The Northern Coast

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

Monday, December 24, 2012

Llegó noche buena

Merry Christmas Eve!

I haven't posted in awhile because my computer has passed on to the other side. It just wouldn't turn on one day with full battery charged. Yep. It's gone. So I've been having to borrow my host family's computer, which means sharing with my host mom and three younger host siblings, two of which are equally as addicted to facebook and youtube as any teenager back home. However, it's been a very nice, freeing experience. I've spent more time writing in my journal, reading, hanging out with the host family, making's been very nice. I'm actually considering not getting internet again once my computer is fixed....

...which will be when I get to see Justin! A group of us friends are heading to Ecuador Christmas day and Justin is flying in to Quito to meet up with us! It's going to be so great! We're taking a night bus over the Ecuador border, and my friends and I are already preparing to make the bus ride as Christmas-y as possible, with Christmas snacks and Christmas movies. Super happy to have some regular Christmas cheer added into this holiday!

This is my second Christmas away from home ever in my life, and Christmas in Peru can be tough for volunteers. It is very warm here right now (I'm wearing a sun dress and still a little warmer than I'd like to be), and Peruvian tradition puts more focus on Christmas Eve, la noche buena, specifically midnight on Christmas Eve.

On the day of the 24th early in the morning preparations for dinner are being made, which won't be eaten until midnight. The whole family stays up (maybe snacking a little) and just before midnight the table is set with all of the traditional food and drink-- turkey, paneton, empanadas, canned peaches, and hot chocolate and wine. The whole family gathers around in anticipation for the clock to strike midnight, and just as it does a designated person in the family places the baby Jesus in the manger of the family nativity scene (every family has at least a small nativity set) and says a prayer, and everyone hugs and says, ¨feliz navidad.¨. Then everyone raises their glass of wine in a toast and dinner commences. After dinner, everyone heads out into the street and to the plaza to say Merry Christmas to friends and neighbors.
Front of my host family's house

Me with the high school 3rd grade girls and the tree we decorated  for a competition. I mostly just put ornaments in high places.
Honestly, I love  the tradition of going out in the middle of the night to the plaza, all of the trees decorated and Christmas music playing, and just walking around saying , ¨¡Feliz navidad!¨ However, I think what makes Christmas difficult is that there is little anticipation leading up to it, and it's pretty anticlimactic. My host family went all out decorating the front of the house this year, but Christmas music isn't played (and to be honest, I'm okay with that. Spanish Christmas music is not my favorite), Christmas movies aren't watched, and Christmas day no one days anything except sleep in. I mean, sure, there are a hundred chocolatadas (hot chocolate and paneton parties for small children, usually with a present involved) but I hardly feel in the spirit while sucking down hot chocolate under the baking sun and watching girls dance around in little Santa outfits that are usually designated to the ¨Slutty Santa¨ section of the Halloween costume area back home. Those are usually more of a headache then they are cheerful.
High school 4th grade boys singing a villancico, or Christmas carrol.

Mothers preparing chicken and hot chocolate for the high school chocolatada
There's just something about being back home in the cold of winter, everyone seeking warmth indoors and sharing in food, drink, and merriment winding up to the big day. When I'm here it just feels like any other day, and while I'm listening to Christmas music in my room and the words of, ¨Baby it's cold outside,¨ are being crooned out of the stereo, I'm wearing shorts and a tank top and have never felt so far away from that sentiment.

Christmas away from home is hard, but I'm happy that I have a host family that has taken me in as one of their own and other volunteers who have become great supportive friends and shared the journey with me. While I may be missing all of my family, friends, and traditions of Christmas back home, the sentiment of love, sharing, and goodwill to others is not lost.

So to all of my family and friends back home, Felíz navidad y prospero año! I hope you are near loved ones and sharing in the spirit of Christmas, and know that I am carrying you all in my heart.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Shedding the guilt and shedding light; that one time when Amanda got all hippy-dippy-woo-woo on her blog

Let me tell you about a dream I had last night. 

I was with my Peruvian community and we were preparing for a long journey. I didn’t know where we were going or how long it would take us (days, weeks, maybe longer), but I knew things would be better for us there.

We chose to take this journey by boat, raft, kayak—anything that would float—and headed down a twisting black river. I was on an old raft crammed in amongst others from my community. We spent all day on the river going through complicated rapids, over hidden falls, hanging up on trees and root wads. Soon it became pitch-black night and many of our boats were destroyed, possessions lost, and members taken by the swift current. We were cold, wet, and tired from the long day with all of our losses. Things were bleak.

As we pulled over for the night and sat on the shore, I decided to look for resources and I climbed up a steep embankment. When I reached the top I found myself on a beautiful, well maintained cement path that followed the river. It was not in fact night, but sunny and warm, and when I looked back in the direction from where we came I could see the point where we started only 100 yards away. We had gone through a tough, tumultuous, and long day, but we had barely gotten anywhere.

I was immediately annoyed and angry with my community, wondering why they had never used the path and why they had chosen to go along the dangerous and difficult river. It made no sense to me. But somehow I knew they knew the path existed, they had just always taken the river.

(Are you still with me? I promise, I'll get to a point.)

Soon the path was filled with people, specifically people from the U.S. Some of them were my friends, but most complete strangers. They were wandering this way and that, bumping into me, bumping into each other, talking about yoga classes, restaurants, concerts, and clothes. I knew the path could lead all of us to “the place” where things would be better, the place my community wanted to go to, but they were content to mingle and spend time along this part of the path. No one looked me in the eye, no one looked around at all, and they never looked down the embankment.

I didn’t know what to do. I knew the way my Peruvian community was going was not the best way, but that I would never get them to leave the river. On the path I was just as lost, pushed around by a crowd of people who didn’t seem to care about more than their next destination that would bring them to more personal gain. The dream ended with me frustrated, sad, feeling guilty for not being able to do more, and angry.

