"Every planet has its own weird customs. About a year before we met, I spent six weeks on a moon where the principal form of recreation was juggling geese. My hand to God. Baby geese - goslings! They were juggled."

Sunday, March 9, 2014

A year after Peace Corps

It's been nearly a year since I came home from Peace Corps in Ecuador.  It doesn't feel like a year but I have crammed a lot in, so maybe that's why.

Right after I got back, I headed to North Carolina at Landmark Learning to earn my Wilderness First Responder certification from NOLS WMI.

The Nook, a beautiful home away from home.
Not only did I find the most amazing emergency medical school I could imagine, but I fell back in love with EMS after however many years away from it.  And...who knows... it may have been the start down a new path in life.

Right after I got back from North Carolina, I was on my way north back to Alaska permanently to work as a rock climbing and ziplining guide for Alaska Mountain Guides.  On one of my first days in the tiny super touristy southeast town of Skagway, I walked into the volunteer fire department and began my time as a volunteer. It was rewarding, difficult and inspiring work that ranged from rescue on the sea, glacier rescue, search and rescue overnight on a famous trail, fire training, medical calls, trauma calls, medivacs all the way up by ambulance to Whitehorse, Yukon, by way of dirt roads, and medivacs off cruise ships.  I was aching to have my EMT certification back so...when it became clear that I was returning to Illinois for at least the winter, I reserved my spot with Landmark Learning again for their month-long EMT-B class.

Nothing like wheeling in a stokes litter over a trail with a full overnight rescue pack on.

Skagway's water rescue boat on one of southeast's many gorgeous islands.

Practicing rappelling and ascending on the clocktower wall over Skagway.

EMS trauma rodeo... I got a traumatic brain injury with raccoon eyes, projectile vomiting (see the red cups of melted ice cream, food coloring, and fruit chunks to the left), and a compound forearm fracture.  Scared the shit out of a passerby but I couldn't verbally communicate to her because my mouth was full of fake vomit.

Oh, right.  I was also a guide for Alaska Mountain Guides:

Leaving Skagway was hard and I had a feeling I wouldn't be coming back as soon as I wanted, which indeed turned out to be true.

I got to stopover a few days in Washington to visit my old friend Scott at Mount Rainier, where my visit just completely happened to coincide with a kind of geological delegation from Colombia.  A group of scientists and emergency management and mitigation personnel from the U.S. visited a group of people with likewise professions in Colombia at the site of a volcanic disaster that claimed approximately 23,000 lives in 1985.  So during my visit, these Colombians just happened to plan their trip up to the same place.  So I got to follow them around and participate in their discussions - even met the famous Marta Calvache!  I was seriously pleased to be able to converse with her in her native language.

What do you do on a geology field trip?  Look at dirt.  I mean, ash.

Pretty soon I was again heading down to North Carolina to work like mad for a month in my EMT class at Landmark Learning with some five teachers, most of them paramedics but all WEMTs.  Despite not having a single call during my 12 hours of practical time, I thoroughly enjoyed focusing pretty much every waking hour of every day on the class.  And when it was over, I was completely at a loss for what to do now.  I spent a month focused and excited about what I was doing and then there was no where to go with it and carry on the energy.

So... reluctantly... I drove back to Illinois.

Job searching in Alaska was going no where since I failed to obtain a state driver's license (my new glasses never arrived in time for me to take the vision exam), and pretty much every job I wanted required one.  And I needed a job.  So I began looking in northern Illinois, which pretty much means retail even with a B.S. and M.S. in geology.  At the same time, curious about continuing EMS education, I started checking out the paramedic program at McHenry County College.  That started leading me in the direction of finding local fire department or private sponsorship, which led me to sign up for my only prerequisite class - Human Biology.

And to help me along with actually living here and being able to pay bills, Starbucks offered me a full time job.  I get a free pound of coffee a week (I'm currently sitting on nearly 10 pounds of coffee as I don't drink it that fast - any takers?) and all the free drinks I could possibly want (that excitement runs out after a month).

