A large part of Alana’s work consists of assisting in activities and administration for a “comedor” in her site. The comedor is a soup kitchen/community center and has been in existence for about 45 years. It is funded by a Peruvian-American man. Ena, the Bosnian/Austrian volunteer who had traveled with us to Machu Picchu was volunteering there for six months. She had found the website online and showed an interest in coming and was chosen. Her room and board are free in exchange for her work at the Comedor (she helps serve meals and teaches art and dance classes to the children). The comedor feeds breakfast and lunch to 150-200 children and disabled adults and elders daily. There is a nice area with mirrors for dance and exercise classes, children’s books for them to read, and about eight computers with internet for classes. The comedor’s website is: http://www.bemelsa.org/
|Children's african dance class at the comedor|
|Alana's host mother|
|First meal with her host family - rice, potatoes and beans|
|Alana and her boyfriend enjoying some Peruvian seafood - YUM|
|Ena with all the gifts in front of the Comedor's nativity scene and tree|
|That's a lot of hot chocolate...|
|All dressed up for the party|
Afterwards, when the kids had been sufficiently sugared-up, a young Peruvian girl stuffed a pillow under her shirt and put on a Santa Claus costume to hand out presents. They were “supposed” to wait until the night of Christmas Eve to open their gifts, but many could simply not contain their excitement and slowly worked away with their little fingers at the edges of the wrapping paper until the present had “accidentally” been revealed. They received balls, electric cars, dolls, books, and clothing. For most of these children, this would be their only Christmas present, making the Chocolatada even more special.
In Peru, the main Christmas festivities occur on the evening of Christmas Eve. A special dinner of turkey, French fries, Inca Kola (an integral part of any Peruvian party, it is bright yellow and tastes a bit like bubble gum), hot chocolate, canned peaches and panetón is served late, and the entire family attends a midnight mass. They carry with them the baby Jesus figurine from their nativity scene to be blessed by the priest, afterwards returning home to place him in the manger and go to bed. Nothing much happens on the 25th – most people take the opportunity of day off to eat more panetón and drink a few beers on the front porch.
Alana, Ena and I had Christmas Eve dinner with Alana’s host family. Along with Jose, we decided to make some American treats to donate to the meal and used a Peace Corps cookbook I have to make oatmeal/raisin/chocolate chip cookies and a mango cobbler. After baking, we had a lazy day sitting around using the internet at the Comedor (I was so jealous that Alana had free internet right around the corner from her house!) Alana’s host mom started tearing up when she was expressing how happy she was that Alana and I were there to spend Christmas with her family. “I’ve never had people here before for Christmas…” she began, but then she broke down and had to run off to her room to compose herself. She is a very sweet woman and made me wish that I lived with a caring host family like that in my site.
|Me, Ena, Alana and Alana's host sister|
After Christmas Eve dinner we went to bed rather early since we had big plans for the next morning – a visit to Paracas, on the Pacific coast, about an hour from Alana’s site. There, we were going to go on a tour of the Ballestas Islands wildlife refuge which had penguins!
We were up early and on the boat tour by 9 AM. I was surprised to suddenly see so many tourists, even on Christmas Day. Our boat was full of Japanese tourists, but there were also many Europeans and Australians. In Alana’s site there were few gringos, but the area in general is very touristy because of Ica’s proximity to Lima. Many tour companies organize day trips there.
We donned our mandatory bright orange life jackets and were off, straining our ears over the engine to hear our tour guide – he spoke in Spanish and then in a weird English. We actually weren’t sure if he was really speaking English, or just making English sounding noises… I think he had learned English by looking at written English words and simply memorizing them, using Spanish pronunciation. At least we could understand him in his Native tongue.
As we sped through the brilliant blue water, we saw the Paracas Candelabra prehistoric geoglyph on the side of the coastal sand dunes. The design is cut two feet into the soil and possibly dates to 200 BC and is 595 feet tall. When we arrived at the Ballestas Islands we were instantly surrounded by birds. They were flying beside and above us, going sideways, diving into the water to fish, and pooping. Our guide warned us not to open our mouths if we looked up. There were gray and blue-footed boobies, guano birds, pelicans …. But the stars of the show for me were the Humbolt penguins! I had never before seen penguins outside of the zoo or the animated movie, “Happy Feet.” They were quite small and relatively far away, but with a good zoom on the camera, you could see them well. I hadn’t been out in a boat since being back in Alaska, and it was refreshing to feel the ocean mist and the movement of the waves.
|Sea lions in the foreground, penguins in the background!|
After our two hour tour, we ate breakfast on the shorefront. As it got later in the morning, more and more Peruvians showed up to set up camp on the beach with their children to go swimming. Alana and Jose went in swimming, but Ena and I just dipped our feet in – we were just enjoying the sun, remarking on how odd it felt to be on a warm beach on Christmas Day. Last year, I was also on a beach for Christmas while traveling with a Swedish friend in Costa Rica. Sun seems to be turning into the “norm” for me – I’m a little worried about having to live in North America after this and having to learn how to deal once again with the cold rain, clouds and snow.
