The Northern Coast

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

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


 machismo |məˈ ch ēzmō; -ˈkēz-|
strong or aggressive masculine pride

syn: masculinity, toughness, male chauvinism, sexism, virility, manliness; bravado

The whole point of this blog is to describe to those back home to the best of my ability my Peace Corps experience and my time in Peru. And I realized as I thought about writing this blog that I’m about to talk about a couple things I haven’t really brought up in the blog realm. Part of it may be because I have become so used to things as they are here that I sometimes forget to relay them to people back home. Also, part of it may be the fact that I know these aspects might not sit well with people. I want everyone to get an idea of what it’s like to be here and I don’t want that idea to be negative. But, in order to give everyone a better idea of the reality of living here, I'm going to have to write about it all-- the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

To start, I have recently become a fan of Mad Men. I never watched it back in the U.S., and thanks to movie and show exchanges with other volunteers, I now have access to four seasons. I really like the show, but it always leaves me sad and slightly depressed, mostly because I know the treatment of women is by no means an exaggeration. Alas, I can’t stop watching it—I’m sucked in.

One of the first episodes of the first season follows a new secretary, Peggy, who is considered somewhat homely by other people in the office, yet she still receives a lot of attention from the men, as there are bets gathered on who will be able to sleep with her first. There is a scene when she finally gets fed up with it and comments to her superior, Joan, about how the men treat her like fresh meat. Joan tells her to “enjoy it while it lasts,” implying she will never get attention like that again with her appearance and status. This is followed by a montage of men walking by Peggy’s desk, looking her up and down, winking, leering, and in general being pretty creepy.

I shivered when that part played, as I thought, “That! That is what it’s like! Those are the looks!” Because, well, I get those looks everyday. Everywhere. All the time.

I walk out my front door and am greeted by a whistle or a loud kissing sound. I walk down the main road (which is the Pan-American highway) and passing semis will slow down so that the drivers and passengers can hang their heads out the window and say lewd things. A group of men sitting in the shade on a street corner will stop all conversation to stare at me as I walk by, looking like they want to eat me for lunch. I enter the gates of the high school and give the obligatory cheek-kiss as I greet all of the teachers, and some of the men hold my hand a little too long, making comments on how beautiful my eyes and my skin are. A classroom full of 15-year-old boys will fail to even attempt to look as if they’re paying attention to me and not undressing me with their eyes. I walk out of the room and am followed by howls, whistles, kisses…

At first I would get so pissed off at all of this, I could not hide my anger and disgust. I cornered teenage boys to tell them they were being disrespectful. I flipped off truck drivers. I would practically snap my neck as I turned to give anyone the look of death who waited until after I passed to grace me with a piropo (catcall). But, it didn’t do anything. How could it, when I might as well have yelled at them for eating rice everyday? I still get angry. I still feel disgust. But, I do it more quietly. I mutter under my breath my hatred. I say things in English to myself I know could not be understood even by basic English speakers. I can't even express how much this grates at me, and I know it is something many female volunteers go through. A fellow volunteer in my department punched a truck in her anger at a group of men who obviously pushed her over the edge with their machismo.

In my first months in site I asked the women in my host family, “Does this not bother you?” and they simply responded with, “They don’t mean anything by it.” My host dad even interjected to say, "Women like it." I told them that if I were treated this way in the U.S. it would not be ignored; that I practically had permission to slap them across the face. A lot of people laugh when I say that. I’m being serious. They were shocked that such a big deal would be made of something so small.

Is it small? Is it a small thing that 14 year old girls can’t walk anywhere without getting disgusting comments made about them by men twice or three times their age (who, by the way, have no qualms with how young they are)? Is it a small thing that an entire classroom of adolescent boys is practically egged on to objectify me as a woman by their male teacher as I walk in the room?

And catcalls, piropos, that is just part of it. Inequality in the workforce, girls spending their free time doing household chores while their brothers go play soccer, teen pregnancies as young as 12 with zero responsibility put on the boy, domestic abuse… it permeates everything.

