Foto Friday: the Environmental Committee

So in the past, Peace Corps Perú had 5 different programs: Youth Development, Community Economic Development, Community Health, Water, Sanitation & Hygiene, and Community-Based Environmental Management, my program.

However, all across the world, Peace Corps posts (countries) were asked to cut down the number of programs, and so Perú followed suit, eliminating the environment program. My group, which arrived to Perú in May 2015, was the last group of environmental Volunteers to come to Perú to work.

Environmental work is important in rural communities, such as the many in which Peace Corps Perú Volunteers work, because oftentimes the community’s health and livelihood is dependent upon its relationship with the environment. Oftentimes these communities lack basic services such as clean drinking water or a trash collection service, both of which can lead to community health problems. An unhealthy environment means an unhealthy community. Clearly, environmental work should be continued in Peace Corps.

So while the environmental program in it’s current for won’t continue, us MAC (environment) Volunteers began brainstorming last fall about how the environmental program could live on in some capacity in Perú since there is a need for environmental work to continue. What we decided was an environmental committee, the idea being a permanent committee consisting of Volunteers interested in environmental topics and promoting environmental projects among other Peace Corps Perú Volunteers. We wrote up a proposal, submitted it to the Peace Corps Perú staff, and waited. Finally, we received a supportive response from Peace Corps staff saying that they liked the idea, but that we lacked the funds for a permanent committee, but a short term one would be allowed. And thus the Environmental Committee was born.

We were given two different sets of meetings, first in April and the second in July (these past few days) to figure out a plan, organize resources, and leave something behind for future Volunteers to use. What we decided on was to create several presentations showing how environmental projects and themes can be incorporated into the other programs. Some of examples we came up with are the following: using recycled materials to create early-stimulation toys (Health), initiating recycling programs as an income generating activity (business), planting trees to preserve water sources (Water, Sanitation, & Hygiene). In addition to the presentations, we have been creating and compiling environmental resources to create more of less of an “Environmental Projects for Dummies: Peace Corps Perú” file. I was responsible for creating a guide on trash management here in Perú and compiling all of the accompanying resources.

The idea is that during training with the new Trainees each cycle, the Peace Corps trainers will present the environmental presentations, and then each Volunteer will receive a copy of the environmental resources folder, which has information on recycled art, how to grow and plant trees, how to make compost, how to start an eco-tourism group, etc. With this information, we hope that interested Volunteers will have the resources necessary to address environmental concerns in their communities.

This past week, we had our last meeting to finalize all of the presentations and accompanying materials and hopefully by the end of July or start of August, we will have a finished product to present to the Peace Corps Staff and hopefully all current and future Peace Corps Perú Volunteers.

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The hardworking Environmental Committee in our only group photo

In the Peace Corps, we strive to develop sustainable work and projects with our host-community partners, but it isn’t so often that we get to tackle a sustainable endeavor with other Volunteers. I’m extremely proud of the work I’ve accomplished with the other environmentally minded Volunteers above, and I hope all of our blood, sweat, and tears, will lead to more environmentally conscious Peace Corps Staff and future Volunteers.

Until next time,

MGB

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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

What has Mark been up to in Perú?

So it has been quite some time since my last blog post, so I figured a general recap of my work over the last 2 months was long overdue, but unfortunately I’ll only be recapping what I did in September, because otherwise this post would be incredibly long.

Sports:

I have been playing a lot of soccer and volleyball as of late, and most specifically with the Vaso de Leche group from my neighborhood. Vaso de Leche is a Perú-wide organization in which mothers of children under the age of 6 can receive free milk and Quaker from the Peruvian Government. Vaso de Leche is incredibly important because it helps to ensure that growing children recieve proper nutrition. In order to foster camaraderie among the various Vaso de Leche groups in my provincia (think county), the Municipality of Caraz organized a huge 3-part soccer/volleyball tournament. Being the local gringo, I was of course selected to help train my neighborhoods Vaso de Leche group, and so for quite a few weeks I was playing volleyball/soccer quite regularly with a group of 10-20 moms.

