Monday, October 27, 2008

Introducing The Adventures of Benjamin and Libby II

Thank you to all who have followed our service as Peace Corps Volunteers in beautiful Musho, Peru. We're home now and have started another blog to document the next adventures of our lives... be sure to check it out.

But if you want to reminisce with us about our life in the high Andes of Peru, cozy up with your favorite tropical drink and track our travels with your reading glasses.

**Note: The contents of this site are ours and only ours, and do not reflect any position of the US government or the Peace Corps.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Day 728: On the way home!!!

A final photo with the community... That is a mountain that we will never forget. And friendships that are in our hearts forever.

To all of our faithful families, friends, and other readers,

So... that's it. Three days ago we celebrated 2 years as Peace Corps Volunteers in Peru and we are on our way home! The journey was challenging, impressionable, exciting, and full of cheek-muscle hurting smiles. We have grown as individuals and as a unit; we are stronger, more aware, and a bit more realistic than we were two years ago. Our stories are told in this weblog, but let's be honest, they are just the tip of iceberg. What I remember most, writing this, is the smell of toqush in the irrigation canals, the sound of a donkey braying to wake me up in the morning, the view of the mountain as I walk comfortably over the uneven pathways up the hill to Betty and Raul's, the sound of my godson calling out my name as soon as he sees me approaching, the hugs of the older women, and the smiles of the health promoters as they gained confidence in public speaking and led the project participants through nutrition sessions...
Our final improved stoves project was an ultimate success. We were able to successfully transfer our knowledge of the project and participants to our replacement volunteer, Mike, and were comfortable leaving him to finish things up and start projects of his own. Good luck, Mike, and keep in touch!
We will try to keep up with the blog... or perhaps a new iteration as our life changes and we return to the US of A. Many things will change in the upcoming months... we'll get jobs, move back into our house, probably get a car. We'll visit with friends and family, reconnect and start to tell our stories. We are looking forward to hot showers and pizza, delicious desserts and comfortable beds... but mostly seeing friends and family members.
We thank you all for your attention over the past two years and are eager to hear from you and hopefully see you sooner than later!
We'll be back, Peru. No te preocupes.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Day 715: Our Final Trek in the Andes - Huayhuash Circuit

Three cheers to the trek of a lifetime! Benj and I headed off on one final high Andean trek before making the journey back to the US of A... this time to the Cordillera Huayhuash. South of the Cordillera Blanca (where we lived), these mountains offered the chance for a 9 day wilderness adventure!

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Day 710: Reflection in our final days as Peace Corps Volunteers


Why your friends back home should join Peace Corps:
It gives you deeper and renewed pride in the U.S.

Why your department is obviously better than all the rest:
Ancash has the most compact chain of high peaks (27 over 6,000m and 200 over 5000m) in the world, including Peru’s tallest, Huascaran. Our 663 glaciers provide the coast with water. Without Ancash, cities along the coast dry up and wither away. Ancash is better.

Most random item(s) received in a care package:
Socks half-stuck to stinky aged-cheddar cheese and a melted chocolate bar. Thanks Nate!

Advice for the new Peace Corps Volunteers:
Do not bail in your first six months to a year for your purpose in your community will come into greater focus with more time.

Biggest surprise encountered during your service:
Locals burn natural grasslands in the National Park each June ridding sins and bringing good luck. When I called the Park, the Director wanted to come himself to put out the flames but couldn’t because they have no budget for transportation!

What´s your legacy?
Unintentionally, there is a dog, an infant child, and a street bearing my name.

Will you listen to huayno (Andean country music) in the US?
Oh, definitely. I secretly love it now. Plus, my town is the home of Sonia Morales. It would be treason not to.

How will you spend your PC readjustment allowance?
Chipotle, family size peanut M&Ms, cream cheese bagels, cereal and milk, Indian and Thai food, and a no-emissions, fuel efficient automobile.

Favorite discovery in Peru:
I saw a monkey-eating Harpy Eagle in Manu National Park.

