Monday, June 25, 2012

Saying Goodbye Is Never Easy

A lot has happened over the last few weeks, making my "last post" actually my second or third-to-last post.  There have been strikes, road blocks, medical exams in lima, a youth camp for boys, going away parties with friends, and last ditch efforts to make some kind of positive impact on my adopted community.  But a recent tragic event made it evident to me that I would like to write at least one more post about the people who have made my two years in Peru the best they could be: my host family.

Ever since my first day here my host family, and extended relatives, have made me feel not only welcome but have done their best to make me feel like a part of their lives.  Through their efforts I have had the opportunity to really integrate, never being made to feel as merely a renter or an outsider, but more as a distant cousin visiting for the first time.  During my two years here I have had the great honor of being involved in family birthdays, church events, holidays and even drama.  Unfortunately, today I can count my integration complete on a much more somber note as I share in my family's grief at the loss of my host uncle, Willy Castro, who died in a boat accident on a river in Jaen on Saturday.

Willy was a dear friend to me these two years and not only the first that not only welcomed me with open arms but the first to become an active and helpful advisor during my first confusing and scary months in site.  My first impression of "Tito" (as the family refers to him) was that he was almost too friendly.  Within a week of meeting him, he would find me in the streets and give me big hugs, laughing and telling me how wonderful it was for me to be there.  He wasted no time in sharing his favorite hobby with me: birdwatching.  Initially I would avoid Willy in the street for fear of losing an hour of my time to his long-winded and excited stories of his most recent excursion.  He would have me sit down next to him and show me each and every one of hundreds of photos of birds... often the same bird - looking to me we raised eyebrows after each to see how much I approved of his birdwatching prowess.

Tito was the kind of guy who either grew on you fast or became "that guy" you would always try and avoid.  Fortunately for me, he quickly became the former and was inviting me on nature hikes, to see his family on the outskirts of town, and giving me my only real glimpses of life in the poorest parts of Peru.  Willy was an amazingly dynamic person who was/is adored throughout the region as a great man in every community he touched, be they rich or poor.  He was a professor, a writer, a cook,  a comedian, a friend, and a loving husband and father of three daughters.  He truly was one of those rare and exceptional human beings that you can meet once but remember forever - and I will.

It is often the case that we get so wrapped up in our daily routines that we forget the people around us who make our lives worth living.  I have had my fair share of frustrations and pessimistic fits during my two years here but I would do it all over again if given the chance because the people I know today (volunteers, host family, friends, counterparts) have enriched my own existence in so many wonderful ways.  It is my hope that I can keep contact with as many of them as possible after I go home.  It is, however, much to my detriment that Willy cannot be among them.

Edit: The wake was only one night as upposed to the traditional three because of the length of time it took to bring the body to Cutervo.  However, there were over 1,000 people waiting for Willy at the entrance of the city and over 2,000 came to grieve as his casket was escorted by police through the streets to his home.  The next day an equally impressive number of Cutervinos gathered for a huge mass and parade to see Willy off to his final resting place in the new cemetery on the hill overlooking the city and hills he fought so hard to protect from environmental destruction.  Appropriately, the skies opened up and rained heavily the second the priest said the last words and his casket was slid into the crypt.  It was a very touching time for the whole city... something I have never seen happen here in Cutervo - proving how amazing of a person Willy Castro was.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Conga No Va

Here is a blog written by one of my friends who lives near me.  I decided to repost it so that you all might understand the serious situation occurring here.  For those of you who are unaware, there have been strikes taking place all over the department of Cajamarca over the mining operations here.  Here is Kelsey's post:

In November of 2011, we blogged about the intense striking that was happening in our area.  To give a quick recap, people were protesting the creation of a new mine in our department, the Conga Project.  We currently have the second largest gold mine in the world, Yanachocha, just south of where we live.  Like the Conga Project, Yanachocha is owned by an American mining company called Newmont.  Over the past couple decades, there have been issues of water contamination by Yanachocha, including a major mercury spill.  The people claim more contamination, but it is difficult to know what to believe, because so many things are being said without much scientific basis.  What we do know is that Peru’s standards for environmental protection from mines are much lower than that of the U.S., so U.S. companies that would never be allowed to use such unsafe practices in our own country are able to do so here. 

