Blogs by Ilene Style
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How to Exercise at a Peruvian Senior Center

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

In the mornings at Los Martincitos senior center, before desayuno (breakfast), and before the oraciones (prayers) that precede desayuno, the abuelos must do their exercises. It is important for the seniors in the program to loosen up their muscles and joints, and to get their blood flowing. They do this to dance music, and the exercises are led by an incredibly limber older staff member named Raul. After a week of working here, it became obvious to me that the only three songs they had in their warm-up repertoire were the Macarena, the Conga and the Hokey Pokey. I am astounded at the fact that I have done the Hokey Pokey more times in the past four weeks than I did during my entire childhood. (This is not something I had anticipated doing much of while in a foreign country.)

My fellow voluntario Quinn and I decided one day that we simply could not go on any longer sticking our right arm in, and then out, and shaking it all about, so we decided to choreograph our own exercise routine for the abuelos. Quinn thought that “YMCA” would be the perfect song for the abuelos to get down to. However, since we had no means by which to obtain the song and play it on the ancient boom box they use at the senior center, we had to settle for one of the three songs they already had. So, one morning, after practicing our routine the night before (we took this very seriously up until we actually had to do it), we asked permission to lead morning exercises.

Upon hearing the first few notes of the Macarena, we promptly forgot everything we had prepared for our big debut. We managed to fake it, though, with each of us taking turns leading dance moves that incorporated various body parts. Our rendition of the “twist” was extremely well received, and it was hard for us to keep straight faces while watching the elderly abuelos try to gyrate their hips, something that most of them were clearly doing for the first time in their lives. Apparently, our “non-routine” was a hit, based on the applause we got after the song was over. I always knew that those aerobics classes I took last century would come in handy someday!

Angelica in her room


Home Visits in Villa el Salvador, Peru: Angelica

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

Angelica lives with her grown son Pedro, who is blind. Her other son, who also lived with them, and with whom she was very close, died recently of tuberculosis, a disease that is rampant in Villa el Salvador. She has trouble getting around because her legs are very swollen, despite the special stockings she wears. Her condition is not helped by the fact that she is overweight, something one does not see often in Villa el Salvador.

The walls of her house are made of a medley of strange materials that look as if they are about to collapse at any moment, and part of the house has no roof. The squalor inside is eye-opening. Hermana Jacci warned me about this the first time we visited her, saying discreetly before we entered, "Angelica is not the best housekeeper." There were piles of trash? ... knick knacks? ... worldly possessions? strewn everywhere. Apparently Angelica's neighbors had to come over and help her clean up the mess before her son's wake (which is always held in the home of the deceased, with the casket in full view. Burials happen quickly afterward, as there is no embalming available.)

Angelica has stopped attending the Los Martincitos program because she has been in a depression since the death of her beloved son. The second time we visited her, she cried because she misses him so much. Hermana Jacci tried to reason with her that she would be less depressed at the program, surrounded by her amigas, than sitting at home every day in the room that she shared with her son—the same room in which he was laid out after his death. She gave this some thought, but didn't seem convinced.

Her remaining son Pedro is supposed to be taking care of her, although that is difficult because he is blind. He is very domineering, and Angelica fears that because the deed of her house is in his name, he will eventually put her out. Recently he has acquired a new girlfriend, so has been spending much more time away from home ... and away from his mother, leaving her alone much more than she is used to.

We will continue to encourage Angelica to return to Los Martincitos, because if she misses too many days, she will be dropped from the program, as there is a waiting list of other needy abuelos in Villa el Salvador who would be grateful to have her spot.


A Word About Toilet Etiquette in Peru

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

--- On Sun, 4/18/10, <******> wrote: OK… when do we find out more about the toilet etiquette??

Many of you have asked me about the "toilet etiquette" in Peru that I mentioned in a recent e-mail. I wrote about the toilet etiquette here when I first arrived: "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!"

When I tell new voluntarios about this unusual custom, they are as grossed out as I was weeks ago when I arrived. Of course, now it's old hat, although still somewhat weird. You will never find a toilet in Peru without one of these next to it. They come in all different sizes, depending on how many people use one toilet, but always look the same. There are exceptions to this particular toilet ritual, of course. It does not apply in big fancy hotels. Perhaps these hotels have their own plumbing systems.

