Sunday, June 30, 2013

These Are a Few of my Favorite Things

I have four and a half weeks left as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

As my time here draws to a close, I’m not sure I’ve fully grasped the reality of it yet.  All those projects that I had in mind “for later” that just won’t happen.  All the goodbyes that will finally have to happen.  It doesn’t help that on top of the standard difficulty of the post-Peace Corps transition, I will be taking a huge leap of faith into a life and country I know very little about, Chile.  My mind is wandering, as it has always tended to, towards the future—but in doing so, I’m so afraid that I’m going to miss out on living in the present here.

There are so many things I’m afraid I’m going to miss, and most of them are moments I haven’t or can’t capture in pictures or video.  The feeling when I’m having a “good Peace Corps day,” the winds calm so the desert dirt doesn’t hit me too hard in the face, and I stroll past a group of dirty, shoeless kids playing with whatever they have been able to make into a toy, happy as can be.  The feeling of heading home to Monsefú in a jam-packed combi (van) with cumbia music blaring, looking at the back of a campo woman’s braided hair tied with strips of cloth or nothing at all, and buckets of fish/alfalfa/sweet potatoes piled high next to her.  The excitement with which everyone greets my presence at a meeting, “KEEM-bear-lee!!”  

At this point, I don’t think I can describe my feelings any better than my fellow Volunteer Amanda already did on her blog:

You know what the problem is with writing about Peace Corps? There is just too much to say. Way too much. It is overwhelming, especially when, like myself, you are coming to the end of your service and trying to wrap everything up in a nice cozy little package and say, "Here ya go! Here it all is, complete closure, loose-ends tied, nice and tidy."

…The problem is, it's not tidy. It's a mess. Peace Corps is messy, life is messy, and cleaning it up and writing it succinctly is a task that I want to take on but feels almost impossible. Life does not always have closure, so I can't expect Peace Corps to be any different.

I am far from feeling closure, and I most definitely cannot give a nice and tidy explanation of my two years experience here.  So, instead of trying and inevitably failing to do so, I’ll describe some of the thoughts at the top of my brain: what I will miss most, and what I won’t miss much at all. 

In no particular order…

Things I WON'T Miss.
All of the machismo, obviously
…but in particular, having to be so restrained in what I wear, having to avoid eye contact on the street and walking around with a “F*** you” face in order to avoid being mistaken for wanting attention.  Okay, this one is definitely #1, the rest aren’t in order.

The ridiculous processes to get anything written, printed, copied, or generally produced in an office
…especially my municipal government and the schools.  I’m trying to imagine what it will be like to see an office supply closet after Peace Corps, and I might break into happy tears.  And I can count on one hand the number of work contacts who actually call me, email me, or complete tasks when they say they are going to.  The worst part is how incompletion of tasks is always my fault… “well why didn’t you remind me!”

Dealing with my municipal government in general… 
…I did "learn to love" some of the employees but as an organization in whole... sigh.  I have to “hold the hands” of professional men and women through the most basic of tasks, for example, prepare a one page document (see the above point).   Many of them are relatives of the mayor and are totally under-qualified for their jobs, but others have no excuse.  No one maintains a complete to-do list.  And ask my mayor if she has ever prepared a strategic plan or even a one-year work plan.  Big picture planning?  What is that? 
I’m not the only one discontent with the Municipality—this (borrowed) picture comes from a march against the authorities that ended in front of the Municipality, and included a burro with a wig on it, representing my mayor!  The signs read “No more donkey-business in the Municipality” and “Reserved for the incapable and corrupt.”

People ringing the door bell 3-10 times before I can get to the door.  I CAN HEAR YOU!

Dust and plastic bags whipping up into my face at all times.
My eczema will not miss Monsefú.

The fights, whining, yelling, and line-cutting that break out at events involving the distribution of anything free…
 even packets of soda crackers, due to a long history of scarcity.  It’s the absolute worst at Christmas gift give-away events (the infamous chocolatadas), when people teach their kids to hide the gift they already received in order to ask for a second, or push and shove little kids in order to get ahead in line.
Celebrating the birth of our savior with some good old-fashioned shoving.
Kind of like the rural Peruvian version of Black Friday, no?
Being an uncomfortable and constant witness to inappropriate child-rearing methods.  Suggestions on how to create a system of effective and healthy discipline became my topic of first choice on our radio show in the last few months.  The lack of structure and appropriate praise make me hurt.

The smell of open sewage and urine
Replacement of the sewage system in Monsefú... a project that was
suspended due to high levels of corruption.
“Boda,” a beloved traditional Monsefuano dish
…which is literally rice with ground rice.  And a small piece of meat or chicken.  I admire the pride in such a humble dish, but really guys…? You want to keep promoting that as a tourist attraction?

