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Candelabra de Paracas


The Nasca Lines

Alibi’s Ilene Style reports from her volunteer mission in South America

Since we volunteers are encouraged to get to know Peru on our free weekends, I decided to go exploring on my own in the southern coastal area of Peru. My motivation to visit this area was primarily to see the famous Nasca Lines, which are considered one of the world's greatest mysteries. They are giant geometric lines, shapes and figure drawings etched in the Pampa Colorado (Red Plain) in the town of Nasca, six hours south of Lima. Three hundred geoglyphs, 800 straight lines, and over 50 enormous outlines of animals including a spider, a monkey, a hummingbird, a pelican and a condor can be seen. These drawings are thought to date back to 400-600 A.D., and to this day, no one knows how they were made, or why. The interest in these enigmatic lines never seems to fade. National Geographic featured a story on the Nasca Lines just last month, in the March 2010 issue. As the lines are almost invisible from the ground, one must see them from a plane. I booked a flight for Sunday. The flights are usually scheduled very early in the morning, as that is when the sun's angle is best for viewing las Lineas de Nasca.

My trip started Friday with a bus ride to Paracas, 4 hours south of Lima. Paracas is a natural wildlife preserve, home to more than 1,800 species of plants and animals. Saturday morning I took a boat tour of the Islas Ballestas, three rugged islands that are home to over one million birds, as well as sea lions, humboldt penguins, seals and dolphins. Even more fascinating to me than the birds themselves was what is done with all of their poop. Bird poop, or guano, from the birds living on the Ballestas Islands became a huge business for Peru in the 19th century, and it’s still a viable business today. Guano is rich in minerals and therefore makes a great fertilizer. The guano from these islands is harvested every 4-6 years by a group of workers who come for 3 months and live in shacks built on the islands for this purpose only. (No one lives on these islands—the terrain is much too rugged.) These men harvest the guano by hand, using shovels, not machines. The guano is then exported primarily to the U.S. and U.K. for use in fertilizing crops. Ten million tons of guano has been harvested from the Ballestas Islands in the past 30 years. The last harvest was in 2004. On the way to and from the islands, the boat passes Candelabra de Paracas, another mysterious etching on the side of a vertical dune, that may or may not be part of the Nasca Lines. I have attached a photo.

From Paracas, I hopped on another bus to Ica, the city where Pisco, the beloved national spirit of Peru, is made. If someone offers you a Pisco beverage in Ica, you`d best drink up. Ica is also the principal wine region in Peru. The wine grapes grown here are used to make table wine as well as to make Pisco, which is the distilled product of wine grapes, similar to grappa. The annual grape harvest is in March, the beginning of autumn, and is celebrated with Fiesta de Vendimia, the wine harvest festival.

Next, a short drive to nearby Huacachina, the sandboarding capital of the world. This sport is the desert-dweller version of snowboarding. Every year Europeans come to Huacachina in droves to practice for the international sand surfing competition held here, on dunes that reach over 300 feet in height. The only way to get to the top of the dunes to sandboard is in a dune buggy, which is an experience in and of itself, as the drivers are somewhat aggressive, which makes for many heart stopping moments along the way.

There were six of us in my dune buggy, a mixed group from the U.S., Canada, Germany, Korea and Peru. I was the last one in and sat in the front row. We took off, and it was white-knuckle all the way. The only way I can describe this ride is that it is like a scary roller coaster, going up and down the largest and steepest sand dunes I've ever seen. The vertical drops were VERY steep, and the driver was going very FAST. I had nothing to hold on to, as I was in the front middle seat, and hoped I wouldn`t have to grab on to the Korean guy sitting next to me for dear life. Suddenly the Korean guy started pointing to me and yelling something, but the engine was really noisy, and everyone was screaming with delight, so I couldn´t hear him. Then he yelled something to the driver and pointed to me. The driver stopped abruptly, reached behind my head, and pulled down... a SEATBELT. This was not just a seatbelt, but a heavy duty harness that goes over one's head and down the front of the body and attaches to the seat. Oops. In his haste to get going, the driver had forgotten to strap me in. As he fastened my harness and apologized profusely, there was a moment of silence as everyone realized I could have easily gone through the windshield. Oh wait, there IS no windshield in this vehicle! The excitement in Peru never ends. When I was securely fastened in, we resumed our breathtaking wheelies and everyone, especially me, resumed their screams of delight.

