Monthly Archives: March 2012

Wednesday: Huaycan is literally the loudest place I have ever been

There are the usual busy city sounds: dogs barking, people yelling, horns blaring.  But there are also a series of distinct sounds for everything here. The garbage man comes every morning.  He rides a little moto around and sings a sort of song into a megaphone:  “Come with your garbage.  Come with your garbage.”  People then come running to give him their trash.

There are some other words to that song, but I’m gonna need to Google the lyrics – the megaphone tends to distort.


Then, we have the mothers who use horns to call their children home.  One toot is not enough.  They toot until the child shows up.  Around sundown the mom-horns start to kick in.  Each horn is a little different, and the voluntarios who have been here long enough can even tell which kid belongs to which sound, and thereby deduce who is in a crapload of trouble for not showing up on time.  Alejandro seems to be in trouble a lot.


Then, there are the sounds of the whistles that the security guys use to ward off would-be thieves.  The sound of the lady who sells bread from her bike basket: just a standard bike bell while she yells “PAAAAN.”  The man who sells his wife’s leftovers is my favorite. He’s got a pretty good voice and he just sings about whatever she’s made.  The papas rellenas are pretty legit.  When all the sounds start to happen at once, it’s all so very Oliver Twist ala the “Who Will Buy” number.  All the street vendors singing about there wares.  “Who will buuuuuuy my sweet red rooooooses, twoooooo blooooms for a penny…”



A bunch of the voluntarios pile into a Combi.  There are no seats and we have to stand.  I realize I’m literally the only one in the bunch who doesn’t isn’t required to be doubled over in order to “stand-up.”  In fact, I couldn’t even touch the roof with my head if I stood on tiptoes.  I feel a little bit like the Bee Girl in that Blind Melon video… I’ve found my people!  We’re all sort of short, and stout, and into carbs.  I totally fit in here.  Take that tall, fit, handsome Germans!



The Combi system is really ridiculous.  In addition to there not being any legit stops or schedules, you also can’t actually trust the cobrador to tell you where you’re going.  They get a commission for every person they get on board, so sometimes they just lie to you about where they’re headed.  Or, actually, it’s not that they lie really, but they omit.  So if you walk up to one and ask: “Avenida de Quince?” they don’t actually say yes, they just yell:  “Sube. Sube. Sube.” (Get on. Get on.)  They bang the side of the bus and yell to people walking by on the streets trying, I can only assume, to solicit them into taking a Combi ride they weren’t otherwise planning to take.  (“You know, I wasn’t planning on spending money to be packed so tightly into a van that I’m actually covered in other people’s sweat, all just to go somewhere I don’t even need to be, but that Cobrador is quite the salesman.”)


They just act like they didn’t hear you, or that they’re so busy taking money and advertising that they don’t have time to say anything but “Sube.”  So they just keep yelling at you, and so eventually you just sube and hope it’s going to where you need to be.


So today, in Zone Z, I discover a bunch of children standing around a giant turtle….wait….let me back up and paint a better picture for you with these actual pictures.

This, friends, is Huaycan.


It’s basically a desert valley between a bunch of mountains.


There’s no water for miles. None.  Like sometimes not even to drink.  The only wildlife I’ve seen so far are stray dogs.  Animals don’t live in these conditions.  People barely live in them.  I’ve seen cacti dried out and keeled over.  So marine life certainly does not live here.  And listen, I’m no scientist, right.  Maybe it’s a land tortoise or something…. but he doesn’t live in Huaycan anymore than he lives inManhattan.

– Um, Ernesto where did you guys get this turtle?

– We found him.

– You found him where?

– Here.  (Points to mound of garbage on the side of the road)

– Here in the trash?

– Si.  We wanted to feed him something, but I think they eat leaves and we don’t have those (See above In re: no water/vegetation).


Enter another voluntario.

Other Voluntario: – What the hell?  Is that a tortoise?

Me: –  I’ve been saying turtle, but what do I know?

OV: –  Yeah, it’s definitely a tortoise.

Me: –  You sure learned a lot majoring in Spanish literature.

