Tuesday, January 01, 2008

SPA- Is it worth it?

*Again, this article was written to other volunteers in Peru for a news magazine called Pasa La Voz. It however, did not make the deadline but I wanted it to be published here.

Matt Lindsley, Peru 6

The SPA (Small Project Assistance) Grant is available for all PCV´s during our service. In Peru, former volunteers have used the grant in a variety of ways in their primary or secondary projects. Past SPA proposals include tourism and small business start-ups, youth initiatives (music, sports, clubs), reforestation, garden and green house projects, potable water/latrine construction, training courses/manuals, cooking stoves and even DVD production.

If you and your community have an idea, and can dedicate time to develop that idea, it may become a reality. Even after thoroughly exhausting your communities resources and beyond, you just may not have the funds to carry out your project. Don’t feel guilty in using SPA funds. You’ll have control over how it’s spent.

It’s probable that you’ll be buying very practical things, like materials, equipment, a person’s service, and other items. You’ll follow your proposal, completing tasks and spending along the way. It’s not as if your just handing over a check to ¨tal fulano¨ in your site.

The application process is straight forward and follows a manual. After many months of discussion, I sat down with my counterpart and we began the rough draft, step by step. After soliciting the local municipality to renovate our potable water system, we though about forming a new water committee (JASS) to manage the system. SPA funds would be ideal in facilitating a complete training for our newly elected JASS.

It took us roughly three months to complete the proposal. It’s not easy. PC asks for a lot of details. Participating in the PDM workshop was useful, but unfortunately the nurse I brought has permanently left my site. Deciding how we wanted to design the project and the logical progression was the biggest challenge. My counterpart was patient and did is hest to share the workload with me. If anything I gained some grant writing experience and learned much more Spanish along the way! It was also a strict lesson in organization.

My APCD, Emilia read over our rough draft and we made changes. She also forwarded another PCV´s proposal. This was extremely helpful for us in preparing the final draft. In just one month after sending the final draft we got word that the SPA review board had passed our project. Small details needed correction and than it was sent to Washington. Two weeks later it was fully approved.
Just when we thought the hardest part was over we still had an enormous project to execute. Fortunately it couldn’t be too hard because the proposal would carry us through the notions.

We were off to a late start (behind the intended work plan) for a number of reasons. Eventually we made some progress and moved forward. As of currently, the contracted microbiologist who is facilitating our trainings had to postpone the second and third sessions. He was sent to Ica to help with earthquake relief efforts. The JASS t-shirts are being made, as are the participant manuals. Meanwhile my counterpart and I have had to resort to plan b, c, d and e at times. This of course being much easier for him than I, since he’s Peruvian.

The greatest joy to come out of this project is to watch our JASS work. Since our training coincided with the potable water renovation the committee has assumed an important primary task. When the municipality sent a foreman to start the renovation without first orienting the locals to the project plan, the foreman quickly became frustrated because few locals came forward as the labor force. Until our committee of 10 (who were less than a month old) organized a town meeting to find a solution to the problem. Each JASS member has diligently supported the renovation by assigning tasks, supervising work sites, coordinating delivery of materials, and acting as an intermediary between the municipalities’ foreman and the locals.

I’m not preoccupied with the delay in our own plans, because this could have been predicted. As long as we finish the JASS training before I COS in the next few months. What I never expected from the JASS took me by surprise and has taught me a lesson- step back and allow someone else to take the reigns. Hasn’t that always been our job? Our goal? It’s happening and I’m here to see it!

So yes, SPA is worth it.

Some helpful hints:

1. Think feasibility in a long term or short term project. What are your objectives?
2. Don’t over budget; be realistic in your needs. Our proposal was easily accepted because we asked for a smaller amount of funds.
3. Print and bind your SPA proposal. Give copies to extended parties (my mayor, and MINSA CLAS director received copies). This legitimizes your work, is evidence of the proposed plan and will keep you on task.
4. Make it clear to the community that we’ve been granted a subsidy but only because a large percentage of the funds are coming from you by means of labor, transport, food, materials, etc. They will complete their part.
5. Even after receiving the SPA check continue asking locals to contribute with in-kind donations. Our training manuals are being subsidized by a local. This leaves more money in our budget to cover unexpected costs.
6. Ideally you can return unspent money.
7. Be honest with locals about how much money you’ve received and the plan for it. Technically the money is already ¨spent¨ if you follow your plan.
8. Maintain detailed accounting and save all receipts.
9. Monitor and evaluate the process of the project to make changes along the way.
10. Celebrate successes with your counterparts, you’ll need it.
11. Stay on task. But allow for miracles to creep in.

Trust Me- I´m a Foreigner

*I wrote this article for an in-country publication to other health volunteers. My Jefe decided not to publish it, but I think its worth saving in this blog.

