Sunday, December 27, 2009

I am struggling to find an accurate and appropriate way to describe my Christmas. It was easily my worst Christmas ever, but that’s hardly fair with the basis for comparison. I’ve always spent the holiday in comfort, at home, with my family (who I not only love but also get along with well and share interests with), opening presents and eating delicious food (usually a menu which my mom and I planned with all of my diet quirks and cooking curiosities in mind). None of these comforts were possible here, something I realized going into the holiday. My new Peruvian family was kind and made efforts to please me, and my own disappointments came from me, not from any outward threat.
On Christmas Eve, the rain came late. At 5 pm it was still sunny and beautiful when I set out with my host mom and dad to my grandmother’s house (carrying a bag of goodies, including 2 live guinea pigs). It’s about a 20 minute walk away, in neighboring village (along one of my favorite running routes). Once arrived, we joined in the general dinner preparations (mostly I sat awkwardly, but did try to help whenever I could figure out what was going on): cutting up a freshly killed chicken, boiling water, scrubbing potatoes, peeling garlic and sat and chatted for several hours as my host aunt (only 18 so more like a cousin) took charge of the preparations for “pachamanca a la olla.” Pachamanca is traditional prepared in the ground, cooked with heated rocks, and is a blend of meat, potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn and sauce. It’s delicious. This time it was with chicken, a garlic cilantro sauce, and cooked “a la olla” or, in a pot. Cooking here requires a lot of patience, as woodstoves heat much more slowly, and (not unlike many Thanksgivings I remember at home) the food was done later than expected, around 9 pm.
Normally, I am snug in my sleeping bag at 9 pm, sometimes already asleep, so I was fading fast. Also, my stomach has been a bit strange lately (I suspect I might be harbouring some parasites), and I was ready for some rest. However, there was no refusing an enourmous bowl of pachamanca with a heaping side of rice. By the time I finished my last mouthful of potato, I felt more full than the time I tried to beat the Dot Roll record at CJL, with general quesiness to boot. Then came the Peruvian Christmas tradition of chocolatada (chocolaty, cinnamony, sugary, hot milk, which is actually delicious) and paneton (terrible, enormous, packaged fruitcake. Though there is some debate over whether all paneton is terrible (which I maintain) or if you spring for the 20 soles one (about $7) it is more delicious).
After this round of festive treats, I was exhausted and it was pouring rain outside. We decided to stay at our grandmother’s house and my sister and aunt/cousin ran off to find a mattress and prepare a room for me. With the best of intentions, they showed me to a room with a door to the outside of the house, with dirt floor, dirt walls, beamed ceiling and a straw mattress, heaped with blankets. They left me, first kindly asking if I would be scared sleeping alone (I lied and said no). Even though I had been on the brink of sleep in the kitchen, I suddenly found myself at a loss. I was fully dressed, long underwear, filthy jeans, two shirts, a sweater, a jacket and a knit hat (courtesy of my ever talented oldest sister) and had no book to read or other entertainment to distract me from my surroundings. However, I unlaced my boots, took off my jacket for a pillow, sent a last minute wish to Santa Claus (to never eat potatoes again. Don’t be surprised to find out that the jolly old elf did not oblige me), and was asleep almost instantly. The first time I woke up I had to set out to the bathroom; unfortunately, I had no idea where this was, as the night before my sister and I had just gone in the fields. Despite my best intentions as a health volunteer, after a cursory glance through the downpour by the light of my cellphone, I squatted and fertilized a nearby cornfield. Later I awoke from a nightmare in which guinea pigs (raised in almost every household here for meat) began to creep out of the walls in my room until they covered every surface.
The next morning I awoke with a strange stomach and a lost sensation, but soon recovered my presence of mind and made the resolution to go on my favorite walk as soon as I could get away. The sky put that thought to rest: it was grey and still raining (an almost unheard of phenomenon in the mornings). I didn’t miss stockings or presents too terribly, but, as I sat at a table, understanding one word in ten of the conversation, I was ready to be done with Peruvian Christmas. Santa, in the form of my generous hosts, brought me a bowl of boiled potatoes and rice. The highlight of breakfast was when one of my site mates gave me a call and I could flee the table for a few minutes and speak English.
In the plaza of Musho, there was an all-day, evolving celebration, starting with a mass and procession, and eventually ending up as a drunken fete, complete with two live huayno bands. When I stopped by the party, my host mom and a couple of women I know pulled me into their dancing circle, which was fun. Unfortunately, this was also their drinking circle, which I was not ok with (Peruvian drinking circles involve sharing one cup and one bottle, passing from one to the next. In site, I plan to be a teetotaler, strange as it is). It was strange; women I knew slightly were falling over on top of me and it was only 6 pm. Early, I made my excuses and ended my first Peruvian Christmas in my room, over a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of herbal tea. Later, from the comfort of my bed, I heard my host parents bring the party back to our house, in the room next to mine (evidenced now by our living room smelling like a frat house).
Unfortuately, I am not sure that this challenge has taught me any important life lesson or expanded my cultural horizons much. I don’t have much endurance for Peruvian parties (at least not with my present stomach issues; I also left one early last night) and appreciate my actual host family’s house much more than I thought. The holiday also lead me to cherish my site mates (we had a boxing day lunch and hang out yesterday) and appreciate, yet again, the ease I have in contacting home from site. Still, I am happy to be here, trying to this, but I am even happier that Christmas is over. Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Peace Corps-- the grinch who stole development work

