The Northern Coast

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

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Losses, gains, and rediscovering community.

Every time I was away from my Peruvian town, whether I was on a weekend trip to my regional capital or a vacation, there always came a point where I felt a sudden nagging:

It's time to get back to site.

And at two months since I've been back in the USA, the inner guilty feeling of, "It's time to get home and get back to work," has been going off the charts. Only I'm not going back to work in my small town in Peru. I have no projects that need tending or socios that need rousing, and my host family isn't expecting me home for dinner. I'm not a Peace Corps Volunteer anymore, and haven't been for awhile. This changes the feeling of nagging guilt to a feeling of loss. A loss of community, a loss of friendship and family, and mostly a loss of identity.

So where am I at all this time after being home? Am I readjusted? Well, yes and no. The US is no longer the strange home I had been missing with sudden glaring characteristics I hadn't noticed before, but certain aspects of it have yet to seem "normal." I no longer eat like I'm on a weekend binge in my regional capital, scarfing down everything I missed for two years, but certain food items like cheese and salad never fail to make me feel blessed. Grocery stores no longer bring me to tears with the overwhelming variety and excess, but I still only buy the same few items every time I go as my stomach can't handle the richness of anything else.

People don't really ask about Peru anymore but instead ask, "So, what're doing now?" Even when I call my host family to check up on them they ask, "Did you get a new job yet?" I try my hardest not to start every sentence with, "When I was in Peru..." And so I try to talk about things like the jobs I'm applying for to reassure everyone that I am, indeed, moving on.

And life here makes sure of that. Everything and everyone is on such a strict timeline that they actually follow (imagine that). Everything is so expensive, I watch my readjustment fund I received after completing service slowly trickle away, like an hourglass telling me, "Time is almost up, you need a job."

While day-to-day isn't the constant roller coaster Peace Corps life is famous for, it has hardly been an easy unicorn ride over the rainbow. Within a two week time period both my grandfather and a friend passed away. I have had a lot of blessings and things to be grateful for, but also there has been a lot of loss and grieving. Readjusting in the midst of tragedy is a hard thing to do, and finding some sort of "normalcy" seems like a joke.

But I haven't been suffering these losses alone. A bittersweet part of losing a loved one and grieving is the feeling of community that comes with it. It brings people together to mourn and remember. My family will be reuniting to honor and celebrate my grandfather's life. People from all over are coming together to mourn the loss of a shared friend in my town. And I should add, I'm glad I am home for this. I of course wish these losses never happened, but I would rather be home than in a different country unable to connect and mourn with those around me.

While I have "lost" my place and sense of identity as a Peace Corps Peru Volunteer, I am once again, like my whole service, not alone in my feelings. I have a community of RPCV friends who finished their service as well and are readjusting to American life. Maybe they're on the other side of the country, but they are going through many of the same feelings. And while I am missing my Peruvian community I have come home to my family and friends that were waiting with open arms the whole time. Maybe it was a strange re-entry, maybe I felt out of place and awkward, but they saved a place for me all along.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Parking lots, gaining weight, and speaking English--or Reuniting with 'Mericuh

During the entirety of my Peace Corps service I never went home to visit-- no Christmas vacations, no weddings, no family emergencies (thankfully), no visits whatsoever-- so the first time I was reunited with my family and homeland was the day after my close of service.

I had been warned sufficiently that while culture shock and adapting to Peru would be difficult, going home and reverse culture shock would be much worse. I already had a small taste of this on the returns from my study abroad to Costa Rica and Spain, but I didn't know what to imagine after over two years of being separated from my home and US culture.

Most people have been pretty understanding that going from living in a third-world country back to the US wasn't going to be easy, and is probably pretty weird. However there are just as many people who don't really seem to understand why. After all, I grew up in the US, people here speak my first language, what's to get used to? What's the adjustment?

Well, I'm going to tell you.

Speaking English all the time is weird
Maybe it was the fact that I'd just left Peru and said goodbye to my Peace Corps experience and was on an overnight flight with my seat at a 90º angle, but I cried in the Houston airport, mostly because I didn't know what language to speak.

In the past two years I only spoke English with other volunteers and on the phone with people back home. Otherwise day-in and day-out I spoke Spanish. So it's safe to say 99% of my interactions with strangers over the last two years have been in Spanish, and suddenly I was faced with customs and they were asking me questions in English and my brain was having a really hard time just remembering common courtesies and things to say to strangers in English. It didn't matter that English is my first language, my brain was prepared with responses in Spanish and the switch wasn't easy. And then to hear English all over the place, well that was just too much! My ears have been trained to perk up when I hear my mother tongue, so suddenly my head was going into overdrive as everyone spoke it.

