Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Nice Day For Ahuac

This past Sunday we finally found the time to hike up to the lagoon above our site, Ahuac/Awak/Aguak. (Pronounced more or less like “a walk” – get it?) We’d been told it’s around a four hour hike to get there, so we made sure to get an early start. Of course, the week prior Menda planted her vivero (tree nursery), which ideally should be watered multiple times a day until the seeds sprout, so first we had to walk down to Jinua. We finally set out for the lagoon a little after seven in the morning with two other volunteers who had stuck around after the regional meeting the day before. It’s about a forty minute hike up to the cross (of which we’ve previously posted pictures) and from there a fairly level walk... for the next 15 or 20 minutes, after which it’s straight uphill for the next three and a half hours. From our house to the lagoon we hiked about seven kilometers total and gained a total of 1300 meters in altitude. It took us just over four and a half hours, including many breaks for water, snacks, and a little much needed recovery for our lungs. We got there, and while our courage was still sufficiently high, Menda and I swam in the snow and ice fed lagoon (my second polar plunge). We then feasted on PB&Js, mandarin oranges, animal crackers, and cookies – chocolate mint by the way. After sitting around for a bit, we headed back down, moving much faster and taking fewer breaks. It’s easier to lose your balance when going downhill, but the increased oxygen intake as you move lower and lower makes you feel invincible – until you fall, that is.

As a side note, the next day is when I usually work in the health post and Menda teaches environmental classes in Jinua. I debated not going, because I was more than a little bit tired the next morning but finally settled on it, because A) I usually just sit at a desk and help with consultations for babies and B) I needed to invite the boss to a conference on HIV/AIDS. I got the invitation to him, but we’re in the middle of a week during which health post staff go door to door seeing if all the children and elderly are up to date on their vaccinations, so I ended up walking up and down hills for over five hours the next day. Yeah. It was good exercise at the very least.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Hey, Fattie, Gimme Some!

Now that I’ve got your attention with that title, let me explain. The culture of Peru is, needless to say, quite different from that of the States. Most differences are pretty easy to adapt to, but there are a few commonly found in casual conversation that are a little further removed. The first I’ll refer to as “calling it like it is.” This means whether you’re skinny, fat, tall, short, light, dark, et cetera, no one will have any problem calling you exactly that. It’s not done to make fun or single anyone out, it’s simply done. Menda remembers learning about this particular cultural phenomenon while in high school Spanish class, mentioning it to her uncle later, and him carefully informing her that even if it’s commonly done, that doesn’t mean it’s not rude and inappropriate. Can’t say I disagree, yet I’ve witnessed a sweet old man greet a teenage girl with the Spanish equivalent of, “Hey, fattie!” and the girl took no offense whatsoever. Imagine even bringing up the weight of a girl that age in the States. You simply don’t do it.

The second shocker is inviting yourself to things. No, not to parties, sporting events, or any other kind of social gathering, but to food, drinks, or whatever else may be within eyeshot. I might be walking down the street with a single piece of chocolate purchased at one of the bodegas by our house – for Menda of course, and a kid passing by would have absolutely no problem saying, “Invííítameee!” I’d actually understand... maybe... probably not... if I was walking around with a giant bag of candy with plenty to share and a kid shouted, “Gimmesooome!” but amount, anonymity, and item have zero impact. If you’re carrying something (anything, really)consumable in plain sight, expect even a perfect stranger to ask you to share. The flip side, of course, is we can invite ourselves to their stuff as well, but I’ve still not quite become comfortable with it yet.

Something else I’ve encountered in Peru (albeit only once) that I’d never seen in the States is a double banana. Don’t worry, you read that correctly. A double banana.One banana peel, two bananas inside. Don’t believe me? There’s a picture included in the linked album below.

