Two Years Goes By Quickly

Two years can seem like an eternity.  Or rather, two years is a long time for someone only a quarter of a century old.  Two years is imperceptible and can seem especially slow moving given the abrupt change of pace, the change of settings, the unfamiliarity and being so far away from the familiar. 

Even months or a year in, two years is incalculable in many ways.  Only until the Peace Corps COS (close of service) conference three months before your departure date, where all the volunteers from your promotion gather around and get the low-down on the readjustment process, does it slowly start to sink in that your time is coming to a close.  Your friends are all organizing their plans, trips around the continent or rushing home for Thanksgiving or Christmas.  And slowly, people start leaving.


Back at site, people are equally starting to get sad.  Inevitably, people have gotten used to the big tall gringo or the weird looking mozungu walking around and can’t really understand why you want to leave.  What’s wrong with our town? It’s nice, peaceful.  You’ll have a good life here!

The ups and downs of Peace Corps

(+51): Bad news: the hardware store hasn’t delivered any of the materials and looks like we’ll be at least one more day behind.  Good news: lomo saltado for lunch.

One of the many lessons I’ve learned about any Peace Corps experience, a universal fact, if you will, is that you will experience highs and lows.  The highs will be high, and the lows will be low.  And, they might be with you for hours or days and can easily change even hour to hour. 

mantisThat was today.  I woke up early (5:45am) to wait for a bus into recover my cell phone from a doctor who was handing it off before he went further up the road in the bus.  You see, my phone fell out of my pocket on Saturday and thankfully he picked it up and instead of simply turning it off and selling the phone, he held on to it and agreed to return it.  Didn’t even take a bill I tried to sneak into his hand.  So good start to the day. Next was frantically calling families to tell them that the truck was coming up today to drop off building materials for the bathrooms.  Then I call the Muni to see what time we’re going, and I’m told it ain’t happening today (see above text).

The dry bathroom project has been sucking the fun out of me for the last few months.  Various bureaucratic roadblocks have held up the works, and now we’re dealing with hardware store problems.  That problem is the hardware store gladly accepted the Municipality’s money and then informed us it’ll be a few days to deliver all the materials (it was a bulk order).  But it still hasn’t come.  What kind of hardware store doesn’t have bricks or can’t get 100 bags of cement in a week?

So that left me pretty furious at Peru.  I went on up to visit the health post to get a change of scenery, and talked with the Doctor about this and that,  and calmed down a bit, then went over to my community partner’s house to pass on the bad news.  She invited me in, and we talked while she was cooking.  And without even asking or saying anything, she set down a huge plate of noodles and a juice and I dug in.  After a while, we were talking about other things, joking about this and that, and then after awhile I left her house.  I stormed up to her house pretty frustrated and angry, but even without resolution to my frustration, I left a lot calmer and happier.  That’s how it is.

Some days, you’ll hate Peace Corps and the host country.  You get tired of the jokes that aren’t funny, a culture that isn’t yours, little kids staring at you. And other days, you’re making the stupid jokes, felling like a rock star walking down the street with everyone calling your name.  There’s days you think about packing your bags and leaving, and other days where you think you could definitely stay here awhile. 

I Can Identify Elephants

I have never seen an elephant before in my life. Well, I’ve never seen an elephant  in person before (but I have been to the zoo), but I’ve seen pictures in biology text books, read articles in National Geographic, and seen TV shows involving elephants in some way.  So much, that I dare say I can identify one in a picture or in real life if the opportunity so arose.

In fact, I bet that if you’re reading this you are easily imagining an elephant right now; with long ears, the big nose, thick grey leathery skin (or pink if you’ve been drinking), possibly rolling on top of some kind of circus ball.  

But not everyone can readily identify an elephant. 

And to be fair, it’s odd that I know a lot about elephants even though I’ve never really studied them, and that none live or roam anywhere I’ve ever been in the world.  But I realized today that identifying elephants is not the easiest task in the world, especially if you’ve never seen an elephant.


I was a douche to a Peruvian the other day.  Not that I’m not a douche on other days (gringo, Peruvian or other), but this time it was under no fault of the Peruvian.  You see Hugo was at the health post the same time I was. It was late on a Friday afternoon:  I was at the health post for the health promoter meeting, and he was there for reasons unknown to me.  I had never seen him before and didn’t know who he was or why he was at the post.  And Hugo didn’t do a single thing wrong.  In fact, he was nice to me.  He asked me where I was from, what I was doing at the health post and  if I liked Peru and the food, etc.  And that’s why I was a douche….

But let me explain myself….

Buying Wood

I remember a while ago, during a presentation on his field work in Nicaragua, a certain professor mentioned that you shouldn’t expect to get more than two things done during the day while in Managua. 

I thought about that as I rode the bus home today around 4pm, after a long and drawn out journey to buy wood and tin sheets for bathrooms.

You see, buying wood (or anything) isn’t as easy as walking into Home Depot, loading it into a cart and then packing it up into the SUV (although Sodimac, a South American hardware store, bears an eerie resemblance to Home Depot right down to the signage).  Nope.  First off, in small towns it’s hard impossible to get wood.  Long pieces of 2x4s are coveted more than precious metals.  And you just can’t go to a carpintero (carpenter). Why?  They only work with wood, not sell it. Duh!  So instead, I had to journey out to the regional capital just to get wood for some simple door frames.

I'll give you a play by play of my day, the journey to get wood (heh)….

Your Best Resource

About this time two years ago, I (yes, I, faithful readers) was scouring the interwebs for blogs from current volunteers about what it was like living in Peru, living in rural areas, and what volunteers DID.   In the process, I remember stumbling over one blog that gave me a little fright.  It was a WATSAN volunteer’s blog, and he wrote about doing survey work to improve a waterlines (or something along the theme) in the community. Survey work? Sounds like engineering!  Fuck.  I look on the dude’s profile, and he’s a Master’s International Student in Engineering and has a giant beard. I qualified for WATSAN with skills as a carpenter in a college theatre and mediocre Spanish grades. I am neither an engineer nor a facial hair grower.  How am I going to survive in Peru (a fear reverberated by most other volunteers, especially sans beard)?

(First off) Well, two years later I gotta say – it didn’t matter that I wasn’t an engineer. My job (and most Peace Corps jobs) didn’t require being engineer but rather just being a leader.  Being a leader in the community and knowing how to talk to people.  So when I didn’t know something and I hit a wall.  I did have some good resources.

I’ll let you in on a little hint: your best resource is….

Donate for PCWiki & PCJournals + Blog Roll

So Peace Corps Journals and Peace Corps Wiki is going slow due to budgetary problems (no such thing as a free lunch).  If you can, I highly suggest donating to them. They’re run by a group of RPCVs and not supported by Peace Corps nor the National Peace Corps Association, so they count on donor support. I’ve chatted with Will Dickinson (RPCV Armenia 2004-2006) a few times via email, and he’s a pretty solid dude.

If Peace Corps Wikis eased your fears during the application process or PC Journals helped you figure out a bit more about the life of a PCV, then consider a donation.  Hell, I donated $10 and I’m a current PCV.  I’m sure you can spare some change as well.

So in the mean time, here’s a quick blog role of a few key posts, by current Peru PCVs:

So What’s Been Going on with the Bathroom Project

When people would ask me in January about my project, I would go on and on about the wonders of dry bathrooms and how they're a great solution to rural sanitation projects (which they are), and about how we had the support of the local government and it was going to be great! My old high school raised about $3000 to contribute to the project, families were all progressing on their hygiene practices, it was great! I was on the fast track and looking  to complete the construction of 22 bathroom units by late June, and possibly run another bathroom campaign. 

That was then.

Now when my host family asks me 'Que tal el proyecto?', I tell them I really don't want to talk about it.   What's happened?

How do you pack for two years of your life?

This is the wrong question to ask yourself when packing for Peace Corps - whatever country. Although you’re going away for two years, you don’t need to pack for it.  You could walk onto the plane with a carry-on and be set. Seriously.

Why?  Well, people live where you’re going.  You’re not going to live out in the middle of nowhere, and this is not a camping trip.  You may be living in rough conditions, maybe without light or running water, but never the less people live there and have for generations, and will continue to after you leave. People buy and make clothes, wash themselves, wash their homes, sleep, wash their clothes, make their own food, and do pretty much everything else that you do. It might be a little different but that’s why you signed up, right?


On ‘Live Like a Peace Corps Volunteer’

I stumbled upon this awhile back: ‘Live Like a Peace Corps Volunteer’

The premise is as it sounds: it challenges people to take away some basic luxuries like hot showers, private transport and even cable TV to “give those participating in the Challenge a small taste of Peace Corps life, hopefully while having some fun”.   Depending on interests, participants can choose a country and extremity level (rookie to hardcore), and have at it.

