Please see above.

There are different kinds of joy. There’s the soft sticky suffocation of melting chocolate, the bracing kiss of lemon, the imagined gliding on wings, the comfort of line-dried duvets in front of a fire with a hot mug, the satisfaction of a kitten choosing your lap in which to sleep.

Fear comes in many flavors, too. The dry grit of not breathing, the black licorice of the unwanted surprise, the copper whiff of a fight gone wrong and the slick, sharp brush of truth unwanted. Sometimes, the two intermingle, playing off each other like cat and mouse, with neither sure who is the cat. A little salt of fear brings out the complex notes of caramel. A lot make the gourmet dulce de leche inedible.

(Sharp. Bright. In focus. Breathe. Look what guts can do. Feel alive. Acknowledge your lack of birdness and the bitter taste of gravity.) (The rain patters overhead while the fire crackles. The musty scent of a well-loved books mingles with steam from a cup of perfectly prepared tea.)

I prefer chocolate and you choose vanilla. I like my joy fresh and brilliant and spicy to the touch and you like gentle and enveloping. A craving for coffee is not satisfied by banana pudding.

Re: Why can’t you just enjoy something safe? Please see above.

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Pound of Flesh

Waiting at a stoplight, the hot air gathers around, thickening as the seconds tick by. My skin glistens with a grasping mixture of sunblock, repellent, soap and sweat, shining smooth. A sudden burst of acceleration peels away the heat in a soft layer, brushed behind us by a blanket of wind. With our hips tipping sharply to counterbalance the bike, we round a corner, dodging between motokars dragging sparking rebar and stuffed with passengers.

I don’t know how to drive a moto, so I’m always the passenger, but that’s ok because I wouldn’t have the courage that my friends do, slipping between two trucks and throttling up to 100 kilometers an hour, or driving down the stairs and flinging over speedbumps. People actually drive down stairs! It’s not just in the movies! I consciously ignore the images of the mangled bodies I have treated in the ER and enjoy instead the pulsing thrill.

I wish I could explain the soft joy this brings me, the greeting of “mi amor,” the demand to draw balloons from the two year old, the savory dishes and spoken recipes that make up lunch, all amidst my floundering Spanish. Sometimes I feel I am suffocating from unspoken words, bitten back sarcasms, and unknown phrases. They catch in my throat and I sit silent, a different person in Spanish and English.

But now, I’m drinking lemonade because, my nurse explains, “it keeps you cool longer under the intense sun of the selva.” Iquitos is dragging a flesh price out of me. I’m losing weight, sweating it out, a 1000 big C calories in a breath, running down my leg. Even in my fancy technical smart intelligent NASA designed REI pants, my s/ 9 t shirt that I bought because yesterday the laundry didn’t dry, the socks stiff from too many handwashings in not enough water, I can feel it melting away. That lemonade did nothing to keep me cool. I’ll add it to my long list of superstitions to ignore and enjoy my escabeche de gallina and the toddler kisses and relish my lunch hour.

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Today, everything you think about when you imagine field work is true. I got up before the sun, silently dressing in the dark because of a power outage. A moto across the city dropped us off at the port of what amounts to a large canoe with a small motor. We passed over a lake and then through a trench cut into the bank, the field workers laughing and sharing inside jokes as we slid onto the black water of the Nanay. I was close to falling asleep, lulled by the steady motion of the boat and the strange coolness of the early morning. We turned, heading straight for the edge of the river where I saw only unbroken selva. At the last minute, a tiny waterway appeared, forcing us all to lean forward lest branches snag our t shirts as we wound up the tributary, which was barely wide enough to navigate. We were dropped off at a dirt path, and under the eye of the steady sun, trooped into the village. The main square (if it can be called that) has a raised cement sidewalk, which is often commandeered by sleeping animals. A generator hummed steadily in the background. I texted a friend and she responded that she is jealous of my adventures. Even here, I can send a message to the other half of the world. (Thank you, T-mobile unlimited international texting.)

