Roses, Rodents and French Toilets- A lesson in 'roughing it.'

I apologize for my last, cryptic post: An explanation- For the weekend we embarked on a 10-hour bus ride that promised scenic views, vacunas and Incan ruins. Just as we were settling in for the relaxing trip- Boom! A brutal attack of food poisoning at less-than-perfect timing. For the next nine hours, I occupied every plastic bag and porcelin throne from central Peru to the Bolivian border. It was horrible, especially given the bumpy, winding road and that oven of a bus.
Thankfully, my angel of a husband kept feeding me naseau pills (that wouldn't stay down) and a beautiful Swiss lady named Barbara kept putting a cool rag on my head. They kept me from throwing myself off the bus. But,
C'est la vie. I'm over it now and it's PB&J from here til we're back stateside. While pondering my mortality in between vomitous episodes, I had some time to consider what I'll miss most about life in Curahuasi. Thus, I made a list: (in no particular order).

1. Fresh eggs: so tasty. (The fact that I can even think about food after the aforementioned episode is a good sign my appetite is returning). From the henhouse to the table, the eggs here are free-range and sans hormones. Just float and wash off the chicken poop first. I would love to get a few chickens for my backyard, but I'm not sure if Nashville city codes would permit...
2. Sun-dried laundry: Smells so nice

3. Peaceful, quiet mornings with mountain views: no phone ringing, no e-mail, no fighting traffic. So much easier to focus with fewer distractions.
4. Stars. AMAZING at night. So clear and bright. A few days ago I saw the Morning Star for the first time in my life. And the milky way looks like it's a stone's throw away.

5. People: Curahuasi is very different from other parts of Peru that we’ve visited because it’s one of few the places where tourism is not the primary industry. Curahuasi is a farming community. People here aren’t trying to sell us silver from the mines, textiles woven in the ancient Incan way, plastic trinkets of the Pachamama (Mother Earth), or baby alpaca sweaters. Here, people work in the fields, cultivating anis, potatoes and corn. They simply subsist on what can be sold or swapped in the Sunday market.

Crumbling houses made from red adobe clay dot the countryside. Roofs, unfurled in the colder months, are blue plastic tarps. Sometimes the more permanent option-- tin roofs--are held on by heavy stones from the mountains. Most houses don’t have windows (too cold, or too wet, depending on the season). The floors are dirt, and most here co-exist with livestock wandering in and out of the living quarters. Kitchens often house a stove or fire pit (and an average of 20 cuys--guinea pigs reserved for roasting on special occasions-- scurrying around). There is often no ventilation, due to the inclement weather, so respiratory problems abound.

Based on American standards of living, simply put, these folks are dirt poor. So, after stating the obvious, let me tell you a story about their rich character: When Laura had her baby, I wanted to buy her flowers. Michael and I checked with several tiendas around the village about where to pick some up. No luck. Out of options, we went by the market to buy some fruit for dinner, and we asked the vendor if she knew of a place. Another negative, but she said, in broken Spanish and Quetchua, that she would help.

She consulted with a few women in the market and then motioned for us to follow. Leaving her stand unattended, she guided us across the village, where we finally arrived at a rickety gate and a slim, stinky dog standing guard.

She hollered in Quetchua. A few minutes later emerged a weathered old woman. With at least 100 years to her credit, she hobbled to the gate. A few words were exchanged, and then we waited. We watched the old woman retrieve a rusty scythe. We peaked through the slats in the gate and saw her head toward the back of the shack where nature bowed some of her most gorgeous foliage. Slowly and precisly, she cut 12 of the most beautiful blooms we'd ever seen from her trees.

Brimming with flowers, she came to the gate and laid them in my arms.

WOULD THIS EVER HAPPEN IN THE STATES? Michael and I were shocked by her kindness. (Isn't this sad that we were shocked??)We've become so cynical about our fellow man given the Bernie Madoffs of the world, the increasing crime in our neighborhood, the school shootings, etc. that when someone went out of their way to help us (and then refused to take any money for it), we were surprised by their grace. But this has happened over and over again to us in Curahuasi. The people here have such generous spirits.
So, I also composed a short list of things I won't miss when we leave here: Starting with
1. Poop: horses, cows, goats, sheep, dogs... always peppering the walking path, thus always in my hiking boots.
2. Fleas: remember the earlier post about all the stray dogs? Hence, the proliferation in Curahuasi. My legs are covered in a constellation of critter bites. I found the Southern Cross tatooed across my left ankle.

