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.

 

 

Travel Blog: Chachapoyas, Amazonas – Kuelap, Gocta, and more

I have had the great fortune to have found some incredible friends in my site, and not one day passes that I am not thankful for them! With two of my best friends, we had been talking about escaping Oxapampa and traveling together…and this year we finally made it a reality! We left the high jungle, or “ceja de selva” (eybrow of the jungle) of Oxapampa and we headed north to the other side of the country, to the “ceja de selva” of Chachapoyas, in the department of Amazonas.

The arrow points to Chachapoyas, and the red dot is Oxapampa.

Chachapoyas hosts tons of international tourists who come to see Kuelap (sometimes referred to as the Machu Picchu of the north), the grand waterfall Gocta, and tons of other ruins, artefacts, and beautiful natural sites, all a day trip from the city of Chachapoyas, where there are plenty of accommodations.

We were lucky to find a special and got a cheap flight from Lima to Jaen, Cajamarca, and from Jaen, we took a 4-hour bus ride (MovilTours) to Chachapoyas. (Some people fly into Tarapoto and get a car to Chachapoyas, which is about 8 hours in car. Or, there is always the option to take a bus from Lima to Chachapoyas, which is about 20 hours, and worth paying for the more expensive seats on a luxury bus like Cruz del Sur.)

In Chachapoyas, we stayed in Backpackers Hostel, and each day we did a day trip from Chachapoyas. Our itinerary included:

  • Day 1: Rodriguez de Mendoza – Leo’s cave (Caverna de Leo) and hot sulfur springs (Aguas Termales)
  • Day 2: Kuelap
  • Day 3: Gocta (waterfall)
  • Day 4: Karajía

We wish we had had about 2-3 more days to be able to visit Leymebamba, which is 3 hours from Chacha and home to the Laguna de Los Condores and a museum with bones, mummies, and artefacts found around the laguna and in the area.

Day 1 Rodriguez de Mendoza. After eating breakfast in a small restaurant (and laughing until we cried when the waitress took Carolina (who is Argentinian) for a non-Spanish speaking tourist and spoke really loudly and slowly and simply to her in Spanish), we headed to the terminal, where we caught a car to go to Rodriguez de Mendoza (S/20). It was a beautiful 2-hour drive through the majestic, green, rolling hills. There were also palm trees, which we were told were brought in by an outside organization to cultivate, but they didn’t really turn into a big venture so they aren’t really maintained, but they remain an interesting feature in the landscape.

In Rodriguez de Mendoza, we took a 20 minute car ride (S/5) to where a man named Leo gives tours of a cave on his property (S/20). (Slightly less sketchy than it sounds, but worth it!) Leo is about in his 60s and he led us up a hill, through his beautiful property, filled with native plants, coffee plants, and fruit trees, to the opening of a cave. He gave us all flashlights and led us down into the cave, which was many stories deep, with different levels and tons of great formations. He claimed it was incredibly extensive and that he could lead a 6-hour hike through the cave and still not see everything, but since we only had one hour, he proceeded to tell us what he thought each formation resembled (Biblical figures, animals, etc.) We were a little disappointed because we would have much preferred to walk around and see more of the cave, but overall, it was a really cool cave (and a great hike to and from the cave), so I’m glad we did it, and I would recommend it.

We then took a car about 15 minutes (S/5) to a site with a natural spring feeding thermal baths (S/3). This was my first time in thermal baths and I was enchanted by the experience. There were two pools of turquoise water, in the middle of nature, surrounded beautiful scenery on all sides. I don’t think I’ve ever swam surrounded by mountains on all sides, a tiny drop in the middle of paradise. The sulfur smell took a while to wash out of our hair, but it was well-worth it. We ate at a restaurant just above the springs, on the same property, and were lucky enough that two different cars gave us rides back to Rodriguez de Mendoza, where we caught a combi (van) back to Chachapoyas (S/15), just in time to be able to arrive before dark.

