On August 21st I officially completed my Peace Corps service, and with my visa expiring within two days, I had to quickly head to the border.
(Which border? Stay tuned in future posts to find out!)
I love traveling, meeting new people, discovering new places, volunteering, (and apparently not making any money) so much that I decided to take this opportunity to make traveling and sharing my experiences with you my job for a few months. You’re welcome.
(Yes, this goes against every workaholic and opportunistic grain in my soul due to my American upbringing, but I hope that it will bring us all joy and be well worth it.)
What do you know about South America? From my experience growing up in the US, the majority of what I knew was from the show “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego” (read singing the song). Now there’s what we hear in the news… The Amazon Rainforest is being threatened every day…(and now it’s being burned to a crisp!) Then there’s the FARC and drug trafficking in Colombia. The inflation and mass exodus in Venezuela. Maybe you have heard stories of high poverty rates or places where people barely have enough to eat, high levels of malnutrition, no clean drinking water. Or maybe you think of Machu Picchu, Carnival, or Patagonia.
While these are things that make the headlines or call attention to the tourist passing through for a week, they are not what define the people or the place, and they certainly don’t tell even half the story of what life is like living here.
So, in the next few months, I’ll be exploring a few corners of South America, meeting people, getting a taste of the lifestyles, the culture, the landscapes, politics, and the general vibe of the places where I land in my journey. While I’ll certainly be landing in some common tourist spots simply because they tend to be more accessible and able to receive an outsider, I will definitely see what I can do to go off the beaten path or at least explore places less commonly explored.
I have often thought that travel after Peace Corps would be pretty unfulfilling because I will never be able to really get to know a place, the people, the culture, like I did in my service. I went through a whole process of trying to fit in, trying to be more of a local and trying really, really hard to NOT be anything like a tourist. I didn’t want to be looking in from the outside, I wanted to be part of the place, experiencing it from the inside, understanding the reality of the people who live there and how they define the place. And after three years, I really felt like I became a part of my site Oxapampa, as it became a part of me.
So the idea of traveling to a place for just a few days or traveling to places geared for tourists seems kind of superficial. Window shopping. Peeking in from the outside and only seeing a tiny part of a reflection of reality and not getting a chance to see the human part of a place. I certainly don’t like the idea of being seen as a tourist…the foreign, often white person that doesn’t (often can’t) connect with the people because of a language barrier or because they are rushing through a packed schedule to see a bunch of places in a short amount of time. This creates the archetype of the tourist that the locals see – a kind of alien that comes to visit and has money, brings a stimulus to the economy, and will often pay more than the going price for things. Just like the locals rarely see tourists as individuals, the tourists rarely see the locals as individuals but rather as interestingly-dressed humans that are part of another world.
I know that through my travels I will not have the opportunity to get to know a place like I did Oxapampa and parts of Peru, but because I can now speak Spanish and have some experience living in Latin America, I have a few more tools to help me connect on a deeper level with people. I’m going to try to stay in places longer and take more time to get to know people and learn about their lives. I’ll be focusing on finding places where I can do:
Eco-tourism, visiting National Parks and Reserves
Multi-day treks to immerse myself in the different geographies of a place
I know I’m still just scratching the surface, but with a few months, a flexible schedule, and the right mindset, I hope to experience the people and places of South America on a deeper level, and share that odyssey with you – and you won’t have to leave the comfort of your home!
Always the Famous Footnote…
*Voluntourism can be controversial for many because there are many accounts of how trying to volunteer for short periods of time in a place have actually created more negative impacts than positive impacts. Conscious of this, I will be choosing the way in which I volunteer very carefully, and I’ll tell you about it!
About 10 years ago, I was sitting in a plastic chair, sweating under the shade of the water office roof, during a water board meeting in the rural community of Santa Clara, El Salvador. Our Engineers Without Borders team had installed a new water system about a year prior and we returned every year to provide “post construction support”, helping train and guide in the administration, operation, and maintenance of the system.
The water board was drafting new regulations and we had heard that some people in the community weren’t so sure about them. As I listened (through our translator) as they read the new regulations, I quickly got uncomfortable and even offended by what I was hearing. These new members of this supposedly volunteer board were proposing that they should get paid for every meeting they attended.
Leaders wanting to take a portion of community funds…this fit perfectly into the definition of corruption we all had in our minds, especially from what we had been told about political leaders in the country. Frustrated, we voiced our opinion that the water board was a volunteer committee and should not receive payment and that all the funds received should go to the community fund to ensure a sustainable water system.
Fast forward 10 years.
I had been a Peace Corps WASH volunteer for about 2 years, and I was sitting in a meeting in the municipal auditorium in Peru, speaking with stakeholders from the province, the region, and the national government about rural water systems. Based on my experience working with rural water committees, I was advocating for the state to contribute a type of subsidy to help pay rural water system operators.
I present a plan to hire operators from the local communities to each be in charge of three nearby water systems, with the water committees paying a portion of the operator salary and the state paying the rest. I explain that rural water boards simply can’t raise enough funds to pay an operator enough so that he or she is able to prioritize maintaining the water system over working on his/her farm or other work that puts food on the table. My proposed plan would ensure a trained operator was maintaining the systems, and it would bring jobs with stable salaries to trained and capable people in the rural communities.
