Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Saturday, December 8, 2012

After Redention

First off, a huge thanks to anyone who's sent us emails, cards, letters, llama riding manuals, alpaca puns, or any other reminder of our loved ones at home. It really makes a huge difference.

Also, happy birthday to Gayle, Patrick, Liesel, and Mom. We wish we could send you something.

Now a little about how we've been doing. We've often been told that we shouldn't expect much out of the first days/weeks/months/year, that if we're lucky, we'll really be on top of things right before close of service, and the next volunteer(s) in our site will maybe get started a little faster than us. This was said not to be discouraging but to be realistic. We're living in a community that has never had a couple of full-time volunteers devoted solely to the development of the area. There are lots of enthusiastic people here, but most of them have fields and families to maintain. We're going to want to move at a pace that likely far exceeds the desires of those around us, and we shouldn't expect too much. Put simply, it takes a long time to figure our what the community needs, how to organize the projects to address these needs, how to fund those projects, and how to get people interested enough to participate (keeping said projects sustainable for the long haul). This is all true, and though we technically haven't really started anything yet, we are incredibly hopeful for the projects we'll do in our community, and we've definitely been keeping busy.

One thing that we've been doing over the last couple weeks is settling in and getting our two rooms nice and homey. We've bought a cocina with a tiny horno – to bake chocolate chip cookies (more on that later), banana bread, or whatever else we may desire; hung our maps of Peru and Ancash on the walls; built some shelves out of bricks and (unfinished, raw, natural-looking) planks; plunked some rugs down on the floor; and hung some cards from home on the wall to remind us of you all. This coming Monday, our kitchen table, desk, and nightstand should be ready, and then it will just be hanging this and that on the wall as we acquire whatever we'll acquire.

As it's our first couple weeks, there have been a plethora of meetings to attend, even if just to introduce ourselves. This past Sunday we went to a town meeting where the directora of the museum in Huaraz spoke about tourism and the plans she has for Paria. At this meeting we were also able to talk to the regidores of Paria, delegados of the surrounding communities, and some of the community members who have an active interest in their hometown. We attempted to stop by the house of one of these people, the teniente gobernador de Recrish, on Friday, but he was out working in the chakra (field). However, we ended up walking around and talked to an older gentleman (who happens to be a relative of ours) who owns much of the land around the pre-Incan ruins and is super enthusiastic about ecotourism. It seems to go this way. Miss one opportunity, and there is immediately another in our laps. Another example of this is a meeting we were supposed to have with the mayor before the town meeting. He wanted to meet the night before just so we could go over and feel a little more comfortable with what we may say the next day. He ended up being occupied and unable to meet with us, so instead we played soccer and ultimate with some of the local kids. We even got a couple of girls no more than 5 or 6 to play ultimate, and they caught on ridiculously quickly. By the end of the game, all of the much older boys were passing to them too. It's hard to explain how good that all felt. This coming Sunday there's a town meeting in Jínua and the following Sunday another in Recrish (both caserios of Paria). We also met with the director of the school in Paria. This was probably one of the few discouraging moments we've experienced, as he didn't seem particularly interested in having us help out there. However, so fortunate has our time been in Paria that within minutes of the meeting, we talked with a promoter from an NGO who happened to be at the school too, and it seems she got a similar reception, knew we probably did too, and gave us a pep talk of sorts, encouraged us in our efforts, and exchanged numbers with us.  We haven't given up hope for working in the school, but the director seems very protective of his students – historically not a bad idea, and perhaps after we've had other successes within the community, he'll see we're not there with any agenda apart from helping in any way we can. It's also good to keep in mind too that this is the sort of thing that most every volunteer experiences in their service; we just happen to live in a community that is wildly supportive of our efforts, but it's reasonable for people to be skeptical of the gringos in town, when much of the natural resources of Peru are owned, controlled, and profited on by people from other countries.

This past Sunday, not only did we go to a town meeting but a confirmation/first communion and a funeral as well. The confirmation/first communion was a long service – by the end I could barely stand, but it was nothing compared to the celebration in the town plaza that lasted well into the night. The funeral was very tranquilo, just a bunch of family and friends sitting around in the cemetery eating ice cream and some people drinking cervezas. I prefer it greatly to the usually over formal affairs back home. It also lasts for two or three days, though we only went on the last one.

I believe I've mentioned a little already about the church we go to with our family. It's a Seventh Day Adventist church, about the size of Cornerstone, and the people couldn't be nicer. This past week I brought my bilingual bible, and we were able to follow a little more of what was being said. Bible studies turn out to be not the easiest in a foreign language; the intricacies of language are difficult enough to decipher in English. This past Tuesday though, a bunch of people from the church came over to our house to make sweets. I guess they do this every Tuesday at various locations just to spend time together (and to eat sweets of course). A really nice tradition. This week, we made palitos de naranja or little orange sticks in English – basically orange-flavored, pan-friend dough. Quite tasty.

Another activity that's been keeping us busy is doing tiny programs about the environment with the kids of the early childhood stimulation center (read: preschool). This last week was our first, and we did it on plants and what they need in order to grow. The kids are really little, so our message was pretty simple: rain, soil, and sun. (Or in Spanish: lluvia, suelo, y sol.) We made little drawings of the three, hid them in the playground, taught the lesson, then had the kids go out and find one of each. After each had found all three, we had them pretend to be seeds, and after reminding them again of the lluvia, suelo, y sol they had collected, had them grow into trees. It was cute to say the least. I'm not sure what we'll teach on next week, but I have a feeling this is going to be one of those feel-good moments that reminds us not everything has to be grand and complicated for it to be a success. Simply forming a relationship with the kids has far reaching implications that (wait for it) plant a seed that if well nurtured will grow into something incredible. Oh yeah.

We've definitely kept busy, but it gets late early here, so we have lots of free time in the evenings. For this we've acquired a bunch of shows and movies to watch and books to read. The movies and shows came from one of the countless little tiendas that has row upon row of bootleg discs. I honestly wouldn't even know where to find an honest copy of a movie. I don't think they exist here. We recently purchased Hey Arnold, all three MIBs, all four Ice Ages, all four Shreks, 10,000 BC, 1612, Helen of Troy, Conquistadors, and Tristan and Isolde. The equivalent of 22 discs of material was contained on only four, and we paid only ten soles (about four bucks) for all of them. There was also an unlisted several discs worth of some kids' learning show on the MIB disc which may potentially be useful. There are several places where we can exchange books free of charge (and a few that charge a refundable deposit) in order to keep a steadily flowing supply of reading material. California Cafe in Huaraz not only has one of the bigger collections I've seen, it's also the only place (shy of Dunkin' Donuts or Starbucks in Lima) where we've found chocolate chip cookies – good ones too. We were beginning to think them impossible to find. The cookies here just aren't that sweet unfortunately. There are these crunchy cookies topped with sesame seeds that Menda has tried dearly to enjoy, but they just weren't cutting it. Right, books. The book exchanges are primarily for travelers, and most of the books are in English, so though it would be more beneficial to be reading in Spanish, we're just not quire there yet. To study? Yes. To relax? No.

In other exciting news, I bought a super sweet, Huaraz-style felt hat. My head was so big, I had to visit nine or ten places over the course of two visits in order to find someone that could sell me a hat that fits, and even then he had to stretch it under a heat lamp for several hours.

Menda is also learning to knit from our host mom. It seems simple enough, but the speed at which all the Peruvian women's hands move is crazy. I also showed my brother (and will show my mom) how to make thread out of plastic bags. They're floating around everywhere, and what better way to clean up the community than to knit little coin purses or other trinkets.

