My favorite part of my job is definitely when I get to be out in the field (“campo”), inspecting or repairing water systems with the operators or the volunteer water committees… and yet I haven’t written much about that, so today I am taking some time to share some of the work we did last week.
An important part of maintaining a rural water system is cleaning and disinfecting it regularly so that sediments, microorganisms, and mold don’t build up inside. This can be a little complicated because it requires high concentrations of bleach in a confined space, that later have to be disposed of in a safe site (not a river or stream). So, you can see why training water system operators to properly clean the water system is an important job.
You may recall that we had a hands-on workshop with the system operators back in April, where we went to a water system and actually practiced the disinfection process. But since every system is a little different, and it takes a few times to change old habits, we are now doing one-on-one trainings with five different communities. Since we are working with a group of university students studying environmental engineering, we invited them to come learn and help with one of the systems.
It is quite a coordination process working with volunteer water committees because we have work within their schedules. That means we wait for the water committee to schedule their next meeting, we attend the meeting, we find out when they plan to do their next cleaning, and we ask if we can come oversee the process and help out. For me, that means a 30-minute bike ride (each way) through the beautiful green hills of Oxapampa to arrive at the community each time we need to coordinate, attend meetings, or and participate in activities. (Poor me!)
All the coordination paid off this week, and we had a great hands-on training, resulting in an improved process for cleaning and disinfection that will make it quicker for the operator and will protect the nearby river.
Another day during the week, 30 minutes on bicycle in the opposite direction, we did a water system inspection with the group of university students. After hiking up through one of the beautiful verdant hills for more than an hour, we arrived at the spring box where the water system collects water from a spring. We took measurements and discussed what was working well and what could be improved, and then descended, doing the same for each component of the water system.
Later in the week, we returned to the same system to train the university students in monitoring chlorine levels. We explained the key monitoring points in the distribution system, and we then went to each point to take measurements, (me in bicycle and them on their motorcycle.) Their homework was then to monitor the chlorine for a week, create a registry for the results, and to then train the operator to use the registry.
That same day, the operator had identified a leak in the system, so we took the opportunity to help him fix the leak, learn his procedure, and point out a few additional best practices for the future. The operators tend to be elected by the community, and often don’t have any water-system-specific training, but because they have often built their houses or worked on similar projects, they have a general idea and incredible ingenuity and can complete the basic functions, even if they aren’t aware of the best practices.
The field work is really my favorite part of the job, so I’m really happy to be in the field-work phase of our project – that means more time working side-by-side with water committees and operators, so they can be more effective at ensuring their communities have clean water.
The months of March and April had some incredible moments that have made me so proud, inspired me, and made me feel like I am doing what I came here to do.
This post is kind-of a follow-up on “People Make the Difference” about my proudest accomplishment – the formation of our working group “GTIFAS”, as it is the work of the members of this group that has made me feel so proud and fulfilled these past months.
First, it is important to recognize that the members of our working group “GTIFAS” each have their full-time work, and they are by no means obligated to work with and participate in the group. While our work supports their work goals, it is not a requirement for them. They take time out of their already-busy work days to attend meetings and contribute.
Because of this, I am grateful and honored every time we have a meeting and everyone shows up – it really means a lot to me! (Before every meeting I wonder if anyone will show up; it has happened a handful of times that no one showed up or only one person did, because emergencies often come up at work.)
Also, their participation is a real demonstration of trust – trust in my leadership and in that of the other members, and faith that together we can make a positive difference. I value this immensely, for its face value, but also because I did not have that trust when I first came here – it is something I had to build over time, something I had to earn – and it makes a real difference in our ability to work together.
As a group, we applied for a grant to be able to do more focused outreach this year, and thanks to the great contributions of everyone in the group, we received the funding this year! The funding gives us resources to do more in-depth, hands-on training in five rural communities so that they can become sustainable managers of their water systems and ensure clean water is supplied to their community on a continuous basis.
In April, we completed the first phase of training with the financing we received, and the process of planning for, and implementing, the trainings was a challenging but fulfilling journey that I will share here.
For our first planning meeting, I was a little worried, because we were going to try something completely different and innovative for us, and I didn’t know how it would go. Traditionally, the trainings we had done were based on the same powerpoint slides, modified a little bit each year – a time-efficient way to plan trainings, but not very interactive, interesting, or effective.
This time, we were going to try out a new methodology for designing interactive trainings – one recommended by both Peace Corps and the Peruvian government’s program in water and sanitation. Everyone was on board, but we were going to have to put in more time and effort, and really branch out from what we were used to.