A certain member of a government water authority (whose salary comes from the national government) responded that the government should not give any more financial help to the rural water systems because the rural populations have already received a lot from the state (in many cases the government builds the rural water systems), and he goes on to say that it is a bad habit that the people get used to receiving “handouts” from the government. (He even added that the some of these rural populations even have smart phones so they should be able to pay the required water fee.*)
He was voicing a common sentiment in Peru that comes from a distaste for government help and even social programs because so many political parties give nominal gifts to populous areas to win votes.
His statement also aligns with the international development strategy and philosophy that has been used for decades to construct rural water systems – the international aid community builds water systems and gifts them to the community, leaving the responsibility to maintain the system in the hands of the community.
Before entering Peace Corps, I might have agreed with this point of view, but having lived the reality of working with small, rural farming communities, my perspective has changed. And I’m not the only one. The academic literature shows that nearly 50% of constructed water systems stop working before their useful life and are not repaired, and a growing consensus points to the flaws in relying on “community based management” where the community is “gifted” a water system and then bears the full burden of maintenance and operation.
The water boards I work with in Peru are volunteers, a perfect example of this community-based management strategy. In their free time, these moms and dads with full time jobs are expected to manage a technical business – running a water system. In their free time, they have to attend meetings to learn how to run the water system and then also do all the tasks associated with managing that system.
Most of these water systems serve less than 100 households, so it is rare to find a community that has 5 people with enough free time, enough passion, and enough knowledge to be able to do this job well. I have yet to see it. (The best ones I have seen are rare cases, where a community has two really strong and passionate leaders whose kids are already grown, and they are able to do a decent job of managing the water system, with a lot of support from the local government.)
In addition to the water board that manages the legal and financial aspects of the water system, a community needs an operator to maintain the system. In a city of thousands of users, each user can pay $1 per month and the community can raise $1,000 each month (still not enough to maintain a system well), and in rural areas with only 10 or 30 users, each person would have to pay an exorbitant water use fee to raise enough funds just to pay a full time operator. Additionally, these are populations of mostly farmers, with a very low income in the first place.
So, as I sat in this meeting in Peru, having worked closely with farmers and rural populations trying to manage their own water systems, I recognized how easy it was for a government employee who worked in an office and received a fixed salary to not understand the reality of the people living in rural areas. And it made me remember that day in El Salvador, talking to the water board.
I am now embarrassed to remember that we chastised the water board for wanting to pay themselves for the time they put into managing their community water system. “What ignorant arrogance,” I think. While it is truly a slippery slope for a water board to pay its members because it does allow for corruption, it is also necessary for people to receive incentives and to be compensated for the time they give to a job as important as ensuring that the community has safe drinking water.
Would you want to live somewhere where the people managing your water supply were volunteers or were not paid well and had another full time job on the side?
While I am proud of the work we have done in improving the capacity of the volunteer water committees here, and they are doing excellent work, they are less than 10% of all the rural water systems in the district, (and they don’t all have potable water 100% of the time because they don’t have full time operators).
Based on my experiences, I would want my water system to be managed by a professional business with quality government oversight, and I would be willing to pay a fraction of a dollar more in my taxes or in my water fees to ensure that people living in rural areas – the farmers providing the food that feeds us – have potable water to drink.
*Regarding the comment about rural populations having smart phones, there are a couple of important things to point out here, the first one being that many of the rural populations where I work live in areas where there isn’t even cell phone service. One of the communities where I work has cell phone service, but when I need to talk to the operator, I can’t call him directly because he doesn’t have a cell phone – I have to call the wife of the treasurer to be able to get a message to the water board. Not only does not every person have a phone, not even every household has a phone (and the person who does have the phone has a simple phone, not a smart phone). And while some poor people here do have smart phones it’s because it is actually cheaper to have a smart phone to be able to communicate by whatsapp (which is practically free to use here), whereas having a plan with calling and texting usually costs more.
**That El Salvador project I mentioned is doing a decent job with community-based management, but it is one of few (and it receives a government subsidy that helps with the financial situation.)
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.
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.
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.
This title is a joke because I do not actually have a “typical” any day here. But let’s pretend I do, and today would be a great example of a “typical” weekend day.
This morning I woke up around 6am when the sun started peeking through my window, and I did my normal stretching/PT routine before heading downstairs to prepare my breakfast. My host mom had already left to sell pork and sausage in the Saturday market (the “feria”), like she does every Saturday, so I prepared myself a power fruit smoothie and a hard-boiled egg with bread. (Normally during the week, I prepare a smoothie for both my mom and I for breakfast.)
Then I headed out for a 30-minute bike ride, in my “campo clothes”, dry fit pants and shirt, rubber boots, hat and sunglasses, and a rain poncho just in case.
There is no better way to start a morning than a beautiful bike ride through the verdant hills of Oxapampa!
The district of Oxapampa is a long skinny district that consists of around 50 different communities spread out along about 40km of windy highway through the mountains.
I live in the little city (or large town, if you prefer) of Oxapampa, but I work in 5 different communities spread out along the highway, (two are a 40-minute van ride away, and 3 are within an hour bike ride.) Luckily, I work in communities close to the highway, but there are also communities that are really high up in the mountains, about an hour off the highway that you can only access by motorcycle and/or walking.
