Sunday, December 11, 2011

Gringo Hunting

The most difficult part of a trip to the States isn't cleaning, packing, the 8 hour bus ride, the three flights, or the hours spent waiting in airports. The most difficult part of a trip to the States occurs in the days leading up to the departure. My life in Peru and life in the United States are so completely different it's almost impossible to imagine that in 87.5 hours I’ll be walking through Mitchell. Subsequently, three days might as well be fifty and Wisconsin might as well be the moon.

Knowing that my last few days in site were going to be torturous I looked for some extra special things to fill my time. Luckily, I’ve gathered some rather amazing friends here and they decided to do everything they can to help me out.

On Wednesday, my friend Elke came up to my site to do a hand-washing charla with me in a near by town called Buenas Aires. Elke had picked up a script for a theatrical presentation about hygiene and adapted it for a puppet show. We did the puppet show for the whole student body of the school in Bueanas Aires... a total of 35 students! The kids were great and easily picked up the message. Afterward, we put lotion with glitter in it on all of their hands so they could practice washing their hands. The glitter represented parasites and we made sure to check everyone's hands to make sure that all of the “parasites” were gone.

That afternoon, Elke and I attended the promocion, graduation, of the elementary school kids. One of my neighbors, Alex, was graduating and had invited John William and I to attend as his padrino and madrino (godparents). JW was unable to attend because he wasn't feeling good so I was extra happy to have Elke at my side. Five other kids from our SUENA youth group were also graduating and I was bursting with pride. It was awesome to see our kids all fresh and clean, in their best clothes, and looking proud of themselves. Carmen, another SUENA kid, gave a speech and everyone shared a lunch of cuy (guinea pig), boiled potatoes, and soup. When the cajas (crates) of beer started being pulled out, Elke and I decided it was time to duck out.

We went for a short hike before the rain started and then retired to my room to watch Human Planet (best show ever) and play Phase 10 (which brought back a lot of Mentink family Christmas memories). We ate supper with my host family, who started talking about a pareja (couple) of gringos from the United States that are living in Buenas Aires and have a huge dog. I made a mental note to investigate.

The next day, Thursday, Elke and I woke early and decided to go for a hike since it was a national (and Peace Corps) holiday. After breakfast, we headed to the site of the closest Peace Corps volunteer, Pat. Pat claims that he can walk to my site in under two hours but I’m not sure I believe him. He also tells tales of a mysterious short cut and I’ll believe it when I see it. I had hiked to Pat's site once before (I’m not sure if I ever wrote about it), and then somehow turned around and hiked home. Looking back, I’m not sure how I did it and must have been in some sort of iPod music trance the whole way. Elke compared the hike to childbirth – you forget how painful it is or you would never do it again (or so I hear).

To get to Pat's site you have to head up... and up and up. Though 95% of the hike is on trails the 5% that doesn't have trails is rough. You have to get to the bottom of a ravine, cross a river, and scramble across a rock slide before you can reach the trail again. Elke and I took a break before making the crossing and sat on a ridge eating our snack and trying to figure out how we were going to cross. More than once, I moaned, “Build a bridge, people!”

We arrived at Pat's after three hours of hard hiking. Pat was building a fence at his school but waved off our help when we offered (that's a complete lie... Pat asked us to help and we laughed at him and sat down). We spent an hour watching Pat work before hunger became our primary concern. Elke was going down to Huaraz and any desire I had to walk back alone disappeared when it started raining.

Luckily, we caught a taxi to Huaraz and were able to share a delicious recovery meal. I met up with John William and Johanna and we headed back to Chavin for SUENA. When we arrived in Chavin, the kids were all waiting for us and came running up like a mob as soon as we stepped off the combi. Then I saw Emely, another neighbor, on the shoulders of some tall man. I had no idea who it could be until they were closer and I realized it was another friend, Kyle. He had walked up an hour earlier and had been playing with the kids and waiting for us to arrive!

John William and I had decided to have a choclatada in order to celebrate Christmas. Choclatadas are a traditional celebration here and are gatherings where paneton (sweet bread with fruit) and hot chocolate are served. It was super fun but very unsettling when a room of 25 kids were completely silent as they ate and drank. At the meeting, we found out that Victor, one of the SUENA kids who was graduating from high school, had been accepted to university. We're both super proud of him.

On Friday, Johanna returned to Chavin to help me paint the World Map mural I’m doing at the school. I met her on the road and proposed a different activity... a gringo hunt. Intrigued, we headed to Buenas Aires and started asking everyone we met where the gringos were. “Buenas dias. Discupla, una preguntita. Estamos buscando los gringos que viven por aca. Usted sabe donde viven?” (Good day. Excuse me, one question. We're searching for that gringso that live here. Do you know where they live?”)

We were sent this way and that, walking back and forth across the same foot trails, perched perilously on the edge of the mountain. Finally, I spotted two huge dogs and confirmed with some people working nearby that we had found the home of the gringos! They said that Senor Filipe would be returning in an hour and I convinced Johanna to camp out by his front door with me.

An hour later, a man on a motorcycle pulled up, took off his helmet, and gave us some strange looks. We introduced ourselves, explained our mission, and were invited inside for lemonade. Phillip is from Belgium and has worked all over Europe. He married a doctor from Peru and together they started a small NGO. They moved to Buenas Aires a in October and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to work with them. It was very surreal to be sitting in a home a twenty minute walk from my own, that reminded both Johanna and I of a Swiss chalet. A slow cooker, refrigerator, and a beautiful view of the mountains all made me question where I was!

So those are my adventures from the past few days in an attempt to keep me from going completely stir crazy. It's currently Friday the 9th and I’m laying in my bed in site. Tomorrow John William is coming up for a birthday lunch with one of the SUENA families. Hopefully we'll be able to catch a combi afterward and I’ll be going into Huaraz (one step closer to home!). Sunday will be an errand filled day as I prepare for the trip home (and, of course, buy enough emergency snacks for 36 hours on a bus) followed by a Christmas celebration with friends.

Monday morning I’ll be leaving at 9:30am for the 8 hour trip to Huaraz. Then it's straight to the airport to feast on Subway and wait seven hours for my flight to leave. Luckily, I’ll be joined around 7:30 by a Peace Corps friend as we both wait to fly to the States. Then it's just an 6 hour flight to Atlanta (where I will seek out McDonald's breakfast and magazines in English) before going to Chicago and then hopping over to Milwaukee.

Well, this took me about an hour to write which means I’ll be home in 86 hours and 20 minutes. Not that I’m counting or anything... I know that my last few blog entries have pretty obsessively talked about coming home and I haven't been trying to hide my excitement. But for everyone who is planning on visiting (and really, if you're still reading this blog on a regular basis you should be planning a trip down here), don't worry – I’m going to come back! Adventures like these remind me of all the things I love about being in Peru – hiking and exploring, never knowing what's going to happen, room for spontaneity, and, more than anything, feeling extremely proud and happy when I see kids I’ve been working with succeed.

So buy some plane tickets! You... yes, you! Buy your tickets! I’m anxiously awaiting your arrival. And to fill the time until you get here, I’ll be hunting out some adventures for us to go on...

Saturday, December 10, 2011

World AIDS Day

As you may be aware, December 1st is World AIDS Day. I don't remember this ever being a big deal back in the States but in the world of the Peace Corps it is one of the most important days of the year. John William asked me to help him with some activities in his site and I agreed. Though I had no idea what activities J-Dub had planned, I was happy to provide support.

Then two nights before the big day, Dubbers called to tell me that he had to make an emergency trip to Lima due to some medical concerns (don't worry he's okay!). Kyle, another PCV, and I said that we would go to his site to help facilitate the event. Neither of us really had any knowledge of what Dubly had planned and just wanted to help our friend because, of course, John William (I’m out of nicknames) would do the same thing for either of us.

