Number of People with Nothing Better to Do

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Knee Surgery, Marijuana Pills and Peru

I know I haven't written in a while. I apologize. It's been a very odd past couple of months where I thought life was going in one direction but ended up pulling me in another completely unexpected one.

As I write this, I'm in Lima - but let's go back to late September with about three months left in service. My projects were finally advancing nicely and things were going very well in Rio Grande. On the side I'd been working with my boss on staying a 3rd year with the PC in Lima working for the Peruvian equivalent of the EPA and OSHA - the thought being I could make contacts in the Peruvian government and industry and later strike out on my own as an Environmental Health and Safety Consultant here. It wasn't a done deal but we were getting close so it seemed that I had a pretty good plan going. I came up to Lima for Peru 14's Close of Service (COS) conference where we covered the ins and outs of readjusting back to life in the US. During the conference, I ironed out some details and committed to stay a third year. Plans be damned and life took over from there.

A couple of days prior to the COS conference, I played league softball for my team in Lima. On an embarrassingly shitty Baltimore chop grounder to third I was legging it out to first when I felt a pop in my right knee. It hurt like shit so I went to the doctor to get an MRI after our COS conference. Turns out I tore the meniscus in that knee.

Several weeks prior to all this, my mom had had an operation (sorry - I'm getting kind of Quentin Tarantino with the timeline here but bear with me). Unfortunately, things didn't turn out as expected and Mom remained in the hospital for quite some time. She called me exasperated to let me know that she needed yet another operation. I knew from the tone of her voice that I needed to come home to be there for her, for my brother, and for my Aunt Lale, who has been a saint through all this. The Country Director here graciously allowed me to go home during this trying time. So I went to Texas presumably for 3 weeks.

I flew home and my mom had the operation. Things went as well as could reasonably be expected and we all were cautiously optimistic. Recovery was very slow initially but thanks to the healing power of marijuana pills (prescribed by the doctor) she started making progress. I'm happy to report that, although she has good days and bad days, she's back at the house and taking care of herself. Quick aside - I cooked her a fried egg and toast for breakfast the day after she came back home. The following morning I offered to fry her up another egg but she politely declined and said that she would do it. I thought - this woman is truly remarkable and wants to get back to taking care of herself and not feel like she's being a burden. Turns out I can't fry an egg for shit and it was too greasy so she basically fired me as the cook and took matters into her own hands.

Meanwhile, while my mom was still recovering in the hospital, I decided to get my knee looked at by a 3rd party. The Peruvian doctors recommended I have the torn meniscus surgically repaired. The PC doctors in DC recommended the conservative route of physical therapy. The orthopedic doctor in Texas said that physical therapy likely wouldn't accomplish a whole hell of a lot so he recommended I get it scoped and I'd be as good as new in a couple of weeks. The PC agreed so I went ahead with the surgery. The procedure was uneventful and I still hoped to be back in Peru in two weeks. Three weeks tops. Then the shit hit the fan. I received an email from my Country Director and a few of the PC doctors in Peru thanking me for my service and that I would be missed. I was doped up on Vicodan, confused and wondered what the f%ck was going on - Turns out it is PC policy to medically separate Volunteers who have surgery in the last 3 months of service. Unfortunately, no one had communicated that policy to me beforehand. My PC service ended. Abruptly. Without warning. I was devastated, furious, depressed and determined to appeal my medical separation.

The following day my former boss from HUB International, Todd Macumber, called me up to say that a position as a Risk Consultant had opened up in Texas just that week. I was still in a Vicodan haze and out of sorts and told him I'd think about it. A week later, Todd arranged a meeting between me, the President of HUB in the Dallas office and the Chief Sales Officer in the Forth Worth office so we could feel each other out. The meeting went fantastic! They were happy with my skill set and that I knew how HUB worked. I was impressed that they understood what I did and how it could benefit their clients and HUB. HUB made me an offer, I jumped at it and that's that. I officially started last week but hit the ground running in January.

