A Campo Christmas

“Campo Christmas”

So much like the USA and around the world, Christmas has come and gone. And while it definitely wasn’t the same as passing Christmas with the family (including missing the annual cousin’s breakfast and gift exchange), it did pass bonita y linda for sure. The days leading up to Christmas, people put up decorations to various degrees. Some had lights in the windows, with others had garland hanging around their house. Most houses had small artificial trees, but every house had their version of the manger scene. Usually it’s multi-level and filled with a wide variety of plastic animals that may or may not have been hanging around the manger roughly 2030 years ago. The town square had a small manger scene similar to one that you might find in front of a church in the states.
So how do you celebrate Christmas in these parts? Well, Christmas Eve, everyone works regularly until around noon or so. And the big hullaballoo happens at midnight, where families gather in their houses and toast to health and love and a happy Christmas. Then out comes the paneton (think fruitcake, except everyone loves it here) and hot chocolate. After that is turkey, chicken and whatever else the family has prepared is served and enjoyed. Then usually the family will stay up partying and talking until the early morning. I stayed up with the family until around 5am on Xmas eve, now knowing what to expect the next day.
So I wake up around 11am on Christmas Day, and most of the family is up at the farm preparing lunch. I have a cup of coffee, shower and walk on up to the farm saying Merry Christmas to friends in the community. I show up, and more family had shown up for Christmas Day and had already started eating Ceviche and cracking open some beers. Wanting the full cultural experience, I dived into both. Next up was the chicken, rice and Peruvian potato salad (potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas with mayo). And we just sat around and ate like any normal day really. The men got hammered while the women sat around, talked and did all the work. I didn’t get hammered that day as I just wasn’t feeling it…that and I just couldn’t bring myself to bring more of the same beer I had been drinking since I arrived last month. If anyone wants to send me some Great Lakes Christmas Ale, that would be fantastic!
Christmas Day was different as it was kind of quiet, but also passed like any other day for the most part. The big show is the midnight meal, and the party that follows after it (whether it’s in the community or your house). The other very different part is that gifts are only given to the children, which took a lot of pressure off of Christmas here. Although, I did receive a gift from my good Peruvian friend…he got my a Lima Alianza soccer jersey, which is really cool.
While I wouldn’t call it the best Christmas ever, it was really nice to pass it with all of the (Peruvian) family and in a different way. I really liked the midnight dinner and the celebration that ensued afterwards, but having Christmas Day being more or less a normal day was weird for me.

The Accident

The Accident.

Something very weird and something unforgettable happened to me December 23rd. As I was traveling back to my site via collectivo, I was spacing out. Crammed in the backseat of a car, I was staring off into the mountains, thinking of what I was missing at home with family and friends. Tired after sleeping only a few hours the night before, and then spending the day in Trujillo. Out of nowhere, everyone else in the car started screaming and yelling ‘Stop, Stop!’ much to my bewilderment. So the car pulls over and I see another car on the other side of the road, and to my right I see another car flipped over in the irrigation cannel, and screams coming from inside the car. The next thing I know I ran down into the cannel to help people get out of the car, where a good portion of it was submerge in the water. We pulled two people out of the backseat, and I leant my knife to cut the seatbelts up front. Then about six of us lifted the car up so the women could crawl out of the ditch and onto land. I checked on that women and then asked and looked to see if there were any injuries to the other people. I had a towel in my bag and I gave it to a woman to cover up and try to keep a little warmer. And thankfully, there were only minor scrapes and everyone went home that night.
It all happened so fast, and it is kind of a blur in my mind. But it was a very impactful scene. Just thinking more of everything surrounding the accident. I didn’t get the full story of what happened, but I heard that the overturned car was cut off by a drunk driver. And seeing as the road to my site isn’t in the best condition (still under construction), it’s easy to see how the driver probably swerved to avoid the collision and ended up in the ditch. Also rare is that the police didn’t show up. They called to the station and since everyone was rescued and there were no major injuries, they had to go to the police to file the report. Our taxi driver called for anther driver to come pick up the family, and then when that car came along we left.
The other thing was that this type of thing is somewhat normal in the community, and since there were no deaths it wasn’t really sensationalist. I told my family about it and their reaction was only with mild surprise and then changed the subject. Even after we left, everyone in my car was kind of joking about the situation and that the family wanted to go into the car to get their things. IT just struck me as odd that an event where people could have died was taken so lightly. Maybe it’s just culture…after all, nobody did die so where was the gravity of the situation. And is it worth it to stress over it?
So what do I take from this? We could talk about revaluing life and making the realization that things happen so rapidly for both the bad and the good. You could talk about faith and whether divine intervention was involved or you could talk about fate and whether the car was meant to fall into the ditch or I was meant to be in the car behind. All I know is that now I carry my knife with me all the time.

So what do you do once you´re at site?

So I’ve officially been a volunteer for a month, and probably doing stuff. So what exactly have I been doing? Good question. To be fair, my family asks me the same thing and I think they’re still kind of confused about what I do, as is the town in general. My days may consist of riding along with the trash collectors, meeting with the health post, going out to the chacras to talk with farmers, chilling at the municipality office, talking with random people on the street, teaching English, or chilling in a bodega. I guess the part I love about my job is that every day is different, and I do get to make my own schedule of sorts.

The first months of a volunteers service are used as a period to conocer the community better. This is everything from simply walking around the community, doing formal interviews with families, having kids draw maps of the community, and attempting to do things like FODAs, FREESOPs, and seasonal calenders. All of this work lays the base and starts the volunteer thinking about potential long term projects that may be planned and realized. Additionally, these activities help the volunteer integrate more into the community, to talk to the community about their job, why they’re here, and create a mutual understanding. And in turn, this helps the volunteer know more people in the community, and who potential leaders may be.

