Group Update from Peru
The seventh month of Urubamba marks the end of the rainy season. The mountains, refreshed from their season of rehydration, are a lush green, no doubt an expression of thanks. The rivers are louder, turbulent, coruscating through smooth boulders and waterfalls. Besides this, the town looks much the same. Mototaxis stolidly rumble their way along the narrow streets, the palm trees still flank the main church in the plaza, and homogenous groups of children in their respective uniforms dart along like schools of fish. But something feels distinct, and it isn’t just the blindingly bright days. Of all of the months, the start of April arrived, exalted. Perhaps it’s the fact that April was ushered in by Semana Santa, or Holy Week. Though Easter Sunday itself is very relaxed, the days leading up to it are filled by processions, the tradition of eating Doce Platos or twelve plates of food for each of the apostles, and elaborate alfombras, which literally means rugs, but in this case refers to huge designs that people make on designated parts of the plaza with colored sawdust.
My family from home was visiting me during this time, and I loved meshing a bit of my two worlds. I felt a sense of wholeness that my two families collided, if even for a brief period. When my family left for their flight to Lima, I couldn’t help but feel a little emptiness. But upon my return home, to my Urubamba home, I was immediately swept into the Acuña family spontaneity. Sandro drove a bunch of us in his flat bed truck to Pumawanka, to catch trout and do a cook out. Before I had time to feel the noxious symptoms of homesickness, I was playfully attempting to catch a fish with my hands, its cool body slithering through my fingers. After, I devoured freshly fried trout and played soccer with most of my extended family, slipping in the mud that betrays the last mark of the rainy season, and laughing as Luciana and Sandrito swung from a tree branch. As the sun began to set, we climbed into the truck and watched as the emerald mountains faded into dark silhouettes. When we arrived home we put on a couple of extra layers and walked to the plaza to see the procession. Hundreds of people lined the streets with candles, and following the images of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, every now and then halting to say a calm, hushed prayer in unison. I felt a shy poke on my arm and turned to see one of my students from English class with her younger sister, asking what we would be learning next. When I heard my name I looked up and saw Jen, carrying a candle in front of the Virgin Mary along with her host sisters, giving me an enthusiastic wave. When the procession passed, I went out to dinner with my host uncle, aunt, and the two volunteers that they were hosting.
I have of course, always felt included in the Acuña family. But I had never felt this much a part of it, this integrated into Urubamba. I realize that I can never have a seamless connection with them; I’m not their real daughter, or cousin, or niece. But I’m something. And they are something to me. I can’t decide if seven months feels like a long or a short time. It has certainly gone quickly. Some months seemed to evaporate as quickly as low clouds in the sun. But each of these past months has had a certain feeling. I can’t articulate exactly what it is. Perhaps it has been my pattern of slipping more and more into the belief that this is my home. Or, maybe it is the feeling that with the passage of each month, my life has changed that much more. Each day of the seven days of the weeks yields a new adventure. It could be a ziplining in the jungle, or it could be having a funny conversation with my host mother. Each to me is as valuable, each is greatly significant. I’m not entirely positive why it has taken seven months to show me that time is the most valuable resource I have, but now I will look at my evanescent seven days in a week and appreciative them as one does sunny days in a rainy season. By this weekend, I will have seven more English lesson plans to coordinate, seven more weekends to hike or explore, and seven more weeks to live in my Peruvian home. I originally thought that coming to Peru would be the hardest thing I’d ever done. But now I realize that the most challenging will be leaving it. Seven will soon turn to six, and before I even know it, six will dwindle to a daunting zero. But instead of reluctantly counting down my days, my hours, my minutes, I’m going to grip tightly to them. I will not let my time slip through my fingers like the fish at Pumawanka. I want to savor each moment like a portion of doce platos. And that way, even when I’ve finished a bite, I know that each morsel will have nourished me.
7 Spanish words you must know in Urubamba
One of the most important ways in which we have tried to integrate with the local community in Urubamba has been through the language, Spanish. We all came with different levels of Spanish, but now I can safely claim that we have all attained basic or conversational fluency. In fact, we now speak Spanglish within the group, preferring several Spanish words over their English counterparts. Now gyrate is a cognate of girar, not the other way around (pun intended). However, as we set about learning Castellano (Spanish), we found that some words, phrases, slang and constructions are more useful than others in Urubamba. Below, I have tried to single out seven of the words we have found to be essential to our experience here.
- adverb, Slang
Most phrases or sentences in Urubamba in an informal setting are bound to end with the sound pe. For example, “Vamos a ver el partido, pe”(Let´s go to watch the match, pe” Initially used as a contraction of pues, Spanish for 'then', it is used now to show familiarity between the speaker and the audience, much like 'man' in some English-speaking regions. For us, it was the distinguishing marker between informal and formal conversations. That's how we knew that our host siblings and local youth no longer considered us strangers. And we used it to build familiarity with them. It has also helped build our language confidence as when we use pe in conversations, we are using the local style of Spanish, not textbook Spanish.