During training, one of our many frustrating, seemingly useless sessions was a round robin looking at different approaches to development work. We spent an afternoon discussing religious based work, government aid agencies, different NGOs, and, of course, the perspective of Peace Corps and our goal sustainable development (we stay for 2 years but by the time we leave have trained/inspired enough people that development continues in the community). In Musho, the effects of development present themselves in tangible ways for analysis: fleece sweatsuits that say “World Vision” that are gifted to every child once a year, improved cooking stoves with small plaques that say “Visión Mundial and Cuerpo de Paz,” and, in this merry season, groups of people who come to town, host a “chocolatada” (giving out of hot chocolate) and give presents to all the children. This last item frustrates, and then confuses me, more than any other. First, what grinch would begrudge some malnourished, undereducated, adorable kid his one (or several depending on the NGOs in the area) Christmas gift? Should theories or warm-fuzzies lead our work in the field?
The give-aways that happen here in Ancash are, on a personal level, hard to look down upon. From a theoretical stand point, I reflect and decide, over and over, that improved cooking stove projects that involve gifting the stove itself are not sustainable and have created a culture of hand-outs and dependence in the area. However, last week I sat in a friend’s (as much as a friend as I have in site) kitchen, teaching her daughter bits and pieces of English, I cringed every time I glanced into the corner at their current stove: three rocks supporting a battered pot (I think during Camp Juliette Low cookouts we sometimes built more complex cooking fires). I could easily afford a stove for my friend and I know it would benefit her and her family. Furthermore, I gave gifts of charity donations to my American family members this year; I could have just as easily donated, on behalf of my family, a few stoves in the community.
Still, I often run into people who remind me how impractical and foolish this is. In my region, many communities are dependent on hand-outs. There has been a high level of foreign aid present since the 1970’s (after an earthquake that killed 40,000). In my community, people stop me on the street daily to ask me, what projects are you going to do, or, when will you start giving support? At first I cheerfully explained that I am working on a diagnostic, coordinating with the health post in educational activities and working in the elementary school for the first three months, and will make a long-term plan after that. Soon, though, I learned that both “projects” and “support” are code for free things. My community is hardworking, deserving and poor. The free things they get are usually excellent and helpful for their health—latrines so they don’t contaminate their food by going to the bathroom in the fields, cooking stoves so they don’t hunch over and breathe in smoke, sinks so their children wash their hands more often. However, 40 years of receiving presents (from fleece jackets to stoves) has only taught people to ask for presents, not to prioritize their spending, engage in healthy behaviors, or even make project plans to propose to NGOs. People are taught, from an early age, that if they show up at enough meetings, they won’t go home empty handed. For some families, this is their only option to have any fleece jackets or home improvements. Others have dvd players and huge parties yet cook over three rocks and use a disgusting latrine.
Six months into my service, I can apply for grants to do cooking stove or latrine projects, but I am reluctant to continue this system of rewards and want to look for a new way to develop in this community. My mind is nowhere near made up. For the price of a pair of GAP jeans, I could buy my friend an improved cooking stove. Not doing so seems horribly selfish to me no matter the seeming strength of my theoretical position. My dream is to enable Brito and other women in the community—to teach them how, by devoting a small portion of their farm to vegetables and beans, they can better nourish their children; to show them how to have small businesses or look for loans to finance projects like sinks, latrines or stoves; and that it would cost nothing but benefit infinitely for them to take their three year old out of the manta on their back and play with her for part of every day. These fluttering indefinite ideals might not remain with women for the walk home from workshop or the afternoon after the home visit, yet a stove would be a force for health for years. Any advice would be appreciated, though I doubt I’ll be able to settle this debate during my two years, and only cut short my musings in this post because I know I could continue for pages.
Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

¿Solita estás andando?

