Number of People with Nothing Better to Do

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Knee Surgery, Marijuana Pills and Peru

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Festival del Camarón 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 18, 2011

I Hate Dogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Velada Artistica (The Talent Show)

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

Horsing around with some kids before the event.

Send in the clowns

Jess and Nikki singing.

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the Cubs game with Nick and the Mity One

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

At Monsignor Murphys with Joan and Sexy Johnny.

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

Sunday softball team

Men and meat!

The Carlson clan.

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

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

Chicago I love you. I miss you.

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

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

View from my suite in downtown Chicago.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Decision 2011 – Part III

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

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

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

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

And the winner is….

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Vive el Santo!!

Mila (daughter of Maria), Maria (pension owner), Senaida (host mom)
Salud (w/ empty bottle)
I wanted my birthday to slip by under the radar this year because 44 sounds old even though I feel like I’m 27 (except after playing basketball for 2 or three hours). So I didn’t tell the Volunteers in my area or anyone else in my community. I just wanted to do my work, go home, and go to bed early and let it pass unnoticed.

But someone in my community had written it down somewhere and remembered. In the morning, I got a call from my host mother and the woman who runs the pension where I eat lunch and they sang me the Spanglish version of Happy Birthday. I was pretty surprised and a little moved (almost single tear) that they remembered. They told me they were going to throw me a little get together in the evening. I didn’t want them to go through the bother but it would have been rude to decline.

I worked all day doing recycle charlas (talks) in the high school, went to Palpa to run some errands and came back to the house. My host mother cooked me a nice supper. Couldn’t tell you what it was exactly - chicken in an improvised sauce with rice. It was delicious. Maria from the pension and her daughter came by as did Jess and Nikki, a couple of nearby Volunteers. Thank goodness Temito came by so I had some male company and wasn’t completely outnumbered by women.

After eating, we listened to some Salsa music, bullshat, drank some beer and homemade wine, and listened to Jess and Nikki play the guitar. When we were winding down the festivities, the mayor sent over a half a case of beer.

It was a really nice, low-key evening on my birthday here in Rio Grande and my host family and friends made it special. Facebook nation also remembered and I got ton of warm wishes.

Other male friends in my community heard that it was my birthday and told me I wasn’t getting off the hook that easy and that there was beer drinkin’ to be done this weekend. Maybe I’ll celebrate a little more during Opening Day of the cockfighting season this Saturday!!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mercy Missions

Not as bloody and gorey as I had imagined.
Pre- and post-op team.

Patients lined up in the hall waiting their turn.

Peruvian surgeons removing a tumor.

Earlier this month a group of 13 doctors and nurses from the Detroit area came to do a surgery campaign in the town of Palpa about 10 minutes from where I live. The campaign was organized by the local Rotary Club and several Peace Corps Volunteers translated for the doctors and nurses.

The last time I was in an emergency room (when I wasn’t the patient that is) was when I was a freshman in college. I took a buddy of mine who’d slept with his hard contacts in to the university’s quack shack. His eyes were swollen shut and he was in a lot of pain. He laid down on the examining table and the doctor opened up his eyes to put in some drops. He cried out in pain and a lot of tears poured down his face. I felt light headed, my knees buckled and I would have passed out had I not found a nearby chair and a promising career in medicine ended before it began.

So I was a little apprehensive about going into an operating room to translate for patients who were having surgery but were awake and able to talk. I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle actual blood and guts. But it wasn’t that bad and I didn’t even come close to fainting. A helpful pointer from one of the nurse antesthetists was that blood was just red water.

The campaign was very well organized by the local Rotarians and all the patients showed up on time and waited their turn patiently (even though cutting in line is a bit of an art form down here). I did have a couple of people pull me aside and ask me what kind of strings I could pull to squeeze a family member in but I had no pull.

