Mountains on Speed Dial: Casma to Pariacoto to Huarmey

Hard to believe yesterday morning I was in Casma, and here I am in Huarmey 24 hours later in the cleanest and fastest internet cafe in the country, I dare say.  I´ve just had my morning tea (manzanilla, AKA chamomille) at the local juice bar (where I thoroughly enjoyed watching M eat five pan con pollos and a slice of cake), and I had a warm shower this morning.  OH MY GOODNESS!  It´s like some kind of miracle, warm water!

In this part of Peru — if they bother at all — they offer electric showers.  Did I post about this earlier?  I´ve forgotten.  Anyway, I had thought forget it;  no way I´m gonna try that.  Electricity and water do not mix — any child knows that.  Turns out it is perfectly safe, this electric shower.  You turn on the water with one hand and then the electric switch (which looks like an old-fashioned circuit breaker lever) with your dry hand.  The water warms up (IF it works, and usually it doesn´t) right away.  Not hot but actually just the perfect temp.  You just have to be sure not to touch any part of the shower while you are in the stall all wet.  That is easy enough to avoid, though I am kinda on the tall side.  When I was done washing my hair (for the first time getting it really clean since we´ve been here), I stepped out the shower with the water still running, dried off one hand completely and used it to turn off the electricty switch and then turned off the water.  I was elated.

And this surprises me.  But it is true.  Give me a bottle of strawberry flavored electrolytes, a prescription of cipro, and a warm shower, and I´m on top of the world.  Man, I could even go back up into the mountains again tomorrow 🙂  Seriously, I do feel so much better, as if I have passed through a dark hallway into a lovely porch with comfy chairs and a grand vista. Only five more days and we´ll be on the plane home, too.  No problema. 

Ah, but I´m getting ahead of myself….  No doubt you want to know about Mountains on Speed Dial.  Behold, 24 hrs.

8:30 a.m. Leandro, ambulance driver for Pariacoto comes to collect us from the Hostel Selena.  This ambulance was a little smaller than Tonio´s in Quillo, but it had good tires and seemed sturdy.  I was glad to hear that the road to Pariacoto is PAVED.  Wow.  What a  concept.  Leandro helped us load up.  Then we drove over to Casma hospital, where the strike is still on and getting more intense.  Leandro said he would not park anywhere near the emergency entrance, i.e. would not cross the picket line.  Of course, no problem.  JK was checking email and said she would join us later, so M and I went into the hospital to check on the radio and consult briefly with a doctor about my recent decision to start on cipro (which he confirmed and said, yeh, duh, what took you so long! or something like that….) 

Anyway, there was a guy just being brought into the emergency room with a huge gash in his leg.  Awful.  Later a tiny baby and screaming mother were brought in.  Very distressing. Then when we got to the radio area, at a nurse´s station, we found that for the fourth time on this trip the nurses had changed the radio frequency to chat with their friends privately and had not bothered to change the radio back.  As always, Casma hospital was unreachable by the mountain villages.  I can´t express how angry this makes me.  Having just been to the mountains and helped install our radios and seeing the way the people live there and the contrast with the cities, it infuriates me that these Casma nurses don´t give a second thought to cutting off this lifeline.  At least the villagers can talk to one another and through a relay system get a message to someone who has a cell phone who can call the hospital by phone.  AAARRRGHHH!!!

We left the hospital and M went to the pharmacy for me and got me some electrolyte fluids.  JK arrived.  We all piled into the ambulance truck and headed out of town, first stopping to buy gas for Leandro.  This is standard procedure for us here.  ¨SÍ, you can use our posta truck if you buy us gas.¨ Reminds me of college.

Just before reaching the city limits of Casma, it began to rain.  Remember that city´s nickname?  Land of eternal sun!  Yes, it rained while we were there.  Weird.  The road to Pariacoto is paved, as I mentioned.  I´ve certainly been on worse roads back home in New England, but through one patch the road was pretty rough. M, who was sitting with me up front, explained that we were driving through a mining district and their trucks had been damaging the road, less than three years old.  M didn´t know how to translate the name of the mineral they mine, not a common word.

