Between Two Worlds

For many, part of being a Peace Corps Volunteer is feeling like you are living between two worlds – where you grew up in the US and where are living while you serve. Two-thirds of our role as Peace Corps Volunteers is to try to bridge that gap through fostering intercultural understanding and exchanges.

Last year I found myself living between two worlds, but two different worlds within Peru – and I was surprised to find it more challenging than expected.

While I have always lived in cities of more than 1 million my entire life, I adapted pretty seamlessly (not without challenges, but generally pretty seamlessly) to my new, rural lifestyle in Peru, thanks to great friends and a great host family. Then, after two years, I started dating someone from Lima – that fast-moving mega city of around 8 million people, and specifically, someone from a higher socio-economic status in Lima.

gestion.pe

A few months in I started to feel the stark contrast between the culture in which I was living in my Peace Corps site, and the culture of upper class Lima. While I had known that Peru was a diverse country with a great diversity of cultures within the country, I now started to see more clearly a lot of differences between the upper class lifestyle in Lima and an average lifestyle in “provincia”. (Anywhere in Peru that is not Lima is considered “Provincia”).

Many people think of the world in terms of rich countries and poor countries… people speak of “the developing world” and “the developed world”, or “the third world” and “first world countries”. You have probably heard and even used these terms, and it’s common to think that each country fits into one of those categories.

Image Creator:Rosamond Hutt, from “Is the term ‘developing world’ outdated?”, World Economic Forum

Unfortunately, this distinction in wealth is much more common than the reality that WITHIN every country, there is an economic divide between the wealthy and the poor.

In Brazil, a country considered “developing”, there are more than a quarter million millionaires. Meanwhile, about 12% of the US population lives in poverty (US Census Bureau, 2017), and about 1.5 million experience homelessness in a year, in a country considered “developed”.

In some countries, this divide in wealth is not as pronounced; the countries considered “wealthy” that have the lowest poverty rates are:

  1. Finland – 6.3%
  2. Czech Republic – 6.4%
  3. Netherlands – 7.9%
  4. France – 8.1%
  5. Norway – 8.1%
  6. Slovak Republic – 8.4%
  7. Austria – 8.7%
  8. Slovenia – 9.2%
  9. Sweden – 9.2%
  10. Belgium – 9.9%
  11. UK – 10.9%

But I digress.

Over the last few years in a rural but somewhat progressive town in Peru, I have grown accustomed to my lifestyle and that of those around me. My family lives paycheck to paycheck. I work with people in the more rural farming communities, where most are farmers and others sometimes have work and sometimes don’t. The people around me always have food, but they don’t always have the healthiest variety of food. Sometimes we don’t plug in the refrigerator because of concern about being able to pay the electric bill.

My host nephew here is a dinosaur fanatic, like many kids his age. He plays dinosaurs every day at school and always talks about them. When I saw that my nephews in the states had gone to a museum and saw dinosaur bones and all kinds of things about dinosaurs, I realized that it is unlikely that my host nephew here would get the opportunity to do that before his dinosaur phase passes.

I have definitely been living more with the concept of “scarcity mentality” – making decisions in the moment based on the idea that there are limited resources, (not enough time or money for example). When we operate in this “scarcity mentality”, sometimes we sacrifice long-term benefits because we are operating to stretch what little we have in the moment (minimizing the grocery bill by buying fewer fruits and vegetables, we will have more money for other bills in the short term, even though we might be paying higher medical bills in the long term). We also do this with time – we don’t feel like we have enough time, so we don’t do that 30 minutes of exercise or self-care that we know we should do.

With fewer resources coming into my bank account over the last few years, I certainly started to adopt more and more of a penny-pinching scarcity mentality, without even realizing it.

Then, as I began spending time in social circles with people who grew up in wealthy families in Lima, I suddenly found myself in a different world for a few days at a time. On one hand, the culture of natural products, expensive health food, gym memberships, and that urban upper and upper-middle class lifestyle was a comfortable reminder of my life in DC before Peace Corps.

