365 Días

Today is officially one year in country! Crazy to think about. Instead of continuing on my recent trend of 1,600 word long posts about whether I should be here or not, I opted to write a lighter post today that I’ve been randomly jotting down in my notebook for some time. Enjoy my collection of stuff I’ll miss, won’t miss, never got used to, and finally adjusted to here in Panama. Some of it is a litttle bit conflicting since at times my opinions on certain matters will sway from one direction to the other. 
I’m not sure I’ll ever adjust to… 
– Too much free time 
– Panama hour in which it’s the norm to show up an hour late to a meeting 
– Ticks, ants, and spiders… surprisingly as I write this I’ve grown to be pretty cool with spiders. Except for one type that haunts me and I will use my machete if it ever finds its way into my house. As far as ticks, without exaggeration I’ve probably pulled about 300 off of me and been bitten times. 
– Tropical Diseases… I’ll save you the nightmares 
– Peace Corps Acronyms… Off the top of my head I’ve managed to write down PTS, PST, APCD, CD, RL, SSC, MST, ET, COS, PCV, RPCV, IST, PML, CEC, TE, EH, CED, SAS, VAC, GAD, UWB, PCMO, VRF, VICA, TOT, COS, RM. 
– Cold Showers… Almost every time I leave site I enjoy hot showers and AC. Every first shower back in site is so cold. 
– Having conversations without Wikipedia at the ready… So much wasted knowledge! 
– Burning Trash… mmm burning plastic 
I’ve gotten used to and generally don’t mind… 
– Latrines 
– Hand washing laundry 
– 20 minute walk and 20 minute bus ride to the closest Internet cafe and food store. 
– No refrigerator 
– 3 hours a day of electricity 
– Almost no cell signal 
– Lack of Reddit, Facebook, etc 
– Setting my own schedule 
I miss… 
– Good beer… Thankfully there is a brewery in the city 
– Being able to fully express myself when talking… Spanish is tough 
– American Food… I refuse to think more on the subject 
– Microwavable foods 
– Leftovers 
I’ll miss… 
– Nature 
– My dogs roaming about freely 
– Fruit fresh off the trees 
– Coffee fresh off the trees 
– Hammocks everywhere 
– Saril (See my previous blog post) 
– Fresh juice 
– Fondas… Basically restaurant/cafeteria hybrids 
– Bistec Picado… Roasted beef 
– A great group of coworkers 
– Falling asleep to chirping insects at night 
– 24/7 Spanish 
– View from my house/desk 
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My Travels in: Peru Part 2

I adopted the motto “the more you try and plan a vacation, the less control you have over it” after finishing my first back packing trip. I applied this to my adventure in Peru, hopped onto a friend’s hiking plan, and left it at that.
After my first day walking around Cusco, which was actually part of my “plan” since I needed to adjust to the altitude, it began to dawn on me just how far I’d gone in the opposite direction on the planning scale. While I spent weeks preparing for South East Asia, I had five days planned out of my two week stay in Cusco, which were planned by other people! To remedy the situation, I came to both a long and short term solution. Long term being, screw my motto, short term, find a tourism agency and get myself some day trips planned.
On my walk back to the hotel on the second day, I popped into a random tourism agency and sat down to discuss my options for the day and a half free that I had until my friends arrived. Ten minutes later I walked out with a full day tour of the Sacred Valley including Pisac, Ollantaytambo, and Chinchero, and a half day tour of Moray and the Salineras.
Around 10am the next morning we rolled into Pisac. Rolling in with us came the rain. I talked with my tour guide and he said it was a coin flip whether the weather would be bright and sunny or icy cold rain. It appeared we’d lost the coin flip. As much as I try and have a positive outlook, sight seeing on a cold rainy day where clouds blanket everything there is to see sucks.
We huddled in our rain jackets as our guide quickly explained the historical site Pisac. He asked if we’d like to spend time exploring the area but everyone opted to head  back to the bus. Luckily, this was the lowest point in the entire trip, and the weather improved immensely from that point forward.

  
The tour consisted of lunch and the place we stopped at was charging almost $17! I knew there had to be somewhere else to eat so I walked back out the door, across the street, and got a three course meal for less than $2. One of the great perks of speaking Spanish.
The rain continued but at a continuously decreasing pace. People were still walking  around with their ridiculous plastic ponchos as we headed into Ollantaytombo.
 This is one of the many amazing things that the Incas did. This is a food storage place that’s high up in the mountains where it’s cold and the food can be preserved.
 Rain jacket traffic jam!
  
 The Incas were really good at stacking stones. From what I’ve gathered, special structures got rocks that were smoothed down and fit together almost perfectly without mortar.
 When the Catholic church arrived, they set up right on top of Inca buildings. Good thing they didn’t go after Machu Picchu sites.

