The Northern Coast

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

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Soy King Kong

I am a giant in Peru. I am 5’9” and even for a girl in the states that puts me above average in height. Well, here I’m above and beyond average—I’m gigante.

Just ask my 10 year-old host brother Diego who is under 5’0” tall, and probably not getting a lot taller based on the size of his family members. He’s already called me everything from Godzilla or Hulk, to a “big tree”. Cause I’m just plain tall.

I shouldn’t feel bad because it is a common part of the culture to give someone a nickname, or call them based on their appearance. I’m not completely unfamiliar to this, since I lived in Costa Rica for a short while where people were called gordita (fatty) flaco (skinny) or by any other characteristic. For instance, gringa (white person/foreigner/etc). That shouldn’t come as a surprise to many. I do have a couple friends in my group that are of Asian descent, and they are all just called china. Doesn’t matter if they're from Korea or elsewhere, people call them straight out china. Some take the “nicknames” better than others, but it is difficult when we’re raised in the U.S. where not only are we more p.c. (and this time I mean politically correct, not Peace Corps) but you just don’t call someone by physical characteristics, especially if it’s “fat”. Ideas of what is appropriate or inappropriate are very different, and racism exists in just as many different forms. Sometimes it’s hard to swallow what people are saying, because back in the U.S. that person would be labeled as racists or prejudiced, and many people would speak their mind against it. But, different country, different history/culture, different ideas, and one can’t judge someone based on different standards.

We’ve been learning a lot about “filters” lately. A filter being that, I grew up in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, and I have “x” ideals, “x” morals, “x” beliefs, and I can’t judge a Peruvian based on my personal standards. It’s a constant adjustment to think, “Okay, that person isn’t being a major creeper, because personal space is different,” or “This person isn’t being rude by staring, because that’s not unusual, and I’m white and freakishly tall to them.” It messes with my head a little bit when I think that there truly is no “right” and “wrong” that can stand clear and true. To me, certain things are clear as day right and wrong, but it doesn’t work that way.

I will admit, I am having a harder time adjusting to the culture here. At first it was all kind of interesting and entertaining, but some days I’m over it. I’m over being stared at, feeling incredibly out of place, and dealing with language and cultural barriers. But then I remind myself, I’ve only been here 2 ½ weeks. It feels like I’ve been here forever. Also, I’m working at a much more intense level, what with training 8 hours a day, homework every night, weekend excursions, spending time with my host family, and trying to just relax somewhere in there. It’s a lot to adjust to at once.

Hopefully in the next 2 ½ weeks, things will be easier. Soon all of our training courses will only be in Spanish, we’ll be doing more work directly with youth in our communities, and we’ll be halfway through training. If anything, I hope the language will come easier, the stares will go unnoticed, and I’ll keep walking tall.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Pico de Gallo

Pico de Gallo, direct translation: beak of the rooster

One of our gallos on the roof of our apartment.

When I first got here, I was woken up every morning by gallos cock-a-doodle-doo-en at 4:00 am, even with my earplugs in. Now, my vecino could be rocking cumbia, my host brother Diego can be listening to Justin Bieber, and I won’t budge until my alarm goes off. I sleep hard every night. Normally I am a very light sleeper, but the days here wear me out fast. Also, I have no choice but to adjust now that I’m somewhere that goes against the grain of my own culture. That’s what every day is like here; constant adjustment.

It hasn’t been much time, and I’ve already been through so much. And when I say, “been through so much” I mostly mean feelings, like being really uncomfortable, awkward, hungry, cranky, on the verge of tears, inappropriately loud, completely overwhelmed, and an all around mess. In all honesty, I haven't actually done a whole lot other than training and homework for training. But, to add some more stress to things, I can’t speak English anymore. I'm not kidding, I had to proof-read this blog 20 times. While my Spanish has improved mucho, I'm still not that great at it. I mostly live in limbo—I can’t fully express myself in any language anymore.

So, as you can imagine, I have already experienced issues with language, sometimes being left in the dark until I come to the realization of what is being said days later.

