Alyssa's Peace Corps Megadventure

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Shut it down.

It’s been nearly six months since I landed back in the U.S. with 80 pounds of my nearest and dearest worn-out clothing and cultural memorabilia, and I’ve been feeling like writing, despite my lack of appropriate medium. So this is my turning out the lights at Cheers, my “Yeah, Buffy, what are we going to do now?” slow grin, my sudden cut to black in the middle of “Don’t Stop Believin’” moment. Indulge me. Or not.

I guess that brings me to my first point about not being in the Peace Corps anymore. Not being in the Peace Corps anymore takes away your obvious interestingness, and interestingness is the main reason to keep a blog. That’s more of a personal requirement (clearly, people find a way around it), but the thing you don’t necessarily realize when you’re doing it is that being in the Peace Corps is interesting. All the time. Just going about your daily life is interesting. ESPECIALLY going about your daily life is interesting. You’re keenly aware that you’re interesting to your host country nationals; countless stories of children staring in Volunteer’s windows have proven that. But I took it for granted that whenever I felt like updating my blog, if a month or a few weeks or even a single week had gone by, I would have amassed enough interesting (to my family and friends, to people who read PC blogs habitually, to America at large) life experience to blog about it. That’s not really the case in post-Peace Corps American living. I may find my water cooler interactions totally fascinating, but you probably don’t, and I’m comfortable with that. But it’s an adjustment.

Before I get into the litany of other post-Peace Corps adjustments and whining about reverse culture shock (I’m not even sure if that’s where this is going, but it feels inevitable), a word on this blog. This blog was unwittingly kind of a big deal. I feel creepy and self-aggrandizing even saying that, but it was true in several ways, not all of which are completely self-serving. First, I got occasional messages from people, some I knew, some I didn’t, telling me that this blog had impacted their decision to join the Peace Corps. Since these were all from people who joined the Peace Corps, I can only assume they meant in a good way. This is huge to me, because I never set out to write touchy-feely vignettes about how beautiful living in another culture is and oh how these people go about their lives so happy despite having so little and I feel that just by being here I’m really doing good in the world, which one would assume would be the obvious kind of essays that would serve that purpose. It makes me profoundly happy that some people saw meaning that I didn’t in my musings on peeing in buckets and eating cheese and getting bitten by fleas.

Second, this blog got me my dream job. I am not kidding. The back story: two months ago I got a job in Annapolis, Maryland in land conservation. This job continually blows my mind with its awesomeness. When I got the job, the first thing my now-boss told me was, “Alyssa, I have to be honest with you about how we picked you.” This could have gone a lot of unsatisfying ways, but what he told me was that, during the applicant screening process, he couldn’t sleep one night, and thought, “I just want to know more about who these people are!” Some Googling transpired, and I have a weird name and some online traffic, so this blog came up, and, quote, “…It was hilarious!” He then breathlessly recounted this entry and closed with “ was funny stuff.” This was also totally self-serving, because if I want two things in life, it’s to be considered funny and to have awesome jobs.

Third, this blog got me a date with an interesting dude one time. Two weeks after I got back, I was bringing in 2009 in an appropriately inebriated fashion on a dance floor in Adams Morgan where both really good and really bad nights both begin and end, dancing with a dude who was ostensibly interesting enough for me to invite out to do karaoke on my birthday (two days later). He deemed me ostensibly interesting enough to concede that he was totally about some karaoke, and when he showed up two nights later, I thought little of the fact that he had probably internally debated whether or not I was as cool as I seemed while screaming my basic life facts over the pop music I didn’t recognize due to my two-year absence, falling over in my heels, and ultimately vomiting outside the Jumbo Slice. This is starting to read like my college livejournal, so I’ll cut to the chase and note that he had done his own Googling in those first days of 2009, found this blog, and decided that I was indeed as worthwhile a date as I seemed. (I can’t tell this story without noting that, after the Googling and blog-reading, he simply responded, “Oh, really?” when I mentioned that I’d kept a blog in Peru. To be fair, I would have done the same thing.) So there you go. Join the Peace Corps, keep a blog, influence people’s lives, get a sweet job, go on good dates. It worked for me.

This brings me to my first point about culture shock, etc.: living the dream, or not. I was a totally manageable amount of homesick during my two years in Peru. It never got so bad that I considered quitting, but I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about my mom when I was sick, about the joys of indoor plumbing when I fell in the mud getting to (or worse, from) the shower, about black bean burritos all the freaking time. I’ve realized since then that, more than being homesick, my friends and I were forward-thinking. We thought about and planned our lives post-Peace Corps all the time. We planned a reality that, while being totally feasible in theory, would have been vaguely mid-‘90s sitcom-y in practice. We were all going to live in the big city (DC, for obvious enough reasons), share apartments with each other, work at federal jobs obtained with our post-Peace Corps eligibility, maybe have some pets, and moreover, eat burritos together all the time.

I realized I’m speaking for “we” when I think I’m more speaking of the plan I had for myself and the friends I had cast in this fantasy life. I think these plans were borne of a multitude of factors. An undeniably huge one for me was that I was in a relationship that wasn’t going to withstand the inception of our post-PC lives, and needed to imagine a life I could get excited about. But the fantasy was also the result of general life-transition anxiety, the desire to establish permanence with the people who had just accompanied me on this huge life milestone, and the feeling of total autonomy that being in the Peace Corps gives you.

A word on that sense of autonomy: when you’re actually in the Peace Corps, you feel pretty constrained. And in some senses, you are. You have to project a certain image knowing that you and therefore Peace Corps and America are constantly being judged; having the same conversations over and over with the same people can feel totally mind-numbing; and Peace Corps as an institution of course has its culture of rules and regulations that can feel pretty irrationally oppressive. But take a moment to appreciate the freedoms you DO have as a Peace Corps Volunteer, because they’re pretty amazing. The quote that always pops in my head when I think about this is from MGMT’s “Time To Pretend”: “I miss the boredom and the freedom and the time spent alone.” So you want to make starting a vegetable garden your work for which you get paid? You can do it! Of course, you’ll have to judge whether that’s a good use of your time, if your town actually wants a garden, and all those smart-people theoretical exercises, but the point is, you get paid for doing whatever work you want to get paid for. That is truly incredible. Also, issues with Peace Corps vacation policy notwithstanding, you get a full MONTH of vacation per year. And in Peru, you can up and get on a bus any day and go anywhere in the country that you could ever want to go. And you can afford to do so, because there is no expectation that you’ll spend your $300 a month in a sensible fashion, because there IS no insensible way to spend such a laughably small amount of money! Truly. Incredible.

