¿Donde se fue 2013?

IMG_3237 There’s something about settling into the routine of daily life, no matter where you are, that makes it normal, seemingly uneventful, and therefore not worth sharing with others. We’re happy to say that our Peruvian life has simply become the life we live, and many months flew by without us noticing. A heat wave during this “Holiday Season” hasn’t helped make it notable, but we now realize how out of contact we’ve been. Please know that life is great. We continue to eat a pineapple a day, as well as amazing “campo” cuisine of farm-fresh ingredients without any freezing or preservatives. Work is plugging along nicely, our Spanish has plateaued (or more like a low-lying sand flat) but serves us well, and we are amazed to realize that we’re only 11 months from the end of our service. We hope you enjoy the photos and the details. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA In late March and again in June we traveled to the neighboring department of Ancash, seven hours away. Ancash is home to the second tallest mountain range in the world, the Cordillera Blanca and the nearby Cordillera Huayhuash. In March we treked the four-day Santa Cruz Circuit with our La Libertad Regional Coordinator Sandra Rivasplata including one pass over 14,000 feet and in June the seven-day Huayhuash Trek which includes six passes over 14,000 feet and one over 15,000 feet. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA For the Santa Cruz trek, we hauled all of our own gear, stumbling off of an all-night bus ride bleary-eyed and bushy-tailed to start the trek at 10,000 feet. After living at sea level for 10 months and with no time for acclimatization, the trek was beautiful but tough. One of the highlights was spending time with our Peruvian Regional Coordinator. Both of us love visiting her and her family when we are in Trujillo. At 38 years old, she is closer to our age than most volunteers, and is finishing up her Master’s Degree in Social Work. Her mother makes documentary films on social issues including one on the controversial Conga Mine to the north in Cajamarca, and her father is an aficionado of jazz and other music and so visiting them is a treat. Sandra had never done a trek like Santa Cruz and bravely stuck it out. We finished with good food and beer in Huaraz before the all-night bus ride back to Trujillo. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA For the June trek, we spent three days in Huaraz, playing tourist and adjusting to the altitude. We ended up in a small group of eight, including a “just-married” Spanish couple, a “just-married” Brazilian couple and another couple from the States. Interestingly enough the common language was Spanish as neither the Spanish nor Brazilian couple knew English while the other couple from the states knew Spanish; thus we used our Spanish for the duration of the trek. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Being from Colorado and California, we figured we had seen plenty of mountains and beautiful treks but the Cordillera Huayhuash trek quite simply blew our socks off. We both agree it might be the most beautiful trek we’ve ever done and would highly recommend it to folks especially in the next 10 years as rumor has it, it may be sacked for mining. Arden has plans to try and convince her bevvy of Colorado College gal-pals to hike it for one of their future reunions. We had a father-son team of guides lead us including carrying our gear on mules and cooking our meals. It is pointless trying to wax eloquent about it except to say imagine the Rockies with 4,000 – 5,000 more feet of mountain, including glaciers, glacial lakes and high altitude “pampas”. Every day we’d wake at 6:00 to coffee and pancakes or eggs, pack up our gear and stroll out of camp by 7:30 a.m., to wind our way up to a 14,000 foot pass, and back down to camp. Thankfully our small group got along fabulously and we spent the cold nights playing cards and sharing stories before retiring by 8:30 to bed. Again, we will try and let the pictures do the talking, but folks wanting to get a taste of the Andes should seriously consider the Cordillera Huayhuash. It has several peaks between 19,000 and 20,000 feet that haven’t been climbed and with receding glaciers is a “must-see” before “cambio climático” takes its toll. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur first United States visitors, Read’s family including sister, brother-in-law, nephew and mother visited in late July. We joined them for beach time and for four days in Poroto before they went with Read to Huaraz. Our host family celebrated by preparing “Pachamanca” for us, a Peruvian speciality. They killed one of the family pigs, a turkey and several “gallinas” that they buried in a pit full of red hot rocks, with sweet potatoes, tamales, corn and beans and served up with plenty of ahí or pepper sauce. Our host mother also prepared “ceviche” (Arden’s new favorite food) or fresh fish marinated with lime and served with sweet potatoes and “cancha” as well as other Peruvian delights. We are blessed to live with a family of excellent cooks. As Read says, our lives revolve around lunch. Every lunch we are treated to freshly prepared soup followed by a mountain of rice and “manestra” or beans cooked with ahí, peppers and onions and “un poco de carne” which is usually chicken or fish. Food for Peruvians is love and a source of national pride. Read’s sister Heather fell in love with the ahí or hot pepper sauce that spices most dishes. Every morning, various tiendas prepare batches of different pepper sauces ranging from sublime to blow-your-mind hot, pack it up in little bags and sell it. The sauce flavors everything from soup to beans and the variety is stunning.

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Pancho con su chancho (our host dad and the former pig)

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Panchamanca (ancient peruvian dish prepared on hot rocks, in the driveway)

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Andre, Heather and Oliver overlooking the Rio Moche

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADuring their visit, Read’s mother Pepper lived up to her new title, “Ass-kicking Granny”, hiking over sketchy terrain at altitude to see the glaciers, leaving kids and grandkids behind. We hope that by the time we hit 74 there will be a wheelchair ramp installed. Pep’s Spanish proved worthy, or at least intelligible. A little language challenge never stopped her from making friends with everyone. She did offer fewer cooking tips than normal, but then it could be that she’s never cooked multiple animals on red hot rocks buried in a pit in the driveway before.

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Sister teaching little brother to play constructively

After Read’s family left, our neighboring Evangelical church, the one that plays live, amplified sermons and music five nights a week from 8 p.m. – 10 p.m. in our living room (or at least it sounds that way), celebrated it’s 20th anniversary with a super-show staged and lighted in the street directly out our front door. The five-foot high speakers actually cracked one of our windows with the blasting “Jesus loves you” music. The message is the same in any language with a touch of full-throated fire and brimstone which rolls out nicely in Spanish.

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Host sisters and boyfriend dressed up for church

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Founder’s day celebration in Poroto

Poroto celebrated the town’s birthday in late August with competing marching bands who followed us around town to each event, cranking out marineras, cumbias, huaynos, etc. Add to that endless cases of beer, recklessly dangerous fireworks (including the 6 a.m. wake-up barrage), and lots of visiting relatives, and you have a five-day, no-sleep fiesta. Arden loved it!

