Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Smell

Ever wonder why perfume wears off so quickly? It is there, but our brain does not waste time reminding us because it is so familiar. But if you were to step outside or into another environment, your sense of smell checks for danger and food and reports back. As a result, the perfume scent returns. 

When odor molecules travel through our nasal cavity, their navigation herds them towards the olfactory bulb: from a bird's eye view, it resembles small horns at the front of the brain. From there, olfactory information can take different routes within the brain; to the amygdala, which is associated with emotion and motivation, to the hippocampus, which is associated with memory, and to the olfactory cortex. All three regions deliver the smell information and interpretations to the frontal cortex, the brain region required for cognitive processes like decision making. 

The smell of rain triggers a sense of relief and happiness within me, perhaps this is inherently linked to our species need for water. The sudden scent of Coppertone sunblock, one of my favorite scents, reminds me that summertime is coming. And the Mexican in me just loves the smell of slightly burnt flour tortillas. 

When I first arrived in Lima, the country welcomed me with the repelling smells of piss, sewage, and exhaust. Minus my toilet which consumes the bathroom with a continuous repulsing smell, my brain no longer recognizes the foul smells that penetrated my nostrils in January. I do, however, have to breathe out of my mouth and walk quickly through the animal section in the market. And the horrendous sulfur odor, as a result from the Giardia I had, was an uncomfortable and embarrassing time of my life. 

On the other hand, the scent of the fruit in Peru is so potent, if I put a mango in my room it will seem like I have a Bath & Body Works Wallflower plugged in.  On my way to early morning Yoga, I am greeted by smells of fresh bread as I pass multiple bakeries. When the fog takes over the city, a brisk ocean breeze soars in, allowing me to be present to the almighty ocean. A cloud of chemicals swirls up my nose when I enter my favorite place in Lima: where I work. Aside from it being clean, open, and a gorgeous infrastructure, I get a sense of peace (pun intended) and comfort when I step foot within the guarded gates of the United Nations complex. Thank you, SeƱor Beato for nurturing our gardens; the fresh cut grass evokes a long and steady inhale, aaaahhhhhh. As I make my way to the office kitchen, fresh coffee overshadow all my senses, preparing me for a productive day. I truly love the smell of my routine, which then ends with a lilac scented candle and Suavitel Softener, as I tuck myself in bed. 

Our sense of smell is a fascinating science yet in a survey of 7,000 young people around the world, ages 16 to 30, they said they would rather lose their sense of smell than give up access to technology. It would be interesting to explore if these people had ever been in danger or fallen in love...I miss his scent...with this said, our sense of smell is something to be celebrated and appreciated. 





Thursday, May 4, 2017

Peace Corps

As I live, work, and serve in Peru once again, only this time as a United Nations intern, I am in awe of the extraordinary work that has been done, and that continues from those who devote themselves to the World. Whether you are a MIIS professor, UN worker, a devoted nurse, brave soldier, loving mother, inspiring grandfather and good human being, Thank you. Thank you, for fighting against the odds, strategizing, persevering, falling and getting back up, running on empty, and not giving up. You are a hero, you take into account equity, ethics, and a universal love, and you are contributing towards the development of the world, which includes all Nations. 

Although the current news has been causing a painful emotional whiplash among many (including myself), the extraordinary work of the Peace Corps continues today. Below is a reminder of the good.  

*The content in the post below post was written when I served as a PCV, in 2014. But, similar projects continue today all over the globe. 

A real life hero does not fly, have superhuman strength, or a skeleton made of steel. Today, a hero has the ability to put the world first due to an innate hunger to serve. Below I acknowledge a very small number of those heroes who I had the privilege of serving with. They are the humble warriors who put aside two years (or more) of their lives to create impact. 

A hero is someone educating, advocating and fighting against female violence

A hero is someone protecting endangered species, not seen in any other part of the world

A hero is giving the opportunity to those whose voice has yet to be heard in some countries, to cognitively and physically improve

A hero is someone who thinks far beyond the expectations, is creative, and makes extra time to create a project on artisanal soap. 

