** It’s a long post, get ready. This was supposed to go out a month ago. But I went on vacation and was too busy but still think it’s worth sending out. **
It all started on Sunday, when I called the driver of the van to see what time he was heading out to Colcamar, the town where I have been working. He said that at 4:00 p.m. he would leave. So I gathered my tubes, accessories, and clothes required to head out and visit the town and install this chlorine application equipment. Imagine a tall gringo walking through the plaza with a 20 foot tube. I always get looks as I walk down the street, this particular day I was really turning heads! I arrive to the bus station, the driver and van are not there. I start asking around and people say there won’t be a van to Colcamar tonight.
I call the mayor and ask him if he knows another way to get out to the town. He says that there is a van that will leave tonight at 6:00. So at 5:30 I grab my stuff and head to the bus station. Again I really receive a lot of looks as I make my second pass through the center of town. One can only imagine what they were thinking. Two blocks from the bus station I get a call, it is the mayor and he says that there are not enough people so they are not going to leave tonight. For the second time I head back to my house with my 20 foot tube. Not discouraged but I definitely got Perúed!
Getting Perúed is kinda like when a bird shits on your brand new black pea coat. It sucks… but there’s nothing you can do about it!
Not because I am upset that I can’t go there but because this is yet another day that the people in Colcamar won’t have chlorinated water. Another delay, another manaña another más tarde. Along the way back to my house, I run into a few friends a French woman and a German woman who are teaching English in Chachapoyas. We sit in the plaza for an hour talking. I laugh and explain how I have tried to make it out to my work site twice now and failed both times. Moreover, I still haven’t made it yet. With foreigners you can talk frankly about how many times you try so hard to make something happen in Perú and it’s almost as if everything is against you. And they understand it! We talk about how the only way to survive and thrive down here is simply take a step back acknowledge that whatever it is that you are trying to do probably won’t happen today, nor tomorrow but maybe if you’re lucky next week. Attitude has never before had such a significant influence in my success and well being.
We talk about how the Peruvians really do have a good outlook on life and take everything day by day. The positive aspect to their culture is that they are incredibly hospitable and in general happy people. But fuck the system is so incompetent when it comes to actually getting something done. We also discussed, how we from the U.S. and Europe should take a step back and slow down a little. Sure, in Perú things kind of function, it’ll happen… eventually. However, the people are not so stressed out. There are two sides to everything.
Monday morning I wake up. Do my normal routine and then head to the bus station. The van always leaves at 10:00. So I show up at 9:30 and the driver says to me that they won’t leave till 11:00. I show up again at 10:50 and wait until 12:00 and we finally leave. It takes 1.5 hours to get there and I arrive around 1:30pm. Literally 24 hours after I first tried to get out to Colcamar I arrive.
I am extremely fortunate in finding the water operator Don Humberto. We head up to the water system and immediately start working. We remove the old water system that we installed because it was not functioning properly. The old one was good, but not good enough for the girls I go out with. So we purchased and installed a new one. I through-ally enjoy working with these guys because they are so laid back and happy. And we don’t have a lot of resources or tools, we are forced to think of alternatives. This is the part of Peace Corps that I enjoy most.
It feels good to build something, above is the final product.
While in Colcamar I stay with a few nuns. They are really generous people. Two are from Argentina, and the other is from the Philippians.
I am not a very religious person, my philosophy is to more or less take in and appreciate the lessons and stories that come with the religions. I think that there is an incredible amount of truth and wisdom when interpreted in the right way that has been passed down through many years.
I digress, we (myself and the nuns) head to the church where we meet the rest of the people. We have a short prayer and then with candles and singing prayers head to one of the community members’ houses.
We are all seated in a circle shoulder to shoulder in a very small room with a dirt floor. Everyone has a candle and is silent. One of the nuns begins explaining about the scripture or something like that I really don’t know the technical term. But she explains how many times in life there are two doors, one is wide and the other is very skinny. It’s a metaphor for life and the choices we make. Many times we choose to take the wide door because it’s easy. Other times we take the skinny door knowing that perhaps the effort it takes to pass through it will be worth it in the end.
