On the Road (Santa Maria)

From San Pedro de Atacama to the Patagonia in Argentina, I have been traveling the road of generosity and cultural exchange. In the US, the South is known for its hospitality, and I was lucky enough to have experienced it many times living there. But in my first weeks in Argentina, the culture of generosity that I’ve experienced has outdone even Southern Hospitality.

From hosts who offer me a place to stay (Couchsurfing), kind souls who offer me rides along the way, families who invite me into their homes or along on their vacations, and people who invite me to hang out with their friends and to show me around, the openness and willingness to share, to not only invite me in but to make me feel at home, has been a constant here in northern Argentina.

And it comes at a time in my journey when I most needed it. In northern Chile I almost had my bag stolen so I’ve been a little on edge and extra cautious. After 5 months of traveling I have also started to experience those feelings of loneliness, missing people, and most surprisingly, missing stability, structure, and routine.

So having people be so welcoming and concerned not only about my physical well being but also making sure I feel welcome, included, and at home, has meant the world to me. Interestingly, I don’t get the feeling that people are going out of their way to do it; rather, it seems a very natural part of the culture.

Similar to my last post about Chumbicha, I will continue to share some of my experiences with some the people I’ve met. Today, here’s a little tid-bit from a day in the pueblo of Santa Maria.

A few nights ago, I found myself sitting around a kitchen table eating homemade pizza at 1am in a small town (Santa Maria), chatting with four locals and an Argentine-American couple that I met in Jujuy. It was everything I had hoped for in my travels – a chance to make friends and get a glimpse of not only big cities or tourist hot spots, but also to chat with people from different smaller, less-known-to-tourists towns.

So here I found myself in the middle of a cousin reunion – the friend from Jujuy was visiting his parent’s home after being away for years and all the cousins were catching up. The amazing thing was that I had just met everyone there and yet I felt at home, like just another cousin or a close friend of the cousin.

In fact, we had just met a few days earlier at a birthday party that my couchsurfing host had invited me to tag along to, giving me the opportunity to meet his (really awesome) friends. The next thing you know, we are both in this small town of Santa María, and I’m staying with his family and girlfriend in the family house and hanging out with his cousins.

For me, it was really cool to meet some people who live in a smaller town and hear a little about their experiences and also the contrasting perspectives about life in small town Argentina, the health care system (free for all but not good in the rural areas), education (free universities), crime (not much-drug use was the biggest problem), and even immigration.

For example, I learned that there is ONE black person in Santa Maria. He is from Senegal and everyone knows his name. We just happened to see a black guy in the bus terminal when I was leaving, and we thought, “Hey, that must be Bubba!” (I forgot his real name but it was something like that.) And then we heard someone call his name and sure enough it was “Bubba”.

Everyone at the table had attended university because university is free for everyone. Among the locals was a teacher, an agronomist, a store owner, and and one that works as a kind of notary public or justice of the peace type work (we don’t have the equivalent in the US). They explained that the town didn’t really have problems with security but there were problems with drug use. They were also really interested to hear about me and my travels and it was really nice to share my experiences with them.

It was also really interesting to hear different perspectives on how politics impacts their lives and their situations. One perspective was that the socialist government policies were the driving force for the economic strengths of the country, like a variety of products produced in-country, as well as access to health care and education. Meanwhile, another perspective seemed to blame the socialist policies for problems such as population growth and drug use.

Santa Maria was indeed a very calm and quiet town. Maybe it was because the majority of the people were celebrating Carnaval one town over, Amaicha. (We drove through Amaicha and saw people walking around covered in paint, singing gleefully, and already/still drinking at 5pm. They really enjoy Carnaval in the north!) But I understand that Santa Maria is actually usually fairly quite. When I first arrived to the park and was waiting to meet up with my friends, I started chatting with a random couple in the park and they offered me a tea.

Later, with my friends we walked around and bought a few local products. First was a block of carob paste (“patay”) from a local – the area is full of carob trees, so there are many different carob products available.

I was also introduced to “tortillas” which in Argentina are a nan-type bread (that also comes in sweet or savory).

tortilla normal (savory)
tortilla dulce (sweet)

And we ate “humitas”, which are a type of tamale that come in either savory or sweet flavors. (Not to be confused with humitas in Peru which are only the sweet corn tamales.)

In the garden in the back of the family house where we stayed, there were grape vines, and it happened to be the season for grapes. (All through my journeys through the north, I had access to fresh grapes from the vine!)

 

In less than 24 hours I was so lucky to get a taste of this great little town and not just peek into the lives of some of the locals, but actually feel a part of it.

 

Famous footnotes:

If I had had more time (or if I ever go back to the area), I would definitely visit the museum at the town entrance and the nearby Quilmes Ruins.

