The Northern Coast

The Northern Coast
The Northern Coast--photo by Zack Thieman

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Very Peruano Christmas

After posting photos of Christmas past, I decided it would be good for everyone to see my Christmas present. Here´s what my site looks like right now, as well as a few photos from a chocolotada I attended. You might need to click on some of the photos to see them closer up (especially the ones of the plaza).

¡Feliz Navidad y Prospero Año!

Christmas carol competition. Watch yourself--these girls are 14.

Constructing our Christmas tree. First time in my life I´ve had a fake tree for Christmas.
Maricielo is not happy I´m taking a picture because she doesn´t have makeup on.


I was trying to get Luana to put the star on top of the tree--she just wanted to play with the ornaments

She loves her Tia Amandita---sometimes.

I´m the only person who tosses her around like a sack of potatoes. She´s gotten so used to it  that you can see in this picture she´s more concentrated on the ornament in front of her than the fact that she´s upside down hanging over a concrete floor. 

And now she begins taking off all the ornaments we put on

The security guards at the municipalidad.
They were super excited to have their  picture taken for people in the U.S. to see.

The plaza with all the decorated trees (and the massive fake pine tree). 

Christmas wrapped

The central nativity scene

My host family helped put this together--it´s advertising the private school
my host uncle is the director of.

My friend Jimmy decorating the dance group´s tree.

At a chocolotada--this kid is so excited for hot chocolate and presents he looks frightened.

My friend Lorena  put on this particular chocolotada. She likes to call me ¨cuñada¨ which means ¨sister-in-law¨ because after seeing pictures of the fam, she has decided she wants to marry my brother Sean.

Santa, apparently eating the mic

Dancing with the kids

Handing out one present to each child.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas...

In Peru, the month of December is dedicated to one thing and one thing only—Christmas. Classes in the schools are winding down for summer vacation and getting kids and teachers alike to focus--or even just show up-- is damn near impossible, but all are available for practicing villencicos (Christmas carols). The municipalidad is almost as impossible to organize anything with. They are too busy decking the halls with boughs of fake holly and organizing chocolotadas, which are hot chocolate parties that include paneton (fruit cake that people actually like) and toys for small children.

The entire plaza is decorated for Christmas. The trees (none of which are actual pine trees) are wrapped in colorful paper and have fake presents hanging from the limbs.  Different groups and organizations in town are in charge of decorating a tree to be entered in a town-wide competition. Nativity scenes are set up on every corner with all different materials. The dance group is practicing a new booty-shaking number to a Latino-fied version of Jingle Bells (which actually doesn’t say a thing about jingle bells, or sleigh rides, but baby Jesus). You won’t find much of Santa though, or Papa Noel as they call him. Half of the Peruvians I’ve met don’t even realize he is actually San Nicolas, they just see him as a character on Coke advertisements. They don’t believe in Santa.

Christmas appears to be everywhere, but it doesn’t feel like it. At first I was actually confused and mad when hearing Christmas music, thinking, “What the hell are they playing Christmas music for? It’s the middle of….Oh yeah. December.” We’re nearing the summer solstice in South America, and everyday I look in my closet strategizing how I can wear even less clothes than the day before without being inappropriate. After walking around for the morning attempting to get someone—anyone— to try and work with me on organizing activities for the summer, I retreat to my house where I strip down to shorts and a tank top, lay on my yoga mat on the concrete floor and blast the fan. I am constantly sweating, always greasy and slightly uncomfortable. Strangely, it never gets higher than 85º F, but the suns intensity adds a new level of heat that can only be described by saying, “Quema el sol,” which is basically just saying, “the sun burns.” And that it does.

So it’s hard to believe when I look at the calendar we are about a week away from a holly jolly Christmas, a time when hot chocolate is actually comforting to drink because of the cold, when everyone is bundled up, treats and baked goods are everywhere, and egg nog and rum never run out at my house.

This is going to be my first Christmas away from home, and no one in my community overlooks that. I am constantly asked about Christmas back home, about how hard it must be to miss Christmas with my family, about how cool they think it is that I’ll be here spending Christmas with them.

Also, I’m getting quite the Christmas present--my boyfriend is coming here on Christmas Eve. In our four years together, we’ve never been together on Christmas. This will be both of our first Christmas away from home, and our first time spending it together.

But, to be honest, the Christmas feeling still hasn’t been sinking in. I’ve been more excited to see Justin than for the thought of Christmas.  It just so happens that a visit from my boyfriend lands on Christmas, but the very day of Christmas hasn’t had much excitement or feeling in it. Saying the word Christmas has no more meaning to it than saying “Sunday.” All I hear is people talking about Navidad. Navidad this, Navidad that, and it just doesn’t feel like it. In fact, it’s starting to feel more like something that’s getting in the way of accomplishing anything than a festivity. I guess you can say I’m pretty bah humbug these days. So since I’m having a hard time latching onto the Christmas feeling, it hasn’t hurt to think about the fact that I’m spending it here.

