The Last Post

2 Aug

I knew I’d want to write a post about “the end.” I like closure. I like acknowledging “this is it.” I’ve been periodically highlighting markers that are leading to the final “moment” — Twitter countdowns until the end of my days in Olmos, “last birthday in Peru” blog posts, “thank you for your support these last two years” emails, etc. As the most comprehensive outlet for my storytelling, I’ve been saving my deepest thoughts for the final post on “Betty Zee in PC.” This blog has been one of my greatest pleasures since I left Miami two years ago. Writing has become one of my favorite hobbies, a joy reiterated by the fact that I felt I finally had something to say, a story to tell. Writing is an electrifying process: the initial jot down of disjoint ideas, going through them a thousand times, carefully editing words and watching them transform into personal memoirs. I know for a fact not a lot of people are reading these posts, a result of deactivating my Facebook account and summarily eliminating my largest online connection to an audience, but my interest in the act of writing and recording experiences remains the same. I imagine one day I’ll be glad I stuck with it, when nostalgia strikes and all I’ll have of Peru are these stories to read through once again.

But alas, this post marks the “end” end.  Today is my last day in South America. Tomorrow, before the sun rises over Cartagena’s colonial streets I’ll be en route northward, crossing continents and oceans on my way to San Francisco. It doesn’t matter that Northern California is not even remotely near what I consider “home.” Ironically, I might actually be geographically closer to Miami from Cartagena, Colombia than from the American west coast. The important thing here is not that I am going to the US, but the fact that I am leaving Latin America, indefinitely.

For friends and family who have been constant companions throughout my time away, it’ll come as no surprise to read how Peace Corps, and everything that experience encompasses, has changed me to the core. I think it’ll be years before I can really understand the full implications, so I’ll bypass any attempt to start now. But for my last blog post, I want to focus on one of the strongest sentiments present as I prepare to leave tomorrow: Recognizing my personal connection to the rich cultural heritage inherent in Latin America.

On July 15, I officially became a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) after successfully completing two years of service in Olmos, Lambayeque. Immeadiately after, a group of volunteers and I organized an 8-day, 124 KM (77 mi) hiking trek around the Huayhuash mountain range in the central Andean province of Ancash. In all honesty, it was a wild undertaking on my part, knowing we’d hike over 5,000m (16,oooft) mountain passes and camp every night in below-freezing temperatures, but that’s exactly what drew me in. Even Liz, a fellow volunteer and experienced hiker thoughtfully mentioned “It’s interesting that you are spending your last days in Peru on this hike.” It was outrageous by any standards, but so is everything else I’ve done on this continent. What better way to end two years of the greatest mental, emotional and psychological challenge than with the greatest physical challenge I’ve ever undertaken? I knew the 7-to-8 hours of hiking every day would give me more than enough time to reflect on life, and it wouldn’t hurt to have snow-peaked mountains looming over, providing the picturesque scenery befitting this kind of introspection.

As I hiked, walking stick in hand, the thin mountain air forcefully entering and exiting my lungs, I became overwhelmed with the immense beauty of the entire journey, from the tiny mountain town where we started our hike to the long stretches of nothingness in each valley we crossed. Sometimes I couldn’t believe what I was staring at directly with my own eyes.

Huayhuash 1

I’ve said it a thousand times in conversation and I’ve written extensively about it here, but one of the things that will stay with me forever is the natural landscapes I’ve experienced through my trips and adventures in Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. And then there was Huayhuash, solidifying the natural beauty not only in Peru but in all of Latin America. It starts with the colorful and varied geography of Mexico, down through the tropical jungles of Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, emptying into Venezuela and exploding into the Andes and Amazon of Bolvia, Paraguay and Brazil.  And it’s not only the pristine topography that makes this part of the world stunning, but its complex cultural history. The heroes, the writers, the painters, the social movements.  I considered myself a well-read, educated Hispanic-American adult but truthfully I’ve found it mind-blowing, the extent of my ignorance in regards to the history of the region. Thankfully, in Olmos I had the time to read to my hearts’ content, immersing myself in chronicles of the Inca Empire, the colonial revolutionaries of Simon Bolivar, and stories of the “dirty wars” and dictatorships that have changed the course of this hemisphere.  It’s important to know the turbulent history to truly appreciate what is happening in Latin America now.

