Monthly Archives: January 2013

Comida Sucia

Comida Sucia

One night during our training in Bolivia I got sick. I had the runs and didn’t think much about it since it happens to everyone eventually. I drank a bit more water like we were told to do by the doctors and went to bed. The next two days were more of the same so I finally called the office to talk to the doctors about it. The rule was that if you had diarrhea for more than three days you had to go to the hospital.

So the doctors set up the hospital stay and a friend and I went. Normally I’d go alone, but this was when my Spanish left much to be desired and I really didn’t want to deal with medical issues in a language I didn’t know. I went with a girl who lived in a house near me because she studied Spanish in college and was pretty fluent.

We get there and the doctor is talking to us, my friend kind of translating. All I caught was ‘comida sucia’ – ‘dirty food.’ Well that just meant I had a case of food poisoning, nothing important. I was hooked up to an IV to replenish the fluids I had lost from all the pooping and things were running well.

About an hour later they decided they needed a stool sample from me. So they gave me a little cup to fill whenever it was time to go. Just the cup, nothing else. In America if you need to give a stool sample you normally get a small bowl that fits on the toilet seat and a spoon to scoop it into the cup. Not here.

It was finally time to hit the bathroom so I brought my IV bag and cup with me. I didn’t know how to take the IV out of my arm and I couldn’t find a nurse, so that was that. I put the IV bag on top of a cabinet in the bathroom and with so much grace an aplomb, got everything right in the cup. I was so proud of myself. No mess at all.

On the way out I saw a nurse and mentioned I had it, she told me that someone would be around to collect it soon. I headed back to the room where my friend was waiting and left the cup of poop on the table. No one came for a long time, so the two of us just sat there making poop jokes.


I’ve been worse

Eventually the doctor comes in and takes the sample and is talking to my friend. They’re going on and on and she must have told him that she was a bit sick too. He wanted to help being a doctor and all. If she’d just let him give her a shot she’d feel much better. My friend hates needles, she had to turn away when the IV was put in my arm, so she kept saying no. But eventually she caved and said yes.

So the doctor takes her out into the main area and I’m along for emotional support. While he’s getting ready, my friend and I are talking trying to get her mind off of what’s going on. She refuses to look because she’s super nervous. I snuck a few glances but saw nothing out of the ordinary.

The doctor came over and got my friend’s attention. I guess she didn’t like what she saw. The needle was a bit bigger than normal, but not outrageous. I didn’t think there was a problem with it, but I wasn’t the one in the chair. She screamed and bolted out of her chair, screaming as she sprinted to the bathroom. The next sounds I hear are her vomiting out of sheer stress. This went on for close to fifteen minutes. It was wild.

After regaining her composure she came out and hid behind me so the doctor wouldn’t talk to her. At this point the IV had been removed and the stool sample was sent away to some lab for work so there wasn’t much use in us being around anymore.

So we went out for ice cream.


Three Days Late. Two Hundred Dollars Short.

It hasn’t been the smoothest of weeks over here. I’ve been impatiently waiting for my invitation letter from China. That’s right I’m moving to China. Wuxi to be exact. In fact I should be there right now. But before I can leave I need to get my affairs in order.

I bought my ticket from Air China a little over a month ago once I was offered the position. The plan was to leave on January 26. That should be plenty of time do everything. My employer needed an FBI background I that he could bring to the Chinese authorities to prove I’m not criminal. I expressed mailed that during the holiday season. It wasn’t my fault, it just so happens that’s when I was offered the job and I sent it out as soon as possible.

It finally got there and my boss went through all the hoops, he’s an American who’s been there for over a decade and knows the game, and got my invitation letter. I’m officially welcome by the Chinese government! It may be a formality but it’s still kind of cool.

He express mails the paperwork back to me so I can go to the embassy, I still need a visa. He used EMS, which is the USPS overseas branch. The letter was dropped in the mail January 11, just over two weeks to get here. No one can screw that up right?

Wrong. Six days later it is returned to the office as undeliverable. What? After reconfirming my information and knowing it was EMS not him who screwed up, my boss sent it off again on January 18.

The days are passing. Him and I are in constant communication about the status of the parcel. I’m concerned. I need these papers to arrive so I can go to the embassy to get my visa. With this invitation letter it’s just a rubber stamp but the last day it can arrive and I make my flight is January 24. I can’t wait for the mail and get to the embassy in DC in the same day. It’s delivered pretty late where I am out in the boondocks.