In Peru, it is very common for the general public to use the diminutive suffix, -ito (or -ita for feminine objects and people), as a term of endearment. Many people call Chad Chadcito, Charlotte Carlotita and me Avaneeshito. For example, “¡Avaneeshito, pon un poquitito del azucarcito sobre la mesita al ladito de la salcita acacito, por favorcito!” (Avaneesh, please put some of the sugar on the table next to the salt here). And we know that when our host parents or host uncles or other elders of the house use the diminutive suffix, they are looking at us as a member of the family, however small, and not just a guest. And when shopkeepers and local friends hear us use it, they smile, knowing that we have imbibed their proclivity for endearment.
- adjective or adverb
“Estoy llenazo” means “I'm extremely full”, and it is possibly the phrase most essential for survival in Urubamba, as you realise when your host-mother is serving you the third helping of a plate full of lunch or when a family you worked with during service work calls you over for a meal just as you leave after accepting another family's invitation. Most Peruvians love inviting people over for all meals of the day and they follow the philosophy that “first comes the guest, even if it is a dog”. For us, invitations have been the greatest opportunity to learn about Peruvian lifestyles, but, even though one may feel bad saying no, there is only so much our stomachs can fit in!
- noun or adjective
Though the term gringo(a), referring to Americans, may be offensive in many Latin American countries, in Peru it is used as an identifier for white people, just like hindú for South Asians or chino(a) for East Asians. From my experience, in Urubamba, racism is hardly a problem. In a place where there is continuous movement of people from all races and places, such as the coast, the Andes and the rainforests of Peru, and from all continents, most people seem to live very harmoniously. And though you may be identified by what you look like, and people may be curious about your origins, for them you are just as important as their neighbour; and that has helped us integrate into Urubamba, knowing that we may be gringo(a) or hindú or china, but for the duration of nine months we are urubambinos.
As with most Latin American countries, la pichanga or soccer is a very important part of people's lives in Peru. Whether it be Peru vs. Chile for the World Cup Qualifiers or a Peruvian club league game or informal weekly Saturday afternoon games among friends, most Peruvians will have only one thing on their mind for the duration of at least 90 minutes; they are either glued to their television set or sneaking a peek in shops as they make their way to the screen at their destination. We have tried our best to take advantage of this passion, taking part in as many soccer events as possible, and we have made many friends by insulting a Chilean player when he tackles a Peruvian or by discussing the effectiveness of the strategy of Real Garcilaso (a football team in Cusco) or by arguing the case for a foul during the Saturday game; and our participation in this passion has slowly made us a few hugs and few goals closer to the Peruvian crowd.
Every weekday morning and many afternoons, we must make our way to our chamba, or workplace, to chambear, or work. For me the most important aspect of my stay has definitely been our chamba, and many of the most important discussions I have had with the locals have been regarding work, either theirs or mine. People I´ve met here expect everyone to be working, and anyone who spends even a week without work is considered lazy. Many people love to discuss and hear stories from the workplace, and these stories make up the majority of my dinner table conversations. I have learnt a lot from hearing about my host uncle's experiences in high Andean communities and my host aunt's experiences teaching in far-off villages.
nos vemos[nos veh-mos]
- affirmative phrase
When we first arrived here, many of us used the word adios to say good-bye. Soon we got accustomed to the local chau, but more importantly always ended with nos vemos (we will see each other). While Urubamba is big enough to offer everything we need, it´s a town where we bump into people we know every time we leave the house. On a typical walk from home to Spanish class, I encounter at least five Urubambans I know. And now, as we approach the end of our time here, we might be very sad that we won´t be living in Urubamba any more, but we will be leaving saying nos vemos. We will be taking all our experiences and will make sure to come back, to meet our friends and host-family that have accepted us so readily.
Whether we’re seven, or one, is a matter of perspective.
There are six members of ProPeru’s women’s group in Media Luna, plus me, the volunteer. Seven in all. But I’ve come to realize when we’re counting ourselves as 7 individuals, we are missing the ultimate goal…to be one unifed group. One group, working towards one purpose.
ProPeru’s women’s group program started four years ago with the goal of helping the economic circumstances of women in Andean communities. In this particular community, Media Luna, the group started out with 30 women, but slowly whittled down until now, only six faithful remain. The six left are the dedicated members of Maquiwan Ruwaska, an association devoted to bettering their circumstances by selling hand-made clothing in association with ProPeru.
My first day meeting the women, I was unspeakably nervous. Would I be able to understand their mix of Quechua and Spanish? Would we get along? Would my voice be heard? It wasn’t until half the year went by that I truly began considering myself a seventh member of the group. But the process of becoming that seventh member was long, sometimes very difficult…yet ultimately, the most enriching part of my experience in Peru.
