The Northern Coast

The Northern Coast
The Northern Coast--photo by Zack Thieman

Thursday, May 31, 2012


"The constant creeping of ants will wear away the stone." –unknown

"Be thine enemy an ant, see in him an elephant." 
-Turkish Proverb

My last day in Corvallis before leaving for D.C. for staging was a stress-ridden marathon of chores. Imagine all of the “last minute” things you might be running around to do as you prepare to leave home for awhile--and then imagine for two years.

One thing I made sure to do was pick up a muffin for breakfast the next morning. Not just any muffin—a lemon poppy seed muffin from the gluten-free bakery downtown. In all of the billions of things I had to do, I had the foresight that this may very well be the last chance I had to get a good gf muffin. Also, we had to leave early in the morning in order to get to Portland in time and say my goodbyes to family. It simply was the best “on-the-go” breakfast I could think of as my last send-off from the fair city.

After a tireless night of Justin and I packing, weighing, and re-packing my entire luggage, and also partaking in our “last supper” together (filet mignon with steamed asparagus and baby red potatoes in butter and basil) we woke up terribly early and packed the last items into the car. I came back into the house to grab the muffin and before I even reached the kitchen I heard Justin’s voice,
“Oh no…”

It didn’t sound good.

Justin held up my muffin and it was completely covered in ants. Swallowed by them, really.

“Oh no!” I echoed Justin. I gasped as I watched him drop the muffin into the trash.

“It’s absolutely covered. I’m sorry,” he said like a TV doctor delivering terrible news.

It was too early to get another gf muffin, and we had to go. I had to figure something else out, and forget about the muffin.

That muffin haunts me. If I could go back in time, I would eat the muffin regardless of its condition. I would’ve wiped those damn ants away and eaten it with it’s pockmarked exterior and possible stragglers.

If only I knew what lie ahead. If only I could glimpse the person I would become, then I would never have let those ants conquer my last simple breakfast convenience that I can no longer enjoy.

Cause lets face it—my life is surrounded by ants.

From my first days in site I have had to come to terms with the overwhelming number of ants. They climb the walls, sneak up on the tables, crawl along the furniture—they are everywhere. While standing in the kitchen fixing breakfast, I have to withstand the tickling, itching torture that is ants crawling all over my feet. For a couple weeks I worried that I had lice because I suddenly had an extremely itchy scalp that drove me mad. When told how to check for lice, I took a fine-tooth comb and brushed my hair hard over a white piece of paper. Ants came out. Even after I had showered and washed them away, I had sat on the same chair where they crawled right back up in my hair unbeknownst to me. Now I know.

If my skin itches, feeling as though it’s crawling with ants, it probably is. If I drink a cup of water and leave the cup on my desk, within hours my desk is covered and the glass is full--of ants, that is.

I have had ants. In. My. Pants.

The ants that rule my house are not the ants I’m used to from home. They are really small, and so light brown they are almost translucent. They get caught in my arm hairs, they crawl in the cracks of my computer, and sometimes I can’t see them traveling along the walls unless they are in packs. And by that point, it’s already too late.

At first I tried fighting them, cleaning the walls where they made their usual journey, constantly wiping down my desk. But I soon found out it was an uphill battle. Ants are in every room of my house. So I let them walk their little path around my desk and try to keep away any temptations to make them crawl around in my paperwork. Sometimes I’m forgetful though. I once left a piece of homemade gf carrot cake on my desk, took a nap, and upon waking sleepily took a big bite out of it only to discover I had eaten at least 20 ants (judging by the amount of ants on the rest of the cake and crawling on my hand). At other times I have shown up to lunch late, only to find my food and plate covered by ants. My host mom’s solution? Put it in the microwave (yes, I have a microwave) and heat it up for 30 seconds or so. This is the most bizarre fix, as I have no idea where the ants go. Do they die in my food? Do they run away? Do they combust?

My point being, if I lived as I did back in the U.S.-- discarding food just because it had ants crawling on it--then I would not get a lot to eat. Or drink. But, hindsight is 20/20.
I wonder whose FMPCL (F My Peace Corps Life) post this could be? I wonder...

