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Yeah, yeah, yeah…and I’ll never be the same again.

Time August 9th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

One month ago I boarded a plane headed for Bogotá, then another to JFK. I landed at 5:30AM, hailed a taxi and went to my friend’s apartment in Brooklyn where I would crash for the next few days. The next day I went to work, and once 5PM rolled around I went apartment hunting.

Life hasn’t slowed down since. I bought a bike to save money on subway rides, and I’m riding an hour to and from work five days a week. When I’m not biking or working, I’m often going to Latin music events with Claudia or seeing friends from college who I’ve missed for the past six months.

Things were a bit strange at first. My second night back in the city, I went to a party in the Lower East Side with one of my best friends, and I was taken aback when nobody greeted us as we walked in the door. For the past six months, I’ve received a handshake or a besito every time I entered a room, and I felt slighted when these people didn’t even nod their heads to acknowledge our arrival. I realized I was the awkward one, though, as I said goodbye to “the guys” at the end of the night and shook each of their hands, telling them to take care and that I hoped to see them soon. Their handshakes were weak, as though they weren’t sure why me leaving a party called for such a formality.

Perhaps these greetings aren’t necessary, but they are something I hope to continue doing now that I’m back in the States. To me, it’s a polite gesture to take five seconds to shake somebody’s hand or kiss somebody on the cheek, a way that we can pause the day for just a moment and let somebody important in our lives know that we care about her or him.

As a good friend of mine pointed out, one of the amazing things about studying abroad is that it gives you a chance to remake your life and see what aspects of it you want to keep the same and what you might like to change.

Another aspect of Peruvian life that I hoped to hold on to was the freedom to stop at any point in the day, sit down on the grass with a friend, and talk for hours as though neither of us had any responsibilities pending. But I haven’t had any of those spontaneous hangout sessions; I haven’t even made time to schedule more than two hangouts with my best friend, and now he’s out of the city and in Beirut.

What’s frightening is how easy it is to fall into a different routine once you’ve left the country, how easily these ideas slip out of the mind and life becomes, more or less, what it was before I went to Peru.

There are some differences, but now I find myself without a moment to pause and think about how I’m living now and if it is what I wanted for myself as I was leaving Peru. This is the first time I’ve sat down to write in the last month. And, while I’m having fun, and quickly readjusting to life back in the States, I feel that I’m failing to make a “good” transition.

Back at the party, or at work, or on the streets, life still feels weird. Spanish words sometimes slip out of my mouth, and it’s the first language I want to speak when I’m on the street before I realize that, even in New York, English is the default language. It’s strange to pay for the bus with an electronic card as you get on the bus – I still expect the cobrador to approach me and demand a higher rate than s/he should. It’s nice not to be stared at all the time, but it’s jarring when you realize that you became accustomed to staring at people, too. Life here is surreal. But that’s part of the transition, and its one of the gifts a semester abroad has left me. It’s a constant reminder that my reality isn’t the only reality, that there are billions of people out there eating, talking, and living in ways similar to yet different from my ways of being.  Including the people in my own backyard for whom I need to make more time. Starting now.

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Money Makes the World Go Round…and Charlie Goes Home Early

Time August 1st, 2011 in College Study Abroad | 1 Comment by

(The following post was written one month ago.)

In winding down this blog (this is the penultimate post), I must note how much money has affected my trip, from the moment I stepped foot in Peru to the moment in which I will leave, a moment rapidly approaching. As you’ll remember from my previous posts, my plans to travel through Colombia and Ecuador were cut short due to an unexpected change in my financial aid package. Well, another surprise, courtesy of Columbia University, has also cut short my plans to stay in Peru.

My hope had been to stay in Peru for all of July and August in Cusco, where I was to work with Sierra Productiva. SP is a Peruvian NGO that works to develop the Peruvian economy in an almost novel way. They draw their inspiration from the pre-Spanish Incan economy, and seek a Peru that is rich for what grows out of its soil and not what can be extracted from beneath it. In a country that has promised riches for its poorest from extraction of the gold, silver and other minerals that comprise 80% of the country’s GDP, Sierra Productiva has a different vision of the future from that of Lima, the central government and the corporations that control the majority country’s economy. It’s a concept of development that falls outside of the neoliberal politics that have affected so-called “third world” countries for the past thirty years, and it’s an organization that I would have loved to have worked with and learned from. Unfortunately, Columbia denied my application for funding during the internship I secured, and so here I find myself not leaving Peru at the end of August as per my plan, but at the end of June, two weeks before my program begins. Why? Because I’m broke, and I have to start working, now. My flight leaves on the 29th, lands on the 30th, and on the 1st I start work.

What does it feel like to be leaving so early, to be the first of the group to leave? Well, here continues the theme of money. Allow me to preface this by saying that many students in my program had wonderful host families, host families that treated these gringos and gringas as if they were their own children. I envied them.

Three weeks into the program my host mother admitted to me that they only host students because of the money they bring in. So the family treated me like a guest in a third-rate hotel chain. In the morning, they answered my greetings of “Good morning! How are you? How did you sleep?” with a mumbled, “hello.” If I returned home at 7pm, they would eat dinner at 6:30. And when the doctor told me to stay off my injured foot for two days, they wouldn’t even walk to the pharmacy to fill my prescription.

I was happy to leave my family, and disappointed that the situation would lend itself to that feeling. Saying goodbye to them at the airport wasn’t like saying goodbye to Claudia or her family or my family – instead of the tears I had before, this goodbye was filled with smiles and thoughts of “freedom!”

(Side note: My host mother told me she was looking into other study abroad programs to see if she could host a second student, because IFSA only permits a family to host one student. The housing director knows and will not be sending students to this family’s house anymore; thus, future IFSA students need not worry about getting the same bad luck I had.)

Money issues aside, not all goodbyes were so lovely. The night before my flight left, my friends took me out to a bar to toast to my safe flight and to say, “see you later.” There I had to hold back the tears, as I wasn’t sure when “later” would be. The night ended at Tumbao VIP, a salsa club I had wanted to go to since Day One of my trip in Peru – and we danced until I had to go home and pack for my flight. It was one of the most fun nights I had in Peru, and made the saying goodbye to my friends that much easier.

As the night was getting started, a friend of mine from IFSA said that it’s a lot better to leave too early rather than too late, and I can’t agree more. Most would agree that eventually you have to return home from trips like these, and while I loved Lima and my friends at La Católica, I am also ready to return to the United States. I want to see my friends and family, and eat leafy greens from the farmer’s market. Once in the States, I’m sure I will miss my friends – some of who were like family to me – in Peru. But for now I need to go back, before I miss my home too much, and before I go completely broke.

One thing is for sure: I will be going back, as soon as I have the money to return. I put some roots down in this country, so I have no choice but to return to my roots when the time comes.

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Los Divos Model

Time June 27th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I’m not a model. I don’t model. But for free clothes I’d do about anything.

Olivia, another IFSA student, has within her host family an aunt who works in publicity and marketing, and last week she was looking for “models” to show off some clothing from the Italian/Peruvian company Ritzy Italy. Olivia introduced this aunt, Rocia, to the three IFSA boys (aka los divos famosos del quinto piso), and she said she would take us all. We went to Rocia’s house, part of a military compound south of Lima, tried on clothes, and Friday morning we were off to the TV station.

So it was that at about 10 AM Friday morning, Oscar, Juan and I were crammed together behind the stage of “Hola a Todos” in a hallway that measured two feet wide by six feet deep, along with two other models and three assistants (including Olivia), all of us loaded in before being launched out onto the catwalk.

Because there were only five models and eight outfits, three of us had to change clothes mid-show. There we were, seven people with no wiggle room, and I had to strip down to my boxers because my second outfit required a change of everything, even shoes. In less than a minute.

Then, if I hadn’t already embarrassed myself enough with my inability to smile naturally in front of the camera, I forgot to stay on-screen after my second run. Luckily, they didn’t give me a microphone, because I shouted, “¡Mierda!” when I remembered, having already returned backstage. I did a quick turn around and, as you will see in the video that follows, walked back out onstage.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k60c29nRYxA&feature=youtu.be

What you don’t see is the bit that followed the modeling, in which loud electronic music pumped through the speakers, and a giant cuy ran around the stage in a convulsive fit sometimes referred to as “dancing.” We “models,” already awkward, shifted back and forth to the music while lights flashed, confetti rained down and cameras flew around the set.

