Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Back to School

I'm sorry I haven't written but, I have new friends. I've been in Santiago for the past week for teaching orientation, staying in a big hostel and pretending I'm a freshman in college. I've been drinking far too much, staying up late playing cards and eating, as usual, way too much bread. Even if my body hates me, I still just so terribly happy. I've got a new group of friends who are all Americans except for one lovely Brit named Kate and I honestly cannot remember the last time I laughed this much. In one short week I have made friendships with some people that I truly hope are a part of my life til the end. I've been part of an obnoxious-sized jogging line of health-conscious volunteers, sprinting through the streets of smoggy Santiago to the sound of catcalls of laughs, and I have been to a high school in Santiago and helped teach an English class full of girls who whispered and giggled to each other no matter what I said.

¨How old are you?¨I asked.
¨Maritza¨one answered after a long blank stare.

Unexpectedly, I have gone back in time and landed right back in college -- if only for a week.
I graduated two months ago and I am somehow back in the impractical, cramped, wooden desks (you remember, the ones where the desk is already attached to the chair for who-knows-what reason), working in pairs and preparing for presentations before my peers. It is a bit ironic. Basically, we are cramming -- in an orderly fashion. Out of 85 or so of us, I believe about five people have taught before and almost noone is ESL certified. We are in many ways unprepared (some TEFL courses take about two months), but we have many things working for us: we are young (98% of us), we are energetic and we speak English ... fluently. However, many of us are also petrified. My mother informed me yesterday that a new teacher has between 10 to 30 seconds before a class to make a positive impression. I am likeable (I tell myself). I love children. I relate well to others. I really hope the teenagers I will be teaching don't realize that I am only six years older than them.

This is going to be very very tough. Tomorrow I leave at 9 a.m. for a 10-hour bus ride to the small north region of the country. I am going to Vallenar in the Atacama desert. I may be teaching my first class of high schoolers early Monday morning. I am so very nervous. What if they don't like me? What if I freeze and can't keep the class going for 90 minutes? What if my host family judges me because I don't go to church. What if the nearest post office is two-hours away? The unknown has always given me heartburn... not to mention digestive problems. I don't want to leave my new friends, but if I stay here and keep drinking at this rate, I may be dead in a month's time.

This week, stuffed in my miniature desk and acting as a willing participant in a volunteer´s lesson plan I was suddenly touched and inspired. A boy was standing before us, nervous and stammering -- speaking deathly slow (as we have been instructed) -- and drawing pictures of food items on the board and I was suddenly so very proud of him, and of myself and of every person in the room. No, we don´t know what we are doing, and yes, we will inevitably make fools of ourselves at some point, however, we are here. We are trying. I sit beside all my new and amazing friends who know not one single word of Spanish as they stumble through an exercise and I am so proud of them. I have the edge of knowing the language. But, regardless, we have all made ourselves willing participants and sitting ducks for the Chilean Ministry of Education. We want to travel, we want to live abroad, we want to learn Spanish, we continuously hear the call of volunteering. Everyone´s reason is different, but it doesn´t change that we have chosen to allow the U.N. to place us in whatever small city, in whatever small school for four months, and without any teaching experience.
I am so excited to begin the newest phase of my life. I can't wait to learn even more about myself and meet the newest people who are going to shape my experiences for the next four months. But I'm still scared. I don't want to leave my latest roommate Bree and start all over, again. But I should know by now, the best is yet to come.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Extreme Taxi

My taxi was late -- 40 minutes late -- and the Lima traffic was only getting worse. The whole city is under construction, literally. There is a new bridge underway that will climb above most of the city, in an effort ot reduce congestion on the roads. I thought Erick (the family friend who hosted me for the past two days) was exaggerating. "You need at LEAST an hour to get to the airport to catch your flight at 9:30 p.m., you should leave by 6:15, the latest," he warned me. Well, at 6:50, the cab bumped to the curb in front of Ericks aparment in the San Borja section of the city. At 8 p.m. I was standing in a line at the check-in counter for TACA that had not moved in 10, then 15 minutes. I was ready. I am becoming accustomed to these mishaps. The whole near-death taxi ride, flying through bumper-to-bumper intersections in disarray, I mentally prepared to miss my flight. I had a feeling it was not going to happen. Sure enough, upon approaching the TACA desk and insisting that I did indeed speak Spanish, I was told there were no more seats on my plane. I was momentarily thrown off, "But ... I have my seat number ... right here," I told him. No matter. They had overbooked and I would be compensated: a room at the Sheraton with breakfast, lunch and dinner comped. Plus, provided transportation to and from the airport and a $200 voucher for any flight with TACA in the future... I had no plans for the next day in Santiago. In fact, I would have preferred to arrive the next day with the rest of the volunteers from my program, and have my transportation and lodging already taken care of... I tried to put on a show -- the gracious, yet inconvenienced American -- meanwhile I'm thinking ... Hell yeaaaayah!
I am personally put in a taxi by the TACA Airlines representative with two other Chilean boys who have just hiked Machu Pichu for their winter vacation (why does everyone my age feel the need to climb that thing??? The bus ride up the mountain is oh so nice...). I feel like I know Lima better than they. I have stopped in this airport about six times now in the past year. They keep gasping as the taxi avoids imminent death time and time again. "Extreme taxi!" they shout smiling. They have noooo idea...
Sitting in the taxi enroute to the airport earlier I got to thinking, and I have had some of my most interesting conversations in South America, sitting in the back seats of taxi's. Just earlier that day, I had set off to meet Carlos (from Ayacucho) who was in Lima on business, to retrieve something I had mistakenly left at his house, and I heard the most fascinating life-story...

