Friday, September 27, 2013

Peace Corps Volunteer Leader - Cajamarca

Brace yourself for a little bit of a change, as I set up the next part of this blog: My experiences of staying in the Peace Corps for one more year to be the Peace Corps Volunteer Leader (PCVL) of Cajamarca.

First, a little geography and information about Cajamarca. Cajamarca is a department (think of it as a State) to the north of Peru, and shares a border with Ecuador. Similar to Ancash, it too is mainly located in the Sierra, but does also have some jungle too. The elevation here is notable, Cajamarca City is at about 2,700 meters (8,900 Ft), and while it doesn't have the snow-capped mountains of Ancash, it does boast some very green high plains/hills. The department is generally known for a few things: It's rich Inca history; it's dairy production; the social unrest due to mining issues; and the largest Carnaval celebration in Peru (here's a wiki link for more info Wiki Cajamarca).

Here's a map of Peru. I'm currently in Cajamarca (the area traced in red), I used to live in Caraz, Ancash (the place in green). To help, Lima is the purple dot, and Cusco is blue. Also to help put the distance (and how difficult it is to climb the sierra) in perspective: A bus to Lima from Cajamarca is 15 hours. A bus from Cajamarca to Caraz takes me about 16 hours (not including lay overs).

Now for my role as PCVL in the department. Basically, in most Peace Corps posts, PCVL is a full time job of helping coordinate and support current Peace Corps Volunteers; however, it's my understanding, due to Peru's visa requirements, PCVLs here can't just support other volunteers, they need to also work part-time. So my current role involves spending half my time doing volunteer work, and the other part of my time supporting and coordinating volunteers. I'll save the details of my volunteer work for a future post, but basically I'm teaching English and American culture at an institute here in the city, while also trying to set up a volunteer network using Peruvian high school  and college youth to work in social projects lead by the municipality or local NGOs. As for my other half of my job, it involves running monthly regional meetings with the 20+ volunteers in the region, coordinating Lima staff visits to the department, checking-in and supporting volunteers in the field, and helping locate and establish future sites. (This last part is my favorite aspect as I get to go out and see the country).

I like my new role as it's been a drastic change from my last two years. Although it's been really hard not having the Pachamacs to hangout with, its been interesting living in my own department in the city. I'm 5 blocks away from the town's main plaza, have hot water and a toilet; which are all things I went without during my time in Yuracoto. The city is bustling, and I can hear traffic at all hours of the day (that was a hard change for me the first 3 nights). There is a lot of NGOs and other non-profits in the city, 5 universities, and plenty of work for me to do. Cajamarca is said to be one of the poorest departments in Peru, and I'm starting believe it. There appears to be a stark contrast in the classes here, as you often see a highly wealthy person in nice clothes and a car (usually due to mining money) and a person living in extreme poverty within a one block walk from each other. Also child labor is a significant issue for the city.

On a lighter note, here's a quick video I made of a public aerobics class I stumbled upon in the main plaza de armas in Cajamarca City. Although difficult to see, it's being led by what appears to be a Peruvian knock-off version of Richard Simmons (I'll let someone else use this to expand on the pros and cons of globalization). Enjoy this very short clip:

As for the volunteers, they too are divided. Half of our volunteers are to the north, based around a town called Chota, and the other half are based around the city of Cajamarca. It's a 4-6 hour drive (depending on weather, driver, strikes, or road construction) and means that we hold our regional meetings on a rotating schedule between Cajamarca City and Chota. Here's map that give an idea of how the volunteers are spread in Cajamarca:

I live where the red star is. The green star farthest to the south is Cajabamba and is about 3 hours away. The green star farthest to the north is Cutervo, which is about 4 hours from Chota (or about 9 hours away from me). 