I can’t remember the last time I had a dream that was so symbolically straight-forward in its meaning. This dream is very much how I feel these days. I am on this journey with my Peruvian community working towards development, and it is a slow and arduous process, one that can hardly be measured. I have all these ideas on how things could progress, but I get near nowhere with them. And while I am on this journey with twists and turns that have changed my life, it will only be for a short while before I return home—the place where many people don’t get to experience this and have a harder time understanding it, and in short, have their “first-world problems.” In the U.S. we have so many opportunities the rest of the world doesn't, and yet so often we are stalled, not moving forward. And amongst it all, I am feeling so helpless. I dearly want to help, but due to so many factors I am often unable to do anything.

And as far as where the river and path lead to…well I’ll get to that in a minute.

I am not surprised that this dream followed a skype conversation I had with a dear friend of mine (my Loba!) who is freshly out of service, having COS’d right before Thanksgiving. I was telling her about some very upsetting things that have been happening in my site with the youth and the authorities, and she was telling me about her transition from campo life to the luxuries of the U.S.A. She is working on finding peace with the experiences, changes, and transitions with her service, and feelings that accompany all of it. For example, that we become part of a community and we live and laugh with these people, love them, mourn with them, and we become family, but how we also witness a lot of upsetting, tragic realities in our communities. And then, in her words, we get a “magic ticket” that just takes us away from it all. But these people don’t get to leave. These people that we bond to so tightly will continue to have hardships that aren’t even a reality of our U.S. lives, and in that there is a sense of guilt.

It reminds me of a Huffington Post blog that was being passed around by a few PCV’s titled Peace Corps Guilt. It was a post written by a PCV in Paraguay and she talked about the sense of guilt and helplessness she struggled with everyday in her service, and how it was connected to her feelings that all the first-world commodities she was still allowed seemed like frivolous expenses that could’ve in turn been used to do something simple like feed a starving child, family, community, etc. She wrote about how she never felt she was able to do enough and wanted to help with immediate needs of hunger and poverty but she couldn’t possibly solve this problem in a sustainable way. What it came down to for her, what she knew she could do, was Peace Corps goal 3; telling those back home about her experiences. And by doing so she would not solely hold the burden of wanting to change the world, but she would spread it out to others. Because the guilt associated with never being able to do enough and allowing others to live in impoverished conditions while we thrive belongs to everyone.

The guilt my friend and this Paraguay PCV are talking about I get. The feeling of helplessness, of never being able to do enough—oh, I get it. I have loaded on the guilt, telling myself I could always do better. I have fought and pushed for projects to go through, and when they didn’t I took a lot of the blame. I’ve been hiding the fact that I have enough money to go to my regional capital to watch a movie and get Starbucks a couple times a month. This is the inherit guilt many of us have when we enter our service, because no matter how integrated we get into our community, we are at an economic level that allows us more comfort than those around us. And well, we will always have that “magic ticket” that we can take at any moment.

However, I don’t wish guilt on everyone (although there are definitely guilty people out there I wish for one moment felt remorse). While guilt can be a good motivator, it is also an insatiable beast. I think the direction Loba is going in is the right way, in searching for peace in the midst of this transition. I also agree that educating people back home and doing our best to explain the reality of our experience is very important. And maybe I’m getting into a philosophical and ideological debate here—but do we have to feel guilt in order to be enlightened and want to change a situation?

Do my friends back home have to regret their yoga classes and happy hours and feel guilt for every latte they drank this week in order to learn about the need for a better public education system in Peru?

Does my family have to feel guilty for every meal they ever ate at a restaurant in order to understand the need for basic things like clean running water and waste management in the campo?

No, of course not. The U.S. and Peru have two very different realities. While I may joke about “first-world problems” everyone really does have their own problems, their own realities. Hardships come in many different ways. Yes, there is extreme extravagance and wealth in the U.S., and companies and organizations spending unseemly amounts of money on things that do not further our world in becoming a better place. But the people I will be talking to about my experience when I get home (and now through my blog) are first and foremost the people I love. I do not want to shower them with guilt, but with stories about all of the unique facets I have come to love and despise about Peru. I can in no way claim any sort of “higher moral ground” or martyrdom for being here and choosing to live and work in the 3rd world, I have just been allowed a perspective I didn’t have before; one that I hope I can share with my Peruvian community and with people back home.

Ever the idealist, I am literally dreaming of a better place—a place we all want to get to but for our own reasons just aren’t making our way in that direction. I saw the path so clearly, heading off in the direction of a beautiful scene of mountains and trees, the sun shining bright. I don’t know where it was going, and I couldn’t even tell you what it leads to, but I think it can only be described as progress. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

See ya next year, Thanksgiving!

Damn. It has been one hellacious month.

It has been a long time since I have struggled so much with my work, my counterparts, and my personal life all at once. I knew when the month started I was in for some challenges, but I had no idea just how hard it was going to be.

Sometimes when things get tough there’s not much you can do but “keep calm and carry on” or “fake it ‘til you make it”. Lie to yourself if you have to, just keep your head down and plow through.

And well, I’ve done a surprising amount of lying to myself this month. I told myself my insomnia came back because “it just comes and goes sometimes.” I told myself that if I was truly a good volunteer and cared about my job I would get everything I wanted to done, despite the lack of support and help from my counterparts. I told myself, “Yeah, I have the time and energy to take on a 30-day-50,000-word-fiction-novel-writing challenge. Sounds fun.” I ignored over a week of stomach issues, saying, “I’m fine, it’s normal to have diarrhea for over a week,” until I unexpectedly shit my pants. And most recently, “It’s not a big deal to not celebrate Thanksgiving for one year.” (Sue Song, if you are reading this and didn’t know already, DON’T KILL ME!)

