Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Good Week

Because we’ve traveled in Peru and South America before, because we’ve worked for the government before, and because we did some “due diligence,” we had a notion of what our Peace Corps/Peru experience might be like before we got here—and the many ways in which we were wrong have been fodder for our previous blog posts.

In the last two weeks, though, my PC life has matched up remarkably closely with that image I had, which is a sufficiently stunning development that I thought I’d describe it.

First of all, Jean is Lima-bound, for 3 days of training in teaching English, so she’ll just have to tell her own side of this, later. In perfect English.

We went to Arequipa on Monday of last week to pick up our mail, run some errands, and to do some shopping for things not available in Chivay. Picking up the mail meant spending two hours at Serpost for what should be a 5-minute transaction, bailing a box of goodies out of petty-bureaucrat-from-Customs hell. It got better after that—Arequipa is a fairly magical city, and the mere fact that it was warm and not raining made it a much-needed break from Chivay. The shopping consisted mostly in large necessities and small luxuries, at a mix of small storefronts and an awful, giant supermarket swamped with back-to-schoolers.

We spent the night in Arequipa, as the next morning all the regional volunteers had to receive our H1N1 vaccinations from our Peace Corps doc. Never mind that H1N1 has all but disappeared from Peru—the U.S. Government requires it, so we got expertly perforated.

We then met as a group with a regional NGO to plan a meeting in Chivay for young elected officials and community leaders, to share their experiences and explore ways to involve more youth in the political life of their communities. We then splurged a bit on lunch--$8 really is a lot for tacu-tacu, a kind of mashup of leftovers topped with a sauce of rubbery bits of creatures recently yanked from the sea—but it was good. The bus ride back to Chivay was only 3-1/2 hours, a pleasant surprise, as recently it’s been running 4 hours or more. I used the ride to finish reading “The Book Thief,” (‘bout time, huh?), Jean listening to our infallible and inexhaustible audio book of “Moby Dick,” brilliantly performed by William Hootkins.

In the Colca valley the rainy season is tapering off and everything is a vivid green, like the Bitterroot in May. We get beautiful, sunny, warm mornings, late afternoon rain showers, and occasionally splendid nights: clear, with the constellations of the southern hemisphere piercing the night sky like someone’s crazy idea of the view from God’s back porch.

By day we slaved away, going to meetings with NGO’s, working to help the locals find ways to harvest tourist dollars like they were the quinua crops maturing in their fields. We worked with artisans trying to build a center where tourists could come to try their hand at “artesanía,” spinning alpaca fibers into yarn, and knitting a shawl with it, or turning a blank piece of fabric into an embroidered landscape of birds and mammals with a few deft movements at a sewing machine. I wrote up “oficios,” densely-worded documents overflowing with flowery language, to solicit the use of a meeting room and an extension cord. We talked with nascent entrepreneurs, about how to promote their rustic lodgings to tourists who are willing to take a chance on something other than a standard hotel room in Chivay.

We also were invited to judge the artisan works at a competition held in honor of International Women’s Day. It’s very gratifying that we’re accepted and invited like that, I have to say. We had a great time talking with all the women, and a difficult time judging them. We took advantage of our time in the hall to take in the food competition, too—alpaca “ham” (VERY good), swiss cheese (salty, but a nice change from the ubiquitous “queso fresco”), and excellent cookies and cakes made from corn, quinua, kiwicha, barley, and a few other items I can’t even describe.

What set the week truly apart, for me at least, was seeing a couple of seeds I’ve planted starting to take root. I’ve been pushing a proposal for a campaign similar to “Local First” efforts, encouraging the purchase and use of local products, and especially local artisan work (versus cheaply-made, machine-produced copies from outside the valley). At the afore-mentioned competition, I started seeing labels featuring my “buy local” idea printed on them, before I’ve even officially launched the campaign! (That’s two wins right there—getting people to use labels has been an effort in itself).

At a meeting later that night for the artisan center, I got them to change the idea for their sign from something featuring the incomprehensible acronym for their association, adorned with a condor, to something more descriptive and appealing to tourists. The condor, admittedly magnificent in flight, is still just a big buzzard when it lands, and it’s overdone here. Take that, carrion-breath!

We also started teaching English classes for guides and anyone working in a tourism-related business, three times a week, for the next three months. Prep is time-consuming and demanding, and thankfully Jean has done most of that. We have a mix of people with some knowledge of English, and others with practically virgin ears. Teachers of the world, we salute you.

I spent Saturday biking to Coporaque, 8 muddy kilometers distant, for a work party thrown by a group trying to attract more tourists by developing a nice ½-day hiking circuit. We planted scores of trees, cleaned the path of rocks and debris, built trail and hacked cactus, back-breaking work in a spectacular setting. More Quechua was spoken than Spanish, leaving me gaping stupidly most of the time, but occasionally responding appropriately, astonishing everyone. Rain moved in on us as we worked our way back to town, where we ate a huge lunch, possibly the source of my digestive woes the following two days. Exhausted, I biked home in even-deeper mud, and fell over.

Jean spent that morning working in the small garden plot one of our “socios” offered her, and a friend called to invite her to take a walk that afternoon. If she’d had someone with whom to play some duets in the evening, it would have been a 5-star day for her, but alas, that’s still a piece missing from our lives—cultural opportunities OTHER than those typical of the Sierra are rare, indeed.

Aside from work, I finally started exercising once again, hiking up the mountain that fronts Chivay, with legs of lead. After biking to Coporaque and back Saturday, on Sunday Jean and I rode a nice 90-minute out-and-back on a moderately-challenging trail along the river. She’ll be a mountain biker yet.

I also completed our shower, by installing an electric shower head that currently lacks connection, but which—when and if our host wires it—will provide us with a hot shower, if it doesn’t electrocute us. At least now, for the first time since we got here, we have a COLD shower as an alternative to bucket baths. Small luxury. I live for the possibility of having a hot shower available to us whenever we want it. Things like this come to dominate your life in ways you never expected.

Our social lives? Glad you asked! Peace Corps volunteers who live in smaller towns, with less going on, spend more time watching movies than we do, so Oscar Night was Party Night! We got together with five other volunteers from this province to watch the awards, sporting our finery—t-shirts with tuxes drawn with markers, for example, but Jean rocked the red carpet in her tiara and custom-made local traditional garb. Ballots were filled out, and drinks were consumed either in celebration of correct picks, or as punishment for uninformed guesses. I withdrew myself from most of the drinking, suffering “mal de estómago” of a dangerously explosive nature.

I continued suffering on Monday, with perhaps a hint of clinical depression. February was not a stellar month, health-, work-, or climate-wise, but I had begun to feel much better until I got sick again, and it got to me, I’ll admit. Jean, understanding very well what that’s like, went to the market to buy some bananas for me, and I nearly cried. I rode it out, though, and have felt absolutely buoyant, since. One-and-a-half low days out of six months ain’t so bad.

And that, in 1,500 words or less, is a Peace Corps experience that comes close to matching my expectations, both the good and the bad. Next week, and next month, and the 17 months after that, will be utterly different, no doubt. But I expected that, too.

(Some young actresses Jean worked with in a theater class)