The ants and I don’t have the most harmonious relationship, but I feel I understand them better, and I more or less let them roam as they may. However, I know their little trek they continuously crawl around my desk enough that when they divert from it, I know something is up.

Just a couple days ago I was sitting at my desk when I leaned against the wall next to me and realized I was getting a lot of ants on me. When I sat back up straight I saw I had leaned right into a path of ants. I thought it was strange, as they usually don’t crawl along in that direction, but I didn’t do anything about it.

An hour later, I noticed the line of ants crawling this new path had increased in number.

“This can’t be good,” I thought, but when looking along the wall further on it became harder to find the line (remember, they’re little guys) so I let it go.

Finally the end of the night had come and the path of ants was continuing on strong and they were practically sprinting, their determination obvious in their frantic gate. Once again, not being able to find their destination, I made myself not think of it and ignored the ominous sign that I was about to run into trouble somewhere in my room.

The day before I had gotten back in the afternoon from a weekend in my regional capital, where I had gone to a regional meeting and spent time with volunteer friends celebrating my birthday. So in my laziness upon returning quite a few things were scattered around my room and on the floor.

I have a small pad and blanket in the corner of my room that I sit on to read or practice guitar, or just use as a laundry pile. I started putting clothes and other things away that I had dumped out of my backpack, when I got to the bottom of the pile and…

…I found the ants.

I have a drawstring bag that I use when I’m walking around town and I had accidentally left a banana in it, and then absentmindedly thrown it on my pad along with my clothes.

There were enough ants on top of the bag that I could’ve dumped them in a cereal bowl and filled it.

So, as calmly as I could, I picked up the bag (level, so as to not spill the ants) so I could dispose of the ants in the sink and then wash off the bag. Once I lifted up the bag I discovered just as many ants, if not more, on top of a plastic bag that had thankfully been underneath.

So, after drowning a ton of ants, I came back to my room, found another plastic bag, and shoved everything shrouded with ants into it (along with the banana). I tied the bag tight and threw it away, hoping if they found a way out they would at least be far away from me.

I shook out the blanket, wiped down the walls, and called it good. Within a couple hours the ants stopped their trek along that part of the wall, as they had come to find there were no tasty treats at the end of their journey.

And still today, order has returned to Amanda’s room and the ant kingdom.

For now.

In the mean time, I lament the forsaken muffin, thrown away for terrible reasons. In the very least, I can say I have grown as a person to no longer take for granted those things that were once so easy to come by, but now are impossible to reach. Especially because of an ant (or 100).

I'll now leave you with a long video made by my "site mate" Zack at Early In Service Training, demonstrating the power of ants. You don't have to watch all 8 minutes of us sounding like huge dorks and my incessant use of the word "like" (thus proving I best express myself in writing and can sound downright dumb when speaking) did take me hours to upload, so at least give it a peek. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

Cambios de hábitos

I have been getting really sentimental and nostalgic these past weeks, because not only am I approaching the year mark, but also my birthday is on Monday! I have always felt like birthdays are an individual’s true New Year, and I like taking time to reflect on where my past year on this earth has brought me. (ppssssstt!'s been intense, in a good way.)

There are the big, obvious, “I moved to South America,” type of changes. But there are also everyday routines and habits that I hardly think about, and many of mine have changed quite a bit. I wouldn’t so much call them “lifestyle changes” as “reality changes.” A lifestyle change is choosing to become a vegetarian. A reality change is no longer having access to meat. I realize that some changes were so natural and fast due to where I am that I probably haven’t even considered recounting them to people back home.

So, in case I forgot to mention, here’s a list of random things I do that I never used to (or visa versa), but are now part of my average everyday life.  

