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.