On the way to Pariacoto, which we were told was a thirty minutes drive (double all times you are given in Peru, though), we stopped at two other postas.  First, Cachipampa, where we were surprised to discover that they were bulding a brand new posta medica right behind the old one.  Construction was well under way and workmen were busy on that Monday morning with their wheelbarrows and bricks.  We were supposed to install a radio there, but that plan had to be reconsidered.  If the posta is moving to a new building, then installing a radio now means a lot of work doubled because the radio would have to be moved on the next trip.  Reinstalling can take almost as time as installation!  I watched the way that M and JK handled the situation with much interest. 

Here is an ethical dilema, no?  Install the radio now would cause us twice as much work, forcing us to omit one more project next time, or wait to install until next time and this posta would have to wait six months.  That was when M jumped in and started asking all of the right questions. The posta had a government issued shortwave radio.  M asked, ¨Who can you talk to on that radio?¨  Yuatan. (Which is a bigger posta that has one of our radios.)  ¨What do you do if there is an emergency?¨ Call Yuatan and they use a public phone to call Casma or use our public phone in Cachipampa to call Yuatan if the radio doesn´t work.

M and JK made the tough call to postpone installation of the radio there.  I wholeheartedly agree.  The clincher for me was that the staff member was not expecting us and thus had no expectation of receiving a radio.  She seemed fine with our decision to postpone.  M and JK felt bad, I could see, and part of it for them is the fact that ¨Gandalf¨ isn´t here.  I suspect they are used to him making such sticky decisions.  But as a teacher myself, I see tremendous value in M, especially, having to make the call.  I gave the lady at the posta a volleyball, a soccerball, a pump (for the village school) and some health posters with a smile.  At least they got something from the gringos.

After leaving Cachipampa, we drove a short way to Yuatan, an unscheduled stop (but I suggested that maybe we should just check in with them real quick).  Their radio worked fine (always good to ask just in case), but while there, we made contact with a couple of other postas higher up that we figured we wouldn´t end up visiting due to the rain and bad roads.  One of the places, Cochabamba (say it out loud — it trips off the tongue beautifully) said she had a problem with her ambulance radio and would meet us in Pariacoto to have us fix it.  Cool.  What a  concept — they come to us! 

The other posta we reached by Yuatan´s radio was Colcabamba (not a typo — they are really similar names but far apart).  They had a problem with their radio, but the road up there is not good.  What to do, what to do?  The technician there described the problem, and it turned out to be the ¨automatic power off¨ switch getting tripped.  Ah, something we can fix long distance!  JK and M had to look through all their records and figure out which model that posta had and what the manual said to do to stop the problem, etc. But after 45 minutes or so, we left there having fixed one problem, made an appiontment for fixing another, and having dispensed more balls for niños.  Bueno!

Once in Pariacoto, we settled in to work on all we could without actually going anywhere.  The drive through the mountains to Pariacoto was so refreshing for me.  I got to sit on the window side of the front seat.  The air was clear and cool, moist and fresh.  Ah.  Pariacoto posta was pretty nice.  They even had tile on their floor, instead of bare cement.  It´s a pretty big place.  Fairly tidy.  The bathroom was sorta clean, too, which one REALLY comes to appreciate after visiting rural Peru.  I have to admit, I sorta lost track of what happened during the several hours we were there.  I do know we went to a restaurant after a while for lunch.  M and JK ate fried trout, which looked good.  I had a half cup of white rice and my electrolyte punch.  Yum, Pedialyte! 