Trust Me-I´m a foreigner
Matt Lindsley, Perú 6

Back in 2005 when I arrived in Perú my host family in pre-service training warned me of their neighbors. They said they had kidnapped one of their cats and killed their dog. I could be next. Throughout the proceeding months I met many more Limeños, Ancashinos, and Liberteños. In general conversation with taxi drivers, bus passengers, and new co-workers, few Peruvians left out the reoccurring theme of making sure I was aware that A). I should be careful. B) Thieves will target me. And C). I shouldn’t ever trust strangers.

I began to feel a sense of insecurity and disappointment for host country nationals. Why do they speak so poorly of each other? Why were they quick to trust a foreigner and not their own countryman? What was it about this ubiquitous culture of accusation, fear, suspicion and distrust?

As I moved into my community and began to meet locals, we formed friendships. I developed a closeness to my family and I gained insight into the reasoning behind this notion. My community was very shy. On one hand they were eager to get to know me, but didn’t quite know how to approach me. There was this social awkwardness at first. Especially with kids. My mind shifted back to training and the repetitious topic of CONFIANZA. If I couldn’t earn to locals TRUST, I would be looking at a long 2 years ahead of me.

When out of site I usually stay with my same family in Trujillo. They provide meals and offer me a bed, free of charge. Consider it an extension of the house in Carata. My host mother would say. When I want to use the house phone, I always need to ask for the key-because it’s locked in a wooden console. And there is never toilet paper in the bathroom. Each family member brings their own roll in and out. The house maintains a small store, which is protected with a thick iron gate. All transactions are done between the bars.

I do not mean to trivialize the crime that exists. How many stories have I heard of relatives getting robbed or pick pocketed, buses being held hostage, and the typical looting and rioting in city streets. I only seek to understand an explanation of the origin of this behavior, both crime and distrust.

When my Mom and Uncle came to visit from the US, they too thought odd about the phone and toilet paper. It is my understanding that these safeguards are in place to impede an action from taking place. My uncle said, ¨This is a household not built on trust but built on distrust.¨ How can you raise a family that doesn’t even trust each other? And to an extent, that is how families are growing up- to not confide in each other.

If you can’t even trust your own father, mother, brother, sister, or child to not steal the toilet paper and not abuse the phone, of course you’d be skeptical of the neighbors, and the people across the street and the strangers living in our neighborhood- not to mention those from another town or another department! They must be CHORROS!

This paranoia must have roots that trace generations. Not too long ago in Peruvian history there were a couple of decades of terrorism, a coup d´ état, political instability and corruption. The alarming fact, that Peruvians know, is that their own people are responsible for its turbulent past. And that’s exactly why they trust you and I but few host country nationals.

I’m convinced that their horrific history has and will continue to manifest itself in modern day life, through the economy, business, tourism, local government, health and education. But when it seeps into the tightest woven structure of a society, the family, that’s disturbing.

I’m no sociologist, although it shouldn’t take one to recognize this cultural notion of desconfianza. We’re up against a tough system; fortunately we’re welcomed into this society and seen as a sense of hope. Take that and use it wisely. And when your work plans don’t prove immediate results, remember that this cultural notion exists everywhere and it may be to blame as a barrier to successful development work.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Unusual occurrence....

Just four days before leaving Carata something rare occurred. During my service in the village, I regretted one thing that never happened. I hadn't seen a birth. Until Friday Nov. 23rd. I awoke and looked out to the health post. But the door was closed. I had a couple of tasks to complete (wash clothes, pack up my room, and organize a few things for my replacement Kimberly). By 10am Talia, the obstetrician was still not back from wherever she went. A neighbor was out on the street. I asked, "¿Donde ha ido Talia?" (Where did Talia go?) and their response, "Se fue a Cayamus para atender un parto." (She went to Cayamus to deliver a baby.) My head was so full of things it didn't register.

At lunch time, Merli my host sister and I sat eating. "¿Y Talia?" Maybe she's lost. And so we imagined the possibilities. Maybe she fell in a hole like the dog did last year! We should go find her. Even worse, maybe...she's dead! (I'd like to think based on my influence that Merli has become a much more creative and imaginative girl after living with a gringo for two years!) "¡Ya regresó!" (She's returned!) Yelled someone from the kitchen. After eating, I went to the health post to drop off a bag of things and sort documents in my desk. Talia answered the door and I asked her about the patient in Cayamus. She hadn't give birth yet. She was only 16 years old. Talia had been at the house all morning and still nothing. And then it occurred to me. Here's your opportunity... Take it! ¡APROVECHA!

The patent's family planned to call Talia when the patient, who's name was Lydian, was closer to giving birth. I explained to Talia to call me so I could help. And she agreed. The rest of the afternoon went by quickly. Merli and Susan wanted to play 'volley' for a minute than helped me pack up my room. I felt a mix of emotions about leaving. The girls were quick to distract me from my thoughts. We took out the board game, Twister and played it on the patio. Two older girls, Fanny and Yessica stopped by for help with their English homework and I got a text message. "Ya me voy al parto- ¡Apura!" (I'm going to the birth, hurry!) It was 4:30pm.

