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.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ecuador Map

After the last updated map let-down (I never explained the places visited, I'm sorry), I pledge to do better and quicker.

We didn’t volunteer in Ecuador, so no color code is necessary. You’ll notice I went ahead and included the location names right next to the map. Is this helpful or not?
32 – Tulcán – early morning of 2/22 – An all-night bus from Cali, Colombia took us to the border earlier than anticipated. We waited for the sun to rise to make for a safer border crossing into this small Ecuadorian town.

33 – Quito – 2/22 to 3/05 – We stayed with Eleana Figueroa (Ele), Joe’s family’s former foreign exchange student, her brother and sister in Quito. They have a nice apartment a little ways north of the city center. And they were INCREDIBLE hosts! Here Joe’s mom came for a week, also using their home as a central base for other travels. We were all impressed by the unique, beautiful churches and plazas, along with happening, hip neighborhoods Quito has to offer. Though polluted, Quito was a good place to be.

34 – Otavalo – 2/26 to 2/27 – We, including the mother, fell victim to Otavalo’s main tourist attraction—it’s lively, touristy market. Everything we owned ended up spewing forth soft alpaca accessories, minus our wallets, which weren’t spewing forth much at all. Juleen proved the master market negotiator of the three. A hostel situated amid the rolling green and rocky volcanoes, plus good pizza made the short trip even more pleasant.

35 – Riobamba – 2/28 to 3/01 – A traditional Ecuadorian lunch—fritada, mote, plantains, empanadas de queso, potatoes, fried whole corn kernels, salad, etc—with Ele’s family, followed by a light dinner of guinea pig made this trip synonymous with food. Meeting Ele’s fam was great too! We see where she got the great hosting skills.

36 – Baños – 3/01 – The few hours we spent here were not enough. Baños is a great traveler and adventurer hub with more than enough to offer, and an incredible setting with 360 degrees of steep mountainous terrain surrounding the small city to boot.

37 – somewhere within the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve – 3/06 to 3/09 – Seven hours in bus from Quito to the jungle frontier town of Lago Agrio. Three hours in a private van farther eastward. Two-and-a-half more hours into the Amazonian ecosystem in motor-powered canoe. We thus ended up at Jamu Lodge, quite a luxurious place given its environs. See the preceding blog for more info about what we did.

38 – Cuenca – 3/11 to 3/14 – Seventeen hours in bus from Lago Agrio got us to Cuenca, soon to be our favorite city of the journey. Incan ruins, great museums, a riverwalk, not to mention Ecuador’s staple beautiful plazas and churches, a happy gringo community—what’s not to love about Cuenca?

39 – Loja – 3/14 – The way out of Ecuador took us through Loja. Though there didn’t appear to be much to do in town (we were told the place to watch American sports is the bus terminal, for example—luckily we didn’t find the Purdue-Minnesota basketball game), it’s supposedly surrounded by national parks. We can attest to the pleasantly mild climate. Another night bus, this one with a border crossing into Peru, took us out of Loja and the country.

Ecuador Wrap-Up
It seems this country has a lot to offer. The fact that it’s smaller makes its distinct climates and locations much more accessible, which is a big plus compared to relative giants Colombia and Peru. It was also significantly cheaper than Colombia—another bonus. Though we didn’t volunteer, spending time with Ele, her family and Joe’s mom made the time substantive enough that it didn’t seem like we were lacking in the I-need-to-be-productive department; this has haunted Joe especially during previous extended traveling phases of the trip. In the end, we highly recommend the parts of Ecuador we saw (particularly Cuenca, Julie and Harold!), and we’re anxious to see more.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Welcome to the jungle!

“In the jungle. Welcome to the jungle,” as Joe would scream at the top of his lungs, attempting to sing a popular American rock song. Yes, we were headed to the jungle, Ecuador’s Amazon (the watershed, not the actual river) to be exact. We paid the bill, the steepest of our adventure, and took off. Heading east approximately ten hours in bus, plus 2.5 hours downstream in a motorized canoe, we arrived at our jungle lodge. Jamu Lodge was fully equipped with hammocks for Joe to enjoy his early mornings, hot tea, coffee, and chocolate for us to enjoy at any point of the day, and comfy mosquito net-protected beds!

