Wednesday, December 25, 2013

End Of Year Wrap Up

Here are some photos from these last few weeks of the school year here. A few from classes, a few from a chocolatada, a few while planting trees, the winners of a poster contest Menda sponsored and of course some from Christmas with our host family.


Sunday, December 1, 2013


So we had a few Thanksgiving celebrations. The Sunday before, we had a potluck with the other volunteers in which we took over the kitchen of a local café. There was turkey, green bean casserole, sweet potato pie, pasta salad (Menda´s plate), spiced peaches (my own contribution), apple strudel and several others. The apple strudel was made by two Austrian women who, as it turns out, work three times a week at the school in our site. So I´ve begun helping them out in whatever small ways I can with the English classes they organize there.

We also celebrated thanksgiving in Trujillo, eating too much Papa John´s while sitting in a mall. It was the most ´Merican I´ve felt in a long time. The rest of the time, we explored the city and relaxed on the beach in Huanchaco. Not too shabby.

We´ve got a few pictures for you from Trujillo, but also included are a few shots of the kids in Jinua transplanting the cherry trees they´ve been growing since April. Here they are: Trees and Trujillo

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Happy Birthday, Paria

So I guess yesterday was the anniversary of our town. I was pretty sure they celebrated that a little over a month ago. Oh well, here´s an album of little kids in traditional Peruvian dress.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Just A Small Update With A Few Photos

In no particular order:

We got some chickens.

Menda's public trash can project is a success.

We almost "stole" another neighbor's cat - by this I really mean that we gave it food when it came by to visit, but the last cat we did that for never left.

Menda got a 500 gram bar of chocolate at a museum in Lima. It only took us a few days to finish it off. They also had a 1 kilogram version, but I think it was two of the smaller ones back to back in the same package.

A neighbor gifted us a puppy, but after spending the night whining by the door, it sprinted back home when our host dad left for work in the morning.

We had a big birthday celebration for Menda, me, and our host sister (who happens to share the same day with me). Our host brother and sister came in from Lima, our other host sister from rural Ancash with a few friends, a smattering of various family members from the community (including our cousin's new baby girl), and a handful of volunteers. It was a bit early for a Thanksgiving celebration, but that's really what it felt like. We had twelve people packed around a small table, ate picante de pollo, and politely turned down the bubble gum flavored soda - a matter of national pride here.

Menda points out that a fair number of our posts have at least some small mention of a kitten. I apologize; fewer kittens in the future.

Chickens, a Kitten, and a Big Bar of Chocolate

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Manu Manu (do doo do do do)

So we just finished up our first big vacation in Peru, a seven day trip into the reserve zone of Manu National Park, the least disturbed rainforest in the world. We went with a company called Pantiacolla and would highly recommend them to anyone interested in seeing the jungle. We left our house the afternoon of the 1st and got back the morning of the 12th. There was a lot of travel time packed in there (by foot, car, bus, boat, train and plane), but we got to see a lot. The total number of identified animals that we saw came to around 80, including 8 species of parrots, 6 species of monkeys, 4 species of vultures, 4 species of woodpeckers, 2 species of caiman, and a jaguar. Here’s a rough itinerary of our trip and the pictures that are worth 303,000 words:

1 October:
We took a night bus from Huaraz to Lima, getting in around 5:30.

2 October:
From the bus station, we grabbed a cab to the airport, and after spending less than 15 minutes to get from check-in, through security, to the boarding gate found ourselves with an excessive amount of time to wait around.  The flight was only an hour and twenty minutes, and by mid-day we’d already arrived in Cuzco. A short cab ride later, and we found ourselves with the majority of the afternoon free to do nothing but draw out money to pay the tour company and explore the city. Well, drawing out money between our two Peruvian accounts and our American account ended up taking the better part of the afternoon due to cash limits and foreign flags, and we still didn’t have enough. We even had my mom running to the bank back in Urbana to try to sort everything out. Thankfully we had scheduled an extra day in there so any travel delays wouldn’t prevent us from making our tour on the 4th, so we were able to pull everything out we needed the next day and even took advantage of that extra time to book a day trip to Machu Picchu. We also ate at a restaurant called Greens that night. They have their own organic garden, and have everything on the menu labeled by percent organic. This is a place that in the States would have cost a small fortune, but with Peruvian prices it was maybe only slightly more expensive than a meal at Olive Garden. It was without a doubt the best meal we’ve eaten while in Peru and would make a serious running for best we’ve ever had.

3 October:
We were picked up around 4:30 in the morning, and an hour and a half in van to the train station, an hour and a half in train to Aguas Calientes, and a half hour in bus later, we got our first view of our first wonder of the world. To be honest, I was expecting to be underwhelmed, but I was pleasantly surprised at just how wonderful this wonder was. Also, while we were there, we ate the 8th and 9th wonders of the world: the chocolate chip cookies they sell there. We would go back just for the cookies. They really are that good. We got back to our hostel around 6:30, drew out the rest of the money for Pantiacolla and ate a small dinner.

4 October:
The first day of the tour is primarily travel, starting at around 5 in the morning. However, this isn’t so bad, as it includes driving through the mountains of Cuzco and descending into the cloud forest (the entrance to the cultural zone of Manu National Park). Along the way, we stopped frequently to see various animals and even got to see a group of eight or so Cocks of the Rock, the national bird of Peru. The lodge we ended the day at was basically a small collection of screened in huts with a few beds, but there were hot showers, so we definitely had not made it into the really jungly jungle just yet.

