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

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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.

Gastronomical Exchange: Gingerbread House

As I mentioned in my recent post, when I returned to Peru after my brief vacation in the U.S., I made sure to bring back a LOT of goodies. Notably, I brought lots of candy and my cremas (Ketchup, BBQ sauce, & Ranch), but I also brought some gifts & knick-knacks for my host-family.

One of these presents was a Gingerbread House kit. Now, I’ve made a few Gingerbread houses in my day, but for my host-siblings this was their first one ever. At first, they weren’t too sure how to put it all together, but once I arranged the basic frame and cemented it in place with the icing, they took it from there.

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A few minutes later, I returned to find this beauty sitting on our kitchen table.

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I think they did a pretty good job for their first ever Gingerbread house.

Unfortunately, in the days following its creation, the house was slowly devoured, never to be put to use by a little Gingerbread family.

Until next time,

MGB

Gastronomical Exchange: Quesadillas

Once I realized the salad was a big success, I dared to dream even further. This time with my host-family, we embarked into the great world of Mexican food. Although, given that I am not Mexican, nor have I ever learned to cook authentic Mexican food, we made the best impression of Mexican food that we could.

Fortunately in Caraz, we have a wonderful supermarket called “Comercio Trujillo” where one can buy anything from pasta sauce to oreos, from pizza crust to “Mozzarella cheese”, and for some reason, flour tortillas. Now, way back in November I purchased a pack of flour tortillas and some Mozzarella cheese but due to vacation & the end of the school year, they were quickly forgotten about in the upstairs fridge. That is until, upon returning to Perú, that I happened to go upstairs and rediscover my purchase.

So, after months of waiting (and forgetting), I finally gathered my host-family one evening to make our quesadillas. Now, I wasn’t going to just make cheese quesadillas, if we were going to make them, we were going all out. And so, we bought some chicken, Peruvian cheese (it wasn’t a lot of mozzarella), and the necessary supplies to make guacamole; palta (avocado), tomate (tomato), culantro (cilantro) & lime (limón).

With all of the ingredients assembled, we set to work.

First, we ripped open the bag of tortillas and carefully laid them out on the table.

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Once the tortillas were assembled on the table, we began the process of cutting the cheese.

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Left: mozzarella cheese                      Right: queso fresco (fresh Peruvian cheese)

We shredded the cheese to the best of our ability on top of the tortillas, and then added some shredded, boiled chicken which my host-mom had previously prepared. Then to top it off, we added a dash of taco seasoning from a care packing from long ago.

Since we don’t have a “press”, we settled to pan-fry the quesadillas with a little butter in a frying pan, to great success if I do say so myself.

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Now, after teaching my host-family the general process of quesadilla preparation, I set to work making the important accompaniment; guacamole. Honestly, this was my first time ever making guacamole, but I think it turned out quite splendidly.

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Once all of the quesadillas had been properly cooked, we were finally able to eat.

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Overall, quesadilla night was a HUGE success. The only criticism of the night was that of the Mozzarella cheese; my host-sister was not a fan. However, when she tried one with only Peruvian queso fresco, I got a clear “this is the best thing I have ever eaten” response. Success!

Apart from eating the quesadillas, my favorite memory of the experience was when my host-mom offered a quesadilla to one of our neighbors, however placing it inside a roll of delicious Peruvian bread. I couldn’t help myself but chuckle seeing a quesadilla being eaten inside bread like a sandwich.

Until next time,

MGB

Gastronomical Exchange: The Whole Ensalada

Returning from my brief holiday stint in the U.S., I made a decision to be more active in sharing U.S. culture with my host-family. So, in January after seamlessly readjusting to my life here in Perú, I decided the easiest way to share some more U.S. culture was through food. Perhaps my cravings for more  U.S. dishes also played a part in my decision to focus on gastronomical exchange.

Now, like any good Peace Corps Volunteer, I didn’t return to Perú empty handed; my luggage was absolutely full of candy and other food stuffs. One of the prized possessions I brought with me to Perú was Ranch Dressing, my favorite salad dressing.

