Lake Hopping

Last weekend, I organized a trip among some other Ancash Volunteers to Laguna Parón, a huge glacial lake about 1.5 hours from my site.  This lake is quite important to my site because it provides all of our drinking water.  However, this lake is also famous internationally because it is home to the mountain of the Paramount Pictures Logo.

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The mountain from the logo is called Artesonraju, and unfortunately, due to cloudy weather and some trail closures, we were unable to get a glimpse of the famous peak.  However, at least now I can respond “Sí” (yes) whenever I am  asked “¿Conoces Laguna Parón?” (Have you been to Laguna Parón) in site.

Below, you can find a photo series documenting the beautiful trek.

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Combi ride up the mountains pre-hike
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View of Laguna Parón before we began to walk around.
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Had to take this one just for Mom.
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Taking a brief break in the hike.
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Looking back towards the entrance of Laguna Parón.
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A little stick bug we found.
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Cheesin’ in front of the nevado.  Unfortunately, no one wanted to go further along the lake.
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This tree is a Queñual, a typical tree of Parque Huascarán. I love them.
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A marker honoring two former Peace Corps Volunteers involved in the founding of Parque Huascarán.
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A final panoramic of the lake.

Perú is gorgeous (at least Áncash) and I’m so lucky to be living here for 2 years.

Feel free to come visit!

Until later,

MGB

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The Clay Dinosaur

If you were expecting a blog post about a clay-mation adaptation of “The Good Dinosaur”, then you have come to the wrong place.  If you came without expectations, then you are right where you belong.

My host dad makes bricks, but he’s not alone. In my neighborhood, there are approximately 15 brick factories, or ladrillerías. Now you might be asking, “Why are there so many brick factories in one neighborhood? Wouldn’t they just be saturating the market or something? Why don’t they spread themselves out a bit more?”. All good questions, which are quickly resolved with two words: clay deposits. The soil in my neighborhood here in Perú has a ton of clay, and I mean a TON, and it just so happens that clay is a vital ingredient to making the adobe/mud bricks that are ever so abundant here in Áncash. Coincidentally, the vast clay deposits were likely the reason some Pre-Incan societies inhabited the area: they used the clay to make pottery and other ceramics.

While this clay is of huge economic importance to my site, it can also be used to satisfy more artistic needs. One day, my host-siblings and I collected some clay and set to work making some figurines. I decided to go with an prehistoric animal theme, sculpting a long-neck first.

Second up was a sharp-tooth, followed by car and late some dinosaur eggs, made by my host-sister.

I haven’t played with clay in quite a long time (probably since middle school), but all of the little tricks/tips I learned in art class slowly came back to me as I worked on my dinosaur friends. I’m hoping to improve my clay-sculpting abilities over the next 2 years, but we’ll see how that goes.

Until next time,

MGB

Star Wars Fever

So I’m a big nerd/geek, whatever you want to call it. I enjoy reading fantasy series, still play Pokémon, have seen the Lord of the Rings multiple times, see every Marvel movie as they come out, and avidly enjoy Doctor Who. Like most people who share these interests, I had been eagerly anticipating the arrival of the new Star Wars movie for over a year. But unlike most Star Wars fans, I am currently in Perú in the Peace Corps, which presents some challenges when wanting to go see the latest movies, especially if you want to see them in English.

The department of Áncash, where I am serving, is chock-full of snow-capped mountains (for now), but unfortunately a little short on movie theaters. Our regional capital, Huaráz, despite having a wide selection of international foods, does not have a movie theater. I still cannot fathom why a city so large does not have a movie theater and I hope that someone will construct one there during my 2 years of service. So, in talking with other Volunteers, I discovered that the nearest movie theater in Áncash was in the coastal city of Chimbote.

So, on the evening of December 18th, I traveled from Caraz with a friend from Huaráz and a friend from Caraz to Chimbote on the bus line the Yungay Express. We arrived in Chimbote at 2:30am, and immediately grabbed a taxi to my friend’s house, since we would be staying with his family who currently live there. Now, if I had to describe Chimbote in one word, the word I would choose is fish. Lying on the coast, Chimbote has a huge fishing industry, a fact hard to miss given the overwhelming fish odor that permeates the city for the greater portion of the day. On top of that, Chimbote is really HOT, which only makes the smell even worse.

After we grabbed some ZZZs, my friend gave us a tour around the city, taking us to the few “touristy” sites. After whiling away the morning on the streets of Chimbote, we returned to my friend’s house for a hearty meal before setting out to accomplish the principal mission of the trip: see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. We grabbed a cab to the mall, identified the movie theater and then purchased our tickets, for Star Wars: El Despertar de la Fuerza. If you didn’t notice, the Star Wars title is in Spanish, because I saw the new Star Wars movie in Spanish.  When I saw the Star Wars Crawl appear in Spanish on the screen, I couldn’t help but burst out laughing in the theater.