When not fiesta-ing, Arden works with (and is worked by) adolescents with the help of the local psychologist or teachers, teaching them to teach their peers in themes of responsible decision-making, realities and myths around teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and birth control. One of the highlights (of course) proved to be the condom class where, after completing the “stick-the-condom-on the-carrot” race while explaining the correct steps on how to use it, the adolescents blew up the condoms to play a mean game of volleyball for the duration of the class. Arden’s Spanish sexual vocabulary has improved radically. After one student asked her to “explain female orgasm” (I mean, COME ON, this is difficult enough to explain in English), Arden spent her next one-on-one private Spanish tutoring session much to her teacher’s amusement, “boning up” (pardon the pun) her vocabulary, learning new verbs like lamer (to lick), acariciar (to caress), excitar (to sexually excite), and desfogar (to emit). She further learned them in subjunctive because, let’s face it, most sexual topics among adolescents AND adults are not reality but possibility (wishful thinking) and this is all in subjunctive or conditional. Los alumnos muestran como usar condones en una carrera de condonesIMG_3173 Arden further leads a “Healthy Living” home visitation program with the help of volunteer health promoters, visiting 30 moms and their small children twice a month to promote everything from hand-washing to early childhood stimulation. Highlights thus far include teaching the importance of “play”, which was aided by the help of “Nurturing Parenting” coloring books written in Spanish and English sent by her friend and early childhood expert Jane Whitmer and Scott Bates of the Colorado Children’s Trust Fund. As part of the program, she is finishing up building “cocinas mejoradas” or improved-cookstoves (meaning Read is training a local guy to build them). It is wonderful to see moms take pride in lighting their stove for the first time, using half the amount of wood, emitting no lung and eye-damaging smoke, and cooking faster than ever. Arden relishes her afternoons tramping from one house to the other with the volunteer promoters, chatting in Spanish (usually comparing notes about husbands – i.e., yours does that TOO), visiting moms one by one or in small groups, trying to “be” or be like her mentor Jane Whitmer. After completing six months of house visits, two visits a month, many of the mothers feel like friends and invite her to birthday parties or give her pineapples to take home. She will be truly sad to end the project in March and April, and hopes to spearhead a workshop or two with the health promoters to continue to see many of the mothers.

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Arden’s birthday gift: a deep-fried Cuy (guinea pig)

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In October, Arden’s mother Mary visited. They spent the first week hiking together in the Cordillera Blanca in Ancash. Arden’s mother truly earned her Wheaties, hiking an average of 8 miles a day at 10,000+ feet, one day hiking over 10 miles to a lake at 13,000 feet. After Ancash, Mary spent the next week at site, accompanying Arden for home visits and one particularly naughty class of 14-year old’s. Being Arden’s mother and coming all the way from the states, the mothers rolled out the red carpet, treating Mary to fried pork, ceviche, fresh juices, and other Peruvian delicacies. Again, in Peru, food is love and the mothers treated Mary in style. Mary also attended a surprise birthday for Arden, spearheaded by Arden’s Peruvian mother Isabel, complete with a “Hannah-Montana” piñata, cake, Inca Cola (tastes like bubble gum) and masamora (a purple corn jello).

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Feliz Cumpleaños Adriana !!! (note the Hanna Montana piñata)

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Mango season means kids with sticky, dirty faces and spots on their shirts.

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Arden’s Improved Cook Stove project, with her obedient workerboy

Read’s life revolves around riding his bike everyday to visit water systems, and finding excuses to go to Trujillo to surf. Slowly communities are coming around to the idea of chlorinating their drinking water, though pockets of resistance are still strong. Toilets are the next project in queue, as he has attempted to navigate the elusive funding system of applying federal mining royalties to local infrastructure projects. The mayor of Poroto is “gung-ho” to “go big”, but we’ll see how that shakes out.

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Nelly, Cathy, and “Kike” (keekay) selfie in a moto taxi

A recent November visit by Read’s friend Cathy Howard and her son Xander gave us the chance to showcase the life of a volunteer. It was sadly punctuated by the recent passing of a great mutual friend Jamie Tucker, who was an inspiration to live life fully, here and now. It’s almost too easy to carry on without appreciating the precious details life brings. Thank you Jaime for once again making your point heard. The burden is now on us to not forget your example. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA And so life carries on, but not without a purposeful appreciation of all that has been provided to us. From the love of our families from afar and in their visits here, to the appreciation locals show for our efforts, including an amazing host-family, we can’t possibly share with you all that it is to be a Peace Corps volunteer in Perú. The best part of all is sharing this experience with each other, laughing and (occasionally) ranting through each chapter with an appreciative partner. It just doesn’t get any better, (though Read says, a phat snow-storm sure would be nice). OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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Cebiche !!! Arden’s favorite meal, a bi-weekly sensation.

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Cordillera Huaywash and its 5000 meter peaks

Seven months into Peace Corps in Peru

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It’s been a while since our last blog posting, if only because time stands still here on Planet Perú. We were throttled out of our slumber when we flipped the page on our Colorado calendar to June to see photo of a kid kayaking in whitewater. It suddenly dawned on us that here in the land of perpetual summer, we’ve skipped an entire north american winter. There’s been no sub-zero blustery cold days of frozen fingers and toes, cars that won’t start, shoveling snow, and late afternoon darkness. Or if you ask Read, we’ve gone an entire season without white fluffy powder, runs throught the Mirkwood Trees, backcountry tours, and ice-skating near Leadville. Clearly the tension in our respective climactic preferences is being laid to bare, only now it’s Arden smiling and wiggling her toes (in sandals instead of ski boots) in the hot sun.

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Daughter, gringa, mom – beach time !!!
Learning the body parts, in English, with Profesora Adriana (Arden't Peruvian name)
Learning the body parts, in English, with Profesora Adriana (Arden’t Peruvian name)

Seven months into our new life in Poroto (plus 10 weeks in Lima) and our routine is quite idyllic. Here below the equator, days are pretty much 12 hours of sunlight, with the front room of our little house getting lit up at 7am. It gets dark’ish around 6:30pm, and in between it’s warm, but not too hot (now). Mornings include espresso and smoothies (maracuya, mango, pineapple, and banana, all locally grown). Short sleeves are all we wear, and long pants to fit into Peruvian professional code. We step out the door to magnificent views of dry coastal peaks, fields of pineapple and sugar cane, with little kids in uniform scrambling off late to school, and the national anthem blasting over the loudspeakers. All the farmers are off to their fields well before sunrise, so only sleepy skinny dogs laze around the streets.

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Summer fun in the irrigation ditch

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Arden spends her afternoons doing home visits with moms and kids under three, promoting nutrition, clean homes, and early childhood stimulation while coordinating her efforts with volunteer health promoters in surrounding communities. She walks everywhere, and is now well known (la gringa caminando) for her Izod-with-Peace-Corps-patch uniform (she has seven of them, all the rainbow colors). She also works in the high school next to our home, teaching sexual education, self-esteem and decision-making skills with the help of the health-post psychologist to hormone spazzed out teens. Her biggest success is the ever growing youth group at the health center, where she trains aspiring teen leaders how to teach these same topics to their peers, and provides comic relief with her slowly-improving Spanish.

