Update from Peru - April 2011
Therefore, I came to Peru not necessarily because of, but definitely with a sense of guilt for the luxury into which I’d been born. Perhaps, at least at the start, I thought that during this bridge year, shifting my life’s focus from “I” – spending my time and energy preparing myself for university – to the “other” – spending my time working to improve the lives of those around me – would help to assuage that guilt. But in reality, this shift did nothing of the sort. In fact, the more I time I spent in Peru, the more my guilt had grown.
Edy is 22. He spends his time earning money by making pizzas at the local bar that has evolved into our PBY group’s hang-out spot. He lives alone, and has fended for himself since the day he found his mother dead at the age of 4. His father is the town drunk.
At the beginning, Edy didn’t particularly like me, to the point that he refused my Facebook friend request. More specifically, he thought that I was engreida (spoiled); every time I spent money in his presence, I felt like the thought I was doing so in a careless way. He resented the fact that while my parents supported me, he had to work for everything himself.
It at first seemed unreasonable for Edy to harbor these feelings against me. I hadn’t done anything wrong, and he never gave me a chance. It was neither my merit that earned me the support of my parents, nor his fault that he had lived almost his entire life alone. Neither of us, nor anyone I’ve encountered, deserved the lives we had been unknowingly thrust into, and that isn’t fair.
I felt guilty, therefore, for having what Edy didn’t. I felt guilty because the world was unjust, and I was powerless to do anything about it. I try my best every day in my service project to provide women in Media Luna with more options in their lives, but in reality, nothing I could ever do would completely level the proverbial playing field – because that injustice in the world runs too deep to be rectified.
My host dad, Rogelio, is one of my favorite people I’ve met in Peru. Not only does he make me an elaborate fruit salad for breakfast every morning reflecting the 15 years he worked at hotels in Machu Picchu, but also his astute and witty comments always make our conversations enjoyable.
During our long talks that follow the meals we eat together, the topic of money frequently comes up. Through his work at Machu Picchu, he’s come into contact with countless foreigners (including the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Shakira), and therefore has a good idea of the vast amounts and varying degrees of wealth that exist in the world. However, I still find myself regularly lying to him about the cost of things when he asks, and I attribute those lies to my guilt for having such money in the first place.
Lying about how much money I spent while living in Michigan is actually a lot more than just lying about the cost of things, though. In order never to disclose the true price of anything, I found myself lying about various aspects of my life: I told him that my mom just works in the house instead of telling him her real profession as a dentist; I told him that I just played on my school’s soccer team and that we rent our uniforms instead of telling him about my club soccer experience, and the new uniforms we buy every three years; I told him that all I did this past summer was sleep, earning me the nickname Bella Durmiente (Sleeping Beauty), because I couldn’t tell him about boating on the lake or golfing at the country club.
I felt guilty for lying, but even guiltier for my wealth. But the worst of it all was that I felt like I was falsifying our relationship. Even though we had spent so much time each week talking, I began to think that our entire relationship was built on an elaborate tangle of lies. There were so many crucial aspects of my life and of myself that my guilt prevented me from sharing with him. And because I could never bring myself to reveal the truth about such things, I believed he would never know who I really was. And how can you have a relationship when so much is kept hidden? As a result, I began to suspect that transitively, every relationship I had established in Peru was a lie.
Antonia seems intimidating, even cold. With her relatively large stature and brusque manner of speaking, I felt uneasy at first looking her in the eye – that is, the one eye she still had; she lost the other in an accident. So I was especially nervous for our Week in the Life, a part of our Bridge Year experience where we each lived with families in one of the two relatively rural communities where we do most of our project work, but not because I was afraid the living conditions would be too uncomfortable to bear, or that I wouldn’t be able to shower for a week. I was nervous because I was unsure if I would really be able to connect with anyone, or if I would be able to establish genuine relationships.
The original plan for Eleanor and me staying in Chicón was to live with our families while working on constructing bathrooms for the soccer field. However, some logistical issues out of our control prevented us from getting the project underway. Instead, we spent the week shadowing one member of our families, in an attempt to get to know the campesina (rural) lifestyle.
My family’s name was Sallo Gil. With Tito (the papá), Antonia (the mamá), four brothers, two sisters, a cousin, and a godson all living in the same house, I was in good company.
