Number of People with Nothing Better to Do

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas from Peru

Yesterday the municipality delivered gifts, chocolate and cakes to all the kids in the district of Rio Grande. I went along for the ride to meet the folks in my district and to see what Christmas is all about in the remote areas of Peru. After some hemming and hawing and waiting we left at the Hora Peruana (more than an hour late). The mayor, a couple of the town regidores (representatives), a clown, a couple of kids and I hopped into a dump truck with boxes of toys for boys and girls and headed off to Pampa Blanca about 42 kilometers away, the furthest little pueblo in my district. The road started off OK and was paved but after we made the first river crossing about halfway to Pampa Blanca it was just a dusty, gravelly dirt road. A short 25 miles took over 2 hours and I´m probably 2 inches shorter than I was before we started off. When we got close to Pampa Blanca, the driver hopped out, donned a Santa Suit and hopped into the bed of the truck with the clown and the two kids.

I’d been out to Pampa Blanca the night before for a primary school graduation. The remote town makes its living off dirt farming, cattle and mining. Apparently back in the day, they would pull out kilos of gold at a time out of the hills surrounding the town. Now they scrap together a little golddust at a time by grinding rock with a giant stone, adding mercury to the sludge and drying it. I’m not sure where they dump the sludge and waste excess water but I’m pretty sure it just goes right into the river.

Anyway, when we pulled up, all the kids playing futbol on the dirt pitch above came running down the rocky hillside after the truck. The clown put on a little show, gave out presents with Papa Noel (Santa), and we drank hot chocolate. The children were so precious and so grateful. It really melted my heart and stirred up some paternal instinct that I’ve managed to bury for all these years (Don’t get all worked up mom, I’m over it today).
I little different than the crass commercialism and excess I´m used to.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Gap Analysis

How´d you like to shit in this?

OK. Training is over. I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer. Now what? I’m here at my site and it’s time to begin work. I’m in the Water and Sanitation (WatSan!) group. Our main program goals here in Peru are to 1 – help improve access to and quality of water in my district; 2 – help improve hygiene practices; and 3 – help organize and train local organizations to improve water and sanitation services. Some of my principal activities will include training people in charge of their water and sanitation services, working with families to improve sanitation (building latrines, waste water systems) and working with various community organizations to develop sustainable waste management, water and sanitation systems.

Since I don’t know shit about my district I’ll be working on a three month Community Diagnostic which I’m going to call a "Gap Analysis". A former boss of mine "rebranded" the term Gap Analysis so I feel like I have to re-rebrand it here. The first step in any consulting process is to figure out what’s working and what’s not (assuming you don´t have agree on a fee but my shit´s free). That’s done by interviewing basically everyone who’ll talk to you –leaders of the community, members of local organizations, families, etc. From there you can identify the needs of the community and, with their input, develop solutions and strategies. Consulting 101.

I’ve already recruited about a dozen nursing students (not as hot as it sounds) to help me out with the surveys and the interviews. Last week we went to a small annex about an hour and a half up the valley from my town. The students did the interviews while I met with the Presidente del Comite de Agua Potable and checked out their water system. We found that the town did have access to potable water via communal spigots but there was no maintenance to the system and worms were coming out of the taps. Most families had rudimentary latrines but preferred to do their business al campo (in the woods were there trees). There is no solid waste collection or recycling and people burn their trash.

Some possible projects - building proper latrines, training the water committee on proper maintenance and disinfection of their system and organizing a recycling/waste collection process.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Integrating is hard.

Tuesday was a national holiday celebrating some battle or patron saint or something. I never got a good bead on what we were celebrating but a day off is a day off and I wasn’t bombarded with mattress sale commercials. Government entities, schools, universities and some businesses had the day off and there were military parades in Lima showing off the fleet of new Chinese tanks the Peruvian Army just bought (get your shit together Northrup-Grumman). It was also a day of first communion for the children in my area. I’d been invited to go to the farthest annex in my district to celebrate the occasion but didn’t end up going. Just as well – my back was sore from lying in bed all day Sunday sick and being crammed in a little car with four other people bouncing up and down on dirt roads for two hours would have been la muerte. My site mate was going to a 1st communion celebration in my neck of the woods so I tagged along.

We went to a house in one of the annexes in my district. The house was kind of rustic with plastered adobe walls, a dirt floor and a thatch roof but after a couple of hours sitting around a Peruvian drinking circle and shooting the shit it felt like home. We had a nice “catered” lunch delivered in to us in a large pot with a wheelbarrow. My stomach was still a little dicey and I was reluctant to eat anything from a wheel barrow but damn was it good. The menu included arroz verde con pollo (chicken and green rice) and Papas a la Huancaina (sliced potatoes covered in a yellow, spicy cream sauce).

After drinking a few more beers, we all packed up and headed down to the river for a dip. There was a nice deep pool with shade and a sandy river bottom so we hung out in there, continued drinking beer and had little contests to see who could hold their breath underwater the longest. The kids ran around and caught minnows.

