Number of People with Nothing Better to Do

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.

3 de Octubre

Part of the family.  My old man is to my right.  I call the dog Ole One Eye.

Saturday night, the 3rd of October, I went to a neighborhood called 3 de Octubre to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the town on the 3rd of October around 36 years ago. A couple of weeks ago, I went to a party celebrating a virgin in this town and it was a blast except that I didn’t get to stay for the whole thing. I went home at 10pm but the party raged on until the cold gray light of dawn. This time I was in it to win it (or at least stay longer than 10). Turns out virgin parties are ten times more exciting than anniversary parties. The virgin party had a full stage, sound system, fireworks, beer stands, traditional dances, and a virgin on a throne. The anniversary party had a clown, about 6 impersonations of Michael Jackson (but only 2 Michael Jackson songs), and only a few cajas of beer.

My old man was one of the founders of 3 de Octubre and he still has several children that live there. We went to the neighborhood at around 4pm and visited with a couple of his daughters and one of his sons. We sat around and had some Inca Cola and a little cake and shot the shit for a while. My old man left early and I stayed around for what I expected to be a kick-ass party. Around 6pm, a clown showed up to entertain the younger kids. Now ordinarily clowns kind of creep me out but this clown wasn’t the John Wayne Gacey type I’m used to. Just different. He wore a wig that made him look like a Japanese pop star, a plastic red nose, oversize Chuck Taylor high-tops (my size) and a black velvet jacket with the Playboy bunny logo in sequins on the back.

He did clown-type stuff with the kids like games, prizes, balloons, juggling two silk scarves, that kind of thing. It may have been the worst clown act I’ve seen but then again I can’t really recall seeing a good clown act. The kids were totally down with the clown and having a great time and that’s all that matters. I got his business card afterward. On the front, his name, a couple of pictures, and the contact info for the local clown union in Chosica. His specialties were listed on the back and included birthdays, kids parties, special events, 50th anniversaries, and bachelorette parties. I guess he also has a cop outfit and a g-string and likely does something different with the scarves.

After the clown, it was the kids turn to entertain. There were little dance group that danced to pop Latino music and of course the Michael Jackson impersonations. There was a lot of build-up for the Michael Jackson acts but they did not live up to the hype. The highlight, however, was a kid about 3 years old who was dressed up in a little black suit, white shirt, black shoes with white socks, and a black fedora. He held his hat with one hand, stood on his toes and grabbed his junk with the other hand the whole time. That is until some little girl came up to him and started bugging him so he latched onto her hair and wouldn’t let go until the mothers intervened, pried his fingers off, and sent both kids off crying.

There was a dance troupe of kids dressed in yellow and orange sateen costumes with devil masks who danced around while two other little devils ran around scaring the shit out of the audience while they were distracted looking at the others. It seemed pretty traditional and was terrific. By this time a lot of trainees had showed up and were sitting up on the hill. About six of them did a couple of songs by CCR, we listened to a band with a pan flute do “Let it Be” and we bolted for another party in Yanacoto.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Mr. Ambassador

Today the US Ambassador to Peru dropped by our training center to have lunch and say a few words to our training class. I was lucky enough to sit at the lunch table with him. We talked for a bit about how he came to be the Ambassador. He’s a lifer in the State Department and didn’t have to shell out the six figures to some bullshit political party to get the position. He earned it. Turns out he also grew up in Caracas and then moved to Houston. He spoke highly of Caracas and especially of Houston (which no ever does except for the folks who know Houston intimately).

After, he gave a little chat to our group. He was very well spoken and had a ton of good things to say about the Peace Corps and its mission around the world and in Peru. It was pretty close to being a life changing event for me except that I’ve had enough of those the past couple of months to tide me over for a bit. The ambassador spoke of his work at a country desk in Africa helping people get US visas, brokering peace agreements between Somalia and Eritrea, and aiding refugees displaced by natural and manmade atrocities.

