My Dog is Awesome

Previously published in the Peace Corps Peru Volunteer Magazine 'Pasa La Voz':

I have the best dog. He is black colored. Chancho is his name and he has four months of age. Chancho is his name because when he was a very young puppy he wound whine and cry for food like a piggy. He will follow you everywhere you go only if you are me. Or unless he finds garbage on the street. Then he will eat it. He is very nice to other animals and likes to play with the other dogs in the neighborhood. Of course, he always wins at the dog games that the dogs play. Because he is awesome.

You think your dog is better but it is not. I bet your dog has fleas. Chancho doesn’t and he goes outside to use the bathroom and does not crap in the house. Sometimes he pees when he is happy, but that happens to everyone. Another reason why is he awesome is that he fought a bear and won. Well, it was a dog named Oso but the dog was still kind of big. Imagine that, a pig dog fighting a bear. That would be crazy like ninjas fighting zombie pirates except Chancho would still destroy all of them because he is the best dog and zombie ninja pirates would be lose because they are not as awesome as my dog Chancho.

I bet you are jealous of my dog and that is normal. It is because he is a nice dog and is nice to people, but also very strong. You would be hard pressed to find a better dog than my dog. Just ask my friend Melissa. She likes Chancho very much because he is a fun dog and likes to play and lick faces and be an awesome dog.

Chancho does not like the man who comes around announcing that he has bananas and mangos that are very delicious. He begins to howl at the man until he leaves the neighborhood. But I don’t think anyone likes that man since his voice is like a robot and who wants to buy fruit from a robot anyways. So the robot man leaves the neighborhood because he is scared of Chancho and then Chancho goes back to playing with the other dogs.

He is also good because he does not bite or attack other animals. There is a box of baby ducks in our house and Chancho is very nice to them. I think he talks to them in animal language and he never bites them or scares them. I think the only person alive who does not like my dog Chancho is the cat that lives in my family’s store. The cat does not like Chancho probably because it is a cat and nobody likes the cat because it is mean and does not like anyone. Chancho tries to be nice to the cat but the cat tries to hurt Chancho so Chancho leaves the cat alone and goes to play with other dogs and with me and eat garbage.

This is why my dog is the best dog. I bet that you wish you had my dog, but you can’t because he is mine and I will be very angry if you take him. If you took him, he would probably run away at the first chance and come back home. Even if you took him to Venezuela he would find his way back home because he is really smart. If you want, when Chancho’s girlfriend poops out little dogs I will let you have one. I won’t even make you pay because I have the best dog in the world and I think everyone should have one.

Living Poor in Peace Corps?

I don’t know what it’s like to live poor. I’ve never been rich, but I’ve never worried whether there was going to be food on the table, or if utilities were going to be cut. Maybe my biggest economic struggle is not having enough for some high-end skate shoes without dipping into my vacation savings. Even in Peace Corps, it’s hard to say I’m living poor. I make about $320 plus a $24 monthly vacation allowance, combined with a monthly accrual of $375 a month available at my close of service. While that’s still pretty paltry in the states ($344 a month or $719 total), it’s a lot for Peru.

I don’t have to support a family. I don’t have kids, and I have no overhead. I pay a pretty minimal amount for my room, all access to my family’s house and food (although my family has routinely insisted I don’t need to pay for any of this). Part of my salary goes towards supplies, materials, and transport for work, but even then I’m usually left with a big chunk of money. Even small expenses, such as a $9 hostel room in the regional capital, is a huge chunk of a family’s income – especially in the rural annexes where I do most of my work.

So have I acosutmbrared (accustomed myself)? It’s hard to say. I’ve integrated into the community, most of the town knows who I am, I speak the language (more or less), and I call my community home (no offense mom). I share and learn with people in my community. And they share with me.

It’s really powerful to work with the people in the rural communities. Once you get to know them and become a familiar face, they open up to you. They talk, ask questions, and invite you into their houses. During my first months in the town, I was invited to gaseosa after gaseosa for the first couple of months. In the annexes, I’m offered fruit, lunch, or whatever else is available to offer. Even when I was working with another volunteer in his site, families would still invite us into their houses to heaping plates of food and cups of coffee.

So should I feel guilty about how much or how little I make? Jury is still out on that one. But maybe more important is to at least dar cuenta (take into account) this difference, and that at some level it doesn’t actually matter. Sure, it’s awkward when people ask me how much I make (it’s common and not considered rude here) and that people probably don’t take offense that I might make more money than them (maybe they’d expect a gringo to make more anyways?)

But really, what I should take out of this is not the money issue. Rather I should always remember the hospitality, the openness, the kindness I received from people I’m working with.
According to Time magazine and some research center one out of four Americans believe that President Obama is a muslim. Even though he publicly goes to church every week. This makes me sad for America.

Happy Thanksgiving!

