Saturday, September 12, 2009

One-Year In

Well, I never believed that I’d be able to say this, but I’ve been in Peru for a year. ONE YEAR. Somehow those two little words don’t begin to cover it. 12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days, 8760 hours, 525,600 minutes- okay, no we’re getting somewhere. In any case, I promise that it’s a LONG TIME. Peru 9 is now home or traveling, Peru 10 is finishing their last couple of months, Peru 13 is already at site, and Peru 14 is here in country! I mention this because we recently received the Peace Corps Peru magazine, Pasa la Voz, which comes out every time a group closes their service (COS). Among other things, this magazine publishes the COS profiles of the leaving group. As I read through the Peru 9 COS profiles I thought about all of the things that I hope I’ll be able to say in mine. A few of those things have already happened, but the vast majority have not- time to kick my butt in gear. Also, I noticed how nostalgic Peru 9 was already, and it reminded me that we only have two years to do this out of our whole lives, and while it’s hard sometimes, we have to take advantage of every minute. I thought I’d be jealous that Peru 9 gets to go home, but I found myself feeling sorry for them. Their Peace Corps service WAS. Mine IS. I still get up every day with the distinct possibility that something absolutely unbelievable or amazing or inspiring is going to happen to me that has never happened before (this is true in the States too, of course, but I think probability is on my side here). I still live the “simple” life that people in the States dream about as they run around in their crazy lives. I still live with the other PCVs, who are the only other people who will ever understand this thing that I’m doing. I’m still experiencing the stories that I’ll be telling for the rest of my life. Really, I’m the lucky one. Still, I thought it would be interesting to write my own one-year profile. A year from now I’ll be writing for Pasa la Voz. I wonder how much will have changed?
1. What’s the best compliment you’ve received?
a. I was at Machu Picchu with my parents and I was annoyed at our guide. He spoke English, but I spoke to him in Spanish to let him know that I understood the snide comments he was making to his friends. I walked away. He turned to my dad and asked where I learned Spanish. My dad said that I lived in Peru, and he said, “Ah, I thought she sounded Peruvian.”
2. What’s the strangest thing that’s happened to you on a combi?
a. Once while I was getting on a combi I clipped my Achilles heel on some rusty piece of metal sticking