First off, our socios (community counterparts) are incredible. A lot of volunteers are put in towns where no one really knows what to expect. The result is that there are a lot of misconceptions about the volunteers, and no one is really sure what they should be doing to help them. Not the case. The head of the health post is a really funny, really friendly guy and is incredibly enthusiastic about working together. The mayor turns out to be the cousin of our host mom, met with us both during "socio day," that evening at our house, and took us out the next day for two hours meeting people in the community. This last part is key. He told everyone that A) we aren't spies, B) we don't have money, and C) offered us an immediate in because he's effectively vouched for us. To say we're lucky doesn't even state the half of it.
Our family is equally incredible. Our mom, Juana, is 50, an amazing cook, and one of the more caring people I've come across in Peru - which is really saying something. Whether you're cold, hungry, feeling sick, or just spacing out, she's trying to figure out how she can make your experience in that moment a little brighter. Also - Sunny, you'll appreciate this - she keeps an extensive herb garden at the house, so we get fresh brewed mint, rosemary, and other herb teas at a moment's notice. There's also an apple tree in the yard, and we regularly drink agüita de manzana (hot apple water). The house is breath-taking too. It's divided into a front and back section. The back half is a small chakra, a beautiful herb and fruit garden, and an outdoor kitchen - though we need to build a cocina mejorada, because she still cooks on the ground. The front half is divided into thirds perpendicular to the street. One third is another gorgeous garden with herbs, flowers, and fruit - including a weird tomato tree, and a newly built bathroom with flushing toilet and (by the time we return) functioning hot shower. Whoa. The middle section is where the house part of the property is. Each floor has three rooms, and we have the front two on the bottom, which means we also have our own separate door onto the street. We actually have more space now than we did in our last apartment. The other rooms are used for laundry, storage, and living space. There's also an outdoor area with a kitchen table, small stove, and general purpose, put-everything-that-doesn't-fit-elsewhere table. The last third is one small room at the back and another garden with herbs and flowers with three pens for cuyes. At the moment there are about 15 cuyes running around in them.
Our mom is great, but are host brother is also not to be taken for granted. Abel is 28, studied tourism (great for Amanda), and is our personal guru for all things Paria. He's incredibly patient with our still improving language abilities, helps us learn Quechua, and is down for pretty much anything we want to do, from visiting the pre-Incan ruins a ten minute walk away to throwing a disc around at the soccer field. He's one of those people that you just feel immediately comfortable with. He's encouraging, authentically interested in what you have to say, and helpful to the utmost degree.
Our dad, Felix, is incredibly excited to have us, super welcoming, and gave us both a huge hug when we first met, as though we'd known him for years and just happened to have dropped in. That being said, we've unfortunately only got to see him two or three times for no more than five minutes. He works six days a week and has an hour and a half commute. Because the eating area is technically outside, and it gets down to zero degrees Celsius most nights, everyone heads to their respective rooms after eating dinner around seven. Therefore, we don't usually see him at night, and he leaves the house pretty early in the morning. However, he doesn't work Sundays, so we'll get to spend time with him then.
The food's been great, even if we've stepped a little outside of our comfort zone. The first day, for example, we were served up a plate of rice, potatoes, and... wait for it... cow lung. The flavor's actually kinda good, but the texture is something to adjust to. A couple days later we also got soup with a chicken throat in each of our bowls. It very well may have tasted quite good, but it's really, really difficult to eat, and the more I tried, the more I embarrassed myself. The good news, however, is that our family is 7th Day Adventists and, as it turns out, eat an almost entirely vegetarian diet; they were just making meat dishes for our sake. We've since corrected the perception that we need meat in every dish and are looking forward to the further incredible cooking of our mom.
I mentioned that they're 7th Day Adventists. So, we went to church with them on Saturday morning - the service was almost 3 hours long, not the usual length - and the people were just incredible. The church is in Huaraz, our regional capital of about 80,000 people (though I've heard estimates up to 120,000 as well), but only about 30 people go each week: the perfect size. After the service, they do this thing where as you leave you line up, and you shakes hands with every person that files out after you, wishing them a happy Saturday. I like it a lot. I'm also thankful again for having a slightly smaller congregation, because this process could very quickly stretch out.
After the service we went to a convent in Huaraz where it turns out our family lived while Abel attended one of the universities in Huaraz. They paid rent with Juana's help in the kitchen. During the week, it serves as a soup kitchen for poor youth. This particular day, there was a group of 80 girls preparing for their confirmation. We helped to prepare the food, ran to and fro getting the plates together, ate, and then helped wash up. In the midst of two months worth of training preparing us to serve, it was somehow really easy to forget that literally serving people is sometimes the most rewarding. On several occasions I was close to tears for no reason other than I just felt so good. It shook me. I had forgotten the power in serving. I wonder if this is how Juana feels all the time. We've definitely been placed in a family with their hearts in the right place, and for that I am so, so thankful. Not that other volunteers have spiritually-degrading experiences, but I think it's pretty easy to just put your faith on hold for two years. That won't be an option for us. I know people have prayed for us in that regard, and it worked. Thank you, Cornerstone, New Covenant, Brittany, James, and anyone else that may have pleaded on our behalf.
