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.