Saturday, May 11, 2013

"I been away a long time." Chief Bromden

So it’s been a pretty long time since the last post.  Life here becomes normal after a while, fewer and fewer events happen that seem worth writing about.  As Red says “…prison life consists of routine, and then more routine” and in some ways Peace Corps does as well.[1]  Life here becomes pretty normal and you get used to the routine of it all.  Happenings that at one time were extra-ordinary now fall into the category of ‘Things you may not expect, but don’t bat an eye at.” For instance, the other day I was sitting in my room, I had decided to forego the movie in favor of reading.  As I’m reading I hear a noise.  At first I think it’s the rats running around, getting a little brave, so naturally I bang on the wall.  The noise continues, I start to look around.  To my surprise I find a crab crawling around my room like he’s some surveyor scoping out a new crab sub-division.[2]  I go get the broom and the dustpan and get to work.  Now who knew those little guys were as fast as they are or that they have the ability to climb walls and wedge themselves into a corner like a cemented brick, but after a struggle I got the best of that claw-handed squatter. 

A day passes; I’m immersed in my book at this point, reading on the balcony.  A taxi stops, the window rolls down and two hands hold out a fox.  The driver looks at me, I look at the fox, he looks at me, and finally the driver ends the stare down, asking if I’d like to buy the fox.  Now all my life I’ve waited for this moment, this opportunity to buy a wild fox, but for some unknown reason I decline.[3]  The driver calls for my host family and asks them the same question.  No go once again.  Getting a little curious I ask my cousin what they do with a fox, skin it maybe? No, apparently they’d put it in a zoo.  I ask where the nearest zoo is; she looks at me like I’m a bit off and walks back inside.[4]

Writing this out, it seems pretty worthy of a blog post or at the very least some sort of hashtag.  Maybe #elcongrejocontraelguapo or #yolofoxinthebag, but here it’s just a part of the everyday life.  If I go a week without something like this happening then I start to feel a little off.  It would be like buying a box of Gato that was made after 2011, probably fine to ingest but a little weird nonetheless.[5] 

And that’s my time here, fine overall but a little weird nonetheless.  Everything seems to be a little different, even the ketchup and barbecue sauce at Chili’s.  That’s what makes it so interesting.  Life will be life, it will happen where it may, but there will always be things, places, people that are similar to where you came from but with that little difference, and that little difference makes it all.

Now I plan for this to lead to more posts, one or two a week, maybe.  My time here is winding down and I know how you all wait on pins and needles for the next installment of Grandiose Thoughts and Observations, the informal name in my head, and I plan to deliver.  But I’m afraid that one of the similarities between Peru and the States is that I fail to follow through as I should.  So if I don’t put up posts like I should, smile at the fact that not everything in this life changes.

And here’s a parting shot of Faique’s night life.[6]

[1] Ok so not so much, but I really felt like putting in a Shawshank quote.
[2] Not on my watch congrejo.
[3] How would I even get the fox in my room? Then what the hell would I do with it? Was it foaming at the mouth?
[4] I’ve never seen a zoo anywhere near here, never even heard of one.
[5] I prefer the vintage Gato, circa 2009. A good year for Gato.
[6] I wouldn’t call the camera work professional, but I appreciate the compliment.

Monday, October 29, 2012

"May the days be aimless. Let the seasons drift. Do not advance the action according to plan." Don DeLillo

A year has passed since I packed my bags and said goodbye to the US of A.  To try and put all of what has happened during that year into a blog post would be an exercise in futility, but here I am attempting to do just that.  I know that words can only convey the haziest of representations of my year in Peru, but I’ll do my best to give you a good outline, and from there feel free to add in the missing details to your heart’s content.

I never expected that my first year away from home, in a foreign country, would have passed as quickly as it did.  You always hear how time flies, and it does whether you’re having fun or not, but to have been staring at two years dead in the face and all of sudden realize that one of  those years has gone by is a strange feeling.  I thought I would do so much here, change the lives of all the people in my community and probably every person that came into contact with me through the sheer fact of my awesomeness, but as of yet that hasn’t seemed to happen.