When I arrived on Thursday things were already a bit chaotic. JW and his health promoters had planned a series of round robin events for all of the high school students which would be concluded with a parade through town. But many of the teachers were saying that they had not been informed of the event and, subsequently, would not be allowing their students to participate. Peruvian schools are always a bit of a mess and this day was no exception. The event started late, teachers complained about not receiving a free t-shirt, and the schedule was changed every fifteen minutes. The students we were able to collect, though, learned about pregnancy prevention, how to use a condom, the ease in which STDs can be passed, and other important sexual health topics.

Then it was time for the parade. After some strong words from a teacher, the band director finally got the band collected and we hit the streets of Jangas. I often think of some of the “larger” Peace Corps sites as being like Oostburg so I want you to imagine the following scenario in my idyllic little pueblito. We had four banners leading the parade, all of which expressed the need for condom use and HIV/AIDS prevention. The banners were followed by most of the high school students wandering about with almost no organization. Behind the students was the band, though Mr. Dall never would have let us march in such a disorganized fashion. For some reason, I was helping to carry the lead banner so I need you to imagine some random Peruvian leading the imaginary parade in Oostburg.

So just imagine we're walking from OHS down the street past the elementary school, going to the Piggly Wiggly, then turning down Main Street to loop back to the high school. Really no organization, just a mob of kids carrying banners about sex. Then, halfway through the parade route, the kids start handing out condoms to everyone they pass – bus drivers, store owners, moms with children, even sticking their heads through open windows to give condoms to the people hiding inside.

Well, that's exactly what happened during our parade. I was nervous at first, wondering if John William had gotten this approved or if I was going to be thrown out of a site that wasn't even mine, but people accepted with good humor and more than one guy held up his condom with a laugh. Providing youth, and their parents, with open and honest information about sexual health is one of the most important and tangible things that we do as Peace Corps Peru volunteers.

Though the day felt like a bit of a mess, I’m declaring it a success. We educated. We entertained. We hung out with jovenes (youth).

And maybe, just maybe, we helped some of them think of the consequences of their actions.

What more can I ask for?

(Also, I’m just really relieved I didn't have to dance with a doctor dressed up in a condom costume like my friend Sarah Yoss.)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


I’m not sure why but I was not looking forward to Thanksgiving this year. In general, I have a pretty take it or leave it attitude about Thanksgiving but this year it was more than that. I was thinking of Thanksgiving as one more thing I had to “get over with” before I could go home. I was too focused on the things that were coming after Thanksgiving that I wasn't thinking about all the reasons that November 24 (or in our case, November 26) was going to be awesome.

The holiday did not go off without a hitch – I received some heart breaking news in Lima, had to ride a night bus with forty hyper 10-12 year-olds, and forgot my favorite shirt in Lima (hopefully to be recovered before my trip to the States). Overall, though, it was exactly what I needed.

On Thanksgiving Day, thirty(ish) volunteers arrived in Trujillo, the capital of La Libertad, the department north of Ancash. I spent the sunny day watching two friends doing tricks at the skate park, wandering the mall in awe, eating delicious fresh fish, and, once again, having pizza for Thanksgiving dinner.

The next day, we divided our group and conquered the market, buying enough food for all of the traditional Thanksgiving dishes. With potatoes and turkeys in tow, we took buses two hours north to Erin's beach site, home of the longest left breaking wave in the world. In the afternoon, we lounged on the beach before working hard on supper prep for the next day.

Saturday was our much anticipated “fake Thanksgiving”. We woke early (for me, at least!) for a Turkey Trot 5K on the beach. I thought living at altitude would help but running on sand was still difficult. I’ll admit that I walked and caught up with friends much more than I ran.

I helped some friends prepare their contributions to the meal but my favorite part of prep was carving one of the turkeys. Another volunteer had tracked down two 13 kilo mammoths and after a quick lesson from Elke, I was put in charge of carving one of them. There was something very primal and oddly satisfying about ripping and cutting apart that turkey. I offer my services for next year. Over an hour and a half later, we had enough turkey to feed a small army.

Despite being in Peru, it was a delicious meal of turkey, garlic mashed potatoes, sweet potato pie, veggies, sweet potato biscuits, gravy, stuffing, homemade applesauce, and pumpkin, apple, and strawberry pies. We shared our meal with Erin's host family, friends from her site, and some surfers from our hostal. Since I couldn't be home for Thanksgiving it was the next best thing.

We had an awesome beach bonfire that night and spent a sunny Sunday playing cards on the beach before heading home that night (which is when I encountered the bus full of talkative 10 year-0lds on a field trip and seriously considered murder).

Lesson learned. Sometimes it's easy to become so wrapped up in the excitement of the next best thing that it's easy to miss all of the unexpected wonderful moments I experience everyday. I was so focused on going home that I forgot all about how amazing it would be to celebrate and spend time with my good friends here – people who support me and care for me like a family.

In that spirit, three things I can be thankful about right now, as I sit in a combi, in a seat that is lacking the six inches of room that would allow my legs to fit behind the seat in front of me and is full of people speaking Quechua:

  1. that I found this piece of paper and a pen so I could write this blog entry instead of being bored,

  2. that I’m comfortable in a thermal shirt I acquired today in a bag of stuff my friend Pete left behind,

  3. that I was able to catch up with some friends today that I didn't see at Thanksgiving and that I’ll be seeing another friend from a faraway department later in the week.

So as I try to focus on the here and now, I can't help but thinking about how I’ll be feeling in 13 days. As much as I try to appreciate the experience I’m having here my mind can't help but wander to how wonderful/amazing/spectacular it's going to feel to be holding, hugging, and hanging with my nieces (and, you know, other people too).

Oh well.

Monday, November 21, 2011


As the day of my arrival in the United States of Awesomeness sloooooowly creeps forward (Did you know I was coming home? Or did you somehow miss my billion Facebook updates/blog posts about that very subject?), I can´t help but think of all the reasons I´m excited to visit. It may be a cliche to say that you don´t know what you´ve got until it´s gone, but in the past few days I´ve realized just how true that statement is. Of course I am most excited to see people (especially ones named Emmeline and Elaina) but I´ve also found myself dreaming about some other basic comforts. For something novel, here´s a list (and feel free to steal any of these for your reason to be thankful this up-coming Thursday)...

- Target. Let me explain... When I´m in my capital city, Huaraz, I often have a list of things to acquire (food, art supplies, clothes, accessories, books, etc.) and it will take me a whole (frustrating) day to find everything. What takes me a day in Ancash will take me an hour at Target. Plus, they have cute shoes.

- The Piggly Wiggly. I plan on visiting the store, getting a cup of free coffee, and staring at the baking section at least once a day. Also the deli section. And frozen foods. And produce. And dairy. Okay, I´m just going to wander the store like a lost (and excited) puppy on a daily basis.

- Showering. Every day. And then being able to blow dry my hair. And wear make up. And feel like a real person. Every. Single. Day.

- Coffee. Real coffee. Not instant coffee but real drip coffee. Every single day.

- Home cooking. When I´m in Huaraz, we often go to restaurants, which is nice. But there is nothing quite like real home cooking.

- Baking. I am so excited to bake in a kitchen that is actually stocked for baking. Baking here always requires some sort of sacrafice because you are always missing some important component (a cookie sheet, cake pan, or cupcake pan; brown sugar; an actual recipe).

- Running on a treadmill.

- Greasy diner omlettes, hashbrowns, and coffee. (Dad, you said we would go out to breakfast multiple times while I´m home... I´m not going to to forget!)

