Friday, September 6, 2013

One Year In Perú (Almost)

I’m gonna start a little negative and work my way up to the more positive stuff.

First off, this past week our abuelito, Virgilio Huané Cacha, passed away after nearly 88 years of life. In the United States, when a family member dies, usually the community of friends, family, and church pitch in, bring food, run errands, etcetera. Here, the family works for several days straight preparing food for anyone who wants to come and give their condolences. At first, it seemed a little harsh to us, but it keeps you busy – and I mean busy, sun up to sun down – and cooking for other people, or really doing anything nice, also makes you feel good. Then again, it didn’t seem as though our family was quite as upset as you might expect. They were definitely sad, but it didn’t seem the ordeal that it often is in the States. Death in general seems to be more accepted here. It’s more celebrating, less mourning. During the mass, the priest had three main points in his homily: We should thank God for the life of Virgilio, we should ask forgiveness on his behalf, and we should ask God to help guide us in our own lives. It struck me that there was no great mention of death there. Perhaps it would have been stating the obvious when there’s a coffin directly in front of him, or maybe it’s just the style of this particular priest, but the service seemed to be far more about life than death, and I can’t say I’d have had it any other way. Then afterwards, everyone, barring our family, went and got drunk at the burial and the following meal at our uncle’s house. There are some pictures we got of the pots in which they prepared the food. I’ve seen hot tubs smaller than those things. Oh, and Menda got harassed by a drunken professor asking her if she knew who Robin Hood is.

The other bit of negativity has to do with our jobs. We were told time and time again during training last fall that we would regularly deal with disappointment throughout our two years of service, still it’s no less baffling when it happens. Two examples:

Menda worked with our district municipality, local mayor, and the governor of an annex to expand the trash route to more people. This project would eventually entail some education to explain to the people the why of it, but primarily it’s just explaining the what and the how. All parties involved in the planning were immediately on board; the only hurdle to overcome was how to cover the costs for the municipality. This burden usually falls on the people who now have an alternative to burning their trash or throwing it on the ground, therefore contaminating their air, land and water. And what would the cost be? About a sol per month per household (less than 40 cents in US dollars), and unfortunately, this was deemed too much, and the community voted not to expand trash collection to their annex. Disappointing, but what can you do? Still, not as bad as the volunteer who saw the president of the local water committee kicked out because he suggested that 50 (Peruvian) cents per year was a reasonable amount to pay for the chlorine to ensure safe drinking water.

The second job-related bit of disappointment has to do with my attempt to start a group of Pasos Adelante – a program developed by Peace Corps Peru and the Ministry of Health of Peru to capacitate young adults in training their peers in themes of self-esteem, HIV/AIDS, future planning, and other equally noble pursuits. I, over the course of a month or so, spoke with the director of the school two or three times to successively discuss the program, pick a time during the week to teach the course, and finally once more before talking with the teachers who oversee the hour in which I was going to teach. I then went and talked with all of the classes to explain about Pasos Adelante and have the kids voluntarily sign up. I was more than a little excited when I had 39 kids opt to take my 12 week course. The following week, I went an hour early, spoke with each of the four classes from which I’d be drawing students – to remind them we’d be starting class that day, and at the appointed time I made the announcement that we’d be starting immediately. Maybe it’s the fact that I had selected to teach during the hour that directly follows their twenty minute afternoon break. Maybe they all signed up the previous week as a joke on me. Maybe my expectations of starting on time for a forty minute period were completely unrealistic. Regardless, no one showed. Five of the kids had a legitimate, previously discussed reason for not being there; I’m still unsure what happened with the other 34. The teachers that should also have been starting class at that time just sat by and watched as I floundered, and as I complained to Menda on a stoop outside the school, I saw kids still leaving the school to go to a bodega twenty minutes after class was supposed to have started. So what’re my next steps? Not sure. The director suggested I try teaching outside of school hours, but if the kids don’t show up when they already have to be there, I don’t see much chance of them being there when they don’t. I’m thinking of trying to take over a class that already exists, that they already have to be at, with a teacher in the room and all, and then using whichever kids are in that class as opposed to taking volunteers. The only problem with that plan being that if the kids don’t volunteer, and in the next year I want them to teach their peers, the chances of them being in the least bit effective are pretty slim. We’ll see, I guess.

Now on to the more positive, or at least neutral, aspects of our service:

We are continuing with the English and environmental classes we’d been teaching in one of the annexes of our town, and now we’re also teaching computer classes. That school is one of many which received a ton of those tiny little “a laptop for every child” computers. You know, the ones that look more like toys than computers, in the bright colors, with an old distribution of linux specialized for use in classrooms. Well, the laptops kinda suck, but clearly the kids are still learning some of the basics which may serve as a foundation for knowledge acquired in the future – how to use a mouse pad, which key to press to insert a space, stuff like that. At this point we’re working on getting them comfortable with the equivalent of MS Paint. Color selection, click and drag, text boxes, etcetera. Creativity is still a challenge for a lot of the students; they tend to just copy whatever drawing pops up by default when they start up the program, but with a little pushing and prodding they’re definitely getting more accustomed to using whichever side of the brain it is that’s supposed to supply the creative juices. For example, we had them draw a picture of something that starts with the same letter as their name. Sure, we had three or four casas drawn for every kid whose name started with a c, but at least they were copying each other instead of the computer. Most importantly though, it seems like they’re having fun doing something that isn’t just rote learning.

