Monday, July 26, 2010

Midway . . .


We just passed the mathematical midpoint of our time in Perú—27 months total, a bit over a year to go.

Mixed feelings? You bet.

We look at the clothes we brought with us and try to guess which items will last another year, and which will become too embarrassingly frayed to wear in public before then. Virtually none will be coming back with us, beyond what we wear to the airport.

There are certainly days when I feel like “OK, I get it, I could go home now.” I realize, though, that what you learn from living in a foreign culture for a year is not the same thing you learn from living in that culture for TWO years; and then, there are the days that are just magic.

Last month we had a day where we longed to have lunch at our favorite café in Hamilton, with great food and the sense that we knew everybody in the joint. We had this discussion on our way to lunch at a place on Chivay's Plaza de Armas that serves cheap ($1.40) but tasty--and reasonably sanitary--lunches; we seated ourselves, and lo! we knew everyone who came in. It was an “aha!” moment for us—this can be home, too.

So what have I learned in one year; what’s changed? Hard to say . . . incremental change can kind of sneak past you, and is best seen in retrospect. I know that my concept of what I “need” to be “comfortable” has been scaled back, considerably. I also know that what I “need” to be “comfortable is still more than what most of the people around me have. It’s a hard lesson.

I’ve learned a very little bit about the frustrations of living one’s entire life in a developing country. I’ve learned mountains about the satisfactions of living in a place with cultural roots that run hundreds, if not thousands, of years deep.

Our Spanish is a little better than it was a year ago.

We have helped some people to see some opportunities they might not have grasped before, but we haven’t put any magic wands in their hands. Peace Corps is rife with stories of volunteers who found, 20 years later, that some seemingly insignificant act they performed during their service had a profound effect on someone’s life, but it’s a long gestation. Likewise, we probably won’t realize the full effect that living here has had on us, until we return—for now, “normal” has been reset to a value that is on an entirely different scale than a US-based “normal.”

It’s a transition time, though—the volunteers from the previous training group, with whom we’ve been sharing the Department of Arequipa for the last year, have largely packed up and gone to where they’re headed next: Lima, Stockholm, Chicago, and parts unknown, destinations as varied as their characters. Part of the next training group were in Chivay last week for their “Field-Based Training,” working in the Instituto Superior with us watching over their shoulders; some of them may soon be returning here to replace those who left. We’re reminded again of how high-quality Peace Corps Volunteers tend to be—these are people we look forward to working with. For the next year, though, we’re the “senior class” here, and it’s an odd sensation.

Our work? It continues, more or less the same. We teach English classes, we coax members of artisan groups to think creatively and “work smarter,” we work to develop a tourism model that is more just and beneficial to the local populace, we do business seminars for whomever shows up. We go to meetings and sit in very cold rooms for extended periods of time, until our blood has congealed and all brain activity has ceased, and then try to contribute, in Spanish. It’s frustrating, maddening, challenging and, very occasionally, studded with gem-like moments that are incredibly satisfying.

Personal lives? We live in a tiny room in which we regularly wish to occupy the same space at the same time. It’s been a test of our personal relationship, but when we crawl under that heavy alpaca blanket on a cold night, we’re still happy to be occupying the same space . . . We have friends—other PCV’s to be sure, but also Peruvians with whom we’ve developed relationships that go beyond just business. It’s hard to share much with them, though—the nature of their lives and culture here is not based on getting together for dinner parties, or doing theater or going camping together, and there are linguistic and cultural bridges that we’ll never be able to cross. We try, though, and so do they, and that’s what friends do, no?

In June we went to Trujillo for a training session on community banks, bringing community partners with us (on their first airplane rides, and first view of the Pacific Ocean). Then, we took advantage of being on Peru's northern coast and spent some of our accrued vacation time seeing a new part of the country. We visited the ruins of the what was the largest pre-Columbian city in the western hemisphere and the largest city constructed of adobe in the world, Chan Chan; nearby is Huaca de la Luna and Huaca del Sol, ceremonial sites that were constructed and then, with great effort, buried under millions of adobe bricks. We visited another volunteer at her site near where the fabulously rich treasures of the Lord of Sipán were discovered. Then we took the overnight bus to Chachapoyas, the capital of the Department of Amazonas, in a mountainous zone of cloud forest with scattered ruins and La Catarata de Gocta,
the third-highest waterfall in the world. We thought we might spend 2 or 3 days there, but ended up staying 6 days, enjoying all that this part of Perú has to offer.

The star attraction is Kuélap, a mountaintop fortress built a thousand years ago. Though it was re-discovered in the 19th century, much of it has only recently been excavated, and tourism has yet to catch up with it, at least to the degree it merits. A gorgeous setting, stonework that lacks the finesse of the Incas but makes up for it in sheer volume . . . it was a great visit.

The other thing that kept us in Chachapoyas was Café Fusiones; here’s a shout-out to Marilyn, her locally-produced organic coffee, her baked goodies, and her thoughtful comments on sustainable tourism.

It’s winter, which means that most mornings are below freezing outside, and in the low 40’s in our room when we awake. The days are uniformly sunny, and warm up quickly, then turn breezy in the afternoon. Have I mentioned how beautiful this place is, in a very unique way, and how much we enjoy and admire the people we work and live with?

Not much more to say—we miss our friends and family, but we don’t dwell on it, and try to focus on “being here now.” We’ll never have this opportunity again, and we don’t want to miss out on any of it by longing to be elsewhere. (We do try to keep up on news from the States and from the Bitterroot, a much easier task in the age of the Internet, but certainly another distraction.)

So, drop us a line and tell us what’s going on—what we really want to know doesn’t come in the form of Missoulian headlines.