One of my fellow Ancash volunteers brought up an excellent point: how will two years of somewhat solitude and changed circumstances affect our personalities and lifestyles afterwards (and during, even)? I have the same conversations in site over and over, usually focused on rain (yes, I think it will rain later, but it doesn’t bother me too much) and whether I am acostumbrando (yes, little by little, I need to learn quechwa), where I’m from (USA, it’s different there), and whether I’ll marry a Peruvian (no; in fact yesterday, quite without meaning to, I lied and said I had a fiancé in the states. Oops. Of course, this was in answer to a drunken man’s question, “Two years? What if I fall in love with you? I’m single, you know.”). Day to day chats and jokes are rare, and I wonder if my natural shy and sometimes reticent attitude (at least in parties or crowds) will only develop further or whether I will compensate by chatting garrulously whenever possible. Only time will tell.
There are so many little incidents or adventures that I want to relate to people, and, when I try sharing them with my family, realize that what is hilarious to me is often incomprehensible to them. One of these areas is cooking. This morning, as a pre-teaching elevensies, I made a plantain (mashed with salt and cayenne) and tomato sandwich on toasted wheat-ish bread(I’m unsure; a woman gifted me a bag of bread the other day with the explanation that it was “from Yungay and I should try it”. It was amazing, but I have a feeling that the culinary perfection will be lost should I try to explain it to my family tonight when we sit down to a dinner of soup (on their part; my goal is to make a lentils-based shephard’s pie. I received another gift, a sack of potatoes, yesterday)
This is more curiosity than worry that drives me to ask these questions. I am confident that I will have support and affection during the next couple years, some from afar, and some from my new community and neighbors, albeit in occasionally strange or disagreeable forms (heaping mounds of potatoes and rice, yelling out gringa as I run past)
More than anything, I’d like to think that I will gain from my new social challenges. I’ve been writing this note little by little, over a week, and each day seem to discover an exception to my non-socializing norm. The other day I had settled down to read War and Peace (thank you, JC) in a beautiful, secluded glade on a hillside, when a quechwa woman, toting an absurd amount of firewood, appeared from nowhere. We chat a little, and I’m ready to say goodbye, when she insists on inviting me to her home. I help her carry firewood down the hillside, and then we sat talking and joking for 20 minutes or so.
People here describe themselves as caring and affectionate and, for the most part, I find that to be true. It would be unimaginable to have a snack or bite to eat without inviting a companion and equally strange to pass an acquaintance (or stranger) without stopping and chatting, no matter how rushed one is. Little by little, I’m learning, not only my quechwa phrases (I’ve been making flashcards and have enlisted a 13 year old as my professor), but how to use them, to make people smile, and to enjoy the small social life I have (while still embracing the ample solitude).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