In the garden in the back of the house, were grape vines, and it happened to be the season for grapes. (All through my journeys through the north, I had access to fresh grapes from the vine!)

 

Colombian Things

I fell in love with Colombia – with the warm, friendly people, the neat and colorful little towns, and with the diversity of landscapes, climates and cultures. Across the country, in every place I stayed, I quickly felt at home.

(Podrías leer este publicación en español haciendo click aquí.)

The friendly and hospitable people and incredible diversity of landscapes wasn’t exactly new for me, because I have found it in abundance in every country in South America.

But each country has something special and its own unique flavor. Each country has those unique things that make it different from its neighbors, like an accent, certain words or phrases, customs, or trends. Colombia has its fair share, and I’m sure I only picked up on not even 10% of them, but here I’ll share a few that I noticed that made Colombia unique from the other South American countries I’ve visited. With these, you can start practicing so you can blend in as if you were from there!

In the streets…

Being a cyclist, I was fascinated by the number of people that ride bikes – both for daily commute and for exercise! I loved that in three of the cities that I visited, they opened “ciclovia” on Sunday mornings, where they closed of major streets to vehicle traffic, for cyclists, runners, or families that wanted to enjoy the morning walking in the fresh air.

Another two-wheeled novelty… I found that I could get around easily thanks to motorcycle taxis! I’m not talking about moto-taxis or “tuk-tuks” where they put a type of carriage for you to sit on the back of a motorcycle. Rather, you can flag down a motorcycle, just like you would a taxi, hop on the back, and get where you were going quickly and easily. (A few even insisted they had no problem taking me and my huge hiking backpack – and they really did carry me and my backpack just fine. Though I only rode with my big backpack in smaller cities at lower speeds!)

They even have an app like Uber or Lyft, called “Picap” where you can call the motorcycle taxi to come get you. (Everyone uses these apps (Uber, Beat, Picap), even though they are technically illegal.)

You can also see Chiva buses in many cities in Colombia. You’ll recognize them when you’re walking down the street and you suddenly hear the party coming down the road towards you. That’s right, they’re party buses that either go through the street picking people up (you can just hop on!) or some are contracted and you can rent the whole bus for your party.

I loved that there were a ton of outdoor parks, green spaces, and public parks throughout the cities I visited. There was usually outdoor exercise equipment, basketball and football (soccer) courts, playgrounds, and trails to walk or run. Especially in a big city like Bogota, it made it a lot more welcoming and livable, in my opinion.

I noticed graffiti art adding color to most cities, mostly with clear neighborhood or political themes (though also a few instances of gang-like tagging.)

Finally, I loved that there were water fountains in the airport, a sign that the country had advanced in providing potable water to taps for people. It turned out to be true that most of the places I visited did have potable water delivered to their taps!

There were also many different phrases, words and expressions that I noticed were different from the other countries I visited. One example was that after saying “thank you” for something, the common response not the “no problem” that I was used to, but rather “with pleasure”, which made one feel much more welcome. For more examples, read the Spanish version of this blog entry.

Finally, I was lucky enough to be in Colombia on December 7th when they celebrate “la noche de las velitas” or the night of candles. This is when families gather on their front porch or in the street outside their house to light candles. Each candle represents good wishes for a special person in their life. In Bogotá, many families or groups of friends gathered in public parks to sit in a circle and light their candles. It was a really lovely atmosphere where one felt a sense of community with others from the neighborhood, while enjoying a special moment with friends and family closest to you.

 

Trocitos Colombianos

(You can read this in English here.)

Me enamoré de Colombia, con su gente cálida, sus pueblos coloridos y ordenados y su diversidad de paisajes, climas y culturas. En varios lugares a través del país me sentí en casa y me acostumbré rápido al sitio nuevo y su gente.

En muchos sentidos, la gente acogedor y amable y la increíble diversidad geográfica no me fue nuevo, ya que son placeres que una encuentra en todos los países de Sudamérica. Cada país tiene su encanto y su sazón único.

Además, cada país tiene sus características únicas que lo distingue de los otros, que sea un dejo, palabras únicas, costumbres o tendencias. Colombia tiene suyos y seguro que yo solo capté ni siquiera un 10 por ciento de ellos, pero aquí te dejo un trocito de observaciones y diferencias que me sobresalieron de Colombia. Con esto, puedes comenzar a asimilarte al idioma y costumbres colombianos para que parezcas de allí al llegar.

Empezando en la calle…

Siendo una ciclista, me fasciné con la cantidad de gente que vi andando en bicicleta a diario. Además, en tres de las ciudades que conocí hacen “ciclovia” los domingos en la mañana (y posiblemente lo hacen en otras ciudades también). Tuve la suerte de estar en Bogotá, Medellín y Manizales cuando cerraron varias calles principales para los ciclistas, corredores, patinadores y familias que salen para caminar juntos para divertirse en el aire libre.

Otra novedad de dos llantas, es que en todos lados pude movilizarme fácilmente con taxi de moto linear. (No hablo de la moto taxi que tiene asiento con techo atrás del conductor, sino la motocicleta linear sola. Mi mochila grande de mochilera no los intimidó y con ella también nos llevaron varias motos lineares taxistas! Incluso, igual como se usa Uber o Beat para un taxi de auto, se puede contractar una moto linear taxista con el aplicativo “Picap” en varias ciudades. (Se usan los aplicativos de taxi a pesar de que son ilegales en Colombia.)

En todos lados también verás los Chiva Bus. Los reconocerás cuando escuchas la fiesta pasando por tu lado en la calle. Son buses que tocan la música, sirven bebidas alcohólicas y pasan por las calles de la ciudad. Hay unos en que podrías abordar en cualquier momento y otros podrías contractar para realizar tu fiesta con familia y amigos mientras que vayan pasando por la ciudad.

En varias ciudades vi una cantidad de parques, espacios verdes y espacios públicos en el aire libre, con equipos para hacer ejercicios, con canchas de futbol y básquet, pistas para caminar y correr y columpios para niños.

En todas partes observé el arte de grafiti que suele ser arte público con temas comunitarios, históricos o políticos (aunque también había instancias de lo que parecía de pertenecer a pandillas).

Además me impresionó que había bebederos – fuentes de agua potable – en el aeropuerto. Varias ciudades han logrado de abastecer agua potable a sus poblaciones y yo podía tomar agua del caño (“del grifo”, “de la llave”) sin preocupación.

 

Hablando de diferentes palabras y expresiones, me encontré con unas pequeñas diferencias del castellano peruano con que ya tengo costumbre.

Dos de mis favoritas son unas frases cotidianas que tienen un poquito más de calidez y que me hizo sentir bienvenida. Cuando dije “gracias!”, no solo fue “de nada” que alguien me sirvió o me ayudó, sino “con mucho gusto”! No solo se me despidieron con “chau,” sino “que este bien!”

Al contrario a la calidez que me sentí por escuchar siempre que me ayudaban “con gusto” y me deseaban “que este bien”, me sentí rara al escuchar “que pena” cuando alguien se me chocó conmigo en la calle o cuando algo se cayó de mis manos sin querer. En estas situaciones, tengo costumbre de escuchar “lo siento”, “disculpa”, o “perdón”. En mi experiencia previa, “qué pena” se usa para expresar sarcasmo, para darme la culpa a mi o cuando una persona culpable no acepta culpabilidad. Pero no suele ser así in Colombia, sino es costumbre decir “que pena” en lugar de “lo siento” cuando algo mal pasa sin querer, aunque sea una falla pequeña de alguien. Mi ejemplo favorito es cuando mis amigos pidieron unas bebidas en el restaurante y el mesero se equivocó. Al explicarlo que no eran las bebidas que habían pedido, les respondió, “que pena”.

Asimismo, en Colombia no solo te piden que “te colabores” con el sorteo del colegio, la pollada o para ayudar a la persona en la calle. También te piden que “colabores” cuando quieren que sigas las normativas de la empresa o las normas sociales. En una lancha en el rio amazonas nos regó el capitán, “Colabórenme y pónganse el chaleco de seguridad, por favor”.

En la mayoría de los países Latinoamérica que conozco, “tomamos fotitos” y “llegamos en un ratito”, pero en Colombia y Venezuela, “tomamos foticos” y “llegamos en un ratico”.

En Colombia, se dice a su amigo o conocido “marica”… “Oye marica! Vienes? Vamos a la playa! Salimos en un ratico!”

Una frase que es útil en el negocio, desde el principio hasta al final, es el clásico: “A la orden”. “A la orden!” te gritan los vendedores para llamar atención a sus productos. Incluso al cerrar la venta, les dices “gracias” y te responden “a la orden,” (siempre están a tu servicio).

Tengo que clarificar tambien, que hay unas palabras y frases que se usa en Colombia y Venezuela y unas que se usa en Venezuela que han llegado a Colombia debido a la llegado de muchos inmigrantes refugiados. La verdad es que a veces yo no me fije en cuales son de Venezuela originalmente; sigo aprendiendo.

Me hace recordar de las arepas, que encuentras en Colombia y en Venezuela, pero son diferentes en cada país. A mi me gustó mucho la version Venezolana.  Mi amiga venezolana en Bogotá me enseño que se puede preparar arepas con casi cualquiera combinación de comida (si lo sabes bien).

De comida colombiana, me gustó mucho la sopa “ajiaco” y el postre “obleas”.

Al final, les cuento que tuve la suerte de estar en Colombia el 7 de diciembre cuando celebran “la noche de las velitas” (o “el día de las velitas”). En la tarde, con toda la familia prenden velas en la barrera o patio fuera de la casa. Cada vela representa buenos deseos para una persona querida.