I spent days planning for the first two meetings with the group – putting together materials and a guide for the new methodology with worksheets to help us through it, and I compiled everything in a folder for each of the members. (I don’t think I’ve been more prepared for a meeting in my life, while nervous at the same time.)
I didn’t know if everyone would trust the process enough to put in the extra time and energy. I also worried they could receive my guidance as an insult or think I was treating them like students.
When I first began explaining the methodology and my proposal for how to work towards developing the trainings, I was met with crickets. It was clear that they either didn’t want to do it, or didn’t quite follow what I was saying.
Then one of the group members stepped in and started explaining the methodology much better than I had explained it (Spanish is hard sometimes – even after a year and a half). After a minute, you could see the light bulbs go off, as they caught on. Phew! It had just been my clunky Spanish.
Once the idea was clear for everyone, we broke into groups to apply the new methodology in developing plans for the trainings. It is not easy to learn a new theory and apply it all at once, but our group latched on quickly and the creative ideas that came out of the working groups were impressive! It was another reminder of how grateful I am to be working with such great, intelligent, thoughtful people!
To complete the planning for all the trainings we were going to do, we had to meet a total of 5 times throughout the month, and I came out of every single meeting feeling like I was achieving the goals of my service – helping my counterparts achieve their own goals and the goals of the national government, and learning alongside them. I saw every one of us catching on to the new methodology more and more every time, we were working great as a group, and everyone wanted to contribute and was looking for ways that their respective institution could contribute… and all while being able to joke and enjoy each other’s company in the long, somewhat tedious meetings.
Then, all the hard work paid off, and we held three days of training in rural WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) themes, each day for a different group. The first day of training was for the people who work in the rural health posts, and we also invited environmental engineering students from the local university.
We had many more students attend than we thought would come (70 attended!), which was wonderful, even if challenging. Since it was our first time trying out such an interactive training, it didn’t exactly go smoothly at first (especially with more students than we expected). We worked out the kinks as we went along, and we ended with a session in which the students’ collaboration with the health workers blew me away in the final skits they had to present. We received positive feedback, including one student who said she had never been to a training so interesting.
The second day of training was for the members of the 30 rural water boards in Oxapampa and focused on the basics of administration. This training day also went well, and the interactive activities were really helpful, (though we learned the hard way of the importance of sticking to the schedule and not letting presenters hog too much time).
The final day was for the operators of the local water systems, and we held the training in one of the rural communities that has a well-maintained system so we could do hands-on activities and point out real examples of best practices. It went well overall, despite slight disorganization during the hands-on sessions (one of the challenges of a doing a 3-full-day training with limited personnel.)
The training ended with pachamanca*, prepared by the local community – a great way to close the session and thank everyone for their time.
*If you don’t know yet what pachamanca is, I have been a bad PCV-Peru blog-writer. Pachamanca is a typical food here – it is how we celebrate any special occasion. It is originally from the “sierra” (mountain region), and it is prepared by digging a hole in the ground, heating stones over a fire, then putting the stones in the hole with meat seasoned with a green herb called chincha, yucca, potatoes, sweet potatoes, large bean pods called “habas”, and plantains. The food slow cooks in the ground for hours and comes out delicious!
Last week we held an event that I’ve been wanting to do since I got here, and the best thing about it is that I didn’t even offer the idea, plan it, or organize it…one of my counterparts did. (And she pulled it together in one month, which just amazed and inspired me!)
It was a two-day “pasantía” or knowledge exchange field trip for rural water committees and the municipal representatives that oversee the rural water situation in the 8 different districts in the province of Oxapampa.
First, some background: Every district has one municipal worker called the “ATM” in charge of rural water and sanitation, and that person is in charge of helping organize all the rural water committees in his/her district and helping them build, rehabilitate, improve, and maintain their water systems. There are usually between 20-60 water committees in each district – so it is no easy job, especially not for 1 person.
The government has an incentive program that awards money to municipalities if they achieve certain goals such as surveying and entering detailed data about the situation in every community, formalizing water committees, preparing annual plans, and installing chlorination systems. The incentive program is updated annually, so it defines the ATM’s work for the year.
Up until now, each ATM in each district was pretty much working in their own district and didn’t really communicate with the ATMs in the other districts. This event brought all of the ATMs together to share experiences and ideas. Turns out they all have similar experiences and frustrations and it was really helpful for each of them to see that other people are going through the same thing. They shared challenges and best practices, and they now have a rapport between them so they can call each other for support throughout the year.
