Friday, December 17, 2010

The FUN has arrived!!

The word is out. Although I escaped early (embarrassingly so, considering a couple years ago I was a wild college kid), the consensus at my uncle´s birthday party last weekend was that I danced well. Apparently, after I left (literally escaping, telling only my host-mom), there was drunken discussion of my abilities, which are considered impressive, given my not-from-here-ness. I´m surprisingly proud, and am doing my best not to take into account that I was one of the few completely sober people present, and that the steps to huayno are just sort of skipping in place.
Parties, partying, binge drinking: these are topics and challenges I imagined that I left behind when I graduated from college and joined the Peace Corps. However, life in Musho is full of celebrations, each with a strict set of traditions and quirks. Most families do not celebrate birthdays annually. At the most, they might make a special meal, but they might just sing and leave it there. However, when a family does decide to celebrate a kids (anyone still studying) there is a certain etiquette. First, the entire class is invited. There will be music and chairs around the edge of the house´s biggest room (sometimes about the size of a mini van; it can get cramped). Kids dance, encouraged and sometimes accompanied by the adults present, and, in between numbers, enjoy snacks. In all the parties I´ve been to, there is a very specific menu: popcorn, hard candies, jello and arroz con leche topped with mazamorra morada (a peruvian pudding that is made from corn. The taste is delicious but the texture makes me think it might come alive at any moment). These are carried around and offered to everyone from a tray, one by one. To refuse is bad manners, but to save all of it in a plastic bag for later is not. There is also, always, a toast, whether with soda at the kids parties or with beer (soda for grown-ups, as my host dad calls it).

Adult parties-- of any sort-- can stray from that menu of food, but always feature large quantities of food, served to you (no buffets here!), and, naturally, beer.
Here in Musho, I´m more or less a nun, aside from the deeper religious portion of the belief system. So, while the rest of the party is passing the glass, the Peruvian system of slowly drinking with friends, I slowly get bored and then uncomfortable as everyone around me gets drunk. Sometimes I think that I should just cave and start drinking, but I remind myself that I´m a role model (and that waking up to 5 am huayno hungover at altitude has to be murderous, judging by my sober reaction to the tunes and my host dad´s hangovers)
When I first came to Musho, this bored awkwardness and general discomfort caused me to hate parties. I would rather do almost anything than attend, and coordinated with my site mates so that they would call me at strategic moments so I could escape. However, it might be my moves (where else in the world am I considered a skilled dancer?), it might be that I feel close enough to people to laugh with them or openly at them, or it might just be that I love Musho, and when you love, you have to accept faults as well. Whatever the reason, these quirky parties-- both the awkward kid´s shindigs and the drunken adult routs-- always become a priority on my calendar these days. Celebration is a part of life, and, if it were only in Huaraz that I let loose, my life here would be pretty sad. So, there is a much-talked of vispera (the night before the party, party, which is really where the best action is at) on the 24th. I am washing my pollera, studying the huayno videos, and so ready to break it down with the rest of my family.

This is part of the pre-partying preparation: Yes, they are cutting those ribs with an ax.

Monday, November 1, 2010


To celebrate Halloween, I spend almost 24 hours making bread with my friend Lidia and her family. We made dough by the soup turrin (4, plus a trough full), left it to rise once over night, and then formed rolls and cooked them in a wood burning oven. I know I´ve posted similar bread making pictures, but I always get so excited about the process.

Here are Lidia´s kids with a small part of our abundance of bread.

Jhommer, Lidia´s youngest, also discovered the joys of ziploc for the first time.
Here you can see the inside of the oven a bit, with the "wawas", doll and llama shaped bread that we make here for All Saints Day and Day of the Dead. And below are some finished products.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

And I thought the Destruction Derby was a dixie phenomenon...

Anyone who has taken a course in Anthropology, or read the Hitchhiker´s Guide to the Galaxy books, or gone through Peace Corps training will know that the first thing when arriving in a strange culture is to keep an open mind.
However, after a good amount of time in the amazing country that is Peru, I think I am ready to pass a judgement: Peruvians, okay, specifically Ancashinos, are terrible drivers. Terrible!! I won´t deny that they have a lot of obstacles to deal with: rock slides, pot holes that could swallow a horse, children and live stock darting in and out of the interstate, to name a few. However, this past Sunday I spent 7 hours in cars with Peruvian professional drivers (taxistas, not race car drivers or something, though I think they might be a bit confused on the distinction) and had the chance to observe closely this national dare-devil pastime.
In the morning I set out with another volunteer and a Peruvian engineer from Huaraz to cross a mountain pass and visit San Marcos, a town on the other side where Peace Corps will install some latrines and bathrooms during a field-based training. The drive is astounding beautiful-- you pass snow capped peaks, a glacial like, a giant Jesus statue, and miles of seemingly wild highlands, with grazing cows and sheep and little thatch huts called "chozas" that look like something out of Middle Earth or another magical time-apart. To get to the other side of the mountains, the "Callejon de Conchucos," you climb high into the mountains, then pass through a tunnel. Passing through is a bit like waking up in Oz, or falling through to Wonderland. The sky and landscape change from one side to the other, after just a couple minutes of darkness (of course there are no lights in this interstate highway tunnel), and you are left dizzy and dazzled by the change (that could also be due to the fact that you are well, well over 4000 meters of altitude, and your driver has been taking the curves like he wants to try out for Nascar as soon as he can get a green card)
You are distracted from this magical, even spiritual place, by the life-risking hijinks required to get there. Sure, patches of the road are nicely paved, but just as you begin an interesting conversation in the car, you reach another patch that is unpaved, covered with small boulders and that leaves the small taxi rattling and you bouncing around (seat belts are for wimps-- and only necessary for people sitting in the front seats, apparently), into and on to your seat mates.
The brave soul driving this machine continues, undaunted, and no amount of noise or fish-tailing distracts him from his objective-- which is clearly to arrive on the other side not safe or sound, but before every other vehicle. This involves risks-- passing on blind curves, traveling on the other side of the road, trying to shift gears while dodging boulders and talking to his girlfriend on your cellphone--and he is willing to take them.
Despite this dangerous game, both of my trips (there and back) ended safely, but I am left with a healthy fear of Peruvian drivers and the need for at least a little break before attempting the ride again.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Babies, babies, babies!

So lately I´ve been working with a lot of planning. Of the family variety. Yup, a couple of my activities coincided on the birth control section of learning, so, today, I just gave my third class on birth control of the week. Our meeting started out serious and practical, with each youth practicing putting a condom on a banana:

However, things quickly descended into mayhem:
With a group of 12 high land Peruvian teenagers, we practiced putting condoms on the straightest bananas I could find in the local bodega (the quechwa grandma was skeptical as I, without explanation, searched through the stack for the least curved). Peace Corps supplied the condoms, of course in the tropical variety pack (pink, yellow and orange, all flavored. Government health care really might have something going for it).
The ironic thing about this overload of birth control teaching is that, right now, the health post in Musho is out of birth control. The center of salud, provincial hospital, and entire department of Ancash, does not have birth control to supply the public health care system. This means that women who are accustomed to free birth control, usually by injection, every 3 months, are forced to buy this (at 25 soles an injection, it´s a pretty high cost) or possibly get pregnant. I predict lots of babies next July.
It´s a cliche to say that birth control is empowering, especially having studied public health and development. However, it is sort of moving to hear first hand opinions and accounts of the change it brings. Birth control is a fairly recent phenomenon in this highland area; only available for about 10 years, since the Fujimori years. The other night, my host mom explained to me what an amazing development it was when birth control became available.
A wonderful thing about my life here is that a lot of things I knew theoretically before I am re-learning through experience. Try birth control. Theoretically, it´s empowering to women in poverty. Practically, most married women in Musho love it and you can spot the families that don´t use it (they have upwards of 5 kids and are living in squalor). Please cross your fingers for some pills arriving in Musho soon, though, or we are back to square one.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Obras! Pan! Sugar! Spice! Everything nice!

