‘My dog Princesa works, too’

A 73-year-old and his cocker spaniel find ‘life’ earning a living on Lima’s streets.

An illustration of a person on a scooter riding in the middle of the street with buildings on either side and a dog on the left of the man and a cart with sweets in it on the right side of the man.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

What's your money worth? A series from the front line of the cost-of-living crisis, where people who have been hit hard share their monthly expenses.

Name: Fernando del Águila

Age: 73

Occupation: Street vendor

Lives with: His partner Carmen (49), daughter Fabiola (34), son Emanuel (24), and the family’s four cocker spaniels.

Lives in: A three-bedroom apartment in Caja de Agua, a low-income neighbourhood in San Juan de Lurigancho, the most populous district in Peru’s capital city, Lima. The sector is home to more than a million residents living in low- and medium-income areas as well as several sprawling hillside slums.

Fernando’s monthly income: 900-1,200 soles ($241-$321). The median monthly income for an individual working in the formal economy in Metropolitan Lima is 1,700 soles ($455).

Total expenses for the month: The family of four splits essential monthly expenses, including groceries, gas, electricity and water, which amount to 2,255 soles ($604) per month. Fernando’s portion is 564 soles ($151).

A street vendor in Peru, with his dog
Princesa, Fernando’s 12-year-old cocker spaniel, accompanies her owner each afternoon to a pedestrian boulevard in central Lima [Neil Giardino/Al Jazeera]
Princesa, Fernando’s 12-year-old cocker spaniel, accompanies her owner each afternoon to a pedestrian boulevard in central Lima [Neil Giardino/Al Jazeera]

For the past 14 years, seven days a week, Fernando del Águila has made his way down one of Lima’s vast hillside slums to a pedestrian boulevard in the city’s historic centre, where he sells lollipops, chewing gum and other sundries out of a little green pushcart.

By his side, on a red mat, sits Princesa, his 12-year-old cocker spaniel.

“I’m here every day from 3pm to 7pm. I work a half-day, according to my size,” quips Fernando, who, at three feet tall, suffers from achondroplasia, a form of short-limbed dwarfism.

Despite his 73 years and a disability which severely limits his mobility, Fernando comes alive each afternoon on the corner of Union and Puno streets. Since his childhood days selling newspapers and lottery tickets in the Andean city of Cusco, the streets have always held a certain dynamism which continues to enthral him today.

“I’m happy here. It’s a marvellous thing. Friends and strangers come by and say hello. Sometimes they give a little tip,” he said. “There’s so much life in the streets.”

A street vendor in Peru takes a photo with a passerby
Fernando poses with a woman on a street corner in central Lima. Decades of performing on national television have brought him public recognition [Neil Giardino/Al Jazeera]

Fernando has lived many lives. At age 14, he moved to Lima, taking jobs as a passion fruit salesman, a circus clown, a comic and a regular actor on a number of variety television shows.

With an acting career spanning three decades, national recognition came from work on a programme called El Especial del Humor. Adopting the stage moniker “Dubi Dubi”, Fernando would croon love songs, crack jokes before a panel of judges and perform deadpan roles as a police officer or paramour to swooning would-be lovers in irreverent comedy sketches.

“I have a lot of beautiful memories of being on TV. It gives me a unique satisfaction,” he said.

In the late 2000s, following a bout of ill health and dwindling opportunities in the entertainment industry, Fernando returned to the streets, once again joining an untold legion of Limeños toiling in the informal sector.

“People pass by and recognise me from TV. Sometimes they feel sorry for me. But I’m not looking for pity. There is no one above me or below me.”

Peru has one of the highest rates of informal employment in Latin America, with more than 70 percent of citizens working in the shadow economy, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Informatics (INEI). The COVID-19 pandemic, which paralysed economic activity in Peru, plunged at least 30 percent of its population into poverty conditions, a majority working in the informal sector, INEI found.

An illustration of a graph indicating inflation with the left bar a bit shorter than the right bar.
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Making matters worse, recent anti-government protests which erupted nationally and convulsed the capital, dealt heavy blows to the livelihoods of millions of Peruvians, including Fernando’s. A state of emergency amid violent demonstrations greatly reduced foot traffic in the city’s colonial centre, tanking Fernando’s sales for months on end.