- Christmas! Christmas music, Christmas decorations, Christmas cookies, Christmas trees, Christmas lights, Christmas movies, Christmas snow... the Christmas spirit. It was tragicly missing from my life last year (I more or less tried to pretend that Christmas wasn´t happening) so I am extra excited for Christmas this year.

- Internet. All of the time. I will be attempting to download a year´s worth of TV shows while I´m home.

- Canned soda. I already wrote a whole blog entry on this subject...

- Wine that doesn´t come in a box. And actually tastes good.

- No Quechua. Or Spanish. Perhaps I will even remember how to speak English (though I find that rather doubtful.) I would like to pre-apologize for my constant use of Spanglish.

- Being with people. By far, the hardest part of the Peace Corps (for me) is the lonliness. More than anything, I am excited to be constantly surrounded by people I love. I honestly hope that the drives to and from Madison are the longest stretches of time I need to spend alone. I want to aprovechar (take advantage... but in a good way) every single minute of my trip home. Because more then all of these material things and creature comforts, being with all of you is going to be the best part of this trip. 22 (painfully long) days.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Canned Christmas

I was recently watching an episode of Friends where Joey and Chandler bought everyone Christmas gifts at a gas station. The boys gave Ross a can of soda for a gift and it took me a few minutes to understand the joke – a can of soda is not considered a good gift in the States. Canned beverages are uncommon and expensive in Peru and something I rarely spend money on.

I started thinking about other canned things that I would happily accept as gifts. The list includes:
cans of peaches
cans of French green beans, cream of mushroom soup, and fried onions
cans of mandarin oranges
cans of beer
jars of Grandma's applesauce and strawberry jam (created through the “canning process”)
cans of Pringles
cans of pears
cans of tomato soup
cans of Spaghetti-Os
cans of tuna
cans of frosting
cans of orange and cinnamon rolls
cans of pizza sauce
cans of grape juice concentrate
cans of nacho cheese
and, cans of clams (for my friend Ali)

Really, the long and short of it is that I’m going to be very easily pleased when I’m home in 41 days.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Application Form

Two blog posts in one day! Make sure to read this one first.

...because it would a been a miserable business to have any unfriendliness on the raft; for what you want, above all things, on a raft, is for everybody to be satisfied, and feel right and kind towards the others.” - The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

An application to join my team for an up-coming Great Amazon River Rafting Race:



How do you know me?

Do you mind getting sunburned?

How important do you think eating is?

Are you will to earn some blisters?

How do you deal with boredom?

Do you enjoy singing?

Do you know the words to at least thirty songs, including “I Will Survive”?

Are you will to risk your life for only a t-shirt?

Are you comfortable urinating in your pants?

Does monotony bother you?

Would you describe yourself as competitive?

How long do you hold a grudge?

Do people describe you as being a “complainer”?

Are you able to push through physical pain?

Are you easily discouraged?

Are you willing to embarrass yourself?

Do you mind sleeping in a school with 150 strangers?

Have you ever paddled anything before?

Are you afraid of water?

Additional Comments:

Please send the completed questionnaire to

Amazon Adventures

My souls, how the wind did scream along! And every second or two there'd come a glare that lit up the white-caps for a half a mile around, and you'd see the islands looking dusty through the rain, and the trees thrashing around in the wind; then comes a H-WHACK! - bum! Bum! Bumble-umble-um-bum-bum-bum-bum – and the thunder would go rumbling and grumbling away, and quit – and then RIP comes another flash and another sockdolager. The waves most washed me off the raft sometimes, (…). We didn't have no trouble about snags; the lightning was glaring and flittering around so constant that we could see them plenty soon enough to throw her head this way or that and miss them.” - The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

My most recent adventure was a trip to the Peruvian jungle to participate in four day rafting race down the Amazon River. Each team consisted of four people and had to build their own raft (or, in our case, pay some Peruvians to make it for us) out of eight logs and some rope. I was on a team with three other people from my training group, Kim, Kelsi, and Erin. We joined 51 other Peace Corps volunteers to paddle down the Amazon.

Go Team Gladys

There was some obvious signs of disorganization before the race even started. Thursday was dedicated to building the rafts and the promised, and necessary rope, wasn't delivered until sunset, water didn't show up until 4, and supper was served at 10:45. There weren't any bathrooms and our race-issued tent flooded.

On the up side, cold beer was available all day.

So going into the first day of racing we had our concerns. I knew that this race was going to be hard work but I underestimated the effort necessary to paddle 112 miles on the Amazon River. I expected that paddling would help move your raft but that if you didn't paddle you would still make forward progress on the river. Not true. If you stopped paddling you stopped moving. The Amazon River is so wide that it's more comparable to imagine paddling across a lake.

After 6 or 7 hours of rafting, we reached the first check point. All 50-some teams slept in a school in the same village and there was a timed start the next morning. Despite some tension amongst team mates, we were feeling pretty good. I spent the afternoon drinking jungle beer, playing frisbee and was sleeping by 8:30.

The next day my team started out with the slow group and were on the water by 9am. The weather reminded me of a hot, humid Wisconsin summer day except hotter and more humid. I continuously drenched myself in refreshing river water.

The best (and probably only) safety feature of this race was the promise that the coast guard would come pick up all the teams that were still on the water at 4:30. Well, 4:30 came and went and my team was still on the water staring down some ominous storm clouds. Behind us was a beautiful sunset but in front of us the sky was full of black, huge storm clouds.

We rowed on.

An hour later, there still wasn't a boat in sight and the storm was moving closer. The sun had almost disappeared and the sky above us was now full of clouds. The thunder was booming closer and it seemed like the lightning was flashing right in front of our face. The wind had picked up and the water was getting rough.

It was time to be a little concerned. We put our life jackets on.

Around 6pm, it was almost completely dark and we saw a group of people standing on the top of a two-story cliff. We rowed over to them and yelled up to ask how close we were to the checkpoint. They said we were still at least an hour away and on the wrong side of the (very wide) river. It was time to abandon ship. Some of the townspeople came down to help us tie up our raft and scramble up the side of the cliff.

We were in a small jungle town with only ten families. They welcomed us into their school and lit some kerosene lamps since there wasn't any electricity. Almost immediately after we stepped into the school, the wind really started roaring and the sky opened up into a torrential downpour.

Eventually, we started to see lights scanning the shore searching for rafts. The coast guard boat saw our raft and hollered for us to put our life jackets on and get down to the boat. The waves were crashing into the shore and they were having difficulty keeping the boat still. We slipped and slid back down the cliff, which was now pure mud, and boarded the boat. After climbing down a ladder, we entered a small cabin that was already crowded with other rescued teams.

I was relieved to find myself in a seat next to one of my good friends, Kyle. For the first time I realized how close we had been to disaster and I started silently crying – both from relief and anxiety about other teams that might still be on the water.

Thankfully, everyone made it to the checkpoint. Seven teams had to be rescued and were unable to finish the race because their boats had to be abandoned. It was horribly disappointing to not be able to do the final six hours of rowing after completing the first 16 hours. Cheering on other teams while they crossed the finish line was bittersweet – I was proud of my friends for finishing but hugely sad that I wasn't out there with them. I know that if we had been picked up at 4:30 like we had been promised they would have been able to tow our boat and we could have completed the race.

So I’m planning on going back. I need to finish that last day. If you're interested in joining my team, fill out the application form in my next blog entry. This time we're going to conquer the Amazon.

This is more or less what our raft looked like.

That is more or less a complete lie.

This is what our raft actually looked like.

Friday, September 23, 2011


Time is a tricky construct in the Peace Corps. It takes on a life of it's own, stretching and scrunching at will. Three months can seem like a blink compared to the twelve hours before you can crawl back into bed. Time means nothing... and everything.

