Visiting the Motherland

I hadn’t stepped foot in the US for almost three years, and I was not sure what to expect. A lot had changed since I left. I felt very lucky to even be entering the US; as I stood in the customs line at 3am with my US passport, I couldn’t help thinking about the unfortunate situation for refugees seeking asylum, those people trying to escape dangerous living situations in their homeland or inflation where they can’t even buy the basics to live.

I was also incredibly thirsty but annoyed at the thought that I would need to buy overpriced (and Earth un-friendly) bottled water to quench my thirst.  And then I saw something magical…

A public water fountain with potable water! Something I hadn’t seen in 3 years!!!

“Welcome to the US! Let me satisfy your thirst! Don’t you miss the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, and well-monitored public water systems?” The public water fountain said to me. (Don’t judge, I had just gotten off a red-eye flight; I might have been a little delirious).

“Oh yes I do! You have no idea!!” I responded, as a WASH volunteer that has spent the last 3 years living in a place where I have to boil water before drinking it and where I spend all my days trying so hard to figure out how to make rural water systems just come close to providing potable water.

My honeymoon phase of being back in the US was soon brought down to Earth when I learned that the bus from the Baltimore airport to the city (DC) had actually decreased its frequency of service, (a real disappointment after having experienced such great public transportation in Quito and Guayaquil, Ecuador).

But I was quickly enamored again with my homeland after being able to get around the city (Washington, DC) on a bike share, (and later learning about the car-share service Turo).

My amazement escalated as I was introduced to tide pods (dissolvable and non-toxic polyvinyl alcohol film was really intriguing for this chemical engineer), but then my fascination was interrupted as I learned of the trend of eating tide pods. (Facepalm.)

Eating delicious vegetarian plates of locally-grown food at my favorite restaurants and seeing wonderful friends and family made me feel right at home, and again very pleased by and proud of my homeland…

Until… I realized that people were actually buying and eating jellybeans that taste like vomit and rotten eggs.

Between tide pods and rotten fish, I was thinking I might have avoided great disaster by staying out of the country for the last three years…(Or maybe my country really needed me these last three years?)

I was surprised that in my short stay in the suburbs of Denver, I found two different opportunities to keep my language skills sharp, talking with native Mexican-speakers. (Yes, that is a reference to the misleadingly-named entertainment channel Fox “News”.)

 

Tongue-in-cheek aside, I really surprised at how cheap I felt during my visit. Having lived on a tight budget, pinching my centavos for the last three years, I suddenly felt that while visiting friends and family, they (and me, prior to Peace Corps service) lived very comfortable lives of abundance, spending relatively freely, compared to how I (and those around me) have been living for the last three years.

This ability to pay for certain things is something I think we don’t even notice, especially if all the people around us have a similar ability to pay for certain things. It also really stood out to me how this then leads to certain expectations of neighbors and others around us to also pay for certain things, almost as an obligation. An obvious example is the HOA where everyone has to make sure their house and yard look a certain way (which implies a certain investment).

When I went out to eat, I had serious sticker shock with prices of food, and really had to make an effort to change my penny-pinching mindset, and it made me realize why it would be hard for people of different economic situations to be friends – it’s a real social barrier and cause of anxiety if you can’t afford the same social activities of your friends or family.

While I was in the US, busy being amazed by how things had changed since I had been gone, and how things felt different since I had been living in a different context for a few years, meanwhile, back in Oxapampa, the region was experiencing rains like never before – and landslides and floods like never before.

I received photos of entire roads and bridges completely wiped out. A friend returning to Oxapampa from Lima had to walk a total of seven hours to cross the places where roads had been wiped out to be able to arrive home. I wondered if I would be able to get back and was thankful that I still had a few weeks before I was due home.

The government of Peru has always been amazingly good at cleaning up the road after a landslide within the same day, so that traffic can pass. But they had not had a disaster of this scale before. However, they impressed me and had it the bridge repaired and the road to a passable state within a few weeks, and I was able to arrive home without any problems, and in record time.

I also learned that in my district alone, 4 different water capture points were destroyed because of landslides, leaving communities without water for a few days. Luckily, the government has policies and plans in place for emergencies and are often good at improvising. The local government (the team that I work with) was able to locate new, temporary water sources for the communities to have running water, in the interim. And upon my return, I learned they are able to access emergency funds to rebuild those affected sites.