So my day? Well, I’d love to say it starts off around 630 but really it’s closer to 5/520. That’s when the bread store opens, and my room has a window attached to one side of it. Could not exactly tell you why…maybe it was an addition? Anyways, I’m usually woken up first by noise coming from there, and try to sleep in until around 630. I roll into the kitchen at 630 and prepare some sort of breakfast and coffee, and try to prep it quick otherwise the very helpful 15 year old and the 71 year old will come into the kitchen thinking I’m lost or something, and offer me 20,000 different things and try to talk to me way more than I like being talked to first thing in the morning. And from there, it varies. I may visit a school to talk with the director, or walk up to the municipality and talk with some people. Maybe I’ll walk around and try to meet people, or I’ll go with my socio-communitario to a meeting and do some more formal introductions. Usually the more serious work and meetings get done in the morning. I eat lunch with the family around 12:30 or 1, and then in the afternoon it’s pretty open. Health post and community meetings are in the afternoon, I also teach English every Thursday during the afternoon. And the nights are up in the air….I’ll chill with the family, call other volunteers, do prep work for meetings/classes/presentations, or just watch the Simpsons in Spanish (the possibilities are endless). I’m usually in bed by 930/10 and sleeping soon after.

But like all Peace Corps experiences, everything varies. Some days I’m booked solid, and others I may be killing time by just sitting around drinking a Coke in somebody’s shop. But it’s all part of the job…to get to know the community better and start integration. Because being a part of the community will allow the volunteer to know more about the history, how things work, who does what, who’s the town drunk, how we can fix the problem of these damn kids that just run the streets, etc.

It’s slightly frustrating as I have very little concrete to show for a month in site, especially since I’m used to not wasting too much time with projects. One trick I made is to use iCal to track what I did during the day. I have different colors for different Peace Corps and WATSAN objectives/goals, and I try to fill in what I did that day. And when I fill it in, it shows my days are actually a lot fuller than I realize. And I guess something else to show that I’m getting on alright is that more people are actually calling out my name rather than just calling out Gringo in the town. While being called gringo isn’t anything derogatory, it’s nice to have a firmer sense of identity in the town.


So as of writing yesterday was Thanksgiving, and it was the second Thanksgiving I’ve spent away from family. The first time I was in Oman and I remember just sitting around all day, watched X-Men 2 on TV and really felt a bit homesick. I lived a good 45-minute adventure from my good friend there, and transportation was always a shit show, so I just kinda chilled at home. So being in Peru, I definitely didn’t want to repeat this experience. And thankfully, a day after, I can say that this was a very memorable Thanksgiving.
It sounded that for the most part, volunteers from Peru 14 clustered together in their various regions to celebrate in whatever style was available. Some had lunch while others gathered on the beach with volunteers from current groups. I spent the morning visiting an annex of my community known as ‘Las Pampas’ and doing an inspection of some of the water wells and organizing a meeting for the following week. Lunched with the family and got some things together, and headed off to meet two other volunteers who are about an hour or so from my site.
Oddly enough, while picking up some lovely campo wine I ran into another American in my town. Her and her Peruvian husband where in town for a few days visiting his family before heading back to California. Pretty weird.
So Travis and Melissa went into Trujillo to pick up some household stuff and also the Thanksgiving dinner materials. I didn’t know what they were grabbing, so anything was in the air. Travis’s friend, Yuri, is a trained chef so maybe we were going to be dining on something exquisite. I finally rolled into the plaza and met Travis and Melissa and it turned out we were preparing spaghetti with homemade sauce that evening.
After walking around the town a bit, we crank up the iPod speakers and begin the complex art of spaghetti-making, much to the bemusement of Travis’s family, who sat in the kitchen watching and talking to us. Yuri was always looking over our shoulders closely to see what we were doing and giving us a few pointers here and there. Every now and then we attracted an audience as the kitchen was more like an open-air garage (CORRECTION: they were turning the space into a restaurant). We also were playing feel-good songs on the iPods, lead by Travis’s large country collection, and followed by Melissa’s varied musical selection (we were also singing along at times, much to the chagrin of our Peruvian friends). By eight or so, we had everything ready and invited a fair amount of guests: the whole of Travis’s family, his two socio-communitarios, and a few other friends of Travis…about 13 or 14 in total. We started dishing out the spaghetti, Travis said a few words of explanation and then we dug in. Not quite a turkey dinner with the trimmings, but it worked. After we were done, everyone said a few words and we thanked them for coming and sharing this experience and custom with us, and they thanked us for the invitation and for simply being in Peru to work and we all agreed we were thankful. We spent the rest of the night talking, and listening to some Beastie Boys and The Clash.
It truly was a unique and rich experience to celebrate Thanksgiving in a manner so different, but with the same ideas at heart. Preparing the meal with Travis and Melissa was a lot of fun, and was also a good break from being at my site and having my meals prepared for me. Talking and getting to know our guests was also a really incredible time, as we talked and joked throughout dinner and even though I had just met them, they were still very warm, open, and acted as if we had been friends for years. I was really taken back with how welcoming they were to the three gringos and their half-assed attempt at making a dinner. And although I was far away from home and the usual Thanksgiving with the family, I didn’t feel homesick this time around. Even if my Thanksgiving was in Spanish.

Digging in the sand...