The lack of seasons can take some credit for the elasticity of time. My trip home in December (80 days from now) seems right around the corner. I'm already making plans and starting to watch Christmas movies. If I was in Wisconsin, I would have to get through all of fall and be deep into winter before December 13 appeared on the calendar. But in Peru we're already transitioning into the rainy season. The absence of changing seasons makes December seem much closer.

Despite the fact that December seems so close, days have the ability to stretch themselves into individual eternities. Some days are busy and rush by in a blur of stress and Spanish. But, more often, the most important thing to do all day will be a five minute meeting with the school principal or fifteen minutes of reading to a preschool class. On those days, I'm faced with hours and hours of blank time to fill. Which explains why I'm crocheting a blanket, why I've learned how to sew a skirt out of an old pair of jeans, why I've read seventy books... anything to fill all the endless time.

I used to think of time as belonging on a line. It moved at a consistent pace and actually meant something. Now it flies whenever I wish it would slow down, and crawls when I wish it would hurry up. An hour can feel like five minutes or five days. Instead of being on a line, time now belongs on a merry go round, speeding up and slowing down, going round and round but not really going anywhere at all.

Check out pictures from Mom's trip in August (really, did that happen only a month ago?) HERE

Monday, August 22, 2011

Carol in Peru

As many of you know, my Mom is here in Peru. I've been counting down to this trip for months and I knew that it would be awesome to show her around this wonderful place that I call home. And, of course, it has been amazing having her here. It's always neat to see Peru through new eyes and it's shown me just how "acostumbrar-ed" (accustomed) I've become. Mom asks the questions that I used to ask, she's surprised by things that used to surprise me, she points out things that I've stopped noticing...

After 15 months of requesting people to guest write for this blog, Mom agreed to share her fresh perspective on Peru. So, without further adieu, I present Carol Mentink...

I've been asked by a number of people while I've been here what I think of Peru - amazing, friendly, sad, chaotic, content, contradictory, beautiful, and extreme are words I would use to describe Peru. I have seen people nicely dressed standing outside of homes that you can't imagine anyone could live in and passed by hundreds of homes that were started but never finished. We have walked on streets filled with crazy drivers and litter (that would be every street!), walked through markets selling everything you can imagine. We have eaten in wonderful restaurants, cozy cafes, and in the home of Beth's site family on stools in a small "kitchen" with a dirt floor, a corner fire and a single light bulb. I have seen families with so little and yet content with what they have.

I have enjoyed meeting Beth's friends - both in the Peace Corps and those she has met along the way. What an adventuresome group of people, all willing to stretch and push themselves beyond their own personal limit for a greater good. They have a different perspective on life with a picture that is perhaps more worldly than most - I have a sense that Beth is not done traveling and I wonder where her adventures may take us in the future.

I had the opportunity to watch Beth and John William, another PCV, lead a youth group meeting at Beth's site. Kids of all ages attend with the group being anywhere from 10-30. Yesterday they made paper airplanes and then had contests to see how far each could fly their plane. The winner chose a book to read. Clifford, the Big Red Dog, is their favorite and John William read it to them, interjecting humorous comments in English for Beth and my benefit. They loved my camera and took lots of pictures of each other. Prior to youth group, Beth and I cleaned her room which as many of you know has recently been visited by Charlie that I believe to be a mouse and not a larger rodent. I decided it needed a Mom's touch and so I swept and sorted while Beth put all of her food in a plastic container. Following a dinner of trout, potatoes and noodle soup with egg (we thought we were going to have takush - rotten potato soup - so you can imagine my excitement to learn we were having fish!), we returned to our room to settle down for the evening. I was glad I chose to sleep with flashlight in hand as Charlie visited at 2 a.m. Beth and I listened carefully to determine Charlie's location and then after we did not hear him for several minutes, Beth held the flashlight while I held the broom and moved things around to see if he was still present. We determined he was not, went to bed and did not hear from him again. Hopefully, moving the food and some other things will prove effective in Charlie finding another place to visit.

Tonight we are at Lazy Dog Inn, a beautiful inn in the mountains with views that can best be described as breathtaking. We are sitting by a roaring fire while waiting for a dinner that smells delicious. Tomorrow when we return to Huaraz we are planning to shop for souvenirs, buy a dresser for Beth's room (she currently stacks her clothes on a piece of tarp on the floor), and have dinner with a group of Beth's friends and some of their family also visiting. We will then be returning to Lima on the overnight bus in preparation for my return home on Thursday.

Time has passed by too quickly these past few days. It has been nice to put faces with names, see beyond the pictures that Beth has shared and spend time with Beth. It will be sad to leave but nice to go home knowing that Beth will be returning to us in December.

As Beth has often said, if you can, please visit her. She would love your company and to show you her world. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity - take it and have a great time!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Reasons Why You Should Come Visit Me in Ancash

1. You miss me.

2. You can meet my Peruvian niece and nephew.

3. My host family just painted the house because my Mom is visiting. If I tell them I’m having another American visitor they might finally finish the bathroom.

4. To help me practice my English.

5. There are three beautiful hikes that all leave from my site.

6. Meet my Peace Corps friends!

7. To learn the diverse number of ways you can eat potatoes.

8. Help me catch Charlie.

9. To prove your Ultimate skills by playing Ultimate Frisbee at altitude.

10. For a multi-day hike, like Santa Cruz.

11. To come to the Second Annual Sabor de Huaraz.

12. To be a librarian for a day.

13. So I'll have something interesting to blog about.

14. Learn Quechua.

15. Teach me how to cross rivers without hurting myself.

16. See beautiful stars.

17. See this:

18. To deliver peanut butter.

19. So people will make fun of someone else's Wisconsin accent.

20. I'll share illegally downloaded TV shows and movies with you.

21. Did I mention that you miss me?

Some Updates:

  1. I think Charlie is still sneaking into my room. I even think I figured out how he's getting in. Now I’m just trying to figure out how to stop him. And any trace of reverse Stockholm Syndrome has worn off and now I just feel full of rage.

  2. My host sister did have a baby boy. The baby daddy is living with us. Amelia and Narcizio seem really happy together. If they get married and nobody tells me I’m not going to talk to anyone in this house for weeks, like an angsty teenager.

  3. The new Peruvain President has not kicked all foreigners out of the country, as was previously rumored and feared. He's been in power for almost a week. I think we're in the clear.

  4. I still don't have running water. My body is learning to live on very little water each day – this probably isn't a good thing. (More on this in my next blog entry.)

  5. I’ve learned that it's possible to be ridiculously happy and ridiculously homesick at the same time. I can't wait for December 2011 (when I'll be visiting home again) and I’m terrified of August 2012 (when I'll be done with the Peace Corps).

Check out more pictures of my BEAUTIFUL home HERE!

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Accidental Adventure

This past Wednesday I woke up and decided it was a day for some exploring. There's a road that leads up from my site and I’ve been wondering for awhile how far it goes. Since the school is on vacation for two weeks and there's really nothing going on around town, I decided it was the perfect day to walk the road till the end.

I had left my backpack in Huaraz and didn't plan on the hike last more than an hour or two so I didn't bring along my normal hiking supplies: water, a jacket, camera, first aid gear, etc. Instead, I threw on my easy terrain hiking shoes, jeans, and a t-shirt and stuffed my pockets with my (nearly dead) cell phone, my iPod, 5 soles, and a sucker.

It was a beautiful day and a gorgeous hike along the road. At one point, I turned around and realized that Huascaran, the highest tropic mountain in the world, and four other snow capped peaks were framing my horizon. I passed a field overflowing with small, yellow butterflies. I didn't see a single car or truck and few people. I felt like I was in a magical Andean countryside created just for me.

