Monday, December 5, 2011

700 and something days later...

And I am officially done with Peace Corps. As of about a month ago, on November 10th, I finished my last little bit of paperwork and officially became a "returned" Peace Corps volunteer. The end was mostly surreal, and I still can't really believe that it is over, or even that it really happened at all. The last year especially, seems to have just been a blur, where I went from having one year left last November, then 6 months, then 2, than a few weeks and somehow before I really noticed it I was only days away from leaving Yanamito for good.

I have tried writing this out in a few different ways, but every time I try, the writing just kind of gets away from me and I wind up just rambling and contradicting myself a bunch. Overall, it was a really great experience. I was really lucky to have landed in Peru, and on top of that I was really lucky to have been placed in the rural Andes. I got to live in a stunningly beautiful place, go on mountain treks, go on beach vacations, jungle vacations, visit Machu Picchu, eat great food, experience living with an indigenous traditional culture, learn Spanish and REALLY get to know what it is like to live in a different country. I had two amazing host families, both who refer to me as another child, and somehow I now have more parents, siblings, cousins and aunts and uncles than I have ever had before. Work was sometimes, if not always, frustrating (but I am mostly gonna stay away from that to avoid the rambling), but I did all I could, some people learned things (they must have right?) and I definitely learned a ton. There are some things I would do differently, but overall, I would do it all again in a heartbeat and I can't think of anything else I could have done to better take advantage of two post college years in my 20s.

So that was Peace Corps. I am now at the end of the world, in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. We are in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. So far, since leaving Peru (for the 1st time since September 2009 by the way), we have seen Santiago, Valparaiso, Vina del Mar and Patagonia of Southern Chile. This part of South America is just hitting summer time so it is light out till 830 and beautiful weather.

We have gone to the beach, toured poet Pablo Neruda's house, gone to a whaling museum, gone on a 5 day trek in Patagonia, seen a real live glacier and experienced a bit of Chilean culture.

Chile was slightly confusing because Chileans talk really mumbly, sing-songy Spanish and their peso is valued at about 500 to the dollar, but for some reason they also use the $ sign. So you walk into a sandwich shop to get lunch and you see "cheese sandwich--$750." Very confusing. Patagonia and where we are now is just feels crazy to know you are at the southernmost part of the world. Also, because we are so far south now, it doesn't get fully dark until 11 pm and it gets light at 5 am. My watch battery died and I was just constantly confused, thinking it was about 4 in the afternoon about 6 hours a day. More Pictures will be forthcoming, but since I didn't take my laptop with me, I can't transfer them from my camera and I just have to steal Pete's.

That's about it for now. I have my return ticket to NY booked for January 17th. From here we go to Buenos Aires, then I strike out on my own for about 2 more weeks in Argentina, including the Igazu Falls, and a week or two in Bolivia before I make my triumphant (is living at home and being afraid to go outside considered triumphant?) return to the USA...

Sunday, October 23, 2011

I am officially one quarter of a century old...

and I have two weeks left as a Peace Corps volunteer, but don't any of you worry, my plans for my immediate future are still pretty vague and fun

I am officially done here on November 10th. I am gonna spend a few days at the beach up north to unwind and say goodbye to Peru then I'm gonna meet up with my friends Pete and Will in Lima. The plan is to go south through Chile to Patagonia, cross over to Argentina and eventually wind up in Buenos Aires. From there, they go home for a nice x-mas, but given my religious persuasions, I plan on skipping x-mas in the states and striking out on my own for a trip through Uruguay and Bolivia before heading back to Lima to fly out sometime around the middle of January. I will spend a few months at home, feeling confused and maybe out of place and then with the same guys we will strike out for the Appalachian trail for a good chunk of 2012. my philosophy on all of this is that I will see if the world is really gonna end or not in 2012 and if it does I will have had a hell of a lot of fun right before hand and not have had a lot of useless money sitting in a bank somewhere and if it doesn't I will have had a lot of fun anyway and convince myself I am ready to do something like go back to school or get a job (and for the sake of those hopeful future plans I took the GRE last month, so I have that in my pocket).
Anyway, expect a lot of pictures like this:

So i am obviously very excited for all of that and additionally, most of the people around time like to remind me that I am gonna be leaving very soon, all of which is making me kind of antsy... but in the mean time I do need to close things out in Yanamito, which is going well. I took my whole school on a trip to the famous Llanganuco lakes

and I have also been working on giving the town's adults classes on garbage management and organic fertilizers. On both counts, thank you to everybody who donated money that supported both projects (more formal thanks forthcoming...I am in the process of getting my act together on that).
So that's the story for the moment...when I have some time to reflect in site I will try and put together some highlights and perspectives on the 2 years and what I will and will not miss about this crazy country.
Hope all is well with everyone in the states and I look forward to reconnecting in a few months.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

mostly pictures...I am getting lazy

english words seem harder to come by as I spend more and more time in this spanish speaking country. but I have been up to some cool shenanigans, including 3 overnight hikes, some ruins and a bullfight and hey, pictures are worth 1000 words anyway. So here it is:

Pete and I standing face to face with the cabeza clava, one of the central artifacts at the chavin ruins dating back to 1200 bce

After visiting the ruins, we got to camp at 615 at probably about 4500 meters. It was COLD.

I may or may not have a mullet these days

Camping our for Pete's birthday in the national park

Bullfights in front of the tallest mountain in Peru

Midget bullfighting...

Pretty lake...but really cold

and that's most of the exciting stuff. time is getting short and I will provide a fuller update soon, but until then enjoy the pictures, especially you mom

Sunday, July 17, 2011

the jungle!

About a year ago, my parents came to visit and we went on a jungle adventure in the southern rainforest of Peru. We had a great time and I got to enjoy a few days of first class treatment (at least by my standards), including English speaking guides, , beautiful accommodations, good food and having everything booked by someone else.
This year, a bunch of us volunteers decided to go visit the northern rainforest as our last big blowout vacation. We were setting a much lower standard of quality, going as backpackers and having done some guide book research, but mostly just setting out and seeing where we got to. I’ll set out the basic itinerary and travel times and then hit the highlights. I left my capitol city, Huaraz, on a 9:30 pm bus which arrived in the northern coastal city of Trujillo at about 8 am the next day. That afternoon we left Trujillo on another bus at 3 and got to Tarapoto, the biggest city in the department of San Martin the next day at about 10 am (that’s right…it was a 20 hour bus ride). We spent a day exploring the city and after lunch the next day (days of the week quickly became meaningless) we took a 3 hour van ride to the town of Yurimaguas, the last town on our itinerary reachable by road. After a night in a riverside hostel, we got to the docks at 7:30 am to catch a ten hour boat ride to the town of Lagunas. In Lagunas we met up with a pre-booked guide who took us on a 3 day, 2 night canoe tour of the huge nature reserve called Pacaya-Samiria. When we returned, we showered, ate something and trudged down to the port at 1 am to catch a boat that took us 30 hours downstream to the town of Iquitos, the biggest city (in the world?) not accessible by road. We spent a few days there being tourists, and then it was a flight back to Lima and a bus to Huaraz (estimated return travel time—about 10 hours).
That’s the rundown of where we were and how we got there. It was a lot of travel, but since the biggest chunks of it were by boat, we were amongst friends and we were in novel surroundings, most of it was enjoyable. The boat rides were like nothing I have ever experienced. These boats take a long time and serve town that have no road access. So in addition to carrying human cargo, they also transport everything, and I mean everything, that you would need to supply a population. The first boat we were on was relatively small, but still held crates of fresh produce, sacks of rice and crates of live chickens. The human cargo meanwhile, had strung up hammocks in every available nook, and although quarters were a bit tight, it wasn’t a bad day to while away the day, with occasional naps thrown in.