I went a 24-hour ridealong with the fire department I most want to work for a couple months ago.  We got slammed by something like eight calls, starting one hour in at 7 am with a full arrest - and so I found myself totally new to this crew, feeling completely calm doing chest compressions and working with the bag valve mask.  The day and night just continued like that with psychiatric patients, some trauma, a car accident on a seriously icy stretch of road, drug withdrawal, on and on.  It was exhausting... especially with the fire calls going off constantly next to our ambulance tones... especially when I had to go to work at Starbucks the following day...but I liked it.

The next step is waiting for them to invite me to a couple tests - one physical, one written, and an interview - before I can possibly be invited on as a cadet.  The disappointing thing is, I can't jump right into paramedic school - they have you become firefighters first.  The positive thing is, though, that I'd get nearly a year working with them as an EMT gaining experience in a suburban Illinois district.  I'm currently working my ass off at the gym preparing for the physical exam (look up 'CPAT' to see why I'm a little driven).  I sort of hope they remember the time when I was one hour new to their department and jumped right into helping with a full arrest patient...maybe that'll get me some leverage...

So that's where I am now.  Working for Starbucks, taking Human Biology, and working out.  Kind of floating, kind of not really sure what's going to happen or where I'm going.  But I think maybe I have a plan?  Sort of, kind of?

Oh, and I turned into Katniss Everdean.  I bought a beautiful black competition recurve bow that I shoot once or twice a week. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

Back home after more than two years

If anyone's still out there, following this blog - I'm sorry I neglected it.  Last Saturday, I flew from Quito to Houston to Chicago for the last time as a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.  I stuck it out and lasted the two years in country.  Some miserable days, some nice days.  I didn't share the half of it. 

My plan within the next few days is to get my web albums completely updated with photos.  On Monday I have an interview with the Northwest Herald (McHenry County, Illinois) to talk about Peace Corps service.  And soon, I promise I'll write here what it's like for me to return to the United States after life abroad in South America. 

So, thanks for following me this far.  I think the next chapter in my life will be pretty fun as well.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Videos: Inti Raymi 2012 and my new hobby

While visiting the United States, I found a new sport that I thoroughly enjoy.  I was so into it the first week that I decided I wanted to know what it was like shooting a pumpkin.  And because there were so many deer hunters on the ranges, I decided to make a little spoof hunting one little pumpkin.

So this is from last June but because it's too hard to upload videos on the machines where I live, here's a very late film from this year's Inti Raymi celebration in Ibarra, Ecuador.  For more information on the holiday, check out: INTI RAYMI: An explosion of colors, music and indigenous traditions

We began dancing around 6 p.m. and didn't stop for one minute until around 1 a.m. when my group decided to call it quits.  The party did still go on, however, just without us.  

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Big long illustrated update

I realized as I write this that I am, in fact, almost halfway through my stay in my new site.  I guess it's not my 'new' site anymore, but my permanent site.

Five months has gone by fast, but I still went through the normal cultural adjustment stages.  When I arrived, everything was fantastic and new and nothing could be bad.  Then I sank into confusion about what to do.  Then I missed 'home,' home in the general term for the States.  Since then it's pretty much been up and down on a daily or hourly basis.  I still have some days where I prefer to just stay home and read or make something.  I'm grateful for the days when I have a mountain of laundry to wash by hand, or I have to spend some time forraging for plants for my rabbit.  Sometimes I walk the hour down the mountain to Apuela for internet even though someone in town offers his computer and internet for an hourly fee.  I just like to go. 

I've focused completely on trash management, at first only on accident.  I think it started when I made my recycled art projects on the benches outside one of the two stores in town.  The store owner started making her own folded chip bag wallet, then others picked up on it.  I did just a couple workshops at the afternoon kids' group and more adults began their own projects.  Once I began teaching recycled art in the school, many parents and their families got interested and started their projects.

I've also been helping out in the tree nursery, but so far progress has been pretty disappointing.  I can only convince the other workers to do something if there's a tourism group coming to visit.  We tried moving the workday from Friday to Monday and tried to assign a daily schedule to water the trees (only 15 minutes!) but nothing worked.  Now it's pretty much just me and another American volunteer who are watering the trees every day so they don't die.