I reached the end of the road after about two hours, around 1pm. I found a spot where I could see my site to the right and Huaraz to the left and thought about how close my site is to Huaraz and how very, very different they are. Since I’ve moved to site, I’ve always wondered if I could possibly walk to Huaraz. It was only 1pm and I had no real desire to turn around, so I decided to just walk a little farther. I could see a little forest that I desperately wanted to check out, so I headed in that direction.

The paths came and went. I would go awhile on a footpath before I realized it had disappeared. I would continue to make my own path, knowing only the general direction of my destination. I knew that when given the option I should always continue uphill, since going downhill would make it almost impossible to cross any rivers that had become deep ravines. I continued exploring with an eye on my watch and the general idea that I should turn around by 4pm if I wanted to make it home before dark at 6:15.

Shortly after exiting the dark, little forest that had urged me to continue my trip, I climbed the embankment of a field and rounded a corner when four snarling, barking, angry dogs came sprinting towards me. I stumbled backwards, groping for a stone. Usually just reaching for a stone scares dogs away but these four kept charging. I was backpedaling as fast as possibly while simultaneously pulling out my ear buds (probably in an attempt to think more clearly) and reaching for any rock. Thankfully, my hands finally made contact with two hefty rocks and I got ready to throw. The dogs stopped and we stared at each other. Soon (but not soon enough!), the dogs' owner came strolling down the path. No apologies, just a nod as if to say, “Hey. I see you met my dogs.” My eyes were as big as saucers and I was shaking as the adrenaline continued to surge through my body.

Quieres pasar?” You want to pass? The owner asked.

Si. Pero... puedo?” Yes. But... can I? I replied, casting a nervous glance at the still barking dogs.

Si, por supuesto.” Yes, of course. He answered, looking a bit confused.

I took a step and a dog lunged towards me. The owner scolded him and gestured for me to continue on. I took another step which was answered by another bark. Eventually, the owner got the dogs under control and I scurried away, gripping the two rocks I still had in my hands. I felt comfortable again once the dogs were out of sight – but I had a rock in each of my back pockets and one in my hand for the rest of the trip.

I walked and walked. I came across two soccer goal posts, roughly constructed, that marked the end lines to a soccer field with snow capped mountains as the background. I still wonder who goes there to play soccer, since the closest houses were an hour away in any direction. I was once again struck my how remote I was.

At some point, I realized that there was no way I could possibly backtrack on foot everything I had walked. I was feeling exhausted and it was just too far to walk before dark. I either had to reach Huaraz or the main highway. There really wasn't any other option.

So I kept walking. I crossed a river, which is always a dangerous prospect when I’m hiking by myself. When I hiked to another volunteer's site a month ago, I was cut so badly that I just had to stand on a rock in the middle of a river holding my arm until the pressure helped the bleeding subside. As I was walking along the path, I didn't see a clear way across the river, but thought that I saw a small footpath. I dove into the brush and quickly realized that there was no path. There also wasn't really a way back up to the path I had been on. I just had to push through. I could feel sticks and twigs getting stuck in my hair and thorns ripping across my bare arms but there wasn't really anything I could do. I took a step and feel chest deep into a hole of some sort. I pulled myself out and kept pushing through. I stepped into a clearing and saw... a bridge. If I had walked three more minutes I would have come across a path and a bridge.

Rivers. They're out to get me.

But I wasn't bleeding too badly (and didn't have my first aid stuff even if I was), so I continued onwards. Around 3pm, I arrived in a village. I only had 5 soles with me and knew that I needed 2.50 for the ride back to site but I couldn't resist spending half my money on two bottles of water. I hadn't brought my Nalgene along and had gotten so desperate for water during the hike that I broke one of my important “staying healthy in Peru” rules and drank water straight out of the rivers I passed. I hoped I was close enough to their glacial source that they weren't too contaminated. I promise to keep you updated on all of the stomach mishaps that occur due to this decision. Regardless, I finally had water and almost finished one 635ml bottle before even exiting the store.

The rest of the walk took place on a road through small communities. I still had no idea where I was but the road was leading in a generally downhill direction and I didn't have the energy to fight it. I just went where I was lead. Soon, I came across a road marker that said “5km”. Shortly, I saw another one saying “4km”. I assumed that the markers were measuring the distance to the main road and I sought each one out with an exhausted eagerness.

Around 3:45, I called my PCVL, the one person who I could almost guarantee would be in Huaraz. “Hey Sophie.” I said. “I have a favor.”

Go ahead.” she replied.

Well,” I said, hesitantly. “I kind of accidentally walked to Huaraz and I haven't eaten all day and I don't have any money and...”

Let me invite you to lunch.” she cut me off, laughing. “Where do you want to go?”

I had been dreaming about the couches at California Cafe for the last hour. “California sound okay? Half hour?”

Sophie agreed.

I was finally in Huaraz and could catch a combi to my final destination. But a combination of stubbornness and weariness kept me from waiting for one. Stubbornness because I had made it this far on foot and wanted to continue the journey by myself. And weariness because I was afraid that if I sat down I would never get up again and would be stuck circling the same combi route for the rest of my life.

So I entered into the hardest part of my journey, walking from the outskirts of Huaraz to the center of town. I was feeling some culture shock – after being so completely isolated it was unsettling to be around so many people – plus the adventure had worn off now that I was back in familiar territory.

It's almost exactly six hours from the door of my house to the door of California Cafe. I was still picking twigs out of my hair from the disastrous river crossing (still am, actually) as I explained to Luisa, the wonderful owner, my adventure and immediately felt the homey hospitality that makes me love California Cafe. She assured me that if Sophie didn't show up for some reason I could pay for my food later, asked if I was okay after walking alone, and treated me to two extra large fresh orange juices.

After eating (and laughing about the absurdity of the day with Sophie), I walked to my combi stop and got the last available seat. I promptly rested my head against the window and prepared to sleep. Little did I know, I was in for one of the crazier combi rides of my life. Let's just say there were at least six people crouched in the aisle and eight guys riding on the roof. Oh, the last combi of the day is always interesting.

I got home around 7, watched an episode of West Wing, and was passed out cold by 8.

For anyone keeping count, this is the third beautiful hike I’ve found from my site. So if you're still looking for a reason to visit, this is another one. I’m just a short flight (and bus ride) away. And, I promise, we'll keep some rocks in our pockets.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sabor de Huaraz

I usually attempt to entertain my blog readers with stories of my misadventures here in Peru. Most recently: finding a rat in my room, freezing while camping, and almost dying on a mountainside. But every once and awhile, I like to talk about something that makes me sound like a fairly competent human being. It doesn't happen too often so bear (bare? What does that even mean?) with me.

After a month of hard work and sleepless nights, we finally successfully held the First Annual Sabor de Huaraz (or Taste of Huaraz). I alluded to this fundraiser in the entry about “A Long Way Home” so here are the details. This event was brainstormed by my close friend, John William, who promptly left for a trip to America, leaving the work to his peons back in Peru (just kidding, J Dub!). Patrick, Sophie, and I spear headed the project, receiving a lot of support from other Peace Corps volunteers.

Will and Bumble, working hard at Chilli Heaven

Sabor de Huaraz was based on events like Taste of Madison or Taste of Chicago. We went around to various restaurants in Huaraz and asked them to donate small samples of a menu item to each paying participant. The participants bought tickets for 20 soles each and were able to go to six different restaurants to sample foods. All of the proceeds would directly fund our girl's self-esteem camp and our HIV/AIDS awareness camp for youth.

Michael and Patrick at La Rotonda

It was a revolutionary idea. We checked and double checked with each participating restaurant to make sure they understood what was expected. Contracts were signed. Some people had their doubts. We become more determined to make sure the whole event was a success.