While I was in Colorado, I had hoped to hike a 14-er to complement my hiking adventures in the Andes mountains of Peru (which I’ll be sharing in blog post coming soon), but ironically, Colorado was having an unusually high incidence of avalanches, with their own stories of blocked roads. Turns out both of my “homes”, the US and Peru, are being affected by climate change, (which isn’t a real thing if you have a lot of money and investments in petroleum and think that having a lot of money can save you from anything.)

It’s not easy living in two different cultures, two different worlds, two different languages, having a home and also not having a home in two different countries. But it is an incredible and enriching experience, and I feel wealthier than I ever have, (despite what my bank account may say), thanks to the amazing people I have in my life, the beauty that surrounds me, memories I carry, and the wonderful experiences and opportunities that have shaped who I am. And despite vomit jelly beans and non-potable water, I love both of these places and I am inspired by and thankful for of all the people in both cultures that have taught me so much and made me who I am today.

 

*** Geek-out reflection on the scale of the disasters in the region where I live in Peru…

There are usually a complex variety of forces that come together that make disasters worse or not as bad as they could have been. In this case, deforestation is the biggest human controlled factor that led to the extreme scale of landslides in our region. Unfortunately, the ecosystem service provided by forests of holding the soil together does not have monetary value for the landowners in this global economy, but planting food for our growing population does bring income to someone trying to feed their family.

There is a clear need for an economic incentive sufficient to make it worth it to land owners to preserve key areas. The good news is that there are organizations working on reforestation and forest protection in the area. A local non-profit that I work with, Instituto del Bien Común, is working to provide small incentives and free native trees to property owners who sign agreements with the local government to preserve the forests on their land or to reforest on their land. Additionally, the national forest agency recently awarded a grant to the local government to do reforestation efforts in the zone. Unfortunately, the efforts are not enough to make a significant enough impact to prevent the escalating rates of deforestation, but we can only hope that the funding and programs grow and become more effective so they can make it more economically viable to conserve the forests.

Guilty Privilege (Solidarity, Part II)

One day, early on in my service at the dinner table I listened to my host dad talk about how during work that day he had seen poverty like he’d never seen before. He was born in a pretty poor family with 14 brothers and sisters, and he was kicked out of the house to make it on his own when he was about 12…. so when he said that, I didn’t take it lightly.

He is a driver for the municipality and he had gone with the mayor to deliver Panetones (the Italian Christmas fruit cake, which is the symbol of Chrismas here) to some communities a few hours away. (It is a common Christmas-time political activity that the mayor goes out to certain communities to give away Panetones).

At the dinner table, my host dad described the families he saw as moms, dads, and lines of kids, expressionless, or with dejected looks on their faces. Since my host dad is also one to cynically complain about social programs, usually insinuating that they shouldn’t even exist because too many people take advantage of them, to hear him be touched by seeing people in need receiving a Christmas cake was really moving.

Earlier in the day that same day, I had been extremely upset because I had found out that I wasn’t going to be able to go with my friends to hike the Inca Trail and that I was losing $300 in the process. Suddenly, my anger and frustration was replaced by sadness… and then…guilt.

What a privilege to be able to lose $300 and still feed myself, and basically live a normal life. What a privilege to even be able to plan to go to Cusco and hike the Inca Trail…something that the vast majority of Peruvians haven’t been able to do, even though it is one of the 7 wonders of the world, in their own country!

Then I started to wonder: Am I doing enough? I am working in the provincial capital, with the government and non-profit institutions, with people who have had the opportunity to have a higher education and who live relatively comfortable lives in the urban center. I am working with the community that is closest to the city center, that has much more access to resources than the families my host dad saw today. Am I doing the right thing? Am I doing enough? Is it fair that I have all that I really need, a pretty comfortable life, working in comfortable conditions, while people are out there struggling so much? Should I be working harder, more hours, longer days, sleeping less?

I often have had these similar thoughts and feelings of doubt when I think about how much my host mom and dad work. I feel like such a princess, eating well every day, sleeping in a comfortable bed, waking up and working on my own schedule, even sometimes taking naps after lunch! And even though I don’t receive a real salary, every month Peace Corps sends me enough money to pay rent, buy food, and cover my basic expenses, (and since I’m frugal, I can even put a little away to take vacation within the country a few times a year).

I’m not saying I have it easy or live like a queen. My job isn’t the easiest job in the world. I have to coordinate between many different institutions, learn about the laws and regulations that drive their work, help them meet their goals and coordinate their work, and help them not only check the boxes but actually find ways they can help the 50-70 different communities in the district improve their access to clean water…

And I am working in my second language, so I am constantly trying extra hard to understand people, and extra hard to communicate like a professional. On top of my daily work, I have to constantly study and try to improve my language skills, as well as learning to navigate a culture that I didn’t grow up in.