Failing to hydrate myself when out of my house or leaving me house… 
…for fear of what my next bathroom situation will look like.
I didn't take this picture, but I have peed in worse. 
The bottoms of my pajamas getting wet every time I go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Related to the above point.  When water isn’t running (most of the day), we have to flush the toilet with a bucket of water, and it appears that my family has very bad aim with the bucket.  Every time I want to use the toilet I have to first wipe down the wet seat and make very sure my pants don’t touch the floor.

Things I WILL Miss.

SUNDAYS: Sunday is family day for the Sanchez Vilchez clan, so my little niece and nephews (ages 3 to 7) come with their parents to invade the house from lunch time until night time.    During college, my 5pm Sunday service at Christ Episcopal Church always felt like my “reset button” for the week.  I am going to deeply miss my Peruvian “reset button,” Sunday lunch with the extended family.

The camaraderie in everything.
The amazing generosity of this small town is never more evident than when someone dies.  The “wake” has to last at least one full day in order for everyone who knows the family to stop by and give their condolences.  When I say everyone, I mean everyone.  Your co-workers, extended family, neighbors, anyone who knows someone in the family affected, whether they met the deceased or not.  Toldos (temporary awnings) have to be set up in the street because there isn’t enough room in the house for everyone to sit.  You’re not expected to make awkward conversation either; you come in, give your condolences to the family, visit the coffin, and sit down to quietly accompany the family in their pain.  You can stay as long as you want.

Describing the sense of community here is nearly impossible, so again I’ll lean on the words written by another Peace Corps Volunteer, my sitemate, who just completed a year in Monsefú:

My heart has been opened in ways I never thought possible (can y’all imagine me speaking this way 12 months ago?? Uh, no.). I’ve made friends here that will be part of my heart and soul forever. My host mom and 3 and 6 year old host nieces have taught me so much about unconditional love that it makes my heart hurt. I’ve been amazed by the capacity for human generosity and the resilience of the human spirit. I’ve been moved by people’s faith, by their support and compassion for their neighbors in times of hardship. They are barely getting by, yet will give you anything they have to help you buy medicine for your kids. They have very little food, yet they are desperate to share their pack of soda crackers with you.

Watching my little niece and nephews grow up.  

For the Harry Potter fans out there, I have said before that Peace Corps makes me feel like I am creating horcruxes.  For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, I feel like I am splitting my soul apart by becoming so attached to this town and the people here, only to leave them.  And a huge part of my soul here belongs to my host niece and nephews.

Bruno, who I saw learn to walk.
Daniela is the most mature 7 year old I have ever met and I always say she will be the first female president of Peru.  Since the age of 5 she ran the family’s internet café, simultaneously answering the phone while charging time to each computer and collecting money!  As my family members who visited can attest to, she is truly a really special child.  Not only intelligent and beautiful, but also generous, humble, and happy.

Thiago, Enzo and Bruno— boys oh boys.  They can be terrors, but they can also be buddles of sweetness.  When Thiago and Enzo’s father was sick in the hospital for a week, I had to share caretaking responsibilities with my host mom and sister.  While I can’t say I will miss wiping their butts, I will miss playing mommy, especially when they finally run out of gas, ask me to read them a story or watch TV with them, and fall asleep next to me.

Hector’s constant jokes and the artisan women giggling uncontrollably at them
And when he forcefully crosses people on the head like a priest, or pretends to perform an exorcism.  He never fails to cheer me up… this man was my saving grace in Monsefú, and one of my best friends.
Hector being a clown at my birthday party
Artisans ladies, usually pretty reserved, breaking out the smiles.
My carefree family, and their cumbia-salsa mix that is always on repeat.

The thing I will miss most about my host family is their happiness, the ways they make fun of each other, and their laughs.  I will miss hearing my host mom turn out her favorite music mix as she starts to cook, and then hearing her feet slap the concrete floor as she dances around the kitchen.  And I will miss my host dad pestering me to eat a second piece of dessert, as he tells me that “the first piece makes you fat, but the second piece makes you skinny.”  This coming from a nearly toothless, nearly diabetic man who loves to make a joke out of everything. 
My host dad, Gilberto, playing his favorite party trick- dancing with a cup of beer on his head.
Host mom, always the center of the dance floor.
Family hangout during a blackout-- no electricity, who cares?  My host
dad continues to mix cement to fix the ceiling.

 So many fresh fruits

…most of which I had never even heard of in the US: passion fruit, chirimoya, Peruvian plums, tumbo, guaba, mamé, camu camu.  And fresh juice for breakfast and/or lunch many days of the week.  I’m going to miss lots of Peruvian foods, but the fresh fruit is #1.

Walking down the block during the summer… 

…when everyone has their doors open, knowing every other family and their big smiles and “hello’s” as I pass.

The cat (and rat) fights on the roof
…which I hear as if they were directly above my head, because they essentially are—there is no roof in the part of the house that is close to my head when I sleep, so all that is protecting me from these animals is an old metal grill.  These animal sounds and feuds are hilarious to me.