Playing soccer with the moms of Inca Huaín
Playing soccer with the moms of Inca Huaín

Despite all of our training, we didn’t rank in either Volleyball nor Soccer, so we’ll just have to train harder for next year.

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The moms of Inca Huaín on the soccer pitch.

English Classes

As a way to get to know people in my host community of Inca Huaín/Yuracoto, I started English classes in my house each Saturday afternoon. While the first one or two lessons resulted in about 10-11 students, over the weeks the number of devoted students has dwindled to just 4. With these four students, all girls, we have learned Greetings/goodbyes, colors, animales, numbers, and just this weekend, fruits. These girls, including my host-sister, are really excited to learn, and their enthusiasm has really helped to keep me motivated. In fact, one of my proudest moments as a Peace Corps Volunteer came from a moment in which my 4 students took on the role of teachers, sharing their newfound English knowledge with some other children who showed up at my house with their parents for some sort of political event.

I got to practice my drawing skills when we learned about animals in English.
I got to practice my drawing skills when we learned about animals in English.

Apart from the English lessons in my house, I have taught English a few times in the local school where we have covered Greetings/goodbyes and a personal favorite, parts of the body, which of course includes Head-Shoulders-Knees-Toes. The kids really enjoy learning songs which is perfect for me since I love to sing songs. During one of the English classes, I gave the students some free time to ask me questions which of course led to questions about my family, my pets, my travels, where I live, etc. The diagram of our conversation can be seen in the image below.

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Fishing:

 One Sunday, I went fishing in the Río Santa with my host-dad and two local kids. Although I never got the opportunity to cast the net, I did help collect the fish out of the nets and of course, document the entire experience.   The experience was quite fun, and I enjoyed seeing some new scenery (and finding some toads).

One of my neighbors casting the net.
One of my neighbors casting the net.

With all of the fish we caught, we had a lovely fish fry for dinner, and breakfast, and lunch, and dinner again, and breakfast once more, and maybe another lunch.

Trash Management Education:

One of the biggest environmental problems in Perú at the moment is trash management, and consequently, a lot of my work with the Municipality of Caraz has focused on this theme. Coincidentally, trash management is also the third goal of my Peace Corps Program, Community Based Environmental Management. Therefore, I have given some charlas (presentations) to local schools/students about how to conserve/protect the environment and how to properly manage trash. In these presentations, I talked about Climate Change, Environmental Contamination, the 3Rs (Reducir, Reutilizar, Reciclar), and how to properly segregate (organics, inorganics, reciclables, dangerous, etc.) and store trash for proper disposition. These two presentations were my first big presentations for students here in Perú, and I’m really looking forward to continue working with schools during the next 2 years.

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Community Clean-ups

During two Saturdays in September, the Municipality organized two community clean-ups, focusing on a different barrio (neighborhood) within Caraz each weekend. The clean ups started bright and early at 6am each morning, and continued until about 11-11:30am, involving mostly just workers from the municipality (although more community members participated in the second event). We cleaned up everything from trash to food waste, and construction waste to the pounds and pounds of dust that abide in Caraz due to the unfinished roads in the upper sections of the city. I successfully managed to break the broom given to me for the clean-up, which happened to be the third broom I have broken in less than 2 months. Oh, and I was also interviewed during the first clean-up event and the footage was shown on the Municipality’s TV cannel.

Faena de Limpieza (Clean-up)
Faena de Limpieza (Clean-up)

Peace Parade

September 21st was the International Day of Peace, and so to celebrate, my Municipality put together a big parade, which is the #1 way to celebrate any event in Perú. I got an awesome white shirt, got to hold a sign for my Gerencia of the Municipality, and was also on TV again (although only in passing this time). How fitting that a Peace Corps Volunteer got to march in a Peace parade?

Doves being released to celebrate the Day of Peace.
Doves being released to celebrate the Day of Peace.

As you can probably see, I have been very, very busy the last few months.  I have learned a lot, started working on a lot of different projects, and this has only been the briefest of glimpses into my activities thus far.  As some of my projects develop further, I will be detailing them up here on my blog.