For the months of September and October, my job was merely to watch and listen. Every Monday and Thursday I took a combi (crowded commuter van) to Media Luna’s community center, a collection of worn adobe buildings and two playing fields where sheep often graze and kids come out on sunny days to play pick-up soccer and volleyball. There, I was greeted by a circle of women sitting in the sun chattering, and the click-click of knitting needles rapidly dodging back and forth. The women were immediately friendly, welcoming, and curious to know all about my experiences so far in Peru. But though I felt welcomed, and I loved meeting, chatting, laughing, and sharing with them, I was busy searching for how my time with the group could answer a need. And as I observed, I began to detect a separation in the group, both between myself and the women, and within the women themselves. Soon, I realized my role as a volunteer wouldn’t be to help them learn knitting (I haven’t managed to make a single item of clothing in 7 months), or to gossip with them in Quechua, but to pursue the answer to an integral question…what will make this collection of individuals act as one unified entity? What will help solidify their identity as a group and help create momentum to carry on growing and learning as one?
After I realized this would be the focus of my work in women’s groups, I started searching for answers to point me in the right direction. A huge help was researching other groups like Maquiwan Ruwaska internationally, seeing how other small associations of disadvantaged women have been able to start and maintain successful businesses all over the word. (One amazing resource was the book Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn). Two things struck me right away: the importance of the women having ownership over their own activities, and a single acknowledged purpose. The part that concerned me and the volunteers working at the other ProPeru women’s groups was the women’s ownership of their activities. In the established model with ProPeru, ProPeru paid all the costs of production for the women: the wool, needles, teacher, everything. Through the volunteers, ProPeru also kept an inventory of the products, found new places for the women to sell, and managed the store spaces. The system was not sustainable on either end, we realized…ProPeru could not afford to keep pouring money into the materials and upkeep of the group when they could use the resources to reach more women in another community, and what good was the system doing the women, either? They were making extra income, but not learning practical skills in business and finance to maintain their success and grow even more. The system was becoming a crutch. This consensual realization led to a meeting with the director in Cuzco about creating a definite plan and timeline for the fate of the women’s group program. We created an outline with the final goal being the operational, organizational, and financial independence of the groups.
The next bridge to cross was proposing the goal to the women themselves. Their reaction was a factor I just couldn’t predict. What if they had grown too accustomed to the financial system of give and take? What if they didn’t understand the importance of really becoming an independent business, and administrating it themselves?
For all my wondering, I was in for a pleasant surprise. When I first made the announcement, there was a moment of silence, then tension. I guess all change is hard to digest in the first moments. “I don’t want you guys to think we’re just ordering you all to do this. We want to know your opinion. Honestly, what is your goal for this group? What do you want this to be? It’s going to be what you make it,” I explained, in a rush.
They discussed in Quechua for a moment, then Eva, one of the more outspoken women, turned to me. “We want to be a business, Maddie. We want to have a business and we want to make it our own,” she said firmly. The other women nodded. The next meeting, we drew up a new constitution, with the central purpose of the group being to form a small knitting business among the 6 women. The women also brainstormed a list of additional goals they wanted to focus on: advancing the quality of the products and learning how to make different products, increasing the rate of production, and improving technical capacities in the raising of small animals, environmentally-friendly and healthy gardening, business, computer skills, and English language.
It was an amazing turning point for the group. Each week, I watched the women begin to take their work and themselves more seriously, developing their will to learn and succeed. Every Monday we have a lesson in English, business, or discuss international women’s issues, like domestic violence or maternal health, and every Thursday, the women learn new ways to knit from an experienced teacher. The women even asked to have an additional English lesson every Wednesday, because they are so committed to improvement. Their continual patience and determination is a constant lesson to me, as well as their view-point on everything we discuss. They always put a more real-world perspective on the ideals I have always taken for granted about being a woman; we have debated, problem-solved, and thought critically together about issues such as the possibility of financial independence for a wife in rural areas of Peru, and how to define equality in relationships.
And as we strived toward a more unified goal, fascinatingly, each individual began to shine more and more, playing off of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Eva is not afraid to speak about an issue or raise a question; she is decisive, a natural-born leader. Rosa S is clever, has a shrewd business sense, and shines in English lessons. Margarita’s good humor and quick smile diffuses the tension in any situation. Rosa H, her sister, has the same huge heart; she can always tell if you’re having a bad day. Rosa A is loyal to a fault, misses hardly any classes, and loves to learn about other cultures. And Rebeca is by far the quickest and most experienced knitter, always helping the others who have learned to knit more recently.
Maybe 7 is not the perfect number for the group. Maybe we would produce products faster, and more efficiently, with more. Maybe there would be less arguing with fewer. But when we suggested changing the number, Eva summed up an underdog’s fearless determination, and the women’s newfound sense of purpose, with a stubborn shake of the head.
“We may be small, but we are strong.”
Maquiwan Ruwaska still has a long way to go to become independent, but I could not be more content with the progress they have made. These women have taken ownership of their dreams in a practical and concrete way, a step that most people—no matter where they’re from—rarely ever take. And I am just honored that, at least for a little while, I was able to be one of seven, watching in amazement, along for the ride.
