Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Campo Time

Time is a funny thing. This year flew by, can’t believe I’m turning XX, where did the day go?  are things we’ve all said at some point.  Of course there are variations in how time feels to an individual.  But there are situations and places where the perception of time passes exactly the same to those around you. Here seems to be one of them. We even have a name for it: “Campo Time.”

Campo time is different than regular time because paradoxically, it passes slowly on the micro-scale and relatively much faster on a macro-scale. This may not seem too different than normal time but I will explain. 

Having a busy schedule makes time go by faster. The average Peace Corps volunteer, on an average day, is not that busy. One needs to adjust the scale of success to fit Peru’s time (whole different time-scale system).  Achieving one thing per day is productive. Two things is amazing.  That measurement helps explain why the day-to-day inches along. This might sound pathetic, but it’s real.  We count the day finished at 7pm. It’s dark, cold, and definitely time to watch tv on your computer. By 7, and sometimes a little bit earlier, I shut my door and say goodnight to Peru for the day.  No more Spanish, no more host family. It’s my time. And usually I get under the blankets by about 8.30. Sometimes I can stay up till 10. But usually not.  So by this scale, at say, 4pm, the day is practically over.  Only 3 more hours till 7 and at 7, it’s done.  Moving up the day. Let’s talk about the lunch hour. We eat between 1 and 2pm everyday.  So at like 11.30am, I say to myself, “Yeah, only like a hour till lunch. It’s practically 4 which is so close to 7 which means it’s tomorrow.”  You can see who when I wake up, the day is already dissected into little doable epochs.  I think about what I used to do in my previous life after 7.  Usually I’d still be at the gym for like an hour. Then I’d come home, take a shower and often bike out to a show till like midnight, get home, sleep till 6.30 and work all day. I got exhausted just writing that sentence now.

Months work in the same way.  Yesterday was February 15 and that means the month’s almost over. It’s practically March.  And this year’s a leap year.

But then, the paradox hits. Have I really been in the campo like 15 months? In Peru a year and a half?  Is my service on the bajada of the parabola?  Yes. All true. What the hell?

John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” And my mom likes to say it when the quotidian gets too real.  And I think it’s sad I wish the days away.  But that’s the way it is. I’m lonely and under stimulated.. But that will pass. Just like today. Just like my service.  I mean, it’s already like 8.30am. Practically lunchtime. Practically July.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Animal Farm

This entry is about animals in my life. It's very different than living in the States in a city. I live with a ton of farm animals and this is their story.  My family has pigs, chickens and guinea pigs near the house.  Their goats live far away in the mountains but we have those too.  But all around, there are donkeys, cows, sheep, horses, dogs and cats in addition to what the family has.  And as a general animal lover, it's been fun. However, there are antics of these animals of which I was unaware before moving here.

First, I thought roosters crowed like once when the sun came up in the morning.  Not true. They crow all the time- day, night, and constantly. Annoyingly. Donkeys also make a shit ton of noise. They bray all the time and show all their nasty teeth while making one of the most horrible noises I have ever heard.  Oh, and the pigs. The goddamn pigs. They get tangled up in their little leashes and make noises more deafening than donkeys and roosters combined. And they are filthy. I understand why groups of people don't want to eat the damn things. They do roll around in shit and eat anything.  And they're really, really ugly. The ones around here are hairy and it's all wire-y and nasty.

But the animals are not just annoying. I do love living around animals. They're funny. Watching baby goats and sheep play is really hilarious. They jump around and are so cute. They really make me happy. And baby cows are awesome. When they come out, their white fur is like bleached white. It changes to like a vanilla color as they get older and more weathered. But baby cows like to play with other baby cows. Also, very cute.  I really can’t tell you how many phone conversations with other volunteers I’ve had talking about baby animals at site.