While it seems pretty straight-forward, meeting the goals of the incentive program turns out to be incredibly difficult for the ATMs, because success relies on the participation of the water committees, which are made up of volunteers, who have limited time and other priorities.
The essential part of the “pasantía” is that the ATM in each district also brought a member of their best water committee to participate. These were the motivated volunteers who share some of the same challenges motivating the other members of their communities to participate.
The most interesting and inspiring part of the event was the “field trip”, where we went out into the field in the afternoons to visit the water system, and we met the water committees in two different districts. These were the “model” water committees that are the most organized and are functioning the best in each of the two districts where we were. It was really powerful for everyone, especially the members of the other water committees, to see an example of what a water committee could be.
(Granted they still weren’t perfect and they each said they had learned ideas during the pasantía that they were hoping to incorporate to continue improving.) But for both the other water committee members and the other ATMs, and even for me, it was really powerful to see an example of motivated, organized people improving their communities.
The use of an example is powerful. It shows us that what we are trying to do can, and has, actually been done.
Collaboration is miraculous…it helps us think about our challenges in a new way, and it’s inspiring to know that other people share our challenges and our passion and are working on the same issues.
And a field trip, getting out of the meeting room, out of the office, out of our own communities, out of our own routine does wonders to open the mind, let new ideas in, and help us think creatively.
Now this is going to sound super ivory-tower, bureaucratic, but the thing I am have been most proud of after my first year in site, is that I helped form a working group. Not just any working group, but one that actually works – that meets and does stuff. I know this probably sounds pretty lame to some, but anyone working in government or trying to get different organizations to work together might be able to appreciate why I am so happy about this. And some of you will also appreciate that our group has an acronym: GTIFAS. (Say: heteefas because the G sounds like an H in Spanish.) (And in case you wanted to know, it stands for: Grupo Técnico Interés de Fortalecimiento en Agua y Saneamiento).
I know this doesn’t have the flair of “I built a water system that will bring water to 100 people”, but here’s the thing: The municipality has built many water systems to bring water to hundreds of people in rural communities here, but that water is not potable water, the majority of the systems are not maintained, and some of them not functioning properly. So, as I learned in my work with Engineers Without Borders, infrastructure is really only half (if even half) of development – it’s the social aspect – the people part – that is equally important, crucial for sustainability, and often overlooked. (1)
So, when I arrived, what I found was a really great foundation for having clean water: Constructed water systems. Many different institutions whose purpose is to make sure people have potable water – specifically, the municipality and three different health institutions. Even an NGO that does similar work (watershed protection). And, smart, motivated people working in the institutions.
And all these people and organizations have all been working at this for a while – even decades for some, but usually working separately within their own institutional goals and bureaucratic reporting requirements (even though they all have a common goal of making sure people have clean water to drink (among many other goals that they manage)).
So… I formed a working group. With 7 different organizations, if you count Peace Corps (me). That is, 7 motivated, smart people.
And, while previously these organizations had rarely, if ever, met in the same room to talk about the problem of potable water, in this past year we have met at least every other month, and are giving monthly trainings in rural towns – which is something that has never before happened.
We are now analyzing the results from the trainings last year to see if we are any closer to having functioning water committees and systems that provide potable water. And together we have dreamed up a plan for expanding our work for 2018, (hopefully with the help of a funding from outside sources), to have a greater presence and give better support in these rural communities, using (and trying out) the latest strategies in development related to health promoters and behavior change.
While I will give myself credit for helping make this group happen, I definitely do not take all the credit…the real credit goes to the individuals who come to those meetings and participate in the group – they are motivated, passionate, and don’t just work for the paycheck – they really do want to see these rural communities have access to potable drinking water. And they are taking a chance on this group – coming to meetings even though they are super busy and tired from a long week, putting in the extra effort, and hoping that our combined efforts will lead to a real change.
Right now we are just a working group that has given some good trainings, shared some good ideas, and applied for a grant for t2018. But still there is no potable water, so I’m not patting myself on the back saying the work here is done. But we are working on human issues that take time to change – behavior change, changing how people thing about water, and training people with low education levels on how to manage a water system in its technical and administrative aspects.
These things take time, perseverance, creativity, and constant effort. The ideas, collaboration, and energy that are coming out of the working group give me hope that this is an important first step towards real changes.
Now to the real work…to stay motivated and keep each other motivated in the long process ahead.
