Number of People with Nothing Better to Do

Monday, December 13, 2010

School Daze

Entrance to the school

Kids during ag class (it's very hot by the way)

Kids in science class
I've been doing a fair amount of work in the escuela secundaria (middle/high school) in my town. The school is called Institución Educativa José Abelardo Quiñones named after a Peruvian fighter pilot who, after he was shot down by an Ecuadorian artillery unit during the Ecuadorian-Peruvian War of 1941, kamakazeed his plane into the battery that shot him down. Peru actually won that war so he's kind of a national hero and is on the 10 Sol bill.

The school has a couple of smallish two-story brick and concrete buildings with classrooms, an administrative office and a computer lab and another one-story building with classrooms and shop classes. There is a little concrete futbol/basketball court in the middle of the buildings. I was pretty excited when I saw the basketball court and was ready to play ball but the backboards are all jacked up. Too many kids dunkin'? Mmm… Probably not. (Confusing but amusing fact - the Spanish word Aula = Classroom. The word Jaula = Cage)

Kids here go to secundaria between the ages of around 11 or 12 until they're 16 or 17. There are around 130 students in 5 grades. Class size ranges between 10 – 30 students. Staff includes one director (principal), an assistant, a janitor, seven teachers, an adult hall monitor (who is also the referee for the local cock fights), a part time PE teacher and an English teacher who barely speaks a lick of English. As in the US, teachers here are overworked, underpaid and underappreciated.

The school year runs from April until December. They're off during the summer months of January through March because it's just too damn hot. Classes start at 8am and go until 1:30 with a recess/snack break at around 11:00. They study the typical HS courses like math and science and also take practical, more hands-on courses like agriculture, metal shop, and wood shop. A couple times a week the kids have physical education where they do exercises, run track, play futbol, volleyball, and basketball (even though the backboards are unusable). There is a school band but there are no organized sports teams. I haven't seen any dopey, cocky meatheads wearing their letter jackets terrorizing the guy carrying the clarinet case.
Graduation is just a couple of weeks away. Some of the 5th year kids are going to attend the Instituto (junior college) in town studying either tourism, mechanics, computers, nursing, or agriculture. Some of the brighter students will spend about a year studying for a university entrance exam and hopefully get accepted. Many have few options and will leave town to look for work in the fields or doing construction. Imagine leaving home at 16 years old to brave this sometimes very cruel world.

So far working with these kids has been the highlight of my Peace Corps experience. They're bright, respectful, and appreciative and really a lot of fun to be around unlike their spoiled counterparts in a little place called America.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Fiesta del Fiesta del Camarón (Crawfish Festival)

Hunting camarones with the Germans

Waiting for the food to come out with Nano and his mom

Queen of the Camarón, contestants and judges
OK. I think you're starting to see a trend. Peruvians love their fiestas. There are fiestas for virgins, saints, town anniversaries, local food, etc. A couple of weeks ago Huaraco, a little town in my district, hosted the Fiesta del Camarón (Crawfish Festival). Crawfish Festival??!! Visions of backyard crawfish boils in Houston danced in my head. You can bet your sweet poto (ass) I wasn't going to miss this one.

So off I went to Huaraco with 2 German archaeologists, a German museum intern and Conejo, the mayoral candidate in my district who came in 5th. On the way up the quebrada to Huaraco, we stopped and looked at some petroglyphs from the Paracas Culture, an ancient civilization that pre-dated the Nazcas. There, foxes, families, and chiefs wearing ceremonial head dresses were etched in stone, no doubt by some bored, punk-ass, Paracas culture teenager wearing black eye-liner. Although the archaeologists couldn't verify this, I'm sure the etchings read "I hate you Dad!"

We arrived at Huaraco around 10:30 in the morning. The night before the town the crowned the new Miss Camarón and there was a band and dancing and drinking on the little concrete losa where they play futbol. When we arrived half the town was still sleeping or were awake but pretty bleary eyed. The other half was preparing platos tipicos (typical dishes) de camarón. A couple of older men were sitting near the losa unable to make it home, or locked out of their homes, from the night's festivities. They smelled pretty ripe.

We went down to the river to catch us some camarones. You catch a camarón by wading in the slower moving parts of the river, sticking your hands under rocks and grabbing the little suckers. If one of the camarones goes darting out and you're not a seasoned Peruvian veteran, you stumble and slosh around awkwardly trying to catch it and pretty much look like clod. After catching maybe a kilo and a half of camarones, we sat by the river and admired our haul as the veterans agilely waded by with mesh bags full of the little critters.

We left the river and headed back to town where I ran into a couple of friends from town. We drank beer and bullshitted and laughed while waiting for the food to come out. Periodically, a lady would bring out a big tray of food and set it on a table to sell. When the chicharrón de camarón (fried crawfish) came out, everyone bum-rushed the table and started hollering and arguing about who had paid and who was next. I was secretely half hoping to witness a fight over crawfish.

Just as we were about to leave, the townsfolk asked me if I wanted to be a judge in a food contest. If there's one skill I've honed as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Peru, it's judging food competitions and beauty pageants. Here was a chance to try all the dishes without having to pay so I eagerly accepted. Some of the dishes included - chaufa de camarón (crawfish fried rice), estofado de camarón (crawfish stew), causa de camarón (mashed potatoes layered with a mayonnaise-based crawfish salad), and chicharrón de camarón (fried crawfish). My favorite was the causa but the big winner by a landslide was the chicharrón.

Although the Fiesta del Camarón was a big hit, it really didn't stack up to a crawfish boil on a lazy Sunday afternoon at the West Alabama Ice House in Houston with newspaper-lined picnic benches, spicy crawfish, corn and potatoes, and a nice cold can of beer.

Idea for secondary project - crawfish boils. Any of you coon-asses out there have a good recipe?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Velada Artistica (The Talent Show)

Folks watching the velada artistica in the plaza.
It's not a velada without a provocative dance by a bunch of hot girls.
Maestros de ceremonia

Last month, my socio comunitario (community counterpart) approached me about doing a velada artistica. It was not exactly in my job description being a Water and Sanitation Volunteer and all, but since I didn’t have shit going on as far as projects go, I figured what the hell. The purpose of the velada artistica was to give the folks in my sleepy little town something to do on an otherwise uneventful Friday night. I spent two weeks trying to convince the local institutions - schools, the instituto, the health post, etc. to put together acts and then hoping they showed up on the day of the event.

The velada was scheduled to start at 4 pm sharp in the town plaza which meant the sound system showed up at 4 and took over an hour to get set up. Once the sound system was set up, we made announcements over the PA to come on down to the plaza for the grand show. The timid townsfolk filtered in little by little and by the time we actually got started, around 6:30, there were around 50 folks gathered.

My socio and I emceed the event, my socio being a professional emcee and I, well, I was just the 2 meter gringo freak show, an attaction in and of itself. A couple of acts into the show, my socio had to run off to the instituto to go take a test, leaving me to fly solo. I was a nervous wreck which didn’t help my Spanish, but I calmed down and apparently did OK. Days after the event I was told I had “la voz que embaraza” (the voice that impregnates). So if for some reason there are a bunch of tallish gringo children running around Rio Grande when I leave, I can assure you it was the voice.

As the night went on people kept showing up and by the end of the night there were by my estimate around 200 people. Not bad for a town with only 1200 or so people. The show included kids doing traditional dances. The health post put on a sketch about child abuse (the obstetriz did a great job as the abusive mother… maybe a little too good…). The high school kids did a lip-sync number about a man cheating on his girl (a common theme for the music down here for some reason – oh wait…).

I even sang!! My site mate Jess played her guitar and we sang Rocky Top and Hotel California. The last time I sang in public was at karaoke night at Friar Tucks in Chicago after a number of pints of liquid courage in front of a small crowd that was half in the bag. This time, no liquid courage and well over 100 sober Peruvians. Since the songs were in English and the folks had no idea what we were singing we were in the clear but, all modesty aside, we rocked the f*ckin’ joint.

The next day, the town was abuzz. They hadn’t seen an event like that in a while and everyone seemed to have enjoyed it. I didn’t get any latrines built or improve any water systems but maybe fulfilled one of Peace Corps’ goals of letting the rest of the world that not all Americans are a bunch of war-mongering, self-serving, ignorant douche bags.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Jimmy Carter Would’ve Been Proud

Jose "Conejo" and another candidate for mayor.

