Solidarity

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.

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).