The Struggle

I love this job. I love the work. I love the people. I love where I live. I am super happy. That does not mean that every day is rosy. (Though most days are pretty awesome.) I still have a bad day every now and then, and I still have my struggles. One of the most frequent causes of a bad day for me boils down to machismo culture. What do I mean by that? Well it expresses itself in various ways, (and actually is not as bad here as in some places), but here is a recent example:

I have been working with my counterpart at the municipality for almost a year now. By now he knows that I am a professional engineer, have worked in government and program management, and have worked on rural water projects for 10 years in my work with Engineers Without Borders. I also am about 10 years older than him.

We have overcome some tough times in our relationship (in the beginning he treated me like an intern that didn’t know much), and we have finally arrived at a point in our relationship where he respects my input and knowledge and recognizes that I am pretty smart and able in my work.

Or so I thought.

Then, one day a volunteer from another site comes to visit, and I introduce him to my counterpart. Five minutes after meeting this other volunteer – a tall, bearded, white man – my counterpart asks him to help train water system operators. This is something my counterpart has never asked me to help with. This is something that is absolutely in my position description and something I have experience in and am very capable of. But I am a woman. And clearly a tall, bearded man would do a better job than I would.

Now I did not jump to the conclusion that this was the result of sexism. When my counterpart did things like this in the past, I figured it could be a variety of possible reasons:

  1. When I first came, my language level was pretty low, so he probably thought I wasn’t very smart or capable because I sounded like a child when I spoke and couldn’t express myself well.
  2. He didn’t know me, I hadn’t had the chance to do good work to prove myself, and he didn’t know my work experience.
  3. Machismo culture. In his subconscious (and maybe even consciously), to him men are more capable of knowing how water systems work. Especially, tall, bearded, white men.

Well, in this situation with tall, bearded white man, Option 1 and Option 2 had been eliminated because (1) tall, bearded white man (who is my friend and a great guy, by the way) has a similar language level as me, and (2) I had presented my work to my counterpart and all of my colleagues in November, and I had made sure to highlight all my past work experience, and I also had the opportunity to present the work I had completed in my first 4 months here, which clearly demonstrated my capability (and my counterpart’s attitude did change towards me after that presentation).

So, this situation clearly tells me that Option 3, machismo culture, is at work here. Given various other comments I’ve heard by him and others (women can study environmental engineering but they can’t practice environmental engineering because the field work is too tough), along with attitudes and behaviors I’ve observed here, (for example there are no female water system operators (though I will note that there are female construction workers)), I don’t have much doubt that this was a classic case of machismo culture.

Why is it such a struggle? I am used to working in an environment where I am respected for what I can and what I contribute do because I do it well, and people recognize that and treat me accordingly. I am not used to having to really over-sell myself just to be heard, I am not used to having to really force it in people’s faces that I have experience and knowledge and capability for them to realize it. It really sucks away at my energy to have to do this.

In various instances, men interrupt me and don’t let me finish what I’m saying because they are sure their perspective is more important than mine. In various instances, they ignore my advice as if I wasn’t an expert in areas where I have more expertise and experience than them. It is a strong contrast to my previous job where we mostly worked as equals, and when I had more experience and expertise, people heeded my advice, (just as I heeded the advice of others when they had more insights than I did in a subject.)

I’m not going to lie – it is frustrating. It is draining. At times it is infuriating.

It means I have to work harder, it means the whole team has to work harder – because I have to work harder to explain myself and to have patience. And when the team doesn’t listen to good advice, they make stupid mistakes and have to go back and correct them later, or sometimes they are mistakes that cost relationships that have to be rebuilt, and sometimes they are mistakes that can take years to recover from. So this sexism doesn’t only hurt me, it hurts them, it hurts the team, it hurts the work, the whole development of the society.

