Final Group Update from Peru
Once a week, every Friday for the past nine months, our little group has gathered for a morning of planning, reflection, and tea. Prominently featured in these Friday sessions is the sketchbook-- a group journal where we each draw out a weekly highlight. Pictures range from crude, cave-and-charcoal style stick figures to vibrant, sprawling landscapes, but they always represent something important to us. Today, we've each picked an important design to share.
Ah, the humble Pico. I've seen this versatile tool used to solve countless problems. There is no ditch that it can not dig, no ground that it can not level, and no snake that it can not kill. It is the multi-purpose wonder tool beloved by all Peruvians. And snake-fearing volunteers. When we need to dig a foundation, it is a pico that chips away the clay-ish earth. When we find rocks marring our would-be volleyball field, it is the pico that pries, breaks, or scrapes them out-- and when snakes come slithering, it is a sharp pico that they must confront. The pico: with a pointy end for picking and a flat end for everything else, it's the perfect implement of constructive destruction.
The Pico made it into the sketchbook to honor my recently-acquired pico skills. I've been practicing a lot. This is partly because I've been working intensely on park construction in Media Luna, and partly because bashing inanimate materials with a pico is an excellent way to vent frustration. Not all has gone smoothly with the park.
Our innocent-sounding little park project came into being after a community diagnostic revealed a lack of activities for woman and children. The solution seemed like straightforward: a volleyball field for the women, and a playground for the children. The people of Chicon seemed to agree. A poll ranked the park as the most popular of proposed projects, so we decided to build it. At this point, you astute readers may be puzzling over the inconsistency between towns. Did not, you may be asking, the name of the community change between paragraphs 2 and 3 from Media Luna to Chicon? Indeed it did. After various bureaucratic problems we chose to move the park to Media Luna. The list of setbacks goes on. Highlights include:
-A machine that was supposed to move and break rocks-- but instead was broken by rocks and unable to move.
-A teeter totter that both teeters and totters, but also threatens to bend under the weight of any portly children.
-An adorable but unrelenting gang of kids that fiddle with playground equipment sitting in wet concrete.
-Rojo Bermellon, a shade of paint that turns out not to be a shade so much as a suggestion, an insinuation that the color inside the can may, with luck, lie somewhere between orange and purple.
-Azul electrico, a shade of paint that, although always a nice electric blue, seems to vary in voltages between cans, creating a sort of sky colored camouflage effect on our slide.
-A very, very large rock
Nevertheless, we progress. Every morning, I stuff myself into a combi (the minivan-like means of public transportation in Peru) and ride over to Media Luna to slowly haul, paint, smash, shovel, measure, and pray the park into existence. So far, we've built a stone retaining wall, leveled a field, and ordered, painted, and installed playground equipment. But much remains. The field needs to be covered in grass, the volleyball poles need to be set in cement, and everything needs more paint. Everything always needs more paint. The to do list is surpassed only by the wish list, which includes things like benches, flower beds, and national legislation to regulate paint shades. This final week, we'll give it our proverbial all. We'll get as much done as possible--and then we won't be able to do any more. And that sentiment right there is an odd one for me.
In high school, I was never quite one of those eye-twitching, caffeine-fueled super-stressors-- but I wasn't too far off either. I had fun, I even let loose (rarely) but my primary motivation was anxiety. I sweated the small stuff and picked the nits. I found that the more I was worried about something, the harder I worked on it; stress was my motivation. Somehow, that tendency has withered in the park. It was a gradual process, revealed in the slow mellowing of my pico swing and the unfurrowing of my brow. I can't say how it happened, not exactly, but I have my suspicions. I think that the stress-as-fuel system was overwhelmed in the chaos of problems and uncertainties. I think that one can only tap a nervous foot so many times while waiting for a machine that won't show or a slide that won't get welded or a president that won't call back.
At some point, one has no choice but to settle into the Peruvian timetable, where people are like wizards-- they are never late because they arrive precisely when they intend to. A timetable where projects get started just about when everyone is ready, and get finished just in time for lunch. I've started to settle in, and I'm getting comfortable. Now, I'm motivated to work because I enjoy chatting with Senor Francisco (our Peruvian coworker) or because I secretly hope that children will stop by again to ask about the park. I sometimes still feel tugged to action by stress or anxiety, but more often, I just enjoy watching the park slowly take form beneath our picos. I'd never been able to feel both content and productive before-- it is gloriously peaceful. Some old foundations of my personality have been picked away by the problems and confusions of the park project. They were cleared out (or at least swept aside) to make way for a new attitude, a low key, laissez-faire, do-what-you-can-and-accept-what-you-can't approach. I'm excited to take it home with me.
The humble Pico. Its function is simple. It bashes away at things with an opposing and overwhelming force—tearing them apart like an obvious metaphor in a class of high-achieving English majors. It rips down the old to make way for the new. That is constructive destruction.
