Torotoro – Ecotourism Adventure in the Middle of Bolivia

Torotoro was an unplanned surprise adventure that I stumbled across in Bolivia and now I can’t imagine my journey without it.

I had never heard of Torotoro until I arrived in La Paz, where two different people recommend it to me within my first day there. My friend Gabriela said I HAD to see because, as a person that likes outdoors adventures, it was a must-see while in Bolivia.

I decided to do the 2-bus journey from La Paz in one day, leaving at 7am and arriving around midnight (due to some bad luck in my layover).*

Heading out of the densely-packed, busy La Paz towards Cochabamba**, the road soon turned into wide open spaces, with a mix of adobe and brick houses, often many kilometers apart. The landscapes were reminiscent of the Peruvian Andes highlands (sierra), from plains to red rock mountains, and then winding through the hills above a valley, with short little bushes dotting the yellow brown hills.


Torotoro is at an altitude of 2,800 meters (9,000 ft) with a rocky mountainous landscape, but also has a very unique look and feel. The colorful and pointy, oddly shaped hills and rock formations may remind an American of the Southwest, especially South Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, and also parts of the Rocky Mountains. While the temperature is cool, the days were mostly sunny, and it is noticeably 1,000 meters lower than La Paz, giving one a relief from the cold and altitude of La Paz.

In the tiny town of Torotoro, most people wear the typical rural Bolivian dress- women in colorful skirts, and men in pants and a vest. Most people wear brimmed hats (sombreros), though there are different types between the men and women. But there are two unique things I see here that I haven’t seen in other parts of Bolivia (or Peru):

First, a good proportion of people have official work vests, signaling that many people are employed in the tourism industry, working either for the government or a tourism business.

The other, which I absolutely love, is that there are many guys (mostly older men) that wear the typical Andean “chullo” hat with ear flaps, but these chullos have a long pointy top, like an elf hat…and they wear the pointy part standing up! (Sorry, I don’t have photos of the local dress styles.)

Torotoro is such a tiny town, that even though the tourists stay in hotels around the middle of town, integrated with the houses of the locals, tourist activities feel very separate from local activities, and so it has a bit of a tourist town feel.

The locals have a kind of wary-ness towards me, surely from having had many a varying experience with tourists, and it takes a few minutes of conversation for them to relax and feel more comfortable conversing. I tried to chat with a street food vendor who was also serving some locals, and she was really hesitant to talk. Finally, remembering that I was in a Quechua-speaking region, I tried to speak with the little bit of Quechua I had learned in the northern Lake Titicaca island Amantani. “Soma pollo,” (delicious chicken), I told her. “Yosparasunki,” (thank you)! When she realized I was trying to speak Quechua she smiled (half laughing at me) and then taught me to say “Reposa” (bye).

Torotoro is also a national park, and due to the efforts to protect it, they have recently implemented a strict system for visiting the park, where you always have to go with a guide. (You pay 100 Bolivian Pesos for a park entry fee and then you pay separately for each guided tour.)

The system of contracting a guide is interesting because there is a set cost for each guide and you can have up to 6 people in a group with a guide. That means that most people come just before the office opens in the morning and afternoon to look for other people that want to do the same tour so they can form a group of six to split the cost. Sometimes it works out beautifully and sometimes no one shows up to do the tour you want to do. (But for the two most popular tours, even in low season, there were always people in the early morning looking to form a group. The afternoons had fewer people, though I did get lucky my first day and found a couple late in the afternoon to go see dinosaur tracks and the canyon.)

That’s right…dinosaur tracks! Who knew that in the middle of Bolivia, there are dinosaur tracks!???!?

Many businesses use the dinosaur tracks for their marketing strategy

The area used to be swampy area and over the millennia it dried up and turned to rock, preserving tracks of those massive herbivores and vicious carnivores that roamed the area thousands of years ago.

All in one tour (“El Vergal”), you pass dinosaur tracks  and walk along an historic river with amazing geologic formations, leading to the majestic Chiflón canyon.

Just when we were about to leave the rim to begin our descent into the canyon, we caught sight of a graceful condor soaring above the canyon…and then another…and then another. They had emerged just in time to paint the already amazing landscape with their graceful flight paths.

We then climbed down into the canyon, passing a lemon-mint smell of the bodje tree, and later transversing the boulder-filled base for about a kilometer until we arrived at some beautiful waterfall cascades with green-blue pools below.

What a refreshing swim in that beautiful canyon pool!

The next day I successfully formed a group of 6 with my two French neighbors and a group of 3 other French tourists wanting to do a full day tour of the “Ciudad de Itas” and the Umajalanta Caverns.