1. So, if you’re into footnotes and soap boxes, here’s one. While building something is really sexy and sounds awesome, the reality is that maintaining that something is where the real work and benefit lies…the long-term, arduous, un-sexy work that is super necessary and usually unappreciated and certainly underfunded. We often think infrastructure and technology are what make our lives better, but without people keeping those things working well, we would not have them. So thank you to all the people out there doing the best they can, working on maintaining the infrastructure and institutions humans have created throughout the centuries.
Night buses are the most common way to travel in Peru, and it makes a lot of sense because they come with the option of big comfortable seats that recline 180 degrees into a bed, so you can just sleep during the night and wake up at your destination. And they really are super comfortable and have their own tv screen and headphones so you can watch movies or listen to music of your choice. While I often take the night bus, I prefer the day bus because of the scenery.
Peru is blessed with amazingly beautiful landscapes throughout the country, and on the journey between Oxapampa and Lima, you get the pleasure of seeing each of the three types of regions that make up Peru: Selva (jungle), Sierra (Highlands), and Costa (Coastal desert).
The journey takes you from the coastal desert of Lima, to the highlands, to to the jungle, and then to up to the high jungle, or eyebrow of the jungle (ceja de la selva) which is between jungle and highlands.
While photos do not do it justice, I would like to share a few to give you a glimpse. Starting in Lima, which is coastal desert, you make your way to barren desert hills that get taller and taller until they turn into mountains of the highlands.
You enjoy the beauty of the highlands for hours, for the majority of the trip but you never get bored (or at least, I never get bored) because no mountain is the same.
You have the grey desert mountains, the beautiful highland lakes, the black, snow-capped mountains and the turquoise lakes beneath them, the screaming red mountains, the mountains with patches of green and brown highland grasses, mountains reforested with eucalyptus or pine, brown and orange mountains (being carved up by mining operations).
Maybe I am biased because I just love mountains, but I never get bored of the scenery. It always leaves me breathless (and not just because of the altitude, which reaches 4,818m or 15,807 ft) and awestruck by its beauty.
Then, as you start to lose elevation, the mountains turn green as you begin to enter the jungle.
The vegetation takes over and the vibrant and wild greenness of the jungle refreshes you with a new vista.
The streams, rivers, and waterfalls are something out of a travel magazine (sorry I don’t have great pictures of these, but they exist!).
And as you gain elevation again, going from low jungle to high jungle, climbing those green mountains, looking down on the verdant valley, and passing right through the middle of that mountainous jungle, you feel like you are Indiana Jones on the way to a hidden city in the middle of the jungle.
Obviously, the reverse journey is just as amazing, going down from the high jungle, winding through the verdant mountains, getting closer and closer to the river below in the valley between the mountains. And then rising again and entering the sierra (the highlands) in all its grandeur…until it begins to turn into smaller and smaller, greyer and greyer mountains…that eventually get more and more sparse as you enter the desert coast of Lima.
So, if you can’t come visit me in Oxapampa (like Julia, Toni, and Ilka have done!) here’s a glimpse of the beautiful journey.
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!
On 23 July, I completed my one-year anniversary as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in Peru! One year ago, I swore-in as a PCV with these words:
“I, Angeline Cione, promise to serve alongside the people of Peru. I promise to share my culture with an open heart and open mind. I promise to foster an understanding of the people of Peru, with creativity, cultural sensitivity, and respect. I will face the challenges of service with patience, humility and determination. I will embrace the mission of world peace and friendship for as long as I serve and beyond. In the proud tradition of Peace Corps’ legacy, and in the spirit of the Peace Corps family past, present, and future – I am a Peace Corps Volunteer.”
I can’t believe a whole year has passed… and I can’t believe it’s only been one year. I feel so at home here that I often forget I am living in a different culture, a different country, from what I have known my whole life.
To celebrate my first year, I share with you with a few highlights and things I love from my first year (in no particular order):
1. The amazing landscapes of Peru
Where I live, we are surrounded by beautiful green forested mountains on all sides, and it is breath-taking! I don’t think I can explain how wonderful it is to have these amazing landscapes surround me on my walks to work every morning, walks home in the evening, and any time during the day that I step outside. And any time I travel to another place in Peru, I find equally amazing (though very different) beautiful landscapes. I am so lucky to live in this beautiful country!
2. Amazing outdoor adventures with friendsObviously, when you are surrounded by amazing landscapes, it’s pretty easy to go on a hike or bike ride in nature…just walk outside and go! Luckily, I have made some great friends who also love to walk or go on bike rides. Any stress that accumulates during a week is alleviated with great conversations and amazing outings with friends.Some of my most exhilarating days here have been adventures through the high jungle, to rivers and waterfalls, usually by bicycle, with great friends.
