Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Peace Corps Pisco Finale

Standing on the summit of Pisco, eye to eye with the other snow-covered giants, I no longer felt cold, or tired, even though we had been hiking since midnight and the sun was just beginning to rise over the Cordillera Blanca. Instead, I felt weightless and powerful as I relished the fact that I had just climbed a mountain.

I can't honestly say I did it with much style. Although this was one of the "easy" mountains to climb, by the last hour my head was reeling, my stomach was churning, my nose was running, and I was dropping to my knees after every two dozen steps. Each time I stopped, the guide waited patiently while I counted ten deep breaths, struggled to my feet, and resumed my painstaking uphill shuffle, counting out each set of steps - one, two, one, two, one, two.

Throughout my Peace Corps service, I asked myself almost every day how I would ever be able to make it through two years; the answer was always the same - one step at a time. And again, I won't claim it was always pretty. There were tears, illnesses, meltdowns, and a fair share of failures, and I wouldn't hesitate for a second to call my entire experience in Peru an uphill shuffle. More than once I found myself getting bogged down in frustrations and forgetting the bigger picture about why I was here in the first place.

But in spite of everything, eventually I looked up from the snow beneath my boots and realized I was only ten steps away from the top - and only ten weeks away from completing my Peace Corps service - and it really didn't matter anymore how much I had struggled along the way. Every step I had taken in the past two years, no matter how painful, no matter how small, had carried me up to that point, 5,800 meters above the sea, and from way up there, it's hard not to see the big picture.

Whatever kind of magical brain-freeze I experienced on top of Pisco, I came down the other side with a profound sense of peace about the past two years. I had my share of struggles and failures, and certainly there are things that I wish I could have done better, but I have also been successful in many ways. Now, with only a few short weeks before I move on to the next adventure, I feel complete knowing that no matter how many times I fell on my knees throughout the journey, I always got back up and kept going, one step at a time.

Thank you for all of your support over the past two years, and I hope you have enjoyed sharing some of my experiences through my blog. I'm not sure yet what comes next, but I have every reason to expect something great.

A final farewell from Peru,


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Condors and Cattle and Bears... oh my!

I feel like lately I've had to start every blog entry with an apology for a long absence. A lot has happened since April, undoubtedly, but the deeper I get into this Peace Corps business, the less motivated I feel to write about any of it. I guess what used to seem like madness has become the norm. Which makes me wonder if, in four months when I'm back in Boston, what used to be normal will leave my head spinning...

So starting where I left off, in April Diana came to visit and I showed her the meaning of Peruvian hospitality by taking her out into the deep Amazon jungle to spend a week with no electricity, sweltering heat, and an abundance of creepy-crawlies. One highlight of the trip was zip-lining through the canopy.

Diana and I getting ready to zip-line

May brought Camp ALMA, a leadership camp for teenage girls that the volunteers in Ancash organized and ran. After a weekend of crafts, skits, discussions, and yoga (which I taught in Spanish), I was more than ready for a vacation with the Manzos in the beautiful colonial city of Arequipa. We toured the Colca Canyon, where we soaked in hot springs and saw Andean condors soar directly overhead. The best part of the whole trip though was that while going over a pass at 5,000 m above sea level, I got to touch SNOW for the first time in over 2 years!! I made a 6-inch snowman.
Noreen and I at Colca

June was a whole mess of travel for various work activities, but I found time to learn how to make tamales with my host family, do some prep work for an upcoming mural project, and hike up into the mountains to help my sitemate Erica build a fence and plant the first trees in her tourist-based reforestation project. We planted 25 Quenual seedlings on the first day, and left crossing our fingers that the fence would hold out against the mob of cows who hovered hungrily outside.Wrapping tamales in corn husks

The preschoolers on parade for Flag Day

Planting Quenual trees with some tourists

The 4th of July brought the anniversary parade for Huascaran National Park, and one of the highlights of my service - I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

After the parade. I'm the bear on the left.

