The Northern Coast

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

Monday, September 26, 2011

¡Bien baile, gringita!

Within my first two weeks at site, I had some experiences that were some of the funniest, craziest, and most awkward moments of my life. I´ve now been here more than a month, and has time has gone on I´ve realized I better get used to these things, because this is now my new norm. 

It has continued to remain true that if I am invited to an event I will: A) most likely be asked to speak (whether I knew about it ahead of time or not); B) eat cabrito (stewed young goat served with rice and white beans); and most importantly C) dance in front of everybody.

And while many times I am overly concerned about my speech and if I’m addressing people properly, whether I’m eating enough of my food to make those around me happy but not too much to feel sick, the one factor that will guarantee me more friends and form confianza faster has nothing to do with formalities, but dancing my butt off.

At first I thought it was just that I am a novelty—a big tall gringa who comes into town and gets up in front of everybody and dances with the mayor who is half her size. People would approach me and pat me on the arm, laughing and happy that I had danced for everyone’s entertainment. But as time has gone on and every event I attend (no matter how formal) ends or begins with dancing, and all the small-talk involves asking, “What is your favorite dance?” I have realized it is not just that I’m a big goof here for their entertainment (although that is a big part of it). It is that I am participating in something that is important to them and has a deep foundation in their culture. People instantly warmed up to me once they saw I had the ability to let my guard down and participate in something that is a big part of their everyday lives.

Teachers cutting a rug after class
So far I have a great relationship with the director and teachers at the high school I work at, and they are very supportive with the work I want to do at the school. I know for a fact that the day I sealed the deal as a good person to them was the day I attended an all-teachers party and danced for two-hours straight with everyone present.

Peruvians have great pride in their different bailos and danzas tipicos. There are typical dances from the selva (rainforest), sierra (mountains), and costa (coast, where I’m at). There are dances of the north and south, and dances adapted from others in Bolivia and Columbia. And each dance has its outfit, its meaning, and its story in the history of Peru. Then of course, there is just plain getting down and dirty, dancing to regatone and shaking what yo’ mama gave ya. Six-year-old girls know how to move their hips in ways that I will never be able to. This is both awe inspiring and disturbing. However, it is a big part of their everyday lives, and every dance has its place in social settings and events.
Alpa Wuiru, a local dance group performing at an event
I recently was invited to hang out with a youth group in town comprised of guys and girls ages 17-20 that is part of the municipalidad (municipality) and gets together five-days a week to practice different dances for different town or district events. They invited me to dance huayno (pronounced wino, a typical sierra danza) with them for an event (I ended up performing in four different events in four different towns. They decided this was a faster and easier way to present me to the different towns in the area as a Peace Corps volunteer, but that’s a story for another day). As I was learning the different steps to the dance, they all jumped and cheered and yelled “¡Bravo!” every time I did it right. Talk about a confidence booster! The kids asked me if I performed danzas tipicos back in the U.S. It’s hard to explain to someone with a culture so filled with dancing that it just isn’t the same in the U.S. Sure, for performance dancing we have tap and ballet, jazz, break-dancing and hip hop (and more I probably don’t know about). But kids don’t grow up knowing how to do every single one of these dances and perform them on a regular basis. It isn’t ingrained in us in school, at home, and in social settings. I'm no expert on dancing, so I could be way off, but thats my point exactly; dancing just doesn't have the same presence in our culture. In the U.S. we are taught to find our talent and run with it. When we’re younger we often have more opportunities (mostly girls) to participate in a type of dance, but unless we are willing to dedicate time, sweat, and hard work to something so we can “go somewhere” with it, it is generally dropped for something else we can succeed at as we get older. There’s also the matter of time, of course. We have a much more competitive culture which does not exclude the arts. This is also hard to explain; not pursuring something you enjoy because you’re not the best.
Two chiquititos dancing marinara at a serenata

I tell them I just like to go dancing with my girlfriends, but even this doesn’t make a lot of sense to them because when you go out dancing you don’t dance by yourself or in a group of people. Occasionally you dance in a circle with someone in the middle, but that depends on the music, because all music has it’s specific dancing—salsa, cumbia, huayno, etc. If you’re out on the dance floor it’s with a dance partner, and if there is space, everyone stands in a line side-by-side. Generally boys are in one line and girls are in the other. It’s kind of awkward. I try to explain to them that we do have partner dancing in the U.S., but a lot of the dances are from other cultures. The U.S. does have its different variations of swing dancing, and I’m more used to country-swing. They don’t have any dances like that here and I would love to teach them except I don’t know how because I just follow the guys lead and try not to fall over as I’m being spun around. And as I’ve said before, all guys dance here, so it’s really weird to them that in the U.S. the stereotype is that a lot of guys don’t like to dance (or are afraid to dance in public) and many people don’t dance until they’ve “had enough to drink”. 