Other than enjoy our few days of luxury, what did we do? We did all the typical jungle stuff. We took our canoe out into the middle of a lake that is home to piranhas, crocodiles, and snakes for sunset swims. We took a hike through the trees to admire monkeys, birds, and plants. We, unsuccessfully, went piranha fishing; apparently, it’s the wrong time of the year. We visited an indigenous group still living in the jungle. They demonstrated one of their typical cooking practices, using a root plant called yuca. In addition to getting to see their village, we visited the village Shaman. He was wearing his full regale, and, after talking about his training and tradition, he demonstrated the strength of jungle plants on a couple of our fellow tourists. Two tourists became victims to a jungle plant that supposedly increases circulation, but only after breaking their backs out into terribly itchy hives.

While all was interesting, the highlight was Joe The Biologist coming alive in our night hike. Eight of us were tightly in line, listening to every word that came out of our guide’s mouth. While Joe The Biologist, with his crappy flashlight in hand, was wondering off the path, searching for the never-been-seen-before insect or snake. His efforts proved not only to be quite the entertainment for me (Juleen), but it proved fruitful for the group. He was the sole person to spot a snake that night.

While alive with other life forms, our lives in the jungle were pretty sleepy. The insects were humming, owls were hooting, and the rest of our group was alive and well, enjoying the night, even the 60-ish Dutch couple. Meanwhile, by 9:30, we were fast asleep. Being in such close proximity with the seven other people comprising our group highlighted our different sleeping schedules, making us a little self-conscious as we turned our flames out right after dinner as theirs were just getting started. Our minimum nine-hour sleeping schedule hasn’t just made us uncomfortable in the Amazon; it’s been a re-occurring “problem” throughout the trip. When else has this problem manifested itself???

For two examples, we need go no further than tonight and last night! Last night when our couchsurfing host kindly invited us to go dancing our first question was when will he go out. Upon hearing the 9:30 departure time we declined. We were sleeping before he left. Finally, we are presently struggling, as we wait for our night bus to leave at 11pm! The only way to stay awake, I guess, is to write a blog…

Friday, March 5, 2010

A good meal lost in the Moore's basement

Before, when I, Joe, thought of guinea pigs I could only think of the pet guinea pig (or hamster—who knows the difference between those terrible pets anyway?) my sister had when we were growing up. A little while, probably just a few days, into its existence at our house, it went missing. Months later we found it. Underneath our old, scraggly basement couch we found a familiar looking and familiar smelling dead pet guinea pig. After our last few weeks here in Ecuador none of us will think of guinea pigs, or cuyes as Spanish-speakers call them, in the same way.

This monumental transformation of our perceptions of this small, measly rodent started because my family had a foreign exchange student. She was Ecuadorian and came to stay with us during my first year away at college. I didn’t get to know her too well, but a few stories surfaced from her time in the States and made their way to me. One of the most entertaining stories of Eleana, details her going to a friend’s house for dinner and offering to cook up the family’s pet for dinner. You see, in Ecuador and Peru (and apparently other southern South America countries too) guinea pigs don’t have assume a throne of a plastic cage w/ a spinning wheel. They instead sit atop one’s royal dinner (or likely lunch) plate, ready to be consumed, paws and all.

Eating guinea pig, or cuy, dates back further than modern-day Ecuadorian and Peruvian omnivores. Supposedly, according to Juleen, the Incans were enthralled with eating cuy, placing some spiritual significance in consuming the rodent. For more on this part of the story, let’s go to the source herself. Here’s Juleen.

Well, being the Incan expert that I am, I googled it. Here is what I found, “The cuy has a place in pre-Colombian Inca tradition. Consumed only by the nobility or used as a sacrifice and a means of foretelling the future via the entrails.”

So, in pursuit of Incan bliss, we followed not the trails to the ancient civilization’s sites, but the faint sounds of cuy that give the guinea pig their Spanish name. Our first encounter with the royal rodent occurred at an animal market in Otavalo, Ecuador, a few hours north of Quito. Among other animals, the predominantly indigenous capitalists maintained a thriving cuy trade. Sellers had baskets full of fluffy-haired guinea pigs. Buyers went around grabbing the necks of the cuy, testing the meatiness of the animals, throwing them into a rice sack if they met the mark.

