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Alpaca Farm in New Jersey

Well, I think it’s safe to say that for the past year or so my blog has been one neglected child. I guess once I left Cusco I had one thing on my mind. Getting that fiancé visa for Atreyhus and bringing him home to the U.S. And you know what? After a few months living in Callao with Atreyhus’s sisters in a teeny tiny house with no privacy and a brief stint teaching English to business professionals, I did just that. Looking back, I’m not sure why I was so anxious to leave Peru. Maybe it was because I knew I was there because I HAD to be there. We didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t hop on a plane with Atreyhus and bring him to stay with my parents and see my house. Even after my parents came to visit in April I still missed them. And a big part of me felt like Atreyhus had to come here to the U.S. and make sacrifices similar to the ones I made to go to Peru and live with him. Oh, and the fact that Atreyhus couldn’t find a job in Peru. In the U.S. he already had one lined up with my father.

We’ve been here in New Jersey for about six months. Time passes so quickly. Atreyhus is working with my Dad in construction and he loves it. He spends all day singing and joking around with the guys. The only down side is that now that’s it’s December, he’s experiencing cold weather like he’s never felt it before.

And as for me, well I’ve been conflicted as of late. I think the new-ness of being back in the U.S. has worn off. And despite all of my complaining when I was in Peru, I miss it. I miss it a lot. I miss the culture, I miss the crisp, clean air of Cusco, the feeling of the mountains surrounding me like giant, kind soldiers. I miss meeting new people. People are so friendly in Peru, even the foreigners. I miss feeling like I’m making a difference. When I taught English I was helping people advance their education, when I was working for the NGO ProPeru, I was helping people get clean water and clean air in their houses. Now I’m working at an office, performing menial tasks that use neither my intelligence nor my creativity. I miss the excitement in Peru. Whether in Lima or Cusco, there was always the chance for something unexpected to happen, whether it was meeting someone new, or finding a new café or bookstore I hadn’t stumbled upon before. And there were many more job opportunities, as I was an English- speaking gringa.

When I think about it, ever since 2007, I haven’t spent more than 4 months outside of Peru. I was always going back and forth between here and there while finishing my undergraduate. And then I spent a year there without going home. Maybe all’s I needed when I was in Peru was a good visit back to the U.S. to cure me of my homesickness. I still hold the dream of moving back to Peru in my heart, but I came to the U.S. for another reason, to get my law degree. I’m thinking human rights or something along those lines. I’m not sure where the degree will take me, but I hope it’ll take me back to Peru. It’ll be a tough 3 years, but at least I have Atreyhus at my side, and it’s going to take that long for him to get his U.S. citizenship, anyway, if not longer. We hope to go back to Peru for our belated honeymoon this summer. Until then, I get my fix of Peru any way I can, reading online newspapers, blogs, listening to Peruvian musicians, and spending time with my hubby.

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Moving In

Hey folks. Sorry that my blog’s been sorely overlooked for the past 2 months, but I’ve been adjusting to life in Lima- living with the in-laws. I write this entry with the sound of children screaming in the background. I’m in my room. In a house made of cement. The floors are concrete. You have to wear shoes everywhere you go. My fan hums steadily in the background. I’ve put newspaper on my lap to prevent the heat from my laptop from burning my legs. It’s hot here. And grey. Except for when it’s sunny.

With the exception of the days I go to the beach (which totals 1 in the month I’ve been here) I prefer the grey days.

When I’m not looking for a job, I’m busy playing the role of Atreyhus’s tail. Where he goes, I go. Maybe if we were living in Miraflores I’d have a little more freedom. There, the streets are open and there are many restaurants, shops, and cafes. There, I can walk comfortably. But not here. Not in Callao. The other day I walked to the nearest Plaza Vea, which is a 10-minute walk. At one point, every car that was stopped at a stoplight honked their horn and whistled at me. It’s not flattering. The constant attention coupled with Atreyhus’s exaggerated worrying when I go out on my own, make me hesitant to walk the streets. The center of Lima is about a half hour bus ride from here. Miraflores is an hour.  And I only sort of know how to get there. Life in Callao is definitely different than the life in Lima foreigners from expatperu.com are always talking about.

But it’s not all bad. Callao’s pretty nice. There are carefully planted trees separating double- laned streets, open vegetable markets and a supermarket nearby.  Small bakeries, pharmacies, and Internet cafes line the streets. People live in square houses with flat roofs that are guarded by metal gates. Young boys stick their shirtless browned torsos out of the windows to see what’s going on down below. The smell of browned garlic escapes the windows as mothers prepare lunch.

