A journal of my Peace Corps service

"Gringa" in Quechua. Literally, "White rear end."

Yuraq siki
  • Thanksgiving
  • Karina's house
  • Highest point
  • PB&J
  • Visiting a 16 yr old who was pregnant
  • Christmas in Ocoyo
  • kids on the street
  • Hiking in Shirapucro
  • Butterfly girls
  • the face of malnutrition

Latest

A Special Thanksgiving

There is no better time to be thankful than at the end of Peace Corps service. Not because the hardships are about to end, but because you can share a meaningful American tradition with the people who have become your second family for just over two years. This year I spent Thanksgiving in Quisuarpampa, and while it wasn’t easy to prepare a dinner with a gas camp stove, electric “bubble” oven, and limited water, it turned out to be one of the best Thanksgivings ever.

First: the food. Squash soup, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, green beans with crispy garlic, sweet potato, roasted turkey, and apple pie. I brought almost everything up from the coast the week before Thanksgiving because the little stores in the village pretty much just sell canned tuna and noodles. A miracle must have happened because I made a tasty 3-course, mostly traditional Thanksgiving dinner for 11 people and I’m not a master chef.

But it wasn’t the food that made Thanksgiving so great. After all, there wasn’t cranberry sauce. It was sharing a special evening with the people that I have come to love during my service. I told the history of Thanksgiving and explained some of the family traditions that people have. Then we all held hands around the table and shared what we are grateful for this year. I expected to be the only one to share but I was blown away by the honest and emotional reflections of my host mom, the obstetrician, and the nurse. Then we laughed and told stories together for the rest of the night.
Thanksgiving
I am grateful for the chance to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Quisuarpampa and for the wonderful people that have kept me going along the way. I am grateful for the way my host family took me in when I didn’t have a place to live and made me a true part of their family. I am grateful for the health workers that have included me in their work and been my true friends in Peru. There are many more things that I am grateful for but underneath them all I am grateful for my family in the US and all of the opportunities that they have allowed me.

Healthy Homes, Healthy Families

What does hiking, eating stewed intestines, and working have in common? A lot if you work with high risk moms in Quisuarpampa!

Much of my time has been dedicated to the “Healthy Homes, Healthy Families” project that aims to prevent common childhood illnesses like acute diarrheal and respiratory infections, parasites, and chronic malnutrition and to promote early childhood stimulation. My community diagnostic at the beginning of my service made it obvious that the project was needed: 50% of the families reported a diarrheal or respiratory infection in the previous month, only four families showed me soap near the kitchen or bathroom, and not a single mom told me that kids should drink liquids when they have diarrhea.

Karina's house

Karina’s house

The project is turning out to be very successful, but let’s just say there were plenty of moments that I wanted to give up. Moms dropped out of the project, attendance suffered, and the attitudes of a few key women soared. When you pour yourself into something it is incredibly hard to hear what I heard: “There’s nothing good to be had here.” “You don’t do anything here and people will never care.” It didn’t help that the Municipality didn’t support the project, nor did they treat me with respect. And the terribly slow nature of behavior change didn’t inspire hope. A lot of factors converged to make me question my faith in the project.

Gloria's house

Gloria’s house

I was almost convinced to give up and to back away from the promises of the project but now I am very glad that I am seeing it through. Little Zuri (2 yrs old) waved to me every morning, rubbed her belly, and yelled that she didn’t have worms anymore. Her mom, Maria, who must have taught her what she learned about parasites, organized her whole kitchen by making cabinets out of fruit crates and plastic sheets, and pulled her daughter out of chronic malnutrition. I kept doing workshops, did house visit after house visit (where I ate lots of stewed intestines), and witnessed moms, who face incredible daily barriers, change little by little.

Maria's House

Maria’s House

There has been nothing more rewarding than doing house visits over the last few months to verify changes and approve people for stove construction. To listen to moms explain the signs of dehydration and how to prevent diarrhea and to see the changes in their kitchens- safe water, soap at a hand washing station, animals in corrals outside—made all of the tough days worth it. We are constructing improved cook stoves in some houses now and I am accompanying other moms as they make their way through the behavior change process. The moms that criticized the project and resisted participation are knocking on my door and asking if they can still join. It is too late for this project but I sincerely hope that they will embrace the next volunteer and look for positive change. Monitoring and evaluation information will be available soon!

