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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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

Last days in Caraz

Friday, July 21st, 2017, was my last official day as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Caraz. The day had finally arrived, the day I had to leave my site, and make the move to Huaráz to begin my 3rd-year role as a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader in Áncash. While I had been thinking about my departure from Caraz for a while, imagining exactly how I wanted to things to go, like many things in life, the reality was far different from expectation.

At the end of June, due to some unfortunate circumstances, I had to move out of my host-family house. I had 3 weeks left of service, and I had to spend them living in a hostel, not being able to give an explanation to any of my neighbors why I had left “early”, and hiding the fact I was now living in Caraz from the majority of my counterparts in Caraz so they didn’t ask me questions I wouldn’t be able to answer. This was certainly not how I imagined spending my last 3 weeks, my last 3 weeks which should have been filled with talking regularly with all of my neighbors, with playing lots of volley and with watching lots of movies with my host-siblings, with helping to feed the pigs and with playing with our 6 dogs.

The first few days after moving to Caraz were challenging; I only had one bag of clothes, I was fairly sad, didn’t have much of an appetite, and I wasn’t very motivated to go to work. In fact, for the first few days, I spent most of my time working on my final community report, since I could do that holed away in my room. While I like Caraz, its amenities, and my socios who live there, my support system was back with my host-family, my neighborhood, and my students in Yuracoto. I missed them.

But, within a few days, I adapted to my new situation. I accepted that, despite my desires, this was how I would be spending my last 3 weeks, and with that acceptance came a bit of Peace. This was just another part of the unexpectedness of Peace Corps service, and my situation really made me understand the importance of the Peace Corps Core Expectations. Expectation number 3 states, “Serve where the Peace Corps asks you to go, under conditions of hardship if necessary, and with the flexibility needed for effective service”. I found the flexibility to adapt and get myself out of my short slump.

And so, during my last 3 weeks in-site, I worked to finish up my projects, to finish my final community report, and to be present with my counterparts at the municipality, the UGEL, and the schools. Fortunately, I was able to see my host-family on Sundays when they came to sell in the market, so while my service wasn’t ending as I imagined, I made it work. Finally, on Friday, July 14th, I submitted my final community report, a summary of my two years of service to Caraz and Yuracoto, to my various counterparts.

Final Community Report (in Spanish)

With the submission of that document, I completed all of my remaining obligations to Caraz, and so my last week in site was incredibly relaxing; I hung out with students, I attended many of the tourist events organized by the municipality, and I spent time with my counterparts and host-family. Here in Perú, when someone is about to leave, be it for work, a job, etc., we have what’s called a despedida, or a farewell party. And so, on the Thursday and Friday of my last week in site, I had a lot of despedidas.

On Thursday night, my office at the municipality organized a lovely dinner, during which they all said nice things about me, and then gave me a small gift: a backpack. They said they got me a backpack because they always see me andando (walking) with mine.

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On Friday morning, I went to my school in Yuracoto for another despedida. During formation, the Director of the school said some nice words about me and my work at the school, allowed me to give a brief speech, and then presented me with another small gift: a mug. He said that he hoped whenever I used the mug in the morning, i would think back on them at the school; I certainly will. I’m hoping to go back to the school in September for its anniversary, and will definitely be going back in December for my seniors’ promoción (graduation) since I’m going to be a padrino (godfather/sponsor) for one of my students.

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After the school despedida, I had to go give a brief charla (presentation) about trees and reforestation to a bunch of teachers and students. I still can’t believe that I actually worked on my last day in Caraz, but así es Peace Corps. After the presentation, I had to sprint to the Primary school I worked at in Cullashpampa to attend their Día del Logro (open house) which would also serve as my despedida with them. The students, split by grade, performed dances from the Coast, Mountains, and Jungle of Perú, and then gave short presentations about each region of Perú at the end. Since I had the nice camera, parents kept asking me to take photos of their kids, but I managed to get a few photos of myself with some of my awesome students too.

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My 5th and 6th graders in their Marinera costumes.
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I managed to get a selfie in with one of my 6th graders.

At the conclusion of the event, there was a compartir (little party) where we had some food and I was able to say my goodbyes to the students and the teachers. The event went a bit long, so when I was finally able to sneak out, I had to sprint to my host-family’s house so that I could eat lunch with them. I of course arrived late, but they prepared me cuy (guinea pig), and it was a very nice final meal with them. After lunch, I hung-out with my siblings, packed up a few more things in my room, and then sent my remaining stuff to Huaráz with my friend who works with an NGO and has a truck.

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My last Picante de Cuy with my host-family while still being a Volunteer in Caraz

After lunch, I had to run to Caraz where I attended a meeting with my environmental youth group, Club Verde – Caraz, during which we shared an Inca Kola and talked about their plans for the rest of the year. They are a great group of kids and I know they are going to keep doing great environmental work in Caraz.