So in the past four years, I’ve missed three Thanksgivings. Two of them from Peace Corps, another from study abroad. And it does indeed suck when you think about all the family getting together, all the food and fun. But I think being abroad for Thanksgiving is also a unique experience.

Last year, since we just swore-in as volunteers and were about a week into site, three of us got together and had a spaghetti dinner with a group of Peruvians. While it wasn’t turkey and stuffing, it was tasty and a special experience to share with other volunteers (who turn out to be some of your closest friends) but also the Peruvians. They hear about Thanksgiving or see it on TV or movies, but still don’t grasp around it. So sharing the evening, the meal, and the spirit was a great experience.

This year, we accumulated vacation days and were able to travel freely throughout the country (much like Southwest Airlines). Of course it’d be crazy not to aprovechar (take advantage) these days, so many volunteers flock to various ends of Peru. I, the irrational creature, decided to head up the mountains to visit another volunteer who was finishing up a construction project similar to what I’m going to be doing in my site. We spent all of the day working, but during dinner we explained that today was a holiday in the states. We just had potatoes and rice to eat, but thanks to Jackie and Emily, strawberry Pop-Tarts served as dessert. Not exactly your typical thanksgiving, nor a good Hallmark movie, but a good Thanksgiving nevertheless.

The Reality

The day we had our first info session about the viviendas saludables project, we find out that one of the mothers can’t come because she was stuck in the house with typhoid (which is can be caused by unsafe drinking water or unhygienic sanitation). Her husband works in the fields, the only livelihood of the town, and there’s really no one to care for the mother. The nearest health post is at least an hour by bus away, letting alone she has to climb down from the hill to the highway and wait for the infrequent transport, then walk to the health post (on the other side of where she will get off the bus), wait at the crowded health post and hope the doctor is attending beyond the number of 20 patients per day, which is the maximum number of patients the MINSA (Ministry of Health) says the doctor can see per day. Then she has to make the return journey. This is the reality of being sick in a rural area.

The MINSA has limited resources and much to do in terms of improve the health of citizens of a developing country. The health post, government funded, is usually understaffed and overcrowded. The doctors could get paid a lot more if they went into private practice, where patients pay with insurance policies. This is the reality health care in a rural area.

But who will cook for the husband? It’s the planting season and he spends all day in the fields, which is a 30-minute walk from the house and he probably doesn’t know how to cook anyways. Who will make lunch for the kids who were in school all day? Or will one of the kids, most likely a daughter, have to miss school and cook the food. This is not a criticism on women or men in development, but this is the reality of a rural family.

She can’t really leave the house because of the side effects (diarrhea, nausea, general weakness). She can’t attend a health program aimed at preventing these diseases because she already contracted one. The husband can’t leave the only income generating source for his family, lest the suffer more. Thus, the family looses the opportunity to participate in the program because they can’t attend the meetings, will miss the opportunity to receive a dry-bathroom, and continue to suffer due to unimproved water and sanitation services. This is the reality of being rural poor.

Note: After talking with the family, we agreed that her daughter would come to the meetings, allow us to do the house visits we do with all the other families, and prepare the same micro-projects and make the same contribution to the bathroom (sugar cane stalks to make walls for the housing unit of the bathroom),
I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that volunteers never think about quitting or that those who think about quitting are quitters or ‘not cut out for Peace Corps’. And much like how nobody can watch a full episode of Extreme Home Make Over without crying, a volunteer never goes through service without thinking about quitting.

You think how easy it could be to just call up HQ, pack up, and have the plane ticket ready to go home. You miss your family, your friends, the life you had beforehand. You think everything would just be easier. You think about how in the States you could just roll out and go to the drive through to get something that wasn’t rice, or that in the States it wouldn’t take so many loopholes and set backs. You think about how much easier it was back home and how much easier life would be if you were there right now.

And, there you speak the language. You get the jokes, even if they’re not funny. TV makes sense. People talk like you, share the same interests. No one asks you if you’ve adjusted or if you like the girls. You can have a beer without passing a small glass around in the circle. You just think it would be easier if….

But then you remember what brought you here. You remember that while things were great at home, something brought you to this foreign land. Something drove you to agree to live two years, and even though you didn’t fully understand what you were getting into (nobody does), the fire couldn’t be put out. You remember you came to learn, to share, to help. You remember all the good relationships you have with the people in your site, and even though they’re not like the relationship with your friends in the States, they’re unique. You remember how you’re home stay family calls you hijo, or that they know your favorite Peru dish.

Then you think that it might be worse if you left. Your project is finally getting off the ground, and you’d let those families down (even if it was fewer than you were expecting). You think that some people here would be upset if you suddenly left. You think that you’d like to see your homestay sister receive her high school promocion. You think about the elementary school kids that pass you every day can now differentiate between Good Morning and Good Afternoon, and how proud they get about it. You think that you’d just be starting from scratch in the States anyways. You start to think leaving here is more difficult than you thought.