Our neighbor makes the best tamales in town. Atreyhus knows just about everyone on the street, and they’re getting to know me, too.  Just the other day when I was about to be ambushed by a group of kids with water balloons (it’s carnavales time, again), Atreyhus’s friend spotted me and escorted me to my house (a block away) in the safety of his car. His sisters know where to go for everything. Want to buy fresh fish? Go see Walter at the Dos de Mayo market. Want to but hair products? Go to Santa Rosa. They don’t jack up the prices like they do in the supermarkets. Want to go to Miraflores? Center of Lima? San Miguel? His sisters can tell me 10 different buses that’ll take me there. People drop by without notice. I go in to take a shower and everyone’s having breakfast. I come out and Tia Chela’s dropped by for a visit. Or La Ballena’s here, an eccentric family friend who used to drink and do drugs, but has recently found god.

In a way I’m thankful that I’m experiencing a Lima that not too many foreigners are exposed to.  My experience is no foamy, milk- filled Starbucks latte. Here, we drink our coffee strong, with all the grit and grinds that come with it.

But sometimes I long for the squeaky- clean Miraflores life. Miraflores is the manifestation of Peruvian capitalism and modernity.  The sidewalks are clean and straight. The streets are wide and freshly painted. Traffic cops rise up through throngs of noisy cars in small circular platforms from which they blow their whistles. Large, new buildings line the streets, most of them institutes of some sort, offices, or restaurants. There’s Starbucks, sunglasses shops, baby stores, and large Walmart-like stores such as Tottus, Plaza Vea, or Wong’s. This is where the tourists come. This is where the foreigners and rich Peruvians live.  I wouldn’t have to take a bus anywhere if I lived there. It’s all there: work, shopping, and entertainment. It’s even got the beach.

But is all that luxury and convenience worth giving up the everyday culture I’m experiencing here in Callao? I’m not so sure. Just now, Atreyhus’s little nephew Zahir wobbled into my room (he’s almost 2), climbed up onto my bed, and stole Flop-Flop, my stuffed bunny rabbit from when I was a kid. Then he ran away with it, giggling all the while. He’s precious.

Maybe I’ll be singing another tune once I find a job, which will probably be in Miraflores, and am commuting an hour back and forth every day. But I guess we’ll see. Atreyhus and I came here to stay with his family and save some money. And that’s what we’ll be doing, for as long as we can stand living in this cement jungle.

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I just wanted to remind foreigners/tourists to be careful this time of year when taking taxis in Peru. 2 of our volunteers have been robbed in the last week in taxis. In both cases, the taxi driver took them down a dark street and 2 or 3 other men jumped in, taking whatever they had. One case happened in Cusco, and the other in Arequipa. SO please be careful. Never carry more than you need, and always take registered taxis and try to remember the number of the taxi (it’s usually painted on the inside of the door, below the window.) Also, if at all possible take a taxi with someone else. This doesn’t just go for late at night….the volunteer in Arequipa was robbed at 7:30pm! Better yet, take a combi.

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Recently, I’ve been visiting organizations all over Cusco to see about the possibility of placing volunteers with them come this summer. I’ve been to organizations for women, orphans, and children working in the streets, just to name a few. Last Monday I visited a school called ANIA: Tierra de Ninos “Vida en mis Manos”. ANIA stands for Asociacion para la Ninez y su Ambiente (Association for Children and their Environment). I didn’t know too much about the organization before I went- just that ProPeru might want to work with them and my boss told me to go. The ANIA School I went to is located in a town called Huacarpay, a short 40- minute bus ride from Cusco city.

Before I went, I had a few email exchanges with Yanet, a teacher and the woman in charge of the school. He emails were very friendly, she always wrote to me in big, green font and said things like “les esperamos con mucho carino” and “un abrazo fuerte”. I had a good feeling about the place. When I arrived in Huacarpay, I followed the directions Yanet had given me and eventually saw a cute little green school situated on a small hilltop that overlooked a lake. When I entered the school, the sight of gardens greeted me on either side of the walkway. There were 2 gringas making some sort of bench out of mud, plastic bottles, and plaster. I was about to enter a classroom when a small woman with skin browned by the sun and shiny black hair popped her head out. Yanet. She was wearing a ruffly green apron, and promptly greeted me with a “besito” on the cheek.

Most of the children who attend ANIA are from the remote countryside of Cusco. Their families bring them to Huacarpay to work as housekeepers, and to learn Spanish. Yanet explained to me that the parents think they’re doing something good, by giving their children a chance to be successful through learning Spanish, but that they’re really harming their children by effectively abandoning them and leaving them to live with families that treat them like less than dogs [my words, not hers]. This is why Yanet and the other teacher who works at the school, Norma, make sure to give the children all the love and affection possible. Towards the end of my tour, Yanet brought me into a classroom filled with children. All of them excitedly said “Hola” to me and a bunch of them ran up to me and gave me hugs. I couldn’t get one girl to let go! They’re definitely really sweet children, and it’s so sad to think that they don’t get the love they deserve where they live. ANIA is their only refuge.