As you all know, Thanksgiving is not a Peruvian holiday, but being as I am a U.S. citizen working for the U.S. Government I am still given three days off. Last year all of us 17ers met in the beach town of Huanchaco and had one of the most amazing Thanksgiving feasts I have ever partaken in, and the beautiful weather and ocean sunsets were the icing on the cake.

The problem is, this month year has been so unrelenting with obstacles that some of the projects I could’ve had done at the beginning of the month are just now starting to happen. The even bigger problem is the next two weeks are the last weeks I am able to work in the schools before final exams and summer vacation.

If you’ve been keeping up with me on here and other modes of communication, you may know that I have had a serious uphill battle in teaching sex education in the school. The whole idea was to train my health promoters, the 20 kids in my Pasos Adelante youth group, and they would do presentations in each of their classes with the help of the OBGYN and myself. Well, that didn’t work out as planned, but I did what I could and with or without the help of others I still finished training the whole group on sex-ed. Now, we need to focus on the rest of the school, and there just isn’t enough time to do things as we originally planned. Plan A, B, C, and D all fell through, so now I’m continuing on with whatever I can because while we have wasted a ridiculous amount of time on this, three girls ages 13-15 had to quit school because they got pregnant. I’m not going to let myself fall into the “I could’ve stopped it” trap, because that is a slippery slope. But still, I can try and inform the other kids to not make the same mistake.

I desperately want time with my friends after this month from hell, and would love to honor my culture and traditions with a feast that has little to do with the food but gathering together with those you love and recognizing all you have to be thankful for-- and lord, would I LOVE to tell a Peruvian that I can’t work because I have my own feriado largo I have to attend—but I can’t. 

It just so happens that while my friends are planning a Thanksgiving feast (one I’m supposed to be at), which I’m sure will be filled with some of the best tasting food a PCV could imagine, I have finally been granted permission to work with kids in the classrooms to teach sex education. So, instead of taking my free vacation days from Uncle Sam and heading to be with friends to gorge myself, I will be teaching sex-ed at the high school to the older students. It's not the whole school, but it's a start.

I’m not going to lie, it sucks to be missing out on Thanksgiving. I tried to tell myself, "It's not important," and "It's a US holiday and I'm not in the US," and even, "It's not worth all the work and stress involved." Let's be serious. Thanksgiving is awesome. I love Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving has no religion attached to it, it's just awesome people, awesome food, and warm fuzzy feelings of gratitude (and some cocktails). But I would be lying to myself if I said I wouldn’t regret missing this opportunity I have been fighting for literally months to have. I know I am making the right decision because today when I finished the first sex-ed presentation to a group of 16-year-old girls and I thanked them for their attention and participation, they said, “Amanda, thank you for talking to us about stuff that no one else will.”

This Thanksgiving, my heart is with all of you from Ica to the USA, but I am so so so so so thankful that I can finally do what I came here to. If there is anyway this month can redeem itself, it would be for me to be able to arm these students with information before they go off for summer vacation and possibly make a decision that could change the rest of their lives.

Friends in Peru, catch some rays for me on the beach (I’m ghostly pale these days). Loved ones in the US, eat an extra piece of pie for me and add “having a job without the occupational hazard of shitting my pants” to your list of things to be thankful for. Next year I will be home and Thanksgiving will not be skipped!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

In case you don't hear from me for awhile...

I just wanted to write a quick post to let you all know I am participating in NaNoWriMo, AKA, National Novel Writing Month (<---check it out!)

NaNoWriMo is a 30 day challenge to do exactly what it sounds like-- write a novel. A 50,000-word fiction novel, to be more specific. Participants are signed up through the website, give regular updates on the word count of their story, and are encouraged through messages from published authors, sponsors, and "writing buddies" to forge ahead and continue the story. Participants who finish in the allotted time with a 50,000 word story (that consists of more than one word written 50,000 times) can hand in their work for the official check to be considered "winners" (read: big pat on the back and bragging rights). Editing as you go is discouraged and writing at least 1,667 words a day on average is recommended in order to finish on time.

I had heard about NaNoWriMo before in the past, but hadn't put a lot of thought into it as I prefer to write non-fiction. But this year the universe spoke to me, and it said, "Amanda, spend your free-time writing a fictional story in English that even you don't know where it's going to go. That way the rest of your day will be muddled with constant questions and story ideas, as well as compromised Spanish speaking abilities."

It's day three, I have 4963 words, 45,037 words remaining, and I can already see the days ahead in which I hate everything about this story and this idea. Which is why it's going to be really fun. It's a new challenge!

So, I apologize ahead of time if you don't hear from me much this month. Cut me some slack, I'm writing a novel.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Life happens

I’m not sure if you’re all aware of this or not, but I only have about 9 months left in Peru. Of my 2 years and some change of service, I’m down to ¾ of a year. This became much more real for me as we said goodbye to the 16ers closing their service and, aside from 3rd year volunteers, there was no one left that had been here longer than us. By the end of November, Peru 17 will be the “senior” group in Peru. Peru 20 is already well into training and will be doing site visits in a couple weeks. This does weird things to my emotions.

The same weekend of the 16ers despedida (going away party), I had a skype date with my boyfriend and some of his friends (the majority of which he has met while I’ve been gone). He was having a small get together at our place (well, now his place) and wanted me to meet the people he spends time with. I was on skype and Justin set his laptop down on the kitchen table so I could see everyone. The connection was awful and they could hardly hear anything I said, but I still got to meet everyone. Of the four people at his place, I knew one. So I “sat” at my kitchen table, looking into the place I shared with my boyfriend that still has my art hanging on the wall and my dishes on the shelves, and I was essentially the stranger at the table. You see, apparently life goes on even in your absence. And bizarrely enough, I came to this realization and broke down into weeping and sobbing.