Seven Pounds? No – seven sounds. (Siete sonidos.)
What gets me up in the mornings. Every night before I go to bed, I set the alarm on my phone, normally for 7 AM. When it starts squalling the next morning, however, I usually press “Snooze” (or “Smooze,” as the word often appears to my sleep-blurred eyes) every three minutes until I accidentally press “Stop.” Then I drop back into asleep until my actual wake-up call, courtesy of Ely (my host mother), sounds. “¡Yeni! ¿Bajas?” (Yeni! Come down?) I descend the stairs and enter the living/dining room, still scrubbing sleep from my eyes, and sit down at my place at the table. Since the new school year started, breakfast has been the only meal Ely, Tatiana (my 10-year-old sister), and I eat together; usually, Ely has already been up for hours, cooking lunch and sometimes baking cakes. Nevertheless, she still finds the energy to ask whether I slept well, what I’m up to that day, how my friends are doing. No matter how I’m feeling when I wake up, by the time breakfast ends, thanks to Ely, I’m ready to start the day on the right foot.
Laughter is the best medicine. The 11 women of Ricchariy Warmi (http://richwarm.wordpress.com), the artisan collective I work with, love to laugh. If a funny incident occurs, they’ll remember for a long time, bringing it up once in a while so that everyone can recall the incident and have a good chuckle. Initially, the primary purpose of the group was to provide a social outlet for women whose lives often revolve around their houses and their families, and it has achieved that goal, if the easy camaraderie between the members is any indication. I hesitate to assert, however, that their laughter is a “medicine” that the women need. I prefer to think of their laughter as a natural health supplement, a byproduct of their ever-deepening understanding that what others dismiss as “women’s work” is a full-time job that merits appreciation, even if it doesn’t come with a paycheck; that, in addition to everything they already do (in the house, in the fields, at their children’s schools), they can be breadwinners with the skills they’ve learned together; that they have reasons to stand proud and be examples for the daughters (and sons) who motivate their efforts. It’s a personal plus that I always leave their bi-weekly gatherings with a smile on my face.
Rrrrr. I know, in theory, how to pronounce the Spanish double r (rr): You place your tongue directly behind your upper teeth and vibrrrrrate. But I’ve come to believe that it’s physically impossible for me to execute that latter step, which is frustrating because I want to be able to speak Spanish properly. When I try, what emerges is a weak, gurgly, choppily consistent imitation of the phonetic everyone else seems to produce with such ease. “You’re doing it at the back of the throat,” concluded Reyner, my Spanish teacher. “You’d do well with French!” Tatiana has also attempted to teach me, as she herself is recently able to pronounce the troublesome sound. “Tongue behind your teeth. Now do it. It’s easy! Rrrrrr.” Ely, who has been correcting my rr’s since I arrived, offered a solution. “Not ‘aroz,’” she once admonished me. “‘A-jroz.’” For her, the rr makes a sound akin to what “jr” would make. That sound, I can make. I asked Reyner about it, and he said that that’s how some Bolivians pronounce the rr – incorrectly. Until my tongue decides to cooperate, though, I’ll take what I can get.
That music those young people like. As Ely once said, “Music is what makes Carolina [my 16-year-old host sister] happy.” I think the same could be said for Itala, another of my host sisters and Carolina’s elder by two years. Toward the beginning of the year, Carolina liked to blast Thalia and Laura Pausini and Oreja de Van Gogh when it was her turn to clean the living room. Itala would just plug in her phone, which is home to an impressive collection of Spanish and English pop and reggae and electronic. It’s thanks to Carolina and Itala that I am now well-versed in Peruvian Top 40, from “classics” like “Envídia” by Las Culisueltas to newer releases like Daddy Yankee’s “Limbo.” They’ve also taught me the dances from Combate, a popular reality TV series; sometimes we’ll start dancing in the middle of the street. Since summer vacation ended, they’ve been living in Cusco with their oldest sister Kiara, but when they come home to visit, our fourth topic of conversation (after “How are you? How’s school? Any boy drama?”) is usually initiated by “And what new music do you have to show me?”
“Tee-chair!” Aubree, Charlotte, Maddie, and I teach English for four hours every week at a local elementary school. The third-graders I have the privilege of working with are endearingly earnest and extremely enthusiastic (their preferred greeting when I enter a classroom is to drop what they’re doing and shout, “Hello, tee-chair!”), which is both gratifying and at times exhausting. Some have a heartening passion for learning English; during one class, a table of anxious girls asked me if we were going to learn more vocabulary that day. “No, not today,” I told her. Were they getting homework, then? Their faces fell when I replied again in the negative, and I vowed to have take-home worksheets ready the next time. Sometimes I feel like I’m not adequately equipped to be teaching English grammar. After all, I have zero experience helping English novices understand the tangled, twisty mass of rules that dictates how we write and speak. But I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing; it’s good for the students to gain familiarity that could set the foundation for more advanced study later on, and the experience is so rewarding for me – I love when 20 hands rocket up to answer a question, I love when a shy student (softly) answers the question correctly – that I would be loath to give it up.
