The Whirlwind Settles

Posted on January 30, 2012



Buenas Días Todos.


Last week marked the two months that I’ve been at my site, in my town Palcamayo, in the valley of the central cordillera: the high Andes of the department of Junin, Perú. My jefe Diego came to visit with Caroline, his assistant and a third year volunteer, and Jorge, one of our Peace Corps doctors. They pulled up to my host family’s home in a shiny white steed: one of the Peace Corps issued Jeeps. After they had come and gone I felt lighter. My two months of trying to get used to Palcamayo, and getting Palcamayo used to me had been affirmed at last. We sat in my living room filling out the mandated questionnaire, and then chatted with my family and checked out my bedroom. Despues we walked down to the vivero (tree nursery) at the colegio (secondary school) to check on my bolsitas (little bags) of Tara seeds (a native Andean tree species). We ended the visit with Jorge’s famous videos. One was a short clip of me in my beautiful plaza, with a large sculpture of climbing red flowers and a hummingbird, and the other at Huagapo, the famous cave 3km. up the road.  The three visitors were constantly admiring the greenery and abundance of foliage within the clima templado of Palcamayo where bright blue skies and bulbous white clouds, so low you could reach up and grab one to eat like cotton candy, mark the days. I was made grateful for my wonderful site all over again. In talking with Jorge, who’s had a taste of the costa and other regions, I realized how unique Andean culture is, and how lucky I am to have the ability to be living within it. Andean culture is a beautiful thing, from the food, to the clothing, to the ganado, (livestock: sheep, donkeys, llamas, alpacas, bulls, cow, cuy, a few goats here and there), and even the horrible dogs guarding their respective homes.


The Andes folk munch on kernels of colorful corn, called “canchita”, daily. It’s toasted on the outside and white and dry on the inside, and it is one of the things I would like to push through customs when I come home. We also eat choclo (a maize with huge light yellow kernels) con queso (which is a fresh soft cheese made into rounds and sold up and down the mountains all while the days are long). It’s simply a boiled cob served with a thick slab of queso. The simple things really are the most delicious. Of course we have Pachamanca. It’s a meal as old as the Incas, and worthy of the Gods it surely is. It is muy rico, and saved mainly for birthdays around this house. It’s made in the ground and cooked on hot black rocks for an hour. My tíos fill the hole with potatoes, abas (green pods filled with lima-bean like verdura), and humita (a sweet tamale), which all char perfectly against the piedras. Then in goes sheep and pig, which has been rubbed in a mixture of herbs the night before. After covering the spread with heavy-duty paper, a mound of earth, and a customary cross, kissed on the cheek with a bundle of flowers, we wait with a game of “volley” for the steaming mess to be uncovered and devoured off a communal manta. One famous drink of these parts is Caliente of which I consumed my fair share of on New Years Eve. It’s Caña (an herbed liquor) cooked warm with cinnamon, spices, and sugar. Its sweet appeal can be lethal, as the strong alcohol content is masked so well. Patasca is another favorite of mine, and is a customary meal for breakfast on holidays or birthdays. It is a soup made the night before by simmering sheep parts, most importantly the head, into a broth and then adding choclo I could go on and on about food of course, but the point is that the Andes have a sabor unlike the rest of Perú, which is both comforting, and incredibly rich. I have yet to explore the rest of the country, but until I do I have the stance to highlight and appreciate the culture of the Andes here in Junin.


The older women, called respectfully by all as tias, wear the same ol’ clothing daily. They all walk about looking so similarly as if they’re a part of a special “mamalita” club. From head to toe we have: a tall white hat, re-painted a veces for upkeep and tied round with a big black bow, a sweater usually adorned with a gaudy design of flowers made with shiny beads, a manta covering the shoulders and pinned at the collarbone with a special pin or a wrapper as my abuelita specially dons, a conservative skirt seemingly made for a reform school usually seen with a fallen zipper in the back, and of course “granny panties” as my nearby volunteer friend Nicole and I call them: basically thick long underwear, ribbed and sometimes beautifully covered with a layer of tights, then some good ole’ loafers for the feet and they’re good to go…for a long while, as the weather and day’s work seems to keep folks in the same outfit for a few days.


As a Peace Corps volunteer I have a basic outline with certain metas (goals) that keep my work focused. Ahora, I’m still in my phase one. I need to compile a full “Community Diagnostic” of Palcamayo. It entails a lot of investigative work. I have to interview knowledgeable people from the Alcalde’s (mayor) office to the Health Post for data and facts. Then, I have to disperse encuesta’s (surveys) to a goal of 100 Palcamaiños, to get information that will help my cause. My questions cover what people do with their waste, including organic wastes, and recyclables, to if they have environmental concerns in Palcamayo, to finally an extensive interview on agriculture, which is the largest economic income for this town. I would say at least 85% of the total income is from agriculture. Chacras (small farms) surround the central pueblo down deep into the valley, up the mountainsides, and in the outlaying areas. People here work so hard and constantly it’s hard for me to explain the energy. For example, my dad often will wake up at 5am to start out to the chacra, work all day come home around 5pm, sleep around eight then do it again the next day and the next and the next. I have to say, regardless of the extensive use of fertilizers and other agroquímos, it’s a beautiful site to see everyone working in their chacras, hands against the earth, or walking slowly behind working toros, oftentimes with their few sheep and children lounging in the nearby grasses. The energy around here can be a bit exhausting in it’s consistency, but the spirit of Palcamaiños abides and is much admired. A large part of my encuesta asks about the chemicals used on the chacras: what, why, how much, and when. It’s a huge issue, to me and to the land here and the health of the workers. No one uses protection, and they spray liberally with small children at the chacras. Then, they’ll throw the bottles and bags of “medicinas” into the fields, roads, or rivers nearby. It’s awful to see the natural beauty of Palcamayo being destroyed by such negligence and disregard. I have begun my small hand in helping alleviate the problems with my little class of children. Every Thursday is recycling day. We walk up and down Palcamayo, to the river and through the chacras, picking up garbage and recycling. Next week we’re getting out our boots and collecting the abundance of garbage from within the river itself. I hope to begin biweekly charlas (talks) about the dangers of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, the benefits of organics, the ability to make use of organic wastes in compost, and more. That’ll be Phase Two.