The point is, being in the Peace Corps makes you feel like you can do anything when you get back. I’m speaking unconsciously from an immediately post-undergrad view, keep in mind. But when you look at your options going back, nothing seems impossible because they’re all so silly and out-of-context and equally inconvenient. My thoughts were basically that I had to move SOMEWHERE, and when you’re in your adobe house without indoor plumbing in rural northern Peru, the difference between suburban Detroit and Washington, DC seems pretty minimal. And after you’ve stretched your limits so ridiculously far outside your comfort zone, does moving from one metropolis in your first-world native land to another seem at all daunting? Of course not.

(Side note, I have no idea why this is all coming out in the second person, but I don’t feel like fighting it. Loren Sanders, who suggested I give this blog some closure, I guess this is for you.)

But the thing is, it IS hard. Peace Corps doesn’t turn you into a superhuman, impervious to transitional difficulties. Sure, it makes you more adaptable within a certain, ridiculous set of circumstances (i.e., “Oh, this meeting is starting 3 hours late? Whatevs, more time to discuss the upcoming corn harvest for the 82374th time), but life is hard! Being a post-college 20-something and moving and starting your first Job and finding a place to live and making friends: HARD. (Suddenly, it’s like you were speaking to my soul, the Rembrandts.) And that’s saying nothing of the initial process of finding a job, which in case you haven’t heard, is INSANELY HARD these days. Peace Corps is of course hard too, so please don’t read this as total hindsight revisionist bullshit. But in the Peace Corps, you’re kind of operating with a safety net. So many things are up in the air (i.e., what kind of work am I going to do this month? Am I about to systematically expel all the calories in my body?), but so many things aren’t. You know where you live (except when you don’t, but that gets resolved), how much you get paid, where you will acquire your next meal, your general schedule for the next month or so. I think writing about 20-something malaise in the general sense is the tritest move I could make, so I’ll move on.

Back to my friends and our Big Plans. My friend Casey in particular and I would spend hours on her straw mattress in Peru, making Big Plans for DC. And now we’re here (well, she’s there, I’m in what is often referred to as DC’s bedroom community, but we’ll get to that later), living the dream. And now Casey is leaving. Because, as it turns out, Casey hates DC. And I’m sad, because she’s my friend and I won’t be able to see her every weekend and I’ll miss her company, but a part of me is deeply disappointed, because this was NOT the plan. And how creepy of me is that? But it hits at something bigger: our lives post-Peace Corps were initially a logistical checklist. We needed acceptable clothing, to see everyone in our social circle that we dearly missed, to get a job/car/apartment/health insurance/LIFE. Slowly, we got all those things, and each step was a huge victory that made us so inwardly happy and so proud of each other. And then we realized that, well, we had caught up with the rest of America, and like the rest of America, that didn’t necessarily mean we were happy. That’s not to say that we’re not happy, of course, just that we’re working on it. And it’s a process, like everything else.

Of course I set out thinking this would be a list of organized thoughts on life post-Peace Corps, with living the dream being the first point, and something about reverse culture shock would be the second point, and so on, but I don’t think I have much to say about anything else. America: it’s not Peru. Sometimes I eavesdrop on people speaking Spanish on the street and get bummed out that it would be completely inappropriate for me to join their conversation. Sometimes I get sad when people ask dumb questions about Peru, but I usually don’t. Sometimes I tell people I was in the Peace Corps and they say something weird and judgmental and I can’t always figure out what set of stereotypes they’re operating from (British people, I’m mostly looking at you). Sometimes, I feel like having to get in my own car and drive to go most places is its own form of imprisonment, but sometimes I like it. A lot of times, I tell somebody I was in the Peace Corps and they say sad things about how they always wish they’d done something like that when they were younger, and I just don’t know what to say, because though anyone can do it, Peace Corps’s not for everyone. It was a specific confluence of factors, youth quite admittedly top among them, that made it work for me. And it DID work, in a less than spectacular but still meaningful to me way. And that’s about it.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Gourmandizing? Just a taste.

Since I’m at a loss to write about the significant things going on as of late, including my friend Katie’s visit and my sitemate Rachel’s permanent departure from Santo Domingo, I will just write an entry about what a good food day I had today.

Those who know me know that, though I’m not a picky eater exactly and I do enjoy food immensely, I sort of suck at eating. I accept that there are things I am good at in life and things that I am not. Eating goes on the list with “any sport involving a ball” and “finding my way around a paper bag, let alone a major city.” I just can’t eat much at any given time, unless it’s dessert. And yet I’m usually hungry. If Alyssa ruled the world, there would be approximately eight mealtimes throughout a day.

This, as you might guess, has only been an impediment to me as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Latin America. It’s just expected that we can eat to please, and I simply can’t do it, no matter how fully I comprehend how much it means to people to have someone like their food, and that there’s no other way to express that you like the food other than to clear your plate. I have devoted my nearly two years of service to finding other ways to get people to like me, with mixed results.

So imagine my surprise when I’m sitting with my surrogate mom, Teo, outside our friend Sarela’s house, and I find my eating skills complimented. Some other campo-types were sitting on their stoops watching the donkeys go by, and after the initial “how’s your family (we’re afraid to ask why there’s a white girl sitting next to you)” conversation directed solely at Teo, one of the señoras asked Teo, “So, what does she eat?”

I find this question hilarious because it seems like the kind of thing you ask about someone’s exotic pet, not another human being, i.e. “I see you have an iguana, what does it eat?” At this point, to my great delight, Teo (who has fed me lunch virtually every day since I got here, and has therefore fed her dogs literally hundreds of pounds of my uneaten rice) responds proudly, “She eats everything!” (putting me on par with, say, a raccoon). “Everything?” the señora gasps. “Everything,” Teo answers definitively.

I point out all the ways this is blatantly untrue. I don’t eat liver, heart, or intestines of any animal. This is quickly acknowledged, with the admission that what I’ve said is true, intestines do have a weird texture. Teo maybe slips the point in that, while I eat everything, I don’t eat much of anything. This is also quickly acknowledged, because, the señora says, how else would I have such a hot body? Have I mentioned how great Peru has been for my self esteem? But then the señora begins gushing about how great it is that a girl my age from the U.S. would eat EVERYTHING and oh how it must be so great to have the privilege of feeding me ALL SORTS OF FOOD every day. I personally think the United States needs a lot more señoras like this, in select locations like freshman college dorms and the city of Los Angeles.

Anyway, back to all the rico stuff I ate today.