It’s the small things that add up to be big things. And right now, being a woman in Peru—a gringa woman nonetheless— is no small thing. One after another these things build and build and build, and I tell myself how lucky I am as a U. S. citizen to come from a place where this is not my everyday reality. But the reality is the U.S. has a long way to go as well. I sit in this country in awe of the injustice, and then I read the news on my own country and am dumbfounded by the regress that is happening; by the blatant machismo that is being exercised in our government and the decisions being made for women by men.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer I am supposed to be apolitical and not express any of my political standings, (even though I do not see this as political, it is simply basic women rights) so I won’t go into all of the insane bills being proposed and passed in the U.S. right now. I guess more than anything I just want to express the weight of all of this. The feeling of having nowhere to turn. Even the motherland is against me.

I am glad I am able to work with youth, because I truly feel like I am given an opportunity to work for a better future. There are a lot of things I could never change about how a culture shapes a person, but there are ideas I can plant. And as maddening as it is that the best I can do is plant an idea, I at least have the opportunity to do that.

Maybe in 20 years I can visit Peru and not be sexually harassed as I walk down the street or into a school. And maybe I’m being too optimistic with that. But if things still are the way they are, I hope the girls who will be adults by then will feel unsettled and have something to say about it.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Camp VALOR 2012

To all of my family, friends, and faithful readers;

Many people ask me how they can help with the projects I'm working on down here in Peru, and in reality there are few opportunities in which people from home can directly fund or contribute to a project.

So, I am taking this rare moment to ask you to get involved and help fund our boys leadership camp, Camp VALOR. 

You might recall when I spoke of our girls camp, Camp ALMA, which we held this February. It was the highlight of my summer, as we took on tough, taboo topics and worked with girls from our region in integral health. My girls still talk about that camp, and they are major players in some of my biggest projects in my community.

Now we are holding a camp specifically for boys in which we hope to instill the same sense of empowerment and motivation in 50 rockstar boys from different communities.

Even a small donation of $5 would help. All funds go directly to our project, and donations are tax-deductible. 
in Lambayeque, Peru

It would be best to click on the link to learn more about the camp, but here is an excerpt from the page that describes more in-depth our plans:

"Over the course of the three days, camp participants increase their knowledge in areas such as natural resource management, sustainable and organic farming techniques, reforestation, bio-construction, small animal husbandry, and many others. In addition, they are given the leadership, self-esteem, teamwork, and small project design skills to be able to replicate many of these green projects in their own communities. Finally, participants will gain knowledge and skills related to sexual health, condom use, choosing an ideal partner, and gender equality."

Thank you all for reading my blog and your continued support. Peace!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

How far a year can bring you

I have been keeping a personal journal since the young age of 8-years-old. Back home I have a small shelf of journals dedicated to my preteens, middle school years, and high school, and in a box somewhere are the "college editions". This ritual, which I have kept alive for myself for almost two decades, has served so many purposes for my personal growth that I know even with growing technology, blogs, and everything becoming electronic, I will continue to write--pen to paper-- in a journal until I physically cannot anymore.

My cat, Shmoo, sitting on my journal in my room in the U.S. and wishing she had opposable thumbs and the ability to read  so as to uncover my deep dark secrets
Journaling helps me work out feelings, ideas, as well as take a topic and beat it into the ground (as I know those around me at some point would love that I just shut up about it already). It is my story board, personal therapy, and medium to express myself.

Sometimes, depending on where I am in life, I like to look back in my journals and see where I was on or around that particular date (I may be an avid journaler, but I cannot attest to writing every day, or even every week). This month, being one with a mixture of feelings with starting projects in my community, missing home, and realizing I am approaching the year mark in Peru, I decided to look back to see where I was as I readied myself to embark on this two-year journey. And, seeing as how I am not one to keep many secrets, I see no problem in sharing with all of you.

April 16, 2011  1:45 p.m.    On break while working at Interzone (coffee shop I worked at)

Over-caffeinated, shaking. Wobbly table, wild hair, jumpy stomach. Ordered food. I have no idea if I can eat it.

Peru. F%$*ing PERU! Can you imagine? I kind of can. Not really. I can't feel the fall air which will greet me. I can't feel the stiff bed, the awkward silence between host family and myself. I can only imagine a slew of odd feelings which will be replaced by the true experience in which I will be in awe and unknowing of how to gracefully handle.
What will I do with the stares, the cat calls, the bizarre comments? What will I do with the comments I don't understand? Will my clothes feel different? My skin? What will become of me?

Same day, 7:06 p.m.      Off work and still at Interzone

It's funny what grief will do to you. The methods of defense our body and mind come up with to deal with something beyond our grasp.