En Bogotá, familias y amigos se reunieron en parques y espacios públicos para prender las velas con sus queridos, en compañía de vecinos de la zona. Fue un ambiente muy bonito en donde uno siente en comunidad y rodeada por la buena vibra de los buenos deseos.

San Agustín – Ancient History and Home Away from Home

At about the same time that the Greeks were building the Parthenon, here in hills of present-day Colombia (where all 5 of the country’s major rivers begin), the San Agustín culture emerged, evolved, developed over the centuries, and then disappeared. While we have hardly any evidence of the inner workings of their societies, hundreds of statues, some basic metal works, and tombs have been discovered and give us a tiny peek into their culture, leaving the rest up to our imagination.

Artwork in a museum in the nearby town of Obando where the oldest tombs (from 1000 BC) are found. Depicts the artists interpretation of some key elements from the San Agustin culture.

Some of the personified animals and figures depicted in their statues are similar to aspects of the cultures of many of the indigenous communities that still maintain their traditions today in Colombia. As such, many of the depictions are interpreted through the lens of the modern day indigenous communities’ beliefs and traditions.

In my opinion, these statues are signs that the Agustinians played baseball.

Many of these statues were found next to tombs, suggesting that just like we put gravestones at burial sites today, statues marked or guarded these burial sites, or maybe guided the deceased into the next life.

Some statues were painted with sap from trees, seeds, bark, and plants.

Seeing signs of creativity and human works from so long ago made me feel tiny and at the same time great – as I peeked into tombs from 1,100 BC and marveled at statues carved 2000 years ago (around 9-20 AD)., I could feel a tiny connection a with this far away past, with our American ancestors, little talked about in history class.

These archeological sites are located in and around a small, rural farming town of about 11,000 people, called San Agustin. People come from all over the world to see the statues, which are located in many different sites dispersed throughout the region. You can see many statues and archaeological sites in the archaeological park just outside the city center, but many more sites are farther from the urban center, and are more commonly accessed by rides in van, jeep, or on horseback.

When I was there, the majority of tourists were actually Colombians, (a change in the norm due to the holiday season when people have vacations). It was especially cool to hear so many different people excited to learn about the history and geography of their country. (And I was really impressed with the couple from Cúcuta,* who were there with their three year-old, doing the day tour to see the statues, tombs, and waterfalls.)

El Estrecho del Rio Magdelena is a channel where this major river of Colombia passes through a space only 2.2 meters wide between rock formations.

For me, San Agustín was a magical place. (I was even hesitant to write this blog because I don’t think I can convey in words how special of a place it was for me.) I fell in love with it, not only for its connection with its ancient past, but also because of its current vibe – the friendly and down-to-earth people and the familiar rural Latin American small-town feel.

It resembles my Peace Corps Peru home of Oxapampa in many ways. It has a temperate climate and is surrounded by beautiful green hills, rivers, and waterfalls. A town of agriculture (mostly sugar cane, coffee, bananas) and tourism, the conversations between strangers in the car ride there were about the going prices of different crops and gossip about people they knew in common. The guy who took me to my hospedaje (lodging) just happened to be cousins with the owner and helped me negotiate a price within my budget for a very nice room.

I happened to arrive just when the family was preparing to host the novena that night. And that is how I learned what a novena was.

I arrived at the same time that  extended family members were arriving and gathering on the patio outside the kitchen. While cooking my dinner, I listened as they took turns reading passages and later singing along to (religious) Christmas songs from the stereo while adding some spice with maracas and shakers. After the extended family left, they invited me to eat my dinner at the table with them, and I learned that they celebrate novenas for the nine days leading up to Christmas, alternating houses that host it each night.

Over the few days that I was there, the family became like my Colombian family. They invited me to one of the novenas, let me help milk a cow, and drove me around town to see the Christmas lights and the town’s annual nativity scene. (San Agustin boasts to have the largest pesibre, or nativity scene, in all of Colombia. (They say it used to be the biggest in the world.) It includes 20-50 different outdoor “rooms”, each with different scenes made of life-size mannequins. Some are a depiction of a part of the Christmas story from the bible, while others depict historic life in San Agustin, but most are a mixture of the two, sponsored by a local business promoting its products or services.)

This was one of those really special places where I felt a real connection with the place and the people, so much so that it was kind of hard to leave. I had similar feelings about my experience in Amantaní, the island on Lake Titicaca, and coincidentally I had a similar mystical “despedida” (farewell) with nature. My last morning in Amantaní, a hummingbird came and hovered close my face looking at me for a few seconds, while here in San Agustin, just before I left, a butterfly landed on my face and remained for nearly a minute, giving me a goodbye hug and kiss.

