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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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Combi Adventures

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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.

For those of you who may not know what a Fiance visa is, it’s a visa that allows your foreign fiance to come to the U.S. before marriage. Upon entrance to the U.S., you and your fiance must get married within 90 days. It’s a pretty serious commitment, and because of this, Atreyhus and I have been considering it for about a year.

 A good amount of my journal entries will most likely be dealing with this, so this is a good place to look if you’re interested in how the process goes. After consulting many people who have either gotten married here and then gone to the states, or who have done the fiancé visa, we decided the fiancé visa is the quickest and cheapest way to go. With marriage, not only do you have to apply for an Immigration Visa, but you have to deal with all the wacky local laws regarding marriage. Sure, I love Peru, but I’m getting eager to get to the states and begin our life (and law school for me)!

We went with a lawyer for the sole reason that I am also in Peru. Eventually Atreyhus will need to get an interview at the U.S. embassy in Lima, but, according to the USCIS representative I spoke with, if I were to need an interview, I’d have to go back to the states to for my interview (how ridiculous!!).  The lawyer we went with was cheaper than the last plane ticket I bought from Cusco to the U.S., so we figured we might as well have a lawyer help us do the paperwork as perfectly as possible so that it’s not necessary for me to have an interview.

Right now, we’re in the beginning stages. Atreyhus and I are collecting all of the evidence we have to prove we’re a couple; pictures together, emails, phone records, our joint bank account statement, letters from friends who know us as a couple. Lots of stuff! I can’t wait until we actually file the petition!! The whole process takes anywhere from 6-9 months, but I’m banking on 9 months, just so I don’t get my hopes up.

On another note, Atreyhus and I are seriously considering moving to Lima. The tourist agency he opened up about 9 months ago isn’t making any money, and he can’t find a part-time job here, so we might be moving in with his sisters, living in their house since childhood rent- free, and Omar already has a job there. The idea is exciting; I’ve always wanted to live in Lima, but I wonder if I’ll miss the serene mountains, the powerful sun, the small- town feeling, and, of course, my job. I guess we’ll see!

Abortion has been brought to the public’s attention in Peru, recently as political groups are proposing to legalize abortion in the case of rape, or when the fetus is severely deformed. According to an article in El Comercio, “La comisión especial revisora del Código Penal del Congreso”, or The special revisory commission of the Penal Code of Congress, recently rejected the request of reconsidering the bill to legalize abortion in those specific cases. 6 against, 5 in favor, and one in abstention. Pretty close. Apparently in December it will be sent to the president of Congress, Luis Alva Castro, to be decided. There’s certainly a lot of controversy surrounding the issue.

 The fact that this issue is even being brought to light is a sign of progression and change regarding the government and Peruvians as a whole. It’s sparked political activism, with people taking to the streets to show their support either for or against abortion. Abortion is an issue that, in my opinion, has been overlooked in Peru for a long time and it’s about time they started talking about it. Though abortion is illegal, there’s a surprising amount of women who have had them. According to the BBC website, every year hundreds of thousands of women in South America die or are seriously injured from illegal abortions.

In my experience working with rural communities surrounding Cusco and doing health campaigns, there are always a few women who have had abortions. I’ve even heard gossip of a few clinics that secretly perform abortions, even sometimes pushing women into getting them done. This is one of the problems with it being illegal. There’s no way to regulate it. Desperate women get them done, and there’s no way to be sure that the people performing them know what they’re doing, or that it’s being done in a sanitary environment. If Peru legalizes abortion perhaps there could be support groups for women who have been through it. I know it’s a long shot, but if it’s legal, more foreign NGOs might be inclined to participate in something like that.

Peru still has a lot of issues to overcome regarding abortion, and if legalized, it will probably take a few more decades. One of the issues is machismo. Peru is a country ruled by men, many of them catholic. I was reading an article on abortion in El Comercio last Saturday, and 2 men, both against abortion, were giving their opinions on the issue. I’m sorry, but listening to 2 men prattle on about how traumatic abortion is for women, and how if raped, they must keep the child (which leads me to wonder how the mother might treat said child, anyone seen the movie Turtles Can Fly??) was hard to swallow. Yes, men are allowed to have their opinions. Yes, people are allowed to be opposed to abortion. But they should at least offer another opinion in the article, like maybe from a woman’s perspective? But, I must say that this morning there was an abortion debate from people for and against it, both men and women. Another sign of hope!

Then there’s the issue of religion. Though church and state are separate in Peru, politics is still strongly influenced by religion, and the Catholic Church hasn’t been shy about expressing its opinions on abortion.

Still, I can’t help but feel like this debate is a sign that a change is gonna come. Abortion is an extremely controversial issue, even in countries like the U.S. where it’s legal in most states. It was a ballsy move to consider this issue, and I say Vive el Peru!

*Abortion is a touchy issue and I know many people feel strong about it one way or the other. What do you think about what’s happening in Peru regarding this issue?

