Last week we held an event that I’ve been wanting to do since I got here, and the best thing about it is that I didn’t even offer the idea, plan it, or organize it…one of my counterparts did. (And she pulled it together in one month, which just amazed and inspired me!)
It was a two-day “pasantía” or knowledge exchange field trip for rural water committees and the municipal representatives that oversee the rural water situation in the 8 different districts in the province of Oxapampa.
First, some background: Every district has one municipal worker called the “ATM” in charge of rural water and sanitation, and that person is in charge of helping organize all the rural water committees in his/her district and helping them build, rehabilitate, improve, and maintain their water systems. There are usually between 20-60 water committees in each district – so it is no easy job, especially not for 1 person.
The government has an incentive program that awards money to municipalities if they achieve certain goals such as surveying and entering detailed data about the situation in every community, formalizing water committees, preparing annual plans, and installing chlorination systems. The incentive program is updated annually, so it defines the ATM’s work for the year.
Up until now, each ATM in each district was pretty much working in their own district and didn’t really communicate with the ATMs in the other districts. This event brought all of the ATMs together to share experiences and ideas. Turns out they all have similar experiences and frustrations and it was really helpful for each of them to see that other people are going through the same thing. They shared challenges and best practices, and they now have a rapport between them so they can call each other for support throughout the year.
While it seems pretty straight-forward, meeting the goals of the incentive program turns out to be incredibly difficult for the ATMs, because success relies on the participation of the water committees, which are made up of volunteers, who have limited time and other priorities.
The essential part of the “pasantía” is that the ATM in each district also brought a member of their best water committee to participate. These were the motivated volunteers who share some of the same challenges motivating the other members of their communities to participate.
The most interesting and inspiring part of the event was the “field trip”, where we went out into the field in the afternoons to visit the water system, and we met the water committees in two different districts. These were the “model” water committees that are the most organized and are functioning the best in each of the two districts where we were. It was really powerful for everyone, especially the members of the other water committees, to see an example of what a water committee could be.
(Granted they still weren’t perfect and they each said they had learned ideas during the pasantía that they were hoping to incorporate to continue improving.) But for both the other water committee members and the other ATMs, and even for me, it was really powerful to see an example of motivated, organized people improving their communities.
The use of an example is powerful. It shows us that what we are trying to do can, and has, actually been done.
Collaboration is miraculous…it helps us think about our challenges in a new way, and it’s inspiring to know that other people share our challenges and our passion and are working on the same issues.
And a field trip, getting out of the meeting room, out of the office, out of our own communities, out of our own routine does wonders to open the mind, let new ideas in, and help us think creatively.
At the table this morning, my mom was making bread – kneading and pounding dough, up to the elbows in flour, while I was eating breakfast – my usual fresh fruit smoothly (though usually it is papaya juice, while today it was banana, peanut butter (that I made myself), and milk fresh from the cow), with bread and cheese.
My mom makes bread in her wood stove almost every week – we alternate between eating fresh, homemade bread (yes, it’s as good as it sounds), and bread from the tienda (which is still usually pretty fresh, just made in someone else’s home, but still never quite as good). We were chatting and the conversation turned to the idea of selling bread, and she wanted to do some quick math to see how much she could sell the bread for and what kind of profit she would get.
We did the math and the profits weren’t too impressive, (just 12 soles ($4) per batch of dough and 4 hours of work. On the other hand, that’s 48 soles a month she saves by making the bread when we eat homemade bread instead of buying it, which was a result she was happy with because I think she also enjoys making bread).
It led me to thinking about my privilege. I personally never really had to think about whether to make or buy my staples to save money. If I decided to make bread, or pizza crust, or undergo some cooking or baking project, it was usually more for entertainment or to learn something rather than to save money.
This reminded me of a book I read (Poor Economics), that pointed out that this very thing is one of the differences between the rich and the poor – those with plenty of money don’t have to spend so much time and energy thinking about whether the small things will save them a few dollars here or make them a few dollars there, and instead can invest their time and energy in things that bring in bigger profits. So naturally, every day, someone that starts with more resources will have more opportunities to make themselves richer by much greater margins than someone who starts with fewer resources.
People with clean water delivered to their house consistently every day, don’t have to boil their water every day before drinking it or cooking with it – which takes time, (mental) energy, and money to pay for gas or wood for a fire.
I have seen that when someone has a medical problem here, they usually have to travel a day and a half to a bigger city to see a specialist (sometimes after waiting weeks or months to get an appointment.) I never realized before how lucky I was to always live in a city with a decent hospital that had a variety of specialists. Simply having a well-staffed, larger hospital means that people who get sick or have medical problems (and have insurance or can afford it…a whole other topic) lose fewer days of work, can get treated more quickly, and bear a little less stress associated with managing the medical problem.
These are just two of many examples I have experienced here that contrast with some of the conveniences I enjoyed in my life, without even realizing or appreciating their value and importance…and therefore highlight privileges I have had throughout my life that I didn’t even realize I had.
