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...

Más fotos

 Mis hijas. Don´t know which is which here.
My room before. Dirt box.

 A view of my room now.  I´m messy at home, messy here.
 I like this because the kids look like they are dying of boredom because the nurse is talking about dental health.
Two of my favorite little girls in site, Maricielo and Chayla.

¿Qué paso?

Yeah, I know it’s been a while since I have written.  But it’s taken me a while to sort out what is really happening. It has been a tough couple of months for me and I have been trying to figure it all out.

To make this long essay easier on the read, I am going to divide it into sections:
A.    Why times have been tough
B.    Problems and solutions
C.    Things I am doing to stay sane
D.    Help me cook

A.    First of all, my host mom and Sarita left in mid April for Lima because my host mom (Rita) was really sick.  She has a lump on a breast and had terrible stomach problems.  I didn’t know it at the time, but she was going to be in Lima for six weeks. She returned June 1.  It was horrible without her.  I mean, first of all, I didn’t really know what was wrong with her due to poor methods of communication (it is expensive to talk on phones of different networks here), language barriers (medical stuff is a vocabulary set I don’t have much of…) and I was not sure if she was telling me everything to not worry me.  During that time, I was not sure if she had breast cancer, stomach cancer or what. She was in the hospital for two weeks on an IV.  I was not sure if she would ever be able to return to Ancash.  So first, I was worried about her health and had little information to go on.  Second, I missed her and Sarita.  Lunchtime didn’t happen for six weeks. I ate quietly in my room.  Third, Rita is my greatest ally for my work in Peace Corps. Her absence left me high and dry with the community. I have tried and tried and got fuck all done without her.  That will be a new paragraph.  Fourth, I greatly dislike my host dad. He is a general jerk.  I can’t look him in the eye because I have no respect for him and I fear him a little.  I want nothing to do with him.  During this time, he couldn’t feed his 13 year old son with regularity.  I fed Santiago more often than I didn’t because his dad wasn’t around (he’s a drinker and they get wasted  when they drink here).  Santi is a really great kid and I enjoyed spending a lot of time with him (like watching a movie every night—I like my alone time…), but it was really goddamn stressful for me. I had to buy twice as much food and climb the mountain with it. I had to cook enough for two every meal because I never knew when his dad would be around to feed him.  I had to think about what I would do if my host mom couldn’t come back from Lima. What would I do? With whom would I live? Would I have to move communities? It was horrible.

But, good news. They returned and she does not have breast cancer. She does, however, have a fuck ton of stomach issues including pancreatic disease.  The 4’9’’ woman lost 5 kilos (12ish pounds?)  which shows.  So now I can have a social lunch again, talk to adults, hang out with Sarita and have some evenings to myself.  And she can help with my work again. It’s really great having them back.

Also, things Stateside have been on my mind.  My mom had to cancel her trip to see me in July because the tickets are really expensive and layovers are terrible.  That sucks.  I have been gone for 9 months and that is definitely the longest I’ve ever not seen my family.  Thank god for Skype.  My dad’s was in the hospital with pneumonia, an infection and a stroke.  I was really worried about him and there is nothing I can do from here. Not even call. I hate that.  But he´s made an almost full recovery now! And my brother and Aubrey were in Scotland for my cousin’s wedding and my dad had to cancel his trip because of his illness.   And, sadly, my cat at home died. I knew she would while I was here but it still sucks.  She hadn’t eaten for a week or so and died in Scott’s arms.   Things like these are weird to deal with here.  In a way, they don’t seem real, like everything’s just part of my imaginary American life.  And in another way, it is all realer than ever because I just sit here and think and think and think.  Sometimes there is too much space out here. Too much time. 

B.     There are a lot of things that frustrate me about the culture here.  But in efforts not to go more nuts than I already am, I am trying to invent ways to deal with things. I will describe them below and ask for help on a few.

Problem: It feels like I’m always waiting for something. The culture here in the mountains is SLOW. And I mean that in the way that people show up for meetings hours late if at all. I’m a punctual individual and get really, really frustrated with this part of the culture. For example, right now, I have been waiting for two hours for a meeting to happen.  It was supposed to happen at noon, so I was going to prepare the presentation in the morning. And then at 9am, Rita told me it was supposed to happen at 10. So then I had to rush to finish my presentation and go to the health clinic.  No one was there. At about 10.30, two out of the 4 were there. An hour later, another one shows up.  And since then, we’ve been waiting for one woman to come. So now it’s 11.45 and I’m thirsty.  And I have no idea when or if this meeting is going to happen.  No one knows anything. I swear I spend 75% of my time waiting.  I have been learning patience with this sort of thing, but it feels like I’m wasting time just sitting. 

Solution:  Gotta bring something to do.  In fact, I am waiting right now. I talk on the phone, write, listen to tunes, read.  At least that way it feels like I am doing something.