In terms of work accomplished, we helped the doctor who came down from Cochabamba, as appointed.  She said there were over 700 people in her town alone, but her posta serves many more in surrounding pueblitos.  Another young woman doctor working in poverty-stricken villages.  It´s been a surprise to see so much energy and care being given to the poor (though it is never enough, it is so much more than I had imagined I´d find).  Anyway, I liked this woman — she had a kind face and was patient with my poor Spanish.  I gave her the standard balls for the kids and showed her some of the photos I brought of my son´s school and my son and dog, etc.  ( I pretty much always bring these out when I give away the balls, so they know who donated them and to jumpstart conversation.)  She was so pleased and gracious about the gift.

I know we left two batteries for villages in the higher elevations, stuff to be collected by those folks later when the roads are passable.  One of the two is going to Chipre, I think(way the heck up there), and another to Colcabamba??  Anyway, one place thought the problem they had was simply the battery, so, hey, why not empower them to fix the problem themselves?!  We also left some village (Chipre?) a new cable and plug thingey (English prof. talk) to replace a faulty fridge plug.  This one was really tricky, and I could see that JK and M were so uncomfortable with not being able to do this maintanence work ourselves.  But there was absolutely no way we were going to be able to reach that locale until maybe six months from now.  Again with my professor hat on, I felt that here was an interesting issue.  For any project to be sustainable, the people in these communities need to be trained to work on at least some maintenance projects themselves.  If they must rely completely on us for everything, then the project has no chance of being sustainable. 

This fridge is a good test case.  I mean these engineers were so careful!  They figured out every step so plainly and so precisiely and wrote everything down (in Spaniah, of course).  Then they trained Leandro, our Pariacoto ambulance driver, who will bring the stuff up to the village when roads are clear.  JK even gave the guy her personal voltmeter, so he can check the positive and negative wires of the fridge, which when they open up the plug (or something like that) won´t be red and black but both black wires and impossible to tell which is which (I gather that matters a lot).  Short of doing the repair job ourselves, I think this is pretty good.  Hopefully, it will turn out okay in the end.

I actually spent much of the day observing the posta perro (my nickname for the unofficial clinic dog) who was the friendliest little guy I´ve met in Peru.  Most dogs roam the streets looking single-mindedly hungry here.  This guy, I could see, just wanted to be my pal (okay, anyone would do, but I was there).  But I dared not pet him, having already observed how often he scratched himself because of all of his fleas.   So I talked to him, and he watched me with a happy face, though with low expectations, not daring to approach and be rebuffed.  I did see Leandro pet him.  Ah, the sheer joy!  That dog loves people.

The other thing I spent a lot of time observing was the television that was blaring in the hallway of the posta.  Weird.  But, yes, t.v. in Pariacoto.  Peruvian soap operas.  Every restaurant we went to in Casma had a t.v. blaring, so it wasn´t the first time I´d seen the shows, but it was the first time I really paid attention.  All I could say to the lady who watched with me was, ¨Muchos amor y muchos muertos.¨  Love and death.  I saw a bride get left at the altar as her fiance went off with a temptress, a woman´s lover get killed in a car crash and her evil husband rub it it (ha, you got what you deserved you adultress), and a woman wearing jeans and black leather jacket get killed in a shootout with police (and a blonde woman saying, ha, ha, ha, you got what you deserved to the corpse later in the morgue).  The ¨soup¨ is pretty much the same wherever you go, though the spices vary from country to country.  I´ve seen such shows before!

When we had finished all of our engineering work at the posta, we walked across the square, which is all dug up for new construction ( part of a plot by local officials to skim some public funds, we were told), to the lovely Franciscan church to visit the father there. What an oasis that parish is, simply luxurious.  Exceptionally clean and tidy, simple yet comfortable.  Such a nice half hour we spent chatting in English with the Polish priest.  They run an extensive after school program there for 70 kids, the express purpose of which is to try to help the children get up to grade level so they will have a ghost of a chance to go on to the university.  Most of the villagers are farmers and just do not value education, so the folks in the parish house have their work cut out for them.  I liked this priest so much.  What a life of devotion to the service of others.  Inspiring.

