The Northern Coast

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

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Million Soles Question

Being a gringo in Peru leaves you vulnerable to a lot of questions and prodding. Peruvians don’t find it prying to ask things like, “Are you married? Are you dating someone? Do they live here? Are you going to leave them for a Peruvian?” or “Where are you from? What are you doing here? Where do you live?” One grows accustomed to divulging parts of their life to complete strangers, or at least making up something to tell them. We actually have sessions on this sort of thing.

However, there is one question I am still not good at answering. The dreaded question I have been asked time and time again and have yet to come up with a precise or articulate answer for:

“Why did you join the Peace Corps?”

Oh, how I loathe this question!

I already addressed this slightly in my entry “The Interview” before I joined, but then it was, “Why do you want to join the Peace Corps?” Either way, the sentiment is still the same. Even as I sit in my small humble room adorned with only two decorations (a picture of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and a poster of Marvin the Martian) 1000’s of miles from home in a foreign land that grows on me day by day, I cannot answer this question.

Part of the reason I can’t is because the answer changes all the time. In my first essay I sent with my Peace Corps application I wrote, “I have wanted to live my life the way anyone with an open heart, adventurous spirit, and hungry mind would. Helping others and integrating myself into a new country and culture fits my life story.” Before it was about adventure, challenges, and a broader global understanding. It still is all these things, but there’s something else added; like the smiles and laughter coming from the children I’m talking to in my charlas, my host brother shouting my name and opening his arms for a hug from his hermana gringa, or my host family telling me I speak, “como una peruana.”

The point is there is no concrete black and white answer. It’s a feeling-- a growing, living thing. The most precise answer I can give is, “it spoke to me.”

The other day I was talking with some fellow aspirantes and we discovered many of us had “a song” before we left the States that really spoke to us about where we were in our lives as we readied ourselves to embark on this journey. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes had just come out, and its timing and relevance struck me. There was awhile when I couldn’t even listen to this song before I left because it made me cry cada vez. This song still chokes me up even if I’m listening to it crammed in a combe. If you listen to the words, I’m sure you’ll find a message that helps explain why I am where I am. Maybe the music will help convey the feelings I cannot express.

I was raised up believing
I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes
Unique in each way you can see

And now after some thinking

I'd say I'd rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery
Serving something beyond me

But I don't, I don't know what that will be

I'll get back to you someday soon you will see

What's my name, what's my station
Oh just tell me what I should do
I don't need to be kind to the armies of night
That would do such injustice to you

Or bow down and be grateful

And say "Sure take all that you see"
To the men who move only in dimly-lit halls
And determine my future for me

And I don't, I don't know who to believe

I'll get back to you someday soon you will see

If I know only one thing

It's that every thing that I see
Of the world outside is so inconceivable
Often I barely can speak

Yeah I'm tongue tied and dizzy

And I can't keep it to myself
What good is it to sing helplessness blues?
Why should I wait for anyone else?

And I know, I know you will keep me on the shelf

I'll come back to you someday soon myself

If I had an orchard
I'd work till I'm raw
If I had an orchard
I'd work till I'm sore

And you would wait tables
And soon run the store

Gold hair in the sunlight
My light in the dawn
If I had an orchard
I'd work till I'm sore

If I had an orchard
I'd work till I'm sore

Someday I'll be
Like the man on the screen

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Field Based Training- La Libertad

Many Peace Corps Volunteers say the first time they truly started feeling like a volunteer was during field based training (FBT). I just got back from a crazy week in La Libertad doing everything from brushing kids teeth to giving charlas to Peruvian youth on recycling, hygiene, English, and communication techniques with their parents. We spent time in slow, sleepy beach towns, as well as sites that reached above 8,000 feet in elevetation in the sierra. The scenery was phenomenal, the experiences were rewarding, and our (little) spare time was never ill spent.

Day One: 
Enjoying some coffee that for once isn't instant
I suppose day one actually started the night before, since we took a night bus from Lima to Trujillo. We rolled into town around 7 am and soon thereafter hit the streets to do a scavenger hunt (which seems to be the number one favorite activity amongst trainers). We mostly spent the day getting to know our FBT leaders Ian and Kelsi, as well as some other volunteers who came to see "the newbies" (a term I'm getting really tired of). We spent some time in Huanchaco, a beach town close-by, where we mostly ate. Cebiche, seafood, ice cream, and pancakes were the foods of choice.