 

 

Famous Footnotes:

*Cuceta is a border town with Venezuela, located on the other side of country. This family of three (a lawyer and an engineer) had literally traveled across the country to visit San Agustin.

**Fun fact: In San Agustin, I saw many guys sporting Mohawk-like haircuts- something I haven’t seen anywhere else in my South American travels so far.

PaNaChi – Family Fun in Colombia

I never would have thought that my travels through South America would include going to a theme park! But the best part about traveling is the surprises!

Parque Nacional Chicamocha (Panachi) is a theme park in Santander, Colombia built above the Chicamocha river valley and probably has the best views of any theme park I’ve ever been to.

One of its main highlights is the teleférico (elevated cable car) that takes you down into the river valley, floating above the river, and then back up to a mountainside across the river. (If you know how much I love teleféricos, you know I couldn’t pass this up!)

When you arrive on the mountain on the other side, there are restaurants with typical food from the Santander region, snacks, souvenirs, and you could even do a virtual reality session.

I ordered the mute (pronounced “mootay”)

Another highlight is the water park literally on the side of a mountain, with an amazing view overlooking the valley, with a mountain backdrop in the distance. (If you know how much I love swimming, you know I couldn’t pass that up either!)

There were a couple of water slides, a lazy river, different pools, and a few water park areas for kids.

Panachi also has different “xtreme” experiences like a bungee-jump type experience, swings that swing you over the side of a cliff, zip-lines, etc. all paid for separately.

It was really cool to see how some Colombian families spend vacation, and to see people out having fun! (And it was also cool that there weren’t a ton of people because I went during low season!)

Like many of my experiences here in Colombia, the park has a funky schedule (closed Monday and Tuesday during low season), and the teleférico also has its own schedule. I was surprised when they had told us we’d return from the teleférico in 2 hours; I thought it was just a really long ride … until they dropped us off on the other mountain after a 30-minute ride and left us there for an hour until it fired back up again to deliver us back to the park.*

Overall, it was a fun day, and highly recommended, for anyone, but especially as a family outing!

Famous Footnotes:

Still, 3+ years in Latin America and I still get surprised at things done differently. Some things get lost in translation, and some things just aren’t explained well or in a context that I understand, and I forget that sometimes one has to ask a lot of questions to clarify things. But, I have learned to appreciate surprises, go with the flow, and not stress (or stress less) when things don’t go as I planned or as I expected. And that is a gift that I value more than gold!

Building A Home

Living for 3 years in a different culture, a second language, starting from zero to make friends, foster family and build a community, is an experience like no other. Even for an independent-minded person like me, it challenged me in ways I couldn’t have predicted. One of those was challenging and changing my ideas of “home”.

What do you think of when you think of home? Maybe a house. Probably a certain place like a neighborhood or a city? Usually we think of a place.

But maybe it’s an atmosphere of comfort, usually created by certain people, like family, friends, or community.

I moved away from home at age 18 to go to college in another state, where I fairly easily felt at home in the university atmosphere, surrounded by other people my age in a very similar situation far from where they grew up and looking to meet new people and make new friends, in a place that had been adapted over the decades to make students away from home feel at home.

Later I moved to DC, where I adopted a family and made incredible friends pretty rapidly thanks to some good friends I had made in college. Though I didn’t own a home in DC, I felt part of a community of really great people and I really felt at home. Even though my family lived far away, we were able to see each other a few times a year and of course I could pick up the phone and call at any time.

Despite being content at my home in DC, the time came to fulfill a some of my life goals: to live in another country, immersed in a different culture and a different language and to serve in the Peace Corps. The times I had traveled to new places for a few weeks at a time I had always had the great experience of being welcomed by people and to feel like I had a home away from home wherever I had gone. Now I would put myself to the test and see if I could make a home not only for a few weeks in a completely different place and culture, but for a few years.

My sadness at leaving my friends and family for a few years was counter-balanced by the great excitement for the adventure ahead, the opportunity to fulfill important personal goals, to try to share my knowledge and experience to help improve the lives of others, and the certainty that I would return.

 

Building Home

When I moved to my new home in Oxapampa, I adapted fairly quickly to the place – a beautiful site with really friendly people, much more peaceful and slower paced than all the big cities I had ever lived in, but I was happy for a slower pace especially while trying to learn the language (which is exhausting in its own right). I had my own room with a bathroom, I could walk across the town in 20 minutes and I could find all the basics that I needed, which all helped for a smooth transition.

There were a few inconveniences to adapt to. While I only had cold water to shower with, we sometimes didn’t have water for hours (without any warning), there were a ton of mosquitoes buzzing around my head every night, the meals were carb heavy and lacked vegetables (and I had been a vegetarian before arriving), people often burned brush and trash at night, filling the air with horrible smoke, when it didn’t rain dust filled the air when a motorcycle passed by, public bathrooms didn’t have toilet paper or soap so I had to carry around toilet paper and hand sanitizer every time I left the house, and in the rainy season clothes rarely dried completely (no dryers) and any heavy fabric had a permanent smell from not drying completely (to name a few of the most obvious challenges).