We first took a 4×4 out to the grand rock formations of the City of Itas, and on the 40-minute drive climbing into the mountains, there were four different languages buzzing about in the vehicle – the guides speaking Quechua in the front, the three tourists in the back speaking French, my French neighbors and I speaking in Spanish in the middle, and the tourists in the back speaking to me in English.

The “Ciudad de Itas” was a hike through incredible rock formations and mountains.

Among many cool highlights were an almost completely dark cave-like space with just a tiny slot of light filtering through from above called “cueva del diablo”, and ancient drawings of llamas and the sun and earth goddess/god preserved in the rock in some cave-like spaces.

Do you see the llama?

We were also led through a maze of rock to a secret hiding place that was a kind of hidden canyon between rocks where the natives would hide stolen cattle during the 18th and 19th centuries, before the land reform times. This was when the Spanish had taken over large swaths of land, and a wealthy, well-connected Spanish “patron” would run an agricultural businesses on “haciendas” (large farms), often practically enslaving the locals while making profits exporting products across the country or abroad. (Again I was grateful for having read Isabel Allende’s “House of Spirits” to have a sense of the history around this time period.)

Another point of interest amidst the rocks was a large opening in a cave-live space in the rocks called the “cathedral” where the locals during Incan times held a gathering to celebrate the gods and goddesses of the earth (Pachamama) and the sun (Tatainti). They would have a type of pot-luck called “A’tapi”, and they would give an offering to Pachamama called  “Tcha’lla”.

We also saw photo-luminescent bacteria that glows this green color from one angle but up close it just looks like brown slime on the rocks.

After having climbed to the highest part of the Torotoro area, we then descended below the surface of the earth, to explore the Umajalanta Caverns. While not the most beautiful cave I’ve ever seen, it was definitely the most fun!

Hiking, climbing, repelling, crawling, and scootching through this cave was a fun adventure (and led by an experienced guide and plenty of ropes, it was not as hard or scary as it sounds.) Unfortunately, many of the beautiful formations had been damaged in the decades before it became a protected part of the national park, (due mostly to people not knowing that touching the formations would damage them but also due to some vandalism).

This image is on the 10-boliviano bill

However, there were also signs of hope where the stalagmites and stalactites had started growing again since the cave has been protected for two decades now (since 1989).

I was so happy to have found this little gem in the middle of Bolivia, to explore such a beautiful place, and to support the protection of some natural areas.***

 

Famous Footnotes

*While I arrived smoothly from La Paz to Cochabamba (other than a hot bus), I had bad luck catching a ride to Torotoro. The buses go “colectivo” style which means they wait until enough passengers come to fill them and then they leave. I waited 3 hours and then it was getting dark and no more passengers were coming so the company passed me off to another company that was supposedly leaving soon but still didn’t actually leave for another hour. I arrived at midnight in Torotoro and needed the next morning to recover from travels.

** Many people told me to “be careful” in Cochabamba. Luckily I had nothing but good experiences with the people there. When I asked at the terminal how to get to the vans for Torotoro, the woman didn’t know so asked a coworker who not only told me which car to take, he flagged down the car and ran the half block to where it stopped to explain to the driver where I was going and to ask him to let me know when we arrived!

***While I would definitely call this an “eco-tourism” experience, the jury is still out on whether it counts as “community-based tourism”. While on the surface it seems to bring some income to many locals, there were rumors that the government actually gets most of the proceeds and that there was a wealthy and foreign family somehow making most of the profits. I wasn’t there long enough to find out to what extent these were true, but even if the government was making profit, they were also employing quite a few people (remember all the vests?)

Side note: There were a few other short tours that I didn’t make it to (like a huge fossilized turtle), so while you can see the biggest attractions in 2 days, it is definitely a place one could stay 3-4 days, especially just to relax in a calm and quiet little village in a beautiful place with a great climate, (though there aren’t tourist attractions outside of the guided tours).

Coroico – Biking to the Yungus

Since I wasn’t able to hike to the Yungas (the lower altitude, subtropical side of the Bolivian Andes) from the mountains, I decided to bike there. In bicycle you can really see the scenery, feel the change in climate, and really experience each moment along the way with all your senses. Sometimes you can even see the change in wildlife along the way.

Since I didn’t know where and how to rent a bike, the easiest and quickest way was to go along with one of the touristy tours that rent you the bike, gear, guide, support van, and transportation to a starting point and back and that advertise the route as Death Road or “the world’s most dangerous road”. Actually called “North Yungus Road” or “Coroico Road”, the route is a windy, steep downhill dirt road that used to be the primary route to Coroico, before they built a new paved route that is supposed to be a little less windy and steep and therefore has fewer incidences of cars going too fast and finding themselves flying off the cliff. (An estimated 300 travelers were killed annually when this was the primary route to Coroico).