“China!” (CHEE-nah). This word, which featured prominently in the individual update I wrote in December, remains one I hear every day, often in the form of a whispered exclamation. Just today, a wizened old man who was about to lift a heavy load onto his back paused in his exertions to wheeze out “Chinita!” as I passed. Being so regularly identified by how I look still doesn’t bother me, though – the last months have only confirmed my belief that it’s meant as an acknowledgment of difference and not as an insult, which it might be in the States. “China” has also established itself as my homestay family’s preferred term of affection. Even my extended family has adopted the moniker; my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandmother routinely greet me with “China!” before pulling me in for the cheek-kiss that is the standard Peruvian greeting. A term of address that used to give me pause doesn’t even make me think twice anymore before I respond with a cheery “¡Hola! ¿Qué tal?” (Hi! How are you?)
“Llevaaa.” Antojitos (“little cravings”) is a bakery/restaurant with menu items that include decent personal pizzas, one finger- (and sometimes shirt-)lickingly scrumptious sandwich, and salchipapas, which are thick-cut French fries topped with helices of hot dog and accompanied by an array of condiments. My favorite word to hear at Antojitos is “Llevaaa,” because it’s the cook’s way of summoning a waiter to serve a newly finished order, one that could be mine. Once, I brought Tatiana and Carolina to Antojito’s for salchipapas. Tatiana left very satisfied with her experience. “That was my first time eating salchipapas,” she told me elatedly as we walked home. “They’re my favorite.” A couple days later, she declared, “I used to not like hot dogs or ham, but salchipapas made me change my mind.” A couple weeks ago, I took Tatiana to Antojitos again for dinner. Clutching my arm, she expounded the many merits of salchipapas as we made our way over. Looking down at her animated face, I realized that, when we leave, I’m going to miss getting salchipapas – but what I’m going to miss more is getting salchipapas with my little sister.
The 7 Flavors of My Sorbet Course
During our orientation in August, President Shirley Tilghman related the Bridge Year Program to a “sorbet course” where you get to cleanse your pallet after high school and take part in something new before heading off to the next course of the meal of your life: Princeton. Looking back now, I have found that to be a stunningly appropriate analogy to my experience here in Peru, and the sorbet itself has had a unique flavor, or seven, of its own.
The first of these that I experienced was tangy and exotic. I had just landed in a country in which I had no past experiences, but I immediately fell in love. The language was slightly familiar, but the vocabulary and sound of the people around me was totally new. New sights, new sounds, new smells, and the food! Oh! ¡Qué rico! ¡Ají de Gallina, Locro de Zapallo, Ceviche, Pollo al Horno! Each bite I took was always better than the last, just like every day which I have spent in Peru. Each day presents something new, whether it is a new restaurant, a new friend, or a new memory which I have made.
The fresh, tangy flavor of the newness of my experience was joined by a strong, nutty taste which was most definitely brought on by the people with whom I have spent the most time: my host family and the Princeton group. My family is a good and lovable kind of crazy. We have never experienced a dull moment. Laughing, shouting, and general merriment can almost always be found at my house. When it isn’t, it can usually be explained by the family intently watching their novelas on TV. If my host family is crazy, that just means that the Princeton group is even crazier. As our supervisor once put it, we put the “fun” in dysfunctional. Each of us has our own eccentricities and quirks, but somehow we manage to get along. We have danced in the middle of the street, cried on the side of the highway at Christmas time, laughed incessantly for no apparent reason, and have otherwise had a really, really, really good time. I think we all “click” because, in one form or another, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, we are all nuts.
Alongside the nutty taste has been a lovely, savory sensation, and I mean that in both senses of the word. Through the Cleaner-Burning Stoves and Healthy Homes projects, I have been able to work with the literal salt of the earth, mixed with dirt, water, straw, and sand and make a cleaner burning stoves, a la cenas (shelves for pots and pans), and mini a la cenas for water filters. I have worked alongside some of the hardest-working people I have ever met when building stoves and shelves in high-Andean communities and I have savored every moment of it. The projects’ beneficiaries are motivated by the idea of having a room that is free of smoke, of having a place to store their pots and pans and dishes other than the ground, of having to spend less money on firewood so that they can spend more on their children. It has been exciting to see people of the communities surrounding Urubamba taking ownership of the projects and pouring their time and effort into leading a healthier lifestyle.
But that has not always been the case. Sometimes, in my experience, the people who I have built a stove for have told me that they haven’t and probably won’t use it. I can understand that it is a natural reaction for them to reject a sudden change in their lifestyle, but what I, personally, have had a hard time wrapping my head around is why some members of the communities would reject the idea of using something that would help clear the smoke out of their houses, speed up cooking time, use less fire wood, and better their health. Regardless, it has definitely left a bitter taste in my mouth on multiple occasions. That being said, there are so many houses and families in the communities in which I have worked who are very eager and willing to work with us, and thinking about that helps clear the bitter taste from my mouth. It just takes time.
