Year 3 Begins

So it has been a while since I last updated my blog (about 3 months), and in that time a lot has changed. After finishing up my service in Caraz at the end of July and then spending a week or so getting adjusted to my new role in Huaráz as PCVL, I got to go back to the United States for the month of August for vacation.

I had a great time being home and took advantage of the time to see a lot of family/friends, to go hiking, to eat lots of food (I gained a lot of weight), to go to the beach, to catch up on some movies I had missed while in Perú, and to go see the solar eclipse.

 

 

Overall, I had a fantastic time, but on September 1st, the time came to get myself to the airport and get on a plane back to Perú. Honestly, it was harder to leave this time than it was at last Christmas, but once my plane landed and I was surrounded by Peruvian Spanish once more, I felt at ease. I spent a day in Lima eating some tasty ceviche before catching a night bus on the 2nd to Huaráz.

Being back in Áncash was wonderful. The clean mountain air. The beautiful snow-capped mountains. The beautiful Sierra clothing. Coming back to Áncash after a month in the U.S. was quite refreshing, and I quickly remembered all of the reasons that I decided to stick around with the Peace Corps for an extra year. When I arrived at Huaráz, I went to chill at our Peace Corps hostel to drop some things off and relax before heading up to my apartment complex in the afternoon. When I got there and talked with the owner, she said my apartment was still occupied (turns out the person wasn’t leaving til October 1st, not September 1st like I had been told originally), so that I would stay in one of her older daughter’s old rooms for the month. Not what I was expecting, but if I have learned anything in the Peace Corps, it is how to be flexible. And so, while inconvenient (less privacy, no place to cook), I’ve been through more stressful and awkward things when working in Yuracoto/Caraz, so it was no big deal.

So after moving my stuff in, I treated myself to a nice dinner and then prepared for the upcoming week. On Monday and Tuesday, the Regional Department of Education of Áncash was hosting an Environmental Education Congress for teachers, students, and science/technology/environment teaching specialists from all over the Áncash region. The Environmental Education Congress is one of the many activities included in the  National Plan for Environmental Education sponsored by both the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of the Environment that must be implemented in each region (state) of Perú. While the implementation of the Congress fell under the purview of the Regional Department of Education, the planning involved various institutions, including SERNANP (the Peruvian National Parks organization), who is my partner organization for my 3rd year of work with the Peace Corps. Consequently, I was involved in some of the planning of the Congress and was asked to give a presentation during the Congress about my work with composting/vermiculture with the schools of Caraz & Yuracoto.

So, on Monday, September 4th I gave a presentation about the benefits of composting to about 50 people representing teachers, students, etc. from various schools all across Áncash. The presentation went over well, and the entire first day of the Congress was a huge success.

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The mesa de honor at the start of the Congress

Day 2 went swimmingly as well, and I ended up giving another unexpected presentation at the end of the day about the environmental plan I co-developed and co-implemented with the teachers at Micelino Sandoval Torres in Caraz. The coordinator of the school’s environmental committee was originally going to give the presentation, but unfortunately, she had to leave early. For the first year of implementation and coordination, I think the inaugural Environmental Education Congress was a big success. There were a lot of interesting presentations, from both different environmental experts as well schools, and I hope that the event inspires the teachers and students who attended to continue implementing new environmental projects in their schools and homes.

So, all in all, my return to Perú and Huaráz started on a high note! In the next few days/weeks, I’ll be updating you all on how the rest of my last 1.5 months have gone and what I’ve been up to.

Until next time,

MGB

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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

Sawdust Rugs: Take 2

On a typical Sunday morning last May in Caraz (way back in 2016),  I was walking through the market where my host-mom sells fruits, when the urge to walk down to the Plaza de Armas (Town Square) suddenly came upon me. After following the small stream of people heading down to the Plaza, I stumbled upon a really neat event organized to celebrate Corpus Christi, a Catholic holiday celebrated throughout Perú (more info here). The event in question was artistic in nature, and involved the creation of massive “rugs” made out of wet, dyed sawdust. Check out my post from last May to see how the first year went.

While last year´s event was a surprise, this year I was prepared. I knew about the event in advance, and had even coordinated with some students from my local school to help out with their alfombra (rug). However, due to various circumstances once again I did not get the chance to make a rug, instead assuming my regular role of documentarian. But, I like taking photos, and Peruvian jóvenes (young people) tend to like having photos taken of them, so it all works out in the end.

What follows are an abundance of photos of the different rugs created for the celebration of Corpus Cristi. The rugs are largely made of dyed sawdust, but some also include other organic materials such as leaves, flowers, branches, etc. Generally, the rugs depict different religious symbols (crosses, Jesus, doves, flowers, etc.) and/or Biblical verses that the student first sketch out with chalk, and then fill in with the sawdust. Of course, the rugs also display the name of the school that created it; school pride is a big deal in Caraz.

