Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Dispelling Myths

So as most of my readers know, I’m finishing up my third year in the Peace Corps serving as a Volunteer Leader and working in Huaraz, the capital city of Ancash, Peru. I’ve focused my time working with 50 teenaged youth on sexual health promotion and teen-pregnancy, STI and HIV prevention through the support of a small PEPFAR grant. Although one year is not much time in the educational spectrum, the lessons learned were enlightening for them and for me.

Ancash is located in the Andes Mountains of Peru, and the primary language in the rural towns outside the capital city of Huaraz is Quechua. The people are descendants of the Incas and retain more cultural influence from their ancestors than of the Spanish, who conquered Peru in the 1500s. The Incan roots in the Ancashinos are evident in the language, the farming and agricultural techniques, the spiritualism, and the health practices. Let's focus on the latter. I have learned of myriad health myths - ancient beliefs - and I have had the opportunity to dispel some of them during my classes. Here are a few gems:

• If a woman stands in the rays of a rainbow, she'll become pregnant.

• Eating Peruvian lemon on your period will stop your cycle and endanger your reproductive system.

• Women on their period cannot bathe or engage in physical exercise; these activities could be harmful to her health.

• Men have more sex drive than women.

• Men with larger penises are more sexually powerful than men with smaller penises.

What I’ve realized working in Peru is that so much of sexual education in a developing country is related to addressing gender inequality. “Machismo,” the belief of masculine superiority that systematically and culturally marginalizes women, is an ingrained social issue in Ancash. On their final exams, my students generally scored high, and through conversations, I know that they’ve learned many truths about sexual health. So if I’ve played a tiny part in the grand scheme of gender inequality by dispelling myths and empowering my female students, I’d say that’s a success.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Ode to Peru (and the places you'll go)

Oh, my carelessness, my neglect. Profound apologies to this lonely webpage. One that has documented so many of my journeys, adventures, ups, downs and all-arounds of the past three years of my life in Peru. Now the clock is tick-tocking, and with this impending, inevitable "fin" in sight, I feel I still have some things to say, and that I can't leave with these things left unsaid.

If there was ever a doubt in your mind of my undying passion for food, well, rest assured, I'm obsessed. Recently, I was asked what my favorite things are: Simply put, food is the top of my list. Cooking, experimenting, eating & sharing it. Other high rankers are music/dancing (going hand-in-hand, of course), soaking in the rays of the sun, trying new things, and outdoor activities ~ hiking, skiing and beaching being the favs. Stay tuned for my "Ode to Comida Peruana."

Without a passion for my work, I'm lost. When everything else is falling apart, when parasites are ravaging my tired stomach, when friends leave and chapters end... if I still have my passion for my work, I'm OK. I see this with clarity now. If you're a PCV and your world is upside down, dive in to your work ~ it will probably change your life. And if you don't have work, lord knows I've been there, then reach out to someone who can help you kick-start this thing. Si se puede.

Now we know I love my Southerners, but it just doesn't get better than Peruvian hospitality. "Mi Casa es Tu Casa." Seriously. It's yours if you want it. In all seriousness though, Peruvians bring new meaning to the phrase "sharing is caring." If my host family in Tumpa has 10 people around the table and only one small piece of meat, you can bet that everyone's getting a bite. This morning, a little granny insisted on putting me in a cab, declaring that taxistas are unjust and she wouldn't have me paying more than a centavo too much. In Lima, at "Friends House," the Peace Corps hostal, the owners know all of our names. All of us who have passed through over the years. They know all of our sites. They probably know more than they'd like to, at times. And if it's your birthday, they'll make a huge deal over you with cake or wine. Sometimes cake and wine. Sometimes cake with little mini-beer candles on top. I'm taking this way of hospitality with me, wherever it is I may go.

Oscar Wilde once said, "I can resist anything but temptation." I have identified with and battled against that quote my entire life. Temptation is a dichotomous creature. In so many ways, she can lead you to new, beautiful adventures. Allowing yourself to be temped is taking a risk, and that drives me. When life is easy, I get bored. I just wouldn't be having fun if I weren't taking leaps of faith every now and then. I love trying new things, I love the feeling of adrenaline, and I love that I can continue reinventing myself every day. Living in Peru has allowed me to evolve in ways I couldn't have dreamed. Of course, temptation can be a dark mistress, and she can lead you into some risky business. But one thing's for sure: I'm growing up, I'm making good decisions, and I've got it pretty much under control. Otherwise, I would have gone rogue in the jungle by now.