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Well, I’ve got a new Peruvian pastry to add to my list. El Turrón.  It’s a special pastry that’s made during the month of October to celebrate “el mes morado” or the purple month, which celebrates El Senor de Los Milagros. For more info, click here. It’s really a holiday celebrated in Lima, but they also celebrate it here in Cusco a little. I’ve seen at least a dozen little old ladies wearing purple dresses with a white rope tied around their waist. But back to El Turrón.  It’s a flaky, buttery, layered pastry. The top is coated with a delicious honey mixture. There are also little candies on top which remind me of dot candy.  This is followed by more of the honey mixture in between every layer.

I ate my 1st turrón today at the bakery by the post office on Avenida el Sol. It cost me s/. 1.50. A little steep for my liking, but hey, it’s a special holiday treat! So I indulged. I stood eating it at the nearby bus stop, pieces crumbling onto the sidewalk with every bite. I was thankful to be outside. Once on the bus, I took to licking the manjar blanco off the inside of the bag. There go my manners. It was sweet and delicious, just perfect for my mid- morning hunger pangs. A little on the dry side, but I attribute that more to the high altitude than the recipe. I bet they’re better in Lima.

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Good, but not as good as my all time favorite Peruvian pasty, the alfajor. Yum. This treat is made with manjar blanco, which is like caramel but less sticky. The manjar blanco is situated between 2 delicious, powdery cookies and topped with confectioner’s sugar. They come in all sizes, little tiny ones the size of half dollars, medium ones, and large ones. I like the medium ones best. Okay, sometimes the large. They’re pretty good in Cusco, but when I went to Lima last July, I had an alfajor awakening. I’d heard that alfajores were better in Lima, so the first morning Atreyhus and I were in his hometown, Callao, I had him take me to the closest panaderia and I bought one.  It was a delicious explosion of moist cookie and rich, creamy manjar blanco. It made the Cusco version seem stale (again, it’s the altitude- not the bakers). I quickly came to the conclusion that if I lived in Lima, I’d weigh 200 pounds.

Another notable pastry, the churro, is high on my list. Sweet, fried dough. Mmmmm. I have yet to try it’s cousin, the picaron (deep fried dough made from sweet potato) but you can bet I will some day soon!

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Yesterday my boss and I went to a new restaurant in Cusco, called Sara. My friend was a marketing director for a short time there, so he did everything but give us his first born to have us go try it out, and hopefully recommend it to the volunteers, or have some events there. (He didn’t seem to get the fact that our NGO has a very tight budget being that it’s NOT FOR PROFIT and we spend most of our money on community projects, but that’s beside the point.) I got a free lunch out of it.

Sara is very pretty from the outside. It’s very clean and polished, with it’s white building front, glass doors, and sleek black writing that says Sara, Organic Food Café. The inside décor is surprisingly cozy, with earth- toned walls and carpeting, couches, and funky glass tables and chairs. It’s also rather big. My boss and I walked to the back of the restaurant and chose a table with 2 couch chairs. As I sat down, my mouth watered for a glass of wine as this place exudes a relax-and-have-a-wine-or-coffee ambiance.  The only thing it was missing was a fireplace.

The menu, though sparse, seemed promising. It had sandwiches like a traditional Peruvian “bistek” sandwich that comes with steak, fried egg, and fried plantains. There was also a grilled veggie sandwich that sounded delicious- I pictured veggies grilled to perfection with a nice dressing and crusty ciabatta bread. The trout salad sounded interesting, too. That’s what I ordered. My boss got the grilled veggie sandwich, and we each got a limonada to top it off.

After a few minutes (service was very prompt- though there were only 2 other tables occupied) we got our limonadas. They were surprisingly cold (yay!) and flavorful. They didn’t skimp on the lime and it had just enough sugar to make sure the lime wasn’t too sour.  Unfotunately, the perfection ended there. My salad arrived. A big bowl with lettuce, some onion and tomato, a few slices of apple, and a couple of small chunks of trout. No dressing. Not even a little twist of lime. By the time I was done, I was still hungry and felt like I was on some sort of bland diet. My boss’s sandwich was hardly more promising. It came on white bread with the crusts cut off. Are we in pre-school here? There was a small side salad and some potato chips. The veggies on the bread were tasty, definitely more flavorful than my salad, but it was closer to a jazzed-up Lunchable than an upscale café lunch (both the salad and sandwich were about 15 soles, which is a lot considering you can get a delightful vegetarian meal* (salad bar, soup, and main course) for 6 soles right next door at a place called El Encuentro). The businesses administrator sat down with us before hand and explained a bit about the restaurant and some specials (a sandwich and drink for 9 soles) but everything he said sounded like it was based on air. Like he was attempting to convince us that a rusty, metal statue was made of gold.

I fear Sara is a sign of things to come. Too many over-priced, dull restaurants geared at tourists have been popping up near the main square. Not only are they superficial and unimaginative, but they take away from the culture of Cusco. Some day, the Plaza de Armas in Cusco may become as plastic and superficial as Times Square!! Cusco needs more places like El Encuentro, where the food’s cheap, clean, and delicious and where Peruvians, and foreigners with a tight budget like me, can actually afford to eat!