 

Day 2. Kuelap – ruins from a fort of the Chachapoyas culture (1100-1400 AD), in the high selva of Amazonas, with a recently-built teleferico (ski-lift type of air transport) over the mountains to arrive at the entrance. (Fun Fact: Machu Picchu is also tucked in a high selva zone, but in Cusco.) We talked to a guide agency in the plaza and secured a day trip to Kuelap, with teleferico, entrance fees and lunch included for S/75. Unfortunately, it was a drizzly, grey day, so we didn’t get quite the spectacular photos that one normally gets at Kuelap, but even through the mist and clouds, it was spectacular…and I would say that the mist and clouds passing through the mountains gave it an enchanting feel in its own right.

The teleferico …getting into a pod with 8 people and crossing green mountains and valleys, from tens of meters above, was an experience in and of itself.

Arriving at Kuelap, we had a light, beautiful (even if foggy) hike up into the mountains, where we began to approach the remainders of watch towers and walls some 900-years old. Approaching the main grounds, the entire settlement was surrounded be a wall, many meters high.

Entering, we saw the outlines and remainders of different parts of a city, living quarters, temples, storage areas.

And a llama. (Not sure if they brought in the llama for show like they do at Machu Picchu, or if llamas actually live in the area, but I’m guessing the former since llamas tend to live at higher altitude…sorry to burst your bubble.)

Our guide explained that Kuelap was used by the Chachapoyas nation independently from 1100-1450AD. Though the Chachapoyas were overtaken by the Incas, the site continued in use and didn’t change much under Inca rule because the Incas tended to let the people they conquered continue with their way of life, implementing certain additional administrative requirements to manage their rule.

In the mid 1500s, the Spaniard conquistadores came, and while the Chachapoyas resisted the conquistadores longer than most, they were finally overcome and forced to leave the site of Kuelap. Our guide was a great storyteller, and I liked that he made a point to distinguish between “assumptions” and “facts backed by evidence” (a difference that is lately getting confused by many popular mass media sources).

 

Day 3. Gocta – The 771-meter (2,530 ft) waterfall with two drops (registered as the 3rd or the 16th largest waterfall in the world, depending on who you ask). We wanted to do the hike to see the whole waterfall – both of the two drops, and we found someone who knew a guide from the village that could take us there and later pick us up for S/60.

The village that is near the waterfall (San Pablo de Valera) has organized themselves well and they require a guide from their village to accompany all visitors to the waterfall. (We paid our guide Maria S/40.) The village you pass through also charges an entrance fee (S/20), and they use the money to maintain and improve the trails to the waterfall, as well as to improve their own community. I really liked the system since it brings jobs and income to the local people while they maintain and conserve the natural area on their property, and also are able to share it with visitors.

The first stop was the pool at the base of the first drop. Unfortunately, we had another cloudy day without sun and with a little bit of rain a few times, but it was still an amazing hike with amazing views.

The second stop was a lookout point, where we could see both the upper and lower drops of the waterfall.

From there, because we had asked to see the lower drop as well, we continued the descent until we arrived at the huge pool at the very base of the fall. Again, it was cloudy, cold, and even rained a little, but that didn’t keep us from diving into the pool; afterall, how often does one get the opportunity to swim in the pool at the base of an incredible 771-meter waterfall? (Ok, I admit, it was way too cold to swim. I jumped in, screamed because it was so cold, and could only stand about 3 more minutes before I got out and hid under my rain poncho to warm up.)

From the pool, we descended about 1 hour to the nearby village where the hike ends. One of the local dogs had followed us from the very beginning, all the way to the village below, and my friends convinced our driver to let us drop the dog off closer to home.

Since we all have that adventurous spirit, we agreed that the all day hike was our favorite day of the whole trip…being surrounded by nature all day, bathing in a grand waterfall, climbing and descending, crossing through the mountains from one village to another, immersed in incredible landscapes…it was a perfect day for us all, one of the best in a lifetime.

Day 4: Karajía. For our last day, we decided on a half-day trip to Karajía (S/30 for a private car), which is where there are sarcophaguses (sarcophagi?) high up in a cliff .

It was a beautiful drive (as all the drives had been), that brought us to a little town, and from there, a short 30-minute hike to see the sarcophagi. You can’t get very close to them because they are high in the cliffs, but you can see them from below or from the sides.

Arrow points to the sarcophaguses

We dawdled a while, hiking around and taking photos and goofing off and enjoying the views, until we climbed back up the hill to the village.