After we left and were back at the posta waiting for our driver to return, we heard the church calling the people to evening mass with the tolling of a bell and then blaring music over their loudspeaker.  This music was actually very beautiful and relaxing, contemporary Christian ballads in Spanish, basically.  I don´t speak Spanish but understood something like the words, ¨Put your trust and hope in me.¨ The bells made me think of my home church.  I look forward to returning to my own parish and sharing my experience with those folks.

While waiting for Leandro to return, we finished some last-minute paperwork.  I don´t recall mentioning this before … but every time we install or replace equipment, even when we leave donated volleyballs, we write up an official letter clarifying who the stuff is for and from, etc.  I am always the signatory for our side, and thus I always get to meet whomever is in charge of the posta.  Anyone could sign for us, but it´s a kindness that the engineers leave this little job to me, helping me to feel useful! 

At last we were to leave Pariacoto.  Ah…but not without three more stops.  First to buy gasoline from a little shack.  Where did the gas come from?  I think they carried it out to the sidewalk in a big bucket and poured it into our gas tank via a funnel.  Yes, this method spilled gas and it smelled nasty.  Ugh.  Gas is the equivalent of $15.50 per gallon in Peru.  Yup.  You heard me.  Second we stopped at Leandro´s house to pick up his wife, who rode in the back with JK.  Leandro wanted some company on his drive home from Huarmey after leaving us there.  Good thinking.  Third, we stopped at the posta again to get a little stool for his wife to sit on because there was so much equipment in the back that there was no place for her to sit.  Kindness.  JK later told me that this woman is only one year older than her and that she spends the morning — after doing all the breakfast stuff – working in the fields alongside her father-in-law, who is 92 and who still farms.  Then she goes home and cooks a huge midday meal and does housework.  Sometimes she gets a nap.  Sometimes she goes back to the farm and cares for the animals and avocados. Leandro and his wife have six children, all grown.

On the way to Huarmey, on the Pan American highway, Leandro pulled over after the car began to swerve.  What next, I wondered? Then, of course, we are broken down, no? Turns out that he merely wanted to check the tires.  He never drives on that road and wasn´t used to the mutilple dips on one side of the pavement (a phenomenon that made him think there might be something wrong with his tires).  He was only being conscientious.  We were fine and back on the road in a moment.  I have so come to appreciate the fine art of driving!

We arrived in Huarmey just after 10 p.m. and had the misfortune to be greeted at the parish house (where we needed to leave our equipment) by perhaps the only person in Huarmey who had NEVER heard of ¨Gandalf¨ and our project and who wouldn´t let us in.  ¨I´m sure you understand, we just couldn´t let you in!¨ No Padre Ruly to be found, though we later reached him via a passerby who had a cell phone, and Fr. Ruly said he´d come soon.  We unloaded the ambulance and said goodbye to Leandro and his wife.  Then we waited.  Eventually some guy opened the gate. 

Then we went on to paradise.  Err.   Hotel Paraiso, that is.  Once there, again no answer at the door, but we eventually got our rooms and were making plans about today in the front hall when we heard a squeal from one of the rooms: ¨JK!!!  JK!!¨  Ah, it was C, the grad student in our project who comes from Nicaragua.  What a happy reunion!  And now we could get all the news of what the other participants are doing.  All is well, I can assure you.  Most everyone is now in Laguna, a small village where they groups are doing multiple projects.  There are no latrines in Laguna but there´s a large community center where they are all able to sleep.  The other professor has been filming a lot and getting help from our student from Chicago, I hear.  The undergrads are trying to install their biodigestor, having actually found a place for it. C´s project is underway, a drip irrigation for an indiviual farmer ( a prototype project somewhat different from what we regularly do in the project because they must pay us back to cover costs).

We made plans for JK to go with C on the 7:30 a.m. bus to Quian tomorrow (and get off in Laguna).  Jk´s husband is done sriving (who can blame him that on these roads!) and we can take the truck.  JK was to go up and then bring said truck back to Huarmey to get us and our equipment, as the public bus is rough going and best to avoid if possible.

