Tag Archives: Peru

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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Doin’ the damn thing (If I do say so myself!)

26 Jun

I can’t remember when I came up with the “Birthday Game” but it goes like this– at some point during a friend’s birthday, I like to ask two very specific questions:

  • What was your favorite memory of (previous age)?
  • What are you most looking forward to this year?

I think everyone around me is used to my quirky little ideas and inquiries, but I enjoy these questions because the answers are insights into friends’ th0ughts and feelings, even if I’ve known them for a million years (hey Carla) or we’re brand new buddies.  We share almost every aspect of our vies quotidiennes with anyone who will listen but seldomly take the time to really ask what’s going on in the hearts and minds of our closest companions.  And what better day than their birthday, si o no?

So with that in mind and seeing how this is my blog and yesterday was my birthday, I figured I might as well join the fun on the flip side and answer the questions I’ve posed to all of yous through the years.

What was your favorite memory of 26?

  • Where do you begin with a full year of life spent in Peru?  Twenty-six took me from Ecuador to Cuzco, from Chachapoyas to Tumbes, from having a drink at the wealthiest Country Club in Lima to respectufully looking on as one of my student’s mother guts the chicken that will become my lunch.  Almost every day brought a moment or a memory that will stay with me forever.  Because if we’re really honest here…the choice we make to become Peace Corps volunteers is just not normal.  I don’t mean normal in a good or bad way, just something completely foreign for a majority of the  American population. This abnormality makes for more outstanding memories in one single year than the past four years combined.  I have countless anecdotes of time spent with students, my host family, successful projects and traveling around this magnificent country.  But 26 for me is too much to be defined by one single memory.  It’s more defined by something that’s been present for about the last two months.  I find myself waking up every day with an overwhelming sense of peace and accomplishment and success.  An effortless happiness has blanketed over me, something I can only explain as a result of finally internalizing the things that have been said to me since day one in the Peace Corps.  I can’t express how much its meant to hear things like “I’m so proud of you” or “what you’re doing is amazing” or “not just anyone can do something like this.”  Who doesn’t love to hear these encouraging words from friends and strangers alike?  But nothing compares to the feeling of knowing them to be true yourself.  I’ve realized that I’ve made it.  I am finishing.  I voluntarily embarked on an immeasurable challenge of commitment and determination and heart and not only did I survive…I crushed it. I did the damn thing (if I do say so myself!)  I have given everything for the wonderful youth in my site, done the best I could with the resources that I’ve had.  Did I get tired? Yes.  Did I get frustrated? Lord, yes.  But I am immensely proud of what I accomplished on a professional level,  especially yesterday’s college fair that, with the support of local counterparts, went miles above and beyond last year’s event.   On a personal level, I think it’ll take years for me to understand the full impact of my time here.  I read something recently: “Some experiences are so big, they change your DNA.” That’s exactly what it feels like.  Secretly, quietly, I sometimes wondered if I’d face a moment when I’d decide that I didn’t want this for myself anymore.  If I’d question whether the hardship wasn’t worth the reward, and that I’d be better off going home.  There are so many unknowns in our lives here, it crossed my mind that maybe any one thing might one day be too much.  But today, I can speak candidly and openly about my fears because I know for certain that my heart was in-it-to-win it until the very end.  The often-cited “Hardest Job You’ll Ever Love” motto is point-blank and spot-on. I am lucky in that I didn’t face some of the unfortunate situations other volunteers did, but I also stayed committed, in the moment and lived with my heart on my sleeve.  I know so many of you are proud of me, but nothing feels better than being able to write that I am proud of what I’ve done and who I’ve become.  Now I know, without a doubt, that I posses the grit to do anything I set my heart to. This feeling, as simple as it is powerful, is what I’ll remember the most about being 26.

celebrate your accomplishments

What are you most looking forward to this year?

  • As I gracefully cross into offical “late 20s” territory, gone is the dread of inching one year closer to 30 and feeling like an ol’ biddy whose best days are behind her.  Who here hasn’t heard me lie to a complete stranger, and say that I am, almost comically, much older than I really am (‘I’m in my late 30s, I swear’).  Because that’s how I felt. Now,  I’m learning age is insignificant when you’ve got so many things to look forward to, starting with a well-deserved three week vacation that includes a Jay-Z and Beyonce concert in San Francisco.  Talk about a homecoming!
hey bey

hey bey!

It’s interesting that my birthday coincides with my last days in Peru, starting a new year and a new life all at once.  Twenty-seven seems full of promise, positivity and optimism.

airplane gif

 

 

 

Welcome, Peru 23!

