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.