Sunday, December 13, 2009

We Wititi

Wititi is the official dance of the region of Arequipa, and the Colca Canyon is the center, the source, the font, the beating big bass drum of it. The first question everyone asks is why the men are dancing in long skirts. Long ago, so the story goes, Cabana men disguised themselves as women to sneak in and woo the beautiful but highly protected Collagua women. They danced together, in seeming innocence, but when the supposedly sequestered ladies started showing their big bellies some months later, the deceit was discovered, and the legend born, followed in short order with the birth of many a Cabana-Collagua wawa (baby, of course—the easiest word to learn in Quechua).

December ninth through the eleventh is the annual Wititi festival in Chivay, and we are eager to participate to the fullest extent possible. That requires dressing the part.

Between our friends Cusi, Cesi and Herminia we piece together the complete traje (outfit) for each of us, and as soon as we show ourselves in public, the gawking and exclamations start. Apparently the sight of two gringos in traje tipica is a rare and noteworthy event. As we continue out the door and down the street we can see the heads turning and hear the comments ripple along with us as we pass. We are greeted with big grins, thumbs up, and handshakes. This is to continue for the three days of the festival, with strangers stopping us on the street to be photographed with us. A couple of young women from Arequipa gushed over me “You look like a Barbie!” Yeah, Colca Barbie, with pollera and accessories. I felt like I was everyone’s doll, as the first day Cesi had to readjust my sash, another day Leo from the jewelry store grabbed me off the street as we were walking by and dragged me into the shop to make repairs. The fashion police were alert to infractions Russ was committing as well, but he got off with a retying of the honda (a ropelike slingshot fashioned into a belt) and a warning.

The other Peace Corps volunteers here for the fiesta had similar experiences-- it takes a village to dress a gringo. Here are the parts involved for Colca Barbie to be fully dressed: polleras –at least two (fancy long velvety skirts with many rows of embroidery and flashy trim starting at the hem and going up knee high or higher for the outside layer, with numerous other long skirts underneath possibly of lesser flash, but some trim), blouse, also with embroidery around the cuffs and neck, embroidered vest (as snug a fit as possible). Embroidered belt tied tight to give Barbie the tiniest waist possible (she’s a doll, she doesn’t need to breathe), optional jacket with more embroidery for when the temperature drops. Barbie has two hat options, but she must wear a hat. The Collagua hat is similar in shape to a straw boater, but it is white, and sports a solid glitz hatband with a starburst rosette of ribbon glitz worn on the left side. This Barbie chose the hat of the Cabanas, a more sedate felt option featuring a wide (embroidered, of course) brim worn snapped up in back, down in front.

And what of Colca Ken? Two polleras, as previously described, with the top one hiked up coquettishly in front to show a peek of the one underneath. He wears a montera on his head, which is a two story pith helmet covered with fabric and decorated with rows of fringe which has two practical functions. First, it hangs in front of his eyes, adding to his disguise, and second, it swings about merrily when he dances, adding swash to his buckle. The montera is held on with numerous straps, further covering the sneaky bastard’s face. In between the polleras and the hat the well dressed wititi man wears a long sleeved military style shirt, with two bright sashes crossed like bandoliers across his shoulders all secured by a precisely tied honda (see above). The sashes also provide a place to carry a whisky bottle. Now, finally we are dressed. On with the party.

And the music? A brass band with trumpet and “bajo” (euphonium) plays the same song in two sections, trumpet and bajo, all night long, without rest. The. Same. Song. The trumpets compel the dancing--when the trumpets take their turn, so do the dancers, swirling frenetically to make the skirts stand out and swing. Miles and miles of glitter trim on the hundreds of hats and skirts sparkles and flashes in the light from the street lamps. When the euphoniums take over the mad swirling stops and the dancers advance, flowing around the plaza or down the street. At times there are three bands blaring independently (and out of sync) and so many dancers crowded together we bang into each other during the twirling. Although it seems like the whole town is dancing, the streets are lined with observers, or maybe they are just resting a bit before they dance again.

During dinner at the neighborhood host’s home, it is decided that Russ will be the Machu Wititi on the first night. Machu means old, or grandfather, in Quechua. It also means he leads the parade from the house to the plaza, and around the plaza, with a beer bottle in one hand and his hat in the other. Cheers and applause for the greying gringo.

The party lasts three days. During the day, there are dance competitions with choreographed groups of dancers in matching polleras strutting their moves in front of the judge’s stand. One night is the band competition, with the winner being the band that plays the longest into the night before their lips flap off into the sunrise. Another night is the competition between the three neighborhoods of Chivay. I think the winner has something to do with how many dancers you bring to the event. We danced with our Ccapac neighbors, but I don’t think we won.

In short, we dress, get redressed by Peruvians, eat, eat more street food (hot chocolate, alpaca on a stick, alpaca hamburgers, arroz con leche) dance, dance, drink beer and chicha, and dance. So does practically all of the community, little boys in polleras, tiny girls in polleras. Old dancers, young dancers, all swirling for the joy of it. No one is fooled by the disguises any longer, but the locals say there is still a noticeable spike in the birth rate nine months following the wititi.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Cranberries in Peru?!

I tried to write a Thanksgiving blog post, but it came out exactly like you’d expect a Peace Corps/Perú Thanksgiving blog post to come out--how it’s the simple things in life that are most meaningful, and our relationships with other people matter more than “things,” blah, blah, blah. You’ve read it before, in one form or another, every year, and it’s all still true—even moreso in Perú. I don’t mean to devalue any of it, and I can assure you that we spent a good bit of time reflecting on the unique lessons of our time in Perú, and what it all means in the context of Thanksgiving. We’re sure that you did likewise with your own situations—and we suspect that in principle, they’re not that different. So, let’s move on to the stuff that only your correspondents in Chivay can tell you!

That said, we had a great Thanksgiving day. We never tire of walking through the market here, it’s even better than going to the IGA in Hamilton, and that’s saying something. (We do miss Willie and Tom and the rest of the crew there. Tell them we said “hi”). The displays of fruits familiar and exotic, household goods, and a dizzying variety of potatoes, are presented—almost exclusively—by women, usually in traditional clothes.

We staggered home with an 8-kilo turkey, 2 kilos of potatoes, 2 kilos of camote (sweet potato), bread, fruit, and various spices, and set about making a feast. My sister, Liz, had sent some dried cranberries, so we were able to include a sumptuous sauce in the menu. Enrique fished an old gas oven out of their storage area, so we hooked it up and, after assuring ourselves that we wouldn’t detonate West Central Chivay when we lit the burners, we made an epic, yet highly aromatic, mess of the kitchen. To keep everyone happy, we also bought about 3 liters of Peruvian wine for a bit more than US $10. To cover up the taste, they just make it very, very sweet. You can imagine . . .

Net result: Enrique said it was the best meal of his life, in spite of my frantic signals not to continue in that vein while sitting next to his wife, Amanda, who has been making his meals for 21 years and is the heart and soul of their restaurant, Antares. No fuss ensued, though, and maybe she even agreed, as we gorged on apple and pecan pies a la mode. (A tip of the hat to fellow PCV Chris Heather, who pitched in to help us get it all done, thereby earning a share of the leftovers).

Chivay is thankfully devoid of Christmas cheer at this point—it’s hard to find any sign at all that the holiday is coming, aside from the ubiquitous “panetones,” sort of a cross between a loaf of white bread and a fruitcake, but the size of a small archeological site. I get the impression that everyone in Perú gives everyone else at least 14 panetones during the holidays. Arequipa, on the other hand, is a jarring experience, culturally speaking. The medium-to-large stores are full of decorations based on North American or European Christmas traditions, all tinsel and snowmen, muzack playing the same holiday tunes you hear in the US. AAauuugghhh!