But for me, these were minor inconveniences that I adapted to pretty quickly, especially because they were compensated for by friendly people, the beautiful landscapes, being able to connect with good people, and having my own space when I needed it.

While conveniences and inconveniences played a role in adapting to my new home, the biggest factor that affected whether I felt at home or not had nothing to do with physical comfort and everything to do with the people around me.

I was really lucky to live with a family that was patient with my language and created a space for me to feel at home, with family meals and conversations, asking about my work and my daily experiences, inviting me to extended family events, and treating me like an adopted daughter. This made the transition incredibly smooth, despite the frustrations of trying to work in a professional atmosphere where people didn’t respect my ideas and intelligence because of my low language level.

I was incredibly content with and thankful for my relationship with my host family, so when I started to make friends my age, I was surprised that I suddenly felt even more fulfilled, in a way that I hadn’t before. Even though I had felt that I could share anything with my host family, being able to converse and connect emotionally and intellectually with people my age turned out to be another essential piece of “home” that I needed.

A few months later I made friends that loved biking in the outdoors as much as I do, and we started to go on outdoor excursions – long bike rides through the beautiful hills of Oxapampa. Unsurprisingly, this took me to a whole different level of feeling connected and feeling at home – finding those friends with whom we shared the same passions and ways of de-stressing and having fun on the weekends.

In addition to all these great relationships I made, I always had my best friends from my Peace Corps cohort. My phone service was terrible and I didn’t get to talk to them very often, but when I did get a chance to have a real conversation it was a whole different dimension of feeling connected and understood and supported. Suddenly I had the ability to talk to someone going through something similar, and express myself in my native language, with all the humor and cultural references and slang that I couldn’t skillfully insert into conversations (or pick up on) in Spanish with friends and family.

Similarly, when I was able to talk to my family or long-time friends from home, it filled an even different important space, being able to talk to those people that have known me decades – or since birth! Those that I have known for years, we share long-term memories and experiences, we have seen each other change and seen what stays the same, and they could offer a long-term perspective on some of the things I was feeling and experiencing.

Maybe a year into my service, I started dating, realizing that with all the great relationships I had, I was still missing having a deeper level of emotional intimacy with someone. I had never “dated” before because my partners had always been friends of friends, and for the first time in my life I actually was interested in trying to date. I realized that I had new feelings about relationships and the types of partners I wanted during this time, and I suspect that it had something to do with the unique situation in which I was in, being in a new place and needing to find or build a community around me.

Defining Home

Even within the first few months of the transition to my new home, I had already realized that the best part of my life was the relationships I had made – the best part of a day was connecting and sharing with someone – and having those positive relationships was the foundation for my happiness, (especially in this situation of starting a whole new life from scratch…but in life in general too).

A few years later, having lived here for three years, I have adapted and gotten used to my site, having the newness wear off, having days where I am so busy I forget to appreciate the beauty that surrounds me, where I get caught up in the day-to-day. I know how to navigate a lot of the culture and the way things work, and that makes things smoother but some of the little things aren’t as exciting. And yet, even without the newness and excitement, I still love this place. Probably even more than before. I sometimes catch myself when I forget to appreciate the beauty around me and I have to stop and breathe, and drink it all in for a minute. When I get frustrated with the inconveniences, I remember all the perks.

Similarly, my relationships have passed the initial phase of a new relationship where you only show and see the best side of a person. Having overcome some of the real challenges of a deeper relationships where you have to adapt to people’s idiosyncrasies and talk through differences, I have a deeper level of trust and emotional connection with my closest friends and host family here.

I still don’t have the history of growing up here and I don’t know everyone – which is different from most people here. I still don’t understand all the cultural references and slang. I am still somewhat of an outsider, but since there are actually quite a few “immigrants” from Lima, from the mountains, and even from other countries, it’s not so strange to be an outsider here.

All in all, I really do feel at home here. I really feel equally or more at home here as I did in Nashville, where I lived for six years, or in DC, where I lived for seven years. I have found another home in the world.

And now it is time for me to leave home. Again.

Some people, like many of my friends and family in Oxapampa, live in one city for all their lives, and their home changes as they change their physical house and/or as their immediate family changes, getting married or having kids. Some people, like many of my colleagues that work for Peace Corps or international development organizations, make their homes in completely different countries every few years. However drastic the changes, we all go through changes in the nature of our “home” throughout our lives.

However those changes happen, home is not just the place where we live, it is where we get our comfort and with whom. It is that place where we are comfortable with ourselves, it is those people who help us feel comfortable with ourselves.