But at the same time, I was not receiving a salary that could support that type of lifestyle, and I found that I had a hard time bridging the gap in our current experiences and connecting with people in that circle because of the difference in our economic experiences. Maybe because I didn’t have the language (in Spanish), or maybe I just couldn’t wrap my head around the differences (and also didn’t have the language in English!)

The paradox is that I had left a very comfortable economic situation – on purpose. I was trying to experience and embrace what it was like to live with a lower economic status, or less economic power, to appreciate that reality and understand it better. And now, I was simultaneously trying to relate to people who had grown up in wealth their whole lives, were used to a culture of comparing wealth and trying to always have the best and latest things. They had never experienced poverty, and would never risk being poor, wanted to ensure that no one ever saw them as poor, or even as less wealthy.

Peace Corps teaches us to adapt to different cultures and situations, and I tried to navigate these different worlds as best as possible. Focusing on things we had in common, I was able to fit in fairly well, especially because of my previous lifestyle. It was exciting to be able to walk between the two worlds, and I realized it was quite a privilege to be able to do that. But there was always an underlying disconnect that I couldn’t put my finger on.

It was really nice to eat big, healthy salads in nice restaurants (but I worried about spending that much). It was nice to see new beaches in the south, but I cringed knowing that only people with money could afford to have property there and enter and enjoy them. I found it interesting to get from place to place in Lima in a personal car instead of bus, public van, or taxi (though I worried about the carbon footprint). I saw the world of people with nannies and gym memberships and who spent the summer in their beach houses outside the city, and it contrasted sharply with the lifestyle I was living in my site.

At the time I didn’t realize it, but my host family had trouble understanding the world of my partner and often felt intimidated or looked-down-upon. My partner couldn’t fully understand the economic pressures that led to the scarcity mentality that my family had for certain things, or why I was so stingy with my money for certain things, (and honestly, I didn’t even realize that my relationship with money had changed!) I could not find the words and the appropriate communication to bridge that gap, partly because I was still trying to wrap my head around what I was experiencing.

It is hard for anyone to understand how to navigate the disparity in wealth we experience, especially as we are each just trying to make sure that we maximize our own wealth to live comfortable lives. While my experience navigating two economic worlds has been a challenging one, I am really thankful that it has made me more aware of the world in which we live. A few highlights:

-Our economic situation actually impacts our paradigms, habits, hobbies, experiences, and even our friends a lot more than we often realize. It can be really eye-opening to reflect on how our economic situation impacts all those areas of our life…take a minute to think about it.

And then I would recommend that we consciously try to branch out of our bubble of comfort to connect with people in a variety of different economic situations. It is so important to stop thinking of “poor” people – people with less opportunities and in a tougher economic situation – as inherently different from us, lazy, unintelligent, or less valuable people. You are not less valuable or lazier or less intelligent than everyone who has more wealth than you.

-A team is only as strong as its weakest player. And a community is only as wealthy as its poorest. If we don’t “mind the gap” – the wealth gap, that is – if we just let it get wider and wider, it can eventually lead to a breaking point in our society.

-It’s so important to recognize our own “scarcity mentalities” and make sure they are accurate. Do we really not have enough time to take care of our own health? Do we really not have enough money or time to choose the healthy food option over the crappy one? (On a side note, we really are depleting the world’s natural resources and they are becoming scarcer every year, so I would also ask, do we really not have enough time or money to choose the environmentally friendly option?)

-And finally, reconsider “Ambition”

Most people just generally want to make more money, no matter how much they are currently making. Sometimes we carry around a fear that if we aren’t maximizing our wealth, we will end up poor in the streets one day. Interestingly, in my circles in Peru, describing a person as “ambitious” doesn’t always have a positive connotation like it does in English. Here, people are also described negatively as “ambitious” when they try to make more money just for the sake of making more money, and then neglect relationships or other human priorities.

While we should always want to improve, if we can change the “ambitious” mindset from only focusing on having more wealth for ourselves and our family, and ambitiously aim for a balanced life where we also look out for the most vulnerable people in our communities, within our own country, and within the human community, we will all live more peacefully and happily.