Chivay IS preparing for the big festival of the year, the Fiesta de la Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepción, which is celebrated with several days of drinking and dancing the Wititi, Dec. 8-11. It’s an honest festival, with hardly any consideration at all for tourists, thrown to celebrate and preserve the local cultures. “Wititi” translates from the Quechua, more or less, as (ahem) to make love, but it’s usually billed just as “the dance of love.” It has its origins in the mix of the two aboriginal cultures in the Colca valley, the Quechua-speaking Cabanas, whose pre-Inca origins stem from the ancient Wari culture of central Peru, and the Collaguas, Aymara-speaking descendants of the Tiwanaku culture once centered near Lake Titicaca.

The Wititi celebrates the legend that men of the Cabana culture, in order to get close to the Collagua women, would dress as women, including a hat with a fringed brim to hide their faces. Thus, they could sneak into the fiestas and dance with the women. (A variant has them dressing as women to get close to the Spanish conquistadors to cut their throats, but that’s SO not romantic.) So now we have brass bands blowing their lips off for 3-4 days, and a plaza filled with men in pulleras (traditional skirts) and monteras (the hats), dancing away with similarly-dressed women. Jean has bought her pullera and is looking for the rest of the authentic outfit, and I’ve arranged to borrow my pullera and montera. There will be feasts and who knows what to accompany the doings—we’ll give you a full report.

So what have we been up to since our last post, so long ago? We’ll start with “work,” since that’s what your tax dollars are supporting us to do.

We hadn’t planned to return to U.S. soil during our 2-year hitch, but technically we did so in late November, bringing a pair of Chivay artisans to the 7th Annual Peace Corps Artisan Fair at the U.S. Embassy in Lima. Embassies are legally considered sovereign soil of the country they represent, so there we were, among people who speak English and flush the toilet paper right down the toilet, instead of putting it in a little basket next to the john. It was a bit odd, being there, but it was a great chance to re-connect with the group of volunteers with whom we trained, all of whom also brought artisans to Lima. We had a half-day of training, a night on the town in Lima, and a day of selling on the campus of the embassy. Cameras, cell phones, USB’s, and all sharp objects other than knitting needles were collected at the security portals, but one of our PC staffers was able to shoot a few frames. Welcome to the USA . . .

To get to Lima from Chivay, we spent 20 hours on buses, each way, just to spend 36 frantic hours in Lima. Not Worth It.

Our artisans did well for themselves, with some unique products (and some just like many others), and the high point was a Wititi demonstration that we put on, in Colca costume. Cusi may, in fact, have spent more time and thought preparing for the dance than for the fair, but he has experience with both, so all went well.

Our other main job focus is tourism, so we attended a 2-day Forum on Tourism at a retreat in the valley. It was about what you’d expect at any such gathering, a lot of blah-blah, and a few kernels of really good stuff. The nut to crack is how to help the people here take advantage of the torrent of tourists, most of whom are paying guides in Arequipa to bring them here; consequently, little money stays in the valley. As always, we made some good connections, and are following up on project ideas, but it’s mostly long-term stuff at this point, so it may be a while before we see much result.

We’re also working out a proposal to do some training for the hotel and restaurant association in Chivay.

For fun? Yeah, we’ve done some of that . . . We owe a debt to the philosophy of Ace Steele, whose motto of “fun once a day, Big Fun once a week” we try to follow. We’re still happy enough with our situation that just walking across town, through the market and the Plaza de Armas, constitutes our daily fun.

We visited the 700-year-old, very spooky pre-Inca ruins of Tapay Viejo. Tapay is a community accessible only on foot, and there’s no real path to the ruins, which are fairly extensive and rarely-visited. They include a small cave full of human skulls and bones, and pottery. Definitely an Indiana Jones moment. We can’t even begin to describe the precipitous trail to get there, but we’ll be happy to show it to you if you visit. Huge fun.

We biked a nice half-day circuit from Chivay up to Canocota, on a (mostly) paved road, then made the descent home on an Inca road alongside the river. Some of that involved carrying the bikes down a stone staircase, still more-or-less intact centuries after its construction. The trail back to Chivay passes through a canyon of basaltic lava flows (OK, the whole Province is one big basaltic lava flow, reminiscent of eastern Washington), and it conveniently delivers you to the entrance to La Calera, the very nicely-developed hot springs here. This is one of the recommended tourist "circuits" that a local NGO is trying to promote.

And, at the invitation of a mixed group of guides and workers at another local NGO, we loaded our bikes on the bus, and got off at the dizzying Mirador de los Volcanes, elevation 15,800 feet. There, we mounted up, and made an indescribably thrilling descent back to Chivay, nearly 4,000 vertical feet below. (A bit intimidating, when two of them suited up in full motorcycle helmets and skateboard-style body armor.) We saw herds of domestic alpaca, llamas, and sheep, wild vicuña galloping across the slopes, odd alpine flora (it might have been sentient, hard to tell with those alpine life-forms), and outrageous mountain vistas. It had a bit of everything, some challenging single-track, some less-challenging double-tracks, some no-track-at-all, and a whizzing couple of kilometers of pavement in the middle, to connect all the rough parts. In Spanish, what we were following is called a “trocha,” and I have to wonder if that isn’t the root for “atrocious,” as some of it definitely was. Still--definitely Big Fun.

For the record, all the above also count as “work,” since part of tourism development involves acquainting ourselves with touristic resources and activities that have yet to be developed as commercial activities. These excursions definitely count, and we’re actively working with guides and others to develop them, while preserving their unique characteristics.

And our host family—we really love these guys, we have so much to share. On Dec. 2 we went to mass with them to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Amanda’s father’s death. Some of the service was sung in Quechua. Every day is a revelation of some sort.

So there it is. Some days we’re so focused on the “little stuff” that our biggest frustrations seem to be the slow speed of the internet connection in Chivay, and the excessive time we have to spend on buses; then we step back and look at the miserable condition of everyone’s teeth due to poor oral hygiene, the artisans selling beautiful works ridiculously cheap because they don’t properly value their own time spent on the work, and the unbalanced scales of “industrial tourism” vs. benefits for the community at large, and get a better grip on why we're here. We suffer from “mental whiplash” every day, as does anyone who looks at Perú with their eyes open. We’re here to be your “eyes.”

Thursday, October 15, 2009

We Talk A Lot

So now begins the part of our service where we have to figure out what it is we’re doing here. The easy parts are Peace Corps Goals #2 and #3, the parts about cultural exchange. That’s covered every time we talk to another Peruvian or write to you about our lives here. Goal #1--that’s the one where we actually try to help somebody with something—is becoming more important as we start to get our community figured out.

We go to lots of meetings. We talk to lots of people. We put on charlas (“chats”) for the members of the artisan association we work with, coaching them on how to prepare for the upcoming artisan fairs, and on how tourists think. We go to classes at the Instituto Superior, where they have a 4-year program oriented towards “Turismo,” and offer our gringo point-of-view. Jean helps out with the English classes at the Instituto, offering the students a chance to talk with a native English speaker.

Tourism is such an overwhelming factor in the local economy that it seems the logical place to put our knowledge and experience to use. Last year roughly 200,000 people toured the Colca Canyon, nearly all of them passing through Chivay on their way from Arequipa to Cruz del Condor, from which they can appreciate the 10,000-foot depth of the canyon and, usually, see some condors. That’s what they paid for, anyway. Then, they go back to Arequipa, ideally after pausing for the lunch buffet at our host family’s restaurant.

How do we get at least some of them to spend another day and night here in the canyon, to benefit the local economy? Well, coming from Russ it’s no big surprise that some Peruvian version of a “shop local” campaign is just the ticket. We’re trying to help inventory the local tourist resources, attractions, events, etc., and find ways to promote them, along with everything “local”—local artisans, local foods, locally-owned resources. That’s a big job, though, so mostly we spend hours, days, weeks, talking to people, having meetings, making plans. Last week we helped write and record a radio spot to help promote the idea of “turismo vivencial,” essentially home-stays with typical Peruvian families. At least our Spanish is getting polished from the practice!

Russ also helped translate an offer for a 4-day-3-night tourist experience in the Colca canyon, involving turismo vivencial, visits to archeological sites (cave paintings, pre-Inca terraces), activities like flyfishing and horseback riding, herding alpaca, and the like. It’s now posted as an auction item to promote an Ecotourism website. If you want to bid on it, here’s the URL: it looks like a great trip!