Breakfast: I woke up early and went for a somewhat unsuccessful run on the highway, came back to my room, and heard the announcement on the loudspeaker that someone had killed a pig this morning and one of the restaurants in town was selling “mote con chancho.” Mote probably has an English translation, given the great amount of corn in the U.S., but I have no clue what it is. Mote is (I think) really young, big kernels of corn boiled with ash to scrape off the harder shell, and then served cold. It doesn’t taste like much, but is a satisfying texture and a really good complement to salty things. Chancho is just the Peruvian word for pig, in this case, chunks of friend pork meat served on the bone. I had never gone out to this restaurant (a.k.a. someone’s house with some tables in the front room) because I used to worry a lot about food hygiene, but after a million IDODOs (Intestinal Disturbances of Dubious Origin) from things like Italian food in guidebook-recommended restaurants and a total lack of IDODOs from things like pig intestines in campo houses that lack running water, I decided that you just never know what will get you, so you might as well eat whatever you want. And mote con chancho just sounded good this morning. So I found the restaurant and was promptly served a plate of mote with about six chunks of greasy pork. Yum. And a good portion for me. But then, just as I was on about chunk number four, an old man who presumably lives at the house walked out of the kitchen with a plate of about four more chunks, grinning adorably, and wordlessly put the plate in front of me. Thank you, sir, don’t mind if I do…force-feed myself.

At this point I have found an easy transition to give a shout out to recently departed (from site, not from this earth) sitemate Rachel Levy. Rachel and I kept it real at this site together for a year and nine months, and I will not say whether or not the following poem was written during this time or long before, but however you take it, it is way more hilarious than anything I could ever write here.

“Meat,” by Rachel Levy

Cow meat,
Track meat,
Red, brown, burnt meat,
Dark meat, white meat,
Those are just a few.
Lean meat,
Fat meat,
Ground, chunky, small meat,
Bacon meat, beef meat,
Jerky meat, too.
Sausage meat,
Pork meat,
Don’t forget pig meat.
Last of all, best of all,
I like fried chicken meat.

Rachel, you will be sorely missed.

So back to my great food day. We’re now to mid-morning, when I always get hungry between the 8 a.m. breakfast and the Teo 2 p.m. lunch (most other people eat lunch around 1, but Teo does what she wants). A couple days ago, my friend Ingeniera Luz brought me a jar of grapefruit jelly she made. The grapefruits here aren’t as good as the ones in the U.S. (I think I say this objectively, not with the bias of someone whose grandpa sent a boxes of citrus fruits from Florida to Michigan in the dead of winter every year of her childhood). They’re more sour and less juicy, and the people here don’t really like them, but nothing can be called a grapefruit and not get my approval. The jelly is particularly sour, but I eat it on soda crackers and thoroughly enjoy it. And then I read some more “East of Eden” and pass out until very nearly lunch time. The electricity was out all day, which really eases the occurrence of naps.

Sometime between breakfast and lunch there is an earthquake and everyone laughs at me for running out of the adobe house in a timely fashion. Oh, silly gringa and her constant desires not to have a house fall on her.

And then it’s lunch, where I get the extremely pleasant surprise of MASHED POTATOES. Potatoes are native to Peru, and there are a ton of native potato species here. I think the number is around 4,000, but I also think the number gets bigger every time I hear it. What there is not a huge variety of, generally speaking, is how the potatoes are prepared. Boiled, sliced, put on the plate. Sigh. Sometimes it’s served in an extremely watery stew form with cilantro, which I have none of, because cilantro tastes like soap. But Teo and Teo alone, as far as I know, has mastered the art of the Peruvian mashed potato. I quickly tell her I don’t want any rice, just mashed potatoes, fried chicken (meat), cabbage and carrot salad, and lemonade. There are tangerines for dessert because it’s Sunday and we always get dessert on Sunday.

An hour or so after lunch I want a sweet snack, so I buy some (Nabisco-produced) chocolate-covered soda crackers, which blow my mind with their awesomeness, as usual. I’m all for the letter-writing campaign proposed by my friend Cynthia to get Nabisco to manufacture ChokoSodas stateside.

Sometime between lunch and dinner I go visit my friend Klepto Maria, who lived in my house when she was pregnant with her now 15-month old son, and steals. She is wearing a shirt that was, at one point, mine. Oh, silly gringa and her desires to dry her clothes on a clothesline. Sometimes people have the power not to surprise you. I still enjoy her company, though.

And then it’s around 5, and Teo and I go up to our friend Sarela’s house, where the aforementioned interaction about my eating skills takes place. When Sarela gets back, we eat “quesillo con miel.” Quesillo is (I think) an extremely fresh incarnation of cheese, eaten before cheese has really developed any strong flavor. It has the texture of cottage cheese, but without discernible curdles. Miel is the Spanish word for honey, but in this is case “miel de caña de azucar,” which I think is molasses. Some genius discovered at some point that these two foods are delicious together, and Teo and I gorge ourselves on this mixture and have to make a concerted effort to leave some for her daughter Maricarmen. I point out that we are eating an analogy for something that moves slowly. I am met with weird looks.

And then I pack for my trip to Lima tomorrow, and then it’s dinner time. This is the only non-Peruvian meal of the day, though I think it was made Peruvian by the fact that I bought all the ingredients here, made it last night in my very bare-bones kitchen, reheated it tonight, and shared it with Teo, who liked it quite a lot. It was eggplant in a homemade red sauce with pasta. Teo, as Rachel can attest, has the funny habit of asking if her food was good, even when it’s, one, something she herself didn’t make, or two, something she makes every day without variation, for example, her mom’s cheese or her white rice, respectively. Don’t think I didn’t enjoy turning it back on her. “Teo, did you like my eggplant? Huh? Wasn’t that good eggplant? Did you eat it all? Wasn’t it delicious?” An interesting fact about the fresh basil I used is that it is grown by the workers of the trash project in a small garden outside the storage room using the compost the project itself makes from the town’s organic waste. Now you know.

And now it’s ten o’clock and time to curl up with Mr. Steinbeck and pray for no fleas.

An aside: about a year and a half ago, a fellow UM alum named Greg sent me a really nice email about how he read this blog and identified with a lot of the things I wrote, and was curious about northern Peruvian cuisine. I never responded, which was sloppy and generally not how I roll, and I’ve felt bad whenever I’ve remembered since, so I hope he still reads this so I can say I’m sorry and doesn’t he wish he had some mote con chancho right now?

Monday, July 21, 2008


I have not been feeling particularly motivated in the work arena lately. This is probably due to a few ephemeral reasons: my sitemate Rachel is finishing up, which is giving me unjustified almost-done feelings; my work partner Jorge has been super busy with potable water things that don't directly involve me; and I am looking at two solid weeks out of site starting this Friday, for Fiestas Patrias vacation in the central sierra city of Ayacucho, for work in Lima on the Peace Corps environmental newsletter, and for a super-exciting visit from my friend Katie from home.

