Tag Archives: bilingual

The Last Post

2 Aug

I knew I’d want to write a post about “the end.” I like closure. I like acknowledging “this is it.” I’ve been periodically highlighting markers that are leading to the final “moment” — Twitter countdowns until the end of my days in Olmos, “last birthday in Peru” blog posts, “thank you for your support these last two years” emails, etc. As the most comprehensive outlet for my storytelling, I’ve been saving my deepest thoughts for the final post on “Betty Zee in PC.” This blog has been one of my greatest pleasures since I left Miami two years ago. Writing has become one of my favorite hobbies, a joy reiterated by the fact that I felt I finally had something to say, a story to tell. Writing is an electrifying process: the initial jot down of disjoint ideas, going through them a thousand times, carefully editing words and watching them transform into personal memoirs. I know for a fact not a lot of people are reading these posts, a result of deactivating my Facebook account and summarily eliminating my largest online connection to an audience, but my interest in the act of writing and recording experiences remains the same. I imagine one day I’ll be glad I stuck with it, when nostalgia strikes and all I’ll have of Peru are these stories to read through once again.

But alas, this post marks the “end” end.  Today is my last day in South America. Tomorrow, before the sun rises over Cartagena’s colonial streets I’ll be en route northward, crossing continents and oceans on my way to San Francisco. It doesn’t matter that Northern California is not even remotely near what I consider “home.” Ironically, I might actually be geographically closer to Miami from Cartagena, Colombia than from the American west coast. The important thing here is not that I am going to the US, but the fact that I am leaving Latin America, indefinitely.

For friends and family who have been constant companions throughout my time away, it’ll come as no surprise to read how Peace Corps, and everything that experience encompasses, has changed me to the core. I think it’ll be years before I can really understand the full implications, so I’ll bypass any attempt to start now. But for my last blog post, I want to focus on one of the strongest sentiments present as I prepare to leave tomorrow: Recognizing my personal connection to the rich cultural heritage inherent in Latin America.

On July 15, I officially became a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) after successfully completing two years of service in Olmos, Lambayeque. Immeadiately after, a group of volunteers and I organized an 8-day, 124 KM (77 mi) hiking trek around the Huayhuash mountain range in the central Andean province of Ancash. In all honesty, it was a wild undertaking on my part, knowing we’d hike over 5,000m (16,oooft) mountain passes and camp every night in below-freezing temperatures, but that’s exactly what drew me in. Even Liz, a fellow volunteer and experienced hiker thoughtfully mentioned “It’s interesting that you are spending your last days in Peru on this hike.” It was outrageous by any standards, but so is everything else I’ve done on this continent. What better way to end two years of the greatest mental, emotional and psychological challenge than with the greatest physical challenge I’ve ever undertaken? I knew the 7-to-8 hours of hiking every day would give me more than enough time to reflect on life, and it wouldn’t hurt to have snow-peaked mountains looming over, providing the picturesque scenery befitting this kind of introspection.

As I hiked, walking stick in hand, the thin mountain air forcefully entering and exiting my lungs, I became overwhelmed with the immense beauty of the entire journey, from the tiny mountain town where we started our hike to the long stretches of nothingness in each valley we crossed. Sometimes I couldn’t believe what I was staring at directly with my own eyes.

Huayhuash 1

I’ve said it a thousand times in conversation and I’ve written extensively about it here, but one of the things that will stay with me forever is the natural landscapes I’ve experienced through my trips and adventures in Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. And then there was Huayhuash, solidifying the natural beauty not only in Peru but in all of Latin America. It starts with the colorful and varied geography of Mexico, down through the tropical jungles of Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, emptying into Venezuela and exploding into the Andes and Amazon of Bolvia, Paraguay and Brazil.  And it’s not only the pristine topography that makes this part of the world stunning, but its complex cultural history. The heroes, the writers, the painters, the social movements.  I considered myself a well-read, educated Hispanic-American adult but truthfully I’ve found it mind-blowing, the extent of my ignorance in regards to the history of the region. Thankfully, in Olmos I had the time to read to my hearts’ content, immersing myself in chronicles of the Inca Empire, the colonial revolutionaries of Simon Bolivar, and stories of the “dirty wars” and dictatorships that have changed the course of this hemisphere.  It’s important to know the turbulent history to truly appreciate what is happening in Latin America now.