Chucho excited about rockin' the vote!

Accion Popular meeting. The mayor of Rio Grande is waving
(Disclaimer for any PC honchos who may be reading this - I was just passing through the plaza when I snapped this picture so don't kick me out)

Last Sunday was Election Day for all the alcaldes (mayors) and presidentes regionales (state governors) in Peru. I’ve been looking forward to the elections because I’m somewhat interested in politicians, the lies they tell and the way people buy their bullsh*t hook, line and sinker. Also, it’s been a while since I’ve been in South America during an election where you never really know what’s going to happen.

In my town, the current acalde was running against six other candidates. We’re used to the two big parties (two horns on the same devil). Here there are a ton of political parties: Acción Popular, PRI, Somos Peru, APRA, etc. Some wield more power than others but where I live out in the provincia (the sticks) most people seem to vote for the candidate and not dopey party ideology.

Voting in Peru is compulsory- if you don’t vote, you get fined somewhere in the range of 120-180 soles (roughly $40-60), four or five days pay for a farmer in la provincia. The campaigns started to heat up about a month before the elections. Candidates here used their own money to paint the side of houses with propaganda, make banners, and hire cars with loudspeakers mounted on the roof to drive around town blaring commercials. There were radio spots but no negative ads telling us this guy hates freedom or if you vote for her the terrorists win or any of that kind of nonsense. The negative campaign was chisme (gossip) in the street though I didn’t hear any of it.

A week before the election, each candidate held a meeting (meeting) in the town plaza. A meeting is basically a mini political rally with noise makers, whistles, confetti, and chants where the candidates lay out their proposals. According to several of the townsfolk, a lot of candidates promise big things during these meetings but forget all about them after the election. Someone asked me - it’s not like that in the US is it? Well… Uhm... Yes… As a matter of fact it’s exactly like that in the US and probably the rest of the world.

On the Friday before the election, la ley seca (dry law) went into effect where no beer, wine or liquor was sold in the country. I’m not sure why they have the dry law but I’m sure there’s a very interesting story behind it.

Election day – police and military personnel armed with machine guns were stationed in and around the Instituto where everyone in the district, some coming from as far as 50 kilometers, came to vote. Folks vote by marking an X on the ballot next to their candidate. The ballots had pictures of the candidates and the parties’ symbols for those who can’t read. Once they turn in the ballot, they have to dip the tip of their middle finger into a jar of indelible ink to prove they’ve voted (and spend the next two days trying to wash it off). If you’re 18 and it’s your first time voting, the election workers play a little joke on you and “accidentally baptize” your entire finger.

After the polls closed at 4pm, the votes were counted. The town plaza was packed with people waiting for the results. Hours passed and some people were drinking like they haven’t had a drink in two days. Slowly the numbers started to come out. One small group from a party that was apparently not winning started yelling things and throwing rocks at the metal door of the instituto, probably not a good idea when there are 5 armed cops and couple of soldiers with machine guns. Otherwise, it was a party atmosphere in the plaza filled with anticipation.

Hours turned into several hours and most of folks had to catch a ride back home and left. The results were finally announced at about 9:30pm. The current Alcalde was re-elected and was paraded around the plaza hoisted on the shoulders of his supporters. As a Volunteer, I’m not allowed to be involved in politics because it could seriously affect my work here. Having said that, I’m glad our Alcalde got re-elected because otherwise I would have had to find someone else to work with and that would have been a real pain in the ass.

As I write this four days after the election, Lima still doesn’t know who their next mayor will be and they’re still counting votes for many of the presidentes regionales. A buddy of mine complained that it took too long for the results to come in and asked me if it took this long in the US. My first thought was - of course not, we know who won pretty much that night or the next morning. Then I remembered the debacle of the 2000 presidential election with Bush and Gore and hanging chads and some idiot named Katherine Harris. But I didn't want to get into all that so I lied and said we know the next day.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Apparently I'm not 27 Anymore or Maybe Sammy Sosa wasn't that Big of a P*ssy After All

I kind of knew this day would come though I’ve been trying to put it off as long as possible. Being 2 meters tall (nearly 6’7”), tall people older than me told me I’d have back problems because of my height. My old boss back in the day, a tall man, had back surgery and was laid up for over a month (it apparently didn’t bother him too much because he managed to buyout a company as he convalesced). I told him I felt his pain. He replied that I hadn’t felt his pain… yet... but that I would. I kind of scoffed a bit on the inside. At the time, I was in my early 30’s, in reasonably good shape and prided myself on my back health because I was a yoga junkie. Fast forward a decade or so – I’m still reasonably fit, don’t feel my age, still exercise and do yoga on a regular basis, though not as much as I would like. But the years, a shitty mattress and cramming my 2 meter frame into tiny Peruvian means of transportation finally caught up with me and I got a herniated disc.

As a safety professional I’ve taught dozens of classes on preventing back injuries and proper lifting techniques to cops, firefighters, and everyday working men and women. I always led off the training talking about Sammy Sosa and the sneeze that injured his back and put him out of commission for a couple of months back in 2004 (he eventually came back, couldn’t hit a ball, got busted for using a corked back and got run out of town without his boom box - Michael Barrett smashed it by the way). This always started off training with a good laugh. A couple of weeks ago I wasn’t laughing. Everyone asked me what I did to it. I would have liked to have said lifting a 50 pound bag of cement or laying bricks or digging a pit latrine but, no, nothing that exciting (beer pong maybe?)

A herniated disc is when the soft cushy disk between your vertebrae bulges out of where it’s supposed to be. When it does this, the disc can push against a nerve that will make other things hurt – in my case, my back, right ass cheek, and right foot. The pain was excruciating. On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being going into shock, I would put it at an 8. I couldn’t bend over to tie my shoes, couldn’t sit, and couldn’t lie down for too long. It f*ckin’ sucked. So, two weeks later I’m taking pain killers (not the Rush Limbaugh variety) and muscle relaxers and am feeling much, much better.

So that’s the last “old man” complaining entry. Do look forward, however, to future parasite, explosive diarrea and/or other odd Peruvian ailment posts.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Murder in a Small Town

My town is a quiet, sleepy town. A kind of Peruvian Mayberry. Nothing exciting happens here. Really... Nothing... Occasionally there’s a town celebration or a futbol game but otherwise, it’s as tranquilo (laid back) as it gets. There’s virtually no crime. Sometimes the town drunk gets out of hand and hollers at people in the street and throws rocks at things but the folks put up with him and talk him down. Sometimes there are petty thefts committed by outsiders but otherwise it’s a quiet, safe little burg.

A couple of weeks ago, tragedy rocked my little town and made the headlines nationwide. A man in a jealous rage slashed his wife to death with a knife and then turned the knife on himself. He lived but is still in the hospital. According to the newspapers, it was a crime of passion committed when the wife failed to come home when expected.

I was out of town for training but heard of the tragedy through my community partner. I was deeply affected and stunned that such a thing could happen in such a laid back place. I’ve met the man and he seemed about as tranquilo as they come. He was a cab driver and occasionally shuttled me back and forth between Palpa. We had the usual conversations – he’d ask what part of the US I’m from, is it hot there, what kind of crops do they grow there, what kind of music do I like, how do I like Peruvian food, etc. He was always very kind and courteous which made this all the more surprising. I don’t think I ever met the woman. I’m told she was from the selva (jungle).

Of course the man has family in town. His father is also a cab drier. His mom sells bread in front of the store by the plaza. His sister works in the health post. Surprisingly, the townsfolk were sympathetic to the man. They said of the deceased, while being respectful and disrespectful at the same time, that she was sacando la vuelta (cheating) on him. They said she pushed the limit too far, he snapped, and that it was understandable without coming right out and saying she had it coming.

When I got back to site the week after the incident I asked people if anything had happened while I was gone. The response - "No. Todo tranquilo. Nothing ever happens here." Such is life in Mayberry.

Here’s an article from the paper

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Santa Rosa de Lima

Monday was a national holiday in Perú honoring Santa Rosa de Lima. Santa Rosa lived in Lima in the late 1500s and was apparently a very beautiful woman. She performed many miracles including healing the blind, curing her mother’s favorite rooster, making a pact with the mosquitoes in her garden so they wouldn’t bother her while she was praying, and somehow conjuring up a storm to keep a Dutch pirate ship from invading Lima - all saint-worthy endeavors as far as I’m concerned.

