Sunday, February 3, 2013

My Borderline Unhealthy Relationship...with Peru


There are two things that have been on my mind.  I’ll write one down here.

I was sitting on a combi the other day thinking about how I am in a relationship with Peru, a relationship so tumultuous and inconsistent, slightly abusive, and unpredictable that it is exciting, but one that if my mom knew the whole truth about, she would sit me down with a glass of wine and tell me that Peru wasn’t good for me, that I deserved to have a more dependable, consistently loving relationship.  This isn’t to say that I think Peru isn’t good enough for me, but we clearly aren’t the right match.  It’s not a “forever” thing.

Peru has a lot of habits that at first I knew I hated, and then I just sort of got used to out of necessity, but my irritation still flares up unexpectedly in response to all the little things I hadn’t said anything about.  Like the other day, crammed into a combi, shoulders crumpled so far in my cleavage line made it all the way to my neck, huayno music blaring out of the speakers, and the guy sitting next to me decides he is also going to turn on his personal radio and blast that…so it becomes this giant mess of clashing notes that doesn’t seem to phase anyone but me.  Makes me think about all those car trips I took with my brothers, where we would complain if the sibling next to us was blasting their music on their personal walkman, complete with headphones, loud enough that we could actually tell they were listening to music.  Or how we would complain we didn’t have enough space when we had a whole seat plus a little of the middle room…

Ellie and I - currently using a microphone to explain to
explain to everyone the Vision of Pasos Adelante
Or the other day, I, along with my friend Ellie, were invited to a big meeting of all the health professionals in our entire department, to give a presentation about a conference the Peace Corps volunteers put on last year to make one health professional look super awesome in front of all her peers.  So we went, as a favor to her.  We got on a combi, (sat in the road for an hour and a half waiting to get by construction that only stopped for lunch break…apparently “detour” is an advanced concept that has not yet made it here), we road 6 hours down to the capital city, we paid to stay in a hostel, we prepared a presentation, we got up early to get to the meeting at 9 am when we were told to get there for our 11 am presentation.  We had been calling Hermelinda, the woman that asked us to come, all morning because we weren’t sure how to get there, and she hadn’t picked up.  When we got there, everyone was in suits, there was a podium and microphones, and a screen with a time limit countdown.  We were asked to sit in the front row and all the photographers couldn’t help but snap a billion pictures of the two white people in the front row.  Ellie and I freaked out a little bit.  We sat, waiting to present, listening to presentation after presentation of hospital efficacy indicators.  By 12:30, we weren’t sure what was going on, so Ellie went to go find a schedule.  She came back, we were on the schedule for 5:30 pm. 

Side note: In Peru, this kind of thing happens all the time.  Times change, no one tells you.  Times don’t change but no one can do anything on time so you end up presenting about 3 hours later than you planned (this is why we waited until 12:30 to find a schedule).  This is one of those moments where you role your eyes, say “Welp, got Peru-ed again”, and just wait some more.  I, however, had hit some kind of threshold of Peru tolerance that day, and this incidence, instead of making me role my eyes, made me absolutely livid.  The assumption, is that I have nothing better to do.  If I had known we weren’t presenting until 5:30, we wouldn’t have come down the day before and paid for a hostel.  Presenting at 5:30 meant that we would have to stay in Cajamarca again that night, and not get back until the next day, but I had English class in the morning and had no way of telling my kids that class was canceled.  It messed up everything.  On top of that, the schedule we had, had yesterday’s schedule also printed on it, which meant that Herlinda had known the day before what time we were presenting and didn’t bother to tell us.  We had made the whole trip as a FAVOR to her.