As a mountain bike route, it’s not too dangerous since it was designed for cars and so is actually fairly wide. That said, it would be dangerous for someone that isn’t used to biking and tried to ride like a crazy person. I found it to be a challenging but not too unlike many rides I did regularly in Oxapampa. Going with the tour had its pros and cons*, but overall it was awesome, and definitely a great way to get to the lower jungle town of Coroico where I wanted to go.

To get to Coroico from La Paz, you first have to pass over the mountains, so the van drove us a few hours to the starting point in the mountains at 4,700 meters (15,400 ft) above sea level. We would then ride down to 1,100 meters (3,600 ft) above sealevel. It had snowed the night before which complicated our arrival to the starting point but made for a beautiful, of very cold, starting point.

From white mountains, freezing fingers, and multiple layers, we quickly descended to green hills, greeted by the smell of the moisture and vegetation characteristic of the tropical jungle, (and making me nostalgic for Oxapampa). The views of the hills and valleys, and the river cutting through the valley below (way below), were indescribable. (Sorry, don’t have photos.)

Arriving in the valley, one perk of going with the tour is that we had access to a beautiful little resort with an all-you-can-eat buffet, rustic showers, and even a pool.

The two guides were also cool. One guy was a medical student and was explaining that to be a doctor in Bolivia, one has to study for 5 years, then do a one year internship in a hospital where they don’t pay you anything, and then ANOTHER one-year unpaid “rural internship” where you work in a rural site in “provincia”. (Ok, so this one’s not completely unpaid – the interns receive 15 pesos bolivianos ($2) per day.) Just when I thought the US doctor training program was not ideal…

As the van then continued back to La Paz, I caught a car for a 15-minute ride to the little city of Coroico. I arrived just as it started to rain, so I spent the evening resting and cooking myself a meal in the hostel.

Coroico is a small town with the streets buzzing with activity. There are many little stores (tiendas) and restaurants on every street, vendors selling vegetables and fruits in the street during the mornings, and kids running to and from school in the mornings and afternoons. At night, kiosks open up selling fried chicken and fries – which seems to be the Bolivian evening meal choice, second only to Silpancho – rice, potatoes, carrots, beets, tomato, chicken fried steak, with a fried egg on top. (To avoid an early heart attack and to be able to sleep at night, I cooked a stir fry of vegetables and quinoa for my evening meals, with the bonus of spending less than I would have eating out.)

The town was small enough that I quickly felt at home there. People weren’t immediately warm – everyone was busy living their lives and didn’t even notice a random tourist walking the streets, which I kind of liked. Often they didn’t even hear me greet them, (or were so surprised at a tourist greeting them that they didn’t know what to do.) But when I did get a chance to chat with someone (like the woman who sold me juice or the guy managing the hotel), they were super nice, chill, and helpful.

I read that there were three main sights to see in Coroico – the stations of the cross that lead up to a chapel on a hill with a nice view, and then from the chapel there are two 4-ish-hour roundtrip hikes – one to a hill that overlooks the city and the other to three waterfalls.

I packed my bag with swim gear, asked a couple of people how to get to the waterfalls, and then headed off, running, following a trail that wound around the side of a few massive hills. I was pretty disappointed when I arrived about an hour later and only saw a tiny fall with nowhere to swim, and it seemed that it was just a water capture point for the city. Maybe an appropriate thing to find, since I’m a water engineer, but disappointing.

So I ran back to the chapel, arrived at 4pm and decided to try to climb the overlook hill. The hill started as an open, desert-like hill covered with rocks, dry grasses, and only short bushes.

After about 30 minutes I was surprised to suddenly enter what was like jungle – thick trees blocking the sky and the smell of moist soil and vegetation. After a few minutes, I emerged again from the jungle and the trail opened up again to less dense vegetation and dried grass, only to turn into jungle again a few minutes later.

When the vegetation cleared, there were incredible views of the valley and the towns down below, including the little city of Coroico, which appeared much bigger from above than it seemed being in the city.

Towards the top, the hill turned into pure jungle, and I was sweating even though it was getting chilly as the sun started going down. Jogging uphill, I was thankful for the extra lung power I had gained being at altitude for almost two weeks. I didn’t want to get caught in the night in the jungle, so I decided I would turn around at 5:45 even if I didn’t make it to the top. I kept thinking I was near the top but would find that there was still more climb. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it to the top, and then magically, at exactly 5:45 I arrived to the clearing at the top of the hill! Win!