While we're on the subject of el baño, another thing you must always do in Peru is carry toilet paper with you at all times (especially if you are a girl.) Toilet paper is not a priority in public restrooms here, nor are paper towels, soap or sometimes even toilet seats (I'm not talking about lid covers, but the actual seats themselves). Luckily, with or without paper, the public restrooms here are still a step above many of the the public restrooms in France, some of which consist of a drain in the ground surrounded by a privacy screen.

If you happen to be in a public restroom in Peru that requires you to pay to use the facilities, women pay more to use the ladies room than men pay to use the mens room. Why? Because the ladies room has toilet paper. What if men need paper? Lo siento, yo no se!

Aniseta y Olionia, Spa de Elena


Spa de Elena

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

My new name in Peru is "Elena." The abuelos at Los Martincitos call me that because it is much easier for them to pronounce than "Ilene.” I soon realized that "Elena" it was much easier for ALL Peruvians to pronounce, so that is how I introduce myself now.

At work last week, I hung out a shingle and opened my very own nail salon, Spa de Elena, and gave manicures to the abuelas. My lack of experience was not a problem; after all, what self-respecting girl from the Big Apple doesn't know everything there is to know about mani/pedis? Apparently, receiving manicures is quite a special treat for the abuelas, as I had a large number of them crowding around me when they saw me bringing a shoebox full of nail paraphernalia to a small table that Hermana Jacci and I had set up. The nail polish and accoutrements are all donations from former voluntarias.

Some of the polishes were dried out to the point of being almost unusable, but that didn't bother the abuelas. I had to dispense with niceties such as nail soaking, cuticle trimming and clipping/filing early on, as the abuelas were interested only in having their nails painted the brightest and most garish colors that were still usable. They awaited their turns patiently, and despite my warnings of "¡No toca nada!" (don't touch anything!) when their manicures were finished, they immediately went off and touched everything in sight, effectively ruining their manicures within minutes. They then lined up again for me to fix the smears. My frustration eventually gave way to laughter, as it is hard to be cross with someone who is so excited, even for just a few minutes, about her newfound beauty.

Check out the "after" photos of some of my new spa clients.

Me and Margaret


English Lessons

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

The talk of the town has been the temblor or small earthquake, that we had last week in Lima at about 3 a.m. It was a 4.3 earthquake, whose center was about an hour and a half south of Lima. It was the second temblor we've had since I have been here, and I am mortified to say that I slept right through it. (I did feel the first temblor though, which was about a month ago.)

I love my new home in Villa el Salvador, the home of Antonio (Tonny) and Silvia and their three children. It is the first time in 4 weeks I have been able to sit straight up on my bed without bumping my head against the top bunk. Margaret, another voluntaria who I met at Los Martincitos and who is now my NEW new best friend, is also staying here. She is from Dublin, Ireland, and has been living here in Villa el Salvador for 4 weeks.

Margaret and I, without a doubt the two whitest people in Villa el Salvador, walk to work every morning. We try to stick to the main roads and travel over an interesting mix of terrain, including sand, rocks, dirt and several unfinished sidewalks. We've visited together an internet cafe here to check email and a locutoria, which is a store with public pay phones that are very cheap to use. These locutorias come in very handy for residents of Villa el Salvador who don't have phones, like me.

After work at Los Martincitos yesterday, Margaret and I went to help teach English to children at an elementary school just outside of Villa el Salvador. We took a bus there with Lady, the student teacher who invited us to help her. It was the first public bus I have taken in Lima. Buses are a little scary here. There are thousands of different ones, and I have no idea how anyone knows where they all go, as they all look the same—terribly old, run down and always overcrowded. Strangely, the buses in Lima are all privately owned, so anyone can buy a bus, make up their own route, and hire anybody to drive it. The government does, however, set the fare. All buses in Lima cost 1 sol, or about 30 cents. There was a man selling bread on our bus, a little girl selling candy, and a little boy playing a guitar who solicited money from passengers after his concert. I felt like I was back in NYC!