My favorite part is getting to hit the road and see the sites and volunteers in action. Recently I went on a 4 day adventure with our Regional Coordinator, Jose, to try to identify where the next group of volunteers will live and serve. We know that we are getting 5 new volunteers in November, so Jose and I have been planning for their arrival. A lot goes into this, including a ton of luck. We always hold a meeting with the local health post, the local elected officials, and schools to announce the arrival of the volunteer. Usually this means getting everyone in one room, explaining the at a gringo is coming to live with them, that the gringo is not related to any church, mine, or political party, and that they need a loving family to take them in for 2 years. Although I was able to sum this up in less than a tweet, it's a very long process. Jose and I were based out of a hotel in Chota for 4 days, hitting the road at 5am everyday, and not returning to the hotel until around 9pm each night. Although it was fun and interesting, it really was draining.

This last trip out was to set up for Peru 22 Health Volunteers. Health volunteers generally are placed in the most rural sites, and this meant Jose and I got to go on some real back roads and visit some pretty small communities. Imagine this happening in some of some of our favorite local stops (Shout outs to:  Pony, Norris, Helmville, White Sulpher, and Belt! Come meet your new neighbor!! ). All the communities received us warmly, and most are excited to have an American live with them; however, some made very difficult requests (One town requests that their volunteer to be a girl that is good at soccer. Jose and I have very little pull in that area...but we'll see). Here's some videos and pictures from this last site identification trip:
The highlands of Cajamarca.

We're around 4,000 meters at this spot with a very strong wind. 

A pair of llamas in a moto-truck outside of Chota. 

Our regional coordinator Jose getting ready to meet with the health post staff at one of the future sites we visited. 

This is our car, a government issued Toyota Parado. Jose said he once complained about the choice in car, saying felt bad driving up to a poor community in such a huge car. Then one night a volunteer was deathly ill and he had to drive in the middle of the night, during the rainy season, to evacuate her. There was a landslide closing the main road, and he had to 4x4 it on a side route to get there. Luckily he had this car, because after he made it through,  the 3 cars that tried to follow him didn't make it. 

The last picture of this series is one I took when Jose and I climbed up to the top of that large cliff in the background. Interestingly, the locals call that rock "Donde El Condor Caga" (loosely translated as: Where the Condor Shits). Look for the picture below.

Me catching the morning sun before meeting with the locals to plan the arrival of the volunteer. 

Jose meets with the local big-wigs. L to R: a nurse from the health post, the town mayor, and a local school teacher (Jose is in the blue shirt). 

Jose and I check out a possible house and family for a volunteer. 

Your hero at the plaza de armas of Huamblas, Peru. A future site for Peru 22. Interestingly enough, there once was a Youth Development Volunteer in this area years before... This volunteer's claim to fame, while being a Youth Development Volunteer, went rouge and turned into one heck of a Environmental volunteer. Peace Corps legend has it that he got his community so involved in forestation projects that he (and his community) planted more trees than all of the 'real' Environment Volunteers combined (to the tune of more than 50,000 trees in one year)... soon I hope to return and investigate this a little more. 

As I mentioned before, the health volunteers are usually in small rural sites that are generally off the beaten path, hence the mud tires on the ambulance. 

Another town where a volunteer will work. This town reportedly has a significant case of young mothers, and should be a hot bed for work for the future volunteer. Although he doesn't know it yet, this shy kid will soon have an American for  a neighbor and teacher for the next two years. Good luck kid. 

Looking off to the east towards the jungle. 

It was very hard to find a good possible host family here. Usually we try to get 2-3 options, but here we couldn't even find one. One suggestion was that the volunteer live in the church, not an option; Therefore, I think the volunteer will live in a nearby town and bike or walk over here to work here.  
This same small town has a large population of young people who have left to find better jobs or education in the larger coastal towns; however, those same young people have such strong roots to their home town, that they've sent money back every month to the community so they could build this town hall. 

A bird's eye view of the town. 

The plaza of armas of Chota, at 5:30am, as Jose and I head out for a day on the road. 

This town's plaza of armas wins the busiest award...

... not because it was bustling with people, just because there was so much stuff in such a small space. Still it was better than Yuracoto's Plaza (they don't have one). 

This is the town that requested a female soccer player. As you can see soccer is a big deal here. Look how the whole community is build around the soccer field. There's no plaza de armas, the houses are all built facing the field (Which I bet is pretty cool whenever there's a big game). Jose tells me that this little town is well known throughout Cajamarca for it's soccer players. Hopefully their future volunteer can hold her own on the field.