OV –  But how did he get up here? (Looks down the massive hill.) There’s no way it climbed up the hill, right?

Me-  Doubtful.  I feel like we would’ve seen him making his way up here for days.  This is apparently the first sighting.

OV: – Crazy.

Me: – Yeah, the poor little guy probably got on the wrong Combi and shit.  He was all like “Galapagos?”  and they were like “Sube! Sube!”

OV: – Yeah, I guess.  But once you see you’re on the wrong Combi, you just get off.

Me: – Dude, he’s a turtle…

OV: – Tortoise…

Me: – …tortoise…by the time he was able to get moving it was too late.  Now he lives here among the Zone Z trash.  He’ll probably never be able to get up enough speed to catch another Combi headed back down.







Tuesday: The Guilt of Privilege



It’s amazing how little space you really need to live.  I’m in a house with ten people and I’ve managed to cram my entire life into a twin sized bed and three small drawers.  My bed doubles as a storage space.  I sleep all the way against the rails and store clothes, books, medicine and various other things along the side of the wall.  I cuddle with the neck pillow that I would normally use for the plane.  There is nowhere else to put it anyway.




We are working on a mural with the women in Zone Z.  They’re not quite sure about how it works or why we’re doing it, but we’re trying to teach them about the reasons murals are used/popular.  Giving them examples of Diego Rivera and various other types of political style murals.  One of the girls I work with designed a beautiful mural for them to paint on the wall of the school room of our building.  We gave them the mural broken down onto pieces of paper for them to do a test run of the grid system.  The mural is a picture of what is quite clearly a Peruvian woman with a child strapped to her back in a colorful blanket.  Each woman received a square to paint however she liked and every single woman who had any skin color in her drawing, colored her in to be a Gringa.  It was weird and a little sad.  Like those social experiments back in the day where little black girls were made to choose between two barbies, and they were always picking the white one.  I hope the real mural turns out to actually look like them.




After the mural in Zone Z, we run to catch the Combi to Zone S.  It’s starting to leave without us, and we’re already late.  So I start running and yelling. Chelseafollows me.  We already attract plenty of attention to ourselves and now we’re two loud-arse Gringas sprinting after the Combi in our flip flops and backpacks, yelling in poor Spanish.  The Combi stops and we get on, panting.  All the natives are shaking their heads and laughing at us.


Each of the Zones is sort of set up the same way.  There’s dirt road leading away from the main roads of the “city” that go uphill at about a 45 degree angle.  Off these “main” dirt roads, are smaller dirt roads where people have set up makeshift houses.  The further uphill you go, the further you are from the city, the worse the poverty becomes.  Zone S is one of the newer Zones we’ve started to work with.  The Combis for this area only go about halfway up the hill, at which point you have to get out, and hope to find a Mototaxista that you think/hope won’t rob you (“Look the driver in the eyes,” the Peruvians will tell you, “this is how you know it’s safe”).  Alternatively, you can walk about 15 solid minutes up this desert hill at a 45 degree angle, through an area of the Zone where no one knows you, all the way up to the tippy top of the mountain where we work.


In Zone Z, we work with the people who live right in the middle of the mountain path, we’ve been there awhile and everyone knows and sort of watches out for the Gringos.  The ladies wait with us at night after class, the children greet us.  It’s safer.  But in Zone S, all the locals in the middle of the hill know, is that a few times every day a bus drops off a bunch of Gringos in backpacks, ostensibly filled with loads of expensive, stealable, items, and they trek uphill to do god knows what, totally unattended.


During the day it doesn’t feel like that big of a deal.  Lots of people are out and about, women and children, etc.  It’s busy.  You’re always with a voluntario buddy, so it’s fine.  At night, it’s less so, and I’m not keen to walk down the mountain in the dark every night at the same time.  It seems like just asking for trouble.  The other voluntarios keep telling me they’ve never had a problem and it’s fine.  But it’s not for me.


Tonight, three of us begin walking down the hill and we’re suddenly surrounded by four very large, ferociously barking dogs.  Stray dogs abound in Huaycan, but mostly they’re either disinterested or friendly.  These four are obviously neither.  The Peruvian non-friendly-dog-repellent-method is a three step process.