Meanwhile, we get to live in the big, fat middle of a traveler’s dream: attending the fiesta celebrating the end of the planting of the corn in Cabanaconde, for example. The field is being plowed by a team of oxen (yes, oxen), and a guy walks behind sowing the corn by hand. Behind him is a team of horses dragging a plank on which someone stands, smoothing out the furrows and burying the seeds.

All of this is accompanied by much chicha, the local homebrew made of local corn, of course. Maybe some other varieties of alcohol, too—pito, rum, caballo viejo, beer. Probably all of them, in fact. A spread of hors d’oeuvres, (toasted corn, smoked local cheese, odd bits of shredded alpaca, fried bread, spread out on a dusty blanket), followed by a plate of alpaca soup. More chicha? Yes, thanks! The whole glass, without taking a breath, is the preferred method of downing it, but our hosts interceded, pleading for mercy on behalf of our fragile digestive tracts. We survived it all, and it was an immensely satisfying cultural experience.

Survived, that is, to travel up to Callalli where some of our artisans live, to present our charla.
They, in turn, dressed Jean in their traditional skirt, vest, and hat for the occasion, and presented us with a lunch of caldo de cabeza. Another alpaca bites the dust, and the soup featured the very cabeza you might surmise from the name of the dish, dismantled in its entirety. We ate that, too (more chicha? yes, thanks!) and survived it, too. We then packed 9 of us in an ancient Toyota Corona to go visit a cave featuring paintings and etchings estimated to be 6,000 years old, depicting the hunting and domestication of . . . what? The alpaca, of course! We then spent the night in a room thoughtfully supplied with two friendly young alpaca. Their water trough was frozen in the morning, typical for springtime in Callalli, elev. 12,600’ . . .

We both have mountain bikes now, and though there’s nothing wrong with the running gear, we still seem to be left breathless from exertion whenever we venture out on them. What’s with that? Russ accomplished a nice circuit of about 20 km. last weekend, visiting two nearby towns and making an inventory of visual and historical resources (meaning: gawking at the scenery, Inca terraces & ruins). From a local high point, we often survey El Mismi on the horizon, the other side of which offers the most remote source of the mighty Amazon. We tell you, the Colca Canyon is the hub of South America!

So, write us and tell us about YOUR fascinating lives! Send photos—our internet connection is slow, but we’ve got little better to do some evenings than watch the files slowly download, and we’re always pleased to see the results: the faces and places that seem to grow more distant with every bite of alpaca . . .

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Condors & Yarns

First of all, a shameless plug for my friend Skip Horner, travel guide extraordinaire, who is putting together a Peru trip for January 23-29 of 2010. The trip features Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu, done in high style. The highlight will be a couple of nights at Machu Picchu, in the exclusive hotel at the site, a luxury few travelers experience. It’s expensive, but worth it, to be able to wake up and creep into the site before the busloads of people arrive, to watch the sun first warm the mountaintops, and then slowly illuminate one of the most impressive views on our planet. (Ollantaytambo, one of the overnight stops on the trip, was also one of our favorite “finds” when we were here 20 years ago).

There are cheaper ways to visit Peru and Machu Picchu, either with a group or independently, and of course we’ll help you with suggestions and advice if you choose to wait, but we can say from experience that any trip with Skip has serious Trip of a Lifetime potential. Check it out at his website. It would be fairly simple to add a few days to visit us, from Lima taking an overnight bus (16 hours) or flying to the lovely city of Arequipa. (For the few extra bucks, flying would be worth it!) Chivay is another 3.5 hours by bus from Arequipa.

That said, we’ve begun to see a little bit more of our neighborhood, and we’re beginning to engage with the people on a slightly deeper level. The fiesta in Canocota, about half an hour up the road, is an example—it’s a very small town, but every small town in the province throws a big bash on its anniversary. These are not tourist events—it’s just what’s going on. So when we show up, it’s impossible for us to be tourists—food is thrust at us (a large bowl of soup featuring a major appendage of a recently-deceased alpaca, and some long-deceased potatoes), beer and/or chicha are offered (disrespectful to turn down . . .), and very soon we’re drinking and dancing to the local brass band along with most of the town. Chévere.

OK, so drinking and dancing with the locals isn’t exactly deeper engagement, but at least we’re recognized now as more than tourists, especially when we’re seen hanging out with our Peruvian acquaintances on the street or in their shops.

We’ve also begun a program of spending a few hours with each member of our artisan association, visiting them in their homes, watching them work on their embroidery, weaving, painting, or knitting, then having lunch with them (more alpaca, more potatoes, maybe some sheep ribs—very hearty, if not heart-healthy). It’s costing us, because we end up buying something from nearly all of them, but it’s a great way to get an idea of what their lives are like and what we might help them accomplish.

Jean has begun knitting a hat of alpaca yarn with the help of one of “our” artisans, a nearly-impossibly cute 40-ish woman who sets up her table of wares in the Plaza de Armas most days. They sit and chat amiably, Jean learning Quechua and Melina learning how to say her prices in English. Jean is also now rocking a traditional hat from the region, which is getting her a lot of street cred in Chivay.

At the invitation of a guide who is thinking about offering it as a tour, I biked from Chivay to Cabanaconde, 58 kilometers through the heart of the Cañon del Colca. I think he wanted to see if a gringo could survive the ride. It was a long day, made longer by the fact that he had an actively malicious bicycle, the dirt roads are poorly maintained, and he wasn’t as experienced a rider as I am. It’s largely downhill, but it does involve a rather long, hard climb up to 12,500 feet, to the major tourist attraction of the valley, Cruz del Condor. “El Cruz” is an overlook where you can appreciate both the depth of the canyon—roughly 10,000 feet of relief—and the condors themselves, who hang out there in improbable numbers. When we arrived at 3 p.m., the tourist vans were long gone to lunch, and we had it to ourselves. It was quiet enough to hear the wind passing through the wings of these “majestic lords of the Andes” as they played the updrafts to eye me. After 40 km. of biking, I have to admit I probably smelled like something dead. I already felt that the stunning scenery—a combination of mountains and pre-Inca terraces—was justification enough for the ride, but the condors were certainly the icing on the cake. The cultural and historical lore that my guide stopped to impart gave him a chance to catch his breath and added to the pleasure of the trip, too. We arrived in Cabanaconde after 11 hours of biking, and he immediately set about revising his business plan.

Jean and I still don’t have a shower, so we do the “bucket bath” thing on the patio every few days, then every week or so go to La Calera, the hot springs to shower and soak. We went last Sunday, when it’s free for the locals to use the “baño del pueblo,” (not as nice as the “gringo pool,” but certainly not icky) but the ticket-taker at the kiosk didn’t want to let us in. We had to convince a higher authority that we’re really “del pueblo.” Of course once we sauntered in, heads turned, first in our direction to take in the wonder of two gringos in the “locals only” pool, then away to avoid the harsh glare of the sun reflecting off our pale skin. It all turned out fine, of course. We figure it’s best for everyone to get used to the idea of having us around . . . because we’re here for a while, yet!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Modern Conveniences

First, the startling news that Cuerpo de Paz/Peru has issued us cell phones. The idea that our phones might ring and that it might be one of you, dear readers, is both very weird and very welcome. Our numbers are:

Int'l call code 011 + Country code 51 + Department code 54 + 957821550 Jean
+ 957821602 Russ
I have no idea what the rates are, and depending on how the call is placed you may need a “0” in front of the Country or Department codes, or you may not. Feel free to experiment. We have just one word of advice for those who wish to call at minimal expense, and that word is “Skype.”

