Rain, rain, go away…

It’s still rainy season here in Perú, that wonderful time of year where anytime from Late November to late April some amount of rain falls upon the Sierra. Why is it called rainy season, you may ask? Well, essentially the entire annual allotment of precipitation falls across 5-6 months and at no other point during the year (at least here in Ancash). During a typical rainy season, one can expect rain almost every single day, usually starting in the early-to-late afternoon, and continuing for several hours into the evening. Intensity can vary, but I want to be clear; it is very common for it to rain EVERY SINGLE DAY! For all intents and purposes, this year’s rainy season hasn’t been too bad (it only rained fiercely in March/April), but it has been long (still going strong right now).

However, Perú’s climate has been greatly affected by climate change, and the once consistent rains have now become more scattered; sometimes the rains don’t show up until January, sometimes the rains stay until May (like now), and sometimes the rains don’t come at all. This inconsistency creates many challenges for the local people, especially here in the Sierra, who are dependent on the rains for many aspects of their livelihoods. You see, the start of the rainy season coincides with the end of the school year, meaning that students have several months off in before classes start again in March. In rural areas, this allows for the students to help their families prepare and plant the family plots, taking advantage of the free rainfall. Since many rural families here in Ancash are dependent on agricultural production for food and for income, a consistent rainy season is necessary for the family wellbeing. To illustrate, two years ago many parts of Ancash received little to no rain which resulted in the loss of an entire growing season and consequently many economic and water crises for many rural communities and families. So you see, the cycle of life here in Ancash, revolves around the rains.

The rainy season is vitally important to everyone’s livelihood here in the Sierra, but it can represent a challenging time for our Peace Corps Volunteers. Since classes are out for the summer months and most Volunteers work with schools, we tend to have lots of free time but little other work. And for us Volunteers, our work is essential to our wellbeing. We have a phrase here in Peace Corps Perú, “Un Voluntario felíz es un Voluntario que tiene trabajo” (a happy Volunteer is one with work). Additionally, rainy season can make travel challenging or even dangerous, meaning one may be stuck in their regions for extended periods of time, isolated from other Volunteers, or unable to enjoy a vacation while the workload is low.  Landslides (huaycos) aren’t uncommon during the rainy season and in fact, during this past March, we had a large landslide take out part of the highway connecting Huaraz to Lima. And last year, during the El Niño Phenomenon, all coastal PCVs had to be evacuated due to heavy flooding, and those of us in Ancash were “trapped” because the highway to Lima had been washed out.

But, I think the most challenging aspect of the rainy season is just the rains themselves. A consistently rainy atmosphere can just depress the mood, especially since the rains are often non-stop, day after day. For some Volunteers, it can be days or weeks before they see a small glimmer of blue sky amongst the ocean of grey rain clouds. Try to imagine. Now don’t get me wrong, I love the rain, but I prefer my precipitation spread out in doses throughout the year.

Since I know a rainy season in Perú can’t really be understood until it is experienced first hand, I thought I should share two videos I took of the rains here in Huaraz from the last few months. To be clear, both videos were taken as the rains were waning, and not during the height of their intensity. The first is from my apartment, and the second is one I took walking home from work when the streets turned into literal creeks.

 

The aftermath of walking home in the heavy rain:

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Hope you enjoyed experiencing the rain here in Ancash.

Until next time,

MGB

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Last Christmas in Perú

My first Christmas in Perú was spent with my host family. My second Christmas was spent back with my family in the U.S. My last Christmas here in Perú was spent here in Huaráz and at the beach!

From my group, Perú 25, only 3 of us remain. And so, we all decided to meet up to spend a few days at the beach, have some great seafood, and catch the latest chapter of the Star Wars Saga. However, before heading out to meet my friends on the playa, I had some Christmas obligations to take care of here in Huaráz.

My counterpart for my 3rd year as PCVL is SERNANP – Parque Nacional Huascarán (essentially the Peruvian National Park office for Huascarán National Park). As an office, we had a Chocolatada (literally a “Hot Chocolate Party”, but essentially a Christmas party) where we sang Christmas songs, drank hot chocolate with Panetón, and partook in several Christmas games which included dressing up two of the Ingenieros of the park as Sierra women. It was a good time all around.