Dancing with the youth group definitely confirmed my theory that one of the ways to a Peruvians hearts is through dancing, and I’ve even received some respect from people in town who are impressed that the gringa was able to so quickly learn something they grew up doing. Dancing just makes everything better. Even in the English classes I’m teaching to 5th and 6th graders, when I find a way to include dancing in the lessons, everyone is happier.
The teachers performing huayno for the school on Dia del Juventud

It’s actually quite freeing to know that the more I get into dancing, the more vulnerable I feel, the stronger of a relationship I’m forming with those around me. You´ve just got to put yourself out there. As we grew up with the encouragement to “dance like nobody’s watching”, here it seems to be “dance like everyone is watching” so that you dance with more pride, more ganas, and shine even brighter—and everyone surely is watching. And luckily for me, that works in my favor.

Alpa Wuiru and me after our second performance at a neighboring high school

Sunday, September 11, 2011

World Wise Schools; Hello Challis Jr.High 7th and 8th graders!

When I accepted my invitation to the Peace Corps, I was given information on an organization within PC called World Wise Schools. WWS is an optional program that partners volunteers with a teacher and classroom in the U.S. to correspond with during their two-year service. It can be any grade and any subject, and a volunteer can also specifically request teachers they know. I decided it was a great opportunity to share what I’m doing with my community back home, so I partnered up with Mrs. Phillips, my 7th and 8th grade Social Studies teacher, high school track coach, and someone I consider a leader in the community.  So, I’m dedicating this blog-post to the 7th and 8th grade students of Challis Jr. High School in Mrs. Phillips’ Social Studies class.

Hello 7th and 8th graders of Challis Jr. High!

Allow me to introduce myself:

My name is Amanda, I’m 25-years-old, and I grew up in Challis, Idaho. But right now, I’m in Peru, South America serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer for the next two years. I am going to be corresponding with your class with Mrs. Phillips over the school year, and you’re going to be learning about Peru while following my adventures as I navigate my way through a new country and culture.

Before I tell you more about why I’m in Peru and what it means to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, let me tell you a little bit about myself.

I come from a family of six with three-older brothers, and my family moved from Oregon to Challis when I was about 4-years-old. While my brothers and I have all graduated from CHS and moved away, my parents still live there today, and I still consider Challis home. 

7th grade 
I had Social Studies with Mrs. Phillips as well when I was in 7th and 8th grade, only we had classes in the old junior high school on Main Street. With about 60 students in my 8th grade class, we were one of the largest classes to ever go through the Challis school system. If I remember right, Mrs. P had to tell me to be quiet a lot because I spent more time talking and flirting than doing my schoolwork. In middle school and high school I played volleyball and ran in track, loved to draw and paint, and spent any free time with my friends listening to music and hanging out.
8th grade

I graduated 8th grade in 2000, high school in 2004, and finished college at Boise State University in 2009. I studied writing and Spanish at BSU and during my time in college had the opportunity to travel and study Spanish in both Costa Rica and Spain.

And now, I’m living in Peru!

August 2011 at my Swearing In Ceremony
to become a Peace Corps Volunteer

So, what is Peace Corps anyways?

A ¨papelote¨ or poster I made to help
explain what Peace Corps is to
the people in my Peruvian community.
Peace Corps is an organization that is part of the United States government that promotes development in developing countries, like Peru, through the work of a volunteer. Peace Corps was created in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy as an option for U.S. citizens to serve their country, like the military, only on a mission to promote peace and develop friendship between developing countries and the U.S.
Peace Corps volunteers currently serve in 77 countries all over the world, and there are more than 200 volunteers in Peru. Volunteers only work within countries and communities that have invited the Peace Corps to work there.

Peace Corps has three goals for its mission:
  1. To help the people of interested countries (in my case, Peru) in meeting their need for trained men and women.
  2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served (i.e. I will help break stereotypes about the U.S.).
  3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of all Americans (In other words, this blog would be considered part of goal three! I’m telling everyone back home about Peru and my experiences here).