Jose meeting the health post doctor. 

Again the main attraction, the soccer field. 

Some obstacles in the road on our way home. 

Here we are on where "the Condor does his business", overlooking a site of a future Peace Corps Volunteer. 

And when I'm not helping Jose find future sites, I'm on the road to do check-ins with the volunteers to make sure they are safe, happy, and productive in their sites. Here's a couple pictures of two site visits I did with our newest volunteers (Peru 21ers), as they are just completing their first month in site:
Linnea, a youth volunteer, with her twin sisters.

Dylan, a business volunteer, in his town's plaza. 

So that's basically half of my new gig here in the Peace Corps. Look for future post on my travels and work soon to come!

Reading with Yefer

Before I transition us to my new role as Peace Corps Volunteer Leader of Cajamarca, I need to share one last thing before we move on. I'd to like post one last video (maybe two). This is a video that I took the last night I was in Yuracoto. It's of Yeferson and I sharing a book* as we read to Cate on speaker phone. Dina's filming, Yordan's listening, and the dogs are going crazy,A pretty typical night, even though it was to be our last one together (for awhile):

* The first person to email me with the title of the book and author (in English) wins 1,000 Peacecorts Points, redeemable towards peacecorts schwag from this site's store.

** I noticed two significant changes in behavior on my last day. Yeferson was really clingy and asked, "Te vas hoy?"/"You're leaving today?" too many times to count (even though we've talked about it for the last month or so).

*** After 27 months of hard work and dedication, my camera decided that Yuracoto was where it wanted to die. Looking back at my pictures and it isn't surprising to me that stopped working. It had been put through a lot of abuse. What is weird is that it took pictures all day my last day, but when  I went to take the final set of pictures, Me hugging good-bye to the Pachamacs in driveway, it went black, never to work again. There's part of me that thinks...Does Panasonic now have camera 'soul technology'? I just need the wide angle and large memory card... Anyways, here are the last pictures taken by my dear camera before it gave up the ghost:

All my worldly possession in two bags and side bag. Not including the projector and the fly rod. 

My room, back to the way I found it. 

My last time in the my cave.

All my stuff on Roger's moto ready to take me to the bus. 

As I go through my memory card I think I'd be silly not to include this video, which is a huge shout out to both Claire and Jill. Claire (happy belated birthday... welcome to old age) gave Yeferson a large book of Disney stories, which while still a little too difficult for him to read alone, is definitely his prized possession in the library (think of it as being equivalent to a first-edition rare classic for a bibliophile). While Jill on the other hand, sent the animal cards that Yefer and Roger both like to play with. It's a fun, healthy pass-time for them.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Blog Stats from Last Month

Ever go somewhere for vacation and attend an event or church, and the leader says something like: "Boy, I see all kinds of new faces here today! Where are we all from!? Who's traveled the furthest??" I've seen it happen more than once (Shout out to Father Mike and the Dog Pound at the "Living Waters" on Memorial Day Weekend, 4th of July Weekend, and Labor Day Weekend).

Anyways, I thought I'd share the following stats with you guys. It shows where my blog visitors are coming from*. The blue places are the active visitors (Shout out to Montana!).

*I hope I don't scare you with this "big brother" type information (Boo!).

** The last time I looked at this information, I shared with Jeff that it was interesting that I had few visitors from countries in the former Eastern Block. I couldn't figure out why, but soon after I started to receive smart-ass comments on my blog from a guy claiming to be in Bulgaria or Romania... It was Jeff, and I so decided that allowing blog comments wasn't a good idea. You can thank for Jeff for loosing that feature.

After Googling it, the most probable reason I had visitors from those countries is due bots (hacked computers in a network) trying to spam my account with links in the comment section. Once I removed the comment option, these visitors went away... FYI.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Dina Goes Into Business and Other Reflections on the Family's Growth.

Two years ago, I arrived to live with a humble but caring family for my Peace Corps service. The head of the Pachacamac household, Roger, luckily had the open-mindedness and foresight to see that accepting a volunteer from the USA into his household for two years could be a blessing for his family (even though it was a huge risk). My first impression was: Roger's home, while spacious, didn't have much.