This one time, I was accused by a community member for being an organ trafficker, and you know what? I might leave this country with my host siblings in my luggage. Maria was 12 ~ TWELVE ~ when I got here. Next month, I'm co-throwing her SIXTEENTH birthday party. Mexican tacos, music, balloons, and 20 of her friends. She's gorgeous and assertive, she's a great student, she's involved in youth groups, and the girl can spike a volleyball. Carlitos is almost two, and if he's within reach of his mama, he is clutching her breast for dear life. Hand down the shirt. His property. Back off, people. Mine. When I manage to pry him away from her, we walk (or run) around the Plaza holding hands. He loves toys, especially his truck that his godfather Rabbit gave him. It's barely recognizable now. Carlitos wasn't even there when I arrived three years ago. My, how my life has changed.

And I leave you, for now, with this last thought: "The only constant is change, continual change, inevitable change." Que Viva.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Smoke Signal

I need to try to express how incredible, dynamic and exciting my life is right now. I’m pinching myself. What did I do to make this happen?

I’ve been on the road. As the Ancash PCVL, I've had the amazing opportunity to discover more of Ancash than ever would have been possible during my first two years of service. I spend hours in dusty, crowded combis, listenting to my ipod, watching he mountains pass by, to get to volunteers in their communities and provide support by monitoring their work and talking about life. I spend days in sites spending time with volunteers and their host families, community partners and friends - eating, chatting, walking around town, visiting local institutions or attractions like trash sites, latrine projects or green houses. And every time, I’m reminded of my experience in Tumpa – the discoveries, the joys and the frustrations of being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ancash.

I spend a lot of time coordinating and running around Huaraz with Nelly, Ancash’s beloved Regional Coordinator. I put on my business casual and we visit the Ministries of Education, Health and Environment to strengthen relationships, learn about new initiatives, and inform their staff about our volunteers' progress in the field. Nelly is the most motivated, driven, passionate and dedicated Peruvian woman I have ever met, and she's taught me a lot about the ins-and-outs of Peruvian government, bureaucracy and culture.

My work with youth has only been more exciting since living in this city. Huaraz has a population of over 100,000 residents, and I work with the Health Center Huarupampa that serves just half of that population. With my partner, Mari, I’ve been teaching a group of student peer educators at a local public school on sexual education and HIV prevention. I also work with a youth group at a governmentally sponsored social center for neglected or abandoned children on healthy lifestyle issues like self-esteem, decision-making, and of course, sexual education and HIV prevention. After six months of work with these groups, I’ve managed to build and gain trust from the kids and I’m ready to delve deeper into sex-ed with them to keep them informed, healthy, and baby-free. A major reason I decided to stay for a third year in the Peace Corps was to develop more serious experience working in sexual education and HIV prevention, and I’ve discovered that this topic, and working with Latino populations, is my passion.

I’ve also gained a bit of policy experience in this new position. I sit on three Peace Corps committees: the Volunteer Advisory Council, the Peer Support Network, and the HIV Initiative Committee. Most personally fulfilling would be the latter group (read: arriba), but I enjoy being a part of and having input in the inner discussions of the current state and future of PC – Peru in all senses.

Ahora, next week, I will be departing on an on-foot adventure into the Andes Mountains with 5 PC friends, 2 Huascaran National Park Guards, and my backpack. We will head NE into and over the Cordillera Blanca to Pomabamba with the purpose of identifying new, potential PC sites and to set up a base-line for monitoring flora and fauna within the National Park lines. Jessica, our resident biologist and nature-freak, will head this scientific expedition and eschool us on the ins-and-outs of field biology. We will be gone for just over one week on this adventure, one that is sure to be the experience of a lifetime. I'll spend days leading up exercising, getting to bed early, and eating well to prepare for the trip.

Did I mention that my godson, Carlitos, is walking?!

And so I write this to send up a smoke signal, to profess my passion for my work, and to reiterate my undying love for this country, Peru.

Pictures of life lately:
New Years Resolution: Hecho.
Plans this month: To celebrate the 5th Anniversary of my 21st birthday, and to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Peace Corps.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I'm A City Girl Now

So the new chapter has begun. I live in Huaraz and am serving my third year in Peace Corps Peru as the Volunteer Leader of the department of Ancash. Today marks four weeks back in Peru since my return from my special leave to America. My trip home was incredible and reminded me that I am, indeed, the luckiest girl in the world. The weather, the beach, the ocean, the food, my friends and family, the Welcome Home BBQ in CT, Mike, Moi, Maggie and Izzy spending the whole the long weekend with us in CT, reconnecting with my beautiful and AMAZING nieces, the weekend in New York City with Peyton, the visit at my mama's place in Montreal....It was heaven. Consider my proverbial batteries fully recharged.

