Sunday, June 23, 2013

Twenty-one questions: Peru in Review

With only 13 days remaining in Peru, the time to reflect and reminisce has arrived! I present to you a fun compilation of questions & answers, which each departing Peace Corps volunteer was asked to submit for the upcoming newsletter---the perfect opportunity to brag, confess, and have an existential crisis. By reposting these responses, my hope is that friends and family can better understand the highlights and hilarities of the past two years. Enjoy!
What Peruvian article of clothing or accessory are you planning to rock when you return stateside?
Market bag! I hope to be the envy of every middle-aged woman in Whole Foods.
What will you be most remembered for by people in your community/or your host family?
My strange running habit
 Good toilet paper substitute:
The inside of my skirt?
 What will you miss the most about Peru/your site?
All of the amazing food, the pleasant climate, and the friendly people who greet me on the street every day.
Craziest health problem:
The various ailments I invented in my mind: assorted STDs, ovarian cysts, and, best of all, Lyme Disease.
Best thing you’ve seen on a t-shirt:
“I Make Good Babies.” My 17-year old host brother rocks that shirt pretty hard, though I doubt he understands the translation.
 What will you not be sad to leave behind?
 Most of my Peace Corps wardrobe, which could best be described as “Modern Mormon.” I hope to avoid anything made of technical fabric or machismo for a long time. 
Any bad habits you’ve acquired?
I’ve forgotten how to leave a coherent voice mail in any language.
 Favorite/least favorite Peruvian dish?
Favorite: Aji de Gallina  
Least favorite: Mondongo (cow stomach)
How many cell phones/bank cards/USBs/sunglasses/cameras/girlfriends/boyfriends have you gone through?
One cell phone, one boyfriend, two USBs, three sunglasses, and four bank cards.
What are you most proud of?
I’m still here!
Any disgusting hygiene habits you wish to share?
I might have turned my underwear inside out on a couple of occasions, when I lacked the “ganas” to do laundry.
Culinary masterpiece you’ve perfected in site:
Sublime Brownies
 Biggest language blunder:
I once asked a male teacher if he wanted a hickey instead of a lollipop.
 How has Peace Corps changed your future plans?
I’ve decided to become a sex therapist.
What scares you the most about returning to the States?
What did you miss most about the States?
The people I love. And good quality ice cream and chocolate.
“I couldn’t have done it without…”
My awesome sitemate, Richard Cochran. Not sure how many times I called him late at night with some ridiculous fear or anxiety. And when I say “late” I mean 9:30.
Memorable first impressions of other volunteers?
These kids would beat my ass in Survivor.
Have you changed? How so?
I take fewer showers and more initiative.
What kept you going when times were tough?
I would often remind myself of Woody Allen’s quote: “80% of success is showing up.” Even when you don’t feel inspired, get out the door, teach your class, and attend that meeting. Quit being so hard on yourself and broaden your definition of success.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"Something will Happen"

Crazy things start to happen when you have an abundance of time, imagination, and wireless internet. Contemplation about global warming, feng shui, chocolate, and online dating swirl and simmer inside the brain until the illogical begins to seem possible.

My intense candy cravings and lack of social contact, combined, led me to reactivate my OKCupid! profile about 9 months ago. I had no real agenda other than shameless self-promotion and solicitation. I was very clear and upfront about my circumstances, that I was living on another continent and serving in the Peace Corp, and that I was only looking for “new friends” who might want to send me M & M’s in the mail.  I specified that messages would also be welcome from people who: a) wanted advice on traveling to Peru, b) were interested in learning more about the Peace Corps, c) had the ability to run faster than  me,  or d) were otherwise awesome.

Although I had to contend with some unwanted attention from “rilonelyman” and “ebay-holic” I was surprised by the quality of men who initiated communication. Instead of the usual one liners, like “hi hun” or “nice butt” people made an effort to compliment me on my “mad running skills” and my “fun and fascinating life”--- kind and curious people from Oklahoma, Minnesota, Seattle, and Missouri, among other places.

But then something rather unexpected happened --- The Return of Rob Gordon! “Rob” is the boy from back home, who, much like the protagonist of “High Fidelity,” boasts an impressive record collection and an encyclopedic musical memory. He is the fun and fabulous guy who dated, then rejected me, in the months before Peace Corps. He broke my heart, then he bought my car. And like every great post-modern romance, I believe our spark was rekindled by excessive drinking and Facebook.  Fast forward to several months later and I am officially in a long-distance relationship with good ol’ Rob. I was looking for chocolate, but found a boyfriend instead. J