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Gravity-fed water system delivery pipe suspended high up on cliffs

Read’s world is much different as he tries to understand the long list of issues facing the fourteen different water systems in the district. If it’s not broken pipes, leaky resevoirs, or contaminated springs, it’s warring neighbors, crazy systems design, or complacent authorities that fill his day. Sanitation (toilets) is an even bigger issue, but will have to wait as things move REALLY slowly, and clean water is the first priority. Patience is the lesson learned, though fits of screaming frustration are not uncommon (behind the closed door of home).

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Read in uniform presenting to a water system users meeting.

Culturally, the challenges are abundant. When you speak in a big meeting, you are expected to stand up and flourish (florisar) your words with formality and praise, then gently inference to the topic at hand, followed by more flourishes of gratitude and humility for all in attendance. In small meetings it’s often impossible to get a word in edgewise as our Spanish is still slow enough that we get run over in the crosswalk. Machismo is yet another challenge as folks often speak directly to Read as he silently gives eye nods in Arden’s direction.

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Arden and resident psychologist teaching self-esteem to moms and kids.

 

The Peace Corps’ formal training process is now complete. Both of us traveled to far off towns to meet with our cohorts and exchange the last of the technical manuals and most current building and training methods, sharing war stories of dealing with different local customs or just plain pooping in our pants (they say you’re not a PC volunteer until you’ve done so; Read is still holding out). We got to see vast bone-dry deserts (from the bus window), thick green jungle valleys (from the bus window while stranded overnight behind a landslide across the highway on a 27-hour journey). High mountains define Perú’s regions, making travel slow and windey. We treked four days in Huascaran National Park over a 15,000 foot pass while watching glaciers calve off into small avalanches, avoiding curious grazing cows (there are no large predetors in south america other than the rare puma who prefers the lower jungles). Monthly trips to the nearby beach provide surfing fun (Read calls it swimming with a surf board). So far we’ve spent most of our time, hanging out locally. Read is now captain of the local mountain biking team, trailing behind our 23-year old host family cousin and nine year old neighbor. The hills surrounding town are criss-crossed with trails used by farmers to get to their fields making for great late-afternoon tours. Read’s helmet is the butt of much ridicule, especially considering that the neighbor kid’s bike has no brakes, and he rides wearing car-tire sandals. On the steep downhills, he simply wedges his foot between the bike frame and the back tire to create friction and thus slow himself down (he can’t actually stop). You can smell the burning rubber on rubber as he whizzes by, wearing through his sandal tread to the metal imbedded in the (radial) tire sandal. All the kids on the block come by our house to borrow tools, patches, and pump as they have none of the above (nor do they have brakes, or changeable gears, sometimes not even bike seats). Though Read still can’t understand our host family cousin with his rapid-fire stacato Spanish (he works as a fare-collector on the local bus to Trujillo, hustling for $10/day), they hang out frequently if only as entertainment for each other.

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The Poroto Mountain Bike Team
Note the sandal tread worn down from pressing his foot against the tire. Who needs brakes?
Note the sandal tread worn down from pressing his foot against the tire. Who needs brakes?

Life with our host family is the focus of our social life. The lunch-time meal is the anchor of everyone’s day, with three generations sitting at a big table, eating heaping plates of fine campo-cuisine (country food). Conversation is lively, and Arden’s extrovert side is in full force. She loves to dive into family history, inter-relational intrigue, while asking questions about Peruvian customs and social protocol. They call us their oldest kids, and say we are a bit like teenagers trying to figure it all out.

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In two weeks we head off to spend 10 days treking the famous “Huayhuash Circut” in Ancash including a half-dozen 14,000 foot passes. We  hope given the fact we are now officially “flat-landers” we won’t pass out from lack of oxygen. Read’s family comes to visit in August and after that we will spend the next four months focusing on work and continuing to “mejorar” the ever-elusive and intriguing world of Spanish language.

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Handwashing lessons by the resident pet-martian-gringo-old-guy
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Arden’s now famous choclate cake served up to host dad “Panchito” and teenage cousin Marjory. Dogs always ready to catch crumbs falling to the floor.
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Local farmer with ancient (pre-Incan Moche culture) pottery he found while working in his fields. Though a national treasure, many folks have artifacts that they keep.
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END OF SUMMER SCHOOL !!!!!!
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Girls on the block hanging out playing house with dolls.
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Give a poor country girl a pair of fashionable sunglasses, and lookout !
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Water system operator showing Read the way to the spring.

December 2012

Please excuse the late publishing of this post. We’ve been without internet for 4 weeks.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs we write this, we’re slurping down a pineapple while wiping the sweat off our faces, listening to the “reggeton” pulses of a nearby “chocolotada” which is a hot chocolate and present party that the health posts, municipalities and schools throw kids this time of year. Usually they involve a clown, young women in short skirts, knee-high boots and Santa hats who liven up the party, a variety of games, hot chocolate, sweet bread or “paneton” and, of course, free gifts which inevitably means shoving and complaining about wanting the hot wheels racetrack instead of the barbie doll. Just like in the United States… 🙂 It is hard to believe with the temperatures in the mid-90’s and climbing that it is Christmas. We figure if Santa Claus lived here instead of the north pole, he’d be a lot skinnier, wandering around in a thong and a pair of flip-flops.

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Arden ready for battle with barking dogs, heading off to a small outlying community to hold a meeting with mothers with kids

We arrived in site about a month ago, after a hectic last couple of weeks of training outside of Lima (click here for a short video). We swore in at the Ambassador’s house with 50-something other hopefuls, spent the night dancing and feasting at the director’s house and the next day boarded buses to the outlying areas of Peru to begin our service. We arrived in the northern coastal city of Trujillo groggy after an all-night bus ride, spent the day frantically shopping for stuff for our new home, and the next day loaded it all up and arrived at our little blue “casita” that will be home for the next two years.

Family-wise, we have our own small home which is a score in the Peace Corps world, on a pineapple farm as a part of a large extended Evangelical family. Our house shares a wall with the Evangelical Church so we are treated to sermons from 8 – 10 pm five nights a week. Further up the street is a Pentecostal Church which hosts ceremonies once a month beginning at midnight and lasting until 5:00 am, complete with drum banging, singing, and loud keening. Ear plugs are a blessing.

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Isabel Enriquez (our host mother) with judges tasting her specialy chicken dish during the local cuisine contest at the Pineapple Festival

Our host mother helps run a small “tienda” near the Kindergarten, thus during the school year we breakfast there with a gaggle of 6-year old’s and their moms. During the summer, our mom gets up at 2:00 am to take the pineapples to market in Trujillo. Arden went with her once to see what the process of selling 400+ pineapples was like and in the middle of the market fell asleep slumped over with her head on her knees, much to the amusement of her host mom and the other vendors.

