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.

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

Ancash: they say it’s blue.

So unless you speak Quechua, you probably didn’t catch the significance of my title.  In Quechua, Anqa = blue, and adding “sh” to the ends of words adds the meaning “they say” or “se dice”, so Ancash (or Anqash) literally means “they say it’s blue” in Quechua.

So why kick this post off with a Quechua lesson?  Because Ancash in the departmento (state) of Perú in which I’ll be living for the next 2 years, and they speak Quechua in Ancash.  Specifically, as noted in my previous post, I’ll be living just outside the city of Caraz, in the Callejón de Huaylas.

So this past week was Site Visit week for all of the trainees of Peace Corps Perú 25, which means that we all got to spend a week at our future sites, to which we will be moving after we officially swear in as Peace Corps Volunteers in just 2 weeks.

For the Ancash volunteers, we got on a bus in Lima at 11pm on Saturday, July 4th, and arrived in the incredible city of Huaráz, which is the capital of Ancash, at about 6:30am on Sunday.  Upon arrival, we were greeted by 3 amazing Ancash Volunteers who took us to the Peace Corps approved hostel in the city.

After dropping off our stuff, we headed out to an amazing breakfast place called Café California, which is owned by an American from California, which means that they had US BREAKFAST FOOD!!!!!  I had my first pancakes in over 2 months and they were delicious.  In general, Ancash receives a lot of international tourists who come for the gorgeous hikes and mountaineering, which means there are a lot of expats, which means there are a lot of great international food places.

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Café California

After breakfast, we headed out on a scavenger hunt throughout the city which involved finding some locations that would be useful to us as volunteers, whether to nourish our stomachs or actually provide support in some other capacity.  One of the stops was the Huaráz market, to which I returned later to prepare a canasta (basket) as a gift to my new host family, who I would be meeting on Tuesday morning.

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The rest of the day was spent exploring the city on our own, and chilling in our hostel which has free wifi and HOT SHOWERS!  It is the best.

The view from the roof of our Hostel.  Mt. Huascarán is the tallest mountain in Perú.
The view from the roof of our hostel. Mt. Huascarán is the tallest mountain in Perú.

Monday was an important day, because it was Socio day, or the first interaction we would have with our future host-country counterparts.  I had two socios come, Edwin, a CTA (science-technology-environment) teacher in the school down the road from my new home, and Miguel, the jefe de Ecología y Medio Ambiente de la Municipalidad de Caraz (boss of ecology and environment in the Caraz municipality).  They both were great, and we spent the majority of the morning going over Peace Corps policies, the role of a volunteer in the community, and other such things.

Tuesday was the more important day, in my opinion, because that was the day we met our new host families, the people who would be housing us, feeding us, and forming our new Peruvian family for the next 2 years of our lives.  My host-parents are named Edwin and Elli, and we hit it off right from the get-go.  They are both incredibly nice, and not only do they speak Spanish, but they also speak Quechua, so I will have lots of time to practice all the Quechua I have been learning when I’m permanently in site.  Edwin makes and sells bricks, used to drive transportation trucks, and is the president of our neighborhood of about 450 families (I quickly learned that he seems to know everyone, and he is even good friends with the mayor of the town).  Elli works around the house cooking, tending the chakra (farm/fields), and also sells fruits once a week in the large market in Caraz.  Based on my observations throughout the week, they seem to have a great relationship and divide the household labor fairly evenly, which isn’t always a common sight in Peru.

After we finished family orientation, we hopped on a colectivo (van) and began the ~1.5 hour journey from Huaráz to Caraz.  The journey was incredibly scenic, with giant snowcapped mountains to my right, and imposing mountains to my left.  When we arrived in Caraz, and eventually to my house, I knew I was in the right spot.  The climate is perfect (warm during the day, not too cold at night, and the water from the faucet is naturally warm).  When we got to my new house, I met the rest of the family which consists of a 9 year-old sister named Cielo, and a 4 year-old brother also named Edwin, who we just call Junior.  I was also happily surprised to discover that my host-dad had four children from a previous marriage who ranged from 21 to 28 years of age: more friends!

My host-brother, Edwin, in our backyard.
My host-brother, Edwin, in our backyard.

The rest of Tuesday was spent settling into my freshly painted room, meeting our 6+ dogs and various farm animals, and enjoying some wonderful food as I got to know my new family.  I hit it off with Cielo and Junior right away, and from the first meeting I knew that we were going to have a fun 2 years together.

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On Wednesday, the work began.  The purpose of the site visit wasn’t only to meet our new host-family, but also to start to get to know our community, which means doing lots of presentations.  My Wednesday morning kicked off with a visit to the Caraz Municipality, where I thought I was just going to be introduced one-by-one to some of the important directors.  Boy was I wrong!  When I arrived, I was guided into a room full of municipality workers, and given a seat at the table in the front of the room.  After a few minutes, a vey formal presentation began, during which I was asked to give a speech about Peace Corps, my role as a volunteer, and what I hoped to accomplish.  It was a tad overwhelming, and the whole thing was filmed/photographed, so there very well might be an article published about me sometime soon in Caraz.  However, I think it went over very well and the workers seemed to resonate with my words.

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View from my room; bricks, mountains, and all.

After that, the rest of the week ran rather smoothly.  I visited 3 local schools, of which 2 seemed very receptive to working with me on environmental education.  I also quickly realized that everyone, and I mean everyone, wants me to teach English. The schools, the municipality, my host-dad, etc.  I am happy to help out with English classes when I can, and to work with the English teachers to improve their pronunciation, but I made it very clear that I was not a teacher, and that my environmental goals take priority.

