Pressure in Peru

The fan just about blasts itself off the dresser of my Airbnb and I fight with the pillows all night to try to combat the sleeplessness from the heat. This is summertime in Lima, and very different from the bottom of the world where I just came from. I’ve finally found some time to write some stories from this past month.

I left the hostel in Puerto Natales to stay at a parking lot alongside a beach the next day. The hostel was a lovely place to work on my laptop, shower, and hang out on the patio, but Savannah felt out of place in the tight driveway with a gate that touched her bumper when it closed. I love sleeping and waking up next to the sea, the sounds of the ocean both lull me to sleep and gently bring me awake. I hung around Puerto Natales for a couple of days since I had met some people in the area, and I wasn’t sure what Punta Arenas would be like (where I was going to leave Sav when I went on to Peru). One evening a mare and foal wandered by my van. I slipped out of the side doors and slowly made my way down to the rocky shore where they were grazing at to sit next to the foal. As young, curious souls are, she took interest in this new being near her and wandered over. She was rewarded with lots of head scratches, an apparently salty hand to lick, and lots of praise for being so brave. That evening, I tried cooking a frozen pizza on a pan over my pocket rocket and burnt the heck out of it, lesson learned.

Savannah purred her way South for the two and a half hours to Punta Arenas, her resting point for the next month. My eyes constantly flicked between the road and the gages as she had yet to fully earn my trust again after the last stunt she pulled crossing to and from Argentina. She made it down no problem and I found another, very tight, hostel driveway to park in. I didn’t explore much in Punta Arenas over the next couple of days, just along the coast a bit and a cemetery. I was already feeling homesick for Sav before I left her for Lima. I felt I needed some time to nest and relax in my home while the wind blew and rain spat from the sky. The place where I would be parking my van was also a bit unknown and felt sketchy. The owner of the lot wouldn’t be there to unlock the gait for me, but his neighbor would be and told me where to park. This uncertainty, a likely large deficit in sleep throughout traveling the last few weeks, and preparing for a change of pace with life in Peru, forced me to listen to my body and rest.

When I pulled in to the lot for Sav’s van camp, I was relieved to see many other camper vans, trucks, and RVs there. I saw a few people around too and asked them if they had a good experience leaving their homes there (not like I had a choice at this point, my flight left the next morning), they all assured me it was safe and secure. I insisted on keeping the key, which I hope was the right decision. I double checked the doors to make sure they were locked, then slung my duffel bag over my shoulder and headed off to the hostel I would be sleeping at that night. Hostel Entre Viento sat right on the shores of the bay of Punta Arenas and was only maybe a 20 minute walk from Savannah’s park spot. I booked a bunk in a dorm room, of course the top bunk, and felt a sense of youthfulness and hope that I will always be this way – I always want the top bunk, no matter how rickety the ladder is.

The next morning my Uber driver picked me up around 7 AM for the airport. On the drive, I realized I had made a critical error in my planning. I accidentally booked a 1 AM flight (for the night before) from Punta Arenas to Santiago, instead of a 1 PM flight… such a rooky mistake! Within the 30 minute ride from the hostel to the airport, I was able to rebook my flight to 12:30 PM which would actually allow me to arrive in Santiago even earlier than I had planned, what luck! I had never flown a national flight within Chile, so the process was very fast and efficient. My go-to taxi driver was waiting for me to come out of arrivals and gave me a big welcome hug, then drove me to my friend’s hostel. From there I went to the Santiago lab to grab the heparin tubes for blood collection that I needed but couldn’t source in Peru. I was able to squish my Black Diamond climbing backpack inside my big yellow duffel bag with the clothes I’d need in Lima. So, I just pulled out my backpack, packed it with tubes, and was ready to go. I had some flack from the security guards as I entered the medical school with an empty pack and left with a full pack of lab supplies, but after a lot of explaining and a few phone calls, they concurred that I did not just rob the university.

