’s residence card should be easier now that I’ve at least seen the places where we need to go and have complete lists of the requirements (assuming they don’t change….) Thank you all for your prayers on our behalf!

PS My emergency backpack list is growing:

  • toilet paper
  • cell phone charger
  • cell phone refill cards
  • cell phone battery pack
  • coins for pay phone


11 Jan

After a rather discouraging Wednesday, Thursday started well and kept getting better. I used my extra day in Lima (at Peruvian Airlines’ expense!) to meet with potential customers / partners for software development and am quite excited about the opportunities before me. I was able to work out the basics of two excellent opportunities for consulting / business development, meet a talented graphic / Web designer duo with whom I hope to start working shortly on projects for local businesses, and discuss the possibility of providing training to developers in exchange for some work on the Remember One Another mobile app. All of these are answers to definite short-term needs and really get the ball rolling. I am very thankful for that cancelled flight! It seems the Lord had other plans for me on Thursday.

Friday back in Arequipa I met with the department head and a teacher at one of the local universities and worked out the details of the Web development course I plan to teach starting in April. The university also offered their new computer lab to teach a summer course along with a current teacher there. Then Friday night I received an email from a former colleague with still more possible work opportunities.

But perhaps the best news of all is that yesterday my work visa was approved! This is a huge answer to prayer and was much faster than expected after the discouragement on Wednesday. I can now confidently venture to Lima again to collect my residence card and begin the process for Vicki and the kids, which should be much simpler.

The change in my emotional well-being over the last three days could not be more dramatic. It is a situation I have observed many times, that of complete dejection followed by fantastic reminders of the Lord’s faithfulness. Humanly speaking, I do not even understand how my world can look so dark one day and so bright the next. But I know who makes the difference and He’s clearly been at work here.

Regaining Hope

9 Jan

Peter Krol’s latest blog post, Regaining Hope, is certainly timely. Yesterday very nearly qualified as a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. I had hoped to make a day trip to Lima to pick up my residence card. I almost missed my morning flight because, among other things, I got up a little late (my fault), the taxi driver stopped for gas, and the Arequipa airport, while small, is quite busy at 7am and there was some problem with my reservation. Thankfully, I made it to Lima all right. I used the Taxi Satellital app on my phone to summon a taxi at the airport in Lima. After waiting 15 minutes for a taxi, I saw a driver that I know and like but declined his services since I had already called for a taxi. Then I waited another 30 minutes 😦 I finally gave up and took an available Taxi Satellital passing by. I could not understand the taxi dispatcher speaking Spanish or English on my phone, which was very frustrating, and never did see the reserved taxi (probably because of said failure to understand spoken language).

Upon arriving at Immigration, I was told by 3 different officials 3 different places to go in a chain which eventually led me to the correct place, the queue of 25 people on the third floor. After an hour or so of waiting and visiting with a man from Arequipa who runs an orphanage and speaks good English, an official took a few of our details. About 10 minutes later he reappeared to tell me there was a problem with my visa application (the man from Arequipa interpreted for me) and I needed to speak with the woman at Window 1. The man from Arequipa was in a predicament, too, as the officials were arguing about a certain form he may or may not need, and the whole reason he was there was because after 16 years in Peru, Immigration revoked his residency on a technicality when he went back to Germany for a year.

The secretary at Window 1 was behind glass, which like the phone, mutes all treble tones and makes it very hard to understand Spanish. She did know some English but it was also hard to understand. She told me that I needed to drop off my INTERPOL certification, which I did, and come back at some future time–another clerk later said maybe in 5 days–to pick up my residence card. This was a huge blow. I had understood from Immigration in Arequipa that it was all done and had booked the trip for this purpose only. It could have been my faulty understanding, but I don’t think so in this case. It is very, very frustrating not to be able to know even if I heard something correctly or not. Note to self: repeat back everything. Fortunately, I did have my INTERPOL certification with me and dropped it off with the not-so-nice lady.

After debating for a while what to do, consulting Steve via phone, and praying, it appeared there really was no alternative but to leave Immigration. I called one of my friends and business associates in Lima from CloudWare 360 (a great Google Apps partner) and we had a nice lunch at Larcomar overlooking the ocean, which was definitely the bright spot of the day.