This next week I'll be frantically preparing for the arrival of a group of students from Scotland, who will be spending 5 days working on projects in Tzactza, including painting a mural and building a tree nursery in the school. Hopefully 5 liters of lemon-fresh cleaning solution will be enough to tackle the school bathrooms. Now, though, it's time to forget about work for a few hours and watch the world cup.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Easter in the Andes

Only in the Andes does one celebrate Holy Week by slaughtering hundreds of the Easter Bunny's close cousins. Guinea pigs hide in your cages, because one of the traditions of Semana Santa is to prepare a feast of potatoes, rice, and tender rodent meat and invite the entire town to come share. The hosts, who alternate every year, also cook massive vats of masamora, or pudding made from rice, sweet potatoes, and bright orange squash. Everyone brings their own pots to take home a sampling of each different dish. It's kind of like trick-or-treating for guinea pig.

This year I felt highly honored to receive my own personal invitation to partake in the festivities, so on Holy Thursday I grabbed my little cooking pot and headed down the street to "apikur" - a new Quechua word I learned which means, as far as I can tell, "take a pot to get masamora during Holy Week." Of course, I knew that I would be something of a spectacle, but I hadn't anticipated the crowds that were hanging around the street outside of the host's house. I was still a hundred meters away when they noticed my approach, my pot swinging conspicuously by my side, and started laughing and calling my name. Grinning sheepishly, I greeted the hostess and held out my pot.

It's nothing new for me to be the object of attention when I walk down the street. After all, I'm a foot taller than everyone else, among other notable differences. Even in my house, I often feel like an animal in the zoo when my four-year-old sister Mayeli parades half of the preschool past my bedroom door for "show and tell" with the gringa. I've had an especially peculiar complex since one of my first weeks in Tzactza when my other sister, six-year-old Yeraldina, started pointing and giggling at me while I swept my floor. It's not a very dignified process, since the broom is only about two feet long, but it's how everyone does it. Since that moment, I have wondered every time I sweep my floor, which is almost every day, what exactly is so different about the way I sweep that made it so funny to her.

But a few weeks ago, after over a year of self-conscious sweeping, I had an epiphany; I'm not sweeping differently, I'm sweeping the same, and that is precisely what tickles people here so much. It would be like going to the zoo and giggling at the monkey who peels a banana just like a human. Except that here, I am the monkey - one who has learned some entertaining people tricks. Who wouldn't laugh?

So I didn't take it personally when everyone giggled at me walking home with a pot of rice pudding and a heaping plate of guinea pig and potatoes. I was actually glad to provide some silly entertainment for the neighbors, and in the end it's just one more monkey moment to add to the ever-expanding list.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Wrapping up

Sorry about the lack of updates in the past month. I am so happy to say that we are finally done with our bathrooms! Here are some pics of the final stage of construction and of course the finished products. I promise there will be a real blog post soon.

Construction on the base of a bathroom.

More installation of pipes

One of the girls who will have a new bathroom in her home.

The first family to finish construction!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Making progress

After many months of planning, we have finally begun to build! On January 12th, my counterparts and I borrowed the municipality's truck to pick up our materials and move them up the mountain. It was a rough day, and for me it ended at the doctor's getting shots of anesthesia to remove a toothpick-sized splinter from my hand, but we eventually made it safely home with our load of materials.

Loading materials in Caraz. If only that back door had opened...

Our storage room full of cement, pipes, and wood.

The next day we had our first training session with Eliseo, the plumber, to teach each family how to install their pipes. Some families are still choosing to pay the "maestro" to do it for them, which was not part of the original plan, but in the end I am glad as it will generate some income for Eliseo, who has helped me incalculably with this project. While the men paid close attention to the training, the women prepared a huge lunch of pasta and (surprise!) potatoes, and after lunch each family departed with cement and pipes. Of the 20 participating families, only one family dropped out of the project. All of the remaining 19 families met the requirements and I was pleased to be able to give each and every family

Breaking ground at the training. Note that I am only pretending to be helping. After the embarrassing splinter incident the night before, it was decided that the 'senorita' should leave the real work to the farmers.

Reviewing the instructions as we go.

One of the ladies presides over massive pasta pots.

Explaining how the pipe layout works to prevent undesirable odors.

As much of the group as we could get in one place at one time.

