Tag Archives: travel

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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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

image

come at me with some paint!

massive amounts of fun = hour long shower

 

IMG_4799

IMG_4796

IMG_4795

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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.

 

March Madness

13 Apr

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Let me explain. I don’t know what went on in March but its been the weirdest month for me as a volunteer. Let’s pick up where we left off, shall we?  And you can see what I mean.

Rewind to the end of February and there I am, volunteer extraordinaire! I was feeling pretty good after finishing our summer school geography class with an amazing “END OF SUMMER” pool party for our kids. By far, one of the most rewarding activities of my service. Even better, my dad and Lucy were almost due to arrive in Peru for their big trip.

Then the bad news. Lucy was not feeling well while they were in Colombia and they would n0t be able to make the trip to come visit. After months of planning their trip to Peru, I was really sad to think I would not be able to see them.  My first thought was “If they cant make it here, then I guess I’m taking a trip to Colombia!!’ Not seeing them while we were both in the same continent was absolutely not an option. Immediately I contacted Peace Corps Peru and asked for special permission to fly to Bogota, even though it was short notice according to the current vacation request policy (must ask at least two weeks in advance.) Fortunately, they granted me permission and I was off to my homeland!

Although I loved teaching summer school, it was exhausting and I reeeeally started to miss family. This trip to Colombia was without a doubt the break I desperately needed.   Once I arrived, Lucy was feeling a little better and her, my dad and I ended up having an incredible time. We went sightseeing and did fun tourist-y things throughout the week.  I can’t decide what I loved most: the delicious food, Bogota’s stunning landscapes or just spending quality time with my papa bear. Ok, all three were the best! Colombia is really wonderful and should you get the chance, you should definitely visit the greatest country in the whole continent! I’m not biased at all. But really, this time around I saw Colombia with a new set of eyes. It’s like not wearing your glasses all day and then you put them on and all of a sudden the world is beautiful and vibrant!  This is a country that really has its priorities in order and its shit together (I’m looking at YOU, Peru!).

me and dad in the plaza de bolivar (bogota)

me and dad in the plaza de bolivar (bogota)

with lucy, enjoying the view

with lucy, enjoying the view

arroz con coco y sopa de mariscos. to diiiiiiiiiiie for.

arroz con coco y sopa de mariscos. to diiiiiiiiiiie for.

that's right!

that’s right!

una bandeja paisa bien rrrrrrrrrrrrriiiiccaaaaaaaaaaa

una bandeja paisa bien rrrrrrrrrrrrriiiiccaaaaaaaaaaa

bogota's oldest neighborhood with the Andes in the background

bogota’s oldest neighborhood with the Andes in the background

After coming back from Colombia I had about two weeks before my next Peace Corps vacation.  It might sound like volunteers are always out and about traveling and yes some of it may be true but also some of it has to do with our work schedule and in this particular instance I just so happened to be able to schedule two vacations in a month. Poor me!

No, but really, poor me.  Those two weeks in between vacation were very weird and random.  I love working in Olmos but I just couldn’t catch any kind of inspiration in any direction, as far as work projects are concerned. I couldn’t answer the question ‘what should I do next?’  That particular sentiment is especially frustrating for me because this experience is most fulfilling when I’m working with jovenes. I spent the two weeks mulling over this and not getting much done. Finally a few days in mid-March I realized I want to put together a vocational orientation program for local youth. Yay! Inspirtation and direction back on track! But then, it was time to leave site again and head 4 hours south to the groovy beaches of Huanchaco.

Huanchaco was another great getaway.  I was able to hang out with my amazing PCV friends and spend time relaxing and hanging out. No complaints or weirdness when my Peru 19 girls get together.

After Huanchaco, I had about 5 days back in site and then I was heading to a completely different part of the country, the beautiful mountainous city of Huaraz, for a Peace Corps project management training.  Don’t get me wrong, I love all kinds of nerdy training events but I went into this already  tired.  After a few days, the intense schedule and constant overfeeding  (portion control, what is that?), my body was starting to break down.  I spent the last few days of training sneezing, shivering and trying to bundle up in the cold weather. Finally, training was over and I’d be on my way to mind-numbing heat–my favorite!  Just when things were looking up and I thought this weird  month/mood was over and I was finally heading home to Olmos for good with no travel plans in the near future…

I GOT ROBBED!!!

That’s right. MY STUFF WAS STOLEN! Forget about ruining your day. More like your whole week or month! I was taking a Movil Tours overnight bus from Huaraz to Trujillo (nearest city with routes to and from Huaraz) and I handed over my luggage to the luggage counter, as I have done ten billion times before, every single time I travel. Fast forward to 5:30 am and the baggage dummies are telling me, and 7 other passengers, that our things are not anywhere to be found.  Somehow, between Huaraz and Trujillo, 13 pieces of luggage belonging to 8 passengers disappeared into thin air and no one knew about them. Not the dummy drivers or the brainless baggage fools.  Obviously I was extremely calm and gracious. NOT.  I went all ‘Linda-Blair-In-The-Exorcist’ on them. HOW CAN A WELL KNOWN NATIONAL COMPANY just wash their hands clean of our losses? Seriously. 13 pieces of luggage. That doesn’t make any sense.  So after several phone calls to the manager, one small protest where we may or may not have blocked the entrance gate so that no more Movil Tours bus could enter the station until someone listened to our demands, and two trips to two different police stations, we have filed complaints hoping to get compensations from the company  itself.  As with everything, I’m sure the whole process will be long and tedious but I dont care, I’m going to stick with it until I get back some value of what I’ve lost (favorite Gator Tshirt!) MovilTours will RUE the day they were vicious enough (or careless enough) to steal (or lose) my things.

better days with my pack before it was STOLEN!!!

better days with my pack before it was STOLEN!!!

Right now I’m trying to move past this March slump so I can focus on being productive and not frustrated or bored.  I can’t decide if I want to focus my efforts on my Peace Corps work or bringing down the evil enemy empire known as Movil Tours. I’m sure my PC work will be much more rewarding.

(Or will it?!)

evil face

P.S. – Never take Movil Tours anywhere! There’s something off-putting about them, every time I’ve traveled with them. Especially that one time THEY STOLE MY LUGGAGE!!!!!!!!!!

movil tours red