8 Jun

It’s so hard to believe that today is two years to the day that Peru 19 landed in Lima and now we have only about a month left!!! Even crazier to believe is that Peru 23, the group that replaces us in our sites, just arrived in-country to start their own three-month Pre-Service Training. As a nice WELCOME gesture, Mike, our incredibly talented video guru, put together this little diddy with tons of useful advice.  I think anyone who watches this video can feel not only the love and camraderie that exists between us as a group, but also the amount of fun we’ve had these last two years!  That’s the most I can wish for future groups– happiness, a sense of purpose and creating bonds that will last a lifetime.

19 Ways to Survive the Peace Corps in Peru from Mike K on Vimeo.

 

I’m so proud of us, 19!!!  WE #FLAWLESS

 

Close of Service

11 May

 

we did it!

we did it!

I just got back today from a week in Lima with all my 19ers.  We had our Close of Service conference which included final medical checks and detailed explanations of the administrative processes necessary to terminate our time as Peace Corps volunteers in Peru.  Of course, it wasn’t all business, as we had plenty of time to hang out and celebrate!

 

i dont know why heidi and i ended up as leland's chariot horses for the 'do something silly!' picture, but there it is.

i dont know why heidi and i ended up as leland’s chariot horses for the ‘silly’ picture, but there it is.

Peru 19 Youthies

Peru 19 Youthies

with Lucia, the Youth Development Associate Peace Corps Director (APCD)

with Lucia, the Youth Development Associate Peace Corps Director (APCD)

this is going up somewhere.

this is going up somewhere.

ladies dressed up for the occassion

ladies dressed up for the occassion

:) :) :)

🙂 🙂 🙂

 

laissez les bons temps rouler!

16 Mar

Now, I know the title is in French, and I am writing in English and living  in Spanish–  but when I decided to write a post on the Carnaval celebrations in Peru, this is the first phrase that came to mind.  The unofficial slogan of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras debauchery festivities, “laissez les bons temps rouler!” literally means “let the good times roll!”  Fitting, because every February, across continents, cultures, and languages, “good time” gals and guys partake in one of the most enduring traditions left behind by the ruthless, unforgiving Roman Catholic colonization of native civilizations–crazy parties, parades and general street revelry!!

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It may not have the butt-cheek-jiggling international recognition of Rio de Janeiro’s iconic event, or the deliciously Cajun spice of a Mardi Gras adventure, but Peru’s version of Carnaval it is still damn fun! Here’s why:

1. Water Balloon Guerrilla Warfare

In Olmos, every January 20th marks the official start of “Carnavales”, a month-long,  pueblo-wide water balloon offensive.  Anyone and everyone on the street is a potential target for rowdy teenagers who, after a year of waiting, have free reign to indiscriminately peg innocent bystanders with water balloons.  Usually docile and humble teenagers turn into wartime operation commanders in search for their next target.  Their version of military tanks: mototaxis.  Although I am part of the hunted, I strangely enjoy this temporary imbalance of power. For 30 glorious days, it is culturally and socially acceptable for teens to wreak (safe) havoc in our town, and even coax opponents into full fledged water fights. How fun!!! I somehow managed not to get hit this year, but I have had a few moments of panic when I hear the roar of the mototaxi coming up behind me and start furiously looking for last-minute shelter. Whew. Although I always managed to escape, others are not so lucky, like that one time my friend got drenched with a whole bucket full of water on her walk home.  Alls fair in Carnaval water wars!

2. The “Yunsa”

Katherine, a volunteer living in the outskirts of Olmos, in a town about half an hour away, invited me to her site to partake in a “Yunsa,” a Carnaval celebration.  Having never heard of it, I was curious as to what the party entailed.  All I needed to hear was “food, prizes and chopping a tree with a machete” and I was sold.

aplausos for Katherine, part of the decorating and organizing committee!

aplausos for Katherine, part of the decorating and organizing committee

And I have to say, the party delivered.  Here is the gist: organizers buy a tree and decorate it with streamers and prizes.  The tree is prominently placed in a large open space where the whole town will gather to drink and dance the night away.  As the festivities wind down, the padrino of the party — basically the person who fronted the money to pay for the presents on the tree– ceremoniously hacks at the tree base with a machete (or in our case, an ax).  The crowd sways and swells, hoping to guess where the tree will topple and snatch all the dangling prizes.  It’s just like a piñata, but no kids, plenty of alcohol..and an ax! I cautiously stayed far from the masses during the chopping, since I’d like to keep my limbs intact, but after the dust settled, I was able to scourge the remains and found a prize — a box of tea! Yunsa, the gift the keeps on giving.

timber!

timber!

