Saturday, September 26, 2009


I thought I'd make a post, though I don't have much to say involving my week. Oh! I did go to Ñaña, which is a very cool town with a Capuchin Franciscan Postulant house. Beautiful! Very relaxing time there, beautiful mountain, and they have a ton of fruit trees. And a dog that really was too friendly: it followed me freaking EVERYWHERE.

Some random thoughts, though:

-When we in the US say, "That guy doesn't have the cajones, the huevos, whatever," and are using it as a substitution for "moxy," "guts," "balls," "nerve," or whatever, it sounds all cool and slangish, but I think we should take a minute and realize what these words truly mean. Next time you want to say that somebody lacks the cajones to do something, realize that you are saying that they lack the large boxes/drawers for the task. Now, it's used in some Spanish-speaking places as slang for what we've talked about, but I will never take you seriously (read: lies). But seriously, I crack up when I think of one of my friends saying that he didn't think another guy had the cajones to do a job well. "This guy lacks the boxes."
Huevos, by contrast, makes a little more sense. Literally "eggs," the idea that somebody is lacking eggs at least morphically makes sense in my head. But talking about not having the there a recipe that we are needing to make? "You haven't got the huevos!" "You're right! My chickens died yesterday!"

-I feel a little bit like I'm in an episode of Arrested Development. Those who are fans might know my reference. Others...not so much. I'm commonly just referred to as "Hermano" here (it means "Brother"). In season 1, when Michael had an interest in his brother's girlfriend and she had one in him, Gob (the brother) comes up to Michael and says, "I think Marta is cheating on me...I heard her talking on the phone last night...she kept mentioning this guy's name...'Hermano, hermano.'" We who know what this means are amused. Meanwhile, the non-Spanish-speaking Bluth family is clueless. Anyway, I'm just called "Hermano" here, so if Michael Bluth ever were in search of "Hermano," he'd find me. I'd prefer it if Marta was looking for me, though.

-It is very hard to take even Hermano Polo seriously when he's giving a serious lecture when there's a small kitten batting his cincture around.

-I hate trying to understand people on cell phones in English...when people don't annunciate, I have problems. Now multiply this by 10 billion (based on scientific calculation) and you understand how I feel about talking to people on cell phones in Spanish.

-Ben Vincent once asked: "Do infants enjoy infancy as much as adults do adultery?" I thought that if they did, we'd see some niche in the book market akin to the smutty romance novels you buy at the grocery store, except pertaining to the ecstatic experience of infancy. Then I forgot that infants are, for the most part, illiterate. So to answer the question, Ben, I don't know.

-We just went to hang out in Miraflores. We were hungry and waiting for Hno. Hugo, so we stopped at a bookstore. We proceeded to look at cookbooks. I feel that when you start fantasizing about food, you're either in a place of (if you can just STOP focusing on the broccoli salad) grace and able to appreciate what those who daily go without feel like, or you really need to eat more food.

-I once tried a detox diet that consisted of drinking just water, lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and grade b maple syrup. It was the worst decision of my life. I say it is worse than giving up gluten and meat for Advent AND my choice in hair length Sophomore year of high school. I dreamed about broccoli salad for 2 days, I kid you not. The detox did not last.

With that, and the fact that it's now past midnight where I am, I bid you a good night. I'm sorry that this blog post is vapid. I'll end it with a Deep Thought:

It takes a big man to cry, but it takes a bigger man to laugh at that man.

Thank you, Jack Handey.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Blastoff and Blasted In

This last week really flew by. Lots of adventures: Figuring out how to withdraw money (and getting charged far less than I thought I would), the end of language school, more adventures and misadventures with Peruvian cuisine...hooray. I really can't fathom that a month has gone by! I've started and finished language school! Wowza. Winter is ending, "Spring" is beginning.

Anyway, on to the adventures of this week. Monday was money day, so we spent some extra time in Miraflores post-language school to withdraw the funds. It wasn't really that exciting. The most exciting thing was that I didn't get charged for withdrawing from an ATM! However, I DID get charged for checking my account balance. I'm not quite sure how that works.

