Crossing the Border

As much as I would have loved to stay longer in the paradise of Amantaní, my visa had expired and I had to flee the country (Peru charges a fee for every day you overstay your visa.)

While not unsurprising, crossing the border between Peru and Bolivia was not a smooth process for me because of my expired visa, my very flexible backpackers itinerary, and my US citizenship.

At Peruvian immigration I had to had to jump through a whole series of hoops (including taking a taxi to the bank in a nearby town to pay the fee for overstaying my visa). But they didn’t put me in a detention center or deport me back to the US, so instead of complaining about the inconveniences I’m just thankful that Peru Immigrations is more humane than the US when it comes to visas and immigration.

Bolivian immigrations also gave me a hard time, but that was kind of expected. As a fellow traveler pointed out to me, the American passport is one of the most powerful , or widely accepted, passports in the world. Almost all countries will let us visit with few problems. Meanwhile, if you happen to be born in a North African country, like my traveler friend, she was only able to travel to a handful of countries with her passport (until she moved to France and got a French passport).

Whole US citizens enjoy this travel freedom, the US is one of the countries that restricts entry simply for a person’s country of origin.

Bolivia is one of the countries in the world that has a reciprocity policy for US citizens – since the US makes Bolivians (and most South Americans) pay a high visa application fee and puts strict (and sometimes arbitrarily interpreted) requirements that many people don’t meet so they end up not getting the visa and losing the application fee, without obtaining a visa to travel to the US…Bolivia puts a high fee for US citizens wanting to enter Bolivia. (Unfortunate because many US travelers disagree with the US immigration policy and they are the ones that bear the cost, but I would do the same if I was Bolivia.)

So after paying my fee, changing money, and finally passing Peruvian immigration, I walked down the road to Bolivian immigration, thinking I had my paperwork in order but finding out I was wrong. They hassled me about my itinerary and made me retype it, mostly because I didn’t have hotels reserved in advance since I was on a backpackers plan where I would find a hostal in each place I went. Actually, the real real reason was that they were just following policy…the US hassles Bolivians about entering the US, looking for any reason not to let them in, so they were doing the same.

Interestingly, their attitude towards me changed when I heard them speaking Aymará so I tried to joke with them and throw in some words in Aymará from the cheat sheet that Romulo (my host from Amantaní) had given me.

Maybe it’s that when I tried to connect with them and their culture they realized I wasn’t a stuck up and racist American. Or, maybe an American trying to pronounce words in Aymará was more entertaining than a frustrated and tired American being hassled about being let into the country. Either way, they loosened up, joked with me, accepted my paperwork without further hassle, and let me in the country.

This was a perfect example of how my travels have been like a video game – something I picked up along the way helped me pass to the next level.

When I was staying in the island Amantaní, I enjoyed great conversations with the couple with whom I stayed, including conversations about politics. From Romulo (the husband), I learned about the divide in culture and language between the different sides of the lake Titicaca – the part north of Puno is Quechua-speaking, and south of Puno and into Bolivia is Aymará-speaking.

The day that I had planned to leave the island Amantaní, we got word from a teacher who lives in Puno and travels to the island for the weekdays to teach, that there was going to be a huge protest that would block the main roads between Puno and Bolivia.

The regional governor for the whole region of Puno had just been charged and put in jail for leading protests that destroyed state property a few years back. As the region of Puno is culturally divided between people who speak Quechua and those who speak Aymará, this was the first regional governor that was from the Aymará culture (almost always a Quechua-speaking governor had been elected).

Because of this, many Aymará people were upset with the ruling, believing that it was a political move to oust their leader, and so they would be protesting by blocking the roads hoping to release the governor. (This type of protest, in which the roads are blocked is somewhat common in Peru, and the good thing is that it is usually planned a few days in advance so that  people get word and know not to travel those days.)

So along with this history and culture lesson about the Puno region, Romulo showed me a chart that translated a few basic words between Quechua, Aymará, Spanish, and even English, and he told me me take a photo of it.

Little did I know, he was the wizard giving me the magic wand that I would later need to open the door to taking me to the next level of my video game Odyssey – from Peru to Bolivia.

Bonus Round: After finally arriving to the plaza in Copacabana, I was struggling with google maps trying to find my airbnb because there were no street signs. Suddenly, someone calls my name, and it’s one of the guys who worked in the immigration office. A little creepy, yes. I asked myself if he was following me, and I was kind of cautious answering him. But it turned out that he happened to live nearby (it’s a really small town), and he was just being nice and helpful. When we found the place, he wished me a safe journey and left me feeling like that magic wand of connecting with people through their own language had turned obstacles into friends helping me along the way.

Bienvenida a Bolivia! The Bolivian adventure begins! 🇧🇴

Between Two Worlds

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

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

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

gestion.pe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-And finally, reconsider “Ambition”

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

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

 

Footnotes: References and further reading:

Poverty data from www.lovemoney.com

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

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

A Right to Safe Drinking Water

About 10 years ago, I was sitting in a plastic chair, sweating under the shade of the water office roof, during a water board meeting in the rural community of Santa Clara, El Salvador. Our Engineers Without Borders team had installed a new water system about a year prior and we  returned every year to provide “post construction support”, helping train and guide in the administration, operation, and maintenance of the system.