In addition to teaching Menda to knit, our mom continues to throw in Quechua phrases here and there, and we're slowly picking them up. We'll have two weeks of training come January and February with Peace Corps, but I think it's far easier to learn it in your own house at your own pace with your own family.

Thursday we hiked up to a hill with a giant cross on it a couple of hours from our house. We took what we thought was likely the correct route, but eventually headed too far north and decided to cut up and back through the chakras until we reoriented ourselves. We walked until we came across some dogs we decided better not to test, then cut up and back the other direction where we saw a farmer and his wife tilling their field with a pair of [what we're pretty sure were] bulls [though in hindsight we can't recall for sure]. As it turned out, the farmer is the very same carpenter in town that's making our tables. We were talking to his wife when we heard a big, “Don Carlos!” (referring to me). He's a distant relative of our family, and  it was a pleasant surprise to see him way, way outside of town in the middle of some field we were cutting through. He pointed us on our way to the cross, we got to the cross, we took some pictures of the cross, and then realized that the snow-capped mountains beyond were a far prettier sight to see, though we hadn't really known they'd be so visible, as they're usually blocked from view by the hill on which we were then standing. We ate some food (kiwicha balls – Andean, super-energy granola bar in sphere format; canchita – tastes like popcorn, looks like something that will break your teeth; and chocolate – I was with Menda after all), drank some water, called our brother to tell him we'd be late for lunch, and started on our way back. It just so happens that from the top of the hill you can see a pretty clear, well maintained path back to town, so we took that and found out our hours-long hike needn't have been nearly so long. But it was a fun morning with beautiful weather, and I wouldn't change a thing. In the following weeks, we intend to hike up to the top of San Cristobal (the local mountain next to the cross to which we hiked) and a lagoon that's apparently hanging out up there. With so many beautiful hikes, the ruins of Willkahuaín, the thermal waters of Monterrey, and the charming people, our jobs as they pertain to tourism are becoming more and more clearly defined as the days go by. There's a lot to do but far more to look forward to.

The last thing I'll mention is something that Menda, I, and all of the other volunteers have silently observed on our own, only to realize that we're all doing it: the misprinted shirts with English phrases on them. At this point, I'm still not sure if they're misprints from the US shipped to other countries or if they're shirts manufactured here and just poorly translated. The support I have for the latter theory is the name of the entry: After Redention. Menda and I saw this on a shirt in Huaraz. After some thinking, I concluded that “redention” was undoubtedly supposed to be “redemption,” and that the meaning for “after” is very similar to “beyond.” Hence, “beyond redemption” becomes “after redention.” Were it printed in the US, that mistake would never have been made, but if consulting a dictionary, apart from the spelling error, “after redention” would appear correct to the non-speaker. On the other hand, it's not as though some punk-rocker looking youth with eye makeup was wearing this shirt, which leads me to believe that the shirt was chosen by the wearer solely because of the price, probably reduced due to the errors. We'll probably never have a definite reason or source for these nice little reminders that we're not the only ones who mistranslate things, but I'm thankful for them nonetheless. I'll try to keep mentioning the good ones on this blog as I see them.

I'll end the post with another reminder to send us emails, pictures, letters, postcards, used books, anything. It means the world to occasionally be reminded of the love so many people have for us back home. So keep 'em coming, and one of these days we´ll pay you back with some pictures of our own.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Paria Willkahuaín, Sweet Paria Willkahuaín

First off, our socios (community counterparts) are incredible. A lot of volunteers are put in towns where no one really knows what to expect. The result is that there are a lot of misconceptions about the volunteers, and no one is really sure what they should be doing to help them. Not the case. The head of the health post is a really funny, really friendly guy and is incredibly enthusiastic about working together. The mayor turns out to be the cousin of our host mom, met with us both during "socio day," that evening at our house, and took us out the next day for two hours meeting people in the community. This last part is key. He told everyone that A) we aren't spies, B) we don't have money, and C) offered us an immediate in because he's effectively vouched for us. To say we're lucky doesn't even state the half of it.

Our family is equally incredible. Our mom, Juana, is 50, an amazing cook, and one of the more caring people I've come across in Peru - which is really saying something. Whether you're cold, hungry, feeling sick, or just spacing out, she's trying to figure out how she can make your experience in that moment a little brighter. Also - Sunny, you'll appreciate this - she keeps an extensive herb garden at the house, so we get fresh brewed mint, rosemary, and other herb teas at a moment's notice. There's also an apple tree in the yard, and we regularly drink agüita de manzana (hot apple water). The house is breath-taking too. It's divided into a front and back section. The back half is a small chakra, a beautiful herb and fruit garden, and an outdoor kitchen - though we need to build a cocina mejorada, because she still cooks on the ground. The front half is divided into thirds perpendicular to the street. One third is another gorgeous garden with herbs, flowers, and fruit - including a weird tomato tree, and a newly built bathroom with flushing toilet and (by the time we return) functioning hot shower. Whoa. The middle section is where the house part of the property is. Each floor has three rooms, and we have the front two on the bottom, which means we also have our own separate door onto the street. We actually have more space now than we did in our last apartment. The other rooms are used for laundry, storage, and living space. There's also an outdoor area with a kitchen table, small stove, and general purpose, put-everything-that-doesn't-fit-elsewhere table. The last third is one small room at the back and another garden with herbs and flowers with three pens for cuyes. At the moment there are about 15 cuyes running around in them.

Our mom is great, but are host brother is also not to be taken for granted. Abel is 28, studied tourism (great for Amanda), and is our personal guru for all things Paria. He's incredibly patient with our still improving language abilities, helps us learn Quechua, and is down for pretty much anything we want to do, from visiting the pre-Incan ruins a ten minute walk away to throwing a disc around at the soccer field. He's one of those people that you just feel immediately comfortable with. He's encouraging, authentically interested in what you have to say, and helpful to the utmost degree.

Our dad, Felix, is incredibly excited to have us, super welcoming, and gave us both a huge hug when we first met, as though we'd known him for years and just happened to have dropped in. That being said, we've unfortunately only got to see him two or three times for no more than five minutes. He works six days a week and has an hour and a half commute. Because the eating area is technically outside, and it gets down to zero degrees Celsius most nights, everyone heads to their respective rooms after eating dinner around seven. Therefore, we don't usually see him at night, and he leaves the house pretty early in the morning. However, he doesn't work Sundays, so we'll get to spend time with him then.

The food's been great, even if we've stepped a little outside of our comfort zone. The first day, for example, we were served up a plate of rice, potatoes, and... wait for it... cow lung. The flavor's actually kinda good, but the texture is something to adjust to. A couple days later we also got soup with a chicken throat in each of our bowls. It very well may have tasted quite good, but it's really, really difficult to eat, and the more I tried, the more I embarrassed myself. The good news, however, is that our family is 7th Day Adventists and, as it turns out, eat an almost entirely vegetarian diet; they were just making meat dishes for our sake. We've since corrected the perception that we need meat in every dish and are looking forward to the further incredible cooking of our mom.

I mentioned that they're 7th Day Adventists. So, we went to church with them on Saturday morning - the service was almost 3 hours long, not the usual length - and the people were just incredible. The church is in Huaraz, our regional capital of about 80,000 people (though I've heard estimates up to 120,000 as well), but only about 30 people go each week: the perfect size. After the service, they do this thing where as you leave you line up, and you shakes hands with every person that files out after you, wishing them a happy Saturday. I like it a lot. I'm also thankful again for having a slightly smaller congregation, because this process could very quickly stretch out.