Okay, we can handle the cuy exchange. That’s not too hard on the eyes, nor the stomach. But could we handle cuyes cooking as they rotate above a charcoal grill? Unlike the familiar rotisserie poultry, the cuy comes with head, paws, and, well, everything attached. No polite de-animalization of your lunch here. Still we survived.

The logical next step of our cuy-based Incan investigation is the climax—eating the darn thing. Why else would we have stopped at the road-side rotisserie cuy vendor? Eleana’s father was anxious for us to try the cuy, of all Ecuadorian meals his favorite. And so we stopped the car, bought a whole cuy (very crisp, please, he asked) to go for $15. Wrapped in a plastic bag that hid the sight but not the rich smell, we headed towards Eleana’s hometown in Riobamba, three hours south of Quito.

Finally, that evening the time had come to eat like kings, or, more appropriately, Incas (meaning kings in the indigenous Quechua tongue). Juleen wasted no time in putting her portion of the cuy to waste, eating the rodent like the pig she is. Joe, as he is inclined to, politely and nimbly picked the small pieces of meat off of the small bones. Denise, Joe’s mom, even took part in the cuy-tasting fiesta, eating a few bites. The climax within the climax of this story? Juleen boldly and indiscriminatingly chomping the cuy’s hind-leg paw. She reports that it was a delight, particularly the discernible crunch of the fingernail. Joe reports that he has assumed a spot atop a throne, albeit figurative…and imaginary.

Now, all familiar with the Moores’ sad pet guinea pig tale, we can’t help but think differently about guinea pigs. Never again will we let such a useless pet go to waste. And, having done the important part and eaten like an Inca, we plan to continue our Inca quest right after our Amazonian adventure that starts with a 11pm bus ride tonight!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Colombia Map Update

In this post you get even more than a map of our Colombian adventures. Hard to imagine anything better, I know.

For the recent February celebration we went to a volcanic mudpit. A unique experience--the first "touristy" tour we've gone on and the first time we've immersed ourselves in mud. The incredible buoyant feeling left us giddily suspended in the viscous liquid. I, Joe, struggled mightily to move. Juleen did too, but less than I. But then again Juleen is better than me at all things done in water.

Picture above of us with our CouchSurfing friends--Tonio (French) and Sophie (British). Notice in the background the stairs up the hill that lead to the mudpit. We're in that very mudpit in the picture to the right.

But, back to the present...

In two hours we board a border-bound bus. We're taking the 7:30pm Transipiales bus the ten to eleven hours to the border town of Ipiales. You've heard great things about the company, right? Yeah, me too, like they have bathrooms on their buses.

Once there, in Ipiales, we take a taxi a few kilometers to the actual border, hopefully with the sun illuminating our way. Cross. Take an Ecuadorian taxi a few kilometers, then board an Ecuadorian bus to Quito. Were the trip to Quito another ten hours, I'd think this adventure almost a palindrome, with the border crossing in the middle. Luckily it's a cool five hours.

Plan is to stay with my family's former Ecuadorian exchange-student, Eleana, in Quito. My mom gets in for a week of Latin America on the 24th. No plans concerning Ecuador after that.

Colombian map below. Description of each site coming soon...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Living the OT dream!

For four great weeks, I led the occupational therapy dream! I was given the opportunity to rotate through several different settings, providing occupational therapy services and stumbling through Spanish. Here are highlights:

A couple mornings a week I went with a health clinic team to visit individuals with disabilities in the mountain-side communities. Seeing their living conditions and experiencing the adversity they deal with was a humbling, to say the least. The house pictured is where a young man of 26 years lives with his mom. He was the victim of a gun shot wound, years ago. Expanding my skill-set, I made him custom wrist supports to increase the function in his hands. This was a new experience for me as the splints were made out of plaster material. I must admit, I was proud of the product (see picture). While he was unsure of their benefits, we agreed that he’d give them a try for a while.

I also helped a new occupational therapist at a community program for kids who are deaf. A primary role at the center was speech therapy; however, many kids who are deaf or hard of hearing need assistance in regulating their sensations (which is where OT comes in). Since she was a new therapist, I provided more consultative services, making cheat sheets about treatment ideas for kids displaying different characteristics. See picture of the new therapist treating an 8 month old.