Jovita's House

Jovita’s House

Exploring Peru

Peruvians are endlessly proud of the cultural, geographical, and ecological diversity of their country. After nearly two years of amazing memories in the Peruvian Andes, coast, and jungle I have come to realize that every Peruvian that brags to me about the beauty of their country is absolutely right. Here are a few highlights from my last few vacations:

  • Santa Cruz Trek- A 4-day backpacking trip with friends in the Cordillera Blanca of Ancash that included an endless display of stunningly immense snow-capped peaks. On day 1 we hiked up the Santa Cruz valley and caught our first glimpses of the views that were to come. On day 2 we continued up the valley and through the washout of a flood that resulted from a glacial moraine giving way. With the extra energy and enthusiasm that the peaks gave me us, two of us decided to hike up to Mt. Alpamayo’s base camp and we were rewarded with a 360° view of 6 peaks over 16,000ft and Lake Arwayqucha. (A good idea to jump into an icy lake at 15,750 ft? YES!) We got into camp after dark and were greeted by another incredible alpine view. On day 3 we climbed up, uP, UP to Punta Unión, the highest point on the trail. On day 4 we hiked out another valley and ended on the other side of the cordillera, in the Valle de Conchucos. Four days full of impressive peaks, shimmering lakes, and the magic of being in the great outdoors.
    Highest point
    Alpine Lake Jumps
    The Road Back

 

  • Nevado Pisco- After Santa Cruz we rested for a day in Huaraz then entered Huascaran National Park at the Llanganuco lakes. We hiked up to base camp, organized gear, ate an early dinner, bundled up, and watched the snow fall. At midnight it was time to get up! We had a light breakfast then started scrambling over the moraine to the start of the glacier. We reached the glacier at 4am, put on cramp-ons, and roped in. For two hours we made switchbacks up the glacier’s face. Just as we were reaching the ridge the first morning light started to illuminate the peaks surrounding us. The sun came up and we finally got to see where we were- on a high ridge completely surrounding by snowy peaks. My heart was racing (from both altitude and exhilaration) as we continued up the ridge. There was no technical climbing involved but we did need to use our ice picks on several sections. The second half of the ridge was one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever had because the combination of a long, steep climb and the high altitude made every step exhausting. We reached the peak (18,900 ft) at 9am and enjoyed the view from the top before the long hike back down to base camp. My head hurt and all I wanted was water but the guides handed us cold Cusqueñas the moment we arrived. As far as I’m concerned it would have been more appropriate to celebrate Mt. Pisco with pisco shots.
    Camp in the Snow
    Mountain madness
    Reaching the Top
    Summit!!!
    Descent

  • The Pisco Trail- I was lucky to spend time with two of my friends from Tufts, Duke and Greg. We walked all around Lima, ate lots of great food, and drank lots of pisco sours. Then we headed south to Ica’s pisco distilleries and the Huacachina oasis. I enjoyed dune-boogying, sandboarding, and catching up with the guys.
    Huacachina
    Dune Buggy
    Dunes

    Arequipa at Night

  • Arequipa and the Colca Canyon- For the 4th of July I went to la ciudad blanca in Southern Peru. I was very impressed by the conical volcano, culinary scene, alpaca and vicuña sweaters, frozen ice princess (mummy sacrificed to the mountain gods!), traditional Colca attire, the giant condors soaring about the canyon, and the canyon itself. I would highly recommend the city!

