Number of People with Nothing Better to Do

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).