And it seems like fun, and a good way to create some buzz about Peace Corps and help us establish some field cred.  But at the same time, I think it makes it point but misses the big one.... 

Starting to Build Bathrooms and Defy Local Belief that Obras CAN Happen

Note: I originally wrote this as an e-mail to a former teacher/current friend who contributed and coordinated heavily to my Peace Corps Partnership Project fund for building 22 dry bathrooms in two small rural farming communities. 

Yo Sav,

First off - Happy Dia del Padre compadre.

I wrote awhile back saying I'd have an update for you in the next week or so, but I'm sure you put on your 'International Development timeline' filter, and a week or so translated to how ever long this time span is.    But the good news is here, sir.  We've FINALLY starting on the bathroom project.  Although the Municipal funds are still in limbo, I decided there was no sense waiting when we at least had some of the money (from the Lebo donation).  We made the bulk purchases and picked them up from the distributor with the municipal dump truck last Thursday - enough bricks/rebar/cement for four units.  Our maestro is currently hard at work laying the first concrete slabs - I'll have pictures later in the week (re-activate International Development Timeline filter).  Like a good gringo, I'm there mostly to walk around with a clip board, providing technical support as needed, as well as a few photo ops. 


A Corps in Crisis? Not so fast Charles Kenney

I’ll be the first to admit that Peace Corps has its flaws. And indeed a model based largely on sending 20-something recent college graduates across the world to good seems a bit flawed in this day and age. After all, Peace Corps was started in 1962 – just after the Marshall Plan and when humanitarian aid for development was country to country cash transfer. Sending people abroad to work in communities was a new approach as was community based development. Policy makers still believed in the trickledown effect back then.

But we’re in a different world today. Both the supply and the demand side of Peace Corps has changed. NGOs and humanitarian organizations are sophisticated. In terms of demand, people around the world are becoming more educated and are attending trade schools and universities in greater numbers. Students strive to be engineers, doctors, lawyers etc in the same vein of past generations of Americans. In terms of supply, the humanitarian aid/development field has proliferated with UN agencies, regional INGOs, NGOs and all other kinds of acronyms working at all levels on issues from food security, micro-credit, youth development, and any other subtheme. While there’s still demand for aid organizations, they become less precious when the market expands and gets crowded. There’s a host of other organizations that do programming areas better than Peace Corps. So is Peace Corps even necessary?

How Much Things Cost in Peru

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of how much some stuff costs here in Peru.  This list isn’t a grocery bag list nor can be considered normal purchases in any given time.  Rather, this serves as stuff volunteers might buy at least once in their service as well as to give them an idea of how much some things can cost. Electronics tend to be on the more expensive side and behind the US a generation or two.  Food is cheap, especially sticking to local food.  In sum, it all depends on quality (the bus ride)  and if it’s imported (Peru lunch versus McDonald’s).  The exchange rate used is $1  = S/. 2.80 but the rate can fluctuate anywhere from S/.2.72 – S/. 2.85 as of late.    The table is posted after the jump (aka click on the ‘More’ button right below this)….

Connect and Disconnect–The Curse of the Interwebs

Coming from the always connected Uhmerica life and diving into the Peace Corps can be a rough bit.  I haven’t worn a watch since I can remember, because I always had a cellphone in my pocket to check the time.  But getting sent into the campo or bush abruptly changes all that.  But even today, many countries and volunteer sites (especially in Peru) count on wireless cell phone service and even internet service from cell signals.  But how does it affect the volunteer in site?

How does Peace Corps find sites for Volunteers?

I’m often asked by Peruvians how I got here.  Not just how I got to Peru, but also to my town.  After all, we’re slightly off the beaten path (and other volunteer sites even more so).  And the truth is, it’s kind of a shot in the dark.

They fed my dog pieces of broken glass


Some pig-fucker fed glass to Chancho (my dog).


I’m pissed. At the pig fucker.  Who fed glass. To my dog.

2011-04-18 018

Blogs about development

Most likely you’re reading this blog because you a) know me personally  b) found this on Peace Corps journals and are thinking of joining the Peace Corps c) found this on Peace Corps journals and are coming to Peru

While reading stuff about Peace Corps and Peru is all well and good, it’s important to look a little bit more into development and the complexity of the issues. Before service, I recommend that future volunteers check out the following blogs on development to get a fuller (haha) sense of development beyond buzzwords, Bono, and Kristoff:

Tales From the Hood – Highly recommended, filled with insights and accounts by the author
Good Intentions Are Not Enough – What is Bad Aid?

The Opportunity Cost of Peace Corps–Salary


Peace Corps applicants, current Peace Corps volunteers and even the people who thought about applying or serving but never did all share one same thought: what have I given/will I give up by choosing Peace Corps? It’s a big commitment, two years in shitty conditions while ‘living like the locals’.

It sound like a pay cut, and in real dollars it is: I make roughly $320/month or $3,840 a year. Not that much for a job in America, right? But let’s look at it another way. In addition to that, I receive $24 ‘Leave Allowance’ and an additional $2.57 for mailing a letter for World Wide Schools. Beyond these, I’m comp-ed a readjustment allowance of $275 per month that is available at the end of my service. On top of that, I receive 10% off of my federal student loans for each year of service.


1 month

1 year

2 years

Living allowance




Readjustment Allowance




Student Loan Reduction




Leave Allowance




World Wide Schools




Net Benefit





Coming back home (to both of them)


It’s weird being a visitor in your own country.  After a while, it felt weird telling people I was going home for a visit.  Home? I thought I was pretty well established here in Sausal, but all the same I still had my other home.  Before I left for Peru, I wasn’t planning on coming back during my two-year stint.  I knew I’d rather travel around a bit during Christmas and there was something hardcore about not going home.  But in Peru, the vast majority of volunteers go State-side at least once during their service (usually during the end of December or May/June for graduations). 

And to be fair, I didn’t really experience the reverse culture shock while home.  Sure, oftentimes I felt lost in conversation if people were talking about family news (if it isn’t posted on Facebook, I usually don’t hear about it) and anything minor that’s been happening the past few months.  But I spent the week at home in family surroundings, I slept in the same room, went to the same bars, even went to my old high school to talk for a bit. Nothing was really ‘weird’ while I was home or different from how I remembered it from when I left.  Maybe I was just home for a quick whirlwind and it was too short to really notice any changes or have to deal with re-adaption: I could still be the annoying Peace Corps volunteer who starts their stories with “In Peru, we….” to mark any dull difference between what I was doing in Peru and what I was doing at that moment.

But this time it was a little harder to leave home…..

Peru Wikileaks– The US Ambassador meets with Ollanta Humalla


While the buzz about WikiLeaks and Julian Assange has died down considerably, it’s still worthwhile to note that the site is still up and running and full of information.  I perused the US Embassy Lima section, and saw nothing of great interest until this one popped up:

Here’s the summary of the cable (written by the Ambassador himself) followed by notes from me.  You can read the full cable here:


Summary: I met one-on-one with Nationalist Party 
leader Ollanta Humala April 16 at his request. Across two-and-a-half hours of discussion, Humala revealed perhaps more than he intended of his electoral strategy for regional and congressional elections in 2010 and for presidential elections in 2011. He is clearly working closely with some
of the most radical groups in Peru, even as he continues to project a moderate nationalist line on economic, international, and political issues. Ollanta has also successfully raised his media profile in recent weeks, in part by joining a growing national consensus on what should be done about the VRAE region, where Sendero and drug traffickers hold sway. I was struck by a growing self-confidence, a view echoed by at least one other veteran observer of the political scene. I was also left with the impression that Ollanta remains ambivalent about fully abandoning radical alternatives. He is open to suggestions
on international travel and, for at least the third time in as many discussions over the past ten months, indicated his interest in visiting the US. We should consider our options on supporting his travel should he formally make a request.

+ Refers to Humalla’s wife, Nadine Herrera, ‘repudtedly the radical political brains behind Humala’;

+ The Ambassador and Humalla spoke about military anti-narco actions inside of Peru.They acknowledged the high level of corruption in drug zones, including politicians and the police. Also discussed was the limited effect of policies to stem off the growing of coca leaves such as paying farmers to grow something other than coca leaves.  Ollanta proposed just buying the crop outright to prevent it’s entry to the market (at a cost of $200 million). The Ambassador suggested Humalla visit Vienna to learn about other anti drug trafficking efforts;

+ After his lose in the 2006 elections, Ollanta studied demographics and polling to figure out HOW he lost and where he could strengthen his candidacy. He sited one or two candidates planted in the Presidential elections to take votes away from himself;

+ “Humalla said that just because he saw himself in the leftist international bloc did not mean he agreed with everything his regional allies said or did”;

+His nationalist party in Congress was weak at the start because of it’s mix between professionals and campesinos, but poco a poco there’s more informal coordination.