With swearing-in so close, it was time to break out of the training center for some more ‘hands-on’ experiences. Wat-San, in particular, went to visit a current volunteer in Ica and aided in constructing five different styles of bathrooms. My team in particular built a baño de arostre (sp?), or a pour flush latrine. This is essentially a regular bathroom (complete with shower and sink) without running water. So to dispose of waste, you just pour the water down the toilet, which goes into a septic tank that we also constructed. The idea here is that the municipality was to create a waste-water system within the next year in the neighborhood, and that this bathroom would be able to be hooked up to the system when the time comes. That’s thinking ahead for sure, but also allows for a backup plan if the system **somehow** didn’t get completed when it was supposed to.

While we were originally supposed to start on Thursday afternoon, the supplies hadn’t arrived at the site yet. They did arrive later in the afternoon, but by then the day was shot. Welcome to Peru. We spent the good part of Friday morning planning out how exactly everything was going to be laid down, but by the afternoon we made great progress in laying down the base slab, figuring out the plumbing and laid the foundation down for the septic tank. That left us with Saturday morning, where we essentially just laid down the brick wall in the septic tank, and added a ventilation tube to the waste line to avoid a gas build up in the septic tank. Minor stuff. It’s kinda weird to say it, but it was a fun weekend. It did feel like being on a spring break work trip or something like that since we were just in and out with the construction.
This work trip was also a good break in to getting used to how projects will work in the future. With tech theatre, supplies were delivered on time or earlier, and there was a lot of planning before actual construction hit. And then every project had a time-table, and there was a certain deadline for the set being ready, the lighting and so on. While people who had done this project before obviously took care of most of the planning, we just kinda went in blindly, step by step figuring things out. And it took a bit to adjust to having to wait for supplies and shuffling our feet here and there at the beginning. So it was definitely a good break in period for me, especially since we start field based training in a week and then we leave for our sites in a few weeks.

It was good practice for us, but also the volunteer who organized the program. Builders without Borders, an organization that sends high-schoolers to do development construction work, will be coming and joining a couple Peru projects in the late winter and early Spring. This will be one of the sites where they’ll be working, and our presence helped the volunteer better understand the logistics needed (they spent most of the time moving from work site to work site and coordinating than anything else) and how to manage all these projects going on at once. And there’s a chance that some of us will return to either this site or the other one or two that will have Builders without Borders to help lead the building teams, which would be really cool.

So overall it was a win-win-win.

Women in Development

When thinking about women in the developing world, maybe thoughts of women filling the role of a housewife or a child caretaker begin to emerge. And to be fair, these are most likely correct. But women in developing countries typically have a much larger role than meets the eye. While living in Oman, beyond the house care, cooking, and childcare duties, women were largely responsible to keep track of the family’s finances and were typically the social connection between families. In Perú, women do seemingly run the household as well. My brothers wash their own clothes, and occasionally cook their own meals (depends on who and whether or not they’re eating at an odd hour), and everyone washes dishes, but it is truly my mom who keeps everything functioning. Her day usually starts around 5 or 6am with cleaning, and prepping breakfast (which is usually a simple affair). During the day, she goes to the market, preps a lunch or two, preps food for the restaurant, cleans or takes care of some other household chores, maybe takes a siesta from 4-6, and then opens up the restaurant at night. During the night, she cooks, washes dishes, and serves customers until 12am or 1am, and then repeats every day. She’s always in good spirits (albeit a little tired at times) and never complains about it.

In fact, four of the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals specifically target women (ensuring universal education, maternity health, gender equality, reducing child mortality). In the same measure an increasing focus in development practice is to include women as actors and participants in projects.

Looking at the broader picture, women are primary focuses in development for two reasons: as they tend to suffer the brunt of poverty, and also as they can be the solution to this problem as well. In most developing countries (a sweeping generalization, forgive me) women outnumber men 60/40 or somewhere around there, and make a huge part of the informal workforce (working for a business or perhaps owning their own business, but not paying taxes or being counted by the government). Women are more likely to live and suffer from the effects of poverty than men. Women are less able to be mobile or migrate than men, and are often more dependent on family, husbands, or other actors than a man alone. Looking at youth development, girls are less likely to attend or finish primary and secondary school than boys (due to the cost of education, opportunity cost of having a girl in school versus a boy, and the perceived low value of a girl having an education). Pretty much any development topic (environment, education, poverty, banking, etc) has to analyze the influence and importance of women as being a part of the plan.

For the second reason, women are focused on in development because they traditionally tend to be more active participants in community activities. Women typically are better connected and informed in the community than men and are more likely to attend and participate in community meetings. This holds true with any type of developmental meeting as well, such as a talk on health or community project planning. Not only through attendance, but also women are more likely to use and apply information gained at home through things such as community health talks. Themes such as child nutrition (or malnutrition), maternal health, or most any issue seems to be taken to heart by women. In micro credit loans (small loans to individuals for start up businesses) women are shown to be more responsible with the money, use the money for intended purposes and have a higher repayment rate than men.
There’s really no ending to this. Women will always be a topic in development largely until a lot of the sexism ceases to exist, and opportunities for both men and women are limited simply due to gender roles.

Vale la pena?

60% of Peruvians live in poverty, making less than $2/day, or 6 soles
30% of the above percentage (or around 18% of the population) live in extreme poverty, less than $1/day, or about 3 soles

As a Peace Corps trainee I receive 8 soles/day, plus my meals and boarding are covered. I make more than a large majority of people in this country, even while simply in job training.