Sandboarding was a thrill. After driving to the top of a dune, we all went down on sandboards, which look exactly like snowboards, except they are made of wood. We did this over and over again for two hours, with each hill getting progressively steeper. Then the driver stopped so we could all get out and watch the sunset from the top of the dunes. It was awesome ... an experience I´ll never forget. By the end of the ride, we all had sand on our lips and in our teeth, and in our clothes, and I had to dump about a pound of sand out of each of my shoes. Still covered in sand, I boarded a bus to Nasca, to rest up for my flight at dawn.

Villa el Salvador


The Work of Los Martincitos. Part II

Alibi’s Ilene Style reports from her volunteer mission in South America

The second part of my twofold volunteer assignment in Villa el Salvador is to go on home visits. These visits are the most interesting, and at times, the most heartbreaking part of my job.

On the two days of the week that Los Martincitos is closed, I accompany Sister (Hermana) Jacci, the nun who has helped run this incredible program for the past ten years, on home visits to see abuelos who, because of illness, immobility, or lack of transportation, cannot not make it to the center.

Hermana Jacci, as she is referred to, is in her late sixties, and has been a nun since she was 18. She was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in Brooklyn, and has worked on behalf of the of the Catholic Church in some extremely poor areas, including a stint in Puerto Rico, and one on the lower east side of Manhattan, in an area known as Alphabet City, where the poverty, drugs and crime were rampant at the time. She has lived in Villa el Salvador for the past ten years running the Los Martincitos program. She is, in my eyes and in the eyes of all those around her, the Mother Teresa of Villa el Salvador. She's one of the most compassionate people I've ever had the good fortune to meet, and yet she can be tough as nails when she needs to be. I feel privileged to be working with her. She's also the only person at my work assignment who speaks English, so she helps me understand what the abuelos are saying. When she speaks Spanish, which she does fluently, I can detect the slightest hint of a New York accent, which of course, I find wonderfully amusing.

The homes we visit range from simple to downright primitive. Many have dirt floors. If there is more than one room, the rooms are often separated by a curtain or sheet. If there is no running water, there is usually some sort of makeshift outhouse outside in back of the house. Backyards are very tiny, and are usually filled with trash, rocks, building materials, a clothesline, and perhaps some animals like chickens, rabbits or guinea pigs. These animals are not pets, but meals. Bedrooms sometimes have several mattresses in them, lined up next to each other on the floor. One house we went to was very high up on a dirt hill. There were no steps leading to the house, so we had to walk over rocks and sand and boulders to reach the makeshift front door. (Remember, Viila el Salvador was built on one huge sand dune.) As even I had trouble navigating the path (or rather, lack of path), I don't know how Hermana Jacci did it.

We always ask if the person we are visiting has eaten anything that day. In one case, we went to a soup kitchen (called comedors) to pick up food for an abuela who had nothing to eat in the house. In another case we went to check up on a man we had visited the week before who had a very bad case of tuberculosis, which apparently is quite common here. He was the skinniest man I had ever seen ... barely more than a skeleton. He is not part of the Los Martincitos program as he is too young to qualify, but we will check on anyone who is in need, whether they are in the program or not. His daughter, a little girl of about ten, answered the door and told us that she and her two sisters (one of whom is extremely mentally and physically disabled) had had nothing to eat that day. Their parents weren't home, as her mother had taken her father to the hospital that morning because he couldn't breathe. We took her to a little store around the corner and bought eggs, milk and bread so she and her sisters could have a meal. (We are technically not supposed to do that, but sometimes compassion compels one to make an exception to the rule.)