Favorite hobby you’ve picked up since arriving in Peru:

What made your site tolerable?
My nifty site mate, Libby – an amazing wife and companion. And the glorious view of Huascaran from our window.

Most idiotic thing you said in Quechua:
I flexed my bicep and yelled to my neighbor: “I am a strong dog!”

Most inspiring moment:
Our Little ahijado saw us coming and ran to wash his face and hands before giving us a bug hug. This is the same kid who whipped my wife with a beet when we first met.

Favorite Peruvian holiday:
Mustache March. All male PCVs should participate. Keeps you from taking yourself too seriously.

Most fulfilling accomplishment:
Assisting about half of the families in Musho (800 people and 200 families) improve their living environments through the installation of wood-burning stoves and other changes, like guinea pig cages.

Most uninformed thing that you have ever heard Peruvian say:
It’s a tie: “Are you from the U.S. or the country of New York?” and worse, “Eres de los E.E.U.U. o uno de sus caserios?”

Fullest that you have ever seen a mototaxi/combi/bus:
In my first three months I witnessed 29 people (some children) board a combi (small van) that then proceeded to race down the highway.

Favorite person in Peru:
Dr. Jorge Bazan (Peru's famous PCMO) without a doubt.

What wakes you up in the morning at site?
The sun shining through the door as it rises over the south face of Huascaran.


Most useful thing you learned in training:
It was a story that Andrew Alspach told to us… about a study on dental hygiene in India. Apparently in one community some researchers found that people had really healthy teeth, few gum problems, and beautiful smiles. When the researchers approached a community member to inquire about the phenomenon they were told that “years ago this one white guy used to go down to the communal well and wash his mouth out, using this brush-thing to scrub his enamel.” And so now they do too. The white guy was a Peace Corps Volunteer. And when they looked up his DOS, it was brief… insinuating that he didn’t think he’d been able to accomplish anything during his service. So, see the little things.

Most random secondary project:
We did a two-hour session with the Global Library Project ( in one of our caserios. A representative from the Project came up to Musho and we spent a couple of quick hours asking fun questions of the kids about their community and taking pictures… in celebration of Fiestas Patrias 2008. About a month later, 80 little books showed up in our Serpost box – 40 stories created by our kids, and 40 stories created by kids in Nepal. What a perfect way to work on cultural understanding.

Any interesting health-related anecdotes?
I had typhoid, dysentery, and a cast on my left hand from doing too many handstands.

Why the other Peru 8ers will always remember you:
I skinny dipped in 10 alpine lakes… once with 9 other Ancash Volunteers.

Why your host family made you want to run and hide in your room:
Because we had a room in a compound that included 6 other habitable rooms which were rented throughout our service by teachers, health post employees, missionaries, grandparents, screaming babies, & Andinistas. And we all shared the same rustic 'bathroom.'

Most share-worthy BATHROOM story:
It was a chilly March late afternoon. I had just showered… a breath taking experience, and had donned my fancy Patagonia long underwear and my orchid-colored Northface down jacket. Shivering, but clean, I realized that our pee bucket was full… of my husband’s pee. No problem, I thought. I slipped on his shoes, picked it up, and headed out of our room. Now, we live on the second floor and a set of narrow, concrete stairs separate our balcony from the downstairs bathroom. It was half way down these stairs, on the triangular, awkwardly shaped stair that I fell. Hard. Both feet out from under me. The pee bucket went up into the air. The pee came back down. All over me… and my down jacket… and my long undies… and my clean hair. I began to swear. To use every available cuss word. And in that minute, crumpled at the bottom of the stairs, and dowsed in my husband’s pee, 18 American Evangelical missionaries that were sharing our house with us, appeared, concerned about the unholy language. They asked me what happened. And I couldn’t answer. I was too humiliated. And Benjamin doubled over with laughter from behind the closed door to our room.

Why your friends back home should join Peace Corps:
To walk slower. To breathe deeper. To regain patience. To remember to see the little things.

