The Northern Coast

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

Sunday, June 1, 2014

10 Months Post-Service; El Tatuaje

Back in the beginning of my Peace Corps experience I first went through a two-and-a-half month Pre-Service Training (PST) that felt more like an extended summer camp than training to be a "change agent" and US ambassador working in development. Let's face it, PST is nothing like actual service. We had long hours of training followed by plenty of homework, we went everywhere in groups, and were packed sack lunches by our training host families. We had a mini internal government comprised of our peers with presidents, vice presidents, treasurers and the like, and the big issues they had to govern were over class rings and t-shirt designs.

Yes, the first months of what I considered to be one of the most adventurous, daring, independent things I've ever done felt like I was back in high school.

And back in high school, I would've been a contender, if not a winner, of a t-shirt design contest. So when just that was proposed I started thinking of something I could draw up in my rare and brief free time. Even with my sheltered first weeks in Peru it was very clear the country is quite proud of their rich and extensive culture and heritage, not to mention archaeological sites (which are a huge point of tourism) such as Machu Picchu and the Nazca Lines. The Nazca Lines are these grooves in the ground that span hundreds of feet and connect to make designs that can only be entirely seen from neighboring hilltops or airplanes. These designs are of various different animals and geometric shapes, and are estimated to have been created 400-600 AD. Within moments of entering Peru you're certain to see t-shirts and other knickknacks etched and painted with these designs, most commonly the monkey or the hummingbird. Seeing as how Peace Corps has its own symbolic bird, a dove, I saw the ripe opportunity to not just put a bird on it, but two birds on it.

Aerial view of the hummingbird Nazca line
Retro Peace Corps pin, but the design still represents Peace Corps today
I was quite proud of what I came up with, something simple yet self-explanatory to anyone in Peace Corps Peru. But just like high school, I kind of got distracted, and the next thing I knew we were voting on t-shirt designs and mine wasn't one of them because, well...I forgot to enter it.


But soon enough I started to realize I liked the design enough that maybe it was a good thing I didn't enter it into the contest, maybe the design was meant for something else?

And so I elaborated, I doodled, I played around with the same essential design. Then one day I was inspired by some of the embroidery I had seen on artisan work sold in Peru, leading me to outline my original design with vibrant flowers. And after that moment I knew this was going to be my tattoo.

Drawing by me! Amanda Rodgers

I'm one of those people who's always wanted a tattoo, but could never justify spending the money on it. Every time I save up enough money to get one something comes up where that money could be better spent. Eight years ago I had a tattoo fund that ended up going towards my study abroad in Costa Rica, and after that I realized I will always want to save money for experiences versus things (even if those things are on my skin). So, needless to say, I had no tattoos, and even though I really wanted this particular tattoo, I did not get it as soon as I'd hoped (such as during my service or immediately after finishing it) because experiences (and bills) just kept coming up.

I've been home 10 months now and this last month was my birthday (my first in the US in three years) and my mom and dad offered to pay for my tattoo as a birthday present. Yes, I'm a grown-ass woman and my parents paid for my first tattoo. The price of living has pretty much locked down my funds for the foreseeable future, and I was never going to spend the money on myself, so it was a pretty awesome birthday present.

Finished product, by Kassi Lampe at High Priestess Tattoo. I love it!
I haven't talked to my host family about the tattoo yet. I imagine my host siblings would think it's cool, my host mom would think it's pretty but refrain from comment, and my host dad would throw an absolute fit. When my friend Becky visited Peru (her guest blog post is Memories, mammaries, and diarrhea; A guest blog from my BFF Becky) I was lectured by proxy for all of her tattoos. In Peru once you get a tattoo, you are no longer allowed to donate blood again--ever. Also, in the campo blood banks are not much of an option, so any blood transfusions or donations come directly from someone with the appropriate blood type, more often than not your family members. Therefore, if you get a tattoo, you can no longer give blood to your family in a time of need. Despite my attempts to explain to my host dad that in the US tattoos are not regulated the same way and the blood donation system is completely different, his experiences and beliefs wouldn't let him see tattoos as anything but a selfish, reckless act. So, that phone conversation is going to be interesting.