I went outside, out of ear range, and called my friend Kate who is always supportive when I start thinking seriously about breaking up with Peru...or at least threatening to.  Talking to Kate helped calm me down a bit, and then I called Alonso, one of my many bosses.  He acknowledged that what had happened was a lack of respect, which made me feel better.  He called my regional coordinator, who tried to call Herlinda…who didn’t pick up.  He called me and asked if I could take Burga Express back to Chota that night.  This is a freezing, awful bus that leaves at 9pm from Cajamarca City and gets you into Chota at 3 am.  I really really didn’t want to do that, but resigned myself to it if I didn’t have another option. 

Currently explaining what we did in the Conference
When I walked back inside, a woman came up to me to confirm our presentation time.  I begged her if we could move it up, at least to right after lunch.  Herlinda finally showed up.  We moved the presentation to 2:45, which means 3pm Peru time.  Ellie and I sat through presentations until 1:30, when Herlinda helped us find a combi that we could buy tickets for and would leave around 5pm and take us straight to Chota.  I was grateful for her help.  We ate lunch, went back, and gave the presentation in front of all the health bigshots in the entire department.  I only fumbled on the word “sustainability” in Spanish…which I did with a smile.  At the end, people were allowed to ask questions and make comments.  We had three.  Two were “felicitaciones” or congratulations on our great work and one was a woman asking for a volunteer where she lives and works.

Receiving comments and questions
I felt great about it. We had gotten Peace Corps’ name out there, we had talked about the work we did with Pasos Adelante, spreading the word about that Peace Corps program as a tool for teaching sex ed while simultaneously spreading the word about volunteer successes, and we talked about the conference that the RED and DISA (health bigshots) had helped with, and probably helped assure their participation and financial contribution for this year.  Ellie and I were both super happy it was over, and we started our super long journey home, starting with a 2 hour wait in a bus station. 



When you ask people about their life as a volunteer, most will whip out the clichĂ© but completely accurate, “it’s a rollercoaster”.  I think it is probably equally accurate to say it is like a completely unhealthy relationship that you learn a lot from.  One second, everything is fine, the next second you’re livid, you feel taken advantage of, manipulated, used, disrespected, and unimportant.  It’s the worst day ever.  Then wait 10 seconds and you feel rewarded, important, appreciated, proud, respected and like you just accomplished something.  It’s the best day ever.  Have a big fight, kiss and make up.  When something goes right in Peru, it’s like having someone who never gives you praise tell you that they are proud of you, or that weird family member who hates physical affection give you a hug.  Or being a C average student who just got an A+ on a paper.  It makes you want to keep working at it, it makes you want to put up with the crap. 

It also teaches you to be grateful and happy about tiny things.  I’ve been organizing a project with moms in my community who have kids under 5 years old.  It’s a “Healthy Homes” project, which consists of a lot of educational sessions to teach about all sorts of different important health themes, and will end in the construction of latrines and improved cook stoves.  We had our first meeting to form our committee (it’s a formality here, but Peace Corps encourages it so that local community members can learn how to design, write, and manage a project).  About half my moms showed up, and the majority was over an hour late.  I started by explaining the nature of the project.  When I got to forming the committee, Natalia, the health post worker, cut me off, and said everything I had just said over again, throwing in a lot more condescending comments and talking to them like misbehaving children.  All the moms kept glancing at me, I think because they didn’t understand why Natalia was repeating what I was saying, a couple moms even murmured, “yeah, we understood her…”  Then Natalia started talking about all sorts of other stuff we hadn’t even gotten to yet.  She just completely took over.  This is not the first time this has happened, and not wanting to give her the green light on the “walk all over me” habit, I interrupted her and asked politely if we could talk about that subject later and stick to organizing the committee.  