My friend Delina making bread in a wood oven. When I arrived, she handed me a piece the size of my head and told me it was for fattening me up. Thanks, Peru.
Musho is still gorgeous, of course. And now, for some news:
"For the bread. No, the condor, no the cooking pot, no, obviously the river!!"
Is this a debate over graphics to use in a coloring book? Words to include in an English lesson? No, no, this is a possible, and likely debate discussing the political candidates and parties for the regional election, which took place today (we are anxiously awaiting to hear the results over the radio). Each party chooses a symbol to be represented by on the ballot, and, surely due to the poorly educated electorate, are usually known better by their symbol than their platform or, often, candidates.
As in the States, voting begins months before. Unlike the States, I have managed to go through the entire campaign without having developed an idea of the platform of each candidates or the differences between them. Promises center on "obras," that is, public work projects that usually improve/create infrastructure and give jobs (and, incidentally, generate a perfect climate for corruption). Every candidate promises obras, so there is no way of knowing which will deliver or not, besides some sort of wishful thinking based on character-analysis. However, this does not prevent frantic campaigning and strong biases. These might be based on experience, the advice of friends or neighbors, or how much free stuff the candidate has given you or your town.
Last Wednesday and Thursday, for instance, were the official closing of the campaigns. For this, the candidates pay drivers and their staff to head out to the distant, high land villages, drum up support, and invite (pressure, goad, force) people to take a free trip down to the district capital, put on a free t-shirt with the candidates name, listen to some blustery empty promises, and then eat a free lunch. People vote based on this shameless gifting. I even heard of a case of a current mayor gifting 100 soles each to 300 people for the promise of a vote. Hearing this I commented that the people could easily accept the 100 soles and then vote for another candidate, but my host dad assured me that people would not think to do that.
Voting is obligatory here, under penalty of fine, and there is no absentee voting, causing massive travel and confusion over the voting weekend. Voting occurs on Sunday, but our schools are canceled Friday and Monday to prepare, give teachers time to travel, and clean up after the election. Despite these allowances, the day itself seems to be completely chaotic. I spent the weekend in Huaraz, for a regional meeting and some relaxation. After lunch, Pete and I headed back to Mancos to look for colectivos to our respective sites. The stop in Mancos was flooded with people, obviously trying to make their way back to their villages after coming down to the district capital to vote. Everyone was confused, there were few cars, and I ended up waiting an hour and a half to ride up to Musho in a crowded trunk. OK, that might sound like complaining, mostly because it is. However, it´s a pretty interesting system for voting, and it works pretty different than our non-obligatory, rather apathetic election system-- especially for local elections, when even 75% voter turn-out would be a delusional expectation.
For the most part, I´ve watched this process with bemusement, curiosity and occasional frustration. It´s a different system than the states, in the midst of a different culture. Democracy in action has so many different applications; I wish I could better judge the merits of each different system. What I will say is that it is certainly a chaotic system. A week after the elections, most of the votes have been counted and decided, but it was slow going.
Next up? Local, local elections for Musho mayor. As Peace Corps volunteers we are meant to stay out of politics, but I fear it will be impossible to stay neutral when my friends and neighbors begin to form planchas (planks, the word for election teams) for the town. We´ll see.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Musho is Beautiful

Here are some pictures of the last few weeks in Musho. Above are some baskets that we put together for one of the processions during the town fiestas.
Here are some of my youth group, in my room, making posters to show during the town fiesta. The themes that they chose were violence prevention, no to littering, and no to alcoholism.
These two are a bit out of date. They are both from the 1 year anniversary of my friend´s son´s death. Above, a friend is cooking (in a jacuzzi-sized pot) noodle soup for the lunch. Below is the mass, outside in the cemetery, my favorite spot in Musho.
And, finally, a charming Peruvian tradition of shoving a birthday boy´s face into his cake. Pobrecito. Also from my youth group.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Nix on the xoxos

It´s funny how something can be right under your nose for ages without you even thinking of it. Then, once something draws your attention, you can´t seem to avoid spotting it at every moment. For later this month, a group of teachers from the high school and I are planning our second "Escuela de Padres," a mandatory half-day-long workshop for parents. This month´s themes are dental hygiene, nutrition and revaluing cultural identity. Aside from planning the actual logistics and informational content of the event, we are planning different icebreakers and games, to keep people interested. The PE teacher, a merry fellow who would fit in well at a UGA tailgate, had the enthusiastic idea of a hugging ice-breaker. We all laughed, though, because the truth is, hugging is rare among adults in my community, perhaps nonexistent.
While I recognized this fact and quickly directed the brainstorm to more feasible and culturally sensitive activities, the deeper significance didn´t strike me until last night. In a typical bout of insomnia, I was tossing and turning in my bed (yes, bed!! I sprung the 80 soles and am the happiest, most comfortable girl in Musho) and thinking about the little boy on the way-- my host parent´s next baby. At dinner my host parents and I had spent a good 15 minutes brainstorming names. What struck me all at once is that between my host parents I had never witnessed any physical affection-- no handholding, kissing, hugging, putting an arm around, squeezing, nothing. Even in the midst of such a sentimental and exciting time, the 7th month of my mom´s pregnancy, my dad, publicly, won´t even touch her stomach.
Next, I expanded my thoughts to all the younger couples I know from Musho and it´s the same-- no affection at all. Is it from shyness? Or some inexplicable cultural force? It certainly isn´t from fear of touching. I have ridden up in packed colectivos practically sitting in the lap of some neighbor or unknown Peruvian. The greeting-with-a-kiss is a city and coastal phenomenon, which has gained little ground in Musho. I know very well which friends I greet with a kiss and with whom a hearty handshake or pat on the back is more than enough. Edita, my host mom, is in the second category, odd as that seems.
Here, I observe this as a cultural phenomenon, that´s all, without an opinion on whether it is good or bad. Personally, though, I miss affection. Sure, we don´t kiss our friends too often in the States, but we hug, tickle, cuddle, walk hand in hand, and not just when over-packed public transportation demands it. Maybe I only bathe, I mean bathe well enough to get the dirt and smell and particles of animal manure off me, once a week or so, and people don´t want to hug me. Maybe I don´t insist, and starting the practice of generous hugging should be part of my goal 2 (sharing American culture with Musho) work. Either way, I just realized the universal lack of hugging around here, and at the same time, realized it´s something that I miss. But there are other volunteers, and it helps to know of all the hugs waiting for me back in Georgia. Something to think about.
Incidentally, the picture is from the town parties, recently passed.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Death delights? Bloody Brownies? Sanguinary Sweets?