This past weekend, the volunteers of Ancash hosted a three day camp called VALOR (Varones Adolescentes Lideres Organizados Responsables) – yeah, I think they were kind of stretching it with the acronym too – in Huascarán National Park for the teenage boys in our sites we see as potential leaders. There were sessions on health, machismo, future planning, Huascarán National Park, and tree planting in addition to a talent show, a career panel, and a hike up to Lake Churup. Menda stayed back in site due to a meeting that she wouldn’t have been able to be back for, but I still got to take the two kids from our community we had picked. Whether or not the kids learned something about the environment, changed their perspective on gender roles, or decided on a potential career path, it was great to see so many boys from across the various communities in Ancash hanging out, making friends, and sharing a little about their home. In the States, many of us had regular opportunities to get out of the classroom, broaden our minds, have a little fun in the midst of learning, but this was most likely a first for the majority of the kids there. I’m proud of the small role I played in making it happen, and if I can only figure out how to help make the Pasos Adelante conference later this year an equally big success.

After months of hard work, grueling grant writing with its accompanying groveling, and generally increased levels of stress, Menda has succeeded in acquiring ten 120 liter garbage cans, painted inside and out with anti-corrosive paint, with holes in the bottom for drainage, and metal posts on which to rotate, along with the cement to install them. We’re still waiting on the welder to arrive to solder the tops on, but every single bit of it was funded by the municipality. Our mayor also worked his tail off in acquiring some tools and additional smaller garbage cans just for the plaza. Using this sizable donation from the municipality, Menda was also able to acquire funds through a Peace Corps grant to do the necessary education so the garbage cans won’t just sit there unused as well as enough money to revamp some older garbage cans already here. This all works together with a community-wide campaign to deal with the excessive amounts of garbage floating around. For those who live too far from the collection route or those too stubborn to pay a small fee, we are also continuing our work with familial landfills, cubic meter holes in which to put all the garbage that can’t be recycled or used for compost.

Included with the grant are also funds to build a G.L.O.B.E. climate monitoring box. Google G.L.O.B.E. It’s pretty sweet. Started by Al Gore (shortly after he invented the internet), G.L.O.B.E. is an international initiative to educate students around the world about climate change, and not only that, but have them participate in the research as well. Students at schools participating in the G.L.O.B.E. program, through a variety of different tools, report on temperatures, cloud cover, rain fall, etcetera in order to have a standardized and widespread system of data collection. Like I said, pretty sweet.

Another project on which we’re working is to develop a network of geocaches in various volunteers’ sites, particularly those next to Huascarán National Park with tourist destinations. For those unfamiliar with geocaching, it’s basically a GPS-based treasure hunt wherein the final destination reveals a box in which you leave some small trinket and take something someone else had already left. It’s inexpensive, fun, and we’re hoping it can drag some tourists to some locations not already on the top 5 list of Ancash-based tourism. We’ll keep you updated in future posts as we make progress.

I’ve been organizing games of ultimate for some time now with the youth in my site, but it wasn’t until the last month or so that I got some guys around our age interested, and it seems I may finally have the weekly pickup games I’d been hoping for. They’ve still got a bit to learn about disc control, throwing under windy conditions, and reading the disc in the air, but they get the rules, they show up to play, and week by week I’ve definitely seen progress being made. I’ve also introduced hacky sack to the same group of older guys. They work up at the ruins in our site, so when there aren’t any tourists around, they don’t have a lot to do. Enter hacky sack. Additionally, I showed the hacky sack to my mom, asked her if it was something she could potentially make, and a few days later she had made one using some scrap yarn and dried beans. I got her some red and white yarn at the market so she can make Peruvian flag ones too, but the real goal I have now is for her to teach other women in the community, and then using locally shorn wool and locally grown and dried beans or corn, they can start an eco-business. Environmentally friendly, no cost to the producers past a little TLC, and a potential source of income. Besides, it would be pretty cool to start a new trend among the youth sitting around at street corners. Plus, I came up with a sweet name for marketing. Chaki means foot in Quechua, so Chaki Sak. And now back to disc sports. Just yesterday, I went to a welder, bought a meter and a half long stick and a half meter long pipe, had a point pounded onto the former and a cap welded onto the latter, and now I have a goal for disc golf. Not a basket, but an old-fashioned tonal pole like the ones used when the sport was first getting started. The tube sits on top of the pole, and when the disc hits it, it rings out. And the best part? It only cost me 15 soles (a little over five bucks).