Although my first few days in site are branded into my memory, I often go back and re-watch this video I made my first full day in Yuracoto (Yuracoto August 2011). Although there are lots of gems in that video: 1, Me calling Dina "mama" (something I did for the first 3 months until it sunk in that she's my age); 2, seeing baby Yordan; 3, noting the rooms I hadn't been invited into yet; etc.,  the best part for me is from 5:08-5:12. It may be hard for some note, but for me it's obvious, I was kinda scared. I can hear it my voice.  It's like the idea of living with a people that are too shy to talk to me, in a home in the middle of nowhere, with no shower, no bathroom, animals in the kitchen, a open-fire stove, and rock for a kitchen table is my fate for the next 24 months; and it all hits me when I say: "this is my house for the next two years". ("Dang, two years of this!..." I know that crossed my mind).

This video helps me put my two years into perspective. If you were to ask me that day this video was made "What I was doing there?" (or going to do in Yuracoto), I probably would have spouted my memorized lines from training about "Who I am and what is Peace Corps" and then I'd probably riff about how I wanted to make sustainable improvements for the community with huge "pie-in-the-sky", idealistic dreams.  Little did I realize that small plot of land seen in the video was going to be the setting for my greatest accomplishments and longest-lasting changes made during my service.

Just by paying rent (S/250 per month for room, energy, and food) I helped Roger and Dina make some positive changes for their family. Roger, wisely reinvested my rent into their home. I saw concrete changes occur almost every month. Corrals to keep the animals outside, a cement sink for Dina to wash clothes, a shower, kitchen tables, a kitchen sink, etc. These are just a few of the tangible changes I observed (thanks to Roger having a little extra cash on hand) . However, the two most significant concrete changes I saw were these: 1, the quality of the food improved drastically. This benefited everyone, not only the Gringo who was getting sick daily, but importantly the two young boys in the prime of their development; and 2, the room they built me. Although (in my opinion) unneeded, this was a HUGE symbolic gesture from them to me. It's easily the nicest room they have, and they've made it very clear that it's my room. I am to never rent, or think about staying elsewhere, when I return to Ancash. I'm now a part of their family, and therefore needed a room in their home. I can't explain how nice of gesture this was. Thanks.  Furthermore, they've already planned Adam's next visit this winter. He'll be staying in my room (with my permission of course).

Here's a couple photos from inside the new room (shout out to Mom for the curtains):
These curtains make the place snap. 

The blue walls and the natural light make my cave look like, well a cave. 

Yefer, Yordan and Cate inside what Yeferson calls the "cage". 

Besides the physical changes, I also see the video and think about the non-tangibles that may be hard to notice. There are many; like the shared parenting tips, a little counseling ideas, health and sanitation hints, etc., but my two favorites are Yeferson's development and the sharing the United States with the family.

Saving my favorite for last, I'd like to expand on how the Pachacamac's global view changed during my time living with them. I entered their lives as a typical backpacking gringo, who didn't speak well, over-paid for daily things, and took a lot of pictures. Their idea of the United States was a interesting dreamland of rich white people, who are really tall, and all fly airplanes. Not sure of the difference between Europe, Africa, and North America, I wasn't surprised that when asked what countries neighbored Peru? Lima and London where usually in the mix of common answers given. However, during my service, I noted very specific times that this young family was learning about the United States. The first, is when the US flag was shown on T.V., and Yeferson excitedly said "Brice, that's the flag you have in your room!! Is that the United States Flag?" This opened about an hour of questions and answers between everyone, focused just about the United States (Does your mom cook on a fire? What are the houses made out of? Do you guys really go places in outer space, like to the moon? etc). The second time is when I went home to visit. During this time, New Jersey was making international headlines due to significant flooding during the hurricane; meanwhile I was fly fishing in Montana. Not sure of the size of the US, or distance between Montana and the east coast, Roger and Dina both scolded me when I returned saying they were worried sick about me because I never called to let them know I was o.k!! (I did feel guilty about this, but also had to chuckle a little). And finally, when my folks came to visit. There's something special about the biological family meeting the host-family. I won't even try explaining this, but after my parents had left, I could really sense that it meant a lot to Roger and Dina that a gringo family from the US came to visit them, eat with them, and play with their children. It's a special connection that they now have with the United States, and its also a special connection that the Corts' now have with the Pachacamacs.