Together with Antonia, I woke up at 4 in the morning. We first brought in logs from outside the house, and while I unsuccessfully attempted to split a single log to add to the fire on the stove, Antonia swiftly finished chopping them all, and then mine. And although it was still dark, we gingerly crept down the steep rocks behind the house to the river where she filled a large bucket with water and brought it back up to wash the dishes from last night’s dinner. We prepared a breakfast consisting of bread with butter, mate de habas (tea made from ground beans), rice, French fries, and a fried egg (The boys need a lot of energy for their day–she told me). Antonia averaged six potatoes for every one I managed to peel (in addition, she also had to re-peel a few of mine because I hadn’t managed to get all the skin off). ¡Te gané otra vez! – she said every time she finished one. I beat you again! After serving each of the other members of the family, we finally sat down at the table for breakfast. When all the kids had left for school, and the older boys left to work in the chacra (field), I already felt tired, and it was still just 7 a.m.
Throughout the day that continued much like the morning, Antonia’s seemingly cold disposition became very warm and friendly. She was excited to share her life with me, and was so proud to introduce me to any of her neighbors we happened to encounter. After breakfast, we took the bucket filled with all the left-overs from the day before, mixed in two scoops of flour, and fed the pigs. While I peeled and grated about three carrots, Antonia finished washing all the dishes, chopped onions, skinned the chicken, and then proceeded to put water on the stove to boil (granted, my hands were already tired from peeling potatoes). While we waited for lunch to cook, we prepared the corn kernels to be made into chicha (Peruvian corn beer). In this process, Antonia had to heave the huge piles of corn kernels wrapped in a tarp outside to dry in the sun. When lunch was ready, we left to bring lunch to the boys working in the field. She hauled the big metal pots of food and the jug of chicha, following the winding path up the mountain, while I carried the plates and silverware. Ser mujer es fatal, she confessed after we served the boys and we finally sat down to knit and rest under a tree. Being a woman is grueling.
Spending the week with Antonia allowed me to forge a unique kind of relationship. If any money-related questions came up, I was easily able to feign ignorance not just because of our occupation with preparing the food, but more than that, because the questions of wealth were really not of that much importance. Antonia was not bound by the materialistic values that seemed to enslave me. She wanted to share the struggles – the grueling nature – of her life as a woman in the countryside with me, another woman, and we built our relationship on that. The wealth I had didn’t matter. What I took away from our connection and our relationship as two women went deeper than the things I always felt compelled to hide. Instead of gauging our relationship on how much of my life back in the States she could understand, I learned to base our relationship on the similarities we held as women.
Through my relationship with Edy, I have become acutely aware of the negative way in which wealth can be perceived if one does not carefully monitor his or her actions. I now make sure not to pay with 100 sol bills at his bar (Peruvian currency is in Nuevo Soles, with 2.79 soles equivalent to every 1 USD) but more than that, I try to show him that my different upbringing didn’t necessarily make me a bad person. I began to share with him all of the treats my parents “spoiled” me by sending. His favorites are the peanut butter m&m’s, but really, he enjoys all the sweets I surprise him by bringing to his work every once in a while. He now stops me every time I pass the bar where he works, just to chat. We recently went on a group hike that Edy led to a nearby town to pick fruit, and Edy and I have plans to go biking together soon. And although we, as products of our upbringing and cultures, are so different, I no longer feel that our relationship is restricted because I have something that he doesn’t. We are now friends.
Like Antonia, I think the Peruvians that I’ve met in general don’t think much of the difference between their wealth and mine. Rogelio’s questioning of the cost of things is driven by curiosity, and I’ve never once gotten the feeling he feels bad knowing others have more than he does. In reality, it was just I who was uncomfortable with my wealth, and didn’t share details of it for that reason. But whether I choose to hide my wealth or not, I know that my relationship with Rogelio is not a lie. Our relationship is that between a father and daughter, and our conversations about celebrities, the ones he’s met and ones that need to give up some of their wealth to help others, reflects a relationship unrelated to money and materialism. The things that I had kept hidden, the ones I once thought were so crucial to my identity, are beginning to fall away as superfluous. With Rogelio, I am no longer the soccer player who drove her car to school, and who spent her summer swimming, boating, and golfing. I am a daughter. Perhaps I will begin to share those parts of my life with him little by little as my guilt allows, because it is only that, and not Rogelio’s potential uneasiness, that prevents me from doing so.
My Week in the Life made me realize that it’s more than just the cliché materialistic values that need to be changed. Because becoming less materialistic is more than just cutting down on what you spend and realizing that you can be happy with less: it means finding your identity by terms that extend beyond materialism. The money I possess and the things I do with it don’t define me. Rather, I am a woman, a daughter, and a friend.
My guilt for my wealth and my anger at the world’s injustices can never be assuaged: in fact, they’re constantly renewed by my daily interactions with those around me. And it is partially because of that guilt that I swear to continue to work hard in my service projects. So I go to sleep at night but not before sitting around for hours talking and drinking mate (tea) with my host family, all the while deepening my relationships. Because building relationships has been both the best reminder of the injustice, and the best motivator to try to correct it.