At the school, we taught English to 3- and 4-year-olds in the form of songs and nursery rhymes. We practiced singing "Mr. Golden Sun" and "Good Morning Teacher" and then Margaret taught the class "Itsy Bitsy Spider." When we got off at the bus stop on the way home, we took a taximoto (the 3-wheeled, completely unsafe motorized vehicles that we were warned never to take) the rest of the way home, because it was almost dark and it was safer to take the taximoto than to walk home from the bus stop. The taximoto was fun, but I discovered quickly that you must hold on to the bar on front, as there are no doors, windows or seat belts to hold you in.

That evening, Carmen, a 22-year-old student who also lives with the family and speaks no English, asked me shyly if I would help her with a writing assignment for her beginning English class. After we worked together for awhile, I realized why I had never heard Carmen utter a word of English. She cannot pronounce the words. At first I thought it was odd that she was struggling so much with the word "the," one of the simplest words in the English language. As I watched her frustration, it suddenly dawned on me that there is no sound in the Spanish language that equates to "th" sound in English. We spent 20 minutes alone on the word "the," as I tried to teach her how to position her tongue so the "th" sound would come out correctly. I now have a profound new appreciation for speech therapists. We practiced English together for the next two nights, and I wished her luck on her presentation, which is today. Before she left for class, she said to me, “Me gustaria que te quedaras mas tiempo aqui" ("I wish you could stay here longer"), a compliment I will never forget.


Home in Peru

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

Today I will be leaving my comfortable home base in Lima and moving to Villa el Salvador for 4 days, where I will get to experience firsthand what it is like to live in the same hood as the people about whom I have been writing. I will be living in the home of Antonio, the director of the Los Martincitos program where I work, with his wife and three children. They have a large house (by Villa el Salvador standards), and for $15 a day, I will get 3 meals a day and a place to sleep. Tonny, as he is called, speaks no English at all, and his wife speaks only a few words, so it will force me to practice my abysmal Spanish.

My mother is not happy about my decision to move to Villa el Salvador, but I have assured her that I will not go out of the house after dark, when it is the most dangerous. I'm not sure what the Internet situation will be like there, but I will try to continue to send e-mails. I have seen a few internet cafés in Villa el Salvador, and understand they are very cheap ... 1 sol, or about 30 cents, per hour. I use the term "café" very loosely, as you can see by the photo I have attached of an Internet café in Villa. If it is safe to walk to one, I will do so, and will continue to send updates.

At our home base in Lima, new volunteers are constantly arriving and leaving. The number of occupants here changes on a weekly basis, as do our roomates. Each of the rooms in the house sleeps up to 6 people, in bunk beds. Most of the voluntarios here are from the English speaking countries of the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Australia.

My best friend here at the home base up until a week ago was Samantha, a 23-year-old from Ontario, Canada. She made me promise when she left that I would get on facebook while in Peru. Working on it, Sam!

After Samantha left, my new best friend was Quinn, a 39 year old from New York who has a wicked sense of humor, and kept me laughing constantly. He left yesterday to travel around Peru for a few weeks. We spent our last day together at la lavanderia washing our clothes.

Mikal, 25, who has been here since January, was one of the first voluntarios I met. We became friends when, shortly after I arrived, he asked me if I would help him "buzz off." Huh? That night I learned how to shave someone's head, a skill which no doubt will come in handy someday.

The food here at the home base is simple, delicious and typical Peruvian. It is served family style. Rice and some type of potato (there are 4,000 indigeous varieties of potatoes in Peru) are served at every meal, Often corn, pasta or beans are served in a stew, along with the rice and potatoes. Once, we had rice, potatoes, corn and pasta at the same meal. I have done enough carbo loading since I've been here to run several marathons on a moment’s notice. The corn here is called choclo, and has the most enormous kernels I have ever seen. I have attached a photo of the choclo kernels, which I pick off the cob and eat one by one, like grapes.