Consequently, the first U.S. “food” I prepared for my host-family was a salad, or ensalada. Now, they do eat salads in Perú, BUT the difference being that salads are not a regular component of one’s day to day diet. In fact, at least here in the sierra, the day-to-day diet mostly involves rice, potatoes, and occasionally vegetables cooked to death in the daily soup. If anything, salads are a side, and would never be considered a legitimate meal. And at least in my house, the term ensalada refers to sliced avocado, red onion, & tomato with lemon juice (still tasty, but missing some of my favorite veggies). Well, I decided that I wanted to eat more vegetables and I wanted my host-family to do so as well, and so shortly after returning, we made a simple salad of lettuce, onion, tomato, and carrots.

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Dicing the carrots
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The washed lettuce
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The finished salad (just missing its Ranch)
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Lunch with my fresh salad

While I don’t think I convinced them that a salad can be a meal, I at least got everyone to try it, and everyone, except my 5 year-old host-brother, really enjoyed it, especially with the Ranch Dressing. I wasn’t too upset my host-brother hated the salad, because what 5 year-old really enjoys vegetables anyways.

Here’s to more gastronomical exchange in the near future!

Until next time,

MGB

Peace Corps Pumpkin

When I lived in the United States, summer and winter were my favorite seasons. I loved summer because of the generally nice weather, and the fact that it usually aligned with vacation time, beach trips, and lots of sports. I loved winter because I loved the snow, and I loved liked the idea of wrapping myself up in warm clothes and sitting by a fire.

Living here in Perú, while we have summer and winter (rainy & dry seasons), they aren’t the same as back home. But having lived over one year here in Caraz, I’ve realized something; Summer and Winter aren’t really my favorite seasons, fall is. They say you never know what you got ‘til its gone, and the same goes for me as I truly didn’t appreciate how much I loved fall until I missed out on 2 Falls here in Perú. I miss the warm yet chilly Fall weather and I miss the beautiful fall colors from the changing leaves in my forest-filled Pennsylvania. While I can’t get my fix of changing leaves here in Perú where everything stays mostly green, I can get my fix of one of the great fixtures of Fall, Halloween.

Halloween is a recent arrival to Perú, and therefore not as well established as it is in the United States. Still, it is slowly becoming more popular. For instance, this year in the local market I saw plenty plastic jack-o-lanterns for trick-or-treating as well as many stores decorated with fake cobwebs,  and on Halloween day I even saw a lot of children dressed in costume going around with their parents to Truco-o-Dulce in Caraz.  So while Halloween is definitely not part of the cultural heritage of Perú, it is definitely becoming a new cultural practice. The emergence of Halloween has probably been spurred onward by cultural overflow from the United States and in small part by Peace Corps Volunteers sharing some Halloween traditions with their host communities.

Last year, I did nothing in my site to celebrate Halloween. I went to a Halloween party organized by other Volunteers, but I neglected to do any kind of celebration with my host-family. This year was different, this year I wanted to make more of an effort to share the holiday with my host-family. Things started off by watching some Halloween movies with my host-siblings; I was happy to find that the Disney Channel here in Perú ALSO shows Halloween movies every night for the month of October. We had a good time watching Hocus Pocus, one of the ALL TIME Halloween classics.

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In the following days, I hatched a plan with my host-siblings to make a Jack-O-Lantern. Unfortunately, pumpkins aren’t exactly available here in Caraz (although seeing photos from other Volunteers they seem to be available in other locations in Peru…), so we had to make do with what was available. The closest things we have to pumpkins here in Caraz are zapallos, which are essentially bigger, green pumpkins. After searching and searching with my host-siblings, we finally found a complete one (almost all of the zapallos were missing large pieces to show they were ripe) and I bought it for S/. 27 (about $8). We took it home, and a few days later when I had some free time, I taught my host-siblings how to carve it up.

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The Great Green Pumpkin

My host-siblings had a great time learning how to carve a pumpkin, despite being disgusted by the slimy interior. While I did most of the knife-work, they were responsible for the gutting; got to be safe.

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We decided to go for the traditional Jack-O-Lantern design of triangle shaped eyes & ears and a jagged mouth. I think it turned out well.

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Now, in case you had forgotten, I currently live in Perú. While back in the U.S., we are entering the winter season, here in Perú we are approaching summer/rainy season, which means it isn’t exactly cold. Consequently, our big Jack-O-Lantern didn’t stand a chance, and only lasted about 2.5 days before my host-mom fed it to the pigs. It never even got to see the light of Halloween, but oh well, it was fun, and I was able to successfully share one of the more fun U.S. cultural experiences.