Customer service people are way too friendly.
There is nothing like customer service in the US. Seriously, nothing. There were definitely times in Peru when the waitress was practically glaring at us from across the room while we waited to be served, or I stood outside a bodega banging a coin on the metal bar of the front window yelling, "¡SEÑO!" over and over again for 5 minutes waiting for someone to come out and let me buy something.

So when a waitress doesn't just want to take my order but makes inquiries about what I've been up to all day, or the barista at Starbucks asks my mom and I if we're having a "mother-daughter day," my first reaction is, "What's it to you?" I used to work in customer service so I should be a little more understanding, but it's been surprising. I'm also pretty sure every waitress has been hitting on my boyfriend in front of me, but I could be wrong.

There are a lot of parking lots and paved things.
Need I say more? I can't get over how there are so many parking lots. Within the first 24 hours of being home I grew a disdain for them that I never felt before. Not to mention how weird it is that everything is paved. The town I lived in had one paved road and it was the main highway that ran through it.

There are way too many choices and products in grocery stores
I've heard a lot of stories of people coming home from third-world countries and stepping into grocery stores only to cry at the large variety, because going from having one choice of cereal to 50 can be extremely overwhelming.

I thought this wouldn't happen to me because in the cities in Peru they have big grocery stores like in the US, the only difference being products and expensive imported food from the US (like M&M's). At least a couple times a month I would visit them and splurge on something simple like a bag of picante mixed nuts or a Snickers bar.

So my first time in an Albertson's as I went to gather some food for a BBQ I surprised even myself as I crumbled into tears after wandering the aisles for 10 minutes and ending up with only one thing in my hand. I couldn't find any of the food I used to buy in Peru, and 50% of the food in the store was a processed product I'd never heard of. All I wanted was to find one pepper I used to eat everyday in Peru and when I realized I wouldn't find it, but there were a ton of products I could never think of a use for in bright and shiny packages, it made me pretty sad.

American food is both delicious and dangerous
I think I've gained 10lbs in the last week and a half. And I wish I was kidding. Yes, the US is filled with food I've never heard of and don't know if I'll ever eat, but it is also filled with yummy food I've missed so much. And I have gorged myself on it. And I've gotten really sick. My body has gone into shock over the richness of the food here. Everyday in Peru I ate rice two meals a day accompanied by a pretty bland piece of meat and legume or bean. But over time that blandness started to taste pretty good and full of flavor. And then I came home and ate food here and it was like an explosion in my mouth---and my stomach.

I miss my host mom's cooking, or mostly that I didn't have to cook
In Peru I didn't make my meals, I ate all of them with my host family, and I didn't have a say on what we ate. There were a few times I made food for the whole family, but my host mom and host sister made all the meals, and my only job was to be at the table on time to eat what had been prepared. Being an adult who had made my own food for several years it was a hard adjustment to lose control over what and when I ate. And then it just became life.

Now every meal is up to me. I have to decide what to eat, I have to go to a huge store to buy the food, and I have to prepare it. That was fun for about four days. So much more goes into preparing a meal here! Food is so expensive! In my site there was a small market and a few bodegas and my host family bought all of the basic un-cooked ingredients, like dry beans and a bag of rice. If you wanted meat you went to the carniceria and said "half a chicken" and they literally chopped a chicken in half for you right there, or "beef loin" (if they had beef that day) and they cut the loin off a huge leg hanging from a meat hook. Plus there was just more time to make all of the food from scratch.

Now I'm trying to balance fresh produce with processed products and the ethical production of that food and I'm looking at these plastic wrapped boneless chicken parts and I'm wondering, "where did this chicken come from?"

I feel like I entered an alternate dimension
There's this weird paradox about "home" when you're gone for a long time-- it both stays the same and changes. The things that stay the same make you feel like you've never left, and the things that have changed remind you that life has definitely gone on in your absence. Now I just I feel like I've somehow taken this weird quantum leap into an alternate dimension. Or that I'm dreaming. Either way, it's strange, and I'm not quite sure where I fit into this alternate universe yet.

I feel like I'm on vacation
I haven't quite shaken the feeling yet that this is temporary and that I'm going back to Peru soon.