One lady showed up who didn’t have an appointment and happened to catch the lead surgeon on a break. She asked him to take a look at a lump on her foot that hurt when she wore sandals. The doctor said he could remove it. Then she got greedy and asked about a tiny lump on her thigh. The surgeon poked around and asked if it hurt. She said no so the doc said to not worry about it. Later that afternoon she changed her story and told the same doctor that the lump on her thigh hurt but the doc called bullshit on her and told her he would only operate on the foot.

The next day she came back apparently having told the organizers that the docs were going to remove both lumps and sat there kind of smug. When they called her name she got up with a big smile on her face and went in. Her face quickly changed when she realized that a couple of Peruvian doctors were going to do the surgery instead of the Americans. Her face went from “Hell yeah! I’m going to see U2 live in concert” to “godammit this is a shitty U2 cover band”. She only had the lump on her foot removed by the way.

Weird shit I saw. A tumor the size of an orange on the back of someone’s neck, a hernia that was so bad the guy look like he had elephantitis of the balls, an infant with an extra thumb (teach him to pitch don’t have it removed) and a man with a hair lip that had never been repaired.

Thanks to Mercy Missions for coming down to Palpa and for all the good work. Enjoyed getting to know you all and look forward to seeing you again if you come down in October.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Corner Store

The general store on the corner.
Inside the store.

Don Manuel - one of my favorite people in Rio Grande (when he´s not selling me cheese that tastes like acetone or filled with worms)

Most days around midmorning when it’s already hotter´n hell out, I run down to the little general store at the entrance of Rio Grande to drink an ice cold Inca Cola and shoot the shit with Don Manuel (Chino), the owner. Don Manuel worked his whole life as a miner, saved his money, and when it came time to retire he came to Rio Grande with his wife to buy a little store and enjoy their retirement. He’s a widower now and has been in the Big River for quite some time.

He’ll tell me stories of his time working as a miner (which are not as harrowing as I would have expected them to be) and tell me how it was back in the day under this dictator or that dictator, what it was like during the Shining Path days, about when times were good, why Peruvians are jodido (screwed), etc.... You know, shit that old retired men talk about over coffee at McDonalds at 6:30 in the morning. Other mornings he’ll complain mildly about how it sucks to get old and how his dick doesn’t work and will look at me with a mischievous grin as if to say - this is your future son.

This morning as I was drinking my Inca Cola and Don Manuel was shuffling around doing stuff. I noticed he had a bunch of signs hanging on the walls like some back woods Texas dive bar. Here are some of Don Manuel’s words of wisdom:

¿Porque prefiero una chela que a una mujer?
1. Porque no habla.
2. Porque no asa.
3. Porque es rubia de verdad.
4. Porque está dispuesta a saciarme.
5. Porque es económica.
6. Porque es rica a toda hora.
7. Porque no tiene papa.
8. Porque mientras mas fría es mejor.
9. Porque la puedo compartir.
10. Porque es fácil de conseguir.
11. Porque puedo estar con varias al mismo tiempo.

Why do I prefer a beer to a woman?
1. Because it doesn´t speak.
2. Because it doesn´t give me shit.
3. Because it´s a true blonde.
4. Because it´s available satisfy me.
5. Because it´s economical.
6. Because it´s delicious anytime.
7. Because it doesn´t have a dad (there was no accent so it could have also read Doesn’t have a potato or Doesn´t have a vagina – we´ll stick with dad).

8. Because the colder the better.
9. Because I can share it.
10. Because it´s easy to find.
11. Because I can be with many at the same time.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Decisión 2011 – Part II

Keiko & Ollanta

Well here we are a couple of days after the Peruvian presidential/congressional elections. And the winner is… well there’s not one yet but the field of 10 has been narrowed down to two – Ollanta Humala and Keiko Fujimori. Here was the breakdown after the Sunday’s 1st round of voting with 90% of the votes counted - Ollanta “The good soldier” Humala- 31.7%; Keiko “I’m not a dictator like my daddy” Fujimori – 23.3%; Pedro Pablo “El Gringo” Kuczynski – 18.8$; Alejandro “El Cholo” Toledo – 15.4 % and Luis “El Mudo” Castañeda - 10%. The remaining five also rans totaled up to about 1%. And the APRA candidate… Zero point zero. Mr. APRA – fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life. The 0% is due to a colossal APRA failure for not fielding a candidate despite a fairly successful run under the current Aprista president.