The next day, I was just about to leave Coroico and I learned that the waterfall I went to was definitely not the waterfall that everyone goes to. I decided that I couldn’t leave without going to the waterfalls, so I started walking (this time the right direction), and then found a car to take me the rest of the way. When I got to the waterfall, I decided it had definitely been worth it! There was not much water in the cascade because I arrived just at the end of dry season, but there was a beautiful pool under the falls calling my name, (and two guys swimming there also calling me to join them).

The guys were from La Paz and had come out for the weekend just to enjoy this specific spot. With little hesitation, I was soon splashing around in the pool beneath the waterfall with them. Within a few minutes, another guy from La Paz showed up – he was showing around a friend from Quito, Ecuador who had come to visit Bolivia for a few weeks. We all became friends for the afternoon and I even ended up catching a bus back with the Ecuadorian woman and her Paceño friend.

Turns out that Coroico, and specifically the falls, are a nice little weekend escape for Paceños. With its warm climate and green hills, it’s a nice escape from the cold, altitude, and busy, tree-less city. I’m so glad I went off the beaten path to find this little gem (and to make a few more friends along the way)!

 

Ignore the jacket…it was actually warm in Coroico, but after swimming in the cold falls I needed to warm up

Famous Footnotes/Bonus Content

* The pros of going with the mountain bike tour were the sag wagon and the food included, but the cons were the cost (it was outside of my low budget but I gifted myself that day), and that it was so touristy that the group had to stop every few minutes so the guides could take photos of each person to later send us.

**I somehow lost my water bottle in the car that I took to the waterfalls, and I was pretty bummed, but then the driver showed up at the falls within 5 minutes, having noticed that I left it. Good, kind people in Coroico!

***Often when I mentioned that I went to Coroico, Bolivians asked me if I saw any black people. Actually, I didn’t. But Coroico is apparently part of the area where many African slaves were brought to work on haciendas and so many Afro-Bolivians live in the surrounding areas.

Bolivian Andes (Part II)- Glacier Lake and Spanish Gold Trail, Sorata

After a ridiculously cold and uncomfortable night (the first night camping is always the hardest), I was happy for day break so we could start hiking to go find the glacier lake.

If the first day was pure climbing, the second day was pure rock scramble – my favorite way to hike (and I’m not being sarcastic).

Add the fact that there was snow on the ground, and I was in heaven! Actually, it was more like hail or frozen rain because it was tiny little white ice balls, like I’d never seen before. But whatever it was, it was white and beautiful and made that wonderful crunching sound beneath our feet.

We climbed up and down (mostly up), over about 4 ridges on the side of a mountain, crossing a few landslides, literally climbing on the face of the mountain much of the time, and it was exhilarating. I fell once but I caught myself and didn’t die! Win!

We didn’t talk much because we needed all the air for breathing, as the air was getting thinner and thinner as we gained altitude. We both were chewing coca leaf to keep from getting altitude sickness.

As we crossed over the side of the great peak Illampu, the view suddenly opened up to reveal the beautiful glacier lake.

The grand Illampu rises over the left of the lake, while Ancouma rose over the right side (though Ancouma was hiding in clouds).

At the far end of the lake, the snowy side of a mountain seemed to be constantly feeding the lake with a glacier and avalanches.

The lake created an optical illusion such that it was actually much larger than it seemed; after 20 minutes of hiking I still hadn’t arrived to the far side where the snow and ice was falling into the lake, so I headed back since my guide was a little anxious to get back.

Every few minutes I would hear the distant sound of avalanches, but I could never find them when I looked up into the mountains.

The next day, we headed across the mountain pass to see some ruins, a couple of overlook points, and the Spanish Gold trail. We were walking in the clouds the whole way down, so unfortunately I didn’t get to see some of the amazing views. Despite the fog, I still loved it!

We normally would have hiked about 5-6 hours and camped one more night, with a campfire at a mirador, but with all the fog and my stomach acting up, I convinced Eduardo to to do an 8-hour hike that would bring us all the way back to Sorata in one day. Turns out we would have gotten rained on in the night if we had camped, and I didn’t have the most waterproof tent. Win #2!

The day was long and challenged my glutes again, but I enjoyed it just the same.

We hiked along the Spanish trail or the Gold trail, which is the trail that was used by the Spanish colonial rule to deliver gold from a mine in the mountains down to Sorata, carried by the locals who were used as slaves in the gold mining business. (My first night in Sorata I had stayed in a hostel that seemed like a really old house, and I later learned that it used to be the place where the slaves (indigenous people) delivered the gold to the Spanish.)

Walking along the Gold Trail, glutes screaming, sore shoulders, I thought about how this would be torture if someone was forcing me to do it, (especially for their own profit and not for me). But since I had chosen to do it, and I could go at my own pace and enjoy the scenery, and I was not doing it every day, it was something I actually paid to do. Privilege.