I'm going to zip backward a bit now and tell a little about the field based training that preceded the site visit. I was up and down Huascaran National Park, first in Musho, Ancash - right at the base of Huascaran the mountain, next in San Miguel de Acos, and finally in Huaraz. All of the volunteers were amazing in their own right, but there was also something slightly off about everyone. Either they send the crazy ones to Ancash or Ancash makes you crazy. And if the former, why would they send us here? In reality, the volunteers in Musho were beyond helpful, outlining all their projects and giving us field experience in a short couple of days. In San Miguel de Acos, two of the volunteers (another married couple) along with two others in the area provided us with the much-needed pointers on how to think in the campo (realistic expectations, adjustments, attitudes, et cetera) as well as giving us some more hands-on experience. One of the two volunteers living permanently in Huaraz showed us around our regional capital, we had a booth about self esteem with a balloon-popping game for children, and I bought a chullo and gloves from some vendors in the huge craft market. There are tons of jewelers scattered around too, making stunning pieces as you watch. I've already dropped a few too many soles on gifts for Menda - and, Seth, be sure to tell your dad that he has some competition in fork jewelry; the bracelet I got her from the fork guy is incredible, and as an added bonus reminded me both of Cornerstone and International Galleries because of Captain Brian's trade and the abalone that was the accent of the piece.
The food options in Huaraz deserve their own entry, but I'll limit it to this one paragraph for now. Ex-pat entrepreneurs are everywhere. Americans, Belgians, Frenchmen, you name it. We've gotten pizza, tofu sandwiches, vegetarian quesadillas, more pizza, and will at some point in the future be trying the craft beer from a brewery started by a Coloradan. Also, an ice cream place where they have flavors like rum raisin and fruit of the forest - which from what I can tell is black raspberry; talk about a taste from home.
I'll also point out that the address has been updated for our post office box in Huaraz. Our house in Paria Willkahuaín doesn't actually have an address, so the box in Huaraz will have to do. Also, once again, letters, pictures, and (if you feel like sending a package) used paperback books are always appreciated. Menda also points out that, although there's a greater risk of theft, CDs or USBs with [legitimately obtained - Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge. Know what I mean? Know what I mean?] movies, TV shows,or music would be great. Just don't send those in a regular envelope, but it in a padded envelope with a book, maybe inside the book itself so they can't be felt from the outside, and cover it in Christian symbols. Not a joke. Apparently it helps. And only use USPS. The others are far more expensive to both send and receive.
And now Menda is going to say a little about her field based training:
For FBT I went to Junin, Junin- home of the highest Peace Corps volunteers in the world. We packed 7 of us into an SUV along with our bags and drove over up and over some mountains about 5,000 meters above sea level. I was pretty proud of us because no one threw up or passed out. The views from that high were outrageous, especially for someone who has spent her whole life in the plains of Illinois. It was like seeing the sky for the first time.
Once we got to the volunteer site we taught a short lesson at the local secundaria (high school), visited another volunteer's vivero (tree nursery) to help him dig a new vivero bed, and helped another volunteer with her recycling buy (buying recycling from local residents and then selling them to nearby cities to promote recycling). Lastly, but most awesome, we visited and toured a huge cave, which involved bridges, ladders, and rope.
Some interesting things about Junin- There are flamingos. Apparently they migrate to Junin for part of every year. There are ancient terraces and fences made of stones all over. There are a lot of vicuñas in Junin. Vicuñas are fuzzy animals that are like cuter versions llamas - hard to believe. They're prized for their shearling but have not been successfully domesticated, so once a year the wild ones are rounded up and shaved. The current PVC told us she went to the vicuña rounding up event and everyone got into a giant human chain and ran through the hills and valleys and drove them into a big coral. Also Junin is cold and no one has heat! We did everything bundled up, including eating at restaurants and slept under a stack of blankets.
One more thing about Ancash I don't think Charles mentioned is the serious hat culture here. All the women wear awesome hats that all match along with a knee length, felt looking, colorful skirt, knit leggings, and a blouse with a brightly colored cardigan. The outfits in Ancash are awesome. They also used brightly colored striped cloths to carry anything on their backs. I tried to find an image on google of this, but I didn't see one that does it justice, so I guess I'll just have to take one myself.