The water board was drafting new regulations and we had heard that some people in the community weren’t so sure about them. As I listened (through our translator) as they read the new regulations, I quickly got uncomfortable and even offended by what I was hearing. These new members of this supposedly volunteer board were proposing that they should get paid for every meeting they attended.

Leaders wanting to take a portion of community funds…this fit perfectly into the definition of corruption we all had in our minds, especially from what we had been told about political leaders in the country. Frustrated, we voiced our opinion that the water board was a volunteer committee and should not receive payment and that all the funds received should go to the community fund to ensure a sustainable water system.

Fast forward 10 years.

I had been a Peace Corps WASH volunteer for about 2 years, and I was sitting in a meeting in the municipal auditorium in Peru, speaking with stakeholders from the province, the region, and the national government about rural water systems. Based on my experience working with rural water committees, I was advocating for the state to contribute a type of subsidy to help pay rural water system operators.

I present a plan to hire operators from the local communities to each be in charge of three nearby water systems, with the water committees paying a portion of the operator salary and the state paying the rest. I explain that rural water boards simply can’t raise enough funds to pay an operator enough so that he or she is able to prioritize maintaining the water system over working on his/her farm or other work that puts food on the table. My proposed plan would ensure a trained operator was maintaining the systems, and it would bring jobs with stable salaries to trained and capable people in the rural communities.

A certain member of a government water authority (whose salary comes from the national government) responded that the government should not give any more financial help to the rural water systems because the rural populations have already received a lot from the state (in many cases the government builds the rural water systems), and he goes on to say that it is a bad habit that the people get used to receiving “handouts” from the government. (He even added that the some of these rural populations even have smart phones so they should be able to pay the required water fee.*)

He was voicing a common sentiment in Peru that comes from a distaste for government help and even social programs because so many political parties give nominal gifts to populous areas to win votes.

His statement also aligns with the international development strategy and philosophy that has been used for decades to construct rural water systems – the international aid community builds water systems and gifts them to the community, leaving the responsibility to maintain the system in the hands of the community.

Before entering Peace Corps, I might have agreed with this point of view, but having lived the reality of working with small, rural farming communities, my perspective has changed. And I’m not the only one. The academic literature shows that nearly 50% of constructed water systems stop working before their useful life and are not repaired, and a growing consensus points to the flaws in relying on “community based management” where the community is “gifted” a water system and then bears the full burden of maintenance and operation.

The water boards I work with in Peru are volunteers, a perfect example of this community-based management strategy. In their free time, these moms and dads with full time jobs are expected to manage a technical business – running a water system. In their free time, they have to attend meetings to learn how to run the water system and then also do all the tasks associated with managing that system.

Most of these water systems serve less than 100 households, so it is rare to find a community that has 5 people with enough free time, enough passion, and enough knowledge to be able to do this job well. I have yet to see it. (The best ones I have seen are rare cases, where a community has two really strong and passionate leaders whose kids are already grown, and they are able to do a decent job of managing the water system, with a lot of support from the local government.)

In addition to the water board that manages the legal and financial aspects of the water system, a community needs an operator to maintain the system. In a city of thousands of users, each user can pay $1 per month and the community can raise $1,000 each month (still not enough to maintain a system well), and in rural areas with only 10 or 30 users, each person would have to pay an exorbitant water use fee to raise enough funds just to pay a full time operator. Additionally, these are populations of mostly farmers, with a very low income in the first place.

 

So, as I sat in this meeting in Peru, having worked closely with farmers and rural populations trying to manage their own water systems, I recognized how easy it was for a government employee who worked in an office and received a fixed salary to not understand the reality of the people living in rural areas. And it made me remember that day in El Salvador, talking to the water board.

I am now embarrassed to remember that we chastised the water board for wanting to pay themselves for the time they put into managing their community water system. “What ignorant arrogance,” I think. While it is truly a slippery slope for a water board to pay its members because it does allow for corruption, it is also necessary for people to receive incentives and to be compensated for the time they give to a job as important as ensuring that the community has safe drinking water.

Would you want to live somewhere where the people managing your water supply were volunteers or were not paid well and had another full time job on the side?

While I am proud of the work we have done in improving the capacity of the volunteer water committees here, and they are doing excellent work, they are less than 10% of all the rural water systems in the district, (and they don’t all have potable water 100% of the time because they don’t have full time operators).

Based on my experiences, I would want my water system to be managed by a professional business with quality government oversight, and I would be willing to pay a fraction of a dollar more in my taxes or in my water fees to ensure that people living in rural areas – the farmers providing the food that feeds us – have potable water to drink.

 

Footnotes

*Regarding the comment about rural populations having smart phones, there are a couple of important things to point out here, the first one being that many of the rural populations where I work live in areas where there isn’t even cell phone service. One of the communities where I work has cell phone service, but when I need to talk to the operator, I can’t call him directly because he doesn’t have a cell phone – I have to call the wife of the treasurer to be able to get a message to the water board. Not only does not every person have a phone, not even every household has a phone (and the person who does have the phone has a simple phone, not a smart phone). And while some poor people here do have smart phones it’s because it is actually cheaper to have a smart phone to be able to communicate by whatsapp (which is practically free to use here), whereas having a plan with calling and texting usually costs more.

**That El Salvador project I mentioned is doing a decent job with community-based  management, but it is one of few (and it receives a government subsidy that helps with the financial situation.)

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.