I’m not sure what my future holds on a daily basis, two months from now or two years from now. I did receive a letter from the Chairman and CEO of my old company, the 10th largest insurance brokerage firm in the world, saying he appreciated my good work and that the door is always open for me to come back. I’m very grateful for his kind words and generous offer. It’s nice to have a safety net like that. Although I’ve enjoyed my career as an Environmental, Health and Safety Consultant and feel like my work has had purpose and meaning, the type of work the Ambassador spoke of just sounded bigger.

But that’s a couple of years down the road. Now I need to find some anti-itch cream for these fucking mosquito bites (Note to self: neither the government-issued insect repellant nor the anti-itch cream work worth a damn).


I hand washed my clothes for the first time in recent memory. I’m sure I hand washed at some stage during my military service but don’t remember. Fairly unremarkable process although my back was hurting a bit after only doing about 12 pairs of underwear and socks all humped over the sink and all. Fill bucket with water, add some clothes, add some detergent, and scrub away. I did take some quality control sniffs to make sure I was doing the job right. Dump water into toilet (to flush down any renegade floaters) and fill bucket with fresh water. Rinse out clothes. Repeat with a second rinse. Always two rinses according to the old man. Wring out excess water. Waste water can also be used to clean off the dirt and dust off your shoes.

Take up to roof and hang out clothes to dry on clothes line. Turn clothes inside out so the sun doesn’t bleach them out too bad. Also a reason to turn clothes inside out is so that the Valentines Day boxers with the lipstick prints or half naked Homer Simpson in repose is not hangin’ out there for the whole family and neighbors to giggle at. I’ll remember that next time. It’s pretty dry here so the clothes dry out in one afternoon. Fold.

Worm Bins

On Saturday we built worm composting bins to help with disposal of organic materials. I haven’t really seen it too bad here but in some areas people just throw all their shit in a kind of make shift dump or burn the stuff out back. Worm composting is not some hippie bullshit but a practical way to dispose of organic materials and convert them into a usable product like liquid fertilizer and nutrient rich soils. According to some statistics, over 50 percent of landfill space is organic materials.

The way the worm bin works is you throw in a little soil or manure and then just add organic waste, like egg shells, peels, leaves, things like that. Throw in a couple of worms and they eat through all that shit crapping out nice fertile soil which you shake out and use in your garden. Another benefit is worm piss (the other black gold) which is rich in nutrients like nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous. Not only that but you’re saving valuable landfill space and keeping the backyard free of debris that attracts pests. OK maybe it is a little hippie bullshit sounding.

We learned how to mix concrete (2 parts sand, 1 part rocks and 1 part Portland cement) and started mixing the cement in the wheelbarrow when Fidel, the guard for the training center showed the dopey gringos how to do it more efficiently. He made our life a lot easier. He also showed me how to lay brick and by the end of the day I was OK at it and he seemed pretty proud of me. That’s probably how the two years in the field is going to go; The supposed trained technical representative from the US being educated by the locals who’ve done this for a while.

The other morning I took a walk up in the cerro (the hills) with the old man to check it all out. We have a mini project to do for our Spanish class and I wanted to walk around to get a better feel what’s going on in the community. We walked up paved roads which turned to dirt roads which turned into rocky dirt paths winding through the neighborhood. The folks that live on the hill are essentially squatters on publicly owned land. They go up the cerro, find a little plot of land, go to the local municipality and put a little something down to stake their claim on the land. Then they build a little starter hut out of clapboard, aluminum, or whatever they can afford and go from there, building out and improving as they have the money. The area seemed like it was pretty clean and the folks seemed to take care of their neighborhood. They get their water through garden hoses tapped into the local water supply. It’s supposed to be temporary but I imagine they’ve been waiting for something more permanent for a while. They don’t have sanitation so each house has a little latrine about 100 feet from the house.

In Venezuela, I’d seen these little barrios on the side of the hills from the car on the way to our private American school or to the country club but never walked through them. Feel like I won the lottery considering where I was born, my family, the opportunities I’ve had, and never having had to worry about basic human needs: a roof overhead, food, clean water. These folks are survivors in the every sense of the word, make the most out of what they have and are happy. What in the hell do I, or any of us for that matter, have to bitch about?