These privileges that I enjoyed are not simply due to the US being a wealthier country, as many people assume. They are actually mainly due to the fact that I have always lived in an urban area and not a far out rural area, that I have always had medical insurance, and due to government policies that subsidized and promoted certain infrastructure development in farther out rural areas.
There are and always will be people that have fewer advantages, fewer opportunities and privileges than me, and you – in our own countries, in our own communities, and in other countries. And we can choose to only focus on advancing our own wealth every day, or we can remember that we are part of a larger community, a larger country, and a larger world, and try to advance the collective wealth (health, opportunities, sense of safety and security and justice).
One thing I love about Peace Corps is the emphasis not only on achieving our program goals (for example bringing clean water to people), but they equally emphasize “Goal 2” and “Goal 3”, which basically are to have a cultural exchange in order to promote understanding between Peruvians and Americans and vice versa.
Hence, while my job involves working with governments and water committees, it is fair to say that 2/3 of my job is to build good relationships and promote understanding with my family, friends, and the people I work with here in Peru, and also to share my experiences with people back home. To that end, Peace Corps puts a great emphasis helping us navigate cultural differences and encouraging us to take time to build good relationships in our communities.
This is one of the reasons I love the Peace Corps model because for me, that is not only what development should look like, that is what life should look like – we should always be working to deepen our relationships, exchange ideas, and talk through (and often celebrate) differences, and take time to learn from each other. But with all the pressures of work and responsibilities, it can sometimes be hard to do.
In fact, I think one of the biggest challenges of being an adult – a challenge that I don’t think ever ends – is finding that work-life balance* that is right for us. At least in my adult life, it has been a moving target, and while I have found good rhythms at times, life is always changing and I am always changing, and there is always more work and more life that wants to be had, and never enough time for it all. So, I always had a stressful internal struggle and guilt about the amount of time I put into relationships vs. work.
Living in a new place, speaking and understanding a new language, making new friends, building a new life, while working in a new job, is even harder than I thought it would be, and I have found that having and investing in good relationships is possibly even more important than ever before. Luckily, I feel that the Peace Corps Peru program understands these dynamics, and it really helps me manage my stress just to know that the time I put into building relationships with my family and friends doesn’t take away from my work here, it is foundational to my work here – one of the key expectations of my job.
Granted, they also say that our job is a 24-7 job. After working in the field or with counterparts, we are still on the job when we come home to eat dinner with the family or spend time with friends or family on the weekends. But as with any job, when you love what you do it doesn’t feel like work…to some extent. As with any job, when you work a lot even what you love can be tiring. And with learning and living in a new language, a new culture, a new place, sometimes just conversing with friends or family is exhausting!
But time and again I have found that the investments I put into taking time to slow down and chat with people, (ignoring the sense of urgency and stress from work I have in the back of my mind), have been crucial in my work and my life here – just as they told us during training.
For example, one encouraged activity they told us about in training is to practice the “art of sitting”. Basically, it just means taking time to sit around with people, even if there isn’t a conversation going or anything happening really – to just sit with people. Coming from the fast-paced life of DC it this was really awkward and hard for me. But the art of sitting really works. It has definitely deepened my relationships with people, especially with my host family, and I’ve noticed at least three really cool things that have come from it: 1) I have developed a connection and more trust with the people I have sat with, 2) I am able to share things and make small talk more easily than I could before, and 3) It has led to some great conversations.
One of the best time to do this (though the hardest for me at first) is after lunch or dinner, while still at the table with the family. Instead of rushing to clear the table and wash dishes or watch tv, a lot of times we just hang out at the table for a while. Sure, sometimes (or a lot of times) there’s awkward silence (but it sometimes gives me a chance to try to think through what has happened during the day or something interesting to share…and then to think about how to explain it in Castellano).
Often, like today, the silence will give birth to a really interesting conversation. I don’t even remember how it happened, but today my mom started telling us a part of her life story – her mom’s life and how she and her dad lived in the highlands and then walked to Oxapampa to settle here. It was pretty fascinating for a casual conversation that sprouted from the art of sitting.
Other times, I will share things that happened at work or challenges I am having, and hearing other perspectives will give me good insights into how people I’m working with might perceive what I am doing. And the best conversations (rare, but worth the wait), are when my host dad cracks one of his deadpan jokes that starts a whole string of jokes with everyone laughing (and sometimes I even understand and can laugh too.)
If you don’t already do this, try out the art of sitting…embrace the awkward silence, and wait to see what blossoms.
*Geeky caveat: The term work-life balance can be tricky because it means something different to everyone. Work that you enjoy doing is arguably not work, especially if it is with people you enjoy working with, so how does one even define “work” as being different from “life”? (Spoken like a true workaholic). For the sake of argument and clarity, I’ll say that work is what we do to make a living and it usually takes away time from being with other people you enjoy being with who aren’t doing the same work.
