Close of Service…but Not for Me

July 23, 2018 marked the end of 2 years of my Peace Corps service, actually of 27 months (2 years + 3 months of training) that I originally committed to serve. I asked Peace Corps for a 1-year extension, and they granted it to me, so I will be here well into the next year still. However, since all my friends from my group are ending their service, and since I attended the close-of-service (COS) training and ceremony with them, I am going through some of the tough transition emotions right along with them, though in a different way.

First, I am reflecting on my cohort, “Peru 27”, and what a great group of people I had the pleasure to not only know, but to learn right along side. It was a competitive process to be selected for this group, and it is clear that some of the best rose to the top. They told us that our cohort would be our main support through the tough times of service, and they were right. And I couldn’t be happier for the group that I had as my support, for the people that are now a great part of my life.

I am one of the older members in our group, and I admit that I had my doubts about how it would be to enter as part of a group with a lot of “kids” right out of college. Well, first of all, our group had hand a good handful of volunteers NOT right out of college, but instead in their late 20’s-early 30’s, and two volunteers in their 50-60s.

But mostly, I was surprised to find that this experience challenged my ageism, as I found myself learning from those “young’uns” right out of college. I won’t deny that there are moments where difference in age makes a difference in how you can relate to someone, but it certainly isn’t a barrier for a meaningful friendship, and learning from each other and exchange of wisdom can still be a two-way road. Because of the diversity of experiences that each person has, we all learn and grow in different areas at different times in life, and because of this, every person different from us has something to teach us.

The friendships I made are tough to explain; it’s a bond that forms strong under tough conditions, when you are taken out of your comfort zone and you just have each other to lean on. You know that there are only a handful of people in the world who really truly can come close to understanding the journey you’ve been through, and because of that, they get you in a way that no one else will be able to. Those are the types of friendships I share with my friends from my cohort.

So you can imagine that it was not easy to see them leave. Since I decided to extend one year more, I am one of only a few that are still here in Peru; the majority of my group finished their service and returned to the US, including all of my closest friends from the group.

In this connected world of many communication options, where I know we can still be in touch – it really surprised me how much it affected me that my friends were leaving the country. As they head off to start the next phase of their life, I continue here, alone. Not alone at all, actually – I have a wonderful host family, great new site mates, and amazing friends here. But it still feels like a piece of me is missing… the in-country presence of my good friends from Peru 27, no longer a (long) bus-ride away.

Today, one of my besties, Kevin, said goodbye to his host family (and to me, as I was there with them). It was sad to see Kevin leave me, but it was heartbreaking to see him leave his host family. In just a little over a year, he had become like another son, another brother, another uncle to them. Many tears were shed by all, as everyone hung onto the phrase “It’s not “goodbye”, it’s “see you later”, and for added measure, “no, it’s ‘see you soon!'”. (“No es ‘chau’, es ‘hasta luego’, o sea, ‘hasta pronto'”.)

Man, that was a tough moment for me, seeing how hard it was for his family to let him go, for him to say goodbye to them! And then knowing that I will be doing the same in a year…

Why is this different from all the times I have moved in my life and said goodbye to family and friends in the states?

I had to think about that for a minute, and the answer, I believe, is related to privilege to travel and the US visa. When I was living in the US and I moved to a whole new state, it was still fairly easy to visit friends and family in other states within the US…costly, but possible – I would visit friends and family in other states multiple times a year. I left my family and friends for two (now three) years to live here as a PCV, and I have since had the pleasure of having 3 family members and 6 friends visit me here.

However, the possibility of our Peruvian host families and friends visiting us in the US is incredibly low. Why? Because, while US citizens travel easily to almost any country in the world, it is incredibly difficult for most citizens of the world to travel to the US. For a Peruvian to get a visa to the US, it is so complicated that I don’t even know all the steps. I know they have to pay hundreds of soles (Peruvian monetary unit) just to apply for the visa – and that does not guarantee they will get it; and if they don’t get it, they are out that cash.

But I digress. One day when I have time, I will write a separate, well-researched article about the current, non-fact-based, xenophobic immigration laws. But not here.

This blog is about strong friendships and love, across cultures, across borders, people who have taken me (and other volunteers) in, cared for us and treated us as another member of their family, even when we spoke funny, looked weird, had strange eating habits, and did odd things. It’s about the love we have for these Peruvians, and the love they have for us.

It’s also about the incredible relationships we have built across cultures and across language barriers (which is not easy!) And it’s about the unique and strong bond that we PCVs have for each other, having experienced these things, separately and in different ways, but together.