I grabbed my jacket, camera and flashlight and quickly ran down stairs- I said sorry to the girls who were waiting with their text books- it would have to wait. Off to the health post. Talia was practically ready. The trails to Cayamus are confusing. It's a maze of tree farms and tiny roads-trails really, that wind around the few houses that exist. I've gotten lost more than a few times. I said to Talia that I hoped the girl didn't give birth yet, it would have been a waste of time! And Talia responded in Spanish, "Maybe she did, maybe we missed it!" I hoped not.

After a good 30 minute walk down the steep mountainside, we eventually came upon the humble home where some people were waiting outside. A baby lamb greeted us at the door. Inside a small room, Lydian lay covered in blankets. She got up and began pacing the room with her Sister-in-law. At least she felt like walking. That was a good sign. She was in a lot of pain, and still very pregnant. She was wearing so many layers of clothes and a poncho.

I knew it would get dark in the next hour and a half. It didn't look like there was electricity in the house. Another night with candles... It seems like those without "luz" spend a lot of money on candles. I'm glad I've had the luxury of having electricity during my service, even if it wasn't constant. I stood watching, not knowing what to do. Talia seemed to have everything under control. She assessed Lydian and said she was 10 centimeters dilated. Although to me, she didn't seem to be in active labor. But what did I know? It was only my first time seeing a birth. Talia could palpate the infant's head. We thought, at any moment the baby would come, just a little longer! However, we were terribly wrong.

It got dark and cold and the poor patient was not making any progress. The family called Talia this morning at 6am thinking Lydian was ready. False alarm. All day, the pains came and went, 12 hours later there was little to no progress. Her water still hadn't broken. I was confused, because wasn't 10 cm almost the end of labor? And wasn't the water supposed to break before that? Could Talia be wrong? By 8pm, I knew I would be there for the long haul, and possibly all night! Frankly, I wanted to witness this and that included the boring parts too.

Lydian had little appetite, so they spoon fed her soup. I saw a brown beer bottle on the table, through the candlelight. Than I noticed how they forced her to drink out of the bottle. Pregnancy and liquor. Hmmmm. I asked the family, "Isn't that bad for her?" And they replied, "Naaahhh, we've mixed punch into the beer." A homemade epidural? Talia and I just looked at each other, shaking our heads. Lydian was up and off the bed walking, the contractions were coming and going with more frequency. IV access was crucial. If at any point we needed to give her pain medication or heparin, we would need to give it quickly. Imagine placing an IV in a patent's hand in the dark? Than where would we hang it? We had no IV pole. From the ceiling! Improvisation in Peru.

Lydian sat up again and squatted on the floor, improving natural forces of gravity. She needed to push with every contraction she felt. The contractions were coming closer together. We took off her poncho and a blanket wrapped around her waist. I grabbed hold of something long and thick. What? I illuminated the area with my flashlight and it was a deer leg, two actually. They bring good luck during birth. Go figure. Not listed in the standard nursing manual. Lydian's father came in and sat next to her in a chair. She squatted in front of him holding his shoulders. Her dress covering her legs. Talia wanted to make an incision to prevent natural tearing from occurring. But the babies' head was not yet visible and we would have to wait. I wondered if it would be a boy or a girl?

Another hour went by. It was 9:30pm. We were all a little worried. What was taking so long? Was she not pushing hard enough or was there a complication? I took her blood pressure. It had not dropped since I last took it. Nevertheless, we decided to call the ambulance at the health center in Agallpampa. Within an hour they could be here to take her to the health center and induce the labor. Shortly after making contact with the ambulance via cell phone her water broke! Luckily, I had already eaten dinner. The family invited me to a bowl of potato soup. Delicious!

In recalling the few things I remember from obstetrics in school, the water breaking was a very good sign! Lydian got up from squatting and Talia and I examined her. We still couldn't see the head and thus, didn't want to make the incision. Every contraction that followed was cheered on by Lydian's Mother, Father, Sister-in-law and us. "PUSH!" They yelled, "DON´T PULL!" And with every push the Mom and Dad would blow on Lydian's head, as if to aide in pushing out the baby with their own breath. And than as the screams got louder, I knew this was the moment. Lydian pushed and screamed and all of the sudden a baby girl slipped out from between her legs and slid onto the sheep's skin carpet where she squat. Talia quickly scooped up the babe, as I took pictures. She cut the umbilical cord. The ambulance arrived another 2 hours later.

The next day I sat thinking about life's complexity. Here I am, all caught up in the fact that I'm on my way out of this village. And at the same time a baby just arrived. Symbolic I suppose.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

holding on strong

We finished the water committee trainings that were dominating my life for the past three months. I was happy to despedir a Hugo our microbiologist who came up to Carata 3 times but was consistently late and unreliable the whole time. I think the committee learned something from him, but i´m still bitter about the whole thing. The JASS (water committee) got their start up tools and uniforms. We´ll be closing out the grant paperwork and account.