And these thoughts come and go. A good day can be ruined by a meeting that no one shows up to, just like a bad day is made better just because someone stops you in the street and asks your advice for something other than learning English. A volunteer’s life is not easy by any means; not only is there stress from the Goal 1 section of Peace Corps (the technical and development goal of Peace Corps), but also emotionally. And this never really pops up on the pamphlets and is a blip on the radar on the application. One or two questions about handling multi-cultural experiences (that I think we’re all hardwired to answer the correct way without thinking) but a page of information about your technical background or lack thereof. But if you’re a current or future volunteer, know that you’re not alone…everyone’s thought about giving it up and going home. Everyone’s thought that it would, in fact, be easier in the States and if they just left Peace Corps, but think about what if you actually did leave….would you really be better off?

Kids Programming in Peru

So after reading a random New York Times Business article about Nickelodeon and Nick Jr’s marketing strategies and recovery, and it got me a-thinking. That stuff is actually pretty popular here in Perú. By that stuff, I mean kids and tween programming.

The Jonas Brothers just came to Lima a week or so back. Kids know Hannah Montana that other girl with the Spanish name,, and I see programs like “Lazy Town” on TV all the time. My homestay sister hums songs from High School Musical, and 20 year old men tell me that the Jonas Brothers are an awesome band. The Disney channel really infiltrated my small town. Regular Peruvian TV is filled with telenovelas, movies, and random variety shows. Nothing is really aimed at kids nor are many of the TV personalities in that age group. But not on the Disney channel.

Every program (from Hannah Montana, Witches of Waverly Place, and a whole library of Pixar movies) are dubbed over and feature age identifiable characters for youth, which amounts to 40% of the population of my town. Most families have a TV and cable (or their neighbors), so its easily accessible. The programs use a lot of situational and goofy humor, which always translates well into any culture. And while the majority of the actors and actresses are white, that’s really not too different from the majority of news presenters and television personalities in Perú and the whole of Spanish-speaking North and South American regions.

A Day in the Life

So what’s my days been like?  Busy.  No sitting in hammocks, having monkeys serving me mixed drinks in coconut shells like I thought the Peace Corps was (or should be).  Instead, I’m actually putting in hours on all end.  A typical day looks something like this

545am: Wake up as I hear the bread being delivered and hear the sales going on. Fall back to sleep

7am: Alarms start going off, enjoy breakfast of bread and coffee (three cups), watch a little TV.  The fam has learned that Mateo does not like to talk before he is done with his coffee

8am: Out the door to touch base with the school/health post/municipality about what’s going on and what I need them to do (copies, arrange a meeting, etc)

9am: At the secondary school, teaching boxing to about 20 kids who will be participating in exhibition matches for the school’s anniversary celebration

11am: Leave the school, go follow up with whoever I was visiting in the morning to make sure it’s in motion. Prepare for afternoon

12:30/1pm: Lunch, possibly with family if I’m not going to my annexes

1:30pm: Wait for bus to get go out to my annexes (the farthest is 25 miles away, the closest is 20 miles away)

2:30ish: Arrive in annexes, talk with health promoters.  Either house visits our set up for a charla

3pm: Visiting houses and talking with families, or in an education session

5pm: Catch the bus back to site

5:30pm: Arrive at site, go home and relax

7pm: Dinner

7:30pm: Prep for the morning or meeting with a local contractor about my bathroom design

9:30pm/10pm: Lights out, hasta mañana
The life of a Peace Corps volunteer is an odd one.  Early in the week, I had a lady in one of my farming annexes spread rumors I work for local politicians and that people shouldn't trust me.  And then later in the same week, I'm standing with two other volunteers and 50,000 Peruvians at a Bon Jovi concert in Lima.

After a few logistical mishaps and trying to figure out how to get into our section, we arrived inside the stadium just as the Bon Jovi entrance music was beginning.  Our tickets were in the semi-cheap section (the most expensive section cost one month's living allowance), and pretty far away, but we could still see the stage, screens, and Mr. Jon Bon Jovi and Dr. Richie Sambora.  

And impressively enough, contrary to how Latin America typically works (and rock and roll shows), it started right on time...the show was listed at 9pm on the ticket, and sure enough Bon Jovi was on stage at 9:00pm (the opening act started at 8).  Mr. Bon Jovi and crew rocked on for over two hours, including a few newer songs bit mostly the classics.  The best part was sharing Jovi chanting moments with about 50,000 Peruvians.

Let it be known that Peruvians love Bon Jovi.

‘Posh Corps or Peace Corps’: A response to that NPR article

It’s true, there’s not denying it. Peace Corps and the experience of Peace Corps volunteers is in some ways markedly different than in the early stages of Peace Corps during the 1960s-1990s.  No longer are volunteers necessarily roughing it in mud huts, without light for two years. Nor are volunteers isolated and completely out of touch with the world around them. And yes, Skype, video chatting and e-mail are pretty common means of communication.  Does that mean Peace Corps is any less difficult?

