The Northern Coast

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

Sunday, August 28, 2011

My part of Perú

I have so many things I want to tell you about, and yet I haven’t even described my site. Well, let’s change that and start from the beginning. 

My first day driving to my site I was in the back of a van that functions as a colectivo between my site and the regional capital. We passed through the capital, passed through a couple outlying towns, and within 25 minutes we were in the middle of nowhere. Or at least it felt like it. I sat slightly in shock because all I could see for miles was sand.  On the left was sand, trash, and a couple dry, jagged volcanic looking mountains. To the right, flat, endless stretches of sand only periodically marked with dunes. Beyond the sand is actually the ocean, but from where I was sitting you can’t tell where the sand ends and the ocean begins. It’s just nothingness for forever. Now, if I were raised in Middle America back in the U.S., or maybe had even visited such states, this sight maybe wouldn’t be so startling. But I’m a mountain girl; I get uneasy when the land is flat. I need the mountains to hug in close. I feel vulnerable out there in the open, the wind battling the van and mirages playing tricks on the eyes.

“What do you think?” my host mom asked, sitting next to me in the van. I was probably making that face I always make when I’m thinking. My mid-brow creases and I have a look that is a mixture of confusion and annoyance, regardless of what’s on my mind.

I fumbled with a choppy response, knowing everyone in the van had their head cocked to hear what the gringa would say. “I didn’t know very much about Lambayeque before I got here,” I said. “So, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know there was desert.”

The Panamerican highway--only paved road in my town.
Ten minutes went by. Not long, but long enough for me to wonder just how desert my new home would be. Just as I started to think it would never end, I see green in the distance. Lots of green. And suddenly we came upon palm trees, fields of corn, sugar cane, and other fruits or vegetables I’m sure I haven’t even tried yet. My site is an oasis in the desert. It is still dry and dusty, but it is surrounded by chakras (farms).  The panamerican highway was what we were drove to get here, and it actually runs right through the middle of my town. In fact, it’s the only paved road in my entire town, and it’s right out my front door. My town has a population of 4,000, and one inicial (like preschool) one primaria (like elementary school, grades 1-5) and one segundaria (jr high and high school combined). The size is closer to Salmon, Idaho, but has less stores and only a couple restaurants, like my hometown of Challis. 

My house is nice and my family is pretty progressive. As is customary in Peru, especially these parts, my house is made of concrete, adobe and brick. The first thing I noticed when I walked in my new home for the next two years (aside from the “Welcome Amanda” banner on the wall) is they have two flat-screen TV’s with Playstation 3’s hooked up to both of them. This confused the hell out of me. I have friends who were sent to Ancash where they don’t even have a toilet or shower, and I am sent to a site where my house doesn’t just have one, but two gaming systems? I was starting to think I had exited Peru. But then I found out they aren’t really there for the family. One of the family members had visited the States and bought them, and now they charge kids on the hour/per game to come and play them. That’s right—my house is like the local arcade. My living room is almost always filled with teenage boys. I have a feeling this will come in handy in the future.

Part of my room along with my banner.
The kitchen is basically open air, save for a thin plastic roof and screen ceiling to keep the bugs out. We are still in winter right now, and it is in the mid 70’s everyday. It is supposed to get over 100 F in the summer.

Part of my house is still under construction, but there is an upstairs that mostly consists of my parent’s bedroom. Everyone has a TV in their room (normal small TV’s—no flat screens) except for me, and my host family asked if I was going to put one in mine. I said no, but they don’t know I have tons of movies to watch on my computer.

I am the most spoiled Peace Corps Volunteer in the history of time.

I’m not supposed to use real names when talking about people, but that’s going to get real confusing real fast, so I don’t think first names will hurt. I have a host mom (Jackie), host dad (Victor), host sister who is 20 (Janmarie) and married (Manuel) with a 16-month-old baby (Luanna), an 18-year-old host brother (Victor Jr), and a 16-year-old host sister (Maricielo). My host mom is basically the person who really pushed to get a volunteer in my town, which makes sense that she would be the one to offer to house me for the next two-years. She is a high school English teacher, and she is pretty active in the community. My host dad used to be a PE teacher, and now he has a night job, which I still don’t fully understand. Janmarie and Luanna live in the house with us right now, and her husband works out of town on the weekdays and comes home on the weekends. She does most of the cooking in the house since she is a stay at home mom and everyone else is running around busy. Victor Jr is also only home on the weekends, as he attends University in a different town. As I said, my family is pretty progressive, and everyone shares in the chores of the house. When my host brother is home on the weekends he cleans up in the kitchen and sweeps the floors. I’ve even seen him cooking. My host dad does a lot of cleaning, and he gets back from work at 6:00 am so depending on the day he’ll make breakfast in the morning for everyone. It’s not typical for both genders to share in household chores, as Peruvians are more traditional with women doing domestic work, and men working out of the house.