These days I’m teaching vacaciones útiles (useful vacations), because the kids down this side of the border have been on summer vacation, and Diego encourages we start out there to integrate and get known in the community. I talked to the two primary schools and the one secondary school just as school was getting let out. I got a radio announcement put out to Palcamayo as well. It got me an aula (classroom) in one of the primary schools, and a group of 21 and counting estudiantes. Some days I’ve had twelve kids, but these days the numbers have dwindled to more like 5-7 a day. It’s fine though, because teaching can be stressful and I work better one on one with the children. I’m really grateful for the students that love my class and seem to like me too. (I was gifted a huge bag of abas, a popular and delicious bean here, by two of my kids the other day). I remember how influential teachers in my life had been, and that makes me feel great about the little part I play. These kids will forever remember how much the “gringa” stressed keeping the environment clean. We have designated Thursdays as the “Camina de Reciclaje,” where we walk up and down the dusty streets picking up the abundant garbage and recyclables. The kids get really excited, as if it is an Easter egg hunt. “Botella!” And they go running to retrieve it.

The other day a “tía” walked by and asked us about our outing. After my explanation she shook her head, saying “microbios.” Little Jaquelim looked up at me and said that the older people just don’t understand, but it’s really important to clean up. Yes Jaquelim, Yes, yes it is!


Summer school ends in February, but I hope to continue with an after-school environmental art club. I’m really excited about recycled art, and the energy and spirit of the kids. I have ideas to use plastic bottle caps for a mosaic, we have a mural project in the works with the wonderful director of the school, and I have access to all the old plastic bags used for starting trees….





So how are things personally? Well, after the visit from Diego, Caroline, and Jorge, and the passing of my second “Compra de Reciclaje,” and my first out of region vacation scheduled, things are starting to whirl down. The big bang of brand-newness is settling and I can finally see bits of my old self, coming back into focus. I simply enjoy being here. I feel an independence that I’ve never fully felt as of yet, and it feels wonderful. I hand wash my clothes weekly, which is a great use of free time, and I feel stronger and closer to my own process of living in doing so. The sounds of my scrub brush against my jeans, is like a meditation. I am so very pleased with my bedroom, and my host family, and their house. My room was once a tienda (store), so it’s quite large for a bedroom. It came with a standing counter, which I have used for fruits, vegetables, my cutting board and gas stove. I have abundant shelf space, and wall space, which I have already covered with some of my painting. I just received my bike from Peace Corps, and it rests lovingly in one corner. I’ve already been riding up a storm. I have my bed covered with three cozy wool blankets, a colorful manta on the nearby wall, I have a little table and a chair, where I can work on my diagnostic or study Spanish, and a large bench leftover from days of drinking Cristal (a very popular and cheap Peruvian beer, which tastes much like Bud Light) in the tienda. The space also allows me to do my yoga freely.


Living with my host family has been great. They are very pleasant people, very kind, and honest. The house is usually bustling. As I previously mentioned the farmers are early risers. My “sister” and her family will come over early to take the red Toyota truck down the hill to one of their chacras, and “dad” will be talking with neighbors as he leaves for another chacra.  Neighbors, family members, and friends are always coming in and out, knocking on the large blue metal door outside the driveway yelling “Alisue!” Alisue is my 20 year old “sister.” She has amazing energy as well, and is always answering these people’s calls. She sews up holes and cares for a baby named Angela for money. She also washes her parents clothing, and cooks when “Mama Aida” is too ill to do so. She is increíble! It’s a lot getting used to. Palcamayo is a constant working agricultural machine, and at times this home feels like a mini-version. I’m lucky though. I have a large family here to talk to and who support me. Getting used to having alone time, when there’s still commotion outside is a bit tough, but this is an experience for growth. I take hikes up the incredible mountains where I encounter sheepherders and their flocks wandering up the steep rocky face. I like to wander down by the river, or through the chacras as well. It can be exhausting though, day to day, just being here. I stand out like a blond-haired, white girl in a sea of brown Peruvians. I am constantly stopped and questioned, “Dónde se va?” “I’m going to my house, I live here, I am a volunteer from the United States.” I might as well wear a sign. Usually the people are kind and are pleased to meet me and I feel like I’m achieving being known. Poco a poco voy a acustumbrar. Little by little I will accustom. It’s like weaseling into a narrow crevice within the dark and dusty cave of Huagapo. It’s tough at times, slow going, but I’m inching my way in, and it’s interesting, and fun.

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