Eduardo continued to tell me the history of Sorata while walking this trail. He explained how the Spanish enslaved the locals not only for mining but they also set up the big haciendas, where the Spanish “patron” treated the locals like slaves to work the land and produce crops as efficiently as possible while the patron then got rich from selling the products, sometimes on the international markets that he had access to. The conversation invoked memories or reading Isabel Allende’s “House of Spirits”.

Eduardo went on to say that there came a time when the young rebelled and received a few more rights so they weren’t so much like slaves, but it wasn’t until later with the big land reform policies that the patrons left and locals could own their own land and reap the benefits from it.

Since then, he said, the community has organized itself so that each person owns their land where they live, and then the land in the hills above the community is common land so that anyone in the community can farm it. They meet once a month to resolve community issues and they rotate the leader of the community every year. Anyone with land in the community is registered on the “roster” and therefore has rights to farm the community land and also has the responsibility to serve their rotation as leader of the community for one year.

As I arrived back to Sorata, I could not believe that we had walked that entire distance. I had left behind the busy world of getting everywhere fast, and I had reunited with the age-old tradition of walking. I was just stunned at how two legs, two feet, could take me across massive hills and high up into the mountains, across distances and through terrain that seemed impossible, or difficult at best, to cross. It was a reminder how much I appreciate my feet and also the power of the human spirit and body.

Bonus Content: What do the kids do in the evenings in Sorata? As I made my way back to my hostel, all along the way, kids were playing with the same top-like toy in the streets, so I stopped at one group of kids and asked an older kid to show me what they were playing. He was super shy at first but I finally got him to show me on camera, and he let me try a few times too.

(Unfortunately I am having technical difficulties uploading videos here, but you can find the video on Facebook).

Close of Service…but Not for Me

July 23, 2018 marked the end of 2 years of my Peace Corps service, actually of 27 months (2 years + 3 months of training) that I originally committed to serve. I asked Peace Corps for a 1-year extension, and they granted it to me, so I will be here well into the next year still. However, since all my friends from my group are ending their service, and since I attended the close-of-service (COS) training and ceremony with them, I am going through some of the tough transition emotions right along with them, though in a different way.

First, I am reflecting on my cohort, “Peru 27”, and what a great group of people I had the pleasure to not only know, but to learn right along side. It was a competitive process to be selected for this group, and it is clear that some of the best rose to the top. They told us that our cohort would be our main support through the tough times of service, and they were right. And I couldn’t be happier for the group that I had as my support, for the people that are now a great part of my life.

I am one of the older members in our group, and I admit that I had my doubts about how it would be to enter as part of a group with a lot of “kids” right out of college. Well, first of all, our group had hand a good handful of volunteers NOT right out of college, but instead in their late 20’s-early 30’s, and two volunteers in their 50-60s.

But mostly, I was surprised to find that this experience challenged my ageism, as I found myself learning from those “young’uns” right out of college. I won’t deny that there are moments where difference in age makes a difference in how you can relate to someone, but it certainly isn’t a barrier for a meaningful friendship, and learning from each other and exchange of wisdom can still be a two-way road. Because of the diversity of experiences that each person has, we all learn and grow in different areas at different times in life, and because of this, every person different from us has something to teach us.

The friendships I made are tough to explain; it’s a bond that forms strong under tough conditions, when you are taken out of your comfort zone and you just have each other to lean on. You know that there are only a handful of people in the world who really truly can come close to understanding the journey you’ve been through, and because of that, they get you in a way that no one else will be able to. Those are the types of friendships I share with my friends from my cohort.

So you can imagine that it was not easy to see them leave. Since I decided to extend one year more, I am one of only a few that are still here in Peru; the majority of my group finished their service and returned to the US, including all of my closest friends from the group.

In this connected world of many communication options, where I know we can still be in touch – it really surprised me how much it affected me that my friends were leaving the country. As they head off to start the next phase of their life, I continue here, alone. Not alone at all, actually – I have a wonderful host family, great new site mates, and amazing friends here. But it still feels like a piece of me is missing… the in-country presence of my good friends from Peru 27, no longer a (long) bus-ride away.

Today, one of my besties, Kevin, said goodbye to his host family (and to me, as I was there with them). It was sad to see Kevin leave me, but it was heartbreaking to see him leave his host family. In just a little over a year, he had become like another son, another brother, another uncle to them. Many tears were shed by all, as everyone hung onto the phrase “It’s not “goodbye”, it’s “see you later”, and for added measure, “no, it’s ‘see you soon!'”. (“No es ‘chau’, es ‘hasta luego’, o sea, ‘hasta pronto'”.)