This is not, sadly, the list of treat suggestions for a True Blood theme party. No, rather, it is a sign of how completely my life has changed in the past year.
Yesterday it began innocently enough, chatting with the teacher in the preschool about how our little nutrition project was going. She mentioned that this Friday there is a recipe contest and that she wanted my help thinking of a super nutritious balanced plate. We brainstormed and shortly had a little number that combined high contents of iron, vitamin C, and vitamin A. However, the contest doesn´t stop there. Each school gets to submit two items-- and that´s where I got ahead of myself.
Months ago, during training, we visited a "wawa wasi," a state supported communal day care center, where they cook and serve highly nutritious meals. This model wawa wasi introduced us to some of their creative menu items, often using cheap but highly nutritious ingredients in novel ways. One of the items were chocolate donuts, which we learned were fortified with blood. If a few peruvian women can do it, why not me?
Conveniently, this morning I went down to our provincial capital, with the president and secretary of the Huambo Musho development committee, to see how support for our latrines project is going (answer: más o menos). After a few hours of shuffling from bureaucrat to bureaucrat, we split up, my buddies back to Musho, and me, to look for blood. I tried the meat section of the market without luck, and then they directed me towards the municipal "camal," a new word for me, a few blocks away.
This mysterious camal is no less than the butchering spot for all the animals that enter in the town market. I entered by a beautiful, sunflower lined drive, and was greeted (totally unexpectedly), but a friendly aquinatance, my nurse´s sister. Then we both went into the garage type structure in back to see dozens of hanging, dead animals, and several butcherings in process. While she filled my two soda bottles with fresh sheep´s blood (it could have been stolen from the Buffy set it was so vibrantly red), I did my best to close off my senses and not faint or say anything stupid. It was hard to make small talk.
I walked out with a liter of blood and a sense of the absurd (let´s review: I´m a vegetarian. I was semi-vegan for a while. I am from a world where meat is sold in pristine super markets, not killed before your eyes) This absurdity increased when I fell on my face walking out of the camal, in front of a couple on a motorcycle.
Back in Musho, I got cooking. I boiled my blood, let it dry out, ground it up, and used it in two surprisingly tasty treats: chocolate cookies and pancakes. Seriously, mixing the batter I felt slightly ill, but a good cook cannot go without trying her products. It was simple, chocolaty goodness. My host family and 1/2 my youth group tried them and approved. And they are very high in iron, low in fat and ready for the preschoolers to win a contest with. Myself, I hope I never have to cook with blood after this week, though.

1 cup flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 tsp baking powder
1 egg
1/2 cup evaporated milk
2 tbsp oil
1/2 cup sugar
3/4 cup cooked, ground blood

Mix sugar, oil, milk and egg.
Sift dry ingredients. Add to wet and combine. Mix in blood.
Drop by spoonfuls on a greased cookie sheet, cook for 10 minutes at 350, or so.
Serve to malnourished, anemic children, pregnant women who have worked in the fields all day, etc.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

To do: feed pig, chop wood for cookfire, kill guinea pig for dinner, check email...

The past few weeks have been challenging. There are a lot of wonderful things happening in Musho: the acceptance of our grant application to work in the primary school on a healthy, green schools project, planting a vegetable garden behind the health post, and starting a crafts group with a group of mothers, to name a few. However, as ridiculous as it feels to state this, the challenge is that my computer is broken. Never, dreaming and planning for Peace Corps, did I imagine bringing a computer, but, looking at advice, I did. Then, never during training did I imagine having easy internet access; I had wireless (ok, the computer could only be in one spot in my window and it was slow) in my room. To face facts, I´ve been spoiled. Now, with no computer, I miss my family more than ever, typing documents, proposals and homework assignments is a afternoon of internet café, and, some of my favorite time wasters (food blogs, are out of reach. But really, I live in an Andean village and am complaining about lack of computer access?
The truth is, my community is in a fascinating place: in between traditional ways of life and modern technology. At my primary school, there are plans to build a large computer room, with 20 computers, internet, a multi-media projector, and other gizmos. At the same school, some days there is no running water, and, in the students´ houses, they cook with wood and go to the bathroom in their fields. Once, the director and I sat in the computer lab and eavesdropped (accidentally) on two little girls who were exploring the internet. They found Porky Pig on you tube and began to chat excitedly about it—in quechwa “shumac!” (pretty).
The fact that Porky Pig is commented on in quechwa is a beautiful, shumac, thing. It´s exciting that such a rural traditional community is able to access advanced technology. 10 years ago, some areas did not have electricity (still some houses do not), and now people have knock off iphones and send their children to the internet café (ok, café is perhaps too kind—imagine an adobe room and dirt floors, with computers in it) to do homework. Of course, by homework, I mean play violent games, in English, four or five to a computer, crammed around the screen.
What does this accelerated access to technology mean, though? It is certainly an opportunity, but I feel it skews priorities (just like in the States, right? How many college or high school students would rather buy a new video game or dvd and survive on ramen than buy more expensive, healthier food). My host dad, who does not have glass in his bedroom windows, whose pregnant wife has to work sometimes 12 to 14 hour days in the fields, who eats meat less than once a week, is considering buying a computer, and has asked me to compare prices.
What do I say? Thoughts of Paul Farmer and his dismissal of the term “appropriate technology” fleet through my mind, but it is more my natural shyness and slightly strange role in the family that keeps me from voicing my opinion on the value of a computer. Instead, I did as he asked, looked at prices in Huaraz and Lima, and feel as though I am sitting back to enjoy the slightly bumpy ride as the Andes enter the age of information.

Monday, June 21, 2010


Last night, after a wonderful week of vacations, I was scrambling to prepare for our first ever “Escuela de Padres” in Musho. The title literally means “school for parents” and is usually a time to teach some communication, health and vocation skills to parents. In typical ambitious and foolish fashion, I had volunteered to lead the workshop on teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, and, last night, I was regretting that decision. I’ve never taught sex-education to anyone. Chamblee Charter High School provided me with an apathetic (though entertaining) football coach and an abstinence-only textbook for my own health education. Furthermore, this town is hardly Atlanta; the majority of mothers in attendance had their first child in adolescence. Where would I start? Should I bring a condom and banana for demonstration purposes? Should my PowerPoint include photos of diseased genitals or is that too much?
This morning, with much apprehension, I walked to the high school and comforted myself with the thought that, as bad as things might go, at least I should get a good blog entry out of the experience. Since we were doing the escuela de padres in a round-robin fashion, I gave the workshop 3 times. My first group was all women, mostly known, about 2/3 in traditional pollera and hats, gossiping in quechwa as we settled down. As I began to speak, with a local health professional, I nervously awaited furious blushing and complaints. Nothing. They were a great audience, agreeing about the need for more communication with their teenagers, and, when we got to the condom part, asking why I hadn’t brought any with me to look at (Actually a friend joked that the backpack I always walk around with is probably chock full of condoms. I said, of course, if you want one, please let me know). The next two groups were fine as well—quieter, I think because there were both men and women, but still very respectful and curious. Imagine living into your 40s without having ever received any sex-education.
In my former life, as a liberal college student, I would engage in furious debates about the need for comprehensive sex education in high schools. Now, while I would hardly call my own curriculum abstinence-only (though my backpack is, in reality, not chock-full of condoms and I don’t know if I will go through with my joking-retort to the friend, to come to her house with a banana and a condom to practice), I repeated several times that abstinence was the absolute best thing these parents could teach their kids. Is that wrong or hypocritical? I don’t think there should be a separate standard for US and foreign, 3rd world teenagers, but, as I stressed to these parents, you cannot get pregnant without having sex—as simple as that. Condoms and birth control are valuable and wonderful, but the basic equation is that sex means babies and, to an extent, possible sexually transmitted diseases. In a small town where the idea of yearly check-ups stops at 5 years old (if your mom is dedicated, after all, the free food stops at age 3), any sexually transmitted disease could go undetected until pregnancy. Why risk it?
As someone about to apply for a grant and write a plan of AIDS and pregnancy prevention with the high school and health post for the year, I should be less conflicted about how to go about teaching it. Truly, though, I am ready. My personal opinion is up in the air, but, as I explained to the parents today, the most important thing is information. Worldwide, the most common HIV/STD prevention strategy is “ABC”: A, abstinence, B, be faithful (boda, which means wedding in Spanish), C, condom. Today I added “D: Dar información” or “give information” for the parents. I think regardless of whether I stress abstinence more or less, an informed teenage girl in Musho will see the clear options ahead of her: risky sex, probably in a cornfield, and freezing her life as is, or, a possible future of more education, travel to a city and further work. So I’ll just teach information: cause and effect, and allow reality to teach abstinence. Sorry liberal Kait of one year ago.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Picante de Cuy