And when I have needed a break from my host family and frustrations at work, we have taken trips and excursions, the added spice to the Bridge Year program. Living in a small town for nine months and going through a daily routine can get a little monotonous, and these breaks have always come at the perfect time. After I had gotten comfortable in October with everything, I got to go see a whole new world that was the rainforest in Manu National Park. When I was feeling down with November blues, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu came and saved the day. After feeling a little homesick over the Christmas holidays, there was the beach getaway in Trujillo and Huanchaco. But I don’t always have to wait for a big trip like those to get away. I have gone hiking in the mountains surrounding Urubamba to escape for the day and see some nearby ruins. I have taken the bus to the nearby town of Pisac to go swimming in a pool. All of these things have been my means of not only breaking free from the normalcy of routine, but also my chance to see and experience the extra oomph that makes Peru amazing.
What has made Peru all the more incredible, apart from everything mentioned above, has been the sweetness that comes with meeting new people from all over the globe. The Sacred Valley of the Incas is a melting pot of its own. There are many NGOs which bring people here from the four corners of the world, and there are also the hundreds upon hundreds of tourists and characters passing through to see the Cusco region and, of course, Machu Picchu. Because of this, I have befriended not only Peruvians, but Germans, Danes, Australians, other Americans, and many other people of the world. Meeting so many different people from so many different countries and backgrounds has helped to shape and expand my world view and has also helped me deal with people. I am now more comfortable putting myself out there because I know that it leads to meeting more people and having a richer experience wherever I am.
This sorbet course is probably starting to sound like an everlasting gobstopper, but that is kind of how these past seven months have felt. The flavor has kept changing constantly while maintaining its intensity and has led me to discover the last, and best, flavor of my sorbet course: fun. Because of this year, I have challenged myself to release my inhibitions and explore. I had never been hiking in the mountains, been comfortable enough to go to the gym, or really confronted a person in my life. All of that has changed in Peru. I am not the quiet, passive-aggressive robot that I felt like I was when I arrived here. I have learned a lot about myself and what I like to do. I love to go to the gym, I love meeting new people, I love to travel, and I love to cook. I went outside of my comfort zone and discovered all of those things, and that has led me to have had so much fun.
I have experienced all of the flavors mentioned above during my sorbet course and I will remember and probably crave each of them for the rest of my life. That being said, I would like to extend the words that are said when someone finishes their meal and leaves the table: “Gracias, provecho.” Thank you, and bon appétit!
When my heart skips a beat, when my breath gets taken away, when my body gets a rush of adrenaline, I know I am present. I will always remember my interview for Bridge Year last spring when I told the group of Princeton staff and Patrick (our site coordinator) that I wanted to take this year off to be present. I had spent my whole life looking ahead to where I was going, when my next test was when my next regatta would be, when I would make the next move forward. All things around me were a temporary distraction to the end goal, which was ultimately unobtainable; it was always ahead. I have kept that idea with me constantly through the past seven months. As seven is a significant number for us right now, I have thought about the seven most meaningful moments where I experienced the once foreign feeling of being, living, and loving where I am right in that moment.
Being in the middle of a torrential rainstorm is peaceful for me. Especially if I am swinging in a hammock in the middle of the jungle. This moment was in the middle of October, during our first group trip to Manu National Park. All of my dreams were seemingly coming true: I had seen monkeys in the wild, I had survived the at times terrifying cliff hugging drive to get into the park, I had felt the amazing breeze on my face as I rode a boat down the Madre de Dios river, but most importantly, I had found my own version of heaven. When we got to the Erika Lodge, it was love at first sight. The first building on the property had five hammocks covered by a tin roof. I plopped myself down in one at the first free moment and only got up when deemed necessary. One afternoon I found myself reading and journaling in a hammock, when I heard a few rain drops on the roof. Within thirty seconds, it was raining as hard as I have ever heard or seen in my entire life. There I was, sitting in this brightly colored piece of cloth, watching the river and the forest disappear behind sheets and sheets of grey rain drops. I put my book down and just watched and listened in awe. I was dry under this roof, but everything else around me was drenched in the power of the rain. As most raging storms do, it cleared away within a half hour. But I sat there for so much longer, watching the surrounding jungle once again take shape around me. During that storm, maybe my thoughts were drowned out by the sheer volume and force of the rain, but most likely, I just wanted to sit in my hammock and be engulfed by the storm - dry in the rain, quiet in the noise.