Man, that was a tough moment for me, seeing how hard it was for his family to let him go, for him to say goodbye to them! And then knowing that I will be doing the same in a year…

Why is this different from all the times I have moved in my life and said goodbye to family and friends in the states?

I had to think about that for a minute, and the answer, I believe, is related to privilege to travel and the US visa. When I was living in the US and I moved to a whole new state, it was still fairly easy to visit friends and family in other states within the US…costly, but possible – I would visit friends and family in other states multiple times a year. I left my family and friends for two (now three) years to live here as a PCV, and I have since had the pleasure of having 3 family members and 6 friends visit me here.

However, the possibility of our Peruvian host families and friends visiting us in the US is incredibly low. Why? Because, while US citizens travel easily to almost any country in the world, it is incredibly difficult for most citizens of the world to travel to the US. For a Peruvian to get a visa to the US, it is so complicated that I don’t even know all the steps. I know they have to pay hundreds of soles (Peruvian monetary unit) just to apply for the visa – and that does not guarantee they will get it; and if they don’t get it, they are out that cash.

But I digress. One day when I have time, I will write a separate, well-researched article about the current, non-fact-based, xenophobic immigration laws. But not here.

This blog is about strong friendships and love, across cultures, across borders, people who have taken me (and other volunteers) in, cared for us and treated us as another member of their family, even when we spoke funny, looked weird, had strange eating habits, and did odd things. It’s about the love we have for these Peruvians, and the love they have for us.

It’s also about the incredible relationships we have built across cultures and across language barriers (which is not easy!) And it’s about the unique and strong bond that we PCVs have for each other, having experienced these things, separately and in different ways, but together.

I am so grateful for the extra year that I have here with my Peruvian friends and family. And I am also so grateful to have meet the wonderful fellow Americans that I met here (each one so different from me that I doubt I would have ever met and  much less become close friends if it weren’t for this incredible experience together!)

So, while I have a strange nostalgic sadness in the background, mostly I’m excited to hear about the next chapters in their lives. Our paths divide, but those memories together stay with us. And thanks to cell phone towers, internet, and social networks, it will be a little easier for us to stay connected.

 

 

Conveniences

At the table this morning, my mom was making bread – kneading and pounding dough, up to the elbows in flour, while I was eating breakfast – my usual fresh fruit smoothly (though usually it is papaya juice, while today it was banana, peanut butter (that I made myself), and milk fresh from the cow), with bread and cheese.

My mom makes bread in her wood stove almost every week – we alternate between eating fresh, homemade bread (yes, it’s as good as it sounds), and bread from the tienda (which is still usually pretty fresh, just made in someone else’s home, but still never quite as good). We were chatting and the conversation turned to the idea of selling bread, and she wanted to do some quick math to see how much she could sell the bread for and what kind of profit she would get.

We did the math and the profits weren’t too impressive, (just 12 soles ($4) per batch of dough and 4 hours of work. On the other hand, that’s 48 soles a month she saves by making the bread when we eat homemade bread instead of buying it, which was a result she was happy with because I think she also enjoys making bread).

It led me to thinking about my privilege. I personally never really had to think about whether to make or buy my staples to save money. If I decided to make bread, or pizza crust, or undergo some cooking or baking project, it was usually more for entertainment or to learn something rather than to save money.

This reminded me of a book I read (Poor Economics), that pointed out that this very thing is one of the differences between the rich and the poor – those with plenty of money don’t have to spend so much time and energy thinking about whether the small things will save them a few dollars here or make them a few dollars there, and instead can invest their time and energy in things that bring in bigger profits. So naturally, every day, someone that starts with more resources will have more opportunities to make themselves richer by much greater margins than someone who starts with fewer resources.

People with clean water delivered to their house consistently every day, don’t have to boil their water every day before drinking it or cooking with it – which takes time, (mental) energy, and money to pay for gas or wood for a fire.

I have seen that when someone has a medical problem here, they usually have to travel a day and a half to a bigger city to see a specialist (sometimes after waiting weeks or months to get an appointment.) I never realized before how lucky I was to always live in a city with a decent hospital that had a variety of specialists. Simply having a well-staffed, larger hospital means that people who get sick or have medical problems (and have insurance or can afford it…a whole other topic) lose fewer days of work, can get treated more quickly, and bear a little less stress associated with managing the medical problem.

These are just two of many examples I have experienced here that contrast with some of the conveniences I enjoyed in my life, without even realizing or appreciating their value and importance…and therefore highlight privileges I have had throughout my life that I didn’t even realize I had.

These privileges that I enjoyed are not simply due to the US being a wealthier country, as many people assume. They are actually mainly due to the fact that I have always lived in an urban area and not a far out rural area, that I have always had medical insurance, and due to government policies that subsidized and promoted certain infrastructure development in farther out rural areas.