When the Conga Project was still in its initial construction stages, our entire department went on strike for 15 days in November.  All roads were shut down, so you couldn’t leave your town and no supplies could come in.  We were short on all fresh food, and only rice was left to buy in our town.  No schools, government offices, stores, health centers, or hospitals were open.  Anyone employed by the government (teachers, nurses, etc.) were paid for the day’s work if they went to the strike.  If they went to their post to teach or give medical services, they were not paid.  Electricity was shut off for a couple days, as were the cell phone towers.  Internet service was shut off for the duration of the strike.  At the “Lagoons (the natural source of many rivers in our area),” where the Conga Project is set to be built, there was some violence, which ended in tear gas, rubber bullets, and one person shot in the leg.   

The strike finally ended, because the national government called a state of emergency in the department.  The national police and military were sent in and no one was allowed to meet in groups of more than three people.  Sounds like Hogwarts under the supervision of Umbridge, right?  Since then, we’ve had a military occupation in Cajamarca city and Bambamarca. 

Now let’s get to the present.  The national government hired third-party researches to redo the Conga Project’s environmental impact study, and last month, the results came out.  The national government determined the project environmentally safe, but they required that the company agree to some additional safety measures. 

Since that announcement, the departmental government has threatened another strike, unless the national government changes their stance.  The department is not willing to negotiate, and will only be satisfied if the project is canceled.  Their slogan is “Conga No Va (Conga will not go).” 

The weeks have passed, and the national government still has not changed their decision, as the deadline set by the department gets closer.  If nothing changes, the department will strike again on May 31.  This strike is set for an indefinite amount of time, and schools and health services will be closed down again.  Most people expect it will last longer than the last one, but I hope not. 

Kelsey blogged this post on May 28th and the situation has gotten a bit worse as roads all over the department are blockaded and some of my friends have been stuck in their sites, unable to work because locals are denouncing them as spies for the mines.  I am currently safe and on my way to Lima for medical exams but I hear that our road home will be blocked and I might end up stuck outside of my site for a good chunk of my last few weeks in Peru.  All I can hope is that I can get in and out safely one last time in order to say goodbye to my friends and host family.

Monday, May 14, 2012

¡That's All Folks!

"That's a wrap folks..." I say to myself in an increasingly empty room.  I say increasingly because I am packing up my stuff.  I have three piles: to take home, to give to volunteers, and to leave here in Cutervo.  They aren't labeled, of course.  You can tell pretty easily which is which by the contents (valuables, clothes, books).  My walls are covered in the little round stains left behind by the sticky tack balls that help up my posters, cards, and letter from home.  There are a lot of spots where the paint was ripped off by two years of tape bonding itself to the walls... I might have to give my host family a bit of extra money to repaint.  That is, if they ever come back here at all... they are selling the house and I haven't seen them for over 6 months.  I am not even sure I will get a proper despedida (goodbye).

I recently got home from my COS (Close of Service) conference in Lima where I saw my entire training group from two years ago in the same place for the last time.  While it was an odd feeling to know that I will probably not see many of them again, I know I will stay in contact with the ones I know best... or at the very least we will reconnect in the future in a way only good friends who have been through a lot together can.  At least we had a blast for our last night together.  We even went to the nicest restaurant in Perú - Astrid y Gaston.  It was epically good and twice as expensive but well worth the memory of a table full of dirty, ill-mannered, american volunteers taking over the 35th finest restaurant in the world... hehe, yeah we might not be allowed back but the food was excellent.

On the other hand, I am pretty excited to finish up my degree and start my career.  I miss my friends, family, good food, technology... INTERNET!  I feel conflicted about leaving because I know I could actually make a larger difference if I stayed another year.  I could ensure the youth center attains sustainability and that there are locals trained and active in maintaining it.  But the decision is made... I have been accruing interest on my school loans over the last two years and I fear another year would be a bad idea.  Also, I miss Katie.  I can't do another year without her or I would be absolutely miserable if I stayed without her.  I made it through these two years only because she came to me, sacrificing a lot to make our relationship to work.