Not that leaving for the Peace Corps is something to grieve over, but knowing that I will be gone--the sense of unstoppable "disconnect" I will soon be experiencing is like grieving over a lost loved one.

At first shock, then denial, and for awhile now I've been angry, or exercising my frustrations based out of fear on those undeserving around me. I've felt depressed, lonely, this feeling that soon I will be very, very alone. ... Eventually I'll accept it, feel hope for my time away.

It is so incredibly overwhelming right now. How can I even describe the sheer panic and exhausting "readiness" I am trying to obtain but am blindly grasping for?

My relationships are suffering. My boyfriend and I are both trying to prepare ourselves for the loss and separation that is quickly approaching, but we can't do enough. Not while we have regular lives to lead. We are desperately hold on while distracting ourselves from the very thing we fear.

It is so exhausting, mind numbing, and sickening to go through. Like planning a break-up without wanting to, or without the guts to go through with it.

It just hurts. I mean, it physically hurts.

And they say coming home is the hardest part.

What mind-f%&$ roller coaster am I standing in line for?

My stomach has taken residence in my lower bowels, and my heart in my throat.

When will I no longer feel gripped with fatigue and nausea over the loss I will soon experience? The death of an era is steadily approaching.

But, the birth of a new one grows. And I suppose that is the "light at the end of the tunnel," the saving grace from the insanity. Life will spring anew, and my life will blossom under a new sun, a new day.


Now, a year later in 2012, I think I am still too close to this experience to not be affected by these words when I read them, because those feelings were really strong. Leaving for Peace Corps was not easy. Arriving in Peru and starting intense training with a bunch of strangers was not easy. Continuing to be here and working within my community with roadblocks of poverty, machismo, and cultural differences is not easy.

But the part of all of this that was the hardest was the fear of the unknown. It was waiting for the blade to drop as I stepped on that plane and left my old life behind. I'm glad that I knew beyond all of these feelings there were opportunities for good things to come. That with the end of every era opens a new one.

While I often use my journals to look back, it is not so that I can be stuck in the past. I use these moments to realize how far I've come and as tools to help me to continue to move forward.

Peace Corps has been hard, from the moment I started applying to now. But, I wouldn't trade a minute of it. It was a grieving process to leave everyone and everything behind, but I know I will come back to them when this is all over and grieve over my part of Peru I'm leaving behind. And in looking back to how far I've come in a year, and how fast that time has gone by, I know the next year will come and go just as rapidly with just as many ups and downs (I was right about the mind-f$%# roller coaster!)

In the meantime, I'm glad I pushed through that fear and sadness so that I could come to this point in my life. My strength in the past is what brought me to the new challenges which make me even stronger.  I'm keeping my chin up, keeping the writing up, and looking forward to a time when all of these moments compile a story of the woman I'll become. And of course keeping in mind that it's not about the end of the journey, but the journey itself.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Ten Commandments of being a Peace Corps Volunteer

I often enjoy listening to podcasts while I'm doing busy work, like making posters for my charlas, laundry, or cleaning my room.

I recently listened to This American Life's show on The Ten Commandments, which also featured The Ten Commandments of just about everything under the sun, like the Ten Commandments of Tractor Safety, The Ten Commandments of Paris Dining, etc. (In case you need a brush up on the real Ten Commandments <---- check out this link.)

So it made me wonder, has anyone made a Ten Commandments list for Peace Corps Volunteers? I mean, we have our Ten Core Expectations, of course, but I was thinking something volunteer-made.

I looked it up and found one hit for a blog from a volunteer named Quilen, back in 2008. (You can check out the blog here) And well, to be honest, I wasn't too impressed. They seem to be written as motivation for success for other volunteers, but The Ten Commandments he wrote could have been summed up in two-- 1) "buck up," and 2) "there's no one to blame but yourself."

So, it is with great condemning pleasure I present to you my very own,

Heston's saying, "Do I really have to follow #7?"
Ten Commandments of being a Peace Corps Volunteer

#1--Peace Corps is thy employer and brought thee out of the U.S.A. into the land of thy host country, and therefore is thy one and only true employer. Thou shall go where Peace Corps asks thee to go, and live as those in thy host country live.

#2--Thou shall not try to convert thy host-country concerning political or religious affiliations, for Peace Corps does not prescribe to any and does not discriminate nor support one or the other.