3. Wonderful friends and familySpeaking of amazing friends…I am really lucky to have an amazing host family and wonderful friends here! Also, in general, people have been incredibly friendly, (and also super patient with the fact that I talk like a child and sometimes have to ask them to repeat themselves a few times). Living in a new place, where I only understood about 40% of what was said, I was so lucky to find such great friends and to have such a loving family – that treated me like family…and this has helped immensely with improving my language, and made me feel at home.I would not be nearly as happy if I hadn’t found such great family and friends with whom I can share great conversations every day – from current events, to cultural differences, to philosophy, personal relationship dramas and just sharing daily happenings. It means the world to have good people here in my daily life, great friends with whom I hope to be close to for the rest of my life.
4. Dinner table conversations
Speaking of good conversations, I never would have expected that eating together with the family would be a highlight of my life, but turns out it is. Not that every dinner table conversation is awesome…sometimes we’re all tired and it’s more awkward silence than anything…but usually with some patience, it slowly turns into some stories from the day, which can then turn into a conversation about anything from hilarious stories from the past, deep philosophical conversations, or subtle and hilarious jokes from my host dad, whose dead-pan humor always catches you by surprise and leaves you rolling on the floor laughing.
5. Speaking like an adult (in Castellano)
One of the most frustrating things has been not being able to express myself. Even when I can express an idea in general, not being able to express it well, with good word choice is frustrating and embarrassing. On the flip side, every time I do have intelligent conversation in Spanish and realize I can express myself in Spanish and understand what other people are saying, it is so exciting! I mean, you have no idea how exciting. That feeling of being able to have good conversations, give trainings where people understand me, and feel like I am coming close to speaking like an adult is so rewarding. Learning a language as an adult is a much longer and tougher road than I anticipated, but as with most things, the more work you put into it, the more rewarding are the results when they come!
6. Listening to the rain on the roof at night – and the weather in general
I have always said I love weather. I love snow. I love a sunny day. I love rain. I love a cool, overcast day. As long as it’s not the same thing all the time, I love it. Oxapampa weather is the epitome of that. Usually it’s cool or cold in the night, and hot during the day, but sometimes overcast or sometimes rainy. Sometimes it rains all day. Sometimes it rains all week. But the best is when it’s sunny during the day and right when you’re going to sleep it rains…falling asleep to the sound of the rain on the roof is one of the sweetest sensations ever!
Speaking of sleep…
7. After-lunch naps
Now I don’t get an after-lunch nap every day, but they are not uncommon either. And let me tell you, the after-lunch nap is heaven. You know how terrible the 3pm drowsiness food-coma is when you are at work? Well the after-lunch nap is the obvious but little-used antidote that is even more amazing than the food-coma is terrible. A lot of the jobs here have a 1.5-hour lunch break, and since the town is small, people usually go home to eat lunch, and then take a quick nap after. I just don’t have the words to describe how wonderful it is to recline in bed after lunch and do nothing but let my body digest the food. And as a bonus, the afternoon work is usually so much more productive since I completely avoid the 3pm drowsiness. (The US should definitely consider bringing back the after-lunch nap.)
Speaking of food…
8. Delicious, homemade meals…that I don’t cook
My host mom cooks for the whole family and she is an excellent cook! It is so awesome to come home to a cooked meal! When I have time and she wants help, I make a salad to go with the meal, but usually, it is her kitchen and I don’t get in the way. If you know me, you know I don’t really like to cook, (I only do it so I can eat healthy and eat what I want), so this situation is pretty great for me. The drawback is that I eat way more carbs (rice, bread and potatoes), oil, salt, and meat, and way fewer vegetables than I would if I were cooking for myself. (And my body is not always too happy about that…after one year it is still kind of adjusting). However, sharing conversations about food and what I like to eat has led to slight changes in our meals – meals with more veggies for example, which I think is good for everyone because now my family eats a little healthier.
9. My Peace Corps Family, and my bestie
Our group, Peace Corps Peru 27, is a group of 40-ish amazing people ranging in age from 20 to over 50. We have survived El Niño, with many being evacuated to the US for over a month. We have survived the news of the 2016 election results together (through whatsapp), as well as the difficulty – and importance – of representing our beloved country in these difficult times. I am so lucky to have such an inspiring and fun group of people to share this journey with! And some of my best moments and moments of personal growth have been with, and because of, my bestie from the group, Karlia, who has been my partner in crime, and has been there through the tough times and the best times…whether all the way at the other end of the country in Piura, or now just an hour away in Villa Rica.