What I found is that I’ve been guilty, as are many others, of having a distorted sense of our neighbor to the South.  To almost all but the few North Americans who take an interest in LatAm history and politics, anything south of the Rio Grande is a general Third World area where the one thing you need to know is DON’T DRINK THE WATER.  Even we, Latinos, have started to believe the hype, abandoning cultural practices and foregoing the passage of Spanish fluency to our children in order to further assimilate.  Just as I’m experiencing this realization, I happen to come across a certain political pundit’s assault on “soccer”, which is nothing more than a thinly veiled attack on Americans of Latin American descent.  If all you know is what the media portrays of the continent and never happened to make your way down here you’d fail to see that Lima is a world-class city, Ecuador an example of order and cleanliness and Colombia a hotspot for tourists from every corner of the world.  You’d miss witnessing the sense of community among people, the progress being made everyday in every town, building toward a better future.  The sad truth is most people only associate Latin America with controversies of the DREAM ACT, children of immigration and so on.

So although I have many pieces of the Peace Corps readjustment puzzle to work out, as I leave Latin America, I am sure of one thing, the amount of pride and respect I feel for being allowed to live here and connect with my heritage these last two years. It’s changed the direction of my sails and although I’m working on the next step of my journey, I can honestly say that advocating for Latin America will be a life-long theme.

See you soon,



Doin’ the damn thing (If I do say so myself!)

26 Jun

I can’t remember when I came up with the “Birthday Game” but it goes like this– at some point during a friend’s birthday, I like to ask two very specific questions:

  • What was your favorite memory of (previous age)?
  • What are you most looking forward to this year?

I think everyone around me is used to my quirky little ideas and inquiries, but I enjoy these questions because the answers are insights into friends’ th0ughts and feelings, even if I’ve known them for a million years (hey Carla) or we’re brand new buddies.  We share almost every aspect of our vies quotidiennes with anyone who will listen but seldomly take the time to really ask what’s going on in the hearts and minds of our closest companions.  And what better day than their birthday, si o no?

So with that in mind and seeing how this is my blog and yesterday was my birthday, I figured I might as well join the fun on the flip side and answer the questions I’ve posed to all of yous through the years.

What was your favorite memory of 26?

  • Where do you begin with a full year of life spent in Peru?  Twenty-six took me from Ecuador to Cuzco, from Chachapoyas to Tumbes, from having a drink at the wealthiest Country Club in Lima to respectufully looking on as one of my student’s mother guts the chicken that will become my lunch.  Almost every day brought a moment or a memory that will stay with me forever.  Because if we’re really honest here…the choice we make to become Peace Corps volunteers is just not normal.  I don’t mean normal in a good or bad way, just something completely foreign for a majority of the  American population. This abnormality makes for more outstanding memories in one single year than the past four years combined.  I have countless anecdotes of time spent with students, my host family, successful projects and traveling around this magnificent country.  But 26 for me is too much to be defined by one single memory.  It’s more defined by something that’s been present for about the last two months.  I find myself waking up every day with an overwhelming sense of peace and accomplishment and success.  An effortless happiness has blanketed over me, something I can only explain as a result of finally internalizing the things that have been said to me since day one in the Peace Corps.  I can’t express how much its meant to hear things like “I’m so proud of you” or “what you’re doing is amazing” or “not just anyone can do something like this.”  Who doesn’t love to hear these encouraging words from friends and strangers alike?  But nothing compares to the feeling of knowing them to be true yourself.  I’ve realized that I’ve made it.  I am finishing.  I voluntarily embarked on an immeasurable challenge of commitment and determination and heart and not only did I survive…I crushed it. I did the damn thing (if I do say so myself!)  I have given everything for the wonderful youth in my site, done the best I could with the resources that I’ve had.  Did I get tired? Yes.  Did I get frustrated? Lord, yes.  But I am immensely proud of what I accomplished on a professional level,  especially yesterday’s college fair that, with the support of local counterparts, went miles above and beyond last year’s event.   On a personal level, I think it’ll take years for me to understand the full impact of my time here.  I read something recently: “Some experiences are so big, they change your DNA.” That’s exactly what it feels like.  Secretly, quietly, I sometimes wondered if I’d face a moment when I’d decide that I didn’t want this for myself anymore.  If I’d question whether the hardship wasn’t worth the reward, and that I’d be better off going home.  There are so many unknowns in our lives here, it crossed my mind that maybe any one thing might one day be too much.  But today, I can speak candidly and openly about my fears because I know for certain that my heart was in-it-to-win it until the very end.  The often-cited “Hardest Job You’ll Ever Love” motto is point-blank and spot-on. I am lucky in that I didn’t face some of the unfortunate situations other volunteers did, but I also stayed committed, in the moment and lived with my heart on my sleeve.  I know so many of you are proud of me, but nothing feels better than being able to write that I am proud of what I’ve done and who I’ve become.  Now I know, without a doubt, that I posses the grit to do anything I set my heart to. This feeling, as simple as it is powerful, is what I’ll remember the most about being 26.