In an effort to play a greater role in our community, and because we still understand so little of the situation regarding potable water, we recently attended a meeting in the plaza in hopes of understanding what the issues are that everyone’s always complaining about. Well, we still didn’t find out, because the meeting was focused solely on the illegal use of potable water by the construction company building the new school. First, they took attendance. They called the name of every family from the community to see who was there. Our community’s small but not that small, so we baked in the sun for a good twenty minutes or so. Then, anyone that wanted to speak had the opportunity to do so, with the head of APAFA (PTA minus the T) intervening between every comment to make some minute detail clear. From what I could tell (which wasn’t a ton, because a lot of the comments were in Quechua), everyone there had the exact same opinion, but a good portion of the people wanted to put their own particular spin on it, sometimes two or three times. After a couple hours of this, everyone agreed that the only thing they could do was to cut off the water source for the construction company and let the situation develop from there. So the whole group of people at the meeting stood up and marched to the school where they cut off the water. Of course, in Peru, that doesn’t mean flipping a switch or turning a knob, it meant digging a meter and a half down in two locations and literally cutting the water pipe. We got bored before they reached the pipes, so we didn’t get to see the climactic moments, but this whole situation is case in point one of the “main” (That one’s for you, Tessa) issues found in Peru: an extreme willingness to act but without any great consideration of the consequences. For one, if the company decides to back out of the deal, who’s going to finish the school? For two, the people working for the company are the men of the community, so carrying the water buckets from the drainage ditch to the construction site falls upon their backs. On the other hand, the company had apparently already used several thousand soles worth of water for which they weren’t intending to pay, so maybe cutting the pipes really was the only feasible solution. In the States we probably would have halted construction, taken the company to court, and five years later the school still wouldn’t be finished. But this is Peru: incredibly well-intentioned, not always able to see the big picture, but unwilling to be taken advantage of in the meantime. It has its perks; it looks like the school is going to get finished.

In other exciting news, I had a stomach ache for about two weeks straight. The pain was the only symptom, so it wasn’t a bacterial infection, but after I shoveled some poop into a jar for a lab tech, the test came back negative for a parasite. Still, they treated me for giardia, because poop tests are notoriously inconsistent, and I got better. Either that or the parasite got smarter and decided to lie low for a while.

Menda recently started teaching environmental classes in one of the caserio’s grade school, and this past Monday was Earth Day – as I’m sure you’re all aware. So after some research on what will grow at this altitude and some prep work, we dug out a space with the students for a tree nursery (vivero), and on Earth Day the kids got to plant over 150 cherry tree seeds. Having never grown cherry trees before, we’re crossing our fingers they sprout, but if not, I guess we’ll try another species.

Here are the pictures: [VIVERO AND A DOUBLE BANANA]

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Life is Like a Box of Rough Agate

We are now about seven months into our service; we’ve been in site for four. The initial hurdles have been hurdled, and now our real service starts. To be honest, though, I feel like up until actually getting on the plane back to the States, we’ll probably keep on saying that same thing. Now our real service starts. Our close of service conference is less than a year and a half away, and we’re already having to start looking at our future after Peace Corps. I thought this rather strange until I realized this is a major pattern in the way we all live. Driver’s licenses have their permits, college has its tests and applications, weddings – actually, I’m not sure why weddings take so long to plan, jobs are often developed from internships, children seem to be a topic of discussion no matter where a relationship stands. We seem to start everything years ahead of time.

For us, right now, what this means is that I’m looking at how best to get my certification to teach. For those of you unaware of this situation, I’ll sum it up quickly. I was supposed to already be certified, but due to a technicality, I was unable to apply to the secondary education minor while at UIUC and ended up just getting a degree in English. Peace Corps has a wonderful service called the Coverdell Fellows program which wipes out a lot of the time, money, and energy wasted on applications to graduate programs, but there’s a catch: it’s still a master’s program when all I want is a teaching certificate, and the discounted tuition doesn’t mean much when we’re already tens of thousands in debt from our undergraduate education. There are more universities than I care to sort through that offer some sort of incentive to attend their particular brand of higher education, but it kind of seems like they just want your money. Hence the name of this post. There’s maybe something to be polished out of all of this, but it’s really hard to get past the cost.