In Lima, the faithful celebrate by going to the Santuario de Santa Rosa de Lima, a church built where the saint was born and later died. They go to attend mass and to ask Santa Rosa to heal illnesses by writing their requests in a letter and dropping it in a well on the church grounds. When I arrived at the church at about 8am, the line to get to the well was already about 5 blocks long and took about an hour. When I left an hour and a half later, the line was about 15 blocks long and growing.

I waited in line which was incredibly orderly. There are only two things here in Peru that really bug the living shit out of me. One, as you already know, is la hora Peruana but I’m acostumbraring (getting used to) to things starting late. The other is people blatantly cutting in line for which I haven’t found a good coping mechanism (a stern glowering doesn't work for shit). Anyway, the line wound through the streets of the central district (where I wouldn’t want to be after dark) into the front gates with a Statue of the Sta. Rosa busting a sweet dance move and into the basilica's garden where the well was. There in the well I dropped a little note wishing my mom a speedy recovery and walked around a bit. There was Sta. Rosa’s bedroom where she slept on hard wooden planks and used three rocks for pillows.

After, I walked up the street and up the bridge to look at the Rio Rimac, the source of Lima’s drinking water. The Rimac starts several hundred kilometers up the mountains to the east as a pristine river with clean water. Along the way, mining companies dump their heavy metals, factories dump their hazardous wastes, and houses dump human piss and shit into it. By the time it reaches the bridge I was standing on, it’s basically an open sewer on its way to the sea a few miles to my west.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Fiesta del Chicharron (Fried Pork Festival)

Artist from Ica and his most famous drawing.
Hot cumbia dancers (I tried up upload video but didn't work)
Last weekend was the Fiesta del Chicharron in a town called El Ingenio somewhere between where I live and Nazca. A whole festival dedicated to big hunks of delicious fried pork! How great is that?! I was invited by a friend of mine who happened to be the mayor of El Ingenio’s son. He invited me a couple of months ago and I’ve been looking forward to it ever since. I took the bus up to Ingenio, hopped off and caught a collectivo up to the little, out of the way town with no cell phone service. The streets were all torn up because they were being redone. This is going on in a lot of little towns in Peru because all the mayors are up for re-election in a couple of months and they do all their projects just before the elections so people think they actually did something during their tenure.

I met my friend at a lady’s house for lunch. The lady was kind of gringa looking and, according to my friend, her family owned nearly all the land in El Ingenio until the Velasco agrarian reform in the 1960’s when the government took it all. She was also married to a former mayor of Lima. Now the lady, a widow, is kind of a patron of the local art scene and has artists over to her house to paint, drink wine, and hang out. I sat around with a bunch of young artists, ate lunch and listened to them jabber on about esoteric, pedantic bullshit that artists typically talk about when they get together. After lunch, we went up to the fiesta at the stadium.

The Fiesta del Chicharron lived up to it’s name and the expectation. Dozens of vendors had their pots full of huge chunks of fried pork, Homer Simpson’s wet dream. The food was delicious!! I hung out with a buddy who teaches traditional Peruvian dance to kids and a guy who runs a local pottery workshop. They were selling pottery from the workshop painted in the style of the ancient Nazcas. Pretty sweet stuff at a decent price. Chances are that’s what you’re getting for Christmas. Someone broke out the Pisco, a liquor made out of grapes, and we started passing it around and telling dick jokes. Maybe it was the Pisco talkin’ but the jokes were pretty damn funny.

The band kicked in and immediately the people of Ingenio, unlike the timid folks in my town, jumped right in and started dancing and laughing it up. They were super friendly. After a little bit, there were probably about 15 of us in our drinking circle hanging out, giving each other shit and dancing to cumbia cover tunes. The band, Los Hermanos Something-or-Other put on a great show and had a couple of hot dancer girls on stage to boot. I tried to leave several times during the evening to catch the last bus out at 10 but the folks would have none of it. I wound up staying at the fiesta until 1 or 2 in the morning and spent the night on a very thin mattress on the floor of the mayor’s house.

Apparently they have some sort of fiesta in El Ingenio every month, fried pork served at all of them. Can’t wait for the next one!!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

El Brujo de Llipata

The last time I had my fortune told was at a county fair in Nashville. I can’t remember what the cards said but I’d had a dream recently that I wanted interpreted. The dream was that I was an old time homesteader clearing his land. I was pulling out a stump with my mule and, after a monumental struggle, it came out. When the stump finally popped out all these ticks came out of the earth and climbed all over me. His interpretation: The clearing out of the fields is a good sign. You’re making your way to a better future. And the baby chicks are a very good sign, a sign of prosperity. Awkward pause… Um, I said ticks, not chicks. Another awkward pause… Oh. Well, that changes things quite a bit. Watch your back for people that are trying to take advantage of you. Truer words have never been spoken.

Last week my site mate, another volunteer, and I decided to get our fortunes told by a local fortune teller in the nearby town of Llipata. My site mate has been working on a canal project that involves trekking through some pretty treacherous mountains and the locals she’s working with are nervous that the mountains are going to get pissed and kill them. So they’ve been consulting with the second best man in the area who can make appeasements to the mountains. The first best man lives up the quebrada (valley) from me. I'm not sure why they don’t go to him but maybe the second best gives better rates. The pay-off to keep the mountains happy is something like a bag of coca leaves, a box of cigarettes, wine and piglet’s blood. I think the mountains wanted the sacrifice of a young virgin girl but apparently that’s a delito (crime) around here even if it is for a good cause. I’m not sure exactly sure how the brujo (male witch – warlock?) bargained with the mountains to settle for pig’s blood but, hey, I’m not a mountain god expert so what the f*ck do I know. I do know that it brought down the price substantially.

Anyway, we were bored one day and went to get our fortunes told. We went to a little town outside of Llipata for the visit. Of course we called his cell phone ahead of time to make an appointment. The taxi dropped us off and we walked down a dirt road through the chakra (farms) to another little town whose name I can’t remember. The old man lived in a little one bedroom adobe house with a bed, a table and three chairs. He had little scarred-up dog that looked like he’d recently got his ass kicked. This was in the afternoon and the brujo looked pretty sober (which I took to be a good sign but I’m not sure what BAC you have to have to accurately read the cards).

One of the volunteers that’s helping out on the canal project went first. It didn’t go too well for her. After he dealt out the cards, he drew his index finger across his neck. Never a good sign in any language. He basically said you’re shit out of luck in health, love, career, and money. Then it was my turn. The old man shuffled the deck and asked me to cut the deck with my left hand. He then paused looked at the deck as if to call up some sort of spirit to help him read them and then dealt out the cards in rows of ten. I then picked out which card I wanted to be. It was a card with a man that was either spinning a basketball on his middle finger or giving the world the bird. The old man picked the cards up, dealt them out again to see what my fortune was. As he was dealing out the cards, there was a kind of awed hush. Card, card, card. There’s your card right? Si… Card, card, card...

Once all the cards were laid out, he looked at them. This is your card right? Si. Well, here close to your card is money, work, and what looks to be drinks. And love I asked? Oh, that’s way over here with guys on horses in between. Looks like you’re going to have to travel far for love. But the work, money and beers are always going to be close to me? And what about my health? That’s not so good he said. Tienes que cuidarte (you have to take care of yourself). All three of us had different readings but all three of us had to travel for love and got the bad health sign.

I chose not to tell him about the recurring dream I had as a kid where German Shepherds were attacking me. Best let sleeping dogs lie.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Peace Corps - The Prequel

About this time last year I received my invitation to serve in the Peace Corps. Since I’ve had a few inquiries about how one joins the Peace Corps and what the application involves, here ya go. The Peace Corps is a US Governmental volunteer organization dedicated to supporting the development of countries that ask for its support. The Peace Corps has three goals 1) provide technical assistance to areas where this assistance is requested; 2) promote a better understanding of who Americans are so we don’t seem like the assholes we appear to be, and 3) educating Americans so they have a better understanding of the folks where volunteers serve since we as Americans are basically geographically retarded. You won’t find that exact phraseology on the PC website.