Your most joyful moment:
Waking up in the blue room on a Sunday morning as the sun rose above the south peak of Huascaran at 8:07am and let dappled light filter through our windows. Pancakes, coffee, Newsweek. Feeling at home. Having Benjamin right there by my side.

Why your department is obviously better than all the rest:
Because Vishal, Jake, Frank, Ryan, Amanda, Rabbit, Ana Luz, Tim, Ariana, & Sophie live there. Shumaqlla nunacunapis warmicuna.

Any meal item you tolerate in Peru that you would never have eaten back in the States?
In June of 2007, I, Libby the life-long vegetarian, ate my first meat… guinea pig. It was just a bite. It made me nauseous. In August of 2007 I ate more than 10 entire guinea pigs during the M&E of our improved stoves project. Starting in January I ate my first cuarto of pollo. I now eat guinea pigs, chicken, and fish on a regular basis. Even at restaurants. I do this mostly for cultural reasons… I don’t like to refuse food offered to me in Musho. And if I eat it regularly, then I don’t feel sick. I will not continue to eat meat in the States... well, maybe Lola's delicious Dill Mayo Salmon...

Craziest meal you’ve thrown together in an effort to avoid yet another plate of rice and/or potatoes:
We eat well. We have our own stove and oven in our room… so chocolate chip cookies, pizzas, Thai curries, and banana bread are common in our diet.

Most random item(s) received in a care package:
My parents sent down a whole wheel of baby Swiss cheese and a huge triangle of Vermont sharp cheddar cheese. Life was good.

Peruvian cuisine that you’ll get a craving for when you’re back in the States:
Cancha, no doubt... popped corn kernels that taste kinda like glad corn.

Favorite coping mechanism:
Series. Grey’s anatomy. The Wire. House. Lost. Scrubs.

Advice for the new Peace Corps Volunteers:
Always go farther. It’s my personal motto… but it fits the job.

Funniest thing that a Peruvian told you in their best English:
Say this out loud… sound it out, Spanish-styles – Headache, Stomachache, Backache.

Best compliment you have received in Peru:
I was dressed up as Hermia, the sister in our Gringo’s Saludable gender equality show. My outfit included pretty typical Ancashina garb… and as I was walking the streets of Caraz, a group of Carazinos stopped and said to each other so that I could hear “Wow… parece Gringa!” Oh, yeah.

Most valued item from the States:
MVPs: Down jacket, Ipod, Ipod speakers, computer(s), duct tape.

Scariest insect/rat/animal run-in:
When we arrived at Barbara Nicolasa’s home to visit her beautiful ‘fogón mejorado’ for the M&E stage of our Improved Stoves project we encountered two crazy things – (1) Upon entering her house, she leading us, she stopped suddenly & looked back apologetically, shrugging her shoulders & nodding her 72-year old head. When I looked at her with a mildly confused expression, wondering why she didn’t continue on to the patio, I followed her gaze down to her foot where upon I found to my horror the struggling body of a rather large rat. Her food ground the rat’s head into the ground until it stopped struggling enough for her to grab it by the tail & fling it into her field. And (2) she was cooking on the floor, on a traditional, 3-rock ring, smoking, cooking fire. She then served us boiled oca from her pot on the ground with the same hand that had just grabbed the wiggling rat’s tail.

Most idiotic thing you said in Quechua:
My favorite phrase when initially learning Quechua was to tell people that they had beautiful donkeys or pigs… “Shumaq ashnu mamey… Shumaq kuchicuna tetey.” It got them laughing, but certainly demonstrated my lack of mastery of the language.

Did folks from home visit your site? What happened?
Yeah! We facilitated a medical campaign with my dad as one of the attending physicians and then taught a Wilderness First Responder-esque class to the youth and adult health promoters. Having the novelty of my family there really made the experience special for the community and new and exciting for me.

Time that a Peruvian pleasantly surprised you:
One of our health promoters called Benjamin for his birthday while we were on vacation in Cuzco. Remembered and used their credit to make the call.

