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.

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