Peace Corps has multiple different programs, but there are five programs total in Peru:
  • Water and Sanitation Development
  • Environmental Development
  • Community Health Development
  • Small Business Development
  • Community/Youth Development

I am a Youth Development volunteer, which means I get the best job of all. I work specifically on projects that help the youth of Peru become well rounded, healthy, successful people, as well as active members and leaders in their community. I’ll be working within the schools and also partnering with people in the community to complete projects that focus on the Youth Development Program’s three goals:

  1. Promote healthy lifestyles (i.e. Nutrition, hygiene, HIV/AIDS prevention, etc)
  2. Development in the world of work (i.e. Goal setting, planning for the future, etc)
  3. Develop leadership and participation within the community (i.e., Big Brother/Big Sister programs, trash clean-up, community service, etc)
I will also be teaching English, as Spanish is the main language of Peru and many people within my community really want to learn English.

Since I am a volunteer I do not have a regular 9 to 5 job like many people in the U.S. I make my own schedule and work when the people in my community can work with me. This means some days I may only work a few hours, but other days I could be working up to 10 or more hours. On the other hand, being a Peace Corps Volunteer is a 24 hour 7 day a week job in itself-- I am representing the U.S. and therefore must always be at my best behavior. Being a volunteer anywhere else means you are working for free, but since I need to eat and have somewhere to sleep, the Peace Corps pays me a small stipend that covers my housing/transportation/food costs. I live with a Peruvian host-family and spend time with them and eat meals with them like I would my own family back home. While my host-mom knows some English, I only speak in Spanish with my host-family and the people I meet in the community. Even with a minor in Spanish I am still learning the language, so sometimes it is difficult to communicate and there are situations where I don’t understand what people are saying. But people are patient and kind, and I always find a way to get my point across.
Peru shares it´s borders with Ecuador, Columbia, Brazil, Bolivia, and Chile

There are 24 departments in Peru, the same way there are 50 states in the U.S.
Lambayeque is the small pink department in the north.
Joining the Peace Corps was no easy decision and it was something I had been thinking about doing for four-years before I actually applied. The application process was a year-long and I had no idea where in the world I would be sent. I could’ve been sent to Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, or other areas of Central/South America. I think I’m pretty lucky to have been sent to Peru. I’ve only been here three-months so far and I still have a long time left (as my whole service is a 27-month commitment) but I’ve already had many experiences I’ll remember the rest of my life.
One of the streets in the town I live in;
you can see some moto-taxis that are
commonly used for transportation.

I hope you guys are enjoying the start to your new school year and I look forward to keeping in touch with you as the year continues on. It does not feel like long ago that I was in your shoes, so while it may seem like forever before you start high school, get your drivers license, or graduate high school, remember time flies and enjoy the time you have in junior high. Make this year a year to remember!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

You´re hot then you´re cold

Disclaimer: As I’ve talked about earlier, during training we discussed “filters” and how our perceptions are created and effected by our upbringing/culture/religion/etc. So while I am fully aware I am making these comments through the filter of a girl from the PNW of the USA, and that I am generalizing a bit because I have not met every-single Peruvian, these are some observations I want to share. These are just my experiences, I’m not talking for everyone, and I do not mean to portray Peru in a negative light. Take ‘em or leave ‘em.

Probably one of the hardest parts of adapting to a new culture is dealing with contradictions and finding a way to make sense of how everything fits in the scheme of things. Here are some contradictions I’ve noted through my time here.

There’s something in the [cold] water.
Peruvians have different beliefs involving the temperature of water and its effect on the body. Drinking cold beverages makes you sick. However, cold showers are good for you. Most people don’t have access to hot showers, so it only makes sense that they don’t think cold showers are bad because that would mean they were always doing something that would make them sick. While I am lucky to live with a host family that does not believe cold showers are good for you, from what some Peruvians have said to me, as well as stories from other volunteers, I have found this much to be true:

Cold water inside the body = bad :(
Cold water outside the body = good :)

Peruvians are notorious for beating around the bush. They are not confrontational, and they do not take negativity well. You don’t say “no” in this country, you say “yes” and then don’t follow through. It’s rude to say no.
You can ask a Peruvian if they are interested in coming to a presentation or if they want to join you in doing an activity and they will say yes with a smile and assure you they will be there. A lot of times they aren’t. They didn’t want to be rude and tell you they didn’t want to come or they had something else to do. Same goes for giving directions; they’d rather give you the wrong directions than tell you they don’t know how to get there. And as I’ve said before, we’ve had entire charlas on how to turn down food nicely, which mostly consists of telling a lie of some sort to get out of eating whatever they’re offering, all with a big grin on your face.