For the last couple of weeks in site I´ll be meeting with them to continue with the annual work plans, writing bylaws, organizing their check book and accounting, making minor repairs, and the monthly fee we´ll charge the families. Thank god I have a replacement volunteer after I leave. There´s still so much to do!!! Development is so frickin´ slow!

I´m holding on strong during these last couple of weeks in site. Since my last post I helped organize another year of field based training for new trainees. This year we went to Julcan and San Augustin in the sierra and Tecapa on the northern coast of La Libertad. It was a productive week. Fortunately I didn´t get sick, like last year. No one wants to remember a viral infection. yuck.

I went back to site after the training for just a day than took off to Lima for med checks. The good news- I´m healthy enough to return to the USA. As long as washington agrees. the bad news- I´ve lost 13 lbs since 2005 and have abnormally high hemoglobin levels since living at such a high altitude. My cells have changed. Weird.

Some of my fellow P6er´s are peace´n out. Like Khaliah. Good luck girl. I´ll miss you. Even though I´ve got a million and 10 things to do this month before I leave, I´m going to appreciate my last month in the Peace Corps because I´ve been blessed with a wonderful site, decent job opportunities, great friends, a caring family, and a reliable staff to support me along the way. This is mypeacecorps. And it´s coming to an end. Whooa. I didn´t think I´d ever be able to say that. Cheers to Carata.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Strange Occurrences: 7/10/07

Strange Occurrences: 7/10/07

I hiked up to Doña Maria’s Bodega to buy some fruit the other day and we began talking about my short time left in Carata. She tried to convince me to stay, and because this wasn’t the first time someone has pulled this one on me I used my rehearsed line (“I’d really like to stay…”) But the fact is, “I miss my family and need to return to them”. Surely any Peruvian would understand that since family means so much to them. Doña Maria listened contently, until I finished and than casually said, YOUR PARENTS ARE MILLIONAIRES. It wasn’t phrased as a question, nor as to clarify a doubt, but as fact! My parents are millionaires. I stood there on her dirt floor, stunned. How do you answer that? Mustering a thoughtful response, and at the same time, withholding my laughter, I told her the truth. “Actually, they aren’t millionaires.”
Shit. This Town. Wow.
In the same day, just a few hours later, I went with the nurse to visit the public school. We needed to coordinate a few upcoming dates. The second grade teacher “Grober”(pronounced grover-like the Muppet) whom we wanted to talk to, was not in his classroom but his students were. We stood outside his room talking with the 3rd grade teacher “Eder” who was the acting principal in his absence. Attendance is obviously a problem for teachers and the principal. When Grober didn’t return, Eder sent one of the 2nd graders to find him. 10 minutes later the kid came back and explained that Grober was in a saloon-but would be right back. As we waited, I became impatient and entered the 2nd grade classroom. The kids were out of their seats, pushing each other, yelling my name and leaving in big groups for the bathroom. What chaos. I was immediately reminded why I didn’t go into education. And yet as a nurse I always feel like a teacher, especially in the Peace Corps.
Grober never came back, so I asked the student who went out to look for his teacher. “What could he possibly be doing, why hasn’t he returned to class? And the student replied, “Esta tomando”. (He’s drinking). It occurred to me later, that I was the only one surprised. The second graders were used to the idea of being left alone for hours while their teacher spent the morning in a bar.
Shit. This Town. Wow.
The following day, would be extremely busy, with two meetings in the morning, and one in the afternoon. I woke up early, ate breakfast and headed down to Nuevo California, walking. Our camp was planned for that Friday and I was struggling to get everything in order for the four campers I had chosen as participants. One of the assignments we arranged as camp directors was a written letter from each parent to their child. This was to be done secretly so that on the 3rd and last day of camp, the campers would receive a letter of encouragement from their parents. It was an activity that the self esteem committee had planned. Generally speaking, few parents congratulate their kids for their successes. Even fewer parents praise their children in this culture. We decided it would be a meaningful activity for both parents and campers.
Since I agreed to bring four kids from Carata (and neigboring villages) that meant four letters from four different parents. I walked to each of their houses, which are not in close proximity of each other, and having visited two houses the day before I left the other two for this morning. Yesterday’s visits went well, I reviewed the camp details with the parents and completed the letters with the mothers. It was a little difficult to explain the concept, "write a positive letter of reinforcement to your son/daughter". But don’t tell them we’ve written this letter, they will receive it at the end of camp. !?!?!!? I gave the two mom’s examples, What would you like to tell him/her, that you never say? One of the moms was illiterate, so as she spoke the letter, I dictated. The other mom didn’t want to write (so I offered to write for her) fortunately she understood the concept and was quite eloquent in her letter to her daughter, Edith.
When I arrived in Nuevo California, I found the other two mothers working with a committee of other locals. They were behind the soup kitchen digging up an open space. It was obvious that this was a community effort, each family was required to do their part of the labor. Knowing this, I hoped to pull the mothers out for a few minutes to write their letters and let them get back to work.
I called “Diva” and “Zoila” from the crowd and they came over to a bench were I was sitting, one at a time. I reiterated the letter writing activity for their son/daughter. Both gave me the same response, “Don’t you see we’re busy, in the middle of work?”. I told them I understood, but that they knew about this assignment, and if they wanted their kids to attend the camp, this was a requirement. “But Mateo, if we don’t get back to work, their going to deduct us. We’ll be fined.” “You write the letters.” I said, “Listen, this is suppose to come from you, as a parent.” “I’m not asking you for a lot here!”