The store, which was no bigger than a bathroom, had an iron gate in front of it, which was locked. The store owner, rather then letting us in, asked what we wanted to buy (everything in the store was within arm's reach), and passed the items through the bars of the gate. Hermana Jacci said this was common in Villa el Salvador, because people might steal things if the store owner allowed customers to actually come inside. Although there is a commercial district in Villa with stores that are accessible to anyone, in the poorer areas where we do our homes visits, the stores are very small and might only carry basics like bread, milk, eggs, beverages, snacks—and ALWAYS Inka Kola, the national soda of Peru. Most residents shop for their regular groceries in outdoor mercados, as there are no supermarkets in Villa. Hermana Jacci told me that when she goes grocery shopping, she tells the meat vendor which live chicken she wants, and he then kills it right in front of her. At least she knows her food is fresh!

I've attached some photos of the family that I just described above. The first photo is the front of their house. The front door, a bit hard to locate, is white, and in the direct center of the photo. There is no roof in the first part of the house. The second photo is of Lucita (the little girl who answered the door) and Hermana Jacci buying food at the store that would not let anyone in. The third photo is of Lucita and her sisters. We're not sure what is wrong with her wrist, but she always wears a brace on it. The last photo is of Nicole, Lucita's mentally and physically challenged sister, She wears braces on her arms to prevent her from hurting herself, as she hits herself frequently when she doesn't wear them. She normally is strapped into her chair with a scarf. The family has no resources to help her, but Hermana Jacci would like to discuss options with her parents. We will stop by again next week.

I take photos during home visits only if I am given permission by the person living there. I have been admonished for taking pictures outside, because apparently it is dangerous to carry a camera in full view in some parts of Villa el Salvador. One volunteer had her camera stolen right out of her hands as she was snapping a picture while standing in the street. I try to be careful when I'm outside, but sometimes I can't help myself when I see an interesting shot. I will try to send more photos from Villa.

Zoila Los Matincitos


The Work of Los Martincitos

Alibi’s Ilene Style reports from her volunteer mission in South America

My volunteer assignment in the Villa El Salvador area of Lima is twofold. The first part is working at Los Martincitos, a community-based initiative sponsored by the Catholic Church. Three times a week—on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays—up to 130 poor senior citizens who are eligible for the program receive two hot meals, recreational activities, organized prayer, basic health care and the opportunity to socialize with others, something that many of them never get to do. To be eligible, one must be at least 65 years ol, and live below the poverty line of $2 a day for a family of four. (The "absolute poverty" line is $1 a day for a family of four.)

The participants of this program face different challenges: neglect on the part of their families, physical abuse, poor health and nutrition levels, inability to adapt to their environment, and social rejection for racial and age reasons.

The abuelos, as they are referred to ("grandparents" in Spanish), are incredibly affectionate and grateful to the voluntarios who help with their program. They hug and kiss us and greet us with an enthusiastic “¡Buena dia!" every morning upon our arrival. This is one of the best parts of my day. They love having their pictures taken, and I love taking pictures of them. I have attached some photos of my new "grandparents."

None of the abuelos speak English. Some don't even speak Spanish, but instead speak Quechua, the language of the indigenous people of Peru. It is very difficult to understand them no matter what language they speak, because most of them have no teeth and have no resources to visit a dentist. Some are almost blind but cannot afford glasses. Some are in need of medical care but can't afford to go to a doctor, or are too sick to get there. I suspect that some eat almost nothing on the days of the week that the senior center is not open. They wear mismatched and ill-fitting clothing that was acquired through donations. They always try to look their best, although it is difficult to wash one's clothing, not to mention one's self, when you live in a small shack with no running water. But they are always happy despite their hardships, and are a joy to be around.