There is a lot of talk about privilege going around these days. These are really great conversations that are important to have. This is my story about recognizing privilege – a privilege that I had in my previous job, that I do not have here…a privilege that was taken away when sexism exists. It is subtle. It can easily go unnoticed, or rather, unrecognized for what it is. I was lucky to work on a team where sexism didn’t exist (thank you colleagues!), but I know that there are still work environments in the US and all over the world where it does exist – and in much worse forms that I am experiencing here. I hope that when you do have the privilege to be treated with respect for the experience and knowledge that you have, that you will recognize this privilege and make sure that those around you are also given that privilege, despite their gender, race, origin, physical beauty, language ability, sense of fashion, physical ability, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

If you need an idea of how to do it, lucky for me, tall, bearded man is my friend and an ally who knows how to handle these types of situations. Being an engineer who enjoys that type of work he could have said, “Yeah I’d love to!”, but instead he responded to my counterpart’s question saying that I was here to do just those types of trainings, and that I was capable to do them well.

Higher Education

In March I went to a friend’s graduation from the environmental engineering program at the university in my site. Already, other Peace Corps volunteers are saying What!? There’s a university in your site?! There is an environmental engineering program in your site?!

Neither of those things are typical of a rural site, and those two things have a marked impact on the culture, economy, and nature of my town.

The university here offers just three degree programs – elementary education, environmental engineering, and agricultural engineering. Because of this, Oxapampa has some well-educated, hard-working environmental engineers, agricultural engineers, and elementary school teachers, who work in the schools, in the municipality, in the health centers, and in agriculture and tourism. It helps with progressive policies and mindsets that you don’t see in nearby towns. It also brings students from nearby towns who want to study (like my friend whose graduation I attended, who was from a town 2 hours away.)

A lot of families value education so they want to send their kids to university. Lucky for those who live here and want to study one of those areas, there is a university in town. However, if they want to study something else, they will probably have to go to Lima, which means not only paying higher tuition, but also having to pay living expenses in Lima.

Now, I studied in a far-away city from where I grew up, and it wasn’t a big deal – I took out some loans and lived and studied comfortably (and then worked on paying off those loans in the following years). My mom had done the same thing (I still remember the happy day she paid off her education loans), so I was lucky to have her to guide me through it.

Unfortunately, here that doesn’t seem to be an option. It seems to be really tough (maybe impossible) for the average person to get an education loan. If your family doesn’t make enough money to be able to pay for your higher education, (or if they just don’t value higher education – which is rare but does happen), then you’re screwed. You do not have the option to take out a loan and fund yourself.

And without a university degree here, (similar to the situation in the US and many countries around the world), it is increasingly harder and harder to get a good-paying job in something you are good at and generally want to do.

Many times I have found myself in conversations on this topic, which has made me realize how incredibly lucky I was to have access to education loans.

For example, my host family has three children (two females, one male) and my host parents paid for all of them to get their degrees. By putting all their funds towards their children’s degrees, they were not able to save during the majority of their working life and they are still living paycheck to paycheck, without a retirement fund.

Then there’s my friend who didn’t have interest in the degrees offered by the university in town (this was before the environmental engineering program was offered), and her family didn’t think it was worth the investment to send her to Lima to get a degree in something she liked and was good at. She is having trouble finding work without a university degree and would love to go to university, but doesn’t have the means to pay out of pocket and can’t take out a loan. (There are so many inspiring stories of people in the US going to college after working, and then deciding they want to fulfill their dream, change careers, and/or advance their education…but that seems to be really difficult/nearly impossible here, without easy access to education loans.)

I can see from the environment that I live and work in here that having a workforce of many young people with higher education is a real benefit to the town – its economy, its culture, and most importantly the quality of life.

Promoción Marzo 2017

On a personal note, I know that my higher education experience not only helped me find good work that I love doing, but the experience itself helped me grow as a person. I believe that every person deserves the opportunity to learn more and advance themselves through higher education, and it is clear to me that society will be better off if we encourage and do what we can to help people achieve that.

These conversations all happened at a time when the current president of the United States proposed his budget for the next fiscal year, which includes reduced funding in education and reduced funding for grants and loans for higher education (with a side of empty rhetoric claiming it will be better for low-income students). While congress is preparing their budget resolution this month of June, I encourage you to let your representative know the importance of investing in our young people and offering them more opportunities instead of less.