We are warned when we arrive that we should never drink tap water, and never eat raw vegetables, fruit or fresh dairy products in Peru. I was happy to learn that the fruit at the home base is treated with a special solution that makes it safe for us to eat. Local milk may not be pasteurized, so it is best avoided. The milk we drink at the house is ultra pasteurized, has a shelf life of a year or so, and does not need refrigeration.

There is a condiment served with everything in Peru, a paste made from local aji chiles. I have fallen in love with this chile paste. It is served at every meal here, and I have yet to find a food that it doesn't pair well with. It's not quite a substitute for New Mexico green chile, but it does the job when I need a chile fix.

When a volunteer gets the dreaded "stomach thing," as we all do eventually, despite our rigorous care with eating, we are put on a diet of rice, bread and a special homemade chicken soup. We are advised not to eat any fruit, vegetables or the beloved aji (that was the hardest part for me). Usually the bug clears up with in a week. We all share pepto bismol and imodium on a regular basis.

The seasoned volunteers usually initiate the new volunteers about things they need to know, as most newcomers arrive on weekends when there is no staff here who speak English. I'll never forget my first bunkmate telling me about the "toilet etiquette" here when I first arrived. When I tell new volunteers about it, I can't help but laugh at the look of sheer horror on their faces—the exact same look I had 4 weeks ago.

I am looking forward to seeing what my new home base in Villa el Salvador will be like. Adios, amigos!



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

Eduardo is a frightening-looking man. He is blind in one eye, which is clouded over, and his other eye always looks like it is desperately searching for something. His face is so thin that his skin has to strain to cover his prominent cheekbones. He has a pronounced underbite that I imagine makes it difficult for him to chew food. He certainly looks as though he hasn't chewed food in a while. I could tell he was once a large man, but has since shriveled up to just skin and bones.

The first time we went to see him at his home, he had just had his leg amputated due to "poor circulation." He was so weak that he could hardly lift his head off the pillow. His eyes were glazed over, and he was laying in a pool of sweat in a very hot room. The only way he could communicate was to squeeze our hands ... which he did for a long time. I was convinced he was near death. I did not take a picture of him.

The second time we visited him, he WAS near death—white as a ghost and cold to the touch when we arrived at his house. His family had lifted him onto a makeshift wheelchair (a plastic stacking chair placed atop a set of two wheels) and were prepared to wheel him to the nearest hospital, since taking a taximoto (the 3-wheeled taxis that are popular in Villa el Salvador) would have been too expensive. We immediately got him out of the wheelchair, loaded him into our van, and rushed him to the emergency room. We had to place him on a stretcher and push him into the emergency room ourselves, as there were no attendants to do this when we arrived. The last time I saw Eduardo, he was lying on a stretcher in a hospital emergency room with about 30 other people, awaiting his turn to be examined.

We got word yesterday that he will be in the hospital for 2 weeks due to fluid in his lungs, which I'm sure is because he lay flat on his back in bed for days after his surgery without ever moving. (It's hard to move around post-surgery, especially when you have only one leg.) I will pray for Eduardo, but I don't think he has much time left.

Irena y Hermana Jacci



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

Irena, one of our abuelas, lives a a small house with dirt floors. She is almost blind. When Hermana Jacci and I arrived to visit her, she was attempting to rake the dirt (rake the dirt?) in her small front yard, but could not see what she was doing. Her house has two rooms. The larger room is furnished with a table and a few chairs. There is a bare mattress on the floor against the front wall, where her son, who lives with her, sleeps. However, when he drinks, he gets very violent, and she is afraid of him. Most of the time she hopes he will not come home, which happens often. She sleeps in the smaller room, on another mattress on the floor, across from a stove.

She needs to have one of the few teeth she has left pulled, but the dentist won't do it unless she is accompanied by a family member. The son who lives with her is too drunk to go, and her other sons apparently do not have the time. The first time we visited her, she had no food in the house, so Hermana Jacci and I went to the soup kitchen (comedor) and brought her something to eat. The second time we visited, she was drinking a cup of Sustenia, something similar to Ensure. Someone told her she should drink it because it had a lots of vitaminas in it, but it was very expensive. She bought it with money she made begging in the park. Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru, is her first language, so she is a bit difficult to understand as she mixes up Quechua and Spanish when she speaks. She is very affectionate, and is always appreciative when we come to visit.