Unfortunately, we only had four days to explore the area, but one could easily spend a week or more discovering Chachapoyas and the surrounding areas.

The amazing views, the history, the culture, the adventure….this trip had it all, with the best part being the memories shared, deepening our friendship, and finally traveling together – something we’d been talking about doing together for a year!

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

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.

A New Home Life

I came across this write-up that I did my first month in site but that I never posted. So here’s a time warp to about a year ago that presents my thoughts about my new living situation when I first arrived in site:

One big difference in my new life here from my life in DC is my home life. I have been living away from family for more than a decade (something that is really strange to most people here), and now I am living with a host mom, dad, and brother.

They are super awesome, and I’m loving it. Granted, I had a few months to mentally prepare myself for the change in lifestyle.

I love not having to make meals for myself, though the trade-off is having to be on a schedule where I am home in time for meals and I don’t get any say in what I eat. Right now I am settling in, and I like the rhythm.

I also have to let my host mom know if I am not going to be coming home at the usual time so she doesn’t worry.  I have never in my life been good at this, (as my parents will attest), so it will be a challenge.

One thing that will help with letting my family know what I am doing and where I am is that every day we eat lunch and dinner together so we have plenty of time to talk about what is going on in our lives. It is a tough transition, but I’m getting more and more used to sharing what is going on in my daily life – even the minutia.

Speaking of that, dinner table conversations are interesting – sometimes I understand 30% of what we’re talking about, and sometimes 90%, usually around 60-70%. I think my average is improving, and that’s all I can ask for, really. I have to concentrate so hard – like 150% of my attention – just to understand a casual conversation…it’s no wonder I am so exhausted at the end of every day. (Forget trying to take notes in a meeting…I definitely can’t write and listen to a conversation at the same time. But  I digress.)

My host father has an awesome dry sense of humor (and always when you least expect it), and thankfully he usually has the patience to repeat what he says or explain what he says so I can get the joke. (I know, I’m the worst buzz kill.)

My host mom is seriously the sweetest and has nothing but a ton of love to give and is interested in being healthy and talking about whatever topic comes up. My host brother loves to hunt and farm, and he often isn’t around, but when he is we talk a lot about animals, hunting and food.

I also have two host sisters and three sobrinos – two nieces and one nephew.

My youngest host sister lives in our same town so I see her and my nephew pretty frequently. He is 3 months older than my real nephew and also an incredibly happy baby so I love hanging out with him.

My older host sister is one year older than me and lives a few hours away with her husband and my two nieces – 5 and 7. They are really fun and I love when they come visit. This sister used to work in tourism and is now a teacher and tells me cool stories about the history and legends of the town where I live.

Overall, I feel really safe and comfortable and happy that they have all welcomed me into the family – in this strange situation where someone from a different country that can’t really speak the language and that they have never known before comes and asks to be a part of the family.

****

That was about 15 months ago. Since then I have grown closer to my host family, and I feel even more a part of the family. They are a great source of love and support in my life here. We don’t eat together quite as often because of certain work meetings, but I try to make sure at least once a day we share a meal, and it is always rewarding. My mom doesn’t worry about me since I have a good, trustworthy friends, so if I am out late and forget to call (as I am prone to do,) she still rests peacefully (thankfully!) And, thankfully my language continues to improve and I understand 99% of conversations…except when I am exhausted and that plummets to about 70%.

Thanks to the great family, friends, and co-workers I have here, I have extended my service a year and will be here until August 2019!

Feliz Navidad

When I arrived here, everyone told me that Christmas in the U.S. is a much bigger deal than it is Peru. From my experiences here, I find them to be pretty similar, with just a few minor differences – the Peruvian touch.

The biggest differences are that Christmas is celebrated on Christmas Eve, or Nochebuena, and that everyone (every school, business, institution, home, etc.) has a nativity scene. The nativity scene is more essential than the Christmas tree here…while in the U.S. you might see Christmas trees without the nativity scene, here you might nativity scenes without the Christmas tree.

Believe it or not, this is one of the smaller, less elaborate nativity scenes I have seen. This one is in the office of the water board where people that live in the urban area pay their water bills (hence the three water reservoirs worked into the scene).
This elaborate nativity scene is from one of the schools last year taken by my camera when it began to stop taking good photos.