Then I somehow ended up looking through all of my old pictures on my computer and came across last Christmas. Because I knew it would be my last Christmas at home for a few years, I took a lot of pictures around my parent’s house in Idaho where I grew up. I relished in the cold, walked with our dog Brandy, pet our horse Pookie. I took pictures of my cat Clarissa knowing I may not see her when I got back (she died last month). And it wasn’t until I looked at these pictures, pictures I took so that at times like these I could remember my roots and the importance of family and tradition, remember the crunch of snow under my feet and the dry cold air that bites at my nose and cheeks--pictures of what Christmas is supposed to look like-- that it finally hit me; it's almost Christmas, and I’m 1,000’s of miles away from home.

And in an instant I went from indifferent to feeling incredibly homesick.

I was wondering when this was going to happen. When it would finally hit me that for the first time in my 25 years on this earth, I am spending the most nostalgic, emotion-laden holiday away from home.

Part of it feels both silly and completely understandable at the same time. Silly because I know people spend Christmas away from family all the time. Understandable that I would suddenly feel incredibly homesick and wishing I was home because it’s Christmas for goodness sake! It is one of the few things that hasn’t become completely jaded and lost it’s meaning. It doesn’t matter if I don’t believe in Santa anymore or if I’m not losing sleep over the excitement of it all—it’s still about family, togetherness, goodwill towards all men/ women/children. It’s about silly traditions like kissing under the mistletoe, secret Santa parties, hanging a stocking to be filled by Santa, sledding, listening to Christmas music, and watching every Christmas movie ever made. It’s about the Nutcracker ballet, elementary school Christmas concerts, ugly sweaters, hayrides, caroling, and eating the head off gingerbread men.

I know Christmas has taken a bit of an ugly turn with consumerism (one aspect of Peruvian Christmas that is pretty nice—presents are only for children) and part of the holiday spirit is destroyed with harrowing experiences buying the “perfect present” or just any present, but it still holds an important place in my heart. Important enough that in four years of dating, neither my boyfriend nor I were willing to give up our Christmas with our family to spend it together. Important enough that I have this magnetic pull in my body that says, “Go home!” as the calendar counts down the days to the 25th.

And this Christmas is no different. I may be on another continent, in another hemisphere, 1,000’s of miles away, but my heart is still home with my family.

So while all the Christmas music I’m hearing down here in Peru is in Spanish, and Feliz Navidad doesn’t have an English chorus, I’ve been singing a couple of my own little tunes in my head. Lately, the seems to be the only one I can think of;

“I’ll be home for Christmas, you can count on me.
I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

2006-- The last Christmas the whole fam came together. Love how we all look like a bunch of kids opening our presents

My niece when she was a little tyke, getting a pull from nana

Big brother

Snow people

The house I grew up in--winter wonderland

Dad, niece, and sister-in-law after the infamous "red mitten" incident

Making proper stockings

2010--Taking a walk on the road to my parent's house


Backyard/the river

Saint Francis, doing his thing.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Sh*t my host dad says

My host parents and I standing outside the house my first month in site

One of the first books I read on my kindle while in Peru was a completely hilarious book called, “Sh*t my dad says” by Justin Halpern. It made me cry with laughter, which was an amazing feeling to have during a tumultuous time in my beginning weeks of Peace Corps training. Now I’m in site, things have smoothed out considerably in my emotions, and I have an awesome host family with whom I feel comfortable. And I have a host dad who says (or doesn’t say) stuff that I am extremely appreciative I have the language level to understand.  So here is some shit my host dad has said that may not be as funny as Halpern’s dad, but helps me with comical relief every once in awhile.

On U.S. holidays
Host dad: When is Dia del Gracias? (Thanksgiving day).
Me: The last Thursday of November.
HD: Why do you celebrate Dia del Gracias?
Me: Because when the first immigrants came to North America they didn’t know how to take care of themselves or to grow crops or hunt in the unfamiliar territory. So they almost died, but they survived because the native’s taught them how to take care of themselves. Then there was supposedly a big feast to celebrate.
HD: So they had a big party thanking them, and then started killing everybody?
Me: Something like that.

On Health
Host Dad: Do you sleep with earplugs in?
Me: Yes.
HD: Why?
Me: I’m a light sleeper, any little thing will wake me up.
HD: So, how do you breathe?
Me: …through my mouth and nose.
HD: No, no, no. How does your brain breathe?
Me:….through my mouth and nose?
HD: Listen to me, the ears, nose, and mouth are all connected, right?
Me: Yeah…
HD: When you plug your ears you feel pressure, right?
Me: I guess…
HD: So, how do you relieve that pressure? You’re creating pressure in your brain! What do you do if you sleep with your mouth closed? The pressure builds!
HD: Do you not believe me?

On Hygiene
HD: You´re not going to shower today, are you?
Me: Nope.
HD: You don´t even want to, you just don´t care.
Me: Nope.
HD: Man, you´re getting lazy. Everyday at work I jump in the canal and rinse off. It feels great! So refreshing, I´m always clean.
Me: Sounds nice.
HD: Yeah, but you have a shower right here with hot water. Ooh! You´re lazy.