So what are my other options? Right now, the leader of the pack is moving to Chicago, finding an alternative teaching certification program through a university in the area, teaching inner city high school English for a few years, and walking away with a teaching certificate, invaluable experience, and hopefully not too burned out. The insight into where we’d be living would make it easier for Menda to find a position, and the appeal of being so close to family and friends definitely has its pull, but it still remains to be seen if I can find a program that fits my particular situation. Another option is Teach for America. They eliminate a small amount of previously accumulated debt, they’ve been trying to draw in returned Peace Corps volunteers in recent years, and there’s something exciting about not knowing where we’ll be. It also means we’d potentially be very far from our family and friends, and Menda would have to try last minute to find a job that she can live with for two years. Not as attractive an option, but it’s still on the table. There’s also the possibility of grad school for Menda as well, possibly in natural resource management, applied ecology, or really anything related to environmental science. Or we could go the route of moving to some national park for a job for Menda – not at all unappealing. In both scenarios, I would probably work on a teaching certificate through an online program and find a school locally to get the required classroom experience.

Onto other exciting stuff. We’ve finally started the TESOL course we stupidly signed up for last December. It’s not that it’s a bad idea to get a little training in teaching English; it’s the source and the timing of it. Apparently, the company we’re doing it through is simply the cheapest on the market, but it won’t necessarily be recognized by everyone to whom it will matter (future employers). Still, for the price, it doesn’t hurt to have something else to throw on a résumé, and it seems as though the information will be pretty useful. We’ve done two of the twenty lessons thus far. The course is pretty evenly split between teaching methods and attempting to explain the English language to people who have never had to think about grammar before. As an English major, I have built up a resistance to this kind of instruction, but it’s torture for Menda. I think we technically have until June or July to finish everything, so if we do three or four a week, we’ll have plenty of time to wrap everything up.

Speaking of teaching English, we’ve started up classes in one of the caserios. Once a week we take the combi down to Jinua and attempt to instill some understanding of the language which seems nearly as pervasive as Spanish when it comes to music, advertisements, t-shirts, and other commodities of mass-consumption. Like foreign language education in the States, we’ve given them each a modified version of their name which they will use while in the classroom, or, in the case of our first class, in the street, because no one unlocked the school for us. During vacaciones útiles, we had an open door policy. It served its purpose; people in the community now know who we are. However, this time around, we had a sign up, and the students helped us come up with an attendance policy which will hopefully keep the kids out that don’t actually want to learn.

I should probably say something with regard to my program goals. Just to remind you, I have two main things I should be focusing on for the duration of my service. The first is educating mothers with children younger than four about nutrition, hygiene, prevention and symptoms of common illnesses, and early childhood stimulation. The second is working with youth 12-17 years of age and instilling some level of responsibility in their personal lives. In other words, I’m teaching sex ed. I’ve not so much started on either of these goals yet. There’s a level of comfort I’ve not quite reached with walking into someone’s home and telling them what they’re doing wrong – especially given than I don’t have kids myself – or talking to kids about something that’s still rather taboo for the people of my community. I’ll get there, but there are going to be a few steps in between. This next week I’m starting to help out in our health post. Every Monday, I’ll go and pull patient histories, weigh and measure babies, and whatever else they need that’s within my abilities. Through this, my face will be seen, I may glean some appearance of being knowledgeable from the fact that I’m working there, and eventually I’ll maybe feel comfortable talking to mothers in their own homes. Of course, I’ll still need a translator, because my Quechua is somehow not quite advanced enough to talk about the more detailed issues of infant health.

Menda, on the other hand, is kicking some ass. She got back from her training in Lima with a plan for a community cleanup campaign, and every day she’s been making phone calls, writing up documents, putting together presentations, and scheduling meetings. She’s planning on working with the school in Jinua to teach a weekly environmental class, through which she would start a tree nursery, participate in the G.L.O.B.E. project (www.globe.gov), and convince the kids the world isn’t their garbage can. Basically, she’s already working on all of her program goals. If it weren’t for machismo, I’m pretty sure no one would still want to talk to me.

Apparently rainy season is finally wrapping up, though it’s really not been so bad. It’s like a slightly more rainy Illinois spring, but we got some pretty crazy hail these past few weeks. Water can’t all that easily get into our rooms, but hail can stack up by our door, melt, and then flood part of our bedroom. (There’s a picture in the gallery linked to below.) Still, the rain hasn’t slowed us from getting out and having some fun.