About a week ago, I decided to go to up to the lake above our site in order to get some publicity shots for Huascarán National Park. The idea I had was to take a picture every fifty feet or so and then compile it into a video they could then use to promote the hike up to our lake. Well, I got up to the lake (6 km of trail rising from 3400 meters to almost 4500 in under three hours – a new record for me), and then decided I wanted to head over to San Cristobal, a large rock formation that sits on the side of the mountains above our site. From the lake, you can see something that looks a lot like San Cristobal and which makes it appear as though you have to walk along the top of the ridge to get to it. So I hiked up to the top of the ridge, then decided, why not go a little higher, then a little higher, and a little higher after that. Before I knew it (three hours after leaving the lake, that is), I’d arrived at the top of the last peak before they become completely snow covered, and what did I behold but two beautiful lakes right beneath me, of which I’d had no prior knowledge. By this point, however, it was three in the afternoon and I’d already eaten my five packs of cookies, six mandarin oranges, and drank my liter of water; I decided I’d better head back as opposed to going down to the lakes. So I proceeded to climb down from the mountaintop on which I’d been resting and start to walk along the top of the ridge to eventually arrive at San Cristobal. The first impasse I reached I decided to skirt around the edge on a very narrow ledge until I got around the giant rock formation in my way. At the second impasse, there was no available ledge, nor could I climb down to my left toward the lake and the route home, so I had to climb down to the right. At least this part wasn’t dangerous. It might even have been fun if I hadn’t already been dead tired, but the dirt and rocks that made you perpetually slip and slide was instead quite a nuisance. Finally around six, I manage to make my way around and up to San Cristobal. I’d called a local guide and confirmed that there was indeed a path down, steep though it was, back to our site. I even thought I found that path, but I hadn’t. Instead, I ended up climbing down a small valley behind San Cristobal which became more and more dangerous as the light faded. About that time, I called Menda to have her meet me at the cross, which I could see from where I was climbing down but not much of what lay between. What began as thick patches of grass with hidden rocks waiting to trip you and random holes trying to twist your ankles, quickly turned into thick patches of bushes and trees with giant boulders blocking your path and drops of five or more feet that you had to slide down if you didn’t feel like jumping into the black unknown. Finally at one of these such drops, I realized the drop was not a mere five feet, but, rather, the tiny flashlight which provided what little light I had – it was of course a new moon that night – couldn’t shine far enough to reveal the bottom of the cliff of which I’d started to slide off. Well, as is only reasonable, it was at that point that I accidentally dropped my flashlight. Fortunately, it caught on some branches, so if I could only dangle by one hand, I could maybe reach it, and then proceed to pull myself back up. Well, all went smoothly, and I was once again swimming my way through bushes and trees with thorns a plenty. Menda, who had previously been guiding me by watching my light called to say she could no longer see anything moving. Assuming there was just something between the two of us, it didn’t occur to me that maybe I was circling around to the front of San Cristobal as I followed the line of the steep ravine into which I’d almost fallen. At this point, our family, obviously more than a little worried that we’ve not returned home, calls me, or rather calls their son in Lima, who then calls me and asks where I am. I tell him that it is pitch dark, I’m lost, and Menda is waiting at the cross at which I’m pretty sure I’ll never arrive. A giant phone tree then followed, or maybe more of a phone vine which tangles in upon itself, until everyone’s called everyone else at least twice, and no one is left without knowing that I’ve somehow gotten myself lost. Eventually, our uncle is called who lives way out above the farthest annex of our site, and he manages to find me in a matter of minutes. Either I’d stumbled across his property in the dark, or he’s just that good. Probably the latter. Menda walks down from the cross using only the light from her cell phone, gets accosted by a few dogs on the way, and we meet up at our aunt’s house before proceeding home. I was gone for a total of twelve and a half hours, there wasn’t a part of my body that didn’t ache, and I had to get up early the next morning to gather up the two kids who were heading off to Camp VALOR with me. Menda also says I smelled pretty bad. When they talk about male pride in a negative sense, this is undoubtedly what they mean. For the record, though, I had asked a guide to go with me that morning, but he was busy. The only upside is that I got some pretty great photos along the way.

The last thing I’ll mention is that in less than a month we’re heading to Madre De Dios, just north of Cusco, to go on a seven day tour of the rain forest. It’s the shortest tour we could find in which we’d actually go into the reserve, but we’re not complaining. It’s costing us an arm and a leg, and it’ll be hot and muggy, but when else are we going to have the chance to do something like this? Manú National Park is one of the few reserves left in the world with virgin rain forest. And in case some of you hadn’t seen the footage yet, just this past week they found a previously unknown group of indigenous people living in the rainforest in Madre De Dios. Incredible.

Also, a huge thanks to everyone who has sent us a little something in the mail. We feel very much loved. As a thank you, here are some pictures: