Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Meaning of Success

The two days that Peace Corps trainees spend in Washington is known as “Staging.” Within those days, we met the motivated individuals who would be joining us on this adventure and with them, participated in activities to begin to prepare us for two years of service. We received a manual with these activities – sort of like a welcome packet to the Peace Corps.

In cleaning out my room to leave Laraos, I found my staging packet and read what I had written two years ago, before all of my successes and failures, my experiences, my life lessons – before coming to know what the whole “Peace Corps experience” was really all about.

In my staging manual from 2010 there was an activity to complete the following sentences:

I have chosen to commit to the Peace Corps at this time in my life because…


I will feel successful as a Volunteer when…

The idea of these questions was to put on paper what we had in our minds from the beginning so that when we inevitably had doubts as to what the heck we were doing in this town and when we felt unsuccessful as volunteers, we could reference our previous thoughts as affirmations. I was kind of surprised at what I had written. To the first one I responded:  

I have chosen to commit to the Peace Corps at this time in my life because…

I have the skills needed and an altruistic servant’s heart. This is where I feel called to be, needed and where I feel I can make a difference and serve my country and others.

And for the second:

I will feel successful as a Volunteer when…

I integrate in to my community and am trusted to handle a need of the community.

When I say that I found this, it should be clear that I didn’t read it at all in the last two years. It didn’t help me through any tough times or re-affirm my successes. But reading it now, at the end of my service, it is certainly helping me to feel successful as a volunteer.  If I was only looking for two things out of my service, it was to become a member of my community and one that was trusted to help with a development issue in the community.

I look back on the last two years and I can confidently say that I became a “well-integrated” part of my community. By the end of this year, I was a sought-after member on the pick-up volleyball teams, dancing in full traditional dress in the town party (see photo), welcome in the teachers’ conversations at recess, greeted by the farmers on my morning runs and an expert at spending time just sitting/sunning/chatting/knitting with the ladies as we waited for the car to come in from the city.
As for the second part of the answer; the “trusted to handle a need of the community part,” it wasn’t until my last few weeks in site that this one was fulfilled. In fact, during a lot of my service I felt completely unnecessary to Laraos and while I could offer good ideas, I didn’t feel that the authorities wanted to work with me to bring them to fruition. Time after time I saw the municipality doing great things for the environment but never once was I consulted or invited to participate in them – building a landfill, training the workers, three forestation campaigns, town clean-ups, a cloth market bag campaign (my idea, by the way) and quite a few park wildlife censuses. Never was I asked to be a part. I was great at becoming a part of my community but up until the last few weeks in site, I didn’t feel like my professional knowledge was really appreciated by my town.

Then, one day, good old Pedro Casildo, with whom I had worked on that drawn-out reforestation project in Vizcollo, told me that he had been hired as the new worker at the landfill and could I please go up one day with him and show him what needed to be done? “OF COURSE!!!!” I replied. I practically skipped home because finally someone had recognized that I wasn’t there just to be the town gringa but that I actually knew some things that would be useful to for them. A few days later I walked up to the landfill with Pedro, marveling at his physical prowess to walk the three kilometers up the mountain despite his age (76 years old).

And then we walked around the complex together and I explained what to separate out and where to put it (organics to the worm beds, plastics to the closet to then be taken to Huancayo, etc.) and I finally felt like I was doing what I had been there to do – transmit my knowledge to others. And this time, the other person had actually asked me to teach him and was actually listening! Now that might seem very small to you but to me it was huge.   

A lot of Peace Corps volunteers talk about having to redefine the term “success” in order to feel successful working in their sites. Sometimes for me a day was considered successful when I could track down one person and talk to him for five minutes. The whole day was dedicated to that one activity because some people are just impossible to find. Other days were successful because forty kids came to a movie night or because my volleyball team won. Still others were successful because I left my house and got the tía to stop calling me “gringa” and start calling me “Laurita.”
My day to day successes needed to be redefined during my Peace Corps service but in reading my staging manual I saw that I knew from the beginning what I really needed to feel successful: “to be a trusted and knowledgeable member of my community.” So this makes me wonder – can we use that as a universal goal of success? Is that one definition of success that can be applied to any and all situations? No matter where we are or what we are doing, we are in communities and if we are trusted and respected members of those communities it means we are doing something right, right? Maybe that is all we need to feel successful – the acceptance and appreciation of our [school, work, family, friends, church] communities.


Friday, October 26, 2012

The Family

Hi all and Happy Halloween. OK so it’s a little early to say that but I’ve got to think ahead these days. Unfortunately, as I’m getting to the end, all I can do is look back. This last weekend, we held the last regional meeting I would be attending in Huancayo. Since it was mine and Alex’s last regional meeting, it served as a bit of a farewell party for us. And our little group of 9 volunteers had a great weekend in spite of the goodbye atmosphere.  