There are and always will be people that have fewer advantages, fewer opportunities and privileges than me, and you – in our own countries, in our own communities, and in other countries. And we can choose to only focus on advancing our own wealth every day, or we can remember that we are part of a larger community, a larger country, and a larger world, and try to advance the collective wealth (health, opportunities, sense of safety and security and justice).

The Art of Sitting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

House Arrest in Peru

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Processing the 2016 Presidential Election (Part 2: Peace Corps Intercultural Training)

In my last post, I attempted to process what happened last week with the election, why I (and 50 million other Americas) are so ridiculously upset, and what we could possibly to do now. I also promised to share some things from Peace Corps training that I think are really applicable in this situation. It’s interesting that, up to now I am having to apply this training more in the inter-cultural context of the US than in my experiences living in Peru.

Confianza

Only when there is a foundation of love and respect can real conversations happen and can real change take place. This is one of the core concepts Peace Corps trains us in – confianza, or trust/confidence and respect, are foundational for any of the work we do. Without this, we are just an outsider coming in trying to change things because we think we know better than the people living their lives everyday…without respect and building trust, we will try to do projects that don’t make sense, and people will nod their heads to please us, but when we leave, our work will not last. The first thing we have to do is really listen, with an attitude of respect. (The Ted Talk below explains this nicely.)

Integration

Peace Corps aims to prepare us to assimilate and build strong, real, lasting relationships, to step outside of our comfort zone and try new things, and to expose ourselves to new ideas…all without endangering ourselves, losing sight of our own values, or doing something that goes against our core values. It is not easy, and it is not a science, but it is something that we have to learn to do when we work with, live with, interact with people very different from us. In our diverse America and in this rapidly globalizing world, this is becoming more important than ever.

Intercultural Competency

One of my favorite things that Peace Corps shared with us was the “Intercultural Development Continuum”, which describes the following phases of intercultural competency:

Denial Being comfortable with the familiar. Not anxious to complicate life with “cultural differences”. Not noticing much cultural difference around you. Maintaining separation from others who are different.
Polarization/Defense Strong commitment to your own thoughts and feelings about culture and cultural difference. Incomplete understanding and fairly strong negative feelings or stereotypes about people different from you, often leading to distrust of, and tendency to be judgmental about cultural behavior or ideas that differ from your own.
Minimization Recognizing other cultures with differences in behavior and ideas and recognizing that people are pretty much like you, but such that you assume that you understand the situation the same as a person from another culture, without recognizing the full extent of their experience and situation.
Acceptance Recognizing your own culture and different cultures as various ways of experiencing the world, and understanding that people from other cultures are as complex as yourself – their ideas, feelings, and behavior may seem unusual, but you realize that their experience is just as rich as your own.
Adaptation  Recognizing the value of having more than one cultural perspective available to you, and having the ability to take on the perspective of another culture so that you can understand or evaluate situations with either your own perspective or that of another. Able to intentionally change your behavior to act in culturally appropriate ways outside your own culture.

 

I had never really thought of adaptation to other cultures being a clear and different step that comes after minimization and even after acceptance. I think a lot of us were stuck in denial before this election, and a lot of us in polarization/defense as well. I hope that from here we can pull ourselves past minimization (where we assume we understand others’ perspectives and minimize the value of their voice, especially their complaints or call for change), and into acceptance and adaptation.

Adaptation

One common occurrence of those in the “adaptation” phase is intolerance of those in other stages on the continuum. I think this is where a lot of us are now, and this is our challenge – to understand and accept that people are in a different place, a different stage on the continuum, for a variety of reasons, and we will need patience, love, and respect, while at the same time working to break down barriers and promote understanding and tolerance.

different-levels-consciousness

So that’s the theory, but how do we put this into practice? Here’s one example, just in time for thanksgiving. And another. Please share more in the comments section!

Recommended Reading: Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High

Processing the 2016 Presidential Election (Part 1)

I think we are all tired of talking about the 2016 presidential election (I am anyway), but at the same time, I have to admit that if I think about it, I am still upset. Clearly we all need to process what happened, and what we do next. Sure, this will be a little different for everyone, but I want to start the conversation, and I want to share my perspective as a Peace Corps volunteer and share some of the things we learned in training that I think are really applicable. And I also want to share these thoughts publicly to remind myself of where we are now, because we often have the chance to grow the most from the things that suck the most, and I certainly hope we can make something good come out of this, because I have a feeling we will need it.

In a way, this article is an extension of my Facebook post from immediately after the election – a follow up to answer the question of how we can bridge that gap to be an America that places more value on love, acceptance, and respect.

Why are we so upset?