Day Two:
Photo by Ian Arzeni-- getting ready to put fluoride on a girl's teeth.
Our group made its way to the beach town of Puerto Malabrigo which is another youth development volunteer's site. She gave us a tour as well as took us to some schools she worked in. We got to help in brushing five-year-olds' teeth as well as apply fluoride, which one child promptly threw up.

This was then followed by a visit to a special education school where we met the students, learned about the school, and mostly emphasized the importance of brushing teeth than actually cleaning them ourselves. Our day ended with a beach cleanup (I've never done such intense trash pick-up in a five-foot radius before) and some trainees put on wet-suits and helped some niños get out in the waves to surf.

Day Three:
This day was a little harder than the others, mostly because I helped teach two-classes in a school in Bello Horizonte, our FBT leader Ian's site, and they didn't go so great. The younger elementary students were more than happy to learn the ABC's in English, but the older high school students didn't want have anything to do with our activity on communication techniques with their parents. I haven't felt more like throwing up in public due to embarrassment in a long time.
After we went to a home for children taken away from their family by the government due to abuse. They were great kids and they were excited to play games with a big group of gringos. Also, I was gifted a ton of food by a volunteer living there for the summer. She felt bad for me being gluten-free and struggling with healthy, GF food, and she is heading home soon. It was incredibly thoughtful of her! I may or may not have already eaten all of said food, except for a jar of almond butter.
Day Four:
Photo by Lindsay Buck-- in class teaching about handwashing.
This day we spent in a sierra site where a water and sanitation volunteer lives. The town sat above 8,000 feet in elevation and the mountains reminded me so much of home! My time in the classroom went much better this day, as I prepared a charla (this time by myself) on the importance of handwashing, and showed them how to make a "tippy tap", which is basically a handwashing system made out of an old water bottle. I presented it to a group of ten to eleven-year-olds', and they were incredibly receptive and participatory. I also helped give a quick charla on recycling with another trainee, which went just as well. I was lucky with my classes, though, as some people had students literally jumping on the desks like monkies. 

Because my achilles tendon is still a wreck I couldn't join the crew on a hike, but I got a nap, which came in handy when I had to stay up until 1:00 am getting the next day's session plans prepared.

Day Five:
In Poroto--Kerry and Kidist are amazing with kids
Another day of charlas, and they already felt easier. This day we were in Poroto, a beautiful site between the coast and the sierra where our FBT leader Kelsi lives. I helped give a charla on the importance of goal setting and future career possibilities with high school students. Speaking in Spanish in front of a group of youth is getting easier, too, even though I'm still messing up often on my grammar. After giving our own charlas, we spent more time at the school, and I somehow ended up singing the US National Anthem to a group of teenagers.

After school we went to the health post and met with some middle school to high school aged students in a "health promoter" group. We helped them organize and construct their own charlas for elementary school students.
Eduar, our 12-year-old student health promoter helping me make papelotes for our hygiene charla
Finished product

Best stress-relieving part of the day: making enormous banana-oatmeal pancakes for everyone, having a five-person dance party, and telling ghost stories.
Photo by Lindsay Buck-- Making pancakes and eggs!
Photo by the self-timed camera of Lindsay Buck
Day Six:
We show up to the school to help give the charlas with health promoters, and the school is having a "sports day". The director kind of forgot we needed children in classrooms to teach. However, it worked out and our twelve-year-old health promoter did an awesome job of teaching a class of 2nd graders about personal hygiene. We were mostly there for moral support and to make sure the class raised their hands before speaking. The rest of the day was busy with activities preparing us for our time as volunteers outside of the classroom.
Second-grade class in Poroto taught by a 12-year-old student health promoter

Not-so-random-but-still-random-occurrence from the day: someone from our group pooped their pants.

Day Seven:
Photo by Lindsay Buck-- Medio Ambiante mural in Bello Horizante
Our last morning was spent back in Bello Horizante helping paint trash cans to be placed around the community (public trash cans are almost non-existent in a lot of communities) and a mural that encouraged taking care of the environment.

After we got back to the hotel in Trujillo and cleaned up, we kidnapped our FBT leaders and took them to Starbucks where we presented them with hand-made certificates (certificates are a big thing in Peru; people love them) and treated them to their beverage of choice. This may not seem like much, but in the life of a volunteer, this is a treat!

Photo by Lindsay Buck-- Richard and I leading Kelsi and Ian to Starbucks.