1.    I buy bottled water
In the U.S. I only bought bottled water if I was caught away from home without my Nalgene bottle. I always brought a reusable bottle with me wherever I went and filled up wherever I could-- if that meant filling up on water in a gas station bathroom, so be it. However, tap water isn’t safe to drink here, so I have to plan well ahead of time by boiling water and then putting it in a clean container to cool down. And, well, I get thirsty. So I buy bottled water. Which leads into another problem…

2. I don’t recycle….YET!
I recycled at home, I recycled at work, I even recycled at restaurants (yeah, Oregon is pretty awesome like that). Recycling everything became second nature for me. I sometimes got so anal about it I would dig through the trash to see what my roommates had unknowingly thrown away. While some parts of Peru offer recycling, it is not very well distributed or practiced. It always makes me sad to throw recyclables in the trash, but most of the time I’m just happy there is one since there are insurmountable amounts of trash in the streets. (Worse yet, all trash is burned. We’re all getting cancer.) I have been collecting all of my recyclables in my room in a cardboard box. The box is overflowing. I’ve heard of some places that accept recycling. Some day I will make a trek there and recycle all of those damn bottles I’ve bought!

3. I shower more often.
I know…right? I think I may be the only Peace Corps volunteer in Peru (the world?) who showers more during their service than they did back home. They’re cold showers, but I’m lucky to have a shower at all. But, what can I say? You can’t train for a half-marathon and live in the heat of the coastal desert without showering almost everyday (God wiling there’s water, of course).

4. I don’t wear makeup.

But, I have started using eye-wrinkle cream.

5. I drink soda—a lot of soda.
I would be lying if I said I never drank soda in the U.S., but when I did it was like a special treat—buying in Izze, San Pellegrino, or traditional root beer. Now, whether it’s a meeting at the municipality, a lunch at grandma’s, or stopping by to say “hi” to a friend, I’m offered a cup of soda. And you don’t turn down things that are offered to you. You drink the soda. And I’m now addicted again, like a skinny high schooler without a care... *sigh*

6. I have bizarre bathroom habits [Warning! TMI ahead!]
Even if I’m in good health, every time I go to the bathroom I check the toilet for worms after I do my business.

Oh, and if I haven’t told you this yet, toilet paper goes in the trash. The piping can’t handle TP intake without clogging. That’s going to be a hard habit to break when I get home. Also, almost all public bathrooms are BYOTP.

7. I hardly eat any dairy.
I love milk products. I was lactose intolerant for a year and a half in college, and it was pure torture. I’m gluten-free now (can’t eat anything with wheat, rye, or barley) and for me it is “easier” to be gluten-free than dairy-free. However, dairy is hard to come by in certain parts of Peru. Why? Well, think about how much space, money, and work it takes to raise a single cow. Cows are a sign of wealth. My host family buys about a liter of milk every few days from a family friend who has a cow. Otherwise if we want dairy we have to buy canned evaporated milk, drinkable yogurt that has more sugar than soda, or small amounts of cheese. (I usually opt for none of the above, and go for ice cream bars).

I only know of one place in my regional capital that has milkshakes.
I never use butter for anything.
It’s a tragedy.

8. I hardly drink alcohol.
I was no boozehound back in the U.S., but I did love a good cabernet sauvignon. I can’t drink beer, and that is of course the #1 beverage here. The wine tastes like grape juice. Decent wine is too expensive. But more importantly, it’s not as acceptable for women to drink as it is for men. Guy volunteers get pressured into drinking all the time—in fact, their integration almost depends on it. I, on the other hand, have little to no pressure to drink and my reputation is better for it. I’ll occasionally have a round with other volunteers in the capital city, but that’s once a month.

9. I use a knife, fork, spoon, and my fingers to eat.
Gone are the days of politely sticking food with a fork while cutting it into small, chewable bites. All you really need in this world is a spoon and your hands. Rice=spoon. Soup=spoon. Lentils=spoon. Egg=spoon. Meat=fingers. It’s that simple. Freeing, really. And say you get a little overzealous and all of the rice doesn't make it into your mouth? Well that's okay. It happens to the best of us.

10. I let spiders live.
In every crack and corner of my room, there are at least 3 to 4 spiders living there. Not exaggerating. I used to clear them away, but now I just leave them. I figure they set up shop there for a reason. There are a ton of bugs in my room, and I might as well let them do their job.

And one more thing…

11. I eat goat, and the occasional guinea pig.
 Ya know…that’s a pretty big change.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Happy Medium

So, I think I’m finally getting a hang of this whole Peace Corps thing.

