There is something about bus rides in the Peace Corps. The trip from or to Chachapoyas to anywhere is nothing short of a clip from Fear and Loathing, complete with desert attributes demanding my attention for hours on end. How can you sleep on these trips? Even in the darkness and the metronomic hum of a Movitours bus I find myself looking out the window instead of sleeping. A tapestry of contrast color and light, presidential ad campaigns for Toldeo, a solitary Coke’a’Cola billboard telling me how it will improve my life, all whipping past in the stark nakedness of Lima desert…Every time it’s the same. I know I can’t look anywhere but out of the window on long desert drives.
The areas around Trujillo and Chiclayo (two main cities on the coastal PanAm when you are northbound to my site) teem with florescent livelihoods. It’s honest, bare and brazen.
As the bus revves to 80kph, I get to see Peruvians in desert towns at warp speed. Sheet metal roofs that must lock in the equatorial heat much like a solar shower, little kids playing futbol with a deflated soccer ball, lime-green interiors of restaurants sitting idly roadside waiting to feed potatoes and rice to families that live, breathe and see this scene, every day. Every night. Maybe it’s not the same for every volunteer. But this sedation, this pull, will get to many of them. As yet one more political appeal is thrown into my eyes, the Ollanta, and Fujimori campaigns now forgotten on the side of an adobe brick wall, I sink into my bus-cama seat and remember why I am so lucky.
So where have I been, what have I done and what’s in store? Recap it is.
December: Celebrated the second Christmas away from my Family. Tis the season, si o no? Surrounded by only two types of religion, this year I received invitations from the Catholics in my town and the Evangelicals. One of the conversation topics that Peace Corps asks all of it volunteers to be diplomatic on is Religion. A poorly placed word or comment could close doors to your potential projects, but if you are able to graciously listen and participate, attending church services is one of the quickest ways to gain confidence of the community. I have posted photos (hyperlink to facebook album) of Christmas in Levanto on Facebook. My town didn’t observe giving presents, but instead held candle vigils for those who have passed and those yet to come into our lives. Heart-crushingly beautiful. The tradition here is to honor the past with danzas (dances) and Levanto is famous for these. An ancient man pulls notes out from a fiddle that is groaning with the inability to play yet another song, and children from the ages of 5 to 16 perform the Danza Nativa. My host brother Jheiser, was one of the pastoral workers. I will let the pictures tell the rest of the ambience that night.
January: New Year’s 2012 was celebrated with a trip to Kuelap, the Chachapoans' fortress most famous for inspiring Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. The other volunteers in my department (we are a small group, just six) hiked in the morning in one of the most beautiful days during the rainy season, double rainbows anyone? And then returned to the city and cheered with the rest of the city of Chachapoyas as the clock stuck midnight. We wore yellow underwear, yellow being a symbol of prosperity for the New Year, and ate 12 grapes for luck, and did the usual drinking. Dancing discoteca combo, and yes, there was an hora loca. In terms of Peace Corps projects, I started teaching English classes to children of all ages during Vacciones Utiles. Had a kid named Gandi and one named Hitler sitting in the front row during summer school (who said role-calling wasn’t fun?), corrected students who wrote Shit on the board instead of shirt. And pretty much went the path of pursuing English with an environmental twist. Also, started a young explorers club, and got a head start on my herbarium, and teaching kids about biological systems and the scientific method (hyperlink to photo). We did outdoor trekking to various ecosystems, the favorite being a waterfall down a steep mountain and hiking back under the most brilliant southern nighttime sky I have ever seen.
February: Continued with Vacciones Utiles, and celebrated my first birthday in Peru. Turning 24 in a small town where the primary mode of travel is by horse is nothing short of memorable. My host family threw me a small fiesta complete with killing chickens and inviting numerous members of the community to drink and dance the night away until 12, and, as if only to add to the quiet beauty of that night, the electricity went out and punctuated my new year of life with the type of contemplation T.S. Eliot employs oh and yes CANDLES. A sea of them, all celebrating another year in the life… It was an interesting way to celebrate. I don’t think 29 days ever passed by as quickly as they did in February. And the audacity of those days, those cold, Noah’s ark rainy miserable days. I was dealing with the low point of the Peace Corps, missing family and friends, dealing with my Grandfather passing without being able to be there for the funeral, missing the safety net of being understood, dealing with the inevitable blanket of loneliness that doesn’t care if the sun is shining or your host siblings adore you. Living in the high mountains you may being to wonder when you will ever see the sun again.
