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 ;)