My First US Visitor

You may have noticed a more frequent appearance of new blog entries… we all have Julia to thank…if Julia had not come all the way from Washington, DC to Peru, and all the way from Lima to Oxapampa to visit me and my site…and if she had not lectured me about posting blog entries more often, we would not be where we are today. Thank you, Julia. This blog post is dedicated to you. Well, actually it’s about you…here is the story of my first visitor from the States to visit me in my site!

Julia had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras, so she kind of had an idea of what traveling and living abroad as a foreigner in a Latin American country was like, but she had never been to Peru. She came with her boyfriend who had not been out of the US his entire adult life (and had only been on a cruise before that)!

Wanting to get the feel of a small city in Peru instead of just the capital city and the tourist spots, they planned in an extra day to come out to Oxapampa (which itself is a tourist town, but more commonly for intra-country tourism…tourists are usually Limeños (people from Lima), rather than international tourists.)

I was super excited to have my first visitor from the US, and a little anxious…how was I was going to be able to present all the great things about my site to them in 12 hours. (I was super thankful for that random tourist route I had gone on that forced me to start thinking about how to share Oxapampa with others in a short amount of time (described in my previos entry: Being A Tourist in Your Own City.))

Everything turned out fantastically though! I was nervous about communication because they didn’t have a cell plan here, so we were relying on them finding wifi to be able to communicate. We had a rough plan for how to meet up, but when I still hadn’t heard from them 2 hours after I had expected to hear from them, I had no idea if: (a) their bus was on time and they were eating breakfast but hadn’t found wifi, or (b) their bus was late, or (c) they were wandering lost around Oxapampa for two hours. But Oxapampa is a small, friendly town, and being here has taught me to manage my anxiety and relax a little, and sure enough I got a message from them saying they had made it to the plaza and their bus had been late.

So we headed to a restaurant to have an Oxapampino breakfast and talk about what they wanted to do that day. (I love that things here move just slow enough and just fast enough that we can go with the flow with minimal planning and still be productive and have things turn out well.)

We settled on a guided tour to a waterfall for them in the morning (while I finished up some work), and an afternoon wandering around together checking out a few sites (to be determined), after having lunch in my house with my family.

My mom was pretty excited to prepare them a typical dish in Oxapampa, and she settled on a parrilla…a cut of beef seasoned exquisitely, with sides of yuca, fried plantains, rice, and a little salad…and the presentation was restaurant-scale! And with freshly made guyabana juice. I am super lucky to have a chef of a mom here, who likes to cook and does it super well. (It helps that she had attended a technical school for chefs here in Oxapampa!)

In the afternoon, we hiked up the hundreds of stairs to get the look-out point over the city of Oxapampa.

From there, we headed to the opposite end of town to go to the neighboring district where there is a park that has a distillery that makes aguardiente from sugar cane. We taste tested their products and also had aguardiente flavored ice cream.

Finally, we headed to the pizza place in town to see what they thought of the Peruvian version of pizza (they approved), and then we walked back to my house for some tea – and some delicious homemade bread that my mom had just pulled out of the oven! The days here are always full of surprises!

The day ended too quickly, though we all agreed it was a full, fun, and great 12 hours, before they boarded the bus to head back to Lima.

First Impressions of Oxapampa, my site

So I joined Peace Corps as a Water And Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) engineer, and after working on water projects in El Salvador and Cameroon with Engineers Without Borders for 7 years, I had prepared myself to live in a small village without running water.

When I got my site assignment and came to my new home fore the first time, I was pleasantly disappointed to find myself living in a nice room with running water. (Well, usually there is running water. Without warning, we lose water for a few hours about 5-10 times a month). The showers are cold so I often take the health advice that it is not great to shower every single day. (Thank you Jessica for this entertaining article!)

My site is Oxapampa (town), Oxapampa (district), Oxapampa (province), Pasco (Department), Peru. Or Oxapampa for short.

The entire province is a UNESCO biosphere reserve, and the town of Oxapampa is a beautiful little tourist town as well as the provincial capital, and it takes a lot of pride in being a part of a UNESCO biosphere reserve, having clean air, and being “tranquillo” – safe and calm. The schools put a lot of emphasis on environmental stewardship, and most people have a pretty strong sense of wanting to do what’s best for the environment.

