The Northern Coast

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

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A gift you can't keep

You know what the problem is with writing about Peace Corps? There is just too much to say. Way too much. It is overwhelming, especially when, like myself, you are coming to the end of your service and trying to wrap everything up in a nice cozy little package and say, "Here ya go! Here it all is, complete closure, loose-ends tied, nice and tidy."

A large part of me wants to bring all of this full-circle, bring closure to my blog in the next short 5 weeks, and to in some manner actually explain to all of you what the heck is going on in this brain of mine.

The problem is, it's not tidy. It's a mess. Peace Corps is messy, life is messy, and cleaning it up and writing it succinctly is a task that I want to take on but feels almost impossible. Life does not always have closure, so I can't expect Peace Corps to be any different.

So let me just start with this quote:

"As to the kindness you mention, I wish I could have been of more service to you then I have been, but if I had, the only thanks I should desire are that you would always be ready to serve any other person that may need your assistance, and so let good offices go around, for humankind are all a family. As for my own part, when I am employed in serving others I do not look upon myself as conferring favors but paying debts."
-Benjamin Franklin

And do I have a lot of debts to pay...

When I was in my first months of service and starting my new job of working with Peruvian youth, I couldn't stop comparing my own adolescence to those of the kids I was working with. I immediately became hyper-aware of all of the opportunities I'd been given and lessons I'd learned from adults in my life. I wanted to write every single one and thank them for the lessons they'd taught me (note to self: you should probably still do that). I couldn't (and still can't) help but feel overly privileged.

If you knew the town I grew up in, unless you spoke in terms of natural beauty, you probably wouldn't immediately call it a community of the overly privileged. A lot of people thought the community I grew up in was gravely lacking. I mean, a town of 900 people isolated in the mountains of central Idaho, surrounded by wilderness, two-and-half hours from the closest "city" doesn't always have access to all of the resources available. As one of my co-workers once stated, my hometown of Challis, Idaho has "everything you need and nothing you want." It is a rural ranching community filled with cowboys and hardworking people-- and I am pretty sure more cows than people. For my entire childhood there were no street names, you simply gave people directions via landmarks. There's no movie theater. No stop lights. The first and only chain was a Subway in a local grocery store, and that happened in the last 5 years. I couldn't even get cell-phone service at my parent's house until 2009. When I got into high school and started making friends from larger towns and cities they would make fun of me asking if we had indoor plumbing or a TV.

But it is a close community where everyone knows your name. You couldn't get away with playing hookie because whoever saw you would surely call your mom or the school. Something as simple as a high school basketball game will bring many people out of their homes on dark winter nights even with ice on the roads. The high school maybe didn't have the fanciest technology or a wide variety of clubs and groups, but I was involved in everything from sports to yearbook club. I will still say I had some of the best teachers a high school could give. Sadly, it wasn't until I was much older that I could fully appreciate being in a beautiful place with a community of people who invested in my future. To say my town was lacking is to say it didn't have the excess and material wants our society craves.

I don't think I need to go into all of the disparity in Peru and what teenagers here have to deal with, but just to get an idea: getting a full day of basic classes (approx 5 hours) in which capable teachers show up to all of their classes almost never happens on a daily basis. Teenage pregnancy and high school drop-out rates are jaw dropping. Public schools have very little in the means of resources, updated materials, libraries, computers, extra-curricular activities, and a whole slew of things we expect out of our public schools. Then there is gender inequality, issues at home with domestic abuse, illiteracy rates in parents, malnutrition, etc. But while I noticed the stark differences between my teen years and development compared to the kids I was working with, I also saw a lot of similarities. My Peruvian community is not unlike the one I grew up in. It's small and relies mostly on agriculture. Generations after generations live here, and everyone knows everyone. The kids complain about the small town and talk about how much they want to leave and live in the city. In fact, despite all the differences, it feels a lot like home. I started to see bringing kids to Camp ALMA and Camp VALOR like when my 7th grade Science teacher chose to take me to Idaho Youth Summit, a Drug-Free Leadership camp that I could easily credit for shaping much of who I am and consequently my assignment as a Youth Development Volunteer. When I started doing my Health Promoters group and vocational orientation classes I thought of all of the people in my life who talked to me about my future, family planning, goal setting, higher education, etc. The list goes on and on.

I don't need to tell you, teenagers are little shits. And I'm sure at times I was a little shit, too. I do not take it lightly that so many people in their own way passed on their wisdom to me and told me they believed in me. And now I have my kids (all of us volunteers seem to throw that phrase around--"my kids."), my youth group kids, and I see so much potential in them. I am often distraught with the disadvantages they have, with how unfair it is that life decided I be born into privilege and that they are born in a developing country where the cards are stacked against them. I want them to rise above their situation and to be happy and successful, in whatever form "happy" and "successful" is for them.  And I suppose the ultimate goal is that someday they will pass it on. And to be perfectly honest, I don't feel like I did enough to ensure that. In fact, I don't know that I did enough, period.