After the service we went to a convent in Huaraz where it turns out our family lived while Abel attended one of the universities in Huaraz. They paid rent with Juana's help in the kitchen. During the week, it serves as a soup kitchen for poor youth. This particular day, there was a group of 80 girls preparing for their confirmation. We helped to prepare the food, ran to and fro getting the plates together, ate, and then helped wash up. In the midst of two months worth of training preparing us to serve, it was somehow really easy to forget that literally serving people is sometimes the most rewarding. On several occasions I was close to tears for no reason other than I just felt so good. It shook me. I had forgotten the power in serving. I wonder if this is how Juana feels all the time. We've definitely been placed in a family with their hearts in the right place, and for that I am so, so thankful. Not that other volunteers have spiritually-degrading experiences, but I think it's pretty easy to just put your faith on hold for two years. That won't be an option for us. I know people have prayed for us in that regard, and it worked. Thank you, Cornerstone, New Covenant, Brittany, James, and anyone else that may have pleaded on our behalf.

I'm going to zip backward a bit now and tell a little about the field based training that preceded the site visit. I was up and down Huascaran National Park, first in Musho, Ancash - right at the base of Huascaran the mountain, next in San Miguel de Acos, and finally in Huaraz. All of the volunteers were amazing in their own right, but there was also something slightly off about everyone. Either they send the crazy ones to Ancash or Ancash makes you crazy. And if the former, why would they send us here? In reality, the volunteers in Musho were beyond helpful, outlining all their projects and giving us field experience in a short couple of days. In San Miguel de Acos, two of the volunteers (another married couple) along with two others in the area provided us with the much-needed pointers on how to think in the campo (realistic expectations, adjustments, attitudes, et cetera) as well as giving us some more hands-on experience. One of the two volunteers living permanently in Huaraz showed us around our regional capital, we had a booth about self esteem with a balloon-popping game for children, and I bought a chullo and gloves from some vendors in the huge craft market. There are tons of jewelers scattered around too, making stunning pieces as you watch. I've already dropped a few too many soles on gifts for Menda - and, Seth, be sure to tell your dad that he has some competition in fork jewelry; the bracelet I got her from the fork guy is incredible, and as an added bonus reminded me both of Cornerstone and International Galleries because of Captain Brian's trade and the abalone that was the accent of the piece.

The food options in Huaraz deserve their own entry, but I'll limit it to this one paragraph for now. Ex-pat entrepreneurs are everywhere. Americans, Belgians, Frenchmen, you name it. We've gotten pizza, tofu sandwiches, vegetarian quesadillas, more pizza, and will at some point in the future be trying the craft beer from a brewery started by a Coloradan. Also, an ice cream place where they have flavors like rum raisin and fruit of the forest - which from what I can tell is black raspberry; talk about a taste from home.

I'll also point out that the address has been updated for our post office box in Huaraz. Our house in Paria Willkahuaín doesn't actually have an address, so the box in Huaraz will have to do. Also, once again, letters, pictures, and (if you feel like sending a package) used paperback books are always appreciated. Menda also points out that, although there's a greater risk of theft, CDs or USBs with [legitimately obtained - Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge. Know what I mean? Know what I mean?] movies, TV shows,or music would be great. Just don't send those in a regular envelope, but it in a padded envelope with a book, maybe inside the book itself so they can't be felt from the outside, and cover it in Christian symbols. Not a joke. Apparently it helps. And only use USPS. The others are far more expensive to both send and receive.

And now Menda is going to say a little about her field based training:

For FBT I went to Junin, Junin- home of the highest Peace Corps volunteers in the world.  We packed 7 of us into an SUV along with our bags and drove over up and over some mountains about 5,000 meters above sea level.  I was pretty proud of us because no one threw up or passed out.  The views from that high were outrageous, especially for someone who has spent her whole life in the plains of Illinois.  It was like seeing the sky for the first time. 

Once we got to the volunteer site we taught a short lesson at the local secundaria (high school), visited another volunteer's vivero (tree nursery) to help him dig a new vivero bed, and helped another volunteer with her recycling buy (buying recycling from local residents and then selling them to nearby cities to promote recycling).  Lastly, but most awesome, we visited and toured a huge cave, which involved bridges, ladders, and rope.

Some interesting things about Junin- There are flamingos.  Apparently they migrate to Junin for part of every year.  There are ancient terraces and fences made of stones all over.  There are a lot of vicuñas in Junin.  Vicuñas are fuzzy animals that are like cuter versions llamas - hard to believe.  They're prized for their shearling but have not been successfully domesticated, so once a year the wild ones are rounded up and shaved.  The current PVC told us she went to the vicuña rounding up event and everyone got into a giant human chain and ran through the hills and valleys and drove them into a big coral.  Also Junin is cold and no one has heat!  We did everything bundled up, including eating at restaurants and slept under a stack of blankets.

One more thing about Ancash I don't think Charles mentioned is the serious hat culture here.  All the women wear awesome hats that all match along with a knee length, felt looking, colorful skirt, knit leggings, and a blouse with a brightly colored cardigan.  The outfits in Ancash are awesome.  They also used brightly colored striped cloths to carry anything on their backs.  I tried to find an image on google of this, but I didn't see one that does it justice, so I guess I'll just have to take one myself.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Paria, Here We Come

Greetings, all.  As you may have guessed from the title, Paria is the name of the place we will be living for the next two years. It’s a town of around two thousand people, a half hour from Huaraz and a short drive from Huascaran National Park.  This coming week, we’ll be leaving on Wednesday to go on a field based training trip to various places, and after 4 or 5 days are then traveling to our future site and staying for another several days. We then return back to Chaclacayo for a week, swear in, and ship off to our new permanent residence. From the brief notes we’ve been given about our new home, we think we’re going to have two rooms to ourselves (unusual for volunteers), probably separate from the house proper, that we can make into a bedroom/study and kitchen/living room/dining room.  It’s not furnished, so we’ll probably have to use a pretty big chunk of our settling in allowances, but then again, we also have two of these, whereas most volunteers only get one. It also means we’ll be able to customize everything to our tastes with a little more ease. And while the latrine may not currently have a door according to the notes, that’s supposed to be remedied before we get there. Regardless, it’s safe to say we’re pretty excited. The only down side is leaving our current host family, with whom we’ve grown very close. Well, that and the massive amount of laundry that’s stacked up over the past two months. I think it’s safe to say that I’m the only grandchild that spends more time doing laundry than my grandma. All respect, Grammie, volume-wise you most definitely still have me beat, but four or five loads in two days when we’re washing by hand and drying by sun probably even exceeds the amount for which you would have patience.

I’m really excited for the swearing in, not only for the obvious reason of being done with training, but because my host mom is going to be one of the speakers. She was asked by Peace Corps staff, but she politely declined, because she said she would be far too emotional. However, I had a fellow volunteer (a native speaker) help me with a completely over the top, guilt-ridden letter of petition filled with the signatures of volunteers and staff, and I managed to change her mind. She makes such an impression on people – many of whom have met her only once, that it took me only five hours to conceive the idea, solicit help from the other volunteer, and gather a full page of signatures (many with notes of encouragement).  She told me about being asked to speak during lunch, and after classes that day I presented the petition to her. I’m happy not only because she’s my host mom, but because it will be the first time they ever had any host mom speak at the swearing in. Up until now, it’s always been the men. I’m glad I could play some small role in making it happen.