After site assignments, way back in November (incidentally we are celebrating 6 months in site right now!!), before arriving at our new communities, we Ancash volunteers had a Community Partner Day: a day-long meeting where community members, likely work partners, came to learn about Peace Corps, socialize, and, at the end of the day, bring the volunteer back to meet their new community. One of the first activities was a simple icebreaker: break into pairs, interview your partner, and present them to the group. The questions were simple, so as not to startle newbie volunteers or shy campo-folk. One was "what is your favorite food?" Every Ancashino present said "picante de cuy," a plate that was foreign to the gringos in November but is now as well-known as Waffle House to an Atlanta native. The ever-generous mothers in my community allowed me to photograph and question the process last week so, finally, I bring this delight to the palates of the northern hemisphere:
Start by getting your fire going. Before you kill your guinea pig, you'll want to have a pot of boiling water ready. While you attend to the wood, feel free to leave the guinea pigs inside your market bag, but be careful to keep a close watch-- once they squirm out of the bag, it's a pain to chase them down . You'll also want to put your potatoes-- whole, peeled-- on to cook. Just estimate about 5-10 per person.
Once you have boiling water, cut the guinea pigs' throat and drop him in, just to scald the skin and take off the fur. Remove him from the water and use a knife or razor to shave off any remaining hair.

Next, slit your guinea pig open and remove the guts. Don't throw these away!! Once carefully cleaned, they can be boiled and fried, becoming (I'm told) a very tasty treat. Also, don't set them down next to the river as you wash the guinea pig-- it will attract all the neighborhood dogs.
Once you've removed the guts, your guinea pig is ready to cook!! Look for some sharpened sticks (bamboo works well; thank the lord for invasive species), and stick one through the length of the guinea pig.
By now your fire should have created some nice coals, and you can roast the guinea pig over the coals, rotating and adding oil as necessary. It's a smokey job, but one capable woman can manage up to ten of the little critters.
Once the guinea pig is brown and toasted all over, you might think it is ready to eat. Wrong.
First, you'll need to make your sauce. If you're prepared, you'll have ground your dried hot pepper and fresh garlic beforehand. Cook this, with some oil and water, until it forms a thick sauce.
Meanwhile (you will need assistants or several hands), take the guinea pigs off their stakes, heat plenty of oil, split them down the middle, and fry them. Make sure they get crunchy because (I'm told) the skin can be tough otherwise.
Coat both the guinea pig and the potatoes in the sauce, heap onto plates, and serve, in mass, to very hungry Peruvians and gringos.

Monday, May 17, 2010

CJL, with a side of quechwa

Home sweet home. After a week of travel, I am sitting in sleeping bag and liner (flea free after some heavy chemical application!!), wrapped in my alpaca sweater, listening to music and in bed at 8 pm (with full intention of productivity but expectation of getting sleepy and shutting my eyes early). Last Monday I traveled to Lima with a community partner for a project design workshop—a semi-frustrating, though educational, endeavor to plan, execute and evaluation health interventions—and then on Friday traveled, with two teen girls from my community, to ALMA, a very different sort of workshop, for the weekend. ALMA (Actividades de Liderazgo para Mujeres Adolescentes, leadership activities for adolescent women), is a Peace Corps project in which all the volunteers from a region bring select girls from their community to a 3 day “camp” for workshops, crafts, sex education, theater, rope courses—really, anything. Before leaving, Ellen commented that it sounded like a Peruvian CJL. That’s not far off.
As a teen girl myself, my 2 summers as a CIT (not to mention the previous years) at CJL were wonderful experiences. I made best friends, I learned about myself and how to be leader, and I will never forget them or the amazing women who taught me. The effect that this three day workshop had on our girls is similar, only maybe 1000 times more powerful. Out of the 32 teenage participants, most had never traveled without their parents. Some do not own pants or jeans and arrived in pollera and traditional quechwa costume; others live in bigger towns and arrived wearing jean shorts and sandals. Two girls are the only (and first) two students who will graduate from their village’s high school. All of these girls tie-dyed t-shirts, participated in a condom race, discussed gender stereotypes and how to help their communities, interviewed female professionals, and asked questions about sexual health.
We were lucky enough to find a small hotel nearby to host us. The family was fascinated by our strange menu requests (all vegetarian) and activities. One afternoon, I walked into the kitchen to ask for toilet paper, and ended up, first, teaching them how to make garlic bread and American-style tomato sauce, and, second, explaining why we had just had a condom race on their front lawn and what we were doing. 45 minutes later, I walked out with two new friends and fans of Peace Corps (though no toilet paper).
The weekend, and the more formal project design workshop, made me consider what success as a volunteer means, or, what it will mean for me. Before ALMA, I was skeptical about the impact a few days could have on these girls, whether the camp justified the grant a fellow volunteer received from USAID. “Wouldn’t the money be better spent on a project of latrines or improved stoves?,” I couldn’t help but think. However, latrines fill, and stoves break. These infrastructure projects are flashly and popular, but won’t really have a continuous effect. However, if you can inspire—not teach, not lecture, not convince, but inspire—the youth of a community to be better-educated, healthier and more willing to look for new ideas and opportunities—the community has it made.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Today we celebrate, both in the US and Peru, Mother’s Day. Despite the grumbles about Hallmark and hyper-consumerism, it’s a generally agreed upon worthy reason to celebrate. One of the many daily inquiries I receive is whether I’m sad or not—mostly whether I miss my mom. Both children and adults will wonder if I even have a living mother, so strange it seems that I would be allowed to stray so far from home. (This blog is about Peru, not the United States, so I won’t go into the many things I miss about my mother. Let me say, though, that, more than ever before, I appreciate my mother: her wit, wisdom, goodness and so many other qualities that I haven’t found in anyone else.) Mothers are universally understood, even though the roles they fill, here and in the States, are completely different.
Here, in the countryside, pregnancy and motherhood is an expected and constant part of life. Mothers Day is, to an extent, a universal celebration of women because, as my host dad explained to me yesterday, all women will be mothers, sooner or later. Sure, I do hope to be a mother one day, but I see it as a choice that I will one day make, considering my career hopes, plans and general situation at the time. Here, becoming a mother, while, on one hand a drastic change, is not considered the determining factor in a woman’s lifestyle. An expectant or nursing mother is expected to continue with her usual work, even heavy field labor. If she has a young child (up to 4 years old), she carries him in a “jik-ja” or manta, a blanket-sling for the baby. Thus, as she goes about working, she can swing the baby around to the other side, nurse, and get back on the job. Precious few women leave the community to study, so the idea of waiting to have children to finish a degree is foreign.
Mothers are not a simple casual interest for me right now; they are the target population for most of our program goals. Who should be learning about nutrition and prevention of parasites? Moms. Who should wash their hands? Moms. Who should plant vegetable gardens, build latrines and install chimneys? Moms (a lot of pressure). For this reason, I spend a lot of time in the health post, talking to mothers and visiting them in their houses. We have meetings of mothers with children under 5 once a month, to talk about a health topic (last week we made “tipi-taps” a hand washing station out of a recycled 2 L soda bottle). In these meetings, most women are my age, or younger, and arrive with their child on their back like an accessory. It isn’t that these women didn’t want to become mothers, but I don’t think that they ever thought about the alternative. Just like getting your period or, maybe, your first kiss, at a certain age, you have a baby. The explanation I give for my single state is that I don’t want to have to work, to cook, clean and be tied to a house and husband, just yet. Women laugh, but few understand.
Motherhood is a wonderful, beautiful thing. I am thankful on a daily basis for the sacrifices that my mother made for me—not least of which would be allowing me to go to a tiny rural town in Peru for two years. The sacrifices that women make here are amazing: for example, spending days harvesting chile pepper, then selling it at 3 am in a nearby town, just to buy school supplies. I wish, though, that my moms here would realize that this is a choice, that there are alternatives—school, work, travel—before they swing into their jik-ja.

