Number of People with Nothing Better to Do

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas from Peru

Yesterday the municipality delivered gifts, chocolate and cakes to all the kids in the district of Rio Grande. I went along for the ride to meet the folks in my district and to see what Christmas is all about in the remote areas of Peru. After some hemming and hawing and waiting we left at the Hora Peruana (more than an hour late). The mayor, a couple of the town regidores (representatives), a clown, a couple of kids and I hopped into a dump truck with boxes of toys for boys and girls and headed off to Pampa Blanca about 42 kilometers away, the furthest little pueblo in my district. The road started off OK and was paved but after we made the first river crossing about halfway to Pampa Blanca it was just a dusty, gravelly dirt road. A short 25 miles took over 2 hours and I´m probably 2 inches shorter than I was before we started off. When we got close to Pampa Blanca, the driver hopped out, donned a Santa Suit and hopped into the bed of the truck with the clown and the two kids.

I’d been out to Pampa Blanca the night before for a primary school graduation. The remote town makes its living off dirt farming, cattle and mining. Apparently back in the day, they would pull out kilos of gold at a time out of the hills surrounding the town. Now they scrap together a little golddust at a time by grinding rock with a giant stone, adding mercury to the sludge and drying it. I’m not sure where they dump the sludge and waste excess water but I’m pretty sure it just goes right into the river.

Anyway, when we pulled up, all the kids playing futbol on the dirt pitch above came running down the rocky hillside after the truck. The clown put on a little show, gave out presents with Papa Noel (Santa), and we drank hot chocolate. The children were so precious and so grateful. It really melted my heart and stirred up some paternal instinct that I’ve managed to bury for all these years (Don’t get all worked up mom, I’m over it today).
I little different than the crass commercialism and excess I´m used to.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Gap Analysis

How´d you like to shit in this?

OK. Training is over. I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer. Now what? I’m here at my site and it’s time to begin work. I’m in the Water and Sanitation (WatSan!) group. Our main program goals here in Peru are to 1 – help improve access to and quality of water in my district; 2 – help improve hygiene practices; and 3 – help organize and train local organizations to improve water and sanitation services. Some of my principal activities will include training people in charge of their water and sanitation services, working with families to improve sanitation (building latrines, waste water systems) and working with various community organizations to develop sustainable waste management, water and sanitation systems.

Since I don’t know shit about my district I’ll be working on a three month Community Diagnostic which I’m going to call a "Gap Analysis". A former boss of mine "rebranded" the term Gap Analysis so I feel like I have to re-rebrand it here. The first step in any consulting process is to figure out what’s working and what’s not (assuming you don´t have agree on a fee but my shit´s free). That’s done by interviewing basically everyone who’ll talk to you –leaders of the community, members of local organizations, families, etc. From there you can identify the needs of the community and, with their input, develop solutions and strategies. Consulting 101.

I’ve already recruited about a dozen nursing students (not as hot as it sounds) to help me out with the surveys and the interviews. Last week we went to a small annex about an hour and a half up the valley from my town. The students did the interviews while I met with the Presidente del Comite de Agua Potable and checked out their water system. We found that the town did have access to potable water via communal spigots but there was no maintenance to the system and worms were coming out of the taps. Most families had rudimentary latrines but preferred to do their business al campo (in the woods were there trees). There is no solid waste collection or recycling and people burn their trash.

Some possible projects - building proper latrines, training the water committee on proper maintenance and disinfection of their system and organizing a recycling/waste collection process.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Integrating is hard.

Tuesday was a national holiday celebrating some battle or patron saint or something. I never got a good bead on what we were celebrating but a day off is a day off and I wasn’t bombarded with mattress sale commercials. Government entities, schools, universities and some businesses had the day off and there were military parades in Lima showing off the fleet of new Chinese tanks the Peruvian Army just bought (get your shit together Northrup-Grumman). It was also a day of first communion for the children in my area. I’d been invited to go to the farthest annex in my district to celebrate the occasion but didn’t end up going. Just as well – my back was sore from lying in bed all day Sunday sick and being crammed in a little car with four other people bouncing up and down on dirt roads for two hours would have been la muerte. My site mate was going to a 1st communion celebration in my neck of the woods so I tagged along.

We went to a house in one of the annexes in my district. The house was kind of rustic with plastered adobe walls, a dirt floor and a thatch roof but after a couple of hours sitting around a Peruvian drinking circle and shooting the shit it felt like home. We had a nice “catered” lunch delivered in to us in a large pot with a wheelbarrow. My stomach was still a little dicey and I was reluctant to eat anything from a wheel barrow but damn was it good. The menu included arroz verde con pollo (chicken and green rice) and Papas a la Huancaina (sliced potatoes covered in a yellow, spicy cream sauce).

