Isla de la Luna

Every morning at 8:30am, boats full of tourists leave Copacabana heading to Isla del Sol, with an option of stopping for an hour at Isla de la Luna. Planning just to go to Isla del Sol and stay the night, I boarded a boat and met up with the two traveler friends from London and Italy that I had met in my hostel.

It was a beautiful 2 hour boat ride and I even saw some little fish swimming along side of the boat. Instead of getting off at the first stop at the Isla del Sol, I stayed on with my new friends to go to the Isla de la Luna.

The boat only stops for an hour at Isla de la Luna and the guide on the boat says there’s not much to see there and you can do it in an hour…and they only give you an hour before the boat leaves to go to the Isla del Sol. And if the boat leaves without you, you’re stuck in the island until the next day because the boats only come once a day for an hour.*

Entering the island the smell of muña caught me by surprise and reminded me of my stay in Amantaní, the island in the north part of the lake. As I was walking up the stairs to enter the island with the other tourists, I passed a little 4-year-old boy who, without prompting, greeted me saying “Hi, my name is Miguel Ángel”! It was so adorable!

I started exploring late because I chatted for about 10 minutes with the guy who was charging for bathroom use, geeking out about the water and electricity access on the island. (Islands have always fascinated me because they present unique infrastructure challenges ripe for alternative energies and exploring the idea of sustainability.)

Geek out about the island’s infrastructure:

They used to not have power but now they use solar panels (“because the kids want their cell phones. And also tv.”) He said the panels are great but the batteries only last a couple of years and they have to be careful not to let them drain to zero or they stop working well. They use what look like basic car batteries that charge during the day.

They also have solar hot water heaters in most of the houses.

They use water from the lake but have to buy gas to power the pumps that pump the water up from the lake. (They charge for the bathroom in part to cover costs of the gas).

End Geek-out.

Finally, I headed up the hill to the ruins of the “temple of the virgins”, which was supposedly a type of boarding school for young women to learn to do womenly things in the Incan times.

There, I met an older woman from the island who explained that life living on Isla de la Luna is really calm and peaceful, and she liked it much better than the city (La Paz) where she lived for a few years. Here they grow their food, have a few animals- (llamas, pigs, chickens, sheep), they have fish farms within the lake, they and buy what they don’t have on the island from Copacabana. There’s a primary school and a church and a football field – everything they need, she said.

As I started to hike the hill from the temple to see what was on the other side of the island, I passed a woman knitting in the shade who asked if I was going to stay the night in the island.

“That’s an option?” I asked her.

Part of my travel purpose is to go off the beaten path and get to know some places and the people that live there… so when she said that her mother owned a hospedaje, I negotiated a price to include my meals, and I decided to stay the night instead of going back with the boat to Isla del Sol.

The boat companies from copacabana don’t promote the fact that there are hospedajes on the island, (maybe because it’s a tiny island and most tourists want more entertainment and conveniences? I don’t know.)

But if you are looking for a quiet and incredibly beautiful place to pass 24 hours (or more), where you can chat with one (or a few) of the 27 families that live on the island, learn about their daily lives, and walk along the perimeter of the 1-square-km island in the afternoon sun…then it’s worth the stay.

The tourists only come one hour per day, at the same time every day, and the community rotates selling things, collecting the entrance fee, collecting bathroom fees, and helping/keeping an eye on the tourists.

On the other side of the hill, and down the length of the island are the houses where the community (called Coati) lives…So the tourists only see the ruins and a view of both sides of the island from the top of the hill, but don’t see or go into the community, unless they stay the night.

The community of Coati, Isla de la Luna

The hospedaje where I stayed overlooks the lake, with a little pier extending into the lake. In the patio between the rooms are beautiful plants with flowers and the constant buzz of bees that I even hear from inside he room.

The quiet lapping of the waves on the shore can also be heard from inside if you listen closely.

This half of the island, the opposite side from where the tourists land, smells of muña for parts and eucalyptus for other parts.