For all I write about my projects and Peruvian culture, I don’t think I’ve ever taken the time to explain to you how our region works. I often mention going to the capitol for our meetings to relax and speak some English. Peace Corps Peru operates with the idea that volunteers who work within clusters are happier, more supported and more productive. So we are placed in to these clusters but depending on the region, the distance between two volunteers can be between 5 minutes and four hours apart. And a region can have any number of volunteers. One area of Peru is home to about 40 volunteers from all programs that are all fairly close together. In our region, we are nine people and the two closest volunteers are about 15 minutes apart while the two furthest volunteers are about 8 hours apart! As one of the smallest and probably the most dispersed regions of Peru and composed of entirely environmental volunteers, it makes sense that we would be a tight-knit group.

And we are. Particularly, the four of us who arrived together two years ago: Reilly, Leslie, Alex and I. They are the three sisters I never had and each one has supported me and challenged me to grow in different ways. We got to know our new realities together and then as seasoned pros welcomed the rookies with open arms. We’ve…

Smiled and laughed… 

…cried, hugged…





 …and raised many a glass together.

So it is tough to realize and recognize that our memory-making streak in Peru is going to come to an end. The small group of people who come together once a month in Huancayo has become my close-knit, environmentally active, volunteering family.  

So now, there are only 17 days left for me living in this Laraos and there are zero days left in site for the closest volunteer to me both physically and emotionally, Alex. Just this morning, I gave her the last hug goodbye I will be giving her in Peru. To help her with her exodus, Matt and I made a little visit to Tomas. Though I don’t know what we were able to do for her since we were pretty much just hanging out. I think I learned a little bit about what it is going to be like for me in a couple of weeks. So the girl who has been by my side for the last two years is on her way back to the USA and will be arriving the 1st of November. I will miss her but I will be right behind her.

These next couple of weeks are going to be crazy, I can tell. Time will continue to fly as it has been and before I know it, I will be packing up all of my things and saying my own goodbyes to Laraos with tears in my eyes. But for now, it’s just a simple “see you later” to my fellow volunteers.


Friday, October 19, 2012

Trees in the Ground

Hello all. Whelp. In exactly one month I will be leaving Laraos and setting off for the next adventure. I could probably right an entire entry speculating what that might be so I’m going to put it off for next time. I would rather tell you about my last big project that I had in the works for Laraos that we just finished this past weekend: “Vizcollo Forestation.”

As you might be able to tell by the title, this project involved planting trees in an area of Laraos known as Vizcollo. It sounds simple, right? Wrong. This project has probably caused me more stress and headaches than all other projects combined. If you read my last post, you’ll remember how proud and impressed how everyone came together to put on a successful event. Where everyone cooperated during the camp, it seems that no one worked together for this project. Still, the results are in and there are now 440 quiñual saplings growing in the safety of protective fences in Vizcollo.

So the idea for this project originated last year when I became aware of a government organization’s plan to plant 11,000 saplings in our town’s alpaca and sheep grazing lands, Vizcollo. They had everything in order except for a way in which to protect the fragile trees from the avid foraging livestock. I decided to throw in with them, offering to acquire a budget and plan to protect the 11,000 (which is a hefty number) trees. Working with this organization and the community board, the project everything it needed to aid the community in a sustainable way.

Then the problems started cropping up…

I encountered a working-relationship problem with my primary partner on the project (what alliteration!) and had to spend a few weeks in Lima for medical issues during the key working month of the project. The result? The government’s project went on without my input and they planted some 5000 trees at the end of rainy season without any protection. What is the result of that? Just six months later, all 5000 of those trees had been eaten or dried out and died.

But that only accounts for half of the trees, what happened to the other 6000 saplings? They waited in town and up at the farm for people to plant them. Those people never got there due to lack of interest, lack of funds and lack of access. The road to the farm became inaccessible several times over the course of the project. Still, the government organization, having fulfilled their part of the deal – to deliver 11,000 plants to the community – left and was not available to help the project any further than that. 

So my part in the project completely changed from complement to primary when I was asked to provide more trees now to replace the vast quantity that had failed the previous rainy season. The scale immediately shrank because we no longer had the budget or the time to plant and protect so many trees. We settled on some 450 plants to be planted one weekend by the high school graduating class, where they would earn an alpaca for their effort.

The Friday before we were to leave, I was busy running around, securing a car to go pick up the trees, an errand that took all day. When I (and a few friends) returned and was loading the trees on to the truck that would take us the next morning, the driver of that car informed us that the car would not be going to Vizcollo but somewhere else and “what were we doing loading trees on to the truck?” Confused, we sought out the president who told us the ranching president was in charge of that weekend’s work. When we asked where we could find him, we were dismayed to find out that he was drunk and in no state to clarify this confusion of trip goals. To make matters worse, when I called to have a meeting with my student volunteers, only two valiant boys showed up. Without manpower to plant and without confirmation that we were even going, I canceled the weekend just 6 hours before we were supposed to be leaving and spent the weekend explaining to everybody why I was in town and not up with the alpacas. After calling the authorities out for letting me down for that weekend, they promised that the following weekend, everything would be in order for us to go up and work.