 

Footnotes: References and further reading:

Poverty data from www.lovemoney.com

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/08/which-countries-have-the-most-wealth-per-capita/

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/11/is-the-term-developing-world-outdated/

Building A Home

Living for 3 years in a different culture, a second language, starting from zero to make friends, foster family and build a community, is an experience like no other. Even for an independent-minded person like me, it challenged me in ways I couldn’t have predicted. One of those was challenging and changing my ideas of “home”.

What do you think of when you think of home? Maybe a house. Probably a certain place like a neighborhood or a city? Usually we think of a place.

But maybe it’s an atmosphere of comfort, usually created by certain people, like family, friends, or community.

I moved away from home at age 18 to go to college in another state, where I fairly easily felt at home in the university atmosphere, surrounded by other people my age in a very similar situation far from where they grew up and looking to meet new people and make new friends, in a place that had been adapted over the decades to make students away from home feel at home.

Later I moved to DC, where I adopted a family and made incredible friends pretty rapidly thanks to some good friends I had made in college. Though I didn’t own a home in DC, I felt part of a community of really great people and I really felt at home. Even though my family lived far away, we were able to see each other a few times a year and of course I could pick up the phone and call at any time.

Despite being content at my home in DC, the time came to fulfill a some of my life goals: to live in another country, immersed in a different culture and a different language and to serve in the Peace Corps. The times I had traveled to new places for a few weeks at a time I had always had the great experience of being welcomed by people and to feel like I had a home away from home wherever I had gone. Now I would put myself to the test and see if I could make a home not only for a few weeks in a completely different place and culture, but for a few years.

My sadness at leaving my friends and family for a few years was counter-balanced by the great excitement for the adventure ahead, the opportunity to fulfill important personal goals, to try to share my knowledge and experience to help improve the lives of others, and the certainty that I would return.

 

Building Home

When I moved to my new home in Oxapampa, I adapted fairly quickly to the place – a beautiful site with really friendly people, much more peaceful and slower paced than all the big cities I had ever lived in, but I was happy for a slower pace especially while trying to learn the language (which is exhausting in its own right). I had my own room with a bathroom, I could walk across the town in 20 minutes and I could find all the basics that I needed, which all helped for a smooth transition.

There were a few inconveniences to adapt to. While I only had cold water to shower with, we sometimes didn’t have water for hours (without any warning), there were a ton of mosquitoes buzzing around my head every night, the meals were carb heavy and lacked vegetables (and I had been a vegetarian before arriving), people often burned brush and trash at night, filling the air with horrible smoke, when it didn’t rain dust filled the air when a motorcycle passed by, public bathrooms didn’t have toilet paper or soap so I had to carry around toilet paper and hand sanitizer every time I left the house, and in the rainy season clothes rarely dried completely (no dryers) and any heavy fabric had a permanent smell from not drying completely (to name a few of the most obvious challenges).

But for me, these were minor inconveniences that I adapted to pretty quickly, especially because they were compensated for by friendly people, the beautiful landscapes, being able to connect with good people, and having my own space when I needed it.

While conveniences and inconveniences played a role in adapting to my new home, the biggest factor that affected whether I felt at home or not had nothing to do with physical comfort and everything to do with the people around me.

I was really lucky to live with a family that was patient with my language and created a space for me to feel at home, with family meals and conversations, asking about my work and my daily experiences, inviting me to extended family events, and treating me like an adopted daughter. This made the transition incredibly smooth, despite the frustrations of trying to work in a professional atmosphere where people didn’t respect my ideas and intelligence because of my low language level.

I was incredibly content with and thankful for my relationship with my host family, so when I started to make friends my age, I was surprised that I suddenly felt even more fulfilled, in a way that I hadn’t before. Even though I had felt that I could share anything with my host family, being able to converse and connect emotionally and intellectually with people my age turned out to be another essential piece of “home” that I needed.

