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.