The rugs are created all along the town square, essentially forming a beautiful, continuous sawdust walkway upon which the members of the Catholic procession can walk. But enough talking, enjoy the gorgeous photos and let me know which is your favorite alfombra!

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My seniors from Yuracoto; rug still in process.
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The juniors (I think?) from Yuracoto with their rug

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The rug from the seniors of Pampacocha; I had a nice chat with the students.

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Micelino Sandoval Torres
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Nueva Victoria
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Nueva Victoria
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M.S.T. (I think)
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Dos de Mayo (D.D.M.)
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D.D.M.
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“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…for you are with me”

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Once the students finish their alfombras, which usually takes anywhere from 3-5 hours, it only takes about 1 hour before they fulfill their purpose: to be walked upon by the religious procession.

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The procession leaving the church and starting the alfombra path of destruction.
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Even the military band gets in on the stomping action.
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The rest of the Saints joining the procession.

As the procession ends, my good friends in Limpieza Pública (public cleaning) get the fun task of sweeping away each and every rug.

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The colorful remains of a former sawdust rug.

I love the alfombras because they are ephemeral. A flash of beauty, which is then trampled on, destroyed, brushed away, and ultimately forgotten. In many ways, the alfombras remind me of the mandalas of the Tibetan monks.

While once again I missed out on the alfombra party, I´m hoping that there is still hope for me since I´ll be sticking around Perú for a 3rd year with the Peace Corps.

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 1

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 first 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 in each week for the latest installment in this great tree-venture.

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Way back in July of 2016, the gerente (boss) of the Gerencia de Servicios a la Ciudad y Gestión Ambiental (Department of City Services and Environmental Management) of the Municipalidad Provincial de Huaylas (Provincial Municipality of Huaylas) and I were approached by a group of students from the local university. As part of their studies, the students had to create a work plan to address a local issue in the community. This group chose to address some of the environmental issues facing Caraz, notably the dirtiness, contamination, and abundance of trash often found at the town market.

Now, you might be thinking, but wait, this is supposed to be a series about trees, why are you talking about trash in the town market? Well, over a few meetings, I worked with the group to develop their plan about the trash in the market, but during these visits, it became clear there was a desire to do more. And so, my boss at the Municipality talked the students into become a somewhat more formalized entity, a group of sorts that would collaborate with the municipality on environmental activities and projects. Thus formed the Club Verde (check them out in this other post).

So, now that we had a committed group of young people, we began to brainstorm some plans for potential collaborations, other than addressing the trash concerns in the market. One of the big ideas we settled on was to do a big reforestation campaign, planting lots of trees around Caraz. However, we had one big question: where are we going to get all of the trees?

Well, we quickly realized that we were going to have to produce our own trees if we wanted trees to plant. But where? In the end, we settled on the town’s landfill since it conveniently had old, unused tree nursery infrastructure, as well as an abundance of organic fertilizer (compost, humus), which would be essential for tree production. And so, the stage was set: we would reactivate the landfill’s tree nursery.

But what does “reactivate” a tree nursery mean? Tree nurseries aren’t robots or computers. Well, it depends. Tree nurseries require many components to function: a water source, a system of irrigation, a source of organic material for the soil substrate, germination beds to grow the plants, shade (young plants can burn with too much sunlight), regular workers, etc. In our case, most of the infrastructure was present, but was just old and unkempt, having been left unused for several years. Consequently for us, “reactivating” the tree nursery meant first and foremost a LOT of cleaning.

Across two to three visits to the landfill, the Club Verde, some of the landfill workers, and myself spent most of our time de-weeding and reforming the once immaculate germination beds (long cut-outs where the trees are grown). After a lot of work, we managed to get 6 germination beds up to snuff, meaning we could commence with the following phase of the project.

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De-weeding and digging out the germination beds.
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Lots of shoveling was involved

Check-in next week for phase 2 of the tree nursery reactivation project.

Until next time,

MGB

Albino Toadlet

For those who know me really well, it is common knowledge that my favorite kinds of animals have always been herps, which is to say reptiles and amphibians (lizards, turtles, snakes, frogs, etc.).

Consequently, while here in Perú I have been on the look for reptiles and amphibians everywhere I go. I will add a post at some point with photos of all of the different reptiles and amphibians I have seen and/or captured while here in Perú, but for the moment enjoy this little tidbit.

