Friday, October 29, 2010

It's All About the Comida Baby

Hey everyone! I think a blog is long over due. I kept planning on writing on the topic of Peruvian food but kept forgetting to take photos of what I was eating... because, let's face it, whats a food blog without photos?

First off I would like to send a shout out to the wonderful friends and family who have sent me letters or packages over the last couple of months. My mom sent me a really great package with some peanut butter (which you can't find here) and post cards of Colorado. The latter went over a little better than the former but my host mom said she liked the peanut butter. The love of my life, Katie, has also been sending me some really great letters and small items from Japan (where she is currently studying). And also, thank you to Danny Lambert for the awesome letter in spanish as well as the articles. As a returned Peace Corps volunteer, he knows we don't often get too much good intellectually challenging reading material out in the field.

For those of you who have asked what you can send me in a package, here is a list of things I would like for my work as well as a few comfort items for good measure ;) Oddly enough I can't find these items here (except the books of course)...
  • Duct Tape
  • Zip Lock Bags (sandwich size)
  • Any books in Spanish (Katie and I are starting a public library)
  • Sharpies (fine tip – any colors but black is always king)
  • Frisbees
  • US Candy Bars (cus I miss them)
  • Peanut Butter
  • Dodge balls
In case you need my address again, it is:
Chris Huey
Pasaje YoYo Flores 180
Cutevo, Cajamarca

That should do it. I am putting together a youth development activities kit that will allow me to do pretty much any team-builder or leadership game upon request. I hope to incorporate non-formal education in the youth center as well.

Now onto the main point of this post – the food.

Before getting into my newfound love for Peruvian food I need to point out that I do not eat as the majority of Peruvian families (and by extension, my colleagues in the field) do. The typical lunch of a Peruvian living here in the sierra consists of boiled or fried potatoes, rice, and a small portion of meat (usually chicken and sometimes beef or pork). This is due to the extreme poverty (potatoes and rice being very cheap and filling), but I am still unsure as to why the cheap vegetables are not popular (maybe just a cultural aversion). This leads to a very carbohydrate heavy and nutrient poor diet for the majority of the sierran population. I am currently working with the ministry of health in a campaign to educate people about the importance and benefit of a nutritionally diverse diet.

Because of this reality, many Peace Corps volunteers must take multi-vitamins and travel to nearby cities to buy vegetables to supplement their diets. I have the great fortune to live with a very progressive family that understands the value of eating vegetables. More than that, I am lucky to live with the best chef in the city (this is indisputable) who enjoys experimenting with any new foods she can get her hands on. I have been compiling photos of my meals (hence the long time since a post) to show you all what some famous – and delicious – Peruvian dishes are. It took me a little longer than I expected because I kept forgetting to take the pictures when the food was set down in front of me. I became so excited at meal time that often the camera would sit on the table forgotten while I dug into the food with the fervor of a rabid wolverine.

First, allow me to educate you on one of the Peruvian staples you might be familiar with: the potato. Experts can actually trace the origins of all potatoes to the Andes mountains – having only been introduced outside this region a mere four centuries ago. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science “over 99% of all cultivated potatoes worldwide are descendants of a subspecies indigenous to south-central Chile.” This important food was first domesticated in Peru between 3000 BC and 2000 BC and has always been the principle carbohydrate source in the area (from the Incans to the Spanish to the modern Peruvian). One can expect that the folks living in the birth place of the potato have perfected its culinary preparation and, indeed, the things that my host mother can do with a potato are magical – for lack of a better word.

Perhaps on of the most typical and famous potato dishes here is Peru is one called papa a la huancaína. This is an appetizer of lettuce, boiled potatoes, and a thick cheesy ají chili sauce – garnished with olives and hard boiled egg slices. This was one of the first dishes I tried upon arriving in Peru and was my first step in a long discovery of great food. While this is a really good dish, for me nothing beats a Peruvian sweet potato (called camote), boiled and served plain... sooo good.

Camote is often served with yucca as a side to the delicious food known as ceviche. Ask anyone here who invented the popular seafood dish and they will proudly insist that it is Peruvian. While there is some argument as to whether this is true, archaeological records show that raw fish cooked only with citrus juice (the basis for ceviche) was eaten by the Moche civilization of Northern Peru as far back as 2000 years ago. This is an amazing, probably my new favorite, plate consisting of onion, ají chilies, lime juice, and white fish... anything else is overkill – or so I am told by the ceviche cooks. Since arriving here, ceviche has become my seafood of choice – winning out over even the best sushi I have tasted.

In general, lunch is the biggest meal of the day (which is healthier than a huge meal before bed). I had to acclimate myself to the huge afternoon meal that usually consists of a large soup, plate of food, and dessert. Usually I have to lay down after trying, and often failing, to fit all that wonderful food into my stomach. I absolutely have a better understanding of the siestas of Mexico and often jealously wish we could sleep in the afternoons here as well. The soups are... well, super (yeah, I said it). They always consist of a real slow cooked chicken or beef stock packed with veggies, meats, and pastas and rices. It is often that I am almost full just after the great soup!