Entonces, my Peruvian life continues. This month has been action-packed. I went from the US to Lima to Huaraz to Tumpa in 4 days (WOW - culture shock) and then I spent about a week in Lima for a bunch of different PC meetings. Reuniting with my Tumpa host family has been wonderful ~ I've been to visit twice so far and I think they really believe me now that I'll be keeping in touch and visiting them on a regular basis. Six new PCVs have joined our Ancash family and they're doing great! During their first few days in Huaraz, we went market shopping for beds, sheets, gas stoves, pots, pans, food, and other basic site newbie essentials. They're on their third week in site now, and todo tranquilo! They seem like a great group.

Yesterday, I started my work with two different youth groups here in Huaraz. I'll spend Mondays at a center for abandoned and neglected youth with about 25 at-risk teenagers and Saturdays with a group of about 25 student health promoters from a local public high school. I'll work with both groups on the whole spectrum of youth development themes: self-esteem, identifying values, vocational orientation, nutrition, hygiene, sexuality, HIV/AIDS, etc, etc, etc. The center will provide different challenges than the high school youth group, and I'm excited for these kids to keep me on my toes.

I'm totally in love with my new living arrangement ~ a small apartment connected to a modern Peruvian family's house. I have a full kitchen, i have an oven that i baked some chocolate chip oatmeal rasin cookies in last night (yum!), I bought a sweet couch in Lima, my electric shower is working (yay for hot water!), and I have internet! So, I guess it's sort of different from living in the campo in an adobe house...

Life is good.

Books: Just finished The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (fabulous), revisited The Great Gatsby, and now on to Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States
Favorite moments this month: Buying my couch with our Safety and Security Officer, Enrique, in couchtown, Lima, and Ryan's visit to Ancash
Up Next: Site visits with Peru 13 Volunteers who just past the one-year mark in country, then back to Lima for med-checks, then site visits with Peru 15 to see how our newbies are doing after a month in site.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Chau, Tumpa

Well, it's official! I completed my service in Tumpa as a Youth Development Volunteer this week! I now live in Huaraz where I will work as the Peace Corps Volunteer Leader in Ancash for one year. Completing and/or facilitating the management of my projects over to my community partners was the easy part... saying goodbye to my host family, neighbors, and students was something else entirely. I'm in a strange situation because I'm leaving Tumpa, but I'll be living within 1.5 hours of the community for a whole other year. In most cases, it was "Hasta Luego," and not "Adios para Siempre," but regardless of that distinction, Tumpa and I both knew that it would never be the same. Most likely, I'll visit my host family once a month to have lunch and catch up, but I won't see my students at the regular youth groups anymore. The last week in site was the ipodimy of the Peace Corps Roller-Coaster Ride: difficult, fun, stressful, tear-filled and bitter-sweet; but I was able to spend quality time with those people most important to me. Highlights included making bread with 2 favorite Baker families, my despedida (goodbye party) lunch with my host family featuring Picante de Pato con Yucca (yum!), getting surprised with an amazing "Congratulations, you did it!" home-made cake from my site mate, Kaitlyn, and the school Anniversary party - think: marching parades, healthy foods competition, indigenous dance performances, Huayno and drinking circles. It was an incredible two years, the best of my life, and I'll be processing the profundity of my experience for many years to come. Chau, Tumpa.

Pictures of my last days in Tumpa:

New Favorite Book: The Tipping Point (I know, I should have read it a long time ago)
Special Leave plans: Amazon Jungle Trip and Connecticut/Canada Tour!
Up Next: PCVL of Huaraz starting August 18th

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Mucho en Mayo

At least I can't say I'm bored. As my Peace Corps service winds down, my work and life is busier than ever, and I'm going full-speed. After taking my GRE at the beginning of May, I met my Peru 11 group in Lima for our Close of Service conference. COS is a time for volunteers to get together to reflect on their service and think about the future, about what's next. Many of my friends are off to various graduate programs this fall, others are returning home to their families and leaving options open, and a lucky few are going to backpack through South America and explore the rest of this incredible continent. My "what's next" is still up in the air - there's a Plan A and a Plan B, and I'll be solidifying my plans sometime very, very soon.