I spent the next week ensuring that I had the participation of at least 12 students, not just from the graduating class but really, anyone who wanted to go. I played on their desire to have a weekend away with friends getting to know another area of Laraos. Interestingly, although it pertains to Laraos, few students have visited this region because it is fairly inaccessible and not the most pleasant (high altitude, cold, rainy/snowy, no electricity, no running water, definitely no internet). I had about 15 students who were ready to go when on Thursday, the teachers announced that pending parent approval (again with the alliteration!) there would be classes on Saturday to make up for days missed during the teachers’ strike.

Sidebar: there was a teachers’ strike. I didn’t post about it because I didn’t have much to say on the matter. It lasted about one month and I’m not sure the teachers achieved their goals because the government declared the strike illegal and said that if they weren’t back in class by Oct. 9, they weren’t getting paid. So, they returned to classed and had a lot of hours to make up.

Upset by yet another obstacle to the weekend of work, I prepared myself for the worst: that the project would not happen because there would be no one to work on any of the remaining weekends of my service. But I went that night to the PTA-comparable meeting, ready to defend keeping this Saturday class-free. To my joy, the parents rejected the request for Saturday classes and our weekend was free for a field trip to Vizcollo.

The Friday before we were to leave, we had a meeting after school with all of those interested in going and I was encouraged to see 19 students and 6 adults show up. The next day, 13 students and 5 adults (two Peace Corps volunteers) climbed in to the truck at 4:00 am to make the 3 hour drive up to the altitude. I settled in, content that we were now on our way. But the weekend/project wasn’t over yet. When we arrived, I was dismayed to see that despite my insistence in the morning and everyone’s assent, those responsible for loading the materials had only loaded half of the fencing required to protect our precious saplings. I was upset at the fact that once again, I had not been listened to.

But we were there and we had half the materials so we were going to work. And work we did. Once I got over that little road bump of not having everything at hand, I was pleased with the job that my volunteers did and ran around taking pictures and video when I wasn’t working myself. We had a quick demonstration on how to assemble and place the fences and then the kids were off to work. 

We spent some time putting the fences together altogether. 

Then carried them off to the planting site. 

And dug holes, planted trees and placed fences…

So that each tree looked like this:

In just one exhausting day of work, I was pleased to see that we had planted all of the trees we had brought and placed fences to protect half of them. The kids took the remaining time to relax, go for a walk and play some soccer. With sundown around 7:00 and no electricity, we climbed in to bed (sleeping bags on mattresses on dirt floors) at 7:30 and did our best to sleep until morning.

The next day, we helped with some of the ranching jobs before heading back down to Laraos. The students hand-picked their well-earned alpaca and we loaded everything on to the truck, exhausted and satisfied. 

So my last large project is finished. It didn’t turn out exactly as I had planned it to but as the title of this post puts it, the trees are in the ground and that is important to me. It seemed like nothing came together but after all the headaches, at the end of the day, the weekend can be considered a success. The students and adults who participated are trained in the correct techniques and have now seen how very possible it is to plant and care for a large amount of trees. They have the materials to hold another campaign with what is left over from this project and I hope that they do so. The trees (and ideas) are in good soil. It is just a matter of letting them grow. 


Saturday, September 15, 2012

Racing to the Finish

Happy September everybody! As lots of folks head back to school or feel like they are having a new start but for me, this is the beginning of the end. Whoah. And part of my big finish here in Laraos was our big youth event – The Amazing Race: Nor Yauyos or in Spanish, La Gran Carrera Nor Yauyina! I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the reality show The Amazing Race, but it involves teams of two racing from location to location around the world, completing challenges based on the culture of their destinations. And while we couldn’t fund tours around the world for our participants, we could set up challenges in three different towns in our region. And that is exactly what we did!

The last weekend of August, 42 youth and 15 volunteers met up in Tomas (about an hour from my site and home to my good buddy, Alex) to begin the Amazing Race! Some participants had to travel eight hours to attend. If that isn’t impressive enough, add in the 5 hours they had to walk to get around a roadblock set up by some strikers against the construction of an airport and then you’ll really be dropping your jaw. The unhoped-for strike led to us here in Yauyos to be very worried that six of the teams and their volunteer chaperones wouldn’t make it at all. But by lunchtime the day of the race, all participants had arrived.

The first leg of the race took place in Tomas. There, the teams of three competed to place historical events in order, separate trash, construct the food pyramid, dance the Cha cha slide, run 2 kilometers carrying a watermelon, find endangered animals in the field (cut outs of course) and race one final stretch to the finish where we were waiting.

From Tomas, we all boarded the bus to drive up to Laraos where, because we were behind schedule, we set up the tents by the full-moon-light in the dried out lakebed. We lit a campfire, toasted s’mores and then tried to rest up for the next day’s challenges. 