While everyone does it a little differently, the essentials for Nochebuena are Panetón and hot chocolate (flavored with cinnamon). What usually happens is that the family gets together on Christmas Eve, eats a huge meal, drinks hot chocolate and munches on Panetón, until midnight, when they put the baby Jesus in the manger of the nativity scene…and then the kids run outside to set off fireworks and rockets. A lot of families stay up way past midnight celebrating into the “madrugada” or early morning. Christmas day is a national holiday here, (which makes a lot of sense, because everyone needs to recover from Nochebuena!)

My youngest sister presents to you the Panetón. (Thank you Kathia for agreeing to be the Panetón model.)

This year (and last year), my family celebrated more like I had done in the U.S. – we had a pretty low key Nochebuena, and then we had a bigger celebration on Christmas day because that is when my  oldest sister was able to come into town.

For Nochebuena this year, we went to an aunt’s house and had a medium-sized meal (while it was a large meal for me, it was medium-sized compared to a typical celebratory meal here,) and, of course, we ate Panetón and had hot chocolate while we waited for midnight (and also waited for my aunt to come home because she works at the hospital and got called in to go with a patient to a hospital in a city 2 hours away because they didn’t have the treatment the patient needed here. But that’s another topic.) At midnight we went outside to watch the kids setting off rockets and fireworks…it sounded like a warzone!

On Christmas day, I spent the morning (until 2pm) helping prepare the huge Christmas meal. It started with the typical chicken soup (caldo de gallina) as a starter, and then we had a huge and delicious turkey, yucca, potatoes, creamy apple salad with raisins and nuts, spinach salad, and rice (always). You will not have a Peruvian meal without rice…except maybe ceviche. Maybe.

My mom also had made mashed sweet potatoes – something she had learned from the thanksgiving meal that the other PCVs in my site and I had shared with her and the other families this Thanksgiving!

The Thanksgiving meal we shared with our host families this year.

Most adults here say Christmas is for kids. There’s Mother’s Day for moms. Father’s Day for dads. And Christmas for kids. (Yep, those of us adults without kids are a really weird thing for most people (a topic for another day), so we don’t get acknowledged.) So, the gift-giving at Christmas is usually just for the kids. But luckily, my family has decided to do Secret Santa the past two years, so the adults draw names, and we each give and get one gift. (I love it…when I only have to think about one gift, I can put a lot of thought into it and get a really good gift, whereas I really struggle to get everyone a meaningful gift when I buy for everyone. But I digress.)

This year all the kids got something with wheels…the 3-year-old got a tricycle, the 6-year-old got a bicycle, and the 8-year-old got rollerblades.

 And then we had Secret Santa, which was pretty great and low key, until…my dad had drawn my oldest sister (who is 2 years older than me), and he gave her a bicycle! It was the cutest, funniest, sweetest thing ever. She shed a tear or two, and I’m pretty sure she was more excited about her bicycle than her 6-year-old daughter was about hers!

So, for me, Christmas here is actually pretty similar to how I celebrated Christmas with my family my whole life. So why do so many Peruvians and Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) say that Christmas is a bigger deal in the States? Of course I will not leave you without sharing my theories:

  1. Christmas movies. There are tons of them, and a lot of what Peruvians know about the U.S. comes from Hollywood (yep, the image of Americans is that we are all wealthy, sex-crazed, work-aholics, thanks to Hollywood), so Christmas seems like a real big deal to Americans just because there are so many movies about it, and not so many movies about other holidays.
  2. In the states, Christmas tends to be one of the bigger holidays of the year (advertised like crazy (even BEFORE Thanksgiving!), tons of movies about it (as I said above), secularized and celebrated by the majority, even non-Christians). In the US, I can’t really think of another holiday that would be bigger, generally speaking, given the media attention Christmas gets in the States, so it is our biggest holiday – or among the biggest…
  3. While Christmas is celebrated in a similar manner here, it is dwarfed by the celebrations of other holidays. Compared to the other celebrations that they have here in Peru, Christmas is a pretty low-key family celebration…meanwhile Independence Day, Semana Santa, and the town anniversary and the day of the patron saint are huge, town-wide parties that last up to a week, and all have multiple parades, concerts, fireworks shows and tons of festive activities.
“El Castillo”, from the fireworks show during our towns anniversary and day of the patron saint.