So here I write my last Peru blog post trying to decide if I fight the nagging feeling that I am leaving behind something important - because, to be honest, I am.  I have spent two whole years of my life here in Cutervo.  That may not seem like a lot on paper (my thoughts when applying) but I have had some amazing, life-changing, experiences here.  I have made what I expect to be some of my best memories while here.  So, in traditional Peace Corps Volunteer fashion, I am going to list the pros and cons, the things i will and wont miss, of Cutervo, Cajamarca, Perú.

Cons (ie: things I will NOT miss)
1) Puncuality (lack thereof) - If you plan a meeting you MUST plan it for at least an hour before you plan to begin.
2) Lying - Don't misunderstand me, everyone lies but here it is considered more rude to decline attendance than to say you will probably be there.  Also, there is a nasty habit of not wanting to be caught not knowing something, so if you ask 4 people on the street how to get somewhere you will get four different definitive answers on where it is.
3) Transportation - I have been close to death... many times.
4) Vomiting - Because the roads are so bad and because peruvians like to eat large meals before traveling, I have had to deal with vomit quite often (twice on me).
5) Rice or plain boiled potatoes

Pros (ie: things I WILL miss)
1) The Andes Mountains - Some of the most beautiful places I have been in my life are here in Perú.
2) Gracious Hospitality - Even when I am in the middle of the poorest areas of Peru I am always invited to the table to eat a meal.  People go out of their way to make sure a guest is comfortable and welcome.
3) Late nights playing board games and having conversations with my host family.
4) Being introduced as someone I am not - I have been introduced as everything from a Spanish doctor to a representative from the US Embassy of Peace.
5) Being recognized and warmly greeted wherever I go in town.  This can also be a con when I need to get somewhere fast and I have to talk to 20 people along the way.

Things that went from Cons to Pros over the two years
1) Music - Huayno, while still not my favorite music in the world, no longer makes me cringe when I hear it.
2) Food - When I had my first plate of rice, potatoes, and meat... I was pretty worried about the effect the next two years would have on my sanity (and waistline).  Luckily I grew accustomed to the food here, stopped having bowel issues, and even crave a good chicharron con arroz sometimes.
3) Beer - I hate the beer when I first arrived here.  Now I can't remember what I didn't like about it.
4) Patience - If there is one thing that Peace Corps will either complete build or destroy for a volunteer, it is your patience.
5) Communication - I have improved the way I communicate, not only in Spanish but in how I express my ideas to others

As for Kutiri, I have done everything I can to create a successful and sustainable youth center.  I have, with your help, given them start up materials they need (printer, projector, school supplies, books, laptops, etc..).  I have worked with local organizations to get a contract signed promising they continue to support and manage the project.  I have even secured the arrival of a new volunteer to come to Cutervo for the next two years.  Now, while I focus on training local volunteers and staff to continue on, I feel as if I can go home with a clear conscience - I did what I can.  If I find that the center is still running after a year I think I might coordinate with the new director to do a fund-raiser to help expand the library or build a proper computer center.

Finally, I want to thank all of you for supporting me while I was abroad.  Not only did you help me get the youth center up and running but you forgave me when I may have gone off the radar for a while (months even).  I couldn't have been as successful or well-adjusted as I have been without you.  You can be sure I will have a  brief (I promise) iMovie for you showing the highlights of my two years here.  I figure this will save me the time repeating stories while still giving people the answer to that oh-so-inevitable question: "so? what was two years in Perú like?!"

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Everything is Gonna Be Alright

Yesterday I had one of the most personally important meetings of my life.  The directors, leading teachers, and student leaders of every school in Cutervo (of which there are 8) came to hear what the Kutiri youth center had to offer them and how they could help make this free community service something to be envied by all of Cutervo's neighbors.  So many people showed up that we had to find more seats.  My socios gave presentations about the recently signed contract and the risks to youth in the community and the need for the center.  I gave a presentation about the center itself, our past success, and the basic services to be provided.