After COS, I returned to Ancash and went on a Site Development trip with the Director of the PC Youth Development program. We visited 4 communities and met with community leaders including mayors, municipality workers, health center staff, school Directors and teachers, and other interested leaders and involved community citizens. We discussed Peace Corps and the potential of sending a PCV to these sites for 2 years - what kind of work would be available to the volunteer? who would be the community partners? where would the volunteer live? It was a really exciting and fun experience to be on the "other side" of the Peace Corps world and see what goes into Site Development before the PCVs get to their sites. I loved meeting new people from new towns, local leaders who are so excited at the prospect of having a gringo live and work in their communities on development projects and programs. It was refreshing, and gives me that extra revitalizing push that I need at the end of my service - knowing that after I leave site, life still continues here... and I digress.
Mother's Day was great - I treated my host mom, sister and baby brother to lunch and a day in Huaraz. We walked around the Plaza de Armas, took pictures, listened to some street huayno music and enjoyed the city. Maria, my 14 year old host sister, hadn't been to Huaraz in 7 years... It was a big day for her... followed up by an even bigger weekend...

CAMP ALMA! Shannon and I co-coordinated this leadership camp for teenage girls and it was a huge success! All of the Ancash PCVs invited 2 girls from their respective sites, and we all reunited in Yungay for the 3 day camp. I brought Maria and one of my student health promoters. We talked about women's rights, volunteerism, feminism, gender roles, sexual health (condom race included!), disabilities and diversity. The girls planned a mini-project on how to take the information they learned at the camp back to their communities and keep the learning process going. We tie-dyed tshirts, put on a Gringos Saludables play on gender roles, roasted smores by the bonfire, and featured a vegetarian menu to share an American custom/lifestyle with the girls. The weekend was months in the making, and ALMA turned out to be one of the best and most fulfilling events of my PC service.

After ALMA, I attended a 3 day HIV/AIDS promotion and prevention workshop. Peace Corps has access to PEPFAR (US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) funds so that PCVs can finance community-based projects to educate the youth on HIV/AIDS. The Department of Ancash is going to receive a large portion of these funds because the incidence of HIV/AIDS here is significant and growing rapidly. Chimbote is Ancash's second largest city and a bustling fishing port and the prevelance of HIV/AIDS is high. Economic migration from the Andes to this costal town and back again is one of the causes of this adverse phenomenon and is spreading the virus around the Department. So Peace Corps will be pushing a strong HIV/AIDS prevention initiative in the Ancashino classrooms and communities. The conservative and shy culture will present its challenges to our effectiveness, but I think the initiative is well worth it and has the potential to keep people healthy and HIV free.

From the HIV/AIDS conference I went back to Lima and ran my second complete Social Theater In-Service Training, this time with Peru 13 Youth Development volunteers and their community partners. The 3 day IST went really smoothly and I got to know the Peru 13ers a lot better. They're doing great work across the country, and now they have more active learning techniques and tools to add to their teaching methodologies in their sites. Alex (my Social Theater partner) and I have almost finished the Manual, and should be sending the final copy to Washington within a couple of weeks. This Social Theater Manual could then be distributed to Peace Corps posts worldwide to assist PCVs in training others on Social Theater in Service to the Communitites.

So during May, I spent time traveling back and forth between Ancash and Lima attending conferences, leading camps, and spending time in the office. I barely spent time in Tumpa with my students or host families, and I'm looking forward to getting back there to spend these last precious moments with my Peruvian friends, family and neighbors. But before that, I'm showing my sister Mary and her husband around Ancash! I haven't seen them in 2 years, and we've been having an incredible family reunion up here in the mountains! Life is good.

Book Reading: Once Minutos, Paolo Coehlo
Time left in Tumpa: 7 weeks
Up Next: Trip to Florida for Anna-Baine's wedding! First time to the USA in over dos años...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A quick update

I've been terrible about posting lately because I've been so busy. The Healthy Schools project is in full swing - I finished a 5 week tooth brushing campaign and organized a successful community clean-up in honor of Earth Day. I've been working on self-esteem with the kiddies and life planning with the teenagers, I'm meeting with my Student Health Promoters three times a month, training the teachers on environment, hygiene and nutrition, and I've been planning ALMA - a leadership camp for teenage girls. On top of all that, I'm studying for the GRE and looking forward to my Close of Service Conference next week. In between it all, I'm trying to eat, workout and sleep when I can. Hence, no blogging in a while. But I'm still alive, things are great, and the rainy season is over. The next time I post I will probably have some big news, so stay tuned. :)

Here are some pictures of the Community Clean Up on Earth Day, my Tooth Brushing Campaign, and my Student Health Promoters.

Book Reading: Same one, no time.
New culinary frontiers broken: Host mom served pigeon for lunch.
Months left in Tumpa: 3.
New favorite blog: Delightful.