Wednesday, September 22, 2010

When the goin' gets tough...

So imagine giving a presentation about sex and STDs to a group of 16 years olds when you realize that they seem to already know everything you came to teach them, nay, they know more than you do on the subject.  Combine that horror with the fact that you have rolled a condom halfway down your finger only to realize that you don't have the proper vocabulary to describe what you are doing or why you are doing it.  To top it all off you look down and realize you aren't wearing any pants!!!

Well, all or part of the scenario above happened to me today during my class on sex education.  At first I was really worried about giving a charla (talk) on sex to a group of catholic students.  I worried that their parents would be furious when they found out I was teaching them about condoms and whatnot but my counter part assured me that there was nothing to worry about.  He also told me that they were well versed in what sex was and I would not have to give them a rudimentary, and frankly embarrassing, description of the mechanics of how sex works - I'm 27 and I still haven't figured it out!

So I showed up with a set of cue cards thinking, "just stick to the cards and all will be fine."  Well I didn't have time to rehears the cards.  I worried about them laughing at the sex parts... but I was wrong.  What they found hilarious was my dismal attempt at pronouncing medical terms and my occasional desperate glance at the teacher for help.  They first uncovered my charade when I asked them if they knew what an STD is - to which they all shouted out in unison the meaning of the letters and a brief but accurate description.
"Wow!" I said, "You guys are really smart!"
"So who can name a few for me?"

The answers came flying back at me as if they were in a game show in a race for time.  I realized I was screwed when I didn't know what almost any of them were.  I had to turn to the professor, hoping he would give me an answer like "that is just the term here for genital herpes."  Instead he started explaining the symptoms and I realized how deep I had gotten myself.  I nodded in agreement as if what he was saying was being understood while really my mind was screaming at me to run, flee, find shelter, or cower in a corner.

Perhaps the most embarrassing part for me was when I was trying to show them how to use a condom (most of them had never even seen one and were not sure what it was really for).  I realized I could explain to check the expiration date, check for air to make sure the package was sealed, how to open it... then I didn't have the vocabulary to finish.  How do you say "make sure there is a reservoir of space at the end for the semen then roll the condom down the penis"?  I had to resort to sort of grunting, pointing, and repeating the words "do it like this" - which is not a very easy task in itself while trying to roll it down your finger....

Eventually I finished my charla and even did an activity to explain how HIV works and what the difference is between it and AIDS.  They seemed to enjoy themselves, and got a lot of giggles in at well. I am sure my foolishness was not as bad as it felt and the exuberant goodbye was more than enough to lift my spirits.

But if you are interested in seeing how it all played out, I saw a couple boys in back filming the whole thing on their cameras - so I may be coming to an internet near you...

I should also point out that I had the opportunity to get my hands dirty during our regional meeting in Chota.  We volunteered to help a health center plant a garden of spinach and then I watched as they gave them a charla on the benefits of growing their own food to meeting nutritional gaps (they lack a lot of nutrients and most children in the campo are malnourished).  Below are some photos of how it went!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Real Deal

Often I try not to think of the differences between my new home and my old. This is perhaps a survival technique as it allows me to avoid much of the disorientation and home-sickness which accompanies the culture shock of moving to a new environment. I realize that, while protecting myself from these consequences of admitting my new surroundings, it also prevents me from appreciating those new surroundings – and perhaps lessens the very experience of being in Peru. I realize that I have been writing my blogs more in the manner of a visitor than a volunteer living here and I hope to give you all a better visual of what my experience actually is.

I make it sound in my blogs and emails as if becoming integrated here has been an easy task for me. In fact I must constantly pep-talk myself to even work up the motivation to walk out the door of my host home. It is exhausting trying to understand and be understood in a place where I a) barely speak the language, b) must constantly be observant of the local customs so as not to offend, and c) have to explain almost everything about myself to everyone I meet – often repeating the same things to the same people every day. Sometimes, I am very tempted to stay in my room and just watch movies on my laptop to escape the awkwardness of integration.

Luckily for me, I have the amazing fortune of living with a very progressive, loving, and tight-nit host family who have adopted me into their home and lives without even knowing me. My family here has been my rock upon which all work here seems not only possible but inevitably successful. My father Raul is a professor of communication and has chosen to focus his career on traveling between the small rural farming communities to ensure that even the children there receive an education. He is faced with a hard task because the parents in those communities value their children's labor over their education and he must constantly battle with them to provide those children with the best of possible futures. Raul has been invaluable to me as a counterpart here in Cutervo. On several different occasions he has shown me around the community and introduced me to some of the most influential people within the development system (health posts, schools, police, priests, and municipality officials).

My mother, Lilia, is a professor at a pedagogical college right next to our home. She has taken me in as one of her own and shows a great deal of concern for my safety, integration, and professional success. She is an amazing cook (in fact, the lower level of the house is a restaurant). When she heard that I like to cook she excitedly starting making plans for us to teach each other recipes and I have been a dedicated student ever since. Often times, after dinner, we sit around at the table for a hour or more talking about everything from philosophy and religion to popular culture. These kinds of conversations have gone a long way in keeping me sane and happy here - I know that many volunteers often go a little bit stir crazy when faced with the reality that conversations often don't go in any greater depth than current local gossip.