Unlike the rural US, the houses in each of the communities tend to be pretty close together and you can usually walk to all the houses within about 30 minutes to an hour. Most of the people are farmers, who produce one or various of the common crops for the area: a large pumpkin-squash called “zapallo”, a hot pepper called “ricoto”, avocado called “palta”, coffee “café”, or a fruit called “granadilla”, and they usually have their farms up in the hills in the community where they live, or a nearby community. Most people get around, going up to their fields “chacras”, or going into town on motorcycles.
Most of these communities have piped water, though not potable piped water (which is where I come in). Since the water systems capture water from a spring or a stream up in the hills above the houses, to arrive at the water source or the water tank, I ride my bike or walk up a hill either 10 minutes (the closest) or an hour (to one of the furthest.) I love going out to the water systems – even the far ones, because I get to hike or bike through the verdant hills, see some amazing views of valleys and mountains, and hear different birds singing – basically part of my work is hiking through the high jungle; I really can’t complain!
On this particular day, I was headed to one of the closer water systems – a 10-minute ride up a hill from the main highway. Today I was going to install a system of tubes to prevent the water tank from wasting chlorinated water through its overflow pipe. My colleague had done the inspection of the system, I had ordered the parts and carried them in a backpack, and I had arranged for the president of the water committee to bring the pipes up to the reservoir.
When I got the reservoir, the operator was not there, the pipes were not there and it started to rain. Lucky for me, I had brought my rain poncho, the water tank had a roof, and there was cell service in this spot. So, I called the operator, but the phone went straight to voicemail. I have gotten used to waiting anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour for people to gather, so I wasn’t stressed, but I was a little surprised because the people in this community do tend to be really punctual and responsible.
One thing we learned in training about cell phone culture in Peru is that Peruvians don’t use voicemail (so it’s not even worth leaving a message), and that it’s not rude to call a million times in a row. In fact, if it’s important, you should call at least 3-10 times in a row, until someone picks up. So, I kept calling. For about 30 minutes. At which point, I decided I was going to have to leave the shelter of the water tank and look for the operator and the pipes.
Long story short, I did find the operator (sleepy-eyed and embarrassed; he must have had a late night the night before!) and I also found the pipes in the president’s house, so we hauled them up to the water tank. I am so glad I didn’t give up and just head home!
When the operator unlocks the valve box and reservoir top so we can get started, and I stare in disbelief. My colleague had told me the wrong size pipe, so all the pipes and components that I had brought would not work to do the installation.
I have gotten this far, and I’m not about to give up yet. I call a colleague that was going to come out and help later and I ask if she can bring us the materials of the correct size. While waiting for the materials, I draw up the plans for the operators, so that they understand what we are doing and how it works.
When the pipe arrives, I see that we won’t have enough to complete the project. Not too surprising considering everything that could possibly go wrong has so far. But we’re already here so, again, I’m not going to give up now.
I sit down and draw up another way we could install the pipe so it has the same effect but uses less pipe. I present the design and explain it to them, but I admit that while it should work in theory, I haven’t ever installed it like that. They aren’t too comfortable with “theory”, and I see the worried looks on their faces. I try to convince them it will be fine, but they start talking about some pipe they might have stored somewhere, and then they head off to look for more pipe. Magically, they return with more pipe within about 15 minutes, and we are back to the original design.
I take the first measurements, but I have them verify the measurements and make all the cuts and do the installation. While I would love to do all the work and install it myself (I love this kind of work), I don’t because I want them to understand how it is installed, how it works, and to own it, so that they also will be able to fix any problem that arises when I’m not there. So I mostly just guide the work, only inserting if needed.
(They were hesitant to drill a hole in the side of one tube, so I did get that part going.)
We had a good time working together, joking around a little, and finally, in the early afternoon, we completed the job, just as the skies cleared up and the sun started to peek out.
As I headed back home on my bicycle, I reflected on how I’ve changed since I started my Peace Corps service. All the things that went wrong this morning would have stressed me out so much before, and I might have gotten so frustrated as to go home right away, but today I just maintained a little bit of patience, adapted to the situation, and that patience paid off.
Before, I would have been really frustrated at the operator for not showing up, and I might have just gone back home angry. But having worked with water committees for so long now, I know that the operator is taking care of the water system on top of his normal job of being a farmer every day, and he is definitely not receiving overtime pay that justifies this extra work he has to do so his community can have clean water. So, I don’t get mad if he oversleeps on a Saturday morning, (or maybe I do for a second, but I get over it quick).
For a few minutes, I may have been pretty frustrated at my colleague who gave me the wrong pipe sizes, but I know he is a good guy who just made a mistake, so I was able to let it go and just try to find a solution (and not make a big deal about to him or anyone else, knowing that he would already be pretty embarrassed about.)
Maybe the beautiful bike rides through nature are what help me manage my stress and adapt to challenges, or maybe I’ve just gotten used to so many things always changing at the last minute or “going wrong”. Either way, I’m really hoping the patience, stress management, and adaptability that I’m learning to practice here can be translated to other situations… like long lines in the grocery story, rush hour traffic, bad customer service… and all those unexpected annoyances and challenges that life is sure to throw at me in the future.
That’s a nice end to this blog post, (and you can stop here if you want), but that was not actually the end to my day. I had to quickly eat lunch and then catch a ride down to our farthest-away water system, about an hour van-ride away, where they were having a water committee meeting and where I needed to inspect the reservoir to prepare to install a similar system there.