I am so grateful for the extra year that I have here with my Peruvian friends and family. And I am also so grateful to have meet the wonderful fellow Americans that I met here (each one so different from me that I doubt I would have ever met and  much less become close friends if it weren’t for this incredible experience together!)

So, while I have a strange nostalgic sadness in the background, mostly I’m excited to hear about the next chapters in their lives. Our paths divide, but those memories together stay with us. And thanks to cell phone towers, internet, and social networks, it will be a little easier for us to stay connected.

 

 

Protecting Water Sources

Where does your water come from? A lake? A river? An aquifer? Do you know? In our busy lives, it is someone else’s job to think about that, to make sure we have clean water that is safe to drink. (Though in recent history the catastrophe in Flint, MI has made a few people think twice about the theme – even to the point of paranoia for some.)

I work with institutions whose responsibility is making sure people have clean water to drink, but they often only focus on building and repairing water systems. Unfortunately, a lot of times they forget that protecting the source of water, is just as important. So, as water systems get built by an outside entity, capturing water from rivers, streams, or springs, the people in the community start developing the land nearby and above these sources, within the watershed, cutting down trees, building houses (and therefore bathrooms), cultivating crops, using agrochemicals, and raising cattle or pigs that contaminate the water, not realizing the impact it will have on the water source.

We have the good fortune to have an NGO in our community (IBC) that has expertise in watershed protection (among other cool topic areas like native communities, stream health and others), and is a member of our group GTIFAS. Thanks to IBC, a very exciting part of our project is to work closely with five communities to identify risks to their water source and recommend ways they can eliminate risks and protect their watershed in the future – while respecting land rights and the need to have income generation from their land.

This involves strategies like reforestation with native plants, creating zones of protection, and creating zones for low-impact activities like raising bees or crops that use minimal agrochemicals.

Another important approach is a type of economic valuation of ecosystem services where, in this case, they the recommendation is to raise the water fee on the water bill to have some extra funds to help pay land owners for the environmental services the forests on their land provide in keeping the water clean – giving incentives to either not cut down forest, or to reforest areas near water sources.

While there are a lot of general recommendations we can give to each community, we wanted to make sure that we knew the situation on the ground and could give very concrete recommendations to each community, like which tree species could they plant and where, and what current activities are a risk to their water system. So, we planned to go visit the source of water for each community and to inspect the surrounding areas for risks.

It’s good to have friends that are experts in watersheds!

Just when I was heading to the office to do some planning for our first site visit, I saw two of my good friends, who work for the non-profit, taking a snack break. Since I have (finally) learned to slow down and take advantage of these breaks to converse with friends and co-workers, I followed them instead of diving right into my computer work. During the conversation, my friend pointed out that we should look at satellite images of the areas to help guide our inspection and give us an idea of what areas might have risks. What a brilliant idea, and I can’t believe I hadn’t talked to her sooner!

She helped me print out satellite images of each area, and showed me how to read them to have an idea of where land had been developed, where rivers might be, and how to show topography. It turned out to be a key tool in our analysis, in conjunction with using google maps on the phone to help track where we were during the inspections.

The next day, we headed out to climb to the water sources for three different water systems. Each time was a steep ascent through the high jungle hills, each taking between 30 minutes to an hour to reach the top. From there, we explored the surrounding areas, looking to identify the possible risks we saw from the satellite images, as well as any other risks we could identify on-the-ground.

Our tree expert from IBC

The day started out with good luck as we saw two wild monkeys – tiny rabbit-sized animals with a long tail – playing in the trees. My first experience ever seeing wild monkeys!

I know you can’t see them, but I swear there are two small monkeys in the tree across the highway.

Later we passed a tree that produces a cotton-like substance – my first time seeing cotton fall from a tree. Finally, it was the first time that plants stung me through my pants – who knew that plants could sting, and even through cloth?! I thought that only happened in Australia.

You can imagine that I was pretty hungry by lunch time, so I blame the low blood sugar for my slip of the tongue when I asked if anyone was “dying from the man” instead of dying of hunger (“alguien esta muriendo de hombre?”)!

Actually, I could write a whole blog entry on all my slips of the tongue in castellano… and maybe one day I will. Stay tuned…

Field Days

My favorite part of my job is definitely when I get to be out in the field (“campo”), inspecting or repairing water systems with the operators or the volunteer water committees… and yet I haven’t written much about that, so today I am taking some time to share some of the work we did last week.

An important part of maintaining a rural water system is cleaning and disinfecting it regularly so that sediments, microorganisms, and mold don’t build up inside. This can be a little complicated because it requires high concentrations of bleach in a confined space, that later have to be disposed of in a safe site (not a river or stream). So, you can see why training water system operators to properly clean the water system is an important job.