So then the week continued. Thursday, we decided to try this restaurant called Punto Azul for lunch. It's a somewhat cheap seafood restaurant that's actually more upscale than I thought, and it serves ridiculous portions. It was really an adventure! There was an interesting mixture of Spanish and English, because we were on all different levels, and my teachers (who are very cool, I might add) came along, too. I decided to try Cebiche Mixto. Cebiche, for those unacquainted, is a general name given for several different types of seafood. I've tried Cebiche Pescado and Mixto. Both of them involve cold seafood soaked in a lemon juice with raw red onions and served with a garnish of lettuce, some choclo (corn), yam, and more of the leche de tigre (which is the lemon juice mixture). I had the pescado (just fish) in its spicy variation last week. It was adorned with what looked like a cross-section of a red bell-pepper, so I ate the whole thing. Had I not liked spicy foods, this would have been a poor life choice. Liking them, it was only a surprising life choice. Anyway, Cebiche Mixto: fish is there, but you've also got calamari and octopus and something else. I've gotta say, octopus tentacles aren't half bad cold. Chewy, though.

I seem to talk about food disproportionately, but it's just such a different variety of foods! The fruits here are so different. Seriously, google "Charimoya," because it's not really something we have in the US. Yogurt is pretty much a drinkable commodity here: no spoons. Fun fact: yogurt comes in the plastic gallon and liter containers, but milk comes in plastic bags. I find this amusing. Soooo many different tastes and brands and ways of making things. Someday I'll go crazy in the potato chips section, because it's Perú, land of like 200 different potatoes.

While I'm on a food tangent, let me talk about Chicha Morada some more. Do we just not have purple corn in the US? If so, all is forgiven, but if not, I want to know who is responsible for keeping this beverage from the public at large. It's delicious, fairly nutricious, and a lifesaver if you don't want to drink soda in a Latin American country. So what gives? Are we seriously that afraid of purple stains? It can't be that, we give kids neon-colored popsicles.

Sooo...returning from the food talk (but with a promise to talk about more later), Friday was the last day of language school. To celebrate, Brooke (fellow classmate) baked cookies, Alyssa bought Inca Cola (which tastes to everybody but Peruvians like bubble gum, but that's because it must be the only place that Peruvians use the bubble-gum flavoring), and Rosa, our teacher, who will be leaving to pursue a Master's Degree in Spain, bought some more cookies. It was pretty fun, because we spent the discussion class asking each other questions like, "If you had an autobiography, what would the title be?" or "If you could date any celebrity, whom would you date and why?" It reminded me of the question prompts for the AP Spanish test way back in the day. Only this time I had fun answering the questions.

Oh! Wednesday was the end of the second trimester, so the kids received their grades. I got to look at every San Juan kid's grade (the 13-14 year olds) in order to enter them into an Excel spreadsheet. The way grades work here is slightly different from the US: They grade with a points system, the highest score being 20. For each subject, they get an overall evaluation ranging from 0 to 20. My job was to record the subjects' grades for each kid and then find each kids' GPA (as it were) for the trimester. Perhaps this was a nice introduction into a more real world for me, a guy who's been in private education all his life and been given the benefit of being in atmospheres of incredible intelligence (I have very, very smart friends). These grades were not so great. If you were to encounter a phrase "Masterpiece of an understatement," I think that that past sentence would probably be one of the example sentences. Jeez louise, man. I was so happy every time my fingers had to make the extra effort to type "18", because it was so rare. I was happy when I entered grades above 12. Dang.

It was a revealing moment for me. Some might wrongly assume that the grades were what gave me such pause. It wasn't like I realized, "Ah! I'm working with delinquent and/or dumb children." I will tell you to your face that you're wrong. What I encountered in those grades, and what was confirmed for me later on, was a sense of pessimism, of resignation, of grim reality that never was and probably never will be waiting for me at the end of my educational endeavors in the United States. People might get sick and tired of hearing about all of the opportunity that we have in the United States and how we take it for granted, and it's cliché to then mention Jairo from Guatemala who can't get an education or doesn't have much of a future post-education, but it's so flipping true. I wasn't aware that I had this particular assumption, but I suddenly realized that I was not here to bring the American dream of education to the deprived children. If you want to bring that dream to fruition, work with the school system, the culture, the government, while people with this ideal tutor kids and nurture them in a space encouraging that future with a life that confirms the encouragement. It's more than what 3 volunteers singlehandedly can do. So I'm not here to make them "A" students, because even if I do, what's the point? How do I bring hope to kids who face grim and difficult futures, and what kind of hope should that hope be?