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and, honestly, surprised me.  Kids and teachers were asking questions, saying what an amazing idea all this was; one girl even challenged the representative from the municipality by asking why they hadn't signed the contract before now.  My heart soared as the kids crowded me at the end to ask if they could be youth leaders and what they could do for the next meeting.  The teachers literally lined up to shake my hand and offer their support.  One lady told me she would like to organize a parenting class for the rural farmers outside of the city proper.  At the end everyone signed a sheet promising what support they would bring and what the next steps would be.  Wow...

So it is with a great deal of anxiety that I leave on monday for my Masters Research Project for the University of Denver.  I hate leaving just as everyone gets this burst of shared vision and motivation but I have to fit the trip in before April 20th because volunteers are not allowed to leave their sites for the last three months of service.  Luckily my local counterparts are going to hold down the fort while I am gone, which is a great opportunity for them to take the reins.  They have promised to do at least one charla and activity a week while I am gone.  When I get back, we will form youth groups, train teachers, and create a strong 6 month work plan.  My awesome colleague living an hour away has also promised to help the new volunteer get on his/her feet.

I think everything is gonna be alright.

*Feature photo borrowed from

I'm going on a trip!

So what is this research trip all about? Being a masters
international student means that I only get me masters degree when I
have finished me service with Peace Corps and written a significant
research paper tying my degree with my experience here in Peru. As
many of you know, I have always been a staunch defender of human
rights. In fact, my international development degree has an emphasis
on them. My passion for several years has been combating
exploitation and human trafficking. As a senior associate of the
Human Trafficking Clinic I wanted to focus on that for my paper -
maybe even bring some new insight the situation in Peru if I am lucky.

I have been very fortunate to have made contact with some of the best
and brightest experts fighting trafficking here in Peru. With my friends from the IOM, USAID, US Department of State, US Department of Homeland Security, and several amazing local organizations, I have planed a research gathering trip that will cover the entire country over the course of three weeks.

I hope to specifically focus on the trafficking of minors from the jungles to the coast. Also, I hear a lot of stories about young girls in prostitution camps where there are heavy mining operations and
would like to investigate further. Don't worry though - I will be extra careful and not be going to areas considered to be dangerous.

If any of this interests you, I will blog about my experience at throughout the trip.

My Salvation: the legally binding contract

So here I am, less than four months from being home, and finally my work is taking off in more positive ways than I could imagine.  On the one hand, this means I have finally met some of my potential here in Cutervo and I can go home feeling like I actually made some meaningful change that will positively impact hundreds of people.  However, on the other hand, I can't help but think what I could do with a third or even fourth year here now that I have finally overcome so many of the initial barriers (cultural, linguistic, trust, etc...).  I have very mixed feelings about leaving.  Fortunately, the choice is already made for me because I have school debts to pay.  I will be ending my service with the Peace Corps on the 20th of July and heading home shortly thereafter.

If you would have asked me a month ago how things were going I would have stuck you as possibly the most cynical and pessimistic person you know.  All of my projects had been put on hold, none of my local counterparts were answering calls or showing up to meetings, the Kutiri youth center had been closed for over 3 months and no one was keeping up with their promises.  I was frustrated and angry and I had all but given up entirely on Kutiri.  Then march hit and school started up again.  I got one call... then two, then four.  Within the first week of March my faith had been restored and my counterparts and I were working harder than ever.  Apparently I had just not realized it is customary to just not do any serious work during school vacations.

What you see here is a bonafide contract from Cutervo, Cajamarca, Perú.  These five flimsy pages represent the culmination of my two years of work here.  This document officially establishes the Kutiri Youth Development Center as a locally run and supported government agency.  To ensure that the program has its best shot at sustainability the operational and provisional requirements are split up between the local Municipality (the mayor's office), the Ministry of Health (DISA), the Ministry of Education (UGEL), and whatever Peace Corps Volunteer is in Cutervo at the time (I have secured at least one more to come after me).  The contract also specifies that the community must establish a permanent space for the youth center within the next four years.  It took a tremendous amount of work and patience to get all the different actors to the table and agree to these terms but there it is.  And now that we have local funding we have been flying through meetings with school directors, kids, local professionals, and politicians to get the center to self-sustainability before I leave.