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Read and his queens

We are waiting for boredom to set in; so far we’ve had a wild ride. We celebrated the pineapple festival the first week of December which our host family helped spearhead, complete with a pineapple queen and parade. Parades, official ceremonies and public speaking are important parts of Peruvian culture and it never hurts to have a couple of gawky odd-looking gringos thrown in for the “freak show” appeal, thus we’ve been hauled up on stage with other dignitaries and presented to mildly amused audiences.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEvery region has their own accent, thus the language process begins anew. Arden often has no idea of what is being asked of her but bravely answers questions just to keep the conversation going, sometimes completely off mark. Question: “What do you think of the heat here?” Arden’s answer: “Oh I absolutely LOVE what you’ve done with development in some of the pueblos, it is such a model for the state”. Peruvians being the polite people they are will nod and walk away, leaving Arden mildly confused and Read thoroughly embarrassed (How do you say, “My wife has a mental disability”, in Spanish?). People also often have no idea what we’re saying which makes us realize that we are “those foreigners” who speak with thick accents. As our friend Atila says, language fluency is that ever-receding shoreline, especially for the adult learner.

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The cool kids hanging out with la gringa loca

Work-wise, we inherited a youth group of 16 young health promoters and are spearheading summer school programs at three schools in addition to carrying out community diagnostics on the needs and resources in the community. Arden also facilitated two educational sessions with health promoters that she put over 20 hours of preparation into (and lost sleep over). Every community including the outlying pueblos or “caserios” boasts one or two volunteer health promoters. Currently three new health promoters are in training and will facilitate informational sessions with mothers on nutrition, early childhood stimulation, hand washing, preventing cooties, etc. so Arden will work with them over the next couple of months.

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The long and circuitious route to one of the most remote communities, two hours hike each way, negotiating hidden trails in sugar cane fields and rocky hillsides.

Read is working with various different spring-fed gravity-delivered water systems, each serving communities from 25 to 250 households. There is no shortage of conflict and controversy over broken pipes, design problems, and mismanagement, as well as political strife, much of which gets lost in translation. Read had someone show him the water source for the town, only to find a runaway pig couple had made their home at the source in the mud (the male was none too pleased at the intrusion and squared off to charge Read). The real work will be problem-solving the human side of things, to get to the technical solutions. Toilets (or absence thereof) will come later.

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With the local wage at less than $10/day, folks live the simple life, but at least have an abundance of mango, avocado, banana, papaya, etc. for subsistence

Every day is a roller coaster ride. We never know what’s going to happen when we walk out the door. Meetings can be two hours late, or changed without notice. What was supposed to be a simple sit-down with an official can turn out to be an important meeting with multiple officials, some with a bone to pick (“Why aren’t you teaching English in the school in our community?”). Food trumps all, so a tour of the water system can get sidetracked by a stop in a nearby restaurant for two hours (“it was meat, but I have no idea what animal, or what part”), after which everyone is too hot and tired to continue so they head home to take naps. Surprises abound as an old guy who stumbles into the clinic with a sick kid turns out to be the president of the water system in a far-off “caserio”, who would have been impossible to track down were it not for serendipity.

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Carpenter ingenuity – a homemade lamination system for furniture building

When we stop to ask directions we can end up in conversation for an hour, getting critical information about the community, much of which will later be revealed as only half the story. And Spanish will forever be the hurdle, or the source of great fun/embarrassment. At the end of dinner, Read asked if he should throw his scraps of rice and fish bones in the pig bucket or out the window for the dogs. Confused by the response, he asked, “Las conchas no comen pescado?”, which was supposed to mean, “The pigs (chanchos) don’t eat fish?”, but really meant, “The (conch) shells don’t eat fish?”. As it turns out, “conch shells” is a vulgar term for female genitalia, thus the mother and daughter laughed until they cried and bring it up regularly at family gatherings. One of the daughters also stepped on a guinea pig and broke its neck. A concerned Arden asked about breaking the animal´s “cuello” (neck) but instead said “culo” which means “butthole”.

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Flag raising ceremony parade with all the important people, including Mr. Pineapple and the smiling gringos (way in back)

So when life gets you down, or the holidays seem to be a bit much, just close your eyes and imagine being a four-year-old martian visiting planet-Perú constantly putting your foot in your mouth and not knowing it while smiling politely like a mute idiot, hoping that someday, someone will actually understand you and realize that “Hey, these guys just might come in handy!”

Feliz Navidad y que le vaya bien en el Año Nuevo 2013

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The rough life of a volunteer on a rare day off

Cuerpo de Paz Training Peru

Arden muttering Spanish to herself while hiking the ridge high above our host community. Note the dust laden Lima air in this hyper-dry climate.

It’s been six weeks since we left home with 108 weeks to go. Once in awhile we look at each other and announce with glee, “We’re living in Peru!”. It still feels dreamlike and unreal, like we could wake up at any moment to find ourselves tangled in the bed sheets inside our rammed earth home in Colorado, anticipating winter and cold. Instead we’re currently living an hour east of Lima at 2,500 feet in the dry foothills of the western Sierra, where it never rains, and a cold day is in the low 60’s.

The National Congress in Lima, with riot gear clad mounted police out front. These guys have recently been doing battle with protesters in violent clashes over attempts to close an informal market called La Parada in a tough part of town. (3 deaths plus one horse who had to be put down).

For ten weeks, we’re training with 55 other volunteers, most of them under 30 years old. The second week of training one of them looked at us and earnestly announced to the group, “I’m so happy we’ve got some older people here because we can learn so much from your experience”. We almost fell out of our chairs. Language continues to be a slow steady challenge. Before leaving Colorado, the Peace Corps conducted phone interviews to place us in learning groups. Half-way through the interview a nervous Arden tried to crack a joke. When asked about her “mejor amigo” (best friend) she said her “mejor amigo y mejor enemigo (enemy) es mi esposo Read”. When asked why, she blithely replied that “sometimes we argue” but used the verb “hit”, thus telling the confused and mildly alarmed interviewer, “sometimes we hit each other” although she confidently assured the interviewer it was no big deal. Despite the Peace Corps concern they might have a domestic violence case on their hands, we are now happily living with our host family including two parents, three of four grown sons, a daughter-in-law, four-year old granddaughter, two parakeets, two mama rabbits, eight baby rabbits and two guinea pigs who mysteriously disappeared last night (soon to be someone’s dinner). Hot water is a luxury we dispensed with our last night in the U.S. (tepid to chilly showers here promote water conservation). While Sunday mornings might be cherished sleep-in time for us, the neighbors may be blaring music at 6:30am. The quirky little details of being a foreigner provide constant entertainment (“I’m pretty sure its beef, but I’m not exactly sure what part of the cow we’re eating.”). We relish long dinners of soup and animated conversation about politics, history, Peruvian cuss words and culture. Read even manages to insert multiple-tense sentences into the conversation on occasion while Arden still stumbles over concrete single-subjects including, “What do people think of the mines/ the president/ Sendero Luminoso”, “What is in this good soup”, and, “I like the color of your walls”. Much to Read’s dismay, she also asks the same questions over and over which the family patiently answers while looking to Read for help.