The work here is slow, like an archeological dig of an amazing Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, layer by layer you have to find your way, figure out what works and what doesn’t, who works and who doesn’t.  It takes time, a lot of time.  In training you feel that projects will come out of nowhere and everyone will love your ideas, but in reality you have to prove yourself.  You’re probably very intelligent with a wonderfully dry sense of humor and a gift for puns, but in many cases that doesn’t translate, and it sure as hell doesn’t come out in the first couple months.  Confianza is the word, trust, and like Nomar Garciaparra in the batter’s box, it takes some time to establish itself.  But after a year, I should have something pretty substantial to show for myself, right?  No, I don’t.  I have projects going, but nothing I can point to and say “There’s a direct result of me being here.” Despite all of that, I’m happy with where my service is at.  I’d like to have done more by this point, but honestly I’m satisfied with what I’m doing, and that counts for something[1].

I’ve done things here that I never fathomed.  In the year I’ve been here I’ve gone sand boarding in the desert, hiked up to 4800 m in the snow[2], rafted down the Amazon River on a raft I made with my friends[3], introduced the infamous Thomas Rodgers to San Miguel de El Faique, and enjoyed more cups of fresh squeezed orange juice than any volunteer in the history of Peace Corps[4].  I’ve camped outside in the freezing cold under stars and glaciers, slept in the oppressively humid jungle without a mosquito net, and eaten more parts of a cow than I care to name[5].

There are still days when I laugh to myself, not quite able to believe that I’m here, doing what I’m doing.  Yet there are also days when I can’t wait to get home, wondering if being here is everything I thought it’d be.  The fact that I still have both days is a good thing, I drank the cool-aid and I love it but I’ll never forget that Cheerwine is still out there.  And that’s what this is, something I’m able to enjoy, learn from, and be thankful for, but never replacing the home I left and the world I look forward to returning to. And while I can look back on a great year, different than any other year of my life, I also can’t forget that “only the day dawns to which we are awake.  There is more day to dawn, the sun is but a morning star.”[6]

I’ve been awaken to more in this year than any other year in my life, and if that’s taught me anything it’s that I have a lot more waking up to do.  For this reason I’m thankful to have a second year here.  I’ll continue to miss my family, my home, prompt start times, and personal cars; but I have no idea what I’ll encounter in the coming months and, to be honest, that’s not too shabby a way to live.

[1] Maybe not a medal or anything, but I sleep pretty well at night.  Well the sleep could be a result of the rain, I’m no meteorologist though.
[2] Where I proceeded to take one of my top 10 all-time naps.
[3] This was when I learned that I couldn’t, in fact, communicate with river dolphins. Sad moment to say the least.
[4] Unofficial claim
[5] Another lesson, you do not receive the powers of a cow from eating its heart, other than maybe the odd ability to stand on steep inclines.
[6] David Thoreau, Walden

Thursday, June 21, 2012

“He who knows one, knows none.” - Max Müller

I’m a good deal taller than most Peruvians.  My skin resembles that of someone with similar feelings towards the sun as Nosferatu.  My beard, while not Brian Liberatore’s, would make Quetzalcoatl proud.  I speak with a heavy accent, different than even the other Americans.  It’s safe to say that I stand out in Peru.  Every time I leave the house, I’m met with stares.  Anonymity is impossible.

In the states, the opposite holds true.  I may be taller than average, definitely a pretty face to look at, but otherwise I’m just a normal guy.  So normal, in fact, that over the course of the last six months or so, three of my close friends have told me stories of seeing my doppelgangers.    Not someone that resembled me, but dead on doubles.  In each case my friends were shocked at the degree of similarity, in one case chasing the person down the street yelling my name before realizing it wasn’t in fact, me.

