Sunday, May 9, 2010

"Every new beginning comes...

from some other beginning's end". So goes the refrain of Semisonic's 1999 hit "Closing Time". Admittedly a bit cliche, but perfectly appropriate for Juleen and myself.

Today I am putting the finishing touches on my Latin American journey. I caught a minibus from the Miraflores district of Lima to the airport. Stepping aboard the minivan, I caught my 85-liter pack on the metal bars in the door frame. The bus, okay for backpackers but not meant for their backpacks, zigzagged through Lima's diverse neighborhoods. Forty-five minutes later, I descended more strategically, eyeing and controlling the pack's straps to keep them from catching on any part of the bus, and for the last time told a Peruvian vendor "no". None of the nightmarish scenarios I spent too much of yesterday worrying about presented itself. All seems to indicate that I will get into Chicago at 10:15 night, spend the night with old roommate Adam Lucas, and catch the early Megabus departure for Indianapolis, repeating the same process Juleen went through exactly four weeks ago.

Though reintegration into the US and workforce is likely to be a veritable personal adventure, it's an adventure whose stories we'll be harder pressed to justify sharing via the blog. Then again, maybe this new beginning will surprise us. We'll see.

As for what the summer holds, Juleen and I plan on spending a good chunk of it in Indianapolis. I've secured an eight-week position with a non-profit educational organization. Juleen is pursuing therapy opportunities in the Indianapolis area, too. After a summer in God's country, we'll be back in the same boat we only recently got off of: we'll be pursuing new, likely domestic pastures and employment. We're hopeful to resume international adventures come early 2011 with a trip to Oman and the Middle East. But that's the substance of a distant blog.

It has meant a TON to have you follow along and comment on the almost fifty blogs we've put up since September. Thank you for sharing our experience with us. We can't wait to meet up, catch up, and share more intimate relations with the start of our new beginning.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Preaching to the Choir?

The parasite infection investigation (subject of my last entry) was meant to be my primary project during my two weeks in Tarapoto. For better or worse, things didn’t turn out that way.

In place of the study, I spent the majority of my time preparing for and delivering talks in two Amazonian indigenous communities located two hours by motorcycle from URKU headquarters in Tarapoto. Once Daniel, the head of URKU, found out I had taught environmental science, he asked me to speak with the communities about climate change. He is organizing a World Bank-funded climate change project and study in the communities, and he felt I could help URKU get a head start.

With the lapu (broom in hand), or mayor, and other community leaders in Colpa Sacha after they'd swept out the barn used as a community center where I would talk to 100-plus antzy primary school kids.

I struggled with the idea. “What can I say that would actually matter? They’re not the ones causing climate change. Aren’t there other, more pressing environmental challenges affecting their way of life?” In the end, though, I bought into the idea—the community needs to know what all the fuss is about, especially the kids. Also, I was told by one member of the Kawana-Sisa community that in the past mining industry representatives had lied to the community about mining risks and environmental consequences. Knowing some of the science could help fend off future attempts to deceitfully misinform.

I also decided to throw in my own tangential two cents. I was able to find a YouTube video to get this latter message across. The message: Through unified political activism, indigenous communities can make their voices heard, whether to fight environmental, health, or education problems. I joked with my mom the night before the presentation that I would be inciting revolt. We didn’t think the Peruvian government would appreciate the message I hoped to get across.

Instead of further reinventing the wheel, though, I have pasted an article I wrote for URKU (they want to inform the World Bank about our work in the communities) describing the visit we paid to the Colpa Sacha and Kawana-Sisa communities. But, before I do, I want to apologize for the length of the entry. Sorry!

Despite the small screen of the laptop, the small crowd of 15 gathered under the thatched roof was fully engaged. After the visitors’ presentation, with chickens and pigs scurrying around the dirt floor, the male-dominated audience told stories of the climate changes they’d observed firsthand and the pressure powerful oil companies were increasingly putting on the communities living on the hydrocarbon-rich land. They asked questions about the science and inquired about what all this talk of climate change and political activism means. Their refrain: “What can we do?” Throughout the meeting, the leader of the small group, a short, stocky man whose hardened feet went without shoes, sat at a table and, like someone who is intent on using what he is learning, took notes.