We also have a new mailing address, which appears on the home page of this blog, but here it is anyway:

Russ or Jean
Cuerpo de Paz
Casillo Postal 228
Serpost Arequipa
Arequipa, Perú

Sometimes life is just very weird. There may be a YouTube video of Peace Corps/Peru 13 performing the dance from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” for instance. We threw a bash for our host families at the end of our training, and entertained them with this bit of highly-rehearsed choreography, which left them scratching their heads in wonder. To spot Russ, wait for the moment when all the zombies bend forward, and look for his bald pate. To find Jean, just focus on grace in jerky, un-dead motion.

So, now we’re at home in Chivay. Have been since Friday, when an overloaded moto—a three-wheeled motorcycle adapted as a taxi—wheeled us, two 50-pound duffels, a backpack, a roll-aboard suitcase, two daypacks, and a queen-size mattress, from the bus station to our new abode, for the Peruvian equivalent of a buck. Now, that’s a bargain!

Of course, our room wasn’t ready. I don’t mean they hadn’t put mints on our pillows, I mean it wasn’t built. Our hosts are super people, very hard-working, but this is Peru, and things just happen on their own schedule here. They are building a 9-by-12-foot brick “cell” for us atop their restaurant. Concrete floor, concrete plaster walls, tin roof and, thankfully, a toilet and a shower. The shower may or may not ever have hot water, which will dictate whether or not we ever use it. In Chivay, at 12,000-and-a-half feet, it’s just too damn cold to shower with cold water, so most of the residents do without, and once a week or so go to the hot springs 3 km. away to bathe. We’re due.

Our cell will probably be finished this week, and we’ll happily move in. Yes, it’s tiny, but we’re here to live like the Peruvians, and this will actually be a notch or two up from most Peruvians. In both host family situations we’ve now experienced, the parents sleep in the same bedroom with their kids—and we’re talking about “kids” from 14 to 22 years old, in rooms not much larger than ours. We’ll have our own toilet, indoors. We’ll have windows to let in the abundant sun, at least in this season, and a “patio” (actually the roof of the house) with outstanding views of Chivay and its spectacular environs. We’ll have a lavatory out on the patio for washing our hands, brushing our teeth, and doing our laundry. We’re ready to count ourselves lucky.

In the mean time, we flop our mattress down at night on the second floor landing, and unroll our sleeping bags, then throw three heavy alpaca wool blankets over them. We crawl into them wearing fleece pants and tops, and sleep very comfortably. Have I mentioned that it’s cold in Chivay? Nobody in this country has heat in their homes—it just isn’t done—and hot water for showers is a luxury item. In a nod to creature comforts, some people put a hot water bottle at their feet when they go to bed, something we may begin doing very soon.

Our hosts truly are wonderful people, and we are looking forward to two years of sharing a rather intimate living situation. They know or are related to everyone in town, so dropping their names is usually a good thing when we want something done. Next door is another restaurant (owned by our host’s sister) with a folkloric show every night, so from 8:30 p.m. until 10 or so, we have a highly-amplified Andean music combo pounding away. Fortunately, they’re very good, and we hope to go see the show, soon.

Random observation: You can wear your clothes without washing them much longer than you think you can. ‘Nuff said on that subject.

We live very comfortably, by Peruvian standards, on a Peace Corps allowance that is now somewhat higher than the $2.75 a day we received in training. Breakfast is a couple pieces of the tasty local bread, some fresh local cheese, and powdered instant coffee. For lunch we have a chef (!) who daily prepares a lunch buffet for 70-150 tourists, and us. For dinner last night we had a fried egg sandwich, and hot chocolate. Tonight it was rice with hot dogs cut up into it, and tea. Contrasts.

We walk around all day long amid scenery and among traditionally-dressed, handsome people who would make a National Geographic photographer drool. Scores of tourists walk around taking pictures of all this every day, but we can hardly bring ourselves to snap a pic, we’re trying so hard not to be the gringo tourists with cameras.

Last Saturday night the restaurant was rented out for a Quinceañera (15th birthday party, a big deal for girls), so to get out from underfoot we stepped outside, then followed the sound of a brass band and found a procession honoring Santa Rosa de Lima, (patron saint of the police), and followed them to the Plaza de Armas. The dozen or so strong men carrying the 12-foot-tall effigies of the saint and the virgin mother had to dip repeatedly to get them under the power lines, a scary sight, but at least they had You-Know-Who on their side—and the policía. That was further evidenced when the guy who was sending up the rockets from the plaza torched off a bomb that nearly blew his clothes off, but everyone survived, Jean’s hair didn’t catch fire, and the city gardener will fill in the crater, later.

When we’d had enough of the festivities, we ambled over to the Irish Pub, had a glass of wine with the (Peruvian) owner, and chatted up a Brit who had been out stumbling around the local Inca ruins for a few weeks. Then we returned to our humble abode, fought our way through the teenagers, and lay upstairs in our sleeping bags until the music stopped at 4:30 a.m.

Due to early linguistic difficulties, Jean is known around the house as something like Jeems, and I’m probably “Bruce” for the duration. Last night we played Bananagrams, and used words in English, Spanish, Quechua, Yiddish and, I think, Ethiopian.

Yesterday we met our Peruvian counterpart at his shop, and helped his extremely charming 9-year-old daughter sort out the right hand-painted tops for the right hand-painted sugar bowls—there were scores of them, all needing to be sorted—then we ambled out to his chakra, or small farm, where he dumped several bags of cuy droppings to fertilize the potatoes, while an eagle banked overhead. For now, this is what passes for our “work,” filed under the heading: “integrating with the community.”

Today we had a meeting with “our” artisans, most of them women in traditional dress, and some of whom needed to have the proceedings translated into Quechua because they speak little Spanish. Our three days’ worth of training in Quechua is getting quite a workout, but I have to say that people are very grateful and impressed that we make the effort.

So, that’s the way our lives go these days. It’s fascinating, challenging, aggravating, and wonderful.

And cold.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Chivay is Chevere

Pronounced with the same drawn-out inflection, “chévere” is the Spanish equivalent of “s-w-e-e-e-e-e-t.” We heard a lot of that last week, particularly when we told people in Chivay that we’d be living there for two years. It’s the best way to express how we feel about it, too.

We spent our ninth week of training on a visit to our newly-assigned work site, where we’ll be spending the next two years. We left Lima on a Saturday evening, aboard an overnight bus to Arequipa, the regional capital. Overnight intercity buses in Peru are not the Greyhound nightmares of American legend, nor the colorful “bags-of-live-chickens-in-the-overhead-bins” experience of short-haul bus trips in Peru. They’re big, deluxe, double-decker buses that make few, if any, stops in between major cities. They’re very secure, reasonably comfortable, play cheesy movies enroute, and even offer “BINGO” cards to all passengers to play. The only quirk is that, for the 16-hour non-stop trip to Arequipa, the onboard bathrooms are “solo para orinar.” Plan accordingly.

Arequipa is a city anyone could love. It’s the second-largest city in Perú, but is still less than a tenth the size of massive Lima. Its citizens half-seriously think of it as a separate country, and when we arrived, our counterparts issued us our unofficial Arequipeño “passports.” “El Misti,” the 19,100’ volcano that towers over the city (and periodically attempts to destroy it) was attractively accessorized with a snowy mantle. Tourists, pigeons, and Arequipeños all packed the central plaza, admiring the sunny skies & shirt-sleeve weather. A person could become very comfortable here.

The streets are lined with great restaurants, artisan shops, bars, discos, and tour guides offering tours of the Colca Canyon region. We ambled down to the Plaza, and Jean quickly developed the dreamy, “let’s spend some time here” look that we’ve come to trust.

We lunched with some other local Peace Corps volunteers on traditional fare of the region, which includes the signature dish, “Rocoto Relleno,” a fiery red pepper stuffed with alpaca meat, cheese, peanuts, and vegetables. A beer helps control, but not extinguish, the flames.