While I was sitting there in the river, I wondered what I would have been doing at 2:30 in Chicago on a Tuesday afternoon. Probably sitting at my desk, worrying about hitting my sales goal, fretting about Christmas shopping, and freezing my ass off heading to the El to go home later. Despite the jacked up back, the touch and go intestinal situation, and uncertainty of what exactly I’ll be doing here the next two years, I was happy life brought me to this place, hanging out in the Rio Grande with my site mate, Loco, Conejo, Negro, Pablo and Beatriz and all the kids.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Matrimonio Massivo

This weekend I was invited to join the mayor, his wife and my host mother to four weddings (no funeral) in one of the annexes in our district. The wedding ceremony was more of a legal proceeding under a thatch roof with a dog lying on the ground rather than some extravaganza at a church with white gowns, ushers, and bride’s maids in bad dresses that can’t be worn more than once (despite what the bride says).

My host mom is the civil register in our district. She registers births, weddings, deaths, etc. During the wedding, the civil register reads from something that looks like a bible but is in fact a book of regulations, the brides and grooms agree to follow the law and then paperwork is signed. Each couple needs two witnesses that have to have an official Peruvian identification card. Things were going well until the last groom couldn’t find a witness who had the right form of ID. Someone said get the gringo to do it. I had my passport so I acted as his witness and signed the poor kid’s life away.

The mayor said some words and my host mom announced you may now kiss your brides. Turns out that no one except for one couple wanted to kiss, at least not publicly. It didn’t help that my host mom goaded them on, made them go one by one, and told them that everyone was watching. It was a momento incomodo (awkward moment).

Afterwards we ate lunch and I got sicker’n shit the next day.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

It’s Official – I Hate Huayno Music

Time – 6:15am Saturday morning when my fastidious house mom from the sierra cranked the shit up at full volume. I don’t think I’m being culturally insensitive, Huayno´s just not my thing. I also hate most rap and nearly all new Nashville country music. I don’t have anything against dazzling urbanites or rednecks, their music’s just not for me that’s all.

Huayno music is the traditional music from the sierra. Nearly every song sounds the same with an odd two-two (?) syncopated beat. Some of the folksier stuff actually sounds pretty good with a guitar, one of those big, bad-ass bass guitars that mariachi’s play and a small stringed instrument that sounds like a cross between a ukulele and mandolin. Most of the songs are sung in Quechua, the indigenous language of the sierra.

It’s the Huayno with the accordion and the high-pitched nasally woman lead singer that makes me want to stick a pen in my ear drums if the volume doesn’t burst them first.

Peace Corps’ Hard

Today, after I met with the mayor of my town and did a walkthrough of my community as part of my community diagnostic, I went to a local high school along with my site mate and her host mother. We were Jurados de un Concurso Interno de Platos Tipicos (Judges in a Traditional Peruvian Food Competition). Finally, all those countless, seemingly wasted hours watching the Food Network paid off. We, the judges, tasted 14 dishes typical to various areas of Peru, the coast, the sierra and the selva. The plates were prepared by the students who gave us an explanation of how the food was cooked and what region it was from. The plates included Aji de Gallina (a spicy chicken dish), cabrito (goat), a couple of types of cuy (guinea pig), chuletas de cerdo (pork chops) and Jalea de Mariscos (seafood medley).

The plates were judged on five criteria: utilization of local foods, creativity, nutritional value, hygiene, and presentation. All of the plates were delicious and many of the students worked hard on plating and presentation which would have made Emeril proud. Some of the plates were served with wine and Pisco, a local liquor made out of grapes. I thought is was a bit odd being served a hard liquor by a 15 year old high school student at twelve in the afternoon but I’m just a dopey, culturally unaware American so what do I know. The winner…. Jalea de Mariscos (seafood featuring the locally renowned crawfish), some kind of chicken dish placed, and Cuy en Salsa de Mani showed.

Afterwards, I was walking down the street looking for a place to get a key made and a group of school girls from the losing classes passed by and started wearing me out about the judges’ selections. Seems they didn’t feel that the mariscos plate was a typical or traditional Peruvian dish. I had to remind them that in our district, camarones are king. One of the girls who was in the winning class agreed whole-heartedly and taunted her friends with what I took to be the Peruvian equivalent of “You got served bitch!” The others stood their ground and kept arguing but I was done and told them to take it up with the gringa that lives down the street.

Passing the buck…Works here too.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Nazca Lines

My town is located in a river valley that is flanked by a pretty high cerro on one side and a smaller less imposing cerro on the other. Being somewhat adventurous and fairly lazy, I asked one of the guys from the municipality if he wanted to take a hike up to the top of the smaller, closer cerro to see what’s up there and get a nice panoramic view of the area. He was more than willing and eager to be my guide even though he’s lived here a third of his life and never climbed up there himself. My site mate was also down for a little hike so the three of us waited until it wasn’t hot as hell, found a little trail and started up the hill.

From the top of the hill, there were gorgeous views of both our towns and the green river valleys below. The top of the hill was very flat with light beige dirt littered with dark colored rocks. As we walked along the top of the hill, it became evident that there were walking among ancient Nazca lines. There were small, straight paths bisecting large cleared out areas that, to me, looked like makeshift runways. The Nazca lines were large figures drawn in the dirt by a pre-Incan civilization called the Nazcas to either pay homage to their gods or communicate with extraterrestrials (I’m a big fan of the latter theory). They created these designs in the light colored dirt by picking out the dark colored rocks and tossing them off to the side. The only way to appreciate these geoglyphs is by viewing them from a high vantage point like an airplane, a technology that, to the best of my knowledge, wasn’t available to them at the time.