Let me tell you, I've entered data before, and so I know that working in Microsoft Excel can be one of the more painful experiences in life (my life as a research apprentice, more or less). This was painful for a very different reason. I went to bed wondering, "So I'm not here to be their Messiah, because it's so far beyond my power. What in God's name am I here for, then? What the heck am I supposed to do?"

I'll interrupt here to say that I think that being in a foreign country for a prolonged period of time allows people to learn a lot about themselves. I'll venture to say that I've learned that I'm a far more kinesthetic learner than I thought. I always thought I was a mental kind of person, maybe pencil and paper when it came to math, but for that information to hop on the elevator and travel from the head to the heart, I need to live through experiences to make them concrete. One such example are any number of the Mother Theresa quotes, like, "God does not demand that you succeed, only that you try," or "There are no great works, just small works with great love," and things of that nature. Some people can read them and get it. I envy them. However, I'm being granted the boon and bane of experience in order to understand. The words of Theilhard de Jardin, "Above all, trust in the slow work of God," and of Bishop Ken Untener (though these words are often attributed to Oscar Romero):

It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of
saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession
brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives include everything.
This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one
day will grow. We water the seeds already planted
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of
liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's
grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the
difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not
messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.

Ah, so that's what we're about! I love how that comes at the middle of the reflection, because it connects what's been said and what's being said. It comes together with the phrase "God is God and I'm not," and it was of enormous consolation to think of that. Pray, trust God, know that you won't do everything, that you'll inevitably do something silly or wrong because hey, you're human. Be yourself and be that well (name that saint!), know you're not God, but trust in His presence, believe that all will be well, pray for the hope in a certain future to get you through an uncertain and turbulent present. All will be well (I'm on a roll with quotations, this sentence was another saint).

Clearly I'm still in the process, because hey, that's life. I am still piecing together how to love, especially when it's rendered difficult by the kids I'm here to serve (which is when it's most worthy of the name love, I suppose). The day we went to Punto Azul, I got back from lunch and Hermano Polo was holding a town hall meeting. These happen daily. They are never, ever cheerful. And he's not the only one who does them. I understand that this is another culture, that they function far more on shame than on guilt, so it's theoretically more efficacious to publicly ridicule than privately guilt, but when that's all they ever hear (as I feel it is, and I feel it's pervasive), I have to wonder how effective that really is at doing anything other than confirming what people who live in a place like this, have few recourses, and have had rough childhoods have been told through society and possibly through family: they're not worth much. That was the confirming moment I had a couple of days ago. How do I tackle this misgiving? I need to talk with Fr. Hugo about it before I make any confrontations or even contemplate them, really.

With all the quotes, I really didn't mean to suggest that I have achieved Nirvana or really had everything make sense. I'm still struggling, am unsettled, and wanting to cry more than I have in a while. I've gotten attached to the kids, and I'm a softy, anyway.

What a way to begin working full-time, no? Hence the title. I just heard something akin to an explosion, so I ought to go and check that out, methinks. Much love and prayers, please pray for everybody here.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Month in Lima, or How Many Different Routes Exist Between These Two Locations?

Just under a month has gone by, and in just one week, I'll be getting used to a new shift as language school ends and begin full-time at Ciudad! I'm excited for that. Language school has been very cool, and I love the teachers and conversation, but it's tiring to be there ever day, and the pollution that you get in your lungs from the transit from San Juan de Miraflores to Miraflores everyday is like smoking a pack of cigarettes (read: I have no idea how bad it is for your lungs, but the comparison seemed appropriate).

I think I've said that I'm working with adolescents aged 13-14 (ish). They're a great group of kids! I think I have finally gotten to the point where I know all their names (and what names they prefer to be called). To be honest, when I first walked in, I kind of thought that maybe I had walked back into my college dorm. They're lively, fun, kind, but won't hesitate to laugh at you, because they have the audacity to tell you that yeah, you're being ridiculous. Right now, my work consists of being with them in the afternoons post-school. I have been put in charge of gardening maintenance and tending to the vineyard, so when the kids work with me in the afternoon, there is a lot of weed-pulling, wire-tightening, and vine-enforcing. Weed-pulling is something I like. When I don't have open wounds, I like getting my hands dirty, and don't mind getting junk under my nails as I root around for...well, the roots. Vines fascinate me. We don't grow grapes to make wine (it's a city of kids, after all), but we eat the grapes. I just like how flexible they are, how you can generally guide them to grow in a certain way that will be more beneficial for it (and for us come harvest time).