This man asked where I was from (if I had a dollar for every time I was asked that question each day ... I'd be staying at the Sheraton in every city), when I told him the U.S., he seemed to know the States very well. Turns out he had lived there for 10 years -- Washington, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and of course, Florida -- before he was deported. "Finally... material for my next blog," I thought to myself.
It had taken him seven months to get to the U.S.. He had taken the long route -- the illegal one -- passing though almost every country in South America before landing on "free soil." He began work in construction. "Good money," he told me. "I used to make $18 an hour ... now, taxi," he said with a resigned laugh. "15 soles a day (an hour...I can't be sure) -- $5" he said. He had built hospitals, prisons and was responsible for the drywall in Gloria Esteban's house. (Sidenote: apparently her husband Emilio is quite kind.) He had also worked on a house with 20 bedrooms -- "a palace!" he exclaimed, of a basketball player for a Miami team. He married in '95 to a Puertoriquena who was nuts and that lasted six months. But he was dating another Puertoriquena from New Jersey when he was suddenly deported one day.
There had been warning -- years back he'd been walking out of the grocery store when an officer asked for his papers in English. "No hablo Ingles," he had answered. The officer then flippantly began chastizing him in Spanish. "He was from my country!" the driver told me, "and he was asking me in Spanish how the hell I got into HIS country." He was given a court order and petrified, never showed. Years later, exiting a nightclub in Miami, he was taken straight to jail for two weeks -- he had a warrant out for his arrest. Leaving jail, they led him straight to waiting immigration officers who sent him directly on a flight back to Lima. He arrived at his mother's house without a single posession and stayed in bed for three months depressed.
So THAT'S how it happens ... I thought. I had no idea. I have no way to say who's right or wrong, but I have learned that life isn't like that. It's not black and white -- always grey. The law is the law and there's always reasons for it. But how insightful to actually listen to someone's story. I've heard many racist remarks in the U.S., without regard to where I was living at the time, but it's so hard to keep a closed mind after listening first-hand to unlikely stories from the backseat of a taxi in South America. I read a quote recently, "Traveling is fatal to bigotry and prejudice." It's so true, at least if you keep an open heart and are willing to meet and listen to people from the countries you're visiting. On this trip I've discovered that I so prefer meeting the locals in a city and spending time hearing about their lives, than I do meeting fellow backpackers in hostals just passing on through. In hostals it's always the same, "Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going and for how long?" And from then on it's just a contest to see who has been more places and has traveled the longest. But really, what's the point of all that traveling if you didn't take the time to meet the people who make each place unique? I'm so nervous but thrilled to actually LIVE in a small town in Chile for four months with a family and students, rather than sightsee and come away with photos, but no real grasp of what the country is all about and the stories of it's people. That's why I try to blog about the people I've met here, more than my day-to-day activities. I am inspired by stories and those are the things I want to share the most.

That being said, I still want to convey my jubilee at entering my giant hotel room with a balcony overlooking Lima and throwing myself on my very own king size bed (the two Chileans had to share one, another very funny conversation). This morning I had french toast for the first (and probably the last) time since leaving the U.S. and I indulged in some lazy t.v. time this morning after being without it for weeks. Yesterday I was devastated because I discovered that my laptop I left with Erick in Lima -- which had been acting strange last month -- is officially broken. It looks pretty serious, and it also means an i-pod is not in the near future (I soooooooo miss my music), however, I think I may go amble into the stately dining room in a minute for my third free meal. It will invariably be a buffet (like the last two) ... I.Love.Buffets. Not bad, not bad at all.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Follow that Backpack!

It was a bit unreal watching as our bus slowly floated down a narrow channel of Lake Titicaca, amidst waves a couple feet high and a persistent current. ¨If it suddenly vanishes and sinks to the bottom with all our backpacks, I honestly won´t even be surprised at this point,¨ I said to my new traveling companions Rachel and Adam (from Canada and England, respectively). It had been a long day since we had left Puno, Peru at 7:30 that morning, and we were barely halfway to LaPaz and it was already about 2 p.m.. Travel agencies and heckling hotel owners will swear to you, ¨Direct bus! Semi-cama! Seis horas!¨ But, seven hours later, sore and exhausted, we were standing lake-side paying yet another sort of fee to cross the lake to the pueblo on the other side, and the likelihood of our bus getting safely to the same pueblo on its´dingy barge seemed improbable. But this of course was just the icing on the cake.

Hours earlier, seated in the back row of a different bus, 10 minutes from the Bolivian border, one of the bus attendants marched through the aisle, ¨Americanos?!!!¨ I wearily raised my hand, a lone American on a tourist bus. Unusual? No. I have quickly learned that we are not liked by the rest of the world and though I have thoroughly searched every city I´ve visited, I have met in total, three Americans thus far, and that is not alot. Sometimes I feel like a lone soldier fighting to represent my country in a respectable way when people I meet make comments like, ¨Oh I couldn´t stand that guy! He just sounded soooo ... American.¨ Helloooo ... American, right here. Anyway, regardless of all the American prejudice I´ve encountered, I was still stunned when the gruff man shouted that I would need to pay $135 at the border. WHAT??? $135? ¨I am only staying for four days!¨ I argued. ¨I didn´t read anything about this in Lonely Planet!¨ (Sidenote: However tempting, DO NOT keep any sort of Lonely Planet book as your Bible, it will fail you time and time and again ...) My main feeble argument to this man, however, was, ¨No lo tengo ...¨ (I don´t have it ...) I´ve already had everything that was worth anything stolen from me on a bus ride (very much like this one I might add), do you honestly think I now travel with American dollars ... $135 of them? Well, the answer is no, I do not. And after several weeks in Peru where three soles is roughly a dollar, this amount of money was almost difficult for me to grasp. Apparently, for anyone interested, this entry charge is a sort of backlash of the Bolivian president, because, what do you know, we charge Bolivians a fortune to enter our righteous country. (Don´t even get me started on having to fend for myself against Bush complaints overseas.) So, luckily, Adam accidentally got dollars out of the ATM the night before and he spotted me the money.