I wasn’t emotional because my boyfriend has friends I don’t know. I became emotional because of so many things, I don’t even know where to start. Like how my life these past 16 ½ months has been a never-ending rollercoaster of change. How it took so long to find my place here, and soon everything from the friends I made to the life I’ve constructed will be gone, never to return to this state. And how I will return to a home I was so sad to leave, only to find it is both exactly how I left it and completely different, and I will be the one trying to fit back in.

A lot of things have happened back home since I’ve been here. Engagements, weddings, births, divorces and funerals. Fires have completely wiped out entire forests I once hiked through and worked in. People have moved towns, people have changed. You know, life has happened. It’s been happening here, too. When you’re an outsider looking in, it feels like so much has happened so fast.

It's strange because this feeling is not connected to homesickness. While a small part of me wishes I could participate in holiday activities back home, I know I’ll be there next year. Meanwhile my opportunities to be involved with things here grow less with each day. I know, 9 months seems like a long time, but is it? 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Mom and Dad in Peru!

Dad, Mom, and me on an old bridge over el rio Zaña

At the beginning of the month I was lucky enough to have my parents visit me. It had been 16 months since I'd seen them (the longest I have gone in my entire life without seeing my parents) and there trip was highly anticipated, and not just by me. I told everyone in town they were coming, and my host family all but repainted the house in anticipation of their arrival.

Peru map in the high school--Dad is pointing to where we are.
It was so great to have my parents visit! I cannot express how good it was for all of us. I was so happy to show them where I've been living, the work I've been doing, and the people I am surrounded by. It also happened to be their first trip to South America, so it was nice to be able to travel with them as they were experiencing it for the first time. I was very proud and impressed with my parents for jumping right in, eating cabrito with their hands, riding in a mototaxi without fear, and walking over an old sketchy bridge suspended over the river Zaña. Not to mention I could probably write a separate post completely dedicated to my Dad and host dad's interactions, speaking to each other in completely different languages with no translator.

Some highlights from the trip:

  • My parents and I showed my host family how to make s'mores, and everyone from my host grandma to my host cousins tried their first s'more (and roasted marshmallow) ever.
  • My parents brought my host family gifts from the States which included things like Halloween candy, Sharpie markers, clothes for my host niece, and random memorabilia from back home. It was like a mini Christmas, and my host family really appreciated all of the different things they brought. 
  • My host dad and Dad had an unofficial "push-up" contest. My Dad won.
  • We participated in my town's patron saint festivities which were in full swing during their visit.
  • We went to visit Zack in his site and checked out all of the old Spanish colonial ruins.
  • I introduced my parents to new food and fruit specific to Peru.
  • We went to Kuelap in Amazonas (AKA "the poor man's Machu Pichu"), a pre-incan fortress at 10,000 feet elevation, believed to be built in 700 A.D.
  • We explored Lima together and visited parts even I haven't been to.
  • I had the opportunity to see Peru through my parent's eyes.  

Old Spanish colonial ruins in Zack's site
Visiting my "site mate" Zack. Everyone thought we were his family.
My host cousin, age 8, the very first in the family to try a s'more
In order to really see Peru through my parents eyes, I decided to have them answer a couple of questions for the blog. And by "answer a couple of questions," I mean I gave them a questionnaire to fill out. Can you tell I have been working a lot on measuring and evaluating projects in my site? Is my dork showing? From past experience it seems guest blogs are overwhelming and put a lot of pressure on my visitors (*cough*Justin*cough*), so I thought this would make it easier.

So, in the words of my parents, here are some of their thoughts on their trip to Peru:

What were your impressions of my site?
Your site is much as we expected because we already had learned about it from you. Our first impressions were how simple lives and activities seem in the community, but people’s basic needs are being met. Having a health clinic, bank/credit union, open-air meat and produce market, small “corner” stores and a variety of churches in such a small community was surprising. The community’s overall involvement in the festival/celebration of St. Francis that took place during our visit was not surprising in a Latin American country. The pageantry and participation of all ages from elementary students who made lanterns to a 100-year-old man who took part in the procession shows the devotion to their church/community. People seem happy, perhaps in more ways than people in the U.S. We take for granted how much we have in the states. You have done an excellent job in your blogs giving the reader a vision of life in your site and Peru.

[side note from me: As far as basic needs being met, I'd say "mas o menos." Over half of my town doesn't have running water between 9am and 6pm, everyone has to boil their water in order to drink it, and one of the biggest dangers in my site is lack of consistent health care. Many people who have been injured or needed medical assistance died while searching for a doctor, searching for transportation to the closest hospital 40 minutes away, or in transit to the hospital. But, my parents didn't get to see this aspect of my town.]
Mass celebrating the patron saint of my town, Saint Francis de Asis
Some of my fav students with my parents
Dancing marinera in the street in honor of San Francisco

"Paso de los Caballos" or "Peruvian Pasos" dancing horses
Candy vendor for the festivities
Sketchy ride for patron saint festivities
Did anything surprise you about the way I live in site? If so, what?
Not really. At least from the outside, your host family’s home seemed typical of other homes on “Main Street”. Inside, we were surprised how simple, yet large and comfortable the home is; the open-air kitchen brightens the house, the bathroom (even though it only has cold running water) is modern and the furnishings in living areas are comfortable. It is apparent you have been afforded a special place in their home and are considered part of the family.
We were a bit surprised yet pleased that you are able to continue running when that is an activity not common to the area or people in your community. It’s great you are able to involve youth in that activity, too.
My parent's roommate while staying at my host family's house
Host parents and real parents finally meeting!
Taking a jaunt through my site

Was my host family as you expected them to be? What were your impressions of them?
Yes, in many ways your host family was as we expected, again because of all that you had shared with us beforehand. Your host father and mother are very caring parents and treat you like you are one of their own. They will miss you when you return to the states. Your host sisters are not unlike young people in the U.S. We were sorry we didn’t meet your host brother. Your host niece is a typical 2-year old; adorable, talking up a storm and just a little spoiled. Grandma, aunts and uncles, family in general is tighter knit than in the U.S.
Lunch with the whole host family in the family garden
Mom helping my host sister make a s'more while my host cousins roast marshmallows. The shirt my host sister is wearing was given to my Mom by my high school volleyball coach back home. Go Challis Vikings!