The challenge of working with kids is one that I experienced last summer for a week doing Serviceworx with middle-schoolers. They can have great senses of humor, but they genuinely lack maturity, and it's not their fault, because that's just where they are in life. The trick is to remember this so as not to take things personally and jump down to an equal level of immaturity or vindiction in punishment, but at the same time trying to encourage them (both through punishment when necessary) and positive example how to grow into more responsible, more sensitive, more mature people. That's probably why so many people don't like working with adolescents: It requires patience and the equilibrium for reprimand and understanding is so hard to discern (and even harder is adhering to it). So yeah, it's been a challenge.

I work with Hermano Polo, a Capuchin Friar from Arequipa (South of Lima). He's a terrific guy. He plays guitar very well, he's got a pretty good musical ear, he knows how to do a million and one things, his sense of humor is terrific, and his life story is pretty cool, too. Or...what of his life story I could comprehend. He talks pretty quickly. He's trying hard to find the balance I was talking about...and, unsurprisingly, it's challenging. This is not an easy age group to lead. Props to him, though.

But yeah, I'm loving it. We went shopping this weekend. I've never been so excited for yogurt in my life (I was in desperate need of some calcium and milk products).

Note about language school: It can be very frustrating to learn another language. It can be even harder for somebody who likes to know things and hates not knowing things, because you've got to be willing to admit that your English vocabulary won't always help you and that thinking in paragraphs can be detrimental to getting across basic thoughts (especially if you have a lot of SAT and GRE words in those paragraphs). If you like being self-sufficient, it's tough, because a translation usually won't help you out. I am liking this, tough though it is. When you strip away the intelligence, the fancy words, the knowledge of stuff that nobody else knows, you get a sense of who is there underneath. And, though sometimes it can be hard to look at that person, if you want to adjust happily, you've just got to bite the bullet and trust that people never loved you because you got good grades, because you happened to know the answers to questions, but because of who you were. And, if you're anything like me (who's really the "you" in all of these statements), your friends probably wanted to know you more.

It's hard to believe a month has gone by. Hard to believe that this is life, too, you know? That was kind of ambiguous. But I can't get any more specific. Much love, once again. Much missage, but not the sad kind.

Sunday, September 6, 2009


It's a drizzly Sunday morning as we enter the 4th week of service in Lima. It's amazing. I'm loving it.

The last two weeks, we've been going to language school in the morning and returning for Ciudad in the afternoon. The first week was cool, and I really liked the review that it gave me. That weekend, the kids left in the afternoon to go visit families, so we had some time to ourselves to go exploring/eat more typical Peruvian cuisine/allow the tourist gringo part of us to show. We went down to Miraflores, one of the "Municipalities" in Lima (barrios/neighborhoods/what have you), which is a pretty happening part of town. Very cosmopolitan, some nice parks, right on the coast...very pretty, very fun. The coast is really beautiful. We saw it from much higher up, but even so. Anyway, we met up with Br. Hugo, our local coordinator, and had dinner at a small little place. There are a lot of foods to try, and we got started. I can't remember what kind of chicken Alyssa ordered, but it was a typical Peruvian fare that tasted very good. I got Lomo Saltado, which is very good (but, as you might guess from the name, very salty). Br. Hugo got Cebiche, which is terrific: fish served cold, prepared in a sauce of lemon juice and onions. Seriously, very tasty. Tania tried fried Cuy, which is....guinea pig! I don't know if I could ever eat dog (a mental image of my golden retriever pops into my mind, and more or less makes me want to cry), but guinea pig was delicious. The skin was a very interesting texture, and the meat was very good, if not...well, small. It's a creature the same size as a rat, after all. We then went to Barranco, an artsy sector that is very cool (and also with a nice ocean view) and tried Picarones, a fried dessert with a pumpkin batter. Delicious, with an interesting anise syrup on it.