What I found is that I’ve been guilty, as are many others, of having a distorted sense of our neighbor to the South.  To almost all but the few North Americans who take an interest in LatAm history and politics, anything south of the Rio Grande is a general Third World area where the one thing you need to know is DON’T DRINK THE WATER.  Even we, Latinos, have started to believe the hype, abandoning cultural practices and foregoing the passage of Spanish fluency to our children in order to further assimilate.  Just as I’m experiencing this realization, I happen to come across a certain political pundit’s assault on “soccer”, which is nothing more than a thinly veiled attack on Americans of Latin American descent.  If all you know is what the media portrays of the continent and never happened to make your way down here you’d fail to see that Lima is a world-class city, Ecuador an example of order and cleanliness and Colombia a hotspot for tourists from every corner of the world.  You’d miss witnessing the sense of community among people, the progress being made everyday in every town, building toward a better future.  The sad truth is most people only associate Latin America with controversies of the DREAM ACT, children of immigration and so on.

So although I have many pieces of the Peace Corps readjustment puzzle to work out, as I leave Latin America, I am sure of one thing, the amount of pride and respect I feel for being allowed to live here and connect with my heritage these last two years. It’s changed the direction of my sails and although I’m working on the next step of my journey, I can honestly say that advocating for Latin America will be a life-long theme.

See you soon,

Betty

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My Time With The Gloria Guys

1 May

A few weeks ago I got the opportunity to do one of the coolest things I’ve done outside of anything related to my volunteer work.

But first—a confession: when this years Vacaciones Utiles  ended in late February, I consciously decided to take an extended work break. I was so exhausted and overworked after teaching summer school all by myself that I didn’t even have time or energy for the little things that I love about my town and my host family.  All of a sudden, I became very aware of the importance in accepting lunch invitations from my neighbors, or sitting down to watch “Frozen” with my host niece (beautiful movie, btw).   It wasn’t like I lounged around in my PJ’s all day; that gets old after, oh, 3 days.  Our women’s workout group is still a top priority every Tuesday and Thursday, as well as training for this year’s half marathon in Lima with my best friend in site, Daniela, and a slew of minor commitments here and there.

Back to my unexpected adventure with the Gloria Guys.  So there we were, my friend Pochita and I, on a Tuesday night setting up for our workout class.  Out of the shadows, we see two well-dressed gentlemen in crisp collar shirts and slacks approaching us.  “Are you ladies from here?” they asked.  Initially I was taken aback by their determined approach, and also,  their exceptionally dapper attire.  Mis Olmanos are many wonderful things, but ‘dapper’ is not one of them.  While I remained mentally preocuppied with their fashion, Pochita answered for the both of us. “I am, but she’s not”, she replied while signaling to me.  Then they asked “Do either of you speak English?  We’ve been told there’s a Señorita who speaks English.”  Snapping back into real time, I presented myself as said Señorita.

It turns out the men are agricultural engineers with Grupo Gloria, one of Peru’s biggest and most successful companies.  They are starting an immense sugarcane planting operation nearby and Olmos has become the project headquarters.  Since it is still in the early stages of implementation, an independent consultant from Britain was brought in to survey and revise their work plans.  The translator they hired quit on them after the first day and they were desperate for anyone who could help them communicate with Brennan (the Brit.) Part of me was interested in helping them out as they seemed to be in a tight situation and part of me was just nosy curious to learn more about the project that will change the landscape of the region in its entirety.  And would you look at that? My schedule is clear!  I heartily agreed to join them the next morning at 6:30 a.m.