So now I'm back in Peru for three weeks. I couldn't just let the last two years of my life come to an end without closure. I'm in Lima visiting friends and saying goodbye to the wonderful PC Peru staff and Volunteers, some of whom are staying and others going back to the great unknown. Tomorrow I travel back to Rio Grande to say my goodbyes to the community that took me in as one of their own the last two years. If I'm lucky, I'll get to go to the jungle or eat ceviche on a nice beach for a few days.

So, even though my best laid plans went astray, the story has happy ending. I get to go back to Texas to be with family. I've got a very nice job lined up despite the shitty US economy. I'm not pissed or resentful towards the PC even though a few folks in DC need to get their shit together. And I'm getting to say goodbye to the very special people in my life the last two years here in Peru.

And don’t worry, I've got a few more hilarious, entertaining and informative blog postings left in me so stay tuned the next couple of weeks.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Festival del Camarón 2011

Me, Temito, & the girl Temito was dancing with watching Candela. Note the lead singers face in the background!
VW Bug Races. The pick up truck in the background nearly got nailed as one of the cars was fishtailing across the finish.
Ceviche de Camaron

I know what you’re thinking. All this guy does is go to festivals - doesn’t he every work?? Let me assure you that drinking beer and eating big-ass crawfish ceviche IS work! Perhaps the toughest job I’ve ever loved. I’ll tell you about some of the projects I’m working on later. Now, let’s talk about camarones, or crawfish.

My town of Big River is famous for its camarones. Right now we are at the height of camarón season so let’s have a big party to celebrate. Last night there was a concert in the sports complex (a patch of walled in concrete where folks play fulbito and volleyball). A cumbia group called Candela played. The band is headed by the lesser known brother of Los Hermanos Yaipen, a famous Peruvian cumbia brother band (seems like there are a ton of brother acts here). I met up with some buddies and we hung out, drank this lousy beer called Franca and enjoyed the show. Usually these bands have a couple of scantily clad girls dancing but, alas, this one did not.

Today was the main day. People started milling round the plaza at noonish where they held a camarón-themed food contest. There was papa relleno de camarón (baked mashed potato filled with camarón), a camarón salad with a delicious camarón cream sauce, garbanzos and camarones, fried camarón, escabeche de camarón (camarones with cooked onions in a yellow sauce), ceviche de camarón, etc. The biggest disappointment of the day (weekend) was I wasn’t invited to be a judge where you get to eat everything. Turned out to be OK though, because I would have had to have worn a suit and tie and it’s already hot out. I did get to taste the various dishes though so don’t feel bad for me.

While the judges were tallying the votes (my host mom won by the way with the a camarón salad – she won a coffee maker but doesn’t drink coffee), there were death-defying dune buggy races. The race started in the Plaza de Armas, crossed the Panamerican Highway, down a dirt road out into the country, and back again roaring through the middle of the plaza. I guess I can’t really say death-defying at this point because one of the dune buggies flipped, wound up in an irrigation ditch and one of the participants had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance. Frankly I’m surprised there weren’t more people hurt. They didn’t do any kind of crowd control so a kid escaping the grasp of his mother could have darted out into the street and got tagged, or a buggy could have been nailed by a trailer barreling down the highway.

After the dune buggy races they had VW Bug races. Herbie the Lovebug didn’t make it but these cars were pretty souped up and had their sponsors painted on the side of them in latex house paint or printed on a sheet of paper taped in their window. The bug sponsored by Generade, a cheap knock off of Gatorade, won. I suppose if Tiger Woods is hurting for sponsors these days he could give Generade a call.

After came the eating. They had ceviche de camarón, causa de camarón (kind of a mashed potato sandwich filled with camarón that you eat with a fork), camarón soup, and fried camarón. I had the ceviche and I swear to you that one of the camarones was the size of a small lobster (which I guess it kind of what is - the point is it was the biggest camaron I've ever seen). People were of course throwing back beer and pisco but I was walking wounded from the night before so I didn’t partake.

Next festival you ask? Well, the Garbanzo Festival is next weekend in Santa Cruz and another nearby town’s festival is the week after so my dance cards pretty full. Thanks for asking though.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

I Hate Dogs

Rex trying to escape via the roof using the ladder. This is as far as he can get though. Of course he can't climb back down so I have to pull his dumb-ass off of there (after leaving him up there about 30 minutes though).