This, however is not all, the next hour is spent being removed from one line of non-Americans to the next. I also need a photocopy of my passport and a record proving I´ve had my yellow fever shot. Of course, these two facts are told to me at separate times, inevitably adding 15 minutes to my sentencing. I do have my yellow fever shot, but received it in Ayacucho last year and (of course) have misplaced it since then. I am lucky. The scary Bolivian border patrol man is very busy and barely glances at my other immunization chart, before cutting right to the chase and demanding my money. I have managed to sneak into Bolivia. Hours later, back on the bus stuffed full of back packers, bumping along the other side of Titicaca, I feel guilty, angry, frustrated and homesick. Things could be worse: the bus could have drifted on down the lake as I imagined without ever touching land, or it could have left without me at the border (very common). Even so, I can´t shake the feeling I´ve wasted too much money with this border tax plus the flight I resignedly booked from LaPaz back to Lima on Wed., in an effort to squeeze in a few more days of exploration. But then I look at my window at the houses made of mud bricks scattered along the shore of Lake Titicaca, with the gorgeous icy-blue mountain peaks in the distance and I secretly smile. I will make the most of this city in the little time I have. Plus, it will make a great story everybody assures me.
It´s funny, pre-bus crossing, at another hour stop in Copacabana, backpackers were lined up for the bus connection fighting to get their packs squeezed underneath in the storage compartment (the alternative is having your pack thrown atop the bus). Some were not very lucky. A flustered girl plops down beside us in one of the two empty seats when asked by another passenger for the empty seat. She explains that she is saving it for her friend. HA! We all hide smirks. I ask if her friend is on the bus yet. ¨No, he´s outside waiting to get our bags on,¨ she tells me. The bus is full. There is literally only one seat left and it is being saved by a girl whose luggage I can see parked next to the bus. Not smart people, not smart. The boy vying for the space has already safely seen his backpack to storage. Rule number one, never take your eyes off your backpack. The buses and companies here hold zero responsibility for lost or stolen items. I try to advise the girl that she might want to jump off and stay with her friend because once the next person sits the doors will close and the bus will pull away without her boyfriend or her backpack. When she´s finally gone we all talk smack. A backpacker without street smarts is not a respectable backpacker we agree.

LaPaz is breathtaking. It is huge and its´ houses cling to the sides of a canyon. It´s unlike anything I´ve ever seen, but the altitude is killing me, my head hurts and everytime I move with a hint of speed I feel a bit nauseous. Still, I push my body and meander the twisting streets as long as I can, finding llama fetuses and mini guitars sold side by side (not in the market for either). I am going to make this $135 last an American lifetime damnit.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Insomnia ...

It is 2 a.m. and despite countless efforts to still my mind, I cannot fall asleep. I have recruited two Brits I met at the bus station waiting for the Arequipa bus to bang on my door at exactly 2:25 a.m. (note: that is 25 minutes away) to get me up in time for our tour which leaves the hostal at 2:30 a.m.. Looks like I will not be needing that wake-up call. I always get nervous when I cannot sleep. Was it the mate de coca? Did somebody spike my chicken empanada (please note, I realize, under normal sleeping patterns that this is an irrational train of thought)? Or maybe my mosquito bites hint at a little-known disease which develops into a sort of restless insomnia ... Normally, anyone who knows me at all knows ... I sleep. It takes me about, oh, four minutes tops from the time my head hits the pillow til I am grinding my teeth in dreamland.
Anyhow, since I am awake, here is a quick update. I am currently at a hostal in Arequipa (which, I might add, does not reek of urine). The day excursion I have signed up for is a tour of the Colca Canyon which is allegedly beautiful and one of the deepest canyons in the world. You can also spot condors riding the currents in those parts at specific time, which, I hope, is why they feel it necessary to leave at 2:30 in the morning, though, at this point, I don´t even mind.
I left Ayacucho feeling satisfied and as though I completed all I had intended. I gave the kids their gifts and their eyes nearly bugged out of their heads. Then we went to the zoo and I suffered some dejavu as we crammed 18 small children and six adults into a station wagon taxi. At our destination, doors and trunk were opened and children just spilled out onto the dirt. Dead serious.
Before our excursion, Bertha also lead me to the house of the family whose mother died and I met the husband and two of the boys (there are six). Also visiting was the mother´s sister from the jungle with her litter of children with barefeet and dirty faces. She stood before us and in Quechua mumbled through heart breaking sobs. She was dressed in the traditional Peruvian garb complete with hat and multi-layered skirt and seeing her cry, I felt tears welling up and offered her all I could. "I had a brother who died just over a year ago. I´m so sorry for your loss,¨ I said as I mustered up my best hug to this woman who was in all ways but one, of a different world than I.
My last day was exhausting and sad as I said goodbye to old friends and new ones as well. A group of CCS volunteers and I walked to Magia Negra one last time and devoured pineapple pizza and pitchers of beer before Mery walked with me to the bus station. Just before I got on she handed me about five chocolate bars and the dainty silver necklace she was wearing. It was very sweet and I realized what a wonderful friend she had become in such a short time. I was very blessed to have met her, and hopefully we will keep in touch.
As I chart out my last week of free time in Peru, I have new plans to visit Lake Titicaca and then Boliva for a few days. La Paz is supposed to be amazing and I bought a new camera today, so I can actually document my trip personally here on out! Bus comes in 10 minutes... Good night, good morning, ciao.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Livin´ La Vida Lopez