Our second experience was more memorable, more troubling. We arrived at Channel 4 around noon and, after they straightened my hair and put make up on all of us, we had to wait an hour and a half before going back on. In the meantime, we saw the filming of the reunion between a cumbia singer and a child he fathered unknowingly. The boy, in his early teens, had a mental disability and was not in favor of being in the spotlight. Backstage he was crying, occasionally fighting with his mother/caretaker (if you can call what she does taking care of somebody) while saying, “hello” and being otherwise friendly to those of us waiting around. When it was show time, his mother/person locked his arms behind his back and marched him forward. Nothing like exploitation to drive those ratings up!

If that wasn’t too much, then the numerous dolled-up and plastic calatas put “Lima Limón” over the top. Girls in bikinis or lingerie strutted their stuff on camera every few minutes, only reinforcing our realization that this show is based exploitation of every kind. What show features celebrity appearances, Jerry Springer-like encounters, girls in lingerie and Father’s Day fashion models? It’s the exploitation of fame and sex, it’s voyeurism, and it’s product placement all wrapped into one two-hour long train wreck, trash. I’m sure it’s not the only one of its kind, but it’s the only one I’ve ever had the displeasure to see, backstage or on TV.

Afterwards, disillusioned and feeling that we’d compromised our morals, we were all happy to have our payment – four free pieces of clothing from Ritzy Italy. We took off with everything – sneakers, sweaters, and shirts along with jeans and khakis.

 

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Our Unique Interpretation of the Afro-Peruvian Alcatraz

Time June 27th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

What’s the one sure way to put on a good show? Plan it half an hour in advance.

We were on our way to an orphanage/shelter in the outskirts of Cusco. Our bus was full of basic goods and gifts for the girls and young women who live there, and the plan was to gift them the gifts, play tag and volleyball for a few hours, and see a small performance they had organized for us. Then Lali, our program director, decided we should put on a performance, too. We being everyone in the program. No exceptions.

What then unfolded was a manifestation of youthful genius. We proposed a series of ideas, each more absurd than the last, until we found the one. We were to put on our own “unique interpretation of the Afro-Peruvian Alcatraz,” in which one dancer tries to light the other’s skirt on fire.

I didn’t have a skirt, and if I had I don’t think I would’ve gone so far as to put it on. A tail made of toilet paper, tied to my belt, provided the flammable material. We didn’t have a candle, either, so we settled for a lighter. And Oscar doesn’t even dance Afro. Add to that that our cajón was a cardboard box, and what results is the following video that defies words.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e9XffjNRK4A

Post-Script: For future IFSA students, I highly recommend taking Afro-Peruvian dance at La Católica. It is an hour and a half, once weekly, of letting loose and having fun. You may even learn how to move your hips.

P.P.S.: This is what the real Alcatraz looks like. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyXBcAMcaF8&feature=related

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I Am Vegetarian

Time June 13th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

One of my best friends, Yusuf, made fun of me a few weeks ago when I told him that I, although vegetarian, was willing to eat Peruvian dishes with meat for the sake of finding out what they taste like. Flavor, I told him, is one of the basic substances of life. If I really want to approximate life as a Peruvian, I have to know what life here tastes like.

“I’m gonna be real and just call you out on your bullshit,” he responded.

Touché.

In Peru I’ve eaten ají de gallina (chicken), lomo saltado (sirloin), spicy goat, and guinea pig, to name a few. For those who haven’t eaten guinea pig, know that it is not for the squeamish. The animal is tiny, and you have to nibble and suck on its bones to extract even a morsel of meat. There’s also the option to eat the head: brain, cheeks, and other bits of joy that I could never stomach, no matter how open I try or claim to be.

But now, Yusuf, I finally feel I can refute your “BS” call. First, allow me to offer a citation: Mary J. Weismantel, author of Food, Gender, and Poverty in the Ecuadorian Andes, says

It is not only a physiological truism that we are what we eat; what we eat and how we eat it also defines us as social beings. Cooking ensures the material production and reproduction of the social group, but this material process is culturally structured. To cook is to speak and to mean, as well as to make and to do.

It’s obvious but important to realize that indeed without food we would neither reproduce ourselves nor produce anything. All of our actions are based in or dependent upon what we eat. And what we eat is dependent upon where we live, our economic status, our identity, etc. Decisions as simple as whether or not we buy brand-name products or their generic variations, or whether to make or buy a tomato sauce, imply not only our priorities but also what luxuries are available to us. Does that mean that tasting salsa huancaína gives me a profound insight into Peruvian life? No. But it has given me a new perspective on my own.

Over the years, my diet has seen several profound shifts. As a tot, I ate hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, chicken tenders and the occasional popcorn shrimp with mozzarella sticks or French fries. There was fruit, too: applesauce. With lots of sugar. And I was crazy about Lunchables. As I entered middle school and then high school, I began to take my physique and sports more seriously, and I entered into the paradigm that is protein loading. I ate several eggs in the morning, followed by lunch and dinner based upon meat dishes. In my senior year of high school, I was eating red meat for lunch and dinner every day. It came from Wal-Mart, and it was cube steak, one of the lowest quality pieces of an already low quality cow. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I even tried a salad, and shortly afterwards I finally started replacing diet soda – 3 to 5 cans per day was my usual – with water.

I’m not sure when I realized that I was rapidly doing my body in, but by December of 2007 I decided to give vegetarianism a try. It was my best chance to undo the damage I had done. After a few weeks, I realized I had more energy than before. The sluggish feeling that a heaping plate of meat brings to me was no more. A few months later I lost the taste for meat (though not the smell for bacon, never). Then I started reading about the food production process and I realized that being vegetarian makes sense not only for my body but also for the environment and, I believe, the animals themselves. People who say “humane slaughter” have never sliced a chicken’s throat, but that’s another story.

In December of 2010, I was still eating my normal vegetarian diet – lots of fruits and vegetables, a few whole grains, nuts and legumes for protein and the occasional egg or cheese. I cooked all of my meals (taken from Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian) and often shared them with friends. I made my own coffee in the morning, first by grinding the beans and then brewed via one of three methods – moka pot, pour-over or Aeropress. My life in the States has hundreds of flavors from all over the world – Claudia and I make sesame-tahini chard, miso soup, an Argentine pumpkin soup, dal (Indian lentils), and more, just not all together. I knew where my food came from, having purchased most of it at the farmers’ market, and I ate whatever se me daba la gana. This was my status quo, a diet I thought I would always stick to, until I realized in my travels that sometimes it’s just not possible.

My first stop out of the country was Venezuela, where I had fresh, fresh orange juice and coffee with an arepa or two for breakfast, followed by lots of yucca, plantains, and salad throughout the rest of the day. I invented a salmon yucca burger  (salmon, yucca, onions, ají dulce, rosemary) that is to die for. Perhaps Gertrudis and I overindulged in chocolate in the night while all of us sipped on red wine. And with a goodbye dinner at least once a week, we ate our fair share of three- to five-course meals out on the town. I was now pescatarian, but still eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and still indulging (responsibly, sometimes) in alcohol and sweets.

And now I’m in Lima where I have grown accustomed to the following regimen:

  • Breakfast: papaya juice, instant coffee, bread with margarine and jelly
  • Lunch: juice drink, white rice, potatoes, and fish or beans
  • Dinner: instant coffee, white rice, potatoes, and a soy meat dish with sauce

Every day. And I feel like I’m going crazy. Why? Because a large part of who I am is based upon health – not only do I want to work in health later in my life, but I also invest part of my identity in the fact that I do exercise daily and I do shop at Whole Foods and I don’t eat refined grains or artificial flavors. But it’s more, too – I believe in the virtue of eating food in its most natural state. Full fat, full flavor. I like a full-bodied red wine and dark chocolate and a thick espresso. And I want real butter and yogurt that hasn’t be “de-creamed.” The less processing and packaging, the better.