Such was the scene in the Kawana-Sisa indigenous community, located two hours by motorcycle from Tarapoto, Peru, on April 21 during a meeting between representatives of URKU, an environmentally-focused NGO headquartered in Tarapoto, and leaders of the village’s indigenous community. It was just one piece of a day full of sharing. Locals talked to a full-time URKU agronomist and an American Teach For America-trained Environmental Science teacher about pressing environmental issues, local healthcare accessibility, and struggles to find placement in post-secondary education for even their best students. Meanwhile, the URKU team focused their part of the exchanges—talking with two sets of students, a group of secondary school teachers, community leaders, and a night-time community-wide event in Colpa Sacha—on two themes: climate change and community activism.

Like the Kawana-Sisa leaders, the other groups were as attentive to the videos and speeches as they were passionate when sharing their stories. By all accounts, the meeting’s goals—to equip the two communities with both a better understanding of climate change and a model for future activism—were met. The day’s nightcap and main event was no exception. Despite being pushed back by two hours due to an electricity outage (perhaps to be expected when the current has only been running for two months), young, old, and in-between formed a densely packed semicircle on the grassy knoll of Colpa Sacha’s main plaza for the delayed presentation. The community members stood silently, intently gazing up at the images on the white sheet turned projector screen. Somehow, like the glow from the LCD projector, but unlike the trend one sees in the mainstream news, the future of this Amazonian indigenous community seemed to shine a bit brighter as the night, increasingly darker, wore on.

The nightcap.

For URKU, though work has only begun with Kawana-Sisa and Copal-Sacha recently, this was familiar territory. The organization frequently ventures outside the confines of its Tarapoto office, further into the Amazonian river basin, and does work with indigenous communities. URKU specializes in studies of Amazonia’s biodiversity, but URKU founder and chief operator Carlos Daniel Vecco is intent on reaching out and sharing the organization’s scientific knowledge with those most intently connected to the land.

The small, muscular leader of Kawana-Sisa has plans to assemble a federation of local indigenous leaders to address their communities’ concerns. Colpa Sacha’s leadership team has made the two-hour trek to URKU headquarters to talk about strengthening their relations. The indigenous communities are hungry for more—more collaboration, more assistance, more visits. URKU is eager to satiate them.

To keep up with URKU’s projects, studies, and their relationships with the Kawana-Sisa and Colpa-Sacha communities, visit their website at

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Parasite Infection Investigation in Tarapoto

When Eric Wetzel told me that URKU, the non-profit environmental organization in Tarapoto, Peru, was a place worth visiting, I could have signed up right then. You see, Eric, a biology professor at Wabash College, who has taught such esteemed individuals as…me, is someone I have a lot of confidence in. If he told me jumping from one of Crawfordsville, Indiana’s (the home of Wabash College) high-in-the-sky bridges, I would, at the least, have to go take a look and deliberate. With Eric’s recommendation and emails exchanged with the folks at URKU, I took the figurative leap and bought my 28-hour ticket to go north and east from Lima to Tarapoto.

Awaiting me and my two weeks in Tarapoto, a city of 80,000 inhabitants on the fringe of the Amazonian river basin and the foothills of the Andes, was work. My primary project started with a notebook over an inch thick that contains summaries of all patient visits for 2009. I would highlight all patient visits mentioning parasite infection. The doctor’s staff, then, would retrieve each highlighted patient history, and I would organize an Excel spreadsheet, entering relevant patient data. But, other than keeping me busy and away from cheap ice cream and treats, the point of all this?

Eric Wetzel and I in Lima. He went to Lima to work on creating a Global Health Program for Wabash College during his sabbatical. For three months he and his family lived in the Miraflores district. Juleen and I met up with him and his fam while we were volunteering at the Centro Ann Sullivan de Peru.