Pablo y hermano



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

Seeing Pablo for the first time two weeks ago broke my heart. He is a 19 year old boy, who, in January, had an accident at work and became paralyzed from the waist down. He has been in bed ever since, as his family cannot afford a wheelchair. Their house is high up in the sand dunes, and it’s the one that Hermana Jacci and I had so much trouble getting to because there is no road to the house and no path to the door—just rocks and sand and a very steep hill to navigate on foot. I fear that he will never leave the house, unless someone physically carries him out and down the precarious hill. His parents were not home when we visited the first time, and his little brother and sister were keeping vigil over him. He seemed to be in good spirits, but I still had to hold back tears as we left. Hermana Jacci is going to look into resources for Pablo. Her organization has already donated the hospital bed he lays (lives) on.

We went back today to check on Pablo. He now has a makeshift device with which to exercise his paralyzed legs: loops of material that slip over each foot, with a rope attached to each that he holds with his hands to pull up each leg. His parents were there today. They have seven children, although one died. We brought with us a an old sofa that someone had donated, and with the help five people were able to carry it up the steep hill and into the house. It will serve as a bed for one of the children, as they currently have only 3 beds in the house for six people.

I have attached a photo of Pablo and his brother which I took during my first visit there. Today, I asked his mother if she would like a photo of the whole family. She shyly agreed. I think it is the only family photo they have. It is attached, along with some photos of his house, taken as we moved the sofa in.

Nasca pilot Jose


The Nasca Lines, Part II

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

"The mysterious drawings known as the Nasca Lines have puzzled archaeologists, anthropologists, and anyone fascinated by ancient cultures in the Americas. For just as long, waves of scientists—and amateurs—have inflicted various interpretations on the lines, as if they were the world's largest set of Rorschach inkblots. At one time or another, they have been explained as Inca roads, irrigation plans, images to be appreciated from primitive hot air balloons, and, most laughably, landing strips for alien spacecraft." —National Geographic, March 2010

I was warned NOT to eat breakfast before the Nasca flight, as the dipping and swirling of the small 4-6 seater plane can make one's stomach react violently. One of my fellow voluntarias, here from Ireland, told me that when she went on the flight during a previous trip to Peru, not only did she get sick during the plane ride, but another person on her plane got sick too. Ugh. Perhaps I should have checked this out more carefully before making my reservations. When I checked into my hotel in Nasca and asked what time breakfast was served, the hotel clerk gently reminded me that it would be best not to eat before the flight. Everyone was so serious about the empty stomach thing that I decided to not eat dinner the night before either.

There were 3 other passengers on my flight, plus a pilot and co-pilot. The co-pilot thing is relatively new, due to the fact that there have been seven airplane accidents over the Nasca Lines in the past two years, resulting in 12 deaths. As of March 15, 2010, all planes must have a co-pilot, and no aircraft in service can be over 30 years old. Although I already knew about this new regulation when I booked my flight, I was still relieved to see that both Jose AND Alejandro would be our pilots.

The flight itself is about 30 minutes long—enough time to see quite a lot. I was able to see figures of a whale, monkey, dog, condor, hummingbird, spider, parrot, heron, a tree, and something called the “astronaut," a funny-looking figure that does somewhat resemble an astronaut. I also saw geometric shapes of a rectangle, trapezoid and spiral. And lots and lots of lines. It was fascinating. I couldn't get over the fact that these etchings have been here for almost 2,000 years and have not eroded away. And since it never rains on the southern coast of Peru, which is considered one of the driest places on Earth, they can't wash away.

The plane ride can be difficult on one's stomach because, besides the fact that the aircraft is a very small propeller plane, the pilot has to dip and tilt the plane at some precarious angles in order for the passengers to get a good view of the Lines. I did not get sick. But the girl sitting next to me did not fare as well. She had a great attitude though, and after we landed she said, "It's all just part of the experience." Indeed! Everything in Peru is an experience.