little old quechwa women

Before I go any further with this blog, I need to define one key actor:
The little old quechwa woman: Little and old are both redundant here. No woman from my community is over 5 feet (the men are diminuitive as well; I’m a 5 foot 4 giant, for the first time ever) and, after a certain point, ages here begin to blur; a grey haired woman might surprise you by introducing you to her yuyu(baby). The important thing here is the outfit: hat, tall with a wide brim and a detail a bit like a fantail on one side; manta, basically a brightly colored blanket which can be worn as a cape, as a shawl, or folded to carry babies or giant loads of firewood/alfalfa/crops (the other day a young woman asked me to translate manta into English. I told her I didn’t think that we had mantas, to which she replied: Then how do you carry your babies? I told her I was too young to know); cardigan, appearing for all the world like a preppy thrift store find; blouse; pollera, a brightly colored knee-length wool circle skirt that can be fairly plain or have sparkles and/or rich embroidery; leggings or pants (it is freezing here); and either loafers, sandals made out of old tires or no shoes at all. She strikes quite a figure, especially when carrying a load twice her size and trotting up a little mountain path.
My admiration for these women only increases as I see them in action. Whether carrying loads, digging holes to plant trees, scything grass to feed to their guinea pigs, or waking up in the middle of the night to crouch on the street and sell produce for hours, their stamina (and propensity to giggle constantly. I can only assume that quechwa lends itself to jokes and gossip and cannot wait to be a part) is unending.
Over the weekend, I convinced my host mom to take me with her to the market. This is no ordinary trip for weekly purchases. Rather, it is a commercial venture that begins several days before, when my host mom, dad and grandmother harvested hot pepper from one of our fields. Then, they sort the ricotto into three different sizes and bundle it up into four huge bundles to be loaded unto a community truck Saturday afternoon. After sending the goods ahead, my host mom, little brother (he had also asked to come for a birthday treat) and I went to bed Saturday night and woke up early—at 1 am—and left to take a collectivo (a shared taxi) down the unpaved, washed out mountain road in pitch dark (with three other quechwa women in the backseat with my mom, blissfully gossiping the entire 1 hour trip) to the market town.
When we arrive, we find our bundles of ricotto waiting for us, and hunker down, next to other bundled up women (and a few men as well) in street lights so dim that from 10 feet you couldn’t distinguish a quechwa woman from her bundle of produce. Soon enough, the market vendors came to purchase in bulk, haggling in quechwa with my mom and nearby vendors and soliciting second opinions from bystanders. Gradually, the streets fill, first with vendors, and, then, with the morning light, with purchasers. There are stands selling everything from fresh produce to electronics to bedding and satisfied customers toting all of these purchases through the increasingly crowded streets.
Of course, I was an object of utmost curiousity—the only gringa, and a head taller than most everyone else present. Never have I been such a stranger as I am here. When I go for my near daily paseos, the reactions I encounter—from dumbstriken staring to unstoppable giggling—are at times hilarious and others discouraging (I don’t notice as much but I can only assume people’s bafflement when they see me with my two sitemates, speaking in the quechwa of the United States, English).
At the market and in site I am mostly happy with my confusion, awkwardness and excitement. Over all I am so excited to be here, but I certainly admit to moments when I wish that instead of hearing people call me “gringa” I heard them call my name.

Friday, December 4, 2009

¿te acostumbras?

After abandoning my principles (mistaken and silly though they may have been), I am faced with the daunting task of actually writing a blog. My previous disapproval of blogs centered on the fact that it seemed the height of conceitedness to assume that the details of one’s daily life were worth of publication. My expert consultants assured me that 2 years in rural Peru were an exceptional case, but, now, sitting at my laptop, I realize that the details of daily life are really all I have to offer. As much as I would like to spend my days beginning sustainable projects and instigating healthy behavior change, I think I have more free time that I have since childhood.
Fortunately, goals 1 and 2 of Peace Corps (or, Cuerpo de Paz, as it is awkwardly translated into Spanish) are all about cultural integration, and sharing American culture. I take this to mean entertaining myself by whatever means available, and talking about it with whoever I encounter. My favorite pastime is taking walks—hikes in any other place, because you cannot head anywhere without heading uphill, often on windy paths that turn into creeks after rainshowers. My wanderings have taken me up mountains, through eucalyptis forests, across small rivers, but, above all, through farmland. At the most surprising moments, I find myself in the middle of somebody’s pasture, or trying to remember a quechwa greeting to say to a couple leading their donkey down to the pueblo (in this case the abuelita kissed my hand after hearing me stammer a few phrases. I immediately resolved to study more). Almost everyone is friendly to me and happy to chat (or attempt chatting). The most common questions are “¿donde vas?” (where are you going) and, after slight conversation “¿te acostumbras?” (are you getting used to things?) My answers are nearly always “Estoy paseando, no más” (Just going for a walk) and “Si, poco a poco, no?” (Yes, little by little). Sometimes it’s frustrating to have the conversation over and over, every day, but when an old quechwa woman (or, more likely, a young girl), calls me some derivative of Kaitlyn instead of “gringa,” it feels amazing.
It’s only a half-lie that “Me acostumbro.” Slowly, I am starting to get used to life here in site, but I don’t know that I will ever feel exactly at home. This is both positive and useful; I am here as an agent of change, not just another Mushino. Also, I hope that there is never a time in my two years when I take the view of Huascaran for granted—whether in the middle of the night, in moonlight, as I pick my way through the onion plants to the latrine, or in the moon, with sun reflecting off the glacier, or in the afternoon, when it suddenly surfaces from clouds. Perhaps after a time the strangeness of pigs tethered in the path, or tiny old women carrying massive loads wrapped in mantas (beautifully colored blanket/capes) will wear off, and that will be the day that my blog becomes completely mundane (at least on my end). For now, I hope to try and sort through everything that is happening to me and around me, and welcome any advice or updates from home. Thank you.