Our chicken, Catalina, likes to lay eggs on top of our family's cupboard in the kitchen. It takes three weeks to incubate the eggs and then once they're hatched, she'll still sit on them for a week before introducing them to the world.  But baby chicks are also pretty funny to watch. I like to name all the new baby animals and my host siblings think it's pretty funny beacuse that’s something they don’t really do maybe because so many of them die.  We have a lot of names from the Little Mermaid and Lord of the Rings.

And I actually killed my very own guinea pig the other week. The knife was so dull that I had to saw at its neck, which sucked. And as it was bleeding out, it peed on my foot. Nice revenge. But it sure was tastey.

And my kitties are growing and doing well. Getting kind of big, but are healthy and happy. I can't get them spayed here yet, but I bought a birth control shot and my nurse at the health clinic came into my room and gave my cats the shots. Ghetto pet care but I'm doing the best I can...

In general, I am really enjoying living among animals with which I’ve never lived befote in the States. I eat meat here but see how happy most  of their lives are in the campo which aligns with my values fine. But I’ll probably go back to not eating animals or animal products, but I really like the taste.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Something's Happening at Site

I`m finally getting a rhythm here in Peru. It took this long (I`ve been at stie 11 months!) but I think I got it finally. That`s normal I hear, especially for being the first volunteer in my site. I had my doubts till recently; failed projects, meetings nobody came to, etc. But something changed. I`m not exactly sure at what moment it was, but it had something to do with two things:
1.    I can finally offer something except education. I`ve written a grant (hopefully the money starts flowing soon…) for 33 stovetops to build improved kitchens (cocinas). I have 45 families in total in three communities. One is where I live and the other two are tiny communities accessible by foot only.
2.    I took my two adolescents taking my sex ed course to a leadership conference we put together in August. They`re fairly motivated to teach others, paint murals and make radio spots.

The cocina project is huge. It´ll take me pretty much the rest of my service to
complete. The mothers in the project must attend six classes, one a month for six months, in order to receive the cocina. This is a big item for them; it costs about 170 soles here and their equivalent to Medicaid pays them 100 soles per month for food. So it`s be practically impossible for them so save this kind of money. And I like the project because they have to be involved in the process. It`s not just a gift. They have to build the adobes for the cocina and work with me to build the actual cocina. The classes will stretch through the rainy season and we`ll be building the cocinas from about April through August.  I finished my first three classes (the same but in each community) last week. Out of about 45, I only had 4 mothers not come to the first class (most on time). This is legendary here where they don`t have planners, calendars or even watches.  It`s actually fun. My biggest challenge is language. And it`s not Spanish anymore. Most of these mothers don`t speak Spanish. Just Quechua. And yeah, I know a few phrases, but I doubt I could ever teach a class in Quechua even if I studied my ass off for the next year. You can`t guess words in Quechua like you can in Spanish. But, that`s why my host mom comes with me- to translate and make me legit. The classes are about nutrition, hygiene, gardens, building corrals for their guinea pigs, early childhood stimulation and how to make their home healthier.
    And for the adolescents, they`re teaching what I taught them to four others right now. Then we`ll have six peer educators to teach classes during school hours about sex and sexuality. Like I mentioned before, they don`t know shit about birth control and ITSs. This is the first sex ed class ever for this school. Hopefully the teen pregnancy incidence will decrease a little….
    I´ve been working my ass off making a huge garden. It`s a lot of work, but hopefully we`ll have a shit ton of vegetables here during the rainy season. All I can grow at this altitude and climate. I`ve been digging through a mountain of rocks.
    And I`m still teaching in the primary school every day. The kids are kinda growing on me, I must admit. It`s still not my favorite thing to do but I`m completing my classes and probably won`t take more on. Except in the art realm. I have ideas for this….more to come.
    And I still teach boxing but only private lessons to one girl. She`s really got some potential. I use Ace bandages to wrap her wrists. Maybe I`ll bring some back from the States.  If I can find them.
    Speaking of that, I`m visiting home for New Year`s and early January. I`m flying in to New Jersey to see Alex and then to StL to visit my parents. I can get some cold Diet Dr. Pepper, some cold IPAs, some hot ass mother f*ing showers or BATHS and drink from the faucet. It`s all about liquids for me. And temperature control. Those are the comforts of home I miss the most.
    I`m taking violin lessons. I have a teacher here teaching me the traditional music of the area. I`m not learning how to read music and they use Do Re Mi instead of C D E so it´ll be interesting. And I`m doing research to see if I can afford a harp, That´s the other instrument of this region and they`re relatively cheap and I can take lessons here too. Some day I gotta figure out how to bring back two cats, a guitar, violin and possibly a harp. Shit. But worth it. This is where my creative side is taking me and I`m rolling with it. I think I really miss live music. If I have to make it myself, so be it.
    It`s now my second Halloween, second Thanksgiving and second Xmas coming up for my life in Peru. But I think I´ll see some of those Stateside next year. Vamos a ver.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Holy Crap!