Since it was express mail my boss was told it would take three to five days to arrive. Perfect. At the higher end it’ll still be here on the 23rd and I’ll have plenty of time for the visa.

Come January 21 I wrote telling my boss it hadn’t arrived. Since Wuxi is thirteen hours ahead he went down to the EMS office on the 22nd and raised hell. They guaranteed it would arrive on time for me. This let me relax.

On the 23rd, still no parcel. In fact when I used the USPS tracking system all it would say is that the parcel was processed in China, nothing else. Terribly frustrated I called the USPS customer service trying to find it. I’ve dealt with people who have attitudes before, but this woman took the cake. Holy hell she was rude. I could hear her rolling her eyes and basically not giving one concern about my plight. Forget the fact that the EMS branch of USPS is about to cost me hundreds of dollars, she made me feel like I was ruining her day. I guess working in a call center does that to you.

The 24th came, do or die. I crossed my fingers, maybe USPS botched the tracking info. They already screwed up with the mailing twice. I made the long walk to the mailbox. It was snowing and winding and miserably cold. The mailbox is about a quarter mile away from the house, and I felt every single step. I opened the mailbox, there were a bunch of different envelopes. Excited I grabbed the pile and started to flip through them.

And nothing for me. Just a bunch of junk mail My heart just bottomed out. I wasn’t going to China anytime soon.

The first thing I did when I got back was call the Chinese embassy in Washington. Maybe there was some way they could give me a temporary work visa (I didn’t want a tourist visa) and I could finish it up in China. That wasn’t happening. Even thought she wasn’t able to help me, the wonderful woman who works the visa office phones was so considerate listening to my problems. She seemed to take it as a personal failure that USPS is slower than molasses and the Chinese government has immigration rules that she can’t tweak to help someone.

Then I called Air China. If I can’t get a visa I’ll bite the bullet and pay the money for a changed ticket. Better than wasting all the money on a flight I won’t be on. I was on the phone with another lovely lady for an hour. Dead serious. She tried so hard to find me another flight to put me on. The problem was, and I don’t know if it’s Air China or all carriers, is that a change of ticket means I must fly on the same routes that I originally bought. Since I was flying DC to LA to Beijing to Wuxi, that was the only path I could take. Air China runs a bunch of DC to NYC to Beijing to Wuxi flights, but I couldn’t get on one of those. We finally found a flight that would work, but there was a seventeen hour layover in Beijing. Air China offered to put me up in a Beijing hotel for free so I wouldn’t be camping in the airport for more than a half day. Who am I, a rock star? This wasn’t their fault. They were nothing but professional and kind to me the entire time.

Unfortunately the hotel they could put me up in was not right next to the airport and I’d have to get there myself. And I would be landing the first day of Chinese New Year. And I would be carrying two bags plus a carry-on. And I have no friends who can help in Beijing. And I don’t speak Chinese at all. And I’d be super jet-lagged from. I can think of rougher entries into a country, but not too many. I felt bad because she worked so hard, but I had to turn down the offer. She didn’t seem to mind, in fact she told me that’s what she would do in my situation.

Somehow in dealing with Air China with their aim to please the customer and me being frustrated and confused, both of us missed the most obvious solution. Why don’t I just cancel the ticket and buy a new one? So if I end up flying DC to NYC, no worries. It was such a ‘duh’ head slapping moment when I finally thought of it. I mentioned it to her and I could hear on her the same ‘why didn’t I think of that yet’ tone that I found pretty funny. So I canceled the flight, and now I’m waiting for my refund.

After canceling the flight I looked for another one. I wanted to use Air China because of how great they were to me. But unfortunately for them I was able to find a different carrier that would get me there cheaper than the Air China flights I saw. So I booked with them. In the end the new flight was only $50 more than my original ticket and the cancellation fee was $150. Instead of leaving January 26, I leave February 10 which isn’t a ton of time to wait. I’ll be able to see a few friends who I haven’t seen yet due to lack of time. It’s not a total loss. And my boss said I’ll be reimbursed for the extra costs.

The moral of the story as I learned talking to USPS on multiple occasions is that when overseas, express mail only guarantees three to five day delivery AFTER clearing customs. They might not tell you that at the EMS office, but it’s the truth. So make sure you give them at least an extra week for any time sensitive materials. Or just use FedEx or UPS.

Baltic Amber

Jurassic Park is one of the greatest movies ever made. From a pair of spunky kids outsmarting a herd of velociraptors to a T-rex seriously ruining someone’s toilet time, the movie has it all. But one of the most underrated aspects of the flick is how it pushed amber into the public conscious. The Baltic region produces the vast majority of the world’s amber so the odds that fly with the dinosaur DNA was Northern European is pretty high.