Now that we have spent more than 7 months together, BYP Peru 4.0 has made its own language. One of those words being "comeup." When we have had to explain that phrase to other volunteers, we have used the definition "an unexpected, but very good thing." The only word that comes to mind when I think of the best party I have been to in Peru is a comeup. Maddie, Jen, and I were seeking shelter from a rainstorm when we knocked on Chad's door. From all of the ballons that were hanging from the ceiling, boxes of beer in the hall, and food on the table, we knew we had intruded on what would soon be a party. It was only the beginning of October, and we loved Chad's family, but didn't know them well enough to be included in family functions. So Maddie and I took to Chad's room, just hoping to ride out the storm and then head home. But soon we were pulled out of the room, and into the whirlwind three year old's party. We danced the "Chuchuwah" (a Peruvian children’s song that was made to make everyone look ridiculous), we ate mountains of food, wore Mikey and Miney Mouse ears and clown noses, and smiled for hours on end. During this time, I realized that a) Peruvian children's birthday parties are the best, and b) why would I ever sit in a dark room when there was something so much more fun going on outside? We still talk about this party and hold it in a very high regard. It was such a comeup.
It was the first time my hair had been dry in over 100 hours, and I was elated. Of course the Inca Trail was as amazing as everyone had said, of course Machu Picchu was as breathtaking, but no one had told me that the simple action of sitting on a bench would bring such peaceful pleasure. After our adventure in the beginning of December, we were all packed up and ready to go back to Urubamba. We had all survived the rain, the stairs, the long days, and were situated in one way or another in the Plaza of Aguas Calientes, a town that was described as "authentic as Disneyland." The girls were sitting on a bench, and just talking. The past four days had been an exhausting and rewarding experience... the stairs that never ended, the moments where we thought we would die, the moments where we thought we were invincible... but we finally took a stop in this plaza. Sitting here and talking about everything and nothing at the same time was the perfect way to end the trip we had heard so much about. We were a bus ride away from one of the seven wonders of the world, and a short walk away from the first restaurant that advertised nachos since arriving in Peru. But all I wanted to do was sit on the bench, take a few deep breaths, talk to my friends, and let the world move around me.
This was the first Christmas of my life I was not exactly looking forward to. I was excited to experience the Peruvian traditions and meet the rest of my extended family, but I couldn't shake the longing to be home where the rest of my family was celebrating the Christmas that I had been used to for the past eighteen years. But when I finally got to Cuzco, met all of the aunts, uncles, and cousins I had heard so much about, I was all about Christmas Cheer. Instead of being by myself, reading, or sleeping all afternoon until midnight (the most important part of a Peruvian Christmas) I was in the kitchen, talking to my relatives, eating the traditional food, and spending time with my family. When the Christmas clock struck midnight, I was engulfed in hugs, I stumbled through the lord's prayer in Spanish, I lit firecrackers to hold over the nacimiento (nativity scene), and didn't even realize we could have easily burnt my grandparents' house down. And that was just the beginning. As soon as I stepped outside, the sky was lit up with more fireworks than I have seen in my entire life. I was too busy looking up to even notice that my host grandfather was lighting a very noisy firework about 3 feet from the house, the cracking noise was deafening. The Feliz Navidad cheer was literally lighting up the night. On Christmas morning, I cooked in the kitchen with my mom, sister, cousin, and aunts. I spent all day just talking and enjoying the company. It was a Christmas that I will never forget. I also realized that those two days were the first time I had spoken only Spanish, and never in a million years would I ever think I would spent Christmas with people I had only just met, in a language I only just learned.
I have grown up near the ocean, always near bodies of water. There is no lack of water here seeing as we are in the end of the rainy season, but not being able to swim was a very weird feeling. But that is what made our trip to Huanchaco so much more special. I was looking out of the plane window when I saw the ocean for the first time in months, and I immediately got Goosebumps. When we were driving to our hostel in Huanchaco, and we saw the rolling waves for the first time, I could barely contain my excitement. There was a collective sprint to get into our rooms and into our bathing suits. The sprinting didn't stop until we were in the ocean. The next few days we spent at the beach were great. Eating fresh food, swimming in the ocean, watching the sunset over the ocean, and just sitting in the sand. It was a nice change of scenery, boats and sand instead of mountains and llamas, and it was exactly what we needed in the beginning of January. Trips like these make coming back to Urubamba, our new and beloved home, so special.
Birthdays are the best days. We have made a calendar so we have a birthday every month that we are here, so some of us BYPer's have fake birthdays. We made a calendar so we would have one group members birthday every month. My real birthday was on March 16th, and it was the best birthday I have had in my 19 years on earth. I don’t think I have ever felt so appreciated in my entire life, both by my fellow volunteers and my host family. Everyone was invited to an elaborate lunch that started with a poem recital by my little host brother and cousin. What followed can only be described as the most efficient Peruvian party of all time. We ate a wonderful meal and listened to many funny stories. The gifts I received were the most thoughtful and hilarious gifts I have ever gotten, including a book and a musical biography. After I had a cake shoved in my face, and had my family and friends sing me both "happy birthday" and "feliz cumpleanos", the party naturally flowed into a dance party, where all of the most popular songs in Peru were played. I even got to teach my little host brother the Gangnam Style dance. I always look forward my birthday, not because I get presents or anything like that; I look forward my birthday because it usually brings the people I love together, which is exactly what happened this year.