Which brings up another highlight:
10. New provincial site mates
The silver lining from El Niño was that I got three new site mates! The majority of my first year here, I was the only volunteer in the entire department (state) of Pasco. Then El Niño came, and (long story short), three of my favorite people changed sites and moved to my province. Now Karlia is just one district south, Kevin is just one district north, and Mary is my site mate, working in the Community Economic Development (CED) program, (while I work in the WASH program).
11. Wins at work
Wins are hard to come by, progress is slow, but the important thing is to appreciate every small win. A huge first win for me was both in technical work and in gender equality. After my first meeting with a water committee, I talked to them about their need for more personnel and that they weren’t meeting the legal requirement to have two women on the committee. The very next general meeting they had, they elected two women to the committee, and one of those women was crucial in helping them organize their finances.
12. Every day is new and interesting
Even after a year, every day has some surprise, often completely altering my plans for the day, or just blowing my mind. For example, one day I was working in the office of a local NGO I work with, and they told me that the founder was there. Naturally, I decided to go introduce myself as the first PCV in Oxapampa. He laughed, and informed me that he had been a PCV in Oxapampa in 1969. My bad. He had stayed around, living in Oxapampa for decades, and about 16 years ago founded this NGO! Something ridiculously surprising like this still happens every single day, and I love it! I can’t wait to see what this next year has in store!
So I joined Peace Corps as a Water And Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) engineer, and after working on water projects in El Salvador and Cameroon with Engineers Without Borders for 7 years, I had prepared myself to live in a small village without running water.
When I got my site assignment and came to my new home fore the first time, I was pleasantly disappointed to find myself living in a nice room with running water. (Well, usually there is running water. Without warning, we lose water for a few hours about 5-10 times a month). The showers are cold so I often take the health advice that it is not great to shower every single day. (Thank you Jessica for this entertaining article!)
My site is Oxapampa (town), Oxapampa (district), Oxapampa (province), Pasco (Department), Peru. Or Oxapampa for short.
The entire province is a UNESCO biosphere reserve, and the town of Oxapampa is a beautiful little tourist town as well as the provincial capital, and it takes a lot of pride in being a part of a UNESCO biosphere reserve, having clean air, and being “tranquillo” – safe and calm. The schools put a lot of emphasis on environmental stewardship, and most people have a pretty strong sense of wanting to do what’s best for the environment.
In some ways it has the feel of a small or medium-sized rural town in Texas (or in any state, but I’m more familiar with Texas), though the motorcycles and mototaxis outnumber the cars (and it’s a lot more green and jungly).
They have rodeo here a few times a year, where cowboys from here and from other towns come to compete. They play country music at the rodeos and at some local events, and they host Country Fest once a year, which includes performers from all over the world (mostly South America) singing various country songs, including many popular country songs from the US.
There are chickens and/or cows in some yards (I walk past a cow and sheep on my way to work every day,and when I hear rustling in the grass, it’s not a squirrel, nor a bird – it’s a chicken). I know this sounds weird, but the sound of roosters regularly every day is kind of comforting for me.
Most everyone knows everyone, or at least someone from the family (though the town has grown drastically in the last 10 years and that is changing.) It is very common to see women in skinny jeans and a plaid long-sleeve (which I think might be a general fashion trend?), but it definitely reminds me of the rural US.
The majority of people have farms and raise some type of animal (chickens, cows, and/or pigs usually) and/or grow some type of crops – zapallo (a large pumpkin-squash thing) and granadilla are the most popular. You can find many artisanal products made here such as honey, coffee, cheese, and yogurt.
People’s farms are usually outside the town, so the houses in town are relatively close together and the town is very walkable (which I love!) – it is about 30 blocks by 15 blocks, and there are moto-taxis for public transportation.
Just about everyone rides a motorcycle to go everywhere. Except me. Peace Corps does not allow us to ride motorcycles.
Lucky for me, I love walking and riding my bike, and I always have. Anyway, it’s actually pretty great because I have a little more time to appreciate the INCREDIBLE landscapes that surround me every day.
From Oxapampa town, there are beautiful tree-covered mountains in all 360-degrees of your vista. They call them hills, and it’s true, they are probably the forested foothills of the Andes, but they are so grand the best way to describe them is mountains. (Yes, I said grand.)
Like all the districts in Peru (and maybe all of Latin America that has Spanish influence? Help me out history people…), the city center has a small park called a plaza de armas, with the municipality and a catholic church.