Update: The author (with the help of many wonderful and attractive people) has since finished the volleyball field. The park was inaugurated with rice pudding and the laughter of small children-- as all great things are. The author has retired to his home state of Alaska, where he passes his time safely drinking tap water and introducing invasive species.
Our first view of the Chicón Glacier back in September as we sped across the Maras Plateau to our new home in Urubamba took my breath away. I had never seen such a beautiful mountain, its snowy peak set starkly against the clear blue sky of the Sacred Valley winter. “We’re going to climb that after the rainy season, “ Steph, our diva-licious coordinator, informed us. I almost laughed- my head hadn’t stopped throbbing from the altitude since we landed in Cusco a week before. How was I ever going to climb one of the tallest mountains in the region? As the months passed, Chicón loomed over my head like a challenge. As the rains came and went, I threw myself into project work, Spanish, and living la vida urubambina. All too soon, the year was drawing to a close, and the day to scale Chicón came. Hikes to Chicón aren’t attempted often, and many people wanted to come. Our little group soon grew to more than thirty Peruvians, Mexicans, U.S. Americans, dogs, children, men, and women, young, and old. By the time the sun was just peeking over the summit thousands of meters above our heads, we had begun the ascent. The next two days of hiking were filled with the most incredible views I have ever seen, lots of laughter, pouring rain, some very bizarre dreams miles above sea level, burning calves, and several of my favorite memories from my time in Peru.
It’s not very interesting to tell you how hard it is to climb a mountain just like it’s not very profound to tell you that a year like this can be difficult at times. But when we reached the summit, just like when we looked back on our year in Peru, what I love the most is that we saw exactly the same thing: Que belleza. There were no varied cultural perspectives, no differences of opinion. The hike to the glacier meant something different to each of us. To me, Chicón is a breathtaking mountain that has towered over my home for the past nine months. For Goya, the incredible president of the women’s group that I work with, it is a sacred Apu-god that protects the valley where she has lived her entire life. Chong, Helena, Claire, Kenny, and I came to Urubamba from three different countries for five very different reasons. Throughout our year here, Chong played soccer, Helena danced salsa, I painted, Kenny cooked, and Claire hiked. We have each had our own relationships and experiences here but when we turn the final curve and see the glacier spread out before us, we see only the splendor. And for those out there asking for a little more from my stretched-thin metaphor, a fair amount of cultural exchange took place on our hike to Chicón. Ober, a dear friend and guide, offered a prayer in Quechua to Apu Chicón, and Kenny and I shared the proud Alaskan and Midwestern tradition of sledding on plastic bags.
I thought that I would feel a sense of accomplishment, even pride, after reaching the summit. But Chicón, like Peru, was not something to be achieved. The hike was nothing more or less than a very beautiful and challenging experience. I have walked away from both Chicón and Peru with a great sense of wonder, contentment, gratitude, and the friendship of the people with whom I experienced the journey.
During my nine months here in Peru, I have discovered many interesting features that the Spanish language offers. For instance, the only difference between “were to speak (hablara)” and “will speak (hablará)” is a little cap on top of the second “a,” known also as the accent. Spanish is strictly phonetic as well, meaning that the pronunciation of a word can be easily derived from how it is spelled. The single most fascinating characteristic of Spanish, though, has to be the multi-meaning verb deber. Usually, words with various definitions aren’t of much concern to me. After all, I would never misinterpret river bank as a financial institution used by rivers. Deber, however, is a different story. This two-syllable-five-letter term is actually the root of two similar yet by no means interchangeable words: should and must. I confuse the conjugations on a regular basis, turning suggestions into orders and vice versa. My Peruvian counterparts, on the other hand, have found a viable, if not impeccable solution to this problem: treat the two as one definition.
One early morning in January, our volunteer coordinator Joe and I were waiting at the grifo, the only gas station in Urubamba, to be picked up by a truck. The plan was to bring back from Cusco materials necessary for the cleaner burning stoves that we construct in local communities. The stoves project, having been in stagnation for more than a month due to changes in key leadership positions, was finally ready to reinitiate, and my desire to give it a strong restart had, surprisingly, triumphed my urge to stay in bed.
The truck driver, however, was not as pumped as I was. “Debo llegar en cinco minutes,” he promised us to arrive within 5 minutes when we called. Little did we know that every minute of his didn’t actually contain more than sixty seconds. By the time he pulled over next to us it was already two hours and five phone calls later. “Buenos Dias,” he greeted us with an expression same as that of a child who just broke a priceless vase. I greeted him back with the countenance of the child’s parents.
Our truck arrived at the factory in Cusco around eleven thirty. A little inquiry with a worker revealed that the place was a group of individual workshops and that the owner of the workshop we were looking for had not shown up yet. “She’ll be here any minute,” he assured us, but we had already learnt from the incident earlier in the day not to trust guarantees like this. After another round of calling, this time more frequent and aggressive, the Señora came running up to us just before one o’clock, panting like having finished a marathon.