A hero does not have it easy.  A hero is someone who embraces learning an essential skill -the local language- and adapts, retains, and grows to become fluent in order to write a proposal and execute a project on diminishing lung infections and saving trees, by building these Improved Cooking Stoves. 

A Hero is someone who illuminates care and positive energy in order to motivate others. 
Their projects/careers are the tips of the iceberg; beneath exists the true fulfillment. The integration slowly looses its borders, and one day they forget about the environmental obstacles. This life, becomes their home. 

A hero becomes a chameleon and ONE with their surroundings by generating a love so powerful that it leads to proudly committing to becoming a Godmother to two beautiful Godsons. 

And in some cases, the hero gets to beautifully collide their two worlds; an exchange of language and stepping outside of your comfort zones, to spread and soak up the love. 

A hero fights against all odds with perseverance and strength, without giving up, despite the stomach infections, health conditions, and environmental challenges. 


There are over 8,000 PC volunteers in the world, over 200 in Peru, and here I am, making small dents in my corner that connects to the whole world. I am a part of a team and family that I believe in, respect and honor. While I don't see myself as a hero, I see myself as a part of a vision that I will continue fighting to sustain. 



Thursday, April 6, 2017

Touch

What is the largest organ in the human body? 

Answer: THE SKIN! It makes up about 15% of our body weight. Touch is first processed by the skin, which sends neurochemical signals to our somatosensory cortex, which brings to consciousness the precise nature of the touch. A recent article posted in Psychology Today highlighted that scientific research now correlates physical touch with the following areas: decreased violence, greater trust in individuals, economic gain, stronger immune system, stronger team dynamics, more non-sexual emotional intimacy, greater learning engagement, and overall well-being.

Our skin gives our brain a wealth of information about the environment around us. Like the euphoric wave from a newborn clasping your finger, the subtle touch of your lovers foot in the middle of the night, the burn from that first childhood bee sting, or the calming sensation of your mother's arms cradling you, even as an adult. Nothing eases suffering like the human touch, whether it's receiving or giving it. And once again in my life, I am thriving without it. It is not easy to live without touch. I miss it every single day, especially lately, with so much conflict and tragedy haunting the media, news, and our consciousness. While serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer, at least I got to hold adorable Peruvian babies. Not here at the UN complex, the office printer and I share more physical intimacy than any human in my life. Fortunately, it was a colleagues birthday recently, which means an excuse to give a hug!


I can relate 

Top half: Me ready to work!
Since I arrived, the weather in Lima has an average of 85 degrees Fahrenheit with 77% humidity. This has resulted in the need for an anti-fungal cream for my feet. My shoulders, back, and scalp instantly warm up as I walk out the door. Once I leave my house, the human interaction begins! Tactile communication has evolved throughout the years to a clasp, use of tools, and affection. Just as chimps use touch to form alliances, we use touch as a language, especially in Latin America. Here people greet each other with a handshake and kiss on the cheek. Juan Carlos from the street corner, a man whose occupation I don't know, greets me almost every morning with a kind gesture and smile. I shake is chubby coarse hand and kiss his sweaty cheek. I look forward to our 10-second interaction.


Bottom half: Me, alleviating the itch in my feet 
When I arrive to work I sit comfortably at my desk, smiling and ready to slash my to-do list like a fruit ninja. The feeling of a keyboard on my fingertips is all too familiar. It is bittersweet to think that my hands effortlessly navigate machinery, as oppose to turning a page, or the unavoidable ache in my right palm when I journal. I am reminded of the fungus as I simultaneously rub my feet against one another under my desk as I type away; the itch is relentless.

After work, I try to go to Yoga. Aside from the rejuvenating workout, goosebumps ripple throughout my body as the teacher adjusts my downward facing dog; the human touch seems foreign and almost forgotten. Afterward, I shower, feeling the water cascading down my body. What a refreshing privilege! To nourish my skin, I reach for my coconut oil and to my surprise, it is almost solid: a sign that the evenings are starting to cool down. Thank goodness, because my slumber has resembled a crocodile using the "death roll" to kill its large prey.


Isn't she beautiful? 