And the implications of food go beyond personal health and culture (check out Bittman’s Food Matters Cookbook or Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma). What we eat has vast economic and environmental consequences that have also become intertwined with my identity. I try to nourish myself with foods whose sources I can identify, who don’t use GMOs or toxic pesticides, and who have been paid a fair price for their labor. In my world, it’s an obvious choice – healthier, tastier food, less pollution, better wages – even if it means 75%+ of my paycheck. It’s more sustainable than the alternatives, and if I were to save that money, what purpose would it serve? More consumption?

Deprived of whole grains, brewed coffee, and fruits and vegetables in general, I had a bit of a meltdown last Monday. “How do they manage to so perfectly divide the plate between white rice and potatoes?” I asked another IFSA student. “Why doesn’t the salad bar at Vivanda have raw vegetables? Why don’t they get tired of eating the same goddamn breakfast every day?! Do you realize that my digestive system no longer functions properly because of all this abuse?”

I’m not sure why we eat the things we do. I eat what I believe is the healthiest – not just nuts and berries, but a natural and varied diet that allows regular treats and, therefore, mental as well as arterial health. But I do know that other people do not concern themselves so much with the nutritional value of their food. Like I mentioned in an earlier post, people in the Northern Sierra often sell one of their few sources of proteins in order to buy white rice and pasta, supplements to a diet heavy in other carbohydrates like corn and potatoes. They are habits – cultural as much as personal – that we learn and live, customs that are familiar and comforting to us. I didn’t stay in the Sierra long enough to hear it, but I have no doubt that all the foods they eat are believed to contain various properties that fortalice the human body in one way or another. We are, after all, what we eat.

A side note, for those considering travel to Peru: Peruvians do eat wonderful food. There’s chifa (Peruvian Chinese food), the uber-famous ceviche, chicha morada, and causa. They have chirimoya (custard apples), lúcuma (eggfruit), and maracuyá (passion fruit). And there are the condiments, like ají and rocoto, that can never be duplicated outside of the country. I think of the sopa seca I ate in Carmen, the afro-Peruvian region south of Lima, a noodle dish made with various Peruvian herbs, spices, and peppers that very well may change your life. And there’s the beer (Cusqueña) and the coffee (Tunki), the best in the world according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America. But you won’t find any Cusqueña or Tunki in my house. No, you won’t find us drinking much alcohol at all, and if we’re sipping on coffee it’s instant, Nescafé. I can’t explain the former, but I assume the later may have something to do with saving the best products for exportation.

 

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Abandoned in La Nada

Time May 23rd, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

¿Sabes qué? Espero que no nos vengan a buscar. Fíjate…tenemos que aprovechar. Jamás vamos a ver estrellas así.”

“You know what? I hope they don’t come to pick us up. Look…we have to make the most of this. We’re never going to see stars like this again.”

It was 9 pm and Daniela and I were laying in the grass plaza of Uruspampa, a caserío in Peru of about twenty families. We were frozen solid and dead from having laughed the entire afternoon and evening. Half an hour later a Uruspamponian would offer us shelter in his house, and thirty seconds later our ride would finally arrive, but in this moment I wanted nothing more than to sleep in the cold, under the stars, and wake up early to see the sunrise over the mountains.

 

The health brigade planned to leave Sarín at 8 a.m., but as is to be expected it left late. What wasn’t expected was that it also left without advising us, given that we had scheduled to make the trip with them two days in advance. We ran around the municipality where we had been abandoned, asking if anybody knew where the brigade had gone. Every official claimed not to have the slightest clue, though the way they laughed when they spoke to us suggested otherwise. Luckily, one gentleman seemed concerned, and he called the truck driver, asking that they wait for us at the other end of the town. We would have to walk to catch our ride.

When we reached the truck we were told there wasn’t room for us. “Sorry, we really hoped to have you guys come along.” We didn’t buy that, nor did we take no for an answer. We really want to come too, we said. So much so, that we’ll just ride in the back of the truck.

“In the back?”

“Yes.”

“With the barrel of gasoline and the gas-powered generator?”

Despite the fact that those two objects filled the bed of the truck, if not with the physical space they occupied then with the oil they leaked all over everything, yes, we will, safety be damned.

And was it ever. It turned out we weren’t the only ones planning to climb in the back. Three of us climbed in, grabbing hold of oily metal posts, our only hopes of not falling out of the truck as it drove up and down treacherous mountain paths for the next hour. Halfway through the trip, we encountered a construction team repairing a faulty bridge, and there we picked up our fourth bed-of-the-truck rider, making a total of 11 people riding in one small 4×4.

 

Three days prior, Daniela and I arrived in Huamachuco, Perú, the capital of Sanchez Carrión, a district in the departamento of La Libertad. From there we were taken to Sarín, a town of approximately 8,000 inhabitants, where we would spend the next week investigating malnutrition in the rural northern sierra of Peru. The week, known as semana de campo, is a tradition of the Department of Anthropology at La Católica, which sends its students out into the field, with a professor, for a week of anthropological research. After two months of preparation, including studying research methodologies, interview techniques, and common mistakes in anthropological field work, we were finally there, in the middle of nowhere, ready to pretend like we knew what we were doing.

On this day in particular, Daniela and I were accompanying a “training and awareness” team of the municipality to the village of Uruspampa. Their plan was to teach the campesinos how to feed themselves healthfully. Mine was to listen to the municipality’s discourse and see what kinds of messages it sends to the community.

 

We arrived in Uruspampa, exhausted from clinging on to dear life and the truck for the previous hour. The motor was set up, a projector plugged in, and half and hour later a PowerPoint presentation began in the community center (photo attached: note the chairs that exclaim, “works, not words.” That’s one way to infuriate a writer.).

The presentation I saw was not a simple discussion of 6-11 servings of grains, 5 servings of fruit and vegetables, etc. No, in fact, what I saw and heard from the speakers was the criminalization of mothers whose children are malnourished (an illness calculated according to European standards of height and weight). These mothers, according to the municipality, are condemning their children to dismal futures because they are too cheap or ignorant to feed their young ones a well-balanced diet. That their children are malnourished and have no future and that the mothers are cheap and ignorant are all debatable, though the municipality drops these words like facts, like they were talking about gravity. And while it is true that some customs of the village don’t lend themselves to a healthy diet (selling chickens and guinea pigs, for example, in order to buy white rice and pasta that complement a diet heavy in corn and potatoes), to blame everything on ignorant mothers is a gross simplification of a complex social phenomenon. But enough of that; you can read my final report if you’re interested.

I had to leave the discussion shortly after it started. I couldn’t hear very well, and as it turns out, I proved to be quite a distraction for all those present in the talk. Within the living memory of Uruspampa, a foreigner has never arrived in the village, much less a tall, blonde-haired blue-eyed gringo. The reactions I received ranged from the fright of the children to the amusement of the mothers. I’m not sure if the later was amusement at my presence or at their children’s terror, but that’s how it was.

I headed outside where the sun would soon burn my face and found a large group of women cooking corn, rice, potatoes, and some sort of tuna and carrot dish. This was lunch for the entire community as well as the health brigade, and every member of the community had brought their contribution to the meal. I asked the women if I might help them peel potatoes and, still amused, they invited me in.

We spent the next hour and a half peeling I-don’t-know-how-many potatoes, hundreds of them. They were enough to fill a bathtub, because I believe the gigantic bucket we put them all in was an actual bathtub from one of the local families. I started asking questions of the women about their lives, their diets, the municipality, etc., but it was hard to get a straight answer. Because I arrived with the municipality, they found it hard to believe that I was looking for criticism – that I was already critical myself – and instead behaved as if I were trying to exam them.

I asked the women what they knew about nutrition and malnutrition. They were, after all, the ones cooking for the community. That is, as the cooks of the day, they were unable to attend the health brigade’s meeting that supposedly would have capacitated these women to make a healthier meal. I assumed, then, that they had already attended such meetings, but this was not the case. What I heard from many women can be summed up by one quotation, something this woman in particular told me at least five times:

“No, I’ve never been to any of the municipality’s talks. We out here don’t know anything, anything. We women are ignorant.”