Un abrazo,

Mark G-B

First Week as a Volunteer

Well, with the conclusion of the work day Monday, I have officially completed my first week in site as a Peace Corps Volunteer! So what did I accomplish? Well, lots of random things, to be honest. This past week (July 26th-August 1) was Fiestas Patrias, a celebration of Perú’s independence, which meant that the schools were out for winter vacation, events were going on everywhere, and the municipality and many other offices were closed. So, I hung out with my amazing host-family and did a bunch of cool stuff, and did eventually find my way to the municipality office. Some memories of the week:

Monday:

  • Helped around the house
  • Played basketball in Caraz with my host half-brother
The clouds were beautiful my first day back in site.
The clouds were beautiful my first day back in site.

Tuesday:

  • Visited one of my family’s beautiful chacras (fields), which was just a  short walk down the street.
  • Re-used some plastic bottles to do some crafts with my host-sister

Wednesday:

  • Met my half-host-sister Leslie and played lots of “voley” in the backyard
  • Visited the “cementerio” which is a cemetery on some ruins called Inca Wayin (House of the Incas in Quechua). Only a 5 minute walk in my backyard, and gorgeous! Plus, pottery shards!
  • Dinner in Caraz at my family’s favorite Chifa (Chinese food) place

Thursday:

  • Celebrated my host half-brother’s 21st Birthday with his family in Caraz. I finally tried some Pachamanca, and then enjoyed some cake which was coated in what can only be described as Pez icing. It tasted just like Pez.
  • Brief visit to the municipality to set up a meeting for the following week.
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My office is in a soccer stadium, and we have a pretty incredible view just outside. I am working in the Gerencia de Servicios a la Ciudad y Gestion Ambiental (Office of Services to the City and Environmental Management).

Friday:

  • Visited the Inca Wayin ruins on the OTHER side of the street.
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A wall is most of what remains of the Inca Wayin ruins.
  • Watered our chacra by diverting water flow using giant rocks.
  • Practiced tying some knots. There will eventually be a blog post about all of the knots I’ve learned.

Saturday:

  • Moved lots of bricks and vomited a lot (I’m better now)

Sunday:

  • Market day! On Sundays, my host mom sells fruits in the huge market in Caraz. I took the opportunity to put my settling-in allowance to good use and bought some things to furnish my room; a mirror, a trashcan, a laundry bag, a hanger, a radio, some nice rope, a spring mattress, and a BUNK BED! First one ever, so now there is no excuse for people not to visit!
  • Somehow we managed to fit two bunk-bed bundles and 3 mattresses on one moto-taxi. I wish I had taken a picture, because it was a sight to see.
My beautiful bunk-bed (camarote)
My beautiful bunk-bed (camarote)

Monday:

  • I spent the entire day reading the 140 page PIGARS (waste management report for the city of Caraz) that my municipality put together.  This document is vital to all of our waste/trash management work for the next 2 years.

Other random notes:

  • Everyone wants to learn English.
  • I had a very successful pillow fight with my host-siblings
  • Feeding pigs slop is fun but strange
  • One of our dogs is pregnant, and I might get to keep a puppy
  • The icecream and raspadillas (think snow cones but with ice from a mountain) are delicious here.
  • I can see thousand of stars and the Milky Way every night (before the moon comes out), for the first time in my life, and it is incredible.
  • I constantly feel like Pig Pen from Charlie Brown because it is pretty dusty here during the winter.

In contrast to week 1, week 2 was incredibly busy, with me going to the municipality to work every day.  Overall though, life is going well here in Caraz.

Mark

The Hills Are Alive…

with the sound of happy MAC aspirantes (trainees).

So this past week, all of the trainees went off to various parts of Perú for Field Based Training.  All of the MAC volunteers, myself included, left the overcast and dusty skies of Chaclacayo to head to the fresh, clear skies of the city of Jauja, in the province of Junín.

We left early Monday morning on the swankiest bus I have ever been on, to start our ~7 hour journey to Jauja.