But, the thing about agreeing to the Peace Corps is this contract. You pick your head up and carry on. The end of February allowed me to see carnival in full swing in Levanto and included a festival that involved paint, water balloons and Trees offered to the spirits of the past. I also had my first vacation in the Peace Corps. Carnival is really popular in a place called Cajamarca, but during the first 3-months volunteers aren’t permitted to travel outside of their department. So inside of doing the crazed-paint infused adventure (next year) I met up with some good friends on the beach in a place called Huanchaco in La Libertad. It’s on the gringo tourist throng and for good reason. It’s a Beach town, and an environmental volunteer freaking lives there! The beach was welcomed after months in the highland forest and seeing people I missed greatly from my training group rounded out the trip perfectly. Some departments have a bunch of volunteers close to each other and Huanchaco is the watering hole of those who live in La Libertad. The volunteers from La Libertad organized an Olympic contest that rivaled the one we had at Moco with all the international students. It was hard to leave all the familiarity of seeing and hearing English again. Note the classy gentlemen in the outfits. Sharp dressers.
March: During the first few months at site all new volunteers are required to write an assessment of their town (in Spanish) to identify potential project areas. I think this was harder than a senior thesis paper, because my acquisition of the Language is slow and steady but wielding my Spanish light-saber in front of an audience of my Boss, and fellow incredible volunteers is well, daunting. For my program Community Environmental Management (MAC) I am working in 3 areas, resource management, residual waste management and environmental education. I have a few primary projects and secondary projects and am lucky enough to have the respect from my community as a working professional. I received a desk, a swivel chair I am convinced helps me think better as well as keys to the municipality building because of my work so far. I have great socios and think that Levanto will be an excellent site for a replacement volunteer to continue working when my service is done. March also included the first training session for the Environmental Group. Called Early In-Service Training it was supposed to be our presentations of our findings in our Diagnostics in Spanish. I identified areas to work within and then we had a combined event for PDM with our Peruvian Counterparts. For the Department of Amazonas, Peace Corps is brand-spankin’ new and many people here, including the larger majority of my pueblo have no idea what a gringa is STILL doing in their pueblo. But, it was the impact of all of MAC Group 18’s progress at site, really inspiring with a slight tinge of intimidation.
The workshop went well but we stayed at a place called Olmos in a department called Lambayeque. We did mock project development and battled different environmental enemies by night. My Socio still laughs about the conditions of the compound. We were locked in at night, not that there is much to do in Olmos mind you , but we will all remember the long nights we endured threats of biblical proportions. Thousands of Flying beetles that shot out potent defense spray and pouring rain that literally flooded beds and the hot hellish nights of a dry desert town, well, please enjoy the Lyrics to a song me and some friends created. It was a memory, I will give it that. Here are the lyrics to our song.
Sitting on a bus, butt already numb, can’t wait to see all my friends.
14 Hours down, 1 streetlight to go, waiting for this road to end.
***Almost there, Almost there, Almost Home.
Gotta share my bed, with a hundred other friends, I hate it when they crawl through my beard.
No puedo dormer, how did I get here, Does anybody care?
A dry desert town, and when it rains it pours, now we all swim indoors
Hotdog scrambled eggs, but don’t you come in late, if you do then you won’t get served.
Is that a Dog out there? But I don’t see any hair, it’s just a guy doing the worm
I Held a monkey’s hand, now we’re singing in a band, I guess it wasn’t all that bad
Getting a general Idea of how EIST went for us?
April: The beginning of April continued to mark my time out of site. 3 weeks out of site in this order, PDM, Semana Santa, Wisdom teeth. But we continue chronologically. Another vacation to another beach town with my environmental Comrades. This time we went north to another famous Gringo hotspot: Mancora. Cue, hot beach bodies, kitschy beach jewelry and the gentle loll of a hammock swinging in the temperate weather of April. We spent the Peruvian Semana Santa (seconded only in grandeur to the Fiestas Patrias in terms of extreme vacation challenge). In an incredible beach house perched high on cliffs overlooking the beaches of Piura, we ruled the day-to-day on the beach. It had a pool that dropped off the edge of the view, and hammocks and outdoor grilling and bungalows. It was tranquil in our mountain fortress and then when we wanted like Demi-gods we could grace the population below. I didn’t learn to surf but the memories I created with people that week somehow reflected learning to appreciate things in a new way. The nights had all the air kicked out of them and I collapsed into my mattress with the fever of a day well-lived, every day. We danced, dined and stayed out until morning, but in the end it was a part of the greater collective of being a Peace Corps volunteer. Work is work, but making the effort to see people who leave imprints on your life, well it makes the time go at Light speed. It was a blur for many reasons and culminated in something called a Full-moon party. I remember it like that final scene in the Matrix where everyone is under a tribal dance infused with the last night before they all die, however ours was with the pleasure of being unbound and on the beach. Tanned, and sandy I continued my 2 ½ week journey out of site.