Most uninformed thing that you have ever heard Peruvian say:
I was at the Serpost office in Huaraz trying to send a package to my brother-in-law in Mozambique, AFRICA. And she says, “Oh, Africa… that’s in Asia, right?” Apparently Geography 101 is not a requisite for being a postal worker.

Advice you received here that most inspired you:
Benjamin once told the governing body of one of our Improved Stove projects that “ser líder es sacrificarse sin condiciones.”

What you fear most about returning to States:
I hated the Peace Corps for my first year. But now, ironically, I am most afraid that I won’t find that job that challenges me the way that Peace Corps does. That makes me excited to get up every morning. That pushes me beyond my comfort zone. That gives me space to cry and laugh and work every day with people. A good friend once shared with me this quote: "Let the beauty you love be what you do. There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the earth" --Rumi

Favorite Spanish word/phrase/dicho:
‘¿Onde bueno?' - it means 'where are you off to?'

Stinkiest place you encountered in your Peruvian experience:
Carretera Musho-Tumpa on Sunday and Tuesday nights when the Toqosh people put their rotten, fermented potatoes into plastic bags to take to market.

Most unfortunate fashion choice made by a Peruvian in your presence:
Camel toe. And a shirt too tight and too short on top.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Day 702: Celebrating 4 Years... At Gocta Falls, the Third Highest Waterfall in the World

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Day 701: Kuelap Ruins Outside of Chachapoyas, Amazonas

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Day 693: Oscar Teaches the Construction Methodology

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Day 679: What did you do for Peru’s Fiestas Patrias (Independence Day)?

Along with an intrepid group of novice mountaineers, Benjamin penetrated the enormous white peaks that make up the Cordillera Blanca of Ancash. These mountains have been home for nearly two years, providing the outstanding backdrop of my backyard. Most of the time, I regard this dense series of 20,000 foot crags with awe and an ample amount of fear. Several evenings in late June, we awoke to the loud crash of avalanches and were reminded of the devastation and 100,000+ deaths past disasters have caused. Many times the summits stand serene like a real-life painting, calming and humbling me with their size and power. Occasionally, the glaciers beckon adventure to climbers aspiring for challenge and higher altitude. These individuals tend to be fit, well-outfitted, mentally prepared and young-enough-to-be-stupid. Hopefully, they are smart enough to hire a local guide who is familiar with the vastly changing conditions of this tropical mountain range. I was part of such a group of Peace Corps Volunteers: Jake, Frank, Vishal, Kevin and I.

The advantage to the Cordillera Blanca of Peru is the density of massive peaks, a virtual Baskin Robbins of climbing options. There are classic climbs of all levels of difficulty and one can choose a mountain appropriate to one’s skill and experience. We began on Yanapaqcha in the famed Llanganuco Valley, but were turned back due to heavy snow at 5500m, 150m below the summit. We descended quickly down the mountain the same day and spent the night camping and recovering near the trailhead. We decided, with the support of our guide, that we would try to climb the giant Chopicalqui with our remaining three days. At nearly 21,000ft (over 6,300m), it is the fourth tallest summit in the Blanca. We spent the next two days slowly gaining altitude, first sleeping at moraine camp (5,000m) and then high camp on the snow (5,600m). In celebration of Peru’s Independence, Frank, Vishal and I awoke at midnight to strap on our crampons and ice axes, beginning a twelve-hour vertical adventure up and then down Chopicalqui. Our headlamps blazed for six hours of steep, arduous snow-staircases. Many people climb this mountain and our going was surely made easier by the packed path of previous mountaineers. At several points the grade became so steep that our guide placed deep metal anchors and we ascended with greater caution. Of course, we were all attached to one rope for the duration of the time on the glacier; were one of us to fall, the guide and the rest of us would plant on our trusty ice axes to grip the snow and stop any momentum.