I say "yes" when I mean "no"
In Peru it's rude to say "no," so even when you have no intention of working on a project with someone or meeting up with them, you say "yes." I was really frustrated about this in Peru, but I started adopting it, too. If someone invited me to a party I said, "yeah, I'll be there!" and then never showed up. And that was okay. That is not okay in the US. That is flaky. My boyfriend has had to remind me multiple times to be straight forward with people about my plans because, guess what? People don't get offended here if you already have something going on that day, but they will get offended if you blow them off.

Small children don't run to me for hugs and tell me how pretty I am
Surprisingly much more depressing than I thought it would be. There are some quirks to sticking out and getting a lot of attention, and that is small children want to hug you and are nice to you. If I were to hug someone's child here I'd probably get arrested.

Other random things:

  • People don't greet with a kiss here. Whoops.
  • Pulling your debit card out of your bra gets you weird looks.
  • People are very active, always riding bikes and running somewhere. Makes me feel lazy.
  • Everything is so nice and feels like a resort, which exacerbates my "vacation" feeling. 
  • My mouth is torn apart from eating chips and cold cereal (which I rarely ate in Peru).
  • I avoid men on the street/prepare myself for harassment from men in public.
  • I still have a hard time not throwing my toilet paper in the trash.
  • It's so quiet here. I have to stop myself from filling the silence with loud music. 
  • Life is so much more predictable here, yet people get upset when things don't go as they expect.
  • Everything smells so good. Idaho smells good. Oregon smells good. Trees smell good. I love it.

So yeah. The US of A is my country, my homeland, and I've spent 88.9% of my life here. That doesn't mean it's easy to slip right back into things. Even if things stayed exactly the same while I was gone, I've changed, and those changes in me are going to cause friction with the way life was before I left. 

It's kind of fun though. Seeing your own country and home through new eyes helps create change that maybe was needed all along. I don't have to slip back into the old me, and at the same time I don't have to completely change everything. I get to find something in between and that's an adventure in itself. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

Goodbye sucks, and other revelations

Two plus years of service crammed into two bags plus a backpack

I can't believe it, but this blog post is being written in the USA as I am now officially a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. I finished my service in Peru on July 24th, I'm home visiting family and friends, and I've been back on US soil for a week. And it's weird. I really wanted to post one last time in Peru before I left because I anticipated there would be a storm of new emotions and things going on the second I left that would be stories of their own, but this will have to do. It's just too much for one post to talk about the end of one life and the beginning of a new one.

My last week in site was overwhelming and filled with parties and teary goodbyes, and I didn't even get to say goodbye to everyone I wanted to. It's so hard to just get up and leave from two-years of relationships and experiences, so of course it didn't go exactly as I wanted, but I left with my heart overfilled. I had a series of farewell parties thrown for me ranging from the high school, to a friend's host family in a neighboring town, to the municipality. The last week in my site was one big party filled with kind words, occasionally booze, and tears. Lots and lots of tears. (Pictures below--yes, even of the tears).

Of course some people were harder to say goodbye to than others. My host family, my really good counterparts who became my friends, my volunteer friends, and the kids from my health promoters youth group. Saying goodbye to 14 and 15 year-olds is hard because you just don't know what's going to be next for them. I can't be there for the graduation of my oldest students, I can't be with the other students as they get older and move closer to their graduation. Are they going to stay out of trouble? Are they going to finish high school? What are they going to do after high school? What is going to happen to them? I invested a lot of time and energy into relationships with these kids who are still very much in the development stage of figuring themselves out and anything could tip them in a different direction. The adult friends I made will probably have very few differences between now and the next time I see them, but the kids could become completely different people. 

This if course spun me off into thinking of all the things I could've done better during my service. No matter what you have done, there is always a way to do it better. My last week of service was filled with a lot of strong feelings and emotions, but battling off the feeling of regret was something I dealt with constantly. Did I do everything I could have? Did I try hard enough? 

Could I have ever done enough?

Like I said, it was (and still is) a battle, but I know I did what I could with what I had and what's done is done. Also, it helped to have people in my community tell me a lot of nice things I never expected to hear. A friend of mine who finished service before me said in the end of your service a bunch of people come out of the woodwork and you find out how people have felt about you and your work that you didn't know before. I've said it before, but being a volunteer is a pretty thankless job and you almost never get any sort of accolades. However in my last week of service I received more than I ever expected. Teachers whom I barely worked with told me with ernest how much of an impact I had on the students. Mother's from my escuela de padres told me how important my work was and how lucky their kids were to have me working in the school. People showered me with presents and kind words and it kept going on like that as people learned I was leaving.