To say the least, I am having a very different experience than a lot of other people. I have hot water in my shower. My family has a computer with internet (even though it’s so slow I want to punch the screen sometimes) and a printer. And, something I recently discovered, my host family has an “at home gym”. I think they are the only Peruvians with dumbbells and aerobic steps. As I said, most spoiled PCV. Ever.

This is my own little slice of Peru. All of my compañeros were spread out along the coast of Peru, so some are in the mountains eating guinea pigs and speaking Quechua, while others are having experiences more like mine. Peru has so many extreme differences in geography, climate, traditions, and languages; there is no way for me to describe Peru in these blogs. I will only be able to tell you about my little town in this incredible country.

And while I have things like water, electricity, internet, etc, (God, I feel spoiled listing all of that out) it doesn’t mean I am not experiencing other extreme cultural differences—au contraire. Some of my best stories have yet to come. But while I can’t wait to riddle this blog with ridiculous anecdotes and observations, I hope one theme will stand true; that regardless of all of our cultural differences, we do have a lot in common.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The life of a volunteer

The highest highs and lowests lows....

The Amanda Show

I dearly wish I could have a camera strapped to my head at all times. You know, the ones people who play extreme sports wear as they’re climbing daring heights, soaring over landscapes with synthetic wings, or maneuvering their way around jagged rocks and through Class V rapids. Maybe then I could better let everyone back home see the beauty and poverty of the areas around me mixed in such a striking yet modest way. Then everyone could experience almost first hand the confusion I feel whenever I’m at a ceremony and music is loudly playing in the background, everyone talking over eachother with a language not yet perfectly known, and then suddenly everyone is looking at me and I am beckoned to the front to do Lord knows what because I just can’t hear or understand them over all the noise. I just know they are waving at me in a way that if I were in the States would signify, “Shoo! Go away!” but here means, “Get over here!” I am in a constant state of ultra awareness, straining my ears for key words that would signal for me to talk, searching the faces of those around me, or simply watching their movements so that I might mimic them. I try to always smile. I try to sound like I know more Spanish than I do. I don’t think that part is working though, so I just keep nodding my head and smiling. You just gotta keep smiling, because if you can’t fully express yourself at least they won’t think you’re mean, or worse yet, bored.

But even with the camera strapped to my head allowing you to see the stares as I walk down the street, or the children crowding outside the windows of every classroom I stand in for a chance to see the gringa, you may only barely be able to hear the giggles and collective gasps from the girls. You will most definitely hear the whistles and occasional “Hello, baby,” from the boys.

You would be able to see the sun shining so bright and clearly just like a summer day (even in the winter), yet everyone still wearing jackets and pants and complaining about the chill. You wouldn’t however, be able to feel the extreme difference between standing in the shade or the sun; the shade giving you goose bumps, and the sun practically peeling your skin off in that instant, completely skipping the process of getting a sunburn.

I’m pretty sure you would be able to see how much my town is like an oasis in the desert—vast and desolate miles of sand and volcanic mountains surround us, yet there are palm trees and fruits grown here that are associated with the tropics (mango, papaya, avocado, sugar cane, and fruits I have never seen before in my entire life.) You wouldn’t however feel the intense itching and swelling of my legs from the tiny bugs I’ve never seen but have caused intense discomfort and warped my legs with swollen bumps. You wouldn’t be able to experience my morning ritual of putting on sunscreen and bug spray that is usually reserved for camping trips.

You most definitely wouldn’t feel how tired I am by two ‘o’ clock just from the energy I’ve exerted in not looking completely lost and confused. You’d hear me fumbling with my words, my tongue tripping over itself as I try to speak when I can’t even think straight let alone form a complete sentence in Spanish.

There are so many things you would see and finally understand, and still so much you would still miss. But even if you couldn’t understand a damn thing anyone was saying, even if you paid more attention to the construction of the buildings, the trash on the ground, or the lack of paved roads, you would still see the look on the faces of those around me and hear the tone in their voice. You would see the smiles, the hands reaching out in greeting and kisses on the cheek. You would realize no matter how foreign it seems now it will eventually become easier. They are receiving me with open arms, and even if right now they giggle at my language slip ups and I am the most bizarre person they have ever met, that is more than I can ask for. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Site assignment; the unveiling of a mystery

This blog is already getting away from me.

Week ten?! Do you know what this means? This means my training is over. All that is left is final interviews and projects, many despedidas to the friends I’ve made in my training group, facilitators, language teachers, and host families, and the swearing in ceremony, the moment I finally become a volunteer.

Summer camp is over. The real stuff starts next week.

So, seeing as how I am this far along in the process, that means I’ve been very bad in keeping updated on what has brought us to this point. Site assignments, for one, and site visits to my new host family in my new town that I will be living in for the next two years. Let's start slow though, first with getting my site assignment.

Site assignment day was like a prolonged ulcer. They waited until a Wednesday to tell us our sites, and they waited until after lunch. Needless to say, many people had a hard time eating, but we had a big feast at our training center with both the business and youth volunteers, along with everyone from the Lima office. And, my host mom and host aunt prepared all the food!
My host mom and host aunt cookin' up a feast.
Anticucho, papas, y ensalada cebolla.