5 October:
We left the lodge at about 5 the next morning and travelled a couple hours in van before getting to the Madre de Dios River, where we began the first of many, many hours in boat over the following six days. Along the way, we picked up people who were on the 9 day tour, and stopped in a few interesting spots before arriving at our lodge just outside the reserve zone – very similar to the last one but no hot showers. All along the river, any time there was an animal, we’d stop and take pictures; or if the situation allowed, pulled onto a beach and set up the telescope as well. You’ll notice some of the pictures are significantly better than others. Those were either taken with our camera through the telescope or taken by our guide with his camera and our memory card. We also stopped at a tree that has aerial roots that drop down from the branches; the end effect is that a single tree looks like a huge forest of smaller trees. Around the trunk, the roots are so dense, you can’t get past them. The guide called it an “Avatar Tree,” as it resembled the trees in the movie.

6 October:
From 5 until noonish we travelled in boat from the lodge outside of the reserve zone to the one inside. However, as before, we stopped frequently to see animals and other interesting sites along the way, so it didn’t feel like just travelling. That afternoon, we did some of our first actual hikes, first to a lake in which we spotted animals and, once it got dark, searched out some caiman (cousins to alligators and crocodiles). We hiked back in the dark, searching for eyes that reflected back our the light from our flashlights and got to see a bunch of spiders, as well as a poison dart frog, the most poisonous land animal on the planet. One of the other people on the tour saw a snake hanging out in a tree, took a picture of it and ran, unsure of the potential danger he might have been in. Turns out it was a viper, the most venomous of all the snakes found within the park.

7 October:
We once again got up very early, this time to hike to a lake to see the giant otters that live there. (This is the same lake where they shot the footage for Planet Earth, and our very own guide was the one who for six months helped BBC with the footage.) There was a baby otter, so we couldn’t get very close (if mothers get stressed, they stop producing milk, and the babies die), but after we got back to the dock, the otters followed us, and we got to see them really close up as they ate the fish they had just caught. We also saw monkeys, parrots, and other animals while on the lake but the otters were definitely the highlight. In the afternoon, we went to the lodge owned by the government where they sell goods made by local inhabitants and teach about their customs. As it so happens, both the captain and the boat hand are of that (thoroughly modernized) tribe, and they were able to fill in the blanks about the uses of the arrows and spears that were on display. We then hiked back to our lodge from there, seeing various plants and animals along the way.

8 October:
This morning we travelled out of the reserve zone to get to a posh touristy lodge at which we’d be staying for the remaining two nights. At the suggestion of the chef, we left especially early to increase our chances of seeing animals along the river. It paid off. We saw a jaguar casually strolling along the beach. After a brief rest in the early afternoon, we headed out to an observation point built 140 feet high, on top of the first branches of a massive Ceiba tree. We had previously on the tour seen the largest known Ceiba tree in the world, but this one was still not small in comparison. We climbed a tower to get onto the platform and then spent the remainder of the evening spotting animals and waiting for the sunset. We hiked back in the dark, keeping an eye out for animals, and boated back to our camp. After dinner, we saw an injured baby tapir just hanging out on the grounds. A lady who worked there said it comes and visits every now and then.

9 October:
We got up especially early once again so we could beat the other tourists to the Macaw Claylick, the attraction around which the lodge was built. Various animals in the rainforest eat clay for a variety of theorized reasons, probably to offset the acidity of their diet or to supplement it with more minerals. This particular claylick is frequented by several species of birds, especially red and green macaws (just think parrot, and the first image that pops into your head will be this one). Around fifty or sixty gather every morning to eat clay or just to socialize with the other birds. We took an excessive amount of photos while at the claylick and with difficulty narrowed it down to 10 or so to show you all. We also have a video taken by our guide with our camera through his telescope of a toucan attacking a tree full of nests, eventually grabbing a baby bird and eating it. Menda afterward was left with a deep desire for Fruit Loops. In the afternoon we headed to a lake at which we saw some more giant otters, kept our eyes peeled for sloths (to no avail), and saw a bunch more birds.

10 October:
Thirteen hours of travel: three hours in boat, one hour in car, 15 minutes in boat, then the remainder in car. The car broke down briefly, and as we were hanging out in a small town waiting for it to be fixed Menda reminded me it was her birthday. Whoops. To be fair, I don’t think I’d fully awaken yet, having been up since 4 and dozing on and off throughout the preceding hours. I bought her chocolate cake to make up for it. During those 13 hours we got more of an opportunity to talk with the other five people who made up our group. There was an Australian couple in their thirties, a Dutch couple in their fifties, and a Swiss woman in her forties. We got back to Cuzco about six and we went out to celebrate Menda’s birthday properly. We shopped around for a good restaurant, but most everything was so... Peruvian. We like Peruvian food, but that’s what we eat at home, so we ended up going back to Greens. The second time around was just as good, and though it’s perhaps a little lame that in our brief time in Cuzco we ate at the same place twice, it was, after all, Menda’s birthday, and that’s what she wanted. And I gotta say, after eating, I didn’t care one bit that we didn’t branch out. That food was incredible.

11 October:
We finally got the opportunity to explore Cuzco a bit. Although entering the cathedrals was not permitted at that hour (they were either closed or in the middle of a service), we walked around and took pictures of as many of them as we could. We also stopped by the local market to buy some of the famed bread of Cuzco and a manta (brightly colored blanket used to carry babies, groceries, and to keep warm) as gifts for our family. Then we grabbed a cab to the airport (from check-in to boarding gate must have been under five minutes this time), we flew into Lima, went to Miraflores and spent the rest of our day just enjoying ourselves. We got falafel, went to a chocolate museum – where we somehow walked away with a bag of chocolate tea, mango chocolate jam, and a bar of dark chocolate weighing in at over a pound, and met up with our host brother (who is currently working in Lima). He saw us off at the bus station, and we began the final leg of our travels.