I decided to have the tattoo on my arm because I want to be able to see the design I created during some of the hardest times in my Peace Corps service. I could go on and say a bunch of mushy stuff about how Peace Corps changed my life, about how a day hardly goes by that I don't think about my community, host family, or volunteer friends, or how much stronger, compassionate, and capable I feel as a person after serving....but you probably all already knew all that. And as long as I have skin on my arm and eyes to see, I'll have a constant reminder.

Friday, April 25, 2014

9 months as a RPCV and working on Goal 3

Even though I've been home for 9 months, I feel that I'm just now starting to get settled in and involved with Goal 3 activities here in the US. (Peace Corps has three goals, and Goal 3 is to help promote understanding of the volunteer's host country to people in the USA.) I will admit, while Goal 3 is an important aspect of being a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, it seems like an extremely daunting task at times. There's a reason we were encouraged to come up with an "elevator speech" about our service, as there is quite a bit of disparity between all of the things one could say about their two-year service and the attention span of those listening. I have often felt I'm unable to paint the full picture (or I paint the completely wrong one) while casually talking about my service. Sadly it isn't uncommon for people to misinterpret my explanations of the conditions I lived in or the realities of life in Peru as things that would mare my experience. This leads them to say things such as, "Jeez, I never want to go there!" or ask, "Man, did you enjoy any of your service?" and the slightly discriminatory but well meaning, "Welcome back to civilization!" Of course this is kind of heartbreaking and frustrating for me, because when I say, "We often didn't have electricity or running water, and many volunteers didn't have running water at all," I didn't mean, "I was living in a hell-hole and it was terrible." I'm just trying to explain that this is the reality of the majority of the world we live in, and the bathroom situation didn't effect how I connected to people or learned to love a culture that wasn't my own. I know everyone is well meaning, I just feel like I'm doing a disservice to Peru when the outcome of my conversation is something like the aforementioned. So, as you can see, Goal 3 can be overwhelming, but the misconceptions about developing countries in the world make it all the more important to talk about and work on.

However, for every 10 people who don't "get it" there is at least one who does. I especially enjoy it when these people pop up in the most random places. Like the stranger at a coffee shop who noticed my Peace Corps patch on my bag and talked to me for 20 minutes, or meeting another RPCV or parent of a RPCV in the choir I joined. I started attending an Advanced Conversation Spanish class at the community college to keep my language abilities up (sadly you can lose a second language pretty quickly without practice). After introducing myself not only did I find out there were two other RPCV's in the class, but my teacher is Peruvian (from Cajamarca, a department right next to Lambayeque where I served) and met her husband while he was serving as one of the first Peace Corps Volunteers in her region in the 60's. I gave her so many hugs, I was so excited! We talked about Peruvian food and customs and she asked me to bring in pictures and things I had brought back to show the class. She possesses the quick and warm acceptance that I came to know from so many Peruvian mothers in my community and of fellow volunteers, and I felt so at home. Meeting her and taking her class once a week has helped me feel so much more connected to Peru, and I love hearing stories from the other RPCV's who served in the 60's in South America.

That is another incredible aspect about being a Peace Corps Volunteer; when you join you become part of a family, a brother/sisterhood, that extends beyond your two year service. Whether you served in Malaysia or Jamaica, in 1962 or 2012, there is a bond, and I am really starting to see that as I meet other RPCV's. Just yesterday I went to a Peace Corps event at Oregon State University that was a "Send-Off" party for invitees entering into service, as well as a chance for applicants, nominees, and people interested to come and learn more about Peace Corps. It was this time three years ago that I was attending events like this before leaving for Peru, all bright eyed and a ball of nerves talking to RPCV's about their service and trying to glean any sort of understanding of what I was getting into from their stories. And now I am one of those RPCV's, trying to give sage advice and a little bit of reality without overwhelming anyone, and maybe romanticizing things a bit. Other RPCV's were there, even other Peru RPCV's. It reminded me how awesome the PC community is and how happy I am that I will always have it.