First, let’s talk about technology.  With developing countries, it’s often that technological development ‘skips’ a stage or two.  With developed countries to pour in the R&D, developing countries can adapt to the technology that may or may not directly benefit them.  For example, in many parts of the world it’s common that people don’t have landlines, but carry cell phones.  Kids in my town have never seen an Apple II, but frequently use MSN Messenger and play Grand Theft Auto on internet connected computers.  Technology has changed things not only for Peace Corps volunteers living in remote rural communities, but also for the world at large.   And it is actually more common to communicate electronically between cell phones, chat, and text rather than Snail Mail service. Internet costs S/1 (35 cents) an hour, and volunteers often pre-type e-mails home whereas mailing a letter to the States costs, aprox S/7 or $2.50, which is costly when you make $300/month.

Beyond that, I can only really speak for PC/Peru.  Part of your living conditions depends on your program and it’s objectives, as well as safety and security.  Programs might focus on certain areas, sectors or populations, which may make your site a big city or a small farming annex. 

Even more with security, Peace Corps Peru has requirements where volunteers can and can’t live.  It’s required that volunteers live with host families during their service, and most will actually live in the house and be part of the family.  For that, they need to find a family with an extra room as well as in a safe area, with certain physical aspects of the house (barred windows, solid doors) and most often these families tend to be more well-off members of the community and thus the volunteers tend to live in the better parts of the town.  And I don’t think any member of the community really judges that the gringo lives in the nicer part…why would they?  The other members of the community would probably like to live their too if they had the choice.

And with the increase of communication, comes the increase in responsibility.  There’s more structure and a certain pressure from each program to achieve a number of ‘changed outcomes’ each couple of months.  We have weekly interaction with someone from the administration, whether it’s the doctor, regional coordinator or the program director.  Most Peace Corps business is conducted through e-mail unless it’s been established that the volunteer DOESN’T have a reliable connection every one-two weeks.  Many of the e-mails require follow-up in some form or another, which is time consuming and slightly stressful for the volunteer especially when you have over 100 messages between Peace Corps, friends, families, and offers to increase your member size with just one tiny pill. 

As well, volunteers aren’t free to roam about their country and are required to be in their site.  Sounds a bit obvious, but a week of disappearing to the beach or for a multi-day hike without previous authorization just doesn’t exist.  Volunteers are granted a certain number of vacation days, and have to request in advance to use them.  Furthermore, volunteers are required to report to HQ when they spend time out of their site, or pretty much when we don’t sleep in our own beds.  Illegal vacations, or taking time out of site without proper reporting, are grounds for disciplinary actions and even early termination.  Given all this, we often question whether or not volunteer is our true job title, given all the formalities and requirements imposed. 

I’m not complaining about the requirements, as they all have their base and reason.  However, Peace Corps isn’t the two year free-ride foreign vacation courtesy of the US government some make it out to be. With all the requirements, goals, and objectives it is an actual job, and the title of volunteer can be misleading.  But as the pamphlets and web banners say, Peace Corps is the toughest job you’ll ever love. 

Science Fair!

So usually I write and over analysis this or that about Peru, but I got to do something really cool this past week: judge at a colegio (secondary school) science fair. Now, you might think ‘What’s so cool about shitty teenage science projects?’ and this might be true to some extent except that many of the kids had been working on their project for at least a month, which is a pretty big time commitment. As well, leading up to the big event, some of the groups came up to me and asked for advice about a number of things: namely recycling, trash management, and solar power. And having helped my homestay sister for a (failed) biodigestor –that she researched and decided to do, and then asked me if I knew anything about it – I was excited to see what all was going to be presented.

Of course, nothing starts on time. I show up at 9 and everyone’s still blowing up balloons, and the other judge hasn’t showed up. About 10 or so, things got underway with the national anthem, some opening remarks, and the introduction of the judges; a science professor from Casa Grande (the closest big town to Sausal) and then yours truly. After a few cheers and jeers, we were off to see each class’s chosen project.

The professor and I spent the next two hours making our way around the colegio checking out all the work the kids but into their projects (I took some pictures, but since I’ve become useless at using the internets due to the cerca 1995 AOL connection we have in my town, expect pictures in December 2011). Obviously, some were more elaborated than others. Major themes included organic products, using local plants for nutrition, reusing/recycling, and solar energy;

+’Natural’ perfumes and soaps
+ Organic pesticides (using peppers and spices)
+ Solar oven
+ An oil candle made out of all recycled materials
+ Solar water heater
+ Recycled materials: dresses and jewelry
+ How to prevent the bubonic pest

Beyond just doing the project, the students had to create a poster presentation including a research question, hypothesis, step by step guide, purpose for research, etc. While each group needed to develop certain aspects of their presentation and information a little more, I was impressed with the quality and design with many of the projects, design and intentions. Especially so since some of these technologies (solar oven, solar water heater, recycled materials projects) are being pushed by organizations focusing on sustainable development.