So, with all of this indirect communication and white lies to make people feel better about food or missing a meeting, it is interesting to me that personal appearance does not fall under this category.

For example, the following conversation I had with my host cousin:

Cousin: You’re having a baby?
Me: What?
Cousin: A baby, you’re having a baby?
Me: ….I’m not pregnant.
Cousin: Oh. You look like it.

As I’ve said before, they say it as they see it, and they don’t spare any exaggeration. Fat, thin, ugly, weird; there are no limits. I cut my own hair, and when my host sister found this out she stated, “Next time you need to go to a professional.”

Real men dance
One cultural difference that I am a big fan of is the amount of dancing men do. While it is a machismo culture, a “man’s world”, and calling someone gay or homosexual isn’t only offensive but dangerous, they sure as hell love to dance. Every Peruvian knows at least three to four types of dances such as salsa, cumbia, marinera, or huayno, and choreographed modern dances are equally as popular.  It’s not just acceptable for men to be good dancers, it’s expected.

Jesus, Mary, and huevos
Like most of Latin America, the majority of Peruvians are Catholic. Jesus is everywhere-- schools, tiendas, living rooms, and kitchens—and so are saints and the Virgin Mary. I grew up Catholic, so I’m familiar with many of their beliefs. They definitely celebrate and practice the religion with a certain fervor I did not witness growing up, but they are pious people. What interests me most about their beliefs is how it is coupled with traditional Peruvian rituals. Many if not all of the Peruvians I’ve met have complete belief in Tarot readings, astrology, ghosts, shaman, and old healing practices.

A well-known ritual performed to discover what ails the ill involves an egg and a glass of water. The ill person sits or lies down, and another person (either a shaman or someone knowledgeable in the practice) rubs an egg all over the ill person’s body. After a thorough rub down, the egg is cracked into the glass of water where the yolk, egg white, and bubbles are inspected. Depending on the amount of bubbles at the top of the glass and the position of the yolk in the water, the person performing the ritual can divine what is wrong with the ailing.

This same ritual can be performed with a cuy (guinea pig). A live cuy is rubbed all over the persons body, then cut open and the intestines are inspected. The answers lie in what the cuy does while it’s being rubbed on the person and the condition of its intestines.

There are other rituals as well, which include reading coca leaves, tea leaves, incense, cigarettes, holy water, and flower petals.

Many of these rituals are taken very seriously by both devout Catholics and educated people. What interests me most is that Catholics can have some belief in these rituals without being blasphemous. As I recall, there were a lot of teachings against seers, fortunetellers, and anything pagan in nature. I felt it was made clear there was no room to have belief in both. And that doesn’t just go for Catholics, but other Christians who do things like say Harry Potter is of the devil or refuse to celebrate Halloween (one of my favorite holidays, by the way).

I don’t condone gutting an animal while it’s alive to figure out why someone’s stomach hurts, but I like this dual characteristic of Peruvians quite a bit. While their superstitions sometimes baffle me, I find other aspects endearing. The other night the power went out and all of my host family gathered in one room around a candle telling ghost stories. Only they weren’t “stories”, they were spoken as complete fact. I can’t do that with many people back home, but here you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t believe in ghosts. Also, my regional capital is home to one of the largest “witch-doctor” markets in Peru (which for some bizarre reason I have yet to visit) where you can buy natural medicine, anything you need to make your own healing brew, or visit a shaman for a spiritual cleansing.

From what I gather, Peruvians find our customs and culture just as bizarre and entertaining. Like moving away from home at the age of 18 instead of staying with your parents until you marry, only having one last name instead of two (both parents last names) and a wife changing her last name to be the same as her husbands, our choice of foods, our lack of dancing skills, etc. However, each volunteer is acting as an ambassador to the U.S., and because we are for the most part just one person alone in our site, we are the most bizarre people they have ever met. And yet at the same time, they just want to be near to catch a glimpse of someone with lighter eyes, hear a different accent, or learn more about a foreign country so far away and strange. It´s like being a celebrity and a sideshow freak at the same time. Even the issue of where I stand in this country has its duality and contradictions.