12 October:
Throughout the whole vacation, everything had been on time, well organized, professional, and incredibly satisfactory. It’s funny that it took coming back to Huaraz for something to screw up. The bus never pulled into the terminal; it just stopped on the street outside because they couldn’t easily back in and expected us to figure out on our own that we were supposed to get out and grab our luggage from beneath the bus. Not to mention it was 5:30 in the morning and we might easily have slept through the whole thing anyway. Well, we finally figured out something was up, stopped the bus on the highway, got out, grabbed a cab to our bus stop, and made it home by around 6:15. Our host family was really excited to see us. Ma ran to the door to greet us and promptly offered to wash our dirty clothes from the trip. We politely declined, ate some fried egg sandwiches, and then we slept.

Friday, September 6, 2013

One Year In Perú (Almost)

I’m gonna start a little negative and work my way up to the more positive stuff.

First off, this past week our abuelito, Virgilio Huané Cacha, passed away after nearly 88 years of life. In the United States, when a family member dies, usually the community of friends, family, and church pitch in, bring food, run errands, etcetera. Here, the family works for several days straight preparing food for anyone who wants to come and give their condolences. At first, it seemed a little harsh to us, but it keeps you busy – and I mean busy, sun up to sun down – and cooking for other people, or really doing anything nice, also makes you feel good. Then again, it didn’t seem as though our family was quite as upset as you might expect. They were definitely sad, but it didn’t seem the ordeal that it often is in the States. Death in general seems to be more accepted here. It’s more celebrating, less mourning. During the mass, the priest had three main points in his homily: We should thank God for the life of Virgilio, we should ask forgiveness on his behalf, and we should ask God to help guide us in our own lives. It struck me that there was no great mention of death there. Perhaps it would have been stating the obvious when there’s a coffin directly in front of him, or maybe it’s just the style of this particular priest, but the service seemed to be far more about life than death, and I can’t say I’d have had it any other way. Then afterwards, everyone, barring our family, went and got drunk at the burial and the following meal at our uncle’s house. There are some pictures we got of the pots in which they prepared the food. I’ve seen hot tubs smaller than those things. Oh, and Menda got harassed by a drunken professor asking her if she knew who Robin Hood is.

The other bit of negativity has to do with our jobs. We were told time and time again during training last fall that we would regularly deal with disappointment throughout our two years of service, still it’s no less baffling when it happens. Two examples:

Menda worked with our district municipality, local mayor, and the governor of an annex to expand the trash route to more people. This project would eventually entail some education to explain to the people the why of it, but primarily it’s just explaining the what and the how. All parties involved in the planning were immediately on board; the only hurdle to overcome was how to cover the costs for the municipality. This burden usually falls on the people who now have an alternative to burning their trash or throwing it on the ground, therefore contaminating their air, land and water. And what would the cost be? About a sol per month per household (less than 40 cents in US dollars), and unfortunately, this was deemed too much, and the community voted not to expand trash collection to their annex. Disappointing, but what can you do? Still, not as bad as the volunteer who saw the president of the local water committee kicked out because he suggested that 50 (Peruvian) cents per year was a reasonable amount to pay for the chlorine to ensure safe drinking water.

The second job-related bit of disappointment has to do with my attempt to start a group of Pasos Adelante – a program developed by Peace Corps Peru and the Ministry of Health of Peru to capacitate young adults in training their peers in themes of self-esteem, HIV/AIDS, future planning, and other equally noble pursuits. I, over the course of a month or so, spoke with the director of the school two or three times to successively discuss the program, pick a time during the week to teach the course, and finally once more before talking with the teachers who oversee the hour in which I was going to teach. I then went and talked with all of the classes to explain about Pasos Adelante and have the kids voluntarily sign up. I was more than a little excited when I had 39 kids opt to take my 12 week course. The following week, I went an hour early, spoke with each of the four classes from which I’d be drawing students – to remind them we’d be starting class that day, and at the appointed time I made the announcement that we’d be starting immediately. Maybe it’s the fact that I had selected to teach during the hour that directly follows their twenty minute afternoon break. Maybe they all signed up the previous week as a joke on me. Maybe my expectations of starting on time for a forty minute period were completely unrealistic. Regardless, no one showed. Five of the kids had a legitimate, previously discussed reason for not being there; I’m still unsure what happened with the other 34. The teachers that should also have been starting class at that time just sat by and watched as I floundered, and as I complained to Menda on a stoop outside the school, I saw kids still leaving the school to go to a bodega twenty minutes after class was supposed to have started. So what’re my next steps? Not sure. The director suggested I try teaching outside of school hours, but if the kids don’t show up when they already have to be there, I don’t see much chance of them being there when they don’t. I’m thinking of trying to take over a class that already exists, that they already have to be at, with a teacher in the room and all, and then using whichever kids are in that class as opposed to taking volunteers. The only problem with that plan being that if the kids don’t volunteer, and in the next year I want them to teach their peers, the chances of them being in the least bit effective are pretty slim. We’ll see, I guess.

Now on to the more positive, or at least neutral, aspects of our service:

We are continuing with the English and environmental classes we’d been teaching in one of the annexes of our town, and now we’re also teaching computer classes. That school is one of many which received a ton of those tiny little “a laptop for every child” computers. You know, the ones that look more like toys than computers, in the bright colors, with an old distribution of linux specialized for use in classrooms. Well, the laptops kinda suck, but clearly the kids are still learning some of the basics which may serve as a foundation for knowledge acquired in the future – how to use a mouse pad, which key to press to insert a space, stuff like that. At this point we’re working on getting them comfortable with the equivalent of MS Paint. Color selection, click and drag, text boxes, etcetera. Creativity is still a challenge for a lot of the students; they tend to just copy whatever drawing pops up by default when they start up the program, but with a little pushing and prodding they’re definitely getting more accustomed to using whichever side of the brain it is that’s supposed to supply the creative juices. For example, we had them draw a picture of something that starts with the same letter as their name. Sure, we had three or four casas drawn for every kid whose name started with a c, but at least they were copying each other instead of the computer. Most importantly though, it seems like they’re having fun doing something that isn’t just rote learning.