It seems somewhat ridiculous or no more than a novelty to see these projects in powerpoint presentation and project idea manuals, but to see the students applying many of these ideas independently (while I served as a consultant, I never gave instructions on what to do) was inspiring. The solar water heater, for example, is something we’re experimenting with in the sierras and in Ica, as well as applying the technology to heat houses.

Lastly, as many volunteers have seen, the education system is weak in Peru. Students mainly learn by ‘teach and preach’ models, copy and memorization with very little practical application or creative thinking. To elaborate a project over 1-2 months is not something expected of the students as well. And while some projects fell through, ideas and projects weren’t fully developed, this science fair was a good step to motivate the students to keep pushing forward. And talking with the science professor who organized all of this, it looks like for a first time around the students did well, and he plans on repeating the science fair next year. Can’t wait!

Preparing for the possibility

When you leave for Peace Corps, you prepare yourself to be away as best you can, knowing that you’re most likely going to miss important holidays, birthdays, weddings and all kinds of other celebrations.  It’s part of the sacrafice.  Volunteers go home for some of these events, but they can’t go home for all of them.  And while it’s not fun to miss these events, you get by.  I spent Thanksgiving with other volunteers and Peruvians, and shared the holiday with them.  I spent Christmas with my homestay family and felt really at home.  Not once did I feel horribly homesick that I was missing these events. 

But something happened that I was only somewhat expecting, but never really thinking about.  My grandmother died this past month.  While not going into details, it was expected and unexpected.  I’ve gotten calls from home during Christmas, Easter, etc and always felt happy about it, but this was the opposite.   Instead of missing an event where everyone was happy, I was missing a traumatic moment with my family…one where everyone converges for a few days and puts everything else on hold.  And I was in Perú with no way out. 

Before I left, we talked about the possibility of my grandmother dying and what we would do if it happened.  Peace Corps only pays for the volunteer to go back to the states for immediate family emergencies (parents, siblings), and seeing as how getting a flight that soon would be very expensive and by the time I got from my site to home, she would be buried, it just wouldn’t be possible to go home.

I prepared myself for being away for holidays, but maybe this is something you just can’t prepare yourself for.  To be honest, I did feel alone and depressed for a few days and took some time out of site in the regional capital.  My homestay family was compassionate and caring, but it just wasn’t the same.  I talked with other volunteers, and they helped out, and I took a few personal days. 

I don’t mean to write this to be depressing, or discourage the 16er’s that will be arriving in Peru in less than a month.  This is just one part of your experience in Peace Corps, not really glamorous.   And my advice would be that before you leave, talk with your family about a plan of action if someone dies.  Although it’s hard to even talk about it - let alone go into the specifics since most likely you won’t know where you’ll be stationed, and access to communication- it’s better to have the plan and know a little bit before you go, rather than having it all hit you at once. 

TFA versus Peace Corps

Within the last years, Teach For America (TFA) has received attention from the press in front of the academic crisis that our country is struggling to solve.  Facing a shortage if teachers in some areas (regions and specialties) or teachers deemed ineffective by various instruments, TFA seeks to solve that by placing high achieving college students with no to limited experience and training with teaching into the classroom for two years.  Kinda sounds like something familiar, eh?

Much of the current criticism is that the candidates are generally under qualified to be effective teachers and by the time most participants leave the program, they’re just finding their way around the gig.  But I say that we face the same problem from many entering the education field with a teaching degree…many who receive their undergrad in teaching spent most of their time learning theory of teaching with little direct practice except maybe one or two student teaching units.  And there’s a high attrition rate among new teachers as well (those that can actually find jobs). 

And TFA does really (even suspiciously) sound very similar to the Peace Corps.  Mostly recent college graduates, who agree to serve in underserved (albeit foreign) communities for two years.  Most volunteers have some experience in the area they work in, but it might not be direct (most Water/Sanitation volunteers have a background in construction or engineering, Environment in sciences or nature).  Some countries and programs have high attrition rates just like TFA or teaching in general, and these are typically in very difficult assignments.  And most volunteers are on the two and out program and most are not necessarily likely to continue in the field of international development or foreign service. 

Instead, volunteers in Peace Corps and TFA carry the experience with them.  While they most likely won’t work in teaching or international development, they’re likely work in community development or other social programs.  At the least, they’ll remember they’ll remember their service, the inequality and the struggles they see and experience in their daily lives working in underserved communities and populations.

Vacation happy to get away...