And, for a little treat, our mother’s day dinner recipe, prepared with my siblings, uncles, aunts and cousins:
Pachamanca (quechwa for “earth pot,” this is traditionally made by digging a hole in the ground, filling it with hot rocks, and cooking it that way) a la olla (in a real pot)
*All notes in blue are the Cashpa family/Kaitlyn personal modifactions
2 kilos sweet potato
3 kilos potato
1 kilo “haba,” a type of large fresh bean
1 kilo green pea
1 chicken, about 2 kilos, preferably freshly killed by your host grandma, bled, plucked, and with it’s intestines removed
lots of cilantro
1 head garlic
lots of “chinco” (I think this does not have another name in English)
several ears fresh corn

1. Wash all tubers well (preferably at an outside faucet, over a rock, shoo-ing away all ducks and chickens who come to investigate)
2. Grind cilantro, chinco and garlic with a little water. You should end up with about 1 L of this sauce. Add salt (and MSG, sorry stomach lining) to taste; it should be a little salty. (this can be done in a blender or, again, outside, between 2 rocks).
3. Wash chicken well and cut into portions (Edita did this, but I think you try to do legs, wings, breast, you know).
4. Take the chicken and coat it in part of the sauce, and then arrange it in the bottom of a large pot.
5. Cut slits into each potato, fill with a spoonful of sauce, and then arrange on top of your chicken in the pot.
6. Next, coat each sweet potato with sauce and arrange on top of potatoes, next the habas, green peas (in their shells) and corn, shucked, dipping each in lots of sauce first.
7. Pour remaining sauce on top of the layered mixture, then top with 2-3 plastic bags (you could probably use saran wrap), cut open and tucked around the mixture so that no steam escapes. (Try not to listen when your uncle says that the bag is from the chemical fertilizer they just bought).
8. Put the lid on the pot and cook over low heat (in our case, coals left from cooking lunch) for 30-40 minutes or until the sweet potatoes are tender (this you test through the plastic bag, not letting steam escape!!)
9. Serve over rice, with lots of the sauce, and eat partially with your hands. (you should get messy and have a plate for peels and pea shells).
10. Afterwards you should have the same way-too-full feeling that you have after eating thanksgiving dinner and, if you’re lucky, will have a 30 minute walk home in the dark with your host family to feel normal again.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Slices of life from Peru

Here are some pictures, really just to make my mom happy:
The church is in Trujillo, a costal city, the rest are some slices of life from Musho.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Green Movement in a Place that's still Green

Secretly (I announce in the intimate setting of the world wide web), sometimes I want to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in the environment program. It isn’t that I find their goals (environmental education, reforestation and trash management) more reachable or valid than my own health oriented ones, but I find myself attracted to projects involving both environment and health, and sneak in environment activities wherever I can (self-esteem workshop, group of peer educators, health promoters). Environmental stewardship and issues have always interested me, but the situation here is different and demands more urgent attention than vague ideas of conservation.
In the United States, we are experienced polluters. Fortunately we are beginning to change our lifestyle, yet even with drastic changes our carbon emissions and general footprint will remain enormous and damaging. In Musho, however, people use and waste far less. Few people have cars; even those that do will spend most of their time walking. A good portion of the food is grown within a mile of the house (and carried by the family or on a donkey), and precious few have energy burning devices like refrigerators or computers. There is little cement and the roads drain naturally, into the fields. Organic waste is mostly given to pigs, and families have little inorganic waste to throw away to the trash truck that now comes weekly.
However, this is not to say that an intervention is not necessary. Deprived of Captain Planet and other propaganda tools, children (and adults) litter shamelessly. In the potato fields, on the paths of the national park, trash is everywhere. Furthermore, farmers, more and more, use chemical fertilizers and insecticides, and have lost some of the traditional methods of soil-maintenance It seems to me that the people are at a crossroads, one way leading to the polluting and rampant consumerism of the US and the other an opportunity to heal and develop in a more sustainable way than we did. For that reason, outside of my program goals, I spend time running around giving environmental chats, planting trees, and teaching compost.
The other wonderful thing about having an environmental focus is that it can be both new and practical to people. Important as it is, people (especially mothers) are saturated with information about the need to feed their children a balanced diet and wash their hands. This does not necessarily mean it happens. Many people have never heard of compost—a fertilizer made from things that are free and abundant: poop, weeds, vegetable peels, and dirt. Free fertilizer is exciting. When I gave a chat about the environment to a group of authorities, I had them guess the decomposition time of different items (from an orange peel to Styrofoam). Their reaction to Styrofoam was perfect: Never? Well, why don’t we build houses out of that? Why not?
Health, I admit, is still my passion, and there is plenty of work to be done. There is almost a 25% chronic malnutrition rate among children, not to mention outrageous rates of anemia, parasite infections and respiratory illness. However, I came prepared to face these problems, so environmental issues and campaigns are a grab bag of surprises and challenges. I don’t have written or numerical goals for it, so every success is personal and helps sustain my energy when coordination with the health post is most difficult and straining.
Thursday was Earth Day, and we celebrated in my two schools by having street clean-ups, with a prize for the grade that collected the most trash. I awarded a homemade banana coconut cake to the 6th grade in Huambomusho, and I’m not sure what was more gratifying: that they loved the cake or that they collected about their weight in trash. Happy Earth Day!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Rednecks, yankees, cholos and monos...