Walking over to the hotel-turned-headquarters, I wasn’t really sure what I had signed up for, but as with everything else in this life…you just roll with it.  After a hearty breakfast, Brennan, two project managers and I set off to the future sugarcane site.  It was then I finally understood the magnitude of the project. From inside the comfort of the air-conditioned 4×4,  I watched as the hills around Olmos disappeared and were replaced by, well, nothing.  An hour and half later, we could have been in the middle of the Arabian desert and I would have been none the wiser (really. Brennan has lived in Saudi Arabia and said “this reminds me of the Arabian desert.”)  It’s hard to picture these massive sand dunes being replaced with greenery and sugarcane but I’ll chalk it up to the modern marvels of agriculture.

And, as I learned, it really is a marvelous process.  Through the translating, I learned so much about the actual genius and logistical miracle it takes to put something like this together.  Everything from technical specifications of heavy machinery to the exact planting distance necessary to ensure maximum crop yield, I translated it all.  From Brennan’s conversations with project managers I learned about negotiating contracts with landscaping companies. From his conversations with civil engineers, I learned about road-building specifications and how to determine the tonnage that any given road can sustain.  From his conversations with the planting manager, I learned about every machine used in the planting process, varying irrigation systems, plant beds, fertilizer, the current state of the international sugarcane industry, etc.  Anyone who knows what a nerd I am can just imagine how this crash course in agriculture made me absolutely giddy!

And it wasn’t only about the crazy amount of knowledge I was acquiring every day.  For a week, I felt like I was part of this massively important project.  Every day, the team would gather for breakfast and off we’d go, on to the adventure of the day.  Just me and the guys, in our 4×4, sharing sunscreen to protect our skin against the intense mid-day sun or working together to get the truck out when the tires got stuck in the sand.  Ok, in all fairness, they worked together while I stood by and took some pictures.

IMG643

“really get in there, guys”

One day, the big company boss was visiting and wanted to see the progress made on various parts of the project, which meant visiting different points within about 15,000 hectares.  It was a long day filled with hopping into the truck, driving half an hour, hopping out, conversing, hopping back in, on to the next site, hopping back out, translating some more, driving to the next site, and so on.  This started at around 7am and lasted way after our designated 2pm lunch time.  It wasn’t until 6pm that we headed back into Olmos for a meal.  At one point during the ride, we were so hungry, I emptied the contents of my Longchamp bag to see if I had anything edible.  Luckily, I found some candies I gathered at the last baptism I attended.  The guys were grateful!

After our daily rides out to the desert, we’d go back to the ‘office’ in Olmos and I’d help Brennan translate some documents or put together a presentation he’d share at the end of the week with insights and recommendations.  One of the project managers Miguel, would bring us snacks and soda to keep us going.  Finally, long after nightfall, the guys would drive me to my house and drop me off.  It’s a strange feeling riding around your town in a private car with the windows up.  My townspeople also found it weird to see me in a private car with the windows up and soon enough the questions from my neighbors started: “quienes son?

“Son mis amigos de Gloria!”

All in all, it was a great experience and I’m glad I agreed to help them out. Not only did I go on some unexpected adventures in the desert that surrounds Olmos, but I also got to meet some brilliant, interesting, successful people.   It was one of those moments where you realize you would have never had the opportunity to do something like this at any other time in your life.  Just because I can speak two languages, all of a sudden I’m part of this super important team working on a groundbreaking project.  When else would I ever be hanging out with global sugarcane experts or the nation’s top engineers?  One of the things I really took away from this were the inspiring conversations I had with Brennan about his extensive international career that has taken him from Swaziland to Papua New Guinea and everywhere in between.  It seems fitting, as I make decisions regarding my own future.  I also love that I made new friends in town, and whenever I see the guys around they always stop to saludar and chat for a bit.

i'm her.

i’m her.

Are you wondering if I made tons of money off of this week-long gig?  I bet you are. The answer is a big fat NO.  As a Peace Corps volunteer I cannot accept payment for anything I do in Peru, especially if it is from a private company.  So that’s kind of a bummer, but the great thing is Miguel, Daniela (co-leader of our women’s workout group) and I are looking to see if they can make some sort of donation to buy us some new equipment like yoga mats or resistance bands.

Vamos a ver!

***If you want to learn a more about the Trans-Andean water irrigation project that is transforming northern Peru by bringing water to traditionally arid desert lands, click here: Proyecto Olmos