This past weekend, the volunteers of Ancash hosted a three day camp called VALOR (Varones Adolescentes Lideres Organizados Responsables) – yeah, I think they were kind of stretching it with the acronym too – in Huascarán National Park for the teenage boys in our sites we see as potential leaders. There were sessions on health, machismo, future planning, Huascarán National Park, and tree planting in addition to a talent show, a career panel, and a hike up to Lake Churup. Menda stayed back in site due to a meeting that she wouldn’t have been able to be back for, but I still got to take the two kids from our community we had picked. Whether or not the kids learned something about the environment, changed their perspective on gender roles, or decided on a potential career path, it was great to see so many boys from across the various communities in Ancash hanging out, making friends, and sharing a little about their home. In the States, many of us had regular opportunities to get out of the classroom, broaden our minds, have a little fun in the midst of learning, but this was most likely a first for the majority of the kids there. I’m proud of the small role I played in making it happen, and if I can only figure out how to help make the Pasos Adelante conference later this year an equally big success.

After months of hard work, grueling grant writing with its accompanying groveling, and generally increased levels of stress, Menda has succeeded in acquiring ten 120 liter garbage cans, painted inside and out with anti-corrosive paint, with holes in the bottom for drainage, and metal posts on which to rotate, along with the cement to install them. We’re still waiting on the welder to arrive to solder the tops on, but every single bit of it was funded by the municipality. Our mayor also worked his tail off in acquiring some tools and additional smaller garbage cans just for the plaza. Using this sizable donation from the municipality, Menda was also able to acquire funds through a Peace Corps grant to do the necessary education so the garbage cans won’t just sit there unused as well as enough money to revamp some older garbage cans already here. This all works together with a community-wide campaign to deal with the excessive amounts of garbage floating around. For those who live too far from the collection route or those too stubborn to pay a small fee, we are also continuing our work with familial landfills, cubic meter holes in which to put all the garbage that can’t be recycled or used for compost.

Included with the grant are also funds to build a G.L.O.B.E. climate monitoring box. Google G.L.O.B.E. It’s pretty sweet. Started by Al Gore (shortly after he invented the internet), G.L.O.B.E. is an international initiative to educate students around the world about climate change, and not only that, but have them participate in the research as well. Students at schools participating in the G.L.O.B.E. program, through a variety of different tools, report on temperatures, cloud cover, rain fall, etcetera in order to have a standardized and widespread system of data collection. Like I said, pretty sweet.

Another project on which we’re working is to develop a network of geocaches in various volunteers’ sites, particularly those next to Huascarán National Park with tourist destinations. For those unfamiliar with geocaching, it’s basically a GPS-based treasure hunt wherein the final destination reveals a box in which you leave some small trinket and take something someone else had already left. It’s inexpensive, fun, and we’re hoping it can drag some tourists to some locations not already on the top 5 list of Ancash-based tourism. We’ll keep you updated in future posts as we make progress.

I’ve been organizing games of ultimate for some time now with the youth in my site, but it wasn’t until the last month or so that I got some guys around our age interested, and it seems I may finally have the weekly pickup games I’d been hoping for. They’ve still got a bit to learn about disc control, throwing under windy conditions, and reading the disc in the air, but they get the rules, they show up to play, and week by week I’ve definitely seen progress being made. I’ve also introduced hacky sack to the same group of older guys. They work up at the ruins in our site, so when there aren’t any tourists around, they don’t have a lot to do. Enter hacky sack. Additionally, I showed the hacky sack to my mom, asked her if it was something she could potentially make, and a few days later she had made one using some scrap yarn and dried beans. I got her some red and white yarn at the market so she can make Peruvian flag ones too, but the real goal I have now is for her to teach other women in the community, and then using locally shorn wool and locally grown and dried beans or corn, they can start an eco-business. Environmentally friendly, no cost to the producers past a little TLC, and a potential source of income. Besides, it would be pretty cool to start a new trend among the youth sitting around at street corners. Plus, I came up with a sweet name for marketing. Chaki means foot in Quechua, so Chaki Sak. And now back to disc sports. Just yesterday, I went to a welder, bought a meter and a half long stick and a half meter long pipe, had a point pounded onto the former and a cap welded onto the latter, and now I have a goal for disc golf. Not a basket, but an old-fashioned tonal pole like the ones used when the sport was first getting started. The tube sits on top of the pole, and when the disc hits it, it rings out. And the best part? It only cost me 15 soles (a little over five bucks).