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Within our office, my main socia is the Environmental Education specialist, and we work with an environmental youth group composed of local university students (Los Hinchas de la Conservación) who help spread Huascarán National Park’s message. We meet almost weekly with the Hinchas to hold classes, learn about different aspects of the park, and to practice our various techniques/methods to spread our messages of environmental stewardship. However, we also do fun stuff.

In talking with my socia one day, I suggested that we should hold a Christmas party with a White Elephant Gift Exchange. It took a little while to explain how a White Elephant Gift exchange works, but once she understood, she was sold. And so, on December 23rd we held our Christmas party. It was a roaring success, and the Hinchas loved the concept of a White Elephant Gift exchange. We played by my special rules where people could bring nice gifts or gag gifts, all gifts must be wrapped, and gifts could only be opened at the end of the exchange. At the beginning of the party, everyone chose a number to determine the gift selection order. It took some convincing, but I eventually convinced some Hinchas to steal gifts from their friends rather than just picking out of the gift pile. Stealing always makes a white elephant more fun. We had lots of food, danced, sang huayno, and played some Super Smash Brothers Melée.

 

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Playing Super Smash Bros. Melee

 

 

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Group photo!

 

After a day of great fun, that evening I hopped on my bus and on Christmas Eve, I met my friends at the beach. We had lots of ideas of places we could go and things we could see, but we settled on just taking lots of time to relax (and go see the new Star Wars movie, of course!). Enjoy some pics of my Christmas beach adventure in Huanchaco!

 

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Beachfront at Huanchaco

 

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Christmas dinner…we made it work (Turkey, potato chips, & guacamole)

 

 

 

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We had dinner at a nice Italian restaurant to finish up the vacation

My last Christmas in Perú was a great one. Hope you enjoyed seeing how I spent it.

 

Until next time,

MGB

Location, Location, Location

While there are many things I enjoy about living independently in Huaráz, I think my favorite is my new view. My apartment comes with a lovely terrace area that gives an unparalleled view of the city of Huaráz and the surrounding mountains. I enjoy many a morning and evening watching the sun rise and set along the glistening peaks of Huascarán National Park. Enjoy some photos of my day-to-day view!

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Until next time,

MGB

3rd Year Update

It’s been a long, long, long time since I published a blog post, but I’m finally ready to get back in the game to keep you all updated on my last few months here in Perú with the Peace Corps. Enjoy this brief update, and the blog posts to come in the next few weeks.

Now that I am the PCVL (Peace Corps Volunteer Leader) for my region here in Perú, my life and my lifestyle have changed significantly since completing my first two years of service in Yuracoto/Caraz. This newfound independence has come with many positive changes, but also with some negative ones. As the quote goes, “you never know what you got til it’s gone”.

I enjoy many perks of my new lifestyle: having my own, slightly larger personal space, having hot water, having control of what I eat day-in and day-out, and having regular internet access. Nearly anything I could want is available at my fingertips now. However, life is a game of give-and-take, and while I enjoy many aspects of my new life, there are also some downsides. I love being able to cook for myself, but this also means I have to plan out my meals and take the time to prepare/cook them, rather than just wake up to food as was the case when I lived with my host family. Additionally, while I have regular Internet access and hot water, I no longer have a host family nor a community to which I feel strongly connected. I miss seeing my host family every day, I miss knowing all of my neighbors, I miss the conversations we would have during the day, I miss visiting my students at my schools, and I miss being constantly invited to play soccer and volleyball. It’s been weeks since I’ve played either, mainly because it is hard to meet people to regularly play with living in a city as large as Huaráz.

Honestly, while it is nice having hot water and internet, I think I would willingly give them up to return to the strong feeling of community I had during my first two years of service in Caraz/Yuracoto. When I signed on for the third year, I intellectually understood that it would be a lonelier livelihood than what I had experienced before, but I didn’t really emotionally understand it until I started it. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy with my decision to stay a 3rd year with the Peace Corps. I love my role supporting my fellow Volunteers, I love being involved in the Site Identification process for future Volunteers, and I absolutely love my work with SERNANP – Parque Nacional Huascarán. However, it is a change, and after several months, it is a change that I am finally getting accustomed to. In a way, I think this greater independence and responsibility I’ve enjoyed so far during my 3rd year will help make my eventual transition back to the U.S. much easier than if I had just returned home directly after completing my service in Caraz.