My oldest (host) sister is a teacher so she gets January-March off (summer vacation in the southern hemisphere). This year she promised her daughters, ages 6 and 8, that they would take a family vacation to Lima.
Aside: Since Lima is the capital city of Peru, I think a good comparison for the US would be like a family from a small, rural town taking 12-hour drive to vacation in Washington, DC… or maybe more like New York because it is a coastal mega city, like Lima.
The girls had never been to Lima before, and they had never seen the ocean, so it was going to be a great adventure! I really wanted to join them… to see the looks on their faces when they saw things like the ocean and the crowded city full of cars, for the first time. I wanted to go because they were going to go see sights in Lima that were more family-kids-oriented that I hadn’t known about and might not do on my own. And finally, I know my way around Lima a little bit because I have had to stay there multiple times for trainings and travel, so I wanted to help them navigate the city – which can be tricky if you don’t do it regularly.
Aside: My sister kept joking that she was embarrassed that a foreigner was showing her around her own capital city. It was definitely one of those moments where I recognized my privilege – even as a volunteer, not being paid much, simply being a part of Peace Corps gives me quite a few privileges that a lot of other people don’t enjoy, even paid trips to Lima and a network of friends and contacts throughout the country that help me learn how to navigate the city and the country.
So on a Wednesday morning, we all hopped on a bus for the 10 hour bus ride to Lima. (It was also the girls’ first time in a luxury bus, and I loved how the attendant very seriously took each of their tickets, checking their names off the list and treating them like adults.) I reserved us a hostel in Miraflores to be closer to our first destination: the beach. When we got there, I introduced them to their first ride on the Metropolitano, (the public transit line which is a bus system with its own separated lane), which took us from the bus terminal to the neighborhood Miraflores.
Before going to bed, we walked out to the Malecón – a sidewalk that goes along the cliffs of the beach, and has parks and greenspace along it. There are always people walking, running, picnicking, doing yoga, doing workouts, out on dates, or just hanging out looking at the ocean. We found a playground near the Larcomar mall, where the girls expended their energy from sitting on a bus all day.
The next morning, we hopped on a city bus (1.5 soles) and headed to the beach in Barranco, and the girls saw the ocean for the first time!
I think it was more exciting for me than them (I was a little underwhelmed by their reactions), but they had a great time and learned quickly about waves – how they surprise you and splash you in the face with salty water, and about sand – which doesn’t come out of your hair and swimsuit for a few days after rolling around in it like they did!
The second day we wanted to go to Parque de las Leyendas, so I found us an AirBnB closer to that area of town so we wouldn’t spend most of the day traveling there. Parque de las Leyendas is a zoo, built in the middle of some ruins from civilizations of the past. (I admit I was disappointed because it was really just a zoo and I didn’t see any “legends” or descriptions of the different ruins that were all throughout the zoo.)
We started with the different animals found in the different regions of Peru – coastal desert, highlands, and jungle. Then we saw a mock mine which explained the different minerals that are extracted from Peru, where we learned that Peru is one of the top 5 producers of the most common minerals of the world.
And we finished with the exotic animals from other parts of the world (the giraffe, zebra, and lions and tigers and bears, etc.) Everyone agreed at the end of the day that the huge, majestic, white tiger that paced back and forth impressed them the most…was it pacing back and forth thinking of how to escape and eat us, or wishing it could escape and run through the plains….?
That night we went to the Parque de las Aguas, in Parque de la Reserva, which has magnificent fountains, each lit up with lights, some with amazing colors. At 8:00pm the show began…a laser show projected onto the water of the fountains, featuring photos depicting the different food and landscapes form the 3 regions of Peru.
One of the fountains served as a splash park for kids, and my nieces had the best time. They had definitely never seen anything like it and they LOVED it. We had to ask the announcer to call them out by name to get them to come out to go home. I would guess that was the coolest part of the trip for them…the curiosity and fascination they had for the splash park fountain is what I had expected (and maybe hoped to see) for their first view of the ocean.
The final day was a trip to Gamarra to purchase clothes and supplies for the school year, which starts in March here. Gamarra is the biggest flea market you have ever seen…it is literally an entire neighborhood – streets and streets, blocks and blocks of shops. You can get just about anything you need for the cheapest price you can find in all of Peru. This is where my sister took the lead and showed me around.
Weekends are the busiest days – there are so many people that you can’t walk without rubbing shoulders with other people, and you need a running back’s skills to navigate through the crowds to get where you want to go. It helps to go with a Peruvian – both to navigate through, and to get better prices, (and I was told it’s more dangerous for people who look like tourists because they are targets for pick-pockets and people looking to take advantage of someone).
After a wonderful time exploring Lima together and getting to know each other better, we all had to head back to Oxapampa. A few weeks later, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer went with his family to Lima and they had a similar itinerary, so this gives you an idea of a typical family vacation to Lima for a family from “provincia”, or one of the other more rural areas outside of Lima.