celebrate your accomplishments

What are you most looking forward to this year?

  • As I gracefully cross into offical “late 20s” territory, gone is the dread of inching one year closer to 30 and feeling like an ol’ biddy whose best days are behind her.  Who here hasn’t heard me lie to a complete stranger, and say that I am, almost comically, much older than I really am (‘I’m in my late 30s, I swear’).  Because that’s how I felt. Now,  I’m learning age is insignificant when you’ve got so many things to look forward to, starting with a well-deserved three week vacation that includes a Jay-Z and Beyonce concert in San Francisco.  Talk about a homecoming!
hey bey

hey bey!

It’s interesting that my birthday coincides with my last days in Peru, starting a new year and a new life all at once.  Twenty-seven seems full of promise, positivity and optimism.

airplane gif




Welcome, Peru 23!

8 Jun

It’s so hard to believe that today is two years to the day that Peru 19 landed in Lima and now we have only about a month left!!! Even crazier to believe is that Peru 23, the group that replaces us in our sites, just arrived in-country to start their own three-month Pre-Service Training. As a nice WELCOME gesture, Mike, our incredibly talented video guru, put together this little diddy with tons of useful advice.  I think anyone who watches this video can feel not only the love and camraderie that exists between us as a group, but also the amount of fun we’ve had these last two years!  That’s the most I can wish for future groups– happiness, a sense of purpose and creating bonds that will last a lifetime.

19 Ways to Survive the Peace Corps in Peru from Mike K on Vimeo.


I’m so proud of us, 19!!!  WE #FLAWLESS


Close of Service

11 May


we did it!

we did it!

I just got back today from a week in Lima with all my 19ers.  We had our Close of Service conference which included final medical checks and detailed explanations of the administrative processes necessary to terminate our time as Peace Corps volunteers in Peru.  Of course, it wasn’t all business, as we had plenty of time to hang out and celebrate!


i dont know why heidi and i ended up as leland's chariot horses for the 'do something silly!' picture, but there it is.

i dont know why heidi and i ended up as leland’s chariot horses for the ‘silly’ picture, but there it is.

Peru 19 Youthies

Peru 19 Youthies

with Lucia, the Youth Development Associate Peace Corps Director (APCD)

with Lucia, the Youth Development Associate Peace Corps Director (APCD)

this is going up somewhere.

this is going up somewhere.

ladies dressed up for the occassion

ladies dressed up for the occassion

:) :) :)

🙂 🙂 🙂


My Time With The Gloria Guys

1 May

A few weeks ago I got the opportunity to do one of the coolest things I’ve done outside of anything related to my volunteer work.

But first—a confession: when this years Vacaciones Utiles  ended in late February, I consciously decided to take an extended work break. I was so exhausted and overworked after teaching summer school all by myself that I didn’t even have time or energy for the little things that I love about my town and my host family.  All of a sudden, I became very aware of the importance in accepting lunch invitations from my neighbors, or sitting down to watch “Frozen” with my host niece (beautiful movie, btw).   It wasn’t like I lounged around in my PJ’s all day; that gets old after, oh, 3 days.  Our women’s workout group is still a top priority every Tuesday and Thursday, as well as training for this year’s half marathon in Lima with my best friend in site, Daniela, and a slew of minor commitments here and there.