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I’ve been thinking lately about sustainability and Peru. Peru is one of the countries that are most affected by global warming, mostly because there are many areas on Peru that get their source of water from the ice-capped mountains, which have been melting faster and faster, thanks to global warming. Despite the fact that there seems to be no gas emissions laws regarding cars, or at least they’re not enforced, Peru’s greenhouse gas emissions are significantly lower than that of the United States. I believe that poverty has a lot to do with it. People here live with less, and the more time I spend here, the more sustainable I find myself becoming.

I remember when I returned to the states for 4 months for my spring semester in college. I took a course on sustainability and a lot of the things we talked about, especially regarding waste, seemed to not be a problem in Peru. Americans waste a lot of water every year whether leaving the water running while brushing their teeth, or taking 20-minute showers, or washing their cars. In Peru, there are many water problems, especially in the dry season when the majority of their water supply comes from those melting snow capped mountains mentioned before. In Cusco, the water is shut off from around 2 to 5 in the morning, when hardly anyone’s using water, anyway. At Atreyhus’s family’s house in Callao their water gets shut off at 10pm! This really helps conservation.  And people just accept it as a way of life, either brushing their teeth early or setting some water aside for the night. I try to think about this happening in the states, and it seems impossible. People would throw a fit if they couldn’t take a shower at 3 in the morning, even though they probably never would. What would the 24-hour Diners do? I know in places like hospitals, it would be a safety risk not having water, but surely residential areas could handle having their water turned off.

Even the napkins are sustainable in Peru! In the states we have 4-ply napkins- Bounty’s even come out with a version that’s as thick as a paper towel! In Peru, the napkins are 1- ply. I have yet to see a Peruvian using a paper plate (I mean, does it really take that long to wash a dish??) and when Peruvians wash dishes, they turn the water off while scrubbing!! Most people bring re-usable bags with them to the markets (everywhere there are little Andean women scurrying about with their durable, plastic striped bags) and disposable bags are re-used. I’ve seen Styrofoam used in restaurants on occasion, but you can bet that it doesn’t get thrown away. At least that’s been my experience with Atreyhus. He recycles everything. He even insists on me saving the pie tins left over from the graham cracker crusts my mother sometimes sends (I used it to bring brownies to his aunt and uncle’s place in Sicuani once and his aunt complimented me on it. I love Peru!) Peruvians even use less toilet paper. The host families we place our volunteers with always comment on how much toilet paper gringos use!

 I remember when I was younger, my grandmother used to always save everything. My mom would always complain, saying she did it because she lived through The Great Depression.  I think people in the states could use a little bit of that mentality. Just because the U.S. is developed and has money, doesn’t mean people there shouldn’t save things.  But the US is a throw away culture. Just thinking about how much garbage is generated every morning  from disposable coffee cups is an enormous amount. Big Venti Starbucks cups have even become a fashion statement, thanks to Mary Kate Olsen! For as long as I’ve been in Peru, one thing that’s always stricken me as a big difference between here and the states is that Peru is not an eat-and-run culture, like the U.S. is. In Manhattan, there are a million fast lunch places like Prete- a- Mange or PAX or The Bread Café where people can grab lunch in 15 minutes and it’s totally acceptable to be eating alone. Think of all the cardboard sandwich boxes and drink cups! In Peru, 2 hour lunch breaks are the norm and everyone goes home or to a restaurant that uses real dishes. I’m not saying that lengthening America’s lunch hour is the answer to saving the environment, but the way we in the states is definitely linked to the amount of waste we produce.

There are so many people in the U.S. who have never stepped outside of their bubble to think about the impact of their actions- families eating their TV dinners, people throwing away clothes they only wear once, people who clean their entire houses with paper towels and Lysol disinfectant wipes. No wonder so many other countries think of the U.S. as a gluttonous, wasteful country. It is! That isn’t to say that the U.S. is completely bad. It really has come a long way in the past few years as far as raising people’s awareness about the environment. Many stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s sell re-usable bags to put your groceries in, and even give you a discount when you use them. There are campaigns encouraging people to use energy- efficient light bulbs, hybrid cars are becoming more and more popular. But Americans could really be cutting back a lot more on their waste if they just made a conscious effort to do so.  To think more like a Peruvian.

Peru has its problems as well. As I mentioned before, their car emissions are awful (when I first came here my lungs burned from the car exhaust, and I was just in Cusco- Lima’s worse), many of Peru’s rivers are polluted, and in many rural areas people just dump their garbage off the side of the mountain. A lot of this is due to the government’s inability to maintain a garbage collection system outside of the major cities, and their inability to make laws regarding car emissions.  Hopefully this will be changed someday in the future. But a fear I have is that the more modernized and developed Peru becomes, the more they’ll begin to be a throw- away culture, too. Just like the U.S. Then we’ll really have a problem.