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!

Monday, June 1, 2009

A week of farewells

It's been a tough week, full of farewells. Jean and I are grateful to have had a chance in the last couple of weeks to hear many of the nice things that people usually wait until your funeral to say about you. Still, the constant stream of well-wishers, stopping by Chapter One, calling, or emailing to say good-by has been a wonderful thing. Of course the parties have been pretty nice, too!

We've been obsessively packing, re-packing, unpacking, and panicking, but we're ready now to say "enough," and pick up our bags and go . . . which we'll be doing any minute now. It's hard, though--hard to leave our home, our cat, our friends, and our bookstore, which has brought us so many gifts over the years. It is bittersweet, all of it, but we're determined to take this giant step into the unknown, just to find out more about ourselves and the world, and perhaps to do a little bit of good! Our next post will be from our Peace Corps training site, near Lima.

For a nice summary of what we're doing and what we're leaving behind, the Ravalli Republic ran this article about us today.

So now it really is time to shut off the computer and head out the door, with 2 years' worth of worldly goods slung over our shoulders. Thanks to all of our friends here . . . we can't thank you enough, or bear to tell you how much we'll really miss you, without weeping in public--which nobody really wants to see.

We'll see you in 2011, or in Peru!

Russ & Jean