The city sits at about 7,700 feet elevation, providing a good chance to acclimatize to the altitude. After spending a day enjoying its charms, and tuning our lungs, we boarded another bus for the 3-1/2 hour trip to Chivay. Climbing out of Arequipa, the road passes between El Misti and Chachani, another major peak, and arrives in a high plain dotted with vicuña (the llama’s wilder kid brother). The Lonely Planet guide describes the passage as “bleak,” and I won’t argue the point, but it’s also fascinating, as we climbed, and climbed, and climbed, finally topping out at a breathtaking 15,700 feet—about a thousand feet higher than any peak in the Lower 48, higher than most single-engine aircraft can fly. Many passengers were woozy or napping, but we were too excited by the scenery. From the bus windows, we gazed up at still more peaks, some reaching above 20,000 feet.

Descending from the pass, we got our first glimpse of Chivay, and our smiles just widened as the valley spread out below us. If geography has anything at all to do with it—and I think it does—we’ll be the happiest volunteers in Perú. (At 12,000 feet, we’ll also be the highest, at least until another volunteer occupies a site just up the road from us.) We were both very emotional as we kept our noses glued to the window during the descent, lapping up the terraced landscape, the wild vicuña bounding among the rocks, domestic flocks of alpaca, and the unfolding vision of the Cañon de Colca.

Chivay sits at the head of Colca Canyon, famous as the deepest canyon in the world, more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Andean Condors routinely buzz the tourists gathered at Cruz del Condor, deep in the canyon, and pre-Incan terraces are still in use to grow whatever hardy crops can survive at 12,000 feet. It’s cold once the sun sets, and nobody has a heater, so it’s considered normal to sit around eating supper in your parka and your wool knit hat. Nights, we slept in our clothes, under four layers of alpaca blankets. It was just enough.

The altitude required a small adjustment—neither of us suffered, though Jean did experience a mild headache for a while, and we both noticed that third flight of steps, when carrying a load up to our room.

That said, Chivay is the kind of place that we once might have encountered in our travels and wondered, “what would it be like to live here?” Now, we get to find out—and tell you about it.

We spent a day with the other volunteers moving to the canyon, meeting our Peruvian “counterparts,” with whom we’ll be working over the next two years. One of our counterparts is from the Municipalidad, (roughly the equivalent of the County), and the other is president of an Artisan’s association. He brought a number of weavers (wearing their traditional costumes) to the meeting, some of whom spoke primarily Quechua. We spent an interesting and demanding day, getting to know each other and figuring out what we expected of each other. It was a good test of our Spanish, and we even learned a bit of Quechua. Then we went to meet our host family, and to inspect the room they have for us in their home.

Our prospective hosts run a restaurant in Chivay. They were told well in advance when we’d be visiting, so they could have our room ready for inspection. They sheepishly escorted us up to the second floor, then up some rickety steps to the third, and opened the door to . . . the roof, piled with the remains of a cuy cage, some bricks, maybe some plumbing supplies, boxes of junk. We stood around catching our breath, admiring the view from the roof, noting the lack of door, windows, walls, and roof—in short, anything that might constitute a “room.” I have to admit, we were a bit upset, though we were careful not to say too much about it.

They assured us they’ll have it ready when we return in 2-3 weeks: brick walls, tin and/or thatch roof, and some form of plumbing. I wouldn’t place any bets on it being done when we return, but if it means we can live upstairs from some really good chow, we’ll put up with the inevitable delays that you come to expect in Perú. The room, when finished, will be smaller than a typical American bedroom, probably no more than 10 X 14 feet—not much living space for 2 adults and all their worldly possessions. It helps that we can share the restaurant’s dining room as common space in the evening, with the rest of the family. We’re supposed to live like Peruvians, and we recognize that our cramped, third-floor “penthouse” will make us privileged Peruvians indeed. . . when it gets built.

The other part of the equation is that the host family is great. Smart, interesting people, running a good business. Our host “mamá” is a warm and engaging Chivay native, who speaks Spanish and Quechua, but wants to learn English. We think we can work out a language exchange. The rest of the family—her husband and 3 sons--work in the restaurant, along with a chef and some servers. Yes, we may have our own chef. That makes up for a lot of sitting around in a parka amid a pile of bricks. If we get too cold, we can always bike to the hot springs—did I forget to mention the hot springs?—about 3 km. up the road. Because most showers have only frigid water, it’s common for people to go without showers for a week or two until they can get to one of the hot springs that dot the area, used as communal public showers.

We spent our three days in Chivay meeting people, including some weavers with whom we may be working, and getting to know the town. Among our favorite moments were the time we spent with a family of artisans in their yard, the husband at his ancient loom, the wife sitting in the shade nearby, knitting a hat, the kids spinning yarn by hand from a pile of raw alpaca wool, all sitting around talking, working, sharing—and all aware that this is a fine way of life, even if they live in a rude adobe home. We also enjoyed a view of the startling Irish Pub on the town square, with a row of traditionally-dressed women sitting on the curb out in front for contrast.

We restrained ourselves with the camera—everywhere we turned were “photo ops” that tourists were snapping: the market, crowded with women in their traditional dress, “our” artisans, all incredibly picturesque--but we didn’t want their first impressions of us to be of more gringos with cameras. We figure we’ve got two years to document our lives there, so you’ll just have to wait. We DID get the camera out when a procession appeared, with a brass band and lots of women dancing the Wititi, the traditional dance of Chivay. It’s usually presented as “la danza de Amor” en Español, but in Quechua it’s more like “la danza del sexo.” You can figure that one out . . . More on that when the big holiday fiestas begin in Chivay in December. The parade was in honor of the Virgin of Copacabana, and the celebrations went on for two days. By day 2, I was feeling bad for the brass players’ lips, but they were liberally administering liquid lubrication and anesthesia in the form of chicha and beer.

OK, we haven’t said much about our work, but that’s because we’ll spend our first 3 months in Chivay surveying the community to determine the most serious needs, in order to define and prioritize what our work will be.

We were sad when we had to leave Chivay and return for the last weeks of training, (though a night of dancing in Arequipa helped). Back into the hazy skies of Lima and Chaclacayo—but not for long! Our group will be “sworn-in” next Friday, and most will depart for their sites on Saturday, Aug. 22, but we’ll be detained for a week of “survival Quechua” lessons.

Our Colca Canyon "Family Photo"--Volunteers Kristen and John will join us in the Canyon when we move up in a couple of weeks.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Our Site for Sore Eyes

Last Friday was easily the most-anticipated day in our training schedule—“site assignment” day, when we find out where in Peru, right down to the specifics of street address and plumbing conditions, we’ll be serving for the next two years. Nearly everyone had a strong general preference, such as “coast,” “mountains,” or “I’d have to think about the dirt floors,” but some were much more specific. We know the coordinators do their best to match up volunteers with the sites where they’ll be most productive, but there were no guarantees expressed or implied.

We trainees then spent the rest of the week trying to sniff out where we’re headed, based on hints, like the casual “you’re OK with altitude, right?” that Alfredo, the Business coordinator, dropped in my interview. Others got nothing but ambiguous Mona Lisa smiles. Jean and I both indicated that mountains = good, hot & sweaty = bad, and other than that we’re open to whatever. After spending a week in Cajamarca, Jean was pretty sure that it would be a sweet assignment, but nearly everyone else thought so, too, so it seemed like a longshot.

The joker in the deck was my eye surgery, and the doctor had indicated a few weeks ago that he might want to keep me on a short leash. I had a checkup last Wednesday, and I held my breath until the doc cleared me for service anywhere I want. (My eye is still not 100%, but it’s much, much better.)

The night before sites were revealed, we had a couple of small earthquakes--no idea if that was a portent, or just a geological inevitability around here, but it felt significant.

Friday morning, at the appointed hour, we gathered on the back deck of the training center, and the staff had our site assignments arrayed for us--a fleet of paper boats, afloat on the decorative pool. One by one we netted our boats out of the pool and read the furled flag that named our site, then placed push-pins with our names on them on a map of Peru so we could see where our friends will be serving.

Jean and I fished our boats out and, hearts a-flutter, read “Arequipa!” We’re headed to the town of Chivay, in the department of Arequipa, at 11,900 feet elevation in the Andes! Chivay is at the head of Colca Canyon, a gorge that is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, and the town is large enough to rate a mention in your Lonely Planet Peru guide (please turn now in your books to pages 161-187 for full details). We’re going to be cold and breathless, but very happy.

