Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Today is the first day . . .

It’s a trite expression, “today is the first day of the rest of your life,” but it’s never been more appropriate than last Saturday (June 6) when Jean and I arose from our beds in Chaclacayo, Peru, and began meeting the Peace Corps staff here. But I’m getting a bit ahead of our story . . .

So, here we are in Peru. First of all—we’re safe and secure in a community that is looking out for us. No matter what you are hearing in the news about unrest and demonstrations in Peru, it’s in a distant part of the country and our security staff is on the job. We feel perfectly safe with our host family, and have already made many friends in our neighborhood.

We got here via the usual adventures in air travel, including rain, delays, and skidding in to a landing just ahead of a thunderstorm. We spent a day getting acquainted with our compatriots-in-training in Arlington, VA (just outside of D.C.) They are, almost to a person, 20-somethings, very bright, very motivated, and very genial. It’s humbling to be in their company, and they are exactly the sort of people you want to represent the U.S. to the rest of the world. Surprisingly, our training group—known as “Peru 13,”—is largely female: 28 women and 8 men. We have a number of people with graduate degrees, including one Juris Doctor, and a small number with hands-on experience in finance and marketing. We are black, white, Native American, Latino, and Asian. Many have Spanish majors or minors, but some are essentially novices. But they’re all decades younger than US!

Our arrival in Lima was delayed, and we didn’t get to our quarters until 3 a.m. Saturday morning everyone was feeling pretty rough, but it truly felt like Jean and I were beginning an entirely new life. How many people get an opportunity like that? To be called “trainees” takes us right back to our first jobs, like being a teenager hired to flip burgers for the summer, but we’re treated with great respect and understanding. The training staff is very professional and personable, and most of the Americans among them are former Peace Corps volunteers. The Peruvians are all professionals, too.

On Saturday, we had a 30-minute, one-on-one interview with a trained language evaluator, who appraised our language skills and, like the sorting hat at Hogwart’s, placed us somewhere on the scale of language skills. The goal is for all of us to be at the mid-intermediate level by the end of training, and I’m confident we’ll exceed that goal, but that’s still a far cry from “fluent.”

On Sunday, we met our host families, an event that generated more nervousness than anything else so far. Frankly, we hit the jackpot. Our “mother,” Angelica, cooks for the Peace Corps training center here, and Lucho, her husband is a jack-of-all-trades. We have two “hermanos” of 20 and 22 years’ age, and there’s a nephew here as well. Frankly, after maintaining the pretense for a day, we’ve agreed we’re all “hermanos,” since Angelica and Lucho are our age, give or take a year or two.

It’s total immersion time. They speak no English, and their rapid-fire Spanish—while not heavily accented—is nonetheless not enunciated with perfect clarity. It’s a challenge for us, but we’re communicating well, and even joking around. I’ve made only one major embarrassing linguistic faux pas, but the language police let me off with a warning, after gales of laughter. Our home is small--we have a bedroom about the size of a New York hotel room (tight), indoor plumbing, and a shower with the potential for hot water, but it’s not functioning consistently. Our hosts couldn’t be kinder or more fun and understanding. In the house we have a small cat, on the patio two canaries, and on the roof (!) a dog and a turkey that was intended for a Mother’s day dinner, but Angelica hasn’t been able to sacrifice it yet. There’s also a small store attached to the house where they sell candy bars, sodas, bananas, and the requisite 8 varieties of potato, and where we will have a chance to put in a few hours’ work, which will be . . . interesting. The food is fine—usually just toast w/ jam for breakfast (and coffee, of course, but not great coffee); lunch is a bigger deal—some meat, always rice, maybe some lentils or potato or yucca (a starchy root, but tasty) and a small salad of tomato, onion, and avocado, and fruit. Dinner tends to be modest—maybe a sandwich, maybe some soup and some bread, or a simple meat dish—but more than adequate.

Some of our fellow PCT’s (it’s a govt. agency, so we’re all reduced to acronyms: Peace Corps Trainees, “aspirantes” in Spanish) have homes with no discernable plumbing, but one has a bedroom with en suite shower (she said it’s like a Playboy grotto, very sexy; I didn’t ask how she knew . . .) so there’s quite a range. All have electricity. We’re told that our accommodations at our work sites, where we’ll move in August, will tend to be more rustic and our communities will be small, in the 800—4,000 person range, and that we’re likely to be the first PCV’s (Peace Corps Volunteers) they’ve ever seen.

The training center is in a large home that’s been converted to offices and classrooms. It has a large, walled-in yard, with adequate space for Frisbee and soccer during our lunch break. The pool is merely decorative. What else do you want to know? The weather is cool, with a marine haze much of the time. We’re maybe 20-30 miles inland, with significant hills rising dramatically all around us.

Our morning language classes are conducted entirely in Spanish, and our job training is currently in English, but by the end of training most of our classes will be. The most popular class yesterday was presented by our Medical Officer, Dr. Jorge, on diarrhea. The official estimate of the percentage of Peru’s PCV’s who have, umm, “soiled their pants” is 95%, but he bets it’s closer to 100%. Ohhhh boy. Neither of us has joined that group yet, and neither of us is suffering from anything that would register on the Richter scale, though there have been rumblings. From our family we’ve learned two expressions for such symptoms that we can share in mixed company (“estoy con la bicicleta” and “estoy como pato”: I have a bicycle in my stomach and, in a more vernacular mode, my gut is loose as a goose) and one expression that we definitely cannot share on a public website.

Today’s not-so-cheerful lecture was on the probability of being a victim of robbery or theft, a very uplifting follow-up to the diarrhea lecture. That, and our first official day of Spanish language classes in which Jean’s teacher shoved them on a “combi” (a kind of collective taxi) and took them to a nearby town to interview random people, left Jean in a state of sensory overload. Fortunately, our Training Coordinator recognized the look on Jean’s face, and invited us to a nearby shop for coffee and chocolate cake, just in time.

I’ll try to include some photos in this entry, but I’m never sure exactly how that’s going to come off. They should include perhaps some shots of our fellow ¨aspirantes,¨ hard at work at our training center, our host ¨hermana,¨ Jean with some neighbor kids on our patio, and the convention center¨ with wandering alpacas where we spent our first 2 nights.

So, that’s the news from the city of Chaclacayo (our neighborhood is known as Huascaran). Every day brings us a whole range of emotions, but they’re mostly positive, and our experiences have been great. We’re very happy to be where we are, doing what we’re doing, and we’re (still) looking forward to a productive and endlessly-fascinating two years!


  1. My brother is there in your group, Justin Ross. Thank you for sharing your experiences. The only info I have from my brother is a 2 sentence e-mail he sent my parents. So it's nice to kind of know what's going on via your blog. (Except after August when everyone goes there spearate ways.)


  2. Hi Russ and Jean!

    Connie at Penguin here! Your adventure sounds wonderful - and we here at PGI are reading your blog faithfully. We miss you. As easily as we became friends, you now have new hermanos y hermanas to enjoy. The landscape sounds wonderful, is it a rainy season there - or is it always rainy? Do you need a good garbadina? I'm sharing your blog with my step-daughter who was there last year and my business partner who just came back. Best to you both!

  3. So great to hear what you are experiencing in Peru. I'm so happy to hear about your adventures, and to know that you have chocolate cake when you need it most. I hope you keep the bicycles out of your stomachs. Wishing you well from Vermont!

  4. Glad you made it there with no serious incident. The troubles we see on the news from Peru look grim so I am glad they are far from you even if you cannot escape the random thief or the goose on the loose in your belly. Betty and I wish you the best, but we do not envy the job of learning a new language at this age.