#3--Thou shall not sully the name of Peace Corps, nor make ill-use of it in thy blog. Peace Corps will not hold guiltless he who ruins its reputation. 

#4--Remember the personal day, and keep it holy. Thou lives where thou workest, and therefore are constantly working. Take a day exclusively for thyself. Thou shall not do charlas, tutor in English, nor write assignment plans. It is a day for thee, and no one can take that away; nor thy host-family, thy socios, thy neighbor, nor the doe-eyed children.

#5--Call thy mother and thy father, and let them know thou art alive. 

#6--Thou shall not kill all thy free time by sitting in thy room. Thou must integrate into thy community.

#7--Thou should not commit adultery nor date within site. If thou wants to get down, thou must get out of town.

#8-- Thou shall not steal-away from site without permission.

#9-- Thou shall not bear false witness on thy fellow volunteer, nor tattletale, nor post incriminating photos on thy facebook.

#10--Thou shall not covet thy fellow volunteer's Peace Corps experience; thy fellow's house, thy fellow's host family, thy fellow's socio, thy fellow's projects, thy fellow's site. Everyone's experience is different, and thou shall not judge thyself and thy experience to others!


I am writing this blog from the inside of my mosquito net—yep, it’s up. After an entire summer of not putting it up and toughing out the nights of laying half-naked on top of my bed with mosquito spray on, I have reached my limit. The mosquitoes have gotten so bad I can’t even sit at my desk without getting mauled. I am pretty sure I am going to have permanent scars from scratching my bites raw.


The serpost (post office) had been on strike for sometime during March, and the first week of April I was off traipsing in Ancash for Semana Santa (Holy Week, AKA, free vacation days for volunteers!) so I hadn’t been able to check mail for quite some time. So, you can imagine my surprise when I went to check and I had four packages and three hand-written letters!

I don’t think I can express how much receiving mail, let alone care packages full of goodies, means to me. I feel spoiled, indebted, loved, homesick, strengthened, heartbroken, and refortified all at once. The moments after I’ve signed for my mail and stand in the serpost looking through the notes and items from home give me a high and humble me.

Sometimes when I’m sitting at my computer at home and I am looking at Facebook and seeing everything everyone is doing, I think the most self-centered thoughts of, “They’re all moving on without me!” The internet both connects me and makes me feel even more disconnected. I once sat on Facebook in a hostal with my fellow volunteers and I said, “You know you’ve been in Peru for awhile when you no longer relate to anyone’s status updates on Facebook.” My reality has become so different. This tool of communication is so deceiving. My friends are all there in a row with pictures of their beautiful faces, and yet they are so far away and out of reach. Anyways, I won’t go into the merits and demerits of social networking, but the point being, regardless of what I know in my heart, there are times when I still feel far away and forgotten.

And then I receive mail and I get the reality check that, “Yeah, their lives are moving on, but they haven’t forgotten me.” People are using a system that isn’t free and is practically obsolete just to let me know they care.

Thank you, my lovely friends and family, for the love and consideration you put into all of these acts of kindness!

And now, for a side story on my trip to the serpost:

After I had finished opening all of my packages and letters of glory and was busily writing postcards on one of the tables in serpost, a young girl walked in selling caramelos. This is a common job for children and teenagers (and sometimes adults), as they often walk along the streets and come into restaurants begging patrons to buy a caramelo (candy). And I mean begging, or, “The Peruvian Whine.” 

The girl set herself in front of me and begged in that irritating tone for me to buy some of her candy. I politely declined. She begged some more, not budging. I declined. More begging. More declining. Finally, the girl saw I wasn’t about to buy anything from her, but had taken note of some of my packages that were still sitting on the table. She motioned to some protein powder my mom sent and begged, “Regaaaaaalameeeee” (Give it to me). 

“No,” I said.
“Porfi, regaaaaaaaaaaalameee…” she begged again.
“What are you going to do with this? Do you even know what it is?” I asked.
“Regaaaaaaaaaalameeeeee…” she continued, ignoring my question.
“Do you know me?” I asked.
“No,” she responded.
“So what makes you think you can just ask me to give you my stuff? What makes you think you should just be given something for nothing?” I asked.