This was a pretty interesting place we stopped in between historical sites. Yarn is made from alpaca hair. It’s spun together, then braided, and then using various methods, given color. The craziest color was red which involved picking off a bug from a cactus, mushing it and using its blood to dye the yarn.

Using various additives, like salt, many shades of each color can be made, as seen here.

 Picture of those various additives.

This is the Salineras, known as salt mines in English. Water flowing out of the mountains enters these pools. Evaporation occurs over a period of time, and eventually the salt is scooped out.
 The technology of the Incas continued to amaze me throughout the entire trip. These were farm lands and they are spread everywhere throughout the countryside. The amazing thing about this area is that plants of warmer climates could grow here since they used the rocks heated during the day to keep the plants warm during the night.
 Stairs were just rocks sticking out of the walls.
 View from the top of Moray

We stopped in between historical sites to visit a collection of souvenir shops. This lady was working on making a traditional quilt in the center of the shops.
I thought it was rather comical that people showed up to Cusco were not prepared for the cold, myself included. This usually meant shopping for clothing. This woman here went full out and a bit over the top in my opinion.

The One Year Mark

I’ve been debating for some time how I’d like to “celebrate” my one year abroad mark on this blog. Originally, I thought I’d post a collection of my favorite pictures throughout the year, but since I already post my favorite pictures on here, I figured that wouldn’t quite cut it. I got inspiration about what to post while vacationing in Peru these last two weeks. I was with some friends and they originally opened up with questions such as “How is Peace Corps?” and I find that in such moments it’s hard to capture 12 months in a country into a few short sentences, especially when Peace Corps is a sum of all of its highs in lows. Instead, I’m going to propose a question to myself and answer it, in hopes of explaining to others, and in doing so, discovering myself, the answer.

Would I do it again?

Originally upon proposing this question, I wrote a good 250 words, deemed them inadequate, scratched them, wrote another 600 words, and did the same. I hope that this time around, I’ve captured the answer to the best of my writing abilities.

Before answering the question however, I would like to point out a few things that make coming to a conclusion a bit more complicated than it already is, and it already is rather complicated.

Your job is 24/7. When explaining my job on a good day, it sounds like I have the easiest work in the world. I get to walk in the mountains, get my hands dirty, work 4 to 8 hours a week and relax the rest of the time. But my job also includes visiting neighbors, playing baseball, and working on a sombrero. For the first 3 months of service, my only job was to do those activities. You’ll begin to notice the fine line between work and personal life begins to blur. It gets further complicated by the fact that people are always watching and your personal preferences about religion, alcohol, dating, etc. could have an impact on your work and success within the community.

Your service is what you make of it. Outside of four visits during the first year, three trainings, and three submitted reports a year, my bosses have almost no involvement in my life unless I request it. This means, if I wanted to I could just make my service a two year vacation. Of course that’s not the path I’ve chosen but it is something that could happen. What I really wanted to say about this point is that if you don’t take initiative, you could inadvertently wind up vacationing. That was my life for the first few months and it was a rather tortuous period of time. Due to various reasons, I didn’t quite make connections when I first move in and resorted to activities that didn’t require much interaction: studying Spanish, reading, and drawing. Eventually I got myself together and started meetings and work days but it took a bit of struggling in the beginning. 

Every volunteer’s service is unique. While I was struggling through my “vacation” I continuously compared myself to other volunteers. In one example, I compared myself to a friend who was having meetings and work days long before I did. Eventually I realized that she had a farmer’s group of 14 guys ready to work from day one while my community needed a bit more time to get organized. This is just one of the many examples of how one person’s service and the service of someone twenty minutes, walking, down the road, can be completely different.

Peace Corps is a roller coaster of ups and downs. Week to week, day to day, highs and lows can drastically alter the answer to that question. The answer after my first successful meeting as compared to my first meeting with zero attendees would be completely different. But then there’s the issue, but your service isn’t over, how can you answer? I believe that after a year of ups and downs, I’m finally getting to the point where I have experienced enough of the roller coaster that is Peace Corps service to understand them better and be prepared for the fact that neither highs nor lows are permanent.

Now that I’ve introduced some of the factors clouding the answer, I’ll continue on.

I remember reading one time that in the game of poker; it is much easier to recall bad beats compared to wins. The big wins for whatever reason seem to slip from mind much more quickly. For a time, during my service, I was writing down the wins so that I wouldn’t forget them when faced with one bad beat after another. I think it is best then, to layout the next section in terms of the overwhelming negativity before delving more into the subject.

You’ll have more free time than you know what to do with. The first two months in country consists of training. I had four hours each of Spanish and technical skills training each day. Thrown in are several day and week long trips to different volunteer communities, scavenger hunts to practice Spanish and familiarize ourselves with the country, and other similar activities. After two months of this, we disperse to our communities where we are faced with a blank schedule that goes on indefinitely. For me, my worst times have been school vacations in which I have months of free time. I wasn’t looking forward to so much free time. For a good period, maybe a few weeks, I suffered due to the lack of structure.