There is this weird thing that happens when you become a Volunteer where all of these people suddenly see you as a saint. You feel anything but saint-like, and yet everyone is so proud of you and your service-- for giving two years of your life to help others. I always hear, "you have made a difference." I will be honest when I say much of my decision on joining Peace Corps was based on the idea of everything I would get out of it. I wanted the life lessons, the experience in another culture, the language. But things changed. Once I realized the great bounty in which I had not only been given gifts my whole life, but everyday of my time in Peru, I couldn't give enough. It could all be better, it could all be more. Like Ben Franklin, "I wish I could've been of more service to you then I have been." I have received more than I could ever give while in Peace Corps. And as for my service, I see now that I was not "conferring favors but paying debts" to all those who have given to me, past and present.

Our society, US society, is all about freeing ourselves of our debts and being independent. Striking out on your own, making a name for yourself, being free of obligations to others. And I would be lying if I didn't say I joined Peace Corps under this notion of being independent, of pushing my own limits and testing myself. And yet what I have learned while I've been here is how important obligation is. How important it is to be indebted to others. Obligation is part of being in a community, part of working with others towards a common goal. Continuing the cycle of giving and receiving is part of communion with others. My Peruvian community has shown me in so many ways, through kindness and friendship and bringing me in, just how important that community bond is.

In "The Toe Bone and the Tooth" Martín Prechtel says, "The idea is to get so entangled in debt that no normal human can possibly remember who owes whom what, and how much. In our business dealings, we keep close tabs on all exchanges, but in sacred dealings we think just like nature, where all is entangled and deliciously confused, dedicated to making the Earth flower in a bigger plan of spirit beyond our minds and understanding."

Life is messy. Life is filled with unknowns. I may never get closure on my Peace Corps service or know the extent in which I have helped others, but I know in my heart how they have helped me, and because of that we are eternally bound.

May the exchanging of gifts continue, and may we all remember our debts.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Month 24

Well, here we are. In three days I will have been in Peru for two years. Just a little more than 6 weeks left in service. Peru 21, the replacement group for Peru 17, has landed in Peru and is starting training. This is it guys-- the homestretch.

I have been caught in this weird limbo where I both want to write down everything describing every emotion that runs through me, and at the same time I am seized in paralysis where I can't seem to write a single word of any of it. Like when you trip and fall and there is this moment where you don't know exactly all that is happening and are caught off guard and can't do much about it. It happens so fast, yet so many thoughts flash in that instant that they can't be quantified in normal time.

Does that make sense?

Two years of my life. A life goal almost accomplished. The end of an era.

Simply put, I am overwhelmed.

I am overrun by the past and the present and the future all at once. When you're coming to the end of an experience you can't help but look back at how far you've come; the array of good and bad days that all smash together and create this nostalgic foray that comes out any moment of the day to remind you just how amazing and complicated it has all been and how soon it will end. And the future? Well, to think of life any different than how it has been can be exciting and unsettling in it's own right. Going home, going back to life how it was but at the same time completely different. It makes you wonder if it will all just seem like a dream? All that's left is to try and live in the present, and sometimes the past and the future are pulling so hard that just taking a deep breath and looking around and saying, "this day-- this moment-- is all I have," becomes the most difficult task.

Overwhelmed indeed.

I don't know if many of you know this, but Peace Corps is probably one of the biggest, scariest goals I had set for myself in my entire life. I didn't actually know if it would be made a reality or not someday. Those of you who have known me for a good deal of time know that I can be considered a bit of a "free spirit." I make goals, I accomplish them, but I'm not a "five-year-plan" type of person. I am a "follow-your-heart-and-it-will-all-work-out" type of person. Peace Corps is probably the only thing I've done that could kind of fall under both.

My very first post about Peace Corps, my very first post on this blog, is one about my Peace Corps interview almost three years ago in Oregon; that incredibly exciting and nerve wracking first big step after applying. The very first question the interviewer asked me was: "So, why do you want to join Peace Corps?"

I wrote:

"This is the question I had spent the entire drive to Salem trying to rehearse out loud. It was incredibly difficult to verbalize my answer. How do I explain to someone what I just know to be right? How do I verbalize in a short precise answer all of the events of my past and present that have led me to this moment where this drastic step is not so drastic? .... How do I sum up that when I am older I want to look back and have the Peace Corps as my past?"