Back to my unexpected adventure with the Gloria Guys.  So there we were, my friend Pochita and I, on a Tuesday night setting up for our workout class.  Out of the shadows, we see two well-dressed gentlemen in crisp collar shirts and slacks approaching us.  “Are you ladies from here?” they asked.  Initially I was taken aback by their determined approach, and also,  their exceptionally dapper attire.  Mis Olmanos are many wonderful things, but ‘dapper’ is not one of them.  While I remained mentally preocuppied with their fashion, Pochita answered for the both of us. “I am, but she’s not”, she replied while signaling to me.  Then they asked “Do either of you speak English?  We’ve been told there’s a Señorita who speaks English.”  Snapping back into real time, I presented myself as said Señorita.

It turns out the men are agricultural engineers with Grupo Gloria, one of Peru’s biggest and most successful companies.  They are starting an immense sugarcane planting operation nearby and Olmos has become the project headquarters.  Since it is still in the early stages of implementation, an independent consultant from Britain was brought in to survey and revise their work plans.  The translator they hired quit on them after the first day and they were desperate for anyone who could help them communicate with Brennan (the Brit.) Part of me was interested in helping them out as they seemed to be in a tight situation and part of me was just nosy curious to learn more about the project that will change the landscape of the region in its entirety.  And would you look at that? My schedule is clear!  I heartily agreed to join them the next morning at 6:30 a.m.

Walking over to the hotel-turned-headquarters, I wasn’t really sure what I had signed up for, but as with everything else in this life…you just roll with it.  After a hearty breakfast, Brennan, two project managers and I set off to the future sugarcane site.  It was then I finally understood the magnitude of the project. From inside the comfort of the air-conditioned 4×4,  I watched as the hills around Olmos disappeared and were replaced by, well, nothing.  An hour and half later, we could have been in the middle of the Arabian desert and I would have been none the wiser (really. Brennan has lived in Saudi Arabia and said “this reminds me of the Arabian desert.”)  It’s hard to picture these massive sand dunes being replaced with greenery and sugarcane but I’ll chalk it up to the modern marvels of agriculture.

And, as I learned, it really is a marvelous process.  Through the translating, I learned so much about the actual genius and logistical miracle it takes to put something like this together.  Everything from technical specifications of heavy machinery to the exact planting distance necessary to ensure maximum crop yield, I translated it all.  From Brennan’s conversations with project managers I learned about negotiating contracts with landscaping companies. From his conversations with civil engineers, I learned about road-building specifications and how to determine the tonnage that any given road can sustain.  From his conversations with the planting manager, I learned about every machine used in the planting process, varying irrigation systems, plant beds, fertilizer, the current state of the international sugarcane industry, etc.  Anyone who knows what a nerd I am can just imagine how this crash course in agriculture made me absolutely giddy!

And it wasn’t only about the crazy amount of knowledge I was acquiring every day.  For a week, I felt like I was part of this massively important project.  Every day, the team would gather for breakfast and off we’d go, on to the adventure of the day.  Just me and the guys, in our 4×4, sharing sunscreen to protect our skin against the intense mid-day sun or working together to get the truck out when the tires got stuck in the sand.  Ok, in all fairness, they worked together while I stood by and took some pictures.


“really get in there, guys”

One day, the big company boss was visiting and wanted to see the progress made on various parts of the project, which meant visiting different points within about 15,000 hectares.  It was a long day filled with hopping into the truck, driving half an hour, hopping out, conversing, hopping back in, on to the next site, hopping back out, translating some more, driving to the next site, and so on.  This started at around 7am and lasted way after our designated 2pm lunch time.  It wasn’t until 6pm that we headed back into Olmos for a meal.  At one point during the ride, we were so hungry, I emptied the contents of my Longchamp bag to see if I had anything edible.  Luckily, I found some candies I gathered at the last baptism I attended.  The guys were grateful!

After our daily rides out to the desert, we’d go back to the ‘office’ in Olmos and I’d help Brennan translate some documents or put together a presentation he’d share at the end of the week with insights and recommendations.  One of the project managers Miguel, would bring us snacks and soda to keep us going.  Finally, long after nightfall, the guys would drive me to my house and drop me off.  It’s a strange feeling riding around your town in a private car with the windows up.  My townspeople also found it weird to see me in a private car with the windows up and soon enough the questions from my neighbors started: “quienes son?

“Son mis amigos de Gloria!”