Semana Santa was about a week ago now, and with some of the non-earned vacation days we volunteers get we decided to stay home. Part of this was because Menda had just gotten back from her training in Lima, and the idea of traveling isn’t as appealing after having just done so. However, we primarily stayed because a bunch of volunteers from other departments were coming in to Ancash, and, for us, staying home means staying in one of the world’s premier backpacking destinations. We didn’t end up going with the other volunteers on everything they did, which included Lake Llanganuco (a glacial lake below the highest peak in the Andes), Pastoruri (a glacier which used to have skiing but will be gone in five to ten years due to that much beloved theory of climate change), and Chancos (hot springs in a series of increasingly warmer caves, the hottest of which you can apparently boil an egg – or I imagine burn yourself pretty badly). They also visited the pre-Incan ruins in our site, and I (Menda was feeling sick) got to go with two other volunteers and some nice Limeños who gave us a ride up to the trailhead for Laguna Churup – a glacial lake at 15,000 feet. Of the people with whom I went, I was the only one to make it all the way there. Lonely Planet said it was a beginner hike, but there were three parts where I had to pull myself over steep rock faces with a metal cable – the top one which was frayed and broken – I could barely feel my hands due to the cold, and though everyone we saw told us it was only a couple hours to get there, that was just another example of the chronic chronometric understatement so commonly encountered here. Still, it wasn’t all bad. There’s a competition among Ancash volunteers where the winner (or loser depending on how you look at it) has swum in the most glacial lakes. Well, this was my first. I think I have 26 more to go if I want to break the record – I don’t.

Also during Semana Santa was the traditional Catholic procession, complete with creepy statues and lots of drinking. Regardless, it was a sight to be seen. It was more or less exactly like that scene in the Godfather, minus the gunfire. Even more cool, however, were these giant drawings that were done in the street. There were probably 15 or so of them, mostly religious imagery, with logos of their corporate sponsors in the corners, and all made almost entirely with sawdust. They dye it a bunch of different colors, sketch out the drawing in chalk, and then pour it into the appropriate sections like a giant paint-by-number watercolor. This all goes down the morning of Good Friday. Then, after all that work, the procession comes through with their creepy statues, crowds of people, and four or five marching bands and trample over all of them. There’s probably an Easter metaphor in there somewhere. Also, the Easter bunny does not visit Peru. Somehow they missed out on that particular perversion of Christianity.

I think that’s pretty much it. I’ll add in another reminder to mail us pictures. It’s less than three bucks to send them through the USPS, and you’d have a revered spot on our wall. Only one person has sent any so far (Thanks, dad!), and it means a lot to us. Oh well. Here are some of ours:

After writing this post, we had a very interesting day, so I’ll add it in. We had a meeting at 6:30 in the morning with the mayor, the regidores, and an anthropologist from the district municipality. It was almost three hours, but we talked exclusively about tourism, Menda’s community clean-up plan, and our community diagnostic, which we were able to officially present. In the afternoon we had a meeting with an environmental group comprised of local young professionals. Menda presented her community clean-up plan, and I organized a start date for our English classes in Willkahuaín for the guides. We’re due to start them in about two weeks, and they asked if we could have a traditional Peruvian ceremony beforehand. In this ceremony, people bring offerings to Paccha Mama (Mother Earth). We didn’t really know what to expect, but we soon found out. Immediately following the meeting, the president of the organization asked if we’d like to attend one of these ceremonies at that moment. I guess it just so happened that one was going on. There was a fire in the center, and it took place next to a large, flat ceremonial boulder that far predates the Incans. There are five holes bored into this rock, and in them offerings are placed. Throughout the whole thing four or five types of flutes and a conch shell were played while everyone stood in a circle chewing coca leaves and placing them in the flames – though we of course didn’t chew them, because it’s against Peace Corps rules. Near the end of the ceremony, a man danced around the fire and placed flowers over each of the holes bored into the rock. I can’t say I really understood what was going on – being both unfamiliar with Peruvian tradition and Quechua – but it was definitely quite an experience. We at the very least now understand what they mean when they say mystic tourism. There was a girl from the Czech Republic there as well.