Good timing, since in a mere 2 1/2 weeks I will have been in Peru for a whole year! So many new phases in the Peace Corps cycle are beginning and ending. The Peru 19ers are almost here, the 15ers are getting ready to leave, and I am feeling like I’ve finally settled in and found a happy medium.

I finally had that “Aha!” moment about what are reasonable expectations for my site. I’ve felt incompetent, guilty for down time, overwhelmed with projects I didn’t care about that I used to fill my time, angry, lonely, misunderstood, and worthless—and all of those feelings were my reflections on what I thought my Peace Corps time should be, which I was failing miserably to achieve. 

And that was the problem; I had unreasonable expectations for myself, my town, and my counterparts, and I felt guilty for not meeting those expectations.

I'm done comparing myself to other volunteers (I never should've done that to begin with, but it's really hard not to), I'm done feeling guilty for no good reason, and I'm done feeling like I'm not doing enough-- quality over quantity, my friends.

There's no point in hitting my head against the wall.

I’m lucky. I’ve found good counterparts interested in similar projects as me, and I’m getting a feel for the give and take required to get things done. It may go at a snails pace, but that's okay. It's a process.

Of course, these feelings of acceptance and understanding of my time here in Peru have followed what I consider a bit of a success in my town.

My town’s anniversary was on May 10th (well, actually it was the 35th anniversary of the reinstatement of the town as the county seat, after it had been reconstructed from the rubble it was reduced to by a flash flood that wiped out almost the entire town. But that’s another story) and Peru likes to party. I mean, “Lets-take-a-4-day-weekend-and-hire-a-band-because-Valentine’s-Day-lands-on-a-Tuesday,” kind of partying. So, being as it was our anniversary, we celebrated for two-weeks straight; daily events, activities, competitions, music, dancing, fireworks, beauty pageants, etc.

This is where I got lucky. See, back in the summer I was playing with the idea of having a small run/walk race in my town. My host dad, however, suggested I make it a bike ride, or a bicicletada.
“Not a competition, though,” he said. “Just participation, otherwise no one will do it.”

“Or people will kill each other trying to win,” my host brother added.

So, they were proposing a non-competitive biking event where no one “wins” but everyone gets a shirt and the chance to win a prize if they complete the whole thing. Different, but they know best what Peruvians like.

So I just started talking about the idea with random people in town. And those people talked to other people about it. And then one day I was walking down the street and the mayor himself stopped me and said, “So, I hear you want to have a bicicletada?”

And I said, “Yeah, I do. Wouldn’t it be great if we did it for our town anniversary?

And he said, “Yes! That’s a great idea!”

And the next thing I know, I’m on the committee to organize events for the town anniversary, and I’m in charge of the town’s first ever bicicletada.

I’m not going to go into full detail of the ridiculousness of planning this event within the three-week span of time they gave me to get everything done, but it was a really big eye-opener for me. I was working with these men who, being machismo men, wanted things their way and weren’t listening much to my suggestions at all—the person who brought the idea to them in the first place. And then my job just became the person who showed up everyday to be like, “Did you do this? Did you order this? Did you talk to so and so about such and such?” and it was frustrating, but after talking to my PCVL I finally realized how lucky I was for this to be my “problem”.  Is my worst problem really that they want too much involvement?

Of course there were still moments when I thought the whole thing was just going to fall apart and I would be the one with egg on my face, because regardless of the control the men at the municipality were taking, they weren’t always thorough, and I was still listed as in charge.

So, day of the bicicletada came. I hadn’t seen a single t-shirt, even though we had talked about ordering them for weeks. I had about 30 kids signed up but had no idea if any of them would show up. I had talked to the police station, the volunteer firefighters, and the health post and they had all agreed to help. All I had to do was wait for everyone to show up. 

So I sat in the park.



For a long time.

Doesn’t matter if I’m running a youth group, an activity with the community, or meeting with authorities-- those first moments (or hours) waiting to see if anyone shows up are torture.

People slowly started showing up, and soon we had nine kids with their bikes, workers from the municipality, the high school P.E. teacher, policemen, and the ambulance all ready to go. And, what do you know, some pretty nice t-shirts! Nine kids aren’t exactly close to the 30 who signed up, but I could’ve kissed every single one of those nine kids, I was so happy anyone showed up at all!