Yep. Things have certainly picked up! After I get back from my research trip I not only have the youth center to focus on but I am helping plan a regional youth camp in the south of Cajamarca (click here to learn more and donate). I also have a close of service conference in Lima and a separate trip back for medical exams. All this within four months!

I will have to write separate posts on both my research trip and the upcoming youth camp.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

My Grand Vacation!

If there is one thing that really helps the Peace Corps stand out from other volunteer opportunities it is the length of time that one serves for.  Two years didn't seem like much to me in the beginning (I mean, I was in grad school for that long and it flew by so fast!) but it became quickly apparent that the passing of time would not be the same as back home.

In Perú, as a volunteer, time is a strange amorphous goo that is difficult to get a hold of.  On the one hand, you feel like two years will never pass.  I can't believe how long it feels like I have been telling people I have only 8 more months left in my service!  As soon as you count it, it stands still (like one of those weeping angels on Dr. Who).  And much like the weeping angels, when you ignore it, it sneaks up on you in the blink of an eye.  I feel like I go through days like a fat kid going through a bag of those reeses that everyone sends me.  It is astonishing how fast Mondays seem to come and go.  So, really, it is baffling to most volunteers how the short term can speed past in a blur of huayno, socio-dramas, and cheap beer, while the long term moves slower than a peruvian promise.

However, one of the perks to being in a country for two years - besides learning how to kill and butcher a guinea pig - is that you get the opportunity to really experience its many different facets of cultural and social identity.  Or, in other words, you get to travel and see stuff!

Your average Peace Corps volunteer receives two days of vacation every month, which really isn't a lot if you consider we work 7 days a week.  So if said volunteer is following the rules, they get 48 days during their two years to check out what their host country has to offer.  So with Katie in tow, I recently took a huge chunk of my vacation days to go see mine for the holidays.

So, without further babbling from me, I present to you my photos... 'cus that is why you all come here anyway o_o

(Baños del Inca - Cajamarca City)
These are the restored thermal baths once used by Inca Emperors.  This site is coincidentally quite close to the spot where Emperor Altahualpa was captured by Pizarro.

We picked up Katie's friend, Bethany, in Lima and headed to Cusco.  Here you can see a cute critter observing the local wildlife... and there is a lama there too.

The streets of Cusco are really quite rustic and make for great self-tours.  Just watch out when they get wet - those cobblestones are slippery!

And then the three adventurers set out on the Inca Trail to find the mystical site of Machu Picchu.  They knew the trek would be rife with dangers and hardships...

... but they had their trusty guide, horse handler, and personal chef there to help them make it to the end.  It also helped that they brought tents, mattresses, sub-zero sleeping bags, a complete kitchen, tent-dining room, and portable toilet tent carried by no less than 2 mules and a horse.

Really stunning trail.



Oooo again! (This is how most of the trek went)

This was a site overlooking the actual ruins of Machu Picchu.

And after we got to the top...

... we were rewarded with a rare clear view of Machu Picchu from above.

Here are some photos of Machu Picchu proper.

As we left Machu Picchu, we were afforded this view of the snow capped Andes mountains from the train.

Our next stop was Huaraz!  Ancash is by far my favorite department of Perú and I think you can probably figure out why.

This is the Yanganuco lake snuggled up right next to the tallest mountain in Perú, Huascaran.

The photos can't do this place justice.

Get a load of that water?  The weather was quite warm given the fact that we were at such a high altitude during the rainy season.  Katie rightly observed that if we had not known otherwise we would have thought we were in the Bahamas with these trees and that crystal clear lake.

That is Huascaran, I think.
As you can see, it was an exciting and leisurely trip.  I got to see the majority of the stuff I wanted to see before leaving the country and now I can head home saying I have been to Machu Picchu.  And now that Christmas vacation is over I realize that I have just 6 "short" months to finish up my work with the youth center.

If all goes well, the next blog you read will be asking you all for a small (or large) donation to provide the center with a computer lab! Ha!