The real magic here is in the local fresh food supply, lacking long travel times, tons of pesticide, or any genetic modification. I think I can count the number of times I have eaten a packaged food item in my house on one hand. I could never have said that in the US. I have a much greater appreciation for the health and flavor benefits of this kind of food chain. Sure, the variety is lacking in comparison to the United States, but the whole lifestyle is more sustainable, healthy, and fresh – something we North Americans lost a long time ago.

Also, food hold strong sway within the Peruvian culture. The poor may not have much but what they do have is access to cheap food staples such as rice and potatoes. What they can do with just a few simple ingredients is often nothing short of miraculous and a gift of food is always the first thing to greet a guest – be they family or stranger. It is considered a grave insult to not eat everything offered and this is not made easy by the fact that the food is plentiful and often followed up with seconds (I challenge anyone to come out here and try and finish a campo meal and walk upright immediately afterwards... I posit that it cannot be done).

And of course as good as the food is, that does not mean I do not miss my own comfort foods from home. I would give almost anything for something with cheddar cheese on it. I cannot say I am really all that thrilled with the cheese selections here – no matter how fresh and local they may be. I can't help but dream about a Anthony's pepperoni pizza with extra cheese every once in a while. Luckily my cravings almost always pass when I arrive home from work to the smells of my madre's fantastic cooking.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Peace Corps: The Hardest Job You'll Ever Love

Fear not loyal tax-payer!  You are most certainly getting your money's worth in me.  I find it only slightly ironic that it is in my volunteer job that I find myself working harder, being more dedicated, and feeling more passionate in my efforts than ever before in my life.  I have been so busy that I have mixed up a few meetings, dedicated myself foolhardily to a few too many projects, and mistaken a few of my socios (counterparts) for others.  But despite these speed bumps, my work continues to soldier on at a lightning pace.  So for you're benefit, to make you feel better about your hard earned cash funding my trip to Peru, I will detail some of my work here.

First of all, I have been working on my community diagnostic. This alone has taken up a good amount of my time because I have to translate the spanish of the reports I receive from the Hospital, Health Center, Municipality, and professors into usable data.  Of course, this means that I am getting plenty of spanish practice.  I have been told by my family that I have noticeably improved since arriving - although I have to admit I don't feel the same way.  I have been using spare moments to make flash cards of new vocabulary and work through my advanced spanish text book I was given during training.

Also I have been travelling to the local caserios (small rural communities with few resources) around Cutervo to learn the reality of life for the majority of people living here.  I have also done charlas about a ton of topics like health, environment, leadership, self-esteem, and english classes.  My main socios for these trips have been Victor Medina (director of the Association for Cutervo Youth), Professor Oscar Castillo (english professor at Colegio Casanova), and Professor Rodolfo Diaz (professor at Colegio Cristo Rey).  So far I have given charlas at two schools here in the city, at a catholic church youth group, and in two different rural communities (Chiguirip and La Conga).  To date I have given charlas to close to 750 children.
Can't leave town without gas!

Charla on self-esteem in Chiguirip, Chota, Cajamarca

Doing a team-builder in Chiguirip, Chota, Cajamarca

With DISA (the health center in charge of all the health posts in the province) I have been planning some larger projects.  On October 6th-8th, we will be travelling to the district of Querocotillo in the north in order to ascertain the effectiveness of the health posts there.  I will have the opportunity to talk with health professionals throughout the province about the strengths and weaknesses they face working with the area's youth.  We are also going to have a multi-sectorial meeting on the 11th to discuss the planning of a youth center.  At this facility we hope to give children a place to go after school (other than the streets) where they can get help with homework, be involved in planned activities and field trips, and have access to a whole range of educational opportunities and professional help (from police, psychologists, doctors, educators, and social workers).  I am working on a similar project for a community out in the campo that is central enough for a few other communities to utilize.  I hope to give charlas in both as well as help with administrative work.

On the 15th, I am working with Victor and two other volunteers close by to head to the community of Palo Solo to give a presentation of ourselves and a demonstration of our work.  We will give small charlas over topics of healthy living, leadership, and self-esteem for a group of 200 people from about 7 different communities.

Last but certainly not least, I have been making friends, hanging out with the family, and enjoying the culture.  It is still taking a lot of work simply to feel like a part of the community but I definitely feel like part of my family already.  Local elections were held this weekend and the whole family was finally under the same roof long enough for us to enjoy each other's company.  My brother Kike is getting a degree in human rights (so we have a lot to talk about) and my sister Madoli is getting her degree in tourism and we spent a couple hours talking in english and studying vocab together.  It was a bit sad to see them go but I will be heading through their city on my way back for my early IST (in service training) in two months.
From Left to Right: Lilia, Madoli, Kike, Andrea, Jimena, and Raul