Our host-family, the Castro-Leons, at home in the living room (3 brothers not shown). They built this home by carving out the rocky hillside and slowly added floors to accomodate the growing family. We couldn’t have asked for better hosts.

Host brother Rafael teaching Arden to make Ceviche. We’ve been eating like kings.

Homemade Ceviche, a local specialty, including fried fish and sweet potato.

We’ve been integrated into all aspects of family life. Construction projects allow Read to spend time shooting the breeze and teaching the boys how to say, “She wears the pants” when they talk about their relative’s demanding wife (“pisado” in Spanish, or “under her heel”). Arden learned the fine details of making Peruvian ceviche, and “ahi” (spicy salsa). The parents both come from the andes where Quechua is spoken. The dad, Virginio, frequently gets visits by panicked mothers from the neighborhood with sick babies cradled in arm (once at 4:30am). He performs a healing ritual by passing a raw egg over the skin of the sick child, then breaking it into a glass of water and reading the yolk. Many people practice natural healing remedies; modern medicine is one thing, but without paying respect to the spirits, good health is unattainable.

Host brother Manolo holding his neice, Anacristina, whose one-year birthday party was a big bash.

Our host niece, and Arden’s best friend. They play bannanagrams and sing songs together, and she calls us “Tio y Tia” or aunt and uncle.

The Peace Corps training schedule is rigorous. Arden is in her milieu leaning about family health. Read is among a dozen engineers studying water systems, sanitation, and how to do it with next to no resources. We have class eight hours a day and come home to a packed evening of dinners with people revolving in and out (cousins, nieces, etc.), Peruvian TV game shows or tele-novelas play in the background while we attempt homework before dropping into bed to start the day over. As one volunteer said, “you are on 24-7”. Part of our current “magical-realism” dreamlike state is being surrounded by people in a busy urban environment where we understand 40 – 60% of what is being said, with barking dogs, crowing roosters, and honking moto-taxis. We thus plod along and trust the process, guessing blindly when to laugh while listening to humorous anecdotes. The most exciting part of our day is the bus ride from Huascata, our home barrio, to Chaclacayo were the training center is.

The coolest moto-taxi in Huascata.

A niece from our extended host family was confirmed along with over 300 others in this mass event at a local school, standing room only.

Lima school kids taking photos of gringo tourists taking photos of Peruvian school kids on a field trip to the museum.

Our home near Lima for 10 weeks during training, Huascata, Lima, Peru.

Our future home for the next two years, Poroto, La Libertad.

We just got confirmation of our soon-to-be home for two years; Poroto, La Libertad, about an hour east of Trujillo, Peru’s second-city on the coast eight hours north of Lima. It is called the land of eternal spring, and hosts a Pineapple festival every August. Arden is grateful that this region is spared the infamous Andean rainy season that brings life to a saturated and muddy halt up in the sierra. We anticipate dry inland mountains, lush irrigated valleys, and coastal culture in a small town of about 2,000 people at about 2000 feet elevation with temperatures ranging in the 70’s – 80’s. Due East, the highway climbs up to 14,000 feet and remote cloud-forests. One hour West is the coast and the city of Trujillo, which with 300,000+ people is Peru’s 4th largest city, known for its culture, colonial architecture and ceviche. By all measures, it looks to be a plumb assignment, and we couldn’t be happier.

Here’s more photos of the interesting things we’ve found so far:

This “Improved Cookstove” that Read and crew learned how to build will reduce wood consumption by 50%, eliminate smoke in the kitchen, and hopefully save the cooks back from squatting over a fire. This is a major priority in Peru now.

Read getting busy with donkey dung, mixing it with water and soil to make mortar for adobe brick construction.

This is the stove recipient’s backyard with a host of animals and latrine.

Every town has a “Comedor Popular” where anyone can come and eat a healthy meal for less than $1, including the Peace Corps Peru director visiting us at our remote training near Canete.

Poverty is a huge issue despite the fact that this a country with bountiful food and resources.

Local Peace Corps volunteer named Goyo, showing us the mass of unearthed graves that robbers have pillaged. This pre-Incan site (over 500 years old) has yet to be studied by archaeologists for lack of funding, and tragically is just open and unprotected with pots, weavings, and whatever else was not valuable.

Just some of the piles of bones unearthed.

Pre-colombian tapestry left to rot in the elements by grave robbers.

Read’s training included cleaning out the slightly slimy water tank high on a hill above a small town, several hours south of Lima near Canete. The whole system is gravity fed, including piping in the source water for nearly a mile, no pumps needed.

This biodigester takes cow poop and water to produce methane gas (enough to keep a stove burner going for 4 hours per day) as well as very high quality organic fertilizer and pest controller, while getting rid of poop and saving the ozone.

Arden and her Peace Corps Health crew learning about gardening.

This water system was defunct until a Peace Corps volunteer brought community leaders together to get it up and running. A two-year project means thousands will get clean water, and locals will maintain the systems.

This high altitude town (above 10,000 ft) hosts an annual Festival de Agua, including cleaning out their reservoirs to appease the gods. It dates back hundreds of years, possibly pre-Incan. Read and his crew attended to learn about community water systems and local culture.

Four teams (red, blue, gold and green) compete in week-long activities, including chanting and singing in Quechua.

The empty reservoir is supposed to be cleaned out by locals, but really it’s an excuse to party. Here, one of four festival leaders is castigating (literally whipping) a drunken reveler. Custom includes penalties for not having coca leaf, ash, tobacco, or Chica (fermented corn drink) on hand.

CLICK HERE TO WATCH A VIDEO OF THE  FESTIVAL DE AGUA

Two generations of goat farmers, cooking over a wood fire, with an improved wood-stove behind.

Pollo Seco (chicken with cilantro sauce) for 20, cooked over wood.

DISCLAIMER: The information and opinions expressed on this blog are strictly the views of the authors and in no way represents the Peace Corps or the United States Government.

 

Colombia March and Panama April

The original plan was to travel to Peru in March and Bolivia in April. In Ecuador we researched weather and discovered that March for both countries is the (very) rainy season. With that information plus the anticipation of going to Peru for two-plus years this fall with the Peace Corps, we decided to head north from Ecuador to Colombia for a second time and to the Panamanian Caribbean and Pacific coasts for snorkeling/surfing. We crossed north into Colombia in early March.