3. El Carnaval de Cajamarca

The last weekend of February has thousands flocking to the the sierra city of Cajamarca, site of where the last Inca king, Atahualpa, was held captive and executed.  But no one is thinking of this grim page in history when there are street parties and one giant, all-day paint war to prepare for.  This year was the last opportunity for Peace Corps volunteers to attend Carnaval (new administrative policy strictly forbids it), so we took advantage and flocked there ourselves.  First order of business was to find a massive water gun, at a relatively low price.

check.

check.

Water guns, paint gallons, buckets, water balloons and maybe some safety goggles, are all part of the armament necessary for the biggest paint party in the continent (probably).  Powerful drumbeats reverberate in the streets while throngs of people roam around, spraying their guns, tossing balloons, chanting, drinking and singing the joys of Carnaval.  No one outside their home is safe, not the cops, babies, or even puppies.  A streak of paint here, a glob of shaving cream there, all signs that you were among the crowds, in the party. Fact: The time it takes to rub all the paint off your body in the shower is directly correlated to the amount of fun you had Carnaval weekend.

before the war

before the war

friendly fire

friendly fire

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come at me with some paint!

massive amounts of fun = hour long shower

 

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well, those clothes are ruined!

All-day paint wars and all-night block parties with some of my favorite people in Peru was the perfect way to celebrate my last Carnaval season as a volunteer.

Laissez les bons temps rouler, indeed.

 

Let’s talk about LOVE, baby

22 May

Peru is for lovers.

You’d think soccer was the national past time, but you’d be wrong. It’s romance and Love, with a capital L. Ask any other volunteer who’s been pursued (incessantly) by a Peruvian. I mean, you are getting ‘te quiero’ within like 10 minutes of meeting. Guy, please. Even among older people, almost every introductory conversation I’ve had explaining Peace Corps and my two-year service usually ends with ‘well, maybe you’ll meet a peruano, fall in love and stay forever.’ I laugh politely and say ‘maybe’ when I really mean ‘doubttttttt it.’  I find it amusing that strangers are so concerned with my relationship status, but they also seem to be just as concerned with my weight (estas gordita/flaquita!) and my diet (come mas arroz!) I chalk it up to funny things people say here.

Recently I realized the implications of this constant topic of finding a novio in Peru. Being single and 25, I am officially spinster status. I even had one lady at a tienda suggest I must be barren since I don’t have any kids yet. Excuse me!

Which leads me to my next point: since my arrival in Olmos nine months ago, I realized I wanted to spend a considerable amount of time working on gender equality issues.  In my past pre-PC life, I was curiously drawn to this topic, reading about exemplary women who changed the game or broke the barrier. We all know gender inequality is still a real thing all over the world, including our beloved America. But I’d never felt it as strongly as I did when I arrived in site. The second you walk through the lime colored arches grandly decorating the town entrance, the machismo hits you smack in the face like one of those red boxing gloves on a spring. POW!

Boxing gloveBeing Latina, I recognize the patriarchal culture that characterizes South America and even Latin immigrant populations in developed countries. Los hombres Latinos siempre son un poco ‘machista.’  In reality, seriously misogynistic American men are the exception, not the norm and most will be immediately chastised for their bonehead opinions. Not in Olmos. Here, in a small town like this, it is not only normal, it is expected and encouraged. From a young age, girls are assigned very specific roles which they will be expected to fulfill, come hell or high water. It’s probably the reason my neighbors think something is wrong with me. I am 25 and still not fulfilling my roles. The women themselves have come to accept and perpetuate these beliefs, forever solidifying behaviors that favor males and subjugate females.

What do love and machismo have to do with each other? I’ve only begun to understand the deep connection after I started teaching a girls-only class at one of the local high schools.  It’s obvious that this male-dominant environment greatly affects young girls’ development in many ways. Recognizing this, I started putting together a 6-month curriculum that uses a holistic approach to empowering female youth. The program, taught in two classrooms (junior and senior girls) once a week for an hour, includes lessons on critical thinking, self-esteem, reproductive health, nutrition, sex and gender, fitness, financial literacy, career counseling and learning about positive female role models throughout history. I’m not only telling them that girls run the world, I’m going to teach them how!