Brief recap of the two remaining candidates – Humala is the nationalist candidate who is promising a redistribution of wealth and has ties to Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia. Fujimori is the daughter of a former corrupt dictator of Peru who is promising… well, I’m not sure what she’s promising other than not being a corrupt dictator like her dad.

Six months ago Nobel Laureate (and failed presidential candidate) Mario Vargas Llosa boldly predicted that if it came down to the run-off between Humala and Fujimori it would be like choosing between cancer and AIDS. Since, he supported Toledo and asked PPK and Castaneda to back out of the race less than a week before the elections. Now gets to make that choice. Some respect his right to state his opinion. Others believe he should shut his mouth stick to writing books about military cadets and circle jerks.

Now it’s time for my APOLITICAL bold prediction. Keiko takes it on June 5. Keiko might give PPK a call and offer him a high level position in her government in turn for his endorsement (how about a PPKeiko mascot – a little furry chinita?). Not that PPK supporters care about any of that political maneuvering - they´re young, savvy, and educated and will be physically, mentally and spiritually unable to vote for Ollanta. So all PPK votes go to Keiko. Where do the Toledo, Castaneda supporters go? Who knows so we’ll split them evenly between Keiko and Ollanta. And how about we give the 1% that the other also-rans garnered to Ollanta. The blank votes should be factored in somehow but I have no idea how so we’ll just throw them out (I never said I was a political analyst and I’m horrible at math).

So that leaves us with Keiko winning the election with 54% of the votes and Ollanta in second with 46%. Factor in the Win Williams margin of error and God’s sense of humor and the Peruvian presidency is pretty much free game. My opinions as to who I would like to see win are as worthless as balls on a priest so I’ve omitted them from this post.

The folks in my town of Big River are speaking of picking the lesser of the two evils. Why does that sound so familiar? Oh yeah – that was my choice in every US presidential election since at least 1988.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Decision 2011

Mock presidential debate during language instruction in training.
I played the roll of Jaime Bayly, a local author, TV personality and presidential candidate.

Disclaimer - The Peace Corps is an apolitical organization and I as a Volunteer am not allowed to participate in any political activities or support any kind of political party (nor do I want to for that matter). I’m writing this entry as a general information item that you might be interested in. I have my preferences but since I can’t vote down here, my preferences are as worthless as tits on a bull and can only make my life more difficult. So I´ll keep them to myself.

The Peruvian presidential, congressional and Andean Parlaiment elections are coming this Sunday. There are ten candidates in the running but only five that really have a shot at the actual presidency. Here’s the way it works (as I understand it). Voting is mandatory. If you don’t vote, you have to pay a fine. If a candidate wins over 50% of the votes this Sunday, they will become the next Peruvian president serving a five year term. If no candidate wins 50% of the vote, the top two candidates earning the most votes advance to a run-off election sometime in May.

Here’s a brief recap of the top five candidates in the polls as of this Sunday (3-31-11).

Ollanta Humala (27.2%) – He’s a former soldier, a nationalistic candidate, and has been associated with President Morales in Bolivia and President Chavez in Venezuela who recently called him a good soldier, whatever that means. Mr. Humala lagged in the polls up until a couple of weeks ago when he surged ahead. When he passed everyone else in the polls, the local economy got jumpy, stockmarket dipped (or plunged depending on which newspaper you picked up) and the US dollar strengthened against the Nuevo Sol. All the other candidates have been piling on since (which is what they do to whomever is ahead in the polls).

Keiko Fujimori (20.5%) – A congresswoman and the daughter of the ex-president/dictator of Peru Alberto Fujimori who´s sitting in jail for crimes committed during that whole Shining Path thing in the 80´s and 90´s. She attended college in the United States and the folks here have been wondering out loud who paid for her education. She recently got married and had a kid. Of course the million dollar question is will she pardon her father and let him out of jail if she gets elected.

