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.)