I came across this write-up that I did my first month in site but that I never posted. So here’s a time warp to about a year ago that presents my thoughts about my new living situation when I first arrived in site:
One big difference in my new life here from my life in DC is my home life. I have been living away from family for more than a decade (something that is really strange to most people here), and now I am living with a host mom, dad, and brother.
They are super awesome, and I’m loving it. Granted, I had a few months to mentally prepare myself for the change in lifestyle.
I love not having to make meals for myself, though the trade-off is having to be on a schedule where I am home in time for meals and I don’t get any say in what I eat. Right now I am settling in, and I like the rhythm.
I also have to let my host mom know if I am not going to be coming home at the usual time so she doesn’t worry. I have never in my life been good at this, (as my parents will attest), so it will be a challenge.
One thing that will help with letting my family know what I am doing and where I am is that every day we eat lunch and dinner together so we have plenty of time to talk about what is going on in our lives. It is a tough transition, but I’m getting more and more used to sharing what is going on in my daily life – even the minutia.
Speaking of that, dinner table conversations are interesting – sometimes I understand 30% of what we’re talking about, and sometimes 90%, usually around 60-70%. I think my average is improving, and that’s all I can ask for, really. I have to concentrate so hard – like 150% of my attention – just to understand a casual conversation…it’s no wonder I am so exhausted at the end of every day. (Forget trying to take notes in a meeting…I definitely can’t write and listen to a conversation at the same time. But I digress.)
My host father has an awesome dry sense of humor (and always when you least expect it), and thankfully he usually has the patience to repeat what he says or explain what he says so I can get the joke. (I know, I’m the worst buzz kill.)
My host mom is seriously the sweetest and has nothing but a ton of love to give and is interested in being healthy and talking about whatever topic comes up. My host brother loves to hunt and farm, and he often isn’t around, but when he is we talk a lot about animals, hunting and food.
I also have two host sisters and three sobrinos – two nieces and one nephew.
My youngest host sister lives in our same town so I see her and my nephew pretty frequently. He is 3 months older than my real nephew and also an incredibly happy baby so I love hanging out with him.
My older host sister is one year older than me and lives a few hours away with her husband and my two nieces – 5 and 7. They are really fun and I love when they come visit. This sister used to work in tourism and is now a teacher and tells me cool stories about the history and legends of the town where I live.
Overall, I feel really safe and comfortable and happy that they have all welcomed me into the family – in this strange situation where someone from a different country that can’t really speak the language and that they have never known before comes and asks to be a part of the family.
That was about 15 months ago. Since then I have grown closer to my host family, and I feel even more a part of the family. They are a great source of love and support in my life here. We don’t eat together quite as often because of certain work meetings, but I try to make sure at least once a day we share a meal, and it is always rewarding. My mom doesn’t worry about me since I have a good, trustworthy friends, so if I am out late and forget to call (as I am prone to do,) she still rests peacefully (thankfully!) And, thankfully my language continues to improve and I understand 99% of conversations…except when I am exhausted and that plummets to about 70%.
Thanks to the great family, friends, and co-workers I have here, I have extended my service a year and will be here until August 2019!
Now this is going to sound super ivory-tower, bureaucratic, but the thing I am have been most proud of after my first year in site, is that I helped form a working group. Not just any working group, but one that actually works – that meets and does stuff. I know this probably sounds pretty lame to some, but anyone working in government or trying to get different organizations to work together might be able to appreciate why I am so happy about this. And some of you will also appreciate that our group has an acronym: GTIFAS. (Say: heteefas because the G sounds like an H in Spanish.) (And in case you wanted to know, it stands for: Grupo Técnico Interés de Fortalecimiento en Agua y Saneamiento).
I know this doesn’t have the flair of “I built a water system that will bring water to 100 people”, but here’s the thing: The municipality has built many water systems to bring water to hundreds of people in rural communities here, but that water is not potable water, the majority of the systems are not maintained, and some of them not functioning properly. So, as I learned in my work with Engineers Without Borders, infrastructure is really only half (if even half) of development – it’s the social aspect – the people part – that is equally important, crucial for sustainability, and often overlooked. (1)
So, when I arrived, what I found was a really great foundation for having clean water: Constructed water systems. Many different institutions whose purpose is to make sure people have potable water – specifically, the municipality and three different health institutions. Even an NGO that does similar work (watershed protection). And, smart, motivated people working in the institutions.
And all these people and organizations have all been working at this for a while – even decades for some, but usually working separately within their own institutional goals and bureaucratic reporting requirements (even though they all have a common goal of making sure people have clean water to drink (among many other goals that they manage)).
So… I formed a working group. With 7 different organizations, if you count Peace Corps (me). That is, 7 motivated, smart people.
And, while previously these organizations had rarely, if ever, met in the same room to talk about the problem of potable water, in this past year we have met at least every other month, and are giving monthly trainings in rural towns – which is something that has never before happened.