My duties consist of visiting with the abuelos (talking to them in my broken Spanish, or communicating in other ways when language is a barrier), assisting in their recreational activities, and helping to prepare, serve and clean up after two 100-person meals each day. All meals are made from fresh ingredients in a small kitchen on the premises. My knife skills have improved considerably in the two weeks I have been here, as I am learning through many blisters what it takes to prepare two meals from scratch within hours for 100 people. I finally understand what a non-native-speaking immigrant kitchen worker in a restaurant feels like. I AM that person on the days I work in la cocina.

Breakfast consists of porridge and a roll with some sort of modest sandwich filling. (Yesterday the filling was sangre, which is cooked blood. Ingesting blood seems to be a theme in my life lately.) Lunch is rice with different types of Peruvian stews, usually made with potatoes or beans. A fruit or vegetable is also included at lunch. At Los Martincitos, they try to use the healthiest ingredients that the limited funds will allow because these meals are the only nutrition that some of the abuelos get. The dishes from each meal (100 plates, 100 cups, 100 bowls, and all serving containers) are washed in three small basins of cold water, with an assembly line of volunteers wiping, washing, rinsing and drying. No water is wasted, as the leftover dishwater is used to water a few fruit trees on the property which help feed the abuelos during harvest time. No food is ever wasted, as anything leftover from the meals goes to those who were not able to attend that day. Once a month, the abuelos receive a small ration of dried beans and rice that the government provides to the center.

Between breakfast and lunch, the seniors engage in a variety of activities, such as arts and crafts, physical therapy, games, exercise, dancing, or visiting a nurse who is onsite once a week. Sometimes volunteers will give haircuts, as well shaves for the men and manicures for the women. I participate in one or more of these activities each day with the abuelos. In arts and crafts, some of the women make earrings out of small beads, which they sell for two sols (the currency of Peru), or the equivalent of 60 cents. The first time I helped in physical therapy, the real physical therapists, who volunteer their time as well, taught me how to give a therapeutic massage and then let me, with very little supervision, work on abuelos with various muscle and joint problems. Apparently I have cured a lot of aliments (or at least have gotten no complaints so far), and I am a certified terapico fisico in the eyes of my patients. Perhaps a career in massage therapy is in my future if the Alibi doesn't take me back after my mission ends. :-)

Before lunch, the abuelos gather for prayer. Since the program is sponsored by the Catholic Church, religion plays a big part in it, although one need not be Catholic to attend. Because Los Martincitos is not open on weekends, we celebrated Palm Sunday last Monday. All of the abuelos were given palms fronds, and we walked in a large procession through the streets of Villa el Salvador, singing hymns to "El Padre." We wheeled those who couldn't walk in wheelchairs. It was very touching, and I felt proud to be a part of it. I have attached a photo of this as well.

The second part of my volunteer assignment is to go on home visits. These visits are the most interesting, and at times, the most heartbreaking part of my job. More to come.


The Dogs and the Garbage

Alibi’s Ilene Style reports from her volunteer mission in South America

My first reaction at seeing Villa el Salvador during my volunteer orientation was the same as everyone else's in my program. As we entered the neighborhood for the first time, we all fell silent, our eyes scanning the streets for something, anything, that would make us think, This isn't so bad after all.

The first thing I noticed, aside from the ramshackle homes, were the dogs. There were dogs everywhere, roaming the streets in packs, walking in front of cars, humping on corners, scavenging through trash for something to eat. None had collars. The second thing I noticed was the trash. It's everywhere—in the streets, on the sidewalks, in empty lots, in front of people's homes. Garbage seems to define this barrio. I'm told there are trash trucks here, but the trash pick up system clearly needs massive improvements. As unpleasant as it was to look at, I had a feeling that this garbage was what was keeping many of those stray dogs alive.

Some of the homes we passed, while small, were perfectly respectable. The nicer homes were made of brick. Others, however, seemed to be constructed of materials not normally used to build houses—very thick cardboard or something that looked like woven bamboo. (The woven material, I later found out, is called esteras and is similar to tatami.)