I loved chatting with the woman who owned the hospedaje. It challenged my conversation skills a little because she wasn’t super talkative, but every time I asked her a question I saw her face light up a little and I felt her open up a little more, like she viewed me with a little less skepticism each time.

She commented that the president/government built part of the hospedaje last year (or at least convinced them that he did so they’ll vote for him at the end of this year), and the alcalde bought the water pump. The entrance fee to the island goes towards paying the locals to do restoration of the ruins or other community-based things.

The woman has 5 kids, one still living here on the island, a few in Copacabana and a few in other cities, but she’s content because they talk on the phone. When she first moved here with her husband (who is from here), there wasn’t running water or electricity so it was a rough adjustment for her, but she adapted, and now it is much easier with the solar power and pumped water. She feels at home now and likes that it’s quieter with less people than where she grew up, (in a community on the peninsula).

We chatted as the sun set over the pier, and she told me that tomorrow would be her turn to sell her artesanías in the temple so I would see her there when I leave.

In the morning, heading back over the hill to the other side of the island, I saw the little boy from the previous day, Miguel Ángel, walking with his mother, taking their sheep out to graze. She had a few of them on a leash, and the similarity to people walking their dogs in the morning made me smile. A few loose sheep stopped to eat and wouldn’t follow her so she sent Miguel Ángel to collect them, and I went to help herd sheep, while the talkative, friendly boy told me stories of his sheep.

This visit had a different feel than my stays on Ccotos and Amantaní, mostly because the business arrangement is different. Here, they are following a more traditional hotel-type tourism model, where the host is simply providing a space to stay, and doesn’t even live in the same area where the guest rooms are. Whereas in Amantaní and Ccotos they are following a homestay model where the tourist is a little more integrated into the daily life with the host – through sharing meals and sometimes community events, in addition to the guest rooms being more physically close to where the family lives and considered part of the family’s house.

While I personally preferred the homestay model and the culture-sharing atmosphere it fosters, I still greatly enjoyed my stay here. There aren’t many words to describe the peacefulness and beauty of this place, but hopefully you can catch a glimpse of it through the photos!

As I left the island in the morning for Isla del Sol, I saw the snow-covered peaks of the Cordillera Real in the distance, a reminder that I was on a lake in the middle of the Andes, not the ocean, and a foreshadowing of my future travels through Bolivia.

Famous Footnotes

*If you really needed to leave the island, you could pay a local a very high price to take you in a private boat to Isla del Sol or the mainland.

A Right to Safe Drinking Water

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.

 

Footnotes

*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.)

A “Typical” Saturday

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.

CommuteVideo

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.

Protecting Water Sources

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.

It’s good to have friends that are experts in watersheds!

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.

Our tree expert from IBC

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!

I know you can’t see them, but I swear there are two small monkeys in the tree across the highway.

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…

Field Days

My favorite part of my job is definitely when I get to be out in the field (“campo”), inspecting or repairing water systems with the operators or the volunteer water committees… and yet I haven’t written much about that, so today I am taking some time to share some of the work we did last week.

An important part of maintaining a rural water system is cleaning and disinfecting it regularly so that sediments, microorganisms, and mold don’t build up inside. This can be a little complicated because it requires high concentrations of bleach in a confined space, that later have to be disposed of in a safe site (not a river or stream). So, you can see why training water system operators to properly clean the water system is an important job.

You may recall that we had a hands-on workshop with the system operators back in April, where we went to a water system and actually practiced the disinfection process. But since every system is a little different, and it takes a few times to change old habits, we are now doing one-on-one trainings with five different communities. Since we are working with a group of university students studying environmental engineering, we invited them to come learn and help with one of the systems.

It is quite a coordination process working with volunteer water committees because we have work within their schedules. That means we wait for the water committee to schedule their next meeting, we attend the meeting, we find out when they plan to do their next cleaning, and we ask if we can come oversee the process and help out. For me, that means a 30-minute bike ride (each way) through the beautiful green hills of Oxapampa to arrive at the community each time we need to coordinate, attend meetings, or and participate in activities. (Poor me!)