A recent conversation with an American amgio, Jason 'The Dream' Farson:

Farson: How's vacation?
Me: Living the dream....sitting in bed eating rotisserie chicken and COPS is going to come on.  Gonna take a hot shower later.
Farson: Just think, back in America your vacation could be like every day

Six Months In And What To Show For It?

So it’s been almost six months in site (the 22nd) and truly time has flown by. It’s really hard to put down anything solidly accomplished for the last six months; no bathrooms built, no major projects completed and only 18 months to go. Factor in that all major projects are supposed to be done by month 21 and that leaves 15 months to go for large scale stuff and we still haven’t started the planning phases. So there’s a bit of stress not only on my end, but I think many of the 14ers are in the same way. But to be fair I’ve also accomplished a lot:

+Completed reservoir cleaning and tube disinfection (another scheduled for June)
+Solid working relationships with the municipality and the health post
+Participated in two sessions with Builders Beyond Borders
+3-4 hours a week teaching English and getting known by the youth
+International Women's Day Charla in the schools
+Strong community integration - about 90% of the town knows I live/work there, 35-40% knows kind of why
+Usually hear the shouts of 'Mateo!' 'Gringo!' and others from the community while walking around
+Actually like being at site and feeling at home.
+Will be presenting my work plan to local authorities in the coming days.

So maybe when I think about it, I'm pretty well planted.

Part of why I´m surviving Peru

So when I think about it, I’m passing close to six months at site and over eight months in Perú. And like it has been said before, the days are long but the weeks and months are short. Sometimes days crawl by forever; no-shows at appointments, meetings that drag on, and at times there’s simply nothing constructive to do. But usually reflecting on the week, or month, I find myself trying to remember what all seemed to happen so quickly.

This is also a bit of a milestone as I’m not really used to staying in one location for too long. Especially during college, I was living on campus for 3 months, back at home for a few weeks, back at school, a few weeks at home for the summer, and a few weeks in Wheeling and then repeat (or mix in a semester in Oman). So living in the same place isn’t something I am too used to, let alone living with the same set of people. But I’m somehow making it work here. I think a big part of this is due to the family I live with.

I was asked by a future trainee whether or not I was used to the cultural differences of living with a host family. In a better perspective, I feel they probably put up with a lot more ‘acustumbrar-ing’ (accustoming?) with having me around than vice-versa. I do take a lot of short trips here and there, and I don’t really have a set schedule. So sometimes I’ll be at home a lot, other times I’ll be out, or even out of the department for a while. I’ll make trips to Ica (I’ve gone to the south end of the country three times in the last four months). But they’re still really loving, supportive, and welcoming to me. They include me in every little family event or dinner, but were also cool that I asked to stick around instead of going to Trujillo for a family party (I wanted to stay partly for some Mateo time and also to hang out with my Peruvian friends and watch the local soccer matches).

For me, my family here is people I trust to ask questions about things I don’t understand or maybe have them explain some cultural stuff to me. Like why isn’t so and so well liked, or how this person got that job and all the inner-workings of the community. They’re well connected and well respected by most of the town, so when I say I live with them I think that respect carries over a little bit. Everyone in my town always says they’re a very kind and generous family, and I for one can definitely vouch for this.

Starbucks Pt 2

So a while back, I wrote a quick blurb about being at Starbucks in Trujillo and how it really seemed ‘American’ and how I was a bit in shock at how it was the same type of ‘Starbucks culture’ here in Peru as in the states, and also the difference/disparity of wealth from where I was that evening (Starbucks) and during the day (my town).

I didn’t mean to vilify Starbucks or the people there, or even really imply that there’s anything wrong with Starbucks. Hell, I purposely went there that night and another time after that for a few hours and bought a drink and used the wireless internet). It can be a good symbol of the disparity, especially between rural and urban: for the same cost as a large frappachino drink, I can buy lunch for a week at a restaurant in my town, clearly the calorie cost is different.

But at the same time, Starbucks can be a good sign. With the prices the way they are (For the same price, I can either buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks or two weeks worth of fresh ground coffee in the grocery store), obviously there needs to be some level of clientele to support the business. And indeed there is. It shows, in a very unscientific way, a growing semi-professional youth culture working/networking and having disposable income. Quite possibly the patrons you might see at this Starbucks are going to be part of the ‘Perú advanza’ model, which won’t be cocinas mejoradas, but larger scale domestic businesses and innovations.

What could be said, for example, if there was the Starbucks and it was filled with ex-patriot workers or European/American tourists? Truly more of a divide or even cultural imperialism, maybe. Or is it cultural imperialism to see Peruvians do something ‘American’? I think not as they seem to gravitate to it on there own…there’s no mass media campaigns I can tell to get people into Starbucks.