After drinking a few more beers, we all packed up and headed down to the river for a dip. There was a nice deep pool with shade and a sandy river bottom so we hung out in there, continued drinking beer and had little contests to see who could hold their breath underwater the longest. The kids ran around and caught minnows.

While I was sitting there in the river, I wondered what I would have been doing at 2:30 in Chicago on a Tuesday afternoon. Probably sitting at my desk, worrying about hitting my sales goal, fretting about Christmas shopping, and freezing my ass off heading to the El to go home later. Despite the jacked up back, the touch and go intestinal situation, and uncertainty of what exactly I’ll be doing here the next two years, I was happy life brought me to this place, hanging out in the Rio Grande with my site mate, Loco, Conejo, Negro, Pablo and Beatriz and all the kids.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Matrimonio Massivo

This weekend I was invited to join the mayor, his wife and my host mother to four weddings (no funeral) in one of the annexes in our district. The wedding ceremony was more of a legal proceeding under a thatch roof with a dog lying on the ground rather than some extravaganza at a church with white gowns, ushers, and bride’s maids in bad dresses that can’t be worn more than once (despite what the bride says).

My host mom is the civil register in our district. She registers births, weddings, deaths, etc. During the wedding, the civil register reads from something that looks like a bible but is in fact a book of regulations, the brides and grooms agree to follow the law and then paperwork is signed. Each couple needs two witnesses that have to have an official Peruvian identification card. Things were going well until the last groom couldn’t find a witness who had the right form of ID. Someone said get the gringo to do it. I had my passport so I acted as his witness and signed the poor kid’s life away.

The mayor said some words and my host mom announced you may now kiss your brides. Turns out that no one except for one couple wanted to kiss, at least not publicly. It didn’t help that my host mom goaded them on, made them go one by one, and told them that everyone was watching. It was a momento incomodo (awkward moment).

Afterwards we ate lunch and I got sicker’n shit the next day.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

It’s Official – I Hate Huayno Music

Time – 6:15am Saturday morning when my fastidious house mom from the sierra cranked the shit up at full volume. I don’t think I’m being culturally insensitive, Huayno´s just not my thing. I also hate most rap and nearly all new Nashville country music. I don’t have anything against dazzling urbanites or rednecks, their music’s just not for me that’s all.

Huayno music is the traditional music from the sierra. Nearly every song sounds the same with an odd two-two (?) syncopated beat. Some of the folksier stuff actually sounds pretty good with a guitar, one of those big, bad-ass bass guitars that mariachi’s play and a small stringed instrument that sounds like a cross between a ukulele and mandolin. Most of the songs are sung in Quechua, the indigenous language of the sierra.

It’s the Huayno with the accordion and the high-pitched nasally woman lead singer that makes me want to stick a pen in my ear drums if the volume doesn’t burst them first.

Peace Corps’ Hard

Today, after I met with the mayor of my town and did a walkthrough of my community as part of my community diagnostic, I went to a local high school along with my site mate and her host mother. We were Jurados de un Concurso Interno de Platos Tipicos (Judges in a Traditional Peruvian Food Competition). Finally, all those countless, seemingly wasted hours watching the Food Network paid off. We, the judges, tasted 14 dishes typical to various areas of Peru, the coast, the sierra and the selva. The plates were prepared by the students who gave us an explanation of how the food was cooked and what region it was from. The plates included Aji de Gallina (a spicy chicken dish), cabrito (goat), a couple of types of cuy (guinea pig), chuletas de cerdo (pork chops) and Jalea de Mariscos (seafood medley).

The plates were judged on five criteria: utilization of local foods, creativity, nutritional value, hygiene, and presentation. All of the plates were delicious and many of the students worked hard on plating and presentation which would have made Emeril proud. Some of the plates were served with wine and Pisco, a local liquor made out of grapes. I thought is was a bit odd being served a hard liquor by a 15 year old high school student at twelve in the afternoon but I’m just a dopey, culturally unaware American so what do I know. The winner…. Jalea de Mariscos (seafood featuring the locally renowned crawfish), some kind of chicken dish placed, and Cuy en Salsa de Mani showed.

Afterwards, I was walking down the street looking for a place to get a key made and a group of school girls from the losing classes passed by and started wearing me out about the judges’ selections. Seems they didn’t feel that the mariscos plate was a typical or traditional Peruvian dish. I had to remind them that in our district, camarones are king. One of the girls who was in the winning class agreed whole-heartedly and taunted her friends with what I took to be the Peruvian equivalent of “You got served bitch!” The others stood their ground and kept arguing but I was done and told them to take it up with the gringa that lives down the street.

Passing the buck…Works here too.