So there I sit with a bunch of really old Peruvian men and women. I am easily the youngest one there by 20 years. As I look around I see some people who have had really hard lives, you can see it on their faces. How they are wrinkled and droopy. How the years of working the land has taken a toll on their bodies. When I look at their feet I see how they have walked thousands of miles through mud, how they are cracked by the cold and dampness. And how their backs are hunched from carrying loads of wood and potatoes from their fields.
Exhausted we return to the house of the nuns. We drink Nescafé and eat bread. And then off to bed, too tired to think or reflect on the strangeness of the day.
Tuesday morning, I wake up feeling really refreshed and head off to meet the water operator. We start testing the water equipment that we installed the previous day. The kindergarten teachers for some reason decide to bring their kids for a demonstration on the water system. So the water operator and I explain how the water system works to the little kids. The water operator was extremely proud to explain to the children how important treating the water was. I could see it really hit home for him as he explain it to the children. He saw that his work was important and how much value it brought to his community.
During the afternoon, we finally get the equipment working properly.
This week (end of August) I was working with the municipality to purchase more chlorine for the system. Part of what I am trying to do here is get them to know how to do everything because before long I will be back in the states. I gave them a list of what they needed to purchase. They did a really great job with the coordination of payment and shipment. Everything comes from Lima 24 hours away. We expected the chlorine to arrive this week. I ran into the municipality’s accountant in a restaurant last night. He told me that the chlorine wasn’t going to make it to Chachapoyas because the Peruvian government prohibited the shipping of the product. Turns out chlorine is used to manufacture cocaine. And I live in one of the biggest cocaine production regions in the entire country. Peru is one of the largest producers of cocaine in the world! As a result the government doesn’t allow the shipment of large quantities of chlorine to this region. Not sure yet how we’re going to get the chlorine to Amazonas…
Truth is that the chlorine shipment is kind of like the van out to my site that I explained earlier. This is a common occurrence here in Perú. If anything it has taught me to be persistent and constantly search for new options.
And noticed something interesting happening. The stoves which we installed roughly three months ago have made a significant change in their lifestyle. Yea they don’t have smoke and they use way less wood to cook but I knew that would happen. Something more is happening. Many of the women are taking actions to improve their own living situation. These are a few of the changes I noticed which were prompted by the new improved cook stoves:
- Transparent roof tiles allowing light to enter the kitchen (previously a dark dungeon)
- Pouring a concrete floor (previously dirt)
- Purchasing new pots and pans and keeping them clean (previously coated in carbon and tar)
Peruvians should take note. I only say this because tomorrow at 3:30 AM, I am getting on a chicken bus headed to Cajamarca to celebrate Holy Week. – Cajamarca holds a giant paint fight on Saturday, which should be pretty sweet! Getting there however isn’t going to be. The road is unpaved and zig zags through some pretty crazy mountain roads. A friend of mine took the trip around this time last year, the bus was stopped because it encountered a land slide, she climbed over it with all her luggage, on the other side there was a bus waiting, that took her to the next land slide. She repeated this three times. Luckily it hasn’t been very rainy this year so fingers crossed no land slides. In total it’s 185 miles and should take roughly 13 hours.
So moral of the story, infrastructure investments although may not seem important are and can significantly improve the quality of ones’ life.
First Impressions: When I arrived to the Chicago Airport, I bought a blueberry cream cheese bagel, and enormous Starbucks coffee, and sat and people watched while waiting for my next flight. Sounds terrible but, my first impression of Americans was that everyone was tall and beautiful. True right? I realized Americans really invest a lot in their appearance. Toilets in Perú are pretty disgusting, no toilet paper, rarely will you find a toilet seat, and most definitely no soap. The airport toilet had a plastic wrapper to reduce the transmission of diseases, I was blown away!
What I missed the most was eating delicious food cooked by my mom and sister and seeing old friends and family. The ability to get anything and everything you want almost instantly! Speaking in English all the time. The grocery store cereal isle! Everything was a complete sensory overload! It was also incredible to drive for the first time in 16 months! And listen to what I wanted to on the radio.
Wealth: Perú has really really poor people and wealthy people, not much in between. The rich Peruvians are really rich, but there are very few of them. The United States on the other hand, considering Peruvian standards everyone is really wealthy.