In the second leg of the race, Laraos had the teams digging in the lakebed sand to find and identify “arqueological artifacts,” demonstrate knowledge of the reproductive system, remove materials from the garbage that shouldn’t be in the landfill (i.e. batteries), know the politics of Peru and the United States, identify non-native species and medicinal plants and answer questions about pregnancy, STIs, HIV and AIDS before racing to the finish. 

Back on the bus and we were heading to Yauyos for the final leg of the race. The challenges of the provincial capital were to again separate trash, prepare bags of soil for seedlings in a tree nursery, demonstrate knowledge of first aid, speak English, play baseball, play soccer and race to the final finish. 

I don’t think I have felt so much success after putting so much work in to a project in all of my Peace Corps service. So either I worked much harder on this project than on others, or this one was much more successful than other projects. I like to think it was a little of both. I could not have been more proud of the collaborative effort put in by all the volunteers and their communities. We had judges and support coming from the municipalities, health posts, schools, mothers’ clubs, natural resource committees and park service. And I don’t think I can say enough how happy I was to welcome my fellow volunteers to our small little region. And how happy I was for their help in this crazy event. 

After the awards ceremony and a Pachamanca dinner, we all went our separate ways to get the kids safely home, exhausted but so satisfied with the event’s success.

The very next morning, I was on my way to Lima for our close of service conference. This was a week full of doctor appointments, dentist appointments and meetings where we learned about our benefits come the end of our service, what the office needs to officially close us out and how to deal with reverse culture shock. They put in our head the importance of tying up loose strings and saying goodbye to our communities. So I know that I should be thinking about what these last two months will be and to whom I will give my things and how I will say goodbye. But the truth is that I feel like I still have so much work to do before I can begin to think about saying goodbye. There is no doubt that these next couple of months will be incredibly busy and will fly by. Time to think about what’s next…


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Still Up For An Adventure

Well everyone, the electricity has miraculously been on for the last hour and a half and so I figure I am safe to start writing another blog post before it goes out again. I don’t know what’s been going on for the past week and a half but every day of that time has been without power. I figure they must be working on it because it goes out in the day and comes back at night. This is fine except for the fact that much of my work these days is on the computer in planning and prepping. The kids have been out of school for a week and this week for mid-year vacation (remember, we start in March) which means I’ve had a fair amount of free time to work on my larger projects.

But I’m not writing today about those. I would like to write to you about an adventure that I had in mid-July. This post is titled as such because I feel that my time in Laraos has become very routine which, although satisfying, seems to be contrary to the fact that I live in the mountains of Peru and the feeling that I should be having adventures at every turn (so that I can write about them later here in my blog) So to put a little bit of adventure in to my work, in mid-July, the high school science teacher and I took the graduating class on a two day/ one night hike.

The hike was to be the research for the class’s project that they would then present at the science and technology fair as well as a nice mid-year excursion for this year’s graduating class. I should mention here that the class is only 9 students, 8 boys and 1 girl. So she, the female science teacher, a park guard and his two songs, 8 high school boys and I set out on this hike at 3:30 one Friday morning. I had never been hiking in the dark and I’m not sure I would recommend it. Although, I will say that it is pretty rewarding to know that you have beaten the sun to the spot where you choose to breakfast. We chose to breakfast here…

…at the cell phone tower about 800 meters above Laraos. The boys, not yet tired of climbing, took to the tower in the early morning.

After about three and a half hours of climbing, we still were not done climbing. We had a couple of hours more of walking past a couple of lakes – Huarococha and Iskay Cocha. If you didn’t know, “cocha” is Quechua for lake. Also interestingly, “iskay” is Quechua for 2 and so you can imagine that Iskay Cocha is actually two lakes…Twin lakes if you will (Palatine, anyone?). But we finally reached the highest point of our hike. According to the park guard it is an elevation of 5300 meters about sea level. I don’t know if that is the case, but it was definitely high and my lungs felt it. 

From there it was a descent on loose gravel to the focal lake of the hike, Winsococha. Winsococha is smaller than I had imagined it but was in every way spectacular. Maybe it was because of the effort we expended to get there and knowing that was our resting point, or maybe it was its crystalline water but as we approached I was astounded by its beauty and wanted nothing but to go for a swim in it. 

Just up from the lake was the “mesa de sacrificios,” the sacrificial table. We sat and rested while our trusty park guard, Che (just a nickname folks), explained how it was here the Yauyos people (Pre-Incan) sacrificed the first born male of every year to ensure enough water for the year. The site had fallen in to even more ruin since the last visit so we set about rebuilding some of the walls. This really only meant picking up rocks from the path and putting them on the wall. Liz insists that we tampered with history here but I hold to the idea that we were restoring it. 

We offered our sacrificial coca leaves and cigarettes (apparently, the modern first born son) and then we were headed to the other side of the lake to have lunch and see this!