How do you sell paint in Colombia? Babes, boobs, and booty, how else?

The southern Colombian city of Popayan intrigued us our first time through. As a university town of 450,000 residents, located at 5,000 feet close to mountains and rivers, it boasts a beautiful historical center of white buildings and cobble streets. During our first visit, Read chatted up a man at a local barber shop who runs an NGO, so we arranged a meeting our second time through. According to the man and his business partner, the Cauca state has 60,000 – 70,000 displaced people due to the history of “la violencia”. FARC guerrillas as well as paramilitaries still operate in the mountains and along the Pacific Coast; the territory is also used as a drug running corridor. The partners hope to work with displaced people through their organization “ONG Vida” which provides health and educational programs. The men asked for help locating medical professionals to volunteer in providing health care to displaced people and in securing international funds through foundations or governments. Throughout our journey, we sought out programs that could utilize our skills. This is a future prospect to possibly return to and explore further, once we become more fluent in Spanish.

Grumpy Old Men - Read & his pre-colombian twin

Butterfly camouflage - note the faux eye of a large bird (bottom wing), or the resemblance to a snake head (top tip).

From Popayan we took a bumpy five-hour bus ride through the Central Cordillera to the village of San Agustin. We landed in an eclectic hostel owned by a French-Colombian couple outside of town. We spent mornings swinging in hammocks sipping strong Colombian coffee and afternoons tramping to nearby pre-colombian burial sites to view stone statues and other remnants of past civilizations. The area is stunning ~ green, lush and full of flowers, coffee plantations, fruit, and sugar cane. Read fell in love with the rivers and Arden with the surrounding hillsides. The hostel further provided a welcome respite, spilling over with fruit and flower gardens ~ mixing orchids and lilies with pineapples and papayas. It was also “baby” season; the place was filled with puppies, foals and kittens. Arden thought about stuffing a puppy into her knapsack to take home but when it peed into her hands, she decided otherwise.

Rural Harvest: sugar cane processed into bricks for market

Manizales, Colombia, from the top of the cathedral.

From San Agustin and Popayan, we headed north eight hours north to another university town, Manizales. Plans for hiking in the high “Nevados” or mountains near town were thwarted by the price tag ~ $175 for one day. We instead visited nearby nature reserves and climbed the world’s 7th tallest cathedral, practicing our Spanish with tour guides, feasting on “buenelos” and drinking coffee to our heart’s content. The region is known for its coffee which kept us chatty all day.

The secret behind the great Colombian booty (and then some).

From Manizales we took another circuitous bus ride north north to Medellín.  Bus travel among long distance travelers is a big topic of conversation. Any time you walk into a bus station you’re greeted by a bevy of conductors yelling out destinations and hustling you to buses. For clueless gringos like ourselves it’s great as we haven’t had to figure out the bus station maze. However we’ve also learned to get very specific about what we’re looking for. Being assigned a bus doesn’t necessarily mean you get a seat; being assigned seats doesn’t necessarily mean they’re together. Sometimes your seatmate is a parent and kid(s) who paid for one seat and are trying to squeeze in multiple passengers and packages. Stocky gringos like ourselves are simply too big for many buses; Read has ridden “mini-buses” with his knees jammed into the back of the unfortunate passenger ahead of him or with his legs dangling in the isle. We’ve also ridden buses where the person ahead reclined into our laps; Arden actually rested her book or newspaper on the heads of unsuspecting passengers as there was no place else to put them. Our last bus provided the ultimate stumper: two broken seat backs. We thus rocked back and forth the entire bus ride as the bus motored around corners and hills towards Medellin.  Our NEW recommended stock phrase for taking a bus is: “Queremos (we want) un bus grande (a big bus) o ejecutivo (or plush bus) que va directo (that goes direct) sin pareds (without stops) a (to + name of destination), con asientos juntos (with seats together), no cerca al bano (not close to the bathroom) y que funcíonan bien (and that function well). Tiene buses como eso; cuantas horas para el destinacion, y se puede verlo (Do you have buses like that, how many hours to the destination and can I see it)”.

Gondola from metro to neighborhood on mountainside in Medellín, Colombia.

Medellin boasts about its year-round spring climate and after years of “la violencia” is revitalized and booming. We booked a hostel on-line (beautiful website) and arrived to find it under construction and according to the french owner, “just a little bit dusty”. After Read commented on being disappointed the guy flipped a switch and started yelling to the point Read cut him off in French and told him to calm down. We left the man still ranting to give him a “time out”, headed to the nearest internet cafe, and found a new place five blocks away run by two friendly Colombians. Our new place had a little kitchenette with a supermarket three blocks away. During our travels, we’ve hunted for daily fresh fruits and vegetables with little success. Starches are plentiful; fruits and vegetables are not. Arden on the eternal “freshies” search went on a fruit bender and lugged 15 pounds home which we breakfasted on with cereal for five days. Who would’ve thought we’d be doing back flips over All-Bran and bananas.

Rare anti-U.S. sentiment - college town kids getting angry

Meat market delicacies

In Medellin, Read dragged Arden to the nearby stadium for a soccer game and to a salsa club until two in the morning. Although staying out late is a big deal for Arden, especially in foreign cities, both events were highlights.  Soccer games are passionate to say the least. Apparently one of Medellin’s players scored on his own team in the 1980’s and lost the game. He was killed in the streets the following week. People yell, sing, chant, beat drums and make noise. “Puta” is a favored word and a new one for Arden’s vocabulary. Like the American word “f___”, it can be used in a variety of creative ways that never cease to amaze and inspire. Later, at the club, the dance floor was fantastic people watching including a classy older man with a suit and Panama hat, with a table on the dance floor. We figured out he was the owner with a drop-dead gorgeous date sporting ample curves in a tight, short, red dress that commanded attention. They danced a refined old school salsa with subtle, graceful moves that showcase the woman. A wardrobe malfunction nearly revealed her topside, but he pulled her in, keeping her clothing from dropping further. Another woman with zebra-skin print tight mid-thigh dress, and calf-high fur-topped white leather boots also got up and put on a show. Her partner matched her dancing skills in a fast kicking samba-like beat. The woman’s only challenge was keeping the dress at mid-thigh as the spandex crept up with each move. Every so often she casually included a tug on the hem as part of their routine. The best dancer was the stout bartender/manager, scruffy-faced in work jeans and white cap, who could tear through combo steps steering his partner around with agility and ease, all the while carrying a conversation as if he was sitting at the bar. His rotund torso was always calm and comfortable, his partner smiling with confidence because he led moves clearly with that magic salsa mojo that comes from dancing to the beat for a lifetime. We concluded that our mid-western-American-stomp-to-the-rock-beat upbringing left us so inadequately prepared, with such profound cultural deficits, that we dared not step on to the dance floor for fear of insulting the locals (and we were straight up chicken). We thus gazed wistfully at both the dancers and band for four+ hours.