Another program took place once a week. A bus load of older adults (from the mountain-side communities) have a day of free services at the organization. Services I saw included: medical attention (including free meds), dental care, hair cuts, free food!, social activities (such as Bingo), respiratory therapy, physical therapy, and, while I was there, OT! I must admit, I loved helping with Bingo, but I was able to provide some one-on-one advice too. My highlight was working with wound care. A man (see photo) had a lower-leg burn that has been healing for 13 years. I’ve seen therapists complete wound care, but it was my first experience leading such an effort.
Alright, I’m writing too much. I also worked in two schools. Some OT was provided in groups and some individually.

In all, it was an incredible month for me.

I want to return.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Busting Our Butts in Bogota

A month ago we promised that all, with the start of our volunteering, would no longer be fun and games in Bogota. Admittedly, we had lived it up up to that point—partaking in the Colombian all-night party, i.e. rumba, albeit a version that ended at 12:30 instead of 6:30am; being tourists; getting whipped in tennis (it was my first time on a clay court!); enjoying microbrews at the Bogota Beer Company; and, generally, letting ourselves be spoiled by Juliana and Diego and their two maids. Though we have found time for a bit of fun and a few games (of futbol) since, the past few weeks have corroborated our claim. But, if it hasn’t been all leisure, what have we been up to?

Among the two of us, Joe has had less on his plate, except at lunch, so we’ll start with him. He…okay, I’m switching to “I”; the third person feels funny. My primary responsibility has been to take over various teachers’ classes, presenting lessons on environmental topics. I spent most of the time discussing climate change—what it is, what it’s caused by, and what are some things we can do to limit our “carbon footprint”. Interestingly, I’ve had the opportunity to have this discussion with a wide range of age groups. In the end, though I felt like an actor in front of them, I enjoyed the third-graders most. The oldest girls were fun, too, but for a different reason, and the middle school-aged girls were, well, interesting. And, yes, I meant to put “girls” back there. Santa Pachas is an all-girls school, pre-kindergarten through high school. When it comes to single-sex education, I concede, I was biased to begin with, having gone to the all-male Wabash College. I am now further convinced that single-sex education can be a great thing, and perhaps an even better thing in primary and secondary schooling.

In addition to the teaching, I led discussions of environmental topics within a conservation club on Fridays, and I worked with the woman in charge of professional development at CASFA, the younger, less successful version of our main workplace, Santa Pachas. A better introduction to this school, reminiscent of my former teaching grounds in Chicago, is in order.

CASFA serves a different class of student than Santa Pachas, and I mean class in the socioeconomic sense. Located farther up the mountain, part of the poorer, northward urban sprawl of Bogota, CASFA’s loud, painfully urban environs provide quite the contrast to the lush, tranquil campus of Santa Pachas. And it’s not just a difference of setting; the resources of the average CASFA student pale in comparison to the relatively affluent Pacha chica. Sadly, as is too often the case, the quality of the instruction within the two schools is, at least for the moment, directly correlated with the financial resources of the institution and its clientele. (Pachas does nobly provide financial support to its younger sibling, CASFA, to help curb the gap.)

Juleen and I spent our Thursday’s at CASFA, struggling with the disparity. Those Thursdays provided a few headaches, and they provided substance for the recommendations I ultimately gave to the school´s professional development coordinator. Impressively, she received all of my ideas graciously and encouraged me to provide more.

That´s what I have been up to. While not leisurely, it’s been great (most days) to have something to do and to feel productive again. It had been a while.

And Juleen has been even busier than I. Her story and relevant pictures are on their way. Right, come back soon.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

We discovered El Dorado!

We have uncovered the Legend of El Dorado (meaning “the guilded one”) in Bogota, Colombia! Once a bird told the Spanish Conquistadors, that the indigenous threw an abundance of gold into a lake as offering to mother earth… the legend began. Was it a lost city? What kind of gems existed? Where was the gold? The legend taunted “gringos”.

Expeditions by Europeans led them through the Amazon and parts of South America in search of El Dorado throughout the 1500s. In 1638, the truth came out. Turns out, the El Dorado myth originated with an indigenous chief who covered himself in honey, then gold dust! He was then rowed out of the middle of Lake Guatavita, just outside of Bogota, Colombia, and jumped into the lake. In addition, gold figures were thrown into the lake as offerings.