There are signs on the side of the highway that point to a Nazca sun dial so we walked towards where we thought it was and found a great view of the geoglyph. It’s a formation about the size of half a football field that to me looked kind of like an owl with parallel lines for the body, two trapezoidal eyes and an off-center beak. We found out later that the design was more likely some sort of woven tapestry with a couple of needles. It’s one of the few geoglyphs in the area that can be viewed without renting a plane.

The next day my site mate and I went to the museum in her town and saw all the geoglyphs on a 3-D depiction of the area. Turns out that on the top of our hill there is a pretty intricate design of a whale and the landing strip we saw is part of a series of massive triangles that extend all along the cerro.

Also on the side of the hill, was a large modern geoglyph that read “85 APRA” which was election propaganda in 1985 for the current president’s disastrous first term when the economy went to total shit. Theory #3 - maybe the Nazca’s were just running for office instead of signaling their gods. Since they all disappeared, it looks like they had bigger problems than quadruple digit hyperinflation.

Swearing In

Well, training is finally over and it’s off to our sites for good. Fifty-eight of us were in our class, one couldn’t get on the plane to DC and three others dropped out along the way. Some of us are heading up north to Tumbes, on the border with Ecuador, as far south as Arequipa, and into the sierra, some to altitudes of over 4000 meters.

The swearing-in ceremony had the pomp and circumstance of any other type of graduation with a red, white, and blue tent-like thing that screamed America (f*ck yeah!), national anthems and speeches. I represented our class and had to give a little speech in Spanish that probably sounded a lot like a nervous gringo with a bad accent and nothing worthwhile to say but I think it went OK and got nice compliments afterward.

A friend of mine, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, sent me a text when I was still at staging in Washington DC that said, “When you get to DC, take second and look at your group. This group of strangers will wind up being your best friends for the rest of your life”. As I spoke to the group, I saw the future leaders of the US - congressmen, diplomats, entrepreneurs, contractors, professors, parents, authors, reporters and I was proud to be a part of it. Ten weeks of training doesn’t make a “best friend” but toiling together for a couple of years in the deserts, mountains, coasts, sharing the bullshit experiences as well as the victories, and maybe a chelita or two along the way, will.

I look forward to the next two years and am curious to see how we’ll all come out on the other end.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cock Fights

If you’re an animal rights activist, member of PETA, a bleeding heart liberal, vegetarian, vegan or otherwise just a pussy, don’t bother reading this. It’ll likely just piss you off.

Saturday night was meant to kick back in the pool hall of my quiet town with a fellow volunteer that’s up the road a piece. Instead, I got a message to see if I wanted to go to the cockfights in her city instead. Despite my misgivings, I couldn’t say no because cockfighting is a big part of the culture in my area, sounded wildly entertaining and a great opportunity to integrate into my community which has a cock-fighting coliseum between the school and the church.

Now the word cockfight conjures up all kinds of images - some dark, smoky back-alley hall filled with sweaty, dangerous looking Mexicans. Turns out there were no Mexicans or any other shifty-eyed lowlifes at this cockfight. It was very much a family event - little kids, teens, adults, dates all out on a Saturday night. The cockfighting coliseum had a center circular ring about ten meters in diameter surrounded by chicken wire and lit up overhead by a matrix of fluorescent lights. The fans sat on concrete bleachers. By the entrance, the cock paddocks, for lack of a better word, and a place to buy sandwiches and chelitas (cold-ones). The bathrooms had Wrigley-style troughs but made of concrete. The fans were just as drunk but less annoying and there were no dopey Cardinals fans.

The way a cockfight works, the juez (judge) rings a bell and the PA announcer calls the contenders to the ring. The cocks literally strut their stuff to give the folks in the stands a chance to figure out who they want to bet on and then the soltadores (handlers) take the cocks to their sides. A corredor walks around the center of the ring pointing into the stands and calling out for bets. Bet on Izquierda or Derecha (Left or Right). Of course you can always make side bets with the folks you’re sitting next to. I broke from my betting no more than one American dollar rule and made side bets of 10 soles with the drunk sitting in front of me and actually walked away with a little bank. Quite frankly it was a lot more exciting than passing the cup at Wrigley.

The amarradores (tiers) then choose a razor sharp blade out of their case and tie it to the rooster’s leg. The juez walks to the center of the ring, draws a couple of lines in the dirt, and puts up a small, plastic, hand held barrier. The soltadores put their cocks down on each side of the barrier, the juez removes the separator and everyone clears out quickly. Then nothing. Two cocks standing around in the center of the ring. Some clucking, a crow here and there, maybe pecking at the dirt, but otherwise nothing. Complete silence in the stands. Then the cocks see each other and it’s on. They crouch down, ruffle their neck and tail feathers, spring about a meter in the air and go at it. Wings, talons, knives, beaks, all flailing until one is lying on the ground with its beak in the dirt. And in the end it’s just feathers and blood. The soltadores pick up their cocks, one dead or dying, the other alive or dying. The corredor walks the perimeter settling up his bets and picking up feathers.