The Corts' and Pachacamacs at Laguna Paron

Pizza night in the Pachacamac house with the Corts family. 

And now for my favorite non-concrete change: Teaching Yeferson how to read. Of all my adventures and things that I consider personal accomplishments, I think this is number one, two, and three on my list of  "Things I most proud of in my life". It was a real challenge. He had been told by his parents and teachers that he couldn't read, and I think he believed it. He was on his mom's track of believing that reading is some mystical ability that he'd never understand. Unfortunately, the adults around him (me included) were fine accepting this. It made me sad and frustrated, but I lazily and foolishly didn't try to address it. I was just observing. Fortunately, after a down moment in my service, I realized that Yordan and Yeferson are two people in Peru that really cared about me unconditionally, and that I be foolish not invest as much time as possible in their personal development**. So with a school break coming, and with the help of a good textbook (shout out to Coquitos), Yeferson started down the path to becoming a reader. I'll be honest with you, little kids aren't my strong suit, and I'm not the most patient, bubbliest, or warmest teacher; however, Yeferson stuck with me. I'm also not proud of the number of times I made him cry during our sessions***, but I am proud of the way he hung with it, always tried to please, and came out an emerging reader. Additionally and almost equally important, Yeferson learning to read made big changes in the family: He became a lot more self-confident; his dad begin to become more involved in his son's education; and, his mom saw that learning to read isn't impossible! (Nice work Yeferson!!).

Yefer's room gets a make over. 
After learning to read, Yefer gets to go to Lima and get's to see a 3D movie!!

Yerferson proudly read this word in the mall in Lima.

Yeferson and Cate share a book in a bookstore. 

And now the real reason I started the this post: to show you guys how Dina has started her own business (Yay DINA!!!). I see it as another great example of how this family has, and continues to, make significant advances.

Dina, now sells chocho, eggs, Jello, and other snacks outside the local health post. It's a major step for her, as she's now responsible for budgeting for her business, doing the cooking, showing up on-time, and selling her goods. With little fear, Dina proudly sells 6 days a week from 9am to 1pm outside the health post. It's a great location. It's near where Roger works, so he can help her, and the nurses are pretty much guaranteed costumers. I'm not sure the exact catalyst for this venture, but assume that there are couple factors: Dina looking for a reason to escape the house, Yordan being old enough to play alongside of her, my rent money going away, Roger being OK the idea, and Cate providing a firm nudge. Now,  Dina selling 25 eggs in a day puts a real glow on her face, and it's great to see her challenging herself. Can you imagine wanting to start a business while knowing that you don't know how to make correct change****; it'd probably be too scary for most of us to consider. Dina's a natural business person too. She's learned the benefits of buying in bulk (24 packets for 54 soles vs. 1 packet for 2.5 soles), has no fear in prodding people passing by to stop and eat, and she's establishing herself a respected person in the community.
Dina setting up shop outside the health post. 

Tia Betty (the owner of the restaurant where Roger works) lends Dina this table everyday. 

I invested in Dina's business. Here's Dina holding 54 soles of Jello. 

Foot Notes:

*Dina and I always laugh about the day I arrived. I was dressed up in a tie, I had my huge backpack, and Dina was too shy to talk to me. The neighbor lady did all the questioning, and everyone threw a fit when I decided to sit on ground with them in my dress slacks and share some fruit. Also they claim they didn't understand a word I was saying... somethings never changed

** In July of 2012, I was sitting at the rock/table in the kitchen, feeling sorry for myself, wearing my heart on my sleeve, and barely being able to hold a conversation with Dina without breaking down. I was in a major slump, my outlook was grim, and I was really doubting that I made the right choices in life the last few years.  It was pretty pathetic. Then, just at that moment, I realized that Yordan was standing on the bench hugging neck, and Yeferson was sitting across from me with a worried, "You 'ok', man?" look on his face. The 29 year-old looking at the 7 year-old's face was spark I needed. It was then that I realized that I had been wasting too much time on fruitless things, and not on those people who really deserved it. Although, Yeferson doesn't know it, that's the moment his education became our number one priority.