Knowing the truth, our search for El Dorado was easy. First, we took a day trip out to Lake Guatavita. We did a group hike up to the lake! Yes, all 40 of us were hiking up the skinny trail in a single-file line. Along the hike we heard the not too surprising story of different groups of Europeans trying to drain the lake to get the goods for years. Formerly, the water level was up to the rim (where we were standing). Now, however, the water level is significantly lower. Despite these drastic efforts, they never got down to the gold and never found the El Dorado...

We did!

A weekend later, we visited the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) downtown Bogota. The gold was impressively on display for all to enjoy. If only the Spanish Conquistadors could have seen the display of gold. It was incredible.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Alert: Teachers drinking at school!

I hated meetings at the school where I taught in Chicago. They were boring, unproductive, and didn't provide us with booze. Here at the school where we're volunteering, they don't have the same problem.

Sunday was the principal's birthday. Monday after the school day, naturally, was the party in the cafeteria to celebrate. Really good cake and white wine were served (you could even get refills!) while teachers and staff danced, sang, and joked the afternoon away.

The differences in staff camaraderie (everyone was having a GREAT time), resource management, and policy on alcohol shown by Monday's fiesta are just a few of the innumerable and grander distinctions separating my former school in Chicago from Bogota's Santa Francisca Romana, a Catholic all-girls school.

Juleen and I out-danced this couple seconds later, a la John Travolta and...the woman in...that one movie.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Mountains to the east. A whole ridge of them. City sprawling everywhere else. City lights illuminate the night sky, off into the horizon and beyond. Runners and bikers pass along the CicloRuta, the special street lanes designated for these over-achievers. The 21st-century public transit system, TransMilenio, provides fast and mostly efficient transport to many parts of the city. Museums, cultural events, a beautiful mile-high-plus setting. We've passed the last few days here in Bogota, Colombia. The next month-plus promises to feature more than fun and games.

Starting Monday the leisure--morning tennis, Avatar in 3D, for example--stops. We have our six-day volunteer week (as opposed to work week) in hand. We go to live at the convent tomorrow, passing a few days there before starting our first homestay.

The Christmas Tree still adorns Bogota's Plaza Bolivar in front of the national congressional building.

Note the two TransMilenio buses scurrying north in the lanes reserved for them. Also note the line of more than fifty people waiting to buy tickets for the TransMilenio from the one person selling them. Luckily we had just gotten off the system and weren't interested in using it.

Us in front of the aforementioned national congressional building in historic downtown Bogota.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Adios North America!

Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to Colombia we go! Flight takes off at 11:58am. Arrival in Bogota 90 minutes later. Staying with Juliana Jaramillo, a friend of Joe's grandparents through Rotary.

We'll be needing a South America map. Let us know if you find one that might work well for us. We'll likely be needing to use it to track our travels through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. Good luck!

Hasta luego!

Friday, January 8, 2010

The End of the Central American Map

Seems like just a few days ago that I updated the map for Nicaragua. How shocking that it’s been a month! And we had told ourselves, and many others, that we were going to skip through Costa Rica as quickly as possible. In the end, it took us three weeks to get through this (supposedly) happiest of countries. Panama, then, only had the pleasure of our company for two weeks. We fly out of Panama City for Bogota, Colombia in a few days. We’ll be moving into South America, and thus switching blog maps. How exciting!

21 – 12/09 to 12/11 – Liberia, Costa Rica. As we rolled through northern Costa Rica in a bus that was deluxe compared to everything we’d seen prior we knew we weren’t in Kansas (or Nicaragua) any more. Even in the dark we could perceive the difference that is Costa Rica. Just the brightness of its streetlights distinguished Liberia, Costa Rica from everywhere else we had been.

22 – 12/11 to 12/12 – El Coco, Costa Rica. It took a lot of effort to find a place on a backpacker budget in this touristy beach town. In the end, we found a great humble room with a makeshift grandmother for an owner. Best host yet. El Coco’s black sand beach was unattractive.

23 – 12/12 to 12/19 – Playa Hermosa, Costa Rica. Our notorious week at the resort. If you’re thinking about going to Villas Sol at Playa Hermosa, let us say this, “Don’t!” Sadly this turned out to be the most stressful week of our adventure. No kitchen. No cheap restaurants nor nearby mercados. And staff completely unfamiliar in dealing with people on a budget. Pretty enough place, I guess. Hot water, cable TV, A/C and pools were nice to have available.