I imagined that the second I stepped into my classroom I’d have a whole army of girls ready to fight the powers that be and take over Olmos, Arab Spring-style. Except– a strange thing happened.  The more time I spend getting to know my students, teen girls from 14-16, I realize they are only minimally interested in what I have to say and totally engulfed in their teenage love affairs.  I know that’s normal for teenagers everywhere (except I don’t remember being particularly consumed by these things. Maybe I was, but my memory doesn’t recall? I can’t really say, it was such a long time ago.) Anyway, the whole thing is very Romeo-and-Juliet-esque. Case in point: the first thing the girls wanted to know about me was: Do you have a boyfriend/husband? How old were you when you had your first boyfriend? Did you leave someone behind in the states? I was all ‘Ladies, ladies, settle down. I’m here to talk about important things, like college and the future.’ But that’s not important to them right now; LOVE is the only thing that matters.

“Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it.” – Ashley Judd

And therein lies the problem. From a young age, a woman’s education is not emphasized as say, learning to cook, clean and tend to household chores. Lack of support grows into lack of interest and motivation by the time they reach high school.  Then here comes Prince Charming in his mototaxi with his sweet words and love ballads and the girls are smitten like kittens.  I feel like girls are taught to believe that the most important role they’ll play is mother and wife, and are ready to play that role as soon as men start to show interest in them.  From then on, their life is dictated by their relationships.   If they graduate high school, they surely will not leave town to go to college if it means leaving their boyfriend behind. Worse, many young couples make uneducated and unsafe decisions to start having unprotected sex, which is how way too many of them end up pregnant before the age of 20. Given that the couple stays together, the chances of the woman finishing schooling and starting a career are slim. My host sister, who is 23 and married with child, told me she had one semester left of college before she dropped out.  I was like ‘why?!’ and she replied ‘well, I got engaged to my husband’ and I said ‘so what?’ and she just looked at me like ‘what don’t you get?’ I dropped it after that. At such a young age, her life is already completely rigid. Childbearer and caretaker.  If, like many cases I’ve seen in Olmos, the ‘sweetheart, love of your life, gem of a man’ books it out of town faster than a speeding bullet, the uneducated teen mom is now almost completely dependent on her family to provide for her and her child forever.  The idea of a ‘single working mom’ is absolutely non-existent in northern rural Peru.  It’s a grim scene, people.

And it all starts with that teenage love obsession back in high school. One day they’re in lala land with their novios and then reality sets in.  I don’t want to see my girls LOCKED IN for life.

I get it, obviamente, no one wants to die alone (fingers crossed over here!) but I just want to give my students the luxury of options and making their own decisions. It’s ok if you want to marry your sweetheart and be a stay-at-home mom at the age of 18 (it’s really not), but it’s also ok to follow your dream of becoming a doctor or president. As long as the choice is hers — not society or family or boyfriend. Of course love is beautiful, wonderful and fulfilling, but so is independence, freedom and reaching your goals. And I want them to know that at 15, they will have pleeeeeenty of opportunities for both in their future.

proof women can have it all. si o si?

proof women can have it all. si o si?

 

This is actually important…

17 Feb

Hey guys, remember when I used todrive you nuts encourage you to donate to the American Cancer Society or the Children’s Miracle Network?

It’s that time again!

This May, all of the volunteers from my region will be uniting to work on a very special project– bringing together 60 teenage girls for a 3-day leadership camp, with the theme of “Peace of Mind, Body, and Environment.”

These annual camps (one for girls, one for boys) are unparalleled opportunities for young female leaders to come together and meet like-minded peers as well as a group of adults who are invested in their physical, mental and spiritual growth. In a country where 50% of the population is under 25, these camps are, in essence, contributing to the future of the nation.

 
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Activities and topics include a career fair, aptitude test, recycled arts workshops, trash management trainings, sexual education sessions and leadership habit development. In addition to helpful life skill sessions, our camps give teens a safe and inviting space to share who they are and where they see themselves in the future. The camps foster an environment for sharing highly personal topics, things they can’t really express as normal youth in Peruvian society.

Here’s where you come in.  A significant portion of the camp’s budget (40%) is coming from local community contributions and donated support.  But the rest, $2,200, volunteers are fundraising through the following link.  All donations made through this link are secure through the Peace Corps website and tax-deductible.

 
DONATE HERE!
 

Please help us meet our fundraising needs!  The Peace Corps Volunteers of Lambayeque, Peru and our adolescent campers thank you!!  Any questions feel free to email me or you can read more about the project in the donation link.

 

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-Betty