Step 1) Clap your hands and make noises in their direction;

Step 2) if step 1 fails, pick up a rock. Usually even motioning in the direction of a rock is enough to send them flying.

Step 3) if steps 1 and 2 fail, throw rock.


I have only ever made it to miming a rock pick-up and it’s been pretty successful.  But now it’s dark, and we’re outnumbered.  Maybe we could scare off a few of them, but really, who knows?  Maybe one of them will end up being really brave and attack.  We all try to stay calm and keep walking at an even pace.  Don’t look back!  We’re in their territory and as soon as we’re out they’ll go away.  We walk with them nipping at the air behind our heels for about a solid 40 seconds, and they give up.  We start to laugh and feel relieved, but this is obviously a sort of provocation as far as one of the dogs is concerned, because he chases after us and starts up again.  Dear God don’t let a dog bite one of us.  It’s not even the bite itself that worries me; it’s the Peruvian hospital I’d have to go to thereafter.  Or possibly even the transportation I’d have to take at this late hour to even get there:

– How’d Abby die?

– Dog bite.

– Geez, I thought it was just a minor wound.

– Yeah. She got shot on the way to the hospital.


The dogs all give up and we survive.  Halfway down the hill we run into some kids we know from class and warn them about the dogs up the hill.  “Oh, those dogs are okay.  You just have to remember to never run and you’ll be okay.  If you run, they’ll bite you.”  Noted.  I can’t believe these kids have to trek through that everyday to get home.  Alone.  In the dark no less.  I wish I were as brave as this 11 year old.


We get to the middle of the hill and wait for the Combi with a large crowd of people.  Three little girls are staring at us like we’re aliens.  They take turns pushing each other forward, no one wanting to be the first girl to speak to us.  They finally walk over.

– Do you live here?

– No. We live in Zone D. (Looks of disbelief)

– But where did you come from?


– English!  You speak English?

– Yes.

They each take turns mimicking the way English sounds to them “Wa wah wah wah.”

– Yep that’s about right.

– How did you come here?

– In a plane.

– No way!  What is a plane like?

– Like a Combi I guess.  But it flies, and there’s no cobrador [and the seats are welded to the floor, and you don’t have to shut the windows in the 90 degree heat because people walking by might reach in and steal something from you, and the driver’s not nuts, and no one is asking you to hold their chicken while they make change…but other than that, it’s mostly the same].

– Do you think we can visit you inAmerica?  Can we take a plane?  Will we take a plane one day?


No.  No, you won’t.  That’s the sad thing.  Most of you will probably never even take a Combi to another Zone….and with that, the guilt of privilege sets in….

Week two: Monday


Teaching English.  Practicing sentences with “instead of”  — thought about all the “instead ofs” since I arrived here

  • Instead of using lotion I use bug spray.
  • Instead of the standard four food groups we have the Peruvian 4: rice, potatoes, corn, platanos.  – You can have anything you want to eat for dinner provided it contains these items.
  • Instead of drinking lots of water before I go to bed, I drink almost none, because I can’t be bothered (read: am scared) to climb down the rickety ass ladder of my bunk in the middle of the night.
  • Instead of loving to do things on my own, I go nowhere without a buddy.


Teaching a Spanish literacy class to a group of women who never learned to read or write.  It’s ridiculously rewarding to see how excited they are when they read a sentence aloud and realize they can do it!  They’re reading!


Violeta is our nosy next door neighbor.  She’s a little intense but you have to be nice to her because she could make things rough for us. When you walk by her place you can see her eyes peaking out through her curtains, following you like the creepy eyes in a portrait in cartoons. I walk by and wave to the eyes.  She comes out of her house and calls me over for a conversation.

– Hello, I’m Violeta and you are new.

– Yes, hello.  I’m Abby.

– I know.

– Are you Catholic?

– I’m sorry?

– Catholic.  Are you Catholic?

– Um. No.

– Are you something else? Jewish maybe.  One of the girls in the house is a Jew, you know.

– Um. No. Not Jewish.  Not anything.