Surprisingly, love in the Peace Corps happens more often than you would think. We leave the comforts of home behind, which may include a robust social/dating life, and most of us enter this experience anticipating two years of solitude or celibacy. And for many months that was my reality. I craved rhythm, routine, and an amazing tan. I gained 15 pounds, my hair was a hot, layered mess, and my buttoned-down fashion sense rivaled that of the local Mormons. Yet I began to grow in new and exciting ways; I became more comfortable living in the present moment and conjugating verbs in the past tense.
When I finally dipped my toe back into the dating pool, even in a self-deprecating, non-serious manner, perhaps my joie de vivre was apparent. Khalil Gilbran writes that “Beauty is a light in the heart” and I believe that many volunteers, those who find peace and joy in their service, emanate that radiance. Marathon Skype sessions, flirty text messages, and animated discussions about The Future have become the nuts and bolts of my current relationship, and I am happier than I would have imagined. I guess my unsolicited relationship advice to those contemplating the Peace Corps, or any major life change, is rather straightforward: Trust yourself, indulge your passion, and, as Rob would say, “something will happen.”



Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Day in the Life

Due to popular demand and public curiosity, I thought I would describe in greater detail the daily activities of my life as a Peace Corps volunteer. Of course, it is important to remember that each day can bring new, unexpected challenges, and that no two volunteers will have the same experience, but here is a brief representation of my present reality.

5:30 a.m.
Awakened by the damn chickens! Seriously?!? Arrrgghh…..
5:50 a.m.
Because I’m already awake I might as well run 4-5 miles, heading to the beach and back.
7:30 a.m.
Leave for school.
8:00 a.m.
Teach English to 100 middle school girls. Everyone participates, we have fun, and I think the kids even learned something. No major behavior problems. J
11:00 a.m.
Visit the Municipality. Attempt to schedule a meeting with the mayor, but get sucked into “girl talk” at the Social Service office instead (they offered me Inka Cola and I can never refuse that stuff). Because the mayor is away this month, I decide to try for a meeting with the General Manager instead, but there are already 3 people waiting to talk to him. I decide to try back next Monday.
12:00 p.m.
Return downtown. Check email. Discover that someone will be sending me M & M’s in the mail. YESSS!!
1:00 p.m.
Meet up with my sitemate, Richard, for lunch. OMG, today’s menu choice has GREEN vegetables. Woot!
2:00 p.m.
Work on the quarterly Volunteer Report File, which we have to submit every 3 months to our Program Director, detailing our accomplishments and challenges, objectives met, future projects planned, etc.
3:30 p.m.
Nap time. (not a daily occurrence)
5:00 p.m.
Develop lesson plans for next week’s English classes.
6:00 p.m.
Annual Work Plan for 2012. Begin to map out the steps necessary to create a youth health promoters group, a wellness/ running program for adolescent girls, and some community service projects.
7:30 p.m.
Dinner at Govinda, a vegetarian restaurant, with Richard and friends. While walking to the town plaza, a group of male neighbors “invite” me (OK, more like they yell my name in a rowdy, incessant manner) to participate in their drinking circle. I wave, smile, and keep on walking. BTW, this is a near daily occurrence.
9:30 p.m.
Return home. Waste time on Facebook.
10:00 p.m.
Skype date with a friend from the U.S.
11:00 p.m.
Waste some more time on Facebook. Justin H Brierley is online!?! Nice. IM for 15-20 minutes.
11:30 p.m.
Bed time.

Another factor to consider when reading this “schedule” is that right now it’s summer here and I have only been in my community for 4.5 months. After March, when the school year resumes, I expect to be a lot busier.

Also, teaching English is usually a secondary, not a primary activity, for Youth Development volunteers, a way to build relationships with kids and our community during our initial months at site. A majority of our time is spent on health and wellness programming, career education, leadership training, etc.

The lifestyle that I enjoy is somewhat atypical for a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru. I have daily internet access, both at home and in my community, and I live four houses apart from another PCV. Sure, I wash all my clothing by hand and take cold showers, but considering that there are some volunteers who travel 2-3 hours to arrive at the nearest ATM, eat a steady diet of rice and potatoes, and lack cell phone service, I feel quite fortunate and blessed!

But when serving in the Peace Corps, regardless of your site specifics, it is the minor miracles that sustain us, like consuming fruits AND vegetables in a single day, sucking on some Starbursts, and enjoying a nice, solid shit. Simple pleasures, indeed!

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Gift of Giving In

“False cognates are words in one language that are identical or very similar to words in a second language, but whose meanings are different. These are sometimes called ‘false friends’ because they are recognizable in form but undependable in meaning.” (1001 Pitfalls in Spanish, p. 274)

Upon entering a foreign culture we often seek comfort in elements of the dependable and the familiar. But on many occasions, expectations do not align with reality. I can think of several examples with regard to food and, more recently, with holiday celebrations.

