From Chichi with Love

June 14, 2012

My trips to Peru usually begin with a car ride from State College, PA to one of the three airports in the Washington, DC area. My journey south began this time with a different twist. I took the same bright blue and yellow Megabus that my daughter Marissa had often ridden to go back to college to join her in Philadelphia for an Alternatives to Violence Project workshop. I have helped lead these conflict resolution workshops for ten years now, and they have made a profound difference in my life. Marissa recently graduated from Haverford College with a degree in psychology and wants to explore a career in counseling. We finally found a narrow window of opportunity to do one of these workshops together at the New Jerusalem recovery community in North Philadelphia before she landed a demanding new job and I left for my summer trip to Peru.

It’s become a bit of a standing joke between my wife and me that she asks me if I have my passport, money and ticket just as I’m leaving for a big trip. I’ve never left these key things behind, but I seem to discover on arrival that I have always forgotten at least one key piece of electronics (like a battery charger) or important paper. This time I had done a good job packing all of these things before I left home, but when my seatmate on the bus pulled out her container of Yoplait, I remembered that I had forgotten to take a tasty salmon sandwich out of the fridge that I had made the night before.

By the time we made our only mid-trip stop at a mall near Harrisburg around 1:30 pm, I was starving. Knowing the bus was going to depart in ten minutes, I sprinted to the mall and up the escalator to the food court. The quick food places like Nathan’s hot dogs had lines so I got some lamb and chicken curry and ran back to the bus. As it came into view, one lady who was sitting in front of me waved her hands up and down to me to indicate I could slow down; I wasn’t going to miss the bus. As I reboarded the bus, I was grateful the driver chose to focus more on enjoying the last few puffs of his cigarette than the plastic bag I tried to nonchalantly drape at my side.

My decision to give preference to my stomach over the Megabus rule against food and drinking in the bus had an immediate karmic payoff. As I wedged myself back into my seat with my backpack between my feet and a little duffle on top, I felt a warm liquid on my inner thigh and saw that some orange curry juice was leaking onto my pants. Passing my laptop to my seatmate, I held the take-out container upright with my right hand and reached down into an inner zippered pouch of my backpack with my left to retrieve two gallon size zip-lock bags I had put there for some undesignated purpose. I squeezed the leaking bag with food into one of these to achieve first level containment. Since the Styrofoam box was now inverted, I tore it into little pieces and stashed these into the other ziplock. I finally got to enjoy the chunks of lamb and washed down half of the dry chicken and rice with a whole bottle of lemonade. My apologies to Megabus. I got it. Bringing messy food on the bus is not a good idea.

I got off the bus a few hundred yards from the front of 30th Street station in Philadelphia, donned my electronics heavy backpack, slung my 50 pound black duffle over my right shoulder and balanced it with the small duffle full of clothes to be donated to friends in Peru in my left. It was a short but intense walk to the inside of the station where I happily found Marissa waiting.
We took the “L” train toward Frankford and got off at the Dauphin-York stop. My friend Leslie picked us up in his less than trusty vehicle and took us to his house nearby. He is the manager of a group house near Norris Square that is still owned by the woman who he succeeded as the AVP coordinator for New Jerusalem. He shares it with two nice couples, two friendly white dogs, one outgoing and one very shy cat. After a quick shopping at the corner bodega, we heated up some soup and melted cheese on tortillas, and joined Tomeka and Darryl on the front steps. The scene launched me a foot toward Peru because the other side of the street was alive with regeton booming from a stereo on the sidewalk that made me want to dance. Women loosely tended a barbeque, men wandered in and out of different doorways with a beer in hand, and kids squirted each other with water. Not all the neighbors appreciated the open sharing of loud music, but a large Ms. Tiny said she’d learned to block it out.

I got a decent half-night’s sleep on the couch in the living room in between the boom box going quiet around 1 am and the barks of Chichi and Max when house friend Vince arrived to walk them around 6. Since I had missed my stretch, jog, and walk of my own dog Juno the day before, I eagerly accompanied Vince and pooches for a couple of loops around the Norris Square park. Chichi also particularly needed exercise since she was overweight. Her ration of dog food had been cut back so Vince had to be vigilant to curb her from scrounging left-over bones and other morsels left in the park.

After a quick bowl of cereal, Marissa and I headed off with Leslie to the workshop with a brief stop on the way at New Jerusalem where founder Sister Margaret was leading a Bible discussion. She interrupted this for a few minutes to allow us to introduce ourselves and asserted how New Jerusalem embraces AVP as one powerful tool to offer people in recover a way to face their challenges and create a more constructive life. It wasn’t surprising to see pictures of Martin Luther King and Ghandi on the wall.