While I'm on a food kick, I tried one of the popular Peruvian fruits: Charimoya. Google it, I can't explain it. We had no idea what we were buying at the time...we just had a hankering for avocados (and dude, the heck with California avocados with apologies to Californians out there, but they were the biggest and some of the best avocados I've had), saw another green and oddly-shaped fruit and had at it. Very good. Mark Twain thought it the most delicious fruit on the face of the earth. Not entirely in accordance with him, but it is quite tasty. Also, though it's not a fruit, per se, I tried a drink called "Chicha Morada," made out of purple corn. It was actually really good. Just don't spill it: it would make for some nasty stains.

Anyway, second week of language school was also good, but I have been sick. I essentially lost my voice, and still have a chest cold and lack the ability to sing in falsetto, meaning that I cannot entertain the adolescents with my renditions of Billy Jean or Beat It. This is not necessarily bad, but being sick is a drag. The air pollution doesn't help. We've been taking taxis everyday to Miraflores, as our neighborhood is pretty far...Miraflores is south-central, and San Juan de Miraflores is north-east. Anyway, traffic in a huge city boasting a population of 8 million+ people is...well, ghastly. Lots of car exhaust. Makes it difficult to recuperate.

Another challenge this second week was just realizing how totally inept I am. At one time, I'm impatient with these reviews, because the arrogant part of me remembers that I learned this stuff. Speaking it normally and knowing the rules for writing essays are very different, though, and I know that, but Mr. Arrogant isn't happy to admit it. At the same time, I'm just in awe as the realization drives its way deeper into my thick skull that Spanish is its own language. I mean, I gathered as much, but I really understand that it's a foundation and byproduct of culture, with a whole mindset, a history, and I know only the scarcest bits of it. Also, I may be able to talk about cohabitation in broken Spanish, but if I want to convey to Vargas at dinner that my food slipped off my fork, I don't know the verb for "slip". I don't know many, many, many things. It's amazing. Lots of gestures, lots of circumlocution, and lots of making a fool of myself. It's gotta happen, yeah? It's good.

I started reading a version of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" that's in Spanish. I thought it'd be a good way to pick up on verbs and vocabulary, since I remember many of the details of that particular book, but then I had to question its authenticity. In Spanish, you should never say, "Yo estoy embarazado" if you're a guy and feel embarrassed. It's inadvisable to use "embarazada," as well, ladies. See, it's a false cognate: In Spanish, that means that you're pregnant. The adjective to use would be "Avergonzado/a". So when on page 70 the book described Cedric Diggory as seeming slightly pregnant, I had to start wondering about the validity.

The title of the post has to do with my mental state, which is a little bit less interesting than what's been happening (unless you're me). This past Wednesday was my mom's birthday, so I sent her a gift and called her using Skype. She was in New York, having helped Stephen settle in at NYU (aw, he's a freshman), and chilling with Dad in Manhattan for a little mini-vacation. It made me sad that I wasn't there to see Stephen move in, to wish her happy birthday in person, won't be able to do the same for Dad, Steve, Grandparents, and other things. It wasn't demoralizing, but it was a "bummer" moment. I was listening to some music that always transports me back to late summer/all of fall back in what seems another world: senior year of high school and freshman year of college. The weather is very different, and I love the crisp of fall, the crunch of leaves, the transformation of ponds and rivers from (generally) pleasantly cool to ice water, the smell of mist and green in the morning, the mingling of the colors of the leaves and the green. Also, I just had a flashback to summers past, and it was beautifully bittersweet.

"Repotting" because it's the same thing wherever you travel: when a plant moves to a different pot or soil, it generally leaves some tendrils of its roots in the native soil. The connections are...undeniable and not going anywhere. And it'll be the same when in a few months I have to say goodbye to this place. I'll miss it. Never thought I'd miss DC my freshman year, and I was missing it last summer. It's cool, though, I like missing people. Motivates me to a) stay in touch and b) get more involved with the folks here. I just felt a moment of really liking the kids today. I've kinda felt it before, but it was a lot more pronounced this morning. So...without further ado, that's where I'm headed. Stateside, abroad, wherever you are, God bless, God speed, and much love.