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.