I’m not going to lie; I cried. And then felt ashamed that I was crying over an election. Never in my life have I cried over an election, and I know people who have never cared about politics before, as well as my political junkie friends, all who were similarly distressed and even literally depressed by this outcome. Why are we so upset…like REALLY upset. Like going-through-a-breakup or losing-a-loved-one upset. Clearly this isn’t like any other election.

I think for the majority of us, the outcome of this election hurts not because of politics, but because of basic and fundamental values that we believe are core to our nation, and humanity – respect, equality, women’s rights, human rights, honesty. And we feel sad that so many of our fellow Americans would vote for someone so openly opposed to, and proud to laugh in the face of those values, to be the leader of our nation, theoretically a role model to our children, and to represent us to the rest of the world.

Greg Popovich (Head coach of the San Antonio Spurs) said it well here,

And I also appreciate how this blogger explained it.

steps-to-peace
Photo credit: Bear Face Beard Oil and Apparel

How did this happen?

So, that is how we feel right now, but what actually happened? Why did he win and who voted for this guy?

First, he did not win the popular vote. Maybe we should take a look at our constitution and how votes count, not because we are not happy with the outcome, but because the system as is doesn’t serve to best represent the desires of the citizens. But regardless of the winner, nearly 60 million citizens did vote for Trump, and I think we need to understand why. I’m sure the people who voted for him are as varied in their reasons as the diversity of America, but here are some explanations I have come across.

Politics not Personality. I have heard that people voted for his policies and not his character. To me, these people either were not informed about his words and actions, or were just not that offended by what he said and did. And from my perspective, to not be offended sufficiently to feel that this person could represent America, indicates that maybe some of these people don’t have much exposure to people of different races, of different backgrounds, who face the real consequences in their lives of being a person of color, of experiencing rape. To me it’s a sign that we need more integration, more respectful, productive and real conversations with people different from us.

captura-de-pantalla-2016-11-16-a-las-15-22-47

Anti-Establishment. I have heard people who were just so opposed to Hillary because to them she represented “the establishment”, and they either voted for Trump, didn’t vote, or voted for a third party. I agree wholeheartedly that the traditional political parties have a lot of flaws and need serious reform, but given two options, how some people would choose a man of such poor character over “the establishment”, I still cannot fathom. But nonetheless, I think it is a good reminder to the political parties that people do want less corruption, more transparency.

Rural vote. And I have heard people who bought his one-liner “make America great again”, and probably agreed with, or were simply not offended by his misogynist, racist, disrespectful, uniformed comments. A great majority of people who voted for him live in rural areas, and here is an article that I think gives some real insight to the rural/urban divide in America and tries to take a first step to bridge the gap in understanding between these two different cultures in America. I can kind of understand how someone who has lived their whole life in a pretty small town, only encountering people with pretty similar religions, pretty similar skin color, would not understand why tolerance, especially of people of color, people of different religions, should be such an important value; whereas city dwellers encounter people quite different from themselves on a daily basis.

Photo Credit: Cracked Blog
Photo Credit: Cracked Blog

(I think I will have a whole separate blog on this theme later, because the rural-urban divide (as well as the indigenous-ruling class divide) is also very real and apparent in my work here.)

So what do we do now?

  1. Grieve, process it, and support each other in our various ways of dealing. Maybe this sounds a little ridiculous, but it’s true that this has really hurt and scared a lot of people, and everyone has their own way of reacting to stress. We have to support each other and try to encourage positive and peaceful ways of accepting the outcome and getting through this.
  2. Accept the reality of it. For me, watching Hillary’s concession speech was helpful.  Also I’m reminding myself there will always be different opinions that we will never agree with. There will always be those people that will never change no matter what we do, that will never choose peace, but we share this world with them too. But people are dynamic beings, and we are always learning and growing, each of us in a different phase of life, dealing with different challenges in our lives. I think it is important to respect and accept wholeheartedly the place where everyone is at this moment of their life, but without losing hope that each person can grow closer to a place of peace.
  3. Unite and start working together on those issues that put us where we are. I think everyone will have a different take on this and will choose to work on different aspects of it.

For me the most important thing we can do is recognize that while we have made a lot of social progress in the last few decades, we still have a long way to go and more work to do. Not everyone will always share our same values, and arguing with people about why our values are important won’t change America. But what I think we do lack is more effort reaching outside of our normal social circles and comfort zones, in the spirit of love and respect.

So if you know any stories  of people stepping outside their social circle to connect with someone different from them, or working outside their social circle to be an ally and better the lives of people very different from them, please share it here. I will also be on the look out and share what I find, and I will leave you with this story of creative connecting from a year ago:

And in my next post, I’ll share some of the training from Peace Corps that I think is super applicable to help in moving forward.