Tag Archives: society

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

 

 

 

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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.