The seventh-inning stretch was a stand-up comedian who started off by picking on people in the audience ala Ron Rickels and went into some other material that I didn’t understand. Thank God he didn’t spot the two gringos sitting near the top.

I have to admit it was a little rough watching the first couple of fights and the one where the white cock got his ass kicked and they dragged him off all dead and bloody. But it was a hell of a lot more entertaining (and cheaper) than going to the movie theater to watch some dopey movie where America (fuck yeah!) saves the day or someone falls in love with Hugh Grant again.

What do they do with the losers? Fried chicken, of course.

My Site

On Thursday we all went our separate ways and headed off to our sites. My site is in the Province of Palpa in the Department of Ica. The trip south, we passed through chakras, (farms) and through the desert dunes with the sierra in the distance to the east. From the desert, we descended into a dry, colorful and rugged mountainous area that looks similar to the badlands of South Dakota. Under the watchful eye of the Cara del Inca (Face of the Inca), we wound our way down to the fertile river valley below where I’ll be living the next two years.

They say my town has about 3000 people in it but that might be the whole district that extends way up into the sierra to the next department. The town has dirt roads, a center square surrounded by the municipal building, the church and a couple of other institutions. I met the mayor of the town who greeted me with open arms and assured me that the town was bien tranquilo and that I shouldn’t have any problems there. It will be a little bit of an adjustment going from the 3rd largest city in the US with 4 million people to a tiny pueblo, but an adjustment I fully expected. They have a saying here in Peru, “Pueblo Chico. Infierno Grande” (Small town. Big Hell).

The first day I walked the town with El Alcalde (the Mayor) who introduced me to many of the leaders of the community. That night, I met a fellow trainee in the big city nearby (8,000 people) for a live interview at the local TV/radio station. My site mate did great and I did fine except I was chewing gum which made me look like a Bankok hooker with a funny lookin’ tic and a bad gringo accent.

My house has running water 24/7, a functional flush toilet and shower, and my room is fairly good size and secure. The only thing is it’s loud in the house by 5:30 am. Out back, just outside my window, there are two gamecocks and a couple of chickens. The cocks get to crowing at about 5am so the lady of the house gets up to feed them. The dog also goes out and starts yapping at the birds and the lady starts yelling at the dog. The house echoes with bulla (noise). Glad I’m a morning person.

Saturday, I took a road trip out to some of the outlying communities of my district. Five men were crammed into a little taxi (larger than a Minicooper, but not much). We bottomed out crossing a dry, rocky riverbed and sprung a leak of something. It was a hell of a walk away from anywhere but our able driver popped open the trunk, pulled out a pair of pliers and some bailing wire, backed the car up on a rock and climbed under to fix whatever was leaking. I’m not sure how you fix a leak with wire but he campo-ed (jury rigged) the shit out of it and we were on our way.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Presidential Debate

As part of our Spanish class, we held a presidential debate where each of us drew a candidate, did research on that candidate and presented our candidate’s views in front of some of the other classes and instructors. The presidential elections here are in 2011 and if they’re anything like the Venezuelan elections I witnessed, they should be pretty entertaining. Someone told me that the presidential ads here feature scantily clad women prancing around touting their candidate. They thought it was boorish, sexist and demeaning. I thought this was infinitely better than our dumb-ass US candidates running negative ad campaigns, slinging mud and using smear tactics.

Anyway, I drew a candidate by the name of Jaime Bayly. He’s a TV personality and has a Steven Colbert-type show called El Francotirador (The Sharpshooter). Mr. Bayly is a little bit Howard Stern (but not as vulgar), a little bit Bill O’Reilly (but likeable), and a little bit Lyndon LaRouche (without the felony charges). He has a mop of black hair, wears fashionable glasses, and his trademark attire is a black suit, white shirt and blue tie. He’s also gay (he claims to be bisexual but left his wife and kids and now lives in Miami with Luis, his Argentinean writer/lover. You make the call.)

I did my research on the internet but really didn’t have a whole lot of substance. Instead I went for the style points and wore a blue blazer with a white dress shirt and a black wig I rented from a place in Chosica. One of my more salient points (quotes from Bayly), how I would like to see Fidel Castro and Jugo Chavez die (on the toilet pushing out a turd and on a Venezuelan television program vomiting all over himself with oil-colored vomit, respectively). The moderator put an end to that saying I was disrespectful and should stay on topic even though the topic was human rights and my point was that those who violate human rights should die in a less-than-honorable manner. So I had to go with other talking points such as if men could get pregnant, abortion would be legal world-wide and I would build schools and fund teachers’ salaries by dissolving the army (even though Chile is being a pain in Peru’s ass). I also wanted to ask one of the conservative female candidates if she was still a virgin but didn’t find out that Mr. Bayly actually did this on his TV show until after the debate.

Some of the other Peruvian presidential candidates include Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the recently incarcerated ex-president of Peru, the mayor of Lima (who’s apparently done a lot of good things for the city), and ex-president Toledo who had public opinion polls lower than Bush’s when he left office but did bring the Peace Corps back to Peru.

I didn’t win the debate but did get nice compliments on the wig. If you have
Direct TV, check out El Francotirador on Mega TV Sunday nights. According to some folks, his show is doing for Mega TV what the Simpsons and Married with Children did for another snot-nosed, upstart television station in the US.