Yesterday, the first two mothers, sat with me. They thought about the letter, they expressed interest. They imagined their kids receiving the letters, and the smiles on their faces.
These women returned to digging, and I sat on the bench, fuming. I couldn’t believe that these two  couldn’t even help me with something so simple like a short letter. It wasn’t even for me, for Christ's sake, it was for their own son/daughter. Maybe they didn’t know how to write either, or maybe they could, but didn’t want to. I thought the threat of being fined for not working was a pretty lame excuse.
I wanted to say, “You’ll be fined, so be it.” “ Do you know how much Peace Corps is paying to invite your kid to this retreat?” “ It’s considered a scholarship, all expenses included, they won’t spend a dime!” “And your telling me you can’t even write your child a note about why you love them, and that you support them!”
Shit. This Town. Wow.


Oct. 1st 2007
Day 738. I ate 14 potatoes today. Never again. I’ve determined that I’m more likely to get explosive diarrhea when I eat at someone elses house in the village and than take a vigorous hike home, scaling steep hills. Waiting 30 minutes to 1 hour is definitely necessary to prevent this reoccurring problem. It’s nice that other families are inviting me to lunch now, but it’s killing my digestive tract. Another origin of the diarrhea could be the exposure to new bacteria in a new cooking environment.

When I came back from Christmas this year, I gave a friend of mine my old hiking boots. Mom and Dad had bought me a new pair. The former weren’t really that old for Peruvian standards.The Timberland’s were probably the best gift Alipio had ever received. Surely an upgrade to his yankees (sandals made out of tires). Alipio just held the boots in his hands, admiring them, and thanking me.

So it’s October now, and up until now, I’ve never seen Alipio wear the boots. Were they so amazing that he didn’t even want to wear them? Or did he give them to one of his 9 sons? Esgar who’s 15 years old, has been spending a lot of time at our house. I asked him yesterday about the boots. Evidently one of his older brothers wore the boots to Otuzco and drank so much, he passed out. And the boots were stolen right off his feet. So who knows where my old boots are nowadays? Hopefully someone is getting good use out of them, even if they were stolen.

What else is new here? Well, after months and months of planning our youth camp came and went. Last weekend we brought all the participants together between the mountains and the coast in a town called Pedregal. 36 adolescents participated, and they loved it. We played a number of problem solving games, decorated journals, made jewelry, baked with solar ovens, invited outside speakers (college students and professionals), performed skits, and even got a good scare from a ghost during a bonfire. The camp themes promoted 1. Education 2. Leadership and 3. Self Esteem. It was a roaring success. The invitees have limited opportunities to participate in such a retreat.

Ode to Carata
I think I’ll live without a refrigerator from now on. And a washing machine, and who needs a dryer anyway. Or an iron? Please. Ironing clothes seems odd. Unnecessary really. Hand washing clothes is a great stress reliever. I haven’t seen a real kitchen stove in years. Heck we’ve been cooking just fine over the fire. How much would an oven cost anyway. Too much. Tissues are a big waste too. It wasn’t until PC that I stopped buying them and began using toilet paper for everything. I usually bathe every 3-4 days, pending water that is, and change my clothes every other day. Baby wipes are the perfect remedy for quick and easy hygiene. What a funny looking word. The bathing boycott however will probably have to be broken if I want to integrate back into American society. And date again. Rice will always be apart of meals from now on, I’m addicted to it. I don’t even taste it anymore. It fills you up though. When I eat any other meal without rice, I don’t feel like I’ve eaten. Maybe I’ll stop washing my hands with cold water since I’m destined to get sick from doing that. I could bring dirt floors back into style. Upon arrival to the USA, How about in my first apartment I tear up what ever floor exists and put down dirt. The longer it’s there the more broken in it becomes-almost like carpet. We used to drop glass and it didn’t even break. I wasn’t until they poured a concrete floor that we really started breaking dishes. And cuyes. No kitchen is complete without 20 feral guinea pigs at your feet. God, I’m gonna miss this place.