Were there any differences you noticed about me? Do you think I’ve integrated into my community well?
No differences. You are still a wonderful person perhaps more mature with the responsibilities you have being a volunteer in the Peace Corps. You are accepted and have integrated well into your community. How many young people do you know who would give up 2 years, 3 months of their lives and move to a 3rd world country where they are the only English speaking person in town?

What was your favorite part of the trip?
Naturally, the favorite part of our trip was spending time with you, experiencing a few days of your life in Peru, meeting your host parents and extended host family. Traveling to other parts of Peru was a bonus.

What was your least favorite?
The least favorite part of our trip was when we arrived in Lima to check our bags for our 6:30 a.m. flight to Chiclayo. At the check-in counter we were told the flight was overbooked. Although we had assigned seats, we would not be on the flight. We had scheduled our flight from Lima to Chiclayo so we could arrive in your site and see the day’s festivities; watch the parade you would be in and eat lunch with your host family, a meal they had specially prepared for our arrival. After communicating to the young woman at the check-in counter why it was important for us to be on the flight, we had to concede she and her supervisor would not make that happen even with our pre-assigned seats. Up to that point our flights and connections had been on or ahead of schedule, our checked bags made it to Lima. We missed spending a day with you.

What were some of the differences in Peruvian culture that you liked? What bothered you, if anything?
How laid back people are, except for the person behind a wheel. No matter what type of vehicle; taxi, car, bus, truck, etc., everyone on wheels is in a hurry; honking (almost second nature), swerving in and out of traffic (4 lanes turn into 6-yes, there are marked lanes). The drivers seem to be in competition for who can get wherever first, but that’s apparently what it takes to travel Peru’s roadways!  We never saw any road rage or accidents through it all, unlike what we would expect to see in the USA when traffic is that hectic.
Taking a ride in a moto-taxi

What memories stick out the most from the trip?
Seeing how comfortable you are in your site and with your life in Peru. How well you can speak Spanish, talk to and understand anyone (how helpful it would be for everyone to be fluent in another language); you are at ease with the locals and they with you; traveling by bus, nice, clean double-decker buses that have “bus attendants” who serve meals and drinks, seats with movie screens; beautiful Spanish Colonial buildings in cities we visited; chance meetings with other PC volunteers; how safe we felt and how diverse Peru is. Every day gave us new memories.
The rich history of peoples and their associated civilizations was intriguing. From the ancient mountain top fortress cities, to the 400+ year-old church ruins, to towering modern buildings, Peru has some awesome features and national treasures. It appears the tourism this history draws is accessible and uncrowded to the outside visitor, but not taken advantage as much by Peruvians perhaps due to travel costs.
"Monte" "campo" or "chacra" whatever you want to call it, my parents enjoyed walking through the countryside of my site.

Walking around Chachapoyas, Amazonas
Kuelap, the ancient pre-incan fortress of the cloud people.
Riding in style on a "cama cama" bus to Lima--seats lay all the way down into a bed.
Dad says, "This door isn't big enough." Lima, Peru
My parents are active people and the boardwalk in Lima suited them just fine with its public exercise equipment.
What will you tell people who are slightly nervous of traveling in 3rd world countries about your experience?
What are you waiting for?
Most people see parts of 3rd world countries on television, the internet and in the printed media, at least through eyes of the person behind the camera. We realize no matter what we say about our experiences in Peru, we may not change some people’s impressions. We consider ourselves rather flexible and willing to try new adventures yet know that is not everyone’s cup of tea. We have limits to our comfort zones too, but a country such as Peru wasn’t a concern to us. 

In Parque de Amor (Love Park) in Lima, last day of the trip.
Thank you Mom and Dad for making the effort to come see me! Peace Corps has been an unforgettable experience, but the time my parents came to visit me will always be a cherished memory.♡♥♡

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Silly [North] Americans...

Okay people, it’s time you learned a hard truth;

People think you’re weird.

As you know, part of Peace Corps isn’t just working in our host community (Goal 1), it is helping them have a better understanding of US Americans (Goal 2), as well as all of you to have a better understanding of our host country (Goal 3).

Well, I’ve told you about the food, the dancing, the music, the traditions, the awkward and funny (but mostly awkward) situations I’ve found myself in. But, I haven’t talked much about how people react to me and my culture and the things I tell them about back home. And then there are the things I haven’t told them at all, but they believe to be 100% true about the US.

So, I’m going tell you what Peruvians (at least the ones I’ve interacted with) think about the US; misconceptions, things they find bizarre, troubling, and funny, and things that fascinate them.


Some bizarre things people have told me about my own culture and country. 