Being A Mercenary Volunteer

So I’ve been fortunate in that during my first four months of service, I wasn’t chained to my site (not that you ever really are, but still). In February and March, I was invited to journey down to the south of Peru for a week and work with a group called Builders Beyond Borders (B3). In short, they’re a non-profit group that brings between 20-40 high schoolers from the Connecticut area down to a developing country to do a bunch of manual labor. They fund raise around $2,500 to cover for travel, meals, supplies, etc. and take a week out of school or their Spring Break to attend this project. And through the glories of networking and past experiences with Peace Corps, B3 hooked up with some of our Water and Sanitation 12’ers (the group before me) to assist on their bathroom and water system projects. And they were kind enough to invite other volunteers down (like me!) and feed/lodge us, plus let us go with the kids to local activities such as sandboarding and white water rafting (Peace Corps is hard!!!).
In February, I worked with a group in the province of Canyette, which is already ripe with Peace Corps volunteers due to the effects of the 2007 earthquake. This particular group’s mission was dig a ridiculous amount of trenches in various parts of this remote agricultural town and install main water lines, which would later be connected to houses. This was really the thankless part of the project because the kids wouldn’t really get to see anything ‘completed’; just pipes laid and if all went well, no leaks. My job in this instance was to be a point person for technical advice (or talk with the town plumber), translate, and be a ‘role model’. After a week, I was really impressed with the kids and their work ethic. Most of them kept on going strong until quitting time, and even past that. Digging ditches in the hot Peruvian sun is not really a fun way to spend your winter break, especially when $2,500 could be used for so much sweeter stuff (like 2/3 of a Peace Corps volunteer’s living allowance!) but the kids never really complained and really liked the experience of manual labor and getting dirty (probably two things they never really get to do up in Connecticut).
In March, it was more or less the same routine except I was working on a bathroom project in the south of Ica, where the earthquake really took it’s toll. Most of the communities were rebuilt with thatch housing and people were just starting to rebuild with adobe. I worked with two different teams of kids during the week, with two trained maestros (campo handymen/masons/carpenters/etc) to build pour flush bathrooms. This project was a little different because the teams would finish a bathroom in about two days, and therefore just restart from scratch. But they persevered throughout the week and hit the number of bathrooms they aimed for. They all got on really well, and what was interesting is that the maestros really liked the kids, even if they couldn’t fully communicate with them. The kids wound up leaving on Saturday morning, while the PC volunteers and the maestros worked during the morning to finish up some loose ends, and some of the maestros were generally sad that the kids were gone. I was talking with one of them and asked why he looked a little sleepy (it was Saturday morning), and he said he wasn’t sleepy but sad that the kids were gone.
And I think that’s part of what B3 aims for, especially with organizations who just jump in, do a quick project, and leave. B3 really aims for the cultural and emotional experience for their kids, who largely grew up in privilege or at the very least with most of their needs met. These trips allow the kids to see a different way of living, and poverty, and reflect on that as an individual however they want to interpret it. To be honest, I was a little skeptical of these trips…’volunteer tourism’, where you jump in for a week, get to slum it, and then go back to your comfortable living condition. But what I personally hope for with these trips is that the kids hold this experience with them and use it as a bit of a spark to either serve abroad or at home in the United States to help and work people achieve better means and levels of living. And I also benefitted from the trips as well by working with the maestros and seeing what the more experienced volunteers were doing and how their work went from the first couple months like where I’m at, to over a year in and actually doing projects.


So I'm at the Starbucks in Trujillo. 9PM on a Thursday night. It is crowded. A few teenagers meeting, some people reading. Groups of 20-somethings dressed nicely and conversing over coffee, young professionals hunched over laptops. Weird. And to think earlier this afternoon (and a 90 minute bus ride) I was talking with families who didn't have light, running water and lived with dirt floors and an elementary school education....

Microwaves and Dishwashers...

So I live in a Posh Corps house; electricity, TV with cable, running water, furnished bathroom (complete with urinal even though I live with all women…), microwave and washing machine. It’s a pretty sweet life, and really I make no apologies for it. I’d rather live here, than in a cave in the mountains like some of the other volunteers (NOTE: nobody actually lives in caves). But the funny thing is, while all of this does seem natural to me, some of the luxuries aren’t utilized by my family.

For example, the microwave. Virginia just doesn’t use it. The fifteen year old has a limited concept of how and why to use the microwave (that it’s better to heat up food than cook it through) but still hasn’t quite mastered it and calls me for help. Same thing with the washing machine, which was a recent addition. Virginia still washes her clothes by hand, even though I tell her we can use the machine. The fifteen year old uses it every now and then, but still mostly by hand. I, of course, use the thing to my full advantage. But why don’t they adapt?

Partly because the technology (washing machine and microwave) is just so new and unknown to them, that they don’t know how to take advantage and are slightly intimidated to use it. The other is that since they were getting by alright using the stove and washing by hand, that using the machines aren’t part of day to day life for them whereas it is for me. And especially regards to the washing machine, they’re also just used to washing a little bit here and a little bit there, whereas I’m used to stockpiling laundry until the last possible minute (hence why I’ve worn swim trunks on laundry day back in college).

