The Art of Sitting

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.

Family Vacation to Lima

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.

A New Home Life

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!

The Struggle

I love this job. I love the work. I love the people. I love where I live. I am super happy. That does not mean that every day is rosy. (Though most days are pretty awesome.) I still have a bad day every now and then, and I still have my struggles. One of the most frequent causes of a bad day for me boils down to machismo culture. What do I mean by that? Well it expresses itself in various ways, (and actually is not as bad here as in some places), but here is a recent example:

I have been working with my counterpart at the municipality for almost a year now. By now he knows that I am a professional engineer, have worked in government and program management, and have worked on rural water projects for 10 years in my work with Engineers Without Borders. I also am about 10 years older than him.

We have overcome some tough times in our relationship (in the beginning he treated me like an intern that didn’t know much), and we have finally arrived at a point in our relationship where he respects my input and knowledge and recognizes that I am pretty smart and able in my work.

Or so I thought.

Then, one day a volunteer from another site comes to visit, and I introduce him to my counterpart. Five minutes after meeting this other volunteer – a tall, bearded, white man – my counterpart asks him to help train water system operators. This is something my counterpart has never asked me to help with. This is something that is absolutely in my position description and something I have experience in and am very capable of. But I am a woman. And clearly a tall, bearded man would do a better job than I would.

Now I did not jump to the conclusion that this was the result of sexism. When my counterpart did things like this in the past, I figured it could be a variety of possible reasons:

  1. When I first came, my language level was pretty low, so he probably thought I wasn’t very smart or capable because I sounded like a child when I spoke and couldn’t express myself well.
  2. He didn’t know me, I hadn’t had the chance to do good work to prove myself, and he didn’t know my work experience.
  3. Machismo culture. In his subconscious (and maybe even consciously), to him men are more capable of knowing how water systems work. Especially, tall, bearded, white men.

Well, in this situation with tall, bearded white man, Option 1 and Option 2 had been eliminated because (1) tall, bearded white man (who is my friend and a great guy, by the way) has a similar language level as me, and (2) I had presented my work to my counterpart and all of my colleagues in November, and I had made sure to highlight all my past work experience, and I also had the opportunity to present the work I had completed in my first 4 months here, which clearly demonstrated my capability (and my counterpart’s attitude did change towards me after that presentation).

So, this situation clearly tells me that Option 3, machismo culture, is at work here. Given various other comments I’ve heard by him and others (women can study environmental engineering but they can’t practice environmental engineering because the field work is too tough), along with attitudes and behaviors I’ve observed here, (for example there are no female water system operators (though I will note that there are female construction workers)), I don’t have much doubt that this was a classic case of machismo culture.

Why is it such a struggle? I am used to working in an environment where I am respected for what I can and what I contribute do because I do it well, and people recognize that and treat me accordingly. I am not used to having to really over-sell myself just to be heard, I am not used to having to really force it in people’s faces that I have experience and knowledge and capability for them to realize it. It really sucks away at my energy to have to do this.

In various instances, men interrupt me and don’t let me finish what I’m saying because they are sure their perspective is more important than mine. In various instances, they ignore my advice as if I wasn’t an expert in areas where I have more expertise and experience than them. It is a strong contrast to my previous job where we mostly worked as equals, and when I had more experience and expertise, people heeded my advice, (just as I heeded the advice of others when they had more insights than I did in a subject.)

I’m not going to lie – it is frustrating. It is draining. At times it is infuriating.

It means I have to work harder, it means the whole team has to work harder – because I have to work harder to explain myself and to have patience. And when the team doesn’t listen to good advice, they make stupid mistakes and have to go back and correct them later, or sometimes they are mistakes that cost relationships that have to be rebuilt, and sometimes they are mistakes that can take years to recover from. So this sexism doesn’t only hurt me, it hurts them, it hurts the team, it hurts the work, the whole development of the society.

There is a lot of talk about privilege going around these days. These are really great conversations that are important to have. This is my story about recognizing privilege – a privilege that I had in my previous job, that I do not have here…a privilege that was taken away when sexism exists. It is subtle. It can easily go unnoticed, or rather, unrecognized for what it is. I was lucky to work on a team where sexism didn’t exist (thank you colleagues!), but I know that there are still work environments in the US and all over the world where it does exist – and in much worse forms that I am experiencing here. I hope that when you do have the privilege to be treated with respect for the experience and knowledge that you have, that you will recognize this privilege and make sure that those around you are also given that privilege, despite their gender, race, origin, physical beauty, language ability, sense of fashion, physical ability, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

If you need an idea of how to do it, lucky for me, tall, bearded man is my friend and an ally who knows how to handle these types of situations. Being an engineer who enjoys that type of work he could have said, “Yeah I’d love to!”, but instead he responded to my counterpart’s question saying that I was here to do just those types of trainings, and that I was capable to do them well.