The flight from Santiago to Lima was a quick three and a half hour flight. I had contacted my Peru taxi guy once I got through customs, thinking baggage claim would be quick and I could meet him outside in a few minutes. Soon, I saw my yellow duffel of personal gear come through… but no red backpack with the precious heparin tubes… I waited, waited, waited until no more bags were coming out on the carousel. I flagged down an airport employee, explained my situation of the lost bag, and thought I’d be at the airport for another few hours at least trying to find where it had gone. She radioed over my info and that it was a red backpack. Soon, to my surprise, she had a response that it was located. She motioned for me to walk back towards security to the other carousels, and there, in the middle of the floor, three baggage claims away from the one it was supposed to be spat out of, sat my pack. Confused, but not having the time to figure out why, I swung it over my shoulder and trotted out to find my taxi guy.

We got so caught up in chatting on the drive from the airport to my Airbnb by the university, that when I got out and hugged him goodbye we forgot to exchange fares… I still owe him in fact! I met up with Daisy, the lab technician I would be working with in the lab and who I had trained back in November. We dropped our bags, then hit the sack. It was a lot of traveling, and about to be another few weeks of sleepless nights, lots of work, and making the project happen through all means necessary.

I had a quick tour of the lab with the new equipment we ordered before we started traveling to different communities in Peru for blood sampling. The biosafety cabinet we have here in the lab is the tiniest hood I’ve seen, let alone have ever worked in. And I had thought Daisy and I would be able to work side by side on samples. I could barely fit my own arms and supplies for one set of samples in the hood; this would be interesting.

Our first sampling location was a city in Northern Peru. It was an hour and a half flight from Lima… we nearly missed it because we arrived late and ended up not being able to check our bags since the luggage train already left. Therefore, we passed our carry on bags with the needles for blood sampling through TSA… and somehow that worked. Once we touched down in the North, a contact we had up there picked us up in his SUV. I consider myself a very average height for the US, 5’8” doesn’t make me stand out. But here in Peru, I am a giant. Somehow though, despite being the tallest person in our group, I took the far back jump seat of the SUV with my knees folded into my chin like a grasshopper. Even in my Airbnb, I hit my head on the ceiling as I’m coming up the stairs to our upper floor. I’m too big for here!

I had actually been here in Chiclayo while I was heading South in Sav about a year ago, and even slept in the parking lot of a hostel in this town. As we drove the Pan American Highway North, I did remember some of the sights… and also the quality of the road, with tons of potholes and, of course, crazy driving. Soon, as we detoured from the main road to head to the smaller communities, the pavement turned to dirt, and with more bumps. Our driver hit one bump a bit fast which sent me air born from my jump seat, causing me to smack my head on the roof! I couldn’t help but burst in laughter and found it very entertaining. As we drove farther North on the dirt road, it narrowed, and skinny dogs and lurking cats were new obstacles for the driver to dodge. I noticed a heavy odor of dead animals or rotting produce, also trash. But there were also beautiful flowers dotting lush green trees and occasionally we passed protected park areas. It was a lot of stark contrasts along the way. Then, we moved into land covered in flooded fields for rice. I saw workers throwing seeds in a way that sort of reminded me of fly fishing, with a rhythm and art to it.

Eventually, we made it to the first village and moved from the SUV into a bright orange Volkswagon Thing (according to my dad from identifying it from a photo). We drove out to an elementary school building, I hit my head on the roof of the door, and we set up shop with a survey station and blood sampling station. Daisy, Joseph (the nurse), and I proved to make a really great team with executing the blood sampling of volunteers. From the school, we went to a museum with more volunteers wanting to be a part of the study. It was a very successful first trip.

At around 5 PM, the rest of the team’s day was ending as Daisy and mine was just beginning. We had arrived at the airport around 6 AM that morning and were now headed back at 6 PM to fly back to Lima with the samples. The blood samples need to be processed within 24 hours (an arbitrary cutoff time, but the yield of white blood cell isolation declines as the blood gets older). I felt suspicious passing a suitcase of blood through to get checked on to the airline, but somehow we were again very late and almost missing the flight, so it passed through quickly. We flew the hour and half back to Lima, caught a cab to the Airbnb by 11 PM and started work the next day at 6 AM. It took us the full day to process the 13 donor blood samples we collected from the day before, as we were dialing our synchronized routine to maximize efficiency. The next set of blood would be coming in at around 9 PM and needed to be processed overnight since there were now 27 samples. We took a quick nap at our home, received the blood at 9 PM, and continued to work overnight.