You may recall that we had a hands-on workshop with the system operators back in April, where we went to a water system and actually practiced the disinfection process. But since every system is a little different, and it takes a few times to change old habits, we are now doing one-on-one trainings with five different communities. Since we are working with a group of university students studying environmental engineering, we invited them to come learn and help with one of the systems.

It is quite a coordination process working with volunteer water committees because we have work within their schedules. That means we wait for the water committee to schedule their next meeting, we attend the meeting, we find out when they plan to do their next cleaning, and we ask if we can come oversee the process and help out. For me, that means a 30-minute bike ride (each way) through the beautiful green hills of Oxapampa to arrive at the community each time we need to coordinate, attend meetings, or and participate in activities. (Poor me!)

All the coordination paid off this week, and we had a great hands-on training, resulting in an improved process for cleaning and disinfection that will make it quicker for the operator and will protect the nearby river.

Another day during the week, 30 minutes on bicycle in the opposite direction, we did a water system inspection with the group of university students. After hiking up through one of the beautiful verdant hills for more than an hour, we arrived at the spring box where the water system collects water from a spring. We took measurements and discussed what was working well and what could be improved, and then descended, doing the same for each component of the water system.

Later in the week, we returned to the same system to train the university students in monitoring chlorine levels. We explained the key monitoring points in the distribution system, and we then went to each point to take measurements, (me in bicycle and them on their motorcycle.) Their homework was then to monitor the chlorine for a week, create a registry for the results, and to then train the operator to use the registry.

 

That same day, the operator had identified a leak in the system, so we took the opportunity to help him fix the leak, learn his procedure, and point out a few additional best practices for the future. The operators tend to be elected by the community, and often don’t have any water-system-specific training, but because they have often built their houses or worked on similar projects, they have a general idea and incredible ingenuity and can complete the basic functions, even if they aren’t aware of the best practices.

   

 

The field work is really my favorite part of the job, so I’m really happy to be in the field-work phase of our project – that means more time working side-by-side with water committees and operators, so they can be more effective at ensuring their communities have clean water.

A Winning Team: GTIFAS

The months of March and April had some incredible moments that have made me so proud, inspired me, and made me feel like I am doing what I came here to do.

This post is kind-of a follow-up on “People Make the Difference” about my proudest accomplishment – the formation of our working group “GTIFAS”, as it is the work of the members of this group that has made me feel so proud and fulfilled these past months.

First, it is important to recognize that the members of our working group “GTIFAS” each have their full-time work, and they are by no means obligated to work with and participate in the group. While our work supports their work goals, it is not a requirement for them. They take time out of their already-busy work days to attend meetings and contribute.

Because of this, I am grateful and honored every time we have a meeting and everyone shows up – it really means a lot to me! (Before every meeting I wonder if anyone will show up; it has happened a handful of times that no one showed up or only one person did, because emergencies often come up at work.)

Also, their participation is a real demonstration of trust – trust in my leadership and in that of the other members, and faith that together we can make a positive difference. I value this immensely, for its face value, but also because I did not have that trust when I first came here – it is something I had to build over time, something I had to earn – and it makes a real difference in our ability to work together.

As a group, we applied for a grant to be able to do more focused outreach this year, and thanks to the great contributions of everyone in the group, we received the funding this year! The funding gives us resources to do more in-depth, hands-on training in five rural communities so that they can become sustainable managers of their water systems and ensure clean water is supplied to their community on a continuous basis.

In April, we completed the first phase of training with the financing we received, and the process of planning for, and implementing, the trainings was a challenging but fulfilling journey that I will share here.

For our first planning meeting, I was a little worried, because we were going to try something completely different and innovative for us, and I didn’t know how it would go. Traditionally, the trainings we had done were based on the same powerpoint slides, modified a little bit each year – a time-efficient way to plan trainings, but not very interactive, interesting, or effective.

This time, we were going to try out a new methodology for designing interactive trainings – one recommended by both Peace Corps and the Peruvian government’s program in water and sanitation. Everyone was on board, but we were going to have to put in more time and effort, and really branch out from what we were used to.

I spent days planning for the first two meetings with the group – putting together materials and a guide for the new methodology with worksheets to help us through it, and I compiled everything in a folder for each of the members. (I don’t think I’ve been more prepared for a meeting in my life, while nervous at the same time.)

I didn’t know if everyone would trust the process enough to put in the extra time and energy. I also worried they could receive my guidance as an insult or think I was treating them like students.