This entry is all about poop. If you’re not interested in Peace Corps poop stories, want to keep your mental images pure or you’re already feeling nauseated, skip this entry. You’ve been warned.

So my family’s latrine, as I’ve pointed out before, is really far from the house. Like a football field away. Remember that I live in a tree house like structure and I have to descend a ladder to get outside.  And I keep forgetting to get a flashlight. And it’s dark as shit in the campo when the sun goes down. Also, the latrine is nasty. The hole is almost full.  Every time you got in there to take a shit, you can see mounds of other people’s shit below. And le

So about two months ago, I had a horrible fever for four days and couldn’t really get out of bed. I sweated through hoodies kind of fever. Surprisingly enough during this time, my poops were fairly healthy.  I mean, I probably have some level of diarrhea like between 25-45% of the time. So the days I have good poop are noteworthy and my friends and I usually talk about the good ones. Anyway, during the sick spell, I couldn’t get to the latrine. I had to figure out what to do about this situation. I felt so gross, nasty and had no dignity left at this point, so I looked around my room for options. Black plastic bags. Could I do it? I wasn’t sure, but that seemed like the best I could come up with.  So I positioned myself in my room, rested my knee against my wall and used both hands to hold the bag where a toilet should be.  And dammit all to hell, it worked. I couldn’t believe it but it worked. And really it wasn’t so bad. So I doubled-bagged the situation and placed it on my balcony. Well after about four days, my balcony was starting to look like the episode of Dexter where they unearth the Bay Harbor Butcher’s burial grounds.
Ok, so the fever broke. Now that the hell was I going to do with like five bags of shit?  And let me tell you, the double-bag system isn’t exactly air-tight if you know what I mean. So I had to get them out of my room undetectably and get them to the latrine without anyone watching and throw them down the hole. But I couldn’t just toss them down there; I had to make sure they weren’t in the line of site because I didn’t want to have to explain that to my host family. I decided to put them in a bigger bag and put that in my backpack on my way out one day. So I got a stick and threw the bags in the latrine and poked at the bags until they were out of sight on the sidelines.

Then I called the Peace Corps office in Lima and asked them if they could front me enough money to give my family to finish their bathroom close to the house they started to build. Luckily for me they came through. But not soon enough. I thought my bag days were over…

I don’t know how in the first six months or so I managed to only have to poop during the daytime hours. A few times afterwards, the minute the sun went down, I felt it coming on.  So I had to bag it a few more times after dark. Jesus.

Then eventually, as things take forever to happen here in Peru, I now have a toilet in the bathroom near the house. No sink or lights or a shower, but a toilet that flushes at least most of the time. I thought my bag days were over…

I was at my friend’s place in a site like two hours away for a meeting. Her bathroom is outside and through another door that opens with a key. We had separated to run some errands and she had the key to the bathroom.  I was in her room and was getting sick. I tried to change positions so mitigate the stomach pains to no avail. I started sweating I had to poop so badly. So I frantically looked around the room for a plastic bag. Back to my old habits.  I tied it up trying to figure out what the hell to do with it. I opened the door to put it outside somewhere and there my friend was, ready to come in with the other key. But it was too late.