But more than the kind words and presents I received as I was parting, the relationships I created in my last two years are a testament to what my time spent in Peru has meant. The people in my site and my host family will always be in my heart, and I think I'll be the same for them. Of course saying goodbye to my host family was extremely difficult. My host mom gets pretty emotional pretty easy (she always calls herself "llorona") so a lot of tears were shed there. My host dad stayed stoic to the end only demonstrating his emotional strife through excessive household projects that he worked on constantly up until the minute I left the house. He did leave me with various parting words, all of which came back to the same theme: I'm part of the family, and I am always welcomed (and expected) back at the house in the future. 

Saying goodbye sucks. And being separated from a life and friendships that you built from basically nothing over a two-year span in a foreign country is jarring and sad. Preparing yourself to leave and return home where people may not understand all of that is also hard.

All of this sadness in leaving just goes to show how much of a positive experience I've had in Peace Corps, and I really do think it goes both ways. One day I was sitting with my good friend Lupe, the obstetrician who worked with me in my health promoters youth group, and she was talking about how sad it was that I was leaving (Peruvians really like to drag out the "How sad that you're leaving. Oh how terribly sad, you're leaving a hole in our hearts, etc etc"). I was just nodding and agreeing and trying not to bawl my eyes out, and then she said something that I didn't expect but really stuck. She said, "Everyone is going to miss you so much. Did you know that everyone really likes you? I don't know a single person that can say anything bad about you. Before you came everyone thought [US] americans were rude, cold, disinterested people. But now that everyone has met you they can see that isn't true."

I know it isn't much, but that is Peace Corps Goal #2! "Helping promote a better understanding of Americans." Somehow knowing that helped me battle back some of the regret. I told Lupe how that is one of Peace Corps' goals, and now I'm heading home to work on goal #3, to promote understanding of Peru to my fellow Americans. 

On paper that is Peace Corps; three simple goals, two years, one country. But it's all the stuff in between that makes a Peace Corps service, and it's different for every single person who has done it over the last 52 years. Do I think I'll ever be able to do it justice in writing? Will I ever be able to give a "five-minute elevator speech" that truly conveys what my service was about?

Simply put, no. But maybe I'm not supposed to. Nothing will change what my time in Peru has meant for me, and I can only do so much to explain things to others who have never been there. But if I can get my small Peruvian town to think US Americans aren't a bunch of jerks, then maybe I can get the US Americans I know to understand a little about Peru and it's people and what my life was like there. The beauty of it is while I closed the chapter of my life when I was a PCV, I will forever be an RPCV, so I have time. 

The multiple despedidas thrown for me and the kind words said about me were more than I ever expected, and too varied to go into detail. Here are some pictures from a few of them.

My despedida at the high school. I'm sitting at the head table with one of my main counterparts and the director of the school. 

The students arranged some different performances for me. 
The back chalkboard was decorated and signed by all the teachers
Some of my favorite students dancing 
Dancing with my best teacher friends
Williams performed some songs
Another typical dance. It rounded out my experience at the school very well.

Lunch with my site mate Zack's host family plus friends (Kike and Sue!)

My health promoters youth group, Pasos Adelante, meeting one last time

One of the gifts made for me (by Gerardo)

A formal farewell at the town municipality
My host mom gave a very nice speech about me
Receiving ridiculously nice gifts I didn't expect
A plaque thanking me for my service in Mocupe 
Giving my teary farewell speech
Last dinner in site-- arroz con pato (duck and rice)-- my favorite!
My host family checking out my going away present for them-- a photo album with photos from the last two years
The host family at my host grandma's house. L-R- Host mom, host grandma, host uncle, host cousin, me, host dad, host brother, host sister
My host family! Our only photo of all of us together

Sunday, July 14, 2013

My Peace Corps Family-- an ode to my fellow volunteers

When it's time to say goodbye, you have to do it right. And in Peru that means having despedidas, or, going away parties. Obviously in the States this is something we do as well, but in Peru it's pretty much a requirement. I have something like six despedidas planned for my last week in site, including the day I have to get on a night bus to head to Lima. I will literally be partying until my last hours. Last night I had my first despedida, and that was with all of the Lambayeque volunteers for those in group 17.

In case I haven't made this completely clear, Lambayeque is the department I live in and there are something around 30 volunteers here (over 200 volunteers in all of Peru including all of the departments). My training group, 17, is the group I arrived to Peru with which is comprised of small business and youth volunteers, and there were five of us from group 17 that moved to Lambayeque. In Lambayeque we also have volunteers from other programs, like environment and community health.