My uncle, Willy Castro, is – you guessed it – a professor of history and an avid bird watcher. He has been my best professional counterpart by far. He began by setting me up with a slot in his environmental sustainability and eco-tourism conference for youth. I had the opportunity to speak to 150 youth from various colegios (secondary schools) in Cutervo about their habits and attitudes towards trash and how to change those habits. I set up a sign up sheet for anyone interested in being in a youth-leader group focusing on environment issues and got over 80 email addresses. I hope to take this group out to the rural areas and give workshops, skits, and activities to the youth out there. Willy has also set me up with a camping trip every weekend to a different rural area to see the realities of the poverty stricken majority of Peru. It is hard coming to terms with the dichotomy of being in an area so beautiful as to warrant the name of paradise and yet observe the local population literally struggle to survive – often on nothing more than rice and sugar.

As you can guess, mine is not your average Peruvian family. As my host father points out, in Peru there is not a very distinguished middle class, you are either elite and rich or starving without resources. With better-than-average food, access to internet, constant potable running water, 24 hour electricity, and a network of motivated and ambitious counterparts, I do not live the quintessential Peace Corps experience that I imagined I would. And while I often feel guilty that I am living in such a comfortable environment, I must remind myself that I am not here on a personal development mission seeking inner-perspective on the realities of life. I am here to help people less fortunate than I have been, not to share in their suffering. I am lucky to be connected in such an intimate way to the elite of Cutervo because, through them, I have access to the power, influence, and resources necessary to bring about some changes that are so obviously needed.

Right now I am feeling very confident that together with my counterparts, we can provide a catalyst for sustainable positive change in the lives of youth within and around Cutervo. With each meeting we are gathering more interested community leaders into our multi-sectorial group called the “Civic Committee to Favor Cutervian Adolescents and Youth”. We are going to spend the first three months garnering support, carrying out a full community diagnostic, presenting those findings to the community, asking for suggestions of citizens, and waiting for the current election cycle to finish. After that, we will begin planning and implementing projects based on the diagnostic and community ideas. We are hoping to focus on at-risk-youth in the areas of drug/alcohol abuse, prostitution, teen pregnancy, and crime.

As my own personal side project, I would like to set up a group of youth leaders that are trained to start, plan, and lead their own groups (focusing on giving educational workshops to the rural youth). I believe that the important thing here is less about what topic they choose to focus on (ie: life skills, education, job skills, leadership, self-esteem, environment...etc) and more about building social capital. I believe that building those networks of empowered youth and allowing them to find connections with others is what will create a system for sustainable long-term change. Yes I am idealistic – but change always begins with the dreamers. I can only hope the enthusiasm of myself and my counterparts can rub off on enough people to get things started in a big way.

Now all I have to do is learn Spanish!... Just Kidding ;)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Feelin' the Love in Cajamazing

It doesn't get much better than this. I have a host family that is very supportive, a great living environment, community counterparts who are excited and actively working with me, and a city full of youth eager to get started.

I have only been here for a week and a half and I have already done so much. While setting up my room and buying the things I need to make it feel like home, I decided I could better motivate myself to gather and organize my community diagnostic information if I turned my walls into a decorated excel sheet of sorts. Every time I learn something new about my community I write it on a note card and stick it to the wall under its appropriate heading. It helped me decorate my very bare walls. I also bought a portable fabric closet and posted up photos of friends and family to make it feel more like home.

Hanging with the locals.
I have a host uncle names Willy Castro... how cool of a name is that? He is a historian/biologist/professor here in Cutervo and is well known in and around town. While talking over dinner one night he learned about how much I love camping, hiking, and the outdoors and asked me to join him on a camping trip out to a small farming community in the mountains named San Pedro. I jumped at the opportunity and was not disappointed. I saw some amazingly gorgeous views, met some really generous and friendly people, and drank a good portion of the local rum (called ayunque). It is always an eye opener to see the difference between how people in the cities live from those in the surrounding country side.

These very nice people may not have much, but what they
do have, they are more than happy (insist even) in sharing.
While out on that trip, I was telling Willy about an idea I had to start an environmental sustainability youth group that we can train as promotors to go around education others. In this group we can do workshops, movie and discussion nights, camping trips, and trips to the countryside to give classes on the environment. He sounded interested in the idea and then invited me to fill a 30 minute spot in his upcoming environment and eco-tourism conference later in the week. I was a little (read a lot) nervous after hearing that over 150 youth would be in attendance and experts from England, New Zealand, and Spain would also be giving talks on their areas of interest.

San Pedro
Never-the-less, I put together a segment about the need for changing attitudes and behavior about trash in Cutervo. The mountains around the city are literally covered in trash and it is very depressing – especially given the abundance of natural beauty being ruined in the area. The kids seemed to like my presentation and lined up afterwards to ask some very insightful questions and give some ingenious solutions. They also filled my sign up list for starting a youth group! I will be asking the municipality for space and materials and then begin the process of planning and contacting all of the youth. (Photos of the conference). I also plan on doing every step with at least two counterparts from the community in the hope that the group is sustainable after I leave.

One rarely gets to tell 150 kids what to do all at once.

I was put in contact with a professor who also helps run one of the local radio stations, Radio Cutervo. He interviewed me about my experience, motivations for volunteering, what Cuerpo de Paz is, and what my goals are for my two years here. I am psyched about that interview because now people are beginning to recognize me and approach me with ideas for projects. One young man, Christian, came up to me and asked me if I would be interested in working with an already existing youth group at his school! Also, I have begun working with a Catholic youth group focusing on capacity building for young people in Cutervo. I gave a charla (small informal workshop) on self-esteem and we played a few games along that theme. I love my job.
Needless to say, I have been keeping busy. This week I will be meeting with as many city and organization leaders as possible and then we will plan that televised conference I keep telling you all about. I am almost done with the presentation for that as well.

Kicking butt in Cutervo, Cajamarca, Peru,

This is Chris Huey (Cris Way as they pronounce it here) signing off.