Tuesday, November 21, 2006


(from Sunday, November 19, 2006)

Today is Election Day in Peru. Local offices all over the country are up for election today, including alcaldes (mayors), regidores (roughly city council members), and governors of departments (equivalent to states). Voting is mandatory in Peru. If you don’t vote you have to pay a fine, which is not huge, but is certainly big enough to get you out to the polls if you can possibly get there. A few of our language teachers who live in other parts of the country, except for when they are on contract to teach us in Lima, have decided that they will just have to swallow the fine because they would spend more in time and money getting to their home cities than they will lose to the fine. It is a little sad to see that they won’t be able to express their choice, but after the fiasco we went through trying to vote by mail on a long California ballot, I can’t fault them. Our host mom and dad left early this morning to go vote in the little town in the mountains that they still consider home, even though they live here in Santa Eulalia. Their daughter votes here and we noticed that she got dressed in her best to go to the polls.

Today and yesterday were probably the soberest days in Peru all year. The Ley Seca went into effect on Friday. On Election Day and the day before, sale and consumption of liquor of any kind is illegal, nationwide. Take your democratic rights seriously! Don’t drink and vote! It is also very quiet compared to the last couple of weeks. Campaign fever has been pretty wild recently, with convoys of vans stuffed with partisans rolling through the streets, waving banners and cheering for their candidates. One rally we encountered in Lambayeque announced itself from blocks away with the theme music to Star Wars blasting out of huge speakers rolling along on trucks. Posters decorate every surface, and fireworks have habitually boomed throughout the day and night. All of that ended, by law, on Friday. Political rallies and gatherings are prohibited until after the polls close. Having just gone through an electoral cycle in the U.S., it is fun to compare and contrast how it works here and there. Considering the hard times that this country has suffered through in the past, it is very good to see their democracy out in full force.

Our new home

We have seen our new home, and we like what we have seen. We will be living in the dry forest, a sort of intermediate zone between the desert of the coast and the more humid mountains that receive precipitation from the Amazon Basin. (I am finally getting used to the idea that almost any precipitation comes from the Atlantic Ocean, on the other side of the continent. To a temperate raised Californian the obvious source of rain is the ocean I happen to be next to, the Pacific. It doesn’t work like that in this equatorial land. The cold current that sweeps north toward the equator doesn’t give up much evaporation, and the winds tend to blow westward, away from land. Humidity has to travel slowly on the same slow westerly winds across the rainforest to get to us, and much of it gets squeezed out of the clouds by the Andes. Towards the border of Ecuador the mountains aren’t so high, and a little more jungle like environment reaches the Pacific, but mostly, Costa means desert.)

The dry forest could look like a dry oak forest in certain lights, if your vision were a little blurry. The dominant tree, the algarrobo, is even more drought resistant, gives many seeds that can feed people or animals, and has wood like iron. Unfortunately, restaurants value that wood highly, as is, or as charcoal, for roasting chickens. Pollo a la Brasa should be a source of shame to eat, but sadly no one knows this. Between wood cutting and forest clearance in areas where enough irrigation can be gotten to make agriculture worthwhile, this whole ecosystem is endangered. Mammals like anteaters have already disappeared from most of the dry forest, and on a walk with our bird biologist colleague we saw two species that he figured had little time left on this earth.

We will be in the most northern corner of Lambayeque in a little caserío called El Porvenir. This is essentially a collection of houses strung along the old Panamerican Highway. Our section of the dry forest seems even dryer than the usual, with lots of space between the trees, and mostly sand and a bit of dry grass in between. It is so dry that many locals are excited about the prospect of El Nino floods. Our water will come from one of two wells near our house. The closer one gives salty water, good enough to wash with, but a little hard to drink or to grow plants with. The well with sweeter water is about two kilometers from the house.

We will be living with a family; Flor Serrato, Bernardo Montalbán, and their three children, GianMarco, 15, Marleni, 13, and Gustavo, ten months. Bernardo is the President of the local beekeepers’ association, and drives a cab five days a week. Flor keeps a store inside the house, selling animal feeds and sundry household needs and small luxuries from the big bad city. Our house has a gas powered electric generator that gets fired up every evening to watch a little television. That is all of the electricity in the neighborhood. The caserío across the river, Insculas, has a bigger generator that serves about ten houses that pay a sol a day for the privilege. Our latrine is basically a pit to poop in, with a cover over all but a little hole, and a fence for privacy. It is about 50 meters from the house, which is a bit of a walk at night. It also serves as our garbage dump, though only inorganics go into it. Organics get fed to the critters. Our whole house except for the back patio/kitchen has concrete floors. We feel very lucky compared to other aspirantes who have so far found dirt floors, no beds, or in a few cases, no room of their own, or no houses at all.

