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.