Colca Canyon
Llama Love

Powerful Girls

Play timeOne of the best parts of Peace Corps for me has been working with my “Powerful Girls.” When domestic violence, machismo, teen pregnancy, alcoholism, and the general lack of ambition that I see in adults is getting me down there is nothing better that devoting my afternoon to the spirit, energy, enthusiasm, and dreams of the 9-12 year old girls in my “Niñas Poderosas” group.
PB&J
The quality of education in our primary school is uninspiring. Kids finish 1st grade without being able to read and still move on to 2nd. There is very little room for creativity and critical thinking and very few activities that create passion and inspire kids to learn. They aren’t enthusiastic learners because school is not fun. By the time girls reach middle school they no longer speak up in the classroom. Many girls don’t have the confidence to ask questions and they don’t take school seriously. Girls end up pregnant and drop out of school. Where is their hope for a better future?
World Map
One of my projects is to work with teenage girls (see entry of “Steps Ahead”) but it is essential to start younger. “Powerful Girls” is an after-school enrichment program for girls in 4th-6th grades. We do everything from recycling crafts to science experiments to baking cakes to publishing illustrated books. The girls have a great time and I love to watch them discover and learn. Little do they know they are gaining self-esteem, confidence, and a multitude of other skills as they play.
Recycled Butterflies

Maternal Health Tragedies

Preventing maternal and neonatal mortalities is a public health priority in Perú and around the world. In many places in Peru the situation has improved dramatically in the last 10 years. However, in the highlands of Huancavelica it is still a daily struggle to save the lives of mothers and their newborn babies. The rest of this entry shares some hard to digest accounts of the lives of women here. While I may present them as stark events they are emotional bundles of pain, held inside the depths of individual women, often swept aside in the communal memory.

In my first few months in Quisuarpampa there were several maternal health tragedies. A woman from Rumichaca (1 ½ hr hike) delayed coming to the health post when she had labor pains and gave birth in an irrigation ditch on the side of the path. Her baby died in the freezing water. Then there was a 15 year old girl in 6th grade, likely the victim of rape by a family member, who gave birth by herself in the corner of an adobe hut. A neighbor called the health post via a community phone when it was already too late. The obstetrician found the baby dead and covered in blood in one corner and the girl shivering in another corner with a retained placenta. The other day she shared with me that she suspects that the girl’s older brother killed the baby. Another woman who lives a 6 hr hike from the health post refused to come for a prenatal screening and sonogram until the nurse forced her to come. She was 8 months pregnant and arrived with a raging infection and dead fetus inside her. Another day and she could have lost her life as well as her baby’s life. Then there was a woman who lived in the highlands with her alpaca, far from other neighbors, and hid her pregnancy until she gave birth in a field. Her mother brought the baby to the health post when it was already 5 days old. It is a testament to the strength of life that the baby lived… she weighed barely 4 lbs and today, 16 months later, continues to be severely malnourished.

Teaching about the risks during a pregnancy

Teaching about the risks during a pregnancy

The experiences of these women weigh on me and more than a year ago, as these events unfolded and I was attempting to make sense of my role here, they blighted my idealism. Women in town went about their daily lives and the obstetrician told me matter-of-factly that cases like these were normal here. But little by little I came to see that the way women internalize these tragedies is a coping mechanism and that not all health staff are apathetic. They are working within a system that does see a lot of these cases—but underneath a hard, supposedly more professional, shell is also compassion and solidarity. Health professionals in Peru are underpaid yet answer the call to service on a daily basis. They are helping their country advance, one mother and one child at a time. Women have a low level of education, low self-esteem, and are often victims of domestic violence. They have a hard time standing up for themselves when it comes to sex, birth control, and their health.

What a place to give birth

What a place to give birth

One of the most interesting aspects of my time in Quisuarpampa has been to accompany the obstetrician as she carries out the Ministry of Health’s Maternal Health Goals. We hike to the outlying villages in the early morning hours to meet pregnant women in their houses and review the symptoms of obstetric emergencies, create birth plans, and talk to them about the risks of giving birth in isolated villages without trained help, sterile materials, transportation, or communication. We do prenatal exams, distribute folic acid tablets, send them for sonograms and analysis, and go running at any hour of the night to attend a patient. We fight myths, stop rumors, and do everything we can to educate and convince pregnant women and their families to seek care in the health post. Despite the horrific tragedies that I have seen here, maternal health is an area full of inspiration. While visiting pregnant women in their houses and convincing them of the benefits of a safe birthing experience I can’t help but feel like woman by woman the health staff is reducing mortalities. And there is nothing better than watching a woman show up with labor pains and decide to have a safe birth. After all, there is hope and there is progress.