Maybe this isn’t everything you thought of fieldwork. There’s a small health post maintained by nurses who trek out daily from Iquitos, jeans, and cell phone signal. We bought Amazonian otter pops from a vendor, bit through the plastic and spit the corner on the ground. None of the chickens in this village have neck feathers, all of the dogs look different. The village is named after the sequoia of the Amazon, but none of the great trees are left. I have seen zero completely naked children, and Tarzan is, unfortunately, busy elsewhere today. But still, when you think of field work, you probably imagine this isolation, the trees knocking together, long walks around a village of bare little houses. That’s often not what my work is. Half the time, I’m sitting on my hiney, writing grants or emails. I wander off to huge hospitals in massive cities or make my way through a slum. Monday I’ll be in the shiny white laboratory, Tuesday I’ll live in Starbucks and Wednesday, I’ll go to the jungle to do “real fieldwork.” It’s all real work, but there’s a Hollywood view even of appropriate locales and activities for public health workers. You’d think Hollywood would have better things to do than dictate my supposed life, but apparently public health workers make excellent gentlemen and damsels in distress for big action movies.

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What’s a Typical Day?

My days vary a lot – if I’m traveling for work, my daily routine looks much different than if I’m in Lima developing research plans. Even in Lima, I may trek out to Hospital Dos De Mayo one day, up to Universidad Cayetano Heredia (where we have our lab) the next, and then go to Pampas, which is our shantytown fieldsite, on the third. But lately, I’ve mostly been working out of my flat in Miraflores.

Yesterday was papaya for breakfast, then hours on the couch (wearing scrubs, of course), staring at a literature review for a new project we’re developing. Miraflores is a busy neighborhood, and I could hear the combis coming and going, the angry horns of cabs as they were cut off in traffic, the hawkers crying out their fruit wares. At noon, I nipped over to Multimart to pick up some empanadas for lunch. Although usually people here don’t eat until 1 or 2, I’ve learned that if I want my favorite mushroom pies, I need to be there early. It was already crowded with people sitting at the counter, drinking coffee, and packed into the corner, waiting for their lunches-to-go. I snagged an extra empanada for Señora Monica, who arrived to clean the flat just as I was leaving. Then I was back to the couch, with a two hour break to do some tutoring via skype.

Late in the afternoon, I packed up some articles that needed editing, grabbed a red pen,and headed to the park. There’s a tiny amphitheater set into the ground, and people were spread across it. It’s perfectly round, and there’s one very sketchy power point. Sometimes, street performers plug their music in, other times, people are charging laptops or phones. (The park has free wi-fi.) Maybe 60 people sat on one of the four levels; I was one of four gringos. Across from me, an abuelito has fallen asleep and behind me, a four year old spills his popcorn. There are young couples, a few skateboarders, mothers with kids, business people, and three tourists. One of them is next to me, and he looks mildly startled when one of the park’s resident cats climbs into his lap and starts purring.

As I wended my way along the four minute walk home, I stopped at La Lucha, which is my favorite sandwich shop. After starting my juice, helado, sin azucar, the counter girl asked, “Where do you live? It must be close! You’re here all the time.” Whoops. Busted. She and I chatted while my juice was blending, and then I headed off, promising to return soon. (Which I will. I always do.)

Back at my flat, I switched to a third project and began outlining a research plan. I gave that a good two hours of work, and gorged myself on cold roasted zucchini and goat cheese. Then it was off to Pirqa for a couple hours. My new words for the day were esguince (sprain) and conmoción cerebral (concussion) as I explained why I was taking it easy. The next question (after “Why are you taking it easy?” – “I have a concussion and a few sprains” and “Why?” – “I was hit by a drunk driver”) was “Why are you even here then?” and the answer was “Because I can’t run, as it hurts my head too much, and I’m going absolutely crazy sitting in my flat.”

I got home around 11pm, and went back to the day’s first project, which was not any more fun at 11pm than it had been at 11am. After an hour of skyping with my parents, I finished the day with some Spanish practice and threw the towel in, deciding the two hours of work I still needed to do could wait 8 hours.