But I think mostly I'm just kind of pooped. Peace Corps plays a weird game with your natural sense of motivation, your "inner ganas," and Rachel and I call it. I understand that most people in the world go to work in the morning, and stay there pretty much all day, and do that at least five days a week. I understand that work is generally what people do with their lives. So people must have pretty powerful motivation to go to work, no? I'm guessing that, in the real world, your motivations for working are mostly practical: if you don't go to work, you will get fired, and if you get fired, you will not be able to eat, go to movies, furnish your apartment, buy sweaters, etc. I'll concede that there might be some motivation more along the lines of "If I don't go to work, what will I do all day?" But I'll bet that even if you love your job, that's not WHY you go to it every day. That's more a fun bonus.

The thing about Peace Corps work is, if you don't go to it, if you sit in your hammock and read or watch television or hang out with your neighbors all day, you'll still be able to afford food and movies and furnishings and sweaters about the same as if you show up at 9 every day. You're not being paid by the people to whom you are accountable, which is an odd disconnect. So you're not really going to work for anything but the sheer desire to get things done in your community. And, if you're me, this motivation kind of wanes over the course of two years. I'm confronted by my own laziness a lot more often than I thought I might be. A lot of time it feels like things will stay more or less the same whether or not I show up, and I like reading and watching television and hanging out with my neighbors, so why go to the office? I may not even have anything to do when I get there, depending on my counterpart's level of busyness.

I guess this sort of odd to write about, since I feel like PCVs are generally in the position of being the cheerleaders, the sole motivated people, fighting against other people's apathy, grateful for any kind of productive activity. And I'm often in this camp. So maybe what I'm writing about isn't so much my inner ganas running out as much as a slump. We'll see. Stay tuned.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Not another blog post about me itching, I promise.

It's been a weird morning.

First of all, I slept the sleep of the flea-infested last night, so I did not wake up this morning particularly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Mostly I was just itchy and in need of caffeine. So I sprayed dangerous chemicals on my mattress, hung my comforter out in the sun (supposedly, this kills fleas, I'm not sure it doesn't just put the comforter in the way of more fleas), and made mental plans to wash my sheets FOR REAL THIS TIME.

And then I ate breakfast (big mistake, as I would soon find out), and went up the hill to the house of a woman, Ester, who's on the environmental commission, to see about some plots of land where we might put a "green area." It's yet unclear what constitutes a "green area," whether it will be ornamental plants or some sort of something edible. Since the land technically belongs to Vaso de Leche (a government program that gives needy children milk and avena), I think we should make an effort to plant something nutritious, radishes maybe, since it sort of jibes with the whole nutrition goal, but of course there's a tendency to just plant things that are pretty, like roses or calla lilies. I don't pretend to know anything about making stuff grow, so I'm bringing in a consultant in the form of my friend Juan. Hopefully we can come up with a compromise.

As I was leaving Ester's house, a woman I don't know beckoned me from her balcony. She invited me in, we had the normal talk about the weather and how much more pleasant it is here than in Lima, and I just kept waiting for the "regálame" shoe to drop, for her to ask me for something, but I think she was just old and lonely and wanted to talk about how miserable she was. She offered me breakfast, which I did not want even a little, but it seemed polite and like a way around participating actively in the conversation, since her accent/thought process was somewhat hard to follow. The conversation sort of reminded me of one I had once with another old campo woman I didn't know, where she was talking about her kids and how miserably ungrateful they are (a common thread among conversations with old campo people, really):
Me: How many children do you have?
Señora: Oh, I've had various.
This could have been interpreted as both a sad statement on infant mortality and a real-life application of the "it takes a village to raise a child" concept. Anyway, this woman today, Clara, served me coffee and tamales and cheese. Tamales are okay in small quantities, but when there are four on the plate looking back at you, it becomes sort of inevitable that they are tube-shaped corn glue. I ate as much as I could, giving my gag reflex a run for its money, while she expounded upon her miserableness. At one point, she started talking about how much she likes "extranjeras," and said something like this: "People who come from other countries are always so nice. Peruvians can be so snobby, some won't even shake a poor man's hand. But people from other countries go hiking and are nice to people." I found this statement somewhat odd, until I remembered that the only "extranjeros" this woman had ever met were Peace Corps Volunteers. And, it's true, we are pleasant. And generally amenable to hiking.

I guess the weirdness of this morning was really only this one moment: as I was walking down the hill, a man, the smell of sugar cane liquor on his breath, ran up to me, shouting "Gringuita! Gringuita!" I normally would have avoided this particular kind of situation, but I was far too full of corn glue to be quick on my feet. He kept welcoming me to Santo Domingo, ignoring my assertions that I have lived here for closing in on two years, and finally said something that sounded like "God Bless You." I demurred, and he persisted, finally saying something like "Do the sign of the cross" with an indicative gesture. Um, okay. So I crossed myself, adding the Latin American hand-kiss at the end. "No," he said, "Bless ME." Um...okay. So I gave him the sign of the cross, something which I feel entirely unqualified to do. Luckily he was too drunk to notice I had done it backwards (I'm guessing that when you cross someone else, you go right-left instead of left-right, but what do I know).

The last time I went to Mass was Easter, when I went to the cathedral in Cusco with my parents, where they were playing a song on the organ that sounded vaguely familiar. I looked around and saw old Cusqueña women reveling, practically in tears, singing this song. I originally thought it must be a song I remembered from going to Mass in the U.S., but then I recognized the tune: Bob Dylan's "Blowin' the Wind." I thought there must be some mistake, until I listened carefully and heard both the words for "blow" and "wind." The last time I had been to Mass before this they had also played something that sounded suspiciously like the Last Supper scene in "Jesus Christ, Superstar" (Always hoped that I'd be an apostle/Knew that I would make it if I tried...) which I now recognize to be just that, and not an old hymn that Andrew Lloyd Webber sampled, as I had originally hoped. So these two instances, along with the drunk man's demands of blessing from a gringa today, are making a lasting impression of the odd relationship between Peruvian Catholic spirituality and unwitting Americans.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Pee buckets, parades, and porcupines

