Archive | December, 2012

The Hardest Part

7 Dec

I want to preface this blog post by saying that I waited two years and three months to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.  Throughout the long, arduous process, I became increasingly passionate about being part of this organization I thought I knew everything about. In hindsight, I realize I knew nothing about the kind of life experience I was embarking on. But sitting here today in Olmos, I can honestly say I am grateful for that unrelenting blind determination–I am living my dream and the truth is, it’s better than anything I could have imagined.

However.

Peace Corps is definitely not for the faint of heart. I’d be painting an unbalanced picture of my experience if I only shared the wonderful, heartwarming moments and ignore the flip side of the coin.  The truth is there are major social, cultural and economic issues in Peru. If there weren’t, Peace Corps wouldn’t be here. It is my hope, and I’m sure that of my fellow volunteers, that one day Peru will not need a development agency like PC promoting change. Instead, right now we have 250 volunteers in sites (sometimes 2 and 3  per site) to try and improve the way things are done.

Service is hard, and not in the ways you would automatically assume. It’s surprising how quickly you can adjust to no running water, bucket baths, cramped public transportation, no air conditioning, electricity black outs…the list goes on and on. At some point, it just becomes a daily part of your life and you don’t think twice about it. Other things are not so easy to overlook and I find it hard to believe I’ll ever ‘get used to it’. Things like watching a teen mother trying to juggle her two infant children in her arms, with maybe a third running behind, trying to catch up. It’s walking into a school and seeing an environment completely unfit for learning. It’s watching a 4 year old refuse to eat her lunch day after day, but her mom gladly handing her a sugary soda with an assortment of chocolates and cookies instead. It’s seeing young girls get cat-called by any and all men, regardless of age. It’s seeing the trash that liters every street or smelling heaps of garbage being burned.

And this leads me to my next point (warning–its about to get really heavy). There are times when I look around Olmos and I see insurmountable difficulties. The place is a mess. The market is disorganized, dirty and clustered around the town plaza, heavily congesting the area. Why wouldn’t people demand a better location for their food and produce? There is no systematic method to manage waste, hence the trash burning. The health center is run-down and ill-equipped– a scary place to have a medical procedure. And there seems to be a sense of complacency for the way things are. It’s hard finding Peruvian counterparts who are passionate about improving their community. It’s like I’m here for YOU. How about a little support and enthusiasm for these projects? On the tough days, its easy to wander into a frame of mind that asks what the point of development work is anyway. It feels like no external methods ever really work. Peru receives monetary aid, grassroots/technical assistance and infrastructure support.  And yet the problems remain. Is this kind of work even worth it? Should we even bother? Then I realize that YES, it is worth it. No it’s not perfect. If anyone knew what singular thing moves development forward, the world would be a different place. But in my expert opinion (hah!) I think it’s a mix of everything, including an organic desire on the part of the community that is receiving these benefits. It’s important to acknowledge this early on, as a volunteer, because NEWSFLASH: there is no way to fix all the problems of a community in two years. It just ain’t happening. But maybe you can spark some kind of consciousness or awareness. Or maybe you can achieve the holy grail of Peace Corps service: motivating a community to change the way they approach a certain issue (pick one, because they won’t change them all) long-term.

So after realizing in my heart of hearts that what I’m doing is worthy, how do I go about developing Olmos everyday? Well aside from working with local institutions to plan youth-oriented activities and groups…I think it’s also important to set an example with my own behavior.

First of all, during training we are advised to be culturally-sensitive and above all, try to foster positive relationships in our communities.  This is important advice, as we will be living and working in said communities for the next two years. Naturally, we want to fit in and be liked. Done well, this will also spell success for our program initiatives (attendance or funding for events/groups/activities).  Nonetheless, I decided very early on that this kind of approach also had to be reconciled with who I am as a person.  I cannot pretend to support and accept everything I witness for fear of being shunned or standing out.  The reason I am here is to make a community more conscious of the things they need to improve and then help them work on it. I can’t accomplish that by being a passive observer.  I have learned to speak up and point out ‘HEY, that’s not ok.’ My friend Tina likes to joke that I’m ‘always yelling at Peruvians’ but, someone’s got to do it, no? The top phrases heard from yours truly include:

  • ‘Sir, that is not a bathroom. Please don’t pee there’
  • ‘Ma’m, did you know burning trash is toxic for the lungs?’
  • ‘Sir, please do not smoke with your two-month-old baby in the house’
  • ‘Little girl, don’t kick that puppy.’
  • ‘Sir, cat-calling is disrespectful and it makes me uncomfortable’
  • ‘Ma’m, pick up your trash and throw it in the garbage can that is right there, literally two steps away’

Being able to point these things out makes me feel accomplished. These tiny drops of awareness are a part of my contribution.

Peace Corps is hard (had I mentioned that yet?) You’d be pressed to find any volunteer who hasn’t at some point questioned what it all means.  For me, it’s the small victories I’ve had thus far. Maybe I won’t eradicate machismo, but telling a man that it is not OK to cat-call women and having him apologize, is a victory! Maybe he’ll think twice the next time he does it. Maybe a young girl saw me call him out and feels empowered to stand up for herself the next time she’s harassed. Maybe a boy in my world culture summer school class decides he wants to study in Spain when he graduates. What if a girl I mentor decides to follow her dream of being an engineer instead of staying at her mother’s stand selling fruits?

If I can accomplish any one of these small things, I will be more than content knowing that for those few individuals, my service meant something. That’s worth the hardship.

 

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