So now each family is on their own until Feb 3rd to finish installation, although I plan to start pestering them a week before that. On that date we will have the second training session where each family will learn how to put together the exterior of the bathroom. Everyone who has successfully installed their pipes and cement floor will receive wood and aluminum siding after the session. Of the 20 participating families, only one family dropped out of the project early on. All of the remaining 19 families have met the requirements to date, and I was thrilled to be able to give each and every family the first half of their materials. I am very hopeful that with a bit of gentle pressure, and the reward of an electric shower for the best bathroom completed on time, all of the families will at least come close to meeting our project deadline at the end of February.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Happy belated holidays to everyone! This year the Schwartz-McDermott family decided to skip the snow and spend Christmas in the sand on the coast of Peru. We started off with a visit to my home town in the Andes, where we were invited to a lunch of guinea pig and played some tag with my small neighborhood friends. Then we headed south to the National Reserve of Paracas and the spectacular dunes of Ica, where we spent Christmas day flying down mountains of sand on snowboards, starting a new family tradition of X-treme sports. Other highlights were visits to two glacial lakes in the Andes, and taking a tour of the wineries in Ica and seeing dad forced to take shots of the traditional Peruvian Pisco prepared by hand (and foot) and aged in clay casks.

Sean meets some of my friends. They may be small, but there are a lot of them.

Dad tries to stay focused during a tour of the oldest winery in Ica (after his 7th shot of pisco)

The trip was also memorable for some of the most spectacular come-from-behind victories in the history of the game of Hand and Foot, a card game that has pitted father and daughter against mother and son for almost 10 years. My host family will also never forget how my dad explained why they arrived late for lunch one day. What Brian meant to say was that there was a giant truck, or camion, blocking the road. What he actually said was that there was a giant camaron in the road, which would look something like this:

But now it's back to work in 2010. January is shaping up to be a busy month- we are getting ready to start construction with my bathrooms project, and I have been kept on my toes trying to get all the details in order. This week, we have our first training session to learn how to install the tubes and cement floors for the bathrooms, and then each family will begin construction on their own bathroom. I'll probably be pulling my hair out for the next few weeks as there are endless details to keep track of, but I know that the project will be just as rewarding for me as it is for the 20 families who will have a bathroom for the first time. Much of the work we do as volunteers involves slow change and awareness-raising, and does not have such immediately tangible results, which can be discouraging at times. Fortunately I have lots of things to look forward to this year - finishing my bathrooms, hiking, camping, visitors from the States, trying out my new rock-climbing shoes, and soon enough I'll be planning my return home! Not that I'm excited about that or anything...

2010 has brought a new addition to my Peruvian family: a kitten that we call Chicken and who likes to shred my socks and pounce on my face while I'm trying to do yoga.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Oh wow, it's been a month already...

Sorry to leave you all hanging for so long. It's been a busy month here in Ancash and there has been little time for blogging. We played host to 40 trainees from Lima who came to do field-based training in Ancash at the end of October, and then on top of that had to focus on getting our costumes together for a legendary halloween party. Yes, we still have some fun in the Peace Corps.

As far as my work goes, I've been working hard to get my eco-club off the ground. We meet twice a week to talk about environmental themes, do art projects, and play games. The kids love it, but the problem has been coordinating with the school about using a classroom. They can't seem to wrap their minds around the concept of every Monday and every Wednesday. We're working on it, but for now it means that class is usually outside, often in the rain, and is open to invasion by toddlers, dogs, and chickens. Minor complications in the grand scheme of things, although it does get a bit dangerous for everyone when you throw a chicken and a bull into a game of freeze tag.

The Eco-kids holding trees we planted for "el dia del arbol" on Nov. 5

The bathrooms project continues to advance. We are finished with our fundraising, so thank you all for your generous donations! We hope to purchase our materials before the holidays, and move into the construction phase at the beginning of the new year.

Mostly though I am looking forward to having a nice break for the holidays. Only two more weeks until Seany arrives, and my folks are coming a few days later. After a full year in the mountains, I can't wait to see my family and spend a few days on the beach to get rested and rejuvenated for the year ahead.

A happy Thanksgiving to everyone! This year I am grateful to James Tvrdy's grandmother for sending us stuffing mix. Wouldn't be Thanksgiving without it!