Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Peru Part II: Alana’s Community – Christmas, Chocolate, Candelabra and Canotaje.

Alana, Ena and I arrived tired and red-eyed after our flight from Cuzco and the three hour express bus ride south from Lima along the dusty, sandy Pan-American Highway to Alana’s Peace Corps site. She lives in a larger city compared to my community in Nicaragua, and I was in shock that she had modern things like a bank, large grocery store, and gym close enough to reach by taxi ride. Alana is a small business development volunteer, so she mainly works with artisans who sell local handicrafts and with youth. She started her Peace Corps service about five months after I did, in June 2009.
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:

Children's african dance class at the comedor

Food prep

Dig in!
We stayed with Alana’s host family, and Alana graciously let me sleep in her twin bed while she used an air mattress (what a great host!) We were so tired out from our Machu Picchu trip (see previous blog), that for the first day we simply rested and wandered her neighborhood. We settled in to Alana’s daily routine: hanging out with Alana’s Peruvian boyfriend Jose, going to the gym in the nearby city, eating meals with her host family, helping serve meals at the Comedor, and walking Alana’s dog “Lady.” Alana bought Lady as a puppy in her site and raised her – she plans on bringing Lady back to the U.S. when she finished her Peace Corps service.
Alana's host mother
First meal with her host family - rice, potatoes and beans

Alana’s site is located in the region of Chincha in the department of Ica and was surprisingly cool and windy and very dry. She said it never rains – I was thrilled since in Nicaragua we have recently come out of a horrible rainy season in which several hurricanes and tropical storms passed through flooding streets and washing out bridges. In Alana’s site we were able to wash our own laundry and it dried in the same day! I was thrilled not to have mold growing on wet clothing and shoes (as it does in Nicaragua, and as it had also been doing on our rainy visit to Machu Picchu).

Alana and her boyfriend enjoying some Peruvian seafood - YUM
The days passed surprisingly quickly in Alana’s site. We were very relaxed, and I was enjoying a well-deserved break without thinking about work or the daily dramas of my site. However I was very tired and slept much more than usual – every day I woke up feeling like I could have gone right back to bed. I think it was because it is customary to drink tea rather than coffee in Peru. Coffee is more expensive, and what is grown domestically is sold abroad. I was having serious withdrawal symptoms since I am quite the caffeine addict. Although Alana’s host mother had graciously found some coffee in town and made me a watery cup every morning, it just wasn’t cutting it. I dreamt of my French press and strong coffee back in Nicaragua.

We were arriving in Chincha just in time for Christmas celebrations. A typical Peruvian Christmas activity for children is to hold a “Chocolatada” where invited children are treated to a mug of hot chocolate (made with Peruvian chocolate, condensed milk and cinnamon), and the Peruvian Christmas necessity: panetón. Panetón is similar to fruitcake, but made with lighter dough. It is simply not Christmas without hot chocolate and panetón. The comedor had a large Chocolatada planned and had invited all the children and adults who ate there to attend. Gifts had individually been purchased for each person. During the Chocolatada, the children sat around in small chairs around the Christmas tree and nativity scene while Alana, Ena and I busied ourselves helping to pass-out mini-panetons and cocoa as Christmas music blared over the speakers. Two dance groups formed by children who ate at the Comedor performed – one of them was a class that Ena taught in modern/jazz dance.
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...
On the 26th, we had another outing planned - we were going to go whitewater rafting (in Spanish, “canotaje”) with a few girls from Alana’s youth group, Ena, and Jose. Alana had been several times – it was located about an hour and a half from her community – but the young Peruvian girls had never been far outside of the city, much less ever engaged in something as adventurous as rafting. We took off early, but this time went north to the town of Lunahuaná. There were about 30 rafting guide agencies in the town – this was also a popular tourist destination. On the day we visited however, we didn’t see many other foreigners. We all got geared up in life jackets and helmets, leaving everything that couldn’t get wet behind. A guide went in the boat with us and another rode in a kayak alongside to help rescue anyone who fell in.

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!

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