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My seat on our Cruz del Sur bus, complete with my own personal touchscreen.

There is only one road from Lima to Jauja, and it is a steep, windy one that curves its way up one side of a mountain range and then down the other.  At its summit, the road is the highest in all of Perú, meaning altitude sickness is a definitive concern, but also that you get a close-up of some gorgeous snow-capped peaks.

Snow-capped peak at the top of the mountain range.
Snow-capped peak at the top of the mountain range.

Fortunately, the altitude didn’t give me any problems during the journey (or for the rest of the week, for that matter), and we arrived safely and without incident around 3pm.  Upon arrival we checked into our hostel, and then I went out to grab a snack with some volunteers; we got a giant avocado and 7 pieces of bread to share for the equivalent of $0.66.

The next day was when the fun began, because we kicked off the day by going to a nearby school to teach a 30 minute class about some environmental theme.  I had a fantastic group of third graders to whom I taught the life cycle of a frog.  They were surprisingly attentive, and got me very excited to work in the schools when I eventually get to my site.

Fellow Trainee Peter and I with our class of 3rd Graders.
Fellow Trainee Peter and I with our class of 3rd Graders.

After class, I played soccer with a bunch of the kids during their recreo (recess) and showed them how my waterproof camera worked (they were pretty amazed).  After classes, we headed over to a PCV’s house for a delicious lunch, after which we met up with his local Club Ambiental (environmental club) to go plant some TREES!  I paired up with an awesome kid named Luis (who happened to be the PCV’s host-cousin), and we planted 3 trees up on the hill.  We were a killer tree planting team, and we named each of our trees after different Avengers (Hulk, Captain America, y Iron Man).

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Luis and I with our second tree, Captain America.

After tree planting, we headed back to Jauja where we went out on the street for dinner.  A few of us found a great pizza place where I shared a delicious Napolitana Pizza with another trainee.

We started off the next day exploring the local Feria, which is basically a giant market that happens every Wednesday and Sunday.  I talked with a few vendors and some kids to learn a bit more about Jauja, bought some fruit, and also bought a trompo, which is basically a wooden top that all the kids play with.

Mi trompo
Mi trompo

Later in the morning, we headed to the pueblo of Sincos to listen to a presentation about compost and then help another PCV with a compost/vivero (tree nursery) project in a local school.  Our group worked to make a box for the compost as well as to prepare two camas (beds) for the future trees.  It was hard work, tearing out grass and picking the soil, but it was super fun to be doing some manual labor.  After we finished, we lunched at the volunteers house before heading out to the town of Tunanmarca to visit a small museum and some pre-Incan ruins.

Getting to the ruins involved a short bus ride up a small hill, and then a short hike up to the entrance.  In order to enter the ruins, our guide had to perform a really cool ceremony where he asked permission from Mama Patsa y Tayta Inti (Mother Earth and Father Sun, in Quechua) to enter the ruins.  After the ceremony, we all had to deposit a stone that we brought up the mountain with us in a small pile.

The ruins themselves were gorgeous, and the view from the hilltop was incredible.  It was amazing to walk around and touch the stone houses that had been built stone by stone several thousand years earlier.

The ruins were truly incredible, and you could feel nothing but peace walking through them, with beautiful scenery all around.  My time up there, among the history, will be something to cherish.

The next morning we all headed out to a nearby town called Concepción, to visit their “Relleno Sanitario”, aka a landfill.  One of Perú’s biggest challenges is solid waste management, and so it was nice to visit one of the few sanitary landfills in all of Perú, that will hopefully eventually serve as a model for other towns and cities across the nation.  The landfill serves about 25,000 people in the area, and is remarkable in that they separate organic and inorganic materials.  Organic materials are used to make compost on the premises which is either sold to local farmers or used to fertilize the áreas verdes (green areas) of the town, while inorganic materials are either recycled or buried.