Dra Rosa, whose clinic had accumulated the patient data, and Eric are interested in generating a map of parasite infection levels in communities in and around Tarapoto. They’re hopeful that, through the study, they’ll be able to identify segments of the population that are particularly vulnerable to parasite infection. With both the map and infection prevalence data in hand, Dra Rosa and Eric will attempt to identify practices that are leading to high infection rates in certain populations, then wage a public health war against those practices. (More or less, isn’t that the plan?)

Say, for example, that Dra Rosa and Eric take a closer look at the infection of Necator or Ancylostoma parasites. These hookworms are impressive. Though they enter the body via the skin, often using the foot as a port of entry, they end up in the body’s small intestine. At one point on its road trip through the body, the hookworm induces the human host to cough, allowing it to covertly slip into the host’s esophagus. After getting itself swallowed, the hookworm will descend to its comfy and replete residence in your small intestine where it “leeches” blood and nutrients. The danger: anemia, especially probable and dangerous in the undernourished.

Flipping through patient histories, different records stapled one on top of another, struggling to make out the Spanish scribbles (apparently Peruvian med schools, like their American counterparts, teach their doctor candidates to write in chicken scratch), I had a feeling of greater purpose to push me through. And, even if I hadn’t, I knew this was something that Professor Wetzel might be able to use—no more motivation needed.

I came nowhere close to finishing all of 2009’s patient data. In fact, I only made it through January. Understandably, with their regular full load of work, the patient histories didn’t pour out of Dra Rosa’s staff. Still, a slow, steady, trickling really, stream came. The ball on this parasite infection investigation is rolling.

Luckily, in between entering data about patients infected with parasites, there was other work to be done. In addition to the parasite infection project, URKU had translating work and a radio debut for me. My biggest project, in fact, did not end up being the parasite data after all. Instead, the majority of my time was spent preparing for a visit I made to two indigenous communities midway through my second week. There, in a variety of very different sessions, I spoke to various groups about climate change and tried to incite the communities into political activism. More to come on that soon.

Here's a link to Professor Eric Wetzel's Wabash College blog (we're the subject of his last entry).

And here's a link to URKU's website.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Old, Dusty, Roundabout Trail

Juleen left just over a week ago. Though, in our last blog entry, she suggested that our blog would be no more, she forgot one important thing: it's all the rage to resurrect oneself and come out of retirement. Christ was probably the original trend-setter. He was followed, a few thousand years later, by the likes of Ryne Sandberg, Michael Jordan, and, repeatedly, Brett Favre. Being the trendy type, I'm naturally following suit.

I wrote most of the following piece a few days into my stay in the north of Peru. Tarapoto, Peru is an interesting setting. Here I am volunteering for a total of two weeks. I am primarily doing two things: collecting and organizing parasite infection data and speaking with indigenous communities about climate change. Is Tarapoto as unique as I make it out to be or am I just cranky?

Another day and, though little was accomplished, the night beckons. The sidestreets are still of dust, and the dirtbikes and their brethren taxis still roar through the street, pale orange soil or otherwise. The stickiness is alive and well, too. After a few blocks, half uphill, of rapid walking the sweat begins to bleed through. In blotches, my grey shirt turns a shade darker. Even the delicious mint-chocolate chip ice cream couldn’t fend off the heat and its friend, sweat. This slow, dusty town is not strong on tourism, and I detest the weather, but it’s not all bad. Compared to the constant hassle of street vendors and beggars in Cuzco, this is paradise. Definitely wouldn’t mind the chill of Cuzco, though.

The Tarapoto, Peru Plaza Mayor.

Efficiency, as the cold, is not the order of the day here in Tarapoto. Perhaps the inhabitants have purposefully inserted squares where there should have been circles, slowing the gears, and keeping life from running as quickly as it could. Perhaps it would, at full speed, run away from them. Perhaps they’re weary of the heat and the sweat and, thus, intentionally add disorder to intentionally slow the pace. For me, the inefficiency is infuriating. Coupled with my frustration, each set of unnecessary added steps is another proverbial straw striking the camel’s back. It causes more, not less, sweat to pour out of me. My shirt darkens further.