The second, larger boat to Iquitos had a corral with about 20 cows on the front deck and more crates of tomatoes, carrots and other produce than I could even begin to count.

And when we finally arrived in Iquitos, we pulled up to port next to a huge barge that was being loaded full of nothing else but empty cases of beer getting ready to be sent upriver and refilled. By our best estimate there were well over 300,000 empties on that boat.

And that’s one of the things that made Iquitos really cool—everything you saw had gotten there by boat. But I am getting ahead of myself.
First was Tarapoto, where our group of 13 spent the afternoon taking a short hike to a waterfall. It was a beautiful stroll, about 15 minutes up a clean path through dense greenery to get to a waterfall with a pretty nice swimming hole at the base and a rock about 15 or 20 feet up to jump off.

We spent an hour or two splashing around and got back to the van just in time to avoid a massive jungle downpour.
The next two days were spent in transit to get to our canoe trip. We had a fleet of 4 canoes, hand made out of tree trunks and relaxing in those was a pretty good way to spend a dew days. We spent the days floating downriver looking for wildlife and cool plants and the two nights were spent in a huge riverside bungalow where we swam and fished and tried not to get bit by mosquitoes.

We saw sloths, monkeys, a small anaconda, piranhas, crocodiles, frogs, lizards and we just missed a river dolphin. And swimming was extra exciting because you knew all of those things were in the water and you just had to hope not to get eaten… (nobody got eaten).
The long boat ride to Iquitos was…long. But also a really pretty trip and between the scenery, the fact that we were floating down the Amazon, naps, my i-pod, a Stephen King book, friends and snacks, I mostly managed to stave off boredom. Iquitos was a cool city and it felt extra good to get to our final destination and stay in the same place for a few days straight. The city is a big sprawling place, with fleets of moto-taxis and motorcycles roaming the streets in addition to really cool wooden buses. There are also some residual signs of when Iquitos was a super rich rubber town, including a building built by the dude who designed the Eifel tower

and shipped there by boat and various buildings covered in painted tiles shipped from Portugal. We spent our days roaming the traditional and handicraft markets, checking out a zoo, going to a nearby town known for its mask making and generally just wandering the city. It is a bit of a hippy haven, so we were not the only non-Peruvians there and the gringo attractions include some nice coffee shops and a sports bar that Sports Illustrated once called the best in Peru. I even got to eat onion rings that were almost diner quality, something I have not found here at all in my two years…
A side note on the sports bar and sports here in general. We were eating a late lunch in the sports bar and there were some limeñens upstairs eating and cheering. Pete’s brother asked why. It turns out that Peru was playing an international tennis match. That’s the kind of national pride Peruvians have—probably nobody knew the dude who was playing name, but they were cheering at the telecast. Fast forward 5 hours. We are in a bodega, crammed in with about 50 people, a mix of hippy dreaded ex-pats and general Peruvians, watching Peru play Chile in a Copa America (like the world cup but for Mexico and south) qualifier on a 20 inch TV. And if you closed your eyes you would think they were watching it live in the stadium. Every almost goal was met with huge gasps and groans. A teenager brought in a bass drum to rile up the room. And Peru pulled it out 1-0 on a goal in extra time, which was met with raucous applause and hugging all around. It was pretty awesome.
Back on topic. The coolest thing in Iquitos was probably the market. It had all the things a normal Peruvian market has (vegetables, fruits, cooked food) but also a crazy “natural healing” section and a ridiculous fish section. The natural products aisle had stall after stall of herbs, salves and potions to cure whatever ailment you might have. The fish section, in addition to having such delicacies as turtle and crocodile meat, had butchered fish that were bigger then me and fish pulled out of the Amazon that looked so strange you had to look twice to make sure they were real.