So while we aren’t really making any money during training, there’s really no need for anything more. But at the same time, I am often struck and thinking about prices and how much I’m paying for something at any given time and how I even think about it. A snack of sweet potato chips and Coke ran about 2.2 soles, or somewhere around 70 cents. Or I’ll go to a café near the training center, and indulge in a bit of tres leches cake and a coffee for a little over seven soles (or close to a day’s wages). Or when we go out for the weekend, I’ve spent 30 soles in one night. And even though it amounts to ten dollars, it’s a) three days wages, b) a large amount for a lot of Peruvians. But at the same time while I’m indulging, I usually fight with a cobrador (guy who collects bus fare) every day to pay the real price (1/2 sole) for the bus ride to the training center instead of the inflated one sole: essentially arguing over fifteen cents. Is it really worth it? Is it a moral stand I take; fighting because although I’m a gringo it doesn’t mean I should be paying inflated prices? Or is it that I am really trying to scrape by on a few soles a day? If either is the case, can I justify using my per-diem at a café for coffee and dessert? We’re told at the Peace Corps that we’re expected to live at the level with the people we’re working/living with. My family doesn’t go out to eat, or go out during the weekends. My brothers who are attending school don’t sit at a café every once in a while and enjoy tres leches after school is out. My brothers ride combis to go study in Lima, come home and study, or drive a moto-taxi to help pay for school.

I came back from Lima the other day, where we spent the afternoon with our language classes. Our group ate at a Chinese restaurant that was pretty cheap especially for Lima (seven soles a plate) and we essentially got what we paid for, as the food was pretty bland. I was telling my mom and cousin about this, saying that we ate at a cheap place and the food wasn’t really great. They asked how much it cost, and after saying that I thought it was cheap, my mom said “No, that’s expensive, Mateo”. This made me feel like a pretentious ass, because for me in terms of both actual cost (cost in Peru, especially for Lima) and relative cost (such as in comparison to the US), it was inexpensive. But for my family, it was completely different, something that was typically out of their means and abilities. I don’t know how much my family makes.

But relative to everything else, I come from a land of privilege and in fact am being paid and compensated to attend invaluable skills training for three months.

Finally, an update

Ay, it’s been way too long since I’ve written.  I’ve actually been meaning to write and get on line for over a week, but it really just hasn’t been possible.  Not because there’s a lack of access points…the Internet café is a three-minute walk from my house.  However, since I’m using an internet café, it’s not worth it to just pop in for 10 minutes to check my e-mail since I’ve been offline for over a week. I’d need at least an hour to get caught up, plus I have a list of things I need to research, look at and so on.  So using the Internet is close to a two-hour block of time, but I really only have a few hours of actual ‘free time’ each day.  I want to spend time with the family, and since I get home around 630 every night, I’d be a ghost for the whole day. 

So if you were taking bets on how long it would take me to get injured in Peru, the winning bet would have been 2.5 weeks.  I was playing soccer, and given my grace I was running full steam, couldn’t stop, and ran straight into a concrete wall. This left me with a small little gash above my left eye.   And since Jason wasn’t even remotely involved, no stitches were required. 

For the most part, the days have been much of the same; language class in the morning and various sessions in the afternoon.  The afternoon sessions have actually been a bit boring for me, largely because it’s covering topics which I studied at school (various actors in development, the importance of women in development, HIV/AIDS in development to name a few).  The tech training sessions have been interesting, but too short and few and far between.

Every Saturday we have tech sessions where two of the programs go to a university in Lima, while my program stays at the center to do our training.  This past week we’ve made shmusdecke filters and got within reach of finishing our giant worm composting bin.  It’s been taking a while since it’s pretty wide/long/deep and we could only make the base last weekend.  This week we started to put up the walls and the dividers, which was a slow process as it’s being made with brick and mortar.  A few of us stayed to work overtime, so I wound up getting back home around 3:30 covered in filth.  All week the family had been talking about a fiesta in the neighborhood, but wouldn’t mention anything specific including time.  My fear was we’d be headed out the door soon after I left, when I needed to bathe and take a siesta.  Luckily, they weren’t planning on going to the fiesta until midnight (!!!), so I had plenty of time to get myself ready. 

            In fact, I wound up going to another neighborhood with a few friends to their fiesta beforehand but this just turned out to be something like an elementary school talent show (which was amusing in it’s own right).  However, there was an over-abundance of Michael Jackson dance routines for my liking.   Some of the other trainees organized to play two songs Credence Clear Water songs (seriously) on guitar and sing for the show, and I joined them to perform in front a crowd of Peruvians who maybe had heard the Tina Turner version of Proud Mary.  So after this died down, we headed back to Yanacoto for the fiesta, which was just getting underway at midnight. 
            Festivities included three live bands, plenty of dancing, and a rather large amount of fire works.  The fire works were something special because the safety precautions we take with them in the USA were not even heard of.  They had a guy running around inside of a paper-mache bull chasing people, and on top of the ‘bull’ was a small four foot tower with carefully placed and orchestrated fireworks.  There was also a twenty-foot tower of the same orchestrated fireworks standing right next to power lines and in front of homes and such. 
            The other trainees started leaving around 2ish, and after the last person left my family showed up!!!  We stuck around and danced for about two more hours, and all the family friends had a fun time dancing with the tall and goofy looking gringo.  I woke up around eight am this morning to a living room full of extended family, to which I promptly excused myself and went back to bed for a few more hours.  Woke up again, prettied myself up (had no idea that there was a family lunch today!) and lunched and hung out with the extended family for a while. Somehow I feel I’m in for an early bed time (I’m writing this at 8pm and considering bed time around 9).

A few notes about staging

A few other notes about staging/arriving in Peru, first week with the family:

1) Total baggage weighed in around 70lbs, but didn’t feel that bad. Especially considering I had to hike around Baltimore/DC with them for an extended period.

2) Boots were a good choice, especially since I’m going up the giant hill every day. A couple volunteers have Chaco style sandals, trail running shoes or even just tennis shoes as well. Flips flops aren’t worn outside of the house.