So I know that I’m working hard and doing meaningful work. I know that I deserve to be paid for what I am doing. But that doesn’t keep me from having those moments where I feel guilty and I ask:

But should I be doing more? Should I be doing something different? Should I feel guilty?

 

Fast-forward a year in my service, and all the hard work I put into coordinating among institutions and doing that office work led to our team receiving a grant. With these funds, we were now able to have a more constant presence in the communities we serve, do hands-on trainings and basic maintenance to some systems, and work with local students, giving them a chance to learn so they could serve their communities in the future.

It started to become more and more clear the important role that wealth and privilege pay in development. If I had just sat around feeling guilty for having a little bit more wealth and privilege than some, or depriving myself of sleep or opportunities to work with local institutions, I would have continued to be limited and unable to help my community. But instead, I leveraged the privileges I had to try to improve the situation for my community. Also, if I had not committed to working with the hard-working, educated, more well-off people in the local institutions, we would not have been able to win the grant which provided resources for working more hands-on with people from different communities, providing on-site support that improved the quality of water service in those communities. (On the flip side, if I had ONLY worked within the institutions and not gone out to the rural communities, I would not have had a good understanding of what the real needs were, so both working at the institutional level and out in the field, talking to people in the communities has been important in identifying appropriate interventions.)

In my last post, I asked:

Do I deserve the privileges I have any more than the next person? How do I manage my feelings around some people having more privileges than others? What can I do to help people without these privileges enjoy them too?

I don’t believe the question I should ask is whether I deserve to have the privileges that I have; instead the question should be: “How can I use the privileges I have to help improve the quality of life for others?”

By answering that question and actually making strides in improving the quality of life of others, I will then deserve the privileges I have.

Solidarity

I don’t like the idea that anyone should have to live in poverty- without clean water, healthy food, good health care, education, and opportunities to contribute in a meaningful way to society. But what exactly is poverty and what can we really do as a society to create a world without poverty?

I joined Peace Corps to get a clearer understanding of the answers to these questions. I wanted to have a better sense of what it is like to live in poverty, and I had heard that the Peace Corps places volunteers in a site affected by poverty and then pays about an average of what the people who live there earn. There, living in solidarity with the people around you, with few resources at your disposal, peace corps volunteers try to make a positive difference in their communities, and we get a better idea of this thing called poverty.

Now, I wasn’t so naïve to believe that as a Peace Corps volunteer, (PCV) I would really experience what it is like to live in poverty; after-all, I knew that it wouldn’t exactly be living in solidarity with the people around me because I actually could leave at any moment and return back to my family, network of friends, and in my case, even a career and a little bit of savings, in a very comfortable middle-class life in another world.

Regardless, living for two years and forming close relationships with people in a very different economic situation than I am used to, and trying to work within the economic constraints placed upon me, I knew I would gain a valuable perspective.

And I have. (Much more than I can explain in one blog post, so I will do a series of posts on the topic.)

For me the transition was easy at first. My site is a fairly developed and progressive site that some would call “PoshCorps”. I live in a provincial capital so I have access to most modern conveniences. I have running water (most of the time), electricity, and the real “Poshcorps” qualifier…a nice room with its own flush-toilet bathroom.

There were also inconveniences that I wasn’t used to, but I was able to adapt fairly easily to most of them… like having to boil water before drinking it, having to store water in bottles and buckets for when the water went out… and then take a bucket baths during those times, often not having good phone signal (i.e., having important conversations with the call dropping every 2 minutes), rarely having good internet, and my clothes often not drying completely during the 6 months of rainy season.

 

Like most places in the world, there are a range of incomes and wealth in my town. There are people who live really lavishly here, even more comfortably than how I grew up. And there are people who sometimes barely have enough to eat each day. The majority of people that I spend time with (my friends and family) make more than I do, though many work on short-term contracts or in agriculture, so there is no guarantee they will have work or a decent income the next year.

I live with a family that lives comfortably in terms of meeting their  so-called “basic necessities”, but they work 7 days a week and still live paycheck to paycheck, which makes for a lot of psychological stress.

In a few ways I do live in solidarity because we drink the same water, have the same quality of services like water and phone signal, and we share the same community, with all its benefits and challenges.

However, I have often felt like I don’t really live in solidarity  because of certain privileges that I had before moving here and certain luxuries of being a peace corps volunteer (you probably didn’t even think that was a legitimate phrase -“luxuries of being a peace corps volunteer”.)