It was pretty gross, but I had never seen anything like it.
And overall, the jungle was a really cool place to see and hang out. In a lot of ways it felt like a completely different country. The food is different, the people act differently, they speak Spanish with a different accent and I barely had to eat any potatoes all week. On the whole, the people we interacted with were super friendly, out going and welcoming. Because of the heat they spend a lot of time outdoors and as a result they seemed to be much more social and outgoing than the people of the Sierra. The food was delicious, including tons of fresh fish, bananas, popsicles and roasted grubs (which I declined to try). And although I am glad to be back in the mountains, where there are no mosquitoes and I can move without sweating, it was a really great trip and I can understand how there are gringos who go there for a week and wind up staying for months.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


I spent my Passover/Easter break doing an 8 day trekking circuit here in Ancash called Huayhuash, one of the awesomest hikes in the world as judged by people who I assume are qualified to judge these things. Here are some quick numbers:

8 Number of days
7 Number of nights
5 Number of us who went
115 Length of the trek in kilometers (according to Lonely Planet)
5000 The highest pass we crossed (in meters)
7 or 9 The total number of mountain passes we crossed
10 Number of cans of tuna I ate over the 8 days
4 Number of glacial bodies of water I jumped in to
100000 Lakes and mountains and rivers and sheep and cows we saw

That’s a quick overview of the hike. Of all the experiences I have had in this country, this might be the one that is hardest to put into words. It was a spectacular 8 days of walking, with snow capped peaks always in sight, rivers and streams and glacial lakes everywhere and more stars at night than I have ever seen in my life. The valleys and mountains and paths seemed to go on forever and it was almost hard to believe that we were only spending 8 days walking around.
But despite the fact that the 8 days flew by, they were long days, with us setting out each morning at 7:30 and usually going until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. We got pretty lucky with the weather as it only rained a few days late in the afternoon, but we did walk through snow, rain, sun and clouds. There were two other groups that left the same day as us, and those 8 or 10 people were the majority of humans we saw for the week. There are VERY few people who live in that part of the mountains, and the “villages” we did pass through consisted of only about 5 stone houses with grass roofs at the base of a mountain or the side of a lake. But of course, as soon as we got back to civilization and were on a bus back to Huaraz, we were reminded by a lady who carried her baby cow onto our bus of how charming rural Peruvians can be…
Those were the words, here, in no particular chronological sequence, are the photos:

Us with our guide at the 5000m pass

The aforementioned lady and baby cow

8 days of that…

3 lakes and so many mountains

We spent a whole day staring at this

Welcome to town

My favorite campsite

I swam in there...

I took this right after slipping and falling in mud. This made it mostly better…

Last pass. All downhill from there.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