One day I was on the roof of our apartment (our apartment is three floors, and the roof is where you do laundry, and also where the roosters are) and Diego was showing me the gallos. As he showed me them I realized there weren’t really any female chickens, so I asked Diego, “Why do you only have roosters? Do you not have any chickens for eggs? Do you eat these roosters?”

Diego responded, “No, these roosters are only for ______ with other chickens.”

Now, normally when I’m talking to someone and I don’t know a word (that’s what the blank is for, I had no idea what he was saying) I think in context. You know, 1 + x = 3 isn’t too hard to figure out, and those times when I can’t figure out what people are saying, I usually ask for a definition.

Well, in this situation, I filled in the blank as such; “No, these roosters are only for mating with other chickens.” So, I didn’t press on. I just said, “Oh, okay,” and left it at that.

A few days later there was a big block party going on down the street. I have no idea if this is a regular thing or if it was special, because I haven’t been here for enough weekends to know, but I was warned it might be a little peligroso for me because everyone was going to be drunk. So I was just spending time at home with the family when Diego came up to me at the dinner table and asked, “Amanda, do you want to go watch the roosters ____?” Once again, he used that word I didn’t know, but had figured meant mating.

“Uh, no, I don’t want to watch that, Diego,” I said.

“Please, Amanda! Please! I want to go watch!”

By this point I was starting to think that either Diego was a very strange boy, or my contextual language acquisition method was failing me.

Diego looked at his dad and said, “Please, Dad! I want to watch! I want to go watch the roosters _____.”

“Fine, okay, we’ll go,” my host dad responded, and went to get his jacket. “Amanda, we’ll be back later, have a good night.”

At that moment, the lightbulb finally went off.

Diego wanted to watch the roosters mate fight.

My host family raises roosters to cockfight.

For citizens of the U.S., animals used for entertainment in violent and cruel ways is generally frowned upon—and illegal. But here, it is part of everyday life. Having a party? Bring the gallos along! Celebrating Fathers Day? How about watching a cockfight while the women make lunch? It’s just how things are. It’s another one of those cultural things that may make our jaws drop but really there isn't anything to do about it. I’m going to pick my battles. While I don’t particularly enjoy hearing accounts from my 10 year-old host brother on how one gallo clawed out the other’s eye, or one got kicked in the spine and paralyzed, it could be worse. Menos mal in other words.

Otherwise, I don’t think I’ve made too many language faux paus yet. At least that I know of. Next week I may find out I’ve been saying something incredibly inappropriate, or that I’ve been calling people by the wrong name. Either way, poco a poco…

Saturday, June 18, 2011

¿Hablas Spanglish?

Hola from Buenos Aires, Lima, Peru! I just completed my first week as a trainee in the Youth Development program and my first week with my training host family, and I am happy to say I survived. And maybe that doesn’t seem like a huge accomplishment considering I am supposed to be in Peru for 27 months, but let me tell you, little could surpass the feelings of terror and dread I had on those first days in my training site. I feel like I’ve been gone months, and Monday was weeks ago.

I would be lying if I said I felt confident, secure in my abilities, happy with my Spanish, and like I had made the right decision. I felt the furthest from it. Monday during the first day of training, tears sat in the corner of my eyes all day long and waited until I was alone at my host family’s house to pour out in a bout of self-pity and fear of having made the wrong decision. I felt like I had spent a year of my life applying for a job I wasn’t fit for. I was just so overwhelmed.

They say Peace Corps will give you the highest highs and the lowest lows, and I am already starting to get a feel for what they mean. Imagine turning your life upside down and heading to a country you’ve never been to with people you’ve only just met, living with people you don’t know and have a bit of a language barrier with, and then throw culture shock, new standards of living, eight-hour training sessions, constipation, freezing-ass cold showers, and terrible coffee on top. Now, how does that make you feel?

But things have already gotten better. Everyday things get better. Poco a poco is a popular saying here; little by little.

So now that I’m past discussing feelings and junk like that, here are some things about what I’ve been doing. I think until things start slowing down, I’m going to be making these blogs mostly “highlights” of my time here. So much happens on the hour, it would be impossible to recollect it all.