All the coordination paid off this week, and we had a great hands-on training, resulting in an improved process for cleaning and disinfection that will make it quicker for the operator and will protect the nearby river.

Another day during the week, 30 minutes on bicycle in the opposite direction, we did a water system inspection with the group of university students. After hiking up through one of the beautiful verdant hills for more than an hour, we arrived at the spring box where the water system collects water from a spring. We took measurements and discussed what was working well and what could be improved, and then descended, doing the same for each component of the water system.

Later in the week, we returned to the same system to train the university students in monitoring chlorine levels. We explained the key monitoring points in the distribution system, and we then went to each point to take measurements, (me in bicycle and them on their motorcycle.) Their homework was then to monitor the chlorine for a week, create a registry for the results, and to then train the operator to use the registry.

 

That same day, the operator had identified a leak in the system, so we took the opportunity to help him fix the leak, learn his procedure, and point out a few additional best practices for the future. The operators tend to be elected by the community, and often don’t have any water-system-specific training, but because they have often built their houses or worked on similar projects, they have a general idea and incredible ingenuity and can complete the basic functions, even if they aren’t aware of the best practices.

   

 

The field work is really my favorite part of the job, so I’m really happy to be in the field-work phase of our project – that means more time working side-by-side with water committees and operators, so they can be more effective at ensuring their communities have clean water.

A Winning Team: GTIFAS

The months of March and April had some incredible moments that have made me so proud, inspired me, and made me feel like I am doing what I came here to do.

This post is kind-of a follow-up on “People Make the Difference” about my proudest accomplishment – the formation of our working group “GTIFAS”, as it is the work of the members of this group that has made me feel so proud and fulfilled these past months.

First, it is important to recognize that the members of our working group “GTIFAS” each have their full-time work, and they are by no means obligated to work with and participate in the group. While our work supports their work goals, it is not a requirement for them. They take time out of their already-busy work days to attend meetings and contribute.

Because of this, I am grateful and honored every time we have a meeting and everyone shows up – it really means a lot to me! (Before every meeting I wonder if anyone will show up; it has happened a handful of times that no one showed up or only one person did, because emergencies often come up at work.)

Also, their participation is a real demonstration of trust – trust in my leadership and in that of the other members, and faith that together we can make a positive difference. I value this immensely, for its face value, but also because I did not have that trust when I first came here – it is something I had to build over time, something I had to earn – and it makes a real difference in our ability to work together.

As a group, we applied for a grant to be able to do more focused outreach this year, and thanks to the great contributions of everyone in the group, we received the funding this year! The funding gives us resources to do more in-depth, hands-on training in five rural communities so that they can become sustainable managers of their water systems and ensure clean water is supplied to their community on a continuous basis.

In April, we completed the first phase of training with the financing we received, and the process of planning for, and implementing, the trainings was a challenging but fulfilling journey that I will share here.

For our first planning meeting, I was a little worried, because we were going to try something completely different and innovative for us, and I didn’t know how it would go. Traditionally, the trainings we had done were based on the same powerpoint slides, modified a little bit each year – a time-efficient way to plan trainings, but not very interactive, interesting, or effective.

This time, we were going to try out a new methodology for designing interactive trainings – one recommended by both Peace Corps and the Peruvian government’s program in water and sanitation. Everyone was on board, but we were going to have to put in more time and effort, and really branch out from what we were used to.

I spent days planning for the first two meetings with the group – putting together materials and a guide for the new methodology with worksheets to help us through it, and I compiled everything in a folder for each of the members. (I don’t think I’ve been more prepared for a meeting in my life, while nervous at the same time.)

I didn’t know if everyone would trust the process enough to put in the extra time and energy. I also worried they could receive my guidance as an insult or think I was treating them like students.

When I first began explaining the methodology and my proposal for how to work towards developing the trainings, I was met with crickets. It was clear that they either didn’t want to do it, or didn’t quite follow what I was saying.

