Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Day in the Life of...

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.


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
Cutervo, Cajamarca

Saturday, February 5, 2011


I have always wanted to see a bull fight. It is not so much the violence I have craved as much as seeing a guy in tights try and dodge a massive raging bull. I got my wish this past week during the town festival of Socota – a tropical site only an hour away from my own. I arrived with a lot of assumptions and left with a lot of disillusions.

For example, I had always assumed there is only one type of bull fight. From the rare glimpses I have had of this “sport” in the media I had thought that it was mostly a show of acrobatics – much like a modern western bull-riding is about the strength and skill of the cowboy, so to is bull-fighting about the abilities of a torero (matador). I assumed they would put on a show of how easily and gracefully the matador could manipulate the bull. I didn't expect there to be actual violence. Apparently, my idea of a bull fight does exist, but in Socota I went to the latter.

However it felt less like a bull fight and more like a bull slaughter. They start things off by arranging various matador “assistants” around the ring. These assistants (for lack of a better term) are basically the rodeo-clows of the bull fighting world. Their job is to distract the bull when necessary. The bull is released and it is pissed... I have no clue what they might have done to it behind the arena to achieve this but it is out for blood – or the color red, for some reason. It charges at anything moving and red, which the assistants happen to be waving.

After they have spent a good chunk of time teasing the bull a man on a blinded horse trots out onto the arena. The horse is equipped with some special equipment for this phase. It is blinded with cloth so it doesn't realize that a pissed off bull is rampaging around it trying trying to catch a red clothed clown. It is also wrapped in heavy leather to protect its legs for said bull. Finally, the rider has his legs inside of pvc piping to protect his legs as well. The rider carries a long and menacing looking pike. It is now the job of the assistants to maneuver the bull next to the rider so he may critically wound it behind the neck. I should also point out at this point that the bull was already exhausted from the teasing and was frequently falling to its knees and panting... but it really wanted to kill a clown (can't blame it really).

So now the rider, having wounded the bull, trots his horse out of the arena, leaving the bull literally spurting blood out of its back. Now the brave matador struts in to the wild applause of the crowd. Seriously, these guys are like rocks stars here. He grabs a big red piece of cloth and the assistants run for cover so he becomes the target of the dizzy bull's aggression. This part was pretty cool. He would deftly dodge the bull and as he gained more confidence he would get to his knees and taunt the bull that way. It's really something you have to see to understand how crazy it was.

After playing around with the bull for a while he gets up and grabs two small spears (about a foot and a half long each) and as the bull runs straight for him he must lunge these into the back of the bull's neck and at the same time avoid being run through by the bull's horns. I would say this is the closest part to actually being an equal fight between matador and bull (not forgetting of course the bull is already weak and wounded).

Now the matador turns his back on the panting and wounded bull. The crowd goes wild. I mean, they go absolutely nuts at this blatant and bold turn away from the dangerous bull. He plays off the crowd by walking around the arena as the bull, now standing in the middle of the ring, looks around almost confused at what he is supposed to be doing. Apparently, if there is no guy taunting him with red, he is one lost bull. The matador struts to the sidelines and gets some water, takes a brief break, and grabs a sword.

Now is the part where I get flashbacks of the movie “Gladiator” where the hero has been drugged so the emperor can defeat him the the ring. The bull is bleeding to death from the pike wound and the two to four tiny spears sticking out of its neck. It is struggling to breath and is more often than not falling to its knees from the exhaustion of the last 20 minutes of fighting clowns and a jerk with a red towel. I have no doubt this bull is wondering where it went wrong in a past life to deserve such retribution from a clown army.

Anyway, the matador plays around with the bull a bit more – sword hidden behind the red cloth. Eventually the bull and the matador stand face to face. The matador raises the sword from its hiding place and aims it over the bull's head and taunts the bull to charge one last time. If the matador's aim is true the sword will slide almost effortlessly to the heart and the bull will lose its strength and fall to its death. Unfortunately for the bull, its heart is a small target in comparison to, lets say, its lungs. The matador misses, the crowd and the bull are instantly aware of the mistake as the poor animal's eyes go so wide you can see their whites in the back rows of the arena.

The bull begins to violently cough up blood, backing up away from the sight of it. The blood is spraying everywhere and the audience becomes quiet. That silence made it so much worse to watch the bull struggling to breath – literally drowning in its own blood, now totally unaware of the matador or clowns surrounding it. Finally it falls to the dirt, convulsing between gurgling gasps as a merciful clown approaches it from behind and severs its spinal cord. Four legs kick and twitch as the blade makes its way through the sinew, fat, bone, and nerve. At last the eyes, only a moment ago wide with panic, roll up into the bull's head. It is over. The crowd politely applauds the not-so-great job of the matador and the clowns reset for another bull.

I watched three fights that day and I would only describe one as a fairly clean kill. I fulfilled my wish of seeing a bull fight and in that I also got my fill of bull fights. I don't need to see a wounded and outnumbered animal be stabbed to death over and over until it is finally put out of its misery. I am not alone and it is not just me speaking from a cultural gap as I have spoken to many peruvians that are not so wild about the sport either. From now on I think I will be sticking to the bull fights where the matadors show how well they can dodge a bull and call it a day. But hey, try everything at least once, right?