First Days – Crashing the Independence Day Parade

[#TBT…Here’s a blog post from my first days in site]

Today (day 4 in my site), I found myself marching in the Independence Day (28 July) parade, down the streets of Oxapampa, Peru (actually, “down the street” would be more accurate because the parade only passed down two blocks of one street). I had just arrived 4 days before, so I was a little hesitant (for a few reasons I’ll describe below), but the point of joining Peace Corps was to step outside of my comfort zone, so I went with it.

The first awkward thing for me was the way they march in parades (desfilar) in Peru is pretty funny to a newcomer – they literally march like the German soldiers, legs straight out in front, and arms straight and swinging high. I’m sorry but have to admit I didn’t completely comply with the proper marching style because thankfully, the people around me were pretty lax about how they marched, so we did a kind of normal arm swing with our march.

The second awkward thing about marching in this parade is that it was only my fourth day living in this city, and I wasn’t exactly invited to march in the parade. But if there’s one thing I learned in Peace Corps Peru training (and in life in general, but especially in Peace Corps training), it is to put yourself out there, and don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable. So, I woke up this morning, wore my Peace Corps vest, with grey slacks and my red dress shirt, and walked toward the front of the municipality where the parade was passing. I found a woman I work with (i.e., met two days ago when I arrived to work for my first day), and we watched the parade together, waiting until it was time for the municipality workers to march.

During the hour of waiting for our turn to march and watching the parade pass, I started to worry because I realized that all the other municipality workers had black suits with a white dress shirt (compared to my grey slacks, red dress shirt, and grey vest.) The “putting myself out there” suddenly seemed really awkward and embarrassing – being the really white girl with different colored clothes marching with the organization I just joined a few days ago.

But I decided I was going to have to let go of embarrassment and proudly be different and represent Peace Corps instead of feeling like I have to fit in perfectly. (One of my reasons for being in Peace Corps was to learn what it’s like to be stand out as different and still try to integrate and connect, and this was a good example of having to let go of shame and embarrassment of being different and to participate with confidence.)

So I started talking myself up…”the municipality invited Peace Corps to come work in Oxapampa, and here I am, representing the Peace Corps and working with the municipality, and it’s OK that I look a little different! (I’ll just stand in the back…)”.

And so I found myself marching down the main street in front of the plaza, participating in my first Peruvian parade. Well, marching in my first Peruvian parade. (Actually, I had hopped on a float with some drag queens in the Gay Pride parade in Lima last month, so I guess this was my second parade crashing experience in Peru.) While I’m on a digression… Peru LOVES parades. I have been here three months and I have seen more than six parades!

Back to the story of day four in my site. I was about to head home for a siesta after the parade, when a co-worker from the municipality told me the mayor was going to speak and I should go. So, I went and awkwardly sat in the back of the nearly empty auditorium, except for the mayor and four other important-looking people sitting at the front waiting people to come.

Suddenly a familiar face (later I learned he was the Alcalde’s right hand man) came and greeted me and asked me to come sit in the second row. I went and sat next to him and chatted with him while we waited for the event to start. Turns out he had invited me to the special section, because towards the end of the speeches, they brought food and wine glasses for a toast to the first two rows, whereas the other rows got plastic cups and got served last. (To this day, I am thankful for the kindness of the gerente, who made me feel welcome and slightly less awkward.)

 

Feeling like I had done my due diligence in making my presence known, showing interest, and learning a little bit about the political priorities of my new home, I walked home, dreaming of a siesta. I arrived home to find my mom and dad building a bed. (I really never know what I’m going to find happening at home, and sometimes I don’t even know where I’m going to end up when I go out with the family – definitely partly due to the language barrier, but also the rhythm of life here allows for more last-minute decisions on what to do. It just makes it that much more of an adventure.)

Anyway, when I arrived home, my mom and dad congratulated me (half jokingly) on marching in the parade. They had gone out to the parade just to see me march. I found out later that night that my mom had even taken photos of me in the parade. It was such a sweet gesture, I can’t even explain how happy and grateful I feel that they have so easily welcomed me into the family. So, in the moment, I did the only thing that made the most sense, and I picked up some sandpaper and helped with the bed-building project.