The Northern Coast

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

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!