All in all, it was a great experience and I’m glad I agreed to help them out. Not only did I go on some unexpected adventures in the desert that surrounds Olmos, but I also got to meet some brilliant, interesting, successful people.   It was one of those moments where you realize you would have never had the opportunity to do something like this at any other time in your life.  Just because I can speak two languages, all of a sudden I’m part of this super important team working on a groundbreaking project.  When else would I ever be hanging out with global sugarcane experts or the nation’s top engineers?  One of the things I really took away from this were the inspiring conversations I had with Brennan about his extensive international career that has taken him from Swaziland to Papua New Guinea and everywhere in between.  It seems fitting, as I make decisions regarding my own future.  I also love that I made new friends in town, and whenever I see the guys around they always stop to saludar and chat for a bit.

i'm her.

i’m her.

Are you wondering if I made tons of money off of this week-long gig?  I bet you are. The answer is a big fat NO.  As a Peace Corps volunteer I cannot accept payment for anything I do in Peru, especially if it is from a private company.  So that’s kind of a bummer, but the great thing is Miguel, Daniela (co-leader of our women’s workout group) and I are looking to see if they can make some sort of donation to buy us some new equipment like yoga mats or resistance bands.

Vamos a ver!

***If you want to learn a more about the Trans-Andean water irrigation project that is transforming northern Peru by bringing water to traditionally arid desert lands, click here: Proyecto Olmos




laissez les bons temps rouler!

16 Mar

Now, I know the title is in French, and I am writing in English and living  in Spanish–  but when I decided to write a post on the Carnaval celebrations in Peru, this is the first phrase that came to mind.  The unofficial slogan of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras debauchery festivities, “laissez les bons temps rouler!” literally means “let the good times roll!”  Fitting, because every February, across continents, cultures, and languages, “good time” gals and guys partake in one of the most enduring traditions left behind by the ruthless, unforgiving Roman Catholic colonization of native civilizations–crazy parties, parades and general street revelry!!


It may not have the butt-cheek-jiggling international recognition of Rio de Janeiro’s iconic event, or the deliciously Cajun spice of a Mardi Gras adventure, but Peru’s version of Carnaval it is still damn fun! Here’s why:

1. Water Balloon Guerrilla Warfare

In Olmos, every January 20th marks the official start of “Carnavales”, a month-long,  pueblo-wide water balloon offensive.  Anyone and everyone on the street is a potential target for rowdy teenagers who, after a year of waiting, have free reign to indiscriminately peg innocent bystanders with water balloons.  Usually docile and humble teenagers turn into wartime operation commanders in search for their next target.  Their version of military tanks: mototaxis.  Although I am part of the hunted, I strangely enjoy this temporary imbalance of power. For 30 glorious days, it is culturally and socially acceptable for teens to wreak (safe) havoc in our town, and even coax opponents into full fledged water fights. How fun!!! I somehow managed not to get hit this year, but I have had a few moments of panic when I hear the roar of the mototaxi coming up behind me and start furiously looking for last-minute shelter. Whew. Although I always managed to escape, others are not so lucky, like that one time my friend got drenched with a whole bucket full of water on her walk home.  Alls fair in Carnaval water wars!

2. The “Yunsa”

Katherine, a volunteer living in the outskirts of Olmos, in a town about half an hour away, invited me to her site to partake in a “Yunsa,” a Carnaval celebration.  Having never heard of it, I was curious as to what the party entailed.  All I needed to hear was “food, prizes and chopping a tree with a machete” and I was sold.

aplausos for Katherine, part of the decorating and organizing committee!

aplausos for Katherine, part of the decorating and organizing committee

And I have to say, the party delivered.  Here is the gist: organizers buy a tree and decorate it with streamers and prizes.  The tree is prominently placed in a large open space where the whole town will gather to drink and dance the night away.  As the festivities wind down, the padrino of the party — basically the person who fronted the money to pay for the presents on the tree– ceremoniously hacks at the tree base with a machete (or in our case, an ax).  The crowd sways and swells, hoping to guess where the tree will topple and snatch all the dangling prizes.  It’s just like a piñata, but no kids, plenty of alcohol..and an ax! I cautiously stayed far from the masses during the chopping, since I’d like to keep my limbs intact, but after the dust settled, I was able to scourge the remains and found a prize — a box of tea! Yunsa, the gift the keeps on giving.