About a week ago, I decided to go to up to the lake above our site in order to get some publicity shots for Huascarán National Park. The idea I had was to take a picture every fifty feet or so and then compile it into a video they could then use to promote the hike up to our lake. Well, I got up to the lake (6 km of trail rising from 3400 meters to almost 4500 in under three hours – a new record for me), and then decided I wanted to head over to San Cristobal, a large rock formation that sits on the side of the mountains above our site. From the lake, you can see something that looks a lot like San Cristobal and which makes it appear as though you have to walk along the top of the ridge to get to it. So I hiked up to the top of the ridge, then decided, why not go a little higher, then a little higher, and a little higher after that. Before I knew it (three hours after leaving the lake, that is), I’d arrived at the top of the last peak before they become completely snow covered, and what did I behold but two beautiful lakes right beneath me, of which I’d had no prior knowledge. By this point, however, it was three in the afternoon and I’d already eaten my five packs of cookies, six mandarin oranges, and drank my liter of water; I decided I’d better head back as opposed to going down to the lakes. So I proceeded to climb down from the mountaintop on which I’d been resting and start to walk along the top of the ridge to eventually arrive at San Cristobal. The first impasse I reached I decided to skirt around the edge on a very narrow ledge until I got around the giant rock formation in my way. At the second impasse, there was no available ledge, nor could I climb down to my left toward the lake and the route home, so I had to climb down to the right. At least this part wasn’t dangerous. It might even have been fun if I hadn’t already been dead tired, but the dirt and rocks that made you perpetually slip and slide was instead quite a nuisance. Finally around six, I manage to make my way around and up to San Cristobal. I’d called a local guide and confirmed that there was indeed a path down, steep though it was, back to our site. I even thought I found that path, but I hadn’t. Instead, I ended up climbing down a small valley behind San Cristobal which became more and more dangerous as the light faded. About that time, I called Menda to have her meet me at the cross, which I could see from where I was climbing down but not much of what lay between. What began as thick patches of grass with hidden rocks waiting to trip you and random holes trying to twist your ankles, quickly turned into thick patches of bushes and trees with giant boulders blocking your path and drops of five or more feet that you had to slide down if you didn’t feel like jumping into the black unknown. Finally at one of these such drops, I realized the drop was not a mere five feet, but, rather, the tiny flashlight which provided what little light I had – it was of course a new moon that night – couldn’t shine far enough to reveal the bottom of the cliff of which I’d started to slide off. Well, as is only reasonable, it was at that point that I accidentally dropped my flashlight. Fortunately, it caught on some branches, so if I could only dangle by one hand, I could maybe reach it, and then proceed to pull myself back up. Well, all went smoothly, and I was once again swimming my way through bushes and trees with thorns a plenty. Menda, who had previously been guiding me by watching my light called to say she could no longer see anything moving. Assuming there was just something between the two of us, it didn’t occur to me that maybe I was circling around to the front of San Cristobal as I followed the line of the steep ravine into which I’d almost fallen. At this point, our family, obviously more than a little worried that we’ve not returned home, calls me, or rather calls their son in Lima, who then calls me and asks where I am. I tell him that it is pitch dark, I’m lost, and Menda is waiting at the cross at which I’m pretty sure I’ll never arrive. A giant phone tree then followed, or maybe more of a phone vine which tangles in upon itself, until everyone’s called everyone else at least twice, and no one is left without knowing that I’ve somehow gotten myself lost. Eventually, our uncle is called who lives way out above the farthest annex of our site, and he manages to find me in a matter of minutes. Either I’d stumbled across his property in the dark, or he’s just that good. Probably the latter. Menda walks down from the cross using only the light from her cell phone, gets accosted by a few dogs on the way, and we meet up at our aunt’s house before proceeding home. I was gone for a total of twelve and a half hours, there wasn’t a part of my body that didn’t ache, and I had to get up early the next morning to gather up the two kids who were heading off to Camp VALOR with me. Menda also says I smelled pretty bad. When they talk about male pride in a negative sense, this is undoubtedly what they mean. For the record, though, I had asked a guide to go with me that morning, but he was busy. The only upside is that I got some pretty great photos along the way.

The last thing I’ll mention is that in less than a month we’re heading to Madre De Dios, just north of Cusco, to go on a seven day tour of the rain forest. It’s the shortest tour we could find in which we’d actually go into the reserve, but we’re not complaining. It’s costing us an arm and a leg, and it’ll be hot and muggy, but when else are we going to have the chance to do something like this? Manú National Park is one of the few reserves left in the world with virgin rain forest. And in case some of you hadn’t seen the footage yet, just this past week they found a previously unknown group of indigenous people living in the rainforest in Madre De Dios. Incredible.

Also, a huge thanks to everyone who has sent us a little something in the mail. We feel very much loved. As a thank you, here are some pictures:

Monday, July 22, 2013

Send Us Something!

Pictures, letters, candy, your latest home taxidermy project, anything! Send us something!

Charles/Amanda Romero
Casilla Postal 277
Huaraz, Ancash
Peru, Sudamérica

The rest of the Ancash volunteers receive stuff all the time from home. We look pretty lame. Help us convince them that we´re cooler and more popular than we really are. Send us something! Please?

Friday, July 12, 2013

You Wish You Were Here

As some of you may have remembered, we got married two years ago from the 26th of June. As a treat to ourselves, we decided we’d take a little vacation out to the beach. You see, we may live over two miles above sea level in the middle of the Andes, but we’re still less than four hours away from the ocean.  [See title of this post.] We decided on Huarmey, which is one of the three main coastal cities in Ancash, though calling it a city is probably a stretch. I guess it’s one of three places people live on the coast in Ancash. We took a bus over the Cordillera Negra – not highly recommended, we both ended up puking, and landed in Casma, one of the other two places people live on the coast in Ancash. An hour colectivo ride later, we arrived in Huarmey, hopped in a moto taxi, and got to our hostel. The room smelled kind of funny, there were English classes being taught directly outside our room, the electric shower shocked us both several times, and I don’t think I’ve ever played on a more frustrating pool table (no room to shoot, uneven surface, and pockets that are about half the size of normal ones), but the owners were incredibly nice, and we had a great time nonetheless. We’re Peace Corps volunteers; we don’t (or shouldn’t) need anything too fancy anyway, and we were only paying around 15 dollars a night.