Then one of the group members stepped in and started explaining the methodology much better than I had explained it (Spanish is hard sometimes – even after a year and a half). After a minute, you could see the light bulbs go off, as they caught on. Phew! It had just been my clunky Spanish.

Once the idea was clear for everyone, we broke into groups to apply the new methodology in developing plans for the trainings. It is not easy to learn a new theory and apply it all at once, but our group latched on quickly and the creative ideas that came out of the working groups were impressive! It was another reminder of how grateful I am to be working with such great, intelligent, thoughtful people!

To complete the planning for all the trainings we were going to do, we had to meet a total of 5 times throughout the month, and I came out of every single meeting feeling like I was achieving the goals of my service – helping my counterparts achieve their own goals and the goals of the national government, and learning alongside them. I saw every one of us catching on to the new methodology more and more every time, we were working great as a group, and everyone wanted to contribute and was looking for ways that their respective institution could contribute… and all while being able to joke and enjoy each other’s company in the long, somewhat tedious meetings.

Then, all the hard work paid off, and we held three days of training in rural WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) themes, each day for a different group. The first day of training was for the people who work in the rural health posts, and we also invited environmental engineering students from the local university.

We had many more students attend than we thought would come (70 attended!), which was wonderful, even if challenging. Since it was our first time trying out such an interactive training, it didn’t exactly go smoothly at first (especially with more students than we expected). We worked out the kinks as we went along, and we ended with a session in which the students’ collaboration with the health workers blew me away in the final skits they had to present. We received positive feedback, including one student who said she had never been to a training so interesting.

The second day of training was for the members of the 30 rural water boards in Oxapampa and focused on the basics of administration. This training day also went well, and the interactive activities were really helpful, (though we learned the hard way of the importance of sticking to the schedule and not letting presenters hog too much time).

The final day was for the operators of the local water systems, and we held the training in one of the rural communities that has a well-maintained system so we could do hands-on activities and point out real examples of best practices. It went well overall, despite slight disorganization during the hands-on sessions (one of the challenges of a doing a 3-full-day training with limited personnel.)

The training ended with pachamanca*, prepared by the local community – a great way to close the session and thank everyone for their time.

 

*If you don’t know yet what pachamanca is, I have been a bad PCV-Peru blog-writer. Pachamanca is a typical food here – it is how we celebrate any special occasion. It is originally from the “sierra” (mountain region), and it is prepared by digging a hole in the ground, heating stones over a fire, then putting the stones in the hole with meat seasoned with a green herb called chincha, yucca, potatoes, sweet potatoes, large bean pods called “habas”, and plantains. The food slow cooks in the ground for hours and comes out delicious!

 

Field Trip!

Last week we held an event that I’ve been wanting to do since I got here, and the best thing about it is that I didn’t even offer the idea, plan it, or organize it…one of my counterparts did. (And she pulled it together in one month, which just amazed and inspired me!)

It was a two-day “pasantía” or knowledge exchange field trip for rural water committees and the municipal representatives that oversee the rural water situation in the 8 different districts in the province of Oxapampa.

First, some background: Every district has one municipal worker called the “ATM” in charge of rural water and sanitation, and that person is in charge of helping organize all the rural water committees in his/her district and helping them build, rehabilitate, improve, and maintain their water systems. There are usually between 20-60 water committees in each district – so it is no easy job, especially not for 1 person.

The government has an incentive program that awards money to municipalities if they achieve certain goals such as surveying and entering detailed data about the situation in every community, formalizing water committees, preparing annual plans, and installing chlorination systems. The incentive program is updated annually, so it defines the ATM’s work for the year.

The ATM of one district explains a chlorination system at a reservoir.

Up until now, each ATM in each district was pretty much working in their own district and didn’t really communicate with the ATMs in the other districts. This event brought all of the ATMs together to share experiences and ideas. Turns out they all have similar experiences and frustrations and it was really helpful for each of them to see that other people are going through the same thing. They shared challenges and best practices, and they now have a rapport between them so they can call each other for support throughout the year.