I know I should probably have a better way of dealing with all of this, as I am a youth volunteer and I work with child workers in my site every week. But dealing with a child worker in the city, who has no reference to who I am and only cares about getting something from me, is a different case entirely. My questioning of the girl’s personal values was unhelpful, as for her the answer to why I should give her something is obvious: I am white, therefore rich, therefore able to give and give without thought.

The girl wasn’t moving. She wouldn’t stop whining. So I opened up a bag of candy Justin’s aunt Carrie had sent and handed her a single chocolate egg.

“There, now go away,” I said, and she finally ran off.

After sending off my postcards I walked to the main plaza in a daze. My mind was in a billion places at once, thinking of all the people who had sent me letters and packages, thinking of my favorite places back home, and reflecting on my time in Peace Corps.

I sat down on a cement wall in the plaza and looked once again through all of my letters. In the midst of rereading a letter I received a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize and when I answered discovered it was one of the directoras of a national youth program I work with in my site. Even though my Spanish has taken leaps and bounds that I am very proud of, phone conversations are still the ultimate test of comprehension. The directora on the other end of the line was explaining to me who she was and why she was calling, as a woman approached me and started begging for money. I waved her off and asked the directora to repeat herself. The woman now stepped in closer, being no more than 6 inches away from me, employing the most obnoxious Peruvian whine. I put my hand over my free ear and continued ignoring the woman. She then hit me with a plastic bottle on the arm.

She didn’t hit me hard, but I was shocked. In fact, I was borderline pissed. This woman felt so entitled to my money she found it okay to hit me in order to demand my attention; as if I had just absentmindedly forgotten she was there. By this point I covered the mouthpiece of my phone and told the lady to scram, giving her my best dagger eyes (which worked only momentarily--she returned two more times).
This is one of those situations in which I clash head-on with Peruvian culture. There are so many things about this situation that don’t just grate on my nerves, but my personal values.

It is one of those moments where I can’t help but think, “back home this would never happen,” or “how is this okay?”

The things that are asked of me on a daily basis are more than I’ve ever been asked of in my life. People constantly coming up to me, wanting “apoyo” (support, usually financially) telling me all of the things they need, all of the things they want me to fix, want me to fund, want me to teach…

And we're not even talking about people begging on the street for money, these are just the people in my town who want change, but they want me to be the one to bring it.

I have to say, “No,” all the time.

It’s a situation created by poverty and other dynamics that I may never fully understand, but it’s the reality of where I am. I can’t control how people act or how people perceive me-- as the white tourist just passing through with my vacation money, or as a middle man of a rich organization ready to fund projects—and that is something I’m going to have to get used to. By taking on this job I have taken on an image. I have stepped into a role I was unaware I would be expected to play.

But I’ll tell you, 10 months in this country and I’m still not used to it. Not sure I ever will be. I’ve gone my whole life blending into the crowd, and I have now simultaneously become a circus freak, a super model, a teacher, a psychologist, a professional, and a wealthy tourist.  No matter how much I integrate into my site I will never go unnoticed. No matter how many trips I make to my capital city I will still be seen as a tourist. I will never be able to sit in the plaza in peace; I will never be able to just blend into the crowd.

And I suppose that is all part of this wild ride; sticking out of the crowd for once, having stories like these to tell on any given day, and most importantly, being asked to become something you’ve never been before.

Monday, April 9, 2012

If you're having a rough day...

Look at this link.

13 Simple Steps To Get You Through a Rough Day

Aside from the awesome post I put up mere hours ago, today has been one of those "I-know-it's-hard-but-you-must-leave-the-house-and-do-something-regardless-of-how-much-you-want-to-stay-in-your-room-and-ignore-the-existence-of-the-world" kind of days.

And then I remembered my fellow 17'er Kim had posted the above link onto our group page, so I checked it out and I cried in silent laughter.

The Marshmallow Challenge in Perú

In the beginning of March I attended an in-service training with some of my fellow 17ers where half the time we discussed project management and the other half ideas for youth groups back in site.

Evan, our PCVC, made us do this extremely cheesy and seemingly simple game called The Marshmallow Challenge. Little did we know....

Then I came back to my site and did the same activity with my NATS youth group, and the results were extremely interesting.

So, I wrote the people at Autodesk (who have turned the Marshmallow Challenge into a workshop feature with Fortune 500 companies and a Ted Talk) and they wrote back. Now my NATS are featured on this blog! Check it out!

"Peruvian Children Smoke Marshmallow Challenge in Six Minutes"