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A photo of Caraz’s Plaza de Armas which I snagged while waiting on the Club Verde.

Once the meeting ended, I went to my final despedida with three teachers with whom I had worked in my big school in Caraz, Micelino Sandoval Torres. We went out to a chifa/pollería (Chinese Restaurant/Chicken Restaurant) and just talked about what I would be doing in Huaráz and what they had planned in the school for the rest of the year. It was a nice meal, and a nice way to end my service in Caraz.

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Now, the shocking thing about all of my despedidas, was that there was not a single tear shed, even with my host-family. I think since everyone knew that I was only moving to Huaráz, and that I would be sticking around another year, no one felt the need to give real goodbyes since I was still going to be in the area. So, I guess full closure will have to wait until next year when I finally leave Perú for good. Hopefully, some tears will be shed then.

So, having said my goodbyes, on Saturday morning I gathered my remaining things and hopped on a combi (van) to Huaráz, where I semi-officially moved into my new apartment complex. Right now I am living in a small, temporary room in the complex since my actual “apartment” is still occupied, but once I get back from my month of special leave in the States, I will be able to officially officially move into my place. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the great views from the terrace, the chiminea I bought with the other Volunteer living in my building, and the ability to cook lots and lots of vegetables.

 

Overall, I’m very satisfied with my work in Caraz and I am looking forward to one more year of service as PCVL of Áncash.

Until next time,
MGB

Birthday Ceramics

As I mentioned in my latest post about my 3rd birthday here in Perú, I have received random, ceramic/plaster figurines for my two birthdays in Caraz. I promised a photo, and here it is.

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My strange figurines in all their glory. I’m not entirely sure what I am going to do with them whenever I eventually leave Perú.

Until next time,

MGB

My Third Peruvian Birthday

At the beginning of June, I celebrated my 3rd birthday since I’ve been to Perú and I am now a quarter of a century old. I’ve never been one to make a huge deal for my birthday, and so my previous two birthdays here in Perú were rather tranquilo. This past birthday was no different, just a little more strange.

I find it awkward to tell people when my birthday is, and so as I woke up on the anniversary of my birth, I just treated it as any other day. I got up, got dressed, and went in to have breakfast with my host-family. As I was leaving the kitchen and letting them know what I was doing for the day, something clicked for them and they remembered it was my birthday. I promptly received several “Peruvian hugs” which as my fellow Volunteers know consists of a half “hug”/half pat on the back, and was told to be sure to return for lunch.

And so, I continued the day as normal and went to the Municipality to prepare for my event with the UGEL. In honor of International Day of the Environment, we were hosting a training for student councils from several schools about environmental management and creating/implementing environmental plans. I gave the first presentation, talking to the attendees about the human impact on the environment, on the consequences of poor trash management, and what student councils could do in their schools to be more environmentally-friendly. We also did a practical activity where each group was presented an environmental problem that they needed to solve with a creative solution.

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Students presenting about their ideas
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More students presenting from another town

In between my presentation and the next, we had some time to kill so we decided to do a stretching IceBreaker. When we still had more time to kill, I jokingly suggested to my socia that everyone could sing me happy birthday since it was, after all, my birthday. Well, what I intended as a joke turned into a full blown chorus of the Peruvian Happy Birthday song which starts in English, switches to a verse in Spanish, and then finishes in Spanish with a verse about cutting the cake and giving hugs. It was nice, but also kind of awkward, and then only became more awkward when one of the students asked his professor to ask me if they could give me hugs. I acquiesced, and for about 5 minutes I was trapped in a never ending hug train from all of the students in attendance, all of whom were far smaller than me. Let it be known, that of the 40+ students that ended up hugging me & wishing me a happy birthday, I only actually knew one. I really wish someone had documented the experience. The event ended with all of the participants writing their compromiso con el medio ambiente (environmental promise) on a cut-out leaf and taping it to a tree banner.

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After the conclusion of the event, which ended up going really well,  I arrived late to my house where I enjoyed a special meal of Lomo Saltado, one of my favorite Peruvian dishes, that my host-mom had kindly prepared for me.

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Lomo Saltado

After lunch, I received a phone call from one of my socios asking if I was coming into the municipality in the afternoon. I told him I wasn’t planning to, but could, and would be in as soon as possible.

After catching a moto and taking my 1 sole trip to Caraz, I walked down to my office and was greeted by the secretary of my office saying that she was angry with me. I was confused, and asked why, and she said I knew why. Eventually, I got her to admit she was upset that I hadn’t told them it was my birthday. And thus began the “apology” and subsequent explanation that I find it awkward to tell people about my birthday.

Regardless, feelings were quickly mended and they organized a dinner at a Pollería (chicken place) for later in the evening to celebrate. Around 6pm, I show up to the pollería and poco a poco my socios started to arrive. We ended up spending about 1.5 hours eating pollo a la brasa and just talking, and it ended up being a nice night; words were spoken, a gift was given, and then we all went our separate ways for the evening.