These are the “Siete ventanas,” or seven windows, of Laraos (trust me, there are 7). This was the ancient settlements way of diverting water from the lake to irrigate crops but also to control the flow of that water. Quite a little bit of ingenuity if you ask me. I figure if I were an engineer, I could understand and explain this better but I’m satisfied to just accept that it worked.

It was 1:30 and we had been on the trail for 10 hours and we still had a couple more to go before getting to our campsite in the quiñual forest. We crossed the pampa and began a gentle descent in to the forest and along the stream. We camped near the stream and under some branches that extended over us like a roof. We made our bed on garbanzo flowers topped with plastic and put our sleeping bags all in a very compact row to keep warm. That night we had a campfire complete with ghost stories and were actually sleeping very early. I once again enjoyed the night sky, this time sleeping under it, even though the ghost stories of the youngest on our trip had scared the blisters from hiking right off my feet.

In the morning, we awoke to find that although we had slept soundly and warm enough in the night, the water we had left standing overnight was now frozen! Whoah. Refreshed, we ate breakfast and prepared for day 2 of our adventure, the purpose of our trip, to visit the ruins of Sinchimarka.

It was about an hour and a half more of hiking to reach the ruins and when we got there, we were at first unimpressed. The entrance was only wide enough for one person to pass through and that and a small circle of stones was all we could see. But then we entered further and the hill opened up to a sort of plaza in the center of many homes. 

We spent some time, wandering around, exploring, climbing and even cleaning a little bit of the brush away from the walls.

The neat part for me was that because much of the site had become overgrown, each time swept a branch back from the stone, it was like I was discovering it for the first time, myself. Alright, make fun of me if you like but I was channeling my inner Indiana Jones. In that sense, cleaning the ruins was fulfilling but in another, it was sad to see that such an interesting part of Laraos’s patrimony was so overgrown and so infrequently visited. Almost everyone in Laraos knows that Sinchimarka exists but there are very few who have been and even fewer who know the way. The boys, upon arrival, were unimpressed and wondered aloud why they had made such an effort only to see…this. But then, they started exploring and discovering and they realized the potential that the place holds as an important historical site not only for larahuinos personal enjoyment but also for tourism.

Aside from the site being complete unmaintained, the major challenge to making this a touristic excursion is the path. The path is in such poor shape that even for people who know it, it is a challenge. I contemplated this as we headed down from Sinchimarka, certain that we weren’t even on a path and fearing I would break an ankle several times over. Somehow, we made it to the river where we ate lunch and relaxed in the sun for a while. I took off my shoes and socks and like a lizard, laid on a large flat rock in the sun for a while. The boys fished and the girls chatted. I’m not certain, but I’m pretty sure I napped. We had completed our mission but there was still two hours of downhill to complete. Luckily for me, that path was clear and although the sun was hot, we were rewarded with a spectacular waterfall at our journey’s end. 

And that was my adventure with the kiddos. I saw kids but really, they are 16-18 years old. Overall, I would say that I enjoyed their company and getting to know them more, recognizing that they are adolescents and I most likely, was like them when I went on overnights with friends. Interestingly, this was my first overnight with only Spanish speakers and let me tell you, I discovered something about my Spanish: After a certain amount of time of all Spanish, no English music, reading, listening or speaking, I reach a certain point where my brain just gives up and all of a sudden, I am speaking English without even realizing it. It took me a moment of strange looks from the teens before I realized that I had answered their question in English and then was able to recover the Spanish. But apparently, without planned breaks, my brain programs its own. Neat, huh? But truly, apart from that little difficulty, I feel like I grew closer to the students and to my two adult counterparts on this trip. I tested my own physical hiking limits, proved my worth and was rewarded with a truly unique experience.

Anyway, the youth presented their project “Let’s Save Sinchimarka” in the fair last week and it ended up winning. Although, I was one of the judges and had my eyes on the miniature solar car to win, I was still proud that I had been a part of making their project a success. With a lot of initiative it could even become a feasible project of restoration but we’ll have to wait and see. Until then, it may be one of those paths less traveled that do indeed, make all the difference.  


Friday, July 20, 2012

It's Raining...

You’re probably thinking: “Big deal, it’s the middle of summer and thunderstorms happen.” But if you’ve been a consistent reader (or are just in to Andean weather patterns), you might remember that now is our dry season and you’re thinking: “how weird that it should be raining right now in the Andes!” And folks, that’s exactly what I thought as I watched the rain come across the mountain to fall in buckets on our heads at the end of June. Luckily we were inside at the town’s budget meeting for next year but the rain came in a fury (like it knew that it hadn’t had its chance in a while and wouldn’t have its moment again until October) and brought the cold with it. Not only that, but the electricity went out just a few minutes before the surprising downpour and so we were returned to earlier times as we wrapped up our discussion on what to do with the budget in 2013.