After we finished touring the landfill, we returned to Jauja where we had lunch together with some other MAC volunteers from Jauja.  One of the volunteers was actually from Lancaster, so it was cool chatting him a bit about Pennsylvania stuff.  I actually sat next to his socio (in-country partner) Oscar, who was a guardaparque (park guard) with SERNANP (think USFW) in the Reserva Nacional de Junín.  I talked with him in-depth about my research experience with invasive species in college, and then talked with him at length about SERNANP’s efforts with the Lake Junín Giant Frog, which is in-danger of extinction.  I had heard about the frog when I first found out I was going to Perú, so it was amazing to be able to talk with someone who worked directly with them.  I’m hoping I’ll be able to make my way over to the reserve at some point during service to help out with the project a bit.

After lunch, and a brief presentation by Oscar about all of their projects in the Junín National Reserve, we headed to a nearby Lake to do some bird watching (there were flamingos, irises, and many other avifauna).  While everyone else was walking around looking at birds, I hung out on the shore to talk with the PCV from PA about his work with the Lake Junín Giant Frog, since I still had a ton of questions.  While this was going on, a few trainees and facilitators decided to cross a small land-bridge across a portion of the lake.  Not everyone made it across safely, as the lake claimed 3 victims (you can see the aftermath of one fall in the picture below).

The aftermath of Jon falling in the lake.
The aftermath of Jon falling in the lake.

When everyone had safely reunited, we took our first group photo with all of the MAC staff (we look pretty good).  And before heading out, being the good little environmental guardian that I am, I picked up a few plastic bottles that were lying around on the ground.

For my last night in Jauja, I ate lots and lots and lots of food and sweets, since it would be a while since I would find them so cheap.  On our last morning in Jauja, we went to the municipality for a presentation on solid waste management by the Director of the Environment for Jauja.  It was really interesting, since they were implementing their first ever recycling program that very Monday, and so the information he shared could be really helpful for starting up recycling efforts in site.

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Pre-final presentation selfie in Jauja.

All in all, FBT in Jauja was absolutely incredible, and it was very nice to get away for a few days and see a different part of Perú.  After this short trip, I’m extremely excited to get to my site in a few months time and get started (we find out our sites this coming Wednesday morning!).  The return journey was fun, and filled with lots of word games since our touchscreens were not functioning.  I was sad to leave Jauja only to return to little old Chaclacayo, but we were gifted with a surpise snow squall on the drive home that made everything cooler (literally and figuratively).

Until later this week (when I’ll be updating with a post about my PCV site)!

MGB

“Government issued friends and family”

While the retreat was busy, it was also very fun and a great introduction into Peru and the Peace Corps experience.  We had diversity exercises, safety and security meetings, and reviewed many of the expectations of Peace Corps volunteers, all the while diving into Peruvian food which, if you haven’t heard, is incredibly tasty.

 On Saturday, we had our first of many breakout sessions with our Peace Corps sectors. I belong to MAC (Manejo Ambiental Comunitario ~ Community Based Environmental Management) and our program coordinator is Diego Shootbridge, an enthusiastic, straight-shooting Peruvian with years of experience in environmental work. He broke down the focus of our sector into 3 areas via an easy to remember mantra:  Education, Trees, Garbage (look out for a blog post with this title in the future).  He talked about his expectations for MAC volunteers and his high hopes for us, MAC 25, the last MAC group to be sent to Peru (save the best for last, I hope!).

In addition to work, there was also a lot of play, and many moments that showed me what a special group of people I will be working with throughout training, and hopefully the next two years.  Some highlights of the weekend include several games of Cards Against Humanity (Peace Corps Trainees make surprisingly good CAH players), a mock-graduation ceremony for those who had to miss graduation because of service, birthday cards for the two birthdays of the weekend, a fantastic game of soccer on a concrete court (I had 3 goals, and most importantly an great time), a late night campfire complete with guitar, plastic trashcan drums, trumpet, and sing-alongs, and our training host family (familia anfitriona) assignments.

It was a great weekend and a fantastic way to kick off the Peace Corps experience.  I have definitely made some great connections and friendships among my fellow volunteers already, and I’m looking forward to developing them as time continues.

MGB