3) Language: every volunteer has a different level of Spanish and even then different abilities. We have a few native speakers in our training group, but a wide range from advanced to beginner. So don’t worry too much about language level, as there’s a wide range…and everyone is living with a family and at the very least getting by so you’ll most likely be all right.

4) The community I’m living in is very close knit, and while they’ve been hosting trainees for a while, each family loves having trainees living and visiting their house. I can’t tell you how many pieces of cake I’ve had at someone else’s house.

5) Internet cafes are within walking distance for any trainee in the neighborhood (a few trainees have internet in their house as well). Calling cards can be purchased on the cheap (around $2-3 for around an hour to the USA), and can be used at the family house if they have a landline. So staying in touch is very possible during training, but I’ve been offline for over a week and haven’t really felt that big of a compulsion to check Facebook

One week in

(This is poorly formatted due partly to the Keyboard and everything being in Spanish)

To be very honest, it feels like I’ve already been in Peru a while (much longer than seven days), since every day just flies by. Each day has been different with challenges, learning moments, frustrations, and a lot of different emotions and experiences. My family in Yanacoto (a small city outside of Lima, and about ten minutes by bus from the PC training center) is awesome, and I really like where I’m living.

My day starts off around 6:45-7 when I wake up, and join my family for breakfast looking as beautiful as ever while they’re all nicely polished up and ready to start the day. However, since I wear my Wooster Intramural championship t-shirt, they know I’m serious business. Breakfast usually consists of rolls with your choice of ham, jam, butter or sometimes a special filling. Add on a little coffee and juice, and Tony the Tiger would be proud. Other trainees report getting anything from a lumberjack sized breakfast, to oatmeal, eggs, and anything in between. After breakfast, I hit the showers…hard. Although I’m lucky enough to have running water inside the house, there’s no water heater to speak of. My showers are freezing cold in the morning, making the even extra fun when my body starts going into shock. I pop out of the shower, change into something decent and then either head to a) another trainee’s house for 4 hours of Spanish b) the training center for 4 hours of Spanish. Depending on the day, language class is sometimes hosted on site to allow us to get out and practice a bit in our communities.

My Spanish class is just four people and our instructor. Thanks to the wonders of Middlebury, I currently sit at the language level that we’re required to have by the Peace Corps. Also thanks to Middlebury, I get mistaken for an actual Castellan here and there, due to the accent (which I didn’t know I had), and the excessive use of ‘vale’.

After class its lunch time…if we have class on site I get to go home, but if we’re at the training center my mom packs me a lunch. Usually starts off with soup, and followed by a hearty plate of rice, chicken, and maybe a few veggies. After lunch we have usually have technical trainings at Center for our various programs, or talks from the doctors/security advisor/anyone else who probably has something important to say. Classes end around 430/5 and some people go home, while others either stay to run or go grab a coffee. I’m usually back by dusk, and hanging with the family the rest of the evening. But to get back home is a fun little game. After making sure we don’t get overcharged for the bus, and that it actually stops at our stop, we get to climb up a giant winding road. That hike usually takes a good 10-15 minutes. And then my house is a bit further up, so when I see the family dogs running towards me I know I’m close. I get home, great everyone, talk/annoy them until dinner. We eat dinner around 9, which is late even by Peruvian standards. Dinner is usually some smaller variation of the rice/chicken/potato combo. I annoy the family a little more and then it’s off to bed around 10-10:30.

So who is my family? That’s a little complicated because it is a bit of an extended family living together. The dad (el Señor) is an elementary school teacher, while the mom runs a little restaurant on our front porch every knight. Yes, that’s right a restaurant. To be fair, a lot of other trainee families run internet cafés or bodegas (small stores), but I still think the restaurant is pretty cool. She serves French fries, fried chicken, hot dogs, hamburgers, and a few rice dishes. Their oldest son is in the Navy, and doesn’t live with us. Two of the other brothers drive motor-taxis in the neighborhood, and attend university. The youngest just attends school full time. Also in the house is a niece and nephew. She helps out at the restaurant and studies nursing, while the nephew drives a motor-taxi full time. On top of that, the family has three dogs and some birds. The dogs just roam around the house and the perimeter of the house without leashes or anything, but typically stay within striking distance.

Phew…that’s a lot! It’s been a good first week thus far, and I really like where I’m living. Having the restaurant is nice because it allows me to interact with more people in the community, and also avoid just sitting and watching TV. I also help set up the restaurant a bit, and am learning to cook a few of the dishes. I run some plates out of the kitchen to tables, to the chagrin of the dinners (especially when I know basically what they’re saying but just can’t quite follow along)! Since the family hosted trainees before, anything I say or do (supposedly) doesn’t bother them and that I am free to (and do) ask seemingly basic or strange questions about the neighborhood or anything else. I usually understand what anyone is saying at about 75-80% of the time, but sometimes it just doesn’t register.
I’ve actually been really happy thus far (I know it’s only a week in, but…) if not exhausted/frustrated/confused part of the time. I’ll try to post again in a week or so, but vamos a ver!

DC Staging

So first of all...I'm in DC safely....   I stayed with friends in Baltimore and took a train out to Washington DC today.   Although it wasn't as easy as planned.  I walked about a mile with all my stuff (about 50-60lbs worth) to a metro station in Baltimore, got on the rail, and then found out the rail didn't go EXACTLY to my station.  So I had to hike it about three-four more blocks or so to Penn Station and wait for a train.   Got into DC and waited for a train, got on and whatdoya know but someone allegedly got hit by a train a stop or two before mine.   So I hopped off the light rail, and hiked it about six blocks to the hotel, dripping in sweat but feeling accomplished.  But the moment I walked in, there were other PCT waiting who were not really interested in my harrowing story (okay, so not really harrowing or dramatic, but I had story!!!).  Beyond that, registration went okay.  As did 'orientation', which was explaining our fears, aspirations, and the rules of the PC.   Nothing to really write home about except that there were 60 of us (three groups of about 20), which surprised me. There's a lot of us loading onto the bus tomorrow.