Alejandro Toledo (18.5%) – El Cholo. Was the president of Peru prior to the current president and has a Peace Corps connection. When the Peace Corps was in Peru during the 60’s, a Volunteer lived in Toledo’s house up in the Sierra. The Volunteer later reportedly help get him into an Ivy League school. Toledo brought the Peace Corps back to Peru in 2002 after they were kicked out by some dictator (Velasco?) in the 1970’s. He did come by the Peace Corps 50th Anniversary celebration at the US Ambassadors House. I didn’t have a chance to meet him nor even see him. Reason being, apparently he’s really chato (short).

Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (18.1$)– El Gringo. PPK (pronounced pe pe ka). Here’s what I’ve heard but have done zero fact checking. However, since I’ve posted this on the internet it automatically makes it true and correct. His parents left Poland during World War II to escape that whole Nazi thing and he was born here. He’s tall and white like a gringo and speaks slow and methodically with just a teeny bit of an accent like a gringo. He’s married to a gringa and up until last week, he had citizenship in the United States just like a gringo. He’s the favorite here in the town where I live and has made a big push the last couple of months. His mascot is the large furry edible rodent…PPCuy. If it walks like a gringo and talks like a gringo…

Luis Castaneda (12.8%) – Mr. Castaneda is the former mayor of Lima and apparently all the Limeños think he did great work there. They call him El Mudo because he’s run a pretty quiet campaign but he’s piping up a bit now, maybe too late. I watched him on one of those midday talk shows (the ones with the hot scantily clad latina girls) and late evening variety shows (the ones with the hot scantily clad latina girls) and he seems to be a pretty likeable guy with a good sense of humor.

Alright - I will throw in my two cents after all. If I were Peruvian I would vote for Jaime Bayly!! Unfortunately my favorite presidential candidate, Peruvian author and TV talk show host is no longer in the running. What’s he up to these days? He got canned from the TV station here in Peru over a contract dispute, broke up with his Argentinian (?) boyfriend, knocked up a 20-something year old “bad-girl” author, and moved to Miami.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Airplane! (One of my favorite movies of all time RIP Leslie Nielsen)

I´m not a crook!

Mom, Sam and I on the way to Arequipa.

Flights are good if you’re going to have to spend over 15 hours in an overnight bus and are not that much more expensive. The planes seem fairly new and hopefully well maintained. I haven't done the overflight to see the Nazca lines yet. "But why not?!" you ask. ¨You´re so close to them!?¨" Well, in the last year and a three months since I've been in Ica, two tourist planes filled with tourist checking out the lines have crashed. Chisme (rumor) has it that one of the flights crashed because the pilot had a heart attack but I also heard that they forgot to fill it up with fuel. Most recently, seven supposed tourists hopped on a brand new plane to see the lines and hijacked the plane. The pilot was released about a week later. The plane was never found. It's almost certainly taking off and landing on a clandestine landing strip in the jungle somewhere shuttling blow for American stockbrokers to powder their noses with.

You on the bus or off the bus?

Street vendors selling chicha (sweet purple corn drink), sebada (wheat drink) and sandwiches to the passengers on the Soyuz at the station in Palpa

Fancy bus for overnight long distance trips

Inside of fancy bus
For longer distances, I take a bus. Again, buses range from super nice to super shitty. When I travel from Rio Grande to my capital city of Ica, I’ve got three bus lines to choose from, which ever passes by first. Soyuz is on the nicer side but not super nice (think Greyhound) and Cueva (Cave) is on the shittier side. I’ll let your mind wander on the shitty one – yep you got it (no chickens though – well only one that I’ve seen so far but it was just a chick). I usually take Soyuz between Lima and Ica and generally they’re OK. They have an Ejecutivo (executive) section which means you get a maroon head rest cover and about 4 extra inches of legroom - Well worth the extra 3 soles for a taller bald guy. The busses play movies, generally pirated DVDs of movies that are currently out in the theaters or really bad, loud 80’s action movies starring Steven Segal (for the record, all bad 80´s action movies should be available in pirated form only). You still have to watch your shit on the busses or it will get ripped off.