My host dog.  
She’s smelly, but she’s one of the prettier dogs in all of Monsefú (not like there’s a lot of competition) and I haven’t lived with a dog since the age of 5.  It is amazing coming home to someone wagging their tail and whining because they are so happy to see you.  Duquesa (“Duchess”… clearly I didn’t choose the name) was a really important support for me during my hardest months and moments.

The efficiency of bucket baths (not the bucket baths themselves).  
While I am fortunate enough to have running water in the house, it is only for a certain number of hours a day and the water pressure is so bad that our shower head stopped working.  So, most of my showers have been from a bucket.  And I can successfully clean my hair, whole body, and shave with the water of one paint bucket.

Waking up to the local radio.  
It’s something about the sense of a small town community.  I love starting my day with the voices of Erwin and Felipe, telling me everything I need to know for today’s casual conversations, without even getting out of bed.

Getting care packages! 
It’s so nice to feel loved.  Special shout outs to Mom, Dad, Fran, Becca, Anne, Arpita, and Sally… thank you so much!  I’ve saved your cards.

World without air conditioning.  I understand now why many Peruvians think it makes you sick.  It feels so artificial and terrible!

Being surrounded by other Peace Corps Volunteers, who have the same values and passions as me, but backgrounds and personalities so different that we could never get bored together.  

We’ve been warned about how difficult the transition to the “real world” can be.  We’ve been warned that no one is going to understand what we’ve been through over the past 27 months.  That when we describe the bad encounters, illness, and corruption, others won't understand how those things are far outweighed by the other things we’ve experienced, the things we’ve learned, the heart-stopping generosity of the people we lived with.  It's a life that's nearly impossible to describe to someone who hasn’t lived it themself.  I’ll also miss being able to tell my stories in Spanglish, because let’s be serious, I’m pretty bad at real English these days.   
Peace Corps Peru, Lambayeque Region-- all different backgrounds and personalities,
but all here with the same dreams.

The traditional women with their moños (braids) and knee-length dresses, chatting outside the market with a live chicken/turkey/duck hanging by their side, held by the feet.
Wish I had a picture of this.

The quiet beauty of my host parents’ relationship.

They were high school sweethearts, and they still act like two teenagers in love.  As my host mom will remind me often, they have gone through some very difficult times in their relationship, but their deep affection for each other is always evident.  After 7 years of dating and 37 years of marriage, he still makes her giggle and she still enchants him when she dances.  Honestly, I came to Peru having lost most of my faith that lifelong, happy marriages existed, and they restore my faith everyday.  And I am eternally thankful for that and for them.

Working with kids.
It is a cruel, cruel reality that my projects with youth only got really moving towards the end of my service.  As we all know, working with kids and teenagers gives you the opportunity to shape a person who is still pliable and eager for change.  Working with my sitemate on a big sexual health project training the professors, parents, and teenagers of the largest public school has been a special opportunity to create a little change.  I know that we’ve provided all parties with new knowledge to help them and their kids make safe personal decisions and protect their futures.  Sure, some of them will take it more to heart than others, but I am still so lucky to be in a position to have this role at all.  And we’re just at the point now where the kids are really starting to trust us—one girl named Milagros told me that she would rather be anywhere than home because her older brother and sister are always fighting, and she gifted me a bag of bread for no reason.  A boy, named Brett, is a great leader in our class but becomes painfully shy in bigger groups of people.  His mom really likes us and listens to our radio show, and told me that Brett’s aunt died of AIDS contracted through her husband, so the topic of sexual health is very important to their family.  Brett got a perfect score on the final exam.
Our youth health promoter class, showing their "before" knowledge about the
male and female sex organs.
The first youth-run savings bank in the public high school; here, this kid is receiving
his savings from the semester.  He saved more than any other student, almost enough to buy himself a bike.
Feeling like I’m really making a difference.
Not only with kids, but with my whole community.  The level of privilege that Peace Corps Volunteers are giving is incredibly flattering and an incredible opportunity.  I’ve been lucky enough to find the right paths and people to execute some great projects, and I feel satisfied with my service when I look back on it.  The artisans operate in a united manner that was non-existent before, and they are reaching new levels of productivity through the community bank.  Best of all, the Artisan House that I imagined two weeks into my service and the artisans had been wanting for years is finally being planned and budgeted.  That is a dream come true, even if I won’t be there to see it finished.  There are a thousand things that could go wrong, but if it goes mostly right, this could be a big turning point for Monsefú’s tourism.  Other projects, while not as generally impactful, I know made a difference for a few people.  And in the end, it is those individual people who really made this all worth it.

My heart hurts as I think about the people I will miss.  Especially today, as my little nephews seem to be sweeter than usual and keeping coming to cuddle in my bed.  Today, I don’t really mind their dirty shoes all over my sheets.


  1. Made me cry and reminisce about my 2 years. Live it up sweet girl!

  2. Great post. Congrats on two years well spent!

  3. Great post - you still got lots of people following you after all this time! Best of luck on the next adventure, hit me up if curious about Haiti or State