Thank you to everyone who called, emailed, or sent cards for my birthday. We had a small, tranquil celebration with lots of cake, music, and good friends. And if you forgot about either one of our birthdays, belated wishes are still appreciated. That being said, we only have another three weeks at our current location, and the mail can sometimes take that long, so email would suffice. It’s nice to hear from people no matter the medium. Also, in light of our pending departure, I’m taking down the current address, and I’ll put up the new one as soon as I figure out what it is. As a side note and reference for the next two years, I’m finding that I think the best gifts are books. Peace Corps recommends that packages be under a half kilogram and sent in a padded envelope, but that’s perfect for a paperback. Go to a used book store, grab something you think we might like, and surprise us.

Last Saturday, all the health volunteers went the Universidad Agraria in Molina. We learned about and made a compost pile and barrel of biol. They really stressed the advantage of using estiércol fresca de vaca (fresh cow crap), and we even got the opportunity to shovel it. Lots of it. Most people will know what a compost pile is, but I didn’t know what biol is. What you do is take a big barrel; fill it with fresh cow crap, water, sugar, and milk; stir it up; and put on a lid with a valve that can release the gases produced as everything breaks down. When finished, it’s a completely natural liquid fertilizer that a farmer can sprinkle over his crops, and it only takes around a month to produce. It actually wasn’t too bad a day once you get past the smell of it all. There was a payoff though. In addition to fields and fields of organic crops, they also produce their own yogurt and ice cream. I ended up spending far more than I ever intended on ice cream throughout the day, the first time on lucuma ice cream and the second on mango ice cream. It was definitely worth all the crap earlier in the day.

Yesterday, health volunteers had yet another Saturday session, but this one was in my own community and didn’t end up taking all day – only about an hour. There’s a guy in Yanacoto who raises cuyes (guinea pigs), and he walked us through which crops to grow to feed them and the basics in small animal husbandry. Technically, this no longer falls under Peace Corps Peru’s goals, but as it provides a quick, inexpensive, and pretty damn cute source of protein, it’s not a bad piece of knowledge to have tucked away. Of course, it’s quite possible, even likely, that the people of Paria will know far more about raising cuyes than I ever will, but it couldn’t hurt to know a little something about it. The guy had maybe 12 pens about a meter by two meters, each filled with 10-15 cuyes, and considering the speed (from birth to pregnant in a month and a half) and frequency (up to four times a year) at which cuyes are able to reproduce, the fact that you only need one macho per seven embras, and that each litter can have up to five cuyitos, it’s safe to assume that there’s a pretty healthy consumption of cuy in my community. Given that we’re not even living in the sierra yet – where putting cuy on the dinner table is a far more regular practice, we can also conclude with some certainty that we will most definitely be eating quite a bit of it over the course of the next two years.  Cuy: the other, other white meat.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Sorry For the Delay

Two weekends ago we had our Mini Field Based Tranings (FBTs). I went to Huancavelica, a department not far from (the department of) Lima, but a lot higher up and the poorest of Peru. We left at 6 in the morning to head to Lima, so we could catch vans to Huancavelica. We stopped about halfway through the 8 hour trip to stop at a site of a volunteer. While there, we split up into groups of 4 or 5 and went to do a check on the improved stoves that had been installed in houses within the community. (For more details on improved stoves, see Amanda´s contribution a few weeks back.) It was a little overwhelming, but the family was wonderfully gracious and welcoming. I also checked out a church that had been destroyed during the 2007 earthquake. Sad, but pretty cool looking too. We then had lunch at a restaurant at which I will never eat again. The food was great, but apparently not sanitary. After another four hours of travelling, during which I began feeling sicker and sicker (I assumed due to the altitude), I was ready to just crash. We got to the hotel at which we´d be staying for the next three nights, I ate some food at the restuarant there, played some Liar´s Dice with the volunteers with whom I was sharing a room, and thought I was feeling well refreshed... Then midnight came around and the next eight hours were just hell. I had to get up every 20 minutes, and didn´t sleep a single bit. The next day, I missed the planned activities, rested the majority of the time, ate 10 or 12 crackers, and drank as much water as I could stand (not much). The following day, I was cautious about what I ate, but seemed completely recovered, and I was able to participate in leading an early childhood stimulation sessions and help in building an improved stove. The session was hard because all the kids were different ages, and the activities planned just didn´t work at all for some of them. The stove was fun, but also frustrating because I saw a lot of further improvements I could make. The design was good, but every region has a different size standard for adobes, so I feel like our stove, although technically constructed according to plan, just didn´t have the structural integrity it could have had. Oh well. In site, I´ll have a lot more control over things like that. We had a few last sessions with the facilitators the next morning and headed back. Altogether a pretty good trip despite the one night.

So we got back, had a day off, then launched straight back into the rigorous daily routine to which we´ve now become accustomed. But there was a treat that Friday as well. We found out our departmental assignement, and we´re going to Ancash! Talk to most any Peruvian around here, and this is the most beautiful department by a strong majority. Many people I´ve talked to regularly vacation there. What more? Amanda will be working in Huascaran National Park, which means our host community will be nearby. Huascaran National Park is like the Rockies of Peru. It´s gorgeous. Just Google it. With Machu Picchu, the Nazca lines, and more ruins than probably will ever be documented, Peru has a lot of distinctly Peruvian things to offer in the way of tourism, but it has some simply incredible natural attractions as well. I´m incredibly excited. We officially find out our host community in one week, but, past the name, I don´t really know what will be gained by this. I know we´re living in a basin near one of the most incredible parks in the world, and not much else really matters.

Today we both gave presentations in classes in communities around where we live. I gave a session on autoestima to a class in our homepueblo and it went incredibly well (or so I think). The class liked my group´s activities, and I was reminded again just how at home I feel while standing at the front of a classroom. It´s nice to reaffirm that every once in a while. I threw in the wall of compliments thing we did on some of the Mississippi trips so they had something to leave up in their classroom to help them practice the things we talked about. I translated it into Bolsillos Llenos De Amor, and I could barely esape at the end, as they all rushed over to claim their pocket. (A quick note of explanation: Everyone has a pocket in which people can leave anonymous notes saying something about them that they like, a good deed they observed, or really just anything positive.) I also got a seat on the combi, had my second day of Quechua class - so much fun, and managed to snag the last alfajor for Menda from a local bakery. All in all, I had a superb day.

Also, Menda and I talked with a volunteer finishing up her service who started a program called Iron Man Iron Woman that is so remarkably close to Spring Initiative that we had to tell her about our friends in Mississippi and the incredible things they are doing. We brought up the possibility of her collaborating with Spring back in the states, and, go figure, she sounded very interested. I don´t know how we managed to become friends with so many exemplary people at our age, but we´ve definitely reached our fair share.

I´m out of time at the internet cafe. Until next time.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Heiroglyphs and Sangria

Last weekend a group of volunteers hiked up the mountain behind our community, because there are some ancient heiroglyphs drawn out in the rocks and dirt. Think Nazlca Lines but on a smaller scale (still huge though). We first hiked up there, climbed a small hill, and there was a decent view from there, but we decided to go big before we went home and climbed the mountain next to it as well. We found out afterward that you didn´t actually have to climb straight up the mountain, that there was a gradual path on the other side of it, but I enjoyed the scampering up the rocks. Most fun I´ve had in a long time. Unfortunately, the heiroglyphs are a little to subtle to show up clearly on Google Maps, so I won´t link to it.