The family’s diet since I’ve been in Peru has been pretty much the same the past three weeks. Breakfast is served around 7am and is pretty light, generally a couple of slices of rolls with butter and/or jelly, occasionally with palta (avocado). Sometimes we’ll have avena Quaker which is a kind of runny oatmeal made with milk, oats and sugar. To drink, decaffeinated coffee (ouch) with unprocessed brown cane sugar and milk from a can. The family eats the same but they’re always on the run so they sometimes miss out on breakfast or just have avena or a slice of bread.

Lunch is the big meal of the day and is generally served around 1pm (as I write this it’s 1:30 and my ass is starving). They love their potatoes and rice and generally have both at the same time. One cup of rice, half a potato sliced up and either boiled or fried, and chicken either boiled and seasoned with salt or cooked in a tomato based stew. They stretch their chicken here and everyone gets a little piece. If you’re lucky you get a whole drumstick (happened to me once). Sometimes the old man buys pollo ala Milanesa which is chicken breast filleted thin with flour and seasoning and pan-fried in vegetable oil. Occasionally we’ll eat our chicken with spaghetti (which the old man actually throws against the wall to see if it’s done). Sometimes instead of chicken, the old man will fry up an egg and eat it with rice. I did have liver the other day for lunch. Wouldn’t have been my first choice but I’m craving protein right now so I gobbled it up.

Dinner is pretty much lunch reheated in smaller portions. Occasionally the old man will serve me a salad with broccoli, palta, carrot, and an egg but the family doesn’t seem to eat salads very often. Last Sunday, my host sister sliced up a cucumber and marinated it in lime juice which was absolutely delicious and refreshing.

They don’t really do desert here but every now and again the kids will run across the street to the store and buy a popsicle.

The family is kind of like a typical American family in that everyone’s busy and eats at different times. Breakfast is generally between 7 and 8. Lunch for the family is after the kids get out of school at 1. Dinner just depends on who’s around and when but generally is around 7 or 8. Sunday lunch seems to be a big time for the family to all sit down and have lunch together, if they’re around. We also have a gaseosa (soda pop) or freshly blended fruit juice that day.

The food is for the most part bought at nearby markets from local and regional producers. There are a couple of bakeries in town that sell freshly made bread. Fruits and vegetables are sold at a farmers market open on Saturday and Sunday. The chicken is bought from a local butcher. Occasionally, the old man will go to the Metra supermarket to buy things in bulk i.e. canned milk, a loaf of sliced bread, etc.

Since my host sister works and also attends the Instituto, the old man takes care of all the cooking except maybe a Sunday lunch when his daughter will cook.

Despite eating so much starch, I’ve still managed to lose weight (I think that’s because I was rockin’ Chicago pizza, burritos, McDonalds and beer pretty hard before I left).

Water Usage

This was an assignment so it might be kind of boring.

I live about an hour and a half outside of Lima. Our community gets water every other day from 5:30 to 630 in the morning. The water comes from a well in the center of town which is pumped up the hill into a couple of water tanks and is then gravity fed to the neighborhood. The water at the house is stored in a 1,000 liter tank and a 500 liter tank on the roof of the house. The old man also gets up early to fill up a 35 gallon drum in the bathroom and a 55 gallon drum by the sinks in the courtyard.

The family is pretty frugal with the water. The toilet has been disabled so you can’t flush it the regular way. Instead you dip some water out of the drum in the restroom with a small bucket and pour it into the toilet and hope your junk goes away. Repeat as necessary (2-3 gallons for a good one?). I’m not sure how often my family takes shower because they seem to do it when I’m not around but it seems like once a week at least. (no hot water). Water from the 55 gallon drum in the court yard is scooped out with a small bucket and used to wash dishes, hands, hand washing small amounts of laundry, watering the plants in the front and everything else. Grey water from laundry is used to clean shoes and flush the toilet.

By far the biggest consumer of water is the washing machine which, according to the old man, can blow through the 1000 liter tank on the roof with 3 loads of wash. It seems like kind of a lot but the pay off is doing wash for the old man, daughter, and two kids and one dopey gringo in one day rather than hand washing everything over the course of the week. For the daughter who works during the day and goes to the Instituto at night, this is pretty key.