So what exactly does a Peace Corps volunteer do?
I used to ask that question all the time to friends at DU who had just come back from their service at the far corners of the world and quickly realized I was never going to get a straight answer. The truth is that a gajillion factors determine what a volunteer might do in site. Your country, your site, your assigned goals, your personal goals, your ability to integrate, your ability to learn the language, your confidence and self-esteem levels, your prior experience, support from administrators, support from friends and family back home, even your ability to stay healthy in site all have an impact on what you do out in the field. I can only describe my own experience because even the volunteer living an hour away from me is living such a different life that she might as well be in some other country.
I live in a city of approximately 15,000 people. It is called Cutervo and it is located in the department of Cajamarca in Northern Peru. We share a boarder with Equador, and in fact I can get to that boarder in about 5 hours if I wanted. We are nestled on the front range of the Andes mountains that is dryer and resembles the Rockies in a lot of ways. It gets pretty cold at night but it never snows. Just an hour outside of this plateau you can find a tropical forest area, which is where my fellow volunteer lives. If you go further in that direction (12 hours maybe) you will hit the Amazon. For those history buffs out there, Cajamarca city is where Incan Emperor Altahualpa made his last stand against Pizzaro. But I don't live anywhere near that city. In fact, it takes me about 10 hours to get there by bus. Hour-wise I live further from Lima than any other volunteer, except my friend an hour further away. When the roads are bad it can take me up to 21 hours just to get from my site to the coast.
Now that you have an idea of where I live I will give you an idea of what I do with my time here. I often hear about how Peace Corps is basically a two year paid vacation, and it probably is for some volunteers. For me I was placed in a site that was eager to have me around – in fact they specifically asked for a youth volunteer to be placed here and I was greeted by social workers and professors that couldn't wait to start working on some projects. I work with a non-profit called the Cutervo Youth Association (APROJOC), the regional department of health promotion, the municipality, the directors of all the high schools, and several other random individuals. Together with this great support network we have some really big plans for the future of Cutervo youth... mwahaha! (an evil laugh seemed obligatory there).
I usually wake up pretty late. Maybe around 9 or 10. I am a volunteer after all! I have breakfast with my host mom, Lilia, and we chat for about an hour. Then, if I have a lot of things on my list of things-to-do I head up to my room and work until around 2. During this time I am usually planning and writing up charlas (workshops), youth development courses, youth center proposals, presentations, and solicitudes (formal requests) for help and resources. After lunch ends at about 3:30 I either head to the office at the Health Department to have meetings and plan upcoming events. The majority of the meetings lately have been to get a youth center up and running before I leave for the States in March. I have also had my fair share of time on the radio and television – so yeah... i'm kind of a big deal.
I usually give two or three charlas a week. I give a weekly english class at an organization called Data Mundo, I give random charlas on leadership and self-esteem to kids at schools, and I also do a monthly parenting class at a local pre-school. A typical charla is between one and two hours and I usually start with an introduction/warm up game. I then lead a discussion on the topic and we play two or three games that relate to that topic (debriefing after each one). We wrap it up with some kind of group activity or competition and I like to give prizes to keep them motivated. We end the session by doing a check for learning to make sure they got the point and might demonstrate some of the behaviors away from class. In reality, most of the kids I work with are lacking basic self-esteem and just getting them to play and participate in a group is incredibly important for their overall development.
I don't like free time. I think free time here is a death sentence for a volunteer. It allows you to feel lonely and start wondering what you are doing with your life... also, it's boring. I use up my free time by helping a few friends with english, translating written material for other friends (including a book on birds by my host uncle), and playing guitar with my buddy Oscar (he is teaching me all sorts of spanish guitar songs). I also go hiking when the weather is right. I live in such a beautiful country that it would be a shame to spend all of my time inside. I am just a 20 minute hike away from amazing vistas of rolling green hills with nary a building in sight.
If I am not doing any of those things I am usually traveling outside of my site (more than I would like). I leave for meetings, trainings, charlas, parties, packages, and camping. As you all know, even a trip to go get my packages in Chiclayo can take almost a week of my time. But it is nice to have the excuse to see new places and sometimes I just want to get away from the day-to-day of Cutervo.
In the evenings I go to the new hamburger restaurant my host mom just opened. I sit at the bar with her and my sister Madoli and we joke around, drink tea, and play video games. Yep, I corrupted them both and they can't get enough of Bejeweled.
I am a lucky volunteer. I have a great family, lots of active coworkers, a comfortable living environment... I love my work and I feel validated to be doing something that I think will help the city of Cutervo. It took me about 5 months to get the point where I felt like Cutervo is home but now I revel in the realization that I cannot walk two blocks down this city of 15,000 people without someone calling out my name and having an lively discussion about my work or life. I feel accepted and loved here in Cutervo, Cajamarca, Peru, and there is really nothing else I could want for the work I do.
UPDATE ON PACKAGES:
ok, so the Chiclayo trip is costing me too much time and money and I had to figure out how to change the situation. I talked with the post master here in Cutervo and he said I could give him a notarized statement for them to open my packages in customs without my present and then send them directly here. Also, he said that if I don't want them going to customs at all you can just put it in a packing envelope and make sure the weight is under 2 kilograms (about 4.5 pounds).
I love receiving just letters or magazines too!
As always my address is:
Pasaje Yoyo Flores 180