Our “false friends” can sometimes lead us down the wrong path, with embarrassing, yet humorous results. For example, if you were to walk into a supermarket and ask for “tuna sin preservativos” you would, in fact, be asking for a “prickly pear without a condom.” Super kinky, right? Then after committing your innocent linguistic error, you might feel compelled to apologize and state that you’re very “embarazada,” which amounts to being pregnant. Watch out for those prickly pears. J

Another thing to beware of is the ketchup. As most of my close friends already know, I love (umm…no, LOVE!) condiments and will always reserve a special place in my heart for Heinz 57.  I used to put that stuff on eggs, burgers, baked potatoes, etc., and in disturbingly large quantities. Although you can certainly find “ketchup” in Peru, a product “recognizable in form,” the content is way different and way bad. Not sure how to describe that shit, other than “sugary tomato goop”?

Pizza, another favorite comfort food, also tends to lead me down a driveway of disappointment. Whenever I spot a new pizzeria in town I will become ridiculously excited, expecting and hoping for the crisp crust, savory tomato sauce, and hot, melted mozzarella of my native New York. Once again, my dreams are dashed--- this time by cardboard crust and the inappropriate use of ham.

With regard to the holidays, it was certainly difficult to accept the advent of Christmas this year, without the crisp, cold New England winter or seasonal sightings of Santa Claus. Initially, I was relieved when people began to deck their halls, sometime between December 10th and 14th. But after a small sampling of the decorative efforts, I was ready to throw every strand of glittery garland into the ocean. By far, the Christmas tree in the Plaza took the prize for most tacky imitation of “American” custom and culture. As you can see in the photo below, this year’s holiday season was brought to you by plastic, paper-mache, and Coca-Cola.

However, when you stop looking for customs, culture, and cuisine that are “recognizable in form” you become more open to embracing all that is unique and amazing about where you are, right here and right now. These days, instead of lusting after ketchup, I’ve made Huancaina my new boyfriend. Sure, the pizza sucks but the ceviche is out-of-this-world. And on Christmas Eve, I had the unique pleasure of gathering with my Peruvian family, drinking hot cocoa and waiting for the strike of midnight, at which point we exchanged hugs, placed baby Jesus in the manger, then joined our neighbors in the street for a champagne toast (followed shortly by exploding cherry bombs).

Although the past several months have certainly been marked by growing pains, I believe the greatest indicator of integration occurred on New Year’s Eve. Amid a group of friends, hailing from Cusco, Connecticut, and places in between, I participated in a Peruvian drinking circle and consumed BEER! My close friends and family know that I strongly dislike beer, but after some initial moments of doubt hesitation, I found that the local hops and barley are not too offensive! Either this is a sign of personal growth, or the impending apocalypse. I give up. I give in.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Life of the Party

After two consecutive weeks of blaring cumbia music, public debauchery, and scary clowns, yesterday culminated the 472nd anniversary of my town. Que viva CamanĂ¡! Yeah, anniversaries are kind of a big deal down here. Not just “important” ones either, like 100 or 200 years. The 28th and/or 72nd year is equally significant and will be celebrated just the same---with a parade, some random explosives, a commemorative Mass, and lots of street drinking.

Initially I was a little skeptical about all this joyful noise and merry making. It seemed overly sentimental, almost trivial, to celebrate the 54th anniversary of your school or to have a birthday party for your dog. But then, after a few shots of Pisco, I got over myself. I began to realize how awesome it is to go through life either preparing for a fiesta or going to one. In fact, we could probably use some more holidays in the United States. I suggest that, at the very least, we add “Dia del Amigo,” “Dia de la Juventud,” and “Dia de los Santos” into the celebration rotation. Porque no?

Perhaps my initial reaction of jaded cynicism, my reluctance to party hardy, was due to the overzealous capitalism that often accompanies holidays in the U.S. How many stupid Secret Santa gifts have we purchased in our collective lifetime? Seriously. And the Easter Bunny is just damn creepy.

Celebrations down here appear to be more organic, more about enjoying good times with friends and family, eating, dancing, and excessive drinking. I could be down with that. This probably explains why my favorite American holiday is the Fourth of July. Picnics, parades, people setting things on fire-- all the elements needed for a good time. I am not expected to BUY you anything, other than a cheap 6-pack of domestic beer.

Furthermore, the essence of Fiestas is to embrace the present moment in real time, rather than two months prior. Case in point: today is November 11th and I have yet to see any evidence of an impending Navidad. Absent are the obnoxious plastic decorations, the mall madness, or the ingratiating refrain of “Dominic, the Christmas Donkey.”

Perhaps the great philosopher, Madonna, best captures the essence of ideal, joyful celebration:

                        If we took a holiday
                        took some time to celebrate
                        just one day out of life
                        it would be, it would be so nice.

                        Holiday, Celebration
                        Come together in every nation.

Amen, sister.

Monday, October 24, 2011

¿Que quiero ser?