There are super nice busses that are a little out of my PC living allowance range, although I recently found out that they have super saver discounts if you book in advance that are the same price as taking the Soyuz. They’re safe(r), have more leg room, the seats recline almost all the way, they’re climate controlled, and play current pirated romantic comedies. You get dinner or lunch served up by a semi-hot terramoza (bus waitress) or a semi-handsome gay guy.
The super nice busses have bathrooms for urinating only – but try telling that to the tourist who’s suffering from a case of Tupac Amaru’s revenge.


Me and a collectivo driver in Palpa waiting for the car to fill up with passengers back to Rio Grande
How many PC Volunteers can you fit in a collectivo (7 in this case but you could add one more up front)

Collectivos are communal cabs for lack of a better word. They drive set routes at set points of departure and arrival and at set rates. You just go to the collectivo stand, hop in, wait for the taxi to fill up and you’re off. Collectivos are my main mode of transportation between my site and Palpa. All the collectivo drivers know me and holler at me when they’re driving by me walking around in the street “Beto – Vamos!”. When I’m waiting for the collectivo to fill up in Palpa to come back to Rio Grande, I bullsh*t with the drivers. They’re all pretty cool and friendly. “Habla Beto, quien sospechas?” (Tell me Beto – who do you suspect? I still haven’t figured out what the right response is so I just say “Tu huevon! You - *sshole!”). They’re always asking me if I’ve been to the “nightclubs” yet. Note to self – Nightclub means brothel. Discoteca means dance club.

The larger collectivos are station wagons, not the large 70’s family truckster variety but smaller ones. There are also tiny Tico taxis which are about the size of a Ford Festiva, maybe a little smaller. Usually four people pile into the collectivo before it will leave. Sometimes there are two passengers up front and three in the back. One time I was in a Tico going back to Rio Grande with nine people.


Tico taxi

Tico taxi with station wagon behind.

Taxis are the most expensive way to get around town and you can also wind up looking down the barrel of a loaded gun pointed at you by some dipshit trying to rob you. When picking a cab, you have to be careful you get someone that looks reputable, has a permanent taxi sign on the roof and the car number painted on the side. If you have the luxury of planning ahead, you can call for a taxi which is pretty safe. Once you hail a cab, you have to know more or less what it costs to get where you’re going. The taxis don’t have meters so the taxi drivers quote you a price which you then haggle down a couple of Soles. The fares will increase if it’s rush hour or late at night.

Funny anecdote (because it has a more or less happy ending) – a couple of friends of mine were coming back from a discoteca after a night out and needed some late night munchies. The boy was passed out in the back and the girl told the taxi driver to take care of him while she ran in to pick up some burritos (yes, there is a late night burrito stand in Lima but they’re not good-ole-fashion burritos made by real Mexicans). When the girl came back out, the cab was gone along with the friend. The taxi driver woke the boy and dropped him off somewhere safe. As the taxi sped off, the boy realized his I-phone had been stolen. They may have got his wallet too but I can’t remember. Of course we had to give the guy a ration of shit and laughed at him for being a dumbass but it could have easily had a not so happy ending.

Not-so-funny anecdote - A friend was coming back from a concert with some Peruvian friends and did all the right things you’re supposed to do while hailing a cab. She, unfortunately, wound up getting robbed at gunpoint and got dropped off in a shitty part of town sans wallet and cell phone. Fortunately she had a little cash stashed away and she and her friends somehow made it back home safely.