After another relaxing weekend of “it’s just not a weekend if I have to leave my apartment”-ness, I thought it was time to give this blog some love. Every time I do this, that is, indulge my hermitage for days at a time, I start to feel a little bad. Namely, I start to feel like Nadege, the 23-year-old French teacher who lived with my family for some three months when I was twelve (I suppose now she’s 33). Nadege was moody. She had a Portuguese fiancée whom she was quite fond of, and she seemed to be in a perpetual malaise about getting herself into a situation that required spending three months away from him. She dealt with this malaise primarily by sitting by herself in the rocking chair in the living room, drinking orange juice with ice in it, and watching daytime reruns of “Beverly Hills, 90210.” I know that suburban Detroit might be somewhat disappointing to a 20-something European intent on seeing the United States in all its glory, but what I remember most about her being here was the feeling that my family was trying really hard to reach out to her, to do fun things like take a weekend trip to Chicago, and she just seemed impossible to please. Nadege was in sharp contrast to Yann, the 17-year-old French exchange student who stayed with us some three weeks the previous year, when I was eleven, who was awesome. We made him eat cookie dough (repulsion led quickly to awe) and drink apple cider (Yann loved him some apple cider) and took him to Chicago to buy these extremely specific shoes at Niketown and we were very sad when he left. A lot of conversations with Yann went like this:
Family member: Hey Yann, want to do X (go to the grocery store, for example)
Yann (in an imitable French accent): Why not!

When I left for the Peace Corps, one of the last things my mom said to me was, “I hope you remember to be more like Yann than like Nadege.” And I feel like I have done a lot of Yann-like things here in Santo Domingo. I’ve jumped off branches into the freezing cold swimming hole in my underwear, I’ve judged beauty pageants (yes, pageants, plural), I’ve helped name babies, I’ve stayed out dancing until 5 a.m., I’ve donated volley/soccer balls for high school field days, I’ve gone to church on Christmas, I’ve broken and chewed sugar cane with my bare hands, and I’ve eaten pig intestines all in the name of the cultural experience. But then there are weekends like this where I can’t help but feel decidedly Nadege-like, and then I think about the distinction between her abroad experience and mine, and I can mainly boil it down to two statements:

A, 3 months ≠ 2 years.
B, France (I don’t remember what part): Suburban Detroit ≠ Suburban Detroit: Rural Peru.

In two years, you can’t help but be yourself. Two years is long enough to get into spats with your neighbors and then make up with them, it’s long enough to teach people to high-five in appropriate situations and to use “okay” correctly, it’s long enough to really hone your personal guacamole recipe. You can suck it up and do things for three months that you can’t bring yourself to do for two years. A good example for me is cold showers. I really hate cold showers. In the three months I lived with a host family in Lima, I sucked it up and took cold showers because three months wasn’t long enough to find an alternative. Within three months of getting to my two-year site in Santo Domingo, though, I figured out that it’s pretty great to heat a kettle of water, carry it down the hill to the shower, mix it with the cold water in a tub, and dump buckets of warm water over my head. I’m not saying there aren’t some two-year quality-of-life concessions. A good example for me is my pee bucket. I tend not to discuss my pee bucket with friends and family in the United States, because I think it weirds them out, but now I’m saying it to the internet at large, I pee in a bucket. All the time. Not just when it’s raining, not just when it’s dark, not just when there’s no running water (though that’s how it started). Peeing in a bucket was one concession I really had no problem with, after the first week or so, and I generally forget that peeing in a bucket is unusual. Those two instances, cold showers and my pee bucket, are combination examples of point A and point B, I suppose. I’m sure there were things about living in our house that even Yann wouldn’t have been able to put up with for two years without some give-and-take, but I’m also pretty sure living with us wasn’t much a plunge in quality of life for either of them, so maybe Nadege could have put on a happy face and gone to the supermarket with us every once in a while. I’m sure they were both homesick and occasionally exhausted (from speaking a second language, from working, from culture shock), but you can put homesickness and exhaustion on delay (or at least relegate it to one or two days a week) when you know there’s a definite end to it on the horizon. The homesickness and exhaustion in two years just feels kind of infinite, and that’s why I sit in the hammock for an entire weekend and watch “Weeds” on my laptop (Rocking chair = hammock, “Weeds” > “Beverly Hills, 90210,” and who puts ice in orange juice?).

Things have been pretty busy lately (entire weekends in the hammock are also a manner of pacing myself to ward off exhaustion when it’s a 3-week stretch at site). This past Thursday was World Environment Day, and my environmental commission organized a day of environmental education and awareness. I had planned a more strictly “education” day with one of the colegios, since I think that’s often what lacks in this type of holidays here. All the kids have to make posters and banners and costumes, surely cutting into classroom time, all saying “Save the environment!” without ever learning about what sort of practical steps they can take to do so. So when we brought this up with the commission, their first thoughts were, “Let’s have a parade!” They did this, but only after a two-hour environmental education session in one of the colegios, soon to be replicated in the other one. The younger kids (11-12 years old) stayed in the colegio and did a cleanup day, as well as a contest about guessing decomposition times for different kinds of trash, and the older kids (13-14-15 years old) had a field trip down to the three sites involved in the waste management system in Santo Domingo: the compost piles, the house where all the inorganic waste and recyclables get separated, and the landfill. The events of this day are perhaps best told in pictures, so here:

I had to make three speeches about the environment before lunch, a record.

Cool guayaquil trash cans that the kids in wood shop made!

Jorge explains composting to these kids.

I made worksheets.

Kids dressed up for the parade.


I'm still unclear on the practical message here. Noooo indeed.

You can never go wrong with a kid dressed like a tree. And a kid behind him carrying a bag that says "cloud."

The little kids picked up trash in the plaza.

The trash workers led the parade.

The environmentally-minded kids from every school met afterwards to watch end of the world videos. Here they are picking up the trash in the municipal auditorium.

And then, after that exhausting day of activities when all I could think about was a nap, my counterpart Jorge informed me that we were going to eat some celebratory ceviche. When I met him at the restaurant, there were already two large beers on the table, and he immediately and appropriately asked me if I wanted a pop, but I did not. The social situations in Santo Domingo in which I find it is acceptable/safe for a señorita such as myself to drink alcohol are few and far between, and I wanted some cerveza. And there went the afternoon. It looked like this.