Alas, this morning we discovered that JK had not gone becasue JK had been sick all night.  Oh, my sympathies, JK!  She says she will be fine by tomorrow.  And since this is her 11th trip, she ought to know. But it´s still a bummer being sick in Peru.  Meanwhile, I am ¨documenting,¨ as the engineers call my blogging, and M is at Huarmey hospital trying to track down a guy for whom we made a prosthetic leg and do a bunch of other errands.  We are going to stop by a pharmacy and pick up JK some electrolyte punch on our way back to the hotel soon.

About blogging …  Who would have thought (1) that I would have so many opportunities to post while here, and (2) that writing this blog would give me a sense of having an important job in a situation in which I mostly feel jobless?  I sometimes joke with posta personnel when chatting with them, pointing at JK and saying, ¨Ella trabaja.  Yo escribo.¨ She works.  I just write.  Then I laugh.  But really, I have come to see writing and reading as something so much more important to me than I ever realized before this trip.  You´d think an English professor would see the value of reading and writing so clearly.  But it´s a challenge when one is surrounded by engineers (who are installing life-saving equipment) to see any value in what I do.  Not to mention, years of being in the profession (plus even the process of professionalization during grad school itself) have made it harder to see why I got into this field in the first place.  But I feel as if I am so much more grounded and real when I write.  And I feel as if I am so much wiser and open-minded when I read

Who knows how much my efforts have really helped the project?  This is an open question.  But the project has given me back a renewed passion for what I DO, a front and center view of why words matter, why through the ages we have told our stories.


4 Responses

  1. Diana

    I have been quickly scanning through your musings, trying to catch up. I’ve been in Florida visiting my Dad. Nice break but his health is deteriorating so it’s extra important to spend some time together. Also, I’ve been quite a bit self absorbed lately. I did in fact get elected Chair of the Portsmouth School Board last week so now life gets real interesting.

    I’m so excited about your experience. I hope Chad is doing well. I look forward to the video and audio work ahead (not really! That’s going to be a lot of work.)

    Fill yourself up with experiences and give my best to the mountains and the stars. Peace!

  2. Words matter. Words most definitely matter. In what language? not so important. If it’s your language…words matter.

    I’m having such a great vicarious adventure through…your words.

  3. Hahaha i really love your words about peru…it’s many places in lima and the whole country there is no running water…or WARM water yeahhhhh
    that’s a sad reality…
    anyway..we peruvians are really used to cold showers…or freezing would be better?
    and you wouldn’t die from drinking shower water hahaha so no painful death to worry about
    definitely you’ve visited the real RURAL areas in peru…which i think the government should help more instead of turning them more dependable of ..the government!
    anyway….lets resume…where was i?
    dogs…haha yeah fleas are an issue. not everywhere of course, in most places in lima we keep our dogs healthy and happy jiji
    lights…buses(combis)…wow i haven’t experienced that in two years now, since i left peru…i think i miss it! haha
    you went to el agustino!! my goodness…yeah places like that (sadly) are pretty dangerous and to be honest..never been there and don’t plan to…
    however, i love my peru with all my heart, and i hope to see it again….soooooooon
    i’m glad you had those experiences(though i know you didn’t enjoy them that much), that’s how part of our country lives. and hope it to change…our country deserves more than that

    also i’m glad you took home a little piece of our vast culture…which will never be revealed completely…it’s just HUGE!!!

    thanks a lot for your reviews over it…l
    viva el peru

  4. Sandra,

    Well, I wouldn’t say that I didn’t enjoy my experiences. I really was grinning a lot when I was there. It was all very interesting. It’s not fun to be sick and I did feel as if I was in danger due to the roads at times, but I also enjoyed myself quite a bit.

    Anyway, thanks for stopping by and commenting!

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