The tree nursery is really interesting though.  First, it's a joy to see seeds germinate and near-dead twigs come blooming back to life with the copious water we bring.  And with that comes more wildlife.  One tree, a chinchin as it's known, is host to the larva of a big yellow butterfly.  Its larva are green and spiky and have a colorful purple, green or pink crysallis.  I used to take some home to watch:

I haven't travelled much at all since moving sites.  Technically there's a rule in Peace Corps that says if you move sites, you can't take vacation for three months.  Which was fine because I didn't have any money to climb mountains.  Pretty sad actually.  But I for sure didn't pass up the fantastic whale migration whose hub is Puerto Lopez.  It didn't disappoint this year and we even visited Isla de la Plata to glimpse blue-footed boobies (and red-footed boobies and Nazca boobies).  It was a nice break...

When I returned home, my family celebrated my birthday!  It was a wonderful surprise complete with cake brought in from 'outside'.  As you can see, it didn't completely survive the three-hour car ride:

Last month I began working on a recycling project.  There had been a program before my time but it didn't take.  My plan was to imitate another Peace Corps Volunteer's successful project in Santo Domingo by holding a recycling contest in the school.  My project ended up being a little different than hers as a couple months ago a group of volunteers literally filled my room with donations of toys, art supplies, and school supplies.  I was at a loss for what to do with the stuff and really didn't want to be the one to hand it all out like charity.  Using the stuff as prizes seeing to be the solution.  So a few community members and I finished the small recycling center on the corner of the football field by completely enclosing it with metal screen and finishing it with a nice door and lock.  This was partly because we didn't want anyone taking away the plastic bins, to keep dogs out, and to keep kids from taking materials out to reuse in the contest. 

I was really exited when my host mom Alicia began collecting bottles right away:

Then her pile grew:

And grew:

Not many kids brought in recyclables the first week of the contest, but once it was clear to them that the program was on, they bombarded me with bags filled with bottles.  This was the second week:

The third week, we had to organize the small recycling center.  I invited the kids to earn 10 points per family if they helped me crush all the bottles.  What a BAD bad idea.  Ten kids in a small space stomping on a couple thousand bottles.  I regreted my decision immediately, but a few actually worked and in a couple hours we had finished the work.  The next day I tied up the bags and weighed them out - 80 kilos of plastic and 6 kilos of metal plus a bit of cardboard.  That's roughly equivalent to $21.  80 kilos of plastic represent about 2,700 bottles of various sizes. 

Like I said earlier, I haven't had time or money to climb any big mountains.  I'm for sure aching for the exercise and the adventure though.  When a couple tourists came through and requested a guided hike, the guide invited me along to get to know the mountain above us where our town's water comes from.  I had a bad cold but I pushed through it anyway (mistake, as it then progressed to a nasty sinus infection).  The top is covered in forest and is inhabited by Andean bears.  We didn't see any of the shy creatures, but we saw plenty evidence of their existence.

There have been a number of festivals in the area, including one where all the communities in the area gather with colored torches corresponding to their community (mine was white) and walk down to the town of Apuela for a nighttime Catholic mass.  It was quite stunning but of course that was the time my camera battery decided to no longer hold a charge.

Roughly every Saturday, a few women, their kids and I get together to work on recycled art projects.  Most of them have worked on the folded chip bag wallets but they seem to prefer paper bead making.

One of the women is a brilliant crocheter whose crafts are sold in the Intag store in Otavalo.  After I taught the schoolchildren to make plastic string for knitting, this artisan learned from her daughter and began making all kinds of amazing things.  One of her products was a traditional hat crocheted from black and transparent plastic string.  She likes the material so much that she now wants to buy new plastic bags...whoops...not really the point of reducing and recycling!  What's really ironic, though, is she's a cabuya artist.  She makes things out of a fiber produced from a big agave-like plant called the penca.  The fiber is called cabuya.  Before traffic arrived in Pucara and with it plastic products, these cabuya artisans wove bags to sell.  When plastic bags arrived, they pretty much snuffed this trade out of existence and now the artisans make their crafts to sell as purses and such for tourists.  Now these artisans know how to make string out of plastic and are crocheting that in plastic bags.  Funny...like an inversion.

About it for now...to be continued!