And like life, it’s not always constant, it changes throughout our lives as the circumstances of our lives change. It is not something we build once and forget about; we are actually always building and maintaining our home – always working to maintain and enrich the important relationships in our lives, always working to build positive communities around us, and always working to have a positive relationship with ourselves, so that we can always feel at home in this world.

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.

 

 

The Art of Sitting

One thing I love about Peace Corps is the emphasis not only on achieving our program goals (for example bringing clean water to people), but they equally emphasize “Goal 2” and “Goal 3”, which basically are to have a cultural exchange in order to promote understanding between Peruvians and Americans and vice versa.

Hence, while my job involves working with governments and water committees, it is fair to say that 2/3 of my job is to build good relationships and promote understanding with my family, friends, and the people I work with here in Peru, and also to share my experiences with people back home. To that end, Peace Corps puts a great emphasis helping us navigate cultural differences and encouraging us to take time to build good relationships in our communities.

This is one of the reasons I love the Peace Corps model because for me, that is not only what development should look like, that is what life should look like – we should always be working to deepen our relationships, exchange ideas, and talk through (and often celebrate) differences, and take time to learn from each other. But with all the pressures of work and responsibilities, it can sometimes be hard to do.

In fact, I think one of the biggest challenges of being an adult – a challenge that I don’t think ever ends – is finding that work-life balance* that is right for us. At least in my adult life, it has been a moving target, and while I have found good rhythms at times, life is always changing and I am always changing, and there is always more work and more life that wants to be had, and never enough time for it all. So, I always had a stressful internal struggle and guilt about the amount of time I put into relationships vs. work.

Living in a new place, speaking and understanding a new language, making new friends, building a new life, while working in a new job, is even harder than I thought it would be, and I have found that having and investing in good relationships is possibly even more important than ever before. Luckily, I feel that the Peace Corps Peru program understands these dynamics, and it really helps me manage my stress just to know that the time I put into building relationships with my family and friends doesn’t take away from my work here, it is foundational to my work here – one of the key expectations of my job.

Granted, they also say that our job is a 24-7 job. After working in the field or with counterparts, we are still on the job when we come home to eat dinner with the family or spend time with friends or family on the weekends. But as with any job, when you love what you do it doesn’t feel like work…to some extent. As with any job, when you work a lot even what you love can be tiring. And with learning and living in a new language, a new culture, a new place, sometimes just conversing with friends or family is exhausting!

But time and again I have found that the investments I put into taking time to slow down and chat with people, (ignoring the sense of urgency and stress from work I have in the back of my mind), have been crucial in my work and my life here – just as they told us during training.

For example, one encouraged activity they told us about in training is to practice the “art of sitting”. Basically, it just means taking time to sit around with people, even if there isn’t a conversation going or anything happening really – to just sit with people. Coming from the fast-paced life of DC it this was really awkward and hard for me. But the art of sitting really works. It has definitely deepened my relationships with people, especially with my host family, and I’ve noticed at least three really cool things that have come from it: 1) I have developed a connection and more trust with the people I have sat with, 2) I am able to share things and make small talk more easily than I could before, and 3) It has led to some great conversations.

One of the best time to do this (though the hardest for me at first) is after lunch or dinner, while still at the table with the family. Instead of rushing to clear the table and wash dishes or watch tv, a lot of times we just hang out at the table for a while. Sure, sometimes (or a lot of times) there’s awkward silence (but it sometimes gives me a chance to try to think through what has happened during the day or something interesting to share…and then to think about how to explain it in Castellano).

Often, like today, the silence will give birth to a really interesting conversation. I don’t even remember how it happened, but today my mom started telling us a part of her life story – her mom’s life and how she and her dad lived in the highlands and then walked to Oxapampa to settle here. It was pretty fascinating for a casual conversation that sprouted from the art of sitting.

Other times, I will share things that happened at work or challenges I am having, and hearing other perspectives will give me good insights into how people I’m working with might perceive what I am doing. And the best conversations (rare, but worth the wait), are when my host dad cracks one of his deadpan jokes that starts a whole string of jokes with everyone laughing (and sometimes I even understand and can laugh too.)

If you don’t already do this, try out the art of sitting…embrace the awkward silence, and wait to see what blossoms.

 

*Geeky caveat: The term work-life balance can be tricky because it means something different to everyone. Work that you enjoy doing is arguably not work, especially if it is with people you enjoy working with, so how does one even define “work” as being different from “life”? (Spoken like a true workaholic). For the sake of argument and clarity, I’ll say that work is what we do to make a living and it usually takes away time from being with other people you enjoy being with who aren’t doing the same work.

Family Vacation to Lima

My oldest (host) sister is a teacher so she gets January-March off (summer vacation in the southern hemisphere). This year she promised her daughters, ages 6 and 8, that they would take a family vacation to Lima.