In some ways it has the feel of a small or medium-sized rural town in Texas (or in any state, but I’m more familiar with Texas), though the motorcycles and mototaxis outnumber the cars (and it’s a lot more green and jungly).

They have rodeo here a few times a year, where cowboys from here and from other towns come to compete. They play country music at the rodeos and at some local events, and they host Country Fest once a year, which includes performers from all over the world (mostly South America) singing various country songs, including many popular country songs from the US.

There are chickens and/or cows in some yards (I walk past a cow and sheep on my way to work every day,and when I hear rustling in the grass, it’s not a squirrel, nor a bird – it’s a chicken). I know this sounds weird, but the sound of roosters regularly every day is kind of comforting for me.

Most everyone knows everyone, or at least someone from the family (though the town has grown drastically in the last 10 years and that is changing.) It is very common to see women in skinny jeans and a plaid long-sleeve (which I think might be a general fashion trend?), but it definitely reminds me of the rural US.

The majority of people have farms and raise some type of animal (chickens, cows, and/or pigs usually) and/or grow some type of crops – zapallo (a large pumpkin-squash thing) and granadilla are the most popular. You can find many artisanal products made here such as honey, coffee, cheese, and yogurt.

People’s farms are usually outside the town, so the houses in town are relatively close together and the town is very walkable (which I love!) – it is about 30 blocks by 15 blocks, and there are moto-taxis for public transportation.

Just about everyone rides a motorcycle to go everywhere. Except me. Peace Corps does not allow us to ride motorcycles.

Lucky for me, I love walking and riding my bike, and I always have. Anyway, it’s actually pretty great because I have a little more time to appreciate the INCREDIBLE landscapes that surround me every day.

From Oxapampa town, there are beautiful tree-covered mountains in all 360-degrees of your vista. They call them hills, and it’s true, they are probably the forested foothills of the Andes, but they are so grand the best way to describe them is mountains. (Yes, I said grand.)

Like all the districts in Peru (and maybe all of Latin America that has Spanish influence? Help me out history people…), the city center has a small park called a plaza de armas, with the municipality and a catholic church.

In the case of Oxapampa, it has the oldest wooden church in Peru, and built of wood from a tree called diablo, or “the devil”, so they say it is the only church where god and the devil live together.

Most of these photos are around the plaza, so things look pretty ordered and the streets are paved. Currently the town has quite a few paved streets, but the majority are still dirt roads, and the dust blows around in the wind during the dry season.

Speaking of the weather…I LOVE it. One day I swear I experienced 3 seasons (as they are defined in Washington, DC weather) in one day…the morning was cool like an autumn morning, then it rained (could have been a spring or autumn rain), then the sun came out in the afternoon and it was HOT like a summer day, and then the evening was like a cool spring evening. I would say that day accurately describes the weather here…a little bit of everything, sometimes all in one day, but never too hot and never too cold.

Usually the days are 70-80°F, but even when the air doesn’t feel very hot, the sun burns – thanks to being close to the equator, and thanks to the altitude of 1,800 meters (5,900 feet). And maybe it has something to do with the hole in the ozone layer which I think is nearby, a little more south of here…(but is getting smaller thanks to global efforts to curb ozone-depleting substances!!! But I digress.)

For you science or weather geeks:

Since I’m in the southern hemisphere, it’s winter here when it’s summer in the US and vice versa, right? Well, yes but no. Since I live in the selva alta (high jungle), and we’re close to the equator, the climate is more tropical, so instead of winter and summer we have rainy season and dry season. Rainy season is about October-March and they call it winter because we don’t see the sun much and so the air generally stays cool…so our “winter” actually corresponds to winter in the States. The rest of the time is called summer because the sun is usually out and so there are more days that feel hot…however, the nights get cooler than they do during the rainy season, sometimes almost reaching freezing. So this winter/summer business is a little confusing. I just always carry sunscreen, sunglasses, a jacket, and an umbrella, and life is good.