Assets of US$2,200 per adult placed a household in the top half of the world wealth distribution in the year 2000. To be among the richest 10% of adults in the world required US$61,000 in assets, and more than US$500,000 was needed to belong to the richest 1%, a group which — with 37 million members worldwide — is far from an exclusive club.
What’s more seeing the wealth my friends and family have and comparing it to the people I work with on a daily basis. Living here in Perú it doesn’t shock me but seeing this in the states blew me away. And the way Americans think they are struggling, ha it’s almost humorous. They’ve never seen struggle like the poor people here, but I guess everything is relative.
Greatness: So the above might have been a little negative and condescending . But the truth is that the United States is incredible. A friend of mine joked how the Peace Corps was really an organization to round up all the hippies who hate America and send them to a foreign country for two years make them suffer, hate life, and then bring them back to the states. And when they return they love America! Well, he might be on to something because not that I hated America before but now I ABSOLUTELY LOVE AMERICA!!!! It’s incredible and don’t you ever forget it! The fact that you can get anything literally anything you ever want. It’s safe, if you have the drive you can make something for yourself.
People: One of the biggest things that I learned is that people don’t change. Some people I noticed were doing really well for themselves, others were on the same path as when I left the states. I am sure that people also realized that I hadn’t changed much either. I also realized that your relationships with people who are close are simply put on hold. And my true friends and I just picked up right where we left off. The close friends who I met up with reminded me of who I was before I left, and reminded me of what kind of life I had. I also realized how many incredible people I had in my life back in the states, and it made me feel really good that I was able to find people like that.
I also learned that everyone has problems, and everyone thinks that their problem is bigger than everyone else’s. This is not true. I saw this personally, thinking to myself during my rough times down here, if only I could be in the states it would be easier. And I realized in talking to some of my friends they thought that it would be easier for them to be in Perú or traveling in some other part of the world. Well, the truth is that everyone’s got problems and the only difference is how people deal with them.
I guess, when you take yourself from a environment which is comfortable it makes you realize these differences in your life. You reinvent and changes come whether you like it or not.
10 months to go: The United States was a shock. And really comfortable at the same time. I’ll be honest, before leaving Peru to visit the states I was thinking of doing a third year in Perú with the Peace Corps. Upon returning to Perú after my visit home, I didn’t want to do my second year! I have found a middle ground between those two, and it was my friends, and work projects that I have created here that made me realize I can easily make it another year, and perhaps thrive?!? Although the transition between the two was rough, I am really glad I went back to visit and hopefully in about 10 months I’ll be heading back to a developed country for good. It was a good opportunity to see some incredible people, reflect on where I want to go and what I want to do. And at the same time give me the energy to have another incredible year here in Chachapoyas!
Every Sunday evening I head to a nearby market here in Chachapoyas to eat these delicious Picarones (doughnuts).
Over the past two months, I have been working on a Cocinas Mejoradas (Improved Cook stoves) in Taquía and Maripata which are two communities on the outskirts of Chachapoyas. It’s been a really enjoyable, difficult, frustrating, and rewarding project. Working in two communities, with more than 50 people to coordinate purchase of materials, transportation, and installation requires diligent planning and cooperation between a lot of people. I won’t say it’s been easy but I will say it’s been worth it. ¡Vale la pena!
The road to get there is one of the worst I have ever seen in my life. It’s a zig-zaggy pothole filled dirt road that has not received attention in far too long, cliffs so steep and far down that if you went off you would not make it. Biking with an elevation change of more than a 1,000 feet makes for an excellent workout but tiresome after you’ve worked more than 30 days straight. When it rains, the road is nearly impassable, cars and trucks, sit stuck in the mud for days. And after a hard rainfall all I hear for a week is “muy feo está la caraterra, puro barro, muy feo muy feo.” Translated; The road is fuckin’ ugly there’s a lot of mud, it’s super fuckin’ ugly. I hear this phrase repeated a thousand times, from grandmothers to little children and everyone in between so much it is on repeat in my mind….. over and over and over…..