On a Tuesday night, Read found a hole-in-the-wall salsa club “Cien Fuegos” with a live band that came on at 11:30pm and put on a great show with percussion, piano, and horns. In contrast to the fancy club, this place was rough-and-tumble hard-core speed dancing, with guys throwing elbows to other guys (not to the ladies) to establish very limited turf on the over-crowded dance floor (inches from our table). It was impossible to discern the steps they were following, as the cadence was beyond a sprint, but partners seemed to be in perfect synch, throwing fast spins and foot flutters, grinning and sweating up a storm. It was very competitive, with only the best staying on the floor for more than one song. Again, we deferred.

Yogarden near Capugana, Colombia on the Caribbean.

Arden doing the "Coconut don't kill me" walk

From Medellin we flew in a small plane to Capurgana, a tiny village in the far north of Colombia, that sits on the Caribbean Ocean and the border with Panama. Capurgana was previously off limits for tourists, due to the large FARC (guerrilla) and paramilitary presence in the surrounding Darien Provence. However, with FARC weakened and a large (and largely bored) group of Colombian military in the region, it opened up. Although we arrived in what we thought was the sunny dry season and thus the season to snorkel, it also turned out to be windy season.  Not to be thwarted, we found a small south-facing bay, borrowed masks and kicked our way around the inlet. Days consisted of snorkeling, hiking to town (Arden avoiding walking under coconut trees), and trying not to wilt in the Caribbean heat. We left Capurgana and, sadly, Colombia after four days to hike over the border and continue by boat north through the San Blas Islands of Panama.

The Darien Gapster - transport from Colombia to Panama via Islas San Blas

Arden in the "wet seat" with each wave splashing into the boat

Putting it mildly, the boat trip was an adventure. We showed up with 16 others, all younger than us by 20 years, to camp on the beach the night before we launched. The San Blas are inhabited and governed by the Kuna Yala; neither the Panamanian Police (there is no army) nor government are allowed to operate there. Over 350 Islands make up the archpeligo, most of them uninhabited. We asked about drug running as we figured the Caribbean was a major route and were told if the Kuna find cocaine packages from drug smuggling boats trying to escape detection, they sell the packages back to the traffickers. For them, finding packages is kind of like winning the lottery (bringing in thousands of dollars). We stayed in two Kuna villages including a traditional one in the south in “dorm-style” hammocks, six per room, and a westernized village in the north, in thatched huts. Meals included fried fish, lobster, and potatoes. We snorkeled and marveled at the varied coral and schools of fish (including one small shark). As one woman said, the scenery was like the pictures of desert Islands you drew when you were six.

Dutch kid and his dinner

Kuna girls swarming Arden

The smallest house on the island - Kuna Commode

Higher end accommodations, don't mind the hermit crabs.

After a brief pass-through of Panama City, we arrived in the Panamanian seaside village of Santa Catalina, to surf and snorkel. The area is renowned for its off-shore snorkeling and diving on Isla Coiba, a national treasure. Formerly a prison island, it was inadvertently preserved, and still hosts all sorts of jungle island species including monkeys, crocodiles, snakes and parrots. The snorkeling was spectacular again, only with rich plankton laden waters that are the base of the food chain making visibility a little less than the Caribbean. We lingered off a rocky point at a postage stamp sized island to see all the passers-by, including turtles and schools of large colorful fish. Our boatman said we could see big sharks there, but after 15 minutes we realized that we really didn’t want to see big sharks (duhhhh!). Our astute guide then took us to another dot of an island where we saw a half dozen four-foot white-tipped sharks, mostly passing by just eight feet below us (or one shark doing multiple laps?). It wasn’t until the ride back to the mainland that the guide shared his shark attack story that was the result of having a large bleeding fish on a spear he was unable to reel in.

Twenty-somethings on holiday

Santa Catalina is also home to a world-class surf break (La Punta). Read rented a board daily, but never dared venture beyond the beach break, where a half dozen kids were ripping it up with high flying cut-backs and 360 spins. After breaking one board in half, he figured out that following the little three-foot-tall skinny kid in the surf was more his level, except the kid was a “shredder”. Read’s surfing career as he puts it, consists of swimming around in the waves with a board trying not to make the locals mad. However, the large amount of calories burned justified evening meals in obscure thatched hut “restaurants” serving fresh snapper in everything from coconut curries to fresh pineapple sauces.

Arden at peace after six months of self-imposed exile.

And so ends the Latin part of the adventure, as we pack up and fly back to the states tomorrow. Next leg includes family visits in California, Arizona and Wisconsin, hiking in Escalante, Utah, and returning to Buena Vista in late May. We are a little road weary, with so much to reflect on we can hardly absorb any more. We’ll save the reflective deep thoughts for our last post once we’re near home.

International concern over global petroleum consumption as mural art

Ecuador February 2012

Colonial architecture of Cuenca, Ecuador

Reunited after weeks apart, we spent Carnival in the southern Ecuadorian city of Cuenca. Ecuadorians celebrate the five days of Carnival by dousing each other with water and spray foam. The tradition is a defiant reaction to Spanish and Anglo slave owners who doused slaves to “cool them off”. As gringos, we were fair game. Getting drenched by buckets of water and water balloons hurled from balconies is one thing on the beach but a cold prospect at 8,000 feet. We participated in opening “dousing ceremonies” (all out water fight) at Arden’s Spanish School, sloshed our way back to the hostel, and wore raincoats the rest of Carnival. We sampled the festivites in the nearby hamlet of Chordeleg where we danced to salsa and rock bands resembling Ecuadorian “Backstreet Boys” and were befriended by an Ecuadorian-Colombian couple of medical professionals for the day.

Carnaval festivities including spray foam and flour fights with Ecuadorian-Colombian friends Jorge & Mayra

We also hiked in the high-altitude “paramo” park of Cajas, gasping through eight miles of trail at 12,000+ feet, ogling at alpacas and landscape that resembled the English Lake District.

Having satiated our need for a mountain fix, we left the highlands of Cuenca for the beach. We jumped aboard a van for a hair-raising ride as yet another Mario Andretti driver barreled his way over a 12,000 foot mountain pass and down steep windy roads to sea level, through fog and rain, attempting to pass buses and trucks on blind corners. We spent five days dangling in Canoa, a community of 7,000 which sports a long sandy beach and the perfect beginner surf break. Read continued his quest for “the stoke” while Arden ambled on beach walks and studied Spanish with the Spanish hostel owner. We stuffed ourselves on seafood and simply enjoyed the change of pace from the cooler highlands to the hot tropical grittiness of “la playa”.


