Friday, July 8, 2011

The End Times Chronicle

OK, so it’s been since February since we posted anything. We really have no way of gauging how fascinating we are to our friends and family, and as our life here becomes more and more routine to us, we have less and less to say about it. That said, every day here still brings some new experience, some new emotion, so we'll try to catch you up a bit.

In March, we took a break from the cold, rainy season here and went to Argentina and Uruguay. Buenos Aires had always attracted our notice, and it didn’t let us down. It’s a beautiful city, and at times felt more like Brooklyn than a South American capital. Montevideo, Uruguay, was a pleasant surprise due to the unique (and protracted) manner they have of celebrating Carnaval—we took as full advantage as we could, and really enjoyed our time there, too. We then made our way to Iguazu Falls, a stunning and overwhelming natural wonder; and Tierra del Fuego, where the landscape at 46 degrees south in March reminded us of Montana (46 degrees north) in September, with snow dusting the mountaintops. It made us a little homesick.

All our other vacations have been within Peru, and coming home from that one was hard. We spent two weeks in first-world cities and at world-class tourist destinations, and came home to rainy season in Chivay. . . a difficult adjustment. We got over it, but not without some serious moping.

And now, we’re coming to the close of our service (officially, Aug. 16), and we're more focused on wrapping things up than starting anything new. In early May we had our "Close of Service" conference, where we began the lengthy process of getting OUT of the Peace Corps. It was the last time that our entire training group would be together, and now some of them have already left Peru. It makes every day a little sad.

After the conference, we burned the last of our vacation time and went to Ancash, the Colorado of Peru, which was spectacular--the second-highest mountain range in the world, the Cordillera Blanca, was outrageous. We did a 4-day trek (burro-supported) that was stunning, crossing a 15,600' pass over which 20,000'+ peaks towered. It was great to be out afoot like that. We also made a detour and finally visited the real Jauja. They'd never heard of the legend referenced in the title of this blog. Ahhh, Peru. . .

I'm also thick with a bunch of local guides, and whenever they need a gringo for a photo op or to see if their new idea is survivable, I get the call. Lately, that meant Jean and I went rafting on a nice, peaceful stretch of river with a rather inept captain, and I did a downhill-mountain-biking-on-snow photo shoot, bombing down from 17,000 feet (after breathlessly chugging up) on a local volcano. Verdict = survivable, but exhausting.

“Casas Vivenciales”, or home stays with local families is also an idea everyone thinks may bring more visitors (and more money) to the region, and many families are trying to make their homes and daily routines into tourist attractions. We have appeared as gringos in a couple of promotional videos (along with our “children” John and Kristen—other volunteers) and a friend recently asked us to come to his parent’s house for a photo op. The routine is familiar. We show up, they dress us up in traditional garb and giggle. We tag along for whatever work is scheduled for the day, this time the barley harvest. The first order of business was stomping down the dirt where the barley would be whacked with big sticks, so the grain wouldn’t get pounded into the dirt. We all stomped around to the rhythm of the tunes from the tinny radio, laughing and making a dance of it. Next, the men take the sheaves of barley (harvested by hand with a small scythe), and whack as much of the grain off of the stalk as they can with custom made whacking sticks (there is a name for it, no doubt, in Quechua…), then they spread the stalks out and the women do a little jump-plus backward scoot step across them to coax a bit more grain from the stalk. It is more exhausting than you might imagine, jumping and scooting at 12,500 feet above sea level. We gratefully took a break for lunch, which was boiled corn, fava beans and potatoes with a spicy sauce, a bit of homemade cheese from the family cows, and then a hearty stew. After lunch we made a token show of milking the cows, then stepped aside for the professionals. We imagine we have done some hard things in our time here; but “hard” is getting up every day, doing what needs to be done in the fields, and going back to your adobe home to take care of the family, go to bed; repeat.

Here in the alturas we're now into our "winter," which means the people are wearing alpaca, and the alpacas are wearing sweaters. In truth, the days are glorious, sunny, immensely enjoyable, but the air does not hold heat well, and if you step into the shade, or when the sun begins its slide down toward the horizon, you feel the chill. So, we sit around in our parkas like everyone else, and go on about our business.

We get either the 4th of July or Fiestas Patrias (Peruvian Independence Day) as a holiday; both provide 4 “free” days in July, but we want to be in Chivay for the fiestas, so we took a 4-day Independence Day backpacking trip into the Colca canyon. It was exhausting—dropping down into the world’s deepest canyon is not to be taken lightly—but fascinating. We soaked in hot springs, hiked to waterfalls, ate strange fruits hanging off trees, and traversed some crazy-steep trails, without serious incident.

After 3 days of med checks in Lima in early June, the verdict is that we're pretty healthy, and not bringing back any known parasites. Jean tweaked her back in February, and the doctor suggested swimming as excellent therapy, so a few times a week she's up early to bike to the local hot springs 3 km away; in the "piscina del pueblo" (people's pool, as opposed to the tourist pool) it costs her about 17 cents; she's going to miss that more than just about anything, when we get back.

As far as work goes, we’re focusing now on making whatever we’ve done here sustainable. Jean’s Warming Wawas project just got funded by the municipality, so it’s on solid footing for at least two years. The municipality just adopted and expanded my project, and is seeking funding from the Peruvian government for a 5-year horizon. Sustainability: check.

Most days now are more than a little schizophrenic. We’re trying to live here as intensely as possible for our last few weeks, while also actively planning for our return to the Bitterroot. We're ready to come home to Montana, but it will truly break our hearts to leave. We don't have friends here the way we have friends in Montana, where we've lived for 30 years; and the cultural barriers to true friendship are real, though surmountable. But we do have friends, we are well-known and accepted in the community, we've left a mark on this place and it, in turn, has marked us deeply--it will be every bit as emotional to leave Chivay as it was to leave Hamilton!

As much as our Peruvian friends, we’ll miss the other Peace Corps volunteers with whom we’ve served over the last 2 years. They’ve been our closest thing to “family,” and we’ve formed what we hope will be lifetime relationships with many of them.

We'll be back in the Bitterroot on Aug. 17, with absolutely no idea what comes next. For the last 30 years we've been talking about doing this Peace Corps hitch, and that's been our horizon. Next, we've got to figure out who we are now, and what to do about it. We'll be happy to be home, but we're sure going to miss the life we've come to know, here. As hard as it was to leave Montana, coming home is going to be equally disorienting. And that’s exactly the experience we signed up for.