My host sister, doing her daughterly duties
[Host dad is watching TV with his feet up on another chair, and my 16-year-old host sister saddles up next to him starts clipping his toenails. I look horrified.]

Host Sister: What? Don’t you clip your dad’s toenails?
Me: Noooo…
HS: Why not?? [Literally said like I’m ridiculous].
Me: Because...[fit of giggles, turns into rolling laughter, turns into me crying and unable to stop laughing]
Host dad: What’s so funny? I don’t get it.

On Religion and Creation
Peace Corps is apolitical and not a religious organization, and therefore we are not advocates in these arenas. It doesn’t mean we can’t talk about politics and religion, because these are parts of our culture and every culture in the world, it just means we aren’t supposed to persuade others to adopt our ideas and beliefs. I am always open to discuss taboo topics and challenge norms, but I live in an extremely religious culture, and being someone who challenges the ideas of religion could put me at risk of losing support in the community. So, I at least try to stay away from such topics. My host dad, however, does not. Without realizing it, he often opens up a can of worms.

HD: If God created man in his image, why are some people so ugly?
Me: Uhhh….
Host Brother: It’s because they aren’t followers of God.
HD: Huh? What do you think, Amanda? Why are some people so ugly? Why would God make them that way? What do you think the first people looked like?
Me: Uhhh, I, well, ugly is a strong word, and I…I believe in Science.
HD & HB: Aaahhh, Science.
HB: I believe in Creationism.
HD: Yeah, you believe in religion. So [looking at me], you don’t believe in Adam and Eve? You believe in Neanderthals and all that stuff?
Me: Yeah, I believe in evolution.
HB: Yeah, that makes more sense. A woman made from a man? The children of two people begin the entire world? That just doesn’t make sense. [Host brother exits conversation]

This may sound like a normal conversation, but in Peru this is a pretty controversial topic. We continued talking about race, skin color, different regions of the world and their people, and how Jesus was most definitely not a white guy with blue eyes, like their enormous poster in the living room.

On being sad
Lately I’ve been really busy working on my community diagnostic (the big, honkin’ presentation I talked about that is basically a research paper on my town and its strengths and weaknesses) and the only way for me to get in the groove of working and stay away from whatever crazy distractions are happening in my house is to go in my room armed with snacks and coffee, put my earbuds in, and not come out unless I’m beckoned or have to go to the bathroom. Because of this extreme shift in my time spent with my family, my host dad has decided it has less to do with my project and more to do with my emotional state. He thinks I’m very sad. He regularly checks in on me just so he can ask how sad I am, and sometimes offers a little bit of advice. It’s pretty sweet of him, but entertaining at the same time because I am not sad right now. I’m too busy to be sad. Here’s what one of our conversations looked like the other day:

Little brats
HD: What’s wrong with you?
Me: What?
HD: What do you have?
Me: Nothing’s wrong wi—
HD: You’re sad, aren’t you?
Me: No, I’m not sad.
HD: You are so sad. Those kids at school today drove you insane, didn’t they?
Me: Well, yeah, but I’m not sad.
HD: Those little brats. They make your head hurt, and you’re already so sad. You just can’t let it get to you, okay?
Me: Okay, I won’t.

Missing home
HD: What do you do in your room when you’re all by yourself?
Me: Well, I—
HD: You cry, don’t you?
Me: What? No, I—
HD: Yeah, you sit in there and cry, you think, “Oh, I miss my home, my country, my parents, my boyfriend,” and you just cry and cry and cry. [He has his hands on his face imitating tears pouring down his cheeks] You’re so sad.
Me: Really, I’m not sad. I work on projects alone in my room. Sometimes I get sad and I cry, but not often.
Host mom: What are you guys talking about?
HD: How sad Amanda is and how she sits in her room and cries.
HM: Oh, well of course she does.

Non-verbal communication
My host dad does a lot of non-verbal communication. At first it kind of drove me crazy. Not once will he say, “Hey, Amanda,” to get my attention; he will do anything else. Wave his hand, nod his head, make small noises like clearing his throat, but the most common is he whistles like he’s calling an exotic bird. I will be going about my business or be sitting in my room and hear this bizarre, rhythmic whistling. He keeps doing it over and over again. If I take a particularly long time to pay attention to him he will occasionally throw in “hey!” between his whistles. First time he did it, it took me awhile to finally become annoyed enough to look at him to find out what the hell he was doing, only to realize he was trying to get my attention the whole time. I think I may have asked him why he didn’t just use his words, but it’s the way the man is, and I’m not going to change it.

Don’t forget…
I’m sitting and eating breakfast with my host dad in silence. I hear an almost inaudible noise, sounds like someone is swallowing.
I look up, my host dad is looking at me. He brings his hand up to his face and takes his thumb and forefinger and starts to make a pinching motion in front of his eye, they way you would when you were a kid and pretended like you were crushing someone’s head. He then points and looks off to his right. I nod, he nods, and we both go back to our breakfast.