I truly must stop ordering chocolate cake in Peru. I am continually disappointed. However I cannot stop. Instead I am quickly converting to icecream (I´m thinking half the calories right?). The other day I was walking down the street from the CCS house (after a morning at the wawa) towards Mery´s house and I was quite enjoying a marvelous chocolate ice cream sandwich when a little boy passing by bossily ordered that I give him half my ice cream. I was so startled that I impulsively shouted ¨NO,¨ to which he replied ¨SI!¨ I quickened my step, watching my back the rest of the block. I mean, maybe had he asked nicely...

This morning, like every single morning since I´ve been here, I awoke at about 7:40 a.m. to a squeaky (yet loud) young voice, ¨Mamita!?? Mamita!? PAPITO!!!! Donde esta mi chato???!!¨ Mery´s youngest son Esteban is two-years-old and in all my years babysitting ... well, he is something special. He calls his dad ¨chato¨which I think translates to something like ¨shorty.¨ He is a menace and it has taken me five days to even remotely take to him. He screams ¨ayudame!!!!!¨ for absolutely no reason and I daintily step around him after a stern stare (I wish Mery and Carlos would do the same). He basically has a vocabulary consisting of ¨punta¨(bad word), ¨chato,¨ ¨hermanito, mamita, papito,¨and ¨ayudame,¨ and he likes to scream them all over and over and over all friggin day. Adoreable.
But, even so, I am accomodating to life with the Lopez family quite nicely. I have been here for five days and I feel completely adjusted and newly enamored with Mery, the unlikely best friend I found back in Ayacucho. We now have a lovely little routine. Each day we walk to the plaza or the market and for a couple hours she helps me on whatever mission I have for that day, whether it is comparing prices and times for buses to Arequipa (I leave Monday night), finding earplugs (for some reason they were stolen too, and I probably miss them the most), pricing children´s outfits or choosing the perfect Peruvian piece of art for my dream house which I hope to have by the time I´m, I dunno, 40? All the while we take turns practicing English and Spanish and learning about each other´s lives. In the morning I have even gotten used to the breakfast routine. A plate of eggs mixed with rice or hot dogs or whatever (I don´t even care anymore) is placed in the center of the table next to a bag of bread rolls (pretty much how I have been sustaining myself for 3 weeks) and a mug of boiled water for each person. The options are haphazardly spread across the table there-after: jelly, butter, hot cocoa, instant coffee, strange ¨mild coffee¨mix which I am as-yet unable to identify, yet able to vouch for, and each person is given a fork. My first day I was utterly perplexed and nervous about a meal cooked outside the CCS house. I politely sat and waited for individual plates to be placed in front of each person or for the tea bags to arrive center stage. Until, to my dismay, Carlos looked at me and urged me to serve myself. Ooooookkkkeydoke....I went for the bread first and just cut it open and buttered it. That´s safe. That I know. I sneakily watched as Carlos grabbed a roll, ripped it in two and stuffed it with the egg mixture. Egg-and-rice-stuffed roll in left hand, instant coffee in right hand. Duh. Why bother with extra plates which will need washing? How have I never thought of that? Wait ... I know how, because in America I have CEREAL for breakfast every single day. Oh, how I miss my milk and granola in the mornings. I feel rude even mentioning the option of milk with my coffee or God-forbid in my tea. (Katherine that is all your fault.) But, on a different note, I now expect lunch at 3:30 p.m. and dinner at 10, and eat without caution. I think my stomach has surrendered. I´m gonna be O.K..

The past two days were particularly intense. Yesterday Mery joined Bertha and her two children (Dayana and Diego, Mariella had school), her neice Naomi and myself as we spent the day together. We went to Mirador which is a sort of lookout high above the city where Diego insisted on washing his face with stagnant fountain water. Mery has a make-shift camera, with a broken screen and so we guestimated as we took pictures high above the city and then at lunch and over cake for Naomi´s birthday two weeks ago. I asked Naomi if she had had a party (no), cake? (no), and so I told her that that day we would feast on cake. Which you see, leads back to my opening sentence about the inadequate quality of the chocolate cake in this place. Anyway, it was nice to spend the day with both Bertha and Mery, and might I add Mery´s English is improving by leaps and bounds...