In the States we harp on North-South/East-West differences, and color our maps blue and red, proclaiming diversity. It’s true, you’d be hard pressed to find a good bowl of grits up north, and the famous In and Out Burger has not shown it’s face to the Atlantic Ocean, yet. However, for all the stereotypes that exist, we’ve made a tremendous effort to transform a diverse, immense landmass into a homogenous “America.” Homemakers in the Arizona desert also have their neatly groomed lawns (even if it means breaking the watering ban at 2 am to keep it!!) and supermarkets and chain allow us to eat the same foods all year round, anywhere in the country, so exotic meals like “tamboori chicken” or “mandarin duck” are just a microwave button away.
Coming from this mentality, I didn’t expect much from Peru’s famed regional divisions. Sure, the landscape might change, but a Peruvian is a Peruvian, and we are in an ever-shrinking world, where Power Rangers and Coca Cola have arrived in tiny Andean towns. How different could the coast, a 10-hour bus ride away, be?
Very. I spent the last week on the coast of La Libertad, Tumbes and Piura, in a Peace Corps training. We visited volunteers in Tumbes, a costal department on the border with Ecuador, and Piura, a hot, dry department, green right now, at the tail end of the rainy season, but famously dusty and desolate the rest of the year. Beforehand, I had heard the stereotypes: people in the highlands are shyer, more conservative, less open with strangers, whereas lowlanders are open, loud, and generally rambunctious. My bus arrived in Trujillo, a large costal city, at 7:30 am, and I had the day to wait for another bus at 11 pm. I decided to explore, and, before lunchtime, I had experienced dozens of catcalls and whistles, as well as 5 offers of conversation and friendship (from mostly men but also one woman). It was startling.
Tumbes was no less bizarre. I watched, in awe, as 15-year-old peer educators spoke confidently to their classmates about topics both embarrassing and awkward, such as condom usage and HIV/AIDS. There were no giggles. In Musho, I have a hard time getting my peer educators to describe their favorite color in front of the others, much delve into the realm of blush-provoking controversial topics.
As might be expected, the coast is also more developed in infrastructure, with larger, less pothole riddled highways, bigger cities, and more cars. Still, the most surprising difference was the attitude and personality of the people we met. I feel as though a fascinating history lies beneath this difference: the colonization, the isolation of highland populations, and the availability of resources on the coast. While I am glad for my undergraduate education experience, I feel as though I could go back to college right now just because so many new subjects have piqued my curiosity.
Yesterday morning I returned to Ancash, with relief. Despite the attractions of the coast (showers!!), I think that there is something magic about these mountains that draws me to them. It could be as simple as the egoism of wanting to live somewhere I feel needed or as complex as some sort of complex alignment of stars that sent me down the path to end up “al pie de Huascaran.” (at the foot of Huascaran). As I spent all day greeting and chatting with my friends in site, I said many times, believing it, that it was nice to visit the rest of Peru, but I have stumbled into the best place to live, poverty, mud, quechwa and all.

Friday, March 26, 2010


Though it seems shocking to me, I am 4 months in site. In less than a week, I will present my community diagnostic to the authorities of Huambomusho, one of the two sectors of Musho I’m focusing on. This will be a shorter diagnostic than the full report I will present a few weeks later to all my fellow health newbies and my boss. I’m nervous in a lot of ways, not because I worry that I won’t have time to finish the presentation or report (Thank you, Brown community health for teaching me how to put together a paper or a powerpoint within any time constraints), but because I want the product to be worthwhile.
Peace Corps Peru works in a form that requires volunteers to spend their first months on site using different tools to “diagnose” the community. The volunteer then presents this report to the community and, together, they make a work plan. I feel like this is of utmost importance as it distinguishes us from NGOs that arrive in the community with their agenda already set and little room for community ideas and input. In health, we use a variety of tools—from very standard public health style surveys to to nonformal education tools. For me, I have learned more about the community from casual conversation than the more formal surveys that I have gone house to house taking.
Certain topics seemed taboo to me when I first came to site: birth control, for instance. However, it comes up in the most surprising ways: when people learn that my oldest sister has arrived, married, to 30 (almost!! happy birthday!!) without any children, they often will be surprised and then say, “Sabe cuidarse” (She knows how to take care of herself) or, in a meeting of authorities, talking about types of trash (inorganic v. organic) when someone made a joke about a condom. Beforehand, I had wondered if anyone had seen one, much less known how to classify it as a piece of trash.
Through different ways, then, formal to irreverent, I have learned so much about Musho and it’s problems, yet I am shaky on the work plan front. Some days I am bewildered by the lack of knowledge and health practices; other days I feel like the community has been saturated by Peace Corps and NGO interventions and needs to be pushed out of the nest. One example of this paradox is knowledge, among mothers, of bacteria. Both Peace Corps and World Vision have given workshops and classes on hygiene and explained about “microbios” (microbes), microscopic bugs that make us sick. Microbios has now entered into Musho’s vocabulary as a synonym for filthy, as in, “Don’t touch that dead rat, it’s microbios!!” It’s hard not to laugh at these moments but I try to keep my cool and wonder only to myself if the teacher of this lesson would be proud of the vocabulary extension or frustrated by the confusion of their lesson. Briefly put: there are scores of problems in Musho, as well as people to work with and projects ready to do. However, I don’t know where to start, to focus, or how to ensure my nutrition talk doesn’t just increase culinary vocabulary while leaving a quarter of children malnourished and potatoes and rice as the dietary base. Advice?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Battle of Who Could Care Less

Apathy is a plague on democracies everywhere. In the US, despite a supposed civic responsibility, many people do not vote at all, even in national elections, never mind small local elections. In other countries, voting is obligatory, though this hardly ensures that participants are well-informed about the candidates and the issues. Here in rural Peru, civic participation is something different entirely, though I don’t think they’ve perfected it either. A range of important functions are served by elected, sometimes unpaid officials: “purification” (a rather ineffective chlorination) and maintenance of the water system, collection of payment for electricity, and distribution of milk to mothers with young children through the program “Vaso de Leche,” to name a few. However, the degree to which the officials perform their functions varies wildly from person to person. In one of my casaríos the president of the committee for maintenance and purification of the water system quit to devote herself to her upcoming huayno music video, in other community the president of Vaso de Leche said she would happily be president but would refuse to sign any document, leaving the mothers without their government milk-subsidy.
This leads me to how positions are chosen: election is probably the wrong word, something akin to “getting suckered into it” would be more accurate. Watching an election of an APAFA position is hilarious—or would be, if it weren’t a bit sad. Every person nominated gives a fervent speech about why they can’t possibly serve, and every person has the same reasons: they are too busy; they need to cook; they need to work in the fields and so on. Finally some rube ends up with the responsibility, a two year position, and, depending on the person, will either suck it up and do a good job, or slack off and leave their community with unclean water, a school director that robs them blind, or no representation in the local government.
Yesterday I participated (ie: listened to 2 ½ hours of arguing in quechwa) in a meeting that the committee for the water system held in one small casarío. A representative from each household was required to come. While calling the meeting, over the community’s loudspeaker system, the committee explicitly threatened to cut off the water of any household that did not attend. Even with this looming threat, the president, vice president, and treasurer of the same committee did not show their faces.
One of our goals, as health volunteers with Peace Corps Peru, is to encourage leadership and strengthen local organizations. Faced with such deep-set apathy, I don’t know where to begin. In a way, it is no different than in the US, but the consequences here, in communities where having slightly safer drinking water depends on someone doing chlorination by hand each month, having milk to drink depends on someone following the procedure at the municipality each month, and any improvement in the community only comes after explicit and time-consuming proposals to the municipality, are far more severe. I suspect that people know this, and feel like a jerk when I point it out. The positive part of this demanding civic participation is that when faced with a slightly more responsible and energetic official, things do change. There are opportunities. Currently I am working in several communities that are blessed with one or two people like that, and we are proposing projects of latrines, water system improvement and libraries to NGOs and local government. Despite my general disenchantment with the system, I am excited about the possibilities.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Lost, at a loss for words, and losing my mind