In addition to visiting schools, I visited the Health Post in my community of Yuracoto, where I met the doctor in charge and offered my support for any work they might do in the schools, such as with sex ed, promoting self-esteem, or environmental education.  I also met the director of the UGEL, which is an organization responsible for overseeing the schools in each community within Perú.

Some other highlights of the week were:

  • Sharing meals with my host family.
  • Eating Manjar Blanco, an incredibly delicious milk-based cream spread.
  • Watching Ben-10 with my host-brother and Combate with my whole family.
  • Feeding our chickens and ducks.
  • Eating ice cream and a snow-cone equivalent in town.
  • Visiting the municipality’s vivero (tree nursery) at which I hope to plant lots of trees (hopefully with students).
  • Visiting the municipality’s “zoo” which has ostriches, a monkey, and some farm animals.
  • Seeing my office space in the Office of Services to the City which happens to be in the town’s soccer stadium.
  • Seeing the stars and the Milky Way every night.
  • Learning some new Quechua words from my host-parents.
  • Visiting some ruins within Caraz and seeing some ways to spruce them up a bit.
  • Picking up my host-sister from school and meeting her friends, who kept asking me how to say certain things in English.
  • Finding a great potential new socia who is an English teacher in my host-sister’s school, and who already has a TON of ideas about how to make the school much more environmentally conscious.  Plus, she has a son who runs a tourism-by-bike business in Caraz, which I want to check out.
  • Finding toad eggs & tadpoles in my backyard, and teaching my 4 year-old host-brother about the life cycle of a toad.  I’m hoping we can raise some in the house when I get back, and possibly use them for a school project.

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Overall, Caraz is absolutely beautiful and I’m really looking forward to my tranquil lifestyle on the outskirts of town.  I really have a wonderful set-up in my site, because there are SO many opportunities for work, both in the city and in the surrounding rural areas.  The municipality needs a lot of support in promoting their environmental programs, the schools need a lot of support, and there is a lot to be done to promote environmental advocacy and eco-tourism.  I’m really excited to get back to my site in two weeks, so I can finally get started with my work.  There is still a lot to learn about my site, and still a lot of preparations to complete before getting started, but I know now that I’m ready for this, and that this is what I’m supposed to be doing.

-Mark

P.S. I expect lots of people to come visit me, because Ancash is gorgeous.

4th of July, Peruvian Style

So a little over a week ago was a very special day in the United States, a day that is usually filled with friends, family, grilling, hazardous fireworks, and an overabundance of Red, White, and Blue clothing.  One of the sacrifices of serving in the Peace Corps, is that you miss out on all the hometown fun of celebrating Independence Day, or as we all just call it, the 4th of July.  However, as part of our Peace Corps training in cultural integration and exchange, each neighborhood of volunteers had to organize a 4th of July celebration to share with their host families.

Each group of volunteers was tasked with creating a typical American dish or two, preparing some traditional 4th of July decorations, and some games.  However, the responsibility wasn’t all on us, as our host mothers were also tasked with preparing some traditional Peruvian foods and organizing some Peruvian games (which turned out to be very similar to games we have in the US).

Thanks to fellow Volunteer Diana García for providing all of the following photos.

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Diana’s house all decked-out for our 4th of July Celebration

The volunteers in my neighborhood of Moron decided we wanted to go ALL OUT for 4th of July, so of course we decided to GRILL!  We prepared several American dishes to share with our host families.  Our menu included:

  • Hotdogs with ketchup, mustard, caramelized onions, and buns
  • Cheese quesadillas with homemade Guacamole (palta, tomatoes, peppers, onions, cilantro)
  • Kebobs of bell peppers, sausage, onions, tomatoes, and pineapple
  • Dirt (pudding dessert) or as we called it, Compost!

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Not to be outdone, our host mothers prepared a hoard of food that could probably have fed a small army.  They prepared:

  • Three causas (think uncooked potato salad lasagna)
  • Chicha morada (a delicious drink made from purple corn and fruit)
  • A jello/flan combination dessert (flan on the bottom, jello on top)
  • Arroz con leche (rice pudding) and mazamorra (jam)

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Then, after we had finally finished off most of the food and were rather stuffed, another neighbor showed up with a very delicious cake.

In between stuffing our faces with all of the amazing food, we had a mini olympics of games, which I had the honor to kick off by singing the National Anthem.  I had to sing the National Anthem solo not because the other 5 volunteers didn’t want to sing, but because the other 5 volunteers in my neighborhood didn’t know all the words….for shame!

So, what do you think of when you think of Peruvian party games?  If you thought tug-of-war, three-legged races, sack races, and a lime-on-a-spoon relay race, then you were right!  It turns out that Peruvian party games were so similar to ones we have in the US, that there really weren’t any new games us Americans could contribute haha.

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Tug-of-War

After several bouts of relay races and some 3 v. 3 soccer games, we ended the evening with some cultural exchange of dances.  Our families taught us some Huayno as we listened to traditional Peruvian music, and then we showed them how to do the Cotton Eye Joe and the Wobble, among other dances.

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Teaching the Wobble

The second goal of Peace Corps is to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, and I think our 4th of July celebration accomplished just that.  All in all, it was a very long (8am-6pm) and incredibly fun day, and I think I speak for all of us when I say we had an amazing time sharing part of our US culture with our host families.  I’m looking forward to celebrating 4th of July (and other US Holidays) with my host-family in Ancash and continuing to share my US culture, as I learn more about my new Peruvian home.

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Post-party posing

-Mark

P.S. The best part of the day however was watching Perú take down Paraguay in the Copa América at the end of the day to nab the #3 spot of the tournament.  They played great all throughout the tournament, and actually won the awards for best team of the tournament as well as best goalkeeper.  Here’s to hoping for a great run for them in the upcoming Summer Olympics in Brazil!