The Northern Coast

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

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Estoy de acuerdo like you would not believe

I don't know who found this blog, or who from Peace Corps Peru started posting it on Facebook, but in the last day it has completely taken up my fb wall with people sharing it and saying things like, ¨This blog perfectly describes Peace Corps,¨ or ¨Might as well change 'Ethiopa' for 'Peru',¨ and so forth.

Well, I read it, and I couldn't agree more.

With my blog I try to give multiple perspectives of my time in service, not just the rainbows and kittens, and also not just the cynical depression. Sometimes there are so many mixed emotions within one moment that it is hard to truly express what it's like to be in Peace Corps.

But, this Michael guy serving in Ethiopa has quite eloquently, and hilariously, summed it all up.

I am both impressed and jealous of his way with words. He obviously did a good job if he captured an audience of volunteers in a country on the other side of the world.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent on the Catholic calendar. It’s a time for gluttony, celebrations, and “getting your fill”  as you ready yourself to enter 40 days of fasting and deprivation.

Many cities around the U.S. prepare to party, many not knowing why other than images of masks, beads, and inebriated topless girls hanging from balconies in New Orleans, or simply as an excuse to party on a Tuesday. I’m sure they are failing miserably at replicating the same insanity and debauchery as the city most famous for this celebration. Well, the same can be said in Peru for Carnaval in Cajamarca City in the department of Cajamarca. Only Carnaval isn’t just one day, it is comprised of several days leading up to Ash Wednesday. And if you’re in Peru, and there’s a place with an unrivaled Carnaval, why not go?

I arrived in Cajamarca City last Friday morning at 5:30 a.m. with a group of other volunteers, feeling the shock of the cold, thin air as I stepped off the bus and my body attempted to adjust to the increase in 9,000 feet in elevation and 40 degree drop in temperature. Cajamarca is a department east of Lambayeque situated in the sierra and has a much different climate from the one I'm used to. I was extremely grateful I had packed my polar fleece jacket, as when I was packing I could hardly imagine even touching it as beads of sweat ran off my face just sitting in my room wearing shorts and a tank-top.

In fact, it was really hard to pack for my trip to Carnaval for multiple reasons: clothes for colder temperatures, but moments of warmer temperatures during midday with the strong sun, and clothes I didn’t mind getting wet, stained with paint, or just plain destroyed. Because Carnaval isn’t just pageantry, parades, and partying—it is full on war. The entire city erupts with water guns, water balloons, and buckets of paint. No one is safe. No truces are made. All bets are off.

Rumors had been circulating for weeks from the Cajamarcan volunteers that Saturday the 18th would be the big day—the day you prepared your weapons and chose your comrades to walk in the streets and accept whatever came your way.

Saturday may have been the day for paint, but that did not mean peace was guaranteed for any other day. We had Friday to prepare ourselves, buying super soakers, paint, water balloons, flour, and any cheap clothes we were willing to throw away at the end of the trip. Some even bought painters suits. Walking the streets was dangerous enough, but being seen carrying any of the aforementioned items guaranteed a water balloon in the back, being shot by water guns, or if you were really unlucky, a bucket of water from an overhead balcony. Even stepping out of the hostel was a risk. The only time there was an unspoken cease-fire was when night fell and the temperatures dropped, the cold bringing a reprieve.

That night the Plaza de Armas was overflowing with hundreds of people, everyone arranged in drum circles and drinking circles, singing, chanting, and dancing. The air was filled with the smell of booze and popcorn, and the sounds of each individual group melding into one loud cacophony. Street vendors lined the edge of the plaza, smoke rising from their grills with anticuchos, wisps of steam floating from vats of grease frying chicken and french fries. Volunteers completely took over the bar we all ended up at and I met people from other training groups, programs, and departments whom I’ve never met before, and may never see again. As the night went on more volunteers came drifting in and the night was spent in celebration of the holiday and reuniting with friends from afar.

When I went to bed I slept under three-wool blankets and was still cold. In my site I haven’t even slept under a sheet since December.

Saturday morning most of us were slow to getting up, uncertain what exactly to expect when we stepped outside of the hostel. We had heard the paint fights were starting as soon as 8 a.m., so after some breakfast we filled water balloons, and prepared any other ammo that was handy. Some volunteers started early, shooting each other in the hostel, perching in their balconies and having no mercy on whoever walked below them—women, children, the elderly—no one was exempt. When people finally started to take to the streets I left with a super-soaker full of water and a bag full of water balloons. The second we stepped out of the hostel we were attacked with paint by a group of Peruvians. Some smeared it in our faces with their hand, others threw it or dumped buckets on us. It smelled like shit, literally. The paint needed to be thinned with water in order to be more effective and last longer, and some of city water drainage systems on the sidewalks were opened up and people were taking water from there. That was my first cue that there were literally no rules.

The next two hours of festivities that I participated in (it went much, much longer than that, I just threw in the towel earlier than some) can only be described as a mixture of complete debauchery, nasty paint battles, and unexpected moments of friendliness and sharing. Hoards of people walked in groups on a pre-determined loop through the city (which of course, was deviated from), each group having a drummer and other instruments covered in plastic, chanting and dancing, touting paint of a specific color. It was complete chaos and all out war in the streets, getting hands shoved in your face, paint poured down your back, hit with water balloons that wouldn’t break but instead just felt like getting punched. I ran on a “defense only” method so as to save water and paint in my gun, shooting anyone in the face that attacked my group members or me. Water was being poured from buckets from rooftops and balconies, completely dousing anyone below, and paint and water was shot back in retaliation. Cars were in a standstill in the middle of the streets, as traffic was still allowed to pass, just unable to because of the sheer amount of people and their windows being completely covered in paint. At one point we reach a major intersection where a charter bus filled with people sat, unable to go anywhere, it’s front window a matte of colors.

At times we ran out of water, and in those moments there would be someone on the side of the road with a hose, giving water to whoever had a bucket or an empty water gun (or course, with the price of being momentarily soaked and sprayed), or simply people would offer water out of their homes in order to keep the party going. Drinking circles dotted the path and we were invited to stop at each one to drink a glass of beer and continue on. Bathrooms were offered to those who needed to use them at gas stations and public areas where one usually needs to pay (although not everyone “wasted” the free liquid to go down the drain, if you get my drift). At one point during the long walk, groups would run out of paint and water and walk up to other groups and ask for some. Everyone shared, not wanting anyone to be left out. If someone got paint in their eyes, others would offer what clean water they had to help clean them out. It wasn’t complete civil war—the point of the games and paint fighting wasn’t for there to be a victor, but for everyone to partake and have fun. The need to continue the party was more important than depleting others of their resources in order to “win.” Of course there were people who played dirty (urine, oil-based paint, drainage water, spray-paint), but as far as I know no one was physically hurt out of malice.

After two-hours of walking the streets of Cajamarca through areas of businesses and neighborhoods, we arrived back at the Plaza de Armas where the whole party started. Some people re-looped around, the parade of paint ending at a concert a few blocks away from the plaza. Others stood in the plaza in their groups, still playing their drums and instruments, still singing and chanting, and occasionally throwing a bucket of paint on anyone nearby. Having just walked something close to 6-miles, my water gun completely empty, and paint crusted in my ears and all over my body, I decided I felt good to stop. I wasn’t cranky, I kind of wanted to keep fighting, but my skin and crunchy clothes told me it was a good place to leave things. I went inside the hostel where I finally met up with people from whom I’d been separated and realized I was clean compared to others. Taking a shower helped reveal which paint was water-based and oil-based, leaving one of my friends with a large chunk of yellow hair that wouldn’t wash out, and me with blotches the color of dried blood on my neck, stomach, arms, and legs that are still there three-days later.

A group of us who ran into eachother in the hostel, some went back out while others cleaned up.

If Rambo was a a hot chick and went to Carnaval, she would be Ali
Out in the streets people played music, sang, drank, and threw paint late into the afternoon.
Once again, as night fell the fighting died down and the partying in the plaza continued. Sunday would be the day of the parade with beautiful costumes and cameramen from national news channels, and the  paint wars were done. However, water fighting was still fair game. I spent most of the morning with a group of friends watching the parade from another volunteer’s balcony in their room, but the second any of us left it was a full on attack with adults and children chasing us with water guns and water balloons. 
The parade from a balcony in the hostel

Some volunteers armed and ready to shoot anyone who passed below
No rain can ruin this parade
Even when the afternoon rain came dumping down we weren’t free from attack, and while walking to a restaurant I got a hard water balloon to the back of the head. I was wearing my rain jacket, but the sting from the balloon and annoyance with being chased in the rain and soaked by people scooping buckets of water out of the gutters just got to be too much. I was no longer in the spirit of Carnaval, I was pissed, I was cold and wet, and I needed to be somewhere dry where I wasn’t a walking target. But what can you do? It’s Carnaval; it’s what happens. You might as well sign a contract when you come to Cajamarca during Carnaval that says, “I acknowledge that getting hit by a water balloon, soaked with a super-soaker, or flour thrown in my face is completely acceptable at any time or place within city limits, and there is nothing I can do about it but join in.”