And I don’t think I’ll ever really be able to complain about anything in the USA ever again. Because it could NEVER be as bad as it’s been in Peru.

Things I miss: Carpets. The smell of cut grass. Driving. Berry Berry Kix. 90 Watt light bulbs. Public trash cans. Rollerblading. Comfortable bus seats. Cold juices. Bacon. Making breakfast. Poping popcorn. Halloween. Reading the Sunday paper. Taking trains. Arriving on time. Calling old friends. Toilet seats. Walking the Charles River. Smooth roads. Playing catch.

Things I’ll miss from Peru: Cebiche. Huayno/Cumbia/Salsa music. Otra Cosa (Vegetarian Restaurant). The Spanish language. “Inviteme” concept. The idea of time. Papa a la huancaina. Marching bands. Donkeys. Little old men with no teeth. People opening beer bottles with their teeth. Adobe walls. Political signs. Protests. Holidays. Newsweeks. The RPM. The PCMO. The APCD. Enriques burly arms. Yapas. Straw hats. Being tall. And feeling tall. Yellow tin roofs. Dusty, dry country roads. Ticos. Estations. Inca haus. The Mediterranean restaurant. Speaking spanglish. Quinua. Pooping in plastic cups. P6!

“I´m no poet”
Sure it’s been hard. Theres no water, no electricity, no bathrooms, no phone lines. The food has made me sick more than a few times. The government’s corrupt. Most locals have given up. And yet month after month I remind myself-you’ve changed so much. Now it’s time to depart, with whom do I start? My family or friends, I can’t believe it’s the end. This long, strange trip through Peru has redefined even you.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Machu Picchu

On Aug. 1st my Mom and Knox Turner arrived for a two week visit. Finally, after almost 2 years, I’d have the opportunity to visit Cusco and Peru’s most famous attraction- Machu Picchu. We decided to leave one week for Cusco in the south and the second week for the north- Trujillo and Carata. Mom claimed if she were to make the trip all the way to Perú she couldn’t miss out on seeing Carata.

I met the two at Aeropuerto Internacional-Jorge Chávez and we stayed overnight in a hotel nearby. Only looks were deceiving. From the website, ¨Hotel Victor¨ appeared impressive, clean and comfortable. Fortunately for us the place was locked into a gated cul-de-sac, because the surrounding neighborhood was a real slum. Imagine dirt streets, condemned buildings, broken down cars on every corner, and garbage burning on the side of the road. It made the Bronx seem like Beverly Hills. Just when Perú defined poverty, the slums of Lima redefined it again.

PC has wanted to place more PCV´s in the outskirts of greater metropolitan Lima, but in almost every case of site development they couldn’t even find suitable homes that met safety standards. Straw mat lean to's just don’t cut it. Some say there is more poverty in Lima than any other region of the country.

The following morning we awoke and went back to the airport to fly to Cusco. A 50 minute flight or a 30 hour bus ride. With those kinds of options who wouldn’t fly? There’s word of a new train from Lima to Cusco, but I think it’s just wishful thinking. Cusco was everything I imagined, excellent food, a clean, colonial atmosphere, and more history to absorb than any other Peruvian city I’ve visited. Everything was going as planned until my Mom came down with a paralyzing pain in the back of her head. She said she could feel it moving from behind her ears, wrapping itself around to the front. When the pain didn’t cease, we got worried and rushed to a hospital.

Surprisingly, we were quickly attended and the bilingual staff made us feel more at ease. The Doc seemed to think it was only stress related, and wanted to admit her just to err on the side of caution. What a frightening experience though, especially for Mom to loose even more of her independence in another country, in a different language with a bizarre health care system. She agreed to stay overnight and physical therapy scheduled three visits. An IV was started to relieve residual pain.
The hospital tour wasn’t part of the itinerary but at least Mom was in the city when this happened. We were scheduled to start an expedition with Q´ente Tours (Q´ente= Hummingbird in Quechua) that Sunday, which meant camping in the sacred valley on the way to Machu Picchu. We wouldn’t recommend the hospital, but rather, the Dutch run Niño’s Hotel. http://www.ninoshotel.com/

Sunday morning began early with a hotel pickup by Q´ente. Carlos introduced himself as our young, humble guide for the next four days. We drove out of Cusco heading west to the town of Izcuchaca than to Huarocondo and finally to Socma. Adobe homes whipped by in the van window, farmers attended to their cattle and the bright warm sun rose above the green mountain tops. Our group was small, just five in total, two babes from Wales, Jennifer and Anna, and the three of us. Our staff on the other hand consisted of 5-6 men, various horses, food and equipment.