It is incredibly hot and humid in Lima right now, especially in the district we are working in which is La Molina.  Since we were working overnight, and no one else was in the medical school (besides the copious amount of cadavers apparently that the security guards warned us about), we tried to dress for the weather and beat the heat. There is no AC in the university, the air was hot and heavy. Under my lab coat I had on a pair of running shorts and a sports bra, and I was still soaked in sweat. Daisy and I ended up pulling off basically a 36 hour work shift, with a few mini cat naps of about 30 minutes, over the course of those two days. I blasted my playlists and couldn’t help but smile as she bopped along to my beats. At one point, maybe around 4 AM, I looked up from the hood to see that she had put a curling roller in her bangs to keep them out of her eyes as she worked. Between the deliriousness and just how unexpected the scene was at that moment, I was dying.

That weekend, we basically just slept. Daisy returned to her parents’ home on the other side of Lima, and I slept at the Airbnb… for days. And, the next Monday, we were back at it. All day Monday and Tuesday we were labelling tubes, counting out needles, cotton swabs, bandaids, and forms for the next batch of sampling. This time, we’d be heading to another town North of Lima, but within driving distance and way up high in the mountains. Daisy had an uncle there who was a mayor and helped spread the word of the study among the town to recruit volunteers. We decided to rent a van and drive there, since there wasn’t really a nearby airport anyway. I had offered to drive it, but they said they’d hire a driver, especially knowing the 36-hour shift Daisy and I just did the week before. Just because I could drive, didn’t mean I’d have to.

Before we left, we went to a bulk food store and bought about 300 pounds of food to bring up to the village as a thanks for participation in the study. Staples like rice, salt, oil, lentils, sugar, and condensed milk, were not easily available in this village and we had the space and means to bring it up. The next morning, six of us left Lima in the van at around 4 AM to go North.

We stopped in Churin for some breakfast and, as much as my colleagues wanted me to try the sheep head soup, luckily it wasn’t available at the restaurant. I had thought the plan was to visit some hot springs in the area, so I brought a swimsuit and my favorite orange sarong. We ended up arriving too late to go and from Churin, we climbed another thousand meters or so to nearly 3000 meters (about 9000 feet). The climate changed drastically as we climbed into the clouds. As I looked out the window of the van and my breath fogged up the glass, I realized that morning I had prepared my bag for the hot springs, but not for the cold we were about to be met with. As we parked in town up in the mountain and everyone pulled out their sweaters, I realized my tshirt was not going to be enough. But, I had my sarong! I wrapped myself up in it and pretended that this was exactly my plan.

First, we attended a mass in the town. I hadn’t attended a mass in maybe 10 or so years, so it was strange to be in a church again. Daisy, Joseph, and I opted for the back pew. As powerful as the voice of the preacher was, the three of us just couldn’t keep our eyes open after our 4 AM departure. Daisy started nodding off first, then me, then Joseph. At one point, Daisy let a snore rip, which startled me awake and made it nearly impossible not to project a hyena like laugh into the silence of the church. Later, we visited the cemetery, ominous and foggy from the mountain weather.

Next, we participated in a “pachamanca,” which is sort of like a barbeque of sheep meat. Stones are heated by a fire, then the meat of the sheep, and also some potatoes, are placed on the hot stones. Multiple blankets are put over the meat to smolder it, and it’s left for a few hours. I sort of got full on the first serving of the meal, which was a cheese and potato stew. When the chunks of sheep came around, I could only peck at it. Daisy had warned me that it was impolite not to eat, but I couldn’t force it, so I requested to take it home. After the meal, we began blood sampling around 4 PM or so in the afternoon. This was actually ideal because, given the sampling was late in the day, Daisy and I could start the blood processing in the morning instead of overnight and still make it within the 24 hours. We came across a challenge though… given the higher altitude, the pressure inside the heparin tubes did not create the same suction for blood collection as they did at lower elevations. Joseph and I thought about this for a bit to troubleshoot it, and he suggested that we use a needle syringe to pull more air out of the tubes in order to make more of a pressure gradient to draw in more blood. This ended up working! My task was then to use a syringe to pull out air from the tubes to supply to him to take the blood. I love problem solving on the job, especially when it works out.