After the beach, we wound our way north, up to the cloud forest village of Mindo where we happily indulged in tours of a small-scale chocolate factory (olfactory orgasm), a butterfly farm (Read watched the pupa to butterfly transformation for over an hour), and tracked down local wildlife including toucans and armadillos. We finally landed in the northern Ecuadorian town of Otavalo as our last stop in Ecuador before crossing the border to Colombia. We spent an afternoon learning about condors and other birds of prey at a condor refuge as well as browsed the famous weekly Saturday market which overwhelmed Read in three short hours.

Rescued Condor showing off

Rescued Kestrel Hawk sitting on Read's hand (in glove)

Read not being a morning person was dragged to the early a.m. animal market including screaming piglets, fighting roosters and squealing guinea pigs or “cuys” (a local delicacy) being stuffed into sacks and hauled home. We then pushed our way through the artisan markets of ponchos, scarves, rugs and paintings. Thankfully we’ve still got a couple more months of traveling and full backpacks so buying anything is out of the question although multiple vendors tried to convince us otherwise.

"Cuy" or Guinea Pigs at market, soon to be someone's dinner

All dressed up and nowhere to go - street food in Otavalo

One of our favorite Ecuadorian experiences is what another gringo calls “getting Ecuied”. Standing in line, or even talking to a salesperson at a counter, a local will cut in and start talking directly to the salesperson, who will then transact with them as if we weren’t there, and get back to us once everyone else has been dealt with. Our limited Spanish keeps us from effectively defending ourselves, as we get “Ecuied” again and again. You can’t help but laugh; it’s all part of the fun of being an “extranjero”.

Arden's Addiction = Buñuelos (hot deep fried super sized donut holes with cheesy center) are all-too-available in every town

We’ve spent about nine weeks in Ecuador, Read kayaking, Arden attending Spanish school, and visiting places ranging in diversity from beaches to high-altitude grasslands to tropical jungle rivers. We are both impressed with Ecuador’s biological diversity as well as intrigued by the election and support of a self-proclaimed “socialist-leaning” president who has survived near-coups and a bashing by the U.S. press. We hope President Correa continues to implement social programs that benefit the majority of people as well as the environment. We will be interested to see how his presidency plays out in upcoming years, as he is one of several controversial leftist leaders in Latin America. Ecuador is also one of three South American countries including Bolivia and Peru that supports a sizable indigenous population. Women proudly wear traditional dress, and men sport long pony tails, carrying themselves with a confidence that invites respect. This was in contrast to Colombia where the indigenous community is not very apparent. We barely scratched the surface in learning about indigenous communities and are excited to glean more. As with other countries we’ve visited, we hope to be back one day soon.

Spices at market

We’ve completed five months of travel and are feeling a little weariness. Though we have the routine down (wake, coffee, bus, big meal, hostel, four days of playing tourist, repeat) we find ourselves looking at each place and asking, “Could we anchor down and live here for a while?” Whatever the future may bring, we definitely are looking forward to living in Latin America. Until then, we eagerly anticipate more adventures in the weeks ahead including snorkeling!

Ecuador January 2012

Ecuador opened up a new chapter of our travels. After New Year’s in Colombia, and the burning of the effigy of 2011 (stuffed with personal notes and firecrackers, then doused with gasoline), we boarded an early-morning bus heading south, arriving in Quito after midnight 18 hours later. Our precariously-perched bus wound its way through the Andes over deep river gorges on a road punctuated by landslide damage. This has become the norm, though it hasn’t deterred the drivers from going for speed and passing records. To their credit, they are meticulously on time. We’ve only witnessed one scrape-up, when a car sideswiped the bus, then quickly took off. The bus chased him through town for a good 10 minutes with passengers screaming and cheering him on, before relenting.

Side hike on a jungle creek

We split up in Quito; Arden studied Spanish and lived with a family while Read headed east to join his kayaking kindred spirits. We reunited in Popayactu, a hot-springs resort town at 10,000 feet, enjoying a “mini-moon” of soaking and good food. Arden headed back to Quito while Read shacked up in the amazonian-warm town of Tena at a kayakers hostel, boating with Quebecois, Germans, Thais, Ecuadorians, Americans, Aussies, Norwegians, Swedes, Brits, Poles, Russians, etc.

Take-out refreshments and taxi truck

Rains come and go, with rivers surging then dropping off. Hitting the right stretch at just the right water level is a bit of a guess. The Rio Piatua was a warm friendly jungle toodle the first time, and high water freight train the next (no photos available). After paddling the first 100 yards of the uppermost stretch, a side creek dumped in twice-again the volume, only muddier. The intrepid kayakers fled back to the taxi-truck, and drove down to lower put-ins, looking for a section that was more open and less steep. Deciding that the take-out for the typical run was the best spot to put-in (“this will be mellow”), they dropped into a busy section filled with holes, eddies, and fun. A kayaking maneuver called “boofing” was the key to skirting the bad stuff. When one boater missed his boof, he went for a long ride in a hole until swimming to shore. His boat kept going, only a couple hundred yards down river, but out of sight. Thinking he had to hike to the road, he chose to head straight into the jungle where he disappeared from sight for some time. What he didn’t know was that his boat stopped at a bridge and road just downstream. When he eventually emerged from the wet green depths, and realized his folly, he commented, “Jungle ain’t easy on a Utah boy.”

Swinging footbridges are the only access for remote farmers

Shin-deep mud on put-in hikes was scarier than the rapids

One of countless waterfalls coming into river

Arden met up with her mom in Quito for three weeks of travel. They froze their fannies off in a beautiful remote section of the central highlands called the Quilotoa Loop as well as at the cheese and chocolate-making community cooperative of Salinas that sits at a whopping 11,000 feet. Arden’s 73-year old mom was a great sport including braving snarling dogs, sleeping in her long underwear (“I left central heating for this”), arriving in rooms that made one’s eyes water (think 1970’s wallpaper and bedspreads), and travelling long distances on standing-room only buses. The two finally landed in Cuenca, a city of 450,000 in the southern mountains which was voted the number one gringo retirement haven for 2010 & 11. They spent the next twelve days trying not to doze through joint Spanish classes, visiting museums and nearby parks & pueblos, enjoying free classical music concerts and packing on a post-Christmas five pounds while eating their way through Cuenca’s renowned “fusion” cuisine.

Granadillas ~ good for the tummy

We will spend a couple more weeks in Ecuador before heading north through the eastern cordiella of Colombia and up the Caribbean coast, to enjoy beach and snorkeling time. Future plans include spending the summer in the Arkansas Valley before possibly heading south to Peru for the fall.

Pet two-toed sloth who lives in a popular italian restaurant in Tena

And for those of you who care to follow Read’s socio-political diatribe, click here.