Zack, Sue, and Brittany try to weasel information out of Luis
When it came time to learn our site assignments, they of course couldn’t just let us know without ceremony. Our first assignment: find our language instructor. After searching the training center grounds high and low, I spotted her hiding under a tree behind some brush. She then gave each of us in our language class a cardboard piece of pizza, and we were instructed to find other people with the same kind of pizza. As you can imagine, the training center was filled with shouts, people running around and calling out, “Pepperoni! Pepperoni!” or “Cheese? Cheese?” My pizza was an “everything” pizza, and soon I found four others with the same kind, one my friend Zach from my language class (and my neighbor here in Buenos Aires) and the other three business volunteers. We looked at eachother, still not sure where we were going but wondering, “So, is this us? Is this our group going to the same region?” Because not only are we going to the same region, we are going to the same regional meetings once a month, we’ll have the same regional capital, and we’ll essentially be seeing more of each other than we will anyone else in our entire group for the next two-years. So while we were hurried to figure out the next step (a cryptic message on the back of the pizza pieces that needed decoding) we also took a moment to look at eachother and take in the faces of our people for the next two years. After decoding the message, learning we had to find a certain staff member for the next clue, and then tackling him to the ground (after a good chase, of course) we got the next cryptic message, this time a little easier to de-code. It didn’t take long for me to descramble the word puzzle, the letters only helped spell one region in Peru:


My Regional Coordinator with a map of Lambayeque.

So, that was it. We were going to Lambayeque. Tents were set out all over the training center grounds, and each region had a station already set up with a Regional Coordinator at each place holding a map with our names on it. (There are twenty-four regions in Peru, but Peace Corps only sends volunteers to nine.) Our coordinator handed us a folder with our names on it and inside it had everything-- the name of our town*, the population, the names of our host family—everything.

I have spent so much of my time in the Peace Corps in the dark, blanketed with ambiguity. First I had no idea where in the world I would be sent, when, or what I would be doing, or if I would even be accepted. Then I had no idea what country I would be sent to. Then if that wasn’t enough, when I got to the country I had no idea what town or region I would be sent to. And then suddenly, in one folder, were the answers. I was in complete shock.

I had just gone from weeks of anxiety and pondering, five-minutes of running around in circles searching for cheesy puzzle pieces (pun intended), to sitting in a chair with it all laid out in front of me. Facilitators came up and patted me on the back, gave me congratulations, and asked how I felt. To be honest, I felt like crying.

It was an overwhelming moment, the denouement of our training as Peru 17. Not only that, but this moment was over a year in the making since I first applied for the Peace Corps in July of 2010. There were times when I felt it would never come. And in truth, Lambayeque was probably the region I knew the least about of all the regions Peace Corps sends volunteers to. I looked around and many of my friends sat in their individual sections for the regions they would soon be heading to, which are on the opposite end of Peru. I may not see many of these people for another year until our mid-service training.

I looked through my folder over and over again, trying to absorb what I realized were superficial details about the place I would soon call “home”. I would be living in a town of 4,000, forty-minutes from the regional capital, forty-minutes from my friend Zack, thirty-minutes from the beach. I knew my host family’s names and ages, but were the nice? I knew my town had electricity and running water, but was it accessible to everybody? Here lay all the answers, but at the same time, the answers were still trivial. The blanket of ambiguity was only slightly lifted.

The Cajamarca group talking to their RC
I looked over at my compañeros each holding their own folder and noticed they had more information in theirs than mine. They had pictures, pages of writing, maps; I only had two sheets of paper with names, phone numbers, general town information.

“Why don’t I have that?” I asked.

“Because you will be the first volunteer to ever live at that site,” my friend Zack said.

Everyone else had detailed writing and maps because other volunteers had lived there and wrote them. I was entering new Peace Corps territory. I would be laying down the foundation for future volunteers. This means two things: 1) I won’t have to spend my time being compared to volunteers of the past (ie, “Kristin always made us cookies,” or “Jake had a science program that everyone loved.”); 2) I will have to lay the groundwork for what the Peace Corps actually is. Many first volunteers spend the majority of their time just getting people to understand who they are and why they are there. All sites have to request a volunteer in order to get one, but that doesn’t mean the entire town knows or understands why some gringo is living there and keeps wanting to do projects and hang out.

I had originally requested a site where I would be replacing a former volunteer, so I was surprised to find out my “newcomer” status. But after reflecting on it and talking with trainers I realized it was better this way. I came into the Peace Corps wanting a challenge, and while day-to-day life here is a challenge, I shouldn’t shy away from having a little extra work. I will just have to be extra-outgoing, extra-inquisitive, and be prepared for some extra-awkward situations. And while I may not do things perfectly, I’ll work with what I have and the next volunteer will have more opportunities to build even better programs and work with even more people. And maybe they’ll even spend some of their time being compared to me. 

Peru 17

*Due to Peace Corps safety and security regulations on blogs, I’m not allowed to say my exact location in Peru. However, I can’t promise I won’t slip up and say it on here sometime in the next two years.