The service commitment is twenty seven months. The first ten weeks is training after which you’re sworn in as a Volunteer and sent off to the middle of nowhere where you serve the next two years. A lot of people asked me why the two years? As I’m learning now, the 1st year is a lot of training, getting to know your community and, most importantly, letting the community gain confidence in someone that speaks their language for shit. It’s not until later in the first year or into the second year when your projects get off the ground, depending on the program and country.

Volunteers come in all shapes, sizes, colors, backgrounds, beliefs, and religious affiliations (though those may change during the course of service. Well, color not so much). All have to be citizens of the US. Most of the volunteers are younger folks out of college. There are a few retirees and there are folks like me that are mid-career. I was the oldest in my training class but am happy to report that the next training group has at least two people older than me.

The application process is fairly grueling and can last sometimes up to a year or more. First you submit an extensive application with letters of recommendation and a few essays. If your application looks good, then you are contacted by a recruiter for an interview. Again, the interview is fairly extensive. You get asked where in the world do you want to go (I said anywhere), what kind of work do you want to do (water & sanitation, environment, health, youth development, education, small business development, education, etc.), what’s your motivation to join the PC, etc.

If your recruiter thinks you’re PC material, they nominate you for a type of job and a region of the world. My nomination was for environmental/natural resources in Latin America. After the nomination, you’re run through a battery of tests. You have to submit your fingerprints for a background check and go through dental and physical exams. Apparently the PC doesn’t want criminals with irritable bowels and bad teeth so how I got in is beyond me. I guess since you're going to be out in the boonies you have to be somewhat healthy.

Once you clear all that, and that piece does take a while, (my dentist said I grind my teeth so that set my application process back about three weeks - I wore my recommended mouth guard twice by the way) you get a notification that you’ve cleared all your checks and that another recruiter should be calling you. If you’re in a relationship, they want you to fill out a romantic involvement worksheet to make sure you’re not going to get in country and get all weepy and sentimental and I miss you and all that and wind up quitting. That’s where the waiting game begins. It could be in one month or it could be six, you don’t know and you can’t really call anyone to follow up. They do advise you to not to make any life changing decisions like telling your boss to go f*ck him or herself, selling your house and all your possessions, and waiting by the phone for that call. It might not come for a while and if it does it might not be the news you want to hear.

When the call does finally come, you have another phone interview with the placement office. Now I hate phone interviews because I get kind of tongue-tied for some reason. But I gotta say I nailed this one in large part because I’d been going through the application process for some eight or nine months at this stage, was committed to it, eager to serve, and had done a ton of research. At the end of the phone interview, the placement officer said she believed I would make a great volunteer and that she was submitting an invitation to serve in the PC. Great! Where? Oh, I can’t tell you that but check your mail in the next two weeks or so. Mother F#cker!

The torment! Now I had to wait for the United States Postal Service to deliver my formal written invitation (It’s no secret that I’d had an ongoing bloody battle with the USPS in Chicago for years where I wound up on the losing side of said battle so it killed me that now I had to wait for something in the mail that those USPS f?ckers may or may not choose to deliver. There are horror stories of letter carriers in Chicago just throwing sacks of mail in dumpsters because they were too lazy to do their job. After countless meetings with those assholes in my local post office there I don’t doubt it one bit. But I digress…)

I did get my invitation in the mail. Peru. Water & Sanitation. Couldn’t have gotten a better placement as far as I was concerned. Get to brush up on my Spanish and apply my career track sort of. Now what? I’ve been through this 9 month application process, I’ve been invited. Do I really want to do this? I visited the PC blog website while sitting in my cubicle at a job which I loved and payed me well and read a couple postings from volunteers in Peru. I decided right then that I would be stupid if I didn’t do this. I ran across the street to the student lounge of the DePaul building and called to accept my invitation.

So here I am in Peru eight months in country. For about as long as the whole application process took. Was it worth it? Answer…Yes.

If you’re interested in the Peace Corps check it out their website If you’re still interested go ahead and apply, it could take about 12 months. They give you plenty of opportunities to f*ck up or back out. Who knows? Maybe you too can have the opportunity to serve your country, learn a new language, see some great places, help out some folks in developing countries, and have diarrea for the next two years.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Well, all of a sudden, I’m bored. I knew this time would come. It happens to all Peace Corps Volunteers at some stage during their service. I’m glad it didn’t happen to me until my 8th month of service. So far I’ve been balls-to-the-wall busy with my community diagnostic, helping out other volunteers on their latrine projects, training, etc. But now I’m bored. The week before last was fiestas patronales, a three day festival commemorating the patron saints of my town. The World Cup was also going on so I was able to keep myself entertained but not get any real work done. Last week was vacation over the 4th of July weekend which was fun. This week, however, nothing. I’ve got little stuff going on but these things only take up 2 or 3 hours a day and then I ain’t got shit to do.

I suppose I should be used to this kind of ebb and flow in my life. As an Environmental, Health & Safety Consultant, it always seemed to be feast or famine. I always had more work than I could handle one minute and then there was nothing the next. One thing I learned is that when you’re the busiest and you don’t think you can handle any more work, that’s the time to keep pounding the pavement looking for more.

I do have stuff coming up to look forward to. Friday I'm a judge in another beauty pagaent (Peace Corps is so hard). I have an HIV/AIDS training session to start HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns in my town. The week after is Peruvian Independence Day which I understand is a lot of fun. Then we’re putting on a camp for teenage boys focusing on the theme of leadership. I’ve got more in-service training after that. It’s up to me to fill in the gaps between these activities and I have been working with the mayor and the health post on putting together some projects.

But for right now, I’m bored and “pateando latas” (kicking cans). More like “pateando cilindros (kicking drums).

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Gringo of 2 Meters Can't Hide

Playing Volleyball
One of the nice things about living in a big American city is you can slip into the street and walk around in relative anonymity. That is not the case here in my little town of 1200 people where everyone knows everyone. Since I’m a gringo de dos metros, I get a lot more attention than the average Jose. Most of the time it’s pretty cool. When I walk through the streets, everyone greets me “Hola Beto!!”. Kids run up and say hey and ask me how you say this or that in English. Adults stop me to chit chat about nothing in particular. How about this heat? Cold isn’t it? Que tal las nenas? (How are the girls?) is always a good one. Sometimes I frighten people with my height. The other day I walked into the health post. As I entered, a little girl was running around, playing and ran up next to me unaware that I was there. She looked up, let out a terrifying, blood curdling scream and ran away screaming into her mother’s arms. Another little girl mentioned to me casually as I was walking through the street, “Mi mamá dice que me vas a comer” (My mom says you’re going to eat me).

The Peace Corps is 24/7 in that you’re pretty much under the microscope every time you leave the house, even when you’re in the house. Little towns can be gossipy so everything you do, whether good or bad is fodder for the gossip circles. My town had a volleyball tournament a while back. I wasn’t playing for any team but after the official matches were over, a buddy of mine and I and few of the local gays played a pick-up game. There were probably about 50 townsfolk that came out to watch the tournament and many of them stayed around to watch the gringo and the gays play. Now I haven’t played volleyball in years so I had my buddy set me a few practice spikes. My timing wasn’t, well, good - at all. The first set, I jumped up for the spike, completely whiffed and wound up tangled up in the net. Everyone in the place burst out laughing at me. I rarely get embarrassed because I’m pretty good at laughing at myself but I was downright ashamed and wanted to crawl under a rock. Second time exact same thing, whiff, tangle, finger pointing, roaring laughter. There were whispers among the spectators. I couldn’t hear what they were saying but I’m pretty sure it was something like - This 2-meter gringo is f*ckin’ AWFUL at voley. I finally started to find my timing and was able to at least make contact.

When we started playing the game I got into a bit of a groove and felt a bit more confident. My first real good solid spike the crowd was like “Damn!!!” And started clapping and cheering. I had several other good spikes to more cheers and applause. The following week, the tourney continued and I went to watch. One team was getting blown out so they were looking to put someone else in. There was a buzz in the crowd and people kept looking at me. Come to find the next day from my host mom that word was out on the street that I could play and everyone wanted to see me play again. But I was clueless at the time and didn’t play.