A lot of the roofs were pieces of thin corrugated metal or plastic that lay on top of whatever the walls were made of. Some of the houses had only partial roofs, which is OK, because it doesn't rain in Lima. However, because of the lack of rain, there is very little green in Villa el Salvador—just a lot of dirt and dust. Landscaping does not exist here. People who can afford water use it for the necessities, and landscaping is not one of them.

The main modes of transportation in Villa el Salvador (most cannot afford cars) are public buses, which are almost always overcrowded, or mototaxis, which are strange-looking three-wheeled vehicles that are basically just wheels and a motor with a few flaps of blue vinyl acting as the walls and roof. Needless to say, to ride in one of these motorized tricycles with curtains is to take your life in your hands. Many residents just walk to wherever they need to go. However, walking after dark, or even being outside after dark, is not safe because of the high crime rate.

I have attached more photos of Villa el Salvador.


The Barrio Land Grab

Alibi’s Ilene Style reports from her volunteer mission in South America

The volunteer work I do here is in a barrio of Lima called Villa el Salvador. It is the largest shantytown development in this city with slightly fewer than 400,000 residents. It’s received many accolades and is considered a model of urban social development in Latin America. But sometimes it’s difficult for me to believe that when I am there. I have attached some photos of people's homes.

Villa el Salvador was started in 1971 when a group of 200 poor families living in inner-city Lima slums decided to "invade" a tract of desert land on the outskirts of the city. In less than two days, 9,000 people joined them.

The government reacted violently to the land grab, sending in troops to evict the invaders. After several people were killed in the standoff, the government tried to resolve the conflict peacefully and offered the families a massive plot of land 12 miles further south of metropolitan Lima. The land was on a large sand dune and had no water, electricity, sewers or access roads. Nearly 7,000 families relocated there in May 1971, and Villa el Salvador was born. It was officially incorporated as a district of Lima in 1983. All the residents there own their land (which was given to them by the government) and live in houses built by their own means.

Years of protests by residents have resulted in running water, electricity and even some paved roads in the more established sectors of Villa el Salvador. In newer sectors, water can be purchased from a "water truck," which comes twice a week to fill whatever type of water container the homeowner provides. However, in some of the newest sectors, many of the homes have no running water, no electricity and dirt floors. The houses are made of such flimsy material that it looks like the walls would collapse from a mere gust of wind.

These are the homes of the people that I visit weekly.

Our mild-mannered sales rep drinks fresh bull’s blood.


Sangre de Toro

Alibi’s Ilene Style reports from her volunteer mission in South America

The beach is not where I originally thought I would be on Easter.

When I first came to Peru and heard everyone talking about the upcoming Semana Santa (Holy Week), I assumed it would be very religious because 90 percent of the population here is Catholic. When I asked around in hopes of finding a church to attend on Easter Sunday, I found out that during the holiday, most Limenos don't go to church. Instead, they head for the beach. Businesses close on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, and everyone (including volunteers) have a four-day weekend akin to our Labor Day—a celebration of the last official weekend of the summer.

I was invited to the beach with my new best friend Guillermo, a Peruvian whom I met through none other than the Alibi's own Joseph Baca. Joseph and Guillermo went to high school together in Lima, and when Joseph found out I was coming here, he asked Guillermo to take care of me, a task in which Guillermo has outdone himself so far. He is determined to show me the "other side" of Lima, the upscale side that I don't see in the area where I volunteer daily.

Armed with our Inka Kolas (the much beloved national soda of Peru) and our bathing suits, we drove about an hour south of Lima, passing beaches the entire way. (The whole coast of Peru is a beach, just like California.) We stopped to pick up Guillermo's friend at whose beach house we would be staying for the weekend, and then proceeded to go to eight beaches in the next two days, hopping from house party to house party until very late at night. (No one goes to sleep here before 2 a.m.)

At one of the beach parties, I met Marisol and Celine Aguirre, two famous Peruvian actresses who were celebrating their birthday (they are twins). In between fiestas, I took my first dip ever in the Pacific Ocean.