Everyone in the US is tall with fair skin and hair, and “light eyes” (meaning anything lighter than dark brown). If you do not fit that stereotype, you are a recent immigrant from another country.   
Sorry, I don’t help much with this misconception being as I am tall, white as a ghost, and have hazel eyes. But if they see a picture of one of my friends with dark skin and hair they ask, “Is she Spanish?” Or a friend who is black, “Are they from Africa?” It doesn’t matter that my friends might have ancestors that were some of the first to colonize the US-- if they aren’t typical “gringo” they must be recent immigrants, or first generation.
Nicole, Zack, and I perpetuating stereotypes in our region.
All African Americans are either pro-athletes, rappers, or gangsters.
That is how the majority of African Americans are portrayed in the media.

Everyone in the US has a fridge stocked with beer, all the time.
Thanks a lot, TV.

US Americans eat all of their food out of cans and cardboard boxes.
A little bit of generalizing here, as I know many people who have their own gardens and make a practice of trying to eat fresh foods often. However, in comparison to here, we do eat a lot of dry and canned goods.

US Americans eat a lot of fast food.
Oh, wait, I was talking about misconceptions wasn’t I? J/k. Obviously the same applies for this one as above, but in comparison to here, yes, we do. 

Everyone has been to, or lives near, Houston, New York, New Jersey, and Miami.
Geography isn’t a strong point here. It’s hard for them to imagine just how big the US is, but many of them have distant cousins or relatives who have moved to the aforementioned cities.

The US is cold, and almost always covered in snow.
You could say, we’re like Winterfell or “Beyond the Wall” to some Peruvians (sorry, Game of Thrones reference). Many Peruvians have never seen snow in their life, except for on TV where every Christmas movie has towns covered in snow. Meanwhile, Christmas here is the beginning of summer. We just have more seasons in some states of the US than here. But my home state of Idaho could almost fit that myth.

Standing next to the road to Boundary Creek, where I used to work for the Forest Service. This picture was taken mid-May before joining Peace Corps.


Here’s some info I’ve either passed along which has received a bit of criticism, or things they have heard that they find bizarre.

US Americans don’t often live in the same community as their immediate or extended family.
While it is becoming more common for Peruvian family members to move to different areas for work opportunities, families mostly stay in one community for generations. Everyone is surprised to hear how my brothers live in three separate states and over a day’s worth of travel in distance from one another.

We go on runs for exercise.
What are you running from?

We have no regard for the temperature of our beverages
Cold drinks make you sick. Period.

Lunches are small, often cold, and even sometimes skipped.
Lunch is a big deal here. Everyday lunch is a three-course meal with soup as a starter. A “cold lunch” just doesn’t even sound like a meal to them.

There are homeless people in the US.
Most Peruvians know about the economic crisis that our country is in, but we are still very wealthy in comparison. It is bizarre to them that anyone could live on the streets while living in the US.

We care about age and weight, and what people say about it.
Take this conversation I overheard between my host parents and host sister during dinner:

Host sister: Today my friend Lizbeth asked me how old you guys were and I said, “I dunno, I think 54 and 62. They’re old.”
Host mom: I’m 49 and your father is 52.
HS: Oh, really? You guys look so old, especially dad.

Meanwhile I am listening to this with my mouth gaping open, eyes darting between all three of them waiting for the insult to sink in. And I waited. And my host parents didn’t even bat an eye. My host dad didn't even stop eating to comment.

Finally I said, “That would’ve been considered incredibly offensive in the US. You never tell someone they look old. Same goes for telling someone they're fat.”

“Really?” they said, interested. “Strange.”

Women forsake their family’s name when they marry.
In Latin culture it is common for everyone to have two last names—the mother’s last name and the father’s last name. They find it very strange that a common marriage tradition in the US is for a woman to change her last name to that of her husband's. To them it is forsaking your family name, and also letting your children forsake it as well. Why does everyone have to have the same last name as the husband?

My host dad once told me, “When you get married, don’t change your last name. Your husband can always leave you, but your family never will.”

We don’t all have a quinceañera (or other large traditional celebrations).
While I have Mexican friends who celebrated their 15th birthday with a traditional quinceañera, it isn’t a common celebration in the US as a whole. “Sweet 16” comes nowhere close to the festivities for a quinceañera.

We don’t celebrate the dead.
Every year on the birthday or anniversary of the death of a family member, that person is remembered and celebrated. This continues for decades. Twice I have spent the afternoon in the cemetery eating and drinking with my host family while they sang, shared stories, and sat in prayer next to the tomb of my deceased host-grandfather. The whole day is taken off by all of the family members so that they can attend, and the celebration is moved from the cemetery to a family member’s house. At first it felt a little strange, but I’ve come to look forward to these celebrations. Even years after his death, the gatherings are filled with tears and laughter.

We have so much, yet we are so unhappy.
Clearly, screwed up stuff happens everywhere. Peruvians are by no means saying we as a society are more screwed up than they are. But one thing that some Peruvians can’t wrap their heads around is how unhappy we are as a society. We have some of the best technology in the world, access to clean water and food, decent public education, more materialistic goods than we know what to do with, and yet all they hear about us on the news is how we’re on anti-depressants, constantly at war, have high suicide rates (we rank 38 out of 107 countries—Peru 95), committing hate crimes against people of different races and religions, and people are busting into schools, churches, businesses, and movie theaters and shooting off a couple rounds into crowds of innocent people.

It’s a complicated subject to breach, but I’ll say that just because Peru is a 3rd world country doesn’t mean they are unhappy. But they sure wonder why the country in world power is.

We don’t eat guinea pigs.
They just laugh and laugh and laugh when I tell them guinea pigs are cherished pets in the US.

It goes both ways

Misconceptions and misunderstandings abound when it comes to inter-cultural exchange, especially when people have had limited exposure to that culture before. How many of you thought that because I’m in South America I eat spicy food, people drive low-riders, and everyone is dreaming of crossing the border into the US? On the other hand, I can’t even begin to tell you how many Peruvians have assumed I own a smart phone, lived in New York, and personally know Justin Bieber.