Today was the day before D-day. I went to the bank and transferred the rest of my donation money into soles and Mery and I went to the central market (affectionately known by tourists as the ¨smelly market¨) and bought outfits for each of the children and a nice sweater for Bertha and one for Tanaya´s madre last year, Gloria. It was a massive project and took about two hours and 645 soles. We got pretty good prices and very good quality clothes. That is a picture of Mery working her number magic in the clothes store and calculating a deal. I have some leftover donations and I had an idea while we were shopping on where to use them. Yesterday, when I met Bertha at her house in Covadonga, she was a little upset and told me her friend died late last night from what I have deduced (through extensive questioning and help from Mery) to be stomach cancer. She was sick for only two weeks before she died and she has left behind six children and a husband who doesn´t work and abused his wife even in her last two weeks. How does that happen? I don´t know. Mery and Bertha both agreed and said that it is just how the men are here. (Not to discount the men, like Carlos, who DO work and DON´T beat their wives, but from what I´ve been told they are the minority.) I asked Bertha who will take care of the children and she had no answer. Now, I know first-hand, that after a death in the family, one of the most appreciated and underestimated things people can do to help is to bring food to the house. Cooking is a chore, leaving the house is out of the question and even getting out of bed is optional, so ... I will bring them food. Mery and I will go to the market tomorrow (again) and embark on a project similar to the one Imar, Jimmy, Peter and I undertook in Pisco, but this time it should be much much easier and for me, the results will nearly be tangible. I would never show up at their door with money (their father would probably squander it on alcohol), but food I can do. They are probably forgetting to eat as it is ... a common symptom of grief.

Friday, July 11, 2008


O.K., I apologize. I am better. The cloud has lifted and I can feel the sun and I feel as though an uplifting post is in order, which is quite convenient as I feel much uplifted. Yesterday when I was dropped off at my wawa-wasi I was utterly perplexed. We walked past the familiar room at the front of the house, down the hallway to a smaller room tucked in the back. O.K., I thought, so they´ve switched rooms. Then the madre with the baby loosely fastened to her back manta-style, turns to face me (all smiles I might add), but she is not Bertha. Well, yes, actually, she tells me, her name is Bertha. She is my Bertha´s cousin. Bertha has gone to do her shopping today. What? What do you mean she´s shopping??? I came here to see her! O.K., so I try to look around for a familiar face, Bertha´s daughter Mariella is there (age 9) and so is her son Diego (6), both technically too old to be in the wawa-wasi, and it takes them a few seconds before I see the recognition flicker across their faces. I mean I literally can see as they try to make sense of what I´m saying to them (¨remember me?¨) until I see the memory sink into place. It´s a bit unsettling, but still kinda cute. Helloooo? Where´s my welcome back party? Where is Bertha? O.K. then where are the kids Bertha told me were still here? No sign of Luiz, Yampied, Yasuri, Yasmin or Dayana ... Mariella obliges. Yasuri´s mom is sick and pregnant again and she has gone to the jungle. She will be back Wednesday after I´ve left. Yasmin reached age four and so is no longer eligible for the wawa. There was much miscommunication and I believed that none of the kids I knew were coming. But then Yampied sprinted in the door with his winnie-the-pooh backpack, smiling and yelling something (the same) and Luiz, dressed in tattered overalls, meekly hugged the door frame, not speaking, after his mother left (the same). Dayana would be back tomorrow with her mother (Bertha) and Angelo was running around with a fake gun shooting innocent children. The day passed and I tried my best to fall back into the swing of things, but it was very odd without Bertha (I know her routine), and plus there is a volunteer currently placed at this wawa-wasi, Kirstin, and I didn´t want to overshadow her with my wonderfulness. I would just wait for Bertha...
Well, apparently yesterday evening, Bertha walked to the CCS house looking for me! (I don´t think she has quite grasped the concept that I´m traveling alone this time.) I arrived at my placement again today and this time she was waiting. We hugged like old friends. She is the same. I am the same (except apparently ¨flaquita¨/skinny...not eating will do that). Have I mentioned today was a good day? We talked and talked and talked and I showed her pictures of everyone and she liked Kevin´s muscles (haha). She also told me that Luiz´ father hit his mother in the street because she left him. Apparently he met them on the street one day and said he wanted Luiz, she refused, and so he punched them both in the face (a real problem-solver). His mother apparently has many children, Mariella used her hands to signify a ladder, indicating children of every age and size in ascending order. In addition, Bertha told me an almost identical story about one of the new boys who never talks named Yaren, coming to wawa with bruises.
They had the animal cookies I brought with their milk in the morning and I french-braided Mariella´s hair. They had me sing and dance to the hokey-pokey, Old McDonald and Ring-around-the-Rosy. They laughed at stories I told them and we planned an excursion tomorrow for just me and Bertha´s family, as well as a trip to the zoo on Monday when Kirstin is back (she switched placements just for today). It literally feels as if I have come to visit a good friend from high school and my spanish has much improved so conversation is more fluid. The volunteers at the CCS are loosening up a bit and I will go for drinks tonight with Kirstin and some others. Of course I finally make some friends just as I am nicely adjusting to life with Mery and Carlos. Mery is my friend. She took me all over yesterday. We walked to the market and found the cheapest vendor of the best quality childrens´ clothes (about 60 soles for pants, shirt and a vest) and looked for plus-size sweaters for Bertha. I don´t understand, every single top and sweater for a women here is size ¨standard.¨ That would sooooo not fly in the U.S.. And Bertha is, well, a bit above standard, so finding her a nice new sweater is proving a bit more difficult. Mery helped me avoid vendors selling over-priced watches at the sight of a gringita and I assessed the digital camera situation and found that they are twice as expensive here (if not more). I will wait til Arequipa or Lima. The whole two-hour walk we talked like school girls, she in English and I in Spanish and I learned much more about her.
Carlos is in fact, NOT, her husband, but her friend since she was about five. When he broke up with girlfriends he would cry on her shoulder and vice versa until finally...well you´ve heard this story before. (It´s not one of my favorites...) They are not married but live as husband and wife in their very nice house (by Ayacucho standards). I´m thinking, ¨Niiiice....very progressive for Ayacucho...¨
Last night I talked to Carlos for over an hour about his job implementing health and nutrition programs in Ayacucho, as well as where best my donation money would be spent. I feel a bit overwhelmed. He told me the problems I might probably encounter with my playground endeavor, (¨do not give them money until you have a tangible result¨), and continued with the cycle of problems of these old-fashioned people from the country who refuse to change their ways to better their children. It was alot to digest (in Spanish), but I kept up and then, promptly went to bed at 9:30 I was so exhausted from thinking in Spanish. Which, by the way, is beginning to happen. I lay in bed and think about things in Spanish, on accident. And the whole time I´m here with this family or at my wawa-wasi I am speaking only in Spanish. I am definitely improving.
Anyway, about the playground, I am picking up a paper from a playground contractor today with items, prices, a layout and I have a proposal, and this is all the hard leg-work required to begin. But the project requires much more money and maybe I can come back again in five years and do it then! However, I´ve decided with the amount of money and time I have, I would rather do what I initially set out to do (and what I can do, as one person) and take my friends on trips and buy them some new clothes. Sidenote: Luiz went to the bathroom yesterday and came back with one of his overall straps in his hand. I had noticed it had been connected by two threads, no exaggeration.
So, I will buy him a warm outfit and help his single mother as best I can. I was torn about this because I know it is only a temporary solution, but after listening to Carlos for an hour and the depressing cycle of these people, I am a bit defeated. What can anyone do? How can I change a country? I can´t. But I can use my donations and give gifts to some people I´ve grown to love. Do you remember what it felt like when you were young to receive a present? Let alone one for no reason at all. I have the money. They don´t. I want to give them gifts. Thank you so much to everyone who will have helped me do this. If kinda feels like a gift to be able to give them such grand gifts. Ahh, you caught me. The selfish side of volunteer work.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Slow Start in Ayacucho