Two worlds with strikingly different realities.  In one, my day-to-day life consists of dealing with stares from both children and adults, salutations followed by grins and laughs, endless questions about who I am and where I come from.  In the other exists a struggle to stand out, to be recognized, to differentiate myself from the scores of guys just like me. 

I find that I deal with each world much differently.  In the world of standing out, or above rather, I find that my personality is reserved, laid back.  I don’t feel the need to talk as much, to give my opinion, to make my presence known because it automatically is.  Everywhere I go I’m noticed.  My actions, my presence reverberates far beyond what I can see.  Because of this I am always aware, but also quiet.  I don’t feel as if I can’t speak or that I shouldn’t, just that I don’t need to.  I can express myself in other ways, and I know these will be noticed.

In the states and for those that know me best, mainly the group reading this, I hardly stop speaking. I know it must be a stretch to believe I can be quiet and reserved.  In the states I express and differentiate myself through what I say. I love to make people laugh and I love to read the expressions on people’s faces.  I love to debate, to argue, just about anything.  What I have to say is how I express myself, the differences between me and all the other average guys around.  I’m aware, but more so to the cues in conversations and on people’s faces.

When I first got to Peru, I assumed this change in demeanor was less to do with a change in me and more to do with a lack of ability to express myself.  But over the course of my time here I’ve picked up the language enough to feel comfortable talking.  I still get awkward stares, but overall I get my point across. So then why am I still so reserved?  Is it possible that both sides, both demeanors, are equally me, and the change has been the environment I’m reacting to? Or is it impossible to equally be myself in both environments, and instead one side is displacing the other?

I knew there would be inevitable changes I would go through during my service.  I talked to friends about the changes I hoped for and the changes I feared.  Overall I’ve always liked myself, there were a lot of things I needed to work on, but the structure was sound and I didn’t want that to change.  But now I find myself asking, has the structure already changed?

There’s no way for me to know this now.  I still have 18 months here, the majority of my service before me and quite possibly the majority of my change before me.  I can wonder and speculate on which aspects are my reactions to what’s before me and which are changes in my personality, but until my time here is done I won’t really know.  This is both a source of frustration and optimism.  I know I won’t be the same person that I was when this began, but how and to the extent that I will be different is something that occupies my thoughts often.  I worry about a fundamental shift, discovering something that I didn’t know was there, seeing something that I can never un-see.  More so though, I hope to learn something that I couldn’t have otherwise, to see a side of myself that’s different - yet equally me.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Chiclayo Trainin and it aint Rainin

                I’ve now been in site for 6 months, in Peru for close to 9.  If you were to look at my accomplishments and my level of Spanish, I can’t say you’d be impressed.  This time not only marks the end of the first quarter of my service, and near a third of my total time here, but it also marks the beginning of seriously pursuing the projects I hope to accomplish. 

I just came back from PDM/IST in Chiclayo.  This is the last training as well as the last time all of WATSAN will be together until the year mark and med checks.  As always seeing everyone was great, and hearing about the work done so far always astounds me.  The group I am a part of has already made some great headway in terms of projects.  In some cases cocinas have been built, others have identified areas of need and potential projects that could really make large changes, still others have continued projects started by the previous volunteer. 

In PDM we learned to design complete projects.  To this we were to bring a community counterpart who had been working with us.  I had planned to bring the architect in my Muni, Rolando, but at the last minute and after getting all the necessary paperwork done, he told me was too busy.  They gave me the number of a regidore, Don Juan, who could come and help.  This didn’t work out too well.  I don’t think Don Juan understood exactly what we were trying to do, and in those cases hours of powerpoints and presentations can be excruciatingly boring.  It was helpful learning about projects, but also helpful to learn more about what to look for in a good counterpart.