+ Humalla meets with the leftist political leaders in Peru for consensus building but acknowledged that he was ‘in charge’ as the other leaders had no political and leadership legitimacy

+Claims he is moderate on nationalist economic and political  issues

+Ollanta requested information on how to get in touch with the US Democratic Party in order to develop transparent relations with the United States.



So you’re coming to Peru – clothes and what to bring


I can’t remember if I actually wrote at one point about packing and such for PCTs coming to Peru, but might as well do it again (assuming I’m awesome and completed the task in the first place).

The skinny: packing for Peru is easy and hard. Easy in the fact that Peru has a lot of stuff available (well, stuff that you need) for purchasing and the cold hard truth is that no Peruvian I met has an REI membership but somehow manages to get by day-by-day. The hard part is that in Peru is: you don’t know whether you’ll be in hot or cold climate and that some sizes are hard to get. For the climate thing, bring stuff you can layer (i.e. long sleeve shirts, sweaters, flannel shirt, fleece jacket) so you can transition from hot to cold in style. I would advise bringing a big ass jacket – if you need it (aka if other people wear it), you can buy it closer to your site (full disclosure, I live in the coast).

Speaking for men (the often forgotten gender), pants are generally made for short people around here. So getting something to fit my 6’2” 33/34 frame is tough. In fact, I’ve never bought pants in Peru. Shorts, yea. Pants, nope. They never really fit right. Shoes are the same issue. If your foot size is around 44 or less (look up the converstions yourself), you should be ok. My 46s just cant seem to squeeze into too many of the black market shoes available here. Even department stores have a limited supply of my clown shoes.

So what to do?

For clothes - I actually recommend around 3-4 pairs of hiking pants (think North Face, ex-Officio, Columbia) that are tough, durable and that preferably look like regular pants rather than something off the front cover of the North Face catalog. While you won’t be battling the wilderness every day, your pants will face the rock and brush of clothes washing and these brands usually hold their own. Even the campesinos wear buttondowns and trouser pants, so I had to leave some of my choice t-shirts at home. Simple short sleeve button downs or plain t-shirts can work. Oh, you’ll be line drying your undies, so no white underwear unless you want to show off your skid marks.

Shoes – I wear my boots like a mofo. Everywhere I go is flat, but since they’re closed toe and pretty durable it works. Sandals are a no-no if you’re in ‘work’ mode. I have a pair of sneakers, but they get beat up here in the desert so I only wear them sparingly. But when I go home for a visit, I will be bringing back a few extra pairs. Trail shoes are also a popular choice.

Backpack: I have a regular American jansport backpack that I use for everyday use and weekend travel, and a hiking backpack for extended trips. For coming to Peru – I brought my hiking backpack (50L – 65L is recommended), my Jansport backpack, and a large army surplus duffle bag – which I haven’t used since I got here.

Although, many volunteersvolunteers also sport the ubiquitous Peruvian market bag to carry their accessories. Provided my base camp is a hostel room, these bags (teamed up with a Jansport) hold a ton of stuff, and don’t stick out as much as a big hiking pack might. Available at any market place in Peru, these stylish bags are available in a wide variety of checkered colors (red/green/blue) as well as with Disney characters.

Stuff and Things 2011-04-06 001

Beyond clothes and shoes, you really don’t need too many accessories. Laptop (definitely), some kind of MP3 player, maybe battery powered speakers, small mag light, rechargeable batteries, USB drives (a big one and one or two small ones), some books to read and trade around, and bring a few momentos from home. I have a sleeping bag and pad that gets used once in a while, but I’m not a big camper.

Weird things I brought for mementos: Homer Simpson bobble head (been following me since college), Terrible Towel (I’m a proud Pittsburgher), a few t-shirts that remind me of home (including a Sydney Crosby shirt and Doink the Clown), and a bunch of photos. I have a wall covered with photos from home, and (soon enough) of stuff from Peru. It brightens up the room, seeing the drunken smiles and being reminded of drunken memories.

I can’t really think of stuff that I brought but don’t use…largely because it’s probably stuffed in the back of my closet and will be pulled out come mid-December (COS).

You’re going to overpack. Just don’t do it too much.

Peru: Laws about Elections


Well, we’re on the eve of the Presidential elections here in Peru.  It’s slightly unwavering to see which candidate may win and how it will affect Peru, especially so as I’ve been here for some time now (but not tooooo much).  Interesting to note, though, a few of the rules and regulations that surround presidential elections;

+ Starting a week before the elections, public opinion polls are prohibited from being released – believing (rightfully so) that the small sample polls will affect a person’s vote rather than platforms and issues.  They can start exit polls around 4pm election day.

+ Elections are on a Sunday.  If you are between 18 – 65 years old, you must vote or pay a fine of S/.70 ($25).  If you’re older than 65, than voting is optional. Oddly, my straw poll shows that most people older than 65 don’t intend on voting or see the need to even though some candidates offer better pensions than others

+Starting the Friday before elections, no more campaign commercials or publicity.

+ No public demonstrations or rallies of political nature starting on Friday

+ No sale or consumption of alcohol from Friday until noon on Monday with hefty fines for rule breakers (especially businesses selling the booze).   It’s heavily forced in the capital cities, and results may vary in rural zones.  People drank openly in the streets, just like any Sunday, during the October elections when the same law was in place

+ No public shows (concerts, movies, circus) on Election Day

+ No religious services are allowed between 8:00am – 4:00pm on Election Day, which is interesting considering Peru is heavily Catholic/Christian. Just shows how serious and important the government views national elections

+ Can’t carry around guns Saturday – Sunday


There’s a few others, but these are the bigger ones.  Growing up with the two-party system, I may question the validity or effectiveness of the true multi-party system (though as of writing, we might be under a government freeze).  But Peru takes elections and the democratic ideal seriously.  Unlike our low-voter turnout Tuesday elections.

I once read that traditionally elections were held on Tuesday because back when America was super-religious, everyone wanted to be at church on Sunday and it was forbidden to travel on the Sabath anyways.  So Monday was supposed to be a travel day for people who needed to mobilize to the voting station, and thus elections were held on Tuesday. 

Maybe it’s time for Saturday elections –  better turn out, and allows for more full fledged celebrations….

And so it goes


March 31st, 2011 is the last day for one of our health post doctors.  He hasn’t been paid by MINSA (the National Institute of Health here in Peru) for over five months, so he’s leaving.  He doesn’t want to, but after five months of not getting paid, I’d be pretty pissed too.

Our town health post had two doctors which allowed coverage for attention between 9-4pm Mon-Sat plus allow to attend trainings, meetings, etc.  With Dr. Rony gone, things will start to slow down even more around here as Dr. Victor also has administrative duties + can only see x amount of patients per day, and can only work so many hours a week.  And while the fully (health) insured citizens of our town won’t be affected –they have their own clinic in town – the poor who are covered by the gov’t insurance only will have to wait longer to see a doctor.

And so it goes.

Should I bring an iPod?


So I try to balance this blog with both information relevant to future Peace Corps volunteers, ideas of what it’s like in Peru, and thoughts on development/Peru/Peace Corps in general.  It’s gotten a little serious, so here’s an easy one:

Should I bring an iPod (or any MP3 player)?


Your music will save your sanity.

While a laptop is a larger beast and might stick out more, the MP3 player is pretty common around these parts.  Most kids in my town have USB memory sticks filled with music and then connect them to their moto-taxis, radios, or this recently introduced MP3 ghetto-blaster boombox.  It’s like a boom box (fierce speakers, battery powered) but instead of cassettes or CDs, you just plug in your USB and it automatically reads your MP3s. 

I don’t walk around listening to my iPod all the time and really only use it when I’m traveling.  For the long bus rides (or even the 2 hour rides to the capital city) or travelling, it can’t be beat. When I’m traveling around and staying overnight, I’m likely to stay in the cheapest place possible aka dorm hostel rooms.  The MP3/iPod can be a great friend against the snoring backpacker and/or loudly blasting music and/or drunken chatter.

What type should I bring?

I have one of the big iPod classics, and I might actually recommend against that.  It’s bigger so not as easily to keep in your pocket, but it’s good to have all your music in one place.

I also use a 1GB iPod shuffle, which is easier to move around with but alas has limited capacity.

Something you might want to consider is bringing an iPod touch. It can play music, videos/movies (great for long bus rides), and can connect to WiFi which is usually available in the capital cities.  Phones like Blackberrys and even iPhones can be seen in Peru (well the rich parts of your capital city).  Even for me, the WiFi makes the iPod Touch really tempting to buy.  Especially when coming into the capital city for a few hours, having the WiFi capabilities to check email/Facebook/news beats the hell out of lugging my 15” Dell around town.  So if you’re in the market for an MP3, consider the iPod touch.  But, at the same time, don’t go out and buy one if you’re short on cash and/or already have a fully functioning MP3 (part of the larger scale disease future Peace Corps Volunteer shopping sprees at REI).