We shoulda seen it coming: two weeks into our training here, I had a dream that we’d end up in Arequipa; and it turns out that the random Peru photo that Jean chose for her Facebook page, before we even left Montana, is from the road between Arequipa and Chivay.

(Most of our fellow trainees felt that they’d dodged a bullet when we drew Arequipa, as it’s in the south of the country, far away from most of the other sites, but we’re thrilled with the geography, history, and culture it offers--and happy with the other trainees who’ll be our nearest gringo neighbors. Nearly everyone ended up pleased with their assignments, including two serious surfers who will be on the coast working, improbably, on developing surfing schools and teaching surfer English. Like, sweet.)

Chivay offers tourism, artesans, and agricultural products (the alpaca producers alone combine all three) to test our business chops; we’ll have teaching possibilities up to the post-secondary level, and plenty of chances to work with youth as well. The natives retain a strong, traditional culture, and it appears that we’ll be spitting out questionable Quechua in addition to our sputtering Spanish (see Jean’s last post). We’ll get a 3-hour “survival Qechua” lesson before departure, and we own a Qechua phrasebuq from our last Peru adventure, back when the Incas were still speaking it. (Our host family in Chivay speaks both Qechua and Spanish, we’re relieved to hear.) The town is on the large end of the scale for Peace Corps volunteers, which is our only disappointment—we were hoping for a more typical “out-in-the-boonies” experience, but to some extent every site is a compromise, so we’re fine with it. It’s in a key area that they had been hoping to develop, so we’ll be the first PCV’s they’ve seen in Chivay, though certainly not the first gringos.

Colca Canyon is a major attraction, with pre-Inca petroglyphs, Inca terraces, and (post-Inca) condors soaring out over the canyon—and mountain biking. Hot springs dot the area, making up for any plumbing deficiencies, and great hiking. Several volcanoes in the area check in at well over 6,000 meters (20,000’ plus), some of them still “live.” Climbing: check. And speaking of “live,” musicians take note—all the travel guides we’ve seen have confirmed that Chivay is the unlikely host to one of Peru’s few Irish pubs! We’ll let you know when the sessions are scheduled, and how Jean’s wind holds up at 12,000 feet!

Arequipa city is Peru’s second-largest, and will be 3-1/2 hours away by bus, with great cultural and recreational opportunities, (OK, more bars and dancing). It has direct air service to Lima and Cuzco (or overnight bus service, the lower-cost typical Peace Corps option. We’ll fill you in on the best times to visit, but after the summer rains stop, March through May, looks like a good bet, or springtime in the Andes—August through November.

We have Monday and Tuesday off for the “fiestas patrias,” the Peruvian Independence day celebration, then next Sunday we’ll set out for a week at our new site. We’ll have more to report, then.

Jean here now. The name “Arequipa” has a couple of different translations, but my favorite legend, lifted here from the Lonely Planet guide, is that the fourth Inca, Mayta Capac, was travelling through the valley and was so taken with the place that he ordered his entourage to stop, with the words “Ari, quipay”—Yes, stay. Looks like we will, at least for a couple of years.

I’ll confess, at first I had a little bit of that Peace Corps guilt—aren’t we supposed to suffer? We’re going to be living in a town that rates a write-up in travel guides, and there’s an Irish pub?!? I’m over it now, and eager follow the motto of Kipling’s famous mongoose, Rikki Tikki Tavi: “Go and find out.”

Photos from the web of Chivay.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Give us this day...

We passed the midpoint of our training on the 15th of July. I (Jean) was in the mountains of Cajamarca, in the charming town of San Pablo, with eight other trainees, with the task of presenting business workshops to students at a technical institute. During the workshop, the students would prepare a business plan and apply for microloans, to be paid back at the end of the workshop. I was lucky to have Vann and Alana on my team. Vann is one of the best Spanish speakers in the group, and Alana is not only a very good Spanish speaker, she also has experience with teaching accounting and volunteered to teach those sections. Thank you, both. I was there mostly for comic relief. Hamilton Players, thank you.

We stayed in a church on the main plaza, girls in one big dorm room (with bunk beds), boys in another. The important questions when we travel now tend to revolve around amenities like hot water. The first morning I was in the shower with the hot water unit turned on. The water was not hot. Not even close, but the heater was trying very hard. The light in the bathroom went out, and I looked over at the switch on the wall that controls the hot water unit, and a thin wisp of smoke was rising out of it. That was the last time I attempted a hot shower, but as a team we managed to fry the unit four times during the 5 days we were there.

Almost all of the students in our classes focused on food for their business. My favorites were the tamales for breakfast. I splurged and spent about $1.35 for a dozen. One of these days we will devote an entire post to typical foods of Peru. It is a serious topic, always a good subject for conversation. The dishes prepared by the students for their microbusinesses are a good sampler of the variety on offer: roasted chicken with beet salad and the ubiquitous side of potato, fried trout (with potatoes), cake made with fresh pineapple, more cake, fried stuffed potatoes, fried dough with syrup, grilled heart (anticucho-delicious) & a gooey purple dessert made with a dark grained corn (mazamorra-not delicious). One group chose to “organize” (I could write a post on what that meant in this instance) a soccer tournament, and used their loan money to buy a goat for the winner. We fielded a team, but lost the first game with a respectable score. No, I didn't play.

The week was full of challenges and small triumphs. One bright blue morning I sauntered into a tiny restaurant/shop and asked the little girl working there for bread (“pan”). She looked at me quizzically. “Pan” I repeated. A blank look. “Pan?” said I, giving that middle vowel sound a quarter turn to the left. Such a simple word. Only three letters. She has gone from eying me as a curiosity to calculating how to make me go away, and I am ready to shuffle out the door, kicking what's left of my confidence out ahead of me, when a voice from the back of the store shouts “PAN!”. Her eyes fly open wide, her mouth a perfect O. “Pan!” she whispers. Why didn't I say so?

Friday, July 17, 2009

Another Small Milestone

Not much to report, but yesterday was a small milestone for me--possibly the first day in 50-some years in which I spoke not a word of English. I won´t guarantee that every word I spoke was proper Spanish, either, but it was an honest effort. (Readers who know me well will understand that it doesn´t mean I didn´t talk at ALL.)

Jean and the other trainees are in beautiful Cajamarca for a week of ¨field-based training.¨ I am left behind so my eye surgery can continue to heal, in close proximity to the excellent medical care in Lima. (Yes, that´s the rose-colored glasses version; the other side is that it sucks to be left behind, but asi es la vida). To make the best use of my time, I have been able to work with the language tutors here every day, and yesterday I went to visit an artisan who is a member of a co-op, to talk about their successes and . . . everything else. It was great--I got to watch the weavers at work, talk to her about her business, and to the President of the co-op about how that works. Spent the rest of the day with my family, and doing a few chores around Huascaran, watched some TV, and realized when I went to bed that it had all been in Spanish. I figure this is a preview of our lives to come . . .

Jean is probably eating cuy (guinea pig) this week. (we got a 4-hour introduction to cuy production last Saturday at the Agraria in Lima, which was really about two-and-a-half hours more than we really needed, but it was fun to see the little guys in their pens). Yesterday, for lunch I had cau-cau, which is cau . . . er, cow, stomach. Last week it was anticucho, which is beef heart. We´re getting the full immersion in Peruvian cuisine. MMMmmmmm . . . what did YOU have for dinner last night?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Earth-Shaking News

Well, Panama spat me out on Saturday. I was in my hotel room at 2 a.m. when I was shaken awake by a “Magic Fingers” machine run amok. I hadn´t put a quarter in so I quickly deduced that if, indeed, I was awake and not dreaming, then I was experiencing a powerful earthquake. The room creaked and groaned, like being on a boat in a windy harbor, but nothing came apart, so all was well. I heard it was a 6.4 magnitude quake, centered 40 km from Panama City, lasting 7 seconds, but it didn’t cause much damage or close the airport, which was my main concern.