This week was kind of intense. We had four "interviews:" one with our language instructor, one with a different language instructor who then changed our language ranking accordingly, one with the instructors of our field, and one with the head of our field. I did, however, get a day off on Thursday unexpectedly, because the health promoters in Chaclacayo that we were supposed to be shadowing don´t actually exist. At one point, they had a bunch, but right now I guess there are only a few that are active. So I studied, hung out in Chosica with some other volunteers, and got sangria and french fries (with four interesting dipping sauces) at a restuarant next to the park before we all headed back to our communities.

Also adding to the chaos of the week was Menda´s birthday. Our host mom threw a surprise party, and it was just perfect. I took Menda out for pizza in Chaclacayo following classes, got a little tipsy on some sangria, then rode the combi back to Yanacoto, even splurging and taking a mototaxi up the hill. Yeah, we´re living high (pun full well intended, the hill we walk every day is huge). She had even complained at dinner that not that many people really asked anything about what she was doing for her birthday... well, they didn´t, but only because they already knew. A lot of fun though. Short and sweet. Pisco sours, popcorn, dancing, two cakes, and only a couple hours long - which is good because Menda had to get up a couple hours early the next morning for a day trip. And now, a guest paragraph from Menda talking about her trip:

On Thursday my environmental tech class took a field trip to Cuñete to learn about improved cookstoves.  A lot of the women in the less devloped parts of Peru still cook over an open fire, which causes long-term respiratory problems and consumes a lot of firewood, so one project option we have is building these stoves.  They are pretty basic, but they are well insulated and direct the heat much more efficiently, allowing people to use much less firewood. They all have chimneys so the women aren't breathing smoke all day while they cook.  

There were 3 current volunteers in Cuñete that have been working on installing these around their sites to teach us about the project.  Our group was assigned at a specific house that needed an improved cookstove.  We spent all afternoon working on it but still didn't completely finish it, but we got pretty close.  The stoves are built out of adobe bricks, regular bricks, and mud.  We had a really good time building it and and some cases unbuilding and rebuilding since keeping everything level and even was harder than I expected.  The design of the stove is really simple.  Just picture a brick and adobe block with a hole at the bottom of the front part that leads up to two big circular openings at the top lined with some iron so your pots don't fall in the fire, plus a chimney.

The women in the house spent half their time cooking in the next room over an open fire or watching the group of gringos in their kitchen learning how to build a cookstove in Spanglish.  The house was interesting - most of it was made of brick or adobe - but the room we were working in was made of woven straw of some kind and attached to the main house.  There was another similar straw room behind the house were one woman cooked our lunch.  When I went back there to look around, they showed me where they keep their cuy (guinea pigs).  I have never seen so many guinea pigs in one place in my life, and they were all different sizes.  Someone got a picture of me holding one; I´ll have to find that and post it.  I was also pretty excited about the teeny tiny kittens and baby chicks hanging out with us while we worked.  I still can´t decided if the improved cookstove building lesson or the kittens were the best part of the trip.

Also, another reminder about phone calls. It´s free for us to receive calls, and it turns out that calling through Google Phone or Skype is only around 20 cents a minute. You have to put down $10 initially, but that gets you a nice chunk of time. Email me or Menda for the phone numbers. And props to Allison for taking the time to figure that stuff out for us. She wins the first-to-call prize. We´re usually free after six during the week, and whenever you call on the weekends should usually be fine. Of course, this particular weekend is the exception. We´re both going on 4 or 5 day long trips that leave Saturday or Sunday and get back Wednesday night. We are indeed going to different places, but, hey, in-calling is free on our network, and the other volunteers are great. It´s also possible we´ll have reception in the places to which we´re traveling, but I wouldn´t count on it. We´ll do a big update after the trips to let you know all about them.

As always, feel free to leave any questions in the comments, and I´ll try to answer it in the next post. Oh, and we should know by the end of next week which department (state) we´re going to be living in for the next two years. They won´t be giving us the names of the actual communities just yet, but I guess I´ll take what few details I can get.


Sunday, September 30, 2012

Datsun, Liar´s Dice, And A Few Other Omitted Details

In no particular order, here are the things I forgot to mention in the last post:

Amanda and I saw a bright yellow Datsun truck. I was alredy starting to feel fairly at home here, but now it´s official.

I forgot to mention our dog Bobi. We think that our family is trying to say Bobby, but we´re not certain.

On the subject of dogs: They´re everywhere. I´ve gotten really good at always keeping an eye out for them, but I just know one is eventually going to sneak up without me noticing. The key is to already have a rock in hand and to throw it at their feet, just close enough that they think you were trying to hit them. It´s enough to scare them off, but that way you don´t have to feel bad about what you´re doing.

There have been several earthquakes since we´ve been here. I´ve only felt one of them, but apparently that one was pretty strong. The rest our family all left the house, but neither of us woke up long enough to register that something was going on.

There are several playgrounds in our community, and one of them has what I can only describe as a dangerous variation on a tire swing. There´s a metal pole in the middle, with a giant metal ring connected to it by four chains. The people sitting within the circle then push off in a coordinated effort to get the thing spinning as fast as possible. Eventually, if you´re doing it right, you aren´t able to even sit up. And the whole time there´s a metal pole that you´re spinning around between your legs.

I´ve introduced Liar´s Dice to a bunch of the volunteers. Every short break we get during the day, I grab those around me for a few quick rounds. I´ve already heard at least one person call it their new favorite game. Thanks, Kerlins!

Yesterday my language class went to Lima. I got to walk around the center for a while and then headed to Miraflores for the afternoon. In the center, I got to go to a food museum and see a bunch of really incredible buildings -- which is only slightly depressing when you realize that the architecture you´re admiring is a result of the utter distruction of the native people´s culture by the Spanish. I went to a little cafe and got arroz a la Cubana - rice, with two fried eggs and fried plantains on top - bread on the side, and a glass of juice for four soles (about $1.50). In Miraflores, I saw Kennedy Park, famous for the crazy number of stray cats that live there, ate at an absolutely incredible outdoor restaurant, and walked in and out of as many markets as we could. I had some dish that I couldn´t remember the name of even 10 seconds later, but it had some sort of spicy sauce, rice, and as many kinds of ocean creatures they could fit, including but not limited to octopus, squid, shrimp, and something I couldn´t quite identify. The most important thing about yesterday, however, is that I bought a charango. The charango is the national instrument of Peru and is best described as a Peruvian ukulele with double strings and an extra E thrown in after the usual pitches. It compliments well the guitar I bought (but also forgot to mention in the previous post) the day after we first arrived in Yanacoto. I bought the guitar in Chosica, which has this ridiculous open air market with as many 10 foot wide stalls as they could fit into an area roughly the size of a city block. I don´t know how it all stays standing. They all have their own tin roofs, and they run tarps between them to block out the rain in between them, but even then, the aisles are only about 4 feet wide. Chosica also has a 30 or 40 foot high statue of Jesus called "El Cristo Blanco." We visited it the first night we got to our new home, and I´d be lying if I said I didn´t get a kick out of walking around a giant white Jesus statue with my host family and seeing all the Peruvians do double-takes at my appearance. Fortunately, I think my host family thought it was just as funny.

We finally a mailing address for you should you want to send us a postcard or something. Peace Corps does not recommend sending anything that can´t fit into a padded paper envelope or has a worth of greater than $100. Their overall advice is not to send anything except for letters, but if you really want to surprise us, go ahead, just know we´ll have to pay the customs fees when it gets here. Also, this address is only good until late November. At that point we´ll be going to our new site, and we´ll let you know then how best to contact us.