This is not, I repeat, more to myself than anyone, an introspective blog. While undoubtedly I am changing, reflecting and growing, these events happen calmly with no need of comment or pubic airing. However, I do feel the need to admit, before the following, that I have quite a few faults. One of these faults is the tendency to make snide or sarcastic remarks, especially when I feel that a comment was unnecessary or stupid. Today, as usual, without thinking, I snipped at an eleven-year-old girl who screamed:
“Where are you coming from, gringa?”
I replied: “Gringa isn’t my name.”
Then she asked, “What’s your name?”
To this I said, “You should have asked that first,” and kept walking.

This incident stuck in my head only because of what followed: Perhaps 30 meters down the street, I saw a little boy (could have been a save the children card—7 years old, cute as a button, barefoot with dirt on his face), face down in the grass, crying. I ran to help him, assuming that he had fallen. However, when I asked him what had happened, he replied that his mom had hit him. Upon further questioning, some back stroking, and the input of a neighbor (first entirely in incomprehensible quechwa), I learned that his mom hit him this time because he wanted to go play, and only hits him when she gets annoyed or frustrated. I am only sarcastic when I get annoyed or frustrated (or when I’m with people who will appreciate it, which is pretty rare) and I had just blown off some little girl for no reason. Hitting a tiny boy is far more serious, of course, and it terrifies me to think that for the caprices of his mother, this boy is in physical danger.
How did I react? Inside, I felt sick. Outside, I commented to the neighbor, scratched his back and saw that he sat up and stopped crying, and did nothing. I didn’t storm off to yell at his mother, certainly an undereducated young woman who grew up being hit or even share the incident with my colleagues with the local NGO that specializes in child health and protection (In fact, this NGO gave a workshop to parents in the neighborhood not even two weeks ago about how to prevent child abuse and alternative discipline methods. I would be fascinated to know if this mother attended).
Instead of action, I am sharing, and reflecting and trying to figure out where the impulse to hit a child can come from. While I am far from conclusions, there is a reason I started with one of my own faults. Meanness and shortness are violence, as well. The same impatience and irritation that drive me to snippy remarks (and more often, muttered curses in English) probably cause this mother to physically abuse her son. There are different degrees, of course, but I believe that the type of violence depends on norms and environment. Perhaps I would also hit children had I been raised in a household where that was commonplace. A wise friend once proposed the idea of trying to spend a day without any type of violence; I have not yet succeeded and fear, at times, that it would not be possible. I am, of course, already trying to think of strategies, as a good public health professional, to prevent child abuse and educate the parents, but I suspect that the root of the problem is more in the everyday violence of which many of us are guilty. That, despite countless New Year’s or Solstice resolutions, I don’t know how to begin to change.

Monday, February 8, 2010

On this eighth day, of the second month, of the two-thousand and tenth year since the birth of our lord, I convene this meeting, between my esteemed person and all of you, honorable readers, in the locale of the internet, with the purpose of reflecting and reaching an opinion on the Peruvian practices of bureaucracy.
Among my many other newly needed skills, I am learning how to write something called a “libro de actos” which is an official and vital notebook which every Peruvian organization (from government to sports clubs) uses to keep minutes, records and documentation of their every move. To help one of the health promoters look for funding for her organic gardening process, I am learning how to write a libro de actos (no one will take you seriously without one). The essence I think is just to take minutes, in the most pretentious and stuffy language possible, and then to reach agreements at the end, and have all participants sign (name, John Hancock, national identity number, and, if one has any sort of clout at all, stamp. I have a stamp.). However, despite my liberal arts education, I don’t think my bs has quite reached the elegance necessary for the libro de actos, and I feel it necessary to practice.
The libro de actos is just one example of the many Peruvian societal rules that I find bewildering and hilarious. Of course, I’m sure the US has many strange rules (now slightly separated I have started noticing some, for instance, we do not usually call people fatty (gordita) or skinny (flaquita) as an affectionate nickname for fear of offense), but since everything here is new to me, I notice them all the more. Peruvians love to talk, to make speeches, and love to turn the most casual public speaking opportunity into a chance for eloquence. An example: “First, I would like to wish all of you, ladies and gentleman, the young lady from Peace Corps, a very good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to speak…” this would end with the speaker answering a simple question on my radio show. I cannot speak in the same tone without wanting to burst into laughter, so I usually avoid speech-giving, but don’t be surprised if I come back wordier and more formal.
Another tradition, which is not quite so foreign, is the giving and eating of meat on formal occasions. In the past few days, I have had an upclose look at the difficulty that can provide for a family that general eats meat less than once a week (not because they value vegetarianism but for availability). Last August, my host parents got married (after two children and fourteen years of living together; weddings here are more about when you have the money for a party rather than when you begin your life together), and, for the wedding, my host dad’s uncle gave 20 guinea pigs. Next Monday, there is a party at the uncles house, and my mom has to return the favor and give 20 guinea pigs. We had about 6 at the house, and, to find the rest, my host mom has spent the past couple days walking all over town asking neighbors to sell, and then carrying the little critters in her market bag back to her house. One week to go and we are still 5 short.
Last night, I was honored (and slightly repulsed) by my mom’s offer to slaughter one of these owed animals for my birthday today. When I refused, she offered Cuchimario (our pig), our chicken and, finally, our cat (the most tempting, not because of the culinary possibilities but rather because our cat is a shameless thief and has broken into several food items in my room). We settled on a more veggie-friendly lunch of lentils, but the kindness of the offer, especially after knowing a bit more about the importance of it, makes me feel more welcomed and loved than ever. After lunch Edita told me that she would have happily cooked me guinea pig if I had wanted.
As usual, I feel unable to offer any sort of analysis of what these traditions mean or come from. The meat, of course, is related to the fact that meat is special here; it isn’t a place where you can buy a hamburger for a dollar. A guinea pig is not a casual purchase but a member of the household that has been fed for months, nicknamed, checked for lice and fretted over. Shows of affection are different here and I sometimes still feel over my head when it comes to how to behave, but I could get into giving guinea pig. In fact, as a still avid vegetarian, I may offer to buy my parents one for our next fiesta.
To finish this honored meeting of interested parties, our agreements and promises.
1. To one day try guinea pig.
2. To learn how to bullshit like a pro (and by that I mean a for reals professional, with a fancy stamp that cost 20 soles)
3. To spend two years trying to figure things here out