These chance encounters and finding this community of people has been very comforting, and it may sound ridiculous, but I feel like I'm finally feeling more readjusted to US life. I still dream about Peru often, I'm still the person over-bundled and cold in "warm" temperatures, and Peru is never far from my mind. I hope it never is. But things feel a little easier as Justin and I spend time with friends and family, and work on our first garden together at our house. It probably doesn't hurt that I have finally gotten a job and as of May 5th I will no longer be unemployed! I will be working in admitting at the hospital. It will give me some good office experience in a medical/health setting, as well as opportunities to use my Spanish. Being unemployed for over nine months has been really stressful and maddening, but it has had its benefits and given me time to settle back in.

I'm looking forward to start my first job post-Peace Corps and learn some new skills, and in the not too distant future I'll be celebrating a whole year back home in the US. Hard to believe how the time has passed, and sometimes I feel antsy to return to visit my site, but I know I will get my chance in time. In the past months I have worried a lot about losing touch with the experience and the people involved, but I'm starting to see that things won't fall away and be erased so easily. Hopefully I'll have more opportunities to meet up with other RPCV's in the near future, as well as opportunities to work on Goal 3 to help others understand mi querido Perú. Lucky for me, as far as that is concerned, I will have the rest of my life.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Moving along; subconscious and conscious battles

There was a long time when I first got to Peru when my dreams hadn't quite caught up with my physical location yet. They preserved home in this perfect technicolor world that I could visit at the end of each exhausting day. On more than one occasion I would wake from a dream in which I had just been dining at my favorite restaurant, laughing with my boyfriend and friends, or walking the grounds of my parent's home, and I wouldn't know where I was. My mind had travelled so far away it would take a second before I realized where I was and what I was doing there before I would feel the deep pains of homesickness sink in.

After some time in site this started to change. Peru would make its way into my dreams in small ways, never fully taking over. The trash-- the miles and miles of trash I would pass on the drive to my site-- made its way into my dreams first it seemed. It sprinkled the periphery of everywhere I went. It progressed as other things changed. I would be "home" in the US, but the houses would be adobe or concrete. I would walk down the street of my college town on the crumbling, sometimes non-existent, sidewalks I walked everyday in site. I would speak Spanish with random strangers that would pop into a scene with my family, or I would be riding a combi with my boyfriend. And in time, my dreams were all Peru. Suddenly nothing in my dreams was free of some distinctly Peruvian feature.

Dreams are so personal and individual, but there are always the common stress dreams people get, like public nudity or teeth falling out. Peace Corps seemed to have its own. A common stress dream many volunteers had during service, or a variation of, was the "I went home and didn't tell anybody" dream. I would dream of these less-than-24-hour trips back to the US where upon arrival I would realize I hadn't actually told anyone back in Peru I was leaving, making my visit the ultimate illegal vacation. Peace Corps had invaded my dreams so much that I couldn't even dream of a visit home without the proper paperwork.

Now that I've been home for about seven months, I'm realizing the odd reversal of all of this. Peru still exists in my dreams, in some form, every single night. Sometimes it's in the architecture of the buildings, a lot of times it's in the dirt roads speckled with trash. A random stranger, if not my host family, will still require me to speak Spanish on at least a weekly basis. A lot of times Peru exists in the people I knew there, visiting my dreams to remind me I left them behind. Literally, they complain about me leaving them behind, which is so apropos to Peruvian culture.

I even have a regular stress dream that seems to be the sister to my previous "going home" stress dreams from service: I've finished my visit home, and it's time to go back to Peru to finish my work. Like I'm still a volunteer and this whole time I've been home it wasn't to stay, and I was always going to go back to Peru to keep working eventually.