The next van wasn’t leaving for at least an hour and I was already late and needed to get there before dark to do the inspection, so I took a car, which costs twice as much. About 10 minutes before arriving to the community, I saw my colleagues pass us in the highway, having already left the meeting. I panicked a little, realizing I had just spent extra to take a car and I might not even make it in time for the meeting! Somehow I convinced the driver to not charge me full fare, and as I arrived I saw the meeting was still going on. Phew. I was able to do the inspection with the operator and speak to the president afterwards, and all turned out well.
On the hour-long ride home that night, squished between people on a crowded a van, I realized that I actually felt right at home. I felt really content and actually enjoying just being another passenger in the van, having learned to integrate, being capable of traveling with the local transport, feeling part of that micro community there in the van – everyone slightly uncomfortable but making room for everyone so we could all get where we’re going. (Not so totally different actually from taking public transit during rush hour in any big city in the US, but with a slightly different feel, a little more organic, maybe because the vans are privately owned and don’t have a set schedule.)
I know a lot people would really not like this kind of lifestyle and work; they would find it too hectic, unpredictable, unorganized, inefficient, and stressful. But I really love it! I love the challenge – both physical and mental, I love seeing other ways of doing things and learning to adapt, and I love being surrounded by nature! My friend Julia told me before I joined Peace Corps that she thought I was made for this type of work, and I think she was on point.
I hadn’t stepped foot in the US for almost three years, and I was not sure what to expect. A lot had changed since I left. I felt very lucky to even be entering the US; as I stood in the customs line at 3am with my US passport, I couldn’t help thinking about the unfortunate situation for refugees seeking asylum, those people trying to escape dangerous living situations in their homeland or inflation where they can’t even buy the basics to live.
I was also incredibly thirsty but annoyed at the thought that I would need to buy overpriced (and Earth un-friendly) bottled water to quench my thirst. And then I saw something magical…
A public water fountain with potable water! Something I hadn’t seen in 3 years!!!
“Welcome to the US! Let me satisfy your thirst! Don’t you miss the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, and well-monitored public water systems?” The public water fountain said to me. (Don’t judge, I had just gotten off a red-eye flight; I might have been a little delirious).
“Oh yes I do! You have no idea!!” I responded, as a WASH volunteer that has spent the last 3 years living in a place where I have to boil water before drinking it and where I spend all my days trying so hard to figure out how to make rural water systems just come close to providing potable water.
My honeymoon phase of being back in the US was soon brought down to Earth when I learned that the bus from the Baltimore airport to the city (DC) had actually decreased its frequency of service, (a real disappointment after having experienced such great public transportation in Quito and Guayaquil, Ecuador).
But I was quickly enamored again with my homeland after being able to get around the city (Washington, DC) on a bike share, (and later learning about the car-share service Turo).
My amazement escalated as I was introduced to tide pods (dissolvable and non-toxic polyvinyl alcohol film was really intriguing for this chemical engineer), but then my fascination was interrupted as I learned of the trend of eating tide pods. (Facepalm.)
Eating delicious vegetarian plates of locally-grown food at my favorite restaurants and seeing wonderful friends and family made me feel right at home, and again very pleased by and proud of my homeland…
Until… I realized that people were actually buying and eating jellybeans that taste like vomit and rotten eggs.
Between tide pods and rotten fish, I was thinking I might have avoided great disaster by staying out of the country for the last three years…(Or maybe my country really needed me these last three years?)
I was surprised that in my short stay in the suburbs of Denver, I found two different opportunities to keep my language skills sharp, talking with native Mexican-speakers. (Yes, that is a reference to the misleadingly-named entertainment channel Fox “News”.)
Tongue-in-cheek aside, I really surprised at how cheap I felt during my visit. Having lived on a tight budget, pinching my centavos for the last three years, I suddenly felt that while visiting friends and family, they (and me, prior to Peace Corps service) lived very comfortable lives of abundance, spending relatively freely, compared to how I (and those around me) have been living for the last three years.
This ability to pay for certain things is something I think we don’t even notice, especially if all the people around us have a similar ability to pay for certain things. It also really stood out to me how this then leads to certain expectations of neighbors and others around us to also pay for certain things, almost as an obligation. An obvious example is the HOA where everyone has to make sure their house and yard look a certain way (which implies a certain investment).
When I went out to eat, I had serious sticker shock with prices of food, and really had to make an effort to change my penny-pinching mindset, and it made me realize why it would be hard for people of different economic situations to be friends – it’s a real social barrier and cause of anxiety if you can’t afford the same social activities of your friends or family.
While I was in the US, busy being amazed by how things had changed since I had been gone, and how things felt different since I had been living in a different context for a few years, meanwhile, back in Oxapampa, the region was experiencing rains like never before – and landslides and floods like never before.
I received photos of entire roads and bridges completely wiped out. A friend returning to Oxapampa from Lima had to walk a total of seven hours to cross the places where roads had been wiped out to be able to arrive home. I wondered if I would be able to get back and was thankful that I still had a few weeks before I was due home.
The government of Peru has always been amazingly good at cleaning up the road after a landslide within the same day, so that traffic can pass. But they had not had a disaster of this scale before. However, they impressed me and had it the bridge repaired and the road to a passable state within a few weeks, and I was able to arrive home without any problems, and in record time.