But shrewd management of his personal finances, along with a few financial hacks he has adopted over the years, allowed him some breathing room amid the economic uncertainty.

At the end of each workday, for example, Fernando puts coins in a soft drink bottle. “After around three or four months, it’s full and I count it out. I can save 950 soles ($254). It’s a lovely thing,” he said.

On a recent afternoon, Fernando struck up a conversation with a street sweeper and posed for photos with curious passersby, all while making sales with an effortless charm. Despite the precariousness of his work and the limitations imposed by his short stature, it is a larger-than-life optimism and awe of the world around him that draw him out onto this street corner day in and day out.

“I love the streets. I love to observe, to watch people go by. I make sales and I get to interact with the world, so that gives me two reasons to be out here. What more could I ask for?”

Over the course of a month, from March 15, 2023 to April 15, 2023, as part of a collaborative project, Fernando del Águila tracked his expenses with reporter Neil Giardino.

Here are the expenses that tested his finances the most.

Expenses over one month

A man rides a scooter in Lima, Peru
Fernando moves around his neighbourhood on a small scooter [Neil Giardino/Al Jazeera]
Fernando moves around his neighbourhood on a small scooter [Neil Giardino/Al Jazeera]

Merchandise for his cart

From a small green pushcart reaching his waist, Fernando neatly displays a modest assortment of individually wrapped chocolates, cookies, chewing gum, mints and lollipops. Prices of consumer goods like these have reached a 26-year high, rising by 8.46 percent since last year.

Fernando has felt the pinch.

“Take these cookies, for example,” he said. “I used to get them for six soles a box ($1.60). Now they’re charging 6.50 ($1.74).”

The higher prices of his merchandise have forced Fernando to become a more scrupulous shopper, incorporating cheaper stores into his monthly supply runs. Another way to manage the rising costs, Fernando admits, is to levy a small upcharge.

The shimmering lollipops, which, at wholesale cost him six soles ($1.60) for a bag of 24, are sold for a sol each on his cart – a 50-cent markup. And one of his best-sellers, slender packs of mint, blackberry and watermelon chewing gum, which sell for 1.50 ($0.40) in most shops, cost two soles ($0.53) here.

“I earn a little better that way. I’m only here for a little while, and people are willing to pay. One customer in a million complains that it's cheaper in the stores,” said Fernando.

March 2022: 60 soles ($16)*
March 2023: 100 soles ($27)

A street vendor in Lima, Peru
Fernando displays cookies, chocolates and lollipops on his merchandise cart. The rising cost of products like these have forced him to raise prices [Neil Giardino/Al Jazeera]

Taxi rides

At home and around his neighbourhood, Fernando moves about using a small scooter. The cost of installing a motor is prohibitive, so he relies on his son or neighbourhood children to help push him along as he runs daily errands.

His disability makes the prospect of taking Lima’s chaotic public transportation an impossibility. And so each afternoon he hails a taxi from his front door. “The driver will help me in and put my cart in the back,” he said.

Despite being one of his most costly expenses, the daily taxi rides – which cost about $6 for a round trip – evoke a feeling of freedom in Fernando. “I tell my driver, ‘Let’s go, papa.’ I get up onto the seat, Princesa jumps in and we travel downtown happily.”

Nationally, transportation costs have risen sharply in Peru. Taxi services on average rose 9 percent last year on account of rising fuel prices.

Fernando has a tactic which sometimes brings the cost of his daily taxi rides down. “I get some change ready for when we arrive. If the fare is 10 soles ($2.67), sometimes I give the driver eight and have him take a chocolate. Most drivers don’t complain,” Fernando said.

2022: 420 soles ($112)*
2023: 600 soles ($161)

A taxi driver helps a street vendor in Peru
A taxi driver helps lift Fernando’s cart into the back seat. Owing to his limited mobility, taxi rides to and from central Lima have become an essential expense for Fernando [Neil Giardino/Al Jazeera]

Groceries and household items

Groceries are the highest monthly expenditure for the family of four, which splits the cost equally. Fernando’s partner, Carmen, is responsible for purchasing groceries each week.