Or, in plain English, “What do I want to be?” Through the generations, this simple question has prompted contemplative reflection, chain-smoking, and habitual procrastination. As a Youth Development Facilitator, I have been assigned to work with adolescents on vocational orientation and career education, in addition to promoting healthy lifestyles, leadership skills, and community service.

Although my job does not involve hard, physical labor, (umm... is that really a surprise?) the task at hand remains challenging, primarily due to structural differences within the Peruvian educational system: Kids finish high school at age 16. There are no “guidance counselors.” And higher education opportunities are determined mostly by how well you perform on an entrance exam.

If you hope to advance to the next level, a university education, then you better have your shit together. Prior to matriculation, students apply for admission to a specific major or course of study.  “Liberal Arts” and “Undeclared” are not options. Pre-professional education is the norm, which means that by age 16 you should know if you want to be a dentist or a teacher, a lawyer or an accountant.

As I think back on some of my undergraduate electives---Reality and Utopia, Liberation Theology, and Radicalism of the 1960’s---I consider how irrelevant these courses might seem to my Peruvian counterparts. Why would I take a class on political philosophy? Is that going to help me get a job in my chosen discipline? And what the heck is my “chosen discipline” anymore??

Working with students on vocational orientation has, indeed, triggered some restless nights spent thinking about my post- Peace Corps career aspirations. After having the experience of a lifetime, which allows me to develop and implement creative projects, set my own work schedule, and collaborate with respected community leaders, the idea of returning to a regular “job” seems rather unappealing and unfulfilling.           

Peace Corps invites you to think big and to act boldly. During my initial weeks at site, I printed business cards, presented myself to elected officials, and engaged in shameless self-promotion. I know how to market my program in a compact 90-second sound bite and I can do it in a foreign language!

Back home I rarely exercised that level of initiative. I was frustrated by a perceived lack of opportunities for professional growth, but maybe my world seemed small because I made it that way, limited by my own fears and insecurities. As Tolstoy articulated, “I wanted movement and not a calm course of existence. I wanted excitement and danger and the chance to sacrifice myself for my love. I felt in myself a superabundance of energy which found no outlet in our quiet life.”---“Family Happiness”

Sure, I would apply to jobs that were of interest to me, but the idea of creating my own opportunities seemed too challenging, too risky. Now I live in a perpetual state of slight discomfort: cold showers, intestinal distress, wandering llamas. Bring it on.

Although my future remains uncertain, I take comfort in knowing that my 15- and 16- year old Peruvian students are with me on this wild ride. Each day they arrive with important questions, such as “How much does a psychologist earn?,” “Why are you single?,” and, most importantly,  “Do you like Justin Bieber?.” Perhaps we’ll find the answers together, poco a poco.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Ugly American?

Something must be wrong with me. I spent my entire daily living stipend at Dunkin Donuts yesterday. Jockey Plaza, aka “The Mall,” is my new happy place. On more than one occasion, I've contemplated seeing Mr. Popper's Penguins. Even worse, I became strangely excited to discover that Limp Bizkit would be performing in Lima on August 3rd. My close friends and family would recognize immediately that this is a marked departure from my indie-rock/ thrifty chic/ feminist persuasion. Hopefully, they would also slap me (hard!) across the face and bring me back to my senses. Yet these recent ruminations lead me to wonder: AM I AN UGLY AMERICAN??

Although I have avoided wearing a baseball hat backwards and sporting a fanny pack, my nostalgic fondness for commercial remnants of American Culture has taken me by surprise. Is this normal? Probably. According to the Peace Corps, I'm not losing my damn mind. Instead, my behavior is symptomatic of “cultural adjustment.” They even went through the trouble of publishing a volunteer handbook (A Few Minor Adjustments) on the subject. Thanks, Peace Corps!

Eloquently stated, “Adjustment involves getting used to all the things that are missing.” Therefore, on the rare occasion I might encounter a McDonald's or a Pizza Hut, I find myself compelled to place an order, simply because it represents a tangible connection to home. And yes, I will buy those marked up M&M's at Plaza Vea, simply because it makes me happy!

When very little is “known and familiar” you start to entertain crazy thoughts, like paying money to see a dumb movie about penguins or talking robots. Why? Because those are the few American movies I can “enjoy” here in my native language, or at least with the assistance of subtitles. Although I am integrating slowly into the Peruvian culture, by speaking Spanish daily, consuming massive quantities of rice, and spending time with my host family, sometimes you just crave a semblance of familiarity. I certainly did not arrive with an innate desire to consume mediocre fast foods, which I mostly avoided in the States, but a sudden loss of familiar routines and faces can be difficult to manage sometimes.

Once again, Peace Corps provides a message of comfort and reassurance: “There is no foolproof formula for successful adjustment. On the contrary, adjustment is a highly personal matter that each of you will approach at your own pace and in your own style.” I guess my “style” comes in the form of jelly donuts and bad movies. But I should probably draw the line at Limp Bizkit.