3. El Carnaval de Cajamarca

The last weekend of February has thousands flocking to the the sierra city of Cajamarca, site of where the last Inca king, Atahualpa, was held captive and executed.  But no one is thinking of this grim page in history when there are street parties and one giant, all-day paint war to prepare for.  This year was the last opportunity for Peace Corps volunteers to attend Carnaval (new administrative policy strictly forbids it), so we took advantage and flocked there ourselves.  First order of business was to find a massive water gun, at a relatively low price.



Water guns, paint gallons, buckets, water balloons and maybe some safety goggles, are all part of the armament necessary for the biggest paint party in the continent (probably).  Powerful drumbeats reverberate in the streets while throngs of people roam around, spraying their guns, tossing balloons, chanting, drinking and singing the joys of Carnaval.  No one outside their home is safe, not the cops, babies, or even puppies.  A streak of paint here, a glob of shaving cream there, all signs that you were among the crowds, in the party. Fact: The time it takes to rub all the paint off your body in the shower is directly correlated to the amount of fun you had Carnaval weekend.

before the war

before the war

friendly fire

friendly fire


come at me with some paint!

massive amounts of fun = hour long shower






well, those clothes are ruined!

All-day paint wars and all-night block parties with some of my favorite people in Peru was the perfect way to celebrate my last Carnaval season as a volunteer.

Laissez les bons temps rouler, indeed.


It’s Good to be in Love

13 Feb

It starts with a few piano strokes, maybe a slow-strumming guitar, creating a swaying melody that captivates your ears and your heart.  Then comes the soft, sweet voice of…whoever…and you’ve got yourself the quintessential “love song.”

Music and love: two of the most universal concepts known to man.  Amiright?

So without further ado, in honor of this wonderfully snuggly day celebrated all across the US & my current home country, Peru– here are my top 5 favorite Spanish love songs of the moment.


5. Corre – Jesse & Joy

Did someone say Yaco & Sully? :::tear::: 



4. Tu Me Cambiaste La Vida – Rio Roma



3. Tan Solo Un Minuto – Rio Roma

Rio Roma kind of has a monolopy on this musica romantica thing right now.



2.  Te Dejo en Libertad -HA-ASH

“Tu me quieres, pero yo te aaaaaaamoooooooo”



…and my current favorite…

1. Un Dia de Suerte – Alejandra Guzman

“Te cruzaste en mi camino, ahora creo en el destino”


Happy Valentine’s Day!


A Recipe for Hilarity

16 Jan

Hello 2014!

A few friends and myself decided, somewhat last minute, to do it BIG for New Year’s Eve 2013.  Yes, I just came off an amazing vacation, but the end of the year/start of the year holiday has always topped my list of favorite celebrations. It’s a time for reflection, renewal, much-needed new beginnings aaaand champagne! And this time around, it wouldn’t be your regular sparkly-ensemble, midnight-smooch-with-your-cutie, make-12-wishes-for-every-grape, party-all-night soirée. No sir, 2014 is much more than that.  I’ve had this number, 2014, ingrained in my brain since the moment I received my Peace Corps country assignment letter back in March of 2012.  That’s the first time I ever saw the phrase “Betty Zambrano, Peace Corps Volunteer, 2012-2014.”  Ever since then, every official document, email, vacation request, survey, evaluation, work report has had “Start of service: 2012/End of service: 2014” emblazoned on it.  Up until now, it’s been an elusive date, a vague reminder that one day there will come a time when I’ll be done with this life and heading back to America.  I know it exists, but it seems so far off and impossibly distant, its almost a waste of time to register it in my present mind.

But somehow we found ourselves at the end of 2013 and thinking of how to welcome this new year and the changes it will bring.  We decided a celebration this epic would have to take place in our neighbor to the north, Ecuador!




A last minute plan, one world-famous beach town, two tents , three floaties to be used as mattresses and five broke girls looking to live up the last of 2013— that’s a recipe for hilarity if I’ve ever heard one.









I’ve borrowed Leland’s gut-busting (but not lung-popping) recount of our trip to share with you the time we lived as gypsies, ran through the beach with surfers at the stroke of midnight, and welcomed the new year with a surprising self-discovery, free drinks and a big bang!