The first day we just strolled around Huarmey, went to the market, grabbed some dinner, avoided a parade; the usual things we do day to day. The second day we got up, made some breakfast, and headed over to the sand dunes forty miles north of the hostel where we did some sand-boarding. It turns out not to be as easy as it looks. It’s not much like sledding, longboarding, or any other what-I-would-have-thought-of-as-comparable activities, and after doing a few too many front-head-springs down the dunes, we decided to grab lunch and head back to Huarmey. It just so happens that we were there on a holiday – or, rather, we planned it that way so we wouldn’t have to use a vacation day – and when we walked over to the beach we got to see a procession with an imagen and live band marching across the sand. So we quickly avoided all of that, found a cozy spot, and attempted to doze while trying to avoid soccer balls that were flying past us and ignore the several bands that had gotten onto fishing boats and were simultaneously playing patriotic songs and shooting off fireworks. It was like a little taste of ‘Merica, and it took about 20 minutes for us to decide we’d rather pack it up and head back to the hostel to relax. The ocean was quite beautiful though. The next morning we returned to Casma, found a different company with which we could travel back to Huaraz, and made our way back home. This time, the driver decided to slow down before taking the curves, and we didn’t fear the vehicle was going to tip over at any moment. It’s the little things that make life not worth puking over. We did have a great time though, and I’ll count myself lucky: two years of marriage and she still wants me around. ¡Wepa!

So we got back Sunday, and after a few days in which we had for some reason scheduled several meetings, we left town again Wednesday morning to begin our four day trek across the Quedabra Santa Cruz. In addition to the two other volunteers that came along, there were two Canadians and two French guys. We hiked up and through the mountains, at one point through wind and now up to a pass at 4,750 meters (a little under three miles high) and back down the other side. We, thank goodness, had decided on using a guided service which included among other things donkeys to carry supplies and a cook to prepare the meals for us, and it was well worth the money. We were still carrying a 40L and 45L backpack the whole time, but we didn’t have to carry tents, food, or extra blankets for the (very) cold nights. I also added four more lakes to my count, so I’m now at seven glacially fed lakes in which I’ve swam. The trek was absolutely gorgeous, but I think I’ve discovered I’m more of a day hike kind of guy... or maybe a lower altitude trekking kind of guy. I enjoy camping, but when there’s wind and snow, it’s just not as enjoyable sleeping outside. I could talk a lot about the stuff we got to see, but I think pictures will tell the story a lot better, even if they still don’t do it justice. I’ve trimmed the over 160 photos we took down to just 80 plus a few from digging micro-rellenos and our trip to Huarmey.

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Death in the Family

I am sorry to have to share with all of you that Kitty has passed away. We´re not sure exactly the cause, but for a few days she had stopped eating and couldn`t go to the bathroom. We made her comfortable, tried medicine, but last night around 10 PM she stopped breathing. So in honor of Kitty, here is an album of prevoiusly published photos that represent her at her best and cutest:

[Best of Kitty]

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Lehman Party!

In no particular order, here is the stuff that has happened over the past month or so.

As some of you may recall, about three months ago I thought I had twisted my ankle but had actually broken a small bone in there somewhere. I got the X-ray a few weeks too late, and there was nothing they could do to set it, so I took some pills, rubbed on a cream, and stayed off of it as much as I could for a month and a half. Immediately following the month and a half, I walked an obscene amount, my ankle started hurting again, so I went to Lima, got an MRI, and set up an appointment in Huaraz to have a doctor read the MRIs and figure out what should be done next. I got my foot wrapped in some type of long-term sticky gauze to immobilize the joint, took some more pills, and have been getting magnetic therapy. Yes, it sounds like quackery, but supposedly it helps soft tissue injuries to heal faster. I’ll finish up my last of ten initial sessions today and have another consultation with the doctor to see what she thinks. I’ll also be able to finally remove the gauze stuff from my ankle, which at this point is only mobilizing Menda to sit as far away from me as possible due to the smell. Wish me luck.

The cherry trees Menda planted with her class in Jinua continue to grow. At the last count, I believe 17 had sprouted.

This past month has been filled with lots and lots of training. About a month ago now, we had the training for PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief). We were supposed to bring two community partners  (or socios), and although I thought it likely I would end up with no one there, I ended up with three. We made a plan for starting my Pasos Adelante group (a program focused on helping teens making smart decisions in their lives) and got up to date statistics on HIV, AIDS, STIs and more for our region and Peru in general. I walked out of it definitely feeling a little more prepared and a little more supported in my efforts. After PEPFAR, the Lehmans were here for four days – which I’ll talk about more below, and then I had to go to my next set of trainings: In Service Training and Project Design and Management. For the IST portion, we had to have a community partner come along. Mine ended up unable to come, but as I wasn’t alone in this, I didn’t feel terribly out of place without my own Peruvian at my side. That being said, I was a bit bored. A lot of the activities we did were for the sake of the community partners, but the volunteers had already received more in depth training on the same stuff during our first ten weeks in the country. The day where my group got to build an improved cook stove was definitely time well spend though. During Early In Service Training, we got to work on these too, but this last time was a little more informative I felt. However, the highlight of IST I would say, not for reasons of usefulness, was definitely the day where we talked about training peer educators. The information wasn’t new, but we did some dinámicas (active learning games? I’m not sure how to translate that) which were just wonderfully uncomfortable. I wasn’t too pleased at the time, but it’s a great story now. The first involved every volunteer standing up and exchanging massages with their community partners. A shoulder rub, no big deal, right? Except that after the shoulders came the head. Just kind of bizarre. Still, that doesn’t begin to compare to the awkwardness of then grasping the shoulders at the side, and then running your hands down to the ankles. I had as my partner another volunteer who didn’t have a socio, so we just kind of laughed about it. Some of the others had socios of the opposite sex though, and they were none too pleased. Awkward dinámica number two: While music was being played (after the Peace Corps organizer asked the person leading the sessions to involve no more dancing), we had to dance with our socios – to a slow jam no less – with our hands behind our backs and a balloon pressed between our stomachs. When the music stopped, we had to press toward each other until the balloon popped. I, once again, was partnered with a volunteer and simply pulled out a ball point pen and popped the balloon. Others weren’t so lucky and ended up thrusting into their partners.  And since we’re on the topic, I shared this experience with another volunteer, and he responded, “That’s nothing.” He had had an even more awkward experience during a training in his site. Everyone stood in a circle, passed around a doll, and had to kiss the doll in a location of their choosing. Then, after this was already done, the facilitator instructed everyone to then turn to the person on their left and kiss them in the same place. The volunteer ended up kissing an old man on the ear, and the person to his right had to kiss his foot. The worst part about all of these is that they didn’t connect back to any point. A dinámica should demonstrate some aspect of what you’re trying to teach. If it doesn’t, it’s just a pointless activity that stretches the day out, or in some scenarios proves painfully awkward. Next came PDM, and although we heard a lot of useful information, by the end of the second day, we were clearly all reaching our limits. The focus was on behavior change theory: all the barriers we’ll face in convincing people to wash their hands, boil their water, stimulate their baby, etc. and how best to overcome them. It’s really interesting stuff, and under other circumstances I think I’d have been really engaged, but I was brain dead by then. I walked out knowing that I should use behavior change theory during my service, but I just don’t think that it will work... Get it? The efficacy of the action is my barrier... Nevermind.