Visiting a 16 yr old who was pregnant

Visiting a 16 yr old who was pregnant

Winter Traditions in the Andes

December, January, and February are jam packed with traditions in the mountains of Huancavelica. Highlights of the celebrations include:

•Paper chains, Christmas stories, Coloring sheets, Christmas cards, Sugar cookies, painting nails, Christmas Carols, a high school “Healthy Holiday Dance”, and a surprise Christmas tree and presents for my host family. Imagine the look on my 6yr old host brother’s face when he opened his very first Christmas present.Teen Christmas dance

•A four day drunken religious Christmas festival with Silvia and her family in her village in southern Huancavelica. Picture grown men singing Quechua love songs around harps and weeping for their long lost loves. It was a unique Christmas experience but I have to say I hope I never spend another Christmas with quite so many drunkards. And to the drunken men that proposed to me… I’m sorry if I’m your long lost love next year as you bawl around a harp. Christmas in Ocoyo

•I had plans to spend NYE with friends in southern Perú but I made a last minute decision to stay in my village. Silvia, Dr. Edwin, and I made a special dinner in my new ‘bubble oven’ but unfortunately we had to eat it at midnight on the dot. On the coast the tradition is to eat at midnight but in the mountains the party is winding down by then. We missed dancing around the yunza (the tree you dance around and chop down) but made up for it by watching everyone burn scarecrows and by lighting fireworks and dancing until 3am. I was not happy at 7am when my host mom woke us up to enjoy her special intestine soup.NYE in Quisuarpampa

•In January we celebrated Bajada de Reyes- a Catholic tradition that I was not familiar with before coming to Perú. I was contracted to dance for one of the three groups and that meant t I was not allowed to escape for 3 full days. We danced day and night and ate together and if I tried to escape without asking the gorilla-masked man with a whip for permission I got picked up and whipped on the butt. This only happened once and luckily they were too afraid to really whip me hard. Gorilla

•The first weekend in February was Carnaval in Huaytará. My village represented our district in the provincial capital. Fortunately this year I didn’t have stitches across my forehead and I was able to dance. My role was to dance with the vicuña and blow kisses at the judges. It was misty and freezing cold but super fun! Host siblings

•The following weekend I escaped to the biggest Carnaval celebration in Perú: Cajamarca. After 16 hours overnight in an ‘económico’ seat I arrived in Cajamarca, ready to play. We made essential purchases: super soakers, water balloons, paint, masks, alcohol, and doritos then headed to a private Peace Corps party at one of Cajamarca’s best bars. Then we danced and sang the night/morning away to traditional Andes music in the plaza. Saturday was an EPIC paint and water fight in the whole city. Saturday night was another night full of dancing under the stars. Sunday was more EPIC water fighting. Monday we saw pre-Incan ruins and rock gardens then soaked in the same hot springs where Atahualpa was camped when he was captured by the Spaniards. The weekend could not have been better.
Carnaval

16 and Pregnant

16 and Pregnant is not a reality tv show here. It’s real life. Right now 25% of the pregnancies are teenagers. 44% are women under 21. The repercussions in the community are obvious.
kids on the street
Teen pregnancies bring higher health risks for both the mother and child. The mother’s body is not ready for a pregnancy and she has higher risk of complications during childbirth. The child is more likely to be born with a low birth weight and join the ranks of the chronically malnourished children here. The mother is less likely to finish high school and less likely to overcome the cycle of poverty. She is more likely to stay here and have multiple children before her 20th birthday. Her children are more likely to live in poverty and become young parents. The cycle continues.

My introduction to teen pregnancy in Quisuarpampa was a house visit with the nurse during my first month here. The girl was 15 and 4 months pregnant. The boy was not in the picture. The girl’s mom was sobbing as we talked to her daughter about the signals of alarm during her pregnancy. Flash forward 6 months and the same girl is now 16, not studying because the director kicked her out for being pregnant, and struggling to take care of her infant.