I am fresh off a Christmas/New Years vacation from Ecuador, but rather I feel as though the border crossing rocketed me to some alternate planet far, far away from Perú, devoid of chaos and tiresome struggles; a world where toilet paper is plentiful and drunkenness is reserved for foreigners vacationing abroad.  Now, here I am, back in Chiquián, rejuvenated and ready for a new year as I begin to already confront to the adversities that is not Posh Corps. 
We might as well have stepped off the recently detailed Mega-Bus equipped with air conditioner and drivers with ties and sex appeal in polleras, campo hats, and a bag of guinea pigs or chickens swung over our shoulders.  We did not belong.  We were fresh out of poverty and hardship, yet we had no idea until we laid eyes upon a three-story bus station ready to send you off peacefully and quickly to your Ecuadorian destination with no hustle, line-cutting, badgering bus/van drivers, nor shirtless men who consistently rub clockwise their beer-induced guts and lick their lips your way only to top it off with a whistle and a salute.  We were bewildered.
In Perú, I take a combi (mini-van) with at least 12 other strangers, shoulder to shoulder and toe to heel.  I sit in the back corner with my bag on my lap looking out my window just waiting for the car to fill so that we can head on our way.  Slowly, but surely people pile in. First, the abuelitas (grandmothers) with their large hats, fancy hair clips, and sacks of animals or a nice bouquet of flowers.  Then, a young mother with two children at her tail, one on her hip, and the last on her breast, shuffle into the first row of seats.  Three youthful boys gather in back with me as each one plays his personal favorite Huayno song aloud on his phone for all to hear.  An agile elderly man hops into the car and takes a seat by the door.  Lastly, a professor or two fill the remaining seats with their ANTAMINA briefcases and shinned, pointed leather shoes.  The driver and some friends fill the front seats and the cobrador (money collector) slams the door and stands with his head and arm out the window soliciting more passengers for our already packed combi.   
In Ecuador, I wait at a bus stop for the bus to stop.  It does.  I put my bag safely below, and I continue to an empty seat, which are plentiful.  I take a seat and so do the other four people with whom I was waiting.  We are all seated, the bus continues onto the next scheduled, established bus stop.  Some people get off, and some people get on.  No one stands, I hear no yelling, I touch nobody’s sweaty leg, and I wake up with no one’s head nestled on my unforgiving shoulder. I make it to my stop unaware of my neighbor’s natural body scent and with space to exit the vehicle freely and undetected.
In Perú, I yell out the window to a woman with a snack cart across the street.  I say give me a water; she comes running; I give her exact change; my car speeds away.
In Ecuador, I ask the co-pilot for a chilled water.  He comes back with the bottle.  I give him a five-dollar bill.  He obediently gives me my change, no fuss about it.  A public transportation vehicle that provides a beverage option, they might as well offer a free shoeshine with my manicure.  That doesn’t happen in the U.S., people.
As I said, we were out of our element and soon realized that the Peruvian Sol does not get you far in Ecuador, a utopic country fueled by the Dollar.  After the easiest leg of our travel from Guayaquil to our final destination of Montiñita, we step off our bus to the bustling streets of the most adorable and hoppin’ beach town known to man.  We must have looked like those aforementioned Peruvians with traditional skirts, hats, clogs, and the sack of gerbils because a kind man walks up to us and asks if we are lost and need help finding a place to stay.  We tell him we have our tent and all we need is a patch of land with maybe a river or water spout nearby to wash our feet and do our laundry.  He tells us he knows just the place.  He takes us just past the main streets with the high rises and fancy hotels.  As we walk down the dirt road we comment on the group of what could only be gypsies juggling fire and knives a few meters away.  We stop and greet this crew and they show us in.  We ask the Knight in Shining Armor if he is staying at the campsite as well.  He looks at us, smiles, and says, “No, I have a beachfront apartment, see you around.”  We set up camp and watch as the gypsies make jewelry and clothes, juggle, do magic tricks or make sandwiches to sell on the beach.