I also learned that in my district alone, 4 different water capture points were destroyed because of landslides, leaving communities without water for a few days. Luckily, the government has policies and plans in place for emergencies and are often good at improvising. The local government (the team that I work with) was able to locate new, temporary water sources for the communities to have running water, in the interim. And upon my return, I learned they are able to access emergency funds to rebuild those affected sites.
While I was in Colorado, I had hoped to hike a 14-er to complement my hiking adventures in the Andes mountains of Peru (which I’ll be sharing in blog post coming soon), but ironically, Colorado was having an unusually high incidence of avalanches, with their own stories of blocked roads. Turns out both of my “homes”, the US and Peru, are being affected by climate change, (which isn’t a real thing if you have a lot of money and investments in petroleum and think that having a lot of money can save you from anything.)
It’s not easy living in two different cultures, two different worlds, two different languages, having a home and also not having a home in two different countries. But it is an incredible and enriching experience, and I feel wealthier than I ever have, (despite what my bank account may say), thanks to the amazing people I have in my life, the beauty that surrounds me, memories I carry, and the wonderful experiences and opportunities that have shaped who I am. And despite vomit jelly beans and non-potable water, I love both of these places and I am inspired by and thankful for of all the people in both cultures that have taught me so much and made me who I am today.
*** Geek-out reflection on the scale of the disasters in the region where I live in Peru…
There are usually a complex variety of forces that come together that make disasters worse or not as bad as they could have been. In this case, deforestation is the biggest human controlled factor that led to the extreme scale of landslides in our region. Unfortunately, the ecosystem service provided by forests of holding the soil together does not have monetary value for the landowners in this global economy, but planting food for our growing population does bring income to someone trying to feed their family.
There is a clear need for an economic incentive sufficient to make it worth it to land owners to preserve key areas. The good news is that there are organizations working on reforestation and forest protection in the area. A local non-profit that I work with, Instituto del Bien Común, is working to provide small incentives and free native trees to property owners who sign agreements with the local government to preserve the forests on their land or to reforest on their land. Additionally, the national forest agency recently awarded a grant to the local government to do reforestation efforts in the zone. Unfortunately, the efforts are not enough to make a significant enough impact to prevent the escalating rates of deforestation, but we can only hope that the funding and programs grow and become more effective so they can make it more economically viable to conserve the forests.
One day, early on in my service at the dinner table I listened to my host dad talk about how during work that day he had seen poverty like he’d never seen before. He was born in a pretty poor family with 14 brothers and sisters, and he was kicked out of the house to make it on his own when he was about 12…. so when he said that, I didn’t take it lightly.
He is a driver for the municipality and he had gone with the mayor to deliver Panetones (the Italian Christmas fruit cake, which is the symbol of Chrismas here) to some communities a few hours away. (It is a common Christmas-time political activity that the mayor goes out to certain communities to give away Panetones).
At the dinner table, my host dad described the families he saw as moms, dads, and lines of kids, expressionless, or with dejected looks on their faces. Since my host dad is also one to cynically complain about social programs, usually insinuating that they shouldn’t even exist because too many people take advantage of them, to hear him be touched by seeing people in need receiving a Christmas cake was really moving.
Earlier in the day that same day, I had been extremely upset because I had found out that I wasn’t going to be able to go with my friends to hike the Inca Trail and that I was losing $300 in the process. Suddenly, my anger and frustration was replaced by sadness… and then…guilt.
What a privilege to be able to lose $300 and still feed myself, and basically live a normal life. What a privilege to even be able to plan to go to Cusco and hike the Inca Trail…something that the vast majority of Peruvians haven’t been able to do, even though it is one of the 7 wonders of the world, in their own country!
Then I started to wonder: Am I doing enough? I am working in the provincial capital, with the government and non-profit institutions, with people who have had the opportunity to have a higher education and who live relatively comfortable lives in the urban center. I am working with the community that is closest to the city center, that has much more access to resources than the families my host dad saw today. Am I doing the right thing? Am I doing enough? Is it fair that I have all that I really need, a pretty comfortable life, working in comfortable conditions, while people are out there struggling so much? Should I be working harder, more hours, longer days, sleeping less?
I often have had these similar thoughts and feelings of doubt when I think about how much my host mom and dad work. I feel like such a princess, eating well every day, sleeping in a comfortable bed, waking up and working on my own schedule, even sometimes taking naps after lunch! And even though I don’t receive a real salary, every month Peace Corps sends me enough money to pay rent, buy food, and cover my basic expenses, (and since I’m frugal, I can even put a little away to take vacation within the country a few times a year).
I’m not saying I have it easy or live like a queen. My job isn’t the easiest job in the world. I have to coordinate between many different institutions, learn about the laws and regulations that drive their work, help them meet their goals and coordinate their work, and help them not only check the boxes but actually find ways they can help the 50-70 different communities in the district improve their access to clean water…
And I am working in my second language, so I am constantly trying extra hard to understand people, and extra hard to communicate like a professional. On top of my daily work, I have to constantly study and try to improve my language skills, as well as learning to navigate a culture that I didn’t grow up in.
So I know that I’m working hard and doing meaningful work. I know that I deserve to be paid for what I am doing. But that doesn’t keep me from having those moments where I feel guilty and I ask:
But should I be doing more? Should I be doing something different? Should I feel guilty?