This training ended Saturday and we had a much needed day off Sunday.  So Saturday we put on our cleanest clothes, none of which were very clean, and headed out to see what Chiclayo had to offer us.  We met up with Kim Ayers, she was in Bonnycastle with me first year and we hung out some throughout the rest of college, and some of the other Chiclayo volunteers.  We went out for pizza and I had my first calzone since saying goodbye to Vito’s and the greater Lovingston area, it was a dream come true and really served to whet my appetite for all the foods I will eat when I go back to the Old Home Place. After this we had some beers and went out to a very busy club, this was the point where Chiclayo took more from us than we did from her.

As soon as we arrived to the club, I realized how packed it was.  The line outside was pretty long, and once inside (gringos get to cut in most places, not exactly fair and equal but just the way it is) there were even more people.  We filed through the crowd to get to some tables.  As we were walking I felt my wallet move in my pocket, my hand immediately went for it and I felt the strange feeling of someone else’s hand in my pocket.  I immediately grabbed the guys arm, shocked at the audacity, and checked for my stuff.  Everything was there so I let him go.  I should have taken him to a guard, but to be honest I was so surprised that the only thought I had was to make sure I had all my stuff.  This really shook me up, shattering the illusion of normal that I had allowed myself to fall into here, but served to put me on guard which is always necessary, especially so in the larger cities.  Over the course of the evening volunteers had their phones stolen and one lost his wallet.  I count myself lucky to have caught the guy, losing my wallet would have meant losing my I.D., American card, and Peruvian card, not to mention some pretty witty fortunes I have come across over the years.

We used Sunday to rest and chatter about the evening, and began with a new training Monday.  This training was our In Service Training and we learned more about potential projects such as viviendas saludables, which I will cover more in a later post, as well as the presupuesto participativo which is the participatory budget in Peru.  I picked up a lot from this training and got a much clearer idea of the direction I want to head in during the next few months.  This also served as the first training where I wasn’t nervous about my Spanish level.  Not to say I am a pro, but it’s no longer a point of worry, which is a big relief, I just hope it doesn’t mean I’ve reached a low on the gaf level, unsure if Porterfield would be proud of that or disappointed. Dan, thoughts?

The volunteers all went out for a final dinner; I had steak, that’s right, steak.  It seemed a little like heaven and little like home, but maybe home is heaven, if so that statement would be redundant.  Billy boy Jensen and I stayed about late into the night having those deep conversations that only come about after a few beers.  We talked with the Liberatore’s about religion, about Will’s coming down to earth, and about the next couple of months.  It was an appropriate send off. 

The week was good overall, but it’s come to the point that I really notice being out of site after a week or so.  Arriving back was a great feeling and the first opportunity to let my guard down and relax.  I was happy to see my family here and to get going on the projects I’ve been pursuing.  The rains seemed to have passed, more or less, in Faique and that makes it all the easier to be here.  My naps aren’t as deep without the enveloping static from the rain, but that’s a small price to pay for dry clothes and no drips.

On another food note, one night we went out and had anticuchos, heart on a stick, and I have to say that they were some of the best food I’ve eaten here, not to mention gaining all the power that comes from eating the heart of another animal, or something like that.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ponce de León, I think we found it, a little further south than you thought.

Often times I find myself writing about the major events that happen to me here, but that leaves a lot of my life here shrouded in the mysteries of monotony and routine, meetings and waiting, pressure and time (Shawshank again).  I tell you about the trainings where I see my friends, the vacations I get to enjoy, and the thoughts that dawn on me when I’m alone with my thoughts, but today I will tell you about a day, a long day, and through that, hopefully, let you know a little bit more about my life here

My day began a bit earlier than usual and much earlier than I would prefer.  Around 7 a.m. I was awoken by a knock at my door from the engineer.  Today we were to head 4 km out and up to Sanchez Cerro, a caserio of about 25 houses, for a meeting about a new water system and a latrines project.  Sanchez Cerro is difficult to get to, with winding rock paths through the forest and switchback ascents straight up the mountain, because of this some of the houses there are without the basic necessities of water and electricity.  The municipality, with me helping, is going to build a new water system that brings potable water to all of Sanchez Cerro, seven of these houses will be receiving water in their house for the first time.  On top of this the municipality is building latrines for each house, which I have the enjoyable job of training the people on the usage and maintenance of said latrines. 