Later we would befriend said gypsies who sell hand made goodies and food in order to make his or her long way back home.  A few sales here and there–they make enough for another night on the land, maybe a soda, and a new pair of walking shoes they hope will see them home.  These humans with ragged clothes yet booming businesses and free spirits, we would later uncover, seemingly earn more money than we volunteers do.   That being said, one might not feel so bad when the cute nomad from Argentina spends 10 of his hard-earned sandwich dollars on a down and out PCV who needed a cold one to keep her going until 2014’s first sunrise.
I use the term gypsy with love, with not a trace of judgment, and with only a pinch of jealousy.  Here we were, at a campsite with our tent, ready to save those dollar bills.  Yet, everyone around us has a certain unique and refined skill to offer wealthy beach-goers lounging in chairs under umbrellas at the beach–another sign of distinction we could not afford; I suppose we lay some where between university students and vagabonds.  Anyway, the drifters labored for their stay and punched their work cards each day as we slipped our bathing suits back on, re-inflated our floaties, recharged our speakers so that the world could hear about Beyoncé on a surfboard, and headed to the beach each morning.  We were nothing more than mere admirers of a better life; humans set adrift from down south, brought to paradise by the cold Humboldt Current.  Again, we did not seem to fit in our surroundings.  On the one hand our camp mates sold handmade goodies to survive, while on the other, the vacationers ordered plates of delicious seafood, drinks galore, and bought precious earrings from our wanderer friends.  We on the other hand would split an almond 4 ways and never pass on the condiments. 
My glorious vacation to the land of organized transportation, cat-less calls, friendly shop-owners, and the American Dollar made me realize two things: I am a Chola from the Peruvian Sierra through and through, and I am not ready for America, not now. 
Visit La Vida Lila to read more about Leland’s incredulous experiences living and working in a small town on the side of an Andean mountain.

The Greatest Vacation: Puerto Maldonado

22 Dec
MOG 14

we conquered the andes, now we’re ready for the amazon


plaza de armas en puerto maldonado

MOG 01

it took an hour bus ride then an hour and half boat ride to get to our lodge

MOG 02



a short hike from the river through dense jungle to get to our rooms

MOG 26

here they are!

MOG 03

had the whole place to ourselves


the jungle is so beautiful…

MOG 20

but also terrifying. this is literally my worst nightmare realized.

MOG 21

canopy beds

MOG 11

there’s toilet paper in the stalls!

MOG 10

best friends boat ride

MOG 08

piranha fishing in the lake.

MOG 05

i caught one!

MOG 04

im happy


rio tambopata

MOG 09

relaxing on the river…ahhhh


deep in it


daytime jungle walks

MOG 12

everything is so green and lush

MOG 13

not a bridge, but we’ll cross it


nighttime river rides

MOG 24

probably our favorite thing about the lodge

MOG 25

no electricity anywhere in the lodge except for the bar. and even then, for two or three hours at night.

MOG 23

joel and his ladies


back from our jungle expedition

MOG 18

this calls for a celebration!


delicious thai food in puerto maldonado

MOG 22

monkey friendsssss

MOG 27

hasta luegooo, puerto!


The Greatest Vacation: Machu Picchu

22 Dec
MP 18

pre-Machu Picchu night at our murder den of a hostel. so excited!

MP 34

they make 5am look gooooood

MP 09

sun’s not quite out at 6am. wait for it…

MP 33

c’mon sun!

MP 08

starting off the Montaña Machu Picchu hike

MP 05

don’t be fooled by the smile, its a tough hike!

MP 07

straight up stairs for 1.5 hours

MP 32

chao!: lee and i break off from the group and continue to the top of the mountain

MP 14

up in the clouds

MP 02

this view was worth it!

MP 01

we make dead tired look gooood

MP 03

its obvious why the ruins were never found by the Spanish during the conquest of Cuzco. they’re almost inaccessible, even with modern transportation.

MP 31

meanwhile these cuties…

MP 29

…were hanging out with this cutie

MP 04

taking it all in.

MP 06

mid-hike selfie!

MP 6

en serio. you have to see this for yourself.

MP 1

just lounging here for a little bit.

MP 2

Machu Picchu remained unknown to the world from the 1500s until it was discovered by Yale historian Hiram Bingham in 1911.

MP 3

traditional inca terraces

MP 12

UNESCO World Heritage Site

MP 5

una mas!

MP 11

hanging out before it’s time to go.

MP 10

Pueblo Machu Picchu

MP 30

we did itttttt

MP 9