This is going to sound crazy but I am currently staying with a Peruvian family living in Ayacucho in exchange for English lessons. I was sitting at the bus stop (a fly-ridden, litter-covered, smelly bench next to the road) and after waiting an hour I decided to address my brave fellow bencher. Carlos had been in Pisco on business (he works for the Red Cross...not sure doing grasping of Spanish translations for those sorts of occupations are minimal at best) and was with his wife, Mery. We got to talking and he was distantly related to Rudy, one of the program managers at CCS where I volunteered in Ayacucho last summer, and his wife was very sweet. About five minutes in, she flat-out asked me if I wanted to stay in their house in Ayacucho. She taunted me with talk of two computers with internet and a great location blocks away from both CCS houses (where I was expecting to be fed for the next week of course). Since I already had a hostel booked for that night I gently declined and told her I´d call the next day.
Well, how fortunate is it for me that there happens to be a goddang strike for the next two days. My hostel is a 15-minute walk from the CCS house and when I talk to Marisol (my other program manager from CCS last year), she tells me that gringos probably should just stay inside for the next two days. I am getting so sick of hearing that... I came all this way and for the past two days it´s as if Ayacucho is closed, and c´mon I am half-Colombian... why did I have to turn out so ... WHITE? No stores are open and neither are Wawa-wasi´s, and cars are banned from the roads. This means no shopping for the kids, no wandering around the markets, no internet cafe´s and no mid-day lattes with a book. I am trapped and I do not like it one bit. I walked past the familiar Plaza de Armas last night (where an American flag was burned earlier) with day-mares of being stoned to death. In reality it´s really not very dangerous, but being here the second time around without the safety blanket of the CCS walls (or my posse -- Tanya, Julie, Anna, that´s you -- to protect me from things like boredom, loneliness, foolish fears) is turning out to be much much harder.
Anyway, so back to my current living situation. One full day and night without transit and engulfing loneliness and I called Mery and Carlos. They warned me to leave my hotel by 7:30 a.m. tommorow (today) to start walking across town to their house. Otherwise, you know, the protesters start lighting fires and what not. I cannot convey to you how bizarre it is to walk through a dusty city which is in every way the opposite of what you know, in the morning light that only 7 a.m. can offer, with a giant pack on your back and a smaller one in front, on a street with no cars, only staring locals. I was wary of every man. Does he look politically invested? Will he start chasing me for the cause (what cause? I have no clue)? Maybe my yellow moccasins are too obnoxious... I just wish I had a buddy. Any buddy would do. I´m not picky at this point. The CCS house is packed with volunteers, but they are all strongly invested in their cliques at this stage. I have done this. I should know. I have chatted around the same lunch tables as I did a year ago, where they still serve fruit for dessert and I still lunge for the kiwi´s (Tanya I thought you´d appreciate that), but I have not yet found a worthy discoteca-hopping partner. Otherwise, I am focused on my plan for the kids. To either get plans for a playground underway or to buy them all new clothes and take them on day trips. I am writing up a proposal for the playground tonight and having Marisol translate it and hand it to the appropriate person. But, still I am doubtful of the probability of success even with more money. CCS has many interns very invested in a new school with dangerous hygiene, and if it will prove more effective, I may just piggy-back onto that project for the next few days.
With Pancho´s help I began charting the rest of my travels today (I´m leaning towards Arequipa and then Trujillo, and yes these are world´s apart) and today I helped Mery with her English homework. I have clean clothes (which I washed for free at the CCS house) and tomorrow there will be maniacal taxi drivers all over the roads once again and I will be with my kids and Bertha by 8:30 a.m... Apparently they have been asking about me (which of course I secretly love). They know I am coming soon and they are excited and I cannot wait to see them. I´ve got a giant bag of animal crackers and some psychadelic stickers ready to go for my first day back. Mery´s friend is coming over soon and we are just going to chat in English for a while. How funny to have stumbled upon an exchange program here in Ayacucho at a time when I needed it the most. Family equals stability to me. Stability equals sanity. But still, I feel a twinge of homesickness, for my family, my friends, Kevin, a cheeseburger, a different pair of jeans, an endless supply of clean socks, my own bed (which is actually now David´s so...that´s just silly of me).