Rex's archenemy (or best friend - I can't tell)

Good times gone bad. Two dogs stuck together after coitus. They were stuck, yelping for about 5 minutes.

I used to be a dog person. Foochie, Sparky, Top, Buddy – all faithful and loving companions. Now that I’ve lived in Peru nearly two years, I hate dogs. Some folks are responsible pet owners and take good care of their dogs – they feed them and keep them in their house or backyard (or roof as a cheap but effective alarm system). Everyone else is a shitty pet owner who lets their dog run around in the streets where they’re either fighting or f*cking.

Rex, my host family’s dog, is a beautiful black lab. Most times he's a huge pain in the ass but he's been kind of entertaining the past couple of weeks. My host family has a gamecock that they let run around in the backyard. The cock thinks it’s a dog or the dog thinks it’s a cock - either way, they fight all the time. The cock will attack Rex and relentlessly peck the shit out of the poor dog, even though the dog starts it most of the time. The cock will chase Rex around the backyard until Rex gets tired at which point he’ll turn around and grab the cock’s entire head in its mouth and gnaw on it a while. When Rex lets him go, the tenacious cock will go right back to chasing and pecking.

I’ve been bitten twice by dogs here. The first time Rex escaped from the back yard and followed me to buy bread in the morning. When we got to the bakery the owner’s dog Bobby, a small older gray dog that would be kind of cute if it wasn’t such a shithead, started fighting with Rex. I got caught in the middle and got bit on the ankle. It wasn’t a bad bite but it was enough to bleed all over my sock for a while. I got home, cleaned the wound and called the Peace Corps doctor. She told me to go find the vaccination records which of course the owners didn’t have. Even though rabies isn’t a big problem in Peru, I still had to go to Lima to get rabies vaccinations (not the painful ones in the stomach thank God). Last week, I was walking to buy bread and saw Bobby in the plaza. I gave Bobby a wide berth and kept walking on my merry way. The little f*cker circled back around behind me and bit the shit out of my ankle again.

When I go running in the evenings, dogs will chase me down the street until I bend down to pick up a handful of rocks to throw at them. It’s times like that I wish I was Nolan Ryan so I could bean the little shitheads with a rock at 100 mph (or put them in a head lock and pound the shit of them like they were Robin Ventura).

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Velada Artistica (The Talent Show)

My friend and socio Munañte picking up a donated cake to be raffled.

Horsing around with some kids before the event.

Send in the clowns

Jess and Nikki singing.

We held a talent show here in Big River to raise funds for a single mom who has cancer. Around 150 people showed up to watch several singing and dancing acts put on by the various schools and institutions of Rio Grande. The community really came together and donated their time, effort and money to help out one of their own. Some of the highlights included a clown and his son doing acrobatics, dancing and telling jokes (Peruvian clowns still creep me out a little but the crowd really liked it). Teachers from the inicial (kindergarten) danced a hilarious routine. The kids from primaria (elementary school) and secundaria (high school) danced traditional numbers. A little girl from an elementary school in a different town danced to a popular cumbia song called La Loba (The She Wolf). Another little girl from Rio Grande wasn’t going to let the out-of-towner get all the attention so she jumped into the middle of her act and the little girls had a dance-off. The girl from Palpa got served.

A few Peace Corps Volunteers that live in the area also performed. Caitlin from Nasca did a juggling/pantomime act. Nikki and Jess from Palpa played guitar and sang. But Vivaan from El Ingenio stole the show. The clown tried to pull me out to dance in front of everyone but since I have two left feet and a tin ear I told the clown to pick on Vivaan instead. Vivaan got up reluctantly, looked a little pissed, and walked slowly up to the clown. The music started, the clown started dancing, and Vivaan stood there a second with his hands in his pockets. All of a sudden he busted into his famous, high energy Vivaan dance moves. Everyone was clapping and cheering and laughing their asses off. He also made a substantial donation to the cause.

The lowlights of the event were me singing Hotel California and the clown making me dance in front of everyone anyway.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

America!! F*ck Yeah!! (Part II)

Giving a Peace Corps presentation at HUB International, my former employer.