3. Kil-Ol for fruits and veggies: When I'm hungry, I just want to eat, not disinfect.
4. Meat (this is Michael's contribution to the list): Man. Need. Steak. Preferrably refridgerated and free of flies. That package of beef jerkey packed in his suitcase didn't last long in Curahuasi.

5. Cold showers. Having a hot or even tepid shower is such a luxury that we won't ever take for granted again!
There are a million other things that I can't post here, so let's have coffee when we return Stateside and we'll fill you in on all the really good stuff...

photo captions: cuy (guinea pig) for dinner. an ancient incan tradition on special occasions. this little guy was prepared for us by the sweetest peruvian family on the night before we left cusco. the floating reed islands of uros on lake titicaca. the lost city of the incas- machu piccu. random shed- a lawn mower, some trash, a skull. yikes!


Puking. My. Guts. Out. Want to die.


Chicken Blood: A Cure-All for Swine Flu?

It's rare that I'm writing a song and I'm so rudely interrupted... by a bleating goat. Today is a day for firsts! What can I do but toss the friendly dude part of my carrot and laugh. Such is life in Curahuasi.

Our work weeks at Hospital Diospi Suyana have afforded plenty of exposure to Peruvian culture, and relationship building with some of the most interesting people we've ever met. Michael's work with Dr. Alex in the hospital clinics includes treating children and adults with ailments like back problems (from toting heavy cargo), intestinal issues due to parasites, and a few more, uh, interesting cases: First there was the mujer who had been gored by a bull. Oiwww! The bulls (and most animals for that matter run loose around here, and it always makes me muy nervioso. Nice bull, niiiiiiiiicccccccceeee bull-y bull.)

Then there was the senor who was having seizures. But thanks to a self-perscribed Peruvian folk treatment, he is doing much better! All it took was beber el suena de gallina pequeno. (For you grigos, that translates to 'drink the blood of a small chicken.' Disclaimer-- this is NOT the seizure treatment recommended by Diospi Suyana Hospital.

Mike is enjoying the relaxed pace here, save for Wednesday night's episode that will live in infamy as "El Noche de Big Puke." When this man gets sick he goes all out! Count 'em--12 times. It was some bad lemon/lime juice that thankfully he didn't share with me. After a day en la cama and hooked up to some clean agua, he is doing much better.

Our days commence at 6:30 a.m., with morning services at 8:30, and we call it a day around 5 p.m. At the day's end, we excercise while onlookers gawk (people work so hard here on their farms so they don't excercise), wander around the village, sing with friends, cook dinner, read/study and then maybe have a warm shower if we've had a sunny day (cross our fingers the solar panels are working).

Mike's Spanish is perfecto, mine is improving, and Mike is getting a great education from Dr. Alex, who we have come to respect deeply for his quiet, humble leadership in the hospital and in town. Both he and wife Laura have forged friendships with the locals via Bible study, Sunday service, mom's club and more. Daughter Alexandra, 2, loves her 'amigas,' as she says with gusto, and keeps us all in stitches. (American amigos- FYI- Baby Sofia Anis has arrived- see below for more).

Michael, the superior cook in the marriage (I can admit my shortcomings), is enjoying the culinary challenge of using whatever fruits and veggies we can find at the market to parlay into tasty lunch and dinner entrees. We are meat-free (except when Laura has us over for dinner- she is an awesome chef!), so we've been enjoying lots of delicious Curahuasian avacados, bananas, onions, eggs, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, quinoa (a grain product), cucumbers, mangos, carrots and garlic. Curahuasi is blessed to have such rich produce, and everything here grows at least three times larger than in the States. And of course, it's all organic, so we are feeling great and testing parasite-free thus far.

I would be remiss not to mention the incredible pan (bread) that we eat with EVERY meal, baked by German, Mikeal, weekly. Mikeal, who personally mills the flour right before baking the bread, is an intensive care nurse, a father of 5 ninos, a fixer of solar panels and washing machines, and overall integral part of the hospital staff. At home in Germany, he and wife/nutritionist Elizabeth are organic farmers. We will be muy grande if we continue eating the thick, delicious pan at this rapido pace!

My week include some time in the clinic, playing and composing music for the morning worship services, leading music time and helping out at the kids' club (like an after-school daycare) and writing songs. This week I taught the ninos in kids' club a song I wrote en Espanol called "Siempre Amor." I am preparing to give a concert tonight for the people of Curahuasi, and I'm very excited about sharing mi musica with them.