Working with a municipality is also another challenge, they have been for the most part incredibly supportive but bureaucracy in Perú is really something. You think that you have everything arranged and then the entire plan is scrapped or post poned to the next day.
If anything I have learned that when you reach a roadblock in the project when you have exhausted backup plan b,c,d,e and f, you simply keep going. You do not stop for anything and you do not take no for an answer. No matter what happens, knowing that in order for the project to be completed the materials need to be delievered, the maestros taught, the cocinas completed and functioning correctly, you simply must keep going. Because in the end all that really matters is that the cocina is installed and the señoras will be breathing less smoke. If you don’t take this attitude you end up sitting in your room depressed and dwelling on the fact that it’s too difficult and that’s just the way things are crying like a little fucking baby. I could go on forever on the challenges I have a lot of stories on things that went well, and things that went bad. In the end you know know that the only real solution is to keep going.
With the countless challenges I will admit that at times I wasn’t the nicest person to be around. Other days, I would imagine a pleasure to work with. And through this I learned something about attitude;
Aesop’s Fable the Sun and the Wind:
The sun and the wind are in a competition to get the traveler’s coat off. The wind blows fiercely but, to no avail the traveler simply grabs on tighter to his coat. The sun, shines down upon the traveler using his rays to warm the traveler, he simply takes off his coat. – The sun wins — And the moral is kindness, gentleness and persuasion win, where force fails.
In working with my municipality, with my albaniles, the American Government, the señoras really anyone involved in the project this lesson came into play. I always needed something from them, their huge truck, their expertise, their money, their trust. The truth is that the days where I was the wind, I got nowhere. The days I was the sun, everything and everyone was in the palm of my hand.
The project isn’t a difficult project technically speaking. However, in terms of working with people I have never been more challenged in my life. Working with people who have a completely different background than your own, who have different beliefs and experiences and understanding of how things should be done proves to be a real challenge. A big shout out to my Dad and Grandpa Herb, because without them I wouldn’t be doing this project and it wouldn’t be as successful as it is. I can remember during my summers going and visiting job sites with them. My dad in particular. His way of conversing with the homeowner and making them feel confortable. It’s all about establishing trust and guiding them, especially when they didn’t have a clue as to what they wanted. That’s your job when implementing any project. I didn’t know it then but looking back, I learned some pretty incredible lessons from these two guys in how you work with people in a setting as intimate as their home. How you drive a project and how you sell someone an idea.
As of now 9 of the 24 cocinas are completed and functioning beautifully. And word is getting out that they work. Rural Peruvians are some gossipy mother fuckers. Some of the toughest sells are now the señoras who are promoting the cocinas most. My albaniles have been telling me that several señoras have approached them interested in having them make them a cocina in their home which is really the objective of the entire project. SUCCESS!!
So, recently I traveled to Iquitos to participate in a raft race. Which was a very interesting event. I wouldn’t say that I would do it again, but it was definitely a good experience. Like many things in life, things are not what they seem.
Thursday – Day One
So after some pretty typical Peruian awards ceremonies we were ferried out to a deserted beach where we were given 8 logs and set free to start building our raft. We kinda knew this was going to happen so we brought things like chairs and wire to better equip our boat. At the same time I had a crazy tooth ache which I later found out wasn’t a cavity (yes I am brushing and flossing) but a crazy sinus infection and inflamed nerve making it painful to walk (the vibrations through my body were too much). Anyways… we started building and by 9:00 p.m. we had finished our raft. I didn’t mention that it’s about 98 degrees with Wisconsin humidity. Add in Amazon mosquitos and other crazy assorted bugs that bite. I was hating life. I ran in college and quite frankly, it sounds sadistic but I enjoy physical pain. This was not physical pain, it was suffering, it was torture. (As you can tell in the photo I was not happy) That’s not a genuine smile!
Friday – Day Two – 36 miles (58 km)
We woke up at 6:00 A.M. packed up our stuff, ate breakfast, and made the final touches on the raft before crossing the starting line at around 8:30.