Now I’m pretty sure the bag days won’t be over till I move back home.  And given my general poor level of hygiene, I mean, whatever.

¡Por fin! Success. Maybe.

Until recently, I wasn’t sure my community was going to work. I’ve had so many failed attempts at projects I had even thought about changing sites. I sat six weeks in a row in front of the school waiting for kids to come to my sex ed group with no one showing up (except Maria. Shes’s the best).  So ended up doing the course with Maria and Santiago. And it ended up being really fun with just the two.

And also, the health clinic, although nice enough people, aren’t doing any health promotion like they’re supposed to. Each community out here is supposed to train health promoters to be the first point of contact for people in non-emergencies. And they’re supposed to make house visits to check on things and offer advice. For instance, some people use their latrine as a pig house and shit in the fields instead. Not the point of latrines. Not at all. Health promoters would explain to them why that’s not healthy.

And I have no local government. My mayor promised me money for paint to finish the world map and promised me chairs tables and shelves for a library in MARCH. There are a lot of broken promises here.

I have been teaching in the elementary school. But I really don’t like it much. The kids adore me which is nice since there are a lot of assholes around (less in my site, more in Pomabamba). 

And for every meeting you’d try to have with anyone from the community, you’d have three events or meetings out of four to which no one showed up.  This is what I had been living on for the last nine months in site. Failure after failure really grates on you.  I was wondering what the hell I was doing here, etc.  The things that were making me happy were all external from work or even Peace Corps. I start to feel anxious to get out of my community after like two, two and a half weeks. Doesn’t take long before you just feel beaten down and useless.

However, the last couple of weeks have been different. I’ve started my Cocinas Mejoradas (improved kitchens) project and have been blown the hell away with the community response.  So in general, the women here without cocinas cook on the ground inside the kitchen by putting a pot on a few rocks and lighting firewood underneath.  If you’ve even been at a campfire, you know how that smoke gets in your eyes and burns. And how your lungs hurt a little after.  Imagine doing that (on a smaller scale, granted) for five to six hours per day from the age of 16 to whenever your respiratory illnesses kill you.  Building these stoves is something relatively cheap that makes a huge difference in the quality of life of these people. All you need is a plancha (likd glass bottles and adobes bricks and someone who know what they’re doing. You build an adobe table, more of less, and two edges of adobes on which you place the stovetop. It’s hard to describe… there is a space underneath the stovetop to place the firewood but the flames stay mostly covered and the smoke leaves through the back up the chimney.  It’s elevated so the woman can stand up instead of crouch over the fire, the smoke leaves the house and it uses less firewood (which they have to chop down, collect and haul to the house. Bad for the environment, tough for the family).  All in all, it’s pretty brilliant. Wish I invented it.

Peace Corps expects us to work with 30 families with kids under five (affects their lungs worse than older kids and adults) on this project.  I started doing house visits with 30 names of mothers with little kids.  A handful of families already had the plancha and chimney from the only other NGO that`s ever been out here (Peruvian NGO). But the NGO didn’t ensure the cocinas were built. So some families built pieces of crap or never even tried. They’re easy to build but you need to know how to do it. So, the families with the planchas were going to e freebies in my project. I’m writing a grant for this from USAID and the planchas and chimneys are definitely the most expensive parts. So if they already had them, why not let them participate in the garden part, guinea pig corral part and other sessions? So then I needed more families. I rose the age to six and under. Captured a few more. But there were two families in particular I really wanted to help. Super poor, no men to help out (one died, one’s a useless drunk ass) and cry every time I’m around. But their youngest kids were 10. So I rose the age to 10 and under. Now I have 44 families and will be requesting funding for like 34 or 35 planchas. The project grew before my eyes but the mothers are excited.