Since the dawn of humans, amber has been marveled at and desired for it’s beauty. Then golden color can just mesmerize a person. The tourist industries in the Baltic states have taken full advantage of this. Walk through any tourist area in Gdansk or Vilnius (also probably Kaliningrad, Tallinn, and Riga) and you’ll see hundreds of amber trinkets for sale. You can also get them in Germany, but according to a German friend I toured Poland, Polish prices are less than half of German prices. Whether it’s just a little necklace for a special girl in your life or a huge ship that can dominate your mantle, amber artisans are still able to practice their craft.

Carry-on?  Vilnius, Lithuania

Carry-on baggage? Vilnius, Lithuania

Amber just isn’t for looking pretty. It has left it’s mark on European history. After the Crusades the Teutonic Knights conquered the amber rich Baltic region eventually building Malbork Castle. As the seat of the Teutonic power, it was where the knights enforced their monopoly over the amber trade. Amber was used for rosaries and by controlling the production and supply of the precious materials, the Teutonic Order was able to leverage concessions and power from various other world leaders. Kind of like OPEC. Eventually this license to print money collapsed with the Protestant Reformation and the Lutheran lack of rosaries.

The history of amber in Poland is shown through a surprisingly modern and well equipped museum located in Malbork Castle. You can see how amber is born millions of years ago and all the exact geologic processes that have to occur in order to complete the formation. You’ll also find dozens of pieces of jewelry stretching from the Neolithic time right up until today. The evolution of the craft as tools got stronger, smaller, and more precise is great to see. It’s like two attractions for the price of one. Just another reason you should visit one of the best draws in Poland.

The Armenian Flag

I ran across this in an Armenian friend’s dissertation I am proofreading and felt like it was worth sharing.

The Republic of Armenia law on the flag (2006) specified the meanings for the three colors on the flag.  The red symbolizes an everlasting struggle of the Armenian people for a long life, Christian faith, and an independent and free Armenia.  Blue correlates with the wish of the Armenian people to live under a peaceful blue sky.  And orange celebrates the creative talent and hard working characteristics of Armenians.

The Armenian Flag

However, some school students apparently are taught a different version of the flag: red, blue, and purple.  This stems from the idea that the Armenian word for purple is ‘trisaranagyun’ derived from the words apricot, tsiran and color, gyun.  The apricot is the national fruit of Armenia and one of the defining characteristics of the culture.  So some schools play songs where the flag colors are red, blue, and purple.  The red stands for Armenian blood that was spilled to keep the country safe, blue for the blues skies that look over the Armenian people, and purple for the ears of wheat that feed.

I’m not farmer but I’m not really sure where the purple comes from when dealing with wheat.  I’ve seen pictures and they’re golden.  I’m sure there’s a reason though.

Hill of Witches (Raganu Kalnas)

I adore Lithuania. It’s my favorite country I’ve ever visited. There’s something in the air that’s intoxicating. I felt like I was high the entire time I was there. I couldn’t tell you what it was, but somehow I felt like Lithuania was the OLD country. If fairies and gnomes and elves existed they would live in Lithuania. The only way I could describe it to myself was that it felt like what I imagined the North to be like in A Song of Ice and Fire. I made comparisons to Lord of the Rings earlier; I’m kind of a nerd.

One of the most interesting things in Lithuania and by extension the rest of the world is Raganu Kalnas, or Hill of Witches. It’s a sculpture garden out in Juodkrante on the Curonion Spit (more on that later). A winding patch takes you up a small forested hill where you’re free to explore dozens of carved wooden images involving characters from Lithuanian folk lore.

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Keeping a Language

A language is a pillar of a nation’s culture. It can provide a link back through history and a view of the future. Protecting a language from dying off like so many others is not a natural act. People need to make a conscious effort to teach their children the language, normally though the schools. No where is this shown better than in Armenia. Throughout elementary school students are taught to respect and love the Armenian language. A pair of poems they learn are translated below.