He just reminded me to take a camera with me on my trip. I said I was.

Everyday is like charades, only he uses hand motions common for Peruvians. To call someone to come see you, you wave at them the same way one would to motion, “stay where you are.” This confused me for a very long time-- people waving me away, but saying, “¡Ven!” (come here!) at the same time.  The hand motion someone back home would use to say, “Yeah, yeah, get on with things,” twirling their hand in a clockwise motion, he uses to say, “I’m leaving, but I’ll be back soon.”

Baby, baby, baby, oooh!
Then there are the random things my host dad does that aren’t so much conversations, but just idiosyncrasies. Like asking the same questions over and over again, no matter how many times I’ve already answered it (many times within the same conversation.)

Or constantly thinking I’ve died or am going to get killed. If I sleep in he’ll say, “I thought you died! Don’t scare me like that!”

There are also the times he sings Justin Bieber. He doesn’t know any English, but he has fun singing, “Baby, baby, baby oooh! Baby, baby, baby oooh!” at random times during the day.

My host niece who is 1 ½ years old can’t properly say my name, so she calls me “A-mama” (which went over real well with her actual mother, let me tell ya, but I think she’s getting over it). Sometimes, just because it’s so funny to him, my host dad calls me “A-mama”.

And, of course, there is his obsession with me being sad, and making observations of my everyday life in general.
“Man, you don’t eat like you did before. When you got here, woo! You ate a lot! Everything on your plate! What’s wrong with you? Are you not eating because you’re so sad?”

In Halpern’s book he says, “For as long as I’ve known him, my father has been a blunt individual... Now, as an adult, all day long I dealt with people—friends co-workers, relatives—who never really said what they were thinking. The more time I spent with my dad in those first couple months back home, the more grateful I started to feel for the mixture of honesty and insanity that characterized his comments and personality.”

Think of the level of passive, indirect communication and passive-aggressiveness you encounter on a daily basis in the U.S., and amplify it by 10 for Peru. They are the masters of distraction, of never really answering a question, of saying “yes” when they mean “no”, and of saying whatever they think you want to hear. My host dad is the only individual I’ve met who says what he thinks without whining or cowering while saying it. His candidness, while at times considered brash and confrontational by the rest of my host family, is a relief for me. For once, there is a person in Peru who is honest with me and I know where I stand with them. 

I´m going to acknowledge for a short moment, the fact that this is Thanksgiving week and the first time I´m spending it away from my family. It´s a big week of ups and downs, particularly dealing with projects in site, writing a diagnostic, and knowing all of the things I´m missing back home. But, I have a lot to be grateful for this Thanksgiving, like a family that supports me in my crazy endeavors outside of our own country for 2 years and constantly sends me care packages and encouraging letters. Like the fact that the U.S., no matter what crazy politicaly crap it´s going through, is SO MUCH better off than so many other countries. I´m grateful for the opportunity to live and work in this quaint little community in Peru, and to have the opportunity to grow and learn from this experience. I´m grateful for this family that has accepted me into their home, with all of my bizarre foreign quirks and language blunders, for two whole years so that they can have more opportunities for their community. I´m glad to have such a great host family that is filled with girls and a mother who is very active in the community and constantly working to better herself and set a good example for her daughters and granddaughter. I´m also grateful I have a host dad who is probably one of the most progressive Peruvian men I´ve met and isn´t conforming to the machista lifestyle. I´m glad my host family calls me ¨daughter¨, ¨sister¨, and ¨aunt¨. And, most importantly, I´m just thankful I have someone I can count on for entertainment when, despite all of the above, I just have a crappy day.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Eyes, ears, mouth, and...?

Every Monday and Tuesday I teach English at the primaria to the 5th and 6th graders. I`m like a guest teacher and come in for an hour and the regular teacher usually ditches me the first opportunity they get. Every week I generally teach the same thing to all four classrooms with a couple variances based on the attention span and capabilities of each class. I just look at my handy dandy English manual written by volunteers from the English teaching committee, and I follow it almost exactly to a T, because I don’t want to spend time on lesson plans that aren´t my main focus. So I was happy to see that this week was “body parts”, which you practically don’t even need a lesson plan for. Draw a body on the chalkboard, label the parts, sing, “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes,” and you’re golden.

My first class was with the 5th grade girls (all of the classes are separated by gender). I started out by drawing a crazy looking person on the board with limbs flailing everywhere, a large potbelly, and eyes popping out of their head (cause everyone has more fun when the lesson is a little silly). I then drew the backside of the person, exaggerating the butt and labeled it “rear”. The girls all giggled and copied my drawings in their notebooks.

We practiced saying all of the basic body parts (arms, legs, elbows, knees, etc), we sang, “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” and we played a game where a volunteer stands at the front of the room and I cover them with sticky notes (on their arms, legs, and face) that have body parts written on them. It always gets the kids giggling when, for example, you have to label the volunteer’s nose with a huge sticky note. 