Satisfied customers!!!

The night before the event I got, at most, three hours of sleep. Yoss and I were working in California Cafe, taking tickets, washing dishes, serving food, taking orders, pretty much helping to make sure everything got done, and the word had gotten out to the participants that California was the only place serving dessert. We expected to have a rush towards the end of the day but as the first hour of the event passed and we had only served two people I was starting to panic. What if no one showed up? What if things were going horribly wrong at the other restaurants? What if all of those doubters were right?

More satisfied customers - also, some of my best Frisbee Friday friends.

Well, they weren't right. People started coming in waves at around hour two and we were busy pretty consistently for the next two hours. Once I realized the event was a success, I couldn't wipe the smile off of my face. Even now, two weeks later, I feel a little glow-y thinking about it. The restaurants came through with some truly spectacular food, including a chicken curry sandwich, individual pizzas, a curry wrap, papa a la Huancaina (my favorite Peruvian dish), spaghetti, and a brownie with ice cream. And all six restaurants said they would participate in this event again. Participants gave rave reviews of the food, planning, and overall organization of the event.

That's me, working at California Cafe.

We raised over 1500 soles to educate and empower kids in Ancash. Easily one of my biggest Peace Corps successes and a day I will always feel proud of.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Santa Cruzin'

Peru recently celebrated Fiestas Patrias, or Independence Days. All Peace Corps volunteers received four vacation days and, along with some close friends, I fled the overcrowded Huaraz to walk the Santa Cruz trail. Santa Cruz is possibly the most trekked trail in Ancash but I didn't understand why until I was on it. I found that my vocabulary failed me as I tried to think of adjectives to describe what I was seeing. Spectacular. Unbelievable. Beautiful. Amazing. Gorgeous. Awe-inspiring. None of these words seemed like enough and I was usually just looked on in awe with a disbelieving sigh and shake of the head.

I have plenty of stories from this trek but I’m going to share just two of them and let the pictures do the rest of the talking.

Sleepless in Santa Cruz:

I set off on the Santa Cruz trek with three close friends: Ian, Elke, and Kyle. We knew that another group of Peace Corps volunteers had left about thirty minutes before us and were hoping to meet up with them at the first camp. I had some experience on day hikes and some experience camping but I had never gone on a multi-day trek like this one. Most people do Santa Cruz in four days with the assistance of guides and donkeys, we were setting out on our own with all of our gear in our backpacks and would end up doing the trek in three days.

None of this donkey nonsense for us. Also, this is a very dizzying picture.

Three days. Thirty miles. Starting at 2900 meters above sea level. Climbing to a pass at 4750 meters above sea level. 1850 meters of ascent.

Talk about feeling hardcore.

This is a very "natural" picture.

We hit the first official camp late in the afternoon but still had a few hours of daylight left. Someone at the camp reported that another group of gringos had recently passed by so we decided to keep walking, hoping to reach the next official camp before dark. The problem is that we're not dealing with long Wisconsin summer days and that we only had until 6:15 before total darkness reigned. Around 6, we realized that we were not going to find our friends or reach the next camp so we set up an unauthorized camp site. After setting up our two tents and enjoying a delicious supper of Ramen, spaghetti, and canned sauce, we built a bonfire. It was my first bonfire since coming to Peru and it transported me to all of the nights I spent with my friends back home huddled around a fire.

Ian (from Green Bay, WI) and Kyle (from some other not so cool place)

Eventually, we ran out of wood to burn and realized how cold it was outside of the protective burning barrier. We gathered around the blazing coals one last time to check out the stars which were positively spectacular with no light or civilization for miles. We quickly changed into our sleeping clothes and ran to our respective tents, exhausted and ready to sleep.

But sleep never came. I’ve been cold before. Last winter (and by that, I mean the last winter I was home) in the middle of a cold snap, the heat stopped working in my apartment in Madison and I thought I was going to freeze. I’ve taken walks during Wisconsin winters. I know what it's like to feel like my face was going to freeze off. I’ve been caught in Peruvian rainstorms. I know what it means to be cold.

I’ve never been cold like this before. I was in a sleeping bag rated for 20 degrees and felt like I had no shield against the elements. I tried to tuck my whole body into my sleeping bag so I would be completely covered but found no relief. I considered crying out of absolute exhaustion and frustration but feared that the tears would just freeze on my face.

It was not a restful evening.

Despite the fact that everyone had slept horribly the night before, we were all in good spirits the following morning. Honestly, it's hard to not be in good spirits when you wake up by the side of a glacial lake, surrounded by mountains and good friends.

How could you be grumpy waking up here?

After breakfast, we headed back onto the trail and promptly ran into the other group of Peace Corps volunteers. They had camped ten minutes from us! It was a great reunion and we were all excited to be able to hike the next two days together.

Reunited and it feels so good!

The second day of hiking was great (read the next story to see just how I define “great”). After making it over the pass, we settled down by another lake and realized that we were going to be in for another cold night. I dug through my backpack to find every piece of clothing I had with me and looked like quite the fool as I helped set up camp while wearing leggings, jeans, shorts, three t-shirts, a hooded sweatshirts, two jackets, a wool hat, three pairs of socks, wool socks, hiking shoes, and mittens made out of a pair of socks. At one point, I tried to braid my hair and realized my hands were too cold to function properly. Everyone made supper as quickly as possible and we ate in our tents – all four members of my group squeezed into our three person tent. With all of that body heat it was finally warm and we decided to all sleep in the same tent.

A cozy supper.

To be honest, I didn't sleep much better. I was so sore that I spent the night tossing and turning. But at least I was warm. And, honestly, that's all that mattered. Ian and I vowed that we would be sleeping in real beds the next night. That didn't actually happen since we didn't have a reservation at any hostel and Huaraz was overrun by tourists for the holidays but the owner of our “Peace Corps hostel” found two mattresses and made a makeshift bedroom for us in the corner of the lobby.

It was the best sleep of my life.

That Time Ian Saved My Life:

On Day Two of the trek we had to reach the pass. Because once you start climbing up towards the pass your options are to get to it and climb back to a lower (and flatter) altitude or to turn around and try again.

Turning around was not an option.

We started the morning with a pleasant stroll through a valley, still amazed at the fact that we had all slept within ten minutes of each other and not realized it.

After a short subida (climb up? I’m not exactly sure of the translation), we entered another valley that might possibly be the most beautiful place I’ve ever been in my life. And I’ve been lucky enough to have visited some beautiful places.

After a short break, we started climbing. And let me tell you, it was hard. Super hard. We hadn't slept the night before, we had been on the move for two days, and we were at altitude. But the views made it worth it.

After our lunch break, we still had half of the climb left and were staring up at switchback after switchback after switchback. I understand the theory behind switchbacks. I really do. But when you're looking up at them, you realize that each step you're struggling to take is barely gaining any ground. You're walking and walking and not really going anywhere.

I don't know if it was the altitude, lack of sleep, the 40 pounds on my back, or the fact that my main form of exercise is dancing (which Kyle tells me doesn't count), but around 100 switchbacky meters from the top I could barely breath. I was already pretty far behind the rest of the group but I stopped to take a break and try to catch my breath. Ian wasn't too far ahead of me and he turned around when he didn't hear me moving.

Beth, you okay?” he called.

I thought about lying, acting strong and brave, but decided that was foolish and shook my head.

What's wrong?” he asked.

I can't -” I tried to yell back up to him and realized I couldn't. I tried to take a deep breath but couldn't feel any oxygen entering my lungs. I tried again. “I can't -”

I can't breathe!” I wanted to yell but by that point the panic had set in and unsolicited tears were running down my cheeks. The altitude had made it hard to breathe, the panic attack made it nearly impossible.