The cold, even on a mountain in the tropics, is intense. We called out “Toes!! Fingers!!” to remind one another to independently wiggle our digits. For the motion of walking in thick plastic boots and double, thick wool socks and the action of swinging ice axes in two pairs of mittens was not sufficient to keep warm. Urinating, drinking and eating become annoyances that require stopping, often shedding a glove and exposing one to the bitter cold. Frank began to slow his pace and take short breathers, complaining of a mild headache. The effects of altitude can present quickly, and suddenly the importance of urging Frank to eat and drink were obvious. With only one guide, we would all turn back if his symptoms became serious and nobody would have the chance to see the distant Amazon at sunrise.

We slowed our pace slightly but kept moving ever closer to the peak. Biting winds whipped at our earlobes, lips, cheeks and noses. The lights illuminating the capital city Huaraz and a large gold mine hovered like landing spacecraft in the Southern valley. Breathless and invigorated, we arrived on a shelf below the final coned summit. Directly to the west, lay the larger camellid cousin, Huascaran, whose two hump-shaped peaks floated loftily at a similar altitude. To be nearly equal with the tallest peak in Peru, Musho’s mountain, my daily inspiration, my humbling, picturesque backdrop to rural Peace Corps life…that view was perhaps my favorite moment of the trip. At such altitudes, indigenous beliefs in mountain spirits, or apus, become understandable. Literally, above the habitable terrestrial world, there I was in a place I should not be, in a place momentarily borrowed by the sheer stubbornness of human will and physical endurance, simultaneously fortunate to be an intrepid soul and lucky the mountain gods allowed passage above the clouds.

The clear weather was ephemeral, offering spectacular glimpses of the highest surrounding peaks, but covering the eastern lowlands and all the valleys below 5,000m in a blanket of white, fluffy clouds. As the winds picked up and sinewy clouds enveloped our perch, we suddenly wanted to leave as though shooed away by a bigger host. The descent was not difficult, except for the renewed cold as a giant, unforgiving mist encased us for the next three hours.

The main challenge on the way down was maintaining focus so as not to trip headlong into a crevasse or down the permanently precipitous terrain. Last on the ascent, I know found myself first moving downhill. The guide takes the rear for safety precaution if anyone tumbles. For some time I could only see a step or two ahead of me. The uniform whiteness of sky and mountain made me think of the tricks deserts play on weary travelers. I searched for footprints and the impressions left by our ice axes on the ascent and we soon arrived at high camp, where our two companions had stayed behind to wait for us.

Jake and Kevin joined us for the remaining two hours down to moraine camp where porters were boiling water and preparing a delicious meal. Just moments before stepping from the glacier, we heard a horrible crashing of rock behind us and turned to see large boulders spraying in all directions one hundred feet over our heads. There was no cover and each of us scrambled to avoid massive stones. Murphy’s Law would suggest an accident just as we depart the dangerous section of the journey. These are the dangers mountains present. Life presents the same irony. Many fear death by snakebite or terrorist attack, but we are more likely to die in a car crash. As though in agreement, my body tried to slip off the trail the next morning to meet the car. I nearly nose-dived off a minor cliff, but my bum somehow turned into a magnetic pancake and saved itself. A few hours car ride and we were safely grubbing on huge amounts of food in the capital city of Huaraz.

Kevin will forever be remembered for his classy poor-man’s garb, including a borrowed camouflage poncho as a rain/wind layer, his improvised cell-phone-tucked-below-his-hat flashlight, and the 1970’s ski pants he never changed. Jake goes down for his valiant ascent of an unplanned ice wall having never before used crampons or ice axes. Frank is now famous for losing a t-shirt, underwear, and ruining a borrowed jacket to cow attack and, thereafter, pretending to be homeless and beg cigarettes and money from his traveling companions. Vishal the novice mountaineer never mentioned discomfort or fatigue, even when placed in a two-person tent with two large men. I enjoyed making others laugh by singing the theme music to the badly needed Ballywood film series of Indiana Jones and Star Wars.

Some run marathons. Others choose to volunteer for two years in distant lands. And some aspire to stand in the sky to get a better view. Many of us do all these things because these activities make us feel more alive each day, pushing the boundaries of our existence.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Day 675: CARE Comes to Visit...