Site Assignments

After 8 long/short weeks of interviews, speculation and chisme (gossip), we finally got our site assignments of where we’ll be serving for the next two years. The site assignments were based on our requests and where our Water and Sanitation Director felt we would serve best.

We all got together in the main PC office in Surco, a pretty swank neighborhood of Lima that has the prestigious University of Lima, the US Embassy and a full-on mall. We got our site assignment by throwing a spear (no one could find darts) at balloons that had our site assignments in them. Once the trainee popped a balloon, they read off the name and the assignment.

My site assignment….. The Province of Palpa in the Department of Ica. Ica is a coastal department (state) south of Lima that, from what I’ve seen so far, is mostly desert but does have farming communities near the rivers. I’m less than an hour from the Nazca Lines and should have relatively easy access to all parts of the country. It’s far enough from Lima so that I’m not tempted to go into the city every weekend, but close enough that I can go if something fun’s going on there. There will be a number of volunteers within an hour of my site and there is one volunteer about five minutes from me by car which is nice.

The whole time I´ve been here I kind of thought I’d be going to a little department called Tumbes, a rough and tumble department on the coast near the border of Ecuador. When I drew Ica, I was a little surprised and maybe a little disappointed. Now that I’ve looked at a map and have seen how easy it is should be to get to some pretty kick-ass places like Arequipa and Cuzco.
I’m very excited and ready to get to work. We go to Ica this week to do some training and spend some time at our individual sites.


We went to do some field training in a little town called Bernales in the Department of Ica which is about four hours south of Lima. I would have called it a small town since it didn’t have a Dairy Queen or a stop light but there were a couple of stores, a couple of pensiones (restaurants) and a place where you could buy beer, sit outside on plastic stools and shoot the shit. Bernales is in the desert and is flanked by irrigated farms on two sides and big-ass sand dunes on the other. Arid mountains are in the distance and the coast is not too far away.

Bernales was hit hard by an earthquake in 2007 and the town is still in the process of rebuilding. Walking around, there were a bunch of folks that still lived in thatch huts while they were rebuilding their houses out of brick and concrete. The Red Cross/Red Crescent is helping out the rebuilding effort by building one-room houses out of thatch covered with plaster, kind of the Peruvian equivalent of the Katrina houses in New Orleans.
Our job while we were there was to build dry bathrooms, pit latrines and flush bathrooms. Pit latrine, no problem. Dig a hole, cut off the ends of a couple of 55-gallon drums, put them in the hole and put a slab over it. The others took a lot more work. For our flush latrine, the family dug a hole two meters deep (about as tall as me) and we lined it with brick so the walls didn’t collapse, put in the piping and poured a slab of reinforced concrete where the shitter goes. Since everything I’ve ever built in my life has wound up in a landfill well before its expected lifespan, I was a little nervous. There were a couple of false starts and it was kind of a one step forward, two steps back approach but we got ‘er done.

The food at the pension in Bernales was awesome! Looking at the place I thought to myself that there’s no fucking way I’m eating there; dirt floors, tarp for a roof and thatch walls. The dishes, however, were spotless and the food was terrific. Lunch and dinner included soup and a main course for 5 soles (<$2). We had fried chicken nuggets, some kind of beef in gravy, fish, and a popular regional dish called sopa seca (spaghetti tossed with something that looked like pesto) and carapulcra (some kind of diced potato side with a spicy sauce). Carapulcra means clean face but every time I’ve had it I’ve managed to spill it all over the place and make an awful mess. Kind of like calling a Sloppy Joe a Spotless Hank. I’m not sure if the name is supposed to be ironical or if I’m just a slob.

Passando el Huevo (Passing the Egg)

We learned a little folklore and how to Passar el Huevo. When someone’s suffered a bit of a scare or gotten the mal de ojo (evil eye), the older Peruvians from the sierra remove the effects of the scare or mal de ojo by passing the egg. In case you want to practice this at home, assemble the following materials: one raw egg (preferably laid by a black chicken), a clear glass half filled with water, and a pair of scissors. Have the person lie down and grab the raw egg, say a Hail Mary and make a little cross on the forehead with the egg. Then, rub the egg all over the patient’s body. When you’re done rubbing their body down with the egg, crack it open and dump the egg white and yolk into the glass of water. If the egg white rises, the person has had a bit of a scare. If there are pinholes in the yolk, someone’s given the patient the mal de ojo. To dispel the fright or the mal de ojo, cut the egg yolk in quarters with a pair of scissors and flush it down the toilet and… ¡Tada! No more scare or mal de ojo. You’re cured mate.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


Last week our technical training group went up into the sierra to look at the design, set-up and maintenance of a gravity fed water system. We took the PC combi and four-wheel drives up to a little town called Ayas and got off. Most of the group walked up to the top of the water system but since I was with bicicleta (aka – the trots, the runs, green apple skitters), I took advantage of four wheels and an engine and rode up the hill most of the way. From there, we walked up the mountain to the spring head and looked at where the water was captured and fed through the system to a reservoir. We did a maintenance checklist on the way.