That first day we hiked slowly, as Carlos stopped to teach us about culture, history, geography, politics (and everything else under the sun really). As we winded up the switchbacks, we came across a beautiful waterfall. An archaeological site was pointed out to the left, former Incan ruins I suppose. Lunch was served picnic style. We ate and rested and hiked another 20 minutes to the unofficial campsite. (The first choice campsite, farther ahead, didn’t have water) The sun set, and as darkness fell upon us, it got cold! We were at 3,400m. Carlos taught us about the southern hemisphere’s solar system. Fascinating.

Breakfast was served and we took off for the second full day of hiking. We left the village of Perolyniyoc and huffed up to Arrayan sweating. Breaks were necessary. I felt like we had reached the highest elevation at that point. From this pass we were confronted by neighboring snow capped mountains. I had read about Mt. Ausangate and had been thinking about a trek through that part of southern Perú. At 6384m it’s the highest Mt. in southern Peru. Carlos pointed it out as the third peak to the left. As we made our decent I thought about how sacred this region was, and allowed the Incan concept of respecting nature to set in.

What a unique experience, to walk the same route that an ancient civilization had inhabited. This was even more meaningful than last weeks trip on Santa Cruz in Ancash. Mom was holding her own, actually I was very proud. Considering she was a recent hospital patient 2 days before and presently scaling 10,000ft mountains with little difficulty. Knox was up for the adventure, as long as he didn’t have to sleep by the tent door.

The third day was easily the hardest-75% of the trek was hiking downhill on very slippery terrain. Fortunately we stopped to see a quarry and a burial tomb along the way. In an effort to descend faster, Mom rode one of the horses for a minute but quickly dismounted, exclaiming, “It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life”.

We passed some aqueducts and spotted the train tracks to Machu Picchu in the distance. Ollantaytambo became visible in the valley below. After lunch by the river, we thanked the staff and took off in a van to the town of Ollantaytambo to catch the train. I took my boots off and slipped on my Reefs. Heaven. Our feet were badly blistered and bruised at that point.

If only we had more time, I would have loved to wander those ancient streets. This unique village was bustling with tourists but maintained an inviting, comforting feeling. It occurred to me that one could easily spend 2-4 weeks in the entire sacred valley region, sightseeing between Cusco and Aguas Calientes before even seeing the trophy site-Machu Picchu.

The train was a welcomed change of transport, since walking the past 2.5 days. We desperately needed to shower. Carlos claimed the hotel in Aguas Calientes was casi 5 estrellas- laughing under his breath as any seasoned Peruvian guide would do. Clearly there are no 5 star hotels south of Texas.

So I just laughed when my mom stood naked in the shower, waiting for water. We called the reception (by shouting down the hall-mind you) and they sent “some guy” who accidentally pulled the knobs right off the shower wall-spraying water everywhere. We changed rooms two more times before actually taking hot showers. This town is known as Hot Waters for heavens sake. 5 stars….Riggggght.

Dinner at a Thai restaurant made up for the substandard hotel and a quick dip in the hot thermal baths encouraged a good night’s sleep. That next morning (Wednesday) we’d leave for Machu Picchu early, before the big crowds.

Wake up! Here’s the moment you’ve been waiting for! MP! The surrounding green mountains were a lush green, even during the dry season. Actually the periphery is better described not as mountainous but as towering tropical peaks. The Urubamba Valley is breathtaking. These peaks protected the fortress from intruders. Although our time was limited, Carlos took the five of us to the most popular sites, explaining in detail the current theories behind this mysterious site. We had the chance to wander- And although I would have liked to climb Huayna Picchu (A tall peak across the ruins) for lack of time, we walked to an Incan bridge. It was time to head back to Aguas Calientes and eat lunch before catching the train. I had head about the “chaskys” (sp?) from other PC volunteers who have been to MP but had forgotten until I saw little boys running the switchbacks down the mountain, chasing our bus, screaming their way down. Dressed in traditional Incan gowns, these little messengers recreate the traditional message relaying system for present day tourists. Impressed, with their “skills to pay the bills” I easily gave them a tip when one boy boarded our bus. It was surely more impressive than the musicians on city buses, or the Maca/anti-parasite/vitamin/teethwhitening salesmen on buses to my site.

I hated to leave Cusco, but it was time to head north to La Libertad and pay Trujillo and Carata a visit. From Cusco we flew to Lima. To pass the time between flights we played a rather enjoyable 2 hour long game of world geography. The flight to Trujillo is short- a mere 50 minutes compared to the 9 hour bus ride. For the first time in Peru’s history TIME MENT MONEY. I love traveling with rich gringos-spend a little extra to save time. What a concept. My Peruvian host family would op for a painful 20 hour ride-above a tractor trailer to save a few bucks. Not the Lindsleys.