However, realizing from the start that this would be a challenge, I set about actively searching solutions. It took a few attempts but finally I was able to bring stability to my daily routine. How magnificent it was. I studied Spanish, learned to make a sombrero, started a garden and ate some fresh tomatoes, learned to juggle, read books about many different topics, introduced myself to statistics, decided to give painting and drawing another shot, took out my DSLR camera and finally got around to learning how to use it, wrote a bunch of blog posts, tried to make origami, and the list goes on and on.

Besides the immense free time to start and cultivate my hobbies, I was given a chance to look inside. What did I figure out? A friend put it well in that Peace Corps breaks you down to your very core and builds you back up again. I’ve had a whole lot of time to analyze my faults and strengths. I’ve been able to conquer my faults and further develop my strengths. Of course this isn’t an easy feat and at times, most of the time actually; there isn’t really an option besides facing yourself head on. As Cheryl Strayed puts it in Wild, “The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer – and yet also, like most things so very simple – was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay.”

Alone or lonely? I remember writing in my journal one day that is was bizarre to be lonely when surrounded by so many people. I tricked myself into thinking that jumping the cultural barrier would be a piece of cake after integrating in China. Except I realized there is a vast difference between integrating in the most international city in China and rural Panama. Loneliness was a big issue for some time. Being unable to connect with my community members or even my host family was frustrating. But the thing about it is, nothing lasts forever, change is inevitable, no matter how slow it is. It’s taken me longer than most but I’ve finally found myself friends with several community members, have played baseball in my free time, and feel more comfortable where I am. The change isn’t complete and at times I still feel loneliness creeping up but relative to where I was just a few months ago, I feel much better.

Development work is a beast. I had helped Engineers without Borders (EWB) with a project in one of the indigenous areas for some time. I asked a volunteer for some help with basic greetings in the language and as we got to talking he asked me about the community and said he’d never heard of it. A week later I got a call from him saying I should get permission from my boss since there was an issue back in 2011 about a volunteer being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I decided it was best to bring it up to him, and within a minute of beginning the conversation, I was forbidden to join EWB on their trip. I called up my sister in frustration and she told me how recently her friend had a development project in country X. Overnight, a coup occurred within the country, funding dried up, and her friend lost her job. These problems are neither the exception, nor the rule but somewhere in between, life happens, and development work gets caught in the crossfire.

Food, latrines, lack of electricity, no AC, no English, bugs, snakes, spiders, no refrigeration, no internet, bad phone signal, the rainy season, laundry by hand, etc., etc. I can’t say any of this bothers me anymore. I’ve come to realize I’m perfectly fine dealing with or living without many of the comforts that we are afforded in America. There’s something satisfying about trekking through the rain to get somewhere, washing clothes by hand, and being comfortable with spiders that have freaked me out my entire life.

To end things, hopefully I’ve answered the question you’ve theoretically asked me. If not, I’ve definitely answered it for myself.

Would I do it again?

Fuck yes.  

My Travels in: Peru Part 1

So, I turned 24, and then I got on a plane for Peru. Vacation!
I originally planned a hike from ocean to ocean hike in Panama but it fell through for various reasons. While planning it, I asked a family friend what suggestions he had for hiking and he mentioned he was heading to Peru to hike and that was that, I bought my ticket shortly thereafter.
I gave myself two lazy days to acclimate to the altitude in Cusco. During this time I roamed the city and took pictures. I also have a side story I wrote about the joys of speaking the language while traveling.
Speaking the Language
In 2011, I headed to South East Asia for two months of backpacking. Before heading off, I was looking at travel quotes one day and quickly fell in love with “Traveling is like speaking with men of different centuries.” One small kink in the quote, I couldn’t speak to these men whose native languages included Thai and Vietnamese. I realized quickly upon arrival, and for the next two months, that I would have to rely on Pictionary, charades, pointing, and other means of communication that would make me appear as if I hadn’t evolved the ability to speak yet.
Although I faced this amazing obstacle, for the most part I was able to enjoy myself while traveling. However, I was unable to delve deeper than superficial relationships with the locals that I met. How amazing the times I stopped to ask some men for directions and they invited me for drinks and food or the time I was invited to meet a book seller’s family would have been if I could have spoken with them.
I got a second opportunity to speak with men of different centuries but this time, I had a grasp of the language, Spanish. Panama has been an amazing opportunity to improve my grasp of the language, and although there are many great examples in Panama, I believe an example while traveling in Peru would suit this article well.
Panama isn’t known for their cold weather so I was unable to fully prepare for my trip to Peru before boarding the plane. To remedy this I made a list of items to purchase: gloves, scarf, hat, and thick socks.  A friend of mine told me to take the first days in Cusco slow to adjust to the altitude so I took this opportunity to explore the city and try and cross off my to-buy list.
My general method for conquering cities is to head out without direction, going whichever way seems most interesting. After walking for some time with sporadic turns here and there, I found myself in a clothing market. I found a booth with some clothing that appealed to me and proceeded to chat while looking at clothing.
The conversation started off slowly, with the lady assuming I didn’t really speak Spanish. However, as we continued to talk, she realized I spoke a descent bit, and the conversation took off. Eventually we ended up discussing her major and she told me she was studying tourism. She’d be heading off in a few days with an Archeology professor to check out some ruins and she invited me along. The total cost? $4. I contemplated the offer but sadly realized that I already had plans that day.
As disappointed as I was after having the encounter, I was also excited. My chat hadn’t occurred by chance, it was based in the fact that I could speak the language! This was the first encounter, but it wouldn’t be the last. There will be many more men of different centuries to converse with and treasures to uncover.