We are now analyzing the results from the trainings last year to see if we are any closer to having functioning water committees and systems that provide potable water. And together we have dreamed up a plan for expanding our work for 2018, (hopefully with the help of a funding from outside sources), to have a greater presence and give better support in these rural communities, using (and trying out) the latest strategies in development related to health promoters and behavior change.
While I will give myself credit for helping make this group happen, I definitely do not take all the credit…the real credit goes to the individuals who come to those meetings and participate in the group – they are motivated, passionate, and don’t just work for the paycheck – they really do want to see these rural communities have access to potable drinking water. And they are taking a chance on this group – coming to meetings even though they are super busy and tired from a long week, putting in the extra effort, and hoping that our combined efforts will lead to a real change.
Right now we are just a working group that has given some good trainings, shared some good ideas, and applied for a grant for t2018. But still there is no potable water, so I’m not patting myself on the back saying the work here is done. But we are working on human issues that take time to change – behavior change, changing how people thing about water, and training people with low education levels on how to manage a water system in its technical and administrative aspects.
These things take time, perseverance, creativity, and constant effort. The ideas, collaboration, and energy that are coming out of the working group give me hope that this is an important first step towards real changes.
Now to the real work…to stay motivated and keep each other motivated in the long process ahead.
1. So, if you’re into footnotes and soap boxes, here’s one. While building something is really sexy and sounds awesome, the reality is that maintaining that something is where the real work and benefit lies…the long-term, arduous, un-sexy work that is super necessary and usually unappreciated and certainly underfunded. We often think infrastructure and technology are what make our lives better, but without people keeping those things working well, we would not have them. So thank you to all the people out there doing the best they can, working on maintaining the infrastructure and institutions humans have created throughout the centuries.
My vacation to the beaches of northwest Peru with Peace Corps friends was the most relaxing vacation I’ve had in my life.
The Plan: Enjoy some beach time, probably go to a few different well-known beaches in the north.
The Rules: No rushing.
After meeting up in Piura city, we took a 3-hour bus ride to our first destination: the beach town Los Organos.
To me, this beach was literally perfect…perfect water temperature, perfect depth, mild waves (good for a swim workout), and not too crowded. I immediately jumped in the ocean upon arriving, and spent most of my time in the ocean until we left.
There was also a pier where they fed the turtles and rented life jackets and goggles to swim with those massive, docile creatures.
I swear, they really are like the stoner turtles in Finding Nemo. They just swam around me almost like I wasn’t even there; one even kept bumping into my feet from below so I was basically surfing on top of him, under water. It was an amazing experience to be swimming right next to such huge, beautiful animals – almost as long as I am tall, and much bigger than me.
Los Organos was my favorite beach of the trip, but we only stayed one night because the place was expensive for our Peace Corps budgets. So after enjoying the beach to the max, we got a car for 3 soles each ($1) for the 30 minute ride to Mancora, where we met a very different atmosphere.
Mancora is pretty popular and was the most crowded beach we stayed at, by far. But it wasn’t too crowded to be able to enjoy it. The water was also the perfect temperature and perfect depth, and great for swimming (except for the jet skis that go zipping around). There was also a great restaurant right on the beach, called Green Eggs and Ham.
We stayed in a chill hostel called Palo Santo frequented by travelers from around the world (we met people from Canada, Australia, Argentina, and other places that I don’t remember.) By night, and well into the morning, Mancora is a party beach, with pop-up dance clubs, blaring different music right next to each other, appearing on the beach at night. Even though our hostel was chill, it’s pretty loud at night because the whole city parties all night long.
Unfortunately, I had a challenging encounter with pushy surf instructor I was dancing with, who insisted on trying to make out, even after I told him no. I wish I could have shown him this video that explains sexual consent using ceviche as an example, but instead I just had to talk frankly with him about respecting when someone says no, until he left pouting like a baby.
After 2 nights in Mancora, the group was all partied out, so we headed north to Los Zorritos in the department of Tumbes.
Following recommendations passed down by other PCVs, we found ourselves in an Eco Hostel called 3 Puntas, which was very different from our stays in the other two beaches.
This was a super cute, rustic site with cabins pretty spread out, a beautiful outdoor pool, bucket flush toilets that use greywater from the sinks, an outdoor, build-your-own-fire kitchen, hammocks on the beach, and again, a beautiful, perfect beach.
Unfortunately, I lost my phone getting out of the van when we arrived, so I spent the first afternoon catching a ride to Tumbes city, 30 minutes north, asking around for the vans that run between Mancora and Tumbes. A really nice guy helped us find the van, but sadly I did not find my phone. On the bright side, I got to see the city of Tumbes, which was celebrating its anniversary that week.
After the little side trip to Tumbes, we had the perfect two days of relaxing that we needed.
Like true PCVs we made our meals over the wood fire, and flushed our toilets with buckets, and we loved every minute of it.