 I had invited Don Juan to come because I wanted him to be President of my committee.  If anyone is going to do a project like this in the future, he’s going to be involved.  We had talked about it ahead of time and he had said that it depended on what the moms wanted.  He ended up being the first one nominated as president and he straight up turned it down.  No warning, no heads up.  Just turned it down.  He said that the moms should be the ones in charge, and on one hand, I do agree.  On the other hand, I know my community well enough to know that no woman would ever initiate, much less lead/organize, a project like this.  I was totally taken off-guard and really upset.  We then sat around for like 25 minutes while all the women refused to be part of the committee, saying that they never showed up on time as their excuse.  I started to get really frustrated.  Various members of my community have been nagging me to do a project like this for a long time, promising their support, but what really happens is they nag me, and when the time comes for support, they’re no where to be found.  What they want, is for me to do all the work.  I maintain that the vast majority of my community has been ruined by NGOs, and they want handouts without having to do anything in return.  This started to get to me while everyone refused to be part of the committee.  I interjected to the peer pressure disaster that was happening and said something along the lines of, “I’m not asking you to form a committee for formality’s sake.  I have to form a committee so that some members of the community are involved in the process, and should you ever wish to do a project like this in the future, you have some people with experience and an understanding of how it works to make it happen.  I’m here until November and then I’m gone, so I can’t do another project like this, and you all will inevitably need something new for your homes in the future.  As for all the women turning down nominations because they say that they can’t make it on time, you all are about to sign a contract that says you will be at every educational session and you will be there no later than 15 minutes after our start time or you will be kicked out of the project.  I don’t want to have to do that to anyone, but that’s how it will be.” 

I think it was clear I was upset. 

Natalia, the health post worker eventually pressured four women into being on the committee and we moved on to other things.  I ended the meeting feeling glad it was over, glad I had finally done it and had taken a step in a productive direction on my project, but sort of upset with Natalia, and the moms, and Don Juan. 


On the first of February, we had our first educational session, or “charla”.  The subject was “EDAs”, or “Enfermedades Diarreicas Agudas”, that essentially means acute diarrhea, which is a big problem here. I planned my charla, feeling really anxious, hoping the moms actually showed up, and hoping they would somehow learn from me.  I got down there early, and there were a bunch of moms waiting!  They had showed up EARLY.  For those who don’t live or work in Peru, you can hardly understand what an epic victory that was.  These are the same women that had showed up an hour late to the last meeting.  I was ecstatic, because it showed that at least a handful were taking me and my project seriously.  We had to wait a little while for the key to the “Casa comunal”, or meeting house.  I had trouble getting my posters to stick to the wall because it was so heavily caked in dust nothing would stick.  One of the moms helped me out. 

The session ended up being a lot of fun. The beginning was awkward because no one wanted to participate and everyone was sort of stiff. I fell into my slightly playful teacher role, and the moms had a good time with it, laughing and joking around with each other.  I think I showed them a side none had seen, and also didn’t expect after knowing Barbara, the last volunteer who I have heard from them was super serious. 

We talked about ways to prevent diarrhea, we talked about handwashing (how it should be done, and when), we talked about ways to treat diarrhea, how to make “suero casero” or rehydration fluids, we talked about signs of dehydration, and they learned how to make a tippy top, which is just an upsidedown bottle you fill with water and use as a handwashing station.  I had saved all the big water bottles I had bought over the last year and half, and handed them out to moms who could answer my questions.  Their homework was to put a tippytap in their kitchen and outside of their latrine.  It went really well, and by the end of it, we went over everything and they, as a group, could answer all the questions I had.  We finished early, which I think they appreciated, and a couple moms hung around to help me take everything down.  Natalia had come, as I asked, and instead of take over the whole thing like she had before and belittle me by repeating everything I said, she came, sat in the back, and when it was all over, came up to me to tell me how great it was, how I should save my materials, and that she would be happy to take pictures for my monthly report next time.  I walked home feeling like a superstar, even though a good chunk of my moms didn’t show up and I’m sure they didn’t learn as much as I had hoped.  I just felt energized in a way I haven’t for a long time, and it made me wish I had started working with moms like this earlier. 

See what I mean?  Things are either “eh”, “SO GOOOOODDD”, or “this is the worst day of my life”, but not on a big month-to-month type flow.  No.  It’s second by second.  Not super healthy, but seems to be the general experience for most volunteers

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