Now. The telling of that story is interesting sure. because who doesn’t like to hear about unseasonal weather? But the title of this post refers to the rain of visitors I have had in Peru in the last couple of months and the outpouring of love I have felt by their willingness to come this far to see me and that I felt in their presence as they were/are here.

If you remember, my last post was about my parents’ visit for two weeks to this incredibly diverse country. To be honest, they were the only people I expected to make it down here to visit because at the time of their visit, I had been here for 20 months and hadn’t had a visitor yet. So I was incredibly surprised when, during my parents’ visit, I received an e-mail from my Grandma informing me that she and Grandpa would be arriving in Lima on June 12, just two weeks after my parents were to leave.

I was thrilled to host my grandparents in Peru’s capital city and impressed that they had chosen Peru as their first adventure traveling outside of the United States. Together we spent about one week in and around Lima and although they were unable to visit my site (due to the altitude), they were able to visit what I referred to as “real Peru” outside of the Lima’s city limits just to the south. They were struck by the amount of traffic on Lima’s roads, how difficult it was for them to be in a place where they did not speak the language and by the impoverished looking houses so near to the wealthy ones of the city. In Lima, we visited the Parque del Amor, the ruins of Huaca Pucllana, the Parque del Agua (picture!), the Plaza de Armas, the San Francisco Monestary and its catacombs, an Adventist church and walked a lot on the water front. In fact, I think I walked them out.

 The grandparents were much more adventurous in what we ate and we ate at a lot of fantastic places. One night was a buffet of many traditional Peruvian dishes at a restaurant that present typical dances while we dined. At another lunch, we enjoyed ceviche at a place with an ocean view, the best way to eat ceviche in my opinion. The day we went out of the city to visit the agricultural and Pisco-producing valley of the Cañete River, Grandpa even was convinced to try the cuy (guinea pig) and he was a great sport about it. Here he is digging in to what may have been the strangest lunch he’s ever had on Father’s Day.
It was a real treat having them visit and spending some time relaxing in Lima with them. I enjoyed showing them around a place that had become my new home and seeing how they reacted to the differences and reminding me of just how different life is here from that in the US. And then, wouldn’t you know it, as I skyped with Mom on Father’s Day morning, my brother, Joe, came in to the conversation with the surprise of “what if we came the first week of July?” I couldn’t believe it. More visitors?!

Brother Joe and his wife, Carrie, arrived to Lima the night of July 2. We spent their first day in Lima visiting most of the main site-seeing places. The day started off with a nice run (super cool to share my newfound joy of jogging with the super-active couple) along the water front. Later we walked the same route so they could take lots of pictures. We visited the center of the city where the plaza, the colonial buildings and the catacombs are. We found a new place for me near the monastery, the Parque de la Muralla, where one could see the remains of the wall that enclosed the old colonial city. At the restaurant in the park, we ate ceviche before heading out to try to visit the Parque de las Aguas. Unfortunately, it wasn’t open but at least we tried. That night, we went for sushi with other volunteers who happened to be in Lima and although I don’t think they felt they had much to input to the conversations, I think they enjoyed listening to the crazy stories of the volunteers as we checked in with each other. 

The next day was July 4th. Instead of setting off fireworks, we traveled from Lima up to Laraos. We figured they could handle the altitude and would enjoy seeing where I lived. It took us a while to get there and arrived just as the last light was leaving. We were all glad for the journey to be over because, as they found out, although beautiful, it can be a little rough. We spent one full day in Laraos where we mainly walked around and I told them about what we were seeing. I would have liked to take them to the school to visit the kids but there were no classes because all of the teachers were celebrating National Teacher’s Day in the town over. I got them to take a little hike up my favorite canyon to visit a nice babbling brook and waterfall. 

I think they enjoyed seeing the reality of life in Laraos but were glad that it wasn’t their home. The altitude and the hills took their toll on the visitors so that after two freezing nights in the campo, they were ready to move on to see other places. For me, their visit was over too quickly; we weren’t even together one week before I had to say goodbye to them in the Huancayo bus station. I was glad to be able to share my life with them in Laraos and although I worried it had been a little rough on them, they assured me that they had a great time.  

After I waved goodbye to Joe and Carrie (they were off to Machu Picchu to finish out their trip), I checked in to a hotel in Huancayo to await the arrival of my next visitor – Liz!

She rolled in to Huancayo early in the morning after about 15 hours of travel and then the two of us climbed in to the car to Laraos. And as I sit here writing out this blog, she is taking a nap, exhausted from her last day in Lima. I couldn’t be more thrilled to have her here visiting. The best part is that instead of going touring around Peru together, I got to play host to a visitor in Laraos for a whole week. I think it turned out to be the most “Peace Corps” experience a visitor could have because she spent longer than two days in my site at a time when there wasn’t a huge party going on and accompanied me to my classes and meetings. In Huancayo, we met up with other volunteers and now in Lima, we are finally able to get some actual tourist activity done. I had been worried that spending the week in Laraos would bore the good friend I had come to know in the bustling city of Charleston but she assured me that the quiet campo life was exactly what she was looking for.