Training: Training is actually pretty fun, but it’s a lot of information to handle at once. In the past when I’ve done language classes in country, I spent three to four hours max in class, two hours napping, and the rest of the time having fun in the city.  But this isn’t study abroad-- this is a job. Training is eight-hours a day with approximately four-hours of language training, and the rest of the time is split between presentations on culture/medical information/etc and job specific training. To be honest, I feel like a little kid more than someone training for a big job. Mostly because we are all a bunch of goofy, loud people who can’t sit still for five minutes, but also because we all walk to training together with our sack lunches and backpacks.

Family: I’m currently living with an awesome family who I get along with really well. They have housed Peace Corps trainees for many years, and they are pretty used to our “backwards” ways of doing things. My host family consists of Lilia (mom), Javier (dad), Ruth (23 year-old daughter), Josie (17 year-old daughter) and Diego (10 year-old son). They are all incredibly nice. Lili can be quiet sometimes, but lately she’s been hanging around me more and asking if I need help with homework. Javier works 22 hours away (still don’t know what he does) so he is gone for 20 days at a time, and comes home for eight days. I just met him today! Ruth lives next door and has a toddler (Michaela) and houses another PCT. Josie is studying to be an engineer at a University over an hour away, and she commutes back and forth everyday. I rarely see her, but when I do she talks so fast my head spins. And Diego is the best thing that has ever happened to me. He’s at that age where he still likes to play with action figures and is absolutely ridiculous without worrying about looking cool, but he totally crushes on all of his amigas and uses Facebook and Twitter like a true addict. He makes being here so much easier, because he’s patient with my language skills, he often gets me out of the house by asking if I want to play basketball or futbol at la conchita (basketball court), and he always greets me (sometimes hanging out his window) with a big grin and, “AH-MAHN-DAAAAAHHH!!!”

Health/Hygiene: On one of our first days of training we were discussing hygiene and showers, and a PCV (Peace Corps Volunteer--I know, lots of acronyms, get used to it) suggested to us, “Only wash what folds.” And that’s all you really can wash when the water comes out of the showerhead so freezing cold, you don’t even WANT to take a shower. I’ve only taken two since I’ve been in Peru.

We actually have a lot of meetings on health and hygiene, because it can get to be an issue for volunteers if they’re not careful. There’s a lot of different food, bacteria, parasites, viruses, etc. I’ve already gotten four shots, and I think I’m still getting a few more. We can’t drink the water, Peruvians like cold showers, lots of people are constipated, some people already have diarrhea and vomiting—it’s a pretty picture I’m painting, isn’t it? We also are recommended to brush our teeth at least twice a day, if not more. They don’t have fluoride in their water, and they eat way more sweet and sugary things than we are used to, so keeping teeth can be a problem (which by the way, Peace Corps won’t pay for lost teeth, so I’m planning on keeping mine). But our medical staff is awesome, and they are freakin’ hilarious! Actually, everyone is hilarious.

On a funny, but completely miserable topic, we’ve started a “70% Club” money pool. Some of us heard there is a statistic that 70% of all PCV’s poop their pants at one point in their service—our medical staff tell us the percentage is actually higher—so we decided to all put money in a pool, and the person (or people) that don’t poop their pants by the end of service (or sooner), WINS! Fun game, huh?

Speaking of poop, in Spanish you say “kaka” but its direct translation is “shit.” For two years, one of our medical staff was asking volunteers, “How was your shit?” every time he had appointments with them, until someone finally told him “shit” isn’t the appropriate term in English. I love our staff.

Otra vez, I will tell you about food, customs, culture, more about poop, and how having piel blanca gets you more attention than you ask for, and mi piso.  I want to talk more about where I live and what it’s like, but I’ll save that for another day and hopefully I’ll have a new and exciting way to present it.

Que vaya bien, y un gran abrazo y beso!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Peace Corps Peru Group 17!

I'm alive and well in a small town in Peru. We're actually not in Chaclacayo, we're 20 miles past it at a beautiful retreat center. I am already realizing that writing a detailed blog, even after only a few days, is just impossible. There is so much to say about even one day. So, I'll try to hit the high-points.