And I know that I’ve only been listing the iPod and it’s because really, I have no idea what else is on the market – so make substitutions as necessary.

The Gringo as the Development Actor


“People from developed countries who do development work have not made common cause with the poor of the world. It doesn’t matter if you’re with a large international NGO, a small DIY operation, a hulking multilateral like the World Bank, an Irish rock band, the Peace Corps, or whatever. Even if you move to a rural village on your own and live like the locals, you’re still there by choice. That’s a key difference between you and your neighbors that can never be overcome, no matter how much you love each other. You (and I) grew up in a very different environment, with relative luxury and a very different health and educational system. You probably have resources and contacts that could take you back to the US or wherever. You might care a great deal about the fate of a poor community, but your fate is not the same as theirs.”

-Dave Algoso
Find What Works Blog


Peace Corps volunteers have the privilege of being able to leave the communities they work in.  We can leave our communities for the modern capital cities, eat some higher end foods, have a few beers and crash at a hostal/hotel.  Even moreso, if we really feel like it –we can go back home.  Either visiting during Christmas, or just deciding to early termination.  We can go back to our lives, our friends, our families in America. Hell, we have a plane ticket guaranteed!  If we want to early terminate, Peace Corps buys your plane ticket home and within a week you’ll be home. You leave.

And as much as you can be integrated in your community, you’ll leave.  You’ll leave all the problems that you see, all the social injustice, the poverty, the hardships your neighbors deal with. You’ll leave the challenges and the hurdles that you and your counterparts dealt with in order to work with a group of families and gain government money for a few small projects.  And while the children continue to get sub-standard education, you can go back and apply for graduate school fellowships for your two years of work. 

It’s harsh, but it’s true.  

Peace Corps also encourages volunteers to stay for third year positions: country initiatives, volunteer leaders/coordinators, Peace Corps response. Peace Corps encourages volunteers to stay in site for a third year and continue to work in their communities. In many ways it makes sense, especially instead of sending a new volunteer.  The 3rd year volunteer is already integrated and known, knows the community needs and resources and can be more effective at motivating and executing a project plan this time around.  And besides, two years really isn’t enough for any long standing change.  But really, when opportunities for promotions are up and all your PCV friends have left (aka a part of your emotional and technical support), how do you feel about sticking around and putting your life in the States on hold for a year?  Especially when you can just leave and go back to the States and still get a sparkling review. 

I’m guilty of this.  While I want to stay here in Peru for a third year, I’m set on a position with more leadership involved.  PCVLs and PCVCs also work with other NGOs, IOs, or government institutions at a higher level.  It’s more prestigious for me and allows for more experience. I’ll also live in a larger city, either the regional or country capital, with more resources and distractions.  I considered sticking around in my community to continue working but am probably not going to.  But why? My municipalities (local, district AND provincial) support me and show interest in my plans and the work volunteers here do in general. My socio is great, and there’s no lack of work to be done – especially in health promotion.   

But that begs the question – where does it stop? There will always be work to do here, whether I stay or not. But regardless, it shows that I still have that option.  Does that make me selfish? Does this make me less committed?  Wish I had an answer.

Keiko Fujimori and her dad


I’ve spent a few tries attempting to write a post about the presidential elections, and especially about the candidacy of Keiko Fujimori. Everyone turned out long winded and lacking any real base without seemingly turning this into a journal article or some un-cited Wikipedia page.

But what’s the deal with Keiko?

At age 35, Keiko Fujimori is a serious contender to win the presidency of Peru this April.  She’s young (35 years old), educated (MBA at Columbia University), experienced (former Congressional representative), has a campaign message of promoting citizen safety and security, and well loved by her country.  Why? Partly through her work in congress, but also because of her father – ex-President and current inmate Alberto Fujimori.

Alberto Fujimori won the 1990 presidential elections through his popularity, connection with the working man – Fujimori’s humble background plus his campaign involved handshaking and door to door campaigning in the rural parts of Peru largely avoided by politicians.  He inherited a country in deep problems – terrorism, drug trafficking, unstable economy, the works.  During his presidency, he stopped terrorism, reduced drug trafficking in the country, improved safety, improved infrastructure in all parts of the country with schools/health posts/roads (even in rural zones, where cost-analysis would say there’s little benefit).  At the same, he was responsible for an unruly ‘death squad’ accused of state terrorism and killing innocent civilians as well as declaring ‘emergency’, dissolving congress and installing himself as the legislative body.  Fujimori and his right hand man were also involved in corruption and extortion (murder, kidnapping, arms dealing, drug trafficking) and bother were tried and convicted and currently sitting in Peru federal prison.  Once again, ex-Presidente Alberto Fujimori is serving jail time for corruption and extortion and is heavily suspected (if not already convicted) of murder and kidnapping.

However, the Fujimori name remains favorable and popular.  He’s remembered not for kidnapping and questionable security forces, but for all the projects he brought to the rural zones who frequently describe themselves as ‘forgotten’.  He brought schools and roads to the far ends of Peru, and brought safety to many citizens through his tough security stance.

On top of that, Keiko has a clear political policy on beefing up national security and police forces to combat the growing crime throughout the country, an issue which citizens can identify.  She’s hardline and she’s clearly spoken, unlike other candidates who’s platform isn’t necessarily that clear unless it gets broken as scandalous news.  She’s constantly in the top-3 in opinion polls about presidential candidate –but her dad is still ex-President and convicted convict (she was once on record a while ago saying she would pardon her father if elected to office, but later revoked that statement).  Beyond this simple but jarring fact, Keiko Fujimori isn’t necessarily a bad pick for presidency or at least no worse than the other candidates  (11 in total, 5 with an actual chance of winning) unless you’re a leftist.

REPOST: Why Dry Bathrooms? (with pictures)

UPDATE January 2013:  I am conducting an evaluation of the project hopefully to be completed in late February or early March.  Will update then.

Or I guess the question is what are dry bathrooms.  Dry bathrooms are known by many names, and I tend to interchange them a bunch.  Dry bathrooms aka eco baños, ecological bathrooms, compost bathrooms, compost toilets, etc. are designed in the most basic sense to be part of a process to turn human waste into fertilizer. 
Wait!! But didn’t you say shitting in the fields was part of the sanitation problem in the first place?
Well, I never did say it but you’re right, Jimmy (errr…Timmy).  Directly shitting on plants is bad. Real bad.  The use of night soil (a cleaned up phrase for the combo of shit and piss) directly on plants is a point of high risk in the diarrheal circle. Viruses, worms, and germs find new homes in plants, which if not carefully washed, are ingested by humans causing a host of new problems.
Alright, Lyle Lanley. What’s this dry bathroom thing then?
Depending on the model, shit and piss are handled separately from the beginning to end stages.  The most basic design is a box with a toilet seat, and then a bucket inside for the shit/piss mix.  After every use, add in saw dust or something to start absorbing the urine.  Once full, you just add the bucket to the compost pile and let it sit and mix in for at least six months.  During that time, all the bad things in our poop such as viruses and worm eggs die as the temperature of the compost pile is higher than that of the human body.  In fact, most of the bad stuff dies off within a few days…just the pesky eggs stick around.