We were on the move again, but more trouble lied ahead in our path, literally. A truck four times the size of ours was parked in the center of the road, being loaded with bags of cement. Our owner checked out the situation and concluded that we would have to detour using the other road. What she failed to mention was that this other road was a combination of rock, mud, and holes. Praying for the tires to not give in, we gradually rollercoastered our way to the destination. Victory seemed at hand.
“Come out everybody, we got a truck to load!” When the bellow was answered only by its own echo, the worst case scenario flashed through my head. “These lazy workers, they must have fallen asleep waiting,” the owner tried calming me down, dashing off in search of her employees. She returned only to realize my horror, explaining in embarrassment how the workers thought that the rained out roads would have forced us to come back and therefore did not come.
“No worries, Señora. We will just load the materials onto the truck ourselves.” Joe responded after the explanation, not recognizing that his words would forecast our actions for the next five hours.
“We will?” I asked in desperation, hoping at least to explore other possible options.
“We sure will. At this point, Chong, I would make the materials for us to bring back.” Joe answered assertively, picking up the first brick and tossing it my way.
The experience, other than making it into our beloved sketchbook and giving me nightmares related to manual labor, enlightened me that the concepts “should” and “must” might not be as different as they sound. That day presented so many opportunities for us to go home and return the day after, but all we needed to get the job done was a little determination and a lot of bicep movement.
It is a Tuesday in May, and I have just finished building one of my last galpones, or guinea pig huts, in Peru. The apparently delicious guinea pigs that had been scampering around the kitchen getting each other and the family sick are now sectioned off in neat mesh squares. At this point in the day, maybe a bit before noon, it would have made sense for me to pack up my saw, hammer, and chisel and continue on. I could have done follow-up visits of previously constructed galpones, helped Kenny and MI plant one handful of grass at a time for the park, or put together the women’s group accounting training for that afternoon. Instead, however, I find myself accepting a cup of muña tea with Lourdes, a weaver, mother of two troublemaking boys, and proud citizen of Media Luna.
During my first few months in Peru, I drew an artificial line between work and social time. I adored and was fascinated by my chance conversations in Media Luna, but would always give the immediate priority to my structured projects. I have always respected people who got things done: critical thinkers who could translate ideals into action. Despite valuing grassroot, personal impacts, the quantifiable information that validated it was always more significant.
And yet nine months into Peru I am ignoring that very reasoning and talking about Lourdes’ children for more than a half hour as we wait for a pot of potatoes to boil. I have no idea what time it is, but suspect I will have another lunch waiting for me at home in the near future. I do not even blink, as I would have upon arriving, when she serves a whopping six potatoes to me and another six to herself. I just wipe off my hands and eat them, slowly, making plans to meet up for a large nighttime mountaintop pilgrimage the following weekend. Work can wait.
When I describe the women's artisan group I work with to friends and family in the US, I am tempted to emphasize the more active parts of my week, the parts that I would have appreciated coming from that environment: increasing sales, buying materials, and accounting. Though those are important and time-consuming parts of my life, it ignores what I have come to consider the core of my work: the many afternoons I spend just sitting and knitting with the women. The time spent being together truly is what connects the women to each other, has led me to build a friendship with six spectacular women, and allows me to keep my work genuine.
As an eighteen-year old foreigner, I can hardly pretend that I have the authority or insight to tell the group or the community in general where it should go and how it should get there. And in the end it takes time to develop the group in a collaborative way, to understand their lives, and to contribute to make the group a social release as much as a source of extra income. After hours upon hours sitting on opposing sides of an irrigation ditch when it is not raining (which despite being a region with a rainy season, is most of the time) and joking about their children, sharing recipes, and listening to poisonous spider horror stories, I have found myself with the friendships and trust we need for me to contribute what I can.
When I first arrived, I hesitated, unsure of how to certify that my decisions would not be weirdly culturally imperialistic, and it took me longer than it should have to recognize that investing myself in connecting to the community would not happen overnight. I could not have begun to try if I had not had those three months of intensive diagnostics to understand the community’s priorities, strengths, and needs; or the freedom to spend dozens of full afternoons sitting with women in Media Luna; or a group of four other students and rockstar coordinator Stephanie Kraemer that pushes itself to question what we are doing, to reevaluate, to step back, and to sometimes sacrifice efficiency for cultural sensitivities. In my mind, it is just time that separates my last year from the international volunteers I was so skeptical of in high school, the ones that came back from exotic corners of the world with photos, a tan, and a light anecdote about all the good they had done. I understand, as cliché as it is, that I got more out of my time in Peru than I contributed; that I probably veered away from some cultural norms more than once; and that I have still hardly scratched the surface of the culture and history of Urubamba and Media Luna. I also know, however that I am not just connected to this place, I am attached to it, and that that attachment has come with time. More than anything, I am grateful for having had that luxury.