Teen pregnancy doesn’t have to happen. One of the main project goals of the Peace Corps program is to work with adolescents to promote safe sexual behaviors. In Quisuarpampa it has been challenging because of limited support from the high school but recently we have been making progress. Pasos Adelante. Steps Forward.
Ice Breakers
Talking about Sex
Pasos Adelante is a group of leaders from the high school that I am training to be peer health educators. They learn about self-esteem, communication, values, decisions, teen pregnancy, STIs, HIV, domestic violence, and alcoholism, and talk about planning for their futures. I have 12 youth and we completed 7 trainings in November and December. When students return from their summer vacation in March I plan to finish the trainings, host a retreat with youth leaders from other communities, and start planning activities with the peer educators to share information with the rest of the youth in Quisuarpampa. There are a lot of challenges ahead but for the first time in Quisuarpampa we are talking about sex ed and taking steps forward.
Learning Anatomy

Thanksgiving

In some respects serving in the Peace Corps makes it so much more obvious how much I have to be thankful for in my life. At the same time, some of the physical and emotional challenges of my setting make it easy to forget how wonderful life is. This Thanksgiving I took time to reflect on how lucky I am to be here and how years from now, when I’m looking back on life, I want to remember the amazing moments that I had in Peru and not the frustrations. I truly am thankful to be where I am in life and I should remember that more often than I have lately.

This Thanksgiving I was lucky enough to share the holiday with my best friend in Peru, the tech nurse from our health post. We traveled to Ancash to gaze at snow peaked mountains, eat delicious food, soak in hot springs, plunge into glacial lakes, sit around the campfire, hike to glaciers, play board games, and enjoy all that the Peruvian Andes have to offer.

Thanksgiving games

In the shadow of Peru`s highest mountain

hiking to alpine lakes

glacier

It was a much needed break.

Back in Quisuarpampa, I shared the Thanksgiving spirit with my elementary kids. We did a Turkey Trot, learned about the Pilgrims, colored turkeys, and wrote down everything that we are thankful for. It is amazing to see how resilient kids are and that in the face of extreme poverty they can still be thankful for so many things.

Jack-O-Lanterns in Quisuarpampa!

Happy Halloween from Huancavelica! Goal 2 of Peace Corps is to promote an understanding of the American people. What better way than to throw a Halloween party! Coastal Peruvians are familiar with the holiday, but here in Quisuarpampa people were confused and endlessly amused when I dressed up as a witch and ‘flew’ around the village collecting kids for a Halloween party. We made decorations, colored witches, monsters, and pumpkins, painted faces, carved a Jack-O-Lantern, had a toilet paper mummy competition, and Trick-Or-Treated at the health post. Lots of chaos but lots of fun!

Beyond the End of the World

Sometimes it seems like I live at the end of the world. No internet. No phone. Not very much interaction with the outside world. But recent trips to Minasccasa make my town seem like a bustling place.

Minasccasa is an outlying village of Quisuarpampa, a 6 hour hike farther into the mountains. It rains and hails year round and has such a harsh climate that nothing but clumps of desert grass grow. Llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas graze in the surrounding hills. People live in small rock huts called chosas that are spread throughout the hills, often more than an hour walk from neighbors. There is no electricity, no running water, and very limited access to food, healthcare, and education.

Kids in Minasccasa smile with dried, cracked, and bleeding cheeks because of the cold wind. Adolescent girls often drop-out of school in 6th grade because their parents won’t send them to Quisuarpampa for high school. Yet somehow these girls don’t exist in the educational records and it doesn’t look like the high school has a low enrollment rate.

Babies eat soup morning, noon, and night and fall into a vicious cycle of malnutrition, diarrheal diseases, and respiratory infections. Moms are apathetic about child and maternal health. When every child in the area in malnourished it is hard to see the hope. Women hide their pregnancies from the health post in Quisuarpampa, and it is easy to do so when you live in an isolated hut 6-9 hours away. They aren’t properly nourished, don’t receive iron supplements, and give birth in their homes or fields.

Minasccasa is a bleak place. It presents unique challenges for development and public health. How do you reach people who live in such an isolated place, hardly come together, and spend most of their time herding alpacas? How do you convince a mother that never learned to read or write and has never seen a hospital, bank, or business that it is important for her 12 year old daughter to stay in school and become a professional? How can a mother that has four kids under 5 properly feed them when there is no access to fresh food? How can Minasccasa advance?

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