So that’s what you’re doing?
Yes and no.  Families here don’t readily practice composting as most of their food scraps are fed to the animals, and there’s not too much organic matter left.   The models we’re implementing are slightly more complex, but not complicated. We’re building a unit 2m wide by 1.9m long by 1m tall out of a concrete floor, bricks, and then another concrete slab to top it all off.  The inside faces of the bricks are sealed with a mix of mortar and SIKA.  The top concrete slab has a hole where we put the special toilet seat.  This seat is pretty simple: you sit, and the poop falls through the back half, while the urine is separated in the front half and channeled outside the unit. The urine is either collected in a bucket, or goes straight into a gravel pit.  After six months, the family moves the toilet to the other side of the unit and uses that fresh side while the poop decomposes in the other.  When the second chamber is full, we’re ready to take out the first mix and throw it in the air and let it fall like snowflakes…or use it as fertilizer. The unit, in this case, is surrounded by adobe blocks and the front has a elevated base floor to make it easy to sit on the unit.  I tell you, I’ve sold these things in Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook and by golly it put them on the map!
What about the urea in the urine? Won’t that burn the plants?
Yep, that’s why you add 3-4 parts water to dilute it.  Add in some spicy peppers and you got a handy organic insecticide, buddy.
Quick: Used the bathroom but I got toilet paper. What to do, what to do?
Well, if you wanted to go extreme, you could use leaves and just throw it in the mix.  But also, the toilet paper will decompose, so it’s safe to just throw in with the poop.
So you’re just going to build these things one time over and be done?
Negative.  One of the annoying things about dry bathrooms is training the families on use and maintenance. It’s just not a one-time thing.  Once built and in use, visits need to be made to make sure the bathrooms are in (proper) use, and there’s nothing wrong with the unit such as smells or flies.  And it’s helpful at the six month mark to remind the families to switch over. 
Is there a chance the track could bend?
You’re in the wrong meeting, my hindu friend.
Why not just build regular latrines?
While regular latrines are a solid solution, often times the pit fills up and no one does anything so the latrine goes out of use.  Or, as latrines are usually cheaply made, the smell and poor maintenance are usually enough to discourage use. Latrines also need to be built a certain distance away from the house as well as water sources.  In fact, the ground level in one of my communities is so high (how high is it?) you can’t dig a hole deeper than a meter without hitting water, making latrines a contaminant (well, for those living downstream).
Why not a septic tank?
Beyond cost, a septic tank takes a lot more time and effort.  It also requires more water, which many of these communities don’t have much of to spare.  Besides, if the septic tank or one of the lines backs up, usually no one nearby has any idea what to do, creating a public health issue.  No geological survey required, as dry bathrooms can be built almost anywhere. 
Try this on for size: where don’t dry bathrooms work?
Dry bathrooms are best suited for rural agricultural communities where water resources are scarce.  Furthermore, people there own their own land or will be able to sell their fertilizer.  Many times, people will work in agriculture, but it’s someone else’s land and the workers can’t just throw on whatever they want.  Lastly, it’s easier in a community that does not have access to drainage systems.  It’s hard to convince families of the benefits of dry bathrooms when their neighbor has indoor plumbing.
Where can I find more information about this exciting topic?
Your local library! Or, check out the ‘Humanure Handbook’, as well as ‘Sanitario Ecologico Seco’ by Lourdes Castillo Castillo (in Spanish).  I hear this Google thing is taking off (as long as you don’t click on the eHow or links). As well, feel free to contact me directly (matthewDOTwilliamDOTfuller A  T G MAIL DO T COM).

Holy Shit!


There’s really no appropriate words or phrase to properly capture what’s going on in Japan right now.  Not only are they scrambling in recovery mode after the earthquake and tsunami which devastated the country, but now the problems with the nuclear reactor(s).  What makes this thing worse is it’s really hard to decipher the news about what’s actually happening – what is speculation – what is panic.  And it’s not just the news sources, unsurprisingly it’s the Peru news sources as well.

Last week, when the earthquake and tsunami first struck, it was on all the major Peru stations for all of the morning.  Looping video feeds from CNN and other international news sources while the Peruvian news casters switched from talking about what was going on in Japan to how it might affect Peru – especially the expected tsunami.  Really, broadcasters were talking about disaster prevention while video clips of the ocean overtaking Japan were repeating on the screen. Brilliant journalism.  The state media source did the best job, especially spreading information about prevention and mitigation if a big wave were to strike – kids and old people should move inland after lunch just IN CASE an evacuation was needed later in the day and that everyone should have an emergency GO bag (with food, clothes, flashlight, water, etc).  By around 3 or 4 it was pretty clear that nothing big was going to hit Peru (especially after reports from Hawaii), but people were prepared.

But now, especially with the risk to Peru mostly diminished, it’s harder to get information about what’s going on in Japan.  Depending on what news source, we’re hearing that Japan is going to become a nuclear wasteland or that everything is under control.  Peruvians have a penchant for drama and sensationalist news reporting, but this isn’t helping.   And it’s heartbreaking and saddening to see all the destruction, to hear about all the lives lost, and what potential catastrophe lies ahead. 

Even for Peruvians, many of whom can still recall the effects of the earthquake in 1973 as clearly as the earthquake in Pisco in 2007, this hits home. Oddly enough, Peru has a lot of Asian ties, especially in Japan.  Not only just consumerism, but many Peruvians go over to Japan to work in factories and such and send remittances home.  As well, the ex-Presidente Alberto Fujimori and his daughter/current presidential candidate Keiko are both Japanese descendants (the older Fujimori claims he was born on a ship heading to Peru). 

Natural disasters are only disasters when they cause so much damage. We’re used to seeing this kind of destruction in developing countries like Haiti, but not in largely developed countries such as Japan. It can happen anytime.

And lastly, Haiti was also greatly affected by the Japan earthquake/tsunami.  A year and some months removed, Haiti is still in dire straits on all levels.  Infrastructure is still non-existent and piles of rubble still litter the country.  Employment is low, food is low, and people are still suffering. I do worry that Japan will overcloud the efforts and funds for Haiti, thus dooming Haiti to never reaching beyond being a donor funded country. 

The Digital Divide: Just having the technology doesn’t help

In my site, the collegio (secondary school) has a computer lab with about 12 machines and internet connections.  The computer lab is usually locked. The few times I’ve seen it open, it was only a few professors and no students. The collegio also has a multi media project to hook up to the computers.  It’s rarely in use.

One thing we thought developing countries were lacking was capital –economic, human, and technological.  Economic being money, human being knowledge and technological being everything from tractors to MRI machines. But it’s not enough to just have one the three.  Money doesn’t do anything on it’s own.  And you can have all the doctors and scientists you want, but if they don’t have labs and hospitals then their effectiveness is limited and constrained. And you can have armies of tractors, but if you don’t have the human capital to operate them (or the financial capital to maintain them) then all you have is a big piece of metal sitting around. That’s what’s happening a lot throughout Peru (at the least).

While the technology exists, many don’t know how to use it properly.  Kids go to the internet cafes to play Counter-Strike and Grand Theft Auto.  Adults use messenger and maybe a little bit of Google for basic searches.  Everyone types with their fingers.  Nobody really knows how to use Microsoft Word or Excel beyond the most basic functions.   I was lucky enough to have computer classes during my public school stint – typing, using Microsoft Office, Google searching for academic stuff, etc.  I’m comfortable doing everything electronically, I basically grew up with it.

However, most of the computers around here are ‘new’.  They’re recently introduced but not necessarily high quality. But most people are just learning how to adapt to them.  The local health network requires mountains of reports and statistic reporting – all done through Excel. Presentations in Power Point. And what happens? All the work in Excel takes longer than thought because of the unfamiliarity with data entry.  Power Point presentations are classic cases of what not to do with power point – overloaded with data and text.  Technology becomes a hassle and a slow down.

When I asked the director of the school why the computer lab wasn’t in use, he told me it was because nobody really wanted to use it.  Teachers didn’t know how to incorporate the computers or project into their lessons.  The director was trying to get a teacher for computer classes, but is still waiting.  All that’s missing is a little training.  Not too much, just enough to get things moving and get people comfortable.  But until then, the kids go on playing GTA instead of doing cool things like reading the Economist like I do. 

Should you bring a laptop?


We’re wired in the states – laptops, cell phones, iPods, iPads, wifi…all that good stuff. And by god I do miss it.  But when you’re about to ship off to your Peace Corps country, no doubt the thought comes up ‘should I bring my laptop?’.  It makes sense to leave it behind.  Most likely, you’ll be the only one in you community with this technology.  And people have lived without it for this long, do you really NEED it?

Need it: No.

Is it helpful: Yes. 

In short – laptops help to get things done.  While there might be computers available in your community (public internet cafes or school computer labs), it’s just helpful to have your own.  For better or worse, a decent chunk of my Peace Corps work-work is done on a laptop.  Compiling spread sheets of water usage, writing letters and reports to the mayor, making hand-outs for health talks.  While I could certainly do all of that on computers I have access to through the schools or the health post, it’s just easier to do it on my own laptop.  That way, I don’t have to worry about bumping a nurse off the computer (or waiting for them to finish up whatever report THEY’RE doing).  I’ve also used my laptop to have slide show presentations, which is helpful since PowerPoint isn’t used as widely around here, so it’s still a novelty.

Then there’s the office work.  Here in Peru – new volunteers fill out monthly reports on their activities and ideas for future plans while the vets fill out tri-monthly reports on activities and outcomes.  All of this is done on Word + Excel and is through email. While you can do it on public computers, it’s much easier to be able to download it and work on it later. 

And for personal use: here in Peru, most of our hostels are equipped with wireless (at least in the common areas), so volunteers can be seen lounging around in regional capitals throughout the country Skyping with amigos and familia back in the states.  Plus, volunteers trade movies and music almost as much as herpes, so might as well join in, right (especially if you have an outbreak, you’ll probably wanna stay in and watch a movie anyways)?

I knew a guy who said he hid his laptop while in his community, and only used it with the door closed or in his capital city. I don’t hide the fact that I have a laptop.  I use it openly at the municipality and the health post.  I’ve used it in the schools to play music or show a small video.  It alienates people if I choose to stay huddled up in front of it and not talk to anyone, but mostly they’re respectfully curious.  The only time it gets awkward (for me anyway) is when someone asks how much it costs: because no matter what it’s still more then what they earn.  But it’s a common question, and there’s no social stigma to it.  Just like it’s viewed as rude to ask how much money someone makes in the States, it’s not so much here.  I had one laptop stolen: and that was in Lima, not in my site.  But I had insurance, so no problem. 