“Life in the fish bowl” is kind of a pain in the ass is when you don’t want to talk to anyone, you just want to go where you’re going and be left alone. For example, when I’m trying to catch a bus to go out of town for vacation or whatever I don’t want to explain where I’m going or what I’m doing. For as much as I like traveling, I don’t like the actual getting there part. I’m not built for this country and don’t fit into the local means of transportation - busses, cars, mototaxis, etc. The thought of getting on hot-ass, cramped bus where I have to pay a lot of attention to my surroundings so my shit doesn’t get robbed puts me in a bad mood and I don’t want to talk to anyone. But you put on a grin say hey to everyone and go with it.

Now I kind of know how feels to be Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. OK, maybe more like Carrot-Top.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Peace Corps - The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love

Beauty pagaent contestants. The one in the middle won.
Judges hard at work tallying their results.

Fan club for the Computer/IT group

My recruiter did not tell me there’d be days like this. I’ve been working with an English teacher and the health promoter in my town, both of whom are professors at the Instituto. Last week after I finished my English class, the professor invited me to come watch the beauty pageant. Since that normally is my night to teach and I didn’t have anything else to do, I gladly accepted. Looking at pretty girls seemed like a damn good alternative to sitting around the house bored watching shitty telenovelas (soap operas) with the host mom. Besides, this would be an excellent opportunity to promote America and world peace, or something like that.

When I arrived at the Instituto, I bullshitted with some of the professors and ate some picarrones, fried dough beignet-like things with syrup (delicious). The health promoter told me to come with her and lead me to the judges table. The Justice of the Peace who was going to be the fourth judge wasn’t able to make it so they wanted me to be the replacement judge. I’d judged a beauty pageant for incoming freshman last month and it was not a horrible experience so why not.

The pageant started promptly at the Hora Peruana (was supposed to start at 5:30 but started at 7:00). There were five contestants, one from each career track offered at the Instituto – Tourism, Computers/IT, Agriculture, Automotive, and Nursing. The contestants started out in casual wear which consisted of white blouses, black mini-skirts and high heels. They introduced themselves and did a choreographed dance to a Madonna song which, quite frankly, needed a little work. After the dance, the girls left the stage and changed into their evening gowns. I was waiting for the bathing suit segment of the pageant but, sadly, there wasn’t one.

During the intermissions, there were various musical and dancing acts. A fellow by the name of JC did a kind of rap/break dancing routine, a girl with dyed blond hair sang a couple of songs, and a few skimpily dressed girls danced to a pretty erotic song with alot of thrusting and chest heaving right in front of the judges table. At the end of the dance, they were hot sweaty, breathing hard and their hair was a bit disheveled. It would have been pretty hot except they were about 16 years old. I was a little uncomfortable.

After the intermission, the contestants came out dressed “a la tela” (to the nines) in their evening dresses. They selected an envelope and had to answer a question that was related to their career track. They all did very well except for the girl representing Agriculture. As she was answering her question, some asshole photographer that was up front taking pictures answered a phone call and was blabbing loudly as she was trying to answer. It was very distracting and threw her off completely. She couldn’t get back on track and quit saying that’s all I’ve got.

My task as a judge was to assign points based on presentation, beauty, culture, and fan support. The fans were a little bit insane with costumes, confetti, cans with rocks in them, an old bicycle pump with a horn taped to it, drums, cowbells, brass instruments, and piercing screams.

The points were tallied and verified by all the judges. The scorecards were signed and delivered to the Emcee.

And winner of the Reinado del Instituto Tecnológico Palpa/Rio Grande…

The girl from Computers/IT! Peruvian nerds are hotter than ours.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

La Invación – The Invasion (Part II)

La Invación

Communal kitchen in the center

Family signing property title paperwork

I went to the municipality today to talk with the mayor and bullshit with my socio over there. The place was packed with the folks from a town called Santa Rosa up the quebrada (valley) a bit. I asked my socio what was going on and he told me all the townsfolk were there to apply for title to their property. Now these folks have been living in their houses in Santa Rosa for years. I don’t know how they acquired the property and built their houses but they were just now getting around to formalizing with the central government and lay title to their piece of Peru. The initiative was spear-headed by the Mayor of Rio Grande because he sees the value in it. That and he's also up for re-election.

Since the mayor was busy I decided to walk up to the invasion. I haven’t been up there in a while because every time I went up there the folks were always asking me for bags of rice (100 soles), cooking oil (8 soles), money, etc. I hated feeling like a dick by telling them “soy un voluntario no un millonario”. Besides, the last time I visited I donated a bottle of cooking oil they kind of looked at me like “What? That’s all?” and then told me to go back and buy them gaseosas (sodas). At that point I said f*ck this I ain’t coming back.

My host family has since retired from the invasion. They couldn’t spend 24/7 there because they had to work, go to college, and the gringo living in their house wouldn’t sleep out there. The folks in the invasion were giving them a ton of grief because they weren’t putting in their fair share by helping build roads, cooking meals, cleaning, keeping watch, etc. so they were sort of forced out.

But I was curious today so I went back. The folks had laid out plots of land, built one room houses out of cane supports with thatch walls and ceilings and tin doors. They had built a little road with a row of houses on each side. They had a communal kitchen near the center of the town. There is still no electricity. People bring in water in 35 gallon drums with wheelbarrows to the communal area. One pregnant lady was toting a five gallon gas can of water to her house. I’m not sure where they shit but I didn’t see any latrines. I stopped to talk with some of the ladies cooking lunch to see how it was going. They said the supposed owners still hadn’t shown up to discuss the options. Seeing that the folks from Santa Rosa are just now formalizing their properties, getting a proper title could take years.

I was reading the Mystery of Capital – Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else by Hernando Soto when the invasion happened back in May. Soto did a lot of research in Peru and in other 3rd world nations about why capitalism hasn’t fully taken hold in these countries. The book is about 10 years old so some of the information pertaining to Peru is outdated but one of his theories about why capitalism fails is because of “dead capital”. People in these nations are extremely entrepreneurial, WAY more so than in the US. They have their businesses, have property, have housing but it’s extralegal - it works outside the legal framework of the country. It’s not that they don’t want to be titled property owners or have legitimate businesses. In most cases they do. It’s just that the process can be a bureaucratic nightmare that can take years and a ton of money so they have to live outside the bell jar. Because their property is not formalized they can’t leverage it to invest it and make it work for them hence the term “dead capital”.

In the US, if you want to build a house, you leverage what you have with your good credit (now anyways thanks to all those shady real estate brokers), buy property, lay claim to the title, and build. It’s not so with this invasion. Soto gave a good analogy - it’s like getting dressed by putting on your shoes and socks first then the rest of your clothes. The folks are squatting on some land, building on it little by little as resources trickle in, at some stage making an occupancy or purchase arrangement with the legitimate property owner or government, continue building, and finally lay claim to the title. From there I suppose they could leverage it for future investments.

By the way, they didn’t ask me for shit today but I’ll try and work with them on building some communal latrines.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

My Site's Better than Yours

I’m pretty sure I have the most beautiful post in the department of Ica. I’ve been to a number of other Volunteers’ sites in Ica. I’m not going to say they’re ugly but they’re not beautiful like mine. My site kind of reminds me of west Texas near the El Paso area. You get to my site crossing though the Pampa de Santa Cruz, a flat sandy desert. As you wind down the side of the mountain into my valley, you pass La Cara del Inca, a natural rock outcrop that looks like an Incan head looking off into the distance at Pichango, the tallest mountain in the Department of Ica. Below, a wide green river valley with a few palm trees.

Across the other side of the valley are smaller grayish-brown flat-topped hills that look like a bunch of elephants lying down side by side. The river is clean and always has water in it. When it rains in the sierra in February through March, the river rises and people go hang out, grill, swim and sometimes drink beer. My town is a sleepy burg of about 1200 people. There’s a pool hall/sports bar that never has beer but puts on all the big soccer games. I’ve been in there a time or two to shoot the shit and talk futbol. There I’ve had in-depth conversations with Don Julio and some of the older men in my town about politics, the weather, kids these days (with their hair and their shoes) - the same things that the retirees that hang out at McDonalds in the morning talk about.