 

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Image from: tinyurl.com/j9jc2w6

I was sincerely hoping that I would hit a stroke of luck and find a showing in English, but deep down I think I always knew that if I managed to see Star Wars, it was going to be in Spanish. Despite not being able to hear the iconic voices of Han Solo and Leia Organa throughout the movie, I thought the film was fantastic. This Star Wars movie, for me at least, managed to capture the magic of the original trilogy, and throughout the entire movie I was just overwhelmed with wave after wave of nostalgia. It was incredible, despite it being in Spanish, and I wanted to watch it again and again. I’m hoping to catch it in English sometime in the near future, but for now my Star Wars fix has been adequately met, and I’m already making plans with other Volunteers to see the next installment (this time in English) in 2017.

If you somehow haven’t managed to see the movie yet, I recommend that you get yourself to a movie theater ASAP.

Best,

MGB

Quechua Training

Perú has two official languages; Spanish, which was brought over when the Spaniards arrived to South America as conquistadores, and Quechua, which was the language used by the Incan Empire. While there are many different languages spoken in Perú today, Spanish is the most popular language, with Quechua following behind, being spoken mostly in the sierra regions of Perú. Since I am living in the department of Áncash, which contains a large portion of the Andean Mountain chain, Quechua is spoken quite regularly. Consequently, as part of my language training to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, during my first 3 months of in-country training, I received extensive Quechua training with the other Volunteers coming to Áncash. By the end of training, I had received a cursory overview of most of the grammar of Quechua, and was ready to put my new language to practice. However, in my site, Quechua isn’t spoken as regularly as in others, so my knowledge slowly began to wane throughout the months in my site. Occasionally I would practice with my host family, but I was never in a situation in which my knowledge of Quechua was absolutely vital for an interaction with another community member. Everyone speaks some Spanish, and I found myself relying more and more on my Spanish, neglecting my Quechua training.

However, in mid-December I got another booster to my Quechua lessons in the form of another 3-day Quechua taller (training) in Huaráz with my teacher from training. Although I was quite out-of-practice, I still recalled quite a bit of information and communicated quite well with my teacher and the other Volunteers who were in attendance. We reviewed grammar, learned new words, and went out to the market in Huaráz to practice. Practicing was hard; we are very basic Quechua speakers, and it felt imposing to walk up to people selling food and attempt to speak to them in their native language. Eventually, I got over the nervousness and had a very nice, but simple, conversation with a señora who had sold us some food. Throughout the conversation, I found myself improvising and creating new structures and thoughts based on the things we had reviewed, and I was proud of my simple conversation. My teacher even said he was glad with my progress, even though I know I still have a long way to go in my language studies. Even though my knowledge of Quechua probably won’t make-or-break my Peace Corps experience, I still plan on studying, practicing, and learning more so that I can become as fluent as possible in this wonderful language.

And it is a wonderful language. Although all Peruvians tell me how similar Quechua is to English, it really is a thing of its own, with the only similarity to English being the fact that adjectives go before objects instead of after, as it mostly is in Spanish.

While English and Spanish are S-V-O languages (subject-verb-object), Quechua is a S-O-V language, meaning the verb comes at the end of the sentence. For example, the sentence “I am eating bread” is in the S-V-O format, but in Quechua it would be reordered to “I bread am eating” or “Nuqa tantata mikuykaa”. Apart from this different grammatical order, to add description to a word or action in Quechua, you do so, mainly, through the addition of suffixes. For example,

Mishi = cat

Mishi + “kuna” = Mishikuna = Cats

Mishi + “yki” + “kuna” = Mishiykikuna = your cats

Mishi + “yki” + “kuna” + “wan” = Mishiykikunawan = with your cats

So, as you can see, you can make pretty long words in Quechua by adding various descriptive suffixes to the ends of words, be they nouns or verbs. Consequently, this is what makes Quechua a challenge, because a simple word like cat can be modified in many different ways to express different, yet similar meanings. And then of course, you have to wait until the end of the sentence to learn the verb, and sometimes find the context of all of the words that came before. That being said, with practice, your brain adjusts and learns to listen carefully and adapt to the different grammatical structure. While I still have a long ways to go in my Quechua-learning journey, I am excited to keep going so that, perhaps by the end of service, I’ll be the gringo who can give a presentation in Quechua, and not just ask about where you are from.