We got to the Martin Luther King Center about 15 minutes before the workshop was due to start. I loved the hand-painted map of the world that began with Antarctica on the ground floor and spiraled up the wall next to the stairs from the Americas on the landing to Africa and Asia on the second floor. Seemed hard to believe I would be flying to that little spot where the giant river that traversed South America forked along the Andes in Peru. To the folks who we soon met in the workshop, I might as well have said I was going to the moon.

Most of the workshop participants were relatively new residents at New Jerusalem. Someone who wants to get help with an addiction problem can initially stay there for one week to check it out. If they want to stay longer, their fellow residents vote to decide if they want to accept them into the community. The first four to six months involve intense individual and group work. Unlike some rehab programs that help people with substance abuse problems get clean in idyllic environments, New Jerusalem believes that people from the street have a better chance of staying clean if they learn to face the challenges in the environment they’ve come from and will continue to live in. If they stay clean for six months, they can apply to stay in one of the advanced men’s or women’s houses where they continue their program and work part-time outside the house. As they gain confidence in maintaining their sobriety and other skills to create a positive life in the next few years, they are encouraged to move out on their own. Some people still relapse, but it’s a process that produces a lot of success.

The facilitation team included Leslie, one current resident and one graduate of New Jerusalem, and Sister Barbara (a nun who has done mission work and also helped lead AVP workshops in Latin America) and myself. This program is run on a shoe-string so we wrote every session’s agenda, brainstorms, and high-points of exercises on small laminated sheets with a dry erase marker instead of using the expensive, use once and throw away large pads of paper. The workshop may have lacked materials and some structure I was used to doing AVP in prison, but it had the very familiar blend of heartfelt sharing of life stories, insights about constructive ways to approach conflicts in relationships, and lots of laughter during games we call “Light and livelies.” Other expressions I was happy to see that are not allowed and/or rare in prison were hugs and tears.

Darryl and the dogs

Darryl and the dogs

After the workshop I went for an afternoon walk with Darryl and the dogs. He told me about his need to pass a tough math class to finish his college degree – something he very much wanted to do to apply to an MBA program or immediately pursue a career in business. I empathized with the challenge he’d had absorbing a lot of material that teachers had thrown at his class in rapid pace without sufficient explanation. Back at the house we spent an hour going over some algebra problems. Marissa confirmed that I had remembered the quadratic formula correctly. It reminded me that like life, not all problems had a neat solution. Sometimes one faces the necessity of accepting the square root of a negative number as the farthest one can go.

Magic Gardens in Philadelphia

Magic Gardens on South Street in Philadelphia

Before the sun went down, Marissa and I took the train to downtown Philly to have some time to ourselves. Emerging from the South Street station near Broad street, we passed by the entrance to Magic Gardens where old bottles, metal scrap and tiles had been combined into walls to intriguing effect. We wandered down South Street passing store windows that beckoned some customers with mannequins adorned in exotic lingerie and others with the aromatic allure of greasy Philly cheese steaks. We finally chose to enjoy a draft, beef stew and some fries on the patio of a branch of an Irish pub chain she had frequented during her last spring abroad in Scotland.
Marissa at Magic Gardens in Philadelphia

Marissa at Magic Gardens in Philadelphia

In a vision that seemed to portray some adventurer’s nightmare of the Amazon, one building a sculptures of giant ants crawling along its wall.

Giant ants in South Street

Giant ants in South Street, Philadelphia

Day two of the workshop brought some neat progress. One fellow who had sat out most of the first day’s exercises due to a toothache was animated throughout the morning. One woman who had barely said her name in an audible way in the opening sessions began to volunteer her truths loud and clear. We had a great lunch at New Jerusalem thanks to Sister Goreti. I had hoped to say thanks to her in Hindi, but I had unfortunately already forgotten the expression she had taught me on Monday. I led two of my favorite AVP activities in the afternoon – a light and lively called “Alligators and Frogs” (you’ll have to take the workshop to find out how this works) and Hassle Lines. The latter challenged pairs of people to practice the listening skills, “I” messages, and guides to Transforming Power to find non-violent solutions to scenarios of conflicts involving accusations of cheating, irresponsible co-workers and inconsiderate roommates. We ended the day with a “duet” light and lively where I was paired with Leslie’s daughter. We struggled to find a song we knew in common and finally hit on “Mary had a little lamb” which we recited as lines in a Shakespearean drama. I was sorry that I was going to miss the third and final day of the workshop (to catch my flight to Peru), but I felt sure they would finish it with gusto and camaraderie. A special joy for me was seeing my daughter comfortably conversing with a woman her age who already had three kids, men who were battling severe demons of addiction and hearing her share a few of her own insights and challenges to seek her dreams.