My writing time has been so joyful and inspired, and I have a razor-sharp focus here that is hard to come by at home with all the daily distractions of phone ringing, e-mail, etc. Well, except for the occasional bleating goat, that is. Perhaps it is just a confirmation that he likes the new songs...
Baby Sofia update for Friends of the Brunners:
At 1 a.m. on Wednesday morning Alex knocked on our door to alert us that Laura was in labor. We rode over to the Brunners to care for Alexandra, and when we got out of the car it was smoking again. Alex hurried to get some coolant and we all prayed the baby would have some patience! About 30 min. later, the Brunners were on their way to Diospi Suyana (it's like a 2-minute ride) and we went to bed around 2 a.m. At 5:45 a.m. we heard someone at the door, so we went to the top of the stairs and saw Alex y Laura coming up. False alarm, we presumed.
But wait, wrapped in Laura's arms was a tiny little peanut, pink and perfectly healthy. For third-world birth (and the first non-C section at Diospi Suyana), Laura did shockingly well- super quick labor and recovery. In less than 4 hours she was out of the hospital with baby Sofia and back home with us. The rest of the day, the Brunners updated family as we celebrated the new addition to their sweet family.

photo captions: precious kids we met on the hike from the village of Azmayacu to the lagoon. They cared for 30 sheep. -- Baby Sophia Anis Brunner.--- Fields of Anis (The flower of Curahuasi). Used for tea, alcohol & in bread.--- Amigas along the Mirador path


Bowens in Wonderland

At night a million stars blanket the sky here in Curahuasi. The view from my room, even in the inky black night, affords a faint view of the distant Andean vistas. On one particular peak, there are two lights, perfectly aligned with the sky, that at first glance I mistook for twinkling stars.
Upon further investigation, I learned that this glow radiated from a tiny farming village illuminated a noche. Interest piqued, Michael and I, along with some new German friends from the hospital, straped on our hiking boots and began the steep ascent towards this land from another time (see the attached pictures).

Three hours after we began, the incline plateaued and we came upon rolling green chakras (plots of farming land) dotted with wandering pigs, cows, horses and chickens. Adobe huts housed curious copper-toned children who ran out to gawk at these pale-faced visitors.

One friendly farmer who was tending his corn with the help of his sons gave us directions to the peak we we seeking, and offered his 10-year old son, Antony, as a guide. The boy was hilarious. He told us that the peak was 20 minutes away, but after 30 minutes of straight uphill climb, we asked again and he said, "In gringo time, one more hour!" As Antony scrambled up the mountain with us lagging behind and begging for mercy, we finally reached the summit.

Utterly exhausted from the climb but exhilarated, we shared our powerbars and PB&Js with Antony and roasted in the Peruvian sun. The arresting view of the snow-capped peaks across the canyon proved worth the leg work. Antony explained that the soil was muy rico on this mountain, and that land offered abundant crops of corn and green beans (that look like limas, but 3 times larger).

As we faced the dreaded descent, quads screaming with every step, we bid adios to Antonio at his village. Along the way down, we collected a few more Quetchua children. Despite the aid of our expensive hiking and hydration gear, we were humbled by these joyful, precious kids-- outfited in dirty hand-me-down sweaters and rubber sandals-- who promptly kicked our butts in speed and athleticism.

Finally reaching flat land, we joined the vacas (bulls) in the river to cool our weary legs and take in the peaceful quiet of the afternoon. It was the best day yet.

Photo captions: Scary bridge we had to cross on the way up the mountain. -Antonio and me with his horses and cows - We reach the summit - Antonio on the summit


Guard Your Charmin and Kill Your Veggies

Things I have learned this week:

1. Drink coffee black. Here, milk comes in a box and requires no refrigeration. Sounds like a gastrointestinal nightmare waiting to happen.

2. Buy your chickens at sunrise. Fresh kill is always the safest route to go. See refridgeration issue above.

3. When you gotta go, know the foliage below. Peruvian plants pack more sting than poison ivy. Protect your derriere (not that I'm speaking from experience...um, yeah, but could you pass the Calomine lotion, por favor?)

4. Beware of dog(s). The are strays EVERYWHERE here in Curahuasi. The act of reaching for a stone will scare those rabid pooches away. But no need to actually throw rocks, okay?

5. Use Kilol (KILL-ALL). The only two words you need to know to disinfect fruits and veggies. Comes in plastic bottle. It's Clorox for your produce.

6. Don't drink the water. Unless you dig tape worms. And want to get skinny asap. Could be the next big thing on America's billion dollar diet frontier???
Photo captions: This is where we buy food to make our weekly meals: all from the Curahuasi market. Yum Yum!


Altitude Smaltitude

Hello amigos,

It's mate de cocoa time here in Curahuasi. Word on the street is that the cocoa tea, made from the cocoa grown in this region, is a cure all for altitude sickness that comes along with life at 10,000 feet. Given that I'm prone to just about every 'worst case scenario,' the altitude has--not surprisingly-- flattened me. Thankfully today, Tuesday, I am past the worst of it.