After orientation, myself and a few other PCTs went to a bar to eat and watch the Steeler game.  While the crowd was good, the other PCTs wanted to go back to the hotel while myself and one other PCT decided to head to another Steeler bar to watch the game.  It was kinda cool actually...the bar had a 'special' of I.C. Light for $2.50 (those from Pittsburgh are probably saying what???).  Myself and the other PCT talked with some other ex-Pittsburghers in DC and mentioned that we were Peace Corps and leaving tomorrow and it might be the last Steeler game we saw.  Everyone we met was really cool and fun for the most part. In fact, I met/saw two people I graduate high school with.  What a coincidence!  I think it just proves the idea of the Steeler nation.  We're everywhere!

We head out at 8am tomorrow, but I'm a leader so I have to make sure everyone's there, plus a few small tidbits not mentioning here.  So we head off to Miami tomorrow at 1:15, and we leave from Miami to Peru at 5:15.  We're expected to arrive around 9-10ish, with a crew of current PCV waiting and greeting us.  It should be an interesting experience for sure.  And to continue on a lifelong tradition, here is your Bon Jovi Thursday link...salud!

How do you pack for two years?!?!?

Pretty common question.  One, in fact, I was asking myself many a time.  It was about two years ago to date that I was throwing my life into an oversized suitcase (seriously, one of those massive ones on wheels), a duffel bag, and a backpack before heading to Oman for three months.  But after living there for awhile, I realized I overpacked.  Some of the clothes I packed I never wore and others I wore a couple times a week.  Turns out, contrary to the packing list, we didn't need entirely nice and formal clothes all the time; just presentable clothes (the packing list said the Omanis dressed 'formally').  I didn't need to pack all the toiletries for the three months as there was a corner store a block from my family's house, and a Carrefour (Wal-Mart like store) and Hypermarkets all around the area.  I even remember one girl in my group who brought a printer!  Whew!   So what I learned from that is a) take packing lists lightly, b) you can buy anything you need in country.

When thinking about packing for the Peace Corps, the question is 'How do I pack for two years?'.  But really, I think, it's the wrong question.  Think about packing for three months, or even shorter.  Maybe even a month.   People bathe, wear clothing, wear shoes, write, etc in whatever country you will be working at.  So things like soap and toiletries, just pack/case/bottle of each.  For the most part, in most other countries, people try to look neat and presentable.  That doesn't mean formal business clothes all the time.  Usually that means pants (depending on where/the situation, jeans might work, but they can be a pain to wash/dry) instead of shorts, and either a button down t-shirt or long sleeve button down.  It's hard to say until you're actually there.

As for shopping: most PC'ers are going to visit REI or Cabella's at one point I imagine.  I would start making a list of things you need that you don't have, especially high-end or things you can't pick up at a thrift store: boots, sleeping bag, pack, etc.  Search online for REI alternatives, such as backcountry.com, sierratradingpost, campsaver.com, etc.  These sites are typically cheaper than REI or other similar stores.  But shop as early as possible, so you can take advantage of free shipping and be able to return items if needed.  I also learned that REI is pretty cool about letting you try stuff out, so if you don't know what type of sleeping bag you want or what size boot/Chaco to order, check it out at REI.  And on the other side, sometimes you just won't find a better price unless you find a sale (such as with backpacks).
Saying all of this, I know I overpacked.  Namely, I took a few too many shirts, but ones that will remind me of home.  I took the Doink shirt, the Sidney Crosby shirt, and the Wooster Pipeband shirt, plus my favorite plaid/flannel shirt.  While these shirts will definitely make me stick out as a foreigner, my six foot+, floppy blonde/brown hair really don't help the cause either.  And then again, These will be good mementos for when I'm homesick, or something to tell people about as they all represent a different part of my life.
I think what might be worth noting is what I'm NOT taking: 
-long underwear (never worn them even in the coldest of winters, why would I start wearing them all of a sudden?)
-suit jacket: I can get one in Peru as needed, and it looks like the volunteers swear-in wearing PC track suits (?)
-Most OTC medications since they're available in Peru and provided by the PC
-Fannypack/moneybelt: see long underwear, never used it in Europe or Oman
-Food: I can get it shipped down later and there will be plenty to eat once I arrive!
Below is a list of what I'm taking.  However, this actually means very little as I still have no idea of what I actually need, or what is useless.
So here's what I'm taking:
(Here's all three bags packed. The two main ones weigh about 50lbs, half as much allotted by the PC)
Osprey Atmos 50L bag (I originally ordered the 65L and actually thought it would be unnecessarily large, and the 50L was on sale at REI) (Final weight: ~30lbs)
Large Army Duffel bag: $23, solidly built and durable (Final weight: ~10lbs)
Jansport backpack: carry-on for a few days, plus day-to-day usage
Also, compression sacks are really useful to make room and keep everything on the small side.  I fit all of my clothes in an XL and a M bag and then used another M bag for my sleeping bag + sleeping pad, so consider using them to make travel easier.  
(Two compression sacks stored all my clothing.  The larger one is the width of a sneaker, about a foot tall and weighs 10lbs!  The other one is markedly smaller)
4 pairs of 'work pants': Columbia and Ex-Officio.  Check out the Exofficio pro-program for PC volunteers, and check out Sierra Trading Post (SierraTradingPost.com) for great deals on overstock, or last season's merchandise at fantastic prices)
1 pair of jeans
1 pair dress pants (some of the work pants can double as khaki pants if needed)
1 pair sweat pants
1 pair track pants
1 pair swim trunks
2 pair athletic shorts
10 pairs of underwear, some are travel or underamor which can be washed easily and dry out
5 pair of Smart Wool/REI hiking socks (once again, check Sierra Trading Post)
6 pairs of regular socks
1 pair soccer socks
1 pair formal socks
2 belts (one leather, one fabric)
3 t-shirts: Pittsburgh Penguins shirt, Doink the Clown, and College of Wooster PB shirt
3 solid color travel t-shirts 
2 long sleeve t-shirts
2 long sleeve shirts button downs (one solid color, one striped shirt for 'going out, but looking nice')
2 short sleeve, button down shirts (plaid, of course)
1 flannel shirt
1 short sleeve polo
1 packable rain jacket
1 rain jacket with a bit on insulation
1 fleece jacket
1 hoodie
1 pair dress shoes
1 pair running shoes
1 pair hiking boots
1 pair sandals (could be bought in Peru)
Sun glasses
Soap/shampoo combo (one bar)
3 tooth brushes
2 tubes of toothpaste (more than enough)
Floss (According to my dentist, flossing is the key to prevent any tooth/gum problems while abroad)
Contact lens solution
A year's supply of contact lenses
2 pairs of glasses
2 pack towels (1 XL, 1 Medium)
Athlete's foot spray/foot powder
1 Leatherman Wave (check eBay, they're much cheaper)
1 Leatherman knife
Photo prints of family/friends/home
Digital camera, memory cards
Rechargeable batteries (AAA and AA) w/ charger
MP3 player
Travel speaker for MP3 player ($20 at Best Buy, good sound quality)
2 Thumb drives
External, USB powered hard drive (as a backup and to store movies)
Simpson DVDs (also in Spanish!)
Travel notebooks
2 Nalgenes
Deck of cards
Travel alarm clock (runs on batteries and decently loud)
Duct tape
Sleeping bag/sleeping pad: we do a lot of travel to other sites, so it's helpful.  Plus, from my experience with mattresses in foreign countries, sometimes you need a little extra support. 
Few random things:
Terrible towel + Pens rally towel
A few small desk items that have been following me around for some time 