Last weekend I took the TESOL exam. If I passed, I will receive official certification for teaching English as a second language. The extreme irony is that it is one of the most poorly constructed courses of which I’ve ever heard. Instead of sending in small assignments along the way with a final test that covers some of the material at random, there is one gigantic test to evaluate the students. A test that with no less than four volunteers working on it together still took nine or ten hours. And the real bummer? It’s through an online company that may or may not be taken seriously by future employers. We weren’t told about that when we signed up. Oh well.

And now for the best part... We had visitors! The Lehmans came and visited for four days. They got to see our site and the pre-Incan ruins therein, Nicholas got altitude sickness, we all went up to see a melting glacier, and, best of all, they brought us American candy and barbecue sauce from the loving folks back home. On the way to the glacier, we stopped to see the Puya Raimondi, a plant unique to the Andes that blooms every hundred years or so and dies immediately afterward. It has several thousand flowers when it blooms and tens of thousands of seeds are released. Menda wanted to make sure I mentioned that she saw it first on Planet Earth, and then we got to actually see it. The glacier sitting at 17,600 feet, called Pastoruri, is a sad story. Less than a decade ago, you could ski there, build snowmen, etc. Now, you’re not even allowed to walk on it because it’s so small. In all honesty, it wasn’t that impressive to see for someone who has dealt with winters in Illinois and has seen giant snow-plowed mountains of ice and snow, but for the impact that climate change is having it is tragically important. In the streets of Huaraz, they still sell scarfs and hats with images of people skiing on them. How long before anyone even remembers what that is here? But we didn’t let that get us down. The visit from the Lehmans was such a breath of fresh air. I can’t imagine what it was like for Peace Corps Volunteers in the 60s, without blogs, phones, occasional (even if slow) internet, and all the other things we don’t have to do without. Still, it was incredible to be reminded that we’re not as alone as we sometimes feel.  Thank you.

I think that’s about it. As always, feel free to drop a question in the comments, and our address is in the side panel! Send us something! A letter, a Jimmy John’s menu, anything. Send us some pictures of you, and we’ll put them up on our wall. It’s not as good as a visit, but it sure does add some comfort and love to our lives. We miss you all. And here are some pictures from the aforementioned activities:

Monday, June 10, 2013

Dat Sauce

I definitely owe a longer post than this, however, what with PEPFAR and then the Lehmans visiting and then IST/PDM, I´ve been quite busy. So I´ll take the time now just to mention the most important thing.

1) I regularly have food cravings for all kinds of stuff you just can`t get here (Jimmy Johns, real cookies, deep dish pizza), but none I crave so consistently as some Li´l Porgy´s sauce, and the Lehmans brought us some! Now, eating meat here is always a risky choice, but have you ever tried barbecue sauce on:

 - Bread
 - Ramen
 - Crackers
 - Your Finger

Or lacking those, just squirted straight into your mouth or, if a syringe is handy, injected directly into your bloodstream? Yeah, it´s still good.

Thanks to everyone who has kept us in their prayers, sent us stuff, or written us letters. They keep us going when we can´t do it of our own accord.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Shameless Plug For Donations

Earlier this year we, the 25 or so volunteers in Ancash, did a leadership camp for high school girls, and now we're back at it again with the same for boys. This is a great opportunity, because it brings together youth leaders from all across Ancash, and it also helps to combat machismo, teen pregnancy, and a whole bunch of other stuff that hinders the youth of Peru. If you'd like to help out, the donate link is below. (We promise not to do this too frequently.)

Monday, May 20, 2013


This is the same link from the last post, but, as we´ve added pictures from hikes up to two additional lakes, we figured it was worth a repost.


Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Nice Day For Ahuac

This past Sunday we finally found the time to hike up to the lagoon above our site, Ahuac/Awak/Aguak. (Pronounced more or less like “a walk” – get it?) We’d been told it’s around a four hour hike to get there, so we made sure to get an early start. Of course, the week prior Menda planted her vivero (tree nursery), which ideally should be watered multiple times a day until the seeds sprout, so first we had to walk down to Jinua. We finally set out for the lagoon a little after seven in the morning with two other volunteers who had stuck around after the regional meeting the day before. It’s about a forty minute hike up to the cross (of which we’ve previously posted pictures) and from there a fairly level walk... for the next 15 or 20 minutes, after which it’s straight uphill for the next three and a half hours. From our house to the lagoon we hiked about seven kilometers total and gained a total of 1300 meters in altitude. It took us just over four and a half hours, including many breaks for water, snacks, and a little much needed recovery for our lungs. We got there, and while our courage was still sufficiently high, Menda and I swam in the snow and ice fed lagoon (my second polar plunge). We then feasted on PB&Js, mandarin oranges, animal crackers, and cookies – chocolate mint by the way. After sitting around for a bit, we headed back down, moving much faster and taking fewer breaks. It’s easier to lose your balance when going downhill, but the increased oxygen intake as you move lower and lower makes you feel invincible – until you fall, that is.