So I know Halloween was over a month ago, but unfortunately internet issues and a vacation made it challenging to post this much sooner.

Until next time,

MGB

S’more Cultural Exchange: 4th of July in Perú

The Peace Corps has 3 goals:

  1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained Volunteers.
  2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
  3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

Simply put, each Peace Corps Volunteer’s responsibility is to provide technical support and training to the people of the country where he or she works, as well as to promote cultural exchange in said country. Consequently, a large part of my work involves teaching Peruvians about the United States, sharing my experiences of growing up there, and correcting misinformations, such as “all U.S. citizens live in mansions”. Teaching about the U.S. is known among Peace Corps Volunteers is known as Goal 2, and this goal can manifest in many ways such as teaching English, teaching a geography class, starting a Frisbee team, or, in my case as of yesterday, celebrating the 4th of July.

For the uninformed, the 4th of July is Independence Day for all U.S. Citizens, marking the day in which we signed the Declaration of Independence and officially declared independence from Great Britain way back in 1776. Nowadays, the 4th of July is celebrated in various ways all across the country, but generally with some sort of cookout (meat, desserts, and alcohol obligatory) and accompanying fireworks. Now, Peruvians obviously don’t celebrate U.S. Independence Day (they have their own independence day on July 28th), so in order to share a bit of my U.S. traditions with my host-family, friends, and neighbors, I organized a good-old campfire in my backyard. And what campfire could be complete without the ultimate campfire dessert, S’mores?

Around 5:30pm, some of the neighborhood kids started appearing and we got to getting the fire started. None, and I mean none of the kids, not even my host sister, believed I knew how to start a fire, but thanks to my brief stint in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, I proved them wrong, to their disbelief.

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Gathering wood for the fire.
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I more or less made a log cabin fire lay, but let my host-sister light it up.
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After a short while, the fire got going and so the S’more prep began.

So in case you don’t know, to make a S’more, you need 3 basic ingredients and 1 specialized tool. The 3 key ingredients are Marshmallows, Chocolate, and Graham Crackers; Marshmallows and Chocolate were easy to find here, but with the Graham Crackers I struck out, and so we substituted sweet vanilla crackers instead (they worked quite well). Now, when you have your ingredients all ready, the next step is to find the specialized tool, aka the ideal stick; you want the stick to be decently long, but slender at the end so that it can pierce the marshmallow easily.

Now, to get started, you grab a marshmallow, pop it on the end of your cooking stick, and then warm the marshmallow over the fire. Personally, I prefer to cook my marshmallow by rotating it over the coals until it obtains a nice Goldy-Brown color, but others, including some of my neighbors, prefer the fast approach in which you just shove the marshmallow into the flame until it catches on fire and turns into a black ball of gooey sugar.

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Friends and neighbors roasting their marshmallows.

Now, once you have your marshmallow nice and golden, you place it on a cracker, put some chocolate on top, and then top it off with another cracker to complete the perfect S’more.

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The first S’more of many of the night.

Now, while many people are purists and prefer the straight up S’more of marshmallow, cracker, and chocolate, I like to experiment a bit. Personally, I enjoy substituting the chocolate for a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup (try it, it is glorious!), and yesterday we experimented even further buy coating one of the crackers with Peanut Butter before adding the marshmallow (just as good!).

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So, while I didn’t celebrate 4th of July this year in typical U.S. fashion, I had a fantastic time sharing a bit of my U.S. traditions with my friends and family here in Perú. The S’mores were incredibly well received by the neighborhood kids, with responses ranging from dancing and hopping around the yard, to tiny voices screaming “Mark, Mark, regálame otro” (Mark, Mark, give me another one), to my host-brother crying when I wouldn’t let him have more until everyone had eaten their first. All in all, the kids made their way through 2 bags of marshmallows, two packets of vanilla crackers, and 3 bars of chocolate.

Activities such as making S’mores with my host-family and neighbors are just one of the many, many reasons why I love my Peace Corps service here in Perú. I mean, who else gets to say that making S’mores with children in rural sierra Perú falls under their job description?

Other PCVs, what plans do you have to celebrate 4th of July with your host-communities?

Until next time,

MGB