Ian hurried back down the path and convinced me to sit down and take my pack off. I felt almost instant relief. “Take a deep breath.” he said. “In through your nose, out through your mouth.” I did as I was told, feeling like one of the day treatment kids I used to work with. As soon as I finished, I started buckling my pack back on. “Are you kidding me?” Ian asked, incredulous. “We're doing at least three more of those.

Eventually, Ian allowed me to move again and we walked the last 100 meters together.

t's sometimes hard in the Peace Corps (or in life) to feel a real, concrete sense of accomplishment. But standing on the top of that pass... I don't have words for it.

Except for these: We're already planning our next trek.

Saturday, July 23, 2011


I might be going crazy.

Eleven wonderful members of Peru 17 are currently in Ancash on Field Based Training. In case you don't remember, FBT is the wonderful week during training when the Peace Corps releases all of the Trainees from the Training Center and sends them to visit Peace Corps volunteers in the field. I went to Piura for FBT and had a great time and hoped to help the 17ers have a great time in Ancash.

I’m pretty sure they're just going to remember me as “that crazy volunteer with the rat”.

Let me back up. Last week Wednesday, I was in the grips of insomnia and heard the sound of something scurrying across my floor and chewing on something. I grabbed my phone and shined light in the direction of the noise but didn't see anything. Every time the light went on, the noise stopped but as soon as it was dark again, I could hear something moving about again. But I was in bed and it was cold outside of bed so I decided not to investigate. I think my blasé nature of realizing a rat was in my room is best summed up in this text message to my friend, Patrick: “In bed. Can't sleep. Bored. Pretty sure a small animal is running around in my room...” Then I accidentally sent Patrick six blank text messages as I repeatedly and accidentally hit reply/send trying to shine light towards the noise.

I’m not sure I’ve ever actually seen the rat. I thought I caught a glimpse of it one evening while lying in bed but, again, I was already in bed and decided to let him be. Plus, what am I going to do with a rat? Seriously? Other then scream like a little girl, of course. So my already high levels of avoidance have been able to grow exponentially this past week – it's been surprisingly easy to ignore the fact that there's a rat living in my room; he doesn't bother me during the day, I ignore him at night. It's been a good arrangement.

Yesterday, Thursday, over a week after the first night I heard him, I finally named my room mate... Charlie. Charlie the Rat. Within hours I was talking to him. “Hey Charlie.” I would say when I walked in my room. “Good night, Charlie.” I said when I went to bed. I realized that I was starting to crack and some sort of strange Stockholm Syndrome was taking place. This rodent was taking me hostage in my own room and I was starting to sympathize with him. Something needed to be done.

Today the 17ers came to visit my site. Officially, they were there to hang out with my youth group but I really had one goal in mind... we were going to find Charlie and get him out of my room. I recruited the help of a few brave souls and then sat on top of my desk, feet off the ground, in case my new friend came running across the floor. Those braver than I tore apart my room but found no signs of a rat. They did discover a hole in the wall, which they boarded up, requesting an update the following day.

So now I’m laying on my bed, and my hyper attentive ears are hearing everything. And I mean, everything. A few minutes ago, I glanced over at my food shelves and I would swear that I saw something move. I would put my hand on a Bible and go under oath that I saw a tail wagging about. So I did the only reasonable thing... I opened the door to the main house and called up to my host sister, you know the one who just had a baby, that there was a rat in my room.

My host mom, a wonderful, weathered, take no prisoners Quechua woman, came charging in my room, grabbed a broom, and prepared herself to kill Charlie. But when she examined the shelf I thought I had seen him on, there was nothing there. Nothing! My auditory delusions have progressed to visual ones. My host mom asked me to keep my ears open (no problems there) and let her know if I saw anything else.

And, as I write this, I know that I hear something moving around my room. It's just me and Charlie tonight... again. Whether or not Charlie is an actual animal or just a figment of my imagination is yet to be determined.

Updates in Action: So I finished writing this blog entry and had, more or less, convinced myself that I was hearing and seeing things. Amelia, my host sister, and Narcizio, the baby daddy, stopped in my room to talk and we were just chatting about this and that. Amelia and Narcizio were standing in the doorway facing into the room and I was standing in my room facing them. Suddenly, Narcizio exclaimed that he saw Charlie. Okay, he didn't actually say Charlie but he said that he saw the rat. Vindication! We all stood and stared at each other for a second before Amelia ordered him into the room. I handed him my broom but by the time he and Amelia reached the shelves (I'll admit I was hanging back, preparing to scream like a little girl, if necessary), Charlie had disappeared. Narcizio identified another hole that Charlie might be using to enter my room and I grabbed some cardboard and duct tape to try to block both holes.

On the way out, Narcizio assured me that I didn't need to worry – he was just a little rat. A “chiquito”. A baby. No reason to be alarmed. So Mom, if I haven't taken care of the Charlie problem by the time you come to visit in a few weeks, don't worry. If we hear something running around my room at night, it's really no big deal. It's just Charlie, my little rat friend.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Long Way Gone

I've read a lot of great books during my first year in the Peace Corps. 63 of them to be precise. And some excellent pieces of literature really stand out to me, including The Motorcycle Diaries (Ernesto “Che” Guevara), Mountains Beyond Mountains (Tracy Kidder), and All the President's Men (Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward). But no book has affected me quite as deeply as Ismael Beah's beautifully written autobiography, A Long Way Gone. When I started my blog, I promised myself that I wouldn't use it as a forum to review any specific book that I’ve read. This book transcends that promise.

I’m currently in the middle of an extremely stressful week. The Peace Corps crew out here in Ancash is putting on a fund raising event this weekend and, since it's the first time doing this particular event, we're learning as we go. As we hit (and successfully problem solve) one road block after another, I find myself getting more and more stressed and the amount of time I spend awake each night tossing and turning is growing exponentially.

Waiting for a combi back to site this afternoon, I finally cracked open A Long Way Gone. I'd been carrying it around all weekend but between running from one thing to another I didn't have time to start reading it. Finally I was sitting in one place long enough to pull out a book. It took approximately 9 pages for my heart to start breaking and for me to realize that whatever trials and tribulations I’m experiencing are truly insignificant.

A Long Way Gone is written by Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone's civil war. Beah is only twelve when the rebels attack and destroy his village and he's separated from everyone he's ever known and forced into hiding in the jungle, living off of fruit and terrified of his own shadow. Beah is terrified because “young boys were immediately recruited and the initials RUF were carved wherever it pleased the rebels, with a hot bayonet. This not only meant that you were scarred for life but that you could never escape from them, because escaping with the carving of the rebel's initials was asking for death, as soldiers would kill you without any questions and militant civilians would do the same.” (Beah, 24) Being recruited into this war meant being marked for life, both physically and psychologically.