I visited Lima to get a wisdom tooth pulled, more terrifying in my imagination than the actual visit. Yes, most PCV had to have their teeth of wisdom yanked out before the medical unit would give the stamp of fitness for an aspiring volunteer, but my teeth were such perfection that I slipped through. Que suerte? Medical Leave in the Peace Corps, at least in Peru, is luxurious. Peace Corps puts you up in a solo room and give you a per diem to spend on amazing food that you can’t find in the campo, pays for taxis and makes you stay in Lima for a week. Incredible. Not that I could eat all the commercial wonders beckoning from the plush streets of Miraflores, after the take Sarabeth’s right upper molar commenced. BUT, I had Pinkberry coming out my pores by the time I left there. Medical emergencies in Peru are twisted and funny…sometimes. Before I headed to Lima, one of my friends Andrew Baber crushed his finger in efforts to clear a landslide in the main road into Chachapoyas. His emergency room visit would even make G. Clooney scream a Syriana nightmare, getting that nail removed, he was supposed to be in Lima for the same time I was, and he was to receive plastic reconstructive surgery. Hot damn. But, at the time of finishing this post (July 14th) it has healed into a noble nub of middle finger flesh.
May: Returned to site in Late-April and enjoyed being tackled by all the kids of Levanto. Some thought I wasn’t coming back, I don’t blame them nearly 3 weeks out of site is an eternity. However, I had some not so nice news waiting for me when I returned. One of my Peruvian Counterparts frantically told me news of chismay (gossip) a’brewing while I was away. He told me that a girl and her mother went to a witch doctor on the Utcubamba River Valley, in order to receive treatment for a terrible head injury, and the prognosis was that there was a Blonde Witch casting black magic spells on children and causing them to go crazy. My socio asked if there was any other Blonde haired girl that worked in Levanto. I dead stared him. You don’t necessarily think of black magic as a thing to worry about in Peace Corps Peru. But, it’s a problem…so I went back to Levanto, bearing the mark of a bruja and stood my ground. My APCD, Diego was heading up that week to Amazonas for long-anticipated site visits, and he got the impression that he would be taking me to a new department. Thankfully, the rumors of bruja-dom died down and did not adversely affect my work relationships. ECPA (Peace Corps Peru Renewable Energy Initiative) conference and a new Department visit marked the Month of May. Ancash is home to the best mountaineering Peru has to offer. I attended the conference as a representative for wind turbines and education in Peru. The conference went well and was a rush of cocinas mejoradas, bio-digestors, wind, solar and hydro demos. One volunteer, a WATSANer named Kail (insert crazy-weird danish last name here) (WATSAN is the program of water and sanitation) created a model hydro-turbine that stole the show of demos during those 3 days.