Site assignment day in training, we found out we'd be new Lambayeque volunteers August 2011
Lambayeque 17ers at COS May 2013
I don't think I've ever taken the proper amount of time to explain just how important the other volunteers have been in my service. I mean, these people are my people. I think that no matter what, no matter where I am in the world, when I meet another RPCV (returned peace corps volunteer) I will have an automatic connection to that person. Doubly if they were in Latin America. Triply if they were in Peru. My fellow 17ers, well, they're like the equivalent of my graduating high school class; a lot of really close friends, some acquaintances, some people I don't really know but in the end I'm still going to care about where they end up in life. And my Lambayequanos? The Lambaysexy crew? These people are my family.

Before I joined Peace Corps I was pretty sure that I would be making lifelong friends in Peace Corps. In fact, I counted on it. And when I first met my training group I was like, "Okay...these people will be my best friends eventually...right?" You know, it's really weird to meet a bunch of strangers from all over the US and to suddenly be stuck with them for 9 hours a day, day-in-and-day-out, and have them be your only compatriots in a completely foreign land while you're dealing with a lot of stressful adjustments. You bond quickly, but you also get on each other's nerves real quick. In fact, many times during training all I could think was "get me away from these people!"
Peru 17 from beginning to end. From Sabrina!
I made good friends in my training group, but many of us were separated amongst different departments, making it so we only saw each other on vacations or in-service trainings. I called all of my training group friends regularly, but within my department it took longer to get to know people and have friends to meet up with.

I couldn't even pinpoint exactly when it happened, but there came this point when the people who were once strangers and acquaintances that seemingly had nothing in common with me prior to Peace Corps suddenly became the people who understood and appreciated my feelings and experiences better than anyone else. The "older" generations of volunteers gave sage advice, while my fellow 17ers empathized with me as we seemingly went through all the same phases of ups and downs. And soon after that it wasn't just that we could bond over how tiny the poop-sample cups were at the lab, or funny parts of being a foreigner in Peruvian culture-- like judging beauty pageants and drinking endless cups of hot chocolate at parties on hot summer days-- but I came to appreciate their company, understand and admire their strengths, and love their quirks.

I don't know if I could ever write anything to do justice the strength that is the volunteer connection, how great my friends are from Arequipa to Tumbes (two opposite ends of Peru) or just how truly proud and honored I am to have worked and lived in Lambayeque with such hard-working, dedicated volunteers. All I can say is we have shared a part of this life that has forever changed me and I have learned many lessons from them.

So to my fellow volunteers: you have been there for me when I was down, you've celebrated with me when I was up, and you've weaseled your way into my heart over boxes of Gato and fuentes of ceviche chatting about life, love, Peru, and poop. I have made connections and friendships in my Peruvian community that have been life changing, but this experience wouldn't have been what it was without you. And honestly, I don't think I could've done this without you.

And now the hard part-- returning home where we will all be spread out over the span of a country that is far bigger than Peru!

To my predecessors, thank you for all the advice and friendship you've given which has made a huge impact on my service. I totally expect to continue receiving it as I embark back into US territory. To my 17ers, NAILED IT. I don't care how far apart we'll be, lets talk real soon and road trip, mmkay? To my 17ers staying for a 3rd year or extending, you guys are badass and I have mad respect for you and know you're going to continue to rock it. To my Lambaysexies, keep up the Lamba-legacy of awesomeness and success! 18ers, soon this will be you so aprovechan this experience all you can, the last months fly by fast! 19ers and 20ers, I'm so glad great people keep joining Peace Corps so that even halfway through my service I could make fast friends with awesome people like you! One more year, and you guys are going to rock it! You're the old and wise ones now, wear that badge proudly.

I won't be able to see a lot of volunteers again before I leave Peru, and that is really hard to believe and I get pretty emotional just thinking about it. But it's all going to be okay. Just remember, it's not "adios," it's "hasta luego."
a photo so good I need to post it on my blog twice! Love you Lambayeque!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

That time I got really nervous about going back to the USA

This is it guys. Fourteen days until I leave Peru, eleven days until I leave site. Camps are all done, projects have been completed and closed, and all that's left is saying goodbye.

I am getting a lot of mixed reactions from people about coming home soon. Newer volunteers cheer and tell me how exciting it is that I've completed service and am finally going home. People in my site beg me not to go. People back home can hardly believe the time has finally come for my return and are planning visits. Volunteers in my group share the stressed exasperation of both being happy to return and sad and overwhelmed to pack two years of our lives into two bags and say goodbye to our communities. It's pretty safe to say, all of those reactions mirror every feeling I have about coming home. Overall, it's pretty emotional.