(Army duffel: XL stuff sack (10lbs), sneakers, dress shoes, sack of misc stuff, fleece)
(From the Osprey pack: sleeping bag and sleeping pad (stuff sack), other purple stuff sack, toiletries/contact lens solution, pack towels, insulated coat)

So I'll try to update at some point and say what's kind of useless to pack.  Just remember that you don't need EVERYTHING on the packing list, and you can get most of anything wherever you're going...and if not, you probably don't need it!

Start to Finish

I know there's a lot of questions about the timeline for the Peace Corps. In truth, it took me a year (more or less) between application and departure. I don't know when some of my colleagues applied, but I know they received their invitation about six weeks to a month before staging.  So your mileage, experiences and time line may vary based on skill set, time of year applying, placement of nomination, medical/dental clearance, political factors, phases of the moon, etc.

August/September 2008:  Completed online Peace Corps application and follow up materials.  

Early October: Received a call from Peace Corps office, visiting campus and scheduled interview

October 17th: Hour long interview and conversation about aspirations for the Peace Corps, skills, etc. Click here for more information on the interview.

October 21st: Received e-mail saying possible legal issue wasn’t an issue (family member’s employment with government)

October 21st: Received a call a few hours later from recruiter with a nomination to serve in Central/South America in Fall 2009

Mid November-early December: Medical (campus health center), dental (family dentist willing to do the services for the PC reimbursement rate), vision (eye doctor filled out paper work, refused any kind of payment), psychological (school counselor filled out forms) paperwork/forms completed and mailed to PC (note: make sure you have your complete medical records on hand...this held me up with the student wellness center)

Mid-January: Received medical and dental clearance from Peace Corps (also remember the government took a week holiday more or less during December)

March 26th, 2009: Invitation to serve in Perú, staging beginning September 9th, 2009

August 10th, 2009: Received information about staging (changed to September 10th)

September 8th, 2009: Leave for Baltimore, MD to visit friends

September 10th, 2009: Arrive in Arlington, VA/Washington DC

So there's a rough time-line of my application from start to finish. I'll write a little more about the application process later, as well as what the hell I'm packing for two years....

Preppring for Perú

When I began writing this, all of the words had the infamous MS Word red-lines under them. Why? I know I’m not the greatest speller, but I was pretty sure that it isn’t too difficult to spell ‘the’ and ‘peace’. Then I remembered that my spell check has been set to Spanish for the last two months. I spent the last three months at ‘Spanish camp’ at Middlebury College (Middlebury, VT). Classes four hours a day, five days a week for seven weeks entirely in Spanish. Furthermore, meals, meetings, activities, and even when we went into town or on our own adventures: Spanish. So I can stumble through the Spanish language a little more competently than before. It was very good experience and exposure, plus I met some really awesome people (professors and other students), but my main problem was that there was very little critical analysis in my classes. It was all basic, surface level stuff. So for the most part, it wasn’t really challenging beyond the grunt work of the grammar workbook or writing the essays. But definitely solidified my grammar and expanded the ol’ vocabulary.