Fast-forward a year in my service, and all the hard work I put into coordinating among institutions and doing that office work led to our team receiving a grant. With these funds, we were now able to have a more constant presence in the communities we serve, do hands-on trainings and basic maintenance to some systems, and work with local students, giving them a chance to learn so they could serve their communities in the future.
It started to become more and more clear the important role that wealth and privilege pay in development. If I had just sat around feeling guilty for having a little bit more wealth and privilege than some, or depriving myself of sleep or opportunities to work with local institutions, I would have continued to be limited and unable to help my community. But instead, I leveraged the privileges I had to try to improve the situation for my community. Also, if I had not committed to working with the hard-working, educated, more well-off people in the local institutions, we would not have been able to win the grant which provided resources for working more hands-on with people from different communities, providing on-site support that improved the quality of water service in those communities. (On the flip side, if I had ONLY worked within the institutions and not gone out to the rural communities, I would not have had a good understanding of what the real needs were, so both working at the institutional level and out in the field, talking to people in the communities has been important in identifying appropriate interventions.)
In my last post, I asked:
Do I deserve the privileges I have any more than the next person? How do I manage my feelings around some people having more privileges than others? What can I do to help people without these privileges enjoy them too?
I don’t believe the question I should ask is whether I deserve to have the privileges that I have; instead the question should be: “How can I use the privileges I have to help improve the quality of life for others?”
By answering that question and actually making strides in improving the quality of life of others, I will then deserve the privileges I have.
I don’t like the idea that anyone should have to live in poverty- without clean water, healthy food, good health care, education, and opportunities to contribute in a meaningful way to society. But what exactly is poverty and what can we really do as a society to create a world without poverty?
I joined Peace Corps to get a clearer understanding of the answers to these questions. I wanted to have a better sense of what it is like to live in poverty, and I had heard that the Peace Corps places volunteers in a site affected by poverty and then pays about an average of what the people who live there earn. There, living in solidarity with the people around you, with few resources at your disposal, peace corps volunteers try to make a positive difference in their communities, and we get a better idea of this thing called poverty.
Now, I wasn’t so naïve to believe that as a Peace Corps volunteer, (PCV) I would really experience what it is like to live in poverty; after-all, I knew that it wouldn’t exactly be living in solidarity with the people around me because I actually could leave at any moment and return back to my family, network of friends, and in my case, even a career and a little bit of savings, in a very comfortable middle-class life in another world.
Regardless, living for two years and forming close relationships with people in a very different economic situation than I am used to, and trying to work within the economic constraints placed upon me, I knew I would gain a valuable perspective.
And I have. (Much more than I can explain in one blog post, so I will do a series of posts on the topic.)
For me the transition was easy at first. My site is a fairly developed and progressive site that some would call “PoshCorps”. I live in a provincial capital so I have access to most modern conveniences. I have running water (most of the time), electricity, and the real “Poshcorps” qualifier…a nice room with its own flush-toilet bathroom.
There were also inconveniences that I wasn’t used to, but I was able to adapt fairly easily to most of them… like having to boil water before drinking it, having to store water in bottles and buckets for when the water went out… and then take a bucket baths during those times, often not having good phone signal (i.e., having important conversations with the call dropping every 2 minutes), rarely having good internet, and my clothes often not drying completely during the 6 months of rainy season.
Like most places in the world, there are a range of incomes and wealth in my town. There are people who live really lavishly here, even more comfortably than how I grew up. And there are people who sometimes barely have enough to eat each day. The majority of people that I spend time with (my friends and family) make more than I do, though many work on short-term contracts or in agriculture, so there is no guarantee they will have work or a decent income the next year.
I live with a family that lives comfortably in terms of meeting their so-called “basic necessities”, but they work 7 days a week and still live paycheck to paycheck, which makes for a lot of psychological stress.
In a few ways I do live in solidarity because we drink the same water, have the same quality of services like water and phone signal, and we share the same community, with all its benefits and challenges.
However, I have often felt like I don’t really live in solidarity because of certain privileges that I had before moving here and certain luxuries of being a peace corps volunteer (you probably didn’t even think that was a legitimate phrase -“luxuries of being a peace corps volunteer”.)
One of the biggest luxuries is actually that allowance that I get – as small as it is, I know that every month Peace Corps will deposit a certain amount into my account that will cover my basic necessities. And on top of that, I have the best medical care I have ever had in my life; I can call my PC doctors any time and I am confident they will find a way to get me the care I need. (I know not all Peace Corps posts have that luxury, but I am lucky to have amazing doctors here in Peace Corps Peru).
Another luxury I find that I have is the ability, habit, and culture to save money, take vacation, and travel. One of the first uncomfortable differences I realized in site was that my family doesn’t take vacation and doesn’t travel. I felt a little guilty when they joked that I know more of Peru than they do.
For many people, vacations are important to our mental health and traveling for pleasure opens our minds and can expose us to new ideas that ultimately improve our lives. For me, seeing other places opens my mind, inspires me, fuels my creativity, and gives me a better understanding of myself.
However, I have found that vacations nor travel are very common with a lot of the rural populations I’ve interacted with here.