A bit of background: Friday we made the 3-hour stomach-twisting drive back to Cusco for a weekend jaunt. The ruins at Quorikancha and Sachsaywoman topped our must-see list. Unfortunatlely the ruins were closed due to the Easter holiday, but Cusco afforded plenty more to see during our overnight excursion.

First stop: Coffee at the cafe on the Plasa del Armas. Well caffienated, Miguel, Corissa (a doc from Los Angeles) and I proceeded to check out the Inka Museum, which boasted the "best Inkan artifacts in the city." If you call a color copy of of a few arrowheads pasted up on the wall (with a bit of history thrown in here and there), then I guess this would be your cup of cocoa tea. Perhaps something was lost in translation?

There was a pretty cool interactive floor display where the bricks started shifting under foot. Keeping my balance was a real challenge! Strangely enough, I seemed to be the only one in the museo playing this fun game. Next, the text in the displays started replicating, then blurring into one big, dizzying mish mash of letters and numbers. An ancient Inkan magic trick, maybe?

Miguel and Corrisa began exchanging worried looks, and I latched on to Miguel like a wobbly bambino learning how to walk. I'm certain I looked like an inebriated American who'd had too much Chica.

The unquenchable thirst for agua came next. I downed bottle after bottle after bottle of water, so much so that my main concern every twenty minutos became finding el bano. It was ridiculous. Seriously, I probably drank a trough of water and still that was not enough.

Somewhere in between the intense hydration and the pit stops, we made it to the Museo de Pre-Columbino arte. From what I recall of this museum, it housed some pretty cool Inkan treasures, including lots of ceramic pottery. That's all I got.

One parade later- which actually was a very somber mourning procession complete with Jesus in a glass coffin and a huge plastic icon of the Mother Mary (it was Good Friday) , we found a hostel ($8 a night- score!) and a traditional Peruvian meal (l had a huge appetite, whereas most lose it with the sickness). We returned to our hostel to find we had no running water (hence- you get what you pay for), but a bed seemingly bug-free.

Being in the good graces of two whip-smart physicians, the prognosis for my condition was that I was having a reaction to the altitude patch I'd slapped on a few days prior to the trip, and the altitude itself. Thus, I stripped off the patch and Saturday I was feeling some better, save for the naseua. My vision was slowly coming into focus, and I could walk a straight line.

Saturday was to be a shopping day, as Dr. Alex was coming into Cusco for his once-a-month grocery trip. In our village of Curahuasi, you can't find things like peanut butter, tomato sauce and pasta, butter, cheese or dairy products (that are safe to eat, at least) and more. We stocked up on cooking essentials and began the trek out of town in Alex's road-beaten Toyota. Sidenote- having a car in Curahuasi is a HUGE blessing for the missionaries to be able to make trips to the grocery in Cusco, the post office in Abancuy, the airports in Lima and Cusco and much more.

A huge plume of smoke coming from the hood of Alex's car put the cabash on the return trip. We piled out of the car and discovered that a cap for something important was missing. Huge problem at 3 p.m. on Saturday before Easter in Cusco. Long story short, Alex had a friend who had a friend who was a mechanic, who by the grace of God actually came out to meet us on the road, fixed the car, and got us on our way so that we made it through the mountains as night was falling.

Back home in the valley, I'm loving life at a lower altitude. Miguel and I are back to work in the hospital, and only one scorpion siting thus far. Muchas amore to all!

photo captions: l-r: typical sites in the village- Quetchua woman with harvest, Mike helps locals take water up the mountain, bathtime for these ninos


Welcome to Curahuasi!

We arrived in Curahuasi without a major hitch. The trip from Nashville to Miami to Lima to Cusco included many a flight delay. Go figure. Michael was sorely dissapointed that the Miami airport neglected to show the Final Four tournament on any of its TV moniters. Thankfullly that was the extent of our problems!

We deplaned in Cusco, grabbed our bags, and hopped a ride with a trusted cabbie who came highly recommended by the hospital staff. The dusty, winding Pan-American highway afforded beatiful scenic views of the Andes, and for three hours we wound our way toward snow-capped mountains. Peruvian drivers carry a notorious reputation for their lead foot, particularly while careening around the mountain curves ala Dale Earnhart. As Michael told said, "I didn't feel unsafe, but..." I, on the other hand, was white knuckled, stomach clenched most of the drive.