I woke up Wednesday morning early and tip-toed around a puddle left on the linoleum by an apologetic Chichi to pack my bags for departure. Sometimes an old dog just can’t help herself. The incident didn’t stop her from asking for another head rub before Leslie and I hit the road.

Chichi and Max

Chichi and Max

One thing I love about traveling is the chance to meet people with diverse life experience. For the first hour and a half of our bus ride to DC, my seat mate and I discussed the ethics of whaling and different tactics of whale saving, my work with native communities with the Center for Amazon Community Ecology, the values that made him proud to be a Republican in the past, his dismay at the rightward lurch of the party, his evolution from computer programmer to tool salesman to fast food worker, and his enduring positive attitude toward life while confronting diabetes, breast cancer, high blood pressure, hypertension, strokes, partial blindness, and an endless quandary about what he can eat in view of these conditions and numerous medicines intended to treat them.

The bus got into DC a bit late. Concerned about the time and ability to bully my bag to the Metro stop through the maze of hallways and stair cases at Union Station, I got a cab to National Airport. Learning that my driver was originally from Ethiopia, I checked out my fractured memory of Ethiopian food and drinks I used to enjoy at the Red Sea Restaurant when I moved to the Adam’s Morgan section of Washington in 1984. He said that this place is long gone, but fifty other places now cater to an Ethopian expat community in the area that is half a million strong. I remembered savoring the soft bread-like pancake called injira that all food is served on, but my driver said the best and only authentic injira comes directly on flights from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. I asked him if he could explain the reason why Eritrea pushed for its independence several decades ago. He said this question had long stumped him because Eritrea had the same language and culture as the rest of the country. He had relatives in both places that now lived in different countries. I suppose I’ll need to get an Eritrean driver to provide an answer to this one. I was exposed to one more taste of this part of the world while perusing magazines at a newsstand in the airport. In the background I heard the clerk talking with a colleague in a beautiful sing-song tongue I couldn’t identify. I asked her what it was when I checked out and she said with a big smile that it was Ethiopian.

My flight from DC to Lima gave me a chance to learn about another slice of global interchange. My seat mate this time was a Peruvian woman from Chiclayo who has been living in Japan for twenty years. She has moved on from her first job soldering screws in a machine assembly line to a factory that makes somen noodles. Her typical day begins at 3 am and ends at 5 pm with hour long breaks for breakfast and lunch and ten minute rests in mid-morning and mid-afternoon. She works this full shift Monday through Saturday and half-day on Sunday. At least preparing these noodles involves different phases that change every few hours throughout the day. Few Japanese seem willing to work these 14 hour shifts for the equivalent of about $11 per hour. It’s still a decent enough wage for her to live on about 60% of her earnings and send the rest back to family in Peru. One feature and benefit of the job is that it’s seasonal. Unlike better known ramen, soba and udon noodles that are eaten year-round, somen is prepared ahead of time to be served cold (often with ice) in the warmest months of the year. Production goes full tilt for eight months; workers are laid off for four months, but foreign ones are given extra funds to visit their homelands every year.

Arriving in Lima at the same time as several other flights led to a slow snake-like meander toward immigration control. Most weary passengers shuffled along in near zombie-like states. I entertained myself trying to pick out bits of conversation in Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, American English and French. The upside of the long wait was that my duffle was waiting for me at baggage claim. I thanked my travel spirits that I got the green light at the custom’s point so I could pass through to the gauntlet of taxi drivers seeking fares and the throng of others welcoming someone home.

I followed my routine. Brush my teeth (but don’t swallow the water), use the bathroom (but don’t put the paper in the toilet), check my email at the internet center, and get a massage in one of those curvy chairs where you lay your face on a padded rest while the masseuse digs their elbow tips into the knots along your spine, shoulder blades and neck. I thought about going to the city to rest in a hostel for a few hours before going to the office of MINAG, but decided to save some money by crashing on the floor upstairs with other travelers waiting to catch connecting flights at dawn to Cusco and elsewhere. My body is pretty bony, but my tiredness let me sleep until 5:30. I’ve camped out at the Starbucks where my 14 soles got me a basic cup of coffee, a muffin and free access to a plug and internet. Once I get this first entry posted, I’m off to the city to do my errand and then get back to the airport to catch my late afternoon flight to Iquitos.

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