After some much needed food and hot coffee, the evening was slow and quiet, many people falling asleep or laying around. Just as I was readying to catch my night bus back everyone re-emerged, ready to continue the party before separating to different departments. Monday was supposedly one of the “prettiest” days of Carnaval and I was going to be missing out on it, but I needed to get back to site and I grudgingly said bye to my friends, not sure when I would be able to see them all again.

The night bus home was just as sleepless and rough as the night bus to Cajamarca, only this time when I arrived in my regional capital at 5:00 a.m. I immediately felt the heat and broke a light sweat. I haven’t stopped sweating since, as it has reached the hottest days of summer in my site.

As I sit here typing this, sweating while just wearing shorts and a sports bra, it is hard to believe that just the other day I was in the mountains wearing pants and a jacket, at times even shivering and complaining about the cold. It feels like weeks ago that I wandered the streets of Cajamarca equipped with a super-soaker filled with blue paint, looking around in awe of an event that I would never be able to experience in my own country. But I look at my toes and legs blotched with red paint, and my shirt I just washed that will always show the signs of a paint battle, and I am already excited for next year. Everyone kept telling me, “you have to go at least once,” but I see no reason why I wouldn’t go again. And next time, I’m buying a bigger gun.

Monday, February 13, 2012

8 down, 19 to go

Wow! As of the 10th of February, I have officially been in Peru for 8 months. That means I have almost completed one-third of my service. I know, right?! Two-thirds of my service left, and depending on the day it feels like either the longest amount of time, or not enough time. When I’m missing home and looking down the barrel of a year-and-a-half, it feels like forever until I will once again be on U.S. soil, see my loved ones, and be free to take advantage of all the things I once took for granted. When I’m looking at my projects and the things I want to accomplish, I look at this time and think, “I’ve been here 8 months and only accomplished ‘x’. I need every second of the next 19 months to count so I can walk away from here actually having something to show for all of this.”

The two-year commitment is what makes Peace Corps so unique and such a challenge. Many people back down from applying or look into different programs because of what is required and expected of volunteers as far as time commitment. But after I got here and I began to learn how things work and saw the length of time that even the smallest of projects take to get things done, it became obvious that to commit yourself to any less time would be laughable.

Right now, I am actually quite happy to be sitting at this end of things with so much time and potential to work on things in my community. The new school year will be starting in less than a month, I have spent almost 6 months in site networking, showing my face at as many town functions as possible, doing small projects and becoming well known not as “la gringa” but as “Amanda” and “Señorita Cuerpo de Paz.” Considering I am the first volunteer to live in my site, those are huge leaps and bounds, and I am ready to start with projects and get things going with an entire school year ahead of me.

This sudden shift in motivation and feeling good about where I am here in site could have a lot to do with the fact that we just finished Camp ALMA 2012. Camp ALMA (Actividades de Liderazgo para Mujeres Adoloscentes, the Peru version of “Girls Leading Our World,” a world-wide Peace Corps leadership camp for teen girls) is a two-and-a-half day camp for teen girls run by volunteers. Each department has their own Camp ALMA (and Camp VALOR for boys), and each year it has a different theme. This year we did a healthy lifestyle camp where girls spent their days attending presentations and workshops on everything from sex education and physical fitness, to nutrition, self-esteem, and vocational orientation. They also learned about women leaders around the world, played lots of games, learned Afro-Peruvian dance, competed in “Olympic games” and water fights, worked on arts and crafts, and participated and watched a talent show amongst other things. Yes, all of this in two-and-a-half days. It was probably one of the most intense and non-stop camps I’ve participated in at the same time as being very fun and very educational and pertinent to the lives of the youth. I think the 49 girls ages 13 to 16 that participated got a more comprehensive sex education than most high school students in the U.S., and many of them, while leaders in their communities and chosen for such, were pushed outside of their comfort zone (in a good way). For many girls, this was the first time they had ever spent the night away from their house and family. It was probably the first time anyone had been frank with them about sex, STD’s, pregnancy, and condom and birth control use.

I brought two girls with me from my site who are members of my Muchachas Poderosas group. It meant a lot to me that their parents would trust me, a very new member to the community, to take their girls away from home for the first time. And I’m so glad they did. One of my girls even won MVP in her group! They did such a good job and it really lit a fire under their butts to get involved in a health promoters group in the school (which I’m hoping to start once school is back in session).