As a side note, the next day is when I usually work in the health post and Menda teaches environmental classes in Jinua. I debated not going, because I was more than a little bit tired the next morning but finally settled on it, because A) I usually just sit at a desk and help with consultations for babies and B) I needed to invite the boss to a conference on HIV/AIDS. I got the invitation to him, but we’re in the middle of a week during which health post staff go door to door seeing if all the children and elderly are up to date on their vaccinations, so I ended up walking up and down hills for over five hours the next day. Yeah. It was good exercise at the very least.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Hey, Fattie, Gimme Some!

Now that I’ve got your attention with that title, let me explain. The culture of Peru is, needless to say, quite different from that of the States. Most differences are pretty easy to adapt to, but there are a few commonly found in casual conversation that are a little further removed. The first I’ll refer to as “calling it like it is.” This means whether you’re skinny, fat, tall, short, light, dark, et cetera, no one will have any problem calling you exactly that. It’s not done to make fun or single anyone out, it’s simply done. Menda remembers learning about this particular cultural phenomenon while in high school Spanish class, mentioning it to her uncle later, and him carefully informing her that even if it’s commonly done, that doesn’t mean it’s not rude and inappropriate. Can’t say I disagree, yet I’ve witnessed a sweet old man greet a teenage girl with the Spanish equivalent of, “Hey, fattie!” and the girl took no offense whatsoever. Imagine even bringing up the weight of a girl that age in the States. You simply don’t do it.

The second shocker is inviting yourself to things. No, not to parties, sporting events, or any other kind of social gathering, but to food, drinks, or whatever else may be within eyeshot. I might be walking down the street with a single piece of chocolate purchased at one of the bodegas by our house – for Menda of course, and a kid passing by would have absolutely no problem saying, “Invííítameee!” I’d actually understand... maybe... probably not... if I was walking around with a giant bag of candy with plenty to share and a kid shouted, “Gimmesooome!” but amount, anonymity, and item have zero impact. If you’re carrying something (anything, really)consumable in plain sight, expect even a perfect stranger to ask you to share. The flip side, of course, is we can invite ourselves to their stuff as well, but I’ve still not quite become comfortable with it yet.

Something else I’ve encountered in Peru (albeit only once) that I’d never seen in the States is a double banana. Don’t worry, you read that correctly. A double banana.One banana peel, two bananas inside. Don’t believe me? There’s a picture included in the linked album below.

In an effort to play a greater role in our community, and because we still understand so little of the situation regarding potable water, we recently attended a meeting in the plaza in hopes of understanding what the issues are that everyone’s always complaining about. Well, we still didn’t find out, because the meeting was focused solely on the illegal use of potable water by the construction company building the new school. First, they took attendance. They called the name of every family from the community to see who was there. Our community’s small but not that small, so we baked in the sun for a good twenty minutes or so. Then, anyone that wanted to speak had the opportunity to do so, with the head of APAFA (PTA minus the T) intervening between every comment to make some minute detail clear. From what I could tell (which wasn’t a ton, because a lot of the comments were in Quechua), everyone there had the exact same opinion, but a good portion of the people wanted to put their own particular spin on it, sometimes two or three times. After a couple hours of this, everyone agreed that the only thing they could do was to cut off the water source for the construction company and let the situation develop from there. So the whole group of people at the meeting stood up and marched to the school where they cut off the water. Of course, in Peru, that doesn’t mean flipping a switch or turning a knob, it meant digging a meter and a half down in two locations and literally cutting the water pipe. We got bored before they reached the pipes, so we didn’t get to see the climactic moments, but this whole situation is case in point one of the “main” (That one’s for you, Tessa) issues found in Peru: an extreme willingness to act but without any great consideration of the consequences. For one, if the company decides to back out of the deal, who’s going to finish the school? For two, the people working for the company are the men of the community, so carrying the water buckets from the drainage ditch to the construction site falls upon their backs. On the other hand, the company had apparently already used several thousand soles worth of water for which they weren’t intending to pay, so maybe cutting the pipes really was the only feasible solution. In the States we probably would have halted construction, taken the company to court, and five years later the school still wouldn’t be finished. But this is Peru: incredibly well-intentioned, not always able to see the big picture, but unwilling to be taken advantage of in the meantime. It has its perks; it looks like the school is going to get finished.

In other exciting news, I had a stomach ache for about two weeks straight. The pain was the only symptom, so it wasn’t a bacterial infection, but after I shoveled some poop into a jar for a lab tech, the test came back negative for a parasite. Still, they treated me for giardia, because poop tests are notoriously inconsistent, and I got better. Either that or the parasite got smarter and decided to lie low for a while.

Menda recently started teaching environmental classes in one of the caserio’s grade school, and this past Monday was Earth Day – as I’m sure you’re all aware. So after some research on what will grow at this altitude and some prep work, we dug out a space with the students for a tree nursery (vivero), and on Earth Day the kids got to plant over 150 cherry tree seeds. Having never grown cherry trees before, we’re crossing our fingers they sprout, but if not, I guess we’ll try another species.

Here are the pictures: [VIVERO AND A DOUBLE BANANA]