The town plaza just got rebuilt and looks almost exactly like it did before. At night, people sit on the newly installed benches and shoot the shit. Children play soccer in the cobblestone street in front of the church. A couple of ladies sell hamburgers and salchipapas (french fries with sliced hot dog) from a little cart in front of the pension where I eat lunch. My district heads up the valley all the way towards the sierras of Ayacucho, the neighboring department. They grow corn, cotton, ciruelas (a prune-like fruit), mangos and pepinos (cucumbers). They also raise cattle, pigs and goats in this valley.

The valley was once home to the ancient Paracas, Nazca and Incan civilizations. Walking about 30 minutes from my house, there is a largish geoglyph of El Tumi, a sacrificial dagger, on the side of a hill. El Tumi was presumably built by the Paracas civilization. On the hills above me are giant Nazca triangles about the size of football fields.

During my afternoon runs, I run up a rocky valley up into the hills separating my town from Palpa. There you see powerful geologic forces in action. Once horizontal layers of rock jut upwards more than 45 degrees. I try to hit that area around sunset to watch the sun get gobbled up by the shark-toothed sierra to the west.

At night the sky is so big here. With no moon you can see hundreds of stars. There’s the Cruz del Sur, four stars in the shape of a cross that if you draw lines from top to bottom and side to side form a perfect cross.
The best thing about my site apart from its beauty is the people. But we’ll talk about that in another posting.

Saturday Night Cockfights

So what’s a boy to do in the big city of Rio Grande on a Saturday night. Hmm. I’ll head down to the local “sports bar” and have a few beers and shoot the shit with Don Julio and watch a little futbol. What’s that Don Julio? You don’t have beer right now? You haven’t had beer in two weeks. What gives? I could go to the other bar in town but that’s where all the gays and other so-called degenerates hang out. That’s out. Love the gays but don’t need the chisme (gossip) at this particular juncture. I could hang out in the Plaza but they’re redoing it and there are no benches yet. So it’s off to the cockfights in Palpa.

A few Saturdays ago was the grand opening of the new cock fighting coliseum. I went with my site mate and another volunteer who was down visiting. It was 15 Soles ($5) to get in but included a sweet lunch of chancho and pallares (pork and these white lima bean kind of things). After the inauguration ceremonies, complete with skimpily dressed girls, a padre in his brown robe sprinkling holy water throughout the coliseum and the breaking of the champagne bottle we entered the coliseum. Not exactly the coliseum in Rome but still pretty sweet. To the right, the cages where the cocks are kept. In the center, the cock fighting arena, beyond that a stage for a band, and to the left the bar. After a delicious lunch we found our seats in the back of the arena, listened to a band playing popular Peruvian cumbia cover tunes and waited for the fights.

This was the beginning of the season where sure handed cock handlers pit their largest, strongest cocks pecker to pecker. There were 16 matches that evening. Each handler brings about 5 birds with him and uses a different bird each match. It's single elimination (so to speak) and the owner that wins all of his matches wins a bottle of pisco and advances to the final event at the end of the season in August. The winner at the end of this Palpa Super Bowl of Cockfighting wins 50,000 Soles (about $16,666).

I made some side bets with Jess. The bets started out at 20 centimos (about 6 cents) for the first eight fights and bumped it up to a whopping 1 sol (33 cents) the next seven. We bet about 3 soles (1 American Dollar) on the championship fight of the night. I got my ass handed to me.

After a few beers the conversation devolved between the Volunteers because word cock just kept getting funnier. Look at the size of that cock! What a beautiful cock! He’s quite the handsome cocksman. Look at the way he’s handling that cock. He needs to blow on that cock before putting dropping it in the dirt. I hate betting with you –your eye for the cock is just too good. Stroke that cock, I’ve got money riding on it!
And please save your cruelty to animals comments. It's the culture here and otherwise I'd be bored out of my skull on the weekends. Also, I really don't give a sh*t.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


I’m reading “Is This a Great Game or What” by Tim Kurkjian which inspired this post about my obsession with baseball.

My inauspicious baseball career ended when I was about 13 years old and I saw my 1st curveball. I was facing Brian McFadden, a tall, good-humored red head with a hell of a heater and a nasty curve. I remember standing at the plate all skinny, gangly and awkward waiting for the pitch. Brian threw out of the wind up and the ball headed right for the ear hole in my batting helmet. I dove to the ground and was laying facedown in the dirt when the ball broke about 3 feet and the umpire called me out on strikes. I walked back to the dugout, face red from the hot Texas sun and prepubescent embarrassment. That was it for my playing days. I couldn’t hit a fastball (much less a curve), had a rag arm, and was a mess in the field at all positions - 3rd, catcher, 2nd. I wasn’t that bad at 1st but that’s reserved for the sluggers so that was out. I guess you could say I was a 0 tool player.

I grew up a fan of the game in the baseball crazy nation of Venezuela idolizing Pete Rose. My favorite team was the Big Red Machine Cincinnati Reds of the 70’s. Davey Concepción, a Venezuelan, was the shortstop at that time, Johnny Bench caught and Joe Morgan wasn’t a douche bag. After moving to Houston in the 80’s, I tried to be a fan of the Astros. The ‘Stros had a good season in 1980 but otherwise they were pretty awful all my years in Houston. Going to see baseball games at the Astrodome, as impressive as the place was in its day with its monochromatic jumbotron with the snoring bull, and the PA announcer “Now batting… Jooooseeee Cruuuuuuzzz!!” was like watching ants run around in a dark cave. I lost my love for the game. I was done with baseball for the next fifteen years or so.

Fast forward to 1998. I was selling advertising in St. Joseph, Michigan when a friend and co-worker called me to see if I wanted to go to Chicago for the weekend. After a big night in the big city, we drove up to Wrigley, bought bleacher seats, sat out in the warm spring sun and watched Sammy Sosa belt a home run to right field and a Cubs victory. My passion for baseball was revived and I decided then and there in those bleachers that I was going to move to Chicago and become a Cubs fan. Less than six months later, I was moving into my studio apartment in Lincoln Park eager to start my new life and new addiction, one that would bring me untold joy and heartbreak.

There’s nothing quite like being at the ballpark on a nice sunny afternoon, scorecard and pencil in hand recording the 6-4-3 double plays and the WTP (went to piss) and WFB (went for beer). With the help of my buddy Doug Bacile, we put together the immaculate scorecard while keeping tabs of the Dodgers and the Mets at the old Shea. There’s nothing quite like having a few beers with dear friends, watching a pitcher hurl a rock-hard ball 98 miles an hour, and the unmistakable sound of a solidly hit liner that you know, even without looking, is headed right for the bleachers.

But hey this blog is about Peru and my adventures here. Peace Corps Goal 2 is to help promote a better understanding of Peruvian people on behalf of the American people. So to that goal, when I was on vacation in Lima I played softball at the Roosevelt School, a very high-end school that the children of expats and upper-crust Peruvians attend. I played on the Hilte team managed by an expat Texas boy and Roosevelt School alum, Tommy Akers. Peru is not a baseball nation. It’s all soccer (and the women play lights-out volleyball). I went in with the preconceived notion that the Peruvians weren’t going to be very good at softball but was pleasantly surprised at their skill level. They could knock the cover off the ball and had impressive defensive fielding abilities. Granted, most of the folks on the field had played in the USA, Columbia, Japan, or Venezuela but many played baseball right here in Peru.

Can’t wait to play again and screw the Cardinals – Assh*les.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Chicago - Part II

My kind of town
At home making biscuits and gravy.

At the Friendly Confines with my brother Sam

I’m having a little touch of homesickness at the moment. A buddy of mine Blake posted up on Facebook that he just made an open faced omelet. I started dreaming of all the delicious breakfast foods I miss like a feta and spinach omelets with buttered English muffins, eggs benedict, my homemade biscuits and sausage gravy. Then I started dreaming of the breakfast buffet at Stanley’s on Armitage and Lincoln in Chicago, a delicious southern-style spread complete with chicken and waffles. So I decided to take a virtual walk through the city streets of Chicago using the street view function on Google maps. There’s Stanley’s! Damn that place is good!