Last week, while visiting the tree nursery in the landfill where I sometimes work, I noticed baby toads hopping all over the ground. Seriously, with every other step I took, you could note tiny, brown figures hopping along the ground. I wasn’t too surprised to be surrounded by toads since there is a small riverbed near the landfill that fills with water during the rainy season, but it was an unexpected occurrence. There must have been eggs and tadpoles there for some time, which had finally metamorphosed into toadlets.

Anyways, while walking around the landfill I noticed a small hopping figure that looked a bit, well, different. It stood out, and on closer inspection I realized because its legs were PINK! I quickly scooped it up, examined it more closely, and discovered it had red eyes, which would indicate that the toadlet had some form of albinism. It was an awesome discovery; usually albino animals don’t survive for long in the wild given their atypical colorations. After a brief photo shoot, I put the tiny toad inside the tree nursery with the hope that he would be safe from predators for sometime within its protective mesh. We shall see. Enjoy some pics!

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Unfortunately I neglected to take any pictures of a normal looking toadlet for comparison, but rest assured they look anatomically identical but with brown skin and bumps.

Until next time,

MGB

2 years in Perú

Today, May 7th, 2017, marks 2 years since officially landing on Peruvian soil (I think our plane touched down at like 10-11pm). While I haven’t officially reached 2 years in my site of Caraz, Áncash (gotta wait until July 25th, 2017), to commemorate this occasion enjoy some of my favorite photos of scenery that I have taken in my beautiful department of Áncash.

Enjoy the photos!

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Mount Huascarán as seen from Huaráz
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The valley visible from the cliffside behind my house
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The soccer stadium where my municipal department’s office is located
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The Cordillera Blanca as seen from Huata (Cordillera Negra)
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One of many beautiful sunsets I have seen from my house
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A panorama of Cuncash, Santa Cruz.
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Río Santa- for once not looking as contaminated as it actually is
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More sunsets from my backyard
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The entrance to the Quebrada Llaca (Llaca Ravine) outside of Huaráz
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Inside the Quebrada Llaca
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Laguna Llaca (Llaca lake) – the lake is formed from glacial melt and rainfall
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A dry field behind my house- reminds me of the savannah
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My host-siblings with a fiery sky in the background
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Laguna Parón (Lake Parón) – this lake provides most of the water to my town
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Snow capped mountains on the way to Punta Olímpica (Olympic Point), where you can cross the Cordillera Blanca to the “dark side”
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Yuracmarca, Áncash. My host-mom’s home turf, this region is only 1.5 hours north of me, but is basically a desert.
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A panorama of Yuracmarca, Áncash
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Laguna Querococha on the way to the ruins of Chavín de Huantar
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The archeological site, Chavín de Huantar
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Colorful, natural springs inside Parque Nacional Huascarán (Huascaran National Park) on the way to the Pastoruri Glacier
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At the Pastoruri Glacier, looking at other travelers
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The Pastoruri Glacier- once famous for its skiing, it is famous for its melting due to climate change
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Laguna Llanganuco- the reddish trees are called Queñuales
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A waterfall on the way to Laguna 69
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What we thought was Laguna 69; the real laguna 69 is way up there below the snow
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The real Laguna 69 – the water wasn’t too cold
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Laguna Parón once more. The mountain in the back is called Pirámide (Pyramid)
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Wilkacocha – a lake near Huaráz on the Cordillera Negra
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Caraz – my home for the last 2 years
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Another beautiful sunset from a site near Huaráz
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Mount Huascarán as seen from the town square of Mancos
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The Callejón de Huaylas as seen from a hike up to Huascarán
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Sunset during a hike up to the base of Mount Huascarán
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Sunset in the other direction
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First glimpse of Mount Huascarán in the morning. We eventually reached the “snow” line
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A contemplative selfie on the way back down the mountain
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Quebrada Quilcayhuanca
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Fellow Volunteer Kevin hiking in Quebrada Quilcayhuanca
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Laguna Tullpacocha at the conclusion of our hike into the Quebrada Quilcayhuanca
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Some cool clouds as seen from my backyard
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Laguna Churup- one of the most beautiful lakes I have visited
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The Campiña de Yanahuara – the place I’ve called home for the last 2 years
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From an excursion with three of my former students
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An abandoned church in the hills near my house
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A beautiful, moony night at my house
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The start of a sunset during the rainy season
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Fresh snow on the mountain after a heavy rainfall elsewhere
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One last sunset
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Mount Huascarán once more
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The municipal soccer stadium & Mount Huandoy, the famous snow-capped peak of Caraz

I live in a very beautiful region of the world and I am extremely grateful for the wonderful experiences I have enjoyed during my Peace Corps service. Here’s to one more year!

Until next time,

MGB