It was a really good experience; one where you actually see the change being made. I feel like those moments are few and far between, and are often the small milestones and rays of hope that keep volunteers afloat during the times when no matter how hard you work or how much you want to help you feel worthless, and nothing works out.

Also, it was a nice bonding experience with the other volunteers in Lambayeque. Not all of our sites are close together, and we all have differing schedules so we don’t always get to spend time together. I have felt like one of the hardest parts of Peace Corps has been the friendship aspect. I like the other volunteers and we all have this common bond of being here on this wild ride, but it’s not the same as having an old friend who understands you. I got to know some other volunteers in our training group pretty well that I considered friends, but even then we were all split up except for Zack and I.  So after spending weeks getting to know my training group we all split up to our individual departments, and I slowly had to start getting to know the volunteers in my department, some of whom I’m lucky to run into once a month, some of whom finished their service not long after I arrived. I have felt like I’ve spent the last 8 months explaining who I am and getting to know people, not just within my site, but amongst volunteers. At times I have felt like there isn’t a single person in this country who just knows who I am, and I know who they are, and we can just be. I finally feel like I have friends in my department. There are people I can count on, people I know will always be good for a chat on the phone or for solid advice, or who will be up for going out to blow off some steam. And with the 18ers being in site for 3 months, I’m glad they are a good, solid crew as they are going to be here until I’m done with service. The 15ers will be leaving and the 19ers will be arriving just as I’m completing a year. It’s this never-ending cycle of coming and going, and the 18ers, aside from my fellow 17ers, will be the ones I spend the majority of my service with. It’s nice to finally feel like I have a group of friends to meet up with and do simple things like sitting around eating ice cream or watching a movie. It's some of the few moments I can forget about all the things stressing me out in site, and just be with people without calculating everything I'm doing to make sure I'm being culturally sensitive to those around me. I can just be me. 

At the moment, things are going well. A little overwhelmed by the weight of the remaining two-thirds of my service, but all-in-all looking forward to it. I guess I couldn’t really ask for anything more than that. I just have to hold onto this feeling before the rollercoaster takes a nose dive again. Here's hoping that isn´t for awhile. 

Feliz dia de amistad tomorrow, and miss and love all of you back home!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

TGIF--Thank God it's February

January is finally over! Hallelujah, February is here!

What a long, insufferable month it’s been. I don’t care if you’re in the midst of winter or the heat of summer; January just sucks. After months of build-up for holiday celebrations, January leaves you with little more to work with than your New Years resolution (which is always something really hard that you’ve been putting off) and the aftershock of having spent all your money on holidays.

This January has felt like the longest month of my life. When Justin left after visiting for Christmas, I literally had nothing going on in site. I couldn’t get vacaciones utiles (summer school) arranged before Christmas break, the only youth group I was working with temporarily “broke up”, and I had no other projects to launch since school is out and kids are impossible to gather, and many aren’t even in town anymore. During summer break a lot of kids leave to live with family members, mostly in Lima or larger cities. I no longer have a community diagnostic to work on, so I have had a lot of extra time on my hands. A lot of time to sit and think, “Why am I here?” It’s dangerous.

But, as life in Peace Corps is literally a never-ending rollercoaster (yes, I will continually refer to the “high-highs” and “low-lows” because they just never go away), I am slowly on the up and up. And, for the first time in years, I made a New Years resolution—to work on self-love. Anyone will tell you I beat myself up too much. I guess it’s something anyone who’s spent even a short amount of time with me can see. And being in the Peace Corps, a place where failure is an everyday reality, where no one compliments your work or says, “thank you”, and the idea of success is so abstract it cannot be graded or put down in numbers, pretty much eliminates my usual manner of reassurance that I am not, in fact, a complete and utter failure.

Well, part of loving myself is counting the positive things in my days, so I decided I would write this blog and tell you all the things I am proud of and happy about with my life in Peru right now. When I’m unhappy with myself, I let the things around me that I am unhappy about magnify and become bigger than they should be. Lord knows I could bitch for hours about the bugs, the heat, the food, the creepy men, the lack of commitment from community members, and the giardia I just got over (to name a few), but I’m just going to take a cue from my self-esteem charlas and be positive.