And that’s a day in the life.

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Postcards from Perú: Iquitos Tres

A few weekends ago, while I was still in Iquitos, I finally finished a time-sensitive project, and my co-workers and I fled to the Amazon for an overnight journey into the jungle.

Among the highlights:

Swimming with river dolphins

Climbing trees and vines

Seeing monkeys (three species!)

Cutting down a tree with a sloth in it (because the tree was in a rice paddy) and then holding said sloth

Accidentally scaring an iguana so badly that it flung itself into the river and paddled off downstream

Catching and eating pirhanas

Finding a baby boa constrictor (this photo has nothing to do with that)

There’s really no way to describe the entire journey: the river banks laced with tangling ribbons of butterflies and the kingfishers dive bombing low over the water, the soupy air under the trees and the squealing chatter of monkeys as they race through the treetops ahead of our twig-cracking footsteps. That night, we drifted down a tributary in a dug out canoe, with no light but the clouded-over moon scattering across the chocolate water. Also, it’s very sweaty.

Iquitos, if you go:


Huasai (Fitzcarrald 102) – this cheap lunch place is your typical menu: lunch with a starter, a main, and a beverage for s/10 or s/12. There’s a nice variety of dishes, including the typical and ‘safe’ Peruvian favorites like lomo saltado (stir fry beef with tomatoes and potatoes) and chaufa (fried rice) and some more interesting dishes, like chicharrón de lagarto (fried alligator) and venado asado (roast venison). All of the food is very tasty and well made; we came here two days in a row.

El Sitio (Sargento Lores 404) – for dinner, you pick out which brochetas (skewers or shish kebabs) you want, and then they are grilled over tropical charcoal and delivered to your table. There are typical brochetas like chicken and steak, some more interesting, like anticucho (beef heart), and a nice assortment of vegetables and cheese and fruit skewers. (The grilled cheese is awesome!)


My Amazon Tours ( Jr Putumayo 155/ – an excellent tour company that will put together a personalized tour for you on short notice. We saw them the afternoon before we wanted to leave, and they were organized and ready for us at 7am the next morning (14 hours later). Very reasonable prices, great guides, and a nice little lodge up one of the Amazon’s tributaries. The guides speak English or Spanish.

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Postcards from Peru: Iquitos Dos

Market spices

River fish

The market here shows why you would never starve in the Amazon. Fruits and vegetables, fish, spices, pineapples the shape of footballs, live ducklings and piles of chicken trimmings (soup, I guess?) are hawked religiously. You can buy hearts of palm, a quick lunch, poorly labeled, and likely counterfeit pharmaceuticals, or, y’know, cause you might need it, an entire pig’s head.

To be made into soup? Maybe?

Just in case

Let me correct some misconceptions about Iquitos. This is a city of 300,000 people, with air conditioning in our flat (we can turn it on after 7pm, per our dueña), hot water in the shower that doesn’t even electrocute the bather, internet most of the time, beer and Coca Cola, and designer bikinis from Columbia. There are no US based chains, but there’s a diner, Ari’s, that would do rocking business in New York, and the Karma Kafe, which would give any San Fran coffee shop a run for its money. Chocolate is near impossible to find because it all melts, but el supermercado has Crest Whitestrips. There don’t seem to be stringent standards of modesty, with tube tops and miniskirts as common as jeans and gumboots. One day, we have lunch at our project coordinator’s tia’s restaurant, where we eat whole, baked fish, and then go see the tapir after lunch. I ask why they have a tapir on their paiche farm. (Paiche is the world’s largest freshwater fish. Google it and have nightmares.)
Por que hay un tapir aqui? Why is there a tapir here?
Por que no? Why not?
Well, that answers that.