It was really exciting! The ambulance did a circle around town announcing the start of our first ever bicicletada, the police turned on their sirens, and everyone came out to see what the commotion was about.

The police truck led us on our set route (part of the ride was on a major highway) and the ambulance filled with water and municipality workers followed, along with random community members on their motorcycles who wanted to come with us.

Our route was about 26K, and the kids were champs. We stopped often for water, as we were riding out through the desert, and some kids had bike troubles, but it went fairly smoothly.

I was very worried that something might happen to one of the kids, as none of them own helmets, but we only had one casualty—a kid who rode down a hill with his hands in the air. He was incredibly lucky and only had scraped elbows, but ironically enough no one in the back of the ambulance knew first aid, so he had to wait until the whole ride was finished to get fixed up.

When we made it back to the plaza, the kids received their refrigerio (snack) and we were waiting to start the prize raffle when the municipality announced that all nine participants would receive prizes.

My first two participants to arrive and get their shirts and numbers. These two girls are 11 years old, and they rocked it!

Everyone lining up and getting ready to start

The ambulance, announcing the commencement of our town's first ever bicicletada

Riding through the streets and getting ready to head out of town

Midway-point rest stop. A muni worker and my counterpart's daughter are handing out water.

The midway point--a little over 13K

The gang and our helpers. We are so tough!

The ride home. I wasn't kidding when I said I live in the desert.

Look Peace Corps Office! I'm wearing my PC regulated helmet!

All finished up. The gang minus-one (the kid who scraped up his elbows). A lot of surprise helpers came out and supported us, including my friend's dad with his bike pump (front row, to the right).

Coach (the PE teacher) leading us in a cheer post-bicicletada
The bicicletada helped solidify my relationships with the municipality, as well as in the community, and I still have kids coming up to me filled with regret that they didn’t show up, begging me to plan another one.

The whole experience was great; frustrating and stressful at times, but still great. Not to mention, the amount of community support that was shown was uplifting. There was so much positive feedback about it I can almost guarantee there will be another one next year, if not sooner.

Like I said, I think I’m getting a hang of this Peace Corps thing.

Monday, May 21, 2012

We met our goal!

Man, I'm sorry I didn't get on here sooner to say:

We have MET our Camp VALOR donation goal! Thank you all so much! I haven't seen a list of people who donated, but I know more or less who from my family donated. Also, I was told that someone who listed themselves as an "avid reader" of my blog donated as well! I am honored and so happy that my blog has reached those outside of my circle.

All of you have helped make a difference in our communities by donating! The boys are going to have a great time and I'm really excited to see how Camp VALOR goes after how great Camp ALMA was. Also, stay tuned to see the bad-ass t-shirts I helped design!

I've been meaning to write another blog about all of the fun stuff that's been going on in site, but, I guess time flies when you're having fun, so I've been a little delayed on post. Just know things are going great, my projects are picking up, and I'm feeling very good about where I'm at right now. Sure, things are still stop and go and herky jerky here and there, but overall, I am okay. It appears as if the roller coaster has smoothed out a bit.

More to come! In the meantime, be well and eat something tasty for me.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

El Barbón volverá

Justin officially bought his tickets to return to Perú and run the Pacasmayo Half-Marathon with me on July 1st!

I will have been in Perú just over one year when he arrives and it will be his second visit! I never expected to be so lucky.

In case you're wondering about the "barba" part of this equation (his beard), it is in fact still on his face, and longer than ever. Literally, the longest it has ever been.

A picture of Justin in Missoula, Montana this April at his last collegiate logging sports event.
And yes, that is in fact an award of Moose Drool beer for his beard.

My host dad is sharpening his scissors in anticipation.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

You're gonna poop in a hole

Some volunteer friends were passing this around on Facebook and I cried I laughed so hard. Granted, I only have to poop in a hole when I'm away from my host family's house (my house has a toilet) but I love that there are so many "universal truths" about being in Peace Corps. This song is SPOT ON.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Nido Vacío (Empty Nest)

Growing up I can’t remember many quiet moments in our household. With four kids, how can there be a quiet moment? And I can't remember it ever bothering me. Aside from my teen years when I started spending more time in my room, I hardly enjoyed being alone. I'd rather spend time around other people, even if I was doing my own thing. Then as time went on and we got older there was less noise in the house, and also just less of us. One by one my older brothers finished high school and went on to college and by the time I reached my junior year of high school I was the only kid at home. The last to leave the nest.