A couple weeks ago I was talking with an extended host family member and they asked me if there were a lot of differences between our cultures. And I kind of drew a blank and said, "No, there aren't that many differences." You know you've been away from home for a long time when you can't come up with at least 10 cultural differences between Peru and the USA. There are huge differences between Peru and the US. I had some of the worst culture shock I have ever experienced while adjusting to life in Peru. And the scary part is they always say, "going home is the hardest part." I'm not gonna lie guys, I'm nervous.

One of my biggest stresses about going home is how I will react to the reverse culture shock and how I will behave back home. So I decided to list several of the perceivably "strange" things I might do upon my arrival, or things that will take time for me to adjust to. Hopefully if you see this list before you see me you'll be prepared to handle any awkwardness.

Technology and pop-culture baffles me
Thanks to Facebook and the internet I haven't been completely behind the times on everything, but that doesn't mean I'm by any means up to speed. Before I left for Peru I had a handful of friends who had iPhones and iPads, and now it's apparently the new norm. Everyone is talking about apps and things like Instagram and Snapchat and using acronyms like YOLO and smh and I literally have to look it all up online or ask a friend back in the US to explain it to me. So, if you refer to something and I give you a blank stare, remember I've been living under a rock called Peru. But if you have any questions about cumbia music or what happened on Al Fondo Hay Sitio last week, then we can talk.

Claro, I can hablar en Ingles
Despite English being my mother tongue, I have really lapsed in being able to use it well in regular conversation, especially without Spanish sprinkled in. All of my interactions all day, every day, are in Spanish. All of the volunteers live this way, so when we spend time together we're on the same page linguistically, I guess you could say. It's safe to say the Peace Corps Peru official language is Spanglish, as any conversation we have together is completely filled with Spanish and words that are neither fully English nor Spanish but some weird hybrid. It's the fastest, easiest way for us to talk. Sometimes I can't even remember what a word is in English, I can only think of the Spanish translation. Así es. So I may tell a clerk "gracias" or talk about how I'm going to aprovechar a restaurant buffet, and I may just sound like I'm speaking gibberish.

Don't swear, it sounds like sh*t
One of my favorite things about living in Peru is my ability to say whatever I want in English wherever I want without anyone (well, the majority of the time) understanding me. It's like having a secret language. And the result of two-years of unfiltered conversation with my friends in public is something that may be shocking, rude, and inappropriate for US standards. Those of you who knew me back home know that I have a tendency to swear like a sailor. Well, this scalawag has been away from shore a bit too long, and my regular conversations with friends make an episode of Deadwood look like a chat over coffee. In fact, that is what our chats over coffee look like. This also includes talking about personal issues (like how much diarrhea you had last night) or mentioning that the person sitting at the other table looks attractive/ridiculous/funny/etc. Essentially, anything that pops into my head is coming out of my mouth. And I can already see my friends back home saying, "Wait, she could get worse?" Yes. And it is. And I'm afraid for what I might say.

No cutting!
I think I may actually be really happy about this change-- people actually form a line while waiting for a service of some sort in the USA. In Peru it's pretty much a free-for-all with elbows flying and what we refer to as the "Peruvian shuffle" as someone slowly and not-so-discretely squeezes in front of you in line. However, I may not be used to forming a line. If you see me cut an entire line of people and push my way to the front, I'm sorry. Just add it to the list of embarrassing things you will endure with me.

Look Ma! This bathroom has toilet paper!
I'm going to be really excited about really little things. I mean, really excited. When my friend Becky came to visit we went to a grocery store in Lima where they typically have more diversity in products and upon seeing a shelf with almond milk I gasped and screamed, "ALMOND MIIIIILLLKKKK!!!!!!!!" because I hadn't seen it in a year and a half and had practically forgotten it existed. And it's going to be like that with everything. Toilet paper and soap in a public bathroom (and being able to flush the toilet paper!). Clean water that comes straight from the tap. A grassy lawn that I can sit on. The ice cream section of the grocery store (actually, any section of the grocery store). Streets without trash covering them. Healthy dogs (that aren't stray). Cheddar cheese. Hopefully within the first week I'll get over most of these things, but be prepared for some seemingly un-necessary ceremonious celebrating over little things.