Halfway through the potato peeling, a woman left the talk to join us and I took the opportunity to ask her what she had learned from what she heard.

“First, you tell me what you learned,” she said.

“But I couldn’t hear anything, I left almost as soon as it started.”

“You tell me first.”

When the talk ended, Daniela and I were invited to eat lunch with the health brigade in the house of a prominent community member away from the plaza (and the “rabble,” as it were). It was disconcerting that we were disconnected from the community while we ate, and even worse that we were given an additional dish, an egg soup, made from this one woman’s personal pantry. The community is malnourished and we’re sectioning ourselves off to eat a more balanced meal…

At the lunch table, I asked the presenters, “Do the people who attend these talks ever ask questions?”

Oh yeah, sure, all the time, they told me.

“What questions did they ask today?”

Silence.

“That is,” I said, “Do you remember any questions, any examples of what they asked today?”

Well…well, today they haven’t asked any questions. But they do, normally.

I’m skeptical. The dynamic of the talks is one-way: we, the municipality, have the knowledge and you, community, do not. Listen and you shall learn.

Daniela and I had asked enough questions for the day. After lunch, the health brigade went to another community for more of the same but they promised to come back within a pair of hours. We decided to take advantage of the break to take a hike, to get away from the villagers and the health brigade who were all suspicious of our motives.

Ten minutes down the road, we had yet to climb a hill or find a foot-worn trail. “Daniela,” I said, “You know what I’ve always wanted to do? Climb to one of the peaks of these mountains and then walk along from peak to peak all through the sierra.”

“Good luck, blondie. You’re crazy.”

“No, but really, what happens if we just walk straight up from here to the peak?” I asked as I turned ninety degrees from the path and began walking into the hill. Moments later, I found out: you can’t get down.

“Blondie, how the f#*k are we going to get back to the trail? Seriously, huevón, what’s your plan? We’re screwed.”

I laughed. “We’ll figure that out once we reach the top.”

Daniela stopped and looked around. “Seriously, I’m concerned that we’re going to be stuck up here.” “Seriously,” I said, “you don’t have to keep coming up. I understand. But I promise if you do that will we find a way down later.” “Godda*& you, Blondie,” she said and, on her hands and knees she continued scaling the mountainside.

Halfway up the mountain, I could no longer breath. Several days in the middle of nowhere had meant several days of chain-smoking. What little breath might have remained in my chest was ripped out when I turned around and saw the vista, which I have poorly approximated in the attached photographs.

“Well,” I said, “de la puta madre, no?”

“You realize I still hate you, right?”

And it was in that moment that we began to die laughing. I don’t know what was funny – perhaps it was me, the gringo, comfortably swearing in Spanish. Or the fact that we had just climbed straight up the side of a mountain. Or that the gringo and the limeña were in a caserío of 20 families where nobody wanted or trusted us. All I know is that as we braved our way back down the mountain Daniela and I continued swearing to/at each other and the laughter followed us all the way back to Uruspampa.

The absurdity factor of the trip got out of hand once we returned to the village. We found out that the caserío didn’t even have an outhouse, but that if we wanted to go to the bathroom we were to feel at home in any patch of grass. I turned to Daniela. “¿Qué carajo am I supposed to do with this paper? Do I stick it in my puto pocket once I’m done?” Years of anti-littering campaigns rendered each of us incapable of leaving toilet paper anywhere outside of the toilet or trashcan and thus we decided to hold it until we returned to Sarín.

Which should’ve been half an hour later. But a pair of hours turned into two, then three pairs of hours and still there was no sign of the municipality. Jokes about being abandoned in the middle of nowhere turned into the realization that we had been abandoned and, out of cigarettes, all we could do was to insult each other and our mothers (love you, Mom!).

The fourth pair of hours rolled around and all of Uruspampa appeared to have gone to bed. The stars were as I had never before seen them. It was as if I were looking at a picture of the Milky Way, the galactic swirls visible in all their beauty, 3,000 meters above the level of the ocean.

 

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What I Study When I Study Abroad

Time May 23rd, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

When people talk about “studying abroad,” most of the studying they refer to takes place outside of the classroom. Of course, the whole semester doesn’t take place without the university and the professor and the class and the learning, but it’s the “abroad” bit that is supposed to provide the most important lessons. Getting to know new people, a new country, a different system of transportation or educati, etc. That said, while I’m studying abroad, the classes I’m taking are important. It’s a unique experience; most of my classes aren’t offered in the States and if they are, they’re more relevant here.

Take my anthropology class, Extractive Industries and Rural Societies, for example. The United States has extractive industries – copper in Arizona, for instance, and coal in West Virginia – that have led to the creation of rural mining societies and subsequent ghost towns. But our country’s economy is primarily productive, not extractive. Many Latin American economies, on the other hand, are based in extracting non-renewable natural resources and sending them to other countries that then produce (hence, productive economies) goods with said resources. 35% of Chile’s economy, for example, comes solely from exporting copper, while over 90% of Venezuela’s exports are petroleum related. And Peru has a wide variety of extractive industries: gas, gold, silver, etc. And these industries have always been and will continue to be highly contentious – they often bring promises of “development” that they do not deliver. They’re often lucrative, though not for the general population, and a quick look at the history books will show a cycle of nationalization and privatization that continues to this day.

Enough of showing what I’m learning, though. It suffices to say that studying extractive economies takes on a whole new life when you’re in a country where these economies carry weight, where people decide who they’re going to vote for based on who raises or lowers various taxes on resource extraction, or who will (not) nationalize these industries.

Extractive Industries and Rural Societies becomes even cooler when you look at my other anthropological course, Fieldwork 2 (they let me skip #1). Fieldwork is exactly what it sounds like – we study research methodology and then go into the field and conduct our own investigations. It’s a mini-thesis class, and in just three days I will be going to Huamachuco where a famous gold mine is located. It’s called Cerro el Toro, and it has affected the community for yearsand continues to affect it today; just a few weeks ago, several individuals working informally in the mine suffocated. The fieldwork helps to ground the other anthropological class by showing you what the other tells you.

On the other side of campus, I’m taking an altogether unrelated course: Contemporary Hispano-American Narratives. The class has been focused on the pre-boom, boom, and post-boom periods of Latin American literature. From the pre-boom we read Borges, and now we’re reading Julio Cortázar, an author who straddles the line between pre-boom and boom-boom. Then we’re moving on to Juan Rulfo, a boomer, and from there we’ll be reading Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and other well-known authors from the region. The class expects us to produce one major analysis, and I plan to use my strength – English – to write about the influence of William Faulkner in the writings of Rulfo.

The last two classes are important for future members of IFSA, because these classes, it seems, won’t be changing anytime soon. That is, they are obligatory for IFSA students. The first is “castellano,” although this Spanish is taught more fluidly than a typical grammar course. Peruvian literature is assigned every week, and students learn about various aspects of Peru’s culture and history while picking up new words and phrases.

The other class is called Peruvian Social Reality, and this class is mandatory even for Peruvians in La Católica. After a minimalist review of Peru’s history pre-1980 – that is, two hours which cover the pre-Colombian era, the Spanish invasion, three centuries of colonial rule, a war of independence, and nearly two centuries of the “republican” era – the class begins to take on the monster that is the Shining Path and, later, Alberto Fujimori. Later we’ll discuss all sorts of issues that affect all sorts of societies: racism, classism, sexism, politics, religion, economics…

In the end, it’s amazing to see how my study abroad classes and my study abroad experience are so integrated. Just today, for example, I had another argument about the existence of spirits and energies and such. I had similar discussions in Venezuela, where I felt like I was going crazy as nobody shared my skepticism, and that people accepted at face value that somebody had friendly spirits visit her on her birthday. But as I read more and more Latin American literature and discuss fantastic stories and magical realism, I’m starting to see that life in Peru and Venezuela and, I assume, Latin America, is much more connected to the (possible) world of spirits than any world I’ve ever lived.

 

 

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Holy Week in Ayachuco, Peru

Time April 27th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

The following is a crónica I wrote for an IFSA class, translated as literally (read: awkwardly) as possible.