And now that we have left the campo for the big city, she is getting to see more of what Peru has to offer. I am most glad that she has gotten the opportunity to see the Inquisition Museum in the center of Lima. My other visitors have missed out on what my boss has described as a classic. Though it is not the biggest museum, it still holds some interesting bits of history on an often overlooked period in Peru’s timeline. But I had a feeling that my college roommate would enjoy it because the Inquisition just happens to be her study area of interest and (I am proud to say) what she will be studying further in her graduate school this fall. We took in other areas of the city center and have met up with some other volunteers. I think that Peru has worn her out but I am certain that she has enjoyed her visit. Though I would argue that I enjoyed her visit much more.

So tomorrow, she heads home and then I am pretty sure that my downpour of visitors will end as quickly as it came on. Playing tour guide to each of the groups that have visited has further enriched my Peace Corps experience and I hope that touring Peru has enriched their own lives. It has been such a joy to see my loved ones here in what has become my home. I still cannot believe the outpouring of love I have felt by my visitors’ courage in coming to visit (in South America for the first time and even out of the United States for the first time) and their spirits of adventure in wanting to experience what I have experienced for the last two years.

Like I said, I don’t expect to have any more visitors for the rest of my service. But if you didn’t make it, don’t feel bad. I will be back and ready to visit every one of you soon enough. Until then, it is back to Laraos and back to work. Because I realize, my time here is quickly disappearing. 


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

When Worlds Collide

Well folks, I apologize once again for the long span between posts. It’s an interesting thing: The moments in which you are having lots of experiences are the moments in which you should most be writing but you are so busy experiencing them that you don’t have enough time to write about them.  And such was the case with April and May. I have now had two vacations, one town party and lots of classes since the last time I wrote. I have visited the jungle twice, Machu Picchu once, attempted to run a marathon, taught lots of kids about birds, English, and decision-making, learned what it’s like to be a translator, showed my parents around my new hometown, cleaned an irrigation canal and played in said irrigation canal.

Just a week and a half ago, I wished my parents a good trip home after spending a whirlwind two weeks with them in this country that has become a home for me. So rather than write out the details of everything (because I’m sure half of you are getting the stories from my parents as well) let’s go to a classic favorite: the top 10 list!

1. Picking up the parents at the airport. My friend, Miguel, and his father drove me there and for the first time ever, I was one of those people waiting at the exit with a welcome sign! Then we chatted as we drove through the midnight Lima streets and I enjoyed watching them take in their first glimpse of Peru. Even if it was super late at night and they were exhausted. It was that excited exhaustion that comes from being incredibly tired but not wanting to miss a thing.

2.  Stopping in Huancayo and staying in la Casa de la Abuela. This is place is “our place” as Peace Corps volunteers staying in Huancayo. The small staff has become like family to us and the hostel is a home away from home away from home. I think they enjoyed seeing the place in real life rather than through the computer on Skype.

3. Soup breakfast! Their first morning in Laraos, I knocked on the hotel door with two pots of soup that I had collected that morning from the town party hosts. A little surprised about breakfast being soup, but glad for the hot meal, mom and dad enjoyed their “desayuno Larahuino.” This was the first of many new and interesting foods for them.

4. English class. While we were in Laraos, I still had a few responsibilities and one of those was teaching my English class. Luckily, mom and dad were all for visiting the class and talking with the kids. The kids loved meeting my parents and measuring their height against dad’s. And asking about his shoe size. Ha! And conveniently for my parents, my English class for the kids served as Spanish class for the parents.

5. Canal cleaning: For the first half of the day, mom and dad helped out cleaning the irrigation canals of the town and we all (meaning the whole town) enjoyed a lunch break on a sunny hill overlooking the town. Then, finding out that the second half would get messy, mom and dad took off and we went out to play. We arrived soaking wet and pretty muddy to the plaza where we danced a couple of times and hurried off to shower and change because the cold night was setting in.

6. Pachamanca: I think Pachamanca has made it on a top ten list before but it’s because it is SO good. And this time, mom and dad were there to enjoy it! From the ground to the table, they witnessed the grandeur that is pachamanca. We were invited to sit on the benches which is a nice honor. Unfortunately, dad’s legs were too long and he feared stepping on the food. So he stood while a very insistent tía worried that we weren’t eating enough. But we assured her, we were stuffed.

7. Transportation: I’m going to make this one point even though it could be several. So here’s the list the modes of transportation we utilized over the two weeks: airplane, taxi, private car, colectivo (shared car), minivan, bus, boat, train and our own two feet. I think my parents came to understand the difficulty that it is to travel to and from where I live despite being “close” to the city and the good luck that is sometimes required to get to where we want to go.

