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!

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.

Wonder of the World

After not seeing any of my family members for a year and a half, I was so happy to see my mom and my aunts walk through the door of the Lima airport! It was also a little surreal to see them in Lima. My two worlds collided…here I was in Peru, where I am a Peace Corps Volunteer, living a simpler life in a rural area trying to integrate and live like a local, and I hadn’t seen my family this whole time, and suddenly my family was here and we were going on a family vacation here! (After a year and a half living here, I still had not had the opportunity to see Machu Picchu, and we were going to go together!)

So, that means I was going to be a tourist…something I have been trying hard not be, as I try arduously to “integrate”. This was going to be a super interesting experience as I tried to use what I had learned over the last year and a half – language, culture, and how things work in Peru –to navigate like a local, while being a tourist.

Beach time in Lima

What do I mean by that? Navigating transportation, the language, and trying to not always pay the “gringo price”. For example, in a restaurant in Aguas Calientes, they tried to charge an additional 20% on our bill, saying that all the restaurants do it. Considering that there was no notification in the menu or anywhere that they were going to charge an additional 20%, I had argue that it was unfair and that I wasn’t going to pay it.  I was super uncomfortable doing this kind of negotiating when I first got here, but after a lot of practice it starts to come naturally, (and I get a lot of practice, being of light-colored skin, because I often get quoted a price twice or three times as much as the going price).  But I digress.

With only 7 days of vacation, we had a pretty tight schedule, but the great thing about Peru – and Cusco is maybe the epitome of this – is that the journey is often as amazing as the destination. So even though we had a full day of travel the next day, (flight to Cusco, and 3-hour car ride to Ollantaytambo), it was full of great sites (and surprises).

In addition the beautiful mountains and scenery on the drive, we stopped in Chincheros, where we saw a demonstration of how wool from sheep and alpaca is made into wool thread and dyed to make textiles, (and of course had the opportunity to buy some great handmade items like shawls, scarves, hats (chullos), socks, gloves, sweaters, blankets, etc.

Chincheros – textile shop

And randomly…our driver was awesome, and completely coincidentally, had grown up in Oxapampa where I live now (which is very far away from Cusco).

The next day we started with a 3-hour train ride to Aguas Calientes to catch the 20-minute bus ride to Machu Picchu. And again, the journey itself to Machu Picchu was amazing and beautiful.

View from the train window (Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes)

But, of course, nothing compares to the marvel of Machu Picchu. As my Aunt Michelle said, she was a little worried she wouldn’t be that amazed because she had already seen so many photos of it online, but then seeing it in real life is just something completely different and stunning.

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

First, it’s got its views – Machu Picchu is set in one of the most amazing spots, tucked in the mountains of the high jungle, and therefore surrounded by verdant green mountains, and overlooking a valley.

Then, it is built on the side of a mountain, but engineered in a way that prevents it from being destroyed by the natural processes of erosion.

And unlike a lot of cities of today, it doesn’t exclude nature from its design, it incorporates it, keeping green terraces, and natural streams as an integral part of its structural and functional design.

You see an interesting combination of the complex shapes and rounded, soft edges found in nature, molded into the straight edges, corners, lines, and simple shapes of the human-constructed world.

For me, this was a sight where the beauty of nature comes together with creativity and engineering brilliance, and it demonstrates the evolution of human knowledge.

And while, the beauty and marvel of Machu Picchu is unique for its location and how well it has been preserved, even the journey back to Cusco, through the Sacred Valley, was a journey that was, in itself, a destination.

Sacred Valley – Pisaq

We were able to explore the ruins at Ollantaytambo and Pisaq, and enjoy the beautiful scenery of the Sacred Valley on the way back to Cusco…and still we barely scratched the surface of the sites that offer breathtaking views ruins that give hints into the lives of past civilizations.

Our final full day in Cusco, we explored a few sites nearby the City of Cusco, including the famous Saqsayhuaman (basically pronounced Sexy Womán), until we felt like we were experts in Incan mythology, architecture, and engineering (not even close).

Cusco from Saqsayhuaman

Turns out that 4 days in Cusco was a good amount of time to see a lot of the highlights, but an extra day, or few, would have been even better, to be able to see the city of Cusco itself, some museums, and maybe to take another day trip or two to some other cool spots like Rainbow Mountain or the salt farms.

It turned out to be an amazing trip with the family, and I am so lucky that they were able to come, and that we were able to experience these amazing sites together. While the role of being a tourist took getting used to, the role of translator, negotiator, and vacation planner was fun and challenging. In a way, for the first time in my life I felt like I was taking care of my mom and aunts, instead of the other way around. Considering that they have taken care of me my whole life, I was honored to be able to do that, at least for a few days.

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!