Pass the Pepto, and give me a plate of rice
One of the things I've been literally dreaming about since the first week I left the USA in 2011 is food back home. God, I have missed it. And it was quite the adjustment to Peruvian food at first. In fact, in one of my first blogs on the food here I made the statement of how I didn't like it all that much. Well, the tables have turned. I love Peruvian food. I have no problem eating a ton of rice. In fact when I go on the rare and few trips to eat "American food" I usually end up sick afterwards and just wish that I could have something simple like a plate of rice and a fried egg. American food is rich, too rich for what my body is used to now. Not to mention I think I've become slightly lactose intolerant from my low dairy intake. So while I am still excited for food back home, I'm probably going to be sick for awhile. Odds are I'm also going to complain about prices/availability of produce.

No fork? No knife? No problem
Just thought I'd add, my eating habits aren't quite as "proper" as they once were. All you really need to eat in Peru is a spoon and your hands...and a lot of times I opt for the hands. I apologize if the way I eat ruins your appetite.

And the list goes on...
There are many, many more things I have gotten used to here that I know will be different back home. I'm sure a lot of the adjusting will be internal and not so easily seen by everyone around me. It's going to be hard to deal with leaving my host family, work, community, and friends here in Peru. I have a life here that I'll never be able to return to. It's going to be an adjustment to return home where everyone's lives have continued on without me and finding where I fit back in. Just remember that I've been gone a long time and we all have a lot of catching up to do. Luckily I have awesome friends and family who are understanding and love me no matter what. It's all part of the big adventure, and now we're sharing it together.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Camp VALOR, where Iron Men are made

Hellohellohello! It is time for me to tell all you lovely people about my very last camp as a Peace Corps Volunteer -- our all-boys' camp, VALOR.

If I haven't made it perfectly clear, I just gotta say camps have been one of my absolute favorite parts of Peace Corps. All of the volunteers from our department come together to program three days of activities and educational workshops for some of the best kids from our very own communities, and every time it's a great experience. 

A lot of times while working on projects in site, volunteers will feel discouraged or frustrated by lack of interest or participation from people in the community. But in each community there are always those few kids or people who are interested, motivated, and make all the difference in those projects. Well, just imagine when every volunteer brings those kids--those active, involved few-- and they are all brought together. BAM! Magic happens.

But really, the camps are where it's at. It is so different from anything Peruvian youth are used to doing. In general Peruvians don't spend the night away from family or go camping, so to have both of those things coincide makes it pretty special. I also love that it gives me an opportunity to work with the other volunteers in my department and get to know them and people from their community better. 

Before I tell you all about camp and the boys I brought this year, I want to make a special shout-out to all of my friends and family who donated to help make this possible! We use a Peace Corps grant system in which 40% of the funds are raised by local communities in Peru, and the remaining 60% comes from donations. So thank you so much to Ann T. (OR), Brandi W. (OR), Carrie M. (OR), Claudia C. (OR), Geno L.III (WA), Jennifer L. (LA), Lee S. (ID), Mackenzie R. (AZ), and of course my awesome Mom!! It means so much to me that you guys would help out with this project, which truly helps influence Peruvian youth in a healthy and positive way. And special shout-out to Nicole and Sam, former Lambayeque volunteers who donated. Miss you guys!

As I mentioned in the past, Camp VALOR (Varones Adolescentes Lideres Organizados y Responsables) is our all-boys' leadership camp that is three days and completely programmed and run by PC volunteers from within the department. Last year one of our superstar volunteers, Terrace, created a program in her site called "Iron Man" which was based off of a program she had participated in at her high school in the US. Its about being a physically, mentally, emotionally fit individual who takes care of themselves, their community, their environment, and learns from the past while helping to build a better future. Sounds like a lot, right? Well it is, because it takes a lot to be an Iron Man.

We loved the idea from last camp so much that we stayed with the theme this year as well. We decided we also wanted to add an extra emphasis on machismo and not just talking about gender equality, but everyday cultural things they so often take for granted and maybe don't realize are sexist or discriminatory. 