Here’s my old neighborhood and I’m walking down Broadway on this beautiful Saturday afternoon. There’s the Melrose – open 24 hours for your late night snacking needs and its delicious Gypsies. There’s the Lakeview Athletic Club. I’d be sweating my ass off in a spinning or body pump class at this exact moment on a Saturday. Across the street, Specialty Video with its great selection of all kinds of videos. I’m told the gay porn section is the best in town but I wouldn’t know anything about that. The Chicken Hut – quarter chicken with potato salad and a Sierra Mist please. There’s Brendan’s Pub, one of my favorite watering holes owned by a Bostonian. Down further, Intelligentsia coffee house where I spent many hours studying for my CSP and CHMM exams amongst hipsters, artists, and yuppies. There’s the West Coast Video that closed down some time ago because it had a shitty selection and smelled like cheese. They were building out a Greek steakhouse when I left. It sounded delicious, wonder how it is. There’s where the Dominick’s used to be until it burned to the ground one Sunday afternoon. I watched it burn from the deck of Monsignor Murphy’s across the street.

And here’s Murphy’s – my favorite watering hole. It sounds bad but most of my social life revolved around that place from the first time I went in there and Kenny served me up a Murphy’s Irish Stout until I left. There I met Susan. There I randomly ran into my good friend Chris Albu after having lost contact with him. There I met Albu’s friends Greg and Kenny who are now my dear friends. There I met Sexy Johnny, Adam, Ali and the rest of the crew. There I revived my career as a softball pitcher. There I had my going away party before coming to Peru. All my friends from my different walks of life were there to see me off - my basketball team, my co-workers, my friends from the neighborhood, my friends I made through Albu. Great, sometimes fuzzy, memories there at Murphy’s.

Let’s go check out the lake on this beautiful Saturday afternoon. Here’s Lincoln Park and the driving range that I hooked, sliced, topped and otherwise badly hit golf balls. There’s the field where our softball team would have “spring training” with its mud holes and lesbian rugby players tackling each other nearby. Here’s Belmont Harbor where old fat rich guys hang out on their fly-ass boats with hot gold diggers in teeny bikinis. Here’s the lakefront trail where I’d run or ride my bike in the evenings and on weekends.

Gotta go to Wrigleyville. I’m walking down Clark and here’s Sluggers where we’d go have “batting practice” before Cubs games with a couple of Old Styles served up by the other Sexy Johnny or but’erface. Now I’m standing in front of 1060 West Addison, home of my beloved Cubs, the Friendly Confines. Today there’s a 1:20 game against the lowly Pirates whom they can’t seem to beat this year. It’s 11 am but the streets are teaming with Cubs fans and Cubs drunks. You can feel the energy in the air even though the game doesn’t start for a couple of hours yet. I walk up under the marquis and look for “The Brick”, Albu’s tribute to his wedding day on 7/7/07. Chicago’s song “Saturday in the Park” going through my head.

I don’t know where I’ll be when this whole Peace Corps thing is over but know this Chicago, no matter where I end up you will always have a special place in my heart. I love you and I miss you dearly.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

La Invación – The Invasion (Part I)

On the morning of Cinco de Mayo, my generally excitable host mother was exceptionally excitable after she got back from the store. ¡Hay una invación! ¡Hay una invación! (There’s an invasion! There’s an invasion!) she kept saying as she grabbed her shit and ran out the door. I had no idea what she was talking about and followed her as far as the front door. I didn’t see any Red Dawn-type paratroopers so I stayed behind and watched her run/shuffle down the dirt road. She came back about an hour later, still excited, and tried to explain to me that a group of townsfolk had invaded a tract of unused land and that she’d grabbed three plots of land, one for her son, one for her father and one for her sister. I didn’t fully understand what she was saying in her excitement and still didn’t understand the explanation once she’d calmed down a bit. No entiendo (I don’t understand). So she told me to go check it out for myself – it was just up the road.

After breakfast, I walked down the road and turned up the street that leads out of town. I’d only walked about 5 minutes when I came across three make-shift huts built out of sticks and blue plastic sheeting (the kind I think the UN or the Red Cross give out after earthquakes but don’t quote me on that). I crested the hill and there were at least 50 of the little tepees made out of the same plastic sheeting, all with the Peruvian flag proudly flying. It sort of looked like a cheap refugee camp except people were smiling. I kept walking and, per usual, folks were hollering my name - Beto! I saw someone I knew and went to get the story from someone who was a little calmer than my host mother.

They explained to me that this tract of land had gone unused for at least 20 years so at midnight a group of folks just decided to up and take it. Each person claimed a little plot about 5 paces by 20 paces (theirs, not mine), built their little lean-tos and spent the night there. I walked to the next group and got the same story. How did they expect to get away with this? I asked in a more diplomatic way. Well, if the owner had the title and wanted to sell the land, they could negotiate and buy it from him/her. If the owner didn’t have the right documentation of ownership, they would go down to the municipality, get some kind of paperwork and apply for the title from the central government. And if the owner had proper title but didn’t want to sell? Well that scenario had people a little nervous.

Over night, they’d formed a Junta Directiva (committee) complete with a President, Secretary, Treasurer, and Fiscal (oversight person). They’d also contracted a lawyer to do battle over the legal issues. They told me to go ahead and grab a little patch of Peru and wait with them. As tempting as it was to finally be a property owner, I figured the Peace Corps would probably frown on that (even though I don’t think it 's expressly forbidden in my Peace Corps Peru Volunteer Handbook). Besides, they were standing there with machetes and sticks waiting for the cops and the owners to show up so I respectfully declined.

It’s not over yet. My host mom has slept the last three nights out at her little plot of invaded land. The cops showed up for a little but left. The owners have yet to show up. Word on the street is the supposed owners of the property are related to the Mayor who is up for re-election this year so this might be a ploy to garner votes since his approval rating (as measured by the Gossip Polls not the Gallup Polls) appears to be waning.

Stay tuned for Part II to La Invación

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Day I Wished I had my Camera

Usually I have my camera on me at all times because there’s no telling when some kind of crazy shit is going to go down or when I’m going to run into something I’ve never seen before, which is pretty much all the time. When I was in Lima about a month ago for a meeting, I went cruising around with a few friends and for whatever reason I left my camera back at the hostel. On a lark, we decided to go to the Parque de Aguas, a park that has all kinds of water fountains. According to the brochure, it’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for the park that has the most fountains in the world. I’m not going to say that they were the most impressive fountains I’ve ever seen. Fontana di Trevi in Rome, Buckingham Fountain in Chicago, the fountains at the Bellagio in Vegas - all more spectacular, it’s just this park had a ton of them in the same place. It might have been pretty romantic had I not been with a bunch of dudes. Anyway, missed photo op # 1.

When we were at the park, a Peace Corps buddy of mine called and said he had an extra ticket to an art opening. I was kind of done with the water park and the museum was right across the street so I agreed to meet him there. Turns out, this was the event to be at. All the upper crust of Lima society was there. When we first arrived, there was a ton of security, men in suits with ear pieces in their ears and talking into their sleeves, just like in the movies. Sure enough, we got in and the President of Peru, Alan Garcia was there. I got to within maybe 20 feet of him and tried to snap a pic with a borrowed camera. Missed photo op #2. The closest I’ve ever been to a president was George Bush, the elder one not the retard. I saw him at a grocery store in Houston buying dog food and Blue Bell ice cream just after he lost the election to Bill Clinton. His hair was greasy and disheveled, he was sun burnt and his shoes looked god-awful. But I digress. President Garcia was there for the inauguration as was Kate Moss. I didn’t see her but was told by some of the Peruvians that did see her that she looked like she’d been rode hard and put up wet (though they didn’t use that exact colloquialism).

The event was the grand-reopening of the Museo de Arte de Lima or Mali. The Mali had been closed the past couple of years for remodeling, a project that apparently had gone well over-schedule. As I said, anyone who was anyone in Lima was there and it was open bar. Men dressed in suits with silver trays walked through the crowd carrying bottles of fine whiskey. The bars served Pisco sours, top shelf mixed drinks and beer. All the beautiful people of Lima were dressed to the nines (except for us Peace Corps Volunteers and some low, so-called artists). We didn’t actually see any of the art except for a large what I would call a diorama, for lack of a better word, of famous buildings in Lima. The artist handed out cans of spray paint and markers and encouraged the patrons to paint whatever they wanted to on the buildings. President Garcia spray painted a heart on the Presidential Palace (from my angle it looked like a big ass). Everyone else hopped in and did their thing. The ventilation wasn’t exactly good in this room and the vapors were pretty strong. Kids these days with their huffing and their shoes. Missed photo op 3.