A friend living in Piura braved the 5-hour ride to meet up with us for one night and one day, but said the travel was totally worth it.
When our time was up and we had to begin the journey home, we thought about options for getting back to Piura. We decided to wait a few minutes on the side of the highway and see if a bus passed by before heading into the central part of town to find a van or car. Within 10 minutes we landed a comfortable ride in a car with air conditioning (a luxury here) and a really cautious driver (one of the first cautious drivers I’ve seen here), for the 4-5-hour drive back towards Piura.
We stayed in a hostel called Qispi Key, which had cool Grateful Dead and hippy like wall art, but terrible service; even though we had called ahead saying we were coming, no one was there when we arrived and a guest had to let us in, and we had to wait 30 minutes for someone to show up to check us in. The next morning, our 8am breakfast came at 8:45 and we almost missed our 9:15 bus, forcing us to break our “no rushing” rule. So not a recommended hostel if you are on a schedule.
Instead of going straight home, we decided to break up the travel, so we spent 8 hours traveling from Piura to Trujillo and spent a couple nights in Huanchaco, the beach town outside of Trujillo.
The Pope is coming to Peru this week, and he will be visiting Huanchaco, so there was a lot of work going into preparing for his visit.
Having swum every day for the last 5 days, at 3 different beaches, (there is nowhere to swim in my site, so swimming is a real treat), I jumped in the ocean for my final swim before heading home…and I almost died of hypothermia (not literally, mom). The water was like ice water and took my breath away. After 25 minutes of torture, I ended up running inside to take a warm shower and put on a flannel shirt even though it was warm outside.
In the afternoon I came to understand what had happened, thanks to a pre-Incan culture called Chimu. A few minutes from Huanchaco is “Chan Chan”, ruins from the Chimu culture, a civilization that peaked in the 14th and 15th centuries until it was overtaken by the Incas. Known for the architecture, this site still has standing walls, even though it’s from centuries past and is on the beach in an area prone to earthquakes.
The walls are strong and also decorated with icons of their fishing culture – fish, pelicans, and nets. The icons point in the direction of the exits to help know the way through the maze of rooms.
In one entryway, the walls were decorated with fish swimming in one direction towards a wall, and on the other wall swimming in the opposite direction – towards the other fish. The guide explained that these fish represented the two currents on the coasts of Peru: the current that comes from the south and brings cold water to Lima and Trujillo (and Huanchacho), and the current that comes from the north and brings warm water from the north to the beaches of Tumbes and Piura. So that is why I enjoyed the bath-water oceans of Tumbes and Piura and then was shocked by the ice water of Huanchaco!
Finally, every night in Huanchaco ends with watching the sunset on the beach; a perfect end to a beach vacation, and the beginning of a new year in Peru.
When I arrived here, everyone told me that Christmas in the U.S. is a much bigger deal than it is Peru. From my experiences here, I find them to be pretty similar, with just a few minor differences – the Peruvian touch.
The biggest differences are that Christmas is celebrated on Christmas Eve, or Nochebuena, and that everyone (every school, business, institution, home, etc.) has a nativity scene. The nativity scene is more essential than the Christmas tree here…while in the U.S. you might see Christmas trees without the nativity scene, here you might nativity scenes without the Christmas tree.
While everyone does it a little differently, the essentials for Nochebuena are Panetón and hot chocolate (flavored with cinnamon). What usually happens is that the family gets together on Christmas Eve, eats a huge meal, drinks hot chocolate and munches on Panetón, until midnight, when they put the baby Jesus in the manger of the nativity scene…and then the kids run outside to set off fireworks and rockets. A lot of families stay up way past midnight celebrating into the “madrugada” or early morning. Christmas day is a national holiday here, (which makes a lot of sense, because everyone needs to recover from Nochebuena!)
This year (and last year), my family celebrated more like I had done in the U.S. – we had a pretty low key Nochebuena, and then we had a bigger celebration on Christmas day because that is when my oldest sister was able to come into town.
For Nochebuena this year, we went to an aunt’s house and had a medium-sized meal (while it was a large meal for me, it was medium-sized compared to a typical celebratory meal here,) and, of course, we ate Panetón and had hot chocolate while we waited for midnight (and also waited for my aunt to come home because she works at the hospital and got called in to go with a patient to a hospital in a city 2 hours away because they didn’t have the treatment the patient needed here. But that’s another topic.) At midnight we went outside to watch the kids setting off rockets and fireworks…it sounded like a warzone!
On Christmas day, I spent the morning (until 2pm) helping prepare the huge Christmas meal. It started with the typical chicken soup (caldo de gallina) as a starter, and then we had a huge and delicious turkey, yucca, potatoes, creamy apple salad with raisins and nuts, spinach salad, and rice (always). You will not have a Peruvian meal without rice…except maybe ceviche. Maybe.