It is prohibited the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages in the historic center of Ayacucho. We will make this Holy Week truly Holy. – Sign in the center of Ayacucho

One must be blind not to see the cultural collision that is Holy Week in Ayacucho, and even that might not be enough. I realized in Lima one week before while in a taxi. I started to talk with the driver. “Ayacuchanos don’t like Limeños,” he told me. “They come to drink, to get drunk, and they don’t respect the Holy Week ceremonies.”

Alcohol and Holy Week. I knew that Catholics drank, but this I couldn’t imagine. I didn’t know what to expect. I come from a Pentecostal family, although I neither profess nor have any faith. We did celebrate Holy Week, but this celebration would never permit that I drank. We ate Peeps and chocolate Easter bunnies; we searched for plastic eggs filled with sweets, everything as healthy as a carrot. So, confused, I went to my best resource here in Peru: my host mom. I asked her about Holy Week, Ayacuchanos and Limeños, the question of drinking or not.

“The Ayacuchanos are jealous,” she responded. “They’re jealous, yes. They want to live where we live in the capital.

Oh, please mami, I thought. You’re messing with me, right? It seemed like the collision went further than Holy Week. Discontent but without any other remedy, I had to wait until I arrived in Ayacucho.

The schedule said the trip would last eight to ten hours, but we arrived in thirteen. For all the turns that the bus had taken I felt sick. And you can’t imagine the joy I felt when two women (with their children) climbed on the bus to see us coca tea. It tranquilized me, and at eleven AM we arrived.

The next day, Good Friday, I left to go to a museum, but before I arrived there I encountered a procession, which turned out to be the staging of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. It had passed through the city and arrived at the central plaza where the Peruvian flag flew at half-mast. There began the judgment of Jesus. Jesus, roman soldiers, the Pharisees, and about twenty women personifying the Virgin Mary arrived at the court of Pontius Pilate. “Let him free! He is a holy man!” shouted the virgins. The public, under the influence of the Pharisees, requested the crucifixion of Jesus, but Pontius Pilate refused. “No! I’m going to punish him, severely, and after that I am going to let him free.” Then he turned him back to Jesus and the soldiers began with their orders.

“Grab a hold of him,” one commanded to the other with a smile that shocked me. The other grabbed Jesus and tied his hands to a post in the street. They took off his clothes but left him with a white cotton skirt (and under this, underwear), an “artistic liberty” that the theatrical group took. “My heart is prepared, father. My heart is prepared,” shouted Jesus. A soldier gave him a punch in the face, hard, and they began to flog him. A whip made of cactus collided against the back of Jesus and the actor screamed while he bent at the knees, doubled over in pain. I saw the wounds open in his skin whose color had turned red. I asked myself how much faith he must have in order to personify every year his savior. Too much, it turned out: they just finished the flogging when they put the on him the crown of thorns. They put it on hard, pushing it until they saw blood flow from his head.

I had inserted myself so much in the staging that I didn’t realize what was going on around the procession. I opened my eyes when I noted the plethora of cameras that surrounded Jesus. Each one fought to take a picture of the Messiah (not me – my camera lacked battery), and while he suffered, they fought. “Listen, you, in the blue, get back. I don’t see anything,” I heard.

Taken aback, I took a step back to think about what I was seeing and hearing when I entered in the true shock. “Ice cream, ice cream, ice cream two for one!” voiced an ice cream vendor behind me. Ice cream? I thought. Who the hell wants to eat ice cream while this man suffers? Many, apparently – I saw cones everywhere. And I kept noting more vendors – of trips, artisanal goods, souvenirs. “Gringo!” one man shouted at me. “Take with you all of the history of Holy Week, one sol!” I shook my head and returned to my hotel. Even if I wanted to I couldn’t continue watching the procession.

In the hotel, I asked the hostess how Ayachucho was before, if there was a before. She told me there was, although in her life Holy Week had always been lucrative. “After all, that’s how it is: lucrative. Holy Week is lucrative, and you are going to see thousands of people taking advantage.”

The next day I reunited with some friends from La Católica. One of them comes from Ayacucho, and while we drank Inka Cola and smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes in the tourist cultural center San Cristobal, she recounted to me her version of tourism. “Here, what you see doesn’t exist outside of Holy Week. You know, every town has a celebration and only during this celebration do they have pride in their ‘traditional culture.’ Prostitute the culture, that’s what they do. Prostitute it.”

To me, it doesn’t seem so clear. Ayacucho, as the destination of Holy Week, appeared for the faith of the people, shown by their thirty-seven churches and their numerous processions celebrating the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. And this faith of the Ayachuchanos continues to be shown. One only needs to think of the staging of the crucifixion, of the pain the actor felt in the name of Jesus, and the quantity of people who followed him. Or think of the procession of the Our Lady of Sorrows, when the plaza filled with people with candles who walked more than three hours to remember the death of their savior.

In the end, I did see what the taxi driver told me. In fact, I participated. The plaza was jam-packed with people drinking and dancing to the music that three bands played. The city lit fireworks and everybody enjoyed themselves until five AM. At five the procession of Jesus resurrected came out, and the public, drunken in all cases, stopped drinking, stopped dancing, and followed the pyramid of candles for two hours in complete silence.

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Apology Letter from an Embarrassed Gringo

Time April 5th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Dear professor, group, and classmates of Extractive Industries and Rural Societies,

My bad. I’m sorry I put you through that. Not only did you not learn anything, but also it must have been painful to watch me make a fool of myself as I attempted to explain to you the formation of labor unions in Bolivia between 1950 and 1970.

Oh, right. In case you missed it, that was what I was trying to talk about: union formation, Bolivia, 1950 – 1970. There were coups (several), massacres (more than the number of coups), and repression on a grand scale. Workers were exploited and America unfortunately had a hand in said exploitation but, unfortunately, I did not teach you any of this. No, all I taught you is that I’m a bumbling fool.

It is for this reason that I write you all: to let you know that I’m really not as dim-witted as I seemed today. I realized going into the presentation that my vocabulary isn’t the strongest. I tend to stumble over words like “sindicalización” and “espontáneamente.” But I thought I would be okay. I read the article three times, frontwards and backwards, and I understood the argument. It’s fascinating, in fact; the case study of Bolivian tin mines throws into questions a lot of Marxist/Leninist theory regarding formation of the proletariat, labor union organization, etc.

But all of this information left me when I opened my mouth, as though I barely read the article once. I said to you, “The author concludes that the benefits of spontaneous union labor organization…” and with each word I stepped closer and close to the cliff, the end of my thoughts, beyond which was nothing, a great void. The worst part was that I actually watched myself doing it – I pronounced each word slower than the last to delay my inevitable arrival at the great emptiness that was my mind in that moment. Why the hell are spontaneous labor unions advantageous? I asked myself. And then: nothing. Ay su madre.

In the end, I told you that in Bolivia’s case, spontaneous labor unions had absorbed parts of the “talented tenth:” young Bolivians who had to drop out of college for economic reasons and join the mines their fathers had worked in. What I didn’t tell you is that this is significant because, according to Leninist theory, the “rank-and-file” will only organize in order to fight for economic rights. Lenin says that an external force is required to put the fight not in economic terms but in ideological and political terms. But these workers, the “talented tenth,” mine workers and clerical workers alike, led the main labor union in demands both economic and political.

I wish I had a better explanation for my empty headedness, but the simple fact is that I approached this presentation in exactly the same way I approach presentations in the United States. I did the reading, highlighted a few points, stood in front of the class, and did my best to wing it – no 3x5s, no notes on my hand, nothing. It’s just that there’s a small difference in that, well, we’re not in the U.S., and I’m not presenting in English. And in my anxiety to conjugate all my verbs correctly, I kind of sort of forgot everything that I read. That is, until the presentation ended and I sat down. Then, all the facts came rushing back to me (as did the realization that I should’ve spoken about the miners in the imperfect tense and not the preterit. Maldito sea!).