One final Quechua fact.  Quechua not only was used by the Incans, but also by an individual a long time ago in a galaxy far far away:

Yes, Greedo from Star Wars is speaking Quechua in this scene with Han Solo.

Best,

MGB

Batalla de Agua (Water Battle)

When I joined the Peace Corps, I certainly had no ideas or expectations for what my living situation would be like, although I will admit my first thoughts went to a small  hut in a forest where I would have to walk long distances to find water to bathe, cook, etc. While I think I could have lived in such a situation, I am very fortunate to be living with a wonderful host family in a nice house that has running water, electricity, etc.

Now, even though we have running water, being an Environmental Volunteer, I don’t really like putting water (or really anything) to waste. However, one day, at the prompting of my host siblings, I made an exception. On that day, the third of December of 2015, I engaged my host siblings in an epic water balloon/water battle.

My poor siblings had no idea what they were getting themselves into, because the threat of imminent drenching awakened my immense competitive spirit, leading me to “borrow” the first water balloons that my host sister had made prior to lunch. Post-lunch, the fun began with my host-sister convincing my host-brother to join forces with her to take me down, only to have the tides turned against her when I convinced my brother to join forces with me instead for the promise of sweet, sweet, American candy (thanks Mom!). Promptly, with the help of my host-brother, my host-sister was drenched, and myself only slightly damp. When the balloon supply ran out, we switched to plastic cups and buckets.  Honestly, plastic cups and buckets are much more effective than water balloons.

My host-sister had taken control of the outdoor sink and plastic cup supply and the situation looked dire, but with the threat of drenching her with the dirty pig-water (which I never would have done), I gained control over the precious sink resource, which turned the tide of the battle in my favor. Subsequently, the battle was fairly one sided with my host-sister emerging from the encounter as wet as a melting snowman, and myself emerging only as wet as a Shamwow. When the battle was good and won, and I had claimed my victory for all to see, my host siblings decided they weren’t wet enough and willingly drenched themselves in water while I documented the entire occasion, shutter-shot style.

While I did feel bad about using so much water for no other purpose than fun, I think it was worth it.

MGB

Thanksgiving in Perú

Peruvians don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. Seeing that Thanksgiving is an American holiday, I really shouldn’t have been too surprised at its absence and honestly, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, I had forgot it was even approaching. Consequently, I didn’t really make a big deal about it here, or make much of an effort to share the holiday tradition with my host-family. I won’t be making the same mistake next year.

Most of Thanksgiving Day, I spent in my room watching movies, trying to cope with the sadness of not being home for the holiday. However, around dinnertime, my host-sister came and knocked on my door and asked if I wanted to come help make cachangas, a type of fried bread that tastes similar to a funnel cake. I decided to acabar with my moping, and spent the next hour making and eating these bread patties with my family. While it wasn’t a Thanksgiving feast, it was appreciated, and left me happy as I settled down for the evening.

Now, just because I missed out on a Thanksgiving feast with my host-family, don’t think that I didn’t get to enjoy my turkey, potatoes, casseroles, and pies. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, we had a Volunteer Thanksgiving in our regional capital, Huaráz, where we were able to share our US tradition with some Peruvian friends. Oh my, and what a Thanksgiving it was. We had wayyyyy too much food (as is required), and in fact food of all varieties: turkey, chicken, bacon-green bean casserole, pies, potatoes, roasted vegetables, ice cream cake, stuffing, french fries, etc.

By the end of the evening, I was happily drifting into a food coma, still recalling all of the wonderful things that I had consumed. Dish of the night has to go to Nathan who made the Green Bean Casserole with bacon. I couldn’t stop eating it. I didn’t realize how much I had missed bacon until I took my first bite of that glorious, crispy, meat.

Overall, Volunteer Thanksgiving was a huge success, but I need to work on host-family Thanksgiving for 2016.

MGB

Tree Nursery Project

So I’m back after a long blog-hiatus, and this post and those that follow will hopefully catch you up on the last 3 months of my life.

Each year, the first week of November in Perú is the Semana Nacional de Acción Forestal (National Week of Forestry), so as an environmental Volunteer I wanted to organize some sort of event to commemorate the holiday. In talking with one of my socios (community partners), a science professor from my local school, we decided to create a small-scale tree nursery in the school. During 2 meetings, we created a Plan de Trabajo (Work Plan), that detailed the entire process and how we would execute the project, which was subsequently approved by the Director of the school.

The project started the last week of October with 3 presentations about the importance of trees, the construction of a vivero, and different forestry techniques. The following week, construction was to begin. According to our plan, the vivero was to be completed entirely in 1 week, with students preparing germination bags for the seeds on the final day.

