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.