– You believe in God though don’t you?  Because otherwise you will go to hell.

– I must not be understanding you.  My Spanish is not great.

– You understand.  You understand.

I back slowly away apologizing for my language failures….this place is actually a lot like my experience in Georgia…..


Teaching a computer course.  Helping a very creepy man learn Excel while he leers at me and generally acts like a creepster.  He keeps typing things into the cells while I show him what to do: “You smell beautiful.” Etc.  I yell at him and tell him not to come back to the next class.  We’re learning here, we’re not a frickin matchmaking service.  I don’t know the word for matchmaking.  It probably doesn’t come across as forceful as I’d like it to sound.


The pre-teens in my biblioteca have requested I read them Twilight, in Spanish, during story hour.  They are clearly a perceptive bunch.

Week One: Random Highlights

A woman on the Combi is falling asleep with her baby in her arms.  She’s so tired she can’t keep her eyes open and keeps almost falling out of her chair and dropping the child.  The Peruvians take turns standing guard over her and the baby to make sure they don’t fall.  When someone reaches their stop they just tap the next person, and they take over the job.


Every conversation I have with a Peruvian woman goes like this:

– Are you married?

– Yes.

– How many children do you have?

– None.

– None?

– None.

– How many will you have?

– (I launch into a two minute description of the reasons I don’t have children and the reasons why I don’t want them.  They stare blankly)

– So how many children will you have then?

– Two.  I will have two.

Alternate conversation:

– You won’t see your husband for six months?

– Correct.

– Amor de lejos, amor de cuatro (Long distance love is a love with four people.)


The Combi stops are pretty hysterical.  There aren’t any actual bus stops, especially in the areas where it’s the most run down. (Um, Abby, we use the term “developing” not run-down.)  People just yell descriptive terms at the driver, which eventually become the standard stops.  My favorite stop name so far is “Two Posts” – which is exactly what you think it is –  two metal poles stuck in the ground in the middle of nowhere.


Lowlight: Saw an adorable puppy….. so skinny, starving….. eating a dead dog.


At night there are security guards that patrol around to try and ward off would be pick-pockets, etc.  It’s a little bit homoerotic.  Two men ride around on one motorcycle, sitting extremely erect and taking their job pretty seriously.  The first man drives, and the second man intermittently blows a whistle, which I can only assume works on thieves the way dog whistles do on animals.  The rest of us can’t really understand it or hear it, but they can’t help but be affected.

Week One: Wednesday – Thursday

Wednesday – Thursday

Hike. Drink. Hike. Mis-communicate with natives. Have mental breakdown. Hike. Get kicked out of hostel. Swim in a waterfall. Cry. Laugh. Tasty food. Slip on a rock and into a creek ruining the sneakers that I need to wear on the overnight bus.

The miscommunication situation is almost comical. We are constantly using words incorrectly.  I was trying to tell someone to leave me alone with my beliefs.  What I really say is “leave me alone with the children of whom I am the guardian”…Um….preeeetty close. While trying on jeans in a store one of the girls explains to the store owner that she’s not sure if she wants to buy them because they are a little tight in her rocks (legs.).

I realize that in this part of the world they don’t have a lot of experience with foreign accents, but their inability to just work with context clues is hysterical.  At one restaurant for breakfast, the procedure goes:

Waiter comes to table.  You tell your waiter your order.  He looks at you without a glimmer of recognition in his eye.  You repeat it.  He makes no attempt to help you.  Then each of the other people at the table has to confirm that you’ve said the correct words.  Each person then has to try their hand at pronouncing the words in your order BETTER, and more clearly, so that maybe the waiter can understand.  We do one rotation around the table.  Nothing.  He calls over a back-up waiter.  We each take a turn trying to clearly annunciate the words in the order to the two waiters.  Nothing.  A third waiter is called over.  They understand that we are ordering eggs but the word that comes AFTER eggs is a real doozie.  Juevos revueltos.  Scrambled eggs.  I mean listen, I’m saying EGGS.  You’ve got the egg part down.  How many other words could I possibly be now using to describe the eggs?  It’s like fried, scrambled, poached.  Work with me here.  It clearly starts with “R”.  Revueltos.  Scrambled.  They look as if I might be saying ANY effing THING to describe how I want the eggs.  Eggs Bricks.  No.  Eggs Paperclip. No.  Eggs Train.  Probably not.  Think of what word might work here.  For God’s sake have you people never worked on a fill in the blank exercise?!