My mom also had made mashed sweet potatoes – something she had learned from the thanksgiving meal that the other PCVs in my site and I had shared with her and the other families this Thanksgiving!
Most adults here say Christmas is for kids. There’s Mother’s Day for moms. Father’s Day for dads. And Christmas for kids. (Yep, those of us adults without kids are a really weird thing for most people (a topic for another day), so we don’t get acknowledged.) So, the gift-giving at Christmas is usually just for the kids. But luckily, my family has decided to do Secret Santa the past two years, so the adults draw names, and we each give and get one gift. (I love it…when I only have to think about one gift, I can put a lot of thought into it and get a really good gift, whereas I really struggle to get everyone a meaningful gift when I buy for everyone. But I digress.)
This year all the kids got something with wheels…the 3-year-old got a tricycle, the 6-year-old got a bicycle, and the 8-year-old got rollerblades.
And then we had Secret Santa, which was pretty great and low key, until…my dad had drawn my oldest sister (who is 2 years older than me), and he gave her a bicycle! It was the cutest, funniest, sweetest thing ever. She shed a tear or two, and I’m pretty sure she was more excited about her bicycle than her 6-year-old daughter was about hers!
So, for me, Christmas here is actually pretty similar to how I celebrated Christmas with my family my whole life. So why do so many Peruvians and Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) say that Christmas is a bigger deal in the States? Of course I will not leave you without sharing my theories:
Christmas movies. There are tons of them, and a lot of what Peruvians know about the U.S. comes from Hollywood (yep, the image of Americans is that we are all wealthy, sex-crazed, work-aholics, thanks to Hollywood), so Christmas seems like a real big deal to Americans just because there are so many movies about it, and not so many movies about other holidays.
In the states, Christmas tends to be one of the bigger holidays of the year (advertised like crazy (even BEFORE Thanksgiving!), tons of movies about it (as I said above), secularized and celebrated by the majority, even non-Christians). In the US, I can’t really think of another holiday that would be bigger, generally speaking, given the media attention Christmas gets in the States, so it is our biggest holiday – or among the biggest…
While Christmas is celebrated in a similar manner here, it is dwarfed by the celebrations of other holidays. Compared to the other celebrations that they have here in Peru, Christmas is a pretty low-key family celebration…meanwhile Independence Day, Semana Santa, and the town anniversary and the day of the patron saint are huge, town-wide parties that last up to a week, and all have multiple parades, concerts, fireworks shows and tons of festive activities.
So these other celebrations are like a combination of many of our holidays: New Years Eve and 4th of July (for the fireworks), plus Thanksgiving (for the parade), plus state fair (for the activities), and Christmas (for the decorations they put up all over town). And so, as a Peruvian or a PCV, Christmas appears like a pretty minor holiday here.
Night buses are the most common way to travel in Peru, and it makes a lot of sense because they come with the option of big comfortable seats that recline 180 degrees into a bed, so you can just sleep during the night and wake up at your destination. And they really are super comfortable and have their own tv screen and headphones so you can watch movies or listen to music of your choice. While I often take the night bus, I prefer the day bus because of the scenery.
Peru is blessed with amazingly beautiful landscapes throughout the country, and on the journey between Oxapampa and Lima, you get the pleasure of seeing each of the three types of regions that make up Peru: Selva (jungle), Sierra (Highlands), and Costa (Coastal desert).
The journey takes you from the coastal desert of Lima, to the highlands, to to the jungle, and then to up to the high jungle, or eyebrow of the jungle (ceja de la selva) which is between jungle and highlands.
While photos do not do it justice, I would like to share a few to give you a glimpse. Starting in Lima, which is coastal desert, you make your way to barren desert hills that get taller and taller until they turn into mountains of the highlands.
You enjoy the beauty of the highlands for hours, for the majority of the trip but you never get bored (or at least, I never get bored) because no mountain is the same.
You have the grey desert mountains, the beautiful highland lakes, the black, snow-capped mountains and the turquoise lakes beneath them, the screaming red mountains, the mountains with patches of green and brown highland grasses, mountains reforested with eucalyptus or pine, brown and orange mountains (being carved up by mining operations).
Maybe I am biased because I just love mountains, but I never get bored of the scenery. It always leaves me breathless (and not just because of the altitude, which reaches 4,818m or 15,807 ft) and awestruck by its beauty.
Then, as you start to lose elevation, the mountains turn green as you begin to enter the jungle.
The vegetation takes over and the vibrant and wild greenness of the jungle refreshes you with a new vista.
The streams, rivers, and waterfalls are something out of a travel magazine (sorry I don’t have great pictures of these, but they exist!).
And as you gain elevation again, going from low jungle to high jungle, climbing those green mountains, looking down on the verdant valley, and passing right through the middle of that mountainous jungle, you feel like you are Indiana Jones on the way to a hidden city in the middle of the jungle.