A few months later I made friends that loved biking in the outdoors as much as I do, and we started to go on outdoor excursions – long bike rides through the beautiful hills of Oxapampa. Unsurprisingly, this took me to a whole different level of feeling connected and feeling at home – finding those friends with whom we shared the same passions and ways of de-stressing and having fun on the weekends.

In addition to all these great relationships I made, I always had my best friends from my Peace Corps cohort. My phone service was terrible and I didn’t get to talk to them very often, but when I did get a chance to have a real conversation it was a whole different dimension of feeling connected and understood and supported. Suddenly I had the ability to talk to someone going through something similar, and express myself in my native language, with all the humor and cultural references and slang that I couldn’t skillfully insert into conversations (or pick up on) in Spanish with friends and family.

Similarly, when I was able to talk to my family or long-time friends from home, it filled an even different important space, being able to talk to those people that have known me decades – or since birth! Those that I have known for years, we share long-term memories and experiences, we have seen each other change and seen what stays the same, and they could offer a long-term perspective on some of the things I was feeling and experiencing.

Maybe a year into my service, I started dating, realizing that with all the great relationships I had, I was still missing having a deeper level of emotional intimacy with someone. I had never “dated” before because my partners had always been friends of friends, and for the first time in my life I actually was interested in trying to date. I realized that I had new feelings about relationships and the types of partners I wanted during this time, and I suspect that it had something to do with the unique situation in which I was in, being in a new place and needing to find or build a community around me.

Defining Home

Even within the first few months of the transition to my new home, I had already realized that the best part of my life was the relationships I had made – the best part of a day was connecting and sharing with someone – and having those positive relationships was the foundation for my happiness, (especially in this situation of starting a whole new life from scratch…but in life in general too).

A few years later, having lived here for three years, I have adapted and gotten used to my site, having the newness wear off, having days where I am so busy I forget to appreciate the beauty that surrounds me, where I get caught up in the day-to-day. I know how to navigate a lot of the culture and the way things work, and that makes things smoother but some of the little things aren’t as exciting. And yet, even without the newness and excitement, I still love this place. Probably even more than before. I sometimes catch myself when I forget to appreciate the beauty around me and I have to stop and breathe, and drink it all in for a minute. When I get frustrated with the inconveniences, I remember all the perks.

Similarly, my relationships have passed the initial phase of a new relationship where you only show and see the best side of a person. Having overcome some of the real challenges of a deeper relationships where you have to adapt to people’s idiosyncrasies and talk through differences, I have a deeper level of trust and emotional connection with my closest friends and host family here.

I still don’t have the history of growing up here and I don’t know everyone – which is different from most people here. I still don’t understand all the cultural references and slang. I am still somewhat of an outsider, but since there are actually quite a few “immigrants” from Lima, from the mountains, and even from other countries, it’s not so strange to be an outsider here.

All in all, I really do feel at home here. I really feel equally or more at home here as I did in Nashville, where I lived for six years, or in DC, where I lived for seven years. I have found another home in the world.

And now it is time for me to leave home. Again.

Some people, like many of my friends and family in Oxapampa, live in one city for all their lives, and their home changes as they change their physical house and/or as their immediate family changes, getting married or having kids. Some people, like many of my colleagues that work for Peace Corps or international development organizations, make their homes in completely different countries every few years. However drastic the changes, we all go through changes in the nature of our “home” throughout our lives.

However those changes happen, home is not just the place where we live, it is where we get our comfort and with whom. It is that place where we are comfortable with ourselves, it is those people who help us feel comfortable with ourselves.

And like life, it’s not always constant, it changes throughout our lives as the circumstances of our lives change. It is not something we build once and forget about; we are actually always building and maintaining our home – always working to maintain and enrich the important relationships in our lives, always working to build positive communities around us, and always working to have a positive relationship with ourselves, so that we can always feel at home in this world.

A “Typical” Saturday

This title is a joke because I do not actually have a “typical” any day here. But let’s pretend I do, and today would be a great example of a “typical” weekend day.