Saturday, July 5, 2008

35 hours into Pisco

The harsh rattling coming from the trunk of the taxi station wagon where I sit is almost unbearable as we traverse the dirt roads of Pisco, strewn with giant rocks, bricks, trash and rubble. The taxi driver, a man with a badged vest to prove his trustworthiness, is imploring me and Iman to turn the taxi around and hire him to drive us the 40 minutes to Paracas straight away. He tells us that there we can rest, feel safe, enjoy ourselves and still go on the same tours to sand board and to Islas de Ballestas. Pisco is not safe, he warns me. Pisco is in panic. There are barely roads, people are without homes, gringos are not safe. I know all these things. Partly because just 10 minutes ago while disembarking the bus Iman discovered his backpack had been stolen, and partly because as the driver is speaking, I open my backpack to discover that, though my backpack was not taken, my digital camera, ipod, skype headset, webcam, money and debit card were. Besides that, I have eyes. I feel as though I have just stepped into a 3rd world country. It´s a barren wasteland. The dust from the city coats my throat and even my tongue. I am terrified. I have never been robbed and I have never felt unsafe in Peru before, but I know I should stay, try to think rationally, calm down, figure out the best next move and get out a good cry. There´s a good story here I think to myself. I had no idea.

I am still a bit shaken up and scared to leave the safety of our bizzarely nice hostal that night. But I have to call via land lines to cancel my debit card and this requires either a phonecard or a headset, neither of which I have at the moment. Plus, Iman reminds me, I need to eat dinner. During the five block walk to the central plaza we carefully step over rocks and around huge piles of whatever while avoiding the side swiping moto taxis. It is getting dark and I am nervous, but this is quickly being replaced by a tugging guilty feeling. Iman is discussing our next plan of action. We can take a tour of the Ballestas Island in the morning and leave that afternoon if we wish. There are plenty of tour guides heckling us once we reach the square, shouldn´t be too difficult. We walk past a church and beside it an insurmoutnable pile of dirt topped by a massive, damaged, stone archway, then three little boys playing with a loose cable wire in the dirt. There are deserted lots, even around the main plaza, but there are also certain buildings which stand strong, the bank, the main pharmacy, my hostal. I spontaneously turn to Iman, ¨Honestly, I really don´t feel like seeing seals anymore. At this point, I want to find someone to ask how I can help.¨ It just doesn´t feel right. I don´t know how anyone has come here in the past 11 months to go on a tour and not stopped to reevalute their plan. These people need help. They are living in tiny, ¨temporary,¨ wooden boxes set up by volunteers and the government. I later learn that the majority of Pisco were living in tents until three months ago when the government followed through with some of the aid.
On our way back from the pharmacy a familiar, local tour guide magically appears once again to close the deal. His friend down the block called him when we passed to tell him we were on our way back past his ¨office,¨ a wooden box on the sidewalk corner. They have perfected the salesman routine, taking tourists on excurions is how they feed their families. I interrupt our salesman midsentence. ¨Actually, we don´t want to go on the tour anymore. We want to help. Can you tell us where or how we could help these people?¨ I ask. Ahhh, he says. His tone shifts immediately, as does his entire personality. The ensuing coversation is about the poor people of Pisco, the lies of the government, the pretty facade they have painted on the city to hide the fact that it has been almost 11 months since the 7 point something earthquake hit his city and it is still in shambles. I cannot help it, I am crying. He is telling me about children with no clothes and people without houses and I am just so sad. People closest to the central plaza have received the most aid, but there are so many on the outskirts who have nothing. I ask him if he will take us to these places tomorrow and he agrees. His name is Jimmy and he is now my friend. He will pick us up at 8:30 am tommorow. That night I sleep fitfully and am certain I have a fever. It is very cold here, much colder than Lima. I feel the heat of four blankets trying to seep into my bones, yet I am still shivering. I pray I am not getting sick, because I have a feeling that tommorow will require 100%.
We awaken the next morning and I do not bother showering. I have a feeling I will get dirty today. First, we pile into a moto taxi and are taken to the places that ¨have been forgotten¨ and need help the most. Iman and I have decided to access the situation before we spend any money. I stayed up awake last night and decided that I was going to split up some of my donations for Ayacucho and allot them here. Everyone who generously donated to my effort, did so to make a difference. I have decided that these funds can possibly be more useful here at the moment. The moto taxi swerves around rock piles and through endless lots of trash til we arrive at his home. It is a neighborhood directly next to the ocean. The water flooded their homes and they were left with nothing. They have been forgotten, he tells us. We amble up to one of the typical houses, a wooden structure, painted blue, about 15 by 12, I´m guessing here. Basically it´s small, think a small to average sized bedroom in the states. We talk to a woman cleaning clothes. Gradually a small crowd gathers and they each want to show me their respective homes. I am so thankful that Jimmy and his friend Peter, whose names have clearly been Americanized for our benefit, are with us. They help us communicate. We want to help. Tell us your stories, what do you need. Girls who look younger than my youngest brother Eddie appear carrying their babies. I see shacks where a mother sleeps on the floor with her pregnant daughter, daughter´s husband and two daughters, etc etc. The taxi driver brings out his precious infant, the mother is Sandra, a girl of 15. Later, we will give her two prescriptions which she gave us for her and her baby, which she hasn´t been able to afford for the past month. What we see is overwhelming. I wish I could post pictures, but since my camera was stolen, that will be a bit diffcult for a while.
Later that day, Jimmy and Peter take us to the market. We have a list of the names of all the 45 families in that area. Imar and I have decided to buy a thick blanket for each family, this comes out to a little over 800 soles. Then we buy food, a giant sack of rice, sugar, tiny bottles of oil, baby food and a packet of ramen noodle soup for each family. This on top of the 200 plus soles we each spend at the pharmacy with the stack of unfilled prescriptions we have been given. It is not much, but it is all we can afford. I have taken about $250 of my donation money and spent it here. It´s about 800 soles.
When we arrive back with all the supplies we hole up in one of the wooden boxes of the locals and divy out the portions. We have 200 plastic bags and we measure one kilo of rice and of sugar into their respective bags with the help of some of the women of the neighborhood. There are people lined up outside the door, peering in at me through the window flap, which is covered by a blanket. Women try to get my attention to ask for more, all the while I am just worried we may not have enough baby food for everyone. It is hot and I am sweating because apparently Pisco is very hot once the sun comes out. It is insanity, our own disorganized, yet fully functioning grassroots volunteer project. Peter begins screaming out the names of each family and as they come forward through the crowd of noisy women, one of my helpers hands me one of the blankets wrapped around the food rations we have prepared with help from the locals in our headquarters. ¨Carmen Moromo!,¨ ¨Andrea Topio!¨ Women surge forward. I know her, they tell us. She is my sister, my mother, my sister in law. Peter keeps order and insists that unless they pick up their portion and he can see them, they will be skipped. I am eternally grateful to Jimmy, whose birthday is today, and Peter, who has brought his adoreable one year old daughter and his wife along this second time. We could not have pulled this off without him. When all is said and done we take pictures with our new disposable cameras and head back to our hostal. We have decided a good thank you would be a big birthday dinner with Jimmy, Peter and both their families. We will treat. I don´t know what else to say except I wish I could have done this for every family in Pisco every day for the past 11 months, because it felt so good to change their lives, if only for a day. We care, we are here. We can´t stay, but please know you are not forgotten. I wish I had the courage to tell them all these things. Instead I pick up the 3-year-old who has been following me around and ask who is up for a game of futbol.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