In the case of Oxapampa, it has the oldest wooden church in Peru, and built of wood from a tree called diablo, or “the devil”, so they say it is the only church where god and the devil live together.
Most of these photos are around the plaza, so things look pretty ordered and the streets are paved. Currently the town has quite a few paved streets, but the majority are still dirt roads, and the dust blows around in the wind during the dry season.
Speaking of the weather…I LOVE it. One day I swear I experienced 3 seasons (as they are defined in Washington, DC weather) in one day…the morning was cool like an autumn morning, then it rained (could have been a spring or autumn rain), then the sun came out in the afternoon and it was HOT like a summer day, and then the evening was like a cool spring evening. I would say that day accurately describes the weather here…a little bit of everything, sometimes all in one day, but never too hot and never too cold.
Since I’m in the southern hemisphere, it’s winter here when it’s summer in the US and vice versa, right? Well, yes but no. Since I live in the selva alta (high jungle), and we’re close to the equator, the climate is more tropical, so instead of winter and summer we have rainy season and dry season. Rainy season is about October-March and they call it winter because we don’t see the sun much and so the air generally stays cool…so our “winter” actually corresponds to winter in the States. The rest of the time is called summer because the sun is usually out and so there are more days that feel hot…however, the nights get cooler than they do during the rainy season, sometimes almost reaching freezing. So this winter/summer business is a little confusing. I just always carry sunscreen, sunglasses, a jacket, and an umbrella, and life is good.
[#TBT…Here’s a blog post from my first days in site]
Today (day 4 in my site), I found myself marching in the Independence Day (28 July) parade, down the streets of Oxapampa, Peru (actually, “down the street” would be more accurate because the parade only passed down two blocks of one street). I had just arrived 4 days before, so I was a little hesitant (for a few reasons I’ll describe below), but the point of joining Peace Corps was to step outside of my comfort zone, so I went with it.
The first awkward thing for me was the way they march in parades (desfilar) in Peru is pretty funny to a newcomer – they literally march like the German soldiers, legs straight out in front, and arms straight and swinging high. I’m sorry but have to admit I didn’t completely comply with the proper marching style because thankfully, the people around me were pretty lax about how they marched, so we did a kind of normal arm swing with our march.
The second awkward thing about marching in this parade is that it was only my fourth day living in this city, and I wasn’t exactly invited to march in the parade. But if there’s one thing I learned in Peace Corps Peru training (and in life in general, but especially in Peace Corps training), it is to put yourself out there, and don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable. So, I woke up this morning, wore my Peace Corps vest, with grey slacks and my red dress shirt, and walked toward the front of the municipality where the parade was passing. I found a woman I work with (i.e., met two days ago when I arrived to work for my first day), and we watched the parade together, waiting until it was time for the municipality workers to march.
During the hour of waiting for our turn to march and watching the parade pass, I started to worry because I realized that all the other municipality workers had black suits with a white dress shirt (compared to my grey slacks, red dress shirt, and grey vest.) The “putting myself out there” suddenly seemed really awkward and embarrassing – being the really white girl with different colored clothes marching with the organization I just joined a few days ago.
But I decided I was going to have to let go of embarrassment and proudly be different and represent Peace Corps instead of feeling like I have to fit in perfectly. (One of my reasons for being in Peace Corps was to learn what it’s like to be stand out as different and still try to integrate and connect, and this was a good example of having to let go of shame and embarrassment of being different and to participate with confidence.)
So I started talking myself up…”the municipality invited Peace Corps to come work in Oxapampa, and here I am, representing the Peace Corps and working with the municipality, and it’s OK that I look a little different! (I’ll just stand in the back…)”.
And so I found myself marching down the main street in front of the plaza, participating in my first Peruvian parade. Well, marching in my first Peruvian parade. (Actually, I had hopped on a float with some drag queens in the Gay Pride parade in Lima last month, so I guess this was my second parade crashing experience in Peru.) While I’m on a digression… Peru LOVES parades. I have been here three months and I have seen more than six parades!
Back to the story of day four in my site. I was about to head home for a siesta after the parade, when a co-worker from the municipality told me the mayor was going to speak and I should go. So, I went and awkwardly sat in the back of the nearly empty auditorium, except for the mayor and four other important-looking people sitting at the front waiting people to come.