The first day of rowing was tough but within reason and all in all an enjoyable 7.5 hours of paddling. Saw some fresh water dolphins, and enjoyed my time out on the water. Rowing a poor substitute for sailing but none the less it was nice to be on the water again. We made camp at one of the communities along side the river, drank a cold beer and ate some really good food. The photo below is from our camp site. (And the big boat is the support boat)
Saturday – Day Three – 41 miles (66 km)
For the second day, one of our team mated decided to sit out thus we needed a replacement so we asked a local Peruvian guy to row with us. This guy happens to transport goods between villages by ROWING in other words he was crazy good at paddling. I walked down to the raft on Day Two to find our adopted Peruvian chopping the back of our raft off with a machete to “make our boat more water dynamic”. The interesting part of this is that the reason he was willing to paddle with us is because although his team “technically” won the first day, their raft actually sunk. I had a bad feeling that these two events his boat sinking the first day and his insistence to make our boat faster / lighter the second day had something in common….
Eventually we headed off and started paddling and had quite an awesome day! It was a pretty good time out on the raft and we were even lucky enough to catch a storm at the end making the end of the race a little more exciting. Big waves crashing over the bow, extremely windy, and pouring rain for a finish. We came to find that three Peace Corps volunteers regardless of their physical aptitudes and or shape have no right to think that they can try to row with a guy like our adopted Peruvian, well we did. I have done a decent amount of canoeing even got 5th place in the Paddle and Portage with my buddy Marc. Never in my live have I paddled this hard, and it showed because we did surprisingly well the second day.
*Note* the green stool I am sitting on in this photo. I was imagining a similar setup as to how you sit while in a Canoe. So I wanted to get elevated. Well it turns out this was the worst idea I have had in a really long time. By the second day I had formed yes, a raging Blister on my tailbone. But was un-willing to tell anyone else that it hurt. The second night was not very restful, by the third day I couldn’t sit or lay down on my butt. Making paddling and sitting on this green stool absolutely miserable. At one point it was so painful and I had learned my lesson, put aside my pride, and explained to my team mates that I had messed up with buying the stool. They laughed, came up with a name for it – the chode – and we continued paddling.
Sunday – Day Four – 41 miles (66km)
An hour into paddling the third day we realized that we completely over did ourselves on Day 2, so much that it was difficult to move the paddle. And we no longer had our adopted Peruvian. By now we have been rowing for two days. Everything accumulated, we were exhausted, emotionally and physically. The chode stool wasn’t helping. And as I suspected we would have problems when our Peruvian guy was chopping the back of our boat apart… well we did. Our boat was sinking, the guys in the back of the raft were sitting in water for the third day. This extra drag drastically decreased our speed. Tensions began to rise.
At one point I was asked not to go to the bathroom so much. Mind you it’s hot… 98+ sitting in the sun… I was drinking a lot of water. I’ll spare you details but I was asked to simply pee myself! Now in my mind that’s a little extreme. As we had no real chance in winning the prize money, as we were currently in 15 place of the 30 boats. The extra 2.5 minute break that one person could take to relieve himself wouldn’t really make that big of a difference in a 10 hour long race. So I continued to stand up and pee! I was careful however of the fish that swims up your pee stream. Thus, I used extra caution and devised several methods to eliminate the possibility of this occurring. Which definitely didn’t help tensions on the boat. (Notice the level in which sits our boat)
By 2:00 pm we still hadn’t made it to the finish line. The Amazon river at this point is enormous, a mile or more wide. It’s as smooth as a lake top. And the current is flowing as about as quick as a lake top. A huge storm blows in as we are in the middle of the river. So here we are in the middle of the Amazon river, with 8 logs tied together with wire and rope. The rain is coming down so hard that you can’t see the other team’s neon green/pink life jackets 25 feet away, absolutely white out conditions. Never in my life have I seen it rain like this.
So here we are, our boat is sinking, we have no idea where we are going, and we have no food. The rain was also really cold so we (skinny people) are shivering. At this point we were all wondering why we decided to pay money to participate in this race. Luckily we caught up with other people who were in the same situation. We have no idea where we are. We were informed by other teams who had talked to locals that we had missed the turn-off. So we’re just meandering through the amazon river and finally we find a left turn. We finally catch up to the support boat and after climbing aboard they tell us that, we missed the turn to the finish line, but not to worry because the blinding rain caused more than 8 teams to miss the turn off. We found out that we were headed to Brazil and had missed the turn off nearly 5km earlier. Tired and hungry we made it back to the finish line.