I Love Lonely Planet

I am running. I should really look where I am going but I can`t keep my eyes off the winding shoreline below the cliffs of Lima. I think to myself, ¨I am jogging behind my lovely new friend from Scotland named Anne and I am in Lima, Peru and I came here by myself and I can´t believe I actually did this.¨ As I run I pass a greyhound with a leopard-print coat (an addition to the coat he was born with) and many many people walking tiny dogs and large dogs, except there are no leashes. I am frightened that these dogs might chase after me but they barely deign to notice as I rush by. I pass couples leaning against the winding wall overlooking the cliffs of Lima and couples sitting in the grass in the quaint little parks strewn throughout my route in Barranco, a bohemian-esque neighbourhood with high rises and the beach. I miss Kevin. But then again, I am running in a beautiful country that is not my own and I am seeing things that I know I am fortunate to be experiencing and I have not run in weeks and I feel like my body is buzzing with energy. I am definitely going to want to go out for drinks after this with my new friends. There is Anne and Maureen from Scotland and Emar from England and little do we know we are going to meet a fellow New Yorker named Dave who arrives around 11 pm and reminds me of friends back home. I love my hostal. I was apprehensive at first. My room stank of cat urine and smelly boys and so I switched only to find --laying in my bed hours later with earplugs to block out the incessant thumping of the attached bar-- this new rooms stinks as well. Oh well. I barely notice now.
Traveling alone is terrifying. I don´t care what anyone says. It´s exhilarating and you will undoubtedly make friends, but the first 30 minutes begin with panic. What if you don´t meet anyone you like? What if noone you meet likes you (in my mind a far worse scenario)? But 20 minutes after I have checked into the hostal I am sitting on a tattered couch pretending to watch a t.v. that is completely drowned out by the adjacent blasting techno music at the bar. There are people my age everywhere. I meet a couple from Australia and make nice with an Israeli boy sitting beside me named Sam. There are four Canadians staying in my room and one English girl I fall in love with who then leaves 24 hours later named Clare. She is traveling the world for a whole year alone and her one backpack is way smaller than mine. She lends me one of her two newly washed towels. HOw could I not bring towels?!! Stupid stupid stupid! My roommates come home at 3 a.m. my first night and shine flashlights in my face while I jokingly tell them I need my rest. I am recovering from a parasite, but I could not care less. This is fun. This morning in the common area my new friends from last night and I happen to awaken at the same time and Dave jokes that being in this hostal is like summer camp. I´ve never been, but now think I may have liked it. Lima is fun. Traveling is exhilarating. Emar and I have just (literally 30 seconds ago) decided that we are going to book a bus to Pisco today for tomorrow. Pisco is where the devastating earthquake hit last year, maybe we can find somewhere to volunteer. We can take day trips to a place to sand board and a day trip to a place that is a Galapagos Island knock-off (fine by me). Then on to Ayacucho. I am so glad I have come back.