|We saw real and fake penguins that day...|
The rapids were at “level 3” due to the water level and the ride was fast and fun. As we went over big swells and bounced around, one of the Peruvian girls (Alana’s host sister) became more and more quiet and stopped paddling. Her face froze in a worried expression of angst. “Are you okay??” we yelled at her over the rush of the river – she nodded solemnly. No, she said, we didn’t need to stop, yes, we could keep going. However, we could tell that she was pretty scared. The guide told her not to worry and took her paddle from her so she could concentrate on simply hanging on to the raft. The other two Peruvian girls were doing okay, although you could tell that when they had planned to go whitewater rafting for the first time, it was simply an abstract idea in their heads and they hadn’t quite imagined this. Alana, Jose, Ena and I on the other hand were having a ball. We were getting soaked by the splashing river and it cooled us off in the hot sun. The hour long ride wasn’t long enough, and I wish we could have kept going; however the poor Peruvian girls looked like they were ready to finish.
After we pulled up to the shore, the girls walked, like shocked little wet cats up to the guide hut and we turned in our gear and headed to the park to eat a picnic lunch. After they dried off and the adrenaline began to leave their system, they became more relaxed. They were thrilled to see the pictures one of the workers on the shore had snapped of us when we paddled by, and I could tell that they couldn’t wait to tell their family and friends about what they had done – and survived – that day.
My last couple days with Alana were spent lounging around some more and enjoying vacation. We talked about our plans post-Peace Corps and caught up on lost time together. It had been two years since we had last seen each other – right before I left for Peace Corps in January 2009. Alana is considering extending her service and spending a third year in her community, taking a more active, managerial role at the Comedor. She was also trying to talk me in to extending my service and maybe even serving a third year in Peru – I’ll have to say, it is pretty tempting. I will probably end up back in the U.S. though, working for a year before I go to graduate school for International Relations. I was trying to convince her to come back to the U.S., and I know she is feeling torn by the decision of either staying in Peru or going back to the States. Her parents and younger sister are coming to visit in January, and I know she will talk it over more with them.
On my last day, Alana and I spent the night in Lima where we went shopping, ate amazing sushi and wandered the busy downtown streets people-watching. We tried a purple cornstarch pudding, bought some DVDs and CDs at Peru’s largest pirated movie and music market and enjoyed our last hours together. The next morning I left very early and was back in Managua by midday. As I stepped out of the airport, both the hot sun hit and the numerous catcalls from men nearby hit me like a brick, both of them reminding me that yes, I really was back in Nicaragua. The towering skyscrapers of Lima faded from my mind as I drove through Managua in a taxi to the bus station, not one building around me rising above a story or two; the depressing – yet familiar – poverty I have come to call home.
I suddenly felt like I was in known territory – unlike in Peru where I had relied on Alana to pick the hostel, catch our bus on time, decide what sights we would see, now I was back “home” where I knew how to handle the male comments that kept hurling at me, the begging children at the bus station, at which little store I could buy saltine crackers to settle my stomach, I knew where the bathroom was and how much I should pay to use it without being overcharged by the woman who liked to increase her price a córdoba or two when she saw a gringo. After living here for 23 months, Nicaragua was almost as familiar to me as coming home to Alaska. I’m not sure how I feel about that – it’s sort of an unwilling acceptance; sometimes it feels like my life here is only a superficial temporary one, while my “real” U.S. life is on hold. Seeing Alana in Peru, I saw that she had her U.S. life and Peace Corps life more merged – she had a boyfriend, had more luxurious amenities like a gym and a nice grocery store, she was planning on a third year of service… I was jealous of her country of service, but I was also glad that I was serving in Nicaragua – it seemed more wild and uncivilized, smaller and poorer. Peace Corps might not be harder here than any other country, but it some ways it felt more necessary and more like the Peace Corps that Kennedy had in mind when he founded the Peace Corps 50 years ago (this year is the anniversary!).
I caught a bus back to site and was back in my little pink house by nightfall. What a day. As I unpacked that evening, I could still smell Peru on my clothes and feel the dust and sand of the dry climate on my skin. For the next few days as I went through my daily routine and adjusted to life back in-site, I imagined what Alana and her host family were doing at the same time – waking up, walking Lady in the park, washing clothes by hand, eating rice and seafood, sitting in a hammock… Our lives are similar, as most Peace Corps volunteers lives tend to be, but also different. I’m looking forward to our next reunion…who knows in what country it will be! Being around friends like Alana and Emily (from AK as well who joined us for the Machu Picchu part of our trip) who have known me practically my entire life made me realize how much I miss that feeling of friendship and community. We were able to give each other advice and talk about our problems and I knew they really understood me. In my site, many girls my age are still living at home, pregnant, married, or living in the larger cities studying. It’s hard to find someone to really talk to and hang out with. I know that these last four months of my service are going to go flying by, and soon back in the U.S. I’ll have more “community” than I can handle – and probably be ready to go back somewhere where no one knows my name or gossip about me!
Although I was sad to leave Peru and Alana, there was one major thing that I missed about Nicaragua and was happy to get back to: my French press and strong coffee!
|Until next trip!|