June: Cue the creation of ATAL, the department-wide festival of Raymi Llaqta, the final tech training for MAC volunteers: IST, ECPA’s northern department version of Cocinas Mejoradas, the Ministry of Environment science education initiative GLOBE, Levanto’s Patron St. Fest. And so began the months of merry-making in the department of Levanto. In the first 10 days of the month, a festival celebrating the traditions of every tribe, culture, city, person in the Department of Amazonas descended upon the great Capital of Chachapoyas. Inundated like a newly created cultural Dam, the backwaters of tradition locked into every nook and cranny of those days in order to share, learn and enjoy the different peoples of Amazonas. Raymi Llaqta( http://www.andina.com.pe/Espanol/Noticia.aspx?id=ZDNGoPC7w+4=) left me with the type of inter-change that every foreigner feels for the first time stepping off of their country’s doormat into the foyer of something new and distinctly beautiful. My highlights were the types of food that ranged from traditional Cuy con Mani (guinea pig, yes, I know what you are thinking, and I get laughed at every-time I enjoy eating it. Peruvians can really cook pets well!), Chiclayo (a squash and sugar cane based dulce), Chocho (bean paste and a hot pepper), Cecina (my region is famous for this as it’s the Peruvian version of beef jerky, but smoother?), and last but not least and certainly my favorite go to snack, a juane ( yucca and rice ground into a blend, mixed with regional spices, chicken and aji wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed). Ugh, kill me slowly because I will miss this type of culinary divergence. Amazonas may not have the ceviche like my compatriots on the coast do, but ask them to make you papas con nogal (potatoes in a walnut cream sauce) and tell me your inner-foodie isn’t shouting to the heaven’s a heady O. Transitioning to IST, my Environmental group reunited in the Beauty of Ancash again. Rolling wheat fields, streams and Quechua Culture completed the reunion with the environmental group engulfed in ecosystem splendor. Following immediately was a course on building certified models for Cocinas Mejoradas. A type of cookstove that lowers the impact of smoke from cooking over an open flame (think years upon years of roasting marshmellows at summer camp and what kind of impact that would have on your lungs, oh yea, and remember that you are cooking inside of a small adobe box while you wait for that marshmallow to get its toasty brown exterior), and increasing cooking efficiency. Cocinas are the type of Peace Corps Project that gets immediate volunteer gratification. You build something concrete that has instant impacts. Should be on the go-to-card when volunteers are feeling down about their progress at site. Cocinas do a body good.
July: And arriving in the present
Kicked off the Month of Independence with a Celebration of the 4th of July in true American Fashion, with 10 kilos of meat and a BBQ (usually I am a vegetarian at site so this was carnivore overload). Gearing up for the start of primary projects, and family/friend visits! Now what exactly am I doing?
“Palmer Joss: What are you studying up there?
Ellie Arroway: Oh, the usual. Nebulae, quasars, pulsars, stuff like that. What are you writing?
Palmer Joss: The usual. Nouns, adverbs, adjective here and there.” – Contact
Throughout all of these collective experiences, workshops, fiestas, and meetings, the following projects have come to be my main goals.
Primary projects for 2012
- Improved Science Education through the process of a Climate Change Course and GLOBE
- Biological Monitoring of Plant succession with various ages of an invasive Pine species and its impact on grassland habitat.
- Vivendas Saludables with 25 Cocinas Mejoradas (improved Cookstoves), 2 industrial cocinas mejoradas, Micro landfills for individual family trash management, bottle gardens and composting
- Creation and Marketing of an Artisan group called ATAL (Association de Turismo y Artesenia de Levanto).
- Creation of a protected area near the ruin of Yalape
- Exploradoras (Girls empowerment club)
- Community Bank
- Wind Energy education and Solar Ovens
Possible Projects For next year:
Bee-keeping and Escuelas Eco-efficiencies, expansion of ATAL to creating food goods and website
This post marks my 8th month in site. I get to see two very important people in the upcoming weeks. My good blonde friend Jordan Brown is leaving the world of Bright lights and corporate Americana behind to scour the earth, and drink deep the dregs of life with me in Amazonas. And then my mother is heading down recharge my heart for 10 days of Chachapoyas infused mystery. I am happy at my site and could not be in a better place. There is something to be said about making every moment a present one. Be active, reflect and remember that I have 16 more months abroad (maybe more?) and if you are reading this, and were contemplating a visit to yours truly, I would love to share Peru with you.
A new friend mentioned a method of exploring a city, in figure 8s. The way this works is that you start at Point A and walk a few blocks, mentally mark point B while keeping some features of point A in frame and double-back but on a different path. So you are constantly seeing a new side of an old memory. Do this twice and create the figure 8. Then, begin another. In a week you will have a better idea of where you are, where you can go, where you can’t go but choose to anyway and more importantly where you want to return. I like this metaphor for my exploration of Peace Corps in all of its required immersion tactics, new culture, language, jokes, food, friends, trips, ideologies, accidents, love, loneliness, family, the on and on... I can always look around and readjust my direction while keeping key points in mind as I continue forward. As Peruvians will say when they want you to agree with them,
Si o No?
Missing me yet? I encourage you all to follow the footsteps of my mother and my friend and
Just get here.
END SCENE. ROLL CREDITS.