Where does this leave us? Well, should you happen to study abroad in the U.S. and give a presentation for a class which I attend, I promise to be kind to you. And for those of you who offered me smiles of sympathy during my presentation, I appreciate it, and I promise to repay you if I can. Otherwise, I ask that you not lose your confidence in me yet. I think this is the way that foreign experiences go – in one way or ten you’re bound to make mistakes – and all you can do is say, “Well…let’s not do that again, shall we?”

In short, next time I promise to prepare myself the way my teachers in high school taught me. Hell, I’ll write up a script if need be just to be sure that I don’t cheat you out of an informative presentation. Or a coherent presentation. Or simply so you don’t have to cringe while I stumble over the verb antagonizar, which only now while I’m at home do I realize does not exist.

Lesson learned. Take it easy on me? :)

Un abrazo. Cuídense (y take care of me, por fa),

Charlie/Carlos/Carlitos

 

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Photoessay: One Month in Lima, Peru

Time March 21st, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

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Perdón la interrupción

Time March 21st, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Between writing about my experiences and experiencing them, I tried to strike a balance. A balance skewed 100% towards experience. My philosophy was to do as much as I could and I would write about it later. This will give me more writing material, more stories to share online and with my friends and family back home. So I’ve passed the last month.

I’ve toured the center of Lima: the Museum of the Inquisition, the catacombs under the Franciscan church, the cathedral of Lima, the Archbishop’s palace, and the Art Museum of Lima; I’ve gone dancing every night of every weekend and even some weekdays; I went to my first Carnaval (photo); I’ve tried most Peruvian foods for a more than agreeable price, and I’ve loved all of them – the fish (ceviche), the potatoes (papas a la huancaina), and fish and potatoes (causa), the Chinese/Peruvian chifa, and all sorts of Pisco-based cocktails.

The list goes on: I moved in with my host family, I started classes, I celebrated my 21st birthday. What I haven’t done, though, is reflect on my experiences.

I don’t write because it is useful, but it does have a utility. It forces this writer to think about what he has done, how those experiences have affected him, and how he would like to go forward. Will he repeat these experiences, or try to go about them differently in the future? Will he change his behavior because of something new he has learned?

Now, the weekend has arrived. And I’m going to use it to catalog a few Peruvian experiences that have changed me. They haven’t changed me for the better or for the worse, and they’ve changed me in ways smaller than large.

 

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Day 2 – I Didn’t Forget You! Maracaibo

Time February 23rd, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Maracaibo is beautiful. Abuelo wants me to say, “Maracaibo is the most beautiful city in the world,” but…there are a lot of cities I haven’t seen. Let’s keep it beautiful for now.

We drove around without traffic, despite it being midday. We ate the same lunch we usually had in Caracas for a third of the price. And we saw the bridge that spans the Lake of Maracaibo, the fourth largest bridge in Latin America.

Not only that, but we saw it from La Vereda del Lago Maracaibo.

La vereda, for all of us, stood out the most in contrast to life in Caracas. Here, a four-lane divided road has been re-appropriated (note: not expropriated, despite the trendiness of Venezuelan expropriations), half of it for pedestrians, skaters, and cyclists, while the other half functions as a two-lane, two-way road.

We arrived around 4 PM on a weekday, and already a good number of people were either exercising or passing the evening in the company of friends and family. By 5:30, when the work crowd had been spilling in for the past half hour, the park was full. People were passing this way and that, running, biking, walking dogs, while others cuddled up in the park’s hammocks or next to the lake. The people were out, enjoying a beautiful evening, watching the sunset, and socializing. This is how it should be, we though. But this is not how it is in Caracas.

Gertrudis and I decided to make the most of it. We rented bicycles from the park’s local shop, just over $1 each for half an hour at the official exchange rate. One doesn’t expect perfection for $1 – I rode around with my knees and chin colliding – but one does expect a good time. And, indeed, one was had by all. I even have a picture to prove it.

The abuelos had a romantic walk along the lake’s edge while the youngsters had their fun, and half an hour later we met up for coconut water. I found it within a giant coconut, at least 10 feet in diameter, complete with a giant candy-cane striped straw and a margarita umbrella sticking out the top of it. Inside, a college engineering student, my age, sold not only coconut water but also cocada and coconut cookies. Delighted, I ordered a natural cocada, which consisted of coconut, ice, milk, sugar and vanilla all blended together into frappe bliss. And the cookies… They didn’t have any flour, just coconut flakes, shortening, and pineapple concentrate. The texture of baked, dried coconut is a paradox of dry and moist that is best described as “wow.”

Barrigita llena, corazón contento. Full belly, happy heart.

So we were, full and content, as we snapped this last picture of me in front of the bridge before heading home for the night.

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Days 3 & 4 – Hospitality

Time February 22nd, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

February 10th & 11th

We arrived at Tío Arnoldo’s house around noon. We planned to chat for half an hour or so, as we had everywhere else, and then go out for lunch. What we didn’t realize was that Arnold’s wife sent him out to pick up lunch for all of us. And twenty minutes later there we were, sitting together at the table with plates full of lasagna, fried rice, and rolls. All of which ran completely against my diet and Gertrudis’s.

As somebody who doesn’t eat meat, who almost never touches white bread/rice/pasta, these were my problems: lasagna – white pasta, ham; fried rice – white rice, pork, chicken, and at least two other unidentified forms of meat; roll – pure white flour. And Gertrudis doesn’t eat grains or dairy products or salt, ruling out…everything. So what did we both do?

We cleared our plates, of course. Not because the food was delicious, but because this family had gone out of their way to feed us. And we had a great time. Arnoldo talked about how Venezuela has become a burrocracia, where the burros, or asses, rule. We had fun with words – I invented burrología and burrólogos, the only university subject and professors that are supported by the current government.

Gertrudis and I left dizzy, feeling intoxicated – poisoned, really – by the foods we’ve avoided for so long, but one might say que valió la pena.

The next day we stopped in Cubiro, a town in the mountains near Barquisimeto, somewhere in between Bachaquero and Caracas. Our first stop looked like a scene from the Sound of Music: we walked up a rolling green hill, and from the top we saw a valley of hills surrounded by mountain peaks. A gate several meters away held in a few dairy cows, and a man came out moments later to offer us strawberries with cream, neither of which could have possibly have been any fresher. It was a beautiful break, a sharp contrast from the city, the hacienda, and the pothole-ridden highway connecting the two. After we savored our dessert, the gentleman recommended we check out a restaurant down the road and, given how much we enjoyed his dessert, we took him at his word.

The name of the restaurant – El Chupa – was mysterious to us all. (Chupar means “to suck” – you can imagine the uses of such a verb.) But our anxieties disappeared when the owner of the restaurant greeted us shouting, “My queens! My kings! Welcome! Please, sit wherever you would like and allow me to serve you.” We followed her command, then asked for her recommendations. “To the prince, I recommend the chupi-chupi.” I didn’t know what that was, but I said, “Okay! I’ll have the chupi-chupi.” Which was to say, “I will have the fried pork, plantains, black beans topped with white cheese, rice, and a salad so heavily dressed I will think it is cole slaw.”

And, what do you know? They delivered! Everything was delicious. The black beans were silky with just a touch of al dente perfection. Their smoky flavor combined perfectly with the ripe, sweet plantains and the salty, creamy fresh cheese. The pork, sliced into large cubes, was crispy and salty on the outside, while the thin strips of fat that ran throughout the inside gave the pork a melt-in-your-mouth feel. And the flavor: it suffices to say that only pork, high-quality pork, possesses the kind of flavor this possessed, the kind that is just waiting to be perceived by human taste buds.

The salad…it was cole slaw.

The meal was finished in the style that every meal in Venezuela is finished – with a shot of Venezuelan coffee, always impeccable. There are, unfortunately, shops that are now replacing their espresso machines with Nescafé coffee-pod abominations, but El Chupa served us fresh coffee with a pinch of sugar. Or a handful. The coffee might best have been described as “syrupy.”

And we drank it anyways. Who were we to turn down their hospitality?

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Road Trip, Day 1 – We Made It! Bachaquero, Venezuela

Time February 16th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Highway mainte-what?