ANIA’s philosophy is to educate children through means of the environment. They recycle everything, from the dolls they make out of plastic bottles, to the purses they weave from plastic bags, to the benches they’re making out of weighted plastic bottles and mud. They make most of their crafts in art class, and sell them at the annual Christmas Market Cusco has every December 24th. The money goes to buying things for the school, as the government doesn’t help them out much. Last year they bought some camera equipment and now they have a news show that they broadcast on YouTube.

Their main focus is on plants. Each student gets a small plot of land that they learn to take care of. Many of them have small vegetables growing. Through the act of farming, the children are taught the value of nature. Each plot if divided up into a section for “Pacha Mama” (Quechua for Mother Earth), a section for sharing (they bring the plants in that section back to the house they live in), and a section for personal gain where many of the children sell their crops or eat them themselves. They also have a greenhouse, where the students work in groups, and they get their own small plot for medicinal plants. Yanet and Norma encourage a visual and physical approach to learning, rather than having children sit and listen to lectures and copy down notes.

ANIA encourages creativity and resourcefulness in children while teaching them about the importance of taking care of the earth.  In a world where global warming is becoming a bigger threat every day, ANIA is certainly an example to be followed.

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I have many a combi story and have heard many a combi story, whether it involves getting lost, felt up, pick pocketed, or finally figuring out the winding routes. Combis are dirty, sometimes rather uncomfortable, fast moving modules of transportation. And I take them whenever I can.

They’re small vans, usually from Japan, that have been gutted on the inside and replaced with several bus- like seats, but smaller. Sometimes the seats inside match, and sometimes they’re all different colors and it looks like someone went junkyard shopping. I’ll never forget the first time I was in Cusco and I saw a combi drive by, packed with Peruvians. I mean, there wasn’t an inch of room in that van.

Combis can be intimidating at first. There’s no convenient map, showing each combi’s route, like in New York. You just have to get to know it. Throughout Cusco, there are small blue signs with a picture of a bus on them and the word “paradero”- Spanish for bus stop.  That’s where you get on. A speeding combi will come to a quick halt as someone hangs out of the open sliding door, shouting a flurry of words that would be indiscernible to the average tourist. “Ayacucho, Maruri, Calle Nueva”. The cobrador1 shouts out the combi’s stops so quickly the words sort of melt together. But after a while, you start to be able to pick them out.

Getting on and off combis can be sort of scary. First off, if the combi is packed and you happen to be sitting in the back, you better yell “bajo” pretty loudly because no one’s going to make room for you. (Bajo is what you say when you want to get off at the stop they’re yelling out). Instead, you have to squeeze your way past people, some sitting, most of them standing in the narrow passageway, and finally you make it out the combi. It’s like traveling through the birth canal. You also have to be careful not to hit your head on the low door way. Most combis are smaller than an average mini-van.

Then there’s payment. A combi ride is 60 centimos, less than 50 cents. Having change is crucial. In Peruvian currency, there is a 5- sol coin, a 2- sol coin, a 1- sol coin, and then centimos which are little gold coins (50, 10 and 20 centimos coins). From 10 up, the soles are bills. I usually try to have exact change. If not, any coin is acceptable. If you try to give them a 10-sol bill, they’ll usually give you a dirty look and then change it. Some passengers try to give them a big bill they can’t change, so they’ll pay less. The ‘ol “either change my 50 sol bill or accept the 40 centimos I have” routine.

One day I boarded a combi and half way through my ride, realized I only had a 50- sol bill on me. My stomach dropped, my hands got a little sweaty, I started planning my strategy. I didn’t want to give the cobrador my money too soon, because if she couldn’t change it, she’d make me get off the combi. I imagined her yelling at me, onlookers chuckling, thinking I was some dumb gringa who didn’t know anything about proper combi etiquette. Finally she asked me for my “paisaje” and I slowly handed it over. She said (in Spanish, of course) “you don’t have anything smaller?”, chuckling in disbelief under her breathe. “No” was my sheepish reply. She yelled up to the driver to change 50. He gave her 5- 10 centimo coins. No, 50 soles she replied. That’s when I heard a few chuckles. He handed over the change and she gave it to me. Not too painful. Once my face stopped burning.