Piñas dulces

Iquitos has its own Eiffel tower. Not a joke. Well, sort of a joke. The steel house was designed and built by Eiffel, destined for Bolivia, but the ship captain got tired of hauling it up the Amazon and abandoned it in Iquitos. It now holds a pharmacy and souvenir shop. The Plaza de Armas across the street comes alive at night. There are full size carousel horses for photos, popcorn and churros for snacking, psychedelic lighting for the church steeple, and two years olds running through the square at midnight. A co-worker says, “I feel like I’m trapped in Disneyland.”

Eiffel’s steel house

Don’t think its all fun and games here, though. Several days in a row, I’m up til midnight, sitting in a growing pool of my own sweat, writing up a protocol for a new research project. I spend a lot of time going to meetings that don’t end up happening and trying to find internet to Skype into conference calls. We discuss and refine ideas, tossing out jokes that somehow turn into grants that actually need to be written (don’t start any joke with, ‘Hey Dr. G, what about X?’ He will decide X is a great idea and you’ll have saddled yourself with more work.) This week, I’ve had multiple nightmares about research plans.

Sunset over the Amazon

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The malecon, Iquitos’ board walk overlooking the Amazon.

I stepped off the plane from Lima and into a wall of heat and humidity; my boss immediately tugged at his shirt collar and I simply thought that at least it wasn’t as overwhelming as Samoa. The taxi drivers are insistent, crowding into personal space and trying very hard to sell us a ride into the city. Cars here are rare; yesterday I stood on a street corner and stared in awe as a Hummer drove past. He must have hired an entire cargo boat to float that thing up the Amazon. On the way from the airport, we passed a permanent carnival, its neon lights and electronic rides flashing against the heavy darkness. There’s an 80s rock cover band playing in the Plaza de Armas and somehow the whole scene has a cotton candy glow to it. I ask our lab worker why the band is playing. ‘Is it a holiday?’ ‘No,’ she says, ‘It’s Iquitos.’

Motos with cardboard to shield the seats from the hot sun.

One night, we go to dinner at the Yellow Rose of Texas, of the NYT article fame. It’s a bizarre place, with Halloween masks under the counter, country flags (including Mississippi and Texas) adorning the ceiling, and ice skates and boomerangs on the wall. The owner gives off a slightly creepy, very friendly, and definitely into-football vibe, and the menu offers chicken and dumpings – the food of poor people of the southern US. It’s passable.

The menu at Yellow Rose of Texas

During the day, we take moto-taxis around the city, dodging traffic and buzzing from lab to lab, grateful for the breeze afforded by riding in a moto in the muggy, near hundred degree heat. Surprisingly, I see very few hand fans here. Perhaps I can get a corner on that market?

Looking over a shanty town to the Amazon in the distance.

I have fried rice for breakfast, lizard for lunch, complete with egg salad as a dipping sauce, and palm fronds as dinner’s salad. Later, as I’m sitting in Karma Kafe, which promises to serve organic and GMO-free food, I watch a few Peruvians in traditional dress proselytize a gringo on a Mac, and two left-over hippies and their son or boy-toy discuss the relative merits of ayahauscu and peyote. The consensus is that peyote is better. Good to know. I am trying neither on this trip. There are beanbags here as seats, in proper jungle colors, although they look like something you could pick up at Ikea. A local in those striped pants you only see on female backpackers in the Ukraine is wearing Vibram’s five fingers and has a flask in his pocket. A discussion has started among two ex-pats about their experiences at Sasquatch, in Washington State.

The outskirts of a village on a river tributary.

My co-worker and I make a side trip to the market, which is resolutely bustling, and then we meet up for lunch at a menu, Huasai. We have to wait for a table, which is always a good sign, and fotbol is playing on the telly. Lunch at a menu is similar all across the country, although here the salad is palm, and lizard is on the menu. There is a flyer, in English, advertising laundry services. The Spanish translation is almost identical. “We use a non-toxic detergent which was first discovered as a natural deposit, a mineral salt, in Tibet 1000 years ago. It was first traded along The Silk Route. It has anti-fungal/mould and anti-insect properties and it provides an anti-radioactive ‘neutron-capture shield!’” My co-worker comments “Iquitos is weird.”

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