I arrived at the airport 2 hours before my scheduled flight time of 7pm and get checked in quickly. Shortly before our scheduled departure time, I received an email from Immigration requesting that I present my INTERPOL certification at Window 12 within 5 days or the entire process will have to be restarted. As I had presented that very certificate around noon, I am a little concerned about the timing of the email and am hoping it’s due only to the slowness of the automated system to update. In the event I do have to present my certificate again, I would need a copy, and unfortunately, I gave the lady at Immigration the original. I scanned it before I left, but it wasn’t showing up in Google Drive on my phone, so I began to panic that I’d lost my only copy.

At 7pm, we were told that due to weather, there would be a 40 minute delay. This was somewhat expected as it had rained all night in Arequipa (’tis the season) and I wondered if I might have problems getting back. We boarded the plane at 7:40, only to wait an hour or so at the gate for 30 passengers arriving from another flight. Then began the ritual with which I am all too familiar in the States when the weather is basically done for the day. The plane had a “mechanical problem” so we had to disembark. But the terminal was now being used for international flights so we had to wait for immigration officials to show up to escort us in one side of the jetway and out the other. Then we waited an hour at another gate for another plane. Then we loaded onto a people mover to go to the other plane. Then we waited on the people mover for half an hour before getting off and going right back to the gate. Then we waited some more. About 11pm, Peruvian Airlines finally cancelled the flight. They tried to move us all back to baggage claim and disclaim any further responsibility, but the Peruvians know their rights and were clamoring for hotel, transportation, etc. The flight attendants were not forthcoming with these.

At this point, I witnessed one of my favorite Peruvian rituals thus far. Someone mentioned the words, “libro de reclamaciones,” which is the official book of complaints. EVERY business must have one, and it is monitored by a government agency, INDECOPI, which is feared almost as much as the IRS. Someone found the book under the counter and a line started building of people waiting to write in it. At this point, the airline decided they would offer everyone a hotel. The process of getting this arranged was unbelievably chaotic, with 150 people crowded en masse around four attendants. It took about an hour for them to write down everyone’s names. It was now midnight. My phone had run out of battery so I now felt quite helpless–couldn’t even call Vicki to let her know I would be in Lima for the night. I went with a group of 20 or so to huddle in a taxi with another man and two women with infants, car seats not required…. We arrived about 12:45am at Hotel Melia, which is an incredibly nice hotel that I would like to have enjoyed for more than 3 hours. So I did. I slept right through the wakeup call to make the 4am taxi for the 6:15 flight. Actually, I answered the phone, then went back to sleep for 2 hours, which were possibly the only 2 hours of real sleep I got last night 🙂

Here’s where things start to improve. It’s morning. The sun is shining. The hot shower was fabulous (I had brought a change of clothes for my day trip, which partially made up for having forgotten my phone charger cable). The breakfast at Melia is unbelievable, including lomo saltado on the buffet. The concierge plugged my phone into his charger while I ate breakfast, which gave me enough battery to call Vicki, look at the map to see where on earth I was, and… see a notification from Foursquare that my friend Kenneth from Tekton Systems was at a cafe only a few blocks away. This was wonderful providence. Kenneth had generously offered the use of his office space any time I’m in Lima, so I sent him a message and he called me right away, picked me up at the hotel and loaned me a laptop for the day as well as the wifi, phone charger, etc. This is Southern hospitality at its finest, and if you need mobile apps developed any time soon by a talented team at reasonable places, I would love to hook you up with Kenneth. As it turns out, we are going to work together on some training offerings and possible joint projects, so I’m really glad to have had the extra day, anyway. I will also be meeting shortly with another company representing potential future work.

At the office, I was able to call Vicki and send her instructions for restarting the Google Drive client on my Mac, which is safely at home in Arequipa… Thankfully, that did indeed resolve the sync problem and I can now see that I do have a copy of the INTERPOL certification should I need it. And Kenneth used his Peruvian diplomacy to convince Peruvian Airlines to book me without a change fee on the 7pm flight to Arequipa, where, I am told, it is no longer raining.