On Monday, I worked with students from secundaria (high school) to prepare the camas (beds) that would house the growing plants. While clearing out the space, we quickly found the area had been used in the past to bury garbage (we found lots of broken glass), so the original site had to be scrapped.  I felt bad, because the students had worked really hard.

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Building the nursery beds.

Only slightly delayed, I thought we could still finish everything on time. The next day (Tuesday), with another group of students, we made a new cama, this time in a more suitable location (no buried trash), which was better protected. “Better protected from what?”, you may ask; from other people. I was told repeatedly that if we had stuck with the original site, people would have climbed over the wall to take the plants. This revelation was pretty shocking to me (who would steal plants?), but I decided to trust the wisdom of the students and teachers who knew the community far better than I did.

On Wednesday, I worked with the elementary school teachers to make some environmental signs talking about the importance of trees and protecting nature. They did a fantastic job on the posters.

Additionally, I met with some of the high school classes to prepare Tara seeds for planting. Not all seeds can just be planted in the ground and expected to grow; some need a little help. Such is the case with Tara, a tree species that is an absolute favorite of my program director, Diego Shootbridge. The seed coat for Tara is rather tough, so in order to help it germinate faster, you need to clip off part of the seed coat using cortauñas (nail clippers), and then soak the seeds for 12-24 hours. With the students help, we prepped about 350 seeds, which would equate to about 100-150 seed bags.

 

Now, Wednesday afternoon, I was supposed to meet with some students to make the shade for the vivero; without proper shade, the growing trees could easily dry out and die. So at 3:30pm, I showed up at the school and found only a few students, only 1 of which had brought materials to make the shade tent. Fortunately, I had a feeling that this might occur, so I had brought along my Frisbee; instead of working on the shade, I taught them how to throw a Frisbee.

Now, we didn’t finish the shade, but that was fine. We could do it tomorrow afternoon. Thursday was meant to be the principal day of planting the seeds into seed bags, but when Thursday came around I found out that the humus (worm poop) that the Municipality was going to give us wouldn’t be delivered until the afternoon. Another delay. So the seed planting was postponed till Friday, meaning the prepped seeds would probably be soaked for a little too long, but oh well.

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The humus aka worm poop from the Municipality.

Friday finally came, and it was to be the day of planting. We had arranged to do it all grade by grade. The soil was there, I brought the planting bags and the seeds, and the students all showed up. Grade by grade, they came into one of the classrooms and I explained the whole seed bag preparation process, after which we went outside to begin the process. It was a busy morning, working pretty much nonstop from 8am – 1pm. In the end, we prepared about 240 seeds bags, for both Tara and Molle, another beautiful native tree species. Since the vivero wasn’t finished, I had the students place their seed bags in their classrooms with the instructions to keep watering them every other day.

On Friday night, I left to Huaráz to begin my trip to Lima for my first In-Service Training back at our training center where I was living for the first 3 months. When I returned back to site and visited the school, the vivero was still in disarray, a few of the bags which had been left outside had been ruptured, and the majority of students had forgotten to water their seeds bags, meaning the seedlings either dried out or just didn’t grow.

I was frustrated; pretty much no success after having invested so much. However, once I got over the frustration, I sat down to think what I could have down differently. In this reflective process, I realized that even though it wasn’t a success, I learned quite a lot from the experience, especially with regard to project planning in Perú. Essentially, my project was too ambitious. I tried to rush it, wanting to just get something done, and perhaps being far too optimistic about schedules and delays. While I was disappointed in what occurred, I’m glad it turned out the way it did, because it made me realize several ways in which I can improve coordination for future projects.

Firstly, I need to schedule projects over a largo plazo, or longer timeframe, so that there is plenty of time to account for delays. Flexibility is key, even more so than I believed when first starting my Peace Corps journey. Secondly, I need to work with a clearly identified group of invested individuals. I tried very hard to include everyone in the process (all the grades) so that everyone would feel a sense of ownership, but I think in the end no sense of ownership was developed. This was the most valuable lesson for me, I think. I still want to make a vivero with the school, but for round 2, I hope to approach it differently. Rather than have everyone play a role, I think it would be better to make the vivero a responsibility of a single grade, such as 8th grade, with each future 8th grade class being responsible for the vivero, learning how to manage it from the previous 8th grade class.

So my first experience with doing a project in my Peace Corps journey wasn’t an overwhelming success, in fact it was far from it. But, I’ve long since come to terms with the “failure”, and will use the experience to help guide my future work in my site over the next 19 months.

Until next time,

Mark G-B