While it seems pretty straight-forward, meeting the goals of the incentive program turns out to be incredibly difficult for the ATMs, because success relies on the participation of the water committees, which are made up of volunteers, who have limited time and other priorities.

An ATM presents the model water committee from his district.

The essential part of the “pasantía” is that the ATM in each district also brought a member of their best water committee to participate. These were the motivated volunteers who share some of the same challenges motivating the other members of their communities to participate.

The most interesting and inspiring part of the event was the “field trip”, where we went out into the field in the afternoons to visit the water system, and we met the water committees in two different districts. These were the “model” water committees that are the most organized and are functioning the best in each of the two districts where we were. It was really powerful for everyone, especially the members of the other water committees, to see an example of what a water committee could be.

(Granted they still weren’t perfect and they each said they had learned ideas during the pasantía that they were hoping to incorporate to continue improving.) But for both the other water committee members and the other ATMs, and even for me, it was really powerful to see an example of motivated, organized people improving their communities.

The ATM and the operator of a model community present their drip chlorination system.

The use of an example is powerful. It shows us that what we are trying to do can, and has, actually been done.

The president of the model water committee in one community presents the administrative books for the water committee in her community.

Collaboration is miraculous…it helps us think about our challenges in a new way, and it’s inspiring to know that other people share our challenges and our passion and are working on the same issues.

The president of a water committee explains how she resolves certain problems motivating the people in her community to help maintain the water system.

And a field trip, getting out of the meeting room, out of the office, out of our own communities, out of our own routine does wonders to open the mind, let new ideas in, and help us think creatively.

The group hikes to the water reservoir in one of the model communities.

People Make the Difference

Now this is going to sound super ivory-tower, bureaucratic, but the thing I am have been most proud of after my first year in site, is that I helped form a working group. Not just any working group, but one that actually works – that meets and does stuff. I know this probably sounds pretty lame to some, but anyone working in government or trying to get different organizations to work together might be able to appreciate why I am so happy about this. And some of you will also appreciate that our group has an acronym: GTIFAS. (Say: heteefas because the G sounds like an H in Spanish.) (And in case you wanted to know, it stands for: Grupo Técnico Interés de Fortalecimiento en Agua y Saneamiento).

I know this doesn’t have the flair of “I built a water system that will bring water to 100 people”, but here’s the thing: The municipality has built many water systems to bring water to hundreds of people in rural communities here, but that water is not potable water, the majority of the systems are not maintained, and some of them not functioning properly. So, as I learned in my work with Engineers Without Borders, infrastructure is really only half (if even half) of development – it’s the social aspect – the people part – that is equally important, crucial for sustainability, and often overlooked. (1)

An unused reservoir due to various factors, including a poorly designed filter and poorly organized water committee.

So, when I arrived, what I found was a really great foundation for having clean water: Constructed water systems. Many different institutions whose purpose is to make sure people have potable water – specifically, the municipality and three different health institutions. Even an NGO that does similar work (watershed protection). And, smart, motivated people working in the institutions.

And all these people and organizations have all been working at this for a while – even decades for some, but usually working separately within their own institutional goals and bureaucratic reporting requirements (even though they all have a common goal of making sure people have clean water to drink (among many other goals that they manage)).

So… I formed a working group. With 7 different organizations, if you count Peace Corps (me). That is, 7 motivated, smart people.

And, while previously these organizations had rarely, if ever, met in the same room to talk about the problem of potable water, in this past year we have met at least every other month, and are giving monthly trainings in rural towns – which is something that has never before happened.

Interactive training in rural community. (The training was led by 4 different members of GTIFAS.)

We are now analyzing the results from the trainings last year to see if we are any closer to having functioning water committees and systems that provide potable water. And together we have dreamed up a plan for expanding our work for 2018, (hopefully with the help of a funding from outside sources), to have a greater presence and give better support in these rural communities, using (and trying out) the latest strategies in development related to health promoters and behavior change.