I’ve always been pretty fond of Jorge as a work partner, but spending an afternoon drinking with him (along with Wilmer and Juan, who work in our office) established that he and I are really on the same page about a lot of things. We were discussing one teacher, who, at the end-of-the-world video event, told me to tell Jorge he thought we were scaring the kids, and then, as soon as Jorge made a “don’t be scared” speech, made a “no, BE scared” speech. He then continued talking long after his point was made and closed with something like, “I mean, I’m not from here, and neither is Señorita Alyssa, but we can tell you that you guys need to get your act together, environmentally speaking.” Jorge told me that he found it “absurdo” that he needed to put in an “I’m not from here” caveat, since his wife is from here and they now have teenage children who have never lived anywhere else but here. Jorge and I talked for awhile about how I don’t do that, how when it comes to environmental awareness I always put things in the “we” form, somewhat unconsciously, because the goal isn’t self-exclusive environmental shame. Jorge and I established that neither of us was fond of this guy’s beat-you-to-the-punch attitude. Another example of this was before the event, when I told him the kids were going to pick up the trash in the room as an act of “sensibilización.” He grumbled, “The people who should pick up the trash are the people who were here earlier and threw it on the ground!” Another teacher, Ingeniera Luz (ironically, his wife) took the high road, and made a speech about how some people don’t have the “educación” (that word can mean either education or manners, or both, in this case) to clean up their trash, especially people from the campo, and we need to lead by example. Instead of feeding the whole city-campo hate fest, though, she made a point to say “our parents” in reference to the campesinos (which is fair, the vast majority of those kids’ parents are campesinos). I like to think that there are people like Ingeniera Luz teaching the children of Santo Domingo. Her husband remains a mystery to me.

In the vein of odd marital pairings, Jorge was also telling that afternoon about how his mother-in-law was in town. I asked him if that’s why he was drinking. He laughed really hard and gave me high-five. Peruvians don’t, by nature, high-five, that’s my doing right there. He then went on to ask me if, in the United States, people have issues with their mothers-in-law. I have mixed feelings about really general questions about the United States, ones that can be answered, “Yes, we are humans too,” but that one was funny. I just gave him a look, and he said, “That’s universal, huh,” and more hilarity ensued. I only knew he was serious when we left the restaurant and he said, “Here come my wife and mother-in-law! Don’t say anything!...but let’s invite them for a beer.” This was bad news for me, as his wife, I am nearly certain, hates my guts, and has since I got here. As far as I can tell (and I’ve fished town gossip to make sure), her hatred of my guts doesn’t have any deeper source than that I am twenty-two, blonde, not Peruvian, and work with her husband. I can understand that, I guess, I just wish she could spend like thirty seconds in my brain so as to fully comprehend the extent to which I do not want to sleep with her husband. I was mildly inebriated at this point, or else I maybe would have tried to get out of sharing a beer with a woman who hates my guts (douchechill…). Alcohol told me that it would be a good idea to talk incessantly about my boyfriend Andrew, plus, someone had to break the awkward silences. Another phenomenon I discovered that day to be universal is the pathetic nature of a drunken man trying to explain to his lady that he is not, in fact, drunk. They always know, man.

THIS IS WHERE I START TALKING ABOUT ANIMALS. (Yeah, I know what some of you come here for.) So a couple nights ago, around 10 o’clock, Humberto’s buddy Inche came to my door and shouted, “Alyssa! Do you have a banana?” I did have a banana, but I wasn’t willing to give it up without an explanation. The explanation was this: “We caught an ‘osito’ (small bear) in the campo and we need to feed it.” I was pretty excited about this. A small bear! In my house! Imagine the possibilities! I asked to see the small bear, and when I went to Humberto’s part of the house, I found…a porcupine.

Despite his lack of small bear properties, he (or she, who wants to flip over a porcupine to tell) is pretty badass. Humberto loves him (even though he smells like crap and makes the whole back of the house smell like crap). He built him his own two-foot by two-foot cage, and feeds him bananas and sweet potatoes (yes, he boils sweet potatoes specifically for our pet porcupine). Today the porcupine did a little shimmy to shake out his needles and Humberto positively squealed with delight. I get the honor of naming him. SUGGESTIONS ACCEPTED. It has to be something a Spanish speaker could easily say, and could make reference to any of the following qualities possessed by said porcupine:
-he is sharp
-he is small
-he could be mistaken for a small bear if one couldn’t remember the word for “porcupine”
-he smells like crap
-he seems to really like bananas but not apples
This is the interactive part of the blog, go nuts. It’s like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book…but more small bear-tastic.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

StuffWhitePeopleLike Count: 7.

It’s 9 a.m., I’m sitting in my hammock, and hell has frozen over.

As an American in Peru, I was actually late to something.

Here is some background on Peruvian culture to explain why this is certainly a sign of the apocalypse: in Peru, nothing starts on time. I don’t feel bad making this broad cultural generalization, because it is just inexorably true, and all attributable to what Peruvians refer to as “hora peruana” (Peruvian time). But to merely say that nothing starts on time doesn’t really hit upon the utter detachment between what a clock might say (least inventive $100,000 Pyramid category ever) and a day’s events that pervades this country. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a variation of this conversation: Peruvian: “Is it two o’clock already?” Alyssa: “It’s actually four-thirty.” This complete ignorance of clock-time gets more pronounced the further you get away from urban centers. I have waited for meetings in the campo to start for upwards of three hours before. Hora peruana is, as you can imagine, consistently one of the biggest challenges for Americans in Peru. Even if we’re not always on time to things in the U.S., there is the recognition that this is a good thing to be. When we walk into meetings late (and, really, how late are we talking, 15, 20 minutes?), we do not reveal the full height of our bodies and hope for shoes that don’t squeak and a seat in the back. Not so here in Peru. It is considered rude to walk into a meeting at any point in its duration and not say in your normal speaking voice, “Good (insert time of day)” to either the audience at large or (again, especially true in the campo) every attendee individually, including the speaker his/herself, with a handshake. It is really a totally different conception of time and our obligation to it than we have in the U.S. It seems hora peruana is something Peru is starting to recognize as a detriment to its role in the international arena, and at the beginning of President Alan García’s term, his administration threw a parade in Lima to celebrate the kickoff of their “Punctual Peru” campaign. The parade started at exactly 12 noon. Granted, the parade, if not the campaign in general, was widely interpreted to be a jab toward García’s predecessor, Alejandro Toledo, who was a notorious aficionado of hora peruana, but whatever.

So, as always, back to me. Today rounds off my 20th month in Peru, and hora peruana and I were on pretty good terms. And this was a big step for me, because I LOVE time. The only time I take my watch off is to bathe. I check my watch unconsciously and generally without regard to social appropriateness. I set alarm clocks mostly out of formality, because I can wake myself up at whatever hour, usually with creepy exaction. This isn’t to say I’m never late to things, but it’s usually a calculated, minimal lateness, almost never owing to me losing track of time. But I’d gotten into the mentality of the hora peruana. Mostly, you just have to emotionally detach yourself from any expectations you have for an event and relish in the alternatives, i.e. “My friend Miguel was supposed to meet me at my house to take me to the campo at 8, and it’s 10:30, oh well, isn’t this issue of Newsweek I’ve been reading for 3 hours fascinating and not at all sensationalist?”