So we’re getting close to the end of the class and I’m thinking about filling the time with having them practice some more rounds of,  “Head, Shoulders, etc” when the teacher for the class starts asking, “Wait, how do you say this in English?” while cupping her boob. Well, on my crazy-person drawing, I had purposely made them boob-less and labeled the area as “chest”.

“You mean ‘chest’ ?” I asked, hoping she really didn’t want me to label boobs.

“No, not chest, these! Tetas,” she said, while full-on grabbing both boobs. 

“Uh, well, they’re called ‘breasts’,” I said.

“Draw it on the board!” she said.

So I turned to the board and began drawing the curves of a woman, outlining the curves of breasts, while mumbling to myself, “Alrighty then, drawing boobs for 10 year-old girls.”

“Everyone repeat after me,” I began. “ ‘Breast’, or ‘breasts’ if plural.”

Most girls repeated, a couple giggled, while others diligently worked on drawing boobs in their notebooks.

“And this part? What about this part?” the teacher asked while poking herself in the area of her nipple.

“Oh, uh, the part in the center?” I asked, not sure what I was trying to accomplish by asking dumb questions. I thought I would get away without having to draw everything, but I was wrong.

“Yeah, where milk comes out. They need to know about their body,” she said simply.

I agree 100% they need to know about their body, I just didn’t realize my English lesson was going to turn into an anatomy lesson. Luckily, I’m not in the U.S. where I would probably be sued for saying the word “nipple” without a signed permission slip from home. Then again, if I were in the U.S. the teacher probably wouldn’t grab her boobs in the classroom or poke herself in the nipple, either. So I began adding nipples to my drawing while more snickers started rising out of the class.

“And this part?” the teacher asked, pointing to her crotch.

Alrighty then, it was obvious this lesson had taken a turn and I was now not only teaching kids how to say ¨arm¨, but also about the female body in general. I turned back to the board wondering how I was going to label a woman’s crotch. I mean, technically the external area is called the vulva. People use the word “vagina” as a catch-all term when it is just one part of the entire system, and it’s not even external. However, I really didn’t want to have to draw an entire diagram of the female anatomy, so I just labeled it as “vagina”. (Vagina is spelled the same way in Spanish, by the way, you just pronounce it “va-hee-na”.)

My woman drawing on the board now looked something like a leg-less Venus de Milo; robust and armless (but of course, without the sheet). I looked back to the teacher hoping to God she didn’t, in fact, want me to draw the entire female anatomy.

By this point all of the girls in the class were giggling, and I was trying really hard not to join them, and starting to fail. The teacher then interrupted the giggling with a lecture about how they shouldn’t be laughing because it’s not funny, it’s a woman’s body and it’s part of life, and they needed to be mature about it. I wiped the smile off my face and nodded my head in agreement, trying to look serious.

I then made everyone stand up so we could practice singing, “Head, Shoulders, etc”, since I felt we had plenty of body parts to worry about and should probably work a little more on the basics.

After finishing up I went to the next classroom, the 5th grade boys. I drew the same crazy person on the board; big curly hair, maniacal facial features, flat chest, and a big round potbelly.

“Miss Amanda, is this a man or a woman?” one of the boys asked as he started drawing the same image in his notebook.

“It’s just a person,” I said. “We’re sticking to the basics today, boys.”

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Minor Details

Everyday I meet someone new. Whether it’s walking to the school, to the municipalidad, or to the tienda, I run into someone who decides they want to say ¨hi¨ to the gringa they’ve come to realize has been here for awhile and shows no signs of leaving. 

“So you’ve come here to teach English?” they ask.

This is my cue to start “the speech.”

One of our first weeks in language training we were given this tiny slip of paper in Spanish that reads, “Me llamo_______ y soy una voluntaria de Cuerpo de Paz,” (My name is______ and I’m a Peace Corps volunteer) and continues on with minor details of my program, Desarrollo Juvenil (Youth Development). I had no idea that little slip of paper would become my daily mantra, the base of every public speech I give, and become so memorized and part of me that I can repeat it like I would my name, birthdate, and social security number.

I am so used to constantly telling people what I’m doing and why I’m here (even the people who I spend time with on a regular basis and have come to consider friends and co-workers) that I didn’t realize I have made quite the oversight in my blog.

So many people from back home are so encouraging and positive, constantly telling me, “You’re doing a good thing over there!” that I didn’t realize what I am doing isn’t exactly clear, until someone from back home recently asked me,

So, um, what is it exactly that you do?”

I realized that in my blog all I have is the standard speech—I work with kids in areas like healthy lifestyles, goal setting and future planning, and leadership in their own community.

Well, hold onto your seats, cause now I’m actually going to tell you what I do as a volunteer in Peru.

I only wish I had more things going on to tell you about.

As I’ve talked about before, my first 10 weeks here in Peru I was in training in the department of Lima. On August 19th I swore in as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and the next day was on a bus headed to my new home in Lambayeque. And since then, it has been the ever cliché rollercoaster which has been the only way to properly describe day to day living in Peace Corps Peru.