Obviously, the reverse journey is just as amazing, going down from the high jungle, winding through the verdant mountains, getting closer and closer to the river below in the valley between the mountains. And then rising again and entering the sierra (the highlands) in all its grandeur…until it begins to turn into smaller and smaller, greyer and greyer mountains…that eventually get more and more sparse as you enter the desert coast of Lima.
So, if you can’t come visit me in Oxapampa (like Julia, Toni, and Ilka have done!) here’s a glimpse of the beautiful journey.
After not seeing any of my family members for a year and a half, I was so happy to see my mom and my aunts walk through the door of the Lima airport! It was also a little surreal to see them in Lima. My two worlds collided…here I was in Peru, where I am a Peace Corps Volunteer, living a simpler life in a rural area trying to integrate and live like a local, and I hadn’t seen my family this whole time, and suddenly my family was here and we were going on a family vacation here! (After a year and a half living here, I still had not had the opportunity to see Machu Picchu, and we were going to go together!)
So, that means I was going to be a tourist…something I have been trying hard not be, as I try arduously to “integrate”. This was going to be a super interesting experience as I tried to use what I had learned over the last year and a half – language, culture, and how things work in Peru –to navigate like a local, while being a tourist.
What do I mean by that? Navigating transportation, the language, and trying to not always pay the “gringo price”. For example, in a restaurant in Aguas Calientes, they tried to charge an additional 20% on our bill, saying that all the restaurants do it. Considering that there was no notification in the menu or anywhere that they were going to charge an additional 20%, I had argue that it was unfair and that I wasn’t going to pay it. I was super uncomfortable doing this kind of negotiating when I first got here, but after a lot of practice it starts to come naturally, (and I get a lot of practice, being of light-colored skin, because I often get quoted a price twice or three times as much as the going price). But I digress.
With only 7 days of vacation, we had a pretty tight schedule, but the great thing about Peru – and Cusco is maybe the epitome of this – is that the journey is often as amazing as the destination. So even though we had a full day of travel the next day, (flight to Cusco, and 3-hour car ride to Ollantaytambo), it was full of great sites (and surprises).
In addition the beautiful mountains and scenery on the drive, we stopped in Chincheros, where we saw a demonstration of how wool from sheep and alpaca is made into wool thread and dyed to make textiles, (and of course had the opportunity to buy some great handmade items like shawls, scarves, hats (chullos), socks, gloves, sweaters, blankets, etc.
And randomly…our driver was awesome, and completely coincidentally, had grown up in Oxapampa where I live now (which is very far away from Cusco).
The next day we started with a 3-hour train ride to Aguas Calientes to catch the 20-minute bus ride to Machu Picchu. And again, the journey itself to Machu Picchu was amazing and beautiful.
But, of course, nothing compares to the marvel of Machu Picchu. As my Aunt Michelle said, she was a little worried she wouldn’t be that amazed because she had already seen so many photos of it online, but then seeing it in real life is just something completely different and stunning.
First, it’s got its views – Machu Picchu is set in one of the most amazing spots, tucked in the mountains of the high jungle, and therefore surrounded by verdant green mountains, and overlooking a valley.
Then, it is built on the side of a mountain, but engineered in a way that prevents it from being destroyed by the natural processes of erosion.
And unlike a lot of cities of today, it doesn’t exclude nature from its design, it incorporates it, keeping green terraces, and natural streams as an integral part of its structural and functional design.
You see an interesting combination of the complex shapes and rounded, soft edges found in nature, molded into the straight edges, corners, lines, and simple shapes of the human-constructed world.
For me, this was a sight where the beauty of nature comes together with creativity and engineering brilliance, and it demonstrates the evolution of human knowledge.
And while, the beauty and marvel of Machu Picchu is unique for its location and how well it has been preserved, even the journey back to Cusco, through the Sacred Valley, was a journey that was, in itself, a destination.
We were able to explore the ruins at Ollantaytambo and Pisaq, and enjoy the beautiful scenery of the Sacred Valley on the way back to Cusco…and still we barely scratched the surface of the sites that offer breathtaking views ruins that give hints into the lives of past civilizations.
Our final full day in Cusco, we explored a few sites nearby the City of Cusco, including the famous Saqsayhuaman (basically pronounced Sexy Womán), until we felt like we were experts in Incan mythology, architecture, and engineering (not even close).
Turns out that 4 days in Cusco was a good amount of time to see a lot of the highlights, but an extra day, or few, would have been even better, to be able to see the city of Cusco itself, some museums, and maybe to take another day trip or two to some other cool spots like Rainbow Mountain or the salt farms.
It turned out to be an amazing trip with the family, and I am so lucky that they were able to come, and that we were able to experience these amazing sites together. While the role of being a tourist took getting used to, the role of translator, negotiator, and vacation planner was fun and challenging. In a way, for the first time in my life I felt like I was taking care of my mom and aunts, instead of the other way around. Considering that they have taken care of me my whole life, I was honored to be able to do that, at least for a few days.