They finally nod and bring out a bunch of stuff we didn’t order, and none of the stuff we did.  We laugh and eat.

Thursday Night:

Overnight 9 hour crazy bus ride.  No accidents this time, though we are no warmer nor safer.

Week one: Tuesday – Day One in Peru:


My arrival to the house is short of epic.  Everyone is crowded around computers in the dining room, not really speaking to one another.  The house is smaller than I thought it would be.   The house manager shows me to my bedroom.  I sleep in a room with three other girls and two bunk beds.  She rattles the ladder on my bunk,  “It seems like it’s coming loose, but it’s not.” – Oh.  Well, as long as you say so.  I climb to the top and pretend that the whole bed is not rocking.  It only seems like it’s rocking, I’m sure she’d tell me.

The town is rough.  Okay the pueblo.  The pueblo is rough.  I live in the nicer area too, in Zone D.  All the different areas are identified by letters, and the farther along in the alphabet you go the worse things get.  The boss, explains that we mostly work in Zones S, R and Z.  Wow.

Today we head up to Zone S, where one of the girls is giving a presentation to the women.  Three of us get on a Combi (their version of a city bus, that’s really more of a 16 passenger van).  The signs on the bus apparently don’t necessarily correspond with the direction the bus is actually traveling.  This Combi heads in the wrong direction.  We get off and take another back to where we started.  They overcharge us because we’re gringas, but we’re late and we don’t care.  We try to get on a Combi going the right way.  No Combis show up.  We try to take a mototaxi.

All the drivers pretend not to know where Zone S is located because it’s uphill and they don’t want to spend the money on the gas.  One agrees to take us up, but he stops exactly at the border of the Zone and goes no further.

– No, we need to go to those stairs up there.

– What stairs?

– Those stairs directly in front of you.  The yellow ones.

– I don’t see them.

– Do you see them for another 5 soles?

– Oh THOSE stairs!  Yes.

We drive up the dirt hill at a 45 degree angle.  I feel like we’re going to flip.

This Zone just got electricity.  It’s full of little shacks built into the side of a dusty, desert hill.  As soon as a child can walk, he’s free to run around the hill totally unsupervised –  half dressed, dirty children are everywhere.  The older ones holding the hands of their younger brothers and sisters. The kids all yell to the three gringas, “Meees.  Oh Meees.  Hola Meees. (Miss)”

As we arrive a woman who has a big loudspeaker on her house (read: shack) is announcing that there will be a presentation for the women and that everyone should meet in the school room to attend.  Her husband is something like the mayor of the Zone and this is how they make announcements everyday.

The class begins and it’s total chaos.  Everyone has brought their screaming children.  I take the kids outside so we can color and try and stay quiet.  Stray dogs abound and two make their way under the table where we’re coloring and get into a huge dog fight.  I scream and try and drag some kids to safety.  They look at me like I’m crazy.  None of the kids even flinch, everyone just keeps coloring while I try to convince them to move away from the table.  One of the mothers comes out and picks up a long reed from the ground and whips the dogs with it ‘til they break up the fight.

The kids start asking me to draw them various things.  Art is not an area that I excel in, but whatever, they’re like five right?  Who cares?  One little girl asks for a dog and I draw one.

– Eso no es un perro, eso es una salsiccia!  (That’s not a dog that’s a sausage!)

Another kid: – I want a sausage dog too!  Can you make me a sausage tiger?

I draw another kid an elephant and write the word underneath it.  Later one of the other volunteers comes out of the classroom and compliments the five year old on the elephant she drew.  I don’t say anything.