I had to work without a laptop for a month during that period. And while it was slightly refreshing to catch up on a ton of reading, it made getting a lot of simple tasks that much harder.  The computers in my site are full of viruses and crash like my 9th grade bolsa wood bridge (wait…hey….I’m in WATSAN) and I missed just being able to watch a movie in English.  It wasn’t intolerable to be without a laptop, but made tasks that much more tedious.

So while you'll be alone with your laptop in site, it’s a really helpful tool to have.  In fact, a few of the volunteers who shunned their laptops before coming to Peru wound up having them sent anyways.  Unless your Peace Corps invite booklet says don’t bring one, there’s really no hurt in it. The iPad, on the other hand….

What to do…what to do?


It’s summertime, and as I posted before, there’s a pretty big lapse in demand for my labors.  Well, I could teach summer school but I figured might as well take a breather.  After all, I’ll be pretty busy in the coming weeks and months – building bathrooms, health promotion in schools, and possibly doing another bathroom project. 

In the mornings, I’ll go and check my e-mail at the health post, coordinate some things (Peace Corps anniversary, site visits from APCD and Washington big-wigs, hosting Peace Corps training events), but there’s still a gaping hole in my schedule, especially in the afternoon.  So what’s a guy to do?


+ Take a nap!

+ Watch movies/TV: Even the most productive Peace Corps volunteers are guilty of watching entire seasons of a TV show in a few days. 

+ (shudders) Exercise (it took me three times to spell that word right).  I’m currently on week 4 of a 90 day workout plan called P90X

+ Read

+ Being a nerd and reviewing my macro-economics textbook

+ Download articles, save them to my hard drive in the morning and read them in the afternoon

On Egypt.


With the recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and now what appears to be Iran, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Libya friends back home ask me if I’ve heard of what’s going on. And it’s true; it’s pretty easy to live under a rock while in the Peace Corps…working in rural zones and all. I’m lucky, as I can buy national newspapers (La Republica, Peru 21, and El Comericio) in my town AND I have access to cable TV. This is especially nice considering some fellow volunteers live in cities much bigger than mine and don’t have access to newspapers. But anyways, thanks to the internet TeleSur (nationalized Venezuelan TV station); I was able to keep updated about the protests in Egypt and could see live coverage. No one in my town really talked about it much…Egypt is a truly foreign place and in a foreign world to many people in town, so it was hard to relate.

To me, the protests and the changing government are interesting. It was heartening to see that the 18 days of peaceful protests led to a peaceful change of government (for the meantime at least). While not as quick and needing much more manpower than a simple violent coup, the protests showed the power of peace and seemingly have spread to other countries. Fed up with high food prices, continuing and deteriorating conditions and no hope for the future, Egyptians came out in force and asked for a change. And the ripple effect has spread to other countries, where especially the youngsters are out in force. And with international spotlight, it’s not as easy for the governments to overtly suppress these protests without international backlash.

And while some people were upset that the Obama administration did not support the protests and speak for Mubarak to step down sooner, I agree with that policy. With our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, US support for democracy in other parts of the world can easily be viewed as new imperialism. Sure, words aren’t sending arms and munitions but at the same time it could at the very least rise speculation from detractors. And since when did we change to being all gung-ho about the US spreading democracy in the middle east after two terms of George Bush plus the economic downturn (see: Lexington’s ‘Was George Bush Right?’ at

But just because the protests are seemingly over, Egyptians still have much to worry about. Some pundits and editorials are pointing this to being another military coup. After all, who is in-charge right now? The Egyptian Army. While quiet during the protests and largely apart from the Mubarak government, right now they’re the ones with the power. It was announced that open elections will be held in 6 months, and while there is reason to believe it (I remember a paper citing that since the 1990’s, we’ve seen an increase towards the military turning towards democracy), it’s still a wait and see type situation.

As well, problems that caused the protests (food prices, unemployment, poverty) aren’t just going to go away because democracy rides into town. In fact, Michael Ross wrote a paper entitled ‘Is Democracy Good for the Poor’ discussing that, in fact, we have very little information about the effects of government on decreasing poverty levels. And while we can predict middle and high income democracies will certainly have lower levels of poverty, a poor country is still a poor country and will struggle to provide basic services to its citizens whether a democracy or not.

Michael Ross measures under-5 deaths as well as life expectancy, data sets available for every country, and found that over 30 years, countries that transitioned from non-democratic to democratic showed no significant improvement in these indicators. Additionally, when democracies do spend money on social services, the middle and upper classes benefit more than the lower classes due to access and availability of services. (Michael Ross 2006 “Is Democracy Good for the Poor?”). And while democracy obviously has its benefits, it is not the magic bullet to Egypt’s problems…but it could be a start.

Can’t stop the summer

So I wound up getting bit in the ass by my project.  Well, slightly.  I gambled and overstepped, and got burned by the unchangeable.

Well, I’m probably being dramatic.  I think at one point in this little fountain of knowledge about how timing has a lot to do, specifically with projects.  For example, during high season (summer) for crop picking, don’t expect to find anyone at home as every member of the family is going to be hard at work in the fields.  But during the ‘winter’ around these parts, there isn’t as much demand and/or work to do in the fields, so people are more likely to come to activities.

And that’s what happened.

During the first three months of health talks, attendance was pretty steady in both communities (La Botella and Huabalito).  Then December hit, January came and something weird happened.  At meetings in La Botella, families came as usual.  But in Huabalito only one or two people would show up for the meetings!  Hmmmm…weird I thought, and rescheduled the meeting for the next week..posted a piece of paper on the school door and told the neighbors.  But the same thing happened, nobody showed up except two people.  And the same thing the week after, meanwhile people from La Botella were coming to the meetings regularly.  How could this happen?  All the families have a schedule with the exact dates of the talks, so it wasn’t a surprise that we were having these meetings.   So what happened?

Summer kicked in.

While in La Botella, the main crop is grapes and sugar which are more or less grown year round. But in Huabalito (which is literally about 10 minutes further up the road) everyone grows rice.  And the summertime is high time for rice, especially with summer rains.  So nothing was stopping (and rightfully so) all the participating families from their hard work and most of their yearly earnings, not even an energized talk on trash sorting.  Families will work 6-7 days a week in their rice paddies from January until March trying to get the most out of rainy season. 

So I went out to the community and talked to a few families (catching them at breakfast) and the local health promoter about what to do. He assured me that in March things would be back to normal, and that we could just do the remaining sessions then.  It’d be a little cramped because we also have to talk about the bathrooms, but we were all happy with the compromise.  And then I was sent away on the bus with a backpack full of mangos, maracuyá, and 5 pounds of rice.  I guess my job isn’t so bad after all…

Volunteer or Professional Organization?

Peace Corps Volunteers are called volunteers for a reason: the willingly sign up.  But don’t business professionals willingly sign up to work at X&Y company?  Especially with the growth of Peace Corps, not only in size and number of volunteers but also in terms of programming areas and effectiveness, the role of the volunteer has changed.  Volunteers are no longer just issued a plane ticket to country, sent-off, and wished the best of luck.  Peace Corps invests a lot in the volunteers, from various trainings before and during service, a medical unit, security staff, administrative, and technical support.  However, unlike being a lawyer or a general 9-to-5er, we never really get to take off the Peace Corps hat.  It’s said that our job is 24/7, and going home means going down the street, where (like it or not) you’re still representing the good ol USA and Peace Corps.

One of the items of contention the volunteers and administration share is Professionalism and Volunteering and where the line is between the two.  For example, our handbook has a dress code that isn’t demanding we wear uniforms or suits while in site, but does mandate length of hair and what you should wear while officially working.  I personally don’t disagree with the idea that wearing shorts and sandals while at a school, health post, or government institution is unprofessional. But what about when we’re off the clock. We can’t wear what we would like, as if we were back in our own home. And beyond social consequences, we face letters in our files for ‘repeat offenses’ (which matter if you’re needing a letter of recommendation for grad school or your next job) as well as the possibility of early termination (I can’t even imagine what the scenario is for that).

But joking aside, we’re always on the clock.  Is it appropriate to get drunk at a town party, where everyone will see you (even if they’re drunk, too)? Or do you abstain, frowning and scoffing your head at the local customs (getting ridiculously drunk at functions is generally socially acceptable as long as everyone is doing the same, here in Peru and in other countries world-wide)?

Likewise, many of our communications in the Peace Corps happen electronically, through email.  I can’t really think of a volunteer who has a separate email account for Peace Corps, so precious internet time is mixed between answering and mailing Peace Corps staff and responding to your friend’s ridiculous stories, coordinating for your family to come visit, and finding out an ex is getting married to a circus performer.  Yep, 24/7.  And sometimes is that you get rapid responses from your mom or your ex’s fiance who shoves his heads in lion’s mouths to pay rent, but emails to Peace Corps Peru staff go unanswered, even after re-sending them various times.