These potholes could swallow a small car without problem; driving past them, I couldn’t see where the holes ended. The tollbooths were all abandoned; as I understand, the federal government prohibits them from collecting tolls. And there were the burnt out streetlamps that haven’t been fixed for kilometers at a stretch (according to my travel companions, something that didn’t happen prior to 1999).

And there were the speed bumps.

Yes, speed bumps. On the highway.

You’re flabbergasted I know. Allow me to explain.

Along the highway that connects Barquisimeto to Maracaibo, small towns have popped up far less than a stone’s throw from the road. The people in these towns sell coffee, lemonade, fruits and homemade bread to travelers, but not from their roadside stands. Instead, they stand in the middle of the road and conduct their business via the windows of passers-by. Between these vendors standing in the middle of the road and children playing nearby, there were enough accidents to prompt the construction of speed bumps throughout the highway.

Unfortunately, these speed bumps have not been maintained. Which means unpainted speed bumps – let’s call them, “surprises” – litter the highway for miles and miles. Walking around later, I continued feared that my world might suddenly be jolted up and down while the sound of thunder/an abused suspension system assaulted my ears.

Other fun facts:

  • Whenever road construction is under way, or a car has wrecked, or the highway is for any other reason impassable at some point, large piles of dirt and branches are thrown in the road as an indicator of such news. This was used once to indicate that the four-lane highway was about to become two lanes. Half of the bridge ahead had collapsed and it was inadvisable to try to jump the gap. Of course, without signs or arrows, it’s hard to know what calamity you’re supposed to avoid until you’ve either avoided it or not.
  • Impatient drivers often pass you via the shoulder when somebody is passing you too slowly in the left lane.
  • Brake lights? Good joke.
  • Signaling to change lanes? Waste of time.
  • Looking before you change lanes? Ditto.
  • Semis looking before changing lanes to avoid crushing your Vitara like a cockroach? They have better things to do.

I can’t imagine making a road trip in the States anymore. As Gertrudis said, it’s boring driving in the States. You can’t help but fall asleep when you’re not dodging potholes and fallen bridges and unpainted speed bumps on an unlit road.

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Collecting Families

Time February 7th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

There was no mistaking her words as I walked into her open arms: “Bienvenidos, nieto.” Welcome, grandson.

All of my grandparents passed away between two and a half and forty-five years ago. But yesterday, I was not only a grandson but also a child once again. Claudia’s grandparents (in English they are her grandparents, in Spanish mis abuelos, my grandparents) invited me to their apartment, to a sleepover, and I accepted. And my greeting was no less genuine than if their own blood had walked through the door.

Abuelita set before me a heaping plate of vegetables – eggplant, carrots, string beans and potatoes cooked in a tomato sauce, a dish reminiscent of Indian cooking. And there were plantains, two of them, with a bowl of white cheese to sprinkle on top. Playing the role of grandson who doesn’t want to hurt his grandmother’s feelings by not eating everything she puts in front of him, I ate everything she put in front of me. Which, by the end of the next day, amounted to three toasted white cheese-mayonnaise-tomato-ketchup sandwiches, a plate of rice and fish, oatmeal, an apple, three plantains, loads of white cheese, homemade cake, two cups of coffee, a constantly-refilled glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, and Toddy, the Venezuelan equivalent of Ovaltine. What’s the only thing that says, “You’re my grandson,” more than a glass of Ovaltine? Not being allowed to get off of the couch as your grandmother brings you a glass of Ovaltine.

And that was how the day went. Of course, not everything was so child-grandparent oriented. We talked about the political persecution of their children and relatives, several of whom were a part of the over 20,000 workers fired and blacklisted by the government after the national oil company went on strike in 2002. We talked about their wishes for their grandchildren to leave the country and about the months that have passed without coffee, milk, plantains, etc. In short, we talked politics. They were atypical conversations for our relationship, but typical given the political situation in Venezuela.

More broadly, in Latin America there is an openness, a conscious permitting of the blurring of (non-political) lines, that I appreciate. Family is of the utmost importance, and a bigger family, it seems, is better. I have gained grandparents, aunts and uncles, in-laws, etc. The entrance exam is simple: if our granddaughter/daughter/niece loves you, and if you love her, and if you treat each other well, then…ok!Still, back in the U.S., they will be my girlfriend’s grandparents, my girlfriend’s mom, her dad. And my sisters-in-law back home will still be SIL’s, not sis’s.

What about Peru? Thanks to IFSA, my host family has already contacted me. “We already have experience in receiving students into our home,” Bubby, my host-mother told me in her first e-mail, “although more than students, we treat them like they were our own children.”

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Nothing to Fear?

Time January 21st, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

It is an unfortunate truth that an American who travels in South America will become violently ill, suffering from both explosive diarrhea and projectile vomiting. He or she will often perform these acts simultaneously.  Luckily, all bathrooms are equipped with both a toilet and a trashcan (toilet paper cannot be flushed), providing two receptacles for bodily refuse. I suggest one hurls into the garbage; to do the reverse would earn said American the resent of his/her host, hotel custodian, etc.

It was unfortunate, indeed, when it happened to me, although I should have known better than to eat street cart ceviche. No matter how delicious it was – shrimp and octopus and whitefish, marinated in lemon juice with jalapeños and dressed in cilantro – raw fish sitting in the sun is to the digestive system what McDonalds is to the circulatory. I spent the entire day in a sweaty, pale state of purging, never moving more than twenty feet to go to the bathroom or to return to my bed. I survived on Pedialyte, Gatorade, and soda crackers. The next day I had to fly back to the States. Quite a sendoff.

Before I was out of commission, we had planned to spend my last day in Caracas climbing up to Pico Humboldt, a hotel-topped mountain peak directly between Caracas and the Caribbean. But something about tossing my cookies on the public trail didn’t sit with me well, so we stayed home. Humboldt proved to be one of several unfilled boxes on my checklist of “Things to do while in Venezuela” when I left that summer.

So it was that I found myself, at 7:45 a.m. last Saturday, waking up with Claudia to finally make the trek. We awoke earlier than usual because were told the journey would take five or six hours, and it was important to finish before the night settled in. I thought this was because the risk of mugging, kidnapping, etc. increases at night, but Claudia straightened me out: it’s hard to watch your step without light.

It’s strange. Despite the fact that I’ve never been mugged, pick pocketed, or even sneezed on in Venezuela, I’ve read enough to be afraid wherever I go. When we’re driving around at night, part of me feels hijacking and kidnapping is inevitable and wishes we would just get it over with already. Still, the threat (or anxiety) of being mugged was real, so we invited our friend Edward to join us, who in addition to great company also provided security and comfort.

Off we went. We walked and talked our way up a winding, paved road from which I photographed Caracas (image 1). We continued onto a dirt road, which led back to more pavement, all of which led to a guardaparques. Here, we were told that the path to Humboldt was closed on account of the rains that rocked Venezuela in late November, but we soldiered on.

To say the hike was “difficult” would be like calling Montezuma’s Revenge a “stomachache.” I can count on my hands the number of horizontal steps I took, while the rest of the hike was a dedicated vertical climb. We slipped on rocks and vaulted over and ducked under fallen trees, all the while muttering, “Ay, me duele el culo.” You can look that one up.

On our way up we crossed paths with one man, a short, tubby type with hiking poles and no partner. To my surprise, he didn’t assault us; rather, he said that we were half an hour from Humboldt by way of Galipán. Within a few steps we veered from this gentleman’s path. Without a map, our path was determined by none other than spontaneity – at every fork one of us would call out left or right and the other two would follow. Still, twenty minutes and one fall flat-on-my-face moment later, we emerged from the woods around the corner from Paseo Ávila, where we found merengue music, dulce de leche, and the arepera socialista. Signs detailed the difference between a “socialist arepa” and a “commercial arepa,” which I will boil down for you here: socialist arepas cost less. I was curious to try the arepa caraqueña or the arepa indígena, but one look at the line merited the expression, “¡Qué cola!” and we continued on the path towards the peak and, atop the peak, Hotel Humboldt (image 2).