Peruvian Jungle Death Sickness
I was really happy to be done. But I was unfortunately feeling really sick… From experience I can tell when I have a Peruvian Jungle Death sickness coming on. So, I gather up my belongings and head to the hotel, I make it outside the front door to the hotel and begin to start dry heaving. Having been sick in Peru the past I estimate I have approximately 4 minutes to find a toilet. I demand a room and run upstairs only to spend the next 8 hours in the bathroom kneeling, sitting down. At one point I call a friend for medical advice. She recommends I buy a gravol to settle my stomach and Gatorade to maintain fluids in my body. I venture outside, buy my pills and Gatorade. On the way back to my hotel I get offered a hooker. This is probably the lowest point while in Perú. The last thing I want to do when I am healthy is sleep with a hooker. The gravol helps, I crash and wake up to my alarm at 5:20 A.M. for my flight to Lima (I have a dentist appointment the next day). I arrive to the Iquitos airport happy to be alive. And not mugged while on the moto taxi. I then proceed to sit in the airport for 6 hours while I wait for a delayed plane.
Finally make it to Lima around 2:30 pm 8 hours later than I expected. Rush to my dentist appointment. Pay an outrageous cab fair. Have my teeth inspected and was sent packing. He says he can’t do anything without medical approval from Washington. I think to myself, typical for government health services. I then head to the Peace Corps office. Meet with the doctors and my boss and eat my first decent meal in more than 48 hours.
The interesting thing about Lima is that it’s like the United States. I immediately realized that I was out of place, my clothes were dirty, and not in good shape. The movement and people made me feel like I was in a foreign country. So to fix this I did what Mr. Bush told us to do after September 11th… Go shopping! And did I!!!! Jockey Plaza is 3 to 4 times bigger than West Town, every store you can imagine they have it! I only had the intention to buy one thing, one thing turned into several. And before long I forgot completely for the first time in a year that I was in Peru. Don’t get me wrong I love my Peace Corps experience, but there’s something about being transported to the states with a simple little shopping trip. I walked out of Jockey Plaza and felt immediately better I also looked a lot better!
I hopped on a bus that afternoon and was in Chachapoyas 22 hours later. Chachapoyas did it’s typical welcome – pouring rain. But it didn’t matter, I was so happy to be in my home. To eat at my restaurants, to see my friends, and locals. But most importantly to start working on my projects that I had put aside to take a vacation. I am realizing that being away from these projects was really a big part of why I didn’t enjoy the trip. I would rather be working in my town, talking with my “clients” and “señoras” than rafting down a river. I sound really old and boring, but it’s the truth.
The two projects that I am working on during the next month and a half are;
1. Improved Cook Stove Project – in one of the surrounding communities of Chachapoyas
2. Potable Water System – In Colcamar a larger town a hour from Chachapoyas. Where 1,800 people for the first time in their life will drink potable water from the faucet.
I recently traveled to Iquitos which is the largest city in the world inaccessible by road. You either fly (which I did) or take a 4 day boat trip. Since I was going to participate in a 118 mile long raft race I thought that would be enough river time. Iquitos was a interesting city, not the type of place I want to live for an extended period of time. It’s ridiculously hot and dirty. My town Chachapoyas is between 62 degrees and 68 degrees, thus I was dying in the heat! (View from the plane)
While in Iquitos I checked out the city and some of the foods that are not common where I live. Like BUGS!! I honestly don’t have a clue as to what type of bug they were. But I felt like Timon and Pumba in the Lion King!!
Here’s a little video…
We also checked out city. Here is a “floating market” which we learned after visiting it it only is a floating market during the rainy season. If you look at the house the water rose to this level last year. If you visit during the rainy season December to April you navigate the market (where I took the photo) in a boat.
The market had all kinds of interesting foods. Some legal, others not so legal…
Iquitos is more or less the “start” of the Amazon river. In the past the river flowed off into the distance of this photo. It now takes a different route. But the location of the river definitely had a influence on the formation of Iquitos.