Things that make me happy:
  • Cold showers (Seriously. Freaking love them!)
  • Finally being able to run again, and training for the Pacasmayo 4th of July marathon
  • The time to read books and practice guitar
  • Calls from Justin/his never ending support (the other night I asked him what he’d say if I told him I wanted to come home and he said, “Tough shit.” HA! He knows it would have to be pretty serious for me to come home.)
  • My french press. Right now it’s getting more use at night as I’m making coffee ahead of time to put in the fridge so I don’t sweat more than usual while eating breakfast. It was so worth every centimo I paid for it (which was a lot).
  • My PCVL Nicole, who doesn’t get paid enough for how much work she does along with practically being my personal therapist
  • Notes and packages from home; family and friends constantly reminding me how much I’m loved. A month hasn’t gone by that I haven’t received a package from home!
  • The fact that I have to think of new routes to and from my daily activities so I can make it on time and not be stopped by everyone to chat. It can be a nuisance and overwhelming, but it means people know who I am and are genuinely interested in getting to know me
  • Hearing “¡Miss Amanda!” or “¡Profesora!” or “¡Teacher!” everywhere I go, and just having to wave my arm in every direction and yell, “¡Hola!” because I have no idea who all is saying hi to me
  • External hard-drive exchanges with other volunteers. I am never in need of mindless entertainment

Things I’m proud of:
Due to severe boredom and fear of going insane, in the last three-weeks I have formed a youth group, reactivated two “broken-up” youth groups, and am teaching geography, English, and self-esteem/personal development at vacaciones utiles (which finally came through after riding the director’s ass day in and day out). It’s six-days-a-week worth of stuff, and granted sometimes its only 2 hours worth of activities, but it’s better than nothing. 

However, I am most proud of the youth group I formed called Muchachas Poderosas, which means “Powerful Girls,” and is a healthy lifestyle/exercise group specifically for teenage girls. I literally walked around town going door to door inviting girls, asking mothers if they had teen daughters, putting up posters around town, putting advertisements on the local radio, and telling any girl I saw walking down the street. It was exhausting. But, I got about five girls around the age of 14, three of which come on a regular basis. We meet three-days-a-week, play games, do exercises, run, talk about nutrition and body image, etc. There aren’t many of them, they don’t own sneakers or a sports bra, and they have never done a sit-up, push-up, or a lunge before in their life.  They bitch and moan the entire time we do pretty much anything. But, they keep coming. It’s fun because I have to be creative and think of ways to challenge them without boring them. Games work best, because they’re running around and having fun without realizing they’re working out. A kind of surprising thing—they love yoga. They had never heard of yoga in their entire life and now they ask me to end each session with some yoga and meditation. We do the breathing and meditation exercises and they totally Zen-out, sitting with a blissful look on their faces. I think sometimes they come just for the yoga.

These girls get me through the week. Sometimes I have to drag them out of their houses, sometimes I run laps around the stadium waiting for their arrival only to end up waiting for an hour (or have no one show up at all), but more often than not, they’re there. I know it is becoming a part of their schedule, too, and little by little things are working exactly as I’d hoped. I am a broken record of, “¡Si, se puede!” and they are finally starting to repeat this affirmation to each other. And after all the constant moaning and complaining (Peruvians are so dramatic about everything) it is nice to hear them talk about how good they feel after it’s all over.

Last week for our workout I filled up a bunch of old water bottles with sand for hand-weights, and was touting about 4 sets of them in a bag. One girl offered to help me carry them home after our meeting and was surprised by the weight, practically falling over trying to carry it. Another girl had to help her carry it and it seemed so ridiculous that I told them I was okay to carry it by myself.

No, Amanda, está bien. Soy poderosa,” one said. “No, it’s okay Amanda, I’m powerful.”
All I could do was smile and say, “Si, tu eres.”  
“Yeah, you are.”

I know I’m not the best person for this job, that I’m not always great with kids or super creative in my activities, and that I have yet to tap into my charismatic Spanish side which makes me 10X more awkward than usual. And when I’m down I tell myself that my town would be better off with a different volunteer who is more motivated and capable than I am. But, even the smallest things like a girl calling herself “powerful” gives me the slightest glimmer of hope and turn my days of feeling worthless around.

I think one of the hardest lessons of being a Peace Corps Volunteer is recognizing the face of success and changing the concept of failure. We cannot measure our success in numbers, and a job well done may look like a joke to our former selves. Our expectations have to completely change. And sometimes we don’t know what those expectations should be, whether we should get back up on the horse or realize that horse isn’t going anywhere.

Right now I’m all about the small wins and the silver lining. If I don’t see the positive in everyday things I’ll never make it out alive, in life or in the Peace Corps. 

Got this in an email from our Project Specialist. Seemed timely!