The Corner

On Sunday I took a break from the Peace Corps thing and headed into Lima to meet up with some friends from home. I was still a little groggy from a night out in Chaclacayo and still hadn’t finished preparation for my mock presidential debate the next day but I had to get out of the house and refocus a bit. Some friends of mine from Chicago were in Lima on vacation and were going out for dinner so I went down. We crossed wires and didn’t have any direct communication but somehow ended up at the same sports bar albeit via different routes (them - cancelled flights and airport fiascos, me - an hour and a half combi ride through some pretty shady areas of Lima).

When I got to The Corner, a fellow was standing outside and asked me if I knew Hund, one of the friends I was hoping to meet up with that night. I had no idea they were headed there and was a bit stunned at winding up at the same sports bar in a city of over 9 million people. (It helped that this joint is pretty well known and that I’m 6’6” and was wearing a Cubs hat.) The Corner is like any typical sports bar in Kansas, Texas or Illinois. TVs everywhere, NFL package, baseball playoffs, yard beers, buffalo chicken wings and folks wearing their team gear and cheering for their teams/fantasy picks. Except it’s in Peru. The place is frequented by tourists, diplomats, expats, Peruvians, and now this Peace Corps trainee.

Although I’ve only been here a couple of months, it was nice to see some familiar faces from home, hang out and watch some football (Dallas won, Chicago got their asses handed to them), gaze into Troy Aikman’s steely blue eyes, drink beer with a fellow in an Emmit Smith jersey, and meet some Americans working here in Peru. Got a feeling I’ll be there again.

Spanish Poems

During our Spanish class today we had to write some poetry. I shared this one:

Los pollitos dicen
Pillo, Pillo, Pillo
Quando tienen hambre
Quando tienen frío…

Los Pollitos Dicen is a nursery school song I learned in Venezuela. I read it like Jesse Jackson read The Cat in the Hat on SNL back in the early 90’s (which is the last time I remember laughing during an SNL skit). I’m not sure if no one knew it was a nursery school song or if they knew and just didn’t think it was very funny. Doesn’t matter I guess (I thought it was pretty funny though).

I did write this poem:

Los Cachorros, 2003
Todo quieto
Sin ruido
Sin emoción
Sin esperanza
Sin confianza
Sin alegría
Solo lagrimas
Solo tristesa
Hemos perdido
Esperamos el año que viene


The Cubs, 2003
All is quiet
No noise
No emotion
No hope
No confidence
No happiness
Just tears
Just sadness
We lost
Wait until next year

I think my class thought I was a little disturbed because they didn’t know I was talking about Game 7 of the 2003 NLCS, Cubs vs. Marlins. Then again, maybe they knew I was talking about Game 7 of the 2003 NLCS and thought I was very disturbed. Doesn’t matter I guess (I thought it was pretty funny though).

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Retroalimentación (Feedback)

I’ve gotten some good feedback on the blog thus far. What do you think? What suggestions do you have? What topics would you like for me to cover?

Cerro El Pino

We took our first overnight visit to the campo this week. It was nice to get out of the training center and see some of the countryside for a change. On the way to the bus station, we stopped by an area called Cerro El Pino, a district of about 20,000 inhabitants in the hills of Lima. Cerro El Pino, in the past, was known for its crime and its horrible garbage problem. The problem - there was zero garbage collection. None. Now imagine living with 20,000 of your neighbors where the means of garbage disposal was taking your bag of trash and throwing it in the street.

At some stage, the good folks at Cerro El Pino got fed up with living in a landfill and did something about the problem. With the help of a non-governmental do-gooder organization, the community undertook a project to clean up the town. The district had to get vehicles to collect and transport the garbage, hire some help, and educate the residents on separating out the recyclables, putting their garbage in bags, and putting it out for the garbage man at the appropriate time. Sounds easy enough but when you’ve lived your entire life just throwing your waste out on the streets, that’s a pretty major life adjustment.

The newly recruited garbage collectors had experience. Their experience was wandering the streets of Cerro El Pino when it was still a shit hole, picking through people’s garbage for glass, tin and plastic, and whatever else they could sell, and taking it to a recycling center for the cash. The committee recruited these folks, trained them, gave them uniforms, personal protective equipment, an actual paying job and, most important, a sense of self worth. They’ve even been featured on popular television news shows around here.

The committee encountered a lot of resistance as they had to change people’s behavior and also had to start charging a small fee to make this a sustainable project. They’re still fighting that battle but it’s being won poco a poco. Walking through the streets of Cerro El Pino (escorted by a squad of armed Peruvian National Police) there was some garbage lying around here and there but for the most part the streets were clean, swept, and well maintained.

As for the crime, I did see a guy with a White Sox hat so it appears there’s still work to be done on that front.

Routines (Or the Three S’s – Part I)

Warning –The Three S’s refer to Shit, Shower and Shave. If you don’t want to read about any of these things, STOP HERE. I don’t get to the Shit portion until the very end so feel free to read until the last couple of paragraphs or so.

In the US you (and by you I mean you, me, Nobel Laureate President Obama, everyone) have set routines that you don’t really think about, you just do them. Take the Three S’s for instance; you wake up, walk bleary-eyed and barefooted to this gleaming white thing in the bathroom, take a piss, take a shit, push a silver lever and, presto, the shit and piss go away. Where? Doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about it. It’s taken care of. Two seconds later you wash your hands with warm running water coming out of this other gleaming white thing next to the first gleaming white thing.