This morning I woke up around 6am when the sun started peeking through my window, and I did my normal stretching/PT routine before heading downstairs to prepare my breakfast. My host mom had already left to sell pork and sausage in the Saturday market (the “feria”), like she does every Saturday, so I prepared myself a power fruit smoothie and a hard-boiled egg with bread. (Normally during the week, I prepare a smoothie for both my mom and I for breakfast.)

Then I headed out for a 30-minute bike ride, in my “campo clothes”, dry fit pants and shirt, rubber boots, hat and sunglasses, and a rain poncho just in case.

There is no better way to start a morning than a beautiful bike ride through the verdant hills of Oxapampa!

The district of Oxapampa is a long skinny district that consists of around 50 different communities spread out along about 40km of windy highway through the mountains.

I live in the little city (or large town, if you prefer) of Oxapampa, but I work in 5 different communities spread out along the highway, (two are a 40-minute van ride away, and 3 are within an hour bike ride.) Luckily, I work in communities close to the highway, but there are also communities that are really high up in the mountains, about an hour off the highway that you can only access by motorcycle and/or walking.

Unlike the rural US, the houses in each of the communities tend to be pretty close together and you can usually walk to all the houses within about 30 minutes to an hour. Most of the people are farmers, who produce one or various of the common crops for the area: a large pumpkin-squash called “zapallo”, a hot pepper called “ricoto”, avocado called “palta”, coffee “café”, or a fruit called “granadilla”, and they usually have their farms up in the hills in the community where they live, or a nearby community. Most people get around, going up to their fields “chacras”, or going into town on motorcycles.

Most of these communities have piped water, though not potable piped water (which is where I come in). Since the water systems capture water from a spring or a stream up in the hills above the houses, to arrive at the water source or the water tank, I ride my bike or walk up a hill either 10 minutes (the closest) or an hour (to one of the furthest.) I love going out to the water systems – even the far ones, because I get to hike or bike through the verdant hills, see some amazing views of valleys and mountains, and hear different birds singing – basically part of my work is hiking through the high jungle; I really can’t complain!

On this particular day, I was headed to one of the closer water systems – a 10-minute ride up a hill from the main highway. Today I was going to install a system of tubes to prevent the water tank from wasting chlorinated water through its overflow pipe. My colleague had done the inspection of the system, I had ordered the parts and carried them in a backpack, and I had arranged for the president of the water committee to bring the pipes up to the reservoir.

When I got the reservoir, the operator was not there, the pipes were not there and it started to rain. Lucky for me, I had brought my rain poncho, the water tank had a roof, and there was cell service in this spot. So, I called the operator, but the phone went straight to voicemail. I have gotten used to waiting anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour for people to gather, so I wasn’t stressed, but I was a little surprised because the people in this community do tend to be really punctual and responsible.

One thing we learned in training about cell phone culture in Peru is that Peruvians don’t use voicemail (so it’s not even worth leaving a message), and that it’s not rude to call a million times in a row. In fact, if it’s important, you should call at least 3-10 times in a row, until someone picks up. So, I kept calling. For about 30 minutes. At which point, I decided I was going to have to leave the shelter of the water tank and look for the operator and the pipes.

Long story short, I did find the operator (sleepy-eyed and embarrassed; he must have had a late night the night before!) and I also found the pipes in the president’s house, so we hauled them up to the water tank. I am so glad I didn’t give up and just head home!

When the operator unlocks the valve box and reservoir top so we can get started, and I stare in disbelief. My colleague had told me the wrong size pipe, so all the pipes and components that I had brought would not work to do the installation.

I have gotten this far, and I’m not about to give up yet. I call a colleague that was going to come out and help later and I ask if she can bring us the materials of the correct size. While waiting for the materials, I draw up the plans for the operators, so that they understand what we are doing and how it works.

When the pipe arrives, I see that we won’t have enough to complete the project. Not too surprising considering everything that could possibly go wrong has so far. But we’re already here so, again, I’m not going to give up now.