The seventh moment I have chosen to highlight isn't really a moment per say. When I think of my most favorite memories from our time as a group in Peru, they are the moments when all of us are together laughing. When we are all sitting together, whether it is on a trip, or just in the office during reflection. We were once seven individual people who met at Princeton last September, and now we have formed a group together that I don't think anyone could really understand unless they were here with us through it all--through the rain storms, the host family functions, the hikes, the holidays, the trips, the parties, and the one million other things we have done together as a group. We have managed to stay present together, and hopefully will continue to savor every moment through Princeton and beyond.
Seven curls from an extended arm to a 90 degree elbow. Seven curls from 90 degrees the rest of the way up. Seven full curls. String them together without any rest in between, and you’ve got yourself Twenty-Ones, an arm numbing, muscle twisting bicep exercise that is the masochistic highlight of my workout routine. By the time I’m at the last of my group of seven curls, it would not be uncommon for a person walking by Luis Gym to hear my grunts and screams coming from the cement-floored, subterranean workout palace of sweat and metal.
Six days a week, I head down the steps below the sign of a freakishly jacked cartoon body builder (is that a head somewhere in there, of just another bulge of muscle?), to Louis Gym, “El motor del exito deportivo”. Some days I’ll suffer through sit ups; on others I’ll barley squeeze out a last rep on the bench press. Once in a while I’ll work out my back to the point where I waddle out of the gym, and on very rare occasions I’ll send a bench crashing through a mirror after a pull-up gone terribly wrong, sending shards of glass flying everywhere (let’s hope that THAT doesn’t happen again). But through all of the pain, I’ve grown to love working out. I’ve made tons of Peruvian friends in the gym – Andres, Ivan, Manuel, Ernesto, to name a few – and my time there is a time for me to turn my brain off and have some time to myself between service assignments, Spanish class, and playing with my host brothers.
But the great thing with my work here in Peru, is that many days, I don’t need to go the gym to get a workout that could give P90X a run for its money. Between moving dozens of adobe bricks to build an ala cena for a Healthy Homes assignment to transporting overflowing bags of sawdust and clay for filters to mixing barro with a pick axe for Cleaner Burning Stoves, a day on the job here is very different from the sedentary daily routine that I’ve been used to. Rather than leaving proud of my ability to do a hard day’s labor, however, I often leave humbled by the thoughts of the immense amounts of work that many Peruvians do every day, and how effectively the do it, both of which I could never match even after a lifetime of going to the gym!
In rural agrarian communities such as Tamboccocha or Pac’cha, most days involve a day on the chakra or farm and tending to one’s animals. This usually means an early wake up; just for an example, the Agricultural Committee in Tamboccocha meets at five in the morning. A day of work in Tamboccocha involves seeing residents pushing wheelbarrows, carrying spray packs of pesticides, or wielding a pickaxe and shovel. It is rare to see mechanical farming equipment – bulls are used to plow the soil, donkeys to carry loads, and crops are harvested by hand. Let’s not forget to mention that sneakers or work boots are nowhere to be found – instead, blister-inducing, open toed sandals made by hand from tire scraps called ojotas seem to be the footwear of choice. Add a searing hot midday sun, some biting flies, and 10,000 feet of elevation to the mix, and you have a day of work that would have me passed out on the ground gasping for air in an hour or two, let alone a whole day.
I don’t even have to go to out-of-the-way communities to see the incredible capacity that many Peruvians have for work. As in many towns, the community of Tarapata, in which I am doing my individual project, has fayna days. A fayna is when dozens of residents – men and women - come together to work on a single project, like a soccer field, or a series of smaller public projects, such as maintaining roads or installing a pipe line. During a recent fayna day there, I got the help of a few residents to dig half meter deep holes as part of the construction for a future fence. As I was still awkwardly chipping away at the rocky earth for my first hole, my Peruvian work companion had already moved on to his third. Events like this were nothing new to me. To name another example, after Aubree, Avaneesh, and I had spent a solid half hour trying to cut through a piece of wood in a roof, ProPeru Stoves Director Ober comes and cuts the remaining 60 percent in less than three minutes. What exercise can I do at the gym so that I can do that?
For many rural Peruvians, a hard day of physical work has been the reality from a very young age. Indeed, the immense pressures of agrarian life often require school-age children to stop going to their classes in order to help their families in the chakra. With this in mind, perhaps it is not a surprise that a T.V. watching, car driving teenager from suburban New York can count on being smoked by a Peruvian half my size (or half my age) when it comes to most physical tasks. Even so, I can’t help but approach the Peruvians I encounter during many workdays with humility and respect towards the immense work that they put into getting from one day to the next. What’s more, I’ve gained a new perspective on the meaning of difficulty and hard work, and I’ll be sure to keep it in mind whether I’m on a day of Stoves, dealing with the challenges that I will soon face in college, or suffering through the pain that I’m sure to encounter the next time I do Twenty-Ones.