Most of the local livestock, goats, donkeys, cattle, sheep, and pigs, range free between the houses, so the ground is littered with manure. Forage grows sparsely enough that it seems like corralling the animals to conserve the manure would require too much work to bring in feed. I must research this more. People keep chickens and doves, but I have not seen ducks or guinea pigs (cuyes) yet. Down in Illimo, a mere hour and forty minutes down the carretera, duck raising is very big, and cuy corrals can hold as many as eighty at a time. (Incidentally, Cynthia and I have yet to eat cuy, which causes us a little shame. What kind of volunteers are we?)

Our entry into town was a little dramatic. We have had less digestive trouble than most of our compatriots, but my luck ran out on our first visit to site. Tuesday we stayed in the biggest city in Lambayeque, Chiclayo, in a hotel, to have a conference with other volunteers and to meet the counterparts we will work with. We met Bernardo then, and he told us that we would have no community meetings on Wednesday when we were to arrive in town. We were scheduled to leave Chiclayo at 7am on Wednesday morning for the two hour cab ride to Olmos, our district capitol, where Bernardo would pick us up in his cab to drive us the rest of the way to his house. I awoke that morning at five, with pretty serious diarrhea. I optimistically decided that I could rid my body of the evils with a long session in the bathroom, and be fine for the road in an hour. And by six thirty I felt reasonably well, if not great. Then on the cab ride to Olmos I had to ask the driver to stop the cab so I could vomit on the side of the road. Fine, I figured, get the evils out. We made it to Olmos and into El Porvenir with no further incident, but I stopped feeling or looking so well. That was when Bernardo told us that we had a small meeting planned. Apparently the presidents and treasurers of the local soup kitchens and vaso de leche programs wanted to meet us. We loaded back into the car to drive across the highway to a little meeting room, stopping to pick up the oldest resident of the town, also the local historian. The ladies all introduced themselves and told us their positions. Cynthia introduced herself and said a few nice words about our happiness at having been sent to live in their town for two years, and her anticipation of much productive cooperation with them. She then turned to me and said “mi esposo también quiere decir unas palabras”. At which point I ran out the door and vomited some more. Eventually I was able to crawl back into the room, prop myself up in the chair and tell everyone that they clearly had great wealth in organization, and that I looked forward to working with them. They all thanked me for the nice words and looked at me as if at a person on the verge of death. Which is how Cynthia says I looked. I spent the rest of the day flat on my back with a high fever, occasionally stumbling out to our lovely latrine. When we finally got ahold of our doctor he gave the go ahead to start taking antibiotics, which worked their magic in a matter of hours. I managed to get up and meet a few more locals over the next two days, and everyone asked if I was acostumbrándome (or getting used to things).

Monday, November 06, 2006

Off to The Future

We got our site assignment on Friday and found out that we’ll be living in the future or El Porvenir as it’s called here. El Porvenir is located 30 kilometers north of Olmos in the department of Lambayeque , near the border of Piura. It is a tiny farming community – only 420 people, 60 families. It’ll be hot and rainy during the summer (January, February and March) and mild the rest of the year (we hope). Here’s a little bit more about our site:

1. 2 hours north of Chiclayo, the department capital, along the old Panamerican highway.
2. The region grows limes, mangos, passion fruit, paprika peppers. YAY!
3. They raise cows, goats and sheep and some horses (that means we’ll have fresh milk and cheese!!!! Yipeeeeeee!
4. No electricity! A well for water! A latrine! No cell phone signal! One community phone in the town! *sniff*
5. Some of the 420 people are weavers and they make saddle bags, hammocks, bed spreads and rugs. ¡Triple YAY!
6. Lambayeque has impressive archeological sites –
Sipán, Sicán, Túcume.
7. Our assignment is described as: Protection and Sustainable Management of the forest (Algarrobo trees).
8. Dan will be working with an Association of beekeepers. Cynthia will be working with a health post.
9. We suspect we will be doing a lot of gardening. ¡Qué suerte!

Tonight we depart for our site visit. We’ll be in Chiclayo until Wednesday and then off to our site to meet our host family and the rest of the community. When we return on Sunday we hope to provide more information. Until then…..