*** Whenever Cate and I reflect on Yeferson's journey to becoming a reader, she always reminds me of the time I called her frustrated after a abruptly ending a class with Yeferson. I was ready to quit. The day was dedicated to the letter "T". It was pretty simple, and he was getting the idea. T with A, TA. T with E, TE, T with I, TI. etc... So at the end of the session I wrote three simple words on the board using the letter T. The idea was to have him read the words, make a huge deal out of how his starting to read real words, high-five, and end the class on a high-note leaving momentum for our next class. I don't remember what three words I wrote on the board, I just remember the first one: TUNA. I don't remember the other words, because I snapped before we could get past TUNA. Yep, he broke me when, with a ton of 7-year-old enthusiasm, proudly sounded out TUNA like this: Ttt?....Ttt....Ttt Uuuu??... Ttttuuu..... Ttttttt......Uuuuu.. Tu..... LECHUGA!!!!!! (lettuce in Spanish). After the proud approving smile was instantly wiped from my face for look of confused shock, I threw my chalk on the ground and stormed off to my room to call Cate (imagine of mix between Bobby Knight ,a two year-old baby, and a teenager getting grounded... that was me). During the phone call, I claimed "I can't do it. I swear he's doing on purpose! He's just trying to piss me off!!!! Lechuga?! Seriously, Lechuga? There's not even a T in the damn word!..." (and on went the rant). Luckily, Cate talked me down and convinced me the Yeferson wasn't purposefully trying to misread words, that he's seven, and that he's probably just guessed to try to make me happy. Made sense.

**** Here's a big time shout out to Jill for the calculators she sent me. Dina now is the boss with her "computer" when it comes to disputes about making change. With a simple press of some buttons, Dina's anxiety of getting shorted is no longer an issue. Thanks Jill.

Dear Blog Readers,

I hope you've enjoyed the glimpse of the daily life and changes the Pachacamac family has endured during my two year stay with them.  I know many of you are fans of the videos, pictures, and stories I've shared, as Roger, Dina, Yeferson, and Yordan were often the stars of my posts. Please take a moment and think about what all they've done in this time (or just look at my past posts). All of this was done by just by being the modest, hardworking, and caring people they are. They've done an amazing job of being ambassadors for their country and culture; and through them,  we've learned a lot. 

The changes that they've made to improve their situation have not been insignificant. Imagine a family of four, with a limited education, living off of 25 soles a day, doing so much so quickly. It's obvious to me that although I'm no longer with them,  the Pachamacs will do just fine life. The boys, Yeferson and Yordan, show daily their natural traits of kindness, caring, curiosity, and intelligence. They are clear reflection of their parents, and the values taught in the home. As I've said before, odds are: the Pachacamacs will most likely be just fine. 

However, I think we have an opportunity (and for me, and obligation) to insure that we do more for them in the future. "Just fine" isn't good enough for them. They've come so far and done so much, to settle at "just fine"would be a disappointment to say the least.  I have no doubt that Yeferson and Yordan could achieve great things for themselves and their family, with the right support. These little high-energy, sponges have the natural gifts; and with the right guidance,  could significantly improve this family's life. 

 Your generosity these last two years has been remarkable. Thank you for this. The care packages have been more than enough, and always greatly appreciated. But please allow me to ask one last favor:  Let's insure that Yeferson continues to read and improve in school. Let's insure that Yordan hit's all of his academic milestones on time. Let's insure Roger and Dina have a chance of having two educated sons in the family. Let's insure that Yeferson and Yordan's children have fathers that know how to read, write, do math, and the importance of schooling. Let's collectively invest in these two boys' education. Something that I truly believe will always be of value for them.

Thanks to many meetings with Dina, Roger, and Cate,  we've developed a plan on how to do this. I have already pledged that I'll make it happen; however,  if you too would like to support the boys' education, let me know. Send me an email, and I'll share how the plan looks, and how you can support it. 

Thanks for sticking with me,