That last part, the "when I'm older I want to look back and have Peace Corps as my past" part. I can't seem to get it out of my head. No one really knows what they're getting into when they first join Peace Corps, I don't think. Every country, every region, and every person has such a different experience. It was nothing like I expected it to be, but it was everything I wanted.
And at this moment, I am conflicted on how I feel about making it my "past."

Just like anything in life, change can be scary. Hopefully I will be able to unfreeze my paralysis and write some more about what the end of this wild ride has been like. There are still so many stories to be told, and such little time to tell them.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Let me tell you 'bout ALMA

First of all, I would like to thank all of you who have donated to Lambayeque camps! Thanks to you, we just pulled off an amazing Camp ALMA (which I'm about to tell you about) and we have fully funded our all-boys' camp, VALOR! I can't thank you all enough or express to you how much you've helped us create amazing camps for amazing kids. These camps are one of the most fulfilling parts of my Peace Corps service, and I know they are very special for the kids who attend. Thank you for contributing!!

Just last weekend we had our our annual all-girls' Camp, ALMA (Actividades Liderazgos para Mujeres Adolescentes, or young women's leadership camp). Each year the volunteers from within our department design and program a three-day leadership camp and then choose two of the most deserving girls from their community to bring. Once everyone arrives to camp they are divided into teams with girls from other communities led by volunteers. Like our last year's Camp VALOR, we distinguished teams by t-shirt colors and created a point system for each team which would motivate them throughout camp to participate and be punctual to workshops.  

This year our theme was "Peace of mind, Peace of body, and Peace with the environment," and we held it at an eco-center run by a local NGO that focusses on organic farming.

The camp went great! Maybe I just think this about every camp we've had, but this one was one of the best ever. The campers were great, the volunteers all worked hard, and energy was always good and upbeat. 

One of the special things about this camp is that it is completely out of the norm for the Peruvian teens we bring. Back in the US I started attending week-long camps away from home when I was 13, and even before that I had at least stayed the night away from home on Girl Scouts trips. To stay the night away from home, especially away from family, is something many Peruvian adolescents never do. To go camping is something many of them have never done. The very fact that their parents entrusted volunteers to take them away from home to another town to stay the night for two nights is a very big deal. 

I definitely think pictures can speak louder than words on how awesome camp was, but I also want to tell you about some of the activities and workshops we had that followed our theme:

  • Intensive sex-ed session with a health professional.
  • A "sex question box" where girls could write anonymous questions throughout camp, and on the last day all of the questions were answered by a health professional.
  • Recycling and trash management
  • Volleyball tournament  
  • Belly dancing, led by one of our very own volunteers
  • Round robin sessions on: condom use, choosing an ideal partner, teamwork, trust, leadership, self-esteem, gardening, animal husbandry, mural painting, etc
  • A session on inspirational women in Peruvian history
  • A career assessment exam to help girls find their personal strengths and weaknesses for possible future employment
  • Career fair with local professional Peruvian women
  • Campfire with s'mores
  • Talent show for the entire camp
  • "Cuerpo de Pasión" a telenovela themed skit done by volunteers demonstrating the importance of safe sex.
  • The infamous condom race

The girls I brought from my community. I was able to bring three as one girl came as a "super estrella" to be a leader of one of the teams since she had come to camp last year and rocked!

All teams together receiving introductory remarks

Tina, Betty, and Annie teaching belly dancing

Learning about volunteerism and helping re-paint a mural at the eco-center

Kiryssa and Kyle's session on making starter plants for a possible roof-top garden

Early-morning volleyball tournament

Equipo Verde! Zack, Steve, and I were lucky enough to be leaders of this awesome team! They were so great they "won" the entire camp with points for participation, good attitudes, punctuality, etc. Such a great group!

Julianne and my session on love, friendship, and choosing an ideal partner. A lot of talking about waiting for the right person, and how that right person should be once they find them. 

Monica and Zack talked about correct condom use and singing a little song about the "three methods of prevention," which are abstinence, fidelity, and using a condom.
A beautiful place to have camp!
Girls taking the career assessment exam

Tina showing her amazing belly dancing moves for the talent show!

My girls! They rocked at camp. So proud of them!

Some of the duckies on the farm

The infamous condom race. It's not about speed, it's about correct use!

One of the professionals invited to speak about her job during the career fair
Team Verde, winning first place! Giving some palabras on how awesome they are.
The Lamba-sexy crew! Love these volunteers! So lucky to have served in this awesome department, I am truly proud to know all of them.

On the second day of camp I realized I was exactly two months from being back in the USA, and I broke into tears. It's not that I don't want to go home, but things like camp and the love of my job makes it hard to believe this is all coming to an end very soon. Lucky for me, we still have one camp left. Three-weeks until we get to do camp all over again for the boys!