Keep it
[Armenian language] high and pure as the sacred snow of Ararat is,

Keep it close to your heart as you remember your grandfathers’ memories…

Even if it happens so that you forget your mother,

You should never forget your mother language


Our caravan would have lost his way, we would have been lost, if we did not have our language to light for us in the night ways. Thus, let us glorify and burnish as a sword, so that the Armenian language, always bright, could tinkle under the sun


A Khatchkar’s Story


This is the sad story of two young lovers. There once was a young man in the village who was a tailor (represented by the scissors near his head) and caught the attention of the most beautiful girl in the area. When the two decided to wed there was great rejoicing because she was so lovely and he was a well brought up and responsible young man. Although the two families were poor they were able to provide enough for a large wedding party (the food and wine jugs) and invited the whole town. The young couple were standing in front of the priest staring lovingly into each other’s eyes when a force of marauding bandits (man on horse) swept down from the hills and began to slaughter the populace. The couple were violently butchered along with many of the other people, but somehow half of the population was able to survive. The groom’s younger brother vowed revenge, and as he marched to the blacksmith to turn his plowshares to swords, his mother begged him to reconsider. She could not bear the idea of losing her only remaining child. After the rage subsided, the brother understood the wisdom of his mother and apprenticed himself to the town’s stone cutter. After three years of apprenticeship he carved out this scene to remember his brother and would-be sister in law and placed it over the place where the two were killed.

End of the Line

This is the final entry about Peace Corps’ evacuation of Bolivia in 2008. You can read part one, part two, part three, and part four. Or just keep on keeping on here if you don’t care about the build up.

So Peace Corps got us to Lima. They put the whole lot of us in a resort just outside the city. Four bed bungalows, good food, we were living the high life. Or we would be if we weren’t the most depressing lot of PCVs you ever saw.

We tried to occupy our time exploring the area which wasn’t so hot since we were in a small town on the outskirts of Lima. But a few things happenings do stick out.

I had the best Chinese food I’ve ever had (we’ll see if that stands when I actually move to China) was there. Some friends and I skipped out on dinner because we wanted to go out for drinks. We hadn’t had Chinese food in months because it doesn’t exist in Bolivia. We all sat down and were reading the menu in Spanish. Almost all of the dishes came con chaufa, ‘with chaufa.’ And near the end I could get beef or chicken chaufa on it’s own for like two dollars. None of us knew what chaufa was but drawing upon previous experiences with Chinese restaurants and the price tag for the chaufa, I made the logical jump that chaufa was some sort of eggroll. Probably a bigger one if you get it on it’s own. So I got two, a beef and chicken chaufa.

Our food arrives and lo and behold what do I get? Two plates of fried rice. The mounds of rice were the size of my head. The serving sizes all around were enormous. They served dishes that were twice as big as any normal human being would eat. Wasting food sucks, but there was no way we would have been able to finish all of it. They literally had to pull up a second table next to us just to put our food on.

Another restaurant story happened to a couple of friends. One evening PC hired a bus for us to take us into downtown Lima. Some of the guys went to Hooters because they had this deal, unlimited wings and beer for about $40. So while we were hunting out ceviche and pisco sours they were just crushing wings. At the end of the night it turned out there was some fine print. They had to eat a plate of wings and drink a beer, if they ever got two plates per beer or two beers per plate instantly it went over to having to pay for each beer and set of wings. Of course they didn’t know this and ended up with a $400 bill between the five of them.

At our ceviche place, the waitress asked us to speak English because we all learned rural Bolivian Spanish and she didn’t understand our dialect. That was pretty embarrassing.

Those were the highlights. The low came when the country director gathered us all together for a conference. There it was announced that Peace Corps was temporarily suspending the program in Bolivia. It was like taking your first blow in a boxing match. It wasn’t unexpected, but hurt all the same.

Later that night you wouldn’t be able to find any alcohol within five miles of the resort. We bought it all. Lots of tears and anger at Washington for screwing us. Solace was found at the bottom of a bottle.

Have you ever tried to deal with a hundred and forty hungover and pissed off PCVs? Not a job for the faint of heart. But deal with us the staff did. Suspending a program entails a whole bunch of paperwork and logistical nightmares. They walked us through it, holding our hands every step of the way. We were given the option to finish our service in Latin America (what most people did) or do a complete two years somewhere else (what I did, ending up in Armenia). They brought down counselors to help us deal with the rapid readjustment and in general went way out of their way to make us happy. Not like that was going to happen though. We all had friends in Bolivia we were leaving behind. Training groups that were like families were scattered across the globe with less than a week to cope.

Peace Corps said the program was evacuated for volunteer safety. Most of us think that’s a cop out reason. The commonest theory is that PC Bolivia was caught up in the Bolivia – America diplomatic scuffles and we were just a pawn. Washington took us out to spite Bolivia for some slight and Peace Corps is a whole lot less important than a DEA mission I guess.