Last night I had the ultimate of these stress dreams. I arrived in my regional capital and it was like the second I got there I realized I hadn't brought presents for anyone. I had spent all this time in the US and I hadn't brought anything back! ¡Ingrata!

It's a really bittersweet thing. The dreams feed off of my worries; I'm visited by visions and people that ask me why I left them behind--or make me ask myself why I left it all behind-- and they break my heart a little. It's like a different kind of homesickness. But even though it kind of torments me, I'm afraid to stop dreaming about Peru. I'm afraid once I stop dreaming about it, I'll start forgetting about it. A large part of me is very afraid to lose not just the relationships and Spanish, but the small things that made Peru and the experience so incredibly unique.

I received a letter from one of my fellow RPCV's from Peru 17, and I feel like she put so perfectly what I had been thinking but couldn't quite put into words. She wrote:

"I guess part of me is afraid that I will lose that piece of Peru that I promised my community, and myself, that I would llevar en mi corazón para siempre. It's a strange fear. Obviously I will never forget Peru and everything I gained and learned from the experience. But how do I move on without leaving the little things that made the experience what it was? After all, one of Peace Corps' best lessons is that it's the small stuff that matters most."

My dreams seem to be that part of me speaking out; I want to move on, but I don't want to leave it behind. I want to honor my Peace Corps service and Peru and the relationships I formed and the lessons I learned, but I also need to live here and now. And like I said in my last blog, it's becoming a process that is much longer and in-depth than I ever expected.

Honestly, I don't know when Peru and the people I associate with it are going to stop invading my subconscious. I imagine the process will be like the process while I was there. It's very possible that in a year's time there won't be any of Peru in my dreams at all. And that thought makes me sad. But it's nice to know I'm not alone in this feeling, and I know that even if the dreams stop I'll always have others to remind me of what I'm so worried to forget.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Premonitions and life lessons; a 6-month-post-service update

Today marks six months since the day I left Peru. It seemed like an appropriate milestone to write a post about, and to start I want to tell you a little story.

This story didn't take place in the last six months. It didn't happen in Peru, either. It actually happened just four months shy of leaving the US and embarking on my two-year journey in Peace Corps. I considered not making it public knowledge (you'll soon see why), but after some reflection it seems appropriate.

It was early spring of 2011 in western Oregon, the sky a constant dull gray and days only changing from rain to mist to rain again. I worked at a coffee shop and distracted myself from leaving for Peace Corps by marathon training and keeping my hair a fiery "hot-tamale" red with nearly obsessive straight bangs. Anything, really, to make me feel like I was in control. But those things could only distract me so much. It was as if I was sliding down a hill that suddenly dropped off as a cliff, and I was clutching at anything to keep me in place. And it was in these gray, rainy days as I grew nearer my departure date into the great unknown that I visited a psychic in Portland.

(I could hear your eyes rolling from here. Humor me and read on.)

I went to a reputable psychic, a beautiful and tall middle-aged woman whose clairvoyant powers lay in touch, or clairsentience. And so after sitting in her cozy and warm office with the sound of water trickling through an indoor fountain and a recording of classical piano echoing from another room, she held my favorite pair of earrings and asked me what I wanted to know.

I suppose I could've asked all the traditional questions: questions of my love life, my career, my future family (alright, I eventually did ask those questions too, it was an hour long session after all. But that's not the point). I only went there, though, for one question:

Was I going to be okay?

Peace Corps was something I had wanted to do for years before I actually applied. It was a nagging at the back of my mind, the poking finger that told me I really didn't know my own strength until I'd pushed myself further. It was initially a point of contention with my parents, and over time they gave me their blessing. But then, weeks before I received my invitation to go to Peru, Dateline aired a piece on the ugly side of Peace Corps and sexual assault/rape incidences and lack of support for the victims. Suddenly everything was thrown into question and I almost withdrew my application. I came face-to-face with a very real risk as a woman volunteer that I had refused to address. In the end, despite fears and worries for my safety, I accepted my invitation. And in accepting I felt like I was opening myself up to a whole new world of danger and hurt unlike I had ever known. It was incredibly frightening.