Today 2 representatives from CARE Peru came to Musho to visit with the beneficiaries of our newest Healthy Homes and Improved Stove Project. About 100 of the 130 members of the group showed up at just before 10am, excited to understand the process that is organizing a community project and asking for over $10,000 from an international NGO. At the assembly meeting the CARE representatives asked the group a number of questions about their project, praised them for their unity and hard work, and urged them to "seguir adelante."

Then we headed up to Pariantana to visit 7 of the healthy families and their improved stoves. CARE helped to finance buckets with taps for the families to store their boiled drinking water.
Here we are in one of the kitchens... note the natural light entering through the piece of transparent roofing.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Day 649: Assessing the Problematica

We were finishing up the Pariantana Cocinas Project and wondering what we were going to do for our final 5 months... when 3 health promoters from Musho knocked on our door and asked to speak with us. They wanted us to help them facilitate a similar project for Musho Centro... and they were willing to act as leaders, to sacrifice time and energy for their neighbors so that more people could benefit from the Improved Stove. So, we told them that they needed to call a community assembly to judge the interest of other community members. We also told them that in order to be successful the project would need to start on June 8 and include meetings EVERY SINGLE WEEK until our departure in the end of October.

On June 8th, after just 2 days of advertising the community assembly via voice and loud speakers, 60 Mushinos appeared at the Loza Deportiva for the first informational meeting and sign-up.

On June 15th, almost 120 community members participated. In this meeting we voted for the governing body, decided when and how often we would meet (every Sunday from 3-5pm) and set down the rules. The group elected 4 women to serve as president, secretary, and 2 treasurers. The rules were principally based on good attendance...
  • People must arrive on time... Meetings will start at 3pm sharp. There will be 15 minutes of tolerance given, between 2:45pm and 3pm.
  • 3 absences means that you lose the project.
  • 4 tardies means that you lose the project.
  • Families are responsible for putting in the manual labor and family funds for building the stove platforms in an adequate room (4 walls, roof that doesn't leak, sufficient air flow, cleanly and hygienic), guinnea pig cages, tables and shelves.
And, on June 22nd (the last meeting to sign up), almost 150 people were in attendance. We split the group up into 4 groups and discussed the "problematica" - What is problematic about our current lifestyles? And then we searched for solutions. Many peoples complaints pertained to the kitchen... too much smoke, respiratory illnesses, vision problems, discomfort in cooking on the ground, poor hygiene, a waste of firewood & time, etc. The Improved Stove was the major solution identified by the groups. In addition people mentioned whitewash and transparent roofing to improve the lighting in their kitchens, guinea pig cages to remove the small rodents from their kitchens - healthier for both humans and cuyes, and plastic buckets to store boiled water so that they can drink clean water and stay hydrated.

Here is the whole group listening to one of the groups share with the rest their findings.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Day 638: Ode to Barbara

Her name is Barbara Nicolasa. She is 74 years old. Her smile is captivating and her energy astouonding. She makes me glad to live in Musho, every day.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Day 636: Monitoring and Evaluation the Improved Stoves of Pariantana

Monday, May 12, 2008

Day 607: Our trip to Manu National Park

We spent seven days traveling through Manu National Park. It was an amazing adventure that took us from 4,000m to nearly sea level, deep in the lowland tropical rainforest. We observed tons of wildlife, including almost 200 species of birds (of the 1,000), a half-dozen species of monkeys, white-lipped peccaries (kind of like a wild boar) and caimans (alligator cousins). It was a great treat to visit this beautiful part of the world.

Andean Cock-of-th-Rock displaying in a lek for potential female mates
this is a male white-chinned sapphire hummingbird

this is a white caiman submerging its body in the Manu River
these are white winged swallows
Hoatzin in flight; this bird is a vegetarian, eating leaves full-time - totally weird and awesome!

Our group de-boating and preparing to enter the dense tropical forest to look for monkeys.
a typical tropical tree