I am in a long distance relationship, which means I have substituted his human touch for constant day-dreaming, and frequent phone calls, just to hear the sound of his voice. This separation anxiety makes me wonder if there is a correlation between developed countries, whose population has more personal space, and owning pets.  I do not have a pet, but you better believe that I caress my plant. I will end with this final message: 


Sources used: Human Touch , Psychology Today, Sense of Touch, elephant journal, 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Transportation

Claus·tro·pho·bi·a: (noun) extreme or irrational fear of confined places.
People watching at the Malecon 
If you find yourself on the spectrum of claustrophobia, get ready to overcome this fear when traveling within Peru. On foot, I normally take a longer or scenic route, for two reasons. First, to avoid major highways - this is where I experience claustrophobia. The sidewalks are saturated with people, the pollution from bumper-to-bumper traffic penetrates my nostrils, and the constant honking crowds my hearing. And secondly, because the oceanside is stunning in every opposite way I just mentioned. I live in Miraflores, which is in walking distance to the grocery stores, a movie theater, the oceanside, a bank, a post office, and many tourist attractions. Walking is a privilege. Especially when I spend most of my days sitting at a corner desk. In order to enjoy walking in the bustling metropolis, I listen to music. Some evenings I put on my headphones and walk around, smiling because I can people watch without feeling congested. Lima city is a motion picture twenty-four seven.
Avenida Ejercito: the bus stop in front of the United Nations Complex
My work is a 20-minute bus ride north. I leave my apartment at 7:30 am. I walk to the bus stop which is roughly ten minutes away. It is here where I patiently wait for a purple or orange bus - they take me to Ejercito, the main avenue where the United Nations complex is located. My fingers are crossed hoping it is not packed as usual. I am almost always disappointed. Most of the time, it is so full the two exits are bulging, like a beer belly captive in levis jeans one size too small. Although these many people should not be corralled into such a confined space, the Ministry of Transport has defeated the system. Waves of body odor come and go. And body contact, or borderline cuddling, is inevitable. I stand, with my left hand tightly gripping a seat and my right on my backpack, hoping the pause doesn't last long as someone exits or joins the impenetrable crowd.
A not so crowded bus 
At first, I was the outcast and not because I am a foreigner. The constant gas-to-break motion had me stumbling like an inebriated person. Fortunately, after my first week, my gripping reflexes kept me from inconveniencing anyone. It was during this phase where I learned a valuable lesson: don't grip too hard, just go with the flow. I noticed that once I unlocked my knees, held softly, and relaxed my solar plexus, I became one with the passengers. It is fascinating to watch as everyone is in a harmony, like a sea life in the underwater current flowing back and forth. This lesson transcended to other areas of my life, especially my internship.
After work, there are seemingly fewer passengers on the bus. I am exultant as I jog to the double doors and find myself in a vacant bus. The sun is setting, and the heat has lessened. This is my favorite time of the day. The cost is only S/.1.00 wich translates to $.31 cents, each way. I avoid ordering an uber as much as possible. Although there is more room, fresh air, and comfort in a car, the price can range from S/. 9.00 to S/. 21.00 soles, depending on the hour.

Contrary to what you might think, I love taking the bus. I praise and appreciate this human experience. It is rare in life when we are in such close proximity to dozens of people. I often wonder where they are headed or where they are coming from. Mostly, people avoid contact, but I like to sneak in a smile now and then. It is a remarkable gift when a smile, contagious in nature, brings to life a perplexed or exhausted face. I see my stop approaching and say "baja en el paradero". I step off, feeling the cool breeze with all my senses at peace, knowing I get to go home and relax after a hard days work.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