Problem:  Every market day in Pomabamba, I get called `gringa` like a million times.  It is a racial slur in places (but here it’s more of a compliment) and besides that, it is just goddamn annoying to hear every week while I am trying to shop.  For the last few months, I have had to call a friend every Sunday so I don’t explode all over some Quechua lady.  People here think it is ok to just holler at me on the street.  “Gringa, loan me your skirt!”  ¨Gringa, where is your bata (other kind of dress here)?” Or just simply ¨Gringa!”  That is the equivalent of calling out at someone you don’t know on the street at home ¨Hey Indian person!” and that is all.  I know they don’t really mean anything bad by it but jesus, it is annoying. 

Solution:  Santi and I are now making bets on Sundays as to how many times I hear ¨gringa”.  Last Sunday, in 90 minutes, I heard it 48 times.  He didn’t count 3 because someone said ¨gringo” instead of ¨gringa”.  I will make an Excel chart and share it at the end of two years to see the trend in name-calling.

Problem: I am depressed every time I leave a class in the primary school.  The kids here are sooooo undereducated I feel like crying.  I mean, the American school systems have their issues, but relatively, we have our shit together.  I taught a self-esteem class last week with second graders (like 7-8 years old) and some didn’t know colors.  And they don’t learn to read here till third grade.  And so many of the kids just look vacant and empty.   They are expressionless and lacking any confidence at all.  And it had nothing to do with their genes; they’re not stupid. They’re just malnourished, under-stimulated and under-educated all of which slow brain development. 

Solution: This is one reason why I am here.  I will work with mothers to help better nourish and stimulate their kids. I can’t to a damn thing about the educational system.  I can’t think of a way to not get depressed after teaching kids. Any ideas?

Problem:  Participation and motivation to come to my classes is really pathetic. I’ll have a really great thing going and no one will come. I’ll have my classroom all set up and sit playing ZooZooClub (poor man’s Bejeweled) on my cell phone for 40 minutes waiting for anyone to show up.  I’m really good at the game, but shit. I would rather be teaching sex ed.

Solution:  Uhhhhhh….ideas anyone? I’m out.  It is also depressing.

C.     So the above are some issues over which I do not have control.  However, there are things I have done to keep myself somewhat sane.

First, I bought a kitten. Her name is Archimedes and she’s really adorable and annoying.  I forgot that kittens, although delectably cute are fucking irritating. I have been used as a scratching post for three weeks now and look like I ran naked through a field of rose bushes.  She likes to scale my pajama pants. They’re thin.  She’s really scaling my legs. And I can’t get her to shit in a litter box. In her defense, it is not litter. It is chicken food. I can’t find litter in Pomabamba. So underneath my bed is like a garden of cat shit. It’s really gross.  Help me think of solutions, please.  I mean it’s concrete and I even accidentally shit on my floor once, but I need her litter trained to get home with me someday.  But all this being said, I’m glad to have her around.  At least something loves me here and it feels less like I’m sleeping alone every night. Also, my friend Berney bought her sister.  It was an impulse purchase for her and three weeks later she realized she doesn’t like pets. So I’m going to adopt her kitten too. So soon, I’ll have two kitten sisters.  I think it’ll make Archi less annoying because she’ll have something else to play with.  I’m renaming the other kitten Persephone.  And I didn’t buy her because Star died. That was a coincidence. But it does help.

Second, I bought a violin. Woah, it is hard to play. But I’ve gotten better at the guitar than I ever have because I have more time to play then ever. And I’ve wanted to learn the violin forever and if I’m ever going to learn, it is gonna be now.  Luckily for me, the violin is vital in the type of music they play here, Huayno.  Huayno is the most horrible genre of music I’ve ever heard. Someday I’ll get an example to post so ya`ll can suffer with me.  But I can probably get someone here to give me lessons. I`m gonna come back Stateside playing that thing.

Third, I´m getting a new tattoo. It´s hard to describe, so I won´t.  But it´ll be good and it goes with my whole theme but with a Peru twist. I will post pictures someday. 

And I would like to thank you 2010 tax money. And for the violin and cat, too.  It is improving my life a lot and I certainly do not make enough in Peace Corps to buy these things on my allowance (which I didn’t expect). 

D.     Help me cook.

As my foodie friends know, I wish I were a foodie but I am not.  So I need your help.  I am going to list the ingredients I have available to me and my resources for cooking.


Fresh stuff
Always: Potatoes, carrots, red onions, green onions, tomatoes, key limes, spinach, cucumbers, apples, apricots, white peaches, mandarins, the best bread in the world, cheese that does not melt, eggs, yellow squash, bananas, ginger

Sometimes:  Yucca, lettuce, radishes, mangos, pineapple, green beans, pears

Stuff to buy in bulk:
Oatmeal, rice, brown sugar, flour, baking powder, salt

I use a gas stove with two burners. I have no oven, no refrigerator and nothing like a blender.

I make vegetable soup almost every night.  Help me get more creative please!