So, I’m about 8.5 months into my 13-month extension, and if all goes well, I should finally be finishing my Peace Corps service here in Perú around August 24th. However, I’m hoping to be able to explore a bit more of Perú and South America before making my return to U.S. soil after service since I haven’t traveled much during my service. If I’ve learned one thing along this journey so far, it is that people and relationships are far more important than things. A person can learn to live without certain amenities, but it is hard to live without meaningful, human contact and valuable relationships.

Until next time,

MGB

All Saint’s Day in Perú

November 1st of each year is a national holiday here in Peru. The holiday is known as All Saint’s Day (Día de Todos los Santos) and was established to celebrate all Catholic Saint’s known and unknown. During my two years working in Yuracoto/Caraz, I never really saw any traditions or customs associated with the holiday other than the fact that the schools, municipalities, and other businesses closed down. However, this year I had the opportunity to take part in some traditional customs by traveling to the town of Huashao to visit the host-family of a former Peace Corps Perú Volunteer who is back in Áncash completing her Ph.D. research.

And so, yesterday morning, at 9 A.M., the 3 of us hopped on a combi from Huaráz to Yungay, and then took a colectivo (car) from Yungay up to the beautiful town of Huashao at the foot of the beautiful Mount Huascarán, the tallest snow-capped mountain in Perú. Once we arrived, we were quickly introduced to everyone, kids, adults, and dogs alike. Being a fairly rural zone, the family all spoke Spanish as well as Quechua, the indigenous language of the Sierra of Áncash. It was nice to be able to use the little Quechua I know to greet the family and make some funny comments. Anyways, after all of the introductions, we got to work. You see, for many families in Áncash, a typical celebration for el Día de Todos los Santos is to gather as a family (extended and all) and make lots of bread! In fact, this host-family ONLY makes bread on November 1st and not at any other time of the year.

When we arrived at the house, the process was already underway, but there were still plenty of opportunities to observe, help, and of course eat lots of the delicious bread. In fact, as soon as we arrived, we were gifted some freshly baked cachanga, a type of flatbread popular here in the mountains. While the oven was located outside, most of the dough preparation was being performed inside the kitchen. And when I say we were making bread, it wasn’t just a few pieces of bread, it was hundreds of pieces of bread.

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The dough all prepped, waiting to be cooked. Note: this is only maybe half of the dough.
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Fresh bread alongside the “brushes” made from willow branches used to clean out the ashes from the oven.

But, we were not just going to bake and eat bread all day (even though I personally would have been fine with that since bread is delicious). We also took advantage of the oven to make some delicious Pollo al Horno (oven-roasted chicken) for a large, familial lunch. And might I say, the chicken was absolutely delicious.

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Rotating the chicken for further cooking
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Lunch: Pollo al Horno, boiled potatoes, and a lettuce salad with lime juice.

After lunch, we decided to walk over to a small grassy area to play with the all the kids (if we had stayed seated at the house, I think we all would have fallen into food comas). At the park, I played some soccer and then broke out my frisbee, which was a huge hit with everyone. We played for about 1.5 hours before heading back to the house to rejoin the bread-making extravaganza. Now, upon returning, we decided it was time to make our own special bread; pizza. We had bought all the ingredients and prepared the dough in advance, and so, surrounded curious host-family members (mostly kids), we got to work on the pizza. My job was quite simple; shred the cheese. We opted for a mix of Mozzarella cheese and queso fresco, the typical cheese sold in wheels all over the Sierra of Áncash. In terms of toppings, we went with salami and chorizo.

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The first two pizzas (we made 3 in total) ready to go into the oven.

We expected the pizzas to take about 10 minutes to cook, however, the oven ended up being really hot (we thought possibly around 600F), and so the pizzas cooked in about 3 minutes. The edges of the crust got quite burnt and had to be removed, but the rest of the pizza remained uncharred. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photo of the cooked pizzas, but I can assure you they were Top Chef-worthy, especially since all 3 pizzas were eaten in a matter of 15 minutes by everyone in attendance.

After the pizzas were enjoyed by all, we moved onto the last bread-making chapter for the day: the creation of muñecas and wawas. For many religious holidays in Perú, such as Día de Todos los Santos or Carnaval, it is customary to mold bread into different forms: a woman, a child, a llama, etc. I like to think of it as bread art or bread sculptures. Anyways, everyone was given a ball of dough and set to the task of creating their bread art. The host-family went the traditional route, creating some beautiful and elaborate sierra women holding their babies.

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The muñecas with their wawas.

I, however, decided to branch out a bit from the norm and decided to first create a cobra, and then a lizard. Those who know me well, shouldn’t be too surprised.

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My dough-bra.

The black dough is used for added decoration and is made by rubbing dough in the blacked bottoms of pots & pans. I think my cobra turned out quite well considering it was my first foray into bread art. My friends and one of the host-kids also went down the creative route, creating an Inti/Killa (sun & moon), an osito (bear), and a culebra (snake).

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The sun/moon baking in the bread oven.
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Fresh out of the oven! Bear (left), cobra (top), lizard (middle), snake (bottom).

Shortly after our bread-creations emerged from the oven, it was, unfortunately, time to leave. We thanked everyone for the hospitality, gathered up our creations as well as the fresh bread we had each been gifted, gave our goodbyes, and then hopped in a car to make our way back down the mountain. Overall, I had an absolutely incredible time visiting Huashao and I was so, so, so glad to be able to partake in such a fun custom. Since I’ll be around Perú until next August todavía, I’m hoping I will get another opportunity to make some more bread and partake in lots more traditions before I leave.Before we left, I managed to take one last photo with my bread creations in front of Mount Huascarán.

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The dogs wanted to eat my creations.

Until next time,

MGB

A Smashing Cultural Exchange

As I’ve said many, many times here on this blog, as well as to many Peruvians, the Peace Corps has 3 main goals. The first has to do with providing technical assistance, while the 2nd and 3rd goals have to do with cultural exchange. Goal 2, specifically, involves sharing U.S. culture with our host-country counterparts, who, in my case, are any and all Peruvians. One of the main ways I have fulfilled this goal in the past has been by sharing some American dishes with my host-family and neighbors, as well as frequently sharing music and photos of my life in the United States. However, now that I am living by myself full time in Huaráz as Áncash’s PCVL, have my own apartment, and have regular access to wifi/electricity/many other amenities, I decided it was time to aprovechar (take advantage) and add one of my personal loves, video games, to my Peruvian life.

So, when I returned to Perú after my month-long vacation in the United States in August, I brought back a little piece of my childhood, namely, my GameCube. I honestly never thought in my wildest dreams that as a Peace Corps Volunteer I would still be able to play video games, let alone my very own GameCube, but since the opportunity presented itself I couldn’t let it pass. While I’ve had my Game Cube with me for the past 2 months, it took a while before I found the chance to actually put it to use.

That opportunity finally came a few weeks ago when I held a class on trash management with the Hinchas de la Conservación (Conservation Fans), an environmental group consisting mainly of university-aged students who support SERNANP and Huascarán National Park in various outreach opportunities (presentations, theater shows, recycled art projects, etc.). While many of the Hinchas are environmental engineering students, my counterpart at SERNANP (she coordinates the group) and I decided it would be good to train them on various environmental topics so they could better represent the interests of the park.

And so, on Saturday, September 30th, we had our first class during which I gave everyone a 19-question pre-test and then proceeded to teach them all the basics about environmental pollution, trash management, microplastics, and the creation of mini-landfills. This was to be the first session of five in a series about various environmental topics, however, it ended up being both the first and last session since we are in the process of recruiting new members for the group. But don’t worry, the environmental education classes will continue once the new members join the group in November.

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The Hinchas learning about trash decomposition times

Anyways, after concluding the session, as a surprise treat I broke out my GameCube which we hooked up to the large TV in the SERNANP office.

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My GameCube’s first go on Peruvian soil.

As you can see, something was off with the color, but otherwise, everything worked really well. I decided the Hinchas’ first foray into the world of GameCube should be with the classic, Super Smash Bros. Melee. While the controls can be a bit challenging at first, especially for those who have never before played a video game (like most of the Hinchas), most of them figured it out rather quickly and had a blast. Favorite characters included Fox, Captain Falcon, Donkey Kong, Mewtwo, Samus, Yoshi & Kirby. Those who picked Captain Falcon had the most success since his Falcon Punch (just press the B button) basically kills anyone who doesn’t know how to play.

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And the winner is…Yoshi!