When I first began explaining the methodology and my proposal for how to work towards developing the trainings, I was met with crickets. It was clear that they either didn’t want to do it, or didn’t quite follow what I was saying.

Then one of the group members stepped in and started explaining the methodology much better than I had explained it (Spanish is hard sometimes – even after a year and a half). After a minute, you could see the light bulbs go off, as they caught on. Phew! It had just been my clunky Spanish.

Once the idea was clear for everyone, we broke into groups to apply the new methodology in developing plans for the trainings. It is not easy to learn a new theory and apply it all at once, but our group latched on quickly and the creative ideas that came out of the working groups were impressive! It was another reminder of how grateful I am to be working with such great, intelligent, thoughtful people!

To complete the planning for all the trainings we were going to do, we had to meet a total of 5 times throughout the month, and I came out of every single meeting feeling like I was achieving the goals of my service – helping my counterparts achieve their own goals and the goals of the national government, and learning alongside them. I saw every one of us catching on to the new methodology more and more every time, we were working great as a group, and everyone wanted to contribute and was looking for ways that their respective institution could contribute… and all while being able to joke and enjoy each other’s company in the long, somewhat tedious meetings.

Then, all the hard work paid off, and we held three days of training in rural WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) themes, each day for a different group. The first day of training was for the people who work in the rural health posts, and we also invited environmental engineering students from the local university.

We had many more students attend than we thought would come (70 attended!), which was wonderful, even if challenging. Since it was our first time trying out such an interactive training, it didn’t exactly go smoothly at first (especially with more students than we expected). We worked out the kinks as we went along, and we ended with a session in which the students’ collaboration with the health workers blew me away in the final skits they had to present. We received positive feedback, including one student who said she had never been to a training so interesting.

The second day of training was for the members of the 30 rural water boards in Oxapampa and focused on the basics of administration. This training day also went well, and the interactive activities were really helpful, (though we learned the hard way of the importance of sticking to the schedule and not letting presenters hog too much time).

The final day was for the operators of the local water systems, and we held the training in one of the rural communities that has a well-maintained system so we could do hands-on activities and point out real examples of best practices. It went well overall, despite slight disorganization during the hands-on sessions (one of the challenges of a doing a 3-full-day training with limited personnel.)

The training ended with pachamanca*, prepared by the local community – a great way to close the session and thank everyone for their time.

 

*If you don’t know yet what pachamanca is, I have been a bad PCV-Peru blog-writer. Pachamanca is a typical food here – it is how we celebrate any special occasion. It is originally from the “sierra” (mountain region), and it is prepared by digging a hole in the ground, heating stones over a fire, then putting the stones in the hole with meat seasoned with a green herb called chincha, yucca, potatoes, sweet potatoes, large bean pods called “habas”, and plantains. The food slow cooks in the ground for hours and comes out delicious!

 

Arriba Peru! – Sentiments from a Peruvian

As you know, Peru has made its first World Cup appearance in 35 years, so the country is pretty excited. I have mixed feelings about professional sports in general, but I almost cried when I read this e-mail from one of our Peace Corps Peru doctors, Dr. Jorge Bazan, to all the American Peace Corps Peru volunteers. I wanted to share it here because it gives a personal perspective on the recent history of Peru,  how it impacted his life, and how international sport can be related to domestic issues and can unite a divided country.

(Note that he uses the world “football”, for what most Americans know as “soccer”, as the official name across the world for the sport is football. )

This is only the opinion of one Peruvian, so it doesn’t represent the opinions of all Peruvians, but I am sure that it captures some of the feelings of many. Enjoy.

So why is the Football world cup such a big deal if it’s just a sport competition? What’s going on?

I remember reading once that when France won the world cup in 1998 and the country went crazy with happiness and celebration…that it was only comparable to when world war II was finished. So why did they go so crazy if they won just a sport competition?

The answer is that the football world cup is NOT just a sport competition in which countries send their best football players to see which team has the best team. No. In the case of the World Cup, this is not really about only a competition, it’s about countries all over the world trying to demonstrate that they are present and that they are the best. It’s countries all over the world trying to show who they are and how great they are.

Since World War II finished we haven’t had a world war again, thankfully, but now, every 4 years, there is a “Peaceful World War” in which most countries in the world get super excited and try to demonstrate who they are and that they can be the best. In this “War” there are no weapons, just football, the most popular sport in the world, and it’s used by everyone to show who we are. Everyone is watching, everyone wants to win, everyone wants to show everybody else that that they are the best.