The Story of Mt Ararat

One of my good Armenian friends studies ethnography in university and is working on her doctorate degree. So whenever she has a paper to write I offer to proofread it for her, correcting English mistakes and typos due to her not being a native speaker. I’d do it no matter what she was studying but since it’s such an interesting subject, I’m often lucky enough to hear about stories and tales from Armenian history. In the most recent paper of hers I read she wrote about the national myths that are told to young children in schools and at home.

The story of Ararat.

Mt Ararat is revered in Armenian culture. It stands a symbol of their nation and a protector of the Armenian people. So it’s no surprise that there is a creation myth for it that isn’t ‘plate tectonics.’

Years and years and years ago there was a young man named Ararat. He lived a peaceful life with his village in the Armenian highlands. One day a group of bandit raiders came through and held the village for ransom. Ararat escaped the initial onslaught, mounted a defense, and led the attack to repulse the bandits. He was celebrated as a hero by his friends and family.

Over the years Ararat became more and more famous in the region. He was known as intelligent and fair, as well as an exceptional military commander. His defense against foreign invaders because the stuff of legend. Because of him the Armenian people could live in safety. But time keeps on ticking and eventually Ararat was an old and sick man. So at the age of a hundred he prayed to God.

‘God, I am old and tired. I need rest from this mortal coil. But I can not leave my people. Help me protect them until the end of time.’

God looked down to Ararat and replied. ‘You are only a man, and it is man’s gift and curse to be mortal. I can not make you live forever. What I can do is turn you into a mountain so you can look down upon your people and the Armenian nation can look upon you in wonder and hope.

So Ararat was turned into the mountain. The people were upset they lost their hero and they cried and cried and cried. They cried so much their tears ended up forming the Araks River which makes up the present day border between Armenia and Turkey.

Of course being a legend, there are probably many others describing the formation of Mt Ararat and the Araks River. My friend tells me this particular tale is not very popular, she never heard it until doing her dissertation research.

Fouling the Food

In order to save money while I do much of my eating with food from grocery stores. It’s much cheaper than going out to eat and it’s nice to have so much more variety. Most of the time I have zero problems, but occasionally I make a mistake. So to celebrate I’ve made a list of some of my more memorable mix ups.

I bought the cheaper orangeade instead of orange juice or my sick friend. The worst part was it was my idea to get her OJ while she was in bed.

My friend send me out to buy some butter. I ran down to the local shop and found the butter section. Again to save money I picked the cheapest one up because butter is butter. Except when it’s pure fat to be melted on top of pierogies.

Topping that, a couple of friends of mine went out for ice cream in Armenia.  When you buy ice cream there it often comes in wrapped up blocks.  Well everyone got theirs and were heading out.  This was before we spoke enough Armenian to know what the shopkeepers were saying. One of my friends opens the ice cream and finds out it’s a stick of butter.  In order to save face he took a solid bit out of it as the shopkeeper watched on.  Like it was what he wanted the whole time.

I went out shopping while my friend was at work. I visited the butcher and got some chicken and as I was paying I noticed a pile of ribs for dirt cheap.  Like less than a dollar a kilo cheap. I’m a sucker for ribs. So I picked up about a kilogram and made them to go with the chicken. There wasn’t a whole lot of meat on them, but I figured that’s why they were so cheap. I served the food and my friend’s roommate informed me the meat was so cheap because it was meant to be served to pets, not people. Still tasted good.

At the shop there was a can of beer I hadn’t tried before. I picked it up and popped it open when I got back. Turns out it was an awful, awful ginger flavored beer. To top it off there wasn’t even any alcohol in it.

Another time I mixed up some lemonade tasting beer with real beer. It also was disgusting. But at least it can get you drunk.

I wanted to buy some mustard so I ran to the local store. They didn’t have any regular condiments. So I had to settle for this garlic sauce that was like three times more expensive than ketchup or mustard would have been. That was a downer.

I once mistook mustard for toothpaste. Did you know you can buy mustard in squeeze tubes in Germany? Real cheap too.

But my absolute favorite happened in Warsaw. I went to a meat shop to buy some chicken. I pointed it out in my non-existent Polish and had it wrapped up at the counter. I paid for it, picked it up, and left. A few hours later when it was time to prepare dinner, I unwrapped it and I was shocked and amazed to see a pile of sliced ham. I guess I just picked up some other person’s package. I still wonder if they noticed it before they tried to prepare their lunch or dinner.