This morning, I had assigned myself the task of walking around with the trash workers with a map of Santo Domingo and marking which houses don’t participate in the trash collection, with the eventual hopes of doing some sort of survey and finding out why. Though this was going to be tedious, I was excited about it, because the idea of families not taking out their trash and imagining what they do with it instead keeps me up at night (no, seriously). Daniel, the head of the trash workers (who had originally written the report to the municipality reporting that a fair number of people don’t participate, simultaneously confirming my darkest suspicions and impressing me with the rare treat of correct spelling and grammar), told me that they start at 8 a.m. near the recycling storage center. So, at 8:05, 8:10 maybe, I was waiting by the storage center, Newsweek in hand. After 45 minutes of finding out that Barack Obama probably IS too international to get elected and that Somalia practically IS Iraq, I slowly realized there was probably no way the workers waited until 9 to even show up to work. So I headed up the hill to where they would have been collecting, where I found Daniel and the other workers, nearly halfway through their route. I said good morning and told him I had been waiting for him at 8 o’clock. “Oh yeah,” he responded didactically, “We’re on hora exacta here.” My mind was summarily blown. I couldn’t tell whether I was more insulted at the insinuation that I had kept hora peruana inappropriately or gleeful that something so important had started on time. I didn’t know whether to apologize or congratulate. I think I sort of did both, and then went home. Luckily, the trash route for tomorrow begins at my house, so that’s kind of hard to miss, and I can catch the first half of today’s route on Monday.

As an homage to time and to any future Peru 11/12 Volunteers that may have sought out internet guidance as to what they’re about to get themselves into AND to my friend Loren who just got her invitation to serve in the Philippines, the rest of this entry will deal with the oft-posed question, “What is a Volunteer’s daily life like?” I remember this exact curiosity from training, feeling like Peace Corps trainers were always bringing up extreme circumstances, like having to move out of your host family’s house, or over-arching activities, like a latrine project, or Peace Corps theory, like always emphasizing sustainability, but not seeing how this could add up to a day’s work. So yesterday was a pretty “typical” day. Okay, yesterday was a pretty good day, but no harm in making myself look good in my own blog. If you want to see a typical “bad” day, just take out any segments where I’m doing something productive and replace it with “Television on DVD/books/Scrabble.” So this was my yesterday, in painstaking detail:

6 a.m.: I wake up, somewhat unnecessarily, since I have no obligation to get to work before 11. I lie in bed, ice my hurting knee, and read “The Count of Monte Cristo” until I fall back asleep.
7:30 a.m.: I wake up for real, get out of bed, eat some bread and peanut butter (which is accessible but expensive at the grocery stores here), put my workout clothes on, brush my teeth, etc.
8:20 a.m.: I work out to a dubbed-into-Spanish Billy Blanks Tae-Bo DVD, obtained at the pirated-stuff market in Lima. My knee has been hurting, so I go for the basic workout instead of the advanced.
9:00 a.m.: I realize I am out of coffee and go up to store to buy some of the amazing pseudo-organic locally grown (on my friend Juan’s farm) coffee.
9:30 a.m.: I make myself breakfast (raisin bran in rehydrated milk), eat it, and then separately, afterwards, drink my coffee (French-pressed). I love coffee but dislike drinking it while I’m eating, so the fact that I have pretty much unlimited time for breakfast is ideal. While I’m eating, I watch some second season Arrested Development (obtained from the same market in Lima) on my laptop. I laugh really, really hard at Ron Howard’s delivery of, “In fact, Lindsay had the engagement ring on her middle toe. Roast beef.”
10:30 a.m.: I decide that the basic workout doesn’t make me sweaty enough to face the frigidly cold shower in the corral, nor do I have time to heat up my own hot water, so I accept the fact that I am repulsive, change into acceptable work clothes (corduroy pants, a t-shirt with a picture of a poodle saying “Oui! Oui!” turned a full 180 degrees, courtesy of the store in Lima where factory rejects go to die, and a hoodie).
11 a.m.: I head one block uphill to the Municipality office, where I hang out with my counterpart Jorge and discuss work stuff: the status of the public trash can installation, the environmental commission meeting we’re having next week and whether or not he can write the invitations, the fact that International Environment Day is June 5th and we should coordinate something for it with the schools, my plan to accompany the trash workers, etc. I also perform my weekly task of skimming the documents on the tops of piles to see if there’s anything interesting to me. I sneak onto Jorge’s computer and check my email until he needs his computer back. I then leave to go visit the schools and see when their teacher meetings are so we can plan environmental activities for this school year.
12 p.m.: I visit the primary school, and while I have a nice visit, they don’t have regular enough teacher meetings to tell me when it is, but they promise to tell me the next time they do. I visit one of the high schools, the San Juan, where they tell me that their meeting is today at 3:30 and I have little option but to go to it if I want to reach the teachers.
12:30 p.m. I go back to the municipality office to tell Jorge about the San Juan meeting, but he can’t go, so I make the big sheet with my points about environmental education planning for the meeting and hunt down an environmental education book that the municipality educational office has been holding hostage for some time now.
1:00 p.m.: Jorge goes to lunch, so I steal the internet again and start the Peace Corps biennial survey, which turns out to be quite the task, and I’m only about half done before it’s lunch time.
2:00 p.m.: Lunch! The Peruvian day revolves around lunch. I eat lunch at Rachel’s host mom’s house. She has a business of cooking for people who are too busy or unequipped to cook for themselves (health center staff, mostly). Lunch is pretty delicious, as it turns out: some sort of squash-corn stew-type thing, well-seasoned (it tastes cinnamon) chicken, white rice, raw cabbage salad in lemon juice, and papaya-banana juice. I haven’t really seen Rachel in over a week, so we sit talking about her trip to Lima for her Close of Service conference (among other things) until it’s time for the meeting at the San Juan.
3:30 p.m.: I go to the San Juan. The meeting actually starts around 3:45, impressively. I get to be the first presenter, so I talk about my goal to have 2-3 teacher-facilitated environmental activity days in each of the schools before the end of the school year. We toss around some ideas for International Environment Day. Mostly, the teachers want to deal with trash. I’m okay with it.
4:30 p.m.: I go vegetable shopping at various stores along the main commercial street, possibly my favorite activity in Santo Domingo.
5:15 p.m.: I get back to my house, carry my dishes back to the corral (the only place in the house where there’s running water) in a big tub, and wash dishes in the spigot water while listening to my iPod. I’ve forgotten to take off my tennis shoes before doing this and when I head back to my room my socks are really, really wet.
6 p.m.: I consider starting dinner, since Rachel’s coming over at 7, but play Scrabble by myself instead. It’s a good game, no impressive words or 7-letter bonuses, but good use of the board makes the final scores average to 335.
7 p.m.: Rachel comes over. I make guacamole and squash & red pepper fajitas (Mexican-style tortillas bought at the grocery store in Piura, everything else from my vegetable shopping trip).
8 p.m.: It’s pretty delicious, if I do say so myself. Rachel and I watch Friends on my laptop. We eat some Hershey Kisses Rachel got sent from home, which are a total treat.
9:15 p.m.: Rachel goes home, I find myself hungry again and eat a bowl of raisin bran. I keep watching Friends.
10:15 p.m.: I change into my pajamas, brush and floss, vacuum my bed (probably the most absurd part of my life, but you try getting hospitalized because of a bug bite you got in bed, see if it changes your outlook toward Being Hardcore)
10:45 p.m.: I go to bed.