All and all, a great evening but no f*cking pictures.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Builders Beyond Borders

Beto with the Maestros in San Antonio

B-3 Kids with the family in Bernales

B-3 in Bernales

One of the Peace Corps Peru’s Water & Sanitation Program goals is to help families have access to more sanitary conditions. Most of the smaller towns in my district don’t have waste water systems. Many of the families in those towns have basic, rudimentary latrines which the families may or may not use. A lot of times the families hacen sus necesidades en el campo abierto (do their thing in the field). This is not to say you’re walking through town dodging a minefield of human excrement but it’s clearly not a very sanitary practice and can result in all kinds of illnesses and diarrea particulary in children.

During the past three months, I’ve been helping out a couple of other Volunteers with latrine projects. We were working with a Connecticut-based Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) called Builders Beyond Borders (B-3). High school kids raise money to go on a week-long volunteer trip to countries in Latin America. The funds raised pay for their trip and for the materials and tools needed for the projects. The Peace Corps and B3 have been working together for a few years and the relationship makes a lot of sense - PC Volunteers know the needs of the communities, what the potential projects are, can facilitate the in-country organization, and will be around after the kids have gone back home to help the project be more sustainable. B-3 provides the funds, labor, energy and motivation.

I’ve been working on the latrine projects in the towns of San Antonio (sans Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Mexicans) and Bernales building latrines. The first group was a little rough in that we as PC Volunteers were kind of unclear of our roles and B-3’s goals. There were also a few B-3 adult leaders that were kind of difficult to work with and some PC Volunteers that were kind of smug and full of themselves. The next two groups were fantastic! The kids interacted well with the Peruvian families despite their limited Spanish skills, worked their asses off and were fun to be around.

The latrines were built out of brick with tin or thatch/cement roofs and wooden doors. All had real toilets that would eventually be hooked into a sewer system. Some had a place for a shower and a sink. The families were excited to have the bathrooms installed and helped out with the construction. They also got a kick out of having about 40 gringos in their town at the same time and will likely talk about all the gringo kids for the rest of their lives. The kids from the US, who happened to be from one of the richest counties in the country, got to experience a different culture and see a manner of living completely different from their own.

Thanks to B-3 for all the good hard work!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Vacation in Arequipa

Well it’s been a while since I’ve posted last. Reason being I’ve been real busy which is a good thing. A bored volunteer is a miserable volunteer and a miserable volunteer quits before his/her service is done or does crazy shit like trying to organize local militias. “The horror… The horror…” So what have I been up to? I’ve been working on a bathroom/latrine project with high schoolers from the US. I've been at an English teaching workshop put on by the US Embassy. I’ve been to Lima a couple of times for some meetings, been writing my community diagnostic, and been on vacation. So let’s talk about vacation.

Susan came down for about a nine day visit. We spent a couple of days in Lima with some other friends of mine who happened to be in town at the same time for a wedding (always good getting a Big Red sighting in). We went to a cathedral near the center of town that had catacombs which were pretty cool. Susan got a necklace ripped off her neck by some thief as we were walking to Chinatown (bienvenido a El Peru).

Before Susan got here I hadn’t done any planning because I didn’t know if Machu Picchu, which is something everyone should see in their lifetime, was going to be open after some major flooding earlier in the year. I kind of wanted to take Susan to my site but that likely would have been too much for her since no one there speaks English and she doesn’t speak Spanish (plus there ain’t a whole hell of a lot to do there). So we decided to go down to the south of Peru to a place called Arequipa. She did see my site for all of a minute and a half during our 15 hour bus ride.

Arequipa is called the White City (the other White City) because many of the old Spanish colonial buildings in the center of town were constructed out of white blocks of volcanic rock. The center of town is beautiful and several large volcanoes, some active and steaming, loom in the distance. We visited an old monastery where nuns from well to do families were cloistered and lived a pretty posh, partying lifestyle until some agua fiestas (party pooper/killjoy) of a bureaucrat opened the place up for tourism and the nuns had to actually live like, well, nuns.

We were there during Semana Santa (the holy week leading up to Easter). There were many processions of people carrying litters with Jesus, Mary, and other saints followed by marching bands that sounded like they were playing the Texas Tech fight song (Go! Fight! Win! …And praise sweet baby Jesus!). There were no bunnies or dying of eggs that week for some odd reason. We sat there in a bar watching the processions pass in the street outside as the jukebox inside was playing “Sexy Bitch”. Kind of surreal.

On the third day, we rose from the dead and took a two day, one night tour to Colca Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in the world. We saw llamas (pronounced “yamas” despite what my friend Ally from Chicago says), Alpacas (a related pack animal that’s tasty in steak form too), and Vicunas (small llama-like animals known for their fine, expensive wool).

We had an Italian lady on our bus who was either kind of crazy, a lot inconsiderate or a bit of both. A little ½ gringa ½ Peruvian girl on the tour said she looked like Willy Wonka, not the Gene Wilder variety but the creepy Johnny Depp type. At the first stop on the tour, we got out to look at some scenic something or another. When we got back on the bus, this crazy lady was sitting in my seat. She muttered something in half Italian, half Spanish and half English. Not knowing what the f&ck she was saying, I thought she might not be feeling well from the altitude so I let her sit there (leaving Susan without a translator). As the bus started off to our next destination, I realized that the crazy lady had thrown my hoodie on the floor behind her when she took my seat. I got f*cking pissed and stewed the whole way to our next stop. We all got off to look at whatever but I made sure I was the first one on the bus, reclaimed my seat, politely moved all her shit out into the middle of the aisle and dug in waiting for a confrontation. She looked at me kind of funny but knew I wasn’t moving so she sat on the front step of the bus. Turns out she didn’t have altitude sickness. She just said, in her words, “I’d prefer to sit here” - a kind of reverse Bartleby the Scrivener kind of thing. Long story short, she did this throughout the trip - bumping people out of their seats, pissing them off, and saying “I’d prefer to sit here”. A very nice Spanish man gave her a piece of his mind but it didn’t get all dark European history on her like I’d hoped he would.

Anyway, the canyon was cool. We sat in thermal baths, caught up with some Peace Corps Volunteers, saw some big-ass condors with about a 3 meter (9 foot) wingspan, and missed out on a violent miner's strike. When we got back to Lima, we went to my favorite local sports bar and watched Michigan State get bounced out of the NCAA tournament by Butler – an unfortunate ending to an otherwise great vacation.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


To quote Sammy Sosa, phonetically speaking, "Ay apalayayze too mai fangs". I've not posted anything in quite some time now. Reason being I've been really busy. Which is a good thing. Most new volunteers in their posts complain of boredom. I've been everything but bored. Which, again, is a good thing.

Some posts in the near future - updates on some projects I've been working on, my vacation in Arequipa, and my brush with the President of Peru, Alan Garcia. Stay tuned. And again Ay apalayayaze.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Cubs

“Chicago Baseball is on the air! From Wrigley Field in Chicago, it’s the Chicago Cubs versus the Saint Louis Cardinals” – Pat Hughes, Play by Play Announcer Extraordinaire. With spring training games starting and 30 days left to Opening Day, one of the things I’ll miss most the next two years is watching my beloved Cubs at the beautiful Friendly Confines, listening to them on WGN AM-720, and reading Gordon Whittenmeyer’s columns in the Chicago Sun-Times. I’ll miss freezing my ass off in the stands on Opening Day, sitting in the bleachers in the sun on warm summer weekdays, singing during the 7th inning stretch, having a few beers and dogs with good friends, jawing with Sox and Cardinals fans, and watching my beloved Cubs blow yet another golden opportunity to go to the World Series. If they somehow do manage to make it to the World Series this year, I'll see everyone in Chicago in October for one hell of a party!

But it’s not all bad. I do have internet in my house, found a website that streams live games for free and should have time to watch a game or two. I also got my host brother to start wearing a Cubs hat. Up until Monday, he was wearing a cheap Sox hat but I told him that was pretty low and kind of ghetto so I had my dear friend Chris Albu bring him one. He was very excited and sports it proudly now. At least he wasn’t wearing Cardinals gear – after all, he’s not moron.