When I got home I opened up my gift, which turned out to be a ceramic statue of a bearded Captain standing on a boat with a cigar in his mouth, along with a can of Cusqueña beer. So far, I’m 3 for 3 in receiving strange ceramic statues for my birthday. I guess gringos are hard to shop for jaja. I’ll have to take a photo of my growing statue collection and put it in a future post.

At the end of the evening, I remembered that my parents had brought me a card from my sister, with a note saying, Do not open until your birthday. The card was well worth the wait.

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My very own T.A.R.D.I.S.

The best part of the card were three quotes from various incarnations of The Doctor that, at least for me, ring quite true for me and my Peace Corps service.

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I think fellow PCVs can relate.

So all in all, my birthday was unusual, and nothing like any birthday I have had in the U.S. And, since I am extending one more year, I still have one more Peruvian birthday to go before I finish up my Peace Corps service.

Until next time,

MGB

 

 

From Tree Nursery to Tree Planting: Part 2

Sometimes I work at the town landfill. And in actuality, it is often rather fun because apart from disposing of lots of trash, they also make a lot of compost, have over 20 vermiculture beds, and have an old, unkempt tree nursery. This is the story of my fun times at the landfill, and how we launched an impromptu reforestation project.

This post is the second of a series that will cover one of my larger projects here in Caraz; building a tree nursery & consequently planting the trees grown. I will be publishing one post in this blog series/week over the next month or so. This series will cover all aspects of the project, starting with planning, the actual creation of the nursery infrastructure, the plant production, and finally the most rewarding component: tree planting. I hope you enjoy the series, and be sure to check out the first installment before reading this latest in this great tree-venture.

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Once we had the basic infrastructure up to snuff, it was time to move onto phase two of the “reactivation”; substrate preparation. You see, most tree production in Perú is done in black, polyethylene bags that are filled with potting substrate (a variable mix of organic material, sand, and soil that you prepare). There is no Miracle Gro Potting Mix here in Perú!

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An example of the black, polyethylene tree germination bags

With the workers at the landfill, we spent one morning carefully mixing our potting substrate. Preparing a proper potting substrate is essential; the sand provides proper drainage, the organic material helps to retain humidity, and the soil provides nutrients as well as substance to the mixture. Every plant species requires a slightly different mixture according to its growth, ideal habitat, etc., and so the proper ratio is important. Too much sand, and the substrate could dry out quickly, too little sand, and the poor drainage could promote the growth of fungi. It took us a little while to find a mixture that seemed suitable, but in the end, I think our mixture consisted of a fairly even mixture of soil, humus (worm-produced organic material), and sand. Once the substrate was prepared, we had to disinfect it; a sterile potting mix is important so as to minimize the spread of disease and growth of fungi in the tree nursery. There are many methods to sterilizing potting mix, including roasting it in an over or cleansing it with boiling water, but due to the inaccessibility of those techniques, we settled for disinfection with an extremely mild bleach solution. Not the best, but not the worst either.

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Sand on the left, soil/humus on the right
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Mixing the soil, humus, and sand, and adding a bit of water
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More mixing

 

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Disinfecting the substrate with the bleach solution

With the substrate all prepared, I worked with the Club Verde to begin filling germination bags and it was VERY SLOW. I think we managed to fill about 100-150 over 2-3 hours (some dogs later knocked over all of bags we had filled, so our toiling had been meaningless). Something needed to change. In the following days, we struck gold! A local business that produces blueberries threw out a few thousand black plastic germination containers that we could use to instead of germination bags. We were able to fill several hundred of these containers in the time it took us to fill only 100 germination bags. In total, we ended up filling about 1300 containers with substrate, which would equate to 1300 trees assuming all the seeds germinated and grew.

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The containers and bags filled with substrate- they erected a temporary “fence” to keep animals out
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Leveling out the germination beds

So now, poco a poco, we were advancing. Over the subsequent weeks, we continued to fill more containers with potting substrate and began to plant seeds. Additionally, the workers at the landfill managed to obtain some mesh, which we used to enshroud the tree nursery, turning it into a type of greenhouse. Now, when stepping inside the tree nursery, one noted a significant change in humidity and warmth compared to the outside environment. This humid, warmer environment was essential for promoting growth of the trees we desired to produce.

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Filling the germination containers in the newly enshrouded tree nursery. The white substance is cal (lime), which is used to control diseases/smells/flies.

Now, I would like to make clear that reactivating this tree nursery was not planned. It was not a project proposed at the beginning of the year that had a designated budget or anything. This project was somewhat spur of the moment, and was completed with essentially no operating budget. Due to the somewhat spontaneous nature, we decided to just produce whatever seeds we had available. We settled on two native tree species: tara (Caesalpinia spinosa) and molle (Molle shinus). Check out the next two posts for some more deets on these two native tree species.

Until next time,

MGB