In large part, it is simply due to lack of funds, and a history of growing up in that situation. It can lead to a culture of “scarcity mentality” where it feels like there is just not enough time or money, and all time and money must go to working or investing in the business. Even saving money isn’t common because that money should be immediately invested in something so it doesn’t disappear.
This is often combined with the “bootstraps” mentality, which says if you are poor, it is your own fault for not working hard enough because everyone can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they just work hard enough”. So if you aren’t working, you run the risk of being poor, and if you’re poor, you should have worked harder.
You can imagine that I felt pretty guilty for taking vacations and traveling, as I realized what a privilege it was to be able to do that – because I have a stable income (even if I make less than some), but also because I have learned to value it and learned how to do it. Additionally, as a PCV I also have the luxury of having a network of other volunteers throughout the country that can help me navigate traveling so I can do it cheaply and safely; something that many people don’t have. (And as a modern PCV, with smart phones, data, and social networks, visiting new places throughout the country or even the region is made even safer and easier.)
So…surprise! One of the biggest lessons I have learned about poverty is learning to see my own privileges that I have now and have had throughout my life, and specifically, how they shape my view of constraints and opportunities under which I live.
What a privilege to grow up not have to boil water before drinking it; I could just drink straight out of the tap! (And that saves on the cost of gas for boiling water and the time it takes.)
I was able to take out many low-interest loans to attend university (student loans don’t exist here).
My university diploma is respected across the world (most here are not transferrable.)
My parents didn’t have to find time in their busy schedules to attend water committee meetings to make sure the local water system kept working and was chlorinating its water to protect against diarrhea-causing microorganisms.
To know about the latest findings, technologies, and advances to be able to do my work well, I can read the majority of scientific articles because they are written in English, which happens to be my first language.
I have a stable income that permits me to not only meet my basic needs, but even save a little to travel within the country.
I can get a visa to enter almost any country I want.
And I have a network of friends and trusted acquaintances that can help me navigate traveling cheaply and safely.
This is only a tiny sample of some of the privileges that I have had that have given me the opportunities that I have now and which, in turn have empowered me to seek out more opportunities and live a more enriched life.
Thanks to certain investments that previous generations of Americans made in infrastructure,science, education, and trying to minimize corruption in the government, all my life I have been able to dedicate more time to advancing my education, maintaining my health, traveling, and finding and working in jobs that I love…and I have this opportunity to be living in another country, learning another language, and having this amazing intercultural experience.
This is a stark reminder for me to not take lightly the corruption in government, and political decisions to sacrifice investments in education, science, infrastructure, and health for investments in “physical defense” that will make their shareholders richer but not actually improve the security of the country, according to academic studies.
Recognizing the privileges that I have helps me understand and define poverty a little more. I may currently be living with a few more inconveniences than I was used to, but I do not feel poor. In fact I feel rich to be living in a beautiful and relatively secure place, with the support of wonderful people – family and friends here and back home, with a job that I enjoy, with the support of the organization Peace Corps, and living with the confidence that there are many opportunities in the world for me to continue to grow and contribute – and be paid for my work.
Poverty is both absolute and relative. Absolute poverty is lacking basic resources and opportunities to live a healthy and fulfilled life. Relative poverty is when everyone (or a lot of people) around you enjoy more resources and privileges than you, and so you feel poor. The “basic necessities” that define absolute poverty really end up being defined somewhat by the resources and privileges that others in the world have.
Do I deserve the privileges I have any more than the next person? How do I manage my feelings around some people having more privileges than others? What can I do to help people without these privileges enjoy them too?
My next posts will continue to address some of these questions.
Tis the season! It’s Navidad, and that means chocolatadas! What are chocolatadas? Apparently I didn’t really know, despite having already spent 2 Christmases here.
I thought a chocolatada was just a Christmas gathering with hot chocolate and Paneton. That’s right – hot chocolate (made from chocolate bars, milk, and cinnamon and cloves), and Panetón are the key ingredients for a chocolatada, and it is how we usually celebrate Christmas Eve here (in addition to staying up until midnight and exchanging gifts at midnight Christmas Eve).
So, since it is the Christmas season, and I wanted to reward the hard work of the 2 best water committees in our district, I thought it would be a great idea to reward them with a chocolatada in their community!
So off I went to purchase Panetón, chocolate, milk, and cinnamon and cloves. But people kept dropping comments like, “the kids will love it!”, and “the children love their dolls and cars from the last chocolatada”, and “what will you give the kids”?
So slowly I started realizing that typically chocolatadas (as organized community events) are a celebration for the kids. And you have to bring gifts. Dude, I was not prepared for that! I thought I was just planning something for all the adults that had worked hard to bring clean water to their community, but actually, when I had said “chocolatada”, their expectations were that I was throwing a party for the kids…and that I was going to bring gifts for all the kids! (Oh my.)
Well, one of the key lessons of Peace Corps is to be flexible and take advantages of unexpected changes. Luckily, my counterparts came to the rescue and found some bubbles to give as gifts to the kids, and we all pitched in to pay for them.
And, because the focus was kids, I took the opportunity to give a hand-washing lesson with my counterparts. We did an “arts and crafts” activity showing the kids how to make a portable hand washing station out of a water bottle, (and made sure that everyone washed their hands before eating).
We used the gift-giving activity as a training opportunity and the kids had to answer questions about when and why to wash their hands before receiving their gift of bubbles. (I think I was the only one who appreciated the irony that bubbles were the perfect gift for a hand-washing training).