I probably haven’t talked a lot about day-to-day living because everyday is different. I have an extremely loose schedule that changes because of the simplest things. And actually, I’m not supposed to have a die-hard schedule right now, because our first three-months in site are supposed to be dedicated to integration into our community and working on a Community Diagnostic. A CD is basically what it sounds like—a huge research paper on my town. At the end of this month all of my fellow Youth Volunteers and I are meeting for Early In-Service Training, where we will all present our diagnostics and get help on how to prepare them to later present to our communities. This is how we will actually identify the needs and projects we want to work on in our communities. People would love for me to start working gung-ho on projects right now, but I constantly have to tell them I am not supposed to start any big projects yet because of my research. Research can be anything from formal interviews with community leaders, to hanging out with a local mom in her home drinking coffee and talking about the weather. The main goal is to find out what is important to people, what resources they already have, what they’re lacking, and who would be reliable to partner with me on projects.

I was actually stretched pretty thin the first month I was here. I woke up every morning around 6:30 or 7 am and got ready for the day of simply walking around town and introducing myself to people. Because the municipalidad is a big counterpart of mine, I spent a lot of time there getting to know the workers and asking questions about the community, which I then used as a lead for my next outing. I did a “Quien es la gringa?” (Who is the white girl?) presentation in both the primaria (elementary school) and segundaria (high school) where I talked about who I was, why I’m here, and Peace Corps in general. I handed out four-page surveys to all of the high schoolers that had questions ranging from “what kind of sports do you like to play?” to “do you know what contraceptives are?” I have about 150 of those and am still crunching numbers on the responses (damn me and my desire for information!). Essentially every Monday I woke up with maybe one or two things planned for the week, and by lunch time my schedule for the week was completely full with meetings, presentations, and interviews. I also took a lot of naps (you wouldn’t believe how tiring it is just being here). And that is generally what any PCV is supposed to do in their first three-months—putting themselves out there for the community to see.

As time has gone on, I have fewer and fewer meetings I have to attend and I’m spending more time at home writing my community diagnostic. I have been doing a couple projects though to help with integrating into my community, and also so I have a reason to get motivated from day to day to get up and do something out in the community instead of hole myself up in my room (which is very tempting, believe me).  Let’s just say, I don’t wake up at 7 am anymore.

Monday and Tuesday I teach English in the primaria to the 5th and 6th graders. The primaria doesn’t have English classes but they will have to study it in segundaria, so I teach them the basics like colors, numbers, the alphabet, etc. Honestly, it’s not my favorite thing to do. I am so glad I didn’t get my first invite to the Caribbean as an English teaching volunteer (no offense to the volunteers out there teaching English, I’m sure you have awesome projects that have nothing to do with English teaching). For me it is more of a means to have face time with the kids and for them to run home and tell their parents about the gringa who teaches them English and is going to live in town for two-years. For the kids, it’s an hour of having a different teacher, dancing around and singing songs, and hopefully learning a little bit of English. It’s kind of difficult for me because I’m not a real teacher with a curriculum or grading system, so there’s no way to make them do homework or study. I have four classrooms I teach an hour of English in each a week, and they somehow think they’re going to be fluent by the time I’m done with them.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve started working on the Peru map project in the segundaria. All over the world PCV’s work on the World Map Project, where they get a group of kids together to create a huge mural of the world and work on lessons involving geography, culture, etc. It’s a good team building activity, excellent starting point for lessons, and from what I hear they always turn out great. Well, because the school year is quickly coming to an end (second week of December, then it’s summer vacation) I decided to start with the Peru map project. Much smaller, quicker, and no Peruvian can resist a project that promotes patriotic pride. I’ve partnered with one of the teachers at the segundaria and we’ve been working on the project together creating lessons for the kids based on history, geography, and cultural aspects of Peru, and this next week we’re actually going to start painting on one of the walls in the school. I’m in the segundaria almost everyday working on this and doing preliminary lessons for the kids. I’m really excited about it, and the municipalidad is supporting the project by providing all of the supplies needed for painting.

Remember the dance group I have been hanging out with? Well, there is a youth group in town that is part of the municipalidad that is comprised of kids ages 17-22 who meet five-days a week to practice different dances for community events. They’re the closest thing I have to friends in my town. They’re a really neat group of kids and they were getting frustrated with me for not attending every dance practice they had every night of the week so I could watch them and hang out. Well, as much as I would’ve loved spending every evening sitting and watching them practice the same dances over and over again, it wasn’t exactly the best use of my time. I mean, I was missing my favorite telanovela every night! (Just kidding. Kind of.) So now we’ve changed things up, and they have dedicated every Monday night to Orientación Vocacional charlas with me instead of dancing. On average about 15 kids show up and we work on things like communication, self-esteem, goal setting, life-planning, relationships, applying for jobs, etc. So far the kids really like it, and it’s my favorite part of the week. I much rather prefer small group settings where people are friends and are there on their own accord than I do classroom settings. It’s a lot more laid back and everyone is comfortable and open to discussion, but well behaved enough to stay on task.