Like I said before, I can’t get fuck all from meetings I plan. For this project, I had mothers traveling from the far away little neighborhoods to make sure they talked to me. And they only knew about it through word of mouth. I was blown away. I never really had to do house visits because they all found me. And they`re excited about the other components of the project too. So the three worst health problems for kids here are:
1.    Malnutrition
2.    Respiratory infections
3.    Diarrhea

So I`m getting more seeds of vegetables for the families to grow gardens with a cooking class showing them how to use things like broccoli. Hopefully that’ll chip away at the malnutrition. And let me tell you, the malnutrition is really, really pathetic here. There are 10 year olds that look 7 and many women here who might hit 4’5’’. Maybe.

And the cocinas assuredly help with the respiratory infections. Otherwise, there’s no air pollution out here. Just from firewood.

And to help fix diarrhea (which I have a lot and I’m careful) which is a huge problem here, you gotta get the goddamn animals out of the kitchen. There are a billion ways to get diarrhea but having animals (like guinea pigs, ducks, chickens, etc) live in the kitchen is a sure way to make your family sick. They shit all over the floor, little kids touch the floor, mouths, etc. And simple handwashing is not always easy when there’s no water. Anyway, I’m going to help them build cages outside the house for their guinea pigs. It’s beneficial because it’s healthier for the family, they reproduce faster and it’s easier to collect their shit for the garden. And interesting, I have seen nutrition facts for guinea pigs and they’re incredibly nutritious. The protein to calorie ratio is better than chicken. The only thing is they’re temperature sensitive and die sometimes from the cold and they’re a bitch to clean for very little meat.

And also, the families are required to attend six sessions with me over six months to receive their cocina. We’re going to talk about all the health topics most fucked up here:
1.    Basic hygiene
2.    Trash management
3.    Early childhood stimulation
4.    Improved latrines
5.    Nutrition
6.    Dental health

I really hope these sessions do some good. My host mom has to translate because I’d say three out of the 44 mothers speak Spanish. A sign of girls not finishing elementary or secondary school.   And also, I just want them to participate so badly. I want this to be successful so I can feel like I’m doing something good for this community. Geez. Wish me luck yeah?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Trash-burning Smoke Signals, Passenger Condors and the Burro Express

I wrote this for our newsletter and thought you might enjoy it...

As part of the Pomabamba Health 16 crew, we know a thing or two about the lack of technology. We’re the ones on the “other side of the mountain” from the other volunteers and our capital city.  Huaraz is technically our capital city, but it is 10-14 miserable hours on what feels like a mechanical bull from where I live to Huaraz.  There is America-fast internet there at cafes with coffee to make your nerves get nerves.  It’s beautiful.  But in Pomabamba, which is considered our bastard capital city (which is also smaller than some volunteers’ sites), things are slightly less… ummm… advanced?

Yeah. So in Pomabamba, there is total cell service. That’s not an issue in the raging metropolis of Pomabamba where the bank actually runs out of money with enough frequency to note the issue.   However, internet is something else.  I graduated high school in 2001 so I remember when internet was so slow that it was essentially useless.  You know, back in the 90s.  But those were more innocent times.  We didn’t need email to hear about committee meetings, turn in reports and figure out who’s hooking up back at home.  Honestly, I don’t remember how we did those things, but we managed, I guess. 
And only about half of the 10 of us have decent cell phone service.  A couple of those without  service have the ¨when I stand outside near the Oracle of Delphi, sometimes I get two bars” kind of reception.  So the real question is, how have I submitted this article?

We’ve considered things like trash-burning smoke signals, passenger Condors and a Burro Express to aid communication.   But those are just dreams. Dreams like finding funding from local municipalities.  However, in the last 6-7 months, we’ve figured out a few tricks. 

In the south, Gisel, Will and Sara have found an internet chacra.  I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but somewhere out there between maiz and trigo, they get signal.  And Facebook loads with less internet than html gmail.  The cell phone tower around there has been built. But it was built on an Incan burial ground. So it had to be moved. Now it’s moved and the volunteers there are pretty sure all they have to do is push a big red button and they’ll all have service, but no one’s pushed it yet.  I’m pretty sure they would have called us out of novelty but they haven’t.  But hey, if it’s an emergency, it’s only about a 12-hour hike from Pomabamba. 