Upon arrival in our village of Curahuasi, we were met by many stray dogs (they are everywhere!) and tons of portly pigs. Cows, horses and mules also dotted the road side, roaming free at their leisure. Warm greetings of "Buenos Dias" (good day) were abundant from our new neighbors.

Primarily a farming community, Curahuasi is comprised of Quetchu who eek out a meager living by harvesting onions, potatoes and annice. Curahuasi is known as the annice "capital" of Peru, and when processed it takes much like licorise. Regrettably, many family farms in this region have turned their attention to growing cocoa, as cocoa commands a high price because its properties are integral to producing cocaine.

After dropping off our bags in our room at Diospi Suyana Hospital, we took a tour of the facilities. Fifty-five beds, an emergency room, internal medicine and pediatrics clinics, physical therapy and obstetrics share a space here. The hospital is meticulous and staffed by mostly German docs and Peruvian nurses.

Spanish is the primary modus operandi here, and so Miguel and I have been trying to learn very quickly in the last 24 hours. Even the Germans converse in Spanish, so often we say, "Despacio por favor" (slow down, please!), and then quickly consult our English/Spanish dictionaries.
Work began for us today in the medicine clinics. Dr. Miguel (that's Michael, if you haven't caught on yet) joined Dr. Alex in seeing both children and adults. I shadowed them, fetched patients from the waiting rooms, and scribbled lots of language notes ie "rodilla=knee" and "cabesa=head" and "manos =hands". Miguel followed along like a pro, and soon he will have his own clinic in the hospital.

Today's patients complained of pretty standard ailments common to this Apurimac region: respiratory problems, due to cooking with fire pits in adobe mud huts with no ventillation, back pain from carrying heavy loads of cargo (produce strapped on the back, bambino slung across the breast), and headaches (due to working in high altitude with little or no hydration). Worms and gastro intestinal issues also topped the list. This is one souvenier I hope we don't transport home!

After a lovely lunch of salad (only safe to eat at Dr. Alex & Dr. Laura's place) and ciabatta bread at the apartment of the docs, we returned to the hospital via the lush, green walking path that runs from "town" up a massive hill to the Hospital. Miguel and I were recruited to help screen/interview prospective hospital employees, as there are a few openings for nurses and lab techs. We had over 100 Peruvians turn out for the interviews, and after administering a written exam, we spent several hours grading them. Both of us have a whole new respect for teachers now! For sustinence, Dr. Tina (who started the Hospital with her husband) brought us some rich, delicious coffee and apple fritters from another planet. The fritters came from a local Curahuasian bakery that I will be visiting way too often now.

Thursday thru Sunday the Hospital shuts down in observance of Semana Santa (Easter), so we will have a chance to sleep in, hike the majestic Mirador trail-- with begins a stone's throw from the doc's apartment-- and hopefully catch a glimpse of the rare Condorres in flight. In the evening, I will join the German OB and his wife to play music for the youth of Curahuasi.
So far we are feeling well, eating well, and sleep comes easily. We do not miss having a TV, radio and traffic gridlock. The simple life is sweet here. There is never an idle moment at the Hospital, and we are grateful we can plug into such a vibrant and important health ministry here in the middle of paradise.

PS. Day two and still no TARANTULAS or SCORPIONS spotted in our living quarters. Praise God!


Adios Nashville, Hola Peru!


I’ve always been enamored with maps: grand, silken-canvassed rare gems, matted and framed and only to be admired under glass, or simple, pencil sketches scribbled on the backs of napkins, the kind Joni Mitchell immortalized in “Case Of You.” My prized souvenirs from many a road trip over the last 15 years have always been the blueprints of the land where I briefly planted my footsteps.

This April, the road bends south: way south, as Michael and I will leave behind the rolling hills of our Tennessee home for the jagged Andean sierras. We’ll spend April and May in the Peruvian village of Curahuasi, and we are very excited at this opportunity to plug into the local culture and to experience a very different way of life.

Our destination is the Diospi Suyana Hospital, where we will be living and working. Michael and I were invited to Diospi Suyana by two of Michael’s friends, now missionary physicians, who left Nashville last year to serve in Peru. Diospi Suyana Hospital, which means “God Is Our Hope,” was founded several years ago by two German physicians who dreamed of building a missions hospital to serve the Quechuan Indians living here in abject poverty.

Curahuasi, seated in the Apurimac region of Peru and 125 kilometers west of Cusco, is at an altitude of 8,500 feet above sea-level. Approximately 750,000 people, predominantly indigenous and direct descendants of the Incas, live within a three-hour radius of Curahuasi. We will do our best to update you on life from 'al sur del equador' (south of the Equator)!