The next morning after bombing the Oral Assessments, I woke up early and was over the little pity party I’d thrown for myself the night before without so much as pity party hangover (there was no drinking at this party by the way).

Thursday – I went in to visit my old boss and old work companions at HUB International and to give a presentation on my life and times as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Peru (Peace Corps Goal 3). About 20-30 people came by and the presentation went great. People asked a ton of great questions and one of my former co-workers said that she learned a lot making it all worthwhile. After, the Risk Consulting boys and I went out for a late lunch and beers and others came by after work to chill out a bit. It was really great to see everyone at my old place of employment and they told me they’d welcome me back at HUB when I was finished with the Peace Corps. Later, I went to hang out with my old basketball team, Scoregasm (formerly known as "I'd Hit That"), at Durkin’s after they had just won the league championship. It was a complete surprise to most of the guys and they welcomed me with open, albeit sweaty, arms.

The HUB International crew - Tom Heebner, Rene Rosa, and Maranda Haluska.

League Champion Scoregasm - Ivan, Storm, Tom, Gary, Sherwin

Friday – Cubs game! My buddy Nick Albu wrangled up some excellent free tickets to the Cubs vs. Yankees game so me, Chris, Nick, and one of Nick’s clients went to the game. I bought my scorecard and pencil from John who’s been selling them at Wrigley Field since the place was built in 1914. We had a few beers, saw the Cubs beat the Yankees and got to hang out with Chris’ carpenter buddies in carpenter shop in the bowels of Wrigley, a place most fans don’t get to go. Afterwards we went to my old watering hole Monsignor Murphys to have a couple of pints. The whole gang was there and up to the same old shenanigans. Apparently, though, hardly anyone ever hangs out there anymore.

At the Cubs game with Nick and the Mity One

Saturday – Cubs game & Monsignor Murphys Part II. Basically a replay from the day before except the Cubs lost and I did get to see a bunch of folks I didn't see the night before.

At Monsignor Murphys with Joan and Sexy Johnny.

Sunday – Father’s Day. Started off by playing some softball with the old co-rec softball team. After, I went out to the mean streets of Arlington Heights to hang out at Nick’s beautiful house in the burbs. Who knew my friends were such prolific breeders?! There I saw my extended surrogate family - Chris and his fam, Chris and Nick’s parents, cousins, all the kids, the Paulsons, and Greg Carlson’s family with the twins and their two week old baby girl. It was a great time! Nick’s wife Sandra brought a ton of beef tenderloin from Morton’s Steak House, Nick grilled them masterfully and everyone brought sides and deserts. Absolutely delicious. It was a great time and great to see everyone. Chris and Krissa dropped me off at the El Station and that’s when it hit me that I was going back to Peru and won’t see everyone for a bit. It’s wrong for a man to cry in the arms of another man unless one of them is dying in a foxhole but I almost did cry hugging it out with the Mity Albu (I didn’t though so LAY OFF!)

Sunday softball team

Men and meat!

The Carlson clan.

Monday – One last lunch with the HUB Risk Consulting boys, off to the airport, and 1st Class all the way back to the 3rd World. Having some flight attendant past her prime handing you a hot towlette and repeatedly refilling your wine glass helped ease back into Peru.

Although I was bummed about bombing the shit out of the Oral Assessment, it was great to see my second home and all my friends.

Chicago I love you. I miss you.

America!! F*ck Yeah!! (Part I)

Air Force One in Miami International Airport. I hope Obama raised a hell of alot of money because he created one huge pain in my ass.

View from my suite in downtown Chicago.

Every time I go to Chicago, I’m more and more convinced that it’s the greatest city in the universe! I travelled to Chicago to take the Oral Assessment, one of the final hurdles to being accepted as a Foreign Service Officer by the State Department. I planned the trip back in February so I’d have a little taste of summer time in Chicago.

Monday – I flew out of Lima at 7:30 in the morning en route to Miami. I was a little nervous about the flight because a regular seat on an airplane is like being crammed into a Peruvian tico taxi for me – especially when the ahole in front of you wants to recline his seat all the way. I got to the airport early though and flirted a bit with the girl at the ticket counter and she booked me exit rows all the way to Chicago! Now as a kid I spent many, many hours at Miami International Airport going back and forth from Venezuela to Texas. Most of those hours were spent making my mom’s life a living hell and checking payphones for change with my kid brother. I did look around for some payphones to check them for old time sake but couldn’t find any anywhere - so I called my mom to give her shit instead.