First Days – Crashing the Independence Day Parade

[#TBT…Here’s a blog post from my first days in site]

Today (day 4 in my site), I found myself marching in the Independence Day (28 July) parade, down the streets of Oxapampa, Peru (actually, “down the street” would be more accurate because the parade only passed down two blocks of one street). I had just arrived 4 days before, so I was a little hesitant (for a few reasons I’ll describe below), but the point of joining Peace Corps was to step outside of my comfort zone, so I went with it.

The first awkward thing for me was the way they march in parades (desfilar) in Peru is pretty funny to a newcomer – they literally march like the German soldiers, legs straight out in front, and arms straight and swinging high. I’m sorry but have to admit I didn’t completely comply with the proper marching style because thankfully, the people around me were pretty lax about how they marched, so we did a kind of normal arm swing with our march.

The second awkward thing about marching in this parade is that it was only my fourth day living in this city, and I wasn’t exactly invited to march in the parade. But if there’s one thing I learned in Peace Corps Peru training (and in life in general, but especially in Peace Corps training), it is to put yourself out there, and don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable. So, I woke up this morning, wore my Peace Corps vest, with grey slacks and my red dress shirt, and walked toward the front of the municipality where the parade was passing. I found a woman I work with (i.e., met two days ago when I arrived to work for my first day), and we watched the parade together, waiting until it was time for the municipality workers to march.

During the hour of waiting for our turn to march and watching the parade pass, I started to worry because I realized that all the other municipality workers had black suits with a white dress shirt (compared to my grey slacks, red dress shirt, and grey vest.) The “putting myself out there” suddenly seemed really awkward and embarrassing – being the really white girl with different colored clothes marching with the organization I just joined a few days ago.

But I decided I was going to have to let go of embarrassment and proudly be different and represent Peace Corps instead of feeling like I have to fit in perfectly. (One of my reasons for being in Peace Corps was to learn what it’s like to be stand out as different and still try to integrate and connect, and this was a good example of having to let go of shame and embarrassment of being different and to participate with confidence.)

So I started talking myself up…”the municipality invited Peace Corps to come work in Oxapampa, and here I am, representing the Peace Corps and working with the municipality, and it’s OK that I look a little different! (I’ll just stand in the back…)”.

And so I found myself marching down the main street in front of the plaza, participating in my first Peruvian parade. Well, marching in my first Peruvian parade. (Actually, I had hopped on a float with some drag queens in the Gay Pride parade in Lima last month, so I guess this was my second parade crashing experience in Peru.) While I’m on a digression… Peru LOVES parades. I have been here three months and I have seen more than six parades!

Back to the story of day four in my site. I was about to head home for a siesta after the parade, when a co-worker from the municipality told me the mayor was going to speak and I should go. So, I went and awkwardly sat in the back of the nearly empty auditorium, except for the mayor and four other important-looking people sitting at the front waiting people to come.

Suddenly a familiar face (later I learned he was the Alcalde’s right hand man) came and greeted me and asked me to come sit in the second row. I went and sat next to him and chatted with him while we waited for the event to start. Turns out he had invited me to the special section, because towards the end of the speeches, they brought food and wine glasses for a toast to the first two rows, whereas the other rows got plastic cups and got served last. (To this day, I am thankful for the kindness of the gerente, who made me feel welcome and slightly less awkward.)


Feeling like I had done my due diligence in making my presence known, showing interest, and learning a little bit about the political priorities of my new home, I walked home, dreaming of a siesta. I arrived home to find my mom and dad building a bed. (I really never know what I’m going to find happening at home, and sometimes I don’t even know where I’m going to end up when I go out with the family – definitely partly due to the language barrier, but also the rhythm of life here allows for more last-minute decisions on what to do. It just makes it that much more of an adventure.)

Anyway, when I arrived home, my mom and dad congratulated me (half jokingly) on marching in the parade. They had gone out to the parade just to see me march. I found out later that night that my mom had even taken photos of me in the parade. It was such a sweet gesture, I can’t even explain how happy and grateful I feel that they have so easily welcomed me into the family. So, in the moment, I did the only thing that made the most sense, and I picked up some sandpaper and helped with the bed-building project.