One Year. One Physical Therapist in Trujillo, Peru.

Combining passions of global public health with travel and cultural immersion... With the help of the Catholic Medical Mission Board, I was afforded the opportunity to live outside of Trujillo, Peru for one year's time (2010-2011). Check out old posts about my experiences as a PT working in hospitals, a school, an outpatient clinic, doing research/community based rehabilitation, and a little teaching too. And my experiences with an entire calendar year of holidays, cultural customs and new culinary experiences!

I make it back about once a year with university students/CMMB projects, so I will periodically provide updates :)

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Yellow Underwear, Grapes and Luggage

Here in Perú, they don’t practice “New Year’s Resolutions.” There’s no New Year’s Eve kiss. However, there are some traditions, most of which are performed at the strike of midnight, that are supposed to bring good fortune in the year to come.

1. Take a hot shower with a bunch of herbs. Cleans out the system- better health and prosperity for the  year to come.
2. Put 12 grapes under the table. At midnight, eat each one separately with an accompanying wish for each grape that you desire to come true in the year to come.
3. If going on a big trip in the coming year, pack your suitcases and run around the block several times (with them) at the strike of midnight – brings safe travels.
4. Tie three knots in a string and put it on like a bracelet. When the knots break, your wish will come true.
5. Wear yellow underwear on New Year’s Eve for happiness in the year to come. (EVERYONE is selling yellow underwear right now!)
6. Run up the stairs and throw money down from the top to guarantee financial success in the year to come.
7. Put glasses in your pocket or wallet for good luck in money in the year to come.
8. Write down bad events of the previous year, construct a doll, put the papers inside, and burn it! – Fresh start in the new year.

My host sisters also told me that you will also have great luck if you pour a bucket of cold water over your head at midnight! And that the beaches in Perú are topless…. HA! Needless to say, I got my facts checked for #1-8, just to make sure! ☺

You usually only do one of the traditions… but I think that to increase my odds, at the strike of midnight, in my yellow underwear, I’ll run around the block 12 times with my luggage, each time stopping to eat a grape from under the table.


Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas in Perú

Mi Familia Peruana!
My favorite part of the Peruvian culture – the family values – especially shone this as this holiday season approached. Here, there’s little stress of the commercial side of the American Christmas as we know it- the gift giving is kept to a minimum, and the emphasis is simply on spending time with family. My family draws names every year for an “Amigo secreto” (or secret Santa), and this is the only gift each person is expected to give.

In the holiday season, “Chocolatadas” are popular here – small parties to eat paneton (Peruvian fruit cake –actually really delicious!) and drink hot chocolate. We had one at the colegio before the students had their summer break, which was a lot of fun!

Paneton - Yum!
Christmas decorations seemed a little out of place at first for this Alaskan, as it’s summertime here. Some people use lights or garland, and most have a small fake Christmas tree. The centerpiece of the decorations is the nativity scene, which is large, multi-leveled and usually involves at least 40 farm animals! (plus your random giraffe, lion, etc.)

Nativity Scene at Mi Casa
The work Christmas party for the clinic was quite the event in itself. It began with a large group sitting in a circle singing Christmas songs together. Then we went to a special mass together, which was followed by a cena – turkey, and of course paneton. Entertainment during the dinner included a choreographed dance by the nurses in santa hats, a guitar performance, many photos, and of course the secret Santa gift exchange.

Nurse Dance
As for Christmas Eve, I was told that there are generally two types of celebrations – 1) a low-key dinner and evening in with the family, ending pretty early or 2) a large family party that begins at mid-night and lasts all night long! My family never lets me down- they, of course, are the type to have the latter.

The celebrations began with a 2-hour mass. The mass on Christmas Eve was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in the Catholic Church. In particular, in place of a homily, the baby Jesus was placed in the large decorated nativity scene. However, before this happened, everyone in the church stood in line to kiss the forehead of a small baby doll. And at the end of the mass, out came a disco ball, flashing lights, balloons, and a giant Santa to sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus!

Back at the house, all sorts of relatives began filing in. At the strike of midnight, everyone ran around for hugs and “Feliz Navidad,” almost like a new year’s celebration. Then came the dinner… three huge turkeys to feed the family, salads, and a rice dish.

Pavo (turkey!) - a nice change
After the dinner we did the secret Santa gift exchange, which involved a lot of shouting and was pretty hilarious. Then the sound system was set up and the “Peruvian Power Hour(s)” began (see previous post- “Birthdays and Baptisms”). Basically, it involved a lot of consumption of champagne, sangria, and cerveza (via peer pressure), and of course, loads of dancing! Trying to move my hips like Peruvians is already entertaining enough, but when you throw in the fact that I am much taller than almost all of the men here, it’s even funnier.

They let me add one American song to the playlist – I chose country and I taught everyone how to line dance! ☺ (Well, attempted to.) We ate more paneton around 5am, and finally at about 6:30am, as the sun was already up, it was socially acceptable to excuse myself to go to bed. Needless to say, a Christmas experience I will never forget!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Monkey in a Cage

One of my biggest challenges with living in Peru has been in finding ways to exercise. It’s a bad idea to walk around the neighborhood during the day, let alone to go for a run! And yoga videos, Billy’s boot camp, jumping jacks and self-invented circuits loose their appeal pretty quickly in my little bedroom. So, I’ve been going into “town” 1-2 times a week to use a gym. At first I felt kind of guilty about it – after all, it’s not a financial option for the overwhelming majority of people in my area. But, for my own mental health and stress relief I decided it was probably a good idea. Plus, when I found out that they had hot showers, it was a done deal!