President Obama and his entourage were in Miami for a fund raiser and all flights in and out were delayed until Obama left the airport. It was very cool to see Air Force One but not cool that it delayed my flight for over two hours causing me to miss my connection in Atlanta. I wound up getting put on a different airline to Midway instead of O’Hare and of course my bags were nowhere to be found when I landed. Highlight – my good buddy Chris Albu made the perfect pick up at the airport at midnight complete with a couple of welcome cans of Old Style and we hit the White Palace for a late dinner. People speak English in America which is cool.

Tuesday – I spent most of the day trying to track down my luggage and a suit for my Oral Assessments the next day (just in case my shit didn’t show up). I called a buddy of mine Seth who is about my height and build and he lent me a very nice stockbrokery-type suit and tie. His fiancée Rosa, a sister of a good buddy of mine who lives here in Peru (an it’s small world story), was kind enough to help me pick out and try on various suits. We found one that fit perfectly except the pants were just a wee bit short. I also ran into Chris’ wife Krissa at a TJ Max downtown while I was buying socks and underwear. I should have spent the day preparing for my Oral Assessments but I couldn’t very well go in looking and smelling like I’d been wearing the same Peace Corps clothes for the last two weeks (which I had).

Wednesday – The big day - Oral Assessment for the State Department. The moment I’d been preparing for. The Oral Assessment is more than just an interview – it is an all day event. The first challenge was a group exercise where six other candidates were in a room, we each had to read a big packet of information and give a six minute presentation to the group defending our particular scenario. Bombed it because I didn’t read the directions carefully enough and I’d prepared with different types of scenarios. Challenge 2 – the structured interview. I sat with two interviewers who read from a script, wrote the whole time, didn’t make any eye contact and barely acknowledged what I was saying. Did OK there. Challenge 3 – The case management exercise. Again, they give you a big packet of information and you have to read it and write a 2 page memo. I could have said what I needed to say in one so I had to throw extra, unneeded, wordy, superfluous bullshit in there (it is the US government after all). And the results… Bombed the shit out of everything. I walked out of the building after receiving results I didn’t want to hear and it was pouring outside. At least four of the six candidates with me failed too.

I was quite upset that I’d prepared and travelled all this way to fail. That evening I should have gone to hang out with Albu and his family but I was feeling pretty devastated and antisocial so I wandered the streets of Wrigleyville aimlessly trying to get my mind around everything.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Decision 2011 – Part III

Well here we are decision time down here in Peru. Quick review. There were 10 candidates for the president of Peru, we had the first round of elections back in April, no one got 50% of the votes so the top two vote getters advanced to the segunda vuelta (the Finals) – Keiko Fujimori and Ollanta Humala. Keiko is the daughter of a corrupt dictator in jail for human rights violations and Ollanta is a former military man with ties to Venezuelan despot Hugo Chavez. So it’s down to choosing between cancer and AIDS according to Nobel Prize winning Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa. So what’s been going on between the first round of elections in April and now?

Keiko’s pulled in some, in my opinion, pretty good supporters. There’s Hernando De Soto (the economist not the conquistador) author of The Other Path: The Invisible Revolution in the Third World and The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, and Pedro Pablo Kuzcinski, former Minister of Economy, among them. Ollanta also pulled in some pretty impressive, if not surprising, backers – author Mario Vargas Llosa and Alejandro Toledo, past president and presidential candidate who lost out in the first round.

So as in elections everywhere, the last eight weeks have been filled with mudslinging, debates, campaigns and accusations in the press. The press is scared shitless of Ollanta so he’s been getting the lion’s share of bad press. There have been accusations that he murdered women and children when he was in the military. There have also been reports that he’s received upwards of $12 million from Hugo Chavez.

My town seems split. Many seem to be supporting Keiko because they’re scared Ollanta will f*ck everything up. Ollanta has his loyal, and vocal, supporters.

And the winner is….