Routine 1 disrupted - Here it’s a little different. You sit on a toilet (not so gleaming) without a seat and fire off your deuce. The toilet paper goes in the waste basket next to the toilet. Never throw your toilet paper in the shitter because it will clog up. To flush, grab a bucket, dip some water out of the 55 gallon drum in the bathroom, walk over to the toilet and pour it in. Repeat as necessary. If it clogs up for whatever reason, there’s a plunger under the stairs across the courtyard. Go get it, walk back, plunge and pour. In the US, I would shit at will; home, library, restaurants, parties, baht mitzvahs, Conference Room D in the office, everywhere. Here, you choose your time and location very carefully. Now that I’ve been here a month, S #1 has become nearly routine, thankfully. I apologize to my readers. I meant to put this at the end. Oh well, the worst is over so you may as well go on.

Shower – In the US you run water and adjust the temperature so that it’s just right, turn on the shower, step in and wash yourself with warm soapy water. (I’m a top to bottom guy myself) Been a long day? Stay in there a little longer and let the nice warm water melt away some of the stress. Relationship problems? Wash that man right out of your hair. When you’re done, dry off, kick on the exhaust fan, put on some deodorant, get dressed and you’re on your merry way.

Routine 2 disrupted – Here the water here only comes for one hour in the morning every other day so you have to make sure that you have enough water to last the entire shower. Hot water? Not a feature at my house. The mission is simple, get in, get clean, get out, don’t waste water. Since the water is cold, I’ve adopted the poco a poco (little by little) method. With a washrag, wet myself part by part, turn off water, lather up and hit the important parts first and if I’m not freezing my ass off yet hit the rest. By then I’m somewhat used to the cold water so it’s OK to turn on the shower and rinse off. Done. Towel off. I didn’t have the presence of mind to bring a towel with me so I bought a towel here for 6 soles ($2). It dries like a towel that cost me two dollars so I mostly air dry. (I just washed my towel today and, unlike the American flag, these colors do run.) I’ve been showering about every 3rd day or so depending on how long I can stand myself. Key to not smelling like complete ass? Generous applications of talcum powder.

Shave - In the US I’d run some warm water, lather up with Neutrogena Skin Clearing Shave Cream and shave my face and head with a Mach III Turbo with the help of the mirror that’s right in front of me. Rinse. Towel dry. Apply a dab of Nivea for Men Revitalizing Lotion with Q-10 to face, head and neck for a nice soothing finish.

Routine 3 disrupted – Here the sink in the bathroom sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t, so I wind up using the shower to shave most times. I stick my head under the shower, wash my face with regular soap and shave by feel since the mirror’s about six feet away. No strong jet of water to rinse off the razor so it kind of gunks up. I've tried to tap it out on the shower wall but then I just get small pieces of concrete stuck in the blades. I thought I’d been doing a pretty good job of shaving until one of my fellow trainees pointed out that there was a fairly good size patch on the back of my head that I’d missed for quite some time.

I gotta say, as much of a pain in the ass it is to take care of the 3 S’s since I’ve been here, there’s an odd sense of accomplishment when you fire off a successful, uneventful deuce or take a refreshing shower. Now that I’ve been here for a month, the 3 S’s are becoming routine again.

I also want to make it absolutely clear that I am very thankful to even have a shitter, shower and sink in my bathroom. When I get to my site I’ll likely not have any of these luxuries. That’s when I’ll have to develop a brand new set of routines which will be covered in Routines – Part Deaux (Or the Three S’s – The Revenge of Sith).

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Condom Races

After our chat on the different types of maladies Peace Corps Volunteers in Peru suffer (diarrhea, worms, insect bites, giardia, crazy egg laying fleas, etc.) we were off to the races. Condom races. The last few medical education sessions have been on STDs in the Peace Corps so, of course, no sex talk is complete without the condom demonstration and practicum (so to speak).

It seems a bit unseemly for a grown man my age to participate in a condom race with a bunch of folks nearly half my age. But that’s training so I had to go with it. A volunteer gave us the proper condom use chat and the demonstration. Instead of the requisite banana she used a dildo.

We split up into our three groups, Health, Environment, and Water & Sanitation for our practicum which was a relay race. Run down to the chair, pick up the big, thick, red, veiny, uncircumcised dildo complete with balls, open up the package with the condom (lubricated for our pleasure) and slap it on. Then take it off, and run back and tag the next in line with lubed hand.

My group, Wat/San, kicked the other teams asses pretty handily although looking back maybe we shouldn’t have celebrated so vigorously. After all, this group is about 75% male and probably shouldn’t be too proud of being better at slapping a rubber on a cock that’s pointed towards us.


Saturday our Water and Sanitation group went to the Catholic University in Lima to look at some different development-type stuff like water pumps, renewable sources of energy, improved kitchens, etc. Some of the folks went down to the coast to get some seafood but I had to get back to the house for a Pollada. A Pollada is a fund raiser, a big chicken blowout. The event was thrown to raise money for a group of graduating nursing students to go on their graduation trip up to the sierra. In attendance, about 22 nursing students, 50 chickens and 10 cajas of beer. Cost 7 soles (<$3) + beer for 4 soles (<$2) each. The chicken was some of the best tasting chicken I’ve ever had (never mind that there wasn’t a ton of meat on them).