Trying to iron out misconceptions and give people a better idea of the US is all part of the job. Some days, with how many roadblocks prevent me from working, it is the only part of my job I can say I’ve done for the day. So, I’m trying my best down here. I only hope I’m somewhat helping on the other end and giving you a better understanding of my part of Peru. Because even when I joke around, or am frustrated with certain aspects of the culture, I love it here. There is so much about Peru I could never convey. Peru is a beautiful place I have come to care about very much, and I will never forget the kindness and acceptance the people here have shown me. Yeah, Peruvians think you’re weird, but they also think you’re lucky and are fascinated by you. It's a hard job, being the only white girl in town and the first US American many of them have ever met and been friends with. I’m trying to be an “ambassador” of our country and let them see that while I'm American, I am not everything they think our country is. At the same time, I'm trying to tell all of you back home about a country and culture that has taken me in as family and a friend and hope that I can come even close to giving a proper portrayal. 

So friends and family, laugh at yourself a little. People think you do crazy stuff, and you kinda do.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Steps Forward

If you were to ask me what one of the biggest problems in my community in Peru is, I would say the lack of communication and education on safe sex. Within my first three months in site, three teenage girls had to drop out of the high school due to being pregnant; they we all 16 and younger. In this last school year, we’ve lost two more girls to pregnancy, ages 15.

My host mom accompanied me to a Peace Corps training in March to work on project design and management, and she immediately agreed the biggest project we needed to work on is teen pregnancy prevention. It is a very personal issue for her, as her own daughter had to drop out of college at 19 when she became pregnant.

Since then my host mom, other community counterparts, and I have been working on projects in my site that work towards the goal of HIV/Aids and adolescent pregnancy prevention. Part of that is having an “Escuela para Padres” (school for parents) to help them develop better communication with their teens, especially concerning delicate subjects. The other part is having a health promoters group.

The health promoters group, or Pasos Adelante (Steps Forward), is a Peace Corps Peru developed program that trains teens in the high school to be peer health educators. I’m working side-by-side with the local obstetrician to capacitate a group of teenagers (all of whom applied to join the group) with the Pasos Adelante manual, a 12-session program that goes over: good decision making practices, puberty, gender, sexual orientation, pregnancy, STI’s, HIV/Aids, looking for an ideal partner, abstinence, condom use, and drug and alcohol abuse. After they are done with the 12 sessions, they will move on to do sex-ed presentations in their own classrooms with their classmates. We will also train the teachers on sex education, and discuss this more in depth with the Escuela para Padres

The Pasos Adelante group is by far one of my best projects, as it is directly addressing a need of my community, the kids love it (I mean, we’re talking about sex. All the time), and I have found one of the best counterparts I could ever ask for to do the project with me. There is so much disinformation about sex out there that many teens believe in, as well as unsafe practices that put them at risk (ie: a common rite of passage for a teenage boy to “become a man” is to be taken to a brothel to lose his virginity to a prostitute). The obstetrician, Lupe, is the most reliable person I have worked with in my community. She is motivated, helps in all the session planning, and is just a nice person to be around in general. I am really enjoying working with her.
Lupe, talking about reproductive organs
Talking about "what we know" of the opposite sex. Some of the boys were too embarrassed to draw body parts, so their girl's reproductive organs are being modest.

Playing the game of "the sinking boat" and deciding whose life is more valuable to save, and who can be left to die. TRICK QUESTION! Everyone's life has value!

There have been some roadblocks with the group that have delayed the progress of the program. It started with a bang and was included as part of the school schedule with 25 participants, but then the teachers went on a month long strike in July and it was impossible to round up the kids to do any sessions. Lupe and I decided to wait until school was back in to continue, but when it recommenced the director wouldn’t allow us to work within the school anymore. Since then we have finally started having group outside of school, but we have lost about half of our members. A second teachers’ strike has recently begun, but this time Lupe and I were prepared and set up sessions during the week while the kids are out of class.

Our first day of meeting during the teachers’ strike only three kids showed up. Three. So, Lupe, the three girls, and I walked all around town, door to door, finding the kids that were supposed to be at the meeting. Two hours of walking around. Many of them were in their pajamas, some of them had left their house as early as 4 am to work in the fields, and others just forgot. It is difficult to have the group outside of school because many teens are needed at home to help with house chores and working to bring money in for the household. The attendance of girls in my group has drastically lowered, as they are the ones kept home to cook. It is very frustrating, and can be a big source of anger and resentment for me towards the director who has stopped allowing us to work within school hours. But, we have 13 who are still coming, and that is better than none, so I’m hoping those same 13 can continue to come and finish the program so that we can start doing presentations for the entire school.

When my host mom and I were developing this project, she often became overwhelmed and teary eyed, feeling the weight of the world sitting on her shoulders. “There is just no way we can stop them all from making bad decisions,” she fretted as the magnitude of what we were up against came down on her. 

It was really hard to see her so upset and all I could say was, “You’re right, there is no way. All we can do is hope we can help a few, and if we can do that, we’ve achieved part of our goal.”

Funny how words said in a moment of consoling another are the ones I often have to repeat to myself. So, even while the schools are shut down and other things aren’t working out, as long as I get some information to these 13 kids, I am happy.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Asi es

Down the street from my house. Pretty typical sight on any day of the week.
In my first months in site a few fellow volunteers were passing around a link to a blog called, “Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like,” which both pinpointed and poked fun at some common traits of the aforementioned.

One of the posts was titled, “#44 Blogging for the folks back home,” where it discussed all the usual posts and subjects typical in a blog of a person volunteering in a developing country. The similarities between what they say is “typical” and my own blog are uncanny, and thus quite embarrassing. (For example: “Your blog is where you rail against the gender discrimination you find around you.” Have you read my post Machismo?)