I’ve had a lot of interesting moments at the gym so far. The first was doing a double-take as I walked by one of the TV’s - apparently it’s normal here to watch a full-nudity show while getting in some cardio! Other than that, it’s much like your average gym in the US- personal trainers, a big room for group workouts (I’m still working up the nerves to bring my non-Latino moves into the dance class), and even a juice bar! Some of the weights are a bit rusty, and there are areas where the roof has fallen in, but I would still say that it creates a few hours of luxury for me every week. Although, now that summer is here, with no air conditioning it gets pretty muggy (especially when I try to blend in by wearing Spandex).

I’ve tried out a few spinning classes, but I try to limit them as I can’t hear well again for hours afterward! (Peruvians have a thing for loud music). One of the spinning instructors also likes to scream into her headset wildly and hop up and down, but she never gets on the bike. Sometimes she runs around the room and cranks up the resistance on peoples bikes without warning too! My first day she avoided me like the plague and gave me strange looks the whole time but she’s gradually warmed up to me and includes me in the madness now.

The gym has a few treadmills that are located by the front windows, or the area I refer to as “The Zoo.” It looks like a nice area to get some people-watching in as there is a lot of foot traffic on the street outside. However, it’s quite the contrary - it just makes me feel like a monkey in a cage. Old men, young women, old women, young men, children – you name it – are intrigued by the gringa running on the treadmill. People stop dead in their tracks and point, or walk up to the glass and just stand there! Sometimes cars even slow to a stop. I don’t get it. Yes, I am white. Yes, I am actually running on the treadmill (most people here just walk on it).

I am always trying to find ways to blend in, but the truth is I don’t think it will ever happen here. No amount of sunbathing or Spanish practice will do the trick, and I’ve come to accept it. (Although most people I meet here ask if I am from Spain, which is progress!) But, I hoped that after a few months of life in Perú, the constant stares/pointing/whispers would slow down. Not a big fan of unwanted attention, so this is yet another reason that my patience should (hopefully) increase in bounds this year!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

CMMB Around the World

Learn about my organization´s work around the world! Check out the links below to the new TV series with Telecare Television. Some of my colleages from the newest group of volunteers are featured in it!

Episode for ¨MVP¨ - Medical Volunteers Program: 

Other online episodes:

Salud y Feliz Navidad! -Amber 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Virgen de la Puerta

Today was another “fediaro”- holiday! While many smaller religious holidays seem to pass in the US without a lot of notice, holidays related to the Catholic religion here are a big deal. Almost nobody works, and there’s usually some form of celebration. Today was no exception- in fact, the celebrations began last night!

First, for the story:
During the 17th century, the port of Huanchaco (which is very close to Trujillo) began to flourish, and attracted a large number of pirates from the north who used to raid South American ports. In 1674, word spread that pirates were attacking parts of Ecuador and were headed south, so the people of Trujillo began to panic. They passed along the news of an inevitable attack to nearby towns, including the mountain town of Otuzco which is 70 kilometers away. The villagers spent three days in prayer and then led a procession to the entrance of town with a figure of the Immaculate Virgin, asking for help and protection. Miraculously, they were not attacked and the pirates retreated permanently.

In current times, the famous image of Mary is now regarded as Virgen de La Puerta, the queen of peace and patron of Otuzco. Otuzco holds a festival the 13th-15th of December every year, but Trujillo celebrations begin December 7th so that devotees can attend processions in both places. There’s also a pilgrimage December 13th that begins in Trujillo – people walk for two days up a mountainous road to reach Otuzco, without stopping! Apparently, if I am praying for something important and seek Mary’s help, in return I must promise to complete the pilgrimage in order to fulfill my prayers.

The festivities began last night with a mass, followed by a celebration in the streets surrounding a shrine area for the blessed mother. Bands played, people danced, and they had light shows, culminating with a big display of fireworks and even a Peruvian-Mexican Mariachi band at midnight!

Today the holiday continued with another mass and a 5-hour-long procession around the streets of La Esperanza. It was a beautiful event and yet another interesting cultural experience I feel blessed to have been a part of.

Some of the devotees smear their faces with black soot, a sign of penance
Procession through my neighborhood

Sunday, December 5, 2010


I’ve been taking notes on some statistics since my arrival. 80% of the population in the district of La Esperanza are living under the classification of “extreme poverty.” Recent studies indicate that 45% of children in my district have some sort of stomach parasite, and many cases appear to be resistant to first-line drug treatment. 75% of people in La Esperanza do not have medical insurance.

Interestingly, the rate of anemia is high here for both adults and children. Anecdotally I’ve also had an overwhelming amount of middle-aged patients with the diagnosis of osteoporosis- not surprising, I’ve also seen a large number of fractures. Facial paralysis and lower extremity amputations secondary to diabetes are also emerging as common pathologies in the clinic and hospital.

However, it’s suspected that due to financial and access/transportation barriers, many people with disabilities in my district rarely leave their homes or seek medical care. So, it’s very possible that we have no idea what is truly going on in this area in terms of the numbers. And it’s not just my neighborhood- as a whole, Perú lacks detailed information regarding persons who have disabilities.

While I’ve made several personal observations on the types of conditions I’ve encountered in various blog posts, my district of La Esperanza lacks data about the specifics. Which types of disabilities are most common? How many people are affected? What are the needs and resources desired of the persons who have disabilities? ETC!

The good news is, in about 5 months I will have a whole bunch of concrete answers to these questions! Part of my public health project includes the creation of a door-to-door survey for persons with disabilities (and their families) that will cover all 40,000+ homes in my district! It’s a “pilot” study with the potential to be applied around the country. Based on the data from the survey, I’ll be putting together a plan of action that will likely incorporate a combination of treatment and prevention-based components.

Math is definitely not my favorite subject, and I never thought I’d get this pumped about a bunch of numbers. But I’m really excited that I get to be a part of this and can’t wait until the results are in! So stay tuned for more numbers…