The party started off kind of slow with the men sitting around in one room eating chicken and drinking beer and the women in the kitchen cooking the chicken and doing whatever else it is that women do when they get together. They started cooking the chicken on the grill but ran out of charcoal so they improvised with a makeshift wood-burning stove made out of bricks set on the concrete floor of the courtyard just outside the door to the bathroom. I’m not sure where they got the wood but it looked like someone chopped up their bed frame and brought it by for the occasion.

I hung out with the men in living room but they started to get pretty drunk and they were yelling at the women to put on shitty American 80s music (esta música es “Sooper”) instead the festive salsa music that was on (which the guys considered to be “basura”) We drank al estilo Peruano which means someone opens a beer, they pour themselves a glass, hand the bottle to the person next to them, drink the beer out of the glass, shake the foam and backwash out of it, and hand the glass to person holding the beer bottle. That guy gives the glass another shake (optional), pours himself a beer, hands off the bottle, drinks the beer out of the glass, and so on around the circle. The glass doesn’t get washed. Ever. Sometimes it gets broken when they drop it on the living room floor while shaking the shit out of it, but it’s bad form to go to the sink and rinse it out. After it gets passed around the circle a few times, the glass is pretty sticky and, well, pretty damn gross.

Turns out the women weren’t just sitting around cooking and gossiping, they were passing around the bottle too. I stepped over the cooking operation to hit the head and afterward passed the bottle around with them for a bit. Turns out I broke beer drinking with women protocol by not holding onto the beer bottle and serving them (but how was this gringo to know?). The Pollada really sounded like the beginning of a really good/bad porno: 22 two nursing students, ten cases of beer and 50 chickens. But in reality it wasn’t as hot as I had imagined. The Pollada turned into a dance party but I was getting kind of tipsy and didn’t want to embarrass myself with bad gringo dancing so I went to bed. The Pollada ended about 2am?

I’m not sure how much money they raised but most of the chicken hearts and livers wound up in the soup I had for lunch and dinner the next day.

Field Trip

We went on a field trip with our Spanish class to the National Museum of Culture in Lima to learn a little about the history and culture of Peru. We went down there in the training center’s combi which stalled out at one of the craziest intersections I’ve seen in a while. It kind of reminded me of an intersection in Manhattan during rush hour traffic except this one had mototaxis (three-wheeled motorized rickshaw-type taxis), older vintage Japanese cars, semi trucks, combies, etc.) There was a hell of a lot of honking, fist waving and pleasantries exchanged like in NYC. Fortunately, our able combi driver Ali was able to get her revved up and out of the intersection before any serious damage was done.

We learned a bit about the ancient cultures like the Incas, Nazcas and saw their artifacts. Of course there were a bunch of colonial-era type paintings of the Virgin Mary. In these paintings, the Virgin was always wearing a robe that was narrow up close to her head and tapered out in a kind of triangle shape at the bottom. A halo emanated from behind her head so it kind of looked like the sun behind a mountain. When the Spaniards arrived, they forced their religion on the people of Peru (as colonists are prone to do). Folks aren’t quick to give up their religious beliefs just because some asshole is holding a sword to their head. The local artists did paint the Virgin, but the robe represented the spirit of the mountain and the halo represented the sun which they also worshipped. At the time, the artists may have been giving the Spaniards a good old fashion “fuck you and your religion” but since then, the two religions have blended together and you see elements of both the original natural beliefs and Catholicism.

Up on the second floor there was an XIX century oil painting of two carriage drivers in a collision and whippin’ the shit out of each other over a fare while dust is flying, dogs are barking and people are hollerin’ in the streets. Not a whole lot’s changed in the past couple hundred years.

The Nazca warriors used to put mummified sculls one their belts.  Early psycological warfare.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Peruvian Fireworks

Now I’m not exactly sure if the Yanacoto party was a virgin party but by the time we got there at 11:30pm, it was rocking along pretty good. It was outdoors in a little plaza like area with a dirt floor. There was a traditional band from the sierra playing their saxes and singing. Folks were dancing like they do in the sierra which looks kind of similar to native American dance, shuffling their feet and waving their arms a bit. There were other bands but I was too concerned with the beer and fireworks to notice. The beer was kind of expensive, 5 soles (<$2 for about a liter of beer).

We showed up just in time for the big moment. There were a couple of fairly good sized bulls made out of bamboo and colored paper and a castle structure made of bamboo and colorful pinwheels. These were the fireworks. A man put one of the bull frames over his head and torso, lit the fuse and started dancing around the center of the dance floor. First, fire started blowing out of its horns and then the whole thing just started shooting colored sparks all over everywhere, including the spectators who had gathered around. He did this with a couple of the bulls and then went out to the bamboo structure in the middle of the street which stood about 3 stories tall. He lit the fuse which slowly crept up the structure and set off showers of sparks, launching screaming, burning bamboo projectiles high into the air, and lighting up fiery pinwheels. Then the fire would creep up to the next level and set off the next barrage. Of course there is always the grand finale where everything went up in flames and things were launched, screaming, spinning and burning.

No one got hurt or didn’t say anything if they did. Apparently Peruvians aren’t quite as litigious as gringos.