Unfortunately, after playing for about 30 minutes, the screen went black and I noticed a strange burning smell. Turns out, I forgot once again that Peruvian voltage is higher than U.S. voltage, and so the GameCube power cable got burned. I should have known when we had problems with the color from the start, but you live and you learn. It was a sad moment, but I’ve ordered a new cable (as well as a power adaptor) which should arrive soon via a nice friend, and I’m hoping that only the cable was burned, and not the actual GameCube itself.

Anyways, despite the minor electrical mishap, I was really happy to be able to directly share a bit of my childhood with some of my Peruvian counterparts/friends, and I’m hoping this was just the first of many future Super Smash sessions. While it might take a while before the Hinchas can put up a good fight in Super Smash Bros. Melee or Mario Kart: Double Dash (assuming my GameCube didn’t die), I’m hoping some of my fellow Volunteers can give me a good challenge en lo mientras.

Until next time,

MGB

P.S. My title was both a reference to Super Smash Bros. Melee as well as to one of my favorite childhood cartoons.

Year 3 Begins

So it has been a while since I last updated my blog (about 3 months), and in that time a lot has changed. After finishing up my service in Caraz at the end of July and then spending a week or so getting adjusted to my new role in Huaráz as PCVL, I got to go back to the United States for the month of August for vacation.

I had a great time being home and took advantage of the time to see a lot of family/friends, to go hiking, to eat lots of food (I gained a lot of weight), to go to the beach, to catch up on some movies I had missed while in Perú, and to go see the solar eclipse.

 

 

Overall, I had a fantastic time, but on September 1st, the time came to get myself to the airport and get on a plane back to Perú. Honestly, it was harder to leave this time than it was at last Christmas, but once my plane landed and I was surrounded by Peruvian Spanish once more, I felt at ease. I spent a day in Lima eating some tasty ceviche before catching a night bus on the 2nd to Huaráz.

Being back in Áncash was wonderful. The clean mountain air. The beautiful snow-capped mountains. The beautiful Sierra clothing. Coming back to Áncash after a month in the U.S. was quite refreshing, and I quickly remembered all of the reasons that I decided to stick around with the Peace Corps for an extra year. When I arrived at Huaráz, I went to chill at our Peace Corps hostel to drop some things off and relax before heading up to my apartment complex in the afternoon. When I got there and talked with the owner, she said my apartment was still occupied (turns out the person wasn’t leaving til October 1st, not September 1st like I had been told originally), so that I would stay in one of her older daughter’s old rooms for the month. Not what I was expecting, but if I have learned anything in the Peace Corps, it is how to be flexible. And so, while inconvenient (less privacy, no place to cook), I’ve been through more stressful and awkward things when working in Yuracoto/Caraz, so it was no big deal.

So after moving my stuff in, I treated myself to a nice dinner and then prepared for the upcoming week. On Monday and Tuesday, the Regional Department of Education of Áncash was hosting an Environmental Education Congress for teachers, students, and science/technology/environment teaching specialists from all over the Áncash region. The Environmental Education Congress is one of the many activities included in the  National Plan for Environmental Education sponsored by both the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of the Environment that must be implemented in each region (state) of Perú. While the implementation of the Congress fell under the purview of the Regional Department of Education, the planning involved various institutions, including SERNANP (the Peruvian National Parks organization), who is my partner organization for my 3rd year of work with the Peace Corps. Consequently, I was involved in some of the planning of the Congress and was asked to give a presentation during the Congress about my work with composting/vermiculture with the schools of Caraz & Yuracoto.

So, on Monday, September 4th I gave a presentation about the benefits of composting to about 50 people representing teachers, students, etc. from various schools all across Áncash. The presentation went over well, and the entire first day of the Congress was a huge success.

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The mesa de honor at the start of the Congress

Day 2 went swimmingly as well, and I ended up giving another unexpected presentation at the end of the day about the environmental plan I co-developed and co-implemented with the teachers at Micelino Sandoval Torres in Caraz. The coordinator of the school’s environmental committee was originally going to give the presentation, but unfortunately, she had to leave early. For the first year of implementation and coordination, I think the inaugural Environmental Education Congress was a big success. There were a lot of interesting presentations, from both different environmental experts as well schools, and I hope that the event inspires the teachers and students who attended to continue implementing new environmental projects in their schools and homes.

So, all in all, my return to Perú and Huaráz started on a high note! In the next few days/weeks, I’ll be updating you all on how the rest of my last 1.5 months have gone and what I’ve been up to.

Until next time,

MGB