Suddenly a familiar face (later I learned he was the Alcalde’s right hand man) came and greeted me and asked me to come sit in the second row. I went and sat next to him and chatted with him while we waited for the event to start. Turns out he had invited me to the special section, because towards the end of the speeches, they brought food and wine glasses for a toast to the first two rows, whereas the other rows got plastic cups and got served last. (To this day, I am thankful for the kindness of the gerente, who made me feel welcome and slightly less awkward.)
Feeling like I had done my due diligence in making my presence known, showing interest, and learning a little bit about the political priorities of my new home, I walked home, dreaming of a siesta. I arrived home to find my mom and dad building a bed. (I really never know what I’m going to find happening at home, and sometimes I don’t even know where I’m going to end up when I go out with the family – definitely partly due to the language barrier, but also the rhythm of life here allows for more last-minute decisions on what to do. It just makes it that much more of an adventure.)
Anyway, when I arrived home, my mom and dad congratulated me (half jokingly) on marching in the parade. They had gone out to the parade just to see me march. I found out later that night that my mom had even taken photos of me in the parade. It was such a sweet gesture, I can’t even explain how happy and grateful I feel that they have so easily welcomed me into the family. So, in the moment, I did the only thing that made the most sense, and I picked up some sandpaper and helped with the bed-building project.
Sometimes you can live for years, or decades, in one place, going about daily life, knowing your part of the city, but often not really spending much time doing the “touristy things” in your city. And then someone comes to visit and suddenly you have to be the tour guide and different aspects of your city come alive for you for the first time, or again after many years?
I’m still new to my town of Oxapampa – I have been here 9 months now – so I am still getting to know some of the gems that are here. I have been getting to know my family, making friends, and trying to “integrate” (and improve my Spanish so I can actually understand what’s going on around me and connect with people). I’ve been getting to know my way around the city and the surrounding areas (sometimes on bicycle with friends). And I spend a lot of time thinking about, planning, and navigating my work here…the daily grind so to speak.
I have learned that Oxapampa is a rural tourist town where Limeños (people who live in the capital city of Lima) like to vacation. It is known for its tranquility, landscapes, fresh and natural agricultural products, and interesting history of native inhabitants that have centuries of history here and the Austro-German colonists that settled here in the 17th century. It is also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. But in the midst of all the newness and trying to be part of the community, trying to make Oxapampa my home, I have not really stopped to think of Oxapampa from the tourist perspective – what gems would a tourist want to see if they only had 1-2 days here? Naturally, everyone expects me to know the answer since I live here, but you really have to step out of your daily life to think of your city from a different perspective to be able to answer that question.
Luckily, last weekend I finally had the opportunity to do that. I was invited to participate in the inauguration of a new tourist route called “Oxapampa, authenitc and natural”. With about 30 people – from the regional government, a local NGO, local coffee producer, and a local tourist agency – we got to participate (for free!) in the inaugural tour of the nearby native community Tsachopen (“Satchopén”), a dairy farm, and a co-op that produces fair trade and organic certified coffee.
Our first stop was one of the dairy farms in the region that produces cheese and yogurt. They have about 100 cows and they don’t give the cows supplements to make them produce milk year-round; they produce when they are pregnant, so they rotate production. In this way, they explained, the cows continue producing milk their whole life, whereas cows that are made to produce constantly stop producing after a few years. The cows were well-trained…without any direction from a person, they all filed into their stalls waiting to be connected to the machine that pumps their milk.
The baby calves don’t drink milk directly from the mothers, they get the milk that doesn’t go into the products (including the milk from cows that have recently been given any kind of medicine, or anything they don’t want going into the products.)
And we got to sample the 7-8 different kinds of cheese they make and the yogurt.
Our next stop was the coffee co-op, made up of producers from around the region, including native and colonial descent, men and women. They pride themselves on representing the various cultures of the region and making sure that women have leadership roles in the co-op. This woman explained the process of the plant we visited – the producers bring their product to be processed at the plant – weighed, de-pulped, washed, and dried. The product they produce is certified organic and fair trade and exported to the US and Europe.
Our last stop was Tsachopen, the native Yanesha community 15 minutes from the town of Oxapampa. Here we had the privilege of seeing a few dances with native costumes, drums and chanting, a lunch of smoked chicken with yucca and sweet potato, and the opportunity to purchase artisanal products (jewelry, bags, hats, etc.) and locally harvested vegetables and fruit.
This tour is not the only tourist thing to do in Oxapampa, but it was a great way to get put myself in the tourist shoes and get to know my town and appreciate it on a deeper level. I definitely recommend taking some time every now and then to be a tourist in your own city! (And come visit me in mine if you can 😉