Both volunteers and administration, I believe, have differing views of the other.  I won’t speak for what we term ‘the Office’, but the general idea is that we volunteers in the field are first priority for the organization and it’s hard to understand why e-mails go unanswered in an office where you hear Microsoft Outlook sounds go off every minute.  But then again, maybe that’s it – overwhelmed staff?  Regardless, what else is there besides volunteers (sarcastic) to take care of? 

This is also not to say that Peace Corps is unresponsive.  The Medical and Security Units are always quick to pick up their ringing phones, but seemingly simple things often drag out and require many back-and-forths (over e-mail), forwards and cc’s.  However, volunteers are notorious for being slow and late to turn in their vacation requests, monthly reports (used the first 3 months of service) and tri-annual report – all of which are often incomplete and full of blanks. 

It’s really just a back and forth, I guess.  In the end, Peace Corps is largely what YOU make it to be – professional or semi pro.

Is it really about Goal 2? Goal 3?

Roughly 50 people work in the central Peace Corps office here in Peru.  However, the push and focus is still largely on development, often calling volunteer ‘facilitators of development, organizers’ and a host of other buzzwords.

While the Peace Corps has three goals (1. Assist with development using human and technical resources 2) Be a representative of the US in foreign countries 3) Teach Americans about the host-nationals), the focus is still largely goal 1.  We have plenty of information about water treatment, child nutrition, and how to plant a tree and plenty of staff to help with that, however there’s really no manual on ‘Best Practices to Teach About Americanism’ nor ‘Proper Techniques on Sharing a Carbonated Beverage with an Older Member of Your Community’.  I’m not sure what the office reaction is to PCVs who really don’t ‘do’ much in terms of technical work in their site, but are very integrated and well liked.  It definitely doesn’t look good for the program nor the country, especially compiling success reports and asking for more money as there’s no box to fill in for ‘received x number of invites’ or ‘name is shouted x times while walking across town’.

However, Peace Corps is pushing the World Wide Exchange program, where a volunteer has a pen-pal exchange program with a class of American students from elementary level to high school and they converse about the life of a volunteer (yawn) as well as local cultures, customs, etc (aka Goal 3).  A few volunteers have extended this and turned it into a letter exchange program between American and Peruvian students, and generally eating the cost of postage differential (we get paid the price to mail one letter a month but mailing 20-30 letters raises the price significantly).  And there is a spot to check in our tri-annual reporting tool if we’re participating in the program.

I guess while it’s easy to quantify how many people come to health talks or how many local craftsmen have raised their output and income, it’s difficult to quantify Goal 2 (and boring).  A happy volunteer is not necessarily the one building and working all the time, but the one who walks contently through their community, has a small group of fans who actually know their name, and a few people who can name which state you’re from (and that you like Coca-Cola). 

Wanted: Artists, Doodlers, Sketch Artists, Graffiti Artists….

We’re often known, as volunteers in the Peace Corps, to be an eclectic bunch with various backgrounds.  Engineers, business people, biologists, botanists, disaster management specialists, and journalists arm the ranks of Peace Corps Peru.  Of course, we still have our (super) generalists, who have a slightly less technical and professional resume but still fit the bill (and job description).  And while the focus for Peace Corps is to fill x amount of spots with certain professionals, generalists with different skill sets (public speaking, construction) still make up a large chunk of volunteers in most countries.   But whether skilled or not, with a Master’s, BA, or whatever,  I propose that an important skill for the Peace Corps (and often lacking in many volunteers) is the ability to draw. 


Even just general doodlers can be an asset to many programs.  Why?  There’s a need to step back and talk about education and literacy first.  Well, we generally work in impoverished communities which tend to have poor education rates.  While level of education achieved can vary, largely the population is under educated.  Especially in communities where adults only have elementary or partial secondary school completed and have spent a large amount of time out of school, reading is a limited activity.  Reading for pleasure, beyond the Bible, is almost unheard of and most reading is just basic forms and signing off.  For the volunteer, most likely a college graduate and used to reading articles/papers/books, reading a pamphlet is nothing.  However, if a volunteer hands a 40 year old woman, possibly 30 years+ out of school, full of words and few illustrations there’s a good chance the intended message won’t come across. It might be intimidating, or at the very best minimally effective.  The same while giving presentations or talks to the community.  It does little good to fill a papelote (large poster papers) with words…even as we learn using Power Point – too many words leads to a) the person overly concentrating on trying to read everything on the paper and not paying attention to you b) not read anything.

However, some cleverly animated paper presentations and handouts can go a longer way than any kind of word material.   People are more likely to pay more attention to the drawing, to have it stick in their mind and find a message in it.  That’s not to say it can be without text, but the main message should be in the drawing.  What’s more effective, more striking: a picture of someone not covering their nose while sneezing and snot going everywhere or reading ‘cover your nose when you sneeze’? Images tend to stay with us longer.  Even a simple sticker by the sinks remind us to wash our hands.  Simply, images are more effective than printed words when dealing with things like health promotion and general non-formal teaching methods. 

So, if you’re looking to join the Peace Corps, but don’t necessarily feel like you qualify or if the recruiter may have doubts, try pulling this card out of your sleeve.  I can’t really guarantee it’ll work, but it couldn’t hurt your chances.  (PS: Let me know if it works!)

Talking Trash

One of the topics we talked about in my Viviendas Saludables program is trash management.  In the two rural communities I work in, neither one has any real trash management program in place, and most residents throw their trash in far off places, or simply burn it.  As I was giving a talk to families I realized what an immense problem it was, and the solution even more so.  How can I really expect that much positive change out of one simple talk and a couple home visits?  Most people seemed pretty content with the way things are with the trash, and didn’t see a problem.  What to do, what to do???

Peru, among many countries in both the Peace Corps and the real world (whatever that is), has become increasingly focused on issues of environmental sustainability and reducing contamination from various industries and sources.  Children are taught all about the need to save the environment and learn all kinds of cool slogans, hold song and art contests and anything you can think about to get the message out. Government news stories focus on environmental stories, including conservation and general feel good fillers.  However, the majority of Peru still handles waste and contamination in a poor, environmentally unfriendly fashion.

Let’s start at the school.  Although kids participate in poster contests about caring for the environment, they still throw their plates and papers on the floor – not even in a waste basket.  Recycling is generally out of the question – the school said they tried but kids, no matter how much class time given to the subject, kept on throwing their trash into every container and not separating it.   Old habits die hard, and is an example why trash and sanitation is one of the hardest and exhausting jobs a volunteer can have, and it never really looks like that. 

The thing with trash is, it’s not necessarily a physical project with garbage cans, trucks and landfills.  Rather, it’s a holistic and behavior change project, where people have to alter their day-to-day habits in order for positive actions to take affect.  Separating the trash, while seemingly simple, can be a grueling door-to-door effort where little immediate change happens.  People have to be convinced that their changes are for the better, and will directly benefit them and/or their families.  There is a need to understand that burning your trash is dangerous and toxic, and simply throwing it out into uninhabited territory contaminates the environment, even if you can’t see it. 

And what to do with the trash?  It’s not only trash, but volunteers and community leaders must also think of all the R’s in trash management – reduce, reuse, recycle, repair, reject, repurpose, etc…  All of these help with trash management by reducing the general output of trash, thus reducing the demand for recollecting services and landfill space.  Especially if you’re trying to work in the town, community or even just a section of the town, you’ll need backing and support by the municipality.  Man-hours have to go into doing a trash analysis (collecting trash from a sample population in the town for 8 days, and then sorting and weighing the material).  After that, the municipality and community partners need to talk with residents, usually door to door, about project plans and what is needed from the residents (trash sorting, for example).  Then it’s on to training the Municipality workers about any new programs (recycling, composting) and sort that all out. 

Even in the small rural community setting, trash management is a task in itself.  Community members must first see the need to change the way they manage trash beyond ‘the gringo says so’.  After that, families must practice seperation of organic materials, inorganic recyclable, inorganic non-recyclable (which can be further broken down), and then toxic, and then a solution must be found for each type of trash (composting, feeding it to the animals, micro rellenos, recycling, battery collection) and followed through.  This process can take months before anything is achieving…finding a buyer for recycled material, families using micro-rellenos, not finding batteries thrown on the ground.

Getting Out of the House or ‘I DON”T WANNA GO TO SKEWWWWLLLL’

With Peace Corps, you never know how your day is going to start (or end, I guess).  I’ve woken up, left the house with one objective and found something else along the way.  Such is the life. Here’s a few examples:

+ Within my first week at site (December 1st to be exact), I set out to walk across town to meet up with the health post and talk with socio about some beginning work plans.  I ran into them coming down from the health post, saying they were going to a parade.  A parade? 9am on a Wednesday? Alright, cool. So we show up to the elementary school, and the kids are armed with various signs and posters about HIV/AIDS.  Cool!  Turns out, the health post organized the parade and were at the front with a banner and handing out condoms and of course Mateo was to be included.  So I walked along with them, holding the banner and marching through town on display.  At least the town found out I was anti-HIV/AIDS.