While I will give myself credit for helping make this group happen, I definitely do not take all the credit…the real credit goes to the individuals who come to those meetings and participate in the group – they are motivated, passionate, and don’t just work for the paycheck – they really do want to see these rural communities have access to potable drinking water. And they are taking a chance on this group – coming to meetings even though they are super busy and tired from a long week, putting in the extra effort, and hoping that our combined efforts will lead to a real change.

Right now we are just a working group that has given some good trainings, shared some good ideas, and applied for a grant for t2018. But still there is no potable water, so I’m not patting myself on the back saying the work here is done. But we are working on human issues that take time to change – behavior change, changing how people thing about water, and training people with low education levels on how to manage a water system in its technical and administrative aspects.

These things take time, perseverance, creativity, and constant effort. The ideas, collaboration, and energy that are coming out of the working group give me hope that this is an important first step towards real changes.

Now to the real work…to stay motivated and keep each other motivated in the long process ahead.

Three of the seven GTIFAS representatives at a training to prepare a grant proposal.

1. So, if you’re into footnotes and soap boxes, here’s one. While building something is really sexy and sounds awesome, the reality is that maintaining that something is where the real work and benefit lies…the long-term, arduous, un-sexy work that is super necessary and usually unappreciated and certainly underfunded. We often think infrastructure and technology are what make our lives better, but without people keeping those things working well, we would not have them. So thank you to all the people out there doing the best they can, working on maintaining the infrastructure and institutions humans have created throughout the centuries.

Highlights from my First Year

On 23 July, I completed my one-year anniversary as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in Peru! One year ago, I swore-in as a PCV with these words:

“I, Angeline Cione, promise to serve alongside the people of Peru. I promise to share my culture with an open heart and open mind. I promise to foster an understanding of the people of Peru, with creativity, cultural sensitivity, and respect. I will face the challenges of service with patience, humility and determination. I will embrace the mission of world peace and friendship for as long as I serve and beyond. In the proud tradition of Peace Corps’ legacy, and in the spirit of the Peace Corps family past, present, and future – I am a Peace Corps Volunteer.”

I can’t believe a whole year has passed… and I can’t believe it’s only been one year. I feel so at home here that I often forget I am living in a different culture, a different country, from what I have known my whole life.

To celebrate my first year, I share with you with a few highlights and things I love from my first year (in no particular order):

1. The amazing landscapes of Peru

Where I live, we are surrounded by beautiful green forested mountains on all sides, and it is breath-taking! I don’t think I can explain how wonderful it is to have these amazing landscapes surround me on my walks to work every morning, walks home in the evening, and any time during the day that I step outside. And any time I travel to another place in Peru, I find equally amazing (though very different) beautiful landscapes. I am so lucky to live in this beautiful country!

2. Amazing outdoor adventures with friendsObviously, when you are surrounded by amazing landscapes, it’s pretty easy to go on a hike or bike ride in nature…just walk outside and go! Luckily, I have made some great friends who also love to walk or go on bike rides. Any stress that accumulates during a week is alleviated with great conversations and amazing outings with friends.Some of my most exhilarating days here have been adventures through the high jungle, to rivers and waterfalls, usually by bicycle, with great friends.

3. Wonderful friends and familySpeaking of amazing friends…I am really lucky to have an amazing host family and wonderful friends here! Also, in general, people have been incredibly friendly, (and also super patient with the fact that I talk like a child and sometimes have to ask them to repeat themselves a few times). Living in a new place, where I only understood about 40% of what was said, I was so lucky to find such great friends and to have such a loving family – that treated me like family…and this has helped immensely with improving my language, and made me feel at home.I would not be nearly as happy if I hadn’t found such great family and friends with whom I can share great conversations every day – from current events, to cultural differences, to philosophy, personal relationship dramas and just sharing daily happenings. It means the world to have good people here in my daily life, great friends with whom I hope to be close to for the rest of my life.

