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!