8. Saturday church in Lima: We were able to attend at the Adventist church with Miguel and his family. And true to church-day tradition, we went out to lunch afterwards altogether. It was a wonderful morning for me because my parents were able to spend more time with this family who has come to support me like their own daughter beyond anything I could have ever wished from an assigned host family. The challenge was translating the conversation during lunch. There came a point where I said that I would have to stop translating or I wouldn’t eat anything! It was a beautiful day.

9. Marathon: So, if you’ve already found out, I didn’t finish the marathon. And now that everyone knows, you might be asking, why would this make the top ten list? Well, true; the whole, not finishing part was definitely the low for me this month. But the marathon is more than those hours you spend running the day of the race. Preparing for the marathon got me through a whole lot of hard times this rainy season and makes it on my top 10 list for those months. The day and the moments before the race there was such a contagious air of excitement and camaraderie that was definitely a positive experience. And even running (up until the point where I didn’t finish), I felt great and came to know a completely different side of Lima. Even after it didn’t end as planned, I felt such support from the friends and family who were there. So overall, “marathon” belongs on the top ten list.

10. The jungle: Is there anything more I can say about the jungle? Well, yes. I could make a top 10 list just for the jungle. I love the jungle. Sure, it’s full of bugs that make you sleep in a mosquito net and hot and humid but it’s…the jungle! Along with coral reefs, it is among the most diverse ecosystems in the world and therefore a biologist’s dream. Being here in Peru, with the jungle so close, I am taking advantage of my travel here to go whenever I can (time and money allowing). So, I convinced my semi-reluctant parents to jump in a plane to Puerto Maldonado and on a boat to our jungle lodge in the Tambopata National Reserve. Although I was recovering from the marathon, I was determined to participate in everything our jungle tour had to offer: night walk, early morning walk to and vigil of a clay lick, kayaking on the river, ziplining through the trees, fishing with a cane pole and a night boat ride to spot caimans. We also saw capuchin and squirrel monkeys, jaguar tracks, capybaras and lots of big creepy crawlies! I knew I would like the jungle but I was a little anxious for my parents’ enjoyment of it. But Dad was in his element sitting in the ground blind. So what if he was looking at scarlet macaws instead of scanning for deer? And the American Fisherman found a cane pole and became the “South American Fisherman.” Mom was a good sport with the adventuring but I have a feeling that her favorite part was waking up in our bungalow with the relaxing sound of the rain on the thatched roof before we had to pack up to leave.

11. Sacred Valley: Going to Cuzco for the second time, I was excited at the possibility to see the sites of Cuzco that I wasn’t able to when I was there four years ago. And my parents were on board for a tour of the Sacred Valley. This is the valley below the city of Cuzco that is littered with Incan ruins. Although it was a bummer to be herded around this valley on a bus tour, I can’t deny that the sites to be seen were pretty impressive. Although the focus was to visit Incan ruins, I think I enjoyed the colonial church at Chinchero most…but that might be because it was sunset and beautiful.

12. Aguas Calientes: This town is the train stop for all those tourists who want to see Machu Picchu and don’t want to hike there to do it. Its name also means “hot waters” and is home to a lovely hot spring. Wanting to get to Machu Picchu early, we went to Aguas Calientes to stay the night and get up early the next day. This meant we had some time to enjoy the city with some hiking and some shopping. Cuzco had been a little too hectic and in-you-face for us but Aguas Calientes was relaxed enough that we could enjoy the cloud forest we were visiting. The parents were exhausted but I took the evening to enjoy the hot springs. And it was glorious.

13. Machu Picchu: How could this not make the list, right? I mean, it’s Machu Picchu! To be honest, I was seeing it for the second time and I was sadly aware that I wasn’t struck with the same jaw-dropping awe that I had felt upon my first sighting of this world wonder. Instead, upon seeing it again, I felt peacefully nostalgic. Luckily for me, I was there with two Machu Picchu first-timers and their excitement was more than enough for me.

14. Lima layover: My parents last day in Peru we flew from Cuzco to Lima early in the morning and then had all day to spend in Lima before their flight home at midnight:thirty that night. It was such a wonderful day. We took a silly bus tour of the city which, although informative, was made sillier by wearing headsets that told us more information about the sites we were seeing. One last gourmet Peruvian meal at Chef Gaston’s restaurant, Tanta, and soon it was time to go back to the airport. We laughed a lot that day and it was a perfect end to such a wonderful vacation.

We said our “see ya laters,” knowing that later wouldn’t be until December. They went home to Chicago and I went home to Laraos. I think it was the first time I had ever been the one to be left behind at the airport when wishing someone a safe trip. I told this to my mom and she said, “Yeah, how does it feel?” I responded with: “I don’t like it.” So here’s to a sharing of perspectives. I am so glad that my parents were able to visit me where I live, to see and experience firsthand the things that I write about on this blog. But I gained some perspective from their visit too. They’re reactions to some of the “normalcies” of my town reminded me of just how special it is to be living here. And although many people have applauded my “brave” decision to leave, I learned at the airport that sometimes it is harder to be the one who stays.