The cabs here may not have the leg room or climate control of a good old American cab. But at least they don´t smell like curry and body odor.
Mototaxis lined up in front of the mall in Ica
Jason Lopez and I in the back of a mototaxi. We´ve both probably lost about 100 lbs. between the two of us since this was taken so we could probably fit another Volunteer in the back now.
I´ll post a blog about the giant arachnids in Peru at a later date
Mototaxis (or tuk tuks in Thailand) are pretty fun to roll around in for short distances if you’re not on a major a thoroughfare, otherwise it’s pretty terrifying. A mototaxi is a three-wheeled 2-stroke motorcycle with a cab on it. The driver sits up in the front of the cab and in the back there is room for two passengers (unless you’re a Peace Corps Volunteer and you cram 3 in the back and one on the jump seat in front next to the driver all to save a couple of centimos).

The fare is generally less than 2 soles and I`ll take them to avoid walking around in the baking Ica sun or if I’m in a hurry to be on time for a meeting that’s going to start 30 minutes late. Mototaxi drivers sometimes have a reputation of being on the shady side and have been known to drive by and snatch purses off pedestrians on the sidewalk. The other problems with mototaxis are they exponentially add to the decibel level on the street with their high pitch scream and blow blue exhaust everywhere they go. That’s why you don’t see mototaxis in nicer neighborhoods of Lima like Miraflores or San Isidro.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Travelling in a Fried-out Combi

Combi the mean streets of Ica (one of the loudest intersections in Ica)
Micro in Ica
Micro in Lima

I always wondered what they were talking about in that ‘80s-ass Men at Work song. Now I know. A combi or micro is a mini-bus that can be as small as one of those tiny 80’s Toyota moon vans or larger bus that holds about 20 or 30 people. Knowing which bus to get on is a trick initially. The busses are painted different colors depending on the route. The origin and destination points are on a placard on the front of the bus and the streets along their route are painted on the side. The best way to figure out the route is go with someone who knows. If not, you have to ask someone and pray that you understood what the hell they said and that they actually knew what they were talking about. Ultimately it comes down to trial and error.

At the paraderos (bus stops), a number of micros will pull up at the same time with the cobradores (fare collectors) hanging out the side door with one arm yelling out “Sube! Sube! Sube!” (Get on!) and yelling the streets on their route. Meanwhile, you’re trying to listen for your street and reading the street names on the sides of several moving busses to try to pick the one that’s going your direction. It’s really very confusing if you’re unsure of which one you need to take.

You can also flag down a combi on the side of the street and they’ll pick you up pretty much anywhere, though the cops are kind of cracking down on that practice. The combi slows down, the cobrador slides opens the side door, you hop in, hold on for dear life as he zooms off, and try to cram yourself into one of the small seats (well, small to me anyway). If there are no seats you gotta stand hunched over and keep an eye out that people don’t try to pick pocket your sh*t. I won’t ride a combi during rush hour traffic because they’re generally pretty packed – and I mean packed to the point that the cobrador is hanging out the side of the bus with both hands holding on for dear life and trying to keep everyone in the bus. Rule of the game for combi drivers – pass the combi in front of him so he can collect more fares. They are, after all, privately owned and trying to make a buck.

The fares are very reasonable and generally run about 1 or 2 soles (<75 cents>Fare charts are generally posted inside the bus but I’ve yet to decipher one. If you don’t know what the fare is, ask the guy next to you because the cobrador might try to aprovechar (take advantage) of your ignorance and gringoness.

Some of the newer micros are really nice, large and comfortable. Others are literally “fried out”, have been around for 30+ years, and still have “Kilroy was here” written in Korean. Sometimes they smell like sex that’s been left out in the sun too long.

Public transportation is public transportation anywhere you go. If you don’t know the system and the area, you’re going to feel lost and it will always be packed during rush hour. After learning my way around Lima and figuring out how the system works, I can get to pretty much wherever I need get without getting too lost, at a good price and, outside of rush hour, relatively comfortable. It’s actually pretty surprising how efficient the system is. It almost beats waiting forever in the dead of winter in a foot of snow for the 154 to take me to downtown Chicago and piling into a bus that has the heaters blowing 90 degrees or turned completely off with a ton of other people.