Pictures!

For less than $2, a 3 course meal. These were absolutely amazing and everywhere in Cusco.

This was the walk up to my hostel for the first few days. The altitude of Cusco and stairs made for a rather rough walk.

There were beautiful stone buildings throughout the city like this.

View of Cusco

Stray dogs were much healthier in Cusco than in Panama.

An aspect of city design carried over from the Incas. These are the rain drainage systems throughout the city.

 

Forgive and Forget

This is a bit more of a raw post about it all, so expect some language. 
With our hike finished it was time to return to the modern world. This white van, seating about fifteen people, would be our transportation back. Besides the people, there were hiking bags for each individual, kitchen gear for the chefs who cooked for us, and as is typical in the countryside, three more guys standing up in the “aisle” that ran near the sliding door. 
With the inside loaded, and another mound of gear piled on top of the van, we took off. In general, the roads are rather awful. For almost the entire trip from start to finish, drop offs of several hundred feet would be visible out of the van. As each switchback was passed, the direction, right or left, of the drop off would change. And of course, the road was wide enough for one way traffic, even though the road went both ways. 
We drove uneventfully for some time until we came across a fresh landslide. There was a bulldozer and some men out clearing the landslide so that the road could be reconstructed and traffic could continue. We sat and watched for some time, unable to pass the bulldozer. 
As we sat, I began to contemplate the physics of the matter. If you’ve ever been out on a frozen pond, you’ll know the safety advice of laying out flat if the ice should become questionable. This is because while standing, all of your weight only passes through two points, each of your feet. If you lay out flat, however, your weight is more widely dispersed and the chance of ice breaking is less and survival greater. We sat in the van and discussed such matters and decided it was best to walk around the bulldozer if it should come to that and let the van pass, without a heavy load, separately. Instead of four points, four wheels, bearing the load, it would be each individual walking separately, and the van just about empty. 
As we were coming to a conclusion however, the men working with the bulldozer signaled we could pass and so the van started forward. We began to talk more hurriedly and started shouting in English to our guide, and in Spanish to the driver, that we’d like to walk. Without consulting us the driver continued on, without a word of comfort or anything to let us know he knew what he was doing. 
I began to have a full on meltdown at this point. I was right near the back door and tried to unlock it and hop out but it wouldn’t open. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. I looked out the window and the tires were inches from the drop off. If the shoulder decided to give way at that point, it would have been death. Fuck fuck fuck. The lady to my left, I am unsure how, but motherly instincts kicked in, and she held me and calmed me and managed to bring me down from many fucks, to about two. (Thank you Belgian women wherever you are.) 
With a combination of all the metaphors in the world of time slowing down, and yada yada, we finally passed the curve. Various words were said, I managed to not curse out the driver for not considering our lives at all, and was only able to muster a “necesita escucharnos” (You need to listen to us) I spent the rest of the drive contemplating how Id make sure the driver lost his job and other horrible things directed at him. 
As we got out of the van at our destination, I got his name, picture, and licence plate so that I could make sure the trekking company knew how much of a terrible driver they had. But, I decided to give myself several days to contemplate how I would handle the situation. 
The next step in our tour was to head to a hot spring to relax (I know, shut up). And originally I decided against it, wanting to sit and have my own pity party but eventually I caved and went with the group. 
While there, sitting in the hot springs, unable to contemplate anything else besides my life flashing before my eyes, the words of Gandhi drifted into my head. As much as I wanted to hate and be angry and make sure the driver got what he deserved, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” And I hadn’t even lost an eye. If I wrote the email, he could very well lose his job, his family on to the street, or worse. And I didn’t want to be responsible for that. And so upon returning to where we were staying for the night, I tore up the paper with his name and license plate and deleted the pictures on my camera. 
While I can’t say I’ve managed to forgive and forget just yet, I feel much better for having not tried to make the whole world blind.