The whole week was such a great experience. There were times that were challenging, especially staying up until the wee hours of the night creating original ideas for hour-long presentations in Spanish, and then waking up early to get ready and deliver them to an unfamiliar group of kids. Some of us had better luck than others on the reception we got from the kids, but all of us gained a wealth of experience.

I am starting to get really excited to find out my site, which will be August 3rd (two weeks away!). However, I am sad to think I will be leaving all of my great friends I've made behind. But, I know I will still see them when I can, and I will be forging relationships in site. FBT was overwhelming at times, but I feel more prepared for being a real volunteer than ever before. I'm excited to see where I'll be placed, and where you all will have a chance to come visit me!

Friday, July 8, 2011

One down, twenty-six to go

One month already??

Two-weeks ago it felt like months, and now it’s been four weeks and it feels impossible that we’ve already been here that long. Huh? How does time warp forward and then leap backwards again?

The days go by much quicker now that walking narrow streets strewn with trash, glass, and stray dogs has become a norm, and everyday tasks like throwing my toilet paper in the trash or boiling water to drink have become easier. Training is only 10 weeks, which means I am almost halfway through! In another month I’ll learn my site assignment and will go visit the place in which I’ll be living for the next two years, and even meet my new host family.

And my trainers honestly think I’ll be ready for that? Hard to believe. Then again, I’m in the Peace Corps and I’ve been living in Peru for a month; I have a hard time believing that sometimes.

The last four weeks have been intense, but I can definitely see the changes and progress everyone has made. For instance, today we had Spanish interviews to determine if we are going to move up a level or two in our language courses. Almost everyone has made so much progress I doubt many won’t be moved up another level, and that is incredible leaps and bounds in four weeks.

We are learning so much and doing so many activities, sometimes it’s a little much. In fact, most days training is too much; four hours of language training followed by four hours of guest speakers with information on everything from Peruvian customs to STD’s and back to the Peruvian education system. It’s a lot to take in on a daily basis.  And then after all of that, it’s back to the host family to make small talk and eat another plate full of rice, followed by an hour of homework. Not to say we haven’t gotten our breaks. We’ve had barbecues, celebrated Peruvian holidays, celebrated American holidays (4th of July), and gone to Lima where we all divulged in many American treats (Starbucks, fast food, Pinkberry, etc). We work hard, we play hard, and somehow we’re all still standing or at least have the ability to help hold each other up.

Some of my buddies at the 4th of July celebration
My Spanish class making papas rellenos in my host family's kitchen
I think the intensity of training and the sheer amount of talent and experience our group holds creates a lot of conflicting feelings amongst everyone. A) We’re already good friends and have a hard time imagining service without our buddies there to lean on and share experiences with, and B) Competitiveness runs rampant, but so do feelings of inadequacy amongst our peers and fear of being unsuccessful at site.

When we all take the moment to step back and share our feelings, we often find we are experiencing the same things. Many of us wonder if we’re capable of doing this, feel as though the person next to us is better off or more experienced, and sometimes even just being overwhelmed and worn out makes us feel weak and alone. Yet, we’re all feeling the same thing. When we take a moment to stop comparing ourselves to one another, we realize we truly aren’t alone in our self-deprecating thoughts and they aren’t justified.

The reality of the matter is, we all persevered and completed a long, arduous, and competitive application process. There are over 8,000 Peace Corps volunteers serving in the world right now, and there are over 310 million people in the U.S. Now we just have to believe we can actually accomplish what we’ve worked so hard to have the chance to attempt.

Sunday, July 3, 2011


Car, bike, cell phone, and wifi.

I just listed four things that are commodities I had in the U.S. that I don’t have here. However, these things are not just commodities, but a means to which I could easily access independence and control of how I spent my time and accomplished tasks. I could decide when and where I went via transportation, I could easily call or text people to make plans, and I could access wifi at a variety of places to check news, email, look up information, etc.

As you can imagine, part of the adjustment period is getting used to no longer having these means of control and independence I once took for granted.  One way to get through culture shock and past frustrations is being able to identify what the issue is and come to terms with it. It took me awhile to verbalize or even identify what exactly was frustrating about many situations, but it was sitting right under my nose the whole time; I’m just used to having more control over things.