And that’s it. I talk about the environment, I eat, I hang out with Rachel, and then I do it all over it again. And that’s what being a PCV is like if you’re me.

Friday, May 02, 2008

The answer was animals.

So it's the tranquilo life in Santo Domingo right now, partially because it's Day of the Worker (or, it was yesterday, and everyone's still hungover) and partially because my project is failing and I don't have that much to do as it is. Ohhh, burn. I really don't know what to do about the failing environmental certification project, except to regroup with my counterpart once he gets over his hangover and see how I might compromise continuing work with it and doing something that has a chance of being satisfying over the course of the next six months. I'm thinking promotion of compost sales in nearby caserios, maybe some gardening with the Association of Women, and of course, more trash education as soon as I get my 12 public trash cans in. The time is coming when I need to assess the progress I've made and whether or not I've built enough for a replacement Volunteer to work from. I'm currently feeling very detached from the whole deal and, if I had to make the decision right now, I would cut SD off of environmental Volunteers for good. But this is the Peace Corps, and things have the amazing ability to turn around faster than you can say "Volunteer malaise," so I guess I'll refrain from snap judgments.

The general "meh"-ness of things around here has been broken up by a couple amusing events as of late, mostly involving animals. I have been bored enough lately that I actually illustrated some of this in Paint:

This is my house. You may notice that it is two stories but has no staircase. This is a topic of perennial frustration to me.

Recently, a rat started coming into my room at night. This was upsetting for obvious reasons, not the least of which was that he didn't seem to be eating any of my food. Why wouldn't a rat be eating my food? It's delicious! Finally, after much frustration and untouched traps, I realized that the rat, like any reasonable being, was annoyed at the lack of staircase in my house, and was using my room toward those ends, like this:

So I'd come to the conclusion that there was no choice but to borrow my neighbor's cat. She's a good cat caretaker, so she informed me that her cat "does his necessities" in sand. Accordingly, I filled up a little bucket of sand and put it in my room. Her cat, however, ran away en route to my house, and I guess putting a cat somewhere he doesn't want to be isn't something you try twice, so that was that. I was so frustrated at this point that I was about to tie a knife to end of my broom and spear the rat myself at 3 a.m. As cool as I would be if I could make that plan work, I soon realized my smarts and not my latent spearing abilities were the only thing that was going to get me out of this. I thought hard and realized that there must be a hole in the storage room through which the rat was climbing, or else he wouldn't be running up the hammock strings and not (as far as I could tell) down them. And hey, I had that sand still. I knew at the time that cement, plaster, or even play-doh was more up for the task of filling a hole than sand, but I was desperate, and the sand was there. So I went nuts on every hole in the backroom floorboard (there are a lot of them). Eventually I found one that must have been it. This is what I thought I was doing, for some reason.

Yes, just pouring sand into some sort of inexplicable wall-hole. When the sand just kept pouring, however, I used some part of my brain that has remained unused since the SAT and thought about where that sand was actually going, and realized it was probably more like this.

Yes, just pouring sand into my roommates' room. I should note here that my roommates, Ada and Carlo, are new, they just moved in while I was in Cusco to study at the tech institute in Santo Domingo. They're brother and sister, from the campo, probably about 19 years old, and while Ada is nice to me and keeps me company while I wash dishes (the supreme form of female friendship here, I think), Carlo generally doesn't look me in the eye.

After I realize that I have just been pouring sand into my roommates' domicile, I sort of pack sand around the top of the hole as best I can and weigh it down with a brick. Get in now, rats, I dare you. Following this small, hopeful satisfaction, I head down (downstairs would obviously be a misnomer, I followed the dirt trail along the side of the house) to the corral and the entrance to their room. The interaction goes something like this:
Me: Hi Carlo, good afternoon.
Carlo (not meeting my eye): Good afternoon.
Me: Say, did I just pour some sand in your room? Like up in that corner? I had this rat and I was filling and hole and I...(trailing off due to apparent nonrecognition)
(long pause)
Carlo (meeting my eye for the first time ever): Yeah, some sand fell. But just a little, miss, don't worry.
Me: Yeah, I really want to apologize for that.
Carlo: Just a little sand, miss. Don't worry.

In other animal news: So when campo people come to the house, they generally tie up their donkeys right outside my door. I mean, right outside, like if I leave my door open, a donkey nose will generally occupy that space. I don't mind, I've got a soft spot for donkeys. They are nice and gentle and funny-looking when they eat and they don't make a lot of noise (except, of course, when they do). My sitemate Rachel was over one day last week, and when she opened the door to my room to leave, she abruptly said, "Alyssa, come here, you've got to see this."

What she saw, of course, was a donkey eating a cardboard box.

I mean, eating the crap out of it, not just munching: hungrily tearing off pieces of this cardboard box, quickly chewing, and contentedly swallowing.

The funniest part of this whole occurrence, however, was what followed, when we saw my host brother Cesar sitting on a stoop across the street, clearly overseeing the donkey's consumption of the cardboard box.

Rachel: Why is that donkey eating a cardboard box?
Cesar (without missing a beat, or any traces of sarcasm): Because he's hungry.
Rachel: Of course.

Can't argue with logic like that. You can, however, start your own line of "why did the chicken cross the road"-type jokes.

And the last animal-related hilarity can be told in a sentence, without dramatic paragraph breaks or Microsoft Paint: a flock of chicks visited my room yesterday. I had my iPod on and my back turned, and when I turned to walk out, there were 8 chicks and a mama hen, just cheep cheep cheeping all over my floor. Cutest surprise ever. Brett points out that with the time a cat fell through my roof, the rats using my room like a staircase, hungry dogs coming in whenever they want, and the occasional flock of chicks, I am well on my way to a Chinese calendar. If you need me for the next six months, I'll be warding off the dragons and oxen.