After it lists endless stories you are bound to tell (and I’ve already told) it says:

“Over time, your blog will change in tone, or perhaps you’ll stop blogging for the folks back home altogether, as culture shock ebbs and you go about your normal business and things don’t stand out as strange anymore.”

Life in Peru has become just that—life. I have become so used to everyday things that I have a hard time thinking of stuff to write about.

I would never stop blogging about my time down here in Peru because that’s not who I am. A writer always finds something to write about. But as we are in the midst of September and I haven’t posted a blog yet I keep wondering, “What do I say?”

I’ve considered writing more in depth about what I’m going through on a personal level aside from projects and anecdotes, but something about that seems too, well...boring.

And let's be honest here, when life starts to feel comfortable and normal, what is it if not a little boring?

I am somewhat grateful for that, because I know it won't last long. Over one year in and I have less than one year left in service. In the midst of the biggest adventure I’ve ever been on I am able to look back at how much I’ve grown but still the future looms ahead, larger yet. I am more or less comfortable with where I stand in my community and with my work, yet still have anxiety and doubts.

Sometimes (or a lot of times) I worry about my time left.

Will I achieve everything I want to? And what should my focus of achievement be? Numbers and figures, or relationships and memorable moments?

How many more girls will get pregnant and have to quit high school before the sex-ed program runs its course? Will the parents in my “escuela para padres” ever actually improve their communication with their teens?

Will my English students ever remember how to respond when I say, “Hi, how are you?”

Will my host family ever stop giving me the best cut of meat or the largest plate of food, an offering typically given to guests?

A lot of times I worry about going back home.

I have anxiety about social situations with people I will not have seen in over two years. About how the first words out of my mouth for a long time will be, “One time, in Peru…” and everyone’s eyes will glaze over.

I have anxiety about speaking Spanglish or Spanish on accident and how people won’t understand or might even think I’m pretentious for using a 2nd language in everyday conversation. I also worry about not speaking Spanish and forgetting it.

I worry about jobs. About transitioning into the fast and furious lifestyle American’s have and not being able to catch up.

I worry about technology and the advancements I’ve missed out on.

I know the only people who will truly empathize will be spread out all over the USA as we return to our homes, once living “close” in our country of service.

But, I still have 11 months left. 11 months that maybe look like a lot but I know will be gone in a blink of an eye.

So in the meantime, I’m here living life in Peru. I’m working and living in a community in which I was once a stranger and now am an honorary member. And I’m still writing, but I guess I need to be more creative, or at least force myself into more uncomfortable situations to have more to write about.

Friday, September 7, 2012


My two-year-old host niece is not always the sweetest of children. On any given day she can be the spawn of Satan.

But, today she was just what I needed.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Year 1 - Peace Corps Peru Video

The following is a video made by Kim Ayers, a fellow 17er and Lambayeque volunteer, on her first year in Peace Corps. Kim is a small business volunteer and lives in a larger town (small city?) not too far from my site. So while some of the parts of her video show life in a bigger site, they also show a lot of Lambayeque and shared experiences we've had together (you may even glimpse a shot of me in the video).

If you can't tell, hitting the year mark is a HUGE milestone. I just got back from a week in Lima of having med-checks, in-service training, and making a presentation of my own first year (sorry, I'm not so good at making awesome videos). While I still have a year left, I'm suddenly filled with this sense of urgency to aprovechar every second I have left. The second half of the wildest journey I've ever been on has commenced, and while it's definitely a roller coaster, I don't want to get caught clinging to the safety bar with my eyes closed.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A seasoned volunteer?

Last weekend some of us current volunteers met the newbies (I hated that word when it was being used to describe me) from group 19 who will be joining us in the lovely department of Lambayeque. There are nine of them (the most being sent to one department in their training group), all youth and small-business trainees, and they are all currently finishing up their week-long site visit.

When we met them it made me think a lot about my site visit. It also made me realize I am now what some may consider a seasoned volunteer. I can't believe it's been a year since I saw my site for the first time and met my host family. I shook with nerves as I had to give various speeches at different events throughout town. The northern accent threw me for a loop and I couldn't understand anyone. I also spent my last day during my visit laid-up with food poisoning and my host family fretted over me, probably thinking, "Oh sh#t we broke the gringa!"

In that week alone I had some high-highs and low-lows as I felt extremely lonely, extremely lucky, and above all, incredibly awkward and uncomfortable.

So glad that's all over!

Or...I guess it's not really over, just less extreme. Some things change and some stay the same, but overall I'd consider myself acostumbrado (accustomed). 

Here's to another year of conquering loneliness by making more friends, appreciating this once-in-a-lifetime experience for what it is, and embracing the awkward and uncomfortable.

And here are some photos from this time last year!
Group 17 Lambayeque volunteers at the capital municipality on Socio Day, meeting the people who would introduce us to our communities and hopefully help us in our future work.

First time meeting my host mom!

This was a welcoming ceremony in my town with all of the municipality workers (about 50 people). The mayor (to my right) introduced me and gave a big speech, half of which I didn't understand. I was so overwhelmed.

Giving my first speech in my town. My Spanish has come so far since then!

Me, the mayor, and a ton of glittery flowers. Everyone laughed at this moment, realizing how tall I was compared to him.

First visit to the public school I work with.

Preparation of goat for a meal at a school event. My first of many.

My room when I first moved in. So empty!

PS: On a completely separate and unrelated note, the newborn cuy from my previous post sadly, but not surprisingly, died after none of the mothers would take it in. I've already decided should this situation arise again in the future, I will either need to harden my heart or immediately offer to buy the baby cuy.