So these other celebrations are like a combination of many of our holidays: New Years Eve and 4th of July (for the fireworks), plus Thanksgiving (for the parade), plus state fair (for the activities), and Christmas (for the decorations they put up all over town). And so, as a Peruvian or a PCV, Christmas appears like a pretty minor holiday here.

House Arrest in Peru

Last Sunday, 22 October, I was under house arrest. Not just me, but the entire nation of Peru. Across the whole country (or to be precise, all the urban areas of Peru, or 75% of the population), no one was permitted to leave their house between the hours of 8am to 5pm. We were told we could be detained by the police if we were out in the streets.

Nope, this wasn’t a terrorist scare, or some oppressive government scheme, it was the census.

Just like the US, Peru conducts the national census every 10 years. Volunteers (that receive very small incentives) go door to door to collect demographic information so that citizens and institutions have a sense of how many people live in the country, what languages they speak, what ethnicities make up the nation, what kind of work they do, etc. But, unlike the US, all businesses close for one day every 10 years, and people are required to stay in their houses and wait for someone to come administer the census at their houses.

I was a little sad about this because I really like to go on bike rides on my Sundays, but I was also kind of excited because I’d never experienced a day of house arrest, I mean “census”. I know we have census in the US, but honestly I don’t remember ever participating. I certainly don’t remember an edict saying we had to stay home all day on census day. (FYI: Wikipidia says that the next census in the US will be in 2020 and will mostly be conducted by the internet.) Anyway, I figured it would be a great opportunity to catch up on some blog posts and spend some time with my host mom and dad.

The night before the census, I went for a run (since I was going to be stuck inside all day the next day I figured I should take some preventative measures against cabin fever and enjoy the outdoors a little). When I got back from my run, I couldn’t believe my eyes – at our dinner table, I saw my host sister Betsy and her family (her husband and my 2 nieces) who live an hour away in Villa Rica! They had come as a surprise, to pass the house arrest day, er census, with us! Since Betsy had come over, my sister Kathia who lives 20 minutes away also came over with my 2-year-old nephew. And my brother and his girlfriend and her son stayed the night too.

The next day, census day, felt like Christmas! The whole family was in the house (which has never happened before…someone is always missing for some reason or another), the kids were playing and watching tv, mom was in and out of the kitchen preparing pachamanca for lunch, a big group of us played a card game, and we all caught up and laughed and jokingly complained while we waited for the census people to come.

Inconveniently, they came to census us right at lunch time. A young man of about 18 years old arrived, and the poor guy said they weren’t even providing him with lunch. (Lucky for him, we brought him a plate of pachamanca to enjoy.) He “interviewed” each of us, one at a time, and even I got to partake in the census – which was basically just answering about 10-20 demographic questions while he filled in the answers on an official workbook that reminded me of exam workbooks that we had to fill out when taking a test like the SAT or ACT. (Am dating myself here…are those exams electronic now like the GRE?)

Since we had a house full of 4 different families, it took a little while to finish, but it went smoothly. And at 5pm sharp, after enjoying 8 hours of quality family time (the perfect amount of time for a family to enjoy each other’s company before they start driving each other crazy), we all fled from the house – my sister Betsy went back to Villa Rica to prepare for work the next day, my mom, dad and sister Kathia went to the farm to take care of the pigs, my brother went who-knows-where, and I went to hang out with some friends by the river.

The next week, the news was full of census stories: the census volunteer that fell in love with a censee (cute); someone sexually harassed by a censor (terrible!); and apparently this year, unlike past years, they didn’t make it to all the houses because they didn’t have enough volunteers; (word has it that they didn’t give the volunteers enough incentives so some didn’t show up at the last minute…based on the poor guy who came to our house and hadn’t had lunch, that sounds pretty accurate.)