The hotel is a marvel, a cylindrical building atop a mountain between the sea and the city. I can only imagine the view from the top because, for the past 50 years, Hotel Humboldt has been closed. However, the recently expropriated edifice is being remodeled and, according to the government, it should be open in 2012. But they’ve fallen behind schedule; at the end of 2010, the government planned to open the first two floors, or about 10 rooms, yet when we arrived only the lobby was open to the public. What we saw looked like a Caracas of a different age – luscious red carpets, a fireplace big enough to house a bonfire, high ceilings and glass walls – far removed from the graffiti, the stone walls, and the electric fences that fill the city today.

Outside the hotel, every brush against my arm or my backpack warranted a thorough search of all pockets and pouches to ensure all was where it should be. The fear – irrational fear – had followed me up the mountain. Now that I think about it, would somebody really have wanted to steal a peanut butter and jelly sandwich out of my backpack when there were subsidized arepas around the corner?

Starving from our long hike, we headed towards Galipán, a pueblito of about 2,500. Many of the residents there make a living renting out B&Bs that, perched on the north side of the mountain, offer breathtaking views of the Caribbean (image 3). Others own 4x4s and ferry tourists, local and otherwise, along the treacherous road between Caracas and Pico Humboldt. Still others run restaurants or sell candies or handmade goods. But the first sign we saw of this tourist economy were horses carrying their passengers towards the arch and broken fountain that mark this village’s entrance.

Exhausted, we sat down and tried to consume all the energy we had expended. I ordered a cachapa, a sweet corn pancake folded omelet-style and filled with queso blanco, and guayoyo, the typical Venezuelan coffee, a medium-roast brewed thick and consumed in small doses.

We left Galipán via one of the aforementioned 4x4s. It carried us to the cable railway (I like the Spanish better: teleférico) (image 4), which turned our two and a half our hike into a ten-minute slide down the mountain. From there, we drove home and, showered, fell into the hammock for the next few hours. Finally, I felt safe.

The funny thing is, the fear isn’t mine alone. Every conversation I’ve had regarding my trip has followed the same trajectory, the endpoint being, “Don’t worry, I’ll be careful.” Nor does this fear belong strictly to Americans. At the movies in Caracas, a friend told me,  “Next time, Charlie, try to under dress.” And Claudia, the other day, thought a group of motorcycles might’ve been up to no good. I spent the rest of the car ride monitoring every biker in our vicinity.

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Lessons in Serendipity

Time January 18th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

ser·en·dip·i·ty [ser-uhn-dip-i-tee] – noun

1. an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.

2. good fortune; luck.

There has been a change of plans.

All of us, sooner or later, recognize that everything is not under our control. Some of us chalk this up to God, some to fortune or luck. But me, I give credit to Columbia University’s Office of Financial Aid.

The university reduced my grants this semester because it costs less to live in Peru. It makes sense, but I was told that while studying abroad my financial aid wouldn’t change. That students in Paris and students in Peru receive the same amount of money and are expected to get by. I’ve done what I can do, but without written proof of what I was told, I don’t have a strong case to push with the University.

All of which is to say that I will not be traveling in Colombia and Ecuador this winter.

But two weeks ago I met Claudia’s uncle, a high-ranking member of the International Labor Organization and resident of Lima. We had the cocktail-version of an intellectual conversation (the conversations a liberal arts degree most prepares one for), and it went well enough that by the end of the night my new uncle invited me to stay at his house. I’ve purchased my tickets, and I will arrive in Lima by way of Bogotá on February 17, 11 days before my program begins. Because I won’t be spending money on hotels/hostels, I should have enough to explore Lima and the surrounding areas before the program begins. ¿Cheverísimo, no?

And the news gets better. I never thought I would have the opportunity to see more of Venezuela than Caracas, but at the beginning of February I’ll be traveling with Claudia’s mother and grandparents to Maracaibo, a port city in western Venezuela. I’ve been told two things about Maracaibo: it’s hot, and they make really good cheese. So hopefully I’ll have a couple dispatches for you all from the hot cheesy port city in a few weeks.

It’s amazing the kind of things life throws at you if you’re willing to play ball. My travels, if nothing else, are teaching me to take advantage of opportunities that come my way while I’m going with the flow. I may not be doing what I planned to do, but I don’t think I could’ve planned anything this incredible anyways.

One final example: last night, I was invited to a birthday party of a friend of mine. There was no question in my mind about going – not only would we get to celebrate his birthday, but I would get to talk to new people, work on my Spanish, and hear Venezuelan music.

Forty people squeezed into the living room of an apartment. Thirty-six were musicians, including some of the most famous in Venezuela, like Aquiles Baez and the singer from a band called Mayonesa Guayanesa. Whoever didn’t have a guitar, cuatro, mandolin, cello, maracas, etc. in hand was singing along to traditional Venezuelan music, Argentine tangos, and even songs in Portuguese. The music filled the room, poured out the door, and spilled out of the window onto the street. People were laughing at the traditional contrapunteo, in which a man and a woman alternate improvising song lines directed at one another. They cried when a woman sang a love song she wrote, and they erupted in laughter again when a late arrival performed his musical stand-up routine, a multi-pronged assault on the slang of Venezuela.

Life became surreal as the significance of what I was seeing and hearing grew on me. I chuckled to myself, wondering, how did I get here? I didn’t know the answer, but I was glad to be along for the ride.

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Sí valdrá la pena

Time January 4th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

March, 2004 – the first time I traveled alone. I was thirteen, nearly fourteen, a middle school student flying to Philadelphia to visit my brother and sister-in-law. As an “unaccompanied minor,” I had to wear a badge around my neck with “U.M.” spelled in white block letters on a scarlet background. I tried to hide it under my jacket, but the woman who led me from the ticket counter to the plane demanded it remain in plain view.

In Philadelphia, I was driven around the airport until I saw my brother. When our eyes met I yelled, “Seth!” and I told the guard, “That’s him, over there.” Still, the security guard made my brother present his identification.

I knew who he was; why did he have to identify himself? I thought. I was furious. Why wouldn’t the airline let me be? Why did they make me wear these humiliating letters? Everything they did took away my autonomy and made public my age and immaturity, the two things I wanted to escape by flying solo.

Now, I see that me circa 2004 knew that traveling opens up opportunities, and I was flustered when others prevented me from exploring these. I had the ability, for this short flight, to be me on my terms and nobody else’s. It was my chance to see a big city, to find out what else the world has to offer, and that scarlet badge hindered me.

Now, in some ways, I wish I could have that badge back, to have somebody watching over me as I travel. My family was in Philadelphia to be my guide; this time, I’m travelling alone. Nobody at the airport, no home to go to, nothing. The potential to remake myself is greater than ever before, but so is the potential to become lost – lost in the city, or lost to myself.

Ultimately, this is what drives me to make this adventure: the opportunity to free myself of both my preconceived notions of the world and the world’s preconceived notions of me. Each, in the end, allows us to know ourselves better; the absence of labels permits us to visit worlds that were once out of reach, to see how or where we fit into the galaxy of personalities and peoples that populate our planet.

All of which isn’t to say it’s an easy process. I suspect that more than one out of every five Americans would have a passport if it were otherwise (http://www.usatoday.com/travel/news/2005-09-01-passports_x.htm). There will be misunderstandings and fear; I will struggle and second-guess myself from time to time. But there will also be elation and wonder amidst all this adventure.

What I’m trying to say is, this trip vale la pena. Generally translated as “worthwhile,” vale la pena literally means, “it’s worth the pain (or embarrassment, etc.).” And my travels, studies, mishaps and more will, in the end, be worthwhile.

I began my travels Tuesday, December 28, when I flew from Newark to Caracas, to celebrate the New Year with my girlfriend and her family. From here, I’ll be flying to Colombia in late-January, where I will hopefully see the beach at El Parque Nacional Tayrona, the salt mine cathedral at Zipaquirá, and more. Then I’m off to Ecuador in mid-February for a currently uncharted trip, and finally to Lima, Perú at the end of the month to begin my studies abroad.

I hope to share with you pictures, conversations, meals, etc. that I experience along the way. I hope to illuminate a few aspects of what it means to travel and what it’s like to live in foreign places. I will put myself out there, both on the ground and online, in hopes that such honesty will lead to the most honest discoveries.

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