4. Dinner table conversations

Speaking of good conversations, I never would have expected that eating together with the family would be a highlight of my life, but turns out it is. Not that every dinner table conversation is awesome…sometimes we’re all tired and it’s more awkward silence than anything…but usually with some patience, it slowly turns into some stories from the day, which can then turn into a conversation about anything from hilarious stories from the past, deep philosophical conversations, or subtle and hilarious jokes from my host dad, whose dead-pan humor always catches you by surprise and leaves you rolling on the floor laughing.

5. Speaking like an adult (in Castellano)

One of the most frustrating things has been not being able to express myself. Even when I can express an idea in general, not being able to express it well, with good word choice is frustrating and embarrassing. On the flip side, every time I do have intelligent conversation in Spanish and realize I can express myself in Spanish and understand what other people are saying, it is so exciting! I mean, you have no idea how exciting. That feeling of being able to have good conversations, give trainings where people understand me, and feel like I am coming close to speaking like an adult is so rewarding. Learning a language as an adult is a much longer and tougher road than I anticipated, but as with most things, the more work you put into it, the more rewarding are the results when they come!

6. Listening to the rain on the roof at night – and the weather in general

I have always said I love weather. I love snow. I love a sunny day. I love rain. I love a cool, overcast day. As long as it’s not the same thing all the time, I love it. Oxapampa weather is the epitome of that. Usually it’s cool or cold in the night, and hot during the day, but sometimes overcast or sometimes rainy. Sometimes it rains all day. Sometimes it rains all week. But the best is when it’s sunny during the day and right when you’re going to sleep it rains…falling asleep to the sound of the rain on the roof is one of the sweetest sensations ever!

Speaking of sleep…

7. After-lunch naps

View from my hammock

Now I don’t get an after-lunch nap every day, but they are not uncommon either. And let me tell you, the after-lunch nap is heaven. You know how terrible the 3pm drowsiness food-coma is when you are at work? Well the after-lunch nap is the obvious but little-used antidote that is even more amazing than the food-coma is terrible. A lot of the jobs here have a 1.5-hour lunch break, and since the town is small, people usually go home to eat lunch, and then take a quick nap after. I just don’t have the words to describe how wonderful it is to recline in bed after lunch and do nothing but let my body digest the food. And as a bonus, the afternoon work is usually so much more productive since I completely avoid the 3pm drowsiness. (The US should definitely consider bringing back the after-lunch nap.)

Speaking of food…

8. Delicious, homemade meals…that I don’t cook

My host mom cooks for the whole family and she is an excellent cook! It is so awesome to come home to a cooked meal! When I have time and she wants help, I make a salad to go with the meal, but usually, it is her kitchen and I don’t get in the way. If you know me, you know I don’t really like to cook, (I only do it so I can eat healthy and eat what I want), so this situation is pretty great for me. The drawback is that I eat way more carbs (rice, bread and potatoes), oil, salt, and meat, and way fewer vegetables than I would if I were cooking for myself. (And my body is not always too happy about that…after one year it is still kind of adjusting). However, sharing conversations about food and what I like to eat has led to slight changes in our meals – meals with more veggies for example, which I think is good for everyone because now my family eats a little healthier.

9. My Peace Corps Family, and my bestie

Our group, Peace Corps Peru 27, is a group of 40-ish amazing people ranging in age from 20 to over 50. We have survived El Niño, with many being evacuated to the US for over a month. We have survived the news of the 2016 election results together (through whatsapp), as well as the difficulty – and importance – of representing our beloved country in these difficult times. I am so lucky to have such an inspiring and fun group of people to share this journey with! And some of my best moments and moments of personal growth have been with, and because of, my bestie from the group, Karlia, who has been my partner in crime, and has been there through the tough times and the best times…whether all the way at the other end of the country in Piura, or now just an hour away in Villa Rica.