One of the biggest luxuries is actually that allowance that I get – as small as it is, I know that every month Peace Corps will deposit a certain amount into my account that will cover my basic necessities. And on top of that, I have the best medical care I have ever had in my life; I can call my PC doctors any time and I am confident they will find a way to get me the care I need. (I know not all Peace Corps posts have that luxury, but I am lucky to have amazing doctors here in Peace Corps Peru).

Another luxury I find that I have is the ability, habit, and culture to save money, take vacation, and travel. One of the first uncomfortable differences I realized in site was that my family doesn’t take vacation and doesn’t travel. I felt a little guilty when they joked that I know more of Peru than they do.

For many people, vacations are important to our mental health and traveling for pleasure opens our minds and can expose us to new ideas that ultimately improve our lives. For me, seeing other places opens my mind, inspires me, fuels my creativity, and gives me a better understanding of myself.

However, I have found that vacations nor travel are  very common with a lot of the rural populations I’ve interacted with here.

In large part, it is simply due to lack of funds, and a history of growing up in that situation. It can lead to a culture of “scarcity mentality” where it feels like there is just not enough time or money, and all time and money must go to working or investing in the business. Even saving money isn’t common because that money should be immediately invested in something so it doesn’t disappear.

This is often combined with the “bootstraps” mentality, which says if you are poor, it is your own fault for not working hard enough because everyone can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they just work hard enough”. So if you aren’t working, you run the risk of being poor, and if you’re poor, you should have worked harder.

You can imagine that I felt pretty guilty for taking vacations and traveling, as I realized what a privilege it was to be able to do that – because I have a stable income (even if I make less than some), but also because I have learned to value it and learned how to do it. Additionally, as a PCV I also have the luxury of having a network of other volunteers throughout the country that can help me navigate traveling so I can do it cheaply and safely; something that many people don’t have. (And as a modern PCV, with smart phones, data, and social networks, visiting new places throughout the country or even the region is made even safer and easier.)

So…surprise! One of the biggest lessons I have learned about poverty is learning to see my own privileges that I have now and have had throughout my life, and specifically, how they shape my view of constraints and opportunities under which I live.

What a privilege to grow up not have to boil water before drinking it; I could just drink straight out of the tap! (And that saves on the cost of gas for boiling water and the time it takes.)

I was able to take out many low-interest loans to attend university (student loans don’t exist here).

My university diploma is respected across the world (most here are not transferrable.)

My parents didn’t have to find time in their busy schedules to attend water committee meetings to make sure the local water system kept working and was chlorinating its water to protect against diarrhea-causing microorganisms.

To know about the latest findings, technologies, and advances to be able to do my work well, I can read the majority of scientific articles because they are written in English, which happens to be my first language. 

I have a stable income that permits me to not only meet my basic needs, but even save a little to travel within the country.

I can get a visa to enter almost any country I want.

And I have a network of friends and trusted acquaintances that can help me navigate traveling cheaply and safely.

This is only a tiny sample of some of the privileges that I have had that have given me the opportunities that I have now and which, in turn have empowered me to seek out more opportunities and live a more enriched life.

Thanks to certain investments that previous generations of Americans made in infrastructure, science, education, and trying to minimize corruption in the government, all my life I have been able to dedicate more time to advancing my education, maintaining my health, traveling, and finding and working in jobs that I love…and I have this opportunity to be living in another country, learning another language, and having this amazing intercultural experience.

This is a stark reminder for me to not take lightly the corruption in government, and political decisions to sacrifice investments in education, science, infrastructure, and health for investments in “physical defense” that will make their shareholders richer but not actually improve the security of the country, according to academic studies.

Recognizing the privileges that I have helps me understand and define poverty a little more. I may currently be living with a few more inconveniences than I was used to, but I do not feel poor. In fact I feel rich to be living in a beautiful and relatively secure place, with the support of wonderful people – family and friends here and back home, with a job that I enjoy, with the support of the organization Peace Corps, and living with the confidence that there are many opportunities in the world for me to continue to grow and contribute – and be paid for my work.

Poverty is both absolute and relative. Absolute poverty is lacking basic resources and opportunities to live a healthy and fulfilled life. Relative poverty is when everyone (or a lot of people) around you enjoy more resources and privileges than you, and so you feel poor. The “basic necessities” that define absolute poverty really end up being defined somewhat by the resources and privileges that others in the world have.

Do I deserve the privileges I have any more than the next person? How do I manage my feelings around some people having more privileges than others? What can I do to help people without these privileges enjoy them too?

My next posts will continue to address some of these questions.