Beah walks across the country seeking refuge and safety but within a year he is forced into the army's service. He chronicles the following years of fear and manipulation, drug abuse and brain-washing, in painfully graphic detail, giving a first-hand account of violence that much of the world could never dream of and would rather ignore. Beah sums up that part of his life by saying “(...) the problem (...) is the war that forces us to run away from our homes, lose our families, and aimlessly roam the forests. As a result, we get involved in the conflict as soldiers, carriers of loads, and in many other difficult tasks. All of this is because of starvation, the loss of our families, the need to feel safe and be part of something when all else has broken down. I joined the army really because of the loss of my family and starvation. I wanted to avenge the deaths of my family. I also had to get some food to survive, and the only way to do that was to be part of the army. It was not easy being a soldier, but we just had to do it. (...) I am not a soldier anymore; I am a child. (…) I’ve come to learn that if I am going to take revenge, in that process I will kill another person whose family will want revenge; then revenge and revenge and revenge will never come to an end...” (199)

It amazes and inspires me that Beah, who has experienced the true depths of human suffering, is also able to describe happiness in the purest and most poetic terms I’ve ever heard. When discussing life before the war, Beah states he was “so happy that I felt every nerve in my body had awoken and swayed to the gentlest wind that sailed within me.” (102) Beautiful, no? A Long Way Gone will break your heart and then slowly put it back together, piece by piece, as you come to terms with the extreme cruelty of mankind and the amazing strength of the human spirit. As always, Beah says it best: “I believe children have the resilience to outlive their suffering, if given a chance.” (169)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Maybe Baby

I recently posted a Facebook status update that said "Pretty sure my host sister just had a baby. Super excited!!!" The key words in that statement were "pretty sure". Because, despite the fact that I live with these people, there was uncertainty about whether or not my host sister, Amelia, was preggers. So I will present you with the evidence:

- One day I was at the health post waiting four hours for a meeting (a completely different story) and Amelia came in to see the OB/GYN. After a few minutes, Narcizio, a dude about the same age as me and Amelia, awkwardly entered the health post and joined the meeting.
- Amelia looked like she was gaining weight but it was difficult to tell due to the layers and layers of polleras (the traditional skirts that women wear here). Seriously, look at this picture... would you guess that Amelia was seven months pregnant? (just an FYI: that's my host niece, Judy. She may be my favorite person in this country.)

- There is some evidence that Narcizio moved in with my host family. This evidence mainly consists of me seeing him at various meals at various hours. And hearing his voice around bed time.
- Last Thursday, I was in bed reading at 11pm and assumed that my host family was sleeping because I couldn't hear anyone talking or the television. But when I turned my overhead light off I could see that the lights upstairs were turned on. Even stranger, a car parked outside of the house and I could hear someone leaving the house and, presumably, getting into the car.
- When I called Amelia on Friday she told me that she was in the hospital but that she was okay and would be home the following day.

When I returned to site on Sunday, I was pretty certain that Amelia had given birth. I was confused because I see Amelia on an almost daily basis and talked to her while she was in the hospital and she never once alluded to being pregnant. Is there really that much embarassment about being an unwed mother? Did they think I wouldn't notice a baby in the house? How unobservant do they think I am?

So on Sunday I went to my best source of family gossip - my four year old host niece. "Judy," I asked, "do you have a new brother? Is there a baby in the house?" "SI!" she replied.

I was hesitantly excited.

On Monday, my friend Sylvia came to visit and we had lunch with my host family. Amelia was missing but Narcizio was in attendance. "Where's Amelia?" I asked. Conspiritorial glances were cast around the kitchen and my host dad replied that she was resting. "Resting from what?!?" I wanted to cry. "Giving birth three days ago!?!" But I kept my mouth shut.

When we were done eating, Narcizio asked if we'd like to visit Amelia. "Yes!" I said, my eyes lighting up. Narcizio led Sylvia, Judy, and I to Amelia's dark bedroom. It took a moment to spot the tiny bundle lying next to Amelia in bed - a beautiful baby boy.

We have a baby in the house and I couldn't be more excited! Now I'm just hoping that Amelia and Narcizio get married because a) Narcizio seems like a pretty legit dude and it seems like he makes Amelia happy and b) I really want to go to the wedding.

Oh, the baby's name. I would love to share it with you but I'm not sure what it is. When I asked Judy she told me the name of the puppy. When I asked Amelia she had to ask Narcizio because she didn't even know. It starts with an "A". I'll let you know.

"Tener luz" means to give birth but it's literal translation is "to have light". I find that strangely beautiful.

Friday, June 24, 2011


Ulitmate Frisbee is saving my life. Okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration but it has drastically improved the quality of my life.

California Café is my favorite restaurant in Huaraz. Not only do they have the best breakfast deal in the world (scrambled eggs, diced potatoes, homemade bread, orange juice, and coffee for $4), delicious bacon, and bagel sandwiches, but they also organize an Ultimate Frisbee game every Friday. And when I can go, it’s the highlight of my week. Don’t get me wrong, life at site is going pretty great. I have some projects that are really starting to take off and they definitely bring some satisfaction to my Peace Corps life. But I also have a personal life and Ultimate Frisbee brings some satisfaction to that. Ultimate allows me to interact with other English speakers, make Peruvian friends (and practice Spanish with people who actually know how to speak Spanish), and feel like I know what I’m doing.

I try to align my necessary visits to Huaraz to buy project supplies, fruit, and food with Frisbee Fridays. On Thursday nights I often feel like a kid on Christmas Eve. Since I know I’ll be playing Ultimate the next day I can barely sleep. I’ll try to go to bed early with the knowledge that the sooner I go to bed the sooner I can wake up and get my Frisbee on. But I often lay in the dark, willing myself to sleep, but too wired to do so.

Friday mornings I jump out of bed, get ready quickly, and sling my trusty (but ripping) Targus backpack over my shoulders. After a forty minute walking descent, I jump on a combi, usually sitting in the last available (and least comfortable) seat. When I arrive in Huaraz thirty minutes later, I head straight to my favorite hostal to shower and change my clothes. Yes, I know it’s a little ridiculous to shower before running around for three hours but, after a week, my hair is so disgusting I can’t be seen in civilized company without washing it. Plus, walking around in flip flops, shorts, a tank top, a zip-up hoodie and my hair down is possibly the best feeling in the world.

I run my necessary errands and usually arrive to Café California a few hours before we leave, which is to say, on time. The menu board says to be there at 10:30 and my punctual Midwestern self always arrives by 10:30. The last time I played, we didn’t leave until 12:30. I don’t care, though, because it’s some good internet time and, if I’m feeling particularly flush with cash, I feast on a spinach, egg, and bacon salad.

We take taxis or combis to a field twenty minutes above Huaraz and get beautiful views of the city and surrounding mountains. After a casual warm up, the game begins and it’s great to be zoned in on something that doesn’t have to do with Peace Corps or projects. Three hours of running, being part of a team, and joking around. Three hours of competence, three hours of friendship, three hours of excellence.

After Ultimate we all pile back into the taxis (though sometimes we can’t find enough taxis and I never complain about making the beautiful walk back to Huaraz with some friends), and go back to Café California. Everyone hangs out for a while, talking and eating the free chocho provided by the Café. To me, chocho is a mysterious thing. I hate beans. Other than canned green beans (preferably slathered in cream of mushroom soup and topped with fried onions), I absolutely, without a doubt, hate beans. Chocho is made of white beans (I don’t know what type. I hate beans.) and chopped up peppers marinated in lime juice. I hate beans but I love chocho. And I love sitting around Café California with my Frisbee friends, listening to the mixture of different languages that always flow around the place now that it’s tourist season. Spanish, English, French, German. Friends despite our linguistic differences.

After Frisbee, I meet up with a Peace Corps friend, Erica, to study for the GRE. Although this doesn’t sound fun, I think I always end up laughing more often than learning geometry and I’m okay with that. After our weekly study date, I pick up one last kilo of mandarinas (in season and delicious!) and catch my combi back to site.

I always arrive back in site smiling, refreshed and ready for the week ahead. Ultimate gives me a reason to eat well and exercise. It’s the reason I do yoga most nights, to stay flexible, and work my legs and core. It’s the reason I go for hikes when I have time, to stay in shape for running at altitude. Talking with non-English speaking friends at Café California gives me the Spanish practice that I’m so sorely lacking at site. My GRE study date with Erica forces me to study when I don’t want to.

And the laughing. The team work. The friendship. They’re the things that keep me going for another week.