And so even though there is no way that anyone can truly know, I needed to know-- would I be okay? Would I be safe during my Peace Corps service?

She closed her clear blue eyes briefly, peacefully, and upon opening them looked directly into mine and said, "You're going to be fine. You will be safe. You are intuitive, and that intuitiveness will help you take care of yourself and to know when a situation is good or bad. You will meet some of the most amazing people, and they will change your life for the better. The people there will be in awe of how tall you are. They'll love you, and you'll love them. This is going to be a wonderful, life changing experience for you. I see nothing but good coming from it."

I took these words, whether because I wanted to believe them or I needed to believe them, and I held them close to me always. There were times as I travelled or walked alone in the city and had that nervous, alertness that could so easily slip into fear when I told myself, "you will be safe, you will be aware, you will know when a situation is bad." There were days during training and in site when I hated every single person around me and wanted nothing more than to be alone and I told myself, "these could be amazing people that will change your life for the better." When I fretted over arriving in my site and whether I would do a good job, or simply whether I should be there at all, I said, "they'll love you, and you'll love them." This was my mantra. Sometimes I didn't believe it. A lot of times, actually. Sometimes saying it was the only thing that kept me from giving up.

Everything she said came true. And honestly, I don't really care if it was a real prediction or an optimistic guess. I needed it to be true, and it became my truth.

Now, post-Peace Corps, returning home...she didn't say anything about this period of time. Then again, I didn't ask. I never gave a whole lot of thought to what life after Peace Corps would be like, because why wouldn't it just be awesome? Being home with loved ones? Accomplishing a life goal and real-world experience under my belt? The backyard BBQs with fresh cut grass, drinking clean water straight out of the tap, walking down the street without a single eye on me or comment on my appearance....Why would I worry about that time? I knew reverse-culture shock was hard and that I would be sad to leave Peru, but this...this is something no one could've prepared me for. Even after people told me I could flail, I could flop, I could go months without a job, I just didn't know.

I was warned that "coming home is the hardest part." But I never thought I'd be going on six-months of unemployment, unable to even get an interview for office jobs answering phones. I didn't predict that I would feel so worthless and useless while remembering the hard, frustrating, but meaningful work I did in my host-community. I had no idea isolation and loneliness in my own home, in my own country, could outweigh what I felt in a completely foreign land. Adjusting isn't just remembering to put your toilet paper in the toilet, or to shake hands as opposed to kissing. It doesn't have to do with table manners, or the inflection in your voice as you ask for a favor, or showing up on time to meetings. It is learning how to live with who you are now, where you are now, with everything you've come to know and be. It's coming to terms with your beautiful and ugly memories. It's forgiving yourself for the things you can't change about your service, and forgiving those around you for simply not understanding. I spent two years adjusting to a completely different life, with different friends, and it was really good and really bad and utterly life changing. And then literally overnight, I was home. I'm back where I was, but I can't just go back to who I was or what I was doing. I don't know how to fit who I've become into where I am. And I foolishly thought a lot of those simple cultural things would be the only things in my way to readjustment.

And to be honest, admitting all of this is kind of embarrassing, like admitting I paid a psychic to make me feel better about a huge life-changing decision. I hate that this is so much harder than I ever expected and that I haven't figured my shit out yet. I hate that I don't have a job or some kick-ass plan to save the world or really any sort of plan that makes me at least look like I know what I'm doing.

So that's what I'm doing right now. I'm pretty lost, really lonely, extremely frustrated, and trying not to be like Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite, bragging about high school football and stuck in the past.

I've considered going back to the same psychic. I'm ravenous for any sort of consolation, anything to hold onto. I need to know good things will eventually start happening, that I will eventually get a job, that I will serve a purpose, that the dust will settle from this two-year cloud. I know this can't last forever, but when will it end?

I have a feeling I know what she'd say. I can already picture her peacefully close her eyes, and upon opening them look into mine and say, "You're going to be fine."