Anyway, I am really glad I had the luck to be here to experience the census “house arrest” that only happens every 10 years. Even though at first it sounded a little strange, and maybe even a little draconian, it turned out to be a really great experience! This way of being, and way of living – making the most of whatever comes your way – is something I see over and over here in Peru, and something I really appreciate. People could have been up in arms, interpreting this as an infringement on freedom, a forced day of being bored or sad, locked inside; but instead of making a mountain out of a molehill, they made lemonade out of lemons, and a relatively normal day was turned into a huge family celebration, which turned out to be a great and memorable day!

A Rich New Year (2017)

There are a few interesting new years traditions here in Peru, such as sitting under a table and eating 12 grapes, one to represent each month, and making a wish for each grape. Or wearing something yellow (usually yellow underwear) to bring good luck in the new year. Or walking around the block with a piece of luggage so that you will have the luck to travel in the new year.

In the same spirit, but instead of walking around the block with my luggage, I rang in the new year 2017, by traveling to another part of Peru where I would experience not only a different town, but different landscapes, a different climate, and a different culture. (Peru has such a great variety of all of these – landscapes, climates, cultures – that I could not experience all of them in my 2-3 years here, even if I didn’t work and only traveled. Since I do in fact spend the majority of my time in site working, this new years trip reminded me that this year I want to take time to travel to try to experience some of these treasures that Peru has to offer.)

What happened was…about a week or two before new years, my bestie Karlia invited me to meet her and a few of our good friends in Lima and then travel south to a small village that is one of the epicenters of much of the history of Afro-Peruvian descendants in Peru, (which also happens to throw a mad new years party every year). Luckily I had the clarity of mind to say yes and I hopped on a bus to Lima.

After taking a day of relaxation on the beach in Lima, we headed to El Carmen, a town in Chincha, in the department of Ica.

In Chincha, we went to the supermarket to buy some new years eve snacks (wine, crackers, and champagne) to enjoy while we waited for the NY party to start (start time: 11:45pm, we were told).

At the supermarket we were all separately amazed at how the appearances of the people that entered the supermarket in Chincha reminded us so much of being at a supermarket in the US and made us feel an interesting sense of comfort, like home – because we saw such diversity in race, unlike we are accustomed to seeing in our sites. And then when we arrived in El Carmen (20-minute drive from Chincha), the same thing happened when we saw that the majority of folks living in this tiny town of a few blocks wide in either direction were majority black, Afro-Peruvians. I have never been so happy to see black people!

While Lima hosts a good diversity of race in certain areas, we all live in rural sites that tend to be pretty racially homogenous with most people being darker skinned with ancestors being a mix of indigenous peoples and Europeans.

(The majority of people in my town have a mix of indigenous and Austrian-German heritage and have the “typical Latino” look that most Americans know, though it is not uncommon to see lighter-skinned people usually with more Austrian-German showing, which is uncommon in a lot of other sites.  In my site, I have only seen one black person (who is from Columbia actually), one person that appears to be of Indian descent, and a few Asian-Peruvians or “Chinos” as they are called, despite the fact that their ancestors may be from any east Asian country.)

It struck me as strange that seeing black people was so comforting for me, and also for my friends (probably more so for them, being African Americans). Apparently, I had previously been accustomed to greater racial diversity while living in DC; then I hadn’t even noticed that I wasn’t living in a place with much racial diversity, until I experienced greater racial diversity again, and I was struck by how much it made me feel at home, that I had been missing that aspect of diversity in my life without even knowing it.)

We wandered around the plaza de armas, seeing what the local artisans were selling (woven bags, souvenirs like carvings featuring black figurines, locally-made wine, among others.) Someone handed us a flier about a history lesson and demonstration of zapateo that was taking place at that moment, so we hurried one block over and found a man standing outside his house and a group of about 7 young men from Chiclayo sitting around waiting for the event to start. We entered the house and the man started telling us about the Afro-Peruvian history of the area of El Carmen, and then he pulled out a fiddle and 3 young men came in and started performing zapateo, which reminded me of “step”.

Fast forward to the 11:45 start of the new years party (which, by the way, I found out a few hours before that it was a white party). First, I have to say that my friend Vanessa was the queen of the party, by far. She was looking fabulous, BOMB!, and rocking the afro hairstyle…freely and with pride here in this site, which is very different from the reality of her (and most of our) sites.