First night in D.C.: I wasn't even done paying for my taxi and opening the door when I heard someone say, "Hey! Are you Amanda?" Peace Corps means instant friends.

Staging/Orientation: What happens when you get a room full of over-achievers trying to impress their new employers on the first day? Some of us were realizing for the first time that while we were usually the one with all the answers in our classes, we were competing to answer in a class full of our peers. It is almost funny how alike we all are, but from such different backgrounds.

Airport/Plane ride: 100lbs of baggage sucks to carry by yourself. A lot. A lot, a lot. And American Airlines must hate the Peace Corps. 52 people ascending on the check-in line, each with two 50 lb bags (except for the over-over achievers who actually followed the rules and only brought what they could carry) was the biggest cluster f*** I have seen thus far. I guess I should get used to it.

Training: We're at a retreat center that is gated and has guard dogs (I think that's a joke...) We got in at midnight and woke up to amazing mountains.  It feels like I'm at camp. Learning fun things, playing games, doing ice breakers, getting snacks and coffee-- it's pretty cush. I mean, we still can't drink the water, but we have real toilets and showers (with limited warm water) which is pretty nice. Also, on the way here we saw a lot of the impoverished areas outside of Lima-- blocks upon blocks of what appeared to be abandoned buildings (none of which had roofs or top floors), random fires in the distance, stray dogs walking the streets, and terrible traffic. Training is also nothing like what I'll actually be doing for my time in service, I won't have such strict, full schedules, and I won't even be around everyone here.

Overall: I am having a great time getting to know all of these very cool people and learning about what I'll be doing over the next two-years, but it is still very overwhelming. I like everyone, but I still don't know them well enough to completely let my guard down. Energy levels have to constantly be up, you have to kind of be on your toes, and we've been running on very low sleep. Spanish isn't being spoken a ton yet because not everyone can speak it, but it still takes some concentration for me to get all of what they're saying. I woke up in the middle of the night in a sweat having no idea where I was, and that is always unsettling. I'm still pretty emotional, and I totally burst into tears talking to one of the directors, because he discussed the sexual assault/rape issue during introductions and really helped everyone feel better. I just wanted to thank him for talking about it and I lost it.

I'm nervous about a lot of things, but I also feel a great deal of support for all of the ups and downs.
So far, so good :)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Things I'll miss, parte dos.

Woke up this morning to yet another beautiful day. Summer literally waited until the final countdown to show up; three days until I leave for D.C., five days until I'm in Peru. When I woke up to sunshine and a warm breeze I was reminded of Summers-past, and as I've already said, I'm really going to miss summer. Camping, hiking, river trips, swimming (well, more like standing in freezing river water), barbecues, time with friends, laying in the grass listening to jazz music in the park...all the things about summer that make it magical and my favorite time of year. So, since I won't have a summer this year, here's a "remembrance to summer." I'm sorry if you're picture didn't make it in, because I have spent so much time with so many different people during summer, and I love all of you!

Summer '04, with my brothers Sean and Daniel at home in Challis, ID
Summer '06, Working for FS at Boundary Creek with Krista (photo Dave Morris)
Summer '07, Choral Rendezvous, Challis, ID
Summer '07 working for FS at Indian Creek with Jeremy
Summer '08, FS River Trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon with Eric, Donna, and Jen at Rock Island Camp
Summer '08, Kristan, Kyra, Becky and I at our "Mustache Mojito" party, Boise, ID
Every summer, Brandy and Clarissa out on the porch in Challis, ID
Hike from Goldbug Hotsprings near Ellis, ID
Summer '09, The whole famdamily in Challis, ID for 4th of July

Summer '10 the whole famdamily for my Dad's 60th Birthday in McMinnville, OR
Summer '10, Justin and I at the top of Iron Mountain, Central OR
Summer '10, spending time with my niece, Lily
Summer '10, above Dagger Falls with Kristan
Summer '10, Camping at Dagger Falls with Kristan, Nick, and Lindsey
Summer '10, Choral Rendezvous, the only time I get to see my sister from another mister, Mackenzie
Summer '10, celebrating our three-year anniversary in Corvallis, OR