Otherwise, my time is spent going to whatever meeting I’m invited to, volunteering time to helping different groups in town with their small projects, and watching way too much Dexter. I have a lot of down time.

And while I’m not done with my diagnostic, I can tell you what kind of projects I do want to work on in my community over the next couple of years:

  • I’m hoping to partner with the health post to work on stronger sex education in the segundaria, as well as more education regarding drugs and alcohol.
  • I want to work more with parents in the community with the escuela de padres to discuss what the kids are learning in school and how they can work on those same things with them at home.
  • The mayor claims to be putting more focus on environment, so I’m hoping to start some more in-depth recycling and trash management habits in the schools and community.
  • There’s an abandoned library in the municipality I’m hoping to help revive, and hopefully I can have a libros y amigos club (books and friends club) to promote reading for fun.
  • There’s an escuela de lideres (leadership group) in the segundaria that I’m hoping to get involved with peer mentoring type programs in their school as well as in the primaria.
  • I really want to start a girls-only healthy lifestyles youth group. We would work on everything from nutrition and exercise, to self-esteem and personal girly stuff. Girls Rock!

These things are, of course, overly ambitious. I know that many of these projects have good odds of falling flat or never getting started. This is not me being a pessimist, but a realist. Even in my short time here and working on the few projects I’ve started I have come to realize the very big roadblocks ahead of me. Let’s just say, I really want to do all of these things, but I will not be surprised if they don’t happen. Many volunteers in the field have the simple advice of, “take your expectations, cut them in half, and then expect even less.” The reality of it is we have more working against us than with us. And since I am the first volunteer to ever be in my town the odds are stacked against me in making any major ground on projects. In many ways, my main goal should simply be spreading the idea of Peace Corps and laying the groundwork for the next volunteer so they can really advance projects. Change takes a long time, especially when it goes against cultural norms. This doesn’t mean I am resigned to accomplish nothing and that I won’t try to do the absolute best I can. Absolutely not. I just understand my place in the big picture—I am a link in the chain, a cog in the machine serving a purpose greater than me. We all make a difference in our own way, as long as we put ourselves out there. Right now, I´m accomplishing more of a cultural exchange than anything. It’s still hard to feel like I’m not doing anything, I definitely still feel lost and wonder what the heck I’m doing at times. But, it’s not all for nothing. So I try to keep my head up and smile, even if I’m being asked for the 100th time, “Who are you, and what are you doing here?” I just remember the speech:

“Me llamo Amanda, y soy una voluntaria de Cuerpo de Paz.”

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Comida parte dos: Sharing is caring

I consider myself a moderately generous person. If you need something and I have it, I most likely have let you borrow or use it. I share wine, I share books, I share toiletries, I share tips, we all know I like to over-share about my life. I’m generally the sharing type.

Until it comes to food.

I don’t know when it started exactly, but I have a little bit of anxiety with sharing food. I don’t know how to describe it other than I get the feeling of being cheated or like if I don’t guard my food it will all be taken and I will be left hungry. This feeling has only been exacerbated by my intolerance to gluten, which has made me incapable of eating most things offered to me, but does not make the things I am eating untouchable to everyone else. It isn’t to say I don’t share my food, I often share my food. I offer, sometimes people ask first. Only a handful of times have I actually told someone “no” about sharing my food, and these moments were embarrassing to say the least (unless we´re talking about Justin, in which case he had probably already eaten more than his share). And, lets face it, there are some foods you just don’t share. Honestly, I’m pretty embarrassed about this quirk of mine. I should just give and not expect to receive, and all of that other good “above it all” crap. But my problem is there are people out there that take and take and don’t give back.

Some have theories that it must have been started by being the youngest in a family of boys; three-older brothers ravenous in their adolescent growth-spurts, their insatiable hunger driving them to devour everything in site and leaving the poor, scrawny little sister with the decision to fight for her food or go hungry. It’s a good theory, but it has one major flaw—I was the pickiest eater around and would’ve done anything to be rid of the burden of a full plate of food. I mostly lived off cereal and hot chocolate. I do, however, have clear memories of my brother Sean leaving less than half-a-bowl of cereal in the box, leaving about the same amount of milk, and the un-holiest of all sharing practices; he used to break a cookie in half and pick the larger half for himself. Everyone knows it’s a cardinal rule of sharing that if you break the cookie in half, the other person gets to choose first.

Just like everything else in life, there are unspoken common courtesies. You hold open the door for the person with their arms full, you let pregnant women or the elderly take your seat on the bus while you stand, and when it comes to food, you offer, and the receiver only takes a little unless the person offering says it’s okay to take a lot.  So I suppose more specifically I have a problem with allowing someone to take more than their share of something. If we’re going halve-sies, we’re going halve-sies, and no one is getting more than their share unless someone is willing to relinquish their half. There are rules about these things.

Needless to say, the rules here are different.