+Two weeks ago, I was sitting in my room, listening to music and drinking some coffee (aka easing into the day) when my sister comes and says ‘Mateo, te buscan’ or ‘Mateo, they’re looking for you’ or ‘Mateo, there’s people at the door for you’.  People, not just persons? In the morning?  So I go to see what’s up, and there’s about seven university students from Trujillo who came to see me and were sent by the regional mayor (who I, to my knowledge, had never met at that point) to do a project on tourism in our rural valley zone.  Funny thing about that - there’s really not too much to make you swerve off the Pan-American highway to come to my town.  My family sat in the kitchen laughing at the ridiculousness of the seven students cramped into our small sitting room and all eyes pointed towards me.  Best part, they also filmed our conversation. 

+ Sometimes I leave the house, and no one I need is where they’re supposed to be or their last known whereabouts.  Sometimes things don’t get followed through on.

+Sometimes I just leave the house, check in at the Municipality/Health Post/High School just to see if anything is new, maybe talk with some people on the street, have a cold Coke and see what else I can get into.

The life of a Peace Corps volunteer is always varied and consistency is not a normal part of life for volunteer nor national, especially for posts in Peru.  Volunteers are their own boss, and nobody is going to fault you for not ‘punching in on-time’.  We make our own schedules, make our own rounds.  It’s beautiful, liberating, and also frustrating.  You’re the jefe, you’re the boss. Every initiative will be yours, and most of the beginning footwork.

And sometimes, there really is nothing to do. There’s really just shit to do.  Things get put on hold, people go away for awhile, school goes on break,  there’s transitions - during local election season, it’s impossible to get anything done through local government that won’t be finished and on display before the elections, and if the incumbents lose, it’s 3 months of lame duck (if they choose to show up at all).  And even amidst all that, there’s still not stuff to do.  And many times, like it might be in the States, it’s easier to stay dressed down, make an extra cup of coffee and stay in, turn on the TV/NetFlix (or in PC case, computer) and veg out for awhile.  But I always think it’s worth it to do a ‘vuelta’ (a turn or lap) to check on things, and see what you might stumble upon.  Season 2 of How I Met Your Mother will still be there when you get back.

From Application to Peru…how’d I get here again?

Since sophomore year of college, I knew that I wanted to join the Peace Corps and serve in a developing country for two years.  It was going to be a great chance to travel, live, and work abroad, and also give me a taste of whether or not development work was for me.  My application process took around 11 months in total from the time the application was submitted until I touched ground in Peru.   Here’s some thoughts on the whole application process, a year and a few months into service…

Application: Nothing I remember.  I think the essays were hard to trim down if there was a word limit.

Interview: Awkward because the recruiter had to type down EVERYTHING I said onto an older Dell Laptop, so I would have to stop talking at some points to let her catch up.  And the interview took 1.5 hours! But other than that, no issues.

Placement:  This is where things get interesting. 

My application (in my eyes) looked something like this:

  • 2 years experience in youth development, including responsibility for small and large group teaching/leading, designing lesson plans, visiting parents, etc;
  • 3+ years working as a research assistant for two international clinical juvenile diabetes research studies;
  • Semester abroad studying in Oman (SIT/World Learning if you’re asking), living with a muslim family for the duration, and beginner level Arabic;
  • Other activities: Theatre carpenter, International Relations major with a few classes in Spanish, handsome devil
  • Preferences: Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, Pacific, East Europe (I like the cold)
  • Possible placement: Youth Development, Health
  • Departure date: June 2009

Makes sense, right?  Youth development with the 2+ years working as a summer teacher for a reading program, plus the background and willingness to live in a Muslim country. 

Here’s what the recruiter saw:

  • Theatre Carpenter 3+ years: Knows how to build stuff
  • Spanish Classes: (=) Can Speak Spanish!!!!
  • Studied abroad, did some other work
  • Nomination: Water and Sanitation
  • Departure Date: Fall 2009
  • Region: Central/South America

Makes sense, right?  I talked to the recruiter about it and she told me that this was a good placement and although it might not be what I wanted (especially regionally), I might not receive another nomination or may have to wait longer to leave (which meant getting a real job in the meantime!!!!).  So, slightly reluctantly, I accepted the nomination and continued on.    (Note: Later on, I talked with a returned volunteer and he told me that if they thought you were qualified, you could turn down the first nomination and they’ll give you another.  A bit of a gamble, and not sure of the truth).

Medical Packet: Slightly frustrating because it was in sooo much detail.  Thankfully, our family dentist was willing to do all the paperwork and exams for the Peace Corps reimbursement funds (which didn’t cover what she charged…I think she was excited about the Peace Corps and that I had known her since I was 5).  But getting the medical stuff was challenging, since I was still in school and didn’t have a regular doctor, so my paperwork was scattered.  The attending doctor wouldn’t sign off on my papers until I had 10+ year records about some procedures faxed over, so that delayed everything.  Then finally, around December everything was turned in.  Your move, Peace Corps.

Invite:   I got an email around the 2nd week of March saying my ‘online application status has changed’ and that I would be receiving information in the mail.  Cool! No info about what’s in the mail, but figured it was the invite.  The brutal part was waiting.  I did some research and thought I was going to the Dominican Republic (Peace Corps Wikis didn’t have the placement probability tool yet).  My big packet with folders and information arrived on a Tuesday or Thursday and turns out:

Placement: Peru
Program: Water and Sanitation
Departure: September 11, 2009

Weird day to be flying, and didn’t know nothing about Peru…but hell, I’m in.  Now all was left was to wait 5+ months.  Funny note on that: the majority of volunteers got their invites 2-3 months ahead of time, and I think 2 or 3 received them right at the last possible day (6 weeks before departure).

So there ya go, a lot of rambling and a little information

A Response to 20/20’s ‘Peace Corps Gang Rape’

Recently, the popular ABC news journal 20/20 released a piece on the Peace Corps and volunteer safety, specifically focusing on the 1,000 reported sexual crimes against volunteers since 2000 – including roughly 15 or so rapes a year.  The report interviews six former volunteers who were raped during their Peace Corps services, including a brutal recollection of one volunteer being gang raped an hour after reporting the same group of men for sexual assault at the local police station.  The former volunteers not only talk about their experience, but also the Peace Corps response to the incidences or lackthereof.  The reporter drills into the Peace Corps and the then deputy Director about their responses to the rapes and violence against volunteers. 

While they say any press is good press, extreme coverage of rapes and implying that all Peace Corps volunteers are getting ‘gang raped’ during their service is something else. 

First off, the title of the report is outrageous and should already allow the viewer/reader to prepare themselves for the extremism of the piece.  Beyond that, it was clear this is extreme ‘Michael Moore journalism’ where the reporter tried to show the darkest side without allowing a voice against it.  Especially frustrating was the interview with the deputy Peace Corps director, as the report simply laid in question after question about incidents, although tragic, that happened over 10 years ago and before she was in any sort of administrative position.

However, I’m not sure where to stand on the Peace Corps response to these issues.  As far as I know, at least on a country level, it’s rare to hear any of the announcements of sexual violence (or any incidents, really) against volunteers. Rather, we wind up hearing it through the volunteer grapevine.  Usually, the central office is hush on any events against volunteers, largely out of respect and confidentiality to the volunteer. 

Do they also do that to try to protect their image?  I’m not entirely sold on that.  The statistics on crime and violence against volunteers are publicly available and shared yearly with the volunteers.  

And as for post-event counseling, I do believe Peace Corps was struggling with this for some time, especially with psychological support.  While we have 3 Peace Corps Medical Officers for roughly 200 volunteers here in Peru, we have no psychologist on staff nor a ‘go-to’ psychologist in the regions.  Normally, volunteers would have phone conferences with psychologists in DC…and while it’s a resource, talking on the phone is not the same in person (especially if the signal is weak). 

The crimes against the volunteers are heinous and regrettable, and I thank the volunteers for sharing their experiences.  However, I would like to say that Peace Corps is safe and the vast majority of volunteers complete their service without any major incidents.  Especially in their communities, volunteers are heavily socially supported by the community and it’s actually one of the safest places to be.  Most crime happens in the larger cities, where volunteers are more anonymous as are the perpetrators.  And being white in a foreign city does make you a target, whether you’re a Peace Corps volunteer or not. 

It’s a shame that such a great organization such as the Peace Corps received such a shoddy story with amateur coverage and analysis, especially seeing as how it has evolved from it’s former image of a two year vacation into a respectable development organization.