This past Friday, we got phones. We have free calling within network, but have to buy phone cards in order to text anyone or call out of network. We don´t exactly have a surplus of money (or after buying two instruments we don´t), but but we can receive phone calls for free regardless of where it comes from, the US included. For privacy reasons, I´m not going to post our numbers on the blog, but if you want to be able to call us, just send us an email.

I think that´s everything I forgot in the last one. As I said before, at any point feel free to leave a question you may have in the comments, and I´ll try to answer it the next time I manage to get online.


Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Lot To Tell...

So we´ve now been with our host family for almost two weeks, and they´re incredible. Ronald and Viviana are the most gracious, accepting, warm people we could have hoped for, and their kids Matias (10), Valentina (7), and Antonella (4) are already like family. The food is a lot of rice and potatos, as expected, but unlike some of the other volunteers, we´re loving the diet. We haven´t had any meals yet we didn´t want seconds, thirds, or more of. For the time being the living situation is still a bit basic (though potentially more developed than the place in which we´ll be living in a couple months). The modest house at the top of the hill in Yanacoto is built of concrete, brick, and tin. It has four floors though each floor gets smaller and smaller. It´s on a hill, so the bottom floor opens up to one street, and the top floor opens up to the next. Kind of cool. The walls don´t go all the way to the ceiling, the roof doesn´t go all the way to walls, and the stairs wrap around the outside of the house, but we couldn´t be happier. And starting this Sunday we´ll go from having one working sink (in the kitchen) to a functioning shower, toilet, and bathroom sink. Right now, we manually pour water into the toilet to flush it, and we take bucket baths with water we heat on the stove. We´ll also soon be some of the few volunteers with a washing machine.Vivi and Rona bought one before we arrived, and it´s getting installed the same time the plumbing is getting fixed. We´re pretty excited about the washing machine, but I think Vivi may be more excited yet. (As a side note, it´s getting harder and harder to pull up very basic English words. I wrote laundry machine instead of washing machine in the previous sentences, but I couldn´t tell what was wrong about it.) Also living at the house are Vivi´s parents (Jesus and Teresa) and brother (Josue, 22). Jesus is hysterical, greeting us with a loud "Good morning!" in every language he can come up with (about 5 or 6) regardless of time of day. Teresa exudes care, and Josue is like that Peruvian brother that speaks so fast we can´t understand him that neither of us ever had. His favorite movie is Rambo, and is more familiar with American pop culture of the 80s than I would ever expect. He´s a lot of fun and is incredibly patient with our constant questions.

The house is the highest up of all the Peace Corps volunteers, and we´re panting each day after our 15 minute hike up the steep hill, which would certainly be considered a mountain by Illinois standards. We attend class daily in Chaclacayo at the Peace Corps training center. It´s about a 10 minute ride on the combis, which, to put it nicely, are tiny 20 person buses that usually pack in at least 30 or 35. They all have horns that play songs or rapidly trill a few notes. Sometimes, if you´re lucky, they´ll have a strobe light and black light to accompany the overly loud music. They may even come to a full stop as you´re climbing in. The other favorite form of transportation is moto taxis -- motorcycles converted into little tiny cars (imagine a motorized rickshaw). We have class every day from 8:00 to 5:00. Classes are a mix of Spanish, techinical training, security, cultural, and Peace Corps policies education. It´s all still pretty basic stuff thus far, but we´re slowly delving into more and more of the details. The Spanish classes like to send us into the communities to ask random people random questions, usually resulting in a fairly confused and uncomfortable situation for all parties involved, but it´s definitely forcing us to step up our game.

Last weekend was absolutely nuts. We went to the wedding of Rona´s brother in Santa Clara (about 40 minutes away). We arrived at Rona´s mom´s house around 4, and I was an integral part of setting up. I put up at least 2 or 3 things. We have tons of pictures, but no way to get them online at the moment. Just take our word for it: it was decked out. The wedding was at 8:00 in a Catholic church in Santa Clara, and the doors were open in back to all of the (very loud) traffic going around the town square. I was in charge of taking pictures and felt slightly funny walking around photographing people I had never met. The reception continued after the ceremony, and there was lots of beer, Pisco sour, and some wine here and there (that I couldn´t manage to get my hands on). At this point we were very hungry, having not eaten since 1:00 or 2:00, but food wasn´t served until 12:45. It was really good, but we were ready to sleep afterward. In fact, we´d been dead tired since 9:30 or 10:00. However, Vivi wasn´t having it. She kept on dragging us to the dance floor, and by the end of the night we had several people complementing how well we´d picked up dancing. Really all we did was use their step and apply swing moves to them, but it looked all right. We were planning on staying up until the cake was served, but Vivi said it wouldn´t be served until we danced more. At 1:30 "La Hora Loca" started. It was 30 or 40 minutes of a clown, a sexy woman cop, and a salsa dancer with a mask from "The Mask" on dragging people to the dance floor, making them dance, distributing balloons, blowing whistles, and generally acting crazy. Amanda got a flower from one of them. We danced and drank until 3 at which point we finally went to bed cakeless (in an upstairs bedroom). The next day we got up, ate some soup, and sat around with the family. We´re pretty sure the chicken feet in our soup were from a chicken we met the afternoon before. Can´t get much more local than that. Around 11, the groom and his friends returned from a night out after the reception. I don´t know how they did it. Insane. There was a lot more sitting around, talking (in broken Spanish) to people (who in turn spoke in drunken Spanish) about a wide variety of topics which somehow always returned back to Coldplay. Go figure. At 3 we finally ate cake, and I think that´s where I´ll leave it off. There´s tons more to say, but our hour at the internet cafe is coming to a close. Feel free to drop questions in the comments, and whenever we get back online, I´ll try to answer them.

(Also, please excuse any spelling errors. The keyboard is different (and really frustrating), and every word is underlined in red unless I accidentally type something in Spanish.)


Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Very Brief Update

I'll try to pick up where we last left off...

Last Wednesday was our last day in Aurora. We visited Amanda's grandmother one more time in the hospital and said our goodbyes. It was another incredibly emotional experience followed by yet one more when Crystal left Manny and Brenda's house after dinner. I won't go into unnecessary detail here.

So we finished our last loads of laundry, packed up all our stuff, got into bed by around midnight and woke  up at four so we could make it to O'Hare with enough time to make sure we got through security. Manny and Brenda both drove us to the airport. It was nice to feel so well loved, and security ended up being a breeze.

While waiting for the flight, we managed to meet up with two other PC volunteers and when we got to D.C. we split the cost for one big van as opposed to cabs (for which the estimates we individually received ranged from $20 to $70) and ended up only spending $11 a piece. Not too bad at all. We stashed all of our stuff in a conference room and grabbed some food from a nice little restaurant a few blocks from the hotel.

Staging was a equal blend of corny ice-breakers and tedious paperwork, but it wasn't too bad. I think we were all just so excited for this adventure to start that even the ordinarily mundane became a fun step. Then again, this is only in hindsight. At the time, I was low on sleep, lower on coffee, and in somewhat of a haze. Staging lasted around 8 hours, and we grabbed some food from the hotel restaurant before repacking for the retreat we would be taking once we arrived in Peru the next day. Limited luggage for unknown climates and they wanted us to devote one bag to a trip within a trip. We managed.

We woke up bright and early to leave the hotel by six. Ask me why and I could not tell you; our flight left at 11. Granted a group of 57 volunteers with special circumstances could potentially take a long time, but we were at our gate around 2 hours early. On the other hand, I think it was the time waiting in anticipation at the airports in D.C. and Miami that really started to solidify the group. We'd all put in a lot of time for this, and we were all about to reap the rewards of our hard work.