My Gut

There is a restless highway between our brain and our gut. The enteric nervous system is often referred to as our body’s second brain. It belongs to the part of the nervous system that is responsible for controlling the gastrointestinal system. We often refer to that "gut feeling" with first impressions, trusting our "gut instinct" when we face a metaphorical "Y" in the road, feel our stomach suddenly drop when having a mental collapse, or a loss of appetite when our brain pathways are dominated by adrenaline. "Our brain and gut are connected by an extensive network of neurons and a highway of chemicals and hormones that constantly provide feedback about how hungry we are, or if we’ve ingested a disease-causing microbe", this pathway is called the brain-gut axis (Justin Sonnenburg, 2015). Studies show that the gut microbes influence the body’s level of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which regulates our feelings of happiness. This is where I get the "A-HA!" moment because my moods are experiencing frequent turbulence these days.
Giardia Lamblia 
My stomach can painfully empathize with a creature from the tropical jungle, struggling in the Sahara desert. I imagine a foreign species invading my comfortable and healthy stomach, causing it to be in attack-mode since I have arrived in Lima. I have had two parasites (blastocystis hominis and giardia), have gotten food poisoning, and continuously have stomach pain, bloating, and gas. On average, 80% of Peace Corps Volunteers will poop their pants during their service and are likely to have a parasite. I experienced neither during my service. Well, folks, two months in Lima and I have done it all. Fortunately, I have a toilet, washer, and easy access to bottled water.
Blastocystis Hominis
After visits with three different doctors, all sorts of analyses, taking antibiotics in the morning for a month, followed by probiotics during lunch... my agitation has no filter, and my motivation has diluted. As I am writing, I lower my chin and stare at my belly, caressing it thinking "It's OK buddy, you got this".

This internship has been full of surprises: For instance, when a surge of hyper-focused joy and intensity overcame me when I assisted in mapping the 26 Zonas Veredales in Colombia; the steady amusement of researching homicides caused by security guards; and the nurturing satisfaction when learning an entirely new subject, like Forensics Ballistics. To getting a free "colon cleanse", naming my first parasite Ned, and helplessly reaching far ahead towards my own resiliency, stretching and clenching my hands like a hungry baby. Dramatic I know; this new lens and I have started off a little rough.
Emergency hospital in Lima

Lessons learned: Make sure you have good international insurance, drink bottled water, do not eat anything pre-cooked. If you are experiencing symptoms get two to three feces tests, see a couple of doctors, meal prep, and start a food diary. Surprise, who knew a couple of parasites would be such a great office icebreaker?! I am becoming a gut guru and others seek me for advice. Give it humor. And finally, listen to your gut, mine whispers in agony "You are on the right path".


My grandpa Ed, my mom, and my guardian Pattys experiences resonate with me - their strength to overcome health obstacles far beyond this, inspire me to keep moving forward with a firm walk. I especially have to thank my sister Kiki, my boyfriend Ben, my mom Kim, and my BFF's Liz and Brad. You all have been researching, encouraging me, listening to me, and healing me through laughter and compassion.
Source: Gut Feelings , Kiki Haga

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

In Love

A folktale of a couple in love 

She thinks she was born with a broken heart,
Her chin lifted, never asking for help, and proud.
She found more comfort in being away, apart
"I will not settle" she would repeat, out loud.


Her expectations were always high and distinct
Yet, she remained grateful for every failed relationship somehow.
Men who appeared in her dreams were seemingly extinct,
And she feared she wouldn't be impressed...until now.


He entered her life subtly, and quietly.
She was used to the independence and being alone
At first, she kept her distance, in need of privacy
Wouldn't let him in, certainly not in her zone.


His persistence and confidence sneaked him in
To undeniably becoming her hearts protector,
Reinforcing her best from within,
And furious at those who wrecked her.

His support and patience are healing,
Her anxiety erased by the sound of his heartbeat,
Carefully dismantling her fears, is a new feeling,
And nuzzled in his chest, is a euphoric treat.



Despite the reality of distrust she has known,
He has become her thunder jacket, releasing that ache,
The man who wakes up at 2 am to listen on the phone
The man who texts her "Good Morning, beautiful" before she wakes.  


He is a gentleman from Pittsburgh, a knight.
He, who speaks highly of his little sister.
He, who is six foot three in height.
He, who has saved many from a mental twister.  


He is an espionage film junkie,
He, the most fearless man she's ever met,
A soldier, loyal to his country
Regardless of who is president.

He, a hardworking and disciplined man,
relentless and achieving what he wants.
He who has served those in the US, Haiti, and Afghanistan,
He, who is skilled, brilliant, and never flaunts.

He, who smiles when she thinks out loud
He, who takes her under his embrace
She, who is proud to introduce him to a new crowd
She, who is his kindling place.