Prime example: At the grocery store I ask for contact solution. The woman behind the counter grabs it, but, of course, she does not give it to me. Before making contact with the blue box that contains my solution, I must pay and get my receipt. After I pay, the cashier has another woman walk the solution to the distributor, a woman who checks receipts and hands out items. I must walk the 30 feet to the other side of the small store and wait in line to show my receipt to the distributor. I wait mostly patiently and fend off a rear attack by a potential cutter. With my receipt Xed, the distributor casually hands me my contact solution. Easy as pie!

The city sits on a grid. East-west streets around the plaza are paved. North-south streets, like this one upon which the URKU offices and, thus, my accommodations sit, are rarely paved, regardless of location.

Speaking of treats, after this consumer endurance test, I need an ice cream fix.

The ice cream kiosk sits at the entrance to this same grocery store. I approach the young woman. She is equipped with the scooper and access to twenty glorious, colorful flavors. I ask her which flavor is best. She starts to rattle the name of each. I cut her short. She confirms my suspicion; the green with a hint of darkness is mint-chocolate chip. I’m sold. “That one. Dos soles.” But she doesn’t handle money. She directs me to the cash registers where I must compete with all of the store’s customers and all of their items. All I want is an ice cream cone. Two soles. Mint chocolate chip! I hesitate, thinking about leaving the place just out of spite, and a bit of principal. “I can’t let them jerk my chain around like this! It’s ridiculous!” But I do. I want the mint-chocolate chip. It looks good, and it is.

Right behind these red doors? An upscale cafe on the Plaza Mayor that inexplicably closes during lunchtime hours.

I’m still conflicted about whether I should have bought the ice cream. But my experiences paying for printed documents and, later, trying to buy bread at lunchtime show me that unnecessary, painful, sweaty inefficiency is just how it is in Tarapoto.

Motorcycles and affixed chariots are the transportation mode du jour. I might sweat less if I took one.

Now, almost a week into my two-week stay in Tarapoto, I don’t let the city’s signature inefficiency bother me as much. It helps that I’m beginning to understand the calculus behind store openings and closures. Still, my bid to buy bread today, a Sunday, was nonchalantly denied. I am taking down hoops, but, still, there are plenty to jump through. Though I return to my small room dustier and damper than necessary, I usually enjoy the circus, or at least its ice cream payoffs.

An unrelated picture: My impromptu radio debut on Millenium Radio Sunday morning. Daniel, first from the right, surprised me with questions about why I'm here, what I've learned, and last words. I said that when I return to the US I'll be better at doing unexpected things, like surprise radio interviews in foreign languages. The guy in the deeper blue shirt translated everything into Quechua.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Judgment Day!

All good things must come to an end…

Juleen is heading home tomorrow, and Joe has one month remaining. While Juleen and Joe’s aventuras del mundo are finishing, for now, it’s not all bad.

Things we are looking forward to at home:

  • Controlling food we eat! On the road it’s hard to know what will sit well and what won’t. Also, it’s amazing how eating out all the time will make you want to just eat a salad, especially as two former veggies.
  • Tearing into American beef, pork and chicken products without shame!
  • Consistency. We’re really excited to “settle down” somewhere, though we don’t have our own place. Beware, parents.
  • Not having irregular bowel movements. Need we say more?
  • Wearing a variety of clothes. Oh, the possibilities. Maybe, I’ll change twice in one day.
  • Not having to ask if it is safe for us to go walking...
  • Washing machines. See previous blog.
  • Not writing blogs!
  • Working as an occupational therapist. Yay, Juleen!
  • Planning a wedding.Bold

Things we will miss from our aventuras:

  • Shopping for food in the local market! It’s a blast every time.
  • Meeting random cool people, especially fellow travelers. It’s amazing how travelers will share their entire life stories (or their beach house) without holding back on the road.
  • Juleen will miss having Joe handle all things concerning dinero.
  • Volunteering. Not that we can’t volunteer at home, but it has been the best part of the trip.
  • Not wearing the same thing all the time. What will we do with so many clothing options.
  • Practicing espanol.
  • Learning about all of the different peoples and cultures we’ve encountered along the way. Our most recent “fix” has been the Incas.
  • Using our cool, new ultraviolet light water purifier.
  • Having such an easy excuse to be unproductive and slothful.

Monday, April 5, 2010

We have friends!!!

Cusco, Peru is a tourist’s dream. It has innumerable tourist sites that are billed as don’t-misses. It is situated in a beautiful valley with soft, green mountains rising all around. And Cusco has an excess of things to buy! What more could a tourist want?

After several months of visiting don’t-miss tourist sites, we have become overwhelmed, especially with people pushing you to buy their tour or nick-nack. Luckily for us, Cusco was better than just tourism. We had more than all a tourist could want; we had a little balance. We didn’t see all the sites, and, to Juleen’s dismay, she still couldn’t buy everything she saw. So, what kept us in balance the five days we were there? For the first time in almost seven months, we crossed paths with good, genuine, old friends.

Andy and Lacie are friends from our time in Chicago. Lacie taught at the same high school as Joe and was also a Teach For America corps member. Her husband, Andy, is a brewer…yes, of beer. Of all of our good friends, Lacie and Andy are undoubtedly the most-cited. They’re lives rotating between being winter-time ski bums and white-water rafting guides, plus Andy’s beer expertise, make them an easy and notable reference in most conversations. (Sorry Zach, Cooper, Charlie, Hobbs. We like you too.)

As you might imagine, then, with Lacie and Andy the past few days have been absolutely great. We’ve eaten great food, frequenting the same six soles (just over $2) vegetarian restaurant for lunch and reveling in Andy’s and Lacie’s cooking at night. We’ve shared stories galore, connecting our lives further with each tale of an increasingly familiar family member or friend. We’ve drunk decent beer and afternoon coffees. And we’ve toured a bit of our current confines, Cuzco, Peru, the city of Incan grandeur and ensuing conquistador pillage. Combined, then, it has been a glorious few days in a place that, given its touristy over-kill, could have made for an inglorious stay.

Thanks Lacie and Andy!

We’d be remiss if we acted like Cuzco was the first time friends saved the day. Special thanks, too, to Se Ho Kang and Eric Wetzel and family for having the same positive effect on our week-plus in Lima!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Washing Clothes: Latin American Style

Hello again!  Today we are writing you from the road, from our over-sized, soft seats in the VIP section of the bus taking us from Lima to Cuzco, Peru, to be exact. We justified the higher price by telling ourselves 20 hours in a bus is a long time worthy of a little more comfort than usual. Plus, Juleen has less than two weeks left in South America! Finally, after six months of frugal traveling, we’re breaking out. Well, minus how we wash our clothes…

We've made a choice to rebel against the shackles of the electricity grid and over-hyped machines and remarkably/ridiculously fragrant detergents. Instead of the industrialized washing process familiar to most Americans, we’ve opted for brute human force and a tennis ball-sized circle of soap. While we’re pretty sure our collective brute force has improved over the months, the soap is now but the size of a ping-pong ball.

To chronicle our manual clothes-washing efforts, we’ve done something a little bit different; we took a series of pictures of our daily clothes washing routine while we were volunteering at the Centro Ann Sullivan de Peru in Lima. Instead of a word-based blog, then, we’re hoping to make this one primarily feature pictures.

Juleen sorts through her laundry bag for the day's pickings. A "full load" of manually washed clothes is but a few items.

Juleen rinses the terrace-level tub out. A necessity given the fact that pigeons frequent the scene.

Juleen rubs the diminished ball of soap on her socks. Different clothes items require different soap application methods--shirts need it in the pits, underwear in the crotch, etc.

After soaping each item, we typically scrub the clothes individually, then collectively, as shown here. We're manual washers, not manual dryers. Lima's sun and wind took care of that for us.

Juleen's reacts to a washing job well done.