When I came to Peru and joined my new host family I automatically switched roles, going from the youngest in a family with four kids, to now the oldest with three-younger host siblings.

Until summer hit in January, there were few moments when we were all in the house at the same time. But when my host brother came home from college for the summer, and my youngest host sister finished high school, there suddenly came a time when all of us were under the same roof—my host parents, my host sister and her 2-year-old daughter (and occasionally her boyfriend), my host brother and youngest host sister, and then me. Eight of us all under one roof, sharing one bathroom (with days where the water would go out) and all of us sharing the same computer and internet.

During this time I almost lost my mind.

In our culture we often take for granted our privacy and alone time. Many of us grow up with our own rooms, move out at 18 and begin the process of building our own lives and ideas of how we want our lives and living spaces to be. In Peru (and in most of the world) kids don’t leave the house until they have to or until they get married (and that doesn’t guarantee they’ll leave the house). Also, multiple people will share a room, even a bed.

While I didn’t spend many years in college living alone, I was still accustomed to a certain amount of personal space, time, and above all, silence. I still continued to enjoy the company of others even if I wasn't interacting completely with them, but we all needed our own time and personal space.

 Lucky as I am to be the only one in my house to have their own room, it does not promise me an escape. The sound levels in my house can make me feel frantic and crazy. In a summer afternoon sitting in my bedroom I could more than perfectly hear the TV, music blasting from the stereo, two-separate TV’s with gunshots coming from the speakers and boys hollering at each other as they played Play Station games (remember? My house was the local arcade) and more often than not, the baby screaming and crying.

Add the heat on top of that, and there was very little keeping me sane. There was just no “happy place” to escape to.

But as time went on things got quieter. My youngest host sister moved in with our uncle in the regional capital to attend classes to help with the entrance exams required get into college. My other host sister moved out and got her own place (which was, and still is, a sore issue for my host parents) and took the Play Stations with her. For a short while a host aunt moved in, and her voice more than made up for the lack of noise coming from my host siblings, but that was very temporary. And then a few weeks ago my host brother went back college. And now here I am in a quiet household, just me and my host mom and dad. I’ve become the last kid in the house, again.

It’s quiet. And kind of weird.

This morning I woke up and the house was completely silent. Normally the TV gets turned on at 6 a.m. and left on until mid morning.

I went into the kitchen, made my coffee and breakfast and sat alone at the table. The only sounds I heard were from cars passing outside and the fruit lady calling on her megaphone. I actually felt the urge to turn some music on.

In the past when I woke up earlier (or later) than everyone and had free reign of the kitchen without the TV blasting, it was a rare and welcome moment of peace. Now it just feels…empty. There’s a difference between the silence of respite and the silence of absence.

My host dad came into the house after running some morning errands and walked by my bedroom just as I was walking out and I scared the crap out of him.

“It’s just so quiet in here,” he said, clutching his chest.

“All of the kids are gone,” he continued. “No more noise, no more distractions…you always want peace, but then when they’re gone you miss it, don’t you?”

He looked genuinely sad.

This house that at times felt like it was going to burst at the seams now feels empty.  No one even sleeps upstairs anymore; all of the beds were moved downstairs. Even my host mom’s personal arts and crafts hobby area was moved downstairs. No one wants to be up there alone.

I’m not completely without host siblings. My host sister brings la bebita over every other day to come see her grandparents and my other host sister and host brother will be coming home on weekends.

I know I’m no replacement for their real kids, but I like to think I’m helping with the transition of the empty nest. I’m trying to spend more time hanging out in common areas even if we’re all working on different things. I sit and watch TV shows I hate because it lets them know I like spending time with them.

Somehow the transition my host family is going through allows me to feel more like a part of the family. I’m not just an outsider looking in; the change affects all of us. We all miss the things that drove us crazy and at the same time reminded us we weren’t alone.