We ended up sampling 14 donors before our van driver called it and it was time to leave. I was absolutely frozen at this point as it had begun raining a few hours earlier and the temp dropped. We piled into the van and began the 6 hour drive back to Lima. It seemed like the driver was in a hurry to get back too, it felt like a rollercoaster flying around turns and down the valley. I’m not sure if it was the abrupt change in altitude, the possibly, slightly, undercooked sheep meat, or the crazy driving, but 2 people in the van lost their cookies (upchucked, tossed up their dinner… puked). A full blown barf-o-rama nearly started since we couldn’t figure out how to air out the van and the driver refused to stop. We popped the roof emergency exit, and at least for me, I pulled my shirt over noise and didn’t lose it.

Daisy and I started the blood processing around 6 AM the next day. We had a smoother rhythm, but we were still under the gun of time. High humidity and heat, meant lots of hair frizz, which was positively correlated to high stress to make this all work and in time. We managed to stay ahead of the 24 hour point for the bloods, and I was able to train Daisy on the protocol with the last 2 bloods to share the load in the future.

My trip here to Peru was delayed for months due to the civil unrest after a change in the presidency of the country. The original plan for the project was for me to come in November/December and finish within a few months, then move to Brazil. As the heat of the tension began to calm down now, in March for me to come, Peru got hit with another unexpected crisis. Hurricane Yaku hit northern and central Peru this past week, and it hit hard. It broke my heart to hear the news of places North we either drove through or I heard of that were impacted by the flooding caused from the hurricane. The mountains in Peru are so steep that even a little rain can cause an unexpected flash flood, and this was a lot of rain. Roads were washed out, homes were collapsed, and towns were isolated due to the El Nino weather event. Just the other day we saw footage of a three-story building collapse into the now raging river through Lima.

Here, in La Molina, we experienced a bit of rain but nothing compared to other barrios (neighborhoods) in Peru, let alone farther North. We did have a bit of a leak into the kitchen that we mopped up, but resolved it within a day. Other places nearby, had roads with knee deep rivers running through them. Daisy covered the lab equipment in case the rain was strong enough to leak through the loose seams along the windows. We’ve already been having problems with this machine, so an added layer of dampness would not be ideal.

Between the work schedule, constant pivoting, and being away from nature for too long, it began to wear on me. For one weekend I decided to take a quick trip to the coast and rented a room in an apartment complex to be by the sea. I was disappointed when the security guard strongly advised that I do not actually go down to the rocky beach to visit the sea, the area was known for crime. I guess I didn’t need to bring my swimsuit after all. I watched a beautiful sunset from the window, but the next day I returned back to the Airbnb near work feeling more mentally exhausted than recharged.

Luckily life continued to stay busy so I didn’t even have time to get too down on being out of my comfort zone. I trained Joseph, the nurse, on the protocol as well so he could help Daisy after I leave. Joseph showed me how to take his blood, it was pretty wild! The centrifuge had issues this day and trouble shooting that was it’s own adventure since the lid wouldn’t even open and the blood was inside. We determined it had likely overheated given the climate and that it was being heavily used. We learned how to open the lid manually, and set a fan next to the machine to cool it off. It worked but this does not bode well for heavy use in the future.

I also had another pressing issue that took nearly all my bandwidth to resolve. My passport was too full. Chile and Peru are stamp happy, and from my travels between the two countries, pages got filled up more quickly than I had calculated for. And between Peru and Navarino Island, I needed space for 6 more stamps (out of Peru, into Chile, out of Chile, into Argentina, out of Argentina, into Chile). I didn’t have enough space.

I was somehow able to make an emergency appointment at the US Embassy in Lima. I wasn’t really sure what my plan would be since I would only have one more week left in Peru, probably not enough time to get a passport renewal. I got my photo taken on one of the hottest days here and was convinced I probably would look either ill or like my photo was being taken for a mugshot, since the photographer took the photo before I was even ready. It didn’t end up turning out as bad as I thought at least. I wore the nicest dress I had to my embassy appointment, my orange wrap dress from Colombia. I was so nervous for my appointment, I blocked out most of the uber ride to the embassy downtown. When I arrived, I saw a long line along the side of the road of people waiting to get in. I stood in this line for a little bit, and thought for sure there was no way I’d be making it through in time for my appointment. I eventually realized I was in the line for Peruvians to apply for a Visa. I poked around the entrance and found the single door that said “Citizens of the USA services,” and there was no line. Before entering, I needed to surrender everything. No purses, phones, keys, anything, were allowed inside the perimeter except your paperwork and passport. And it cost 10 soles for someone to guard your things.