On the third day, Saturday, we went to a bullfight festival, the Festival Taurino Las Palmas 2010, at the beach of Las Palmas. While bullfighting is not a sport that I normally associate with Peru, (or with the beach for that matter ), apparently the country is one of the top bullfighting hotspots in the world, right up there with Spain and Mexico. The day started with the "running of the bulls"—probably the closest to Pamplona that I will ever get. The bulls in this festival are called "toritos," as they are a bit smaller than full-size bulls.

After the running of the bulls (no, I didn't run with them—maybe next time), we attended an outdoor luncheon for more than 2,000 people on the lawn outside of the Plaza de Toros, the bullring. We dined on paella and vino and watched a Flamenco dance performance on the nearby stage. Despues de almuerzo, off to the bullfight!

We had front-row seats in the bull ring, thanks to Guillermo's company being a sponsor of the event. I'm not sure if that was a good thing or not. Bullfighting is difficult to watch, especially up that close. The wails that come from deep inside the bull as it dies are horrific. Although it is a barbaric sport, most of the time I couldn't take my eyes off the action. I skipped one of the six fights to watch them butcher a bull in back of the bull ring.

Then I did something I still can’t believe I did. In a clearly crazy “when in Rome” moment, I drank the fresh (and still warm) sangre de toro, bull's blood. No, I'm not kidding. When I returned to my seat, the crowd sitting around me was astounded that a "gringa" had done that and offered me a Pisco chaser from a deerhide flask. Afternoon cocktails will never be the same for me.


Seder in Lima

Alibi’s Ilene Style reports from her volunteer mission in South America

On Tuesday I attended a Passover Seder in Peru. It was held at the conservative synagogue in Lima, Asociacion Judia de Beneficencia y Culto de 1870. The seder was led by Rabbi (Rabino) Guillermo Bronstein, the same rabbi quoted in my update on anti-Semitism in the country. I was assigned to sit at his table. Rabino Bronstein has a brother who is the rabbi of a synagogue on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. Both rabbis were born in Argentina.

Another man at my table, whose impeccable Spanish convinced me he was Peruvian, was actually from Queens, N.Y. He moved here 12 years ago because he "needed to get away." He never went back. He didn't speak a word of Spanish when he moved to Peru and learned it without ever taking a class. (There is hope for me yet!) He was there with his wife from Bolivia, who doesn't speak a word of English.

At another table was a British couple from London who was passing through Lima on their way to the Amazon rain forest. At yet another table there was a group of folks from Argentina. There were 120 people in all. Few spoke English. It was the most international Seder I have ever attended.

The prayers and songs during the service preceding dinner were all in Hebrew, as they are at every Seder everywhere in the world. During this wonderful service there were no language, social or cultural barriers. There was nothing about the meal afterward that indicated I was even away from home. The seder plate, matzoh, gefilte fish, matzoh ball soup, roast chicken, fruit compote and flourless cake were all present and accounted for, as was the traditional kosher sweet red wine, although it wasn't Manischewitz. It was the most food I've eaten since I've been in Peru.

After the Seder was over, the rabbi and his family insisted on walking me to an area where I could get a "safe" cab home. (Taxis are sometimes a bit sketchy in Lima.) They told me to please call them if I needed anything during my stay. I think I have a new family here.


Passover in Peru

Alibi’s Ilene Style reports from her volunteer mission in South America

It took a week of calls (and a lot of help from my program director), but I finally have been approved to attend a Passover seder tonight at the conservative synagogue in Lima. There are only two synagogues in the whole city (population 8 million): one orthodox and one conservative. The Jewish population here has declined to less than 3,000 from a high of 5,200 in 1970.