“It used to be that with 100 soles ($27) you could buy everything you needed for the week. But not any more,” said Fernando.

Food prices have risen 8.46 percent in Peru since last year. The war in Ukraine has driven up prices of wheat and chemical fertilisers, and months of national highway blockades caused by political unrest earlier this year paralysed the transport of agricultural products to market, increasing prices.

“The other day my wife spent 200 soles ($53.55) on groceries. It’s become a tremendous expense. The price of chicken has gone up so much that we’ve resorted to buying less expensive parts.”

A staple item in any Peruvian household, the price of butchered poultry has risen 16 percent due to the avian flu outbreak as well as the national political protests, which affected imports of feed from Bolivia.

As for vices, Fernando quit smoking four years ago, but still enjoys a bottle of rum now and again. “I come home tired and mix a little rum into a cold Coca-Cola. It makes me feel good,” he said. “If I feel like singing, I sing. If I feel like crying, I cry. But always with joy and gratitude that I’m alive.”

2022: 600 soles ($161)*
2023: 1,000 soles ($268)

An illustration of prices rising in the past year.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Gas, water and electricity

In years past, Fernando and his partner were responsible for covering essentials like gas, water and electricity for the household. More recently, his daughter, who works as an accountant, has helped alleviate the burden.

Fernando says his electricity bill has gone up substantially. Their refrigerator is small, and aside from a television and fan, the family has refrained from acquiring high energy-consuming appliances.

Water costs have also spiked. Fernando’s monthly bill went from 120 soles ($32) to 280 ($75) recently. “I had to call up and see if there was something wrong with their bookkeeping. But water and electricity are essentials, so there’s not much we can do but pay,” he said.

As a way to bring down gas costs, Fernando’s household replaced propane cylinders with piped-in natural gas. “It's much cheaper and we have plenty of hot water now,” he said. One cylinder used to cost him 70 or 80 soles ($19-21). He now pays about 50 soles ($13) per month and has all the hot water he needs.

2022: 255 soles ($68)*
2023: 380 soles ($102)

*Last year’s costs were sourced from Peru’s National Institute of Statistics and Informatics and Fernando.

A man plays with his cocker spaniel in the courtyard of a blue house in Peru
Fernando pets Princesa in the courtyard of his Lima home [Neil Giardino/Al Jazeera]

Five quick questions for Fernando

1. What's the hardest financial decision you had to make this month? My refrigerator broke down this month. I had it fixed three or four times but it kept on breaking. They offered to buy it for scrap metal for 15 soles ($4). I was worried I’d have to buy a new one, which would cost me around 900 soles ($241). Luckily, my taxi driver referred a repairman. It cost 50 soles ($13), but it was money well spent.

2. Which is the most worthwhile expense from this month? The taxi I take to and from work. It’s about comfort. I don’t have to climb up on the bus. I don’t have to worry about walking and pushing my cart. It’s worth it for me to travel by taxi. It’s the best money I spend.

3. When finances get tough, what advice do you have? When life gets difficult, especially for those with disabilities, my advice is to stay strong. To endure and fight. I see people on the streets who are way worse off than I am – women with their babies selling candy on the street. Those are two lives they have to care for.

4. What’s your biggest money worry? Day to day I worry about food costs. But honestly, I don’t have many worries. If I had to say, it would be a fear of getting sick and the expenses around that. But if I think about those things, I’ll get sick. That’s why I stay positive and keep going. Plus, I can’t die yet because I have this world that I love and the people who love me.

5. What’s the saving hack you are proudest of? My dog Princesa works, too, with her little piggy bank. Passersby give her a tip. Every 15 days I take out the money and count it up. At the end of the month, it helps. She earns around 120 soles ($32) a month. I use it to buy dog food.

A dog on a street in Lima, Peru
Fernando uses coins from Princesa's tip jar to buy dog food each month for his four cocker spaniels [Neil Giardino/Al Jazeera]

Read more stories from the series: What's your money worth?

Source: Al Jazeera