Panama isn’t a place I’m anxious to see again. I was confined to a hospital for 9 days, and spent another 4 in a hotel, but didn’t get to enjoy my freedom very much. My eye was troubled by too much activity, and I REALLY didn’t enjoy trying to deal with crazy city traffic with one eye tied behind my back. It was miserably hot & humid. I did visit the Casco Viejo, the old colonial part of the city, but its charms were lost on me. The Peace Corps personnel I dealt with in Panama were uniformly nice and went to a great deal of trouble on my behalf, but I’ll be perfectly happy if I never see them again!

I got home to Peru on Independence Day, and never has that phrase meant so much to me! Jean met me at the airport in Lima, and a taxi took us to the Peace Corps 4th of July fiesta in Chaclacayo, already in progress. No fireworks, but it was GREAT to be back someplace where I could kick back and socialize with my fellow aspirantes. Jean and I left long before the party was over, (but not before I established my party animal credentials) to come home to Angelica’s cooking.

My right eyeball is still bloodshot from the surgery, and my vision is still pretty cloudy from all the gunk floating around inside my eye. I’m told it will all be reabsorbed over time, and that I should eventually regain most of my visual acuity, which wasn’t all that great to start with. I had an appointment in Lima today because one of the stitches still buried somewhere in the socket is inflamed and causing me pain. It really doesn’t bear thinking about. At some point in the reasonably near future, I should be able to resume normal activity, whatever that is.

Thanks to everyone for keeping me in your thoughts and sending some good healing energy my way.

If all checks out OK, we’ll be going to Cajamarca province next Saturday for a week of “Field-based Training.” That apparently will involve touring a dairy operation, and then working with students at a technical school, teaching business basics to see if we can put together a quick project to develop their business skills. It will be great to get out and see some more of Peru.

The people here in Chaclacayo are great, but the geography is weird. We have very high mountains rising around us, but they’re absolutely barren—we’re in a desert band that occupies thousands of miles along the coast of Peru and Chile. During our “winter” months Lima, on the coast, is almost continually socked-in by a layer of marine clouds and smog, called the “garua,” that hardly ever yield any rain, but keeps the city continually grey and a bit chilly. We’re far enough inland that the garua has dissipated some, so we get sunshine, temps in the 60’s. Nothing grows, though, unless somebody waters it, so the mountains are just jumbles of rocks. Flying into Lima on Saturday, I could see snow-capped peaks and green mountainsides, and I’m ready to go see them, with my one good eye.

By the way, one of the things that Cajamarca is famous for is its dairy operations. Angelica hails from Cajamarca, and claims that all the cows have names, and that they all come when called by their names. Does the milk swirl in the pail in a different direction, south of the equator? We’re here to find out.

Jean and I went to the market in Chaclacayo Sunday and bought herbs, spices, fruit and vegetables so that tonight we can attempt a tuna curry, served in a cantaloupe, working without a recipe or a net. I wish I could send you the experience of walking through the market on a Sunday morning. Then we walked home, passing through the “magic gate” that separates Chaclacayo proper from our neighborhood of Huascaran. It’s always amazing to pass through the gate—a portal in a thick stone wall, called the “wall of shame” when it was put up to keep green, verdant, affluent Chaclacayo from having to look at our dusty, rather-less-visually-appealing neighborhood. Most, but not all of the wall was torn down, but the “magic portal” remains. I’ll try to tuck in a photo or two for you, of the gate itself, the homes in Chaclacayo, and our street.

Last note—it’s good to slip back into the routine we’ve established here, limited as it may be. When Jean and I first arrived, none of the thousand “routine” things we do every day, automatically and without thinking about them, was familiar. From brushing your teeth (you don’t want to stick your toothbrush in the tap water and then in your mouth. No, you really don’t) to using the phone, nothing is familiar, so you spend a couple weeks feeling very clumsy and awkward all day long, while you develop your new routines. Now, I can slip back into the known territory of our lives, at least until we head for Cajamarca.

The hot water in the shower worked for a week, now it doesn´t. It´s winter. Most of us are in the same boat, so we´re showering . . . infrequently. It´s the Peace Corps experience we all signed up for .

Still not fluent in Spanish. We’ll let you know when THAT happens.

Monday, June 29, 2009

When All of a Sudden . . . KABOOM!

A nod to KLS there in the title . . . we thought our Peace Corps story was writing itself just fine, developing in new and interesting ways, when, during my Spanish language session, I suddenly noticed a large number of ¨floaters¨in my field of vision in my right eye. Then, a bit later, things that looked disturbingly like blood effects in a bad movie began chasing those floaters and . . . I ended up flat on my back in Panama for a couple of weeks. The good news is that my retina wasn´t detached, just a giant tear.

Now, I understand that there´s absolutely nothing more fascinating, to those of us beyond a certain age, than recounting and comparing our medical travails. I´ll try to keep it to a minimum here, though, so that I can truly fascinate you, dear reader, some time in the future, in person. The very short version is that in a remarkably short period of time I was transported from Chaclacayo, Peru, through the offices of 3 doctors in Lima, to a hospital in Panama, where I was instructed to lie on my back until told to do otherwise . . . which happened today, 10 days later. In the mean time I have had my eye laser zapped and surgically turned inside out, or something like it. I have a floater that looks like a bad movie effect sea monster, dangling tentacles and all, bobbing in the top part of my field of vision, and an air bubble injected during surgery that provides clever kaleidoscopic effects down below. The net effect of the two is quite disturbing, but less so that Panamanian cable TV.

Lying in my Panamanian Chamber of Boredom, I´ve gone through several books, the best of which was Michael Chabon´s ¨The Yiddish Policeman´s Union,¨which is brilliant and Í´m sorry I didn´t read it two years ago. Unfortunately, I was reading an old Sara Paretsky novel, ¨BloodShot¨this morning when a blood vessel burst in my battered eye, so now I will probably enjoy an extra day or two in Panama while that resolves. It´s a setback, but not an unexpected side effect of the procedures I´ve had. I also have trouble reading for very long at a stretch, due to the stitches in some remote part of my eyeball. Therefore . . .

I´ve been practicing my Spanish with CNN en Español, watching movies, and tonight in the restaurant saw a popular telenovela called ¨Sin Senos no Hay Paraiso,¨which my idiomatic Spanish renders, literally, as ¨Without Boobs There´s No Heaven.¨ Tonight, a major plot point involved visiting a strip club, just to emphasize the point(s). Forget CNN en Español . . . I´m also flat-out astonished at the round-the-clock coverage given to Michael Jackson´s death on nearly any cable channel that can figure out how to tie in to it. I hope I never see cable TV again after this, and I´ve sworn off movies with guns and explosions for the immediate future.

I´ve given up on guessing when I´ll be allowed to travel back to Peru, having learned the hard way, and repeatedly, the truth in the Jewish proverb, ¨Man Plans, and God Laughs.¨ I´m just hoping that there will be plenty of Peruvian Pilsner on hand when I get home to Jean in Huascaran.

By the way, I´m not the first Lawrence to visit these parts--my dad was here in the 1960´s, when it seemed like a neat-o idea to blast a new Panama Canal using a series of underground nuclear blasts. He was here doing some preliminary seismic work to determine whether it would send the isthmus tumbling into the sea or not. I´m not advertising this previous paternal Panamanian connection widely to the people I meet.

So, that´s the report from Panama City. I´ll happily let you know when I resume life as a Peace Corps/Peru trainee that I was becoming accustomed to, but til then, I´m not in pain, I will be able to see when it´s done. That´s all I can ask for now, but thanks for all your kind thoughts!


Sunday, June 21, 2009

A side trip to Panama

First and foremost, we will sacrifice a little dramatic tension to assure all of you who know and love Russ that in spite of the distressing fact that he is now in a hospital in Panama, he is fine. I can hear Liz from half a world away..”What!?! He’s in a hospital in Panama?!?” So, for you, dear Liz, here’s the short version. He has a torn retina of idiopathic origin (meaning, perhaps, that’s just something that happens to idiots on this path?) and the plan is for him to be on strict bed rest for as long as it takes for the blood that has collected in the eye to clear so they can repair the retina with laser surgery. Could be a couple of days, could be longer. All will be well, he is not in pain, and his vision should be as it was before.