That next day we toured the city by means of errands-the bank, post office, laundry, etc. In the afternoon we drove out to Salaverry a port town, to visit some fellow Americans. A US navel ship (USS Comfort) was anchored out at sea and two groups of health personnel had been split between two public schools. One in Salaverry and the other in Trujillo. For a full week the floating hospital provided free health care to the public. We caught them on a Thursday, at the end of their week, but managed to get a tour and learn about the program. The ship had been on tour for a number of months through Central/South America. They saw patients for dental/vision problems, cleft lip/palate surgeries and more. I was very impressed with the organization and leadership by our military. We were guided through the large school with a sergeant whom was happy to have Peace Corps volunteers helping with translation. Unfortunately we didn’t get to physically help, nor translate because they were finishing up for the day. However, I enjoyed just watching the Peruvian Army and the US military join forces to offer health services and build classrooms.

That night we visited my host family-the extended family that is. The neighborhood is called La Rinconada and it’s one of the poorer regions of the city but certainly not the poorest. When I come into town from my site, the family makes room for me to stay. I’ve saved a lot of money that way (instead of on hotels, restaurants) but usually there’s no water, nor toilet seats, average food, hard beds, rats, cockroaches, and lots of screaming babies and/or children. In spite of all that, the chaotic atmosphere is exciting and definitely a different environment than home. For example, one morning I awoke early and found the baby, Fernando sitting on the kitchen floor eating a tub of butter. Grinning, he looked up at me and I thought, there’s a breakfast of champions.

Mom was down with the house though, she meet Gladis, Melva, Jhonny, Jesus, Anel, and Fernando. Knox was a great translator between the group and we told them all about Cusco, the hospital and Machu Picchu. It’s sad to think that they may never have the opportunity to go, due to economic strains and this “World Wonder” is in their own country. Than on the way back to our hotel I lost my wallet. It fell off my lap onto the floor of the taxi as we got out. It was one of those forgettable moments of realization in the middle of the street. MY WALLET! NOOOOO!!! I patted my sides down instinctively for the next hour hoping it would suddenly appear, but it was gone. I called our safety and security director, Enrique Navarro, and he talked me through the process of canceling the cards, and filing a police report the next morning. My wallet contained S/.100 (Nuevos Soles) which is roughly $30.00. Only a PCV would make such a fuss over such a small amount of cash.

So instead of heading up to Carata, we went on another unplanned tour of the police headquarters (La comisaria) to file a complaint. While in line I could hear the officer behind his cardboard thin wall, chicken pecking on a typewriter. And I thought, “Wow, This could take a while…” Finally, I walked into his office and immediately noticed the enormous crucifix of Christ on the wall, and to the left of it, an X-rated poster of a topless gringa. What a dichotomy. The entire country has these sharp differences-opposing one another. Que raro.

Saturday morning we left for Carata, but we only reached the town of Poroto, 25km from the city when the radiator on Johnny’s taxi pooped out. We could either wait on the side of the road and hitchhike up to Carata (3 hours away), or turn back so he could get it fixed and than leave in the morning. Driving at night was not an option. Way too dangerous, especially the way he drove. So we turned back and stayed in La Rinconada another night. Slightly depressed, but getting used to disappointment, we decided to see a movie. Usually that’s a foolproof means of entertainment. Although one time the volume went out and the whole theatre began screaming at the film operator. Lucky, we had no such problem.

The hotel in La Rinconada was laughable. You could designate it- Ghetto Hotel #3. Although it’s known as “THE SWEET LIFE” (La Dulce Vida) to locals. I began to think Knox and Mom were beginning to either give up on Peru, or settle right into the insanity. The speeding taxis, begging children, public urination, missing shower curtains and toilet seats, feral dogs, trash piles, endless waiting, contaminated water (when available), gnarly food, rock hard pillows, and destitute poor were just too much for one vacation. The past 24 hours had been hell, a hell that was the nadir to all previous months of preparation.

At last we arrived in Carata, we had missed yesterdays meeting with health promoters, who wanted to meet my fam. It was irrelevant at that point. We could count all of our limbs and that was more important. I sleep like a dead horse that night. I’d bet that Mom enjoyed Carata, we took her up to the Cruz, and to the reservoir, to see the water project. Knox and her dispersed gifts to the family. They even brought some sand dollars (surprisingly intact) from the ocean, and we told them the story of the doves inside. They had never seen such a thing. It was a gift from our family to yours, Knox explained.

In the end Mom finally saw Carata, and spent two nights in my site. The electricity when out the second night, but we didn’t even care, at least we had each other. The morning they flew out of Lima a 7.5 magnitude earthquake hit southern Peru. At that point they were on their way home to Concord, NH. It sure was an unforgettable trip.

Another popular trek near Machu Picchu is called Choquequirao. Those that have been there are saying it could be bigger than MP. An online source states,

"Choquequirao (Golden Cradle) is considered the Sister City of Machu Picchu, because of several similarities, it hangs 1,500 meters above the Apurimac Canyon, and Machupicchu hangs above the Urubamba canyon. It was a religious and administrative center. It is at the same latitude and it is a large citadel with more of 8 hectares, only one third has been uncovered and every day archeologists are finding new things."