Well, a couple flights, an hour of customs, and an hour and a half bus ride later, we were finally at our destination: an aptly named Catholic retreat center called Villa La Paz.  As tired as I was, I managed to stay awake for the whole bus ride. It was, after all, my first chance to see Peru. Here are a quick few things I noticed in my past-exhausted state: There was a greater prevalence of "greeon" signs (as opposed to neon - but I don't know which gas they use to make the green ones), lots of what appeared to be houses built on top of houses, strange three-wheeled vehicles that seemed to be all over the place - probably taxis, the bottom five feet of all the trees were painted white, and several random mesas that rose hundreds of feet above the rest of Lima. When we got to the retreat center, we waited for the owner to arrive, and they let us into the dining area where they had some basic sandwiches ready for us. One more welcome later, we trudged into our rooms, and after our taxing 21 hours of travel, we crashed only to get up the next morning for a 7:30 breakfast that really started at eight.

The rest of the day (which somehow was today, though it seems like we've been here for ages) was filled with lots of paperwork and sessions with various people for everything from "survival Spanish" to getting our picture taken so our host families will be able to recognize us. One of the most encouraging parts of the day was the meeting with both the coordinator for our training and the second-in-command for Peace Corps Peru (Kathleen and Wendy respectively). Never would you in the states be working with an agency of any kind (let alone one of the government) and get a face-to-face conversation with the top names on the first day on the job. In fact, later, after throwing a disc, playing some basketball, volleyball, and soccer, the hacky sack came out and Wendy was sitting just a few feet away, occasionally dodging the flying bag of plastic bits.

The day finally came to a close with dinner and people just having fun together. There were at least ten people dancing (or learning to dance), a handful playing cards, countless little groups of people just chatting, and I even managed to convince several to learn to play liar's dice. One more side note, there are two other groups at the retreat center currently, and a few of us played basketball with some of the Peruvian guys around our age, and one of the Peace Corps coordinators told me all the younger kids were talking about the guy that looks like Jesus walking around - did not take long at all. I'm anticipating maybe going by Les (the end of my name, because Charles isn't all that easy to pronounce) as opposed to Carlos (which was my initial thought), but somehow I think a lot of people will just end up calling me Jesus. It could be worse.

Tomorrow will be another big day. We'll get up, eat breakfast, ship off to the training center at which we'll be spending the bulk of our time over the next 10 weeks, and then get picked up by our host families in the afternoon. I can't wait for that part. We don't know too much about our host family yet. All I've heard is that they have big hearts, might have dogs, and there are two young children (around 3 and 5). Now I just need to find some old man to teach me charango.

We'll post pictures as soon as we have the time and a reasonably fast internet connection, and Amanda may or may not post something soon. She said she had something to add when I started writing this, but it got kind of out of hand. So much for being brief.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Reflections During These Last Few Days

Yesterday Amanda and I were running errands around Joliet and decided to get Jimmy John's one last time. I took Ryan's omnipresent advice and went big ordering the Gargantuan - I guess going home isn't really an option at this point. As we were eating I glanced at the little fold up display on our table, and it read:

Jimmy John

Two thoughts instantly ran through my head:
 - What the hell?! Are they talking about Peace Corps?
 - I need to steal this. (I did.)

Talk about confirmation. Pretty weird. Anyway, let me rewind back to last week.

We spent Wednesday through Friday at Turkey Run with family and close friends, taking some time to vacation and relax before what I expect to be a fairly chaotic next couple (weeks, months, years) officially start. It was exactly what I needed. A little hiking, a lot of wine, an 1000 piece puzzle, a bonfire, and a raccoon named Frank that wouldn't leave us alone.

We got back Friday, and I worked a final few hours at International Galleries before heading to dinner at some friends' house. The food was incredible, even if the sauce wasn't properly emulsified, and the company couldn't have been better.

Saturday morning I headed out with some friends for a last round of disc golf and afterward destroyed some Porgy's. Dat Sauce. Dat. Sauce. Dat... Sauce...

That night we had our going away party. It was most enjoyable, but it was also the first time we were really saying goodbye to anyone. Not that I thought it would be, but the experience of saying goodbye when you're the one leaving isn't quite the same as it is on the other side. You usually only have to say goodbye once. This was a whole evening of the same conversation over and over again, and as the night goes on, I became aware that I was paying less and less attention to what I was saying to people. Although I in no way minded telling people what little we do know about what we'll be doing in Peru, it's not surprising I found the interactions involving nothing Peace Corps related to be the most memorable. It's not as though I remember now what I said in those conversations either, but that's what I'll really remember of our last night in Urbana-Champaign, the meaningless conversations that ignored the rapidly approaching departure entirely, because it was in those conversations that I think the love and friendship was most apparent.

The following morning we had breakfast with my mom, grandma, and brother at the Courier (where my sister was hosting). It passed rapidly. I vaguely remember downing my biscuits and gravy, slowly sipping my cinnamon buttercream coffee, and nothing of the conversation. We then headed to my dad's house and visited with him briefly. It was our first "big" goodbye and still doesn't seem entirely real. We then headed to my mom's house, gave Blaine a hug, then went back to my brother's apartment (where we'd been staying since our lease ended), and gathered our packed bags to depart for Joliet, where we'll be staying with Amanda's mom until flying to D.C. for staging. Second "big" goodbye. No more real than the first.

Yesterday, in addition to going to Jimmy John's, we went a used bookstore, visited Amanda's (a)buela in the hospital, and met up with one of Amanda's former bosses who was always far more than a boss to her. Life mentor maybe. Constant encourager. Unbeatable reference on job applications. An incredible guy no matter how you word it and responsible for several of the many reasons Amanda and I are headed to Peru later this week.

I think one of the hardest things we'll face in Peru is the inability to find and eat whatever type of food we'd like whenever we like. In America, and I think particularly in Urbana-Champaign, there is an incredible variety of food, both in grocery stores and in restaurants. To prepare, we've been trying to hit all the big things we'll probably have to go without for the next 27 months (and we'll be taking them all with us in the extra belt notch we had to punch). Barbecue, Jimmy John's, falafel, chocolate cake, milk shakes, chocolate cake milk shakes, home-cooked Puerto Rican food, and so on. Tonight: pizza. And we still need to grab some Mexican before we go too, but we'll be in and out of Aurora, so there will be many opportunities. Of course, once we get to Peru, a whole "nother" world of food will be opened up to us: Afro-Peruvian, fresh caught seafood - not the Midwest's forte, and who knows what else? We'll be sure to document well all the new delicious things we eat.

Tomorrow night we stay in Aurora with Amanda's aunt and uncle, and we go to O'Hare early the next morning. Less than three days left in the country now. It's here.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Long Overdue Update

Although I feel everyone by now has probably been told several times, I'll state for the record on this blog that we are in fact going to Peru.  Don't ask where in Peru just yet; we don't know.  We'll be in Chaclacayo (a suburb of Lima) for the 3 month training period, but not even the Peace Corps knows yet where we'll be after that.  They'll be deciding that based on how the training period goes.  Here's what we do know at this point.  We'll be leaving Urbana-Champaign on the 9th for Aurora to visit family and friends up there, departing for DC on the 13th for Peace Corps staging, and flying out the next morning for Peru.

In Peru, I'll be working as a Community Health Promoter, which could entail anything from HIV/AIDS education to building latrines.  If I'm really lucky, I'll get to help people start vegetable gardens, but then again I may be talking to people about personal hygiene, so we'll see. Regardless, I'll be in Peru serving others, so I think it's pretty much win-win.