It’s been a long, crazy day and a half for me, so I will just try to answer the FAQs without getting fancy about it. Why Panama? The retina specialist who saw Russ late Friday night recommended that he be shipped out for his surgery, and Panama and Washington D.C. are where Peace Corps sends volunteers from Latin America who need special medical care. A side note on the complications of doing things here—to travel to Panama, Russ needed BOTH his passports, his Peace Corps passport and his personal passport. He left for his appointmentin Lima with neither. Ask me about that some time, after I’ve had some sleep.

What happened? On Thursday Russ noticed that the vision in his right eye was cloudy and he had an annoyingly large floater in his line of sight. There was no pain, and no traumatic event.

I’m back at my home in Huascaran, with my hermana Angelica, who knows that what is needed during times of stress is food, especially chocolate, so besos (kisses) to her, and to Kati, the director at the training center, who really did give me the shirt off her back (okay, her wool jacket), Carla at the Peace Corps office in Lima and Dr. Jorge who must have made about fifty phone calls each to coordinate everything that had to happen to get Russ to Panama to receive the care he needs.

Besos to all of you as well. I’m hoping Russ will have access to his email once in a while, as I have no other direct way to contact him. Drop him a note.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Today is the first day . . .

It’s a trite expression, “today is the first day of the rest of your life,” but it’s never been more appropriate than last Saturday (June 6) when Jean and I arose from our beds in Chaclacayo, Peru, and began meeting the Peace Corps staff here. But I’m getting a bit ahead of our story . . .

So, here we are in Peru. First of all—we’re safe and secure in a community that is looking out for us. No matter what you are hearing in the news about unrest and demonstrations in Peru, it’s in a distant part of the country and our security staff is on the job. We feel perfectly safe with our host family, and have already made many friends in our neighborhood.

We got here via the usual adventures in air travel, including rain, delays, and skidding in to a landing just ahead of a thunderstorm. We spent a day getting acquainted with our compatriots-in-training in Arlington, VA (just outside of D.C.) They are, almost to a person, 20-somethings, very bright, very motivated, and very genial. It’s humbling to be in their company, and they are exactly the sort of people you want to represent the U.S. to the rest of the world. Surprisingly, our training group—known as “Peru 13,”—is largely female: 28 women and 8 men. We have a number of people with graduate degrees, including one Juris Doctor, and a small number with hands-on experience in finance and marketing. We are black, white, Native American, Latino, and Asian. Many have Spanish majors or minors, but some are essentially novices. But they’re all decades younger than US!

Our arrival in Lima was delayed, and we didn’t get to our quarters until 3 a.m. Saturday morning everyone was feeling pretty rough, but it truly felt like Jean and I were beginning an entirely new life. How many people get an opportunity like that? To be called “trainees” takes us right back to our first jobs, like being a teenager hired to flip burgers for the summer, but we’re treated with great respect and understanding. The training staff is very professional and personable, and most of the Americans among them are former Peace Corps volunteers. The Peruvians are all professionals, too.

On Saturday, we had a 30-minute, one-on-one interview with a trained language evaluator, who appraised our language skills and, like the sorting hat at Hogwart’s, placed us somewhere on the scale of language skills. The goal is for all of us to be at the mid-intermediate level by the end of training, and I’m confident we’ll exceed that goal, but that’s still a far cry from “fluent.”

On Sunday, we met our host families, an event that generated more nervousness than anything else so far. Frankly, we hit the jackpot. Our “mother,” Angelica, cooks for the Peace Corps training center here, and Lucho, her husband is a jack-of-all-trades. We have two “hermanos” of 20 and 22 years’ age, and there’s a nephew here as well. Frankly, after maintaining the pretense for a day, we’ve agreed we’re all “hermanos,” since Angelica and Lucho are our age, give or take a year or two.

It’s total immersion time. They speak no English, and their rapid-fire Spanish—while not heavily accented—is nonetheless not enunciated with perfect clarity. It’s a challenge for us, but we’re communicating well, and even joking around. I’ve made only one major embarrassing linguistic faux pas, but the language police let me off with a warning, after gales of laughter. Our home is small--we have a bedroom about the size of a New York hotel room (tight), indoor plumbing, and a shower with the potential for hot water, but it’s not functioning consistently. Our hosts couldn’t be kinder or more fun and understanding. In the house we have a small cat, on the patio two canaries, and on the roof (!) a dog and a turkey that was intended for a Mother’s day dinner, but Angelica hasn’t been able to sacrifice it yet. There’s also a small store attached to the house where they sell candy bars, sodas, bananas, and the requisite 8 varieties of potato, and where we will have a chance to put in a few hours’ work, which will be . . . interesting. The food is fine—usually just toast w/ jam for breakfast (and coffee, of course, but not great coffee); lunch is a bigger deal—some meat, always rice, maybe some lentils or potato or yucca (a starchy root, but tasty) and a small salad of tomato, onion, and avocado, and fruit. Dinner tends to be modest—maybe a sandwich, maybe some soup and some bread, or a simple meat dish—but more than adequate.

Some of our fellow PCT’s (it’s a govt. agency, so we’re all reduced to acronyms: Peace Corps Trainees, “aspirantes” in Spanish) have homes with no discernable plumbing, but one has a bedroom with en suite shower (she said it’s like a Playboy grotto, very sexy; I didn’t ask how she knew . . .) so there’s quite a range. All have electricity. We’re told that our accommodations at our work sites, where we’ll move in August, will tend to be more rustic and our communities will be small, in the 800—4,000 person range, and that we’re likely to be the first PCV’s (Peace Corps Volunteers) they’ve ever seen.

The training center is in a large home that’s been converted to offices and classrooms. It has a large, walled-in yard, with adequate space for Frisbee and soccer during our lunch break. The pool is merely decorative. What else do you want to know? The weather is cool, with a marine haze much of the time. We’re maybe 20-30 miles inland, with significant hills rising dramatically all around us.

Our morning language classes are conducted entirely in Spanish, and our job training is currently in English, but by the end of training most of our classes will be. The most popular class yesterday was presented by our Medical Officer, Dr. Jorge, on diarrhea. The official estimate of the percentage of Peru’s PCV’s who have, umm, “soiled their pants” is 95%, but he bets it’s closer to 100%. Ohhhh boy. Neither of us has joined that group yet, and neither of us is suffering from anything that would register on the Richter scale, though there have been rumblings. From our family we’ve learned two expressions for such symptoms that we can share in mixed company (“estoy con la bicicleta” and “estoy como pato”: I have a bicycle in my stomach and, in a more vernacular mode, my gut is loose as a goose) and one expression that we definitely cannot share on a public website.

Today’s not-so-cheerful lecture was on the probability of being a victim of robbery or theft, a very uplifting follow-up to the diarrhea lecture. That, and our first official day of Spanish language classes in which Jean’s teacher shoved them on a “combi” (a kind of collective taxi) and took them to a nearby town to interview random people, left Jean in a state of sensory overload. Fortunately, our Training Coordinator recognized the look on Jean’s face, and invited us to a nearby shop for coffee and chocolate cake, just in time.

I’ll try to include some photos in this entry, but I’m never sure exactly how that’s going to come off. They should include perhaps some shots of our fellow ¨aspirantes,¨ hard at work at our training center, our host ¨hermana,¨ Jean with some neighbor kids on our patio, and the convention center¨ with wandering alpacas where we spent our first 2 nights.

So, that’s the news from the city of Chaclacayo (our neighborhood is known as Huascaran). Every day brings us a whole range of emotions, but they’re mostly positive, and our experiences have been great. We’re very happy to be where we are, doing what we’re doing, and we’re (still) looking forward to a productive and endlessly-fascinating two years!