From what I understand, it’s hard enough to wear one’s hair naturally (in an afro) in the US and for people to appreciate the beauty of that look much less to be taken seriously, or professionally. And here in Peru, that is the case but even more extreme, unfortunately. It’s one of those things that is not talked about and often unnoticed by anyone that is not black, but is a real struggle to have someone telling you that your natural hair is ugly and you should really spend a lot of money and time to make it look more like white people’s hair. (Read more about this from one of the Blog It Home winners, Brittany.)

Everyone, including a few drummers, was gathering around some large stuffed dolls the size of crash test dummies. So we joined the circle, and at midnight, the drums started going and someone set the dolls on fire…to send off the old year and welcome in the new year. We all proceeded to dance around the fire, to the beat of the drums…which also made me feel incredibly at home, reminding me of my Sunday afternoon ritual to dance at the drum circles in Meridian Hill Park in DC.

After the old year dolls had burned down, the party started. Led by a DJ, bands (of course with a cajon – a drum that is a wooden box that the drummer sits on top of), and dancers dressed as devils, everyone danced and mingled like one big happy family.

The party continued through the morning and until about mid-day the next day (though I don’t know from first-hand experience; I’m not that hard core.)

It’s hard to describe how wonderful and meaningful this new years was for me…spending time with some of my best Peace Corps friends, seeing a completely different part of the country, having so many experiences that made me feel at home…it was the best way possible to start a new year – open to new experiences and adventures, and a reminder to take advantage of my time here – in this country and in this life.

Fourth of July

The Peace Corps mission is to promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:

Goal 1: To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

Goal 2: To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

Goal 3: To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

So in addition to my Goal 1 work in Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH), we also talk about Goal 2 work…the things we do so that Peruvians have a better understanding of America and Americans. (And as a side note, this blog is an example Goal 3.)

I love Goal 1 work so much that I don’t do many Goal 2 activities here (other than generally trying to be a good person which I hope gives my Peruvian friends and family a good impression of America and Americans).

But recently I got a site mate, Mary, and we decided to throw a 4th of July party for our friends and family (probably my first official Goal 2 activity so far in site). We decided to do a few typical fourth of July foods: hamburgers (meat and bean burgers), pasta salad, watermelon, fruit salad, and lemonade.

In the morning we went to the feria – the feria is basically the farmers market where producers come and sell their produce. You can find vegetables, fruits, meats, prepared foods, and even live animals for sale, all from surrounding areas. Feria happens once or twice a week in most places, and here in Oxapampa it is Saturdays and Tuesdays, so we lucked out that 4th of July was a Tuesday!

Also, it just so happened that my brother had recently brought home meat from a bull from Codo, Pozuzu, the region 3 hours north, known for raising cattle. The only challenge was that I had to take the meat to the market so they could grind it into hamburger meat. So I rode my bicycle to the market with a plastic bag full of meat. First time for everything. #RemindedwhyIusedtobevegetarian.

Luckily my host mom loves to cook, owned a restaurant for many years, and was excited to learn about the dishes we were preparing so she helped us cook the hamburgers and prepare a lot of the food. She is great!

We had planned to start at 6, and true to “la hora Peruana”, or “Peruvian time”, the food was ready and the majority of the guests arrived at around 7:30. At any event, you always have to start with a speech (palabras), so Mary and I thanked everyone for coming and gave a brief explanation of 4th of July traditions before eating.

We asked what everyone thought of when they think of the US, and we heard things like movies, great music, and friends from the US, but unfortunately, lots of people also mentioned Trump as the first thing that comes to their mind, specifically for the idiotic things he is doing on an international scale. I pointed out that I actually had the same negative feelings these days when I think of the US, but that at the same time I have a sense of pride so many Americans have really started to be even more active in doing and continuing their good work and fighting his poor policies and bad decisions.

Finally, we shared a wonderful, nerdy part of American culture with our friends and families…trivia night. We divided into two teams, and began 4th of July trivia, with Snickers bars awarded to the winners (who then shared with everyone – what good sports!)

Independence Day here in Peru is July 28th, so soon they will have their chance to stump me with Peruvian 28 de Julio trivia!

The Struggle

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

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

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

Or so I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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