It is over four thousand miles from California to Peru,
Even his whiskey and cigar breath, she misses
Although, distance separates the two
No reward would surpass the taste of his mouth, his kisses.


A future together is what they yearn for,
Doing homework together at a nearby cafe,
Date nights at that restaurant they adore,
to wine and a routine conversation at the end of the day. 


Their love, admiration, and attraction continues to grow
No geographic separation could interfere with their ebb and flow
Because destiny has been looking forward to this, from long ago.
Our first photo together 

Couple in El Parque del Amor, Miraflores 


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Sight

Our eyes, the second most complex organ in the body, start to develop two weeks after we are conceived. It is estimated that our eyes are capable of processing 36,000 pieces of information per hour. And in recent years, retina scans are being used for security purposes; a fingerprint has 40 unique characteristics, but an iris has 256.
When it comes to sight, safety immediately comes to mind. Staying alerted with situational awareness is fundamental in a city like Lima, where street crime is prevalent. According to Peruvian National Police (PNP) data, assaults and robberies involving violence have been on the rise over the last five years. In addition, Peru now ranks as one of the top producers of counterfeit U.S. currency in the world. According to the Secret Service, it is considered "the finest fake money on the planet", responsible for producing and distributing an estimated 60 percent of the world’s counterfeit currency. Like the Peruvians, I am suspicious of every large bill I am given.
Credit card fraud is rampant, and many travelers have reported the theft of their card numbers while traveling in Peru. I am one of them. Two weeks after arriving in Peru, my card was duplicated and money was withdrawn. Ten days after this, my boyfriend Ben got a bouquet of flowers delivered to my home in Miraflores. He made the purchase from California and his card information was taken immediately. Lessons from this experience are no more purchases online, travel with cash only (in small amounts), withdraw from a trusted ATM, only use my card when the credit machine is brought to me and cover my code when entering it.
I am grateful for Fran and the others who keep my apartment building safe 24/7. For Jose and the other security guards at the United Nations Complex, for writing down all the license plates when we get in a cab, for always being so polite, and for keeping us safe.
To lighten up the mood, the congested yet fascinating Lima city has me entertained constantly. A morning jog on a Saturday has me leaving my apartment with headphones intact, blocking out all external sound. To my right I see a petite old lady chatting up an employee at my favorite "Italian" restaurant, Sole Mio. To my left, I see my go-to coffee shop named Arabico, opening its red doors. The city seems alive and well. As I approach the Malecon - a bike trail on the coast - overjoyed people are rollerblading, biking, running,  skateboarding, and some are crossing with their surfboards. I smile as I spot a mom pushing her stroller and her husband walking their three-legged dog. The sun is flaunting its rays today. My view is filtered, it has been adjusted to high brightness. I even squint wearing my sunglasses (note to self: next time get better sunglasses). I stop at a corner to rest, I see a high-end cebicheria named Punta Sal, getting their produce delivered by a man in a station wagon.
Lima Malecon

Produce Delivery 
Later in the day, I watch the city from my balcony on the 9th floor. The fog has made its grand appearance: a grim hand is reaching from the pacific ocean, slowly devouring the city. An afternoon walk reminds me that any memory of cool air has evaporated, the UV rays perforate through the fog leaving a tan line across my chest from my shoulder bag. Lima is saturated with vehicles, with no right away for its 9 million people. Staying alerted and looking both ways, multiple times, is a prerequisite when taking a stroll. The city of Miraflores is well maintained and clean. When it comes to Peruvians, It feels rather almighty since I am taller than most. Back home, my 5'1 stature often invites a joke or two. You don't need to speak the language to see that people are kind, raised with manners and welcoming of foreigners. While on a crowded bus, there will always be a younger teen or adult who gives their seat to a mom or person of age.
Lima fog 

Women speaking Quechua as the keep the City of Miraflores clean

The sun is set and the city lights illuminate Miraflores. A starry night is eclipsed by a thick layer of clouds. Resting my head, unwinding as I turn on Netflix, grateful for today and its journeys. Thank you, sight, for keeping me safe in a foreign country.

Sources used: Sight, Crime in Lima, Fake Money