I think after everything, it turned out pretty well, but I still didn’t really “get” the chocolatada idea, until I attended one planned by the community a few days later. Apparently, I still hadn’t learned that “Christmas is for the kids” (as everyone says), and chocolatadas too. So while I went to the celebration prepared to chat with the adults and munch on some paneton and hot chocolate…that’s not quite what happened.
When they started the party, the host welcomed everyone and gave a special welcome to me “Ingeniera” (“Engineer” is the title they call you if you have an engineering degree). And it didn’t stop there, after welcoming me, they said, only half jokingly, “and the Inginiera will help “animar” the fiesta”. “Uh-oh, what did I get myself into!?” I said to myself. It’s common – ok it’s more than common – just about every kid’s party here has a clown to “animar” the fiesta. And that’s what I thought of when they said that I would “animar” the fiesta. If you know me, you know I’m not exactly clown material.
Well, I joined Peace so that I would be forced to step out of comfort zone, so here I am. I guess there’s not much else to do, I said to myself, and I joined the 10-15 kids in the middle of the room, and started leading them to dance in a circle, and do different silly things to get them moving. Luckily Peace Corps had taught us a few interactive activities so I had a few ideas to draw from. After an hour I was exhausted (especially since I had already ridden my bike 30 minutes and uphill (and backwards through the snow) to arrive in the community)!
After an hour of the adults sitting around the perimeter of the room watching me and two other woman entertain the kids, they finally started to serve the Paneton and hot chocolate. And later, they gave out Barbie dolls and t-shirts to all the kids.
Finally, I think I understand the chocolatada…it is like a typical kid’s birthday party here, except with Paneton and hot chocolate, and all the kids get presents at the end, instead of just one!
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.
Where does your water come from? A lake? A river? An aquifer? Do you know? In our busy lives, it is someone else’s job to think about that, to make sure we have clean water that is safe to drink. (Though in recent history the catastrophe in Flint, MI has made a few people think twice about the theme – even to the point of paranoia for some.)
I work with institutions whose responsibility is making sure people have clean water to drink, but they often only focus on building and repairing water systems. Unfortunately, a lot of times they forget that protecting the source of water, is just as important. So, as water systems get built by an outside entity, capturing water from rivers, streams, or springs, the people in the community start developing the land nearby and above these sources, within the watershed, cutting down trees, building houses (and therefore bathrooms), cultivating crops, using agrochemicals, and raising cattle or pigs that contaminate the water, not realizing the impact it will have on the water source.
We have the good fortune to have an NGO in our community (IBC) that has expertise in watershed protection (among other cool topic areas like native communities, stream health and others), and is a member of our group GTIFAS. Thanks to IBC, a very exciting part of our project is to work closely with five communities to identify risks to their water source and recommend ways they can eliminate risks and protect their watershed in the future – while respecting land rights and the need to have income generation from their land.
This involves strategies like reforestation with native plants, creating zones of protection, and creating zones for low-impact activities like raising bees or crops that use minimal agrochemicals.
Another important approach is a type of economic valuation of ecosystem services where, in this case, they the recommendation is to raise the water fee on the water bill to have some extra funds to help pay land owners for the environmental services the forests on their land provide in keeping the water clean – giving incentives to either not cut down forest, or to reforest areas near water sources.
While there are a lot of general recommendations we can give to each community, we wanted to make sure that we knew the situation on the ground and could give very concrete recommendations to each community, like which tree species could they plant and where, and what current activities are a risk to their water system. So, we planned to go visit the source of water for each community and to inspect the surrounding areas for risks.
Just when I was heading to the office to do some planning for our first site visit, I saw two of my good friends, who work for the non-profit, taking a snack break. Since I have (finally) learned to slow down and take advantage of these breaks to converse with friends and co-workers, I followed them instead of diving right into my computer work. During the conversation, my friend pointed out that we should look at satellite images of the areas to help guide our inspection and give us an idea of what areas might have risks. What a brilliant idea, and I can’t believe I hadn’t talked to her sooner!
She helped me print out satellite images of each area, and showed me how to read them to have an idea of where land had been developed, where rivers might be, and how to show topography. It turned out to be a key tool in our analysis, in conjunction with using google maps on the phone to help track where we were during the inspections.
The next day, we headed out to climb to the water sources for three different water systems. Each time was a steep ascent through the high jungle hills, each taking between 30 minutes to an hour to reach the top. From there, we explored the surrounding areas, looking to identify the possible risks we saw from the satellite images, as well as any other risks we could identify on-the-ground.
The day started out with good luck as we saw two wild monkeys – tiny rabbit-sized animals with a long tail – playing in the trees. My first experience ever seeing wild monkeys!
Later we passed a tree that produces a cotton-like substance – my first time seeing cotton fall from a tree. Finally, it was the first time that plants stung me through my pants – who knew that plants could sting, and even through cloth?! I thought that only happened in Australia.
You can imagine that I was pretty hungry by lunch time, so I blame the low blood sugar for my slip of the tongue when I asked if anyone was “dying from the man” instead of dying of hunger (“alguien esta muriendo de hombre?”)!
Actually, I could write a whole blog entry on all my slips of the tongue in castellano… and maybe one day I will. Stay tuned…