You remember the general rule of elementary school of not eating in the classroom unless you have enough to share with the entire class? (I always hated that rule, by the way, and often hid lifesavers or mentos in my desk.) Well that is the rule of Peru. If you have food, you are sharing it with everyone present.

I once witnessed a moment when a single person eating a roll of bread in the presence of 12 other people was swarmed, and like some miraculous act of Jesus, somehow shared with everyone there. A roll. It was hardly the size of my fist. But the person knew that by having that piece of bread around others, they were obligated to share with everyone present.

Because this rule is so standfast, sometimes you don’t even have to offer food because people will ask for it and take it without waiting for a response. “Me invitas….” they’ll whine, and you’re stuck. Otherwise everyone just sits and waits for the offer, while thinking you’re an asshole if you don’t.

People don’t even drink their own beer. “Drinking circles” are the way to socially drink, which consists of one beer, one cup, and a group of people standing in a circle. There’s a whole process on how to pass it and everything. (I could write a whole post on just alcohol alone, so we’ll leave that for another day).

In the states I got pretty used to “my food” and “your food”, and unless an equal-share arrangement had been made with both parties, you stuck to eating your own food. Most times this agreement became null for me, as I generally had something gluten-free and the other person did not. Therefore, sharing was minimized quite a bit, as few people wanted to take some of my food without having anything to offer in return.

That doesn’t really fly here.

My mom sent me a package with GF mac and cheese in the mail awhile back. I held onto it for a long time, wondering when I could make it without having to share it. I learned in training that if you have something and you don’t want to share it, you hide it in your room and hoard it. Not exactly the healthiest habit to have, hoarding food and eating it in secret, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

So one day after getting to know my now host-family’s habits and schedules, I decided to go for it. Dinner isn’t a big meal here, it mostly consists of leftovers, and oftentimes is leftover rice with a fried egg and fried bananas. Sometimes my host family just eats bread and cheese (part of which I can’t partake in) so I decided it would only be just that I make my own mac and cheese and they eat their glutenous bread.

Within 60 seconds of readying the water to boil, every family member had stopped everything they were doing and had come from the furthest reaches of the household to stand in the kitchen and ask me what I was making. I showed them the box and they marveled at it, this foreign food item that appeared to be something made from wheat, but somehow magically wasn’t. They stood over me, uncomprehending this item that was both noodles and cheese, and yet the noodles were made out of rice, and the cheese was a package of powder.

Things moved on and my host-mom fried some eggs as I finished up the mac and cheese. Everyone had saddled up to their plate of rice and fried egg as I dished up my plate of the gooey, unnaturally-orange perfection. The whole time I felt everyone’s eyes boring into me.

I am not going to offer my food to them.
I am NOT going offer my food to them!

“Amanda, me invitas…”

Normally I can eat an entire package of mac to myself, but because I now had four people that wanted to try, I took less than half. Within seconds, my saving grace had been divvied up and everyone was eating the mac.

“Cultural exchange, Amanda, cultural exchange….you’re letting them try American food,” I told my inner beast of hunger.

“Oh, this is just like treschiz,” my host sister said.

“Oh, yeah…” everyone said as they realized what I had prepared was not, in fact, some foreign delicacy, but simply a food they knew and rarely ate, just with a different name. 

“Yeah….like treschiz, only I can’t eat treschiz because it’s made with wheat,” I said, trying to keep the smile big and passive aggressiveness down. “If you don’t want it, I would be more than happy to eat it, since it was a gift from my mom all the way from the United States of America.”

I think at this point my host-sister saw the beast, so she picked up her plate and left the room. I managed to get over it, told myself “you at least got to eat some of it, which is more than you had before.” Until the next morning, when I went to make my breakfast and found half a plate of my beautiful mac and cheese in the pig-slop bucket.

To be honest, it had been kind of a bad week, and seeing those noodles forsaken and scattered in a pile of food scraps was just too much. I might have cried a little bit. I might have also asked my host sister why she would throw such a thing away, when I had made myself clear that I would eat it.

That’s when I realized I needed a perspective change.

Whether I think I should share or not, they all do. And while I would love to indulge and have certain things all to myself, it only alienates my host family and makes me even weirder to them if I don’t partake in what they consider a common courtesy. Besides, I have a bag full of gluten-free mixes and absolutely nowhere to make them. Flours flop, even when they’re stored in airtight bags. Am I going to potentially let my gifts from home go bad in my stubbornness to not share?

This is still a process for me. I still keep certain food in my room (peanut butter will never be communal), I still hesitate on sharing certain things, rack my brain with ways to get away with eating it all to myself, and I sometimes stop by the tienda and buy cocadas or sublime’s to hide in my bag and eat in the secrecy of my room.

However, it´s getting easier. It’s actually kind of relieving, like a weight lifted off my chest. Less sneaking around and hiding, more happy faces and moments to bond with my host family. And it’s another step to integration. I’ll know I’m really integrated when I work up the nerve to lower my bottom lip and let out a whine of “Por favoooorrr….me invitas…”

Nah, I won´t do that. Gotta start small. Poco a poco.