Transportation: Here, when I need to get from point A to point B I usually walk unless it is too far away and I don’t have time. It takes me 30 to 40 minutes to walk to the training center in the morning, which is actually pretty nice. I enjoy the walk and I always meet up with other trainees who live in my neighborhood so we can all walk together. But, if I need to go further, it makes more sense to take a combe (small bus) or colectivo (basically a taxi, but it has a flat rate fare, only has one route, and as many people as possible cram in along the way) which depending on the day, could take 30 minutes just to catch. The public transportation system isn’t on “hora Americana” (our idea of punctuality) it’s on “hora Peruana” (meeting times are more like general guidelines. More often than not, people are at least 30 minutes late).

This constant preparation to be somewhere on “hora Americana” while the rest of Peru is on “hora Peruana” makes things difficult, especially when meeting up with someone. We do not have cell phones and won’t receive them until the end of our service. So, if someone waits for 20 minutes not knowing you’re still waiting for a combe, or you got sick and can’t make it, that’s just how it is.

Poop: Missing appointments and meetings due to sickness happens, a lot. Some people have lost control of their bowels. Yes, people have already pooped their pants. I’d like to think we all laugh together about it, but I’m not sure I’ll be laughing when it happens to me. I have a feeling it will be unavoidable. Talking about poop has become as common as asking how someone’s day is going. Some people can’t poop, others can’t stop. It’s a big mixture of different diet, different routines, different bacteria, etc.

Routines: Not sure if I even have a routine here, yet. Running used to be a big part of my routine, and now I’m lucky if I run a couple minutes a week. I couldn’t run very much after my marathon because of my hurt achilles tendon, but I have hardly tried to run here. Some people do it, and I am actually pretty jealous. My achilles is still recovering so I don’t want to push it, but I also just don’t feel as comfortable. I like running by myself or with someone with a similar running pace. However, I don’t even have the option to run alone here. I still don’t feel quite safe enough, and that is mostly because of the dogs. I have had to throw a rock or two to get them to stay away from me. Something about running just triggers their “attack” mode.

Comida tipica: Food is my biggest struggle here. For example, if I wake up and want pancakes, too bad. Not because pancakes don’t exist, but because I have to find alternate means to make those pancakes (I am gluten-free) and I then have to talk it out with my host mom who thinks pancakes for breakfast is just bizarre (that much food for breakfast? Without rice? Unheard of!). In general, I’m not allowed to make my own food. We compromise at times and I will make a meal here and there for the whole family (which so far they’ve loved) but I’m not making daily decisions on what I eat, when I eat it, or how it is prepared. Of all the losses in independence, this one is the hardest for me. It is hard to give up control of what I choose to eat, and part of that is the different concept of nutrition. Vegetables make you sick (or, that’s what a lot of Peruvians think), white rice is the number one staple, and drinking plain water is very uncommon. If you happen to be eating with someone who believes cold drinks make you sick (many Peruvians do) then you’ll be drinking hot fruit juice, hot tea with lots of sugar, or just plain warm soda. Soda is the most popular option.  Meals consist of white rice sprinkled with MSG (yes, MSG is just another seasoning here, and a popular one at that) topped with potatoes, and sometimes a side of meat. And rice isn’t just for dinner, oh no. It’s for every meal, in every form. Sometimes we just eat rice and milk—with lots of sugar in it. Needless to say, I am starving within an hour (rice and potato are the top-two foods on the glycemic index) and snacks are a little harder to come by since I can’t eat crackers or bread. I eat a lot of candy, because my blood sugar drops like a rock and I just need something to keep me going. It’s also a “comfort food” thing, so I think I’m going to have to seek out more fruit.

However, I am already adjusting to many of these things. I make sure to plan ahead of time and always leave the house 30 to 40 minutes before I have to be somewhere. I don’t run, but I do yoga everyday and have little exercises I can do in my room. I carry toilet paper with me at all times, and a plastic bag in case lunch decides to make a reappearance (you just never know). Many things are becoming commonplace, and sometimes I forget about quirks and differences to tell people back home because I’m so used to it already.

And food, well, that will probably be hard until I get to site and have a little more freedom to cook some of my own meals. I dream of pizza and Indian food, and wake up praying I can have something normal for breakfast like eggs or oatmeal. But, it’s all in vain. My stomach is slowly adjusting to the simple carbs and in the end it is all part of the cultural experience. I am seeing how the other part of the world lives, and if that means rice and potatoes and no veggies, then I guess that’s what I’m eating. It is a humbling experience to have to rely so heavily on others, and while I don’t particularly like it, it is all part of the process; the process of letting go of the control I didn’t even realize I had.