There are no political differences, religious or cultural within each country during the world cup. Everyone is united during the games, all wearing the same t-shirt, one huge group of people wanting to show how great they are. That’s why players play as hard as they do, fight for winning each game as if it was a final, and get so emotional when they hear their national anthem because they know that they are fighting for their country, and their victory is a whole country’s victory and can bring happiness for so many people. And that’s why tears come out when they lose, because they know that there is a whole country sharing their sadness and loss. Every game is like a small battle to see who is the final winner, and there is a whole country waiting to see if they will survive or not.

For Peru, going to the world cup after 36 years is like telling the whole world that we are back after so many years of suffering and sadness. Since the last world cup in which we participated in 1982, everything went horrible for Peru. Huge economic crisis in which it was difficult to have money just for buying food or any basic needs. The el Niño current came in 1983 and destroyed the country in a time when there was no way to send help or money, so everyone had to deal with their family’s death and destruction on their own, and then the el Niño came back in 1998. And worse of all, terrorism appeared. Worst time ever…people being killed every day, being scared every day for so many years, living with curfew…horrible times. The internal war destroyed the country and people’s souls.

There was a time, where I used to say, out of all countries in the world, why was I born here? There was no hope. I felt so unlucky, with a difficult, or no future.

Most of my friends from school and university left Peru to work and study somewhere else, but I decided to stay.

But suddenly terrorism ended, terror stopped, Peru started doing well economically and things got better and better and better. Peace was back and money was back, and people started investing in Peru again. Things got better, Peace Corps came back and I’m here with you working for PC for already 13 years.

So, Peru being back in the world cup after 36 years is for us, telling the world that WE ARE BACK and that We are again part of the world, that we are here, and we want everyone to know that Peru is a Wonderful country with Great People.

Now I’m so happy to be Peruvian and everyone wants to wear a Peruvian T-shirt. Incredible. It’s like a dream, yes, it’s like a dream that once I thought would never happen. Peru being good and healthy again, still with problems such as political issues, corruption, poverty, but we are alive again. We have hope again for a better life.

We are already out of the world cup, but everyone is proud of our team. All the world is talking about Peru and how so many Peruvians went to Russia and cheered so much for our country. We are all again so proud to be Peruvian.

The US is a beautiful, huge country with lots of diversity and great things. Because it’s so big, in a way it has created its own world which includes sports. That’s why Football (soccer for you) is not yet a huge deal as it is for the rest of the world, and you have your own sports such as American Football and others.

So now that you (Peace Corps volunteers) are out of the US, being part of the world cup in Peru, don’t forget to see Peru vs. Australia tomorrow. Since we have already been eliminated, tomorrow’s game won’t be so exciting, but Peru will play for its honor, and Australia which still has a chance, will play to survive. Wear your Peruvian T-shirt, and if you don’t have one yet, ask yourself why and then go buy one.

Many Peruvians don’t like football, but since the world cup is not about football, but about our countries fighting to show who we are, everyone is watching the games. And since you (Peace Corps Volunteers) are here, it doesn’t matter if you like football or hate it, that doesn’t matter. Just enjoy being here, participate in the world cup, and be part of Peru, a country that will be part of you forever.

Take care and

ARRIBA PERU!!!

Here’s another fun perspective on Peru’s World Cup appearance (thanks Dave!): https://slate.com/culture/2018/06/peru-2018-world-cup-why-you-should-root-for-la-blanquirroja.html

And some more fun propaganda for Peru: A letter from Peru to Australia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yycqyMhr47Q

Field Trip!

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.

The ATM of one district explains a chlorination system at a reservoir.

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.

An ATM presents the model water committee from his district.

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 ATM and the operator of a model community present their drip chlorination system.

The use of an example is powerful. It shows us that what we are trying to do can, and has, actually been done.

The president of the model water committee in one community presents the administrative books for the water committee in her community.

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.

The president of a water committee explains how she resolves certain problems motivating the people in her community to help maintain the water system.

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.

The group hikes to the water reservoir in one of the model communities.

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.

People Make the Difference

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)

An unused reservoir due to various factors, including a poorly designed filter and poorly organized water committee.

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.

Interactive training in rural community. (The training was led by 4 different members of GTIFAS.)

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.

Three of the seven GTIFAS representatives at a training to prepare a grant proposal.

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.

Photo Blog: Lima to Oxapampa

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.

Wonder of the World

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.

Beach time in Lima

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.

Chincheros – textile shop

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.

View from the train window (Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes)

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.

Adding to the photos of Machu Picchu on the internet that just can’t do it justice.

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.

Sacred Valley – Pisaq

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).

Cusco from Saqsayhuaman

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.