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 saut├ęd 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).