Aside: Since Lima is the capital city of Peru, I think a good comparison for the US would be like a family from a small, rural town taking 12-hour drive to vacation in Washington, DC… or maybe more like New York because it is a coastal mega city, like Lima.

The girls had never been to Lima before, and they had never seen the ocean, so it was going to be a great adventure! I really wanted to join them… to see the looks on their faces when they saw things like the ocean and the crowded city full of cars, for the first time. I wanted to go because they were going to go see sights in Lima that were more family-kids-oriented that I hadn’t known about and might not do on my own. And finally, I know my way around Lima a little bit because I have had to stay there multiple times for trainings and travel, so I wanted to help them navigate the city – which can be tricky if you don’t do it regularly.

Aside: My sister kept joking that she was embarrassed that a foreigner was showing her around her own capital city. It was definitely one of those moments where I recognized my privilege – even as a volunteer, not being paid much, simply being a part of Peace Corps gives me quite a few privileges that a lot of other people don’t enjoy, even paid trips to Lima and a network of friends and contacts throughout the country that help me learn how to navigate the city and the country.

So on a Wednesday morning, we all hopped on a bus for the 10 hour bus ride to Lima. (It was also the girls’ first time in a luxury bus, and I loved how the attendant very seriously took each of their tickets, checking their names off the list and treating them like adults.) I reserved us a hostel in Miraflores to be closer to our first destination: the beach. When we got there, I introduced them to their first ride on the Metropolitano, (the public transit line which is a bus system with its own separated lane), which took us from the bus terminal to the neighborhood Miraflores.

Before going to bed, we walked out to the Malecón – a sidewalk that goes along the cliffs of the beach, and has parks and greenspace along it. There are always people walking, running, picnicking, doing yoga, doing workouts, out on dates, or just hanging out looking at the ocean. We found a playground near the Larcomar mall, where the girls expended their energy from sitting on a bus all day.

The next morning, we hopped on a city bus (1.5 soles) and headed to the beach in Barranco, and the girls saw the ocean for the first time!

I think it was more exciting for me than them (I was a little underwhelmed by their reactions), but they had a great time and learned quickly about waves – how they surprise you and splash you in the face with salty water, and about sand – which doesn’t come out of your hair and swimsuit for a few days after rolling around in it like they did!

The second day we wanted to go to Parque de las Leyendas, so I found us an AirBnB closer to that area of town so we wouldn’t spend most of the day traveling there. Parque de las Leyendas is a zoo, built in the middle of some ruins from civilizations of the past. (I admit I was disappointed because it was really just a zoo and I didn’t see any “legends” or descriptions of the different ruins that were all throughout the zoo.)

We started with the different animals found in the different regions of Peru – coastal desert, highlands, and jungle. Then we saw a mock mine which explained the different minerals that are extracted from Peru, where we learned that Peru is one of the top 5 producers of the most common minerals of the world.

And we finished with the exotic animals from other parts of the world (the giraffe, zebra, and lions and tigers and bears, etc.) Everyone agreed at the end of the day that the huge, majestic, white tiger that paced back and forth impressed them the most…was it pacing back and forth thinking of how to escape and eat us, or wishing it could escape and run through the plains….?

That night we went to the Parque de las Aguas, in Parque de la Reserva, which has magnificent fountains, each lit up with lights, some with amazing colors. At 8:00pm the show began…a laser show projected onto the water of the fountains, featuring photos depicting the different food and landscapes form the 3 regions of Peru.

One of the fountains served as a splash park for kids, and my nieces had the best time. They had definitely never seen anything like it and they LOVED it. We had to ask the announcer to call them out by name to get them to come out to go home. I would guess that was the coolest part of the trip for them…the curiosity and fascination they had for the splash park fountain is what I had expected (and maybe hoped to see) for their first view of the ocean.

The final day was a trip to Gamarra to purchase clothes and supplies for the school year, which starts in March here. Gamarra is the biggest flea market you have ever seen…it is literally an entire neighborhood – streets and streets, blocks and blocks of shops. You can get just about anything you need for the cheapest price you can find in all of Peru. This is where my sister took the lead and showed me around.

Weekends are the busiest days – there are so many people that you can’t walk without rubbing shoulders with other people, and you need a running back’s skills to navigate through the crowds to get where you want to go. It helps to go with a Peruvian – both to navigate through, and to get better prices, (and I was told it’s more dangerous for people who look like tourists because they are targets for pick-pockets and people looking to take advantage of someone).

After a wonderful time exploring Lima together and getting to know each other better, we all had to head back to Oxapampa. A few weeks later, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer went with his family to Lima and they had a similar itinerary, so this gives you an idea of a typical family vacation to Lima for a family from “provincia”, or one of the other more rural areas outside of Lima.

A New Home Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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