Some of the activities over the three-day camp were:
  • Career assessment exams/Career fair with Peruvian professional men invited from different volunteers’ sites. 
  • Session on raising cuy, ducks, and bees for both personal uses or business opportunities (this is both common and lucrative in rural Peruvian communities).
  • Two-day futbol (soccer) tournament amongst all the teams. 
  • Presentation and activity about famous Peruvian women in history to emphasize sex and gender/gender equality.
  • Round robin sessions on goal setting, pro-active lifestyles, team building, empathy, correct condom use, fidelity and finding your ideal partner. 
  • Organic farming (also very pertinent to Peruvians from rural communities where agriculture is a large portion of jobs and income).
  • Trash management-- composting, recycling, and emphasis on not burning trash.
  • In-depth session run by a health professional on Sex, STD’s, Abstinence, Fidelity
  • Campfire with s’mores, scary stories, and singing (a very U.S. American tradition we introduced to them), one of my personal favorites. 
  • Cuerpo de Pasión, a telanovela inspired skit performed by volunteers with themes of the dangers of unprotected sex, infidelity, and general shenanigans. 
  • Even more stuff than I can even begin to talk about!
The camp was held at the same location we had our last two, which is a local NGO eco-center that our superstar Hallie works with. Like camps in the past, participants were divided up into teams which were led by two or three volunteers. For extra incentive, throughout the camp there was a point system in place to motivate the campers to be punctual and participate in all the activities, and at the end of camp winners were recognized for their hard work.

I could go on for forever about camp, but as usual photos are better. Be sure to check below where I have profiles written about the boys I brought!

John talking about what it means to be an Iron Man

The shirts! We re-used last year's design, by yours truly. 
Learning about raising cuy and the three different breeds at the Eco-Center

Playing soccer and working towards the championship round

The boys performed skits based on the lives of famous Peruvian women in history

Learning about different types of vegetables and gardening
Our regional coordinator, Renato, sharing the experience with his daughter. Renato was also a speaker at the camp and a great example of an "Iron Man". 

The condom race! Correct condom use, of course, being the main point. 

Reviewing their career assessment exams and where their strengths and interests are.

Lambayeque Peru 17! Our last camp together before some of us finish service, while others stay on for a 3rd year

One of the boys I brought winning the "Overall Camper" award! So proud!

My boys! I chose to bring boys from my health promoters group, Pasos Adelante. They did so great and impressed all of the other volunteers with their motivation, participation, and general awesomeness!

This is my man Luis, but I always call him by his last name, Medina. Medina is the strong and silent type, but by no means afraid to express himself or participate. I brought Medina to last year's camp and  afterwards he became one of the members and best participants in my health promoters youth group. Medina lives a little further outside of my town, but he is never late to activities and in fact is usually the first to show up. Generally youth are only allowed one time at camp but we decided to have "super star" participants come back to be leaders in the teams, so I asked Medina to come to be a super estrella at camp! As always, he brought his positive attitude and awesome leadership skills with him and shone like the super star he is!

Williams is what I would call one of my "medio-bandito" students. He has been involved in almost every project I've ever done, he just spends most of that time staring off at girls instead of doing his work. He is small even by Peruvian standards, but is one of the biggest stars in my community with his singing. This kid has no fear on a stage! I invited him to camp because I hoped that it could motivate him to realize his potential to become a big leader amongst his classmates and within his community.

Jason really surprised me during camp. Within the first few hours of being split off into teams I heard other volunteers talking about him and his support and sensitivity to another camper as they discussed the discrimination this particular camper was used to receiving due to his femininity. As camp went on he became an obvious leader amongst his group by setting a good example to others, participating fully, being respectful in his interactions with others, and just being a model individual in every aspect. The reason this surprised me is because I almost didn't bring him. He can be a real handful at school with his rambunctiousness and sometimes acting out, and I've gotten pretty frustrated with him in the past. I think what it comes down to is he isn't challenged enough in his school work and is often surrounded by students who are a bad influence. Watching him come out of his shell at camp and not only do well but excel was amazing. He was such a model participant he won the "Best Overall Camper" award, which was voted on by all of the volunteers. I'm so proud of him and hope he can see all the good he can do.


I know I shouldn't pick favorites, but even amongst my favorites Gerardo is the tops. Since day one in my community he has made an effort to make me feel comfortable in my new home. I actually almost didn't bring him to camp either because he is such an exemplary student he is given more opportunities to participate in leadership events than other students are. However it worked out that he could come and he of course impressed everyone with how rad he is. Gerardo is kind, intelligent, talented, easy to laugh, and a gentle soul. He is graduating high school this December and while at camp he told me he's planning on going into seminary to work towards becoming a priest. We had a long conversation about it, and while his choice is very different from my own cultural norms and ideas, I know whatever he does in his life he will excel at and help others. 

As always, camp was a great experience for the volunteers and the campers they brought. I'm sad it was my last camp, but happy that I was able to bring the boys I did. If I could bring all of my boys, it would be even better, but these guys will just have to lead by example to help create a better future for Peru!