Now imagine all signing a blank page, or, in the case of our illiterate quechwa grandmas and grandpas, fingerprinting in blue ink. Welcome to your first Peruvian meeting.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


One of the sources of my resistance to blogging was the sort of look-at-me factor inherent in the practice. To write regularly and publicly, one needs a focus, and too often that is personal life. There is also the look-at-this-issue blogging, which I also try to avoid, preferring to stick to a straightforward report of what I learn and experience in such a foreign situation. Playing the sympathy, poor-little-children card too often distracts from content and the larger factors at play creating the poverty and littleness of the children (quite literally; if a child is malnourished before age 2, he will never reach his full genetic growth potential). However, as you might have suspected, some problems here are so salient and the only reaction is“poor little children.” Consider that an open invitation to take the following with plenty of salt.
This week I began classes of “vacaciones utiles,” useful vacations (or, essentially, summer camp), in the elementary school in one of my communities. My original idea was to have classes 2 hours a day for a group of children 9-12, focusing on health activities, as well as craft projects and reading. Last Monday I staged my matriculation and was overwhelmed by persuasive mothers, swearing that their 6 year old was quite advanced and capable of reading anything (and if he misbehaves, just hit him). I’m a sucker and ended up with a matriculation list of 40 students, from 6 to 15 years old. The first day I walked to the school with apprehension and was pleasantly surprised to have only 18 present, which seemed perfect. Less perfect was the fact that the school director, with the key to the front gate, did not arrive until 10:15 (my class was from 8-10). We had class in the street, in front of the school, with several curious onlookers.
Now, ending the week, I have a steady group of around 25 (youngest a 5 year old who just holds my hand whenever possible, oldest a 15 year old who claims to help teach but actually just chats with her friends), a key to the front gate and a slightly better idea of what I’m doing. The most effective punishment is to threaten to send children home and I am constantly asked to extend class until 1 pm, as it is during the school year. The alternatives to studying are generally working in the fields alongside parents or doing nothing. Children do play, but, when I ask children what they are doing, will do later, or did over the weekend, the inevitable answer is “nothing.” They have few toys (only what is given at the yearly Christmas hand-outs), and have mostly never been taught games or activities by their parents. Creativity, as far as I can tell, is unknown. Today in class we made illustrated books (a piece of printer paper folded twice, as if making a card), and the most common thing I heard was “I don’t know how to draw.” On the other hand, when I brought in coloring book pages, stupid drawings of teeth and toothbrushes, kids were delighted.
Anecdotes are inadequate to express the simple, stark reality: these children are in a completely different situation than any American schoolchild who I have met. There is no such thing as buying the 64 box of crayons in August, anticipating a year of scholarly achievement. The idea of reading for fun is unknown (partially because of lack of material (I have yet to see even a newspaper in site) and partially because of difficulty.) On of my sweetest students refused to read a sentence aloud yesterday because she didn’t know how; she is 10 years old. Inventing and creating seems foreign, at least to the classroom. Yesterday’s homework was to invent an ending to a story we’d read, and either draw or write it. Most of the students arrived with a drawing of a character, copied out of a book, with no description of what happened or nothing at all. While I desperately want to introduce skits, I fear the blank stares sure to come.
By listing these facts I don’t want to portray my students harshly. Probably every student in the classroom would know what to do when faced with a runaway donkey; when I saw one in the street the other day I leapt to one side and hid. Skills that are part of their daily reality—how to light fires, plant potatoes, pick chili pepper, calm bulls—are totally foreign to American students. The romantic view of this lifestyle would say: these children know what they need to know and are suited to their environment. Sadly, globalization ups the ante. More and more, young people from my site move to Lima for work. Many houses have t.v.s, all have radios, and the generation in school now will have contact with the outside world constantly. Soon, internet will arrive in the elementary school. This is a wonderful opportunity for the students, but I wonder how they will take advantage of it. This is not only a matter of lost opportunity; even if these students do not benefit from globalization, it will affect them. They will see advertisements, eat processed foods, feel the effects of gasoline price rises and climate changes. Will they have the tools to address these issues? My 20-something students are bright, kind, funny, active and mostly well-behaved. After 4 days I look forward to class tomorrow, and for the next 5 weeks. This doesn’t stop me from worrying, though, and, ineffectively, thinking “poor little children.”

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Segundo de calabaza con papas sancochadas

Here’s a funny thing: I love to read food blogs. It’s a habit that started sometime around when Alex and I began exploring vegan cooking and I wanted to look for recipes. Of course, it became a growing addiction that expanded to include several meat-eating traditional blogs as well as alternative, liberal vegan/vegetarian/raw food ones. The funny thing is that this addiction continues now. When my internet signal is strong, after, of course, checking emails from friends and family, I fly to check google reader and see what new recipes have been posted. Rarely is there a recipe that is feasible in rural Peru; I have yet to read any recipe in which all the ingredients are available. I laugh aloud as I read recipes calling for tofu, nonfat plain yogurt, or even something as seemingly simple as bittersweet chocolate.
Some days, I am frustrated and silently curse the well-meaning authors of these blogs. Why wouldn’t they take the needs and desires of a poor Peace Corps volunteer in mind when writing their recipes? For example, a useful post would cover a topic such as: what to do when all your neighbors gift you giant sacks of potatoes (and you are secretly sick of the tuber, after eating it, boiled, at every meal these same kind neighbors invite you to)? I considered this topic as I dragged home my third such gift, a heavy sackload, in a week. How do you make a potato no longer a potato? Moreover, how does one person eat this many potatoes? I’m leaning towards some sort of rosti/latke type dish, to be shared with my family, of course.
Of course, secretly I admire blog authors—even in my darkest moments, when I’ve returned from a lunch of boiled potatoes and rice, and read some recipe for roasted vegetable lazagne or enchiladas and want to hit the author who innocently called for Anaheim pepper or ricotta cheese. Therefore, this week, I will thrill you all with my own food blog entry.
Early this week, a friend invited me to come cook lunch at her house today. As people here cook with wood, this meant arriving around 9 am. We washed and peeled potatoes, to be boiled whole and put water on to boil for masamorra de trigo—basically whole wheat porridge. The star dish, though, was made of a vegetable called “calabaza” which is similar to zuchinni, only a bit sweeter and juicier. It is sautéd with garlic and then, chunks of queso fresco, a local cheese that has sort of a sour taste are added. We topped off this plate with a boiled egg and lettuce salad. The cheese, egg and salad additions to the usual Peruvian standards (potato, masamorra) made it one of the most balanced meals I’ve been served. Of course, the absolute highlight was, once we had served lunch and I complemented my friend’s cooking she replied, yes, it’s tasty, but it needs a bit of MSG (a common condiment). My unhealthy, American contribution was a batch of gingersnap (ish—I had to improvise on the molasses front and because the icing was a bit melty, they became sandwiches) cookies which I explained with the somewhat true story that Americans spend the weeks around Christmas and New Years giving each other cookies.
For dinner we headed into another cross-cultural wonderland: I made a Mexican-flavored beet-bean stew, my mom made pachamanca, and I suggested the blend would be delicious (she, my sister and brother were the only ones in the family to try it, but still)
Deep insights? That I think I need to learn to love potatoes (if it can be done without a from-birth ingraining) and that sweets can win almost anyone over (my host family destroyed the gingersnap sandwiches before we even served dinner).