But today I saw something that made my 50- sol fiasco seem like nothing. There were 2 gringas on the combi, and they tried to give an old, dirty, crumpled up 1-dollar bill to pay for their paisaje. The driver just looked at them, smiling at their stupidity and said “no”. The one gringa’s reply was “ es 2.80 soles”. The cobrador just shook his head again and said “no”. They had to get off the combi early. I mean come on, I don’t think any tourist is that stupid, especially not those 2 because they spoke Spanish pretty well. Any tourist who has the balls to try out the combi system has to know that no one in Cusco is going to accept an old dollar bill. Even a new one with a tear on the edge is unacceptable! I think they were just playing the clueless foreigner card and trying to get a free ride. But hey, who knows? Maybe some people really are that stupid.

I first became really reliant on the combi system when I was teaching English and Atreyhus and I moved kind of far from the institute. Too far to walk. Let me tell you, getting the combi system down made me feel like a bad ass. Within 2 weeks, I vaguely knew the route of just about every combi that passed my way. I want to go to the post office, I take Pegaso. For Molino, I take Satelite or Wimpillay. San Jeronimo, I take Chaska. ( I forgot to mention that each combi line has it’s own name).

Luckily, I live on a busy street, so there is a large selection of combis at my disposal. Little ones, even big ones that would qualify for bus status in U.S. terms. The best thing is hopping on a combi and knowing exactly where it goes, even the names of the stops before the cobrador calls them out. I’ve seen a couple of girngos on combis before, but it’s not something that’s too common. I, personally, try to take a combi whenever I can. They’re inexpensive, fast, and reliable during business hours. So the next time a taxi slows down and honks it’s horn at you, turn your head the other way and have a little adventure on a combi. Once you get it down, you’ll feel like you can do anything!

1 A cobrador is the person who works in the passenger part of the combi. They open and close the door, collect money, and yell out all of the stops. The person driving the combi is called the chofer.

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DSC00252OK, here’s my second attempt at writing my first blog entry. (The first draft got erased after I unexpectedly lost Internet connection- something I should  be used to by now!) Here goes….

I truly believe that Cusco possesses this magical power that grabs hold of people when they come to visit.  I’ve run into so many people who originally came to visit for a few weeks and ended up staying months, even years. It might be the misty mountains that surround the small tourist town of about 400,000 inhabitants.  Or maybe it’s the welcoming Cusquenos.  Either way, Cusco touches people in a very special way, and I’m no exception.

I’m Emily and this is my blog about my life here in Cusco, Peru. I first came to Cusco in August 2007 to study abroad for 3 ½ months. During that time, I met my boyfriend, “Atreyhus”, a tall, fun-loving Peruvian from Callao (a pretty dangerous province in Lima) who’d moved to Cusco to learn English. 2 years and, despite the doubts of many close friends and family members, we’re still together. I’m pretty proud of us.

That’s not to say things haven’t been tough. Twice we were separated for four months while I finished up my last year of college. And transitioning to life in the Andes wasn’t always easy after living in NYC for 4 years.  Things like electric shower heads, water being shut off in the middle of the day, and parasites were especially difficult to deal with.  

After volunteering for about 3 ½ months, I returned to the states for my spring semester, then went back to Peru in the summer of 2008 to be with Atreyhus. That was most likely my hardest adjustment period.  It was amazing being with Atreyhus, but I was no longer in a supportive program, living with a homestay or socializing with a group of American volunteers. I was on my own. Just Atreyhus and me. I was officially (well, unofficially according the Peruvian Embassy) an Ex-pat. And I taught English to pay the bills.

  After a few months, I got tired of being stared at everywhere I went. Of being charged significantly more whenever I went to the vegetable market or took a taxi.  Of having diarrhea at least once a week! If I didn’t love Atreyhus so much, I would have been happy come October when I had to return to the states once again to finish up school.

But I wasn’t. There was yet another heart-wrenching goodbye at the airport. Another tear-filled plane ride where the flight attendants must have thought I was crazy. Another 4 long months, this time commuting between NY and NJ, passing through the gray, snowy days only half-there. Talking to Atreyhus by telephone, over MSN messenger, through webcam. Hoping he wasn’t forgetting me, hoping he wasn’t cheating on me.

But January finally came and I was back in Cusco. This time indefinitely. And the transition was so much easier. My stomach finally toughened up. Now, I think I can almost say I have the stomach of a Cusquena.  And I don’t feel so isolated anymore, especially since I started my new job a few months back, working for the NGO I’d studied abroad with. Emily Button: Volunteer Affairs coordinator. A fresh batch of volunteers just arrived about a week ago. All shiny-eyed and eager. Greeeen. Can’t wait to see how they grow over the next few months!

Well, that’s my story up until now. Can’t wait to share the rest of my adventures as they come!

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