running on coffee

I get asked sometimes how I manage to stay sane with what I’m doing—don’t I get bored, antsy, miss home or things from the states etc—and the truth is there are definitely moments when the answer is either: a. I have no idea. I think I have become exceptionally good at shutting off my brain. Or b. There are times when I come pretty close to losing my mind. Of course, I have some tricks up my sleeves. Headphones and an i-pod or a DVD in English are great ways to tune out the world. And I have also managed to turn my room into a lair/cave/sanctuary where only happiness exists. But there are also two practices that I have brought with me from my previous life that, on normal days, help me stay sane.
1. Running. I started running when I was 15 mostly as a way to stay in shape. Almost 10 years later, it is still something I do almost every single day. When I was in high school and in my early years of college, it was mostly a time when I blasted music, turned off my mind, and shed excess energy. But at some point in my sophomore year I stopped running with music and my runs became a time to think and de-stress (even if I wasn’t particularly stressed).
And that seems to suit me perfectly here. Even though running at a hilly 10,000 is still challenging a year and a half later, I still haven’t found a better way to chill out than my almost daily run. Granted, running here brings a whole slew of different experiences than it does in the states; avoiding cows, donkeys, sheep and pigs (and their ropes) is always an exciting challenge and I almost always keep a rock in my hand to scare off dogs who look and act like they want to bite me. Even though I have been doing this for as long as I have, I still get tons of surprised reactions, in Spanish and Quechua, that, wow, I am in fact running. It’s not uncommon for primary school kids to drop what they’re doing and try to keep up with me for a few hundred meters and then make up an excuse as to why they can’t keep going. And there are the few justified stops, like when someone asks me to send their cow in the opposite direction or help lift a bag of potatoes. But at the end of the day, a run is a run is a run and there is no better way to forget the frustrations of a long meeting, or someone not showing up or just about anything.
2. Coffee. Actually, now that I think about it, I think I started drinking coffee at right about the same time I started running—maybe I don’t have as much excess energy as I thought. But ever since junior year of high school, pretty much interrupted, I have enjoyed 1 to 2 to 4 cups of coffee a day. Actually, my first year in Peace Corps I had pretty much kicked the habit. See, despite the fact that Peru produces some of the best coffee in the world, they don’t drink it. What do they drink? At best, pretty diluted drip coffee, at worst/normal, really watered down, really sweet Nescafe. So until October of 2010, I kept a package of instant on hand for emergencies (meetings, early morning, days when I hadn’t slept well etc.) and wasn’t even drinking coffee every day. Then on my 24th birthday, it all changed.
My friend Rabbit gave me a 1 cup French press coffee maker. I had always been a drip guy myself, but this was the best thing available, so I went with it. And within weeks, Pete had told me which coffees were actually not half bad and I was back to a cup after breakfast and one more after lunch on most days. AND I LOVE IT. My napping rates have gone way down and leaving the house in the morning is definitely easier. And most of all, it’s something I can hold on to from a mas o menos normal semi-adult American life. I have my routine down right now where I can eat breakfast at 7, shut myself in my room for about twenty minutes while I have a cup of coffee and read something and still be at the school by 8. It was the kind of thing I didn’t fully appreciate it until I started embracing. And since Peruvians generally do not like drinking coffee the way we do, it’s kind of like a cool secret Gringo club. A cup of coffee is usually the first thing I will offer another volunteer who comes over, and it is usually one of the main enticements when someone wants your help in something (i.e. dude can you come help me give this class—I’ll make us coffee beforehand). So while I may have a “habit”, I honestly could not care less…

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Why my life makes no sense, 27/2/2011 edition

Sunday was one of those days. Nothing bad happened, but things were off. I had gotten home from Huaraz around midday and I didn’t really wanna be back in Yanamito. There were a bunch of contributing factors—I had probably stayed up a bit too late the night before, I didn’t really want to be bugged by the mayor and I have to go back to town in two days to go to Lima for a meeting, and short trips home always make me a bit antsy. Also sometimes you want Sunday to feel like Sunday—a pot of coffee, a couch, the times, a TV with cable and English—and that doesn’t really happen here. In short, things were…cranky. So I did what I always do in this situation—I went for a run.
About 5 minutes into my run, I came across two 3rd graders staring at their donkey and the sack of potatoes that had fallen off its back. I was the only “adult” around so they asked me to help. In all reality, I am probably the last person in Yanamito you want to encounter in this situation. The normal rule is, Alex is not allowed anywhere near full sacks of potatoes. Despite the fact that I am the biggest person in town, these things weigh 70 kilos and working on my upper body strength is something I have never done. But here I was, being cajoled by 2 little kids into giving it a shot. We (mostly me) rolled the bag up the embankment so they could push it onto my back. So there I am, standing there, hearing these two little kids basically put odds on me (“do you think he can do it?” “I don’t know, probably not”) and wondering what the sound of my spine breaking will be like, and I just did it. I only had to carry it like 10 feet, and I almost fell over, and I almost missed the donkey when lowering the bag down, but I did it. The 2 kids kinda cheered and their grandma came over and helped us put it in place and thanked me profusely, and I went running on my way, with a big old dumb grin spreading across my face.