Amanda will be working in Protected Areas Management, which has an equally broad range of jobs. Ecotourism, conservation, national parks administration, environmental education, or pretty much anything related to the environment.

For those who haven't received verbal or email invitations, we are having a going-away party on the 8th of September at 301 Mongolia in downtown Champaign from 7 to 11.  Anyone can show up, so pass along the information to everyone you know who may be interested.  They have great food there, and I encourage you (if you should come) to try their small plates as well as the create-your-own stir fry, or just get some drinks,  but, just to be clear, we're not buying.  If people are still showing up closer to 11, we'll probably move things next door to Dublin O'Neil's (which also has incredible food, and their kitchens are open until 2 AM).

Thanks to everyone for all the well-wishes, prayers, and general encouragement.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Big News! (Wednesday, June 13, 2012)

... in the next week or two.

As of today, we are medically cleared for service, so now it's just a matter of waiting for Peace Corps to place us (probably by the end of the week) and the country to invite us (probably within a week or two).

So while you're all waiting to hear the final news, take the time to enjoy these vintage Peace Corps PSAs:

Also, Peru is a definite possibility for our host country, and in the midst of searching Peru on Google, I came across this gem:

What Happens When Healthcare Gets Sick? (Thursday, May 10, 2012)

Throughout the past five years during which I've worked at International Galleries, I've had the opportunity to meet and befriend a number of people of note. One of these people, the one to whom I've developed the closest bond, is a retired print-making professor by the name of Dennis Rowan. He counts among his friends not only young framers but also a rowdy bunch of old men who specialized in anything from industrial design to sculpture. Once a week they wreak havoc on some poor, unsuspecting server at a number of different restaurants in town. This group was named by Dennis, The ROMEO Club. (ROMEO stands for Real Old Men Eating Out.)

I had the pleasure of accompanying this prestigious group on one of their outings last year, and although the conversation was lively, the behavior childlike, and the experience unforgettable for a variety of reasons, the thought that remained in my head for the longest time afterward had naught to do with any of the ROMEOs but with another guest Dennis had invited along.

This guest (whose name I do not recall) worked for his father. His father, however, does not own a local business; he owns a corporation that sends out efficiency experts to hospitals and clinics all over the country in order to inform them how they might better be spending their time and money. Efficiency experts?

Yeah, that's what popped into my head too. But here's what amazed me. This was someone who is maybe a year or two older than me, and he seemed somehow already completely wrapped up in the idea that the more money health care can make, the better. It's supposed to take decades of cynicism and greed to acquire a view like that, and yet, here it was.

At the time, I did in fact challenge the idea that health care needed to make more money, but I quickly realized that it was neither the place nor the time for such a discussion. I won't argue against many institutions being generally wasteful, but I feel it is money that more often than not is the cause of such inefficiency. For example: It used to be the expectation that doctors did more than just the required prodding, probing, and punctures of a typical check-up; there was an understanding that they were to both care for and care about their patients. A relationship is required for the latter.

One of the examples provided to me by this efficiency expert was increasing the amount of patients seen by doctors within a given period of time. It's pretty hard to develop a relationship with a patient that you've seen for under ten minutes. By taking more time to know and understand the situation in which a patient is set, money is ultimately saved, because a greater understanding produces a better diagnosis. (Also, if you've developed a relationship with a patient and they consider you a friend, they're not going to want to sue you if something should go wrong.)

If we are to go into a doctor's office and see them for only the amount of time necessary for them to glance at a chart, reaffirm what's already been written down by a nurse, and maybe (maybe) a little small talk, then we might as well not be there at all. Web M.D. can do just as good a job if the patient isn't really being utilized as a context. Sure, there are all the tests they can run at a hospital, but a lot of those wouldn't be necessary if they just took the time to actually be a doctor. Besides, who really needs a doctor to order a test? You want to streamline health care? Send in a vial of blood to be done by a lab without a doctor ever glancing at it. The hypochondriac in all of us will love it. They'll be able to tell us everything that could be potentially wrong with us for just a small fee.

Now for a little honesty; this is all really just an entry venting frustration for the now weeks-long process of getting all of Amanda's paperwork together to send in to the Peace Corps. Anything you can think of on a pretty standard piece of paperwork that a doctor could mess up has happened. Five boxes to date and initial? Just do three or four of them; the others probably aren't important. Did the vision test? No need to write down the results. OK, fine, I do have to write them down? I know, I'll flip which eye needed which prescription. And it goes on and on. The last struggle has been the most absurd of all though.

In addition to the usual physical scheduled with a family practice doctor, Amanda and I both had to have several different specialized doctors for areas where general doctors don't have the expertise for a given area (teeth, eyes, vaginas, et cetera), and that's all cool. That much makes sense. What doesn't make sense is having to make a separate trip back for every single one to have your primary care physician sign off on the results. What makes even less sense is when one of the specialists refuses to fill out and sign a sheet because it requires the signature of your physician, and your physician won't fill it out or sign it because they're not comfortable doing the work of the specialist.

This is the situation Amanda is currently in. Two doctors, two refusals, two weeks trying to figure out a single sheet of paper, even though all of the information is already there. Like I said in a previous post: You really have to want it. So, what happens when health care gets sick? You and I get screwed. I don't think pills are going to help this one; it's time to amputate, starting with the efficiency experts. Sorry, Bob, Bob.

No, I've never been asked that before... Why? (Monday, May 7, 2012)

If you're reading this blog, you know I've had long hair for quite some time. You're also probably somewhat aware of the fact that it's light brown and slightly wavy.  If you've seen me in the past couple years, it's possible you'd recall that I often have a beard. I'd be surprised if you knew I have blue eyes and a somewhat longer nose, but for the sake of this entry, I'll throw those details out there too. So, what does one get when all these physical characteristics are put together?

OK, I get it. The western depiction of Jesus (particularly that of Warner Sallman) bears a certain resemblance to my own appearance. However, I still find it incredibly bizarre when people walk up to me in public and ask, "Has anyone ever told you that you look like Jesus?" I was asked that twice today, once by an older French couple and once by a middle-aged black guy. It just seems a bit peculiar that so many people are comfortable with asking a complete stranger if he is aware that he resembles the savior of mankind. It should be pretty clear that if you're comfortable asking someone that, others have probably done it too. I'm always tempted to answer such questions with, "No... why?" but, in the end, I never want to ruin their moment.

Probably the most jarring instance of this phenomenom that I can recall took place in a Walgreen's in Aurora, IL. A cashier at a different line first asked Amanda if she took care of my hair for me. (What?) She then proceeded to inquire which church we attend, and after Amanda explained that we didn't live there, she on her own offered up that I would make a great Jesus at Christmas, and she would just curl up at my feet.
First of all, at Christmas, Jesus is a baby. More importantly, you just told a stranger you'd like to curl up at his feet. That's weird! I could be a complete creep! I could have said yes!

I guess overall though, it could be worse. If I'm going to be told I look like someone, Jesus would be at the top of my list even if I didn't look like popular portraits of him. Who's going to be mean to someone who reminds them of Jesus? He's a pretty fly guy in most people's opinion, regardless of whether or not they believe He died for their sins and ascended to heaven three days later.

For those interested:
Popular Mechanics had a great article almost a decade ago that examined what an average person from Jesus' time would have looked like: The Real Face Of Jesus

The New York Times then followed up on that article about a year later and commissioned an artist to paint a version of that same model sans the stupid look on his face: What Did Jesus Really Look Like?