Sunday, April 25, 2010
Saturday, April 24, 2010
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
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.