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.