You can never go to an internet cafe in Pomabamba with the expectation of actually using it.  First of all, you need to buy some candy to get through it.  I recommend chocolate and sprinkle-covered dinosaurs.  Second of all, you have to know it might take 11 minutes to open your gmail in html.  If you still have dinosaurs left and haven’t gone mad yet, you can probably read five emails in 30 minutes.  This is why I’m really, really good at my cell phone games, especially ZooZoo Club.  You can expect to reply to three of the five emails you’ve read.  It is possible at times to download a small Word document but forget about Excel or anything more than three pages.  On a really good day, like in the morning when kids are in school, you might be able to upload a small Word document, too.  But no photos. Forget about them.  Vacation request forms can be sent sometimes, but hey, that’s why we have Mari Elena’s number in our phones. 

Laura has discovered an interesting solution to get cell service.  She has found a corner of her room near the ceiling with service.  She tapes her phone to the wall with duct tape and when it rings, climbs onto a chair, answers the phone on speaker and yells ¨hang on a sec” and runs outside to her corner with service to talk. 

Also, Heather and Brianna have the internet sticks and actually get a little service in their rooms.  Since they can watch an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia while their email loads, it’s slightly less irritating. Then they call the rest of us with service about updates and news.

And, like many other volunteers, not having the internet for a while at a time really makes you think about stuff you’d otherwise look up.  For instance, I’ve had lengthy discussions about topics such as ¨why do gallinas lay eggs that aren’t fertilized in the first place” that could have been answered with a speedy Wikipedia search.  However, it became a half-hour discussion that makes you think in depth about biology.  It’s not all bad, but the conclusion is probably incorrect.   Stimulating, but wrong.  I still don’t know the answer. 

And when we’re in Huaraz, we’ll sit at cafes long enough when we’ll have to eat lunch and then dinner because we’ve been there so long we get hungry again.  Because we can, we often gchat with each other across the table instead of talk.  And when you only have a day to use the interent, things like the chicken and egg question become irrelevant. I’ll never know the answer.

And in most of our sites, electricity is nebulous.  Sometimes it’ll just go out for no apparent reason and we have no clue when it’ll come back on.  One time, I didn’t have electricity for four days but my alcalde said it might have been weeks before it would have been turned on again because we had to wait till the entire town paid the bill.  We’ve all had to come to Pomabamba to charge our computers, cell phones, Nooks and ipods to write those reports and not go crazy.  And sometimes just to finish season 5 of Dexter because everyone knows that if you start it, you have to finish the season no matter what.

If you call water issues technological, we have those problems too.  Sometimes we have to wear dirty socks because we missed the small window of water to wash them.  Once, I couldn’t get any water even to drink and there are only the tiendas in town where you have to know the lady who runs it to have her open it for you.  So, I just had nothing to drink for 12 hours. But on the upside, I didn’t have to pee in my bucket in the middle of the night due to dehydration.  At least three of us have piss buckets in our rooms because the bathrooms or latrines are too far to get to in a pinch. Or when it is dark. Or when we’re too lazy to walk bajar a ladder and walk through a chacra.

So how did I send this? Well, we definitely don’t have wireless. And my USB is way too f*ed with viruses from the computers to put it on there. I had to buy a blank CD to burn the Word document from my computer, put it on the other computer and hope to all hell there is good enough internet to attach it.  If you’re reading this, somehow, it worked.

But all being said, we’re all mostly happy here.  We’re isolated and rely heavily on the scraps of cell service we have.  We check in with each other often to make sure all is pretty ok most of the time.  Despite all this, remember one thing;  Ancash is better!

Geez I hate doing this.

Peace Corps´ budget has been cut like everything.  We have very little to work with here. You can donate to my specific projects. I hate asking people for money for anything, but if you feel so inclined, you can donate here:  But do know that a dollar goes a long way here and all would be used for the community and not wasted.
The link should work in a week or so...