According to the rabbi of the largest synagogue in Lima, anti-Semitic attacks and the number of neo-Nazi groups are increasing and threatening the Jews here. Rabbi Guillermo Bronstein, chief rabbi of Asociacion Judia 1870, has been observing the rise of anti-Semitism in Peru and attributes the increase to two main causes. Many Jews in the community are viewed as having close ties with the government and having too much influence over government decisions. Another cause is the rise in neo-Nazi groups throughout the country, who Bronstein describes as “a tiny minority but very noisy.”

The community is closely watching the activities of these groups. Because the conservative synagogue I will be visiting has been bombed twice, the security level is very high, which is why I had to be approved and why I will have to show my passport when I go. I am hoping someone there might speak a little English. If not, Hebrew will be our common language tonight.


On Assignment In Peru

The Alibi’s Ilene Style reports from her volunteer mission in South America

I have been assigned my new job in the Villa El Salvador shantytown in Lima. I will be working with the senior citizens, who are referred to as "abuelos," in the church-sponsored Los Martincitos program. Unlike other volunteer assignments in Villa El Salvador, in this program you actually go to recipients’ houses in addition to working at the senior center. I was told not to wear sandals as many have dirt floors. I am looking forward to the opportunity to see people’s homes.

Volunteer Work Placement

Programa Especial de la Tercera Edad "Los Martincitos," Villa El Salvador

Los Martincitos is a community-based initiative sponsored by the Catholic Church in Villa El Salvador. Three times a week, about 130 senior citizens receive basic services (two hot meals a day, recreational activities, a literacy program, arts and crafts classes, basic health care and counseling).

Participants face different challenges: neglect by their families; physical abuse; poor health and nutrition levels; inability to adapt to a new urban environment; and social rejection for racial and age reasons. They wait for Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to come together and share their meals, sing and pray, play games and have fun. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the staff members pay followup visits to their homes.


Fun And Not-So-Fun Facts About Peru

Alibi’s Ilene Style reports from her volunteer mission in South America

Fun Facts

Peru is the third-largest country in South America. Lima is the capital and largest city.

Peru is the world's second-largest producer of cocaine.

There are almost 4,000 native varieties of Peruvian potatoes. (Guess what the staple of my diet is here?) Potatoes have been cultivated in the Andes for at least 7000 yrs. How about THAT, Ireland?

The Andes, the world's second-largest mountain chain, rise rapidly from the coast to spectacular heights of over 20,000 feet.

The median age in Peru is 25. The average life expectancy is at an all-time high of 70 years, a vast improvement from 1960, when it was 48 years. In the Andes, the life expectancy is 55.

The national culinary dish is cuy, or roasted guinea pig. It is served whole, with the head and feet intact.

The national beverage is the Pisco Sour, made from locally produced Pisco, or grape brandy. (Some of you were lucky enough to have sampled my homemade version before I left!) Peruvians celebrate an annual Pisco Festival in March, as well as the National Day of the Pisco Sour every Feb. 8.

Peru's Macchu Pichu was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, along with the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal.

Not-So-Fun Facts

More than 50 percent of Peruvians live in poverty. The poverty line for a family of four is $300 month. Per capita income is $3,500 a year. About 60 percent of Peruvians earn less than $190 a month.

Because of the rampant poverty, Lima has a large number of pueblos jovenes, or shantytowns, where residents live without running water or electricity. Villa El Salvador, where I volunteer, is by far the largest, with slightly fewer than 400,000 people.

Unemployment in Peru is so out of control that it can't be measured. In Villa el Salvador, the unemployment rate is estimated to be up to 75 percent.

Earthquakes in Peru are common occurrences as the country in a seismic zone.

The postal service in Peru is extremely unreliable. Your mailed letter may or may not get to its destination, and if it does, it could take a month. Mailing packages is not recommended.

The water here is not safe for tourists to drink and should not even be used to brush one's teeth. Forget about ordering a drink with ice.

And the weirdest: Because of the unsophisticated plumbing in Peru, used toilet paper is not flushed down the toilet but is placed in a separate bin next to the toilet. This was a hard concept for me to grasp. Like, gross!