So hey…I’m leaving the country in a little more than two weeks. Perú or bust. Or Kabul, according to Mike. You know the G-20 is coming to Pittsburgh and they’re worried about all the protests and demonstrations. So this might be a good way to make sure I’m not a part of it (just kidding…seriously). The week since I’ve been home, I’ve been spending time with the family (cousins, the Madre, aunts/uncles…the usual suspects). I’ll be visiting Ohio to see some friends at the end of this week and check in on their lives since I was off the radar during the summer. My family is throwing a picnic for labor day/goodbye party the last weekend I’m around (my mom is even buying beer, so you know it’s negocios serios as they’d say in Spanish camp). I’ll be visiting Baltimore to check in with Jackie and Emily (Jackie is TFA and Emily is a special-ed teacher), and then it’s to DC for staging for a day, then off to Peru (September 11th). I do feel like a bit of a bum these days since I don’t do much, but at the same time I know I’m probably not having this opportunity to do nothing for the rest of my life, so might as well enjoy it, right?

Beyond gathering stuff together, I sent out a call for photos to take with me to Peru to share and just to have. I spend my time being slightly overwhelmed with the idea of Peru, but at the same time compartmentalizing it and realizing it’s pretty similar to my time in Oman. Home stay families (though my Omani family could speak English/I couldn’t speak Arabic, but I can definitely get by with my Spanish without the help of English), kind of feeling like a small child in a entirely new environment, intense language training (3-4 hours of Arabic a day, 3-4 hours of Spanish), miscommunication with the locals/the family, feeling frustrated by not being able to express myself clearly, missing certain comforts of being home/Wooster/America in general, and having to creatively transport my way to school and other places (taxis, mini-buses, hitchhiking, or an intricate combination of all three).

Even though he might not be the best role model, I’ve always liked one particular quote from Mike Tyson:

“Everyone has a game plan, until they get punched in the face”.

And I think that I’m also coming to terms with no matter how much I try to prepare, I just won’t know what it’s like and what I’m dealing with until I’m on the ground. If you overplan, you're more likely to be frazzled when things most certain don't go according to plan. Granted, a little prep work ahead is good but at the same time I’ve realized that you can’t prepare entirely for life (and what fun is it with no surprises?). Life just kinda happens, and you can either go with it or stand aside…

Matt and the Peace Corps

So what exactly will I be doing in Peru?

My broad job title is "Sanitation and Water". While I won't exactly know what my specific project or two will be until I am placed in a site and assess community needs, broadly I'll be working on projects related to health education, water purification, latrines, sanitation projects, bringing water closer to communities to eliminate long treks to procure it, and maintenance of these things.

I won't be solely digging latrines and building what-not by myself. Rather, these projects will be done at the will of the community I work with. If they want any of the projects to come to fruition, they must collectively agree on a project and also contribute capital (human and some financial) in order to give them a stake in the project. I could dig latrines for two years, but if no one uses them or maintains them while and after I'm there, any work I would do would be pointless. Peace Corps programs like this are all about sustainability; making sure that they last long after the volunteer has left the area.

How are qualified for this? Why Peru and Wat/San?

Well, with a BA from Wooster, I should be qualified to do whatever I want...right? The BA helps, and so did the courses I took related to international development. More importantly, my recruiter saw my experience with AmeriCorps for two summers, plus my background in tech theatre. Seriously. She said that a big qualification for me was the fact that I was familiar with construction, power tools, and working/leading projects that required manual labor. During training I'll learn the what's and hows of my specific work, plus I'll have backup support and consultation available.

Latin America may have been the last place on my list of where I wanted to go (not that I really cared, just more a preference towards Africa or Pacific Islands). But the Peace Corps first places you in a job category (Water/San) and then places you based on language and departure time. Although I had Arabic skills, the recruiter emphasized my Spanish language experience + my desire to leave ASAP after graduating in May. So Peru just kinda fell into place, I guess.

Where will you be living?

For the first three months of my service (after two or so days of staging in DC), I'll be living near the PC training center (which is outside of Lima) with a host family. During my training, I'll have language classes, as well as safety, survival, cultural and technical training. After three months, I have to take tests in all of the above classes (and pass!) in order to be considered a Peace Corps volunteer (until then I am just considered a PC trainee).

About two months in, I'll get a site placement within Peru. Not sure exactly how this works, but they evaluate you based on language, cultural adaptation, and skill level in order to place you into the appropriate place and project. I could be placed on the coast (where it's usually nice and warm, but arid planes and deserts), in the jungle area (humid, rainy), the campo/countryside, or up in the mountains. I'm kind of hoping to work with the indigenous population and learn Quechua as well, but I'm really open to anything. After training, I move to my site and live with another host family for the rest of my time (unless I want to move in with another family or have to move sites).

How are you preparing for Peru?

Scheduling in the see you laters with the friends. Many are going onto grad school or other ventures, so I figured I'd try to do a little tour in order to see them before September and part of the real world hits.

I've been brushing up on the Spanish. The Peace Corps gave us copies of the Rosetta Stone online. But I got bored with them, so I read through the first Harry Potter book in Spanish. Additionally, I decided to sign up for Middlebury's intensive summer language program: seven weeks of Spanish...no english or other languages allowed to be spoken. Sweet! So I'll actually be there from June 26th-August 14th, so I won't be updating until then.

See you in August!

Two Shows About Peru

Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations: Peru"

Bourdain travels around Peru, samples the food and takes in the culture.

National Geographic Channel Presents "Worlds Apart: Detroit Meets Peru"

A well to do family from Detroit lives with the Peruvian Indigenous peoples for eight days.

The Purpose of this Blog

While I'm not going to be too far away from home (closer than my 3 months in Oman), communication back home will be a little tricky. This blog is meant to keep friends, family, and well wishers updated on my life in Peru without having to try the mass e-mail message. I don't know how often I'll be updating this; it depends on my access to the internet and my desire to update this at any given time.