My birks tripped the metal alarm when I walked through the big doors, so I had to do the dance of hopping back around, tossing my shoes to go through the xray machine, and pad around barefoot until they passed them through. I entered a giant, empty courtyard and had no idea where I was supposed to go. It looked like a scene from a dystopian movie. Massive buildings inside the concrete wall, and not a soul in sight. Eventually, I wandered down a wide sidewalk to a tall, skinny, black door. To my surprise, it was unlocked, and it ended up being exactly where I was supposed to be. I passed through another metal detector, then entered a tiny room that reminded me of a DMV office. I took a number from the machine, and waited to be called among perhaps a dozen other people. For how massive the building was, I was shocked we were all crammed into this tiny office.

When my number was called, I went up to the window and explained the situation to the embassy worker. She told me there was definitely not enough time to renew an international passport, but that she could issue me an emergency passport. The emergency passport is valid for one year and has 6 pages. It doesn’t have a chip like a normal passport, but it is fully valid. I had read that usually they are only offered in life or death situations, or only to return back to the states. She assured me I could continue to travel and that she was issuing it to me since I already had work travel plans in place (i.e. ferry ticket to Navarino Island and a trip with the Chilean Navy in June). I was told to come back at 2:30 PM to pick up the emergency passport, and I would be able to keep my old one but it would be invalidated.

I left the embassy, was returned my purse and phone, and went to a coffee shop. Between the caffeine and abruptness of the whole decision making process and going ahead and getting the emergency passport, I became a bit panicked. Could I actually use it to travel to Chile? Or would I get denied entry when I got off the plane in Peru? Would every border crossing require detailed explanation with this one? Should I have not done it and took my chances with limited space? I waffled about canceling it after talking to my parents and also an ex who travels a lot but apparently never on an emergency passport. He had heard it’s a nightmare to travel with one. I went back to the embassy an hour early and impatiently waited to be let in. I surrendered my things again, kicked off my shoes for security, and made my way back to the big, black door. I was called up and it was already processed, what was done was done. I asked a few more questions to the lady, but she assured me travel with this purple emergency passport will be fine. I guess we will see.

That evening, the lab had a farewell dinner for me. I was a bit strapped after the embassy appointment, but it was really kind for them to organize and everyone came out. I got ceviche with the spicy rocoto pepper on top. Despite the stress from the morning, I had fun chatting with my lab mates about future plans now that my time here is wrapping up. It is getting difficult to contain my excitement and restlessness as my return to Chile nears. So long as my passport works, next week is going to be packed full of travel. I leave Peru Monday, March 27, and fly to Santiago, then Santiago to Punta Arenas. I pick up Savannah, hopefully she starts, and actually drive 2 and a half hours North to cross the border into Argentina, since Savannah needs a new import permit for the island. I hang in Argentina for a night (probably buy a bunch of food since it’s cheaper over there), then cross back into Chile, with a new tip for Sav. I’ll drive back South to Punta Arenas, and wait here until April 2. This night I’ll board a ferry and travel 32 hours South through some of the most rugged coastline in the world. I’ll be passing islands and mountains with glaciers spilling over them, and hopefully seeing some marine wildlife.

Once I arrive in Puerto Williams, I will be there for 3 months to complete the eDNA project. I’ll see how living at the bottom of the world during the winter months goes, but I’m pretty stoked for it!

map of sleep spots, here!

Another Kr3ture song, feeling like a shapeshifter lately

One thought on “Pressure in Peru

  1. Every time I think you can’t top the previous blog, you do! I’ve never known anyone whose passport filled up before they were done traveling. But of course, I’ve never known anyone with the travel experiences like yours. I also never knew you were 5’8″ …. and it’s funny to see you tower over your co-workers. lol Love your Dad’s help identifying the Volkswagen Thing! And of course, I had to check the map for all the places you mentioned, especially Puerto Williams …. wow, so far down! Loved the pictures and fantasizing about traveling with you. I would be a wreck!!!!! hahahaha. Stay safe, keep the blogs coming …. I love you, Kelly!

    Liked by 1 person

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