I sit down and draw up another way we could install the pipe so it has the same effect but uses less pipe. I present the design and explain it to them, but I admit that while it should work in theory, I haven’t ever installed it like that. They aren’t too comfortable with “theory”, and I see the worried looks on their faces. I try to convince them it will be fine, but they start talking about some pipe they might have stored somewhere, and then they head off to look for more pipe. Magically, they return with more pipe within about 15 minutes, and we are back to the original design.

I take the first measurements, but I have them verify the measurements and make all the cuts and do the installation. While I would love to do all the work and install it myself (I love this kind of work), I don’t because I want them to understand how it is installed, how it works, and to own it, so that they also will be able to fix any problem that arises when I’m not there. So I mostly just guide the work, only inserting if needed.

(They were hesitant to drill a hole in the side of one tube, so I did get that part going.)

We had a good time working together, joking around a little, and finally, in the early afternoon, we completed the job, just as the skies cleared up and the sun started to peek out.

As I headed back home on my bicycle, I reflected on how I’ve changed since I started my Peace Corps service. All the things that went wrong this morning would have stressed me out so much before, and I might have gotten so frustrated as to go home right away, but today I just maintained a little bit of patience, adapted to the situation, and that patience paid off.

CommuteVideo

Before, I would have been really frustrated at the operator for not showing up, and I might have just gone back home angry. But having worked with water committees for so long now, I know that the operator is taking care of the water system on top of his normal job of being a farmer every day, and he is definitely not receiving overtime pay that justifies this extra work he has to do so his community can have clean water. So, I don’t get mad if he oversleeps on a Saturday morning, (or maybe I do for a second, but I get over it quick).

For a few minutes, I may have been pretty frustrated at my colleague who gave me the wrong pipe sizes, but I know he is a good guy who just made a mistake, so I was able to let it go and just try to find a solution (and not make a big deal about to him or anyone else, knowing that he would already be pretty embarrassed about.)

Maybe the beautiful bike rides through nature are what help me manage my stress and adapt to challenges, or maybe I’ve just gotten used to so many things always changing at the last minute or “going wrong”. Either way, I’m really hoping the patience, stress management, and adaptability that I’m learning to practice here can be translated to other situations… like long lines in the grocery story, rush hour traffic, bad customer service… and all those unexpected annoyances and challenges that life is sure to throw at me in the future.

That’s a nice end to this blog post, (and you can stop here if you want), but that was not actually the end to my day. I had to quickly eat lunch and then catch a ride down to our farthest-away water system, about an hour van-ride away, where they were having a water committee meeting and where I needed to inspect the reservoir to prepare to install a similar system there.

The next van wasn’t leaving for at least an hour and I was already late and needed to get there before dark to do the inspection, so I took a car, which costs twice as much. About 10 minutes before arriving to the community, I saw my colleagues pass us in the highway, having already left the meeting. I panicked a little, realizing I had just spent extra to take a car and I might not even make it in time for the meeting! Somehow I convinced the driver to not charge me full fare, and as I arrived I saw the meeting was still going on. Phew. I was able to do the inspection with the operator and speak to the president afterwards, and all turned out well.

On the hour-long ride home that night, squished between people on a crowded a van, I realized that I actually felt right at home. I felt really content and actually enjoying just being another passenger in the van, having learned to integrate, being capable of traveling with the local transport, feeling part of that micro community there in the van – everyone slightly uncomfortable but making room for everyone so we could all get where we’re going. (Not so totally different actually from taking public transit during rush hour in any big city in the US, but with a slightly different feel, a little more organic, maybe because the vans are privately owned and don’t have a set schedule.)

I know a lot people would really not like this kind of lifestyle and work; they would find it too hectic, unpredictable, unorganized, inefficient, and stressful. But I really love it! I love the challenge – both physical and mental, I love seeing other ways of doing things and learning to adapt, and I love being surrounded by nature! My friend Julia told me before I joined Peace Corps that she thought I was made for this type of work, and I think she was on point.