Around 8:30 we arrive to the caserio and begin our day in earnest.  The first step is to gather a group of the men to help us and have a quick breakfast.  Once this is done we head up, straight up, to find the intake for the new water system.  This involved finding two places, close to the top, where water is coming up from the ground and is uncontaminated by the animals and humans that live nearby.  As we search we pass houses and continue onward, we pass chacras and we move past beaten paths.  At one point while filing through the trees I realize, I am at the complete mercy of the people I’m with, if something happened they would be the ones to carry me down and if for someone reason they didn’t want me found, I wouldn’t be, but at no point did I feel worried.  If anything they seemed happy I was there, excited to have a tall gringo interested in their town and their water. 

After seemingly hours of hiking we found the first intake.  Seemed to me a good possibility that this was the fabled “Fountain of Youth”, the area seemed remote enough.  When we arrived we talked about the capacity, took some pictures, and the engineer took a drink, he didn’t seem any younger after but maybe it takes time to take effect.  I abstained from drinking to the dismay of all my companions.  I’m sure the water was clean, but worst case scenario, I’m a three hour hike from town.

We paused for a few more minutes and then continued up.  The going got tough and we lost a few men, but we continued on.  OK we actually didn’t lose anyone but you can’t fault me for adding a little drama to the scene.  We came across another possibility for the intake.  This option wasn’t quite as good as the other, there was evidence of cows around and the water was above ground for an extended area, but it seemed to meet their requirements despite my objections.  We took some more pictures, that’s me pointing there (great beard, I know), and set off back towards civilization.

On the descent we measured from the intakes to the houses, 20 meters at a time, taking GPS coordinates at each interval.  Needless to say this slowed the progress a bit and took us well off the beaten tracks.  At each house we would stop and explain what we were doing, get them to sign the informe, and find out where they wanted their latrine to go. 

I never felt very necessary to the process, everything we did could have been done without me slowing the group, but being a part of it was a great feeling.  Each person was excited about the project and the realization that it would actually happen.  Each family was so excited, in fact, that they gave us fruit.  These families with no running water, a hole in the ground for a bathroom and very little else were offering us what they had in appreciation.  This hospitality and graciousness of the people here often astounds me.  I have found that the people I work with will share what they have, whatever it may be, and will take pride in “compartir”ing.

We continued down through the forest, measuring and recording.  In some places we found fruit trees; grenadillas, cherimoya, platanos, limas, and at each place the guys would always give me fruit first.  Always looking out for me and generally making me feel very welcome.  Around 2 p.m. some women from the main part of the village showed up with lunch for the engineer and I, tamales, eggs, and rice.  We shared our lunches with the group and offered to pay but they were having none of that.

We continued working for a few more hours and then finally reached the last house.  At this we were offered some very strong liquor made of caña, just the pickup we needed for the long hike back to Faique.  On the way back we ran into funeral service, where again we had shots of cañaza and headed off.  Finally making it back around 5.  I can’t say I have yet been that exhausted in my time here, nor have I hiked that far in my life, but upon getting back I felt good. 

This was one of the first days where I really felt like I was doing my job here.  Instead of being frustrated at the pace of things here, we were out laying the ground work for a project that would bring clean water and latrines to families that needed them.  With all the meetings and run-arounds and municipal bureaucracy, things can get frustrating.  It’s easy to get down on yourself and what you’re doing, but days like this, days where I can see the help I can provide, the difference I can make, days like this make up for all the other days.  Well that and a couple shots of cañaza.

And the last picture is of Faique, where I live, and further to the valley heading to Piura.  Not the worst view I've come across.