Tuesday night

9 hour overnight bus to the jungle at top speed.  There is a sign in the bus that says the driver is not allowed to go over 90km/hour.  But instead of having a regulator on the bus that keeps it from being able to go over 90, it actually just has a effing ALARM system where all the lights go on and a siren goes off in an OVERNIGHT bus where people are trying to SLEEP. Alerting the passengers to the danger of which they can do nothing about.  Awesome.  We are speeding around these winding ass roads with the side of the cliff just centimeters away.  A few hours into our bus ride our driver side swipes another car, gets into a fight with the driver and leaves, I’m going to assume, before an appropriate exchange of insurance information occurs.

The bus alternates between being so hot you want to die when we are in the valleys, and so cold you want to die while we drive through mountain peeks high enough to cause altitude sickness.  I ask for a blanket.  There are no blankets.  I pass out and wake up a few hours later to find every Peruvian on the bus covered in a red blanket with the company logo on it.  Hmmm.  I take the clothes out of my bag and layer a tank top over a skirt, over a t-shirt and use them as blankets.  I take the little cover off the back of the seat, put my arms through it, and shiver myself to sleep.

Peru – Week 1 – Day One – Alternatively Titled Abby in the Jungle

(Am not normally the type to be blogging about my life.  But think thisPeruexperience merits keeping a record. Thanks Tom for creating this blog para mi!  I will try and make you proud!)

The breakdown:

Sunday  – Fly from NJ to Germany

 Following Sunday  – Fly from Germany to NJ

 Monday   – Fly from NJ to Peru:

The weight limit is 50 pounds.  My bag is 56.

– Can I just pay extra?

– No. You can’t.  Not toLima.  You can buy another bag though and pay $70 to check that one.

– I don’t have TIME to buy another bag, can’t I just pay you 70 bucks for this one and we can pretend its two bags?

– No. Not toLima

I throw out 6 pounds worth of stuff.  It’s more than you’d think.


“Peruvians fly differently than the rest of us,” reports the very Jersey flight attendant while we’re boarding,  “This shit happens every time.”    She and I are standing in the front of the plane watching the chaos unfold before us.  The head flight attendant repeatedly announces that people must take their seats.  Their assigned seats.  Assigned.  This doesn’t stop them.  No one will sit down, and they’ll be goddamned if they’ll look at the seat number on their ticket to do so.  Everyone is standing around and yelling to one another like we’re all up here just waiting for a bus.  And either everyone on the plane is related, or they’re pretty chill about who they pass their babies around to – a number of babies are being transferred between 15 or more different people.  I hope nobody passes one to me.


I tell the guy at customs I’m going to be in the country until the end of May and I need a visa through until then.  He stamps my passport.  I walk away and check the stamp, it says “30” on it.  I walk back:

– I said the end of May, this says 30.

– End of May. Yes.

– But it only says 30.

He switches to English to confirm. – Yes. End of May. 30.

I walk away hoping that 30 is maybe a code for something.  Maybe it means like Special Visa Number 30.  I meet the house manager and she confirms it does mean 30 days.  “They earn money by charging you for every day you overstay your visa, that’s why they do it.”  Awesome.

The arrival hall is comical.  There is only one terminal and about 5 international flights arrive at once.  There are probably 100 people holding signs and yelling.  I look for my name.  No dice.  I scan the crowd for the one white girl.  Check.

The house manager is central casting hippie do-gooder.  She’s wearing a bandeau bra under a long loose tank top and cut-off shorts.  Colorful woven messenger bag.  She asks me where I’m from and offers that she’s from NY.  “Originally.”  Originally.  I know what that’s code for.  That’s code for: I’m not really from NY at all.  It’s the only place in the world that people want so desperately to be associated with that they have to pretend to be from there, even when they aren’t.  I’m from just outside of NY (New Jersey).  I’m from nearNew York City(Westchester.) I’m from NY, originally (‘til I was four.)  I was born in NY (my parents were on vacation there when my mother went into labor.)  This doesn’t happen with other places.  I’m from just outsideCalifornia.  What? Nevada, you mean? Mexico? Just say where the fuck you mean for god’s sake.  She’s sweet though, and she knows a lot.  And if anyone can forgive her for this slip, it’s someone who is from just outside of NY herself.