And maybe I’m overanalyzing, and maybe I just have a little too much free time but I think this does say something. First, just having something doesn’t mean it will be used. The washing machine sits right next to the sink, and they still go for the sink. Second, cultural and social practices will always hold strong. When you grew up cooking with firewood, and then recently used gas, so a microwave is just unheard of (and unnecessary?). Third, maybe these devices weren’t necessary (for them, for me necessary for sure) and the resources could have been better used for something else (new TV, paint for the house). I’m pretty sure that Virginia or the fifteen year old never actually asked for the microwave or the washing machine, the other family members just bought it and brought it over. And while they could definitely help in day-to-day life here, without adaptation they just take up space. Hmmm…this seemingly sounds like behavior change model and ‘white elephant projects’….

White Elephant in Development

One of the things plaguing development, especially local development is the proliferation of ‘white elephant projects’. ‘White elephant projects’ are ones that are constructed with the best intentions and for the simplest reasons (bathrooms or wells for instance), but are not utilized by the community after the project is completed. Obviously, this is a waste of resources for human capital, financial capital, and time.
Largely, white elephant projects come about when not enough research is done in the community beforehand. Research and conversations and the community needs, customs, behaviors, and beliefs. I am often reminded of a story passed onto me from a Wooster grad about a white elephant project in Africa. An NGO saw that women in the community had to walk an hour to the river to get water, and then carry it back. Therefore, it only made sense to build a well close by as to cut down on the transportation time. Well, the NGO successfully built the well but it was never used. The women continued their hour walk down to the river with their buckets and ignored the well. When asking why the women did not use the well and continued with what seemed a slightly absurd practice, the women commented that collecting water was a social event. The time spent collecting water was time spent outside the house and time with their neighbors and friends. While collecting water, the women would chat, pass gossip and news, and just socialize. By using the well, an important part of the women’s social life was being reduced. Perhaps if the NGO took this into account, they may have planned differently or included a project or initiative to make up for the lost social gains of water collecting.
One of the things that Peace Corps in Peru presses is a behavioral evaluation model, which seeks to examine why people do certain practices (not use condoms, use campo abierto) and then to examine how these practices can be changed. This is part of the reason why the first three months at site, we actually don’t do any projects. Instead, we do community diagnostic work such as interviews, community mapping, FREESOP, and seasonal calendars to better understand how the community works. These create conversations between the volunteer and the community to exchange information about the community but also about the volunteer and allow both to get comfortable with each other. The idea is, with community information and community input, the volunteer and the community can formulate plans and projects that the community sees as necessary and wants.


It’s been interesting to think about my role in development and what really is development. Is development formalizing a national banking sector and stabilizing currency fluctuation? Or on the other side: bathrooms, clean water, and cocinas mejoradas?
Development can and most likely should be all these things; they all signal different levels of faults in the country for different peoples. At the top down approach, having banks can help investment (both foreign and domestic) grow and lead to more job, advancing industries, and more opportunity for unique growth. Currency stabilization allows for assurance in the higher levels of the banks, but also the government and allows people to have confidence that their investments will not devalue or skyrocket too soon. Bathrooms/clean water/cocinas mejoradas signal a lacking for society in a different perspective. But at both ends of the spectrum, it’s not enough to simply creature these things. Rather, much training and convincing is required in order for people to want to use these things. And that’s a large part of the job in the Peace Corps.
You see, many people are used to living more or less the same for generations. They’ve had the same water, crapped in the same spots in the fields (and consequently had the same illnesses) for generations. So why does that need to change? And in developing countries, banks have never been too stable, so confidence is low. And what’s the point of saving money in a bank when you can do it at home [Note: several investigations have pointed to the fact that ‘poor people’ do want to save and, in fact, can save some money but do not have the channels to do so]?
So maybe a big part of development is changing attitudes? Not necessarily cultural and societal beliefs (but then again, maybe to an extent), but understanding the root causes of the repetitive actions and beliefs. From there, it’s necessary how to figure out how to adapt and change these beliefs to compliment this development, whether it’s changing attitudes about why they should use a bank or why a latrine (or better yet, an eco-baño!) is a better and healthy option than the fields. I really think this is a major part of development that is strongly overlooked. It’s the old saying, you can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. People hate changes, because many times it signals instability. If people do not trust and have confidence in the changes, the projects will become the infamous white elephants of development; such as latrines used as storage sheds or for animals.
This is also why not only economists and politicians should be involved in development, but other types of professions. Health promoters, sociologists, psychologists, communicators, scientists or whomever really. Development is a multi-step process, and really if anyone knew ‘what worked’, it would have been done. But rather, things work but more often they fail in development. And that’s why new approaches, such as more instruction and understanding, must be explored.