Which brings up another highlight:

10. New provincial site mates

Not pictured: Mary. Sorry, Mary…we need a group photo!

The silver lining from El Niño was that I got three new site mates! The majority of my first year here, I was the only volunteer in the entire department (state) of Pasco. Then El Niño came, and (long story short), three of my favorite people changed sites and moved to my province. Now Karlia is just one district south, Kevin is just one district north, and Mary is my site mate, working in the Community Economic Development (CED) program, (while I work in the WASH program).

11. Wins at work

Left: Newly elected member of the water committee

Wins are hard to come by, progress is slow, but the important thing is to appreciate every small win. A huge first win for me was both in technical work and in gender equality. After my first meeting with a water committee, I talked to them about their need for more personnel and that they weren’t meeting the legal requirement to have two women on the committee. The very next general meeting they had, they elected two women to the committee, and one of those women was crucial in helping them organize their finances.

And finally…

12. Every day is new and interesting

Event I learned about the same day as the event, and where I met the NGO I now work closely with.

Even after a year, every day has some surprise, often completely altering my plans for the day, or just blowing my mind. For example, one day I was working in the office of a local NGO I work with, and they told me that the founder was there. Naturally, I decided to go introduce myself as the first PCV in Oxapampa. He laughed, and informed me that he had been a PCV in Oxapampa in 1969. My bad. He had stayed around, living in Oxapampa for decades, and about 16 years ago founded this NGO! Something ridiculously surprising like this still happens every single day, and I love it! I can’t wait to see what this next year has in store!

Summer Vacation

IMG_20161007_120622

School’s out for summer! That’s right, summer vacation started here in Peru…actually, it started right before Christmas, and it will last until March. (Very similar to summer vacation in the US, but…the southern hemisphere version.)

Aside: Actually, here in Oxapampa, it’s not super sunny and warm all the time because it’s also rainy season. So the days alternate between sunny and rainy – usually both sun and rain in one day, multiple times a day! But also some stretches of purely rainy days and purely sunny days.

IMG_20161117_103556Peru Month 1-2 406

Every summer the municipality here in Oxapampa hosts a program called Vacaciones Útiles (literally “useful vacation”) where the kids can take a class (or sometimes 2 classes) that meets every day of the week for seven weeks.  This year, they are offering:

  • Soccer (Futbol)
  • Futsal
  • Basketball (Basquet)
  • Volleyball (Voley)
  • Kung Fu (Kunfu)
  • Swimming (Natación)
  • Video Production (Audio y Video)
  • Chess (Ajedrez)
  • Arts and Crafts (Manualidades)
  • Traditional Dances (Danza)

I am crashing the class on video production and editing to teach a program on clean water and hygiene.  Yeah, it seems like an odd couple, but I think it will work out well.

What happened is that Peace Corps has developed a program of 10 lessons (called Mano a Mano) on the theme of water and hygiene, but with lessons about self-esteem and values thrown in, with the idea of developing community leaders who can share what they learn with their families and friends. (I’m super impressed with the training and materials we received from Peace Corps Peru!)

With only a few hours a week that I have available, I wanted to tag onto a class that wanted my help, and the one that seemed best was the video production class. Now I know it doesn’t seem like a natural fit at first, but the professor (who is about my age), is a really smart and creative guy, and he immediately came up with the plan that for their final video project, the kids could produce a video related to the themes that I will teach…Which, by the way, in case you’re interested the lessons will be:

  • Values (Valores)
  • Personal Development and Well-being (Elementos Fundamentales)
  • Self Esteem (Autoestima)
  • Stress Management (Manejo de Estrés)
  • Teamwork (Trabajando en Equipo)
  • Hygiene – Routes of Contamination (Rutas de Contaminación)
  • Hand-washing (Lavado de Manos)
  • Clean Water (Agua Segura)
  • Solid waste and recycling (Residuos Sólidos)
  • Giving a Speech (Oratoria)

Tomorrow is my first day of 10 classes over the course of 6 weeks…wish me luck!