24 – 12/19 to 12/27 – Santo Domingo, Costa Rica. Bibi’s Bed and Breakfast drew us to this quiet community just north of San Jose, the Costa Rican capital. But why Bibi’s in the first place?? Jim Twomey, a Wabash College grad (the small and tight-knit college Joe attended), owns and operates the place with his wife, Bibi. A few days turned into over a week when we started helping Jim and Bibi with their rental property and got invited to partake in their Christmas celebration. As mentioned in a previous post, Bibi’s B&B is highly recommended.

25 – 12/27 to 12/29 – Golfito, Costa Rica. Another small Costa Rican town with a shockingly high number of American ex-pats. Here we enjoyed our first room with a view.

26 – 12/29 to 1/01 – David, Panama. We got back into CouchSurfing in David. Three nights with Johanna, an amazing host and person, a bit outside of the city. We day-tripped up to the refreshing city of Boquete, and prepped for and enjoyed the New Years party. Up early on New Years Day to get to Panama City.

27 – 1/01 to 1/13 – Panama City, Panama. CouchSurfing has let us down, so we’re digging deep to pay for hostels. Our goal of working on a boat traversing the Panama Canal sadly didn’t work out either. Took three days just to figure out where we needed to go to secure a spot. Shucks. On a more positive note, Panama City is an impressively lively and pleasant city. Just seeing the huge cargo boats going through the Canal is worth the visit.

My thoughts (Juleen is in D.C. This blog entry is all Joe’s fault.)…

Costa Rica is “adventure” tourism/ecotourism paradise. One caveat: You need money and lots of it. Another caveat: Is there a Costa Rican culture? For a quicker vacation of a week or a month, Costa Rica could hit the spot. Infrastructure, both generally and tourism specific, is well developed, so travel is more comfortable. The country seems comparatively safe, and you don’t need Spanish. Great! For us, though, Costa Rica was what we had heard it would be: too expensive and too touristy. A great stay with Jim and Bibi and a surprisingly enjoyable visit into San Jose were great consolation prizes.

Since we’ve only been to two places in Panama, I’ll limit my commentary to Panama City. Great city! The skyline is gargantuan. Who knew?! I can't imagine a place building more skyscrapers at the same time, but I haven't been to Dubai. With the Canal and other rich historical sites, museums, safe city buses, and lively streets, we could do Panama City again. Next time we’ll make it onto a boat. I promise, Juleen.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

'Tis the Season

Did the holiday season already happen? It’s hard for us to tell, other than noticing family and friends’ photos on Facebook; meanwhile, we’re still in tropical weather craving a little A/C. While we dearly missed partaking in our family traditions, we did try to celebrate along the way.

Thanksgiving was in Leon, Nicaragua. Thank-fully (pun intended), another American couple organized a pot luck on Thanksgiving weekend. Ten Americans and twenty Europeans/Latinos partook in our beloved American holiday. Two brave women even got up early to hit the market and purchase two LIVE chickens!! They did all the dirty work to roast chickens, while everyone else was responsible for the side dishes. Nothing like a potluck Thanksgiving! We gobbled up: chicken, baguettes (thanks to Juleen), Oreo pudding stuff (thanks to Joe), plantains, beans, and rice. Sadly, Juleen didn’t have a single BudLight. She still wants to be a Rodakowski though.

Christmas was in San Jose, Costa Rica. We met up with a Wabash Alum (Joe’s college) who owns a bed and breakfast near the capital city. They were generous enough to take us off the streets and give us a Christmas worth remembering. We hung our stockings by the fireplace (thanks, Julie) and devoured home-roasted ham prepared with a pesto sauce—delish! A few other Americans and their Latino spouses joined the festivities. It was quite the crowd and a splendid meal. And, as you would guess, we highly recommend Bibi’s Bed & Breakfast for all those visiting Costa Rica. Thank you, Jim and Bibi.

New Year’s transpired in David, Panama. CouchSurfing was good to us. Our American host encouraged us to spend the holiday with her in her home outside the city. She has a great view of the city, primed for viewing fireworks. She threw a party for her ex-pat friends, and the party roared until 4:30 in the morning (at least that was the last I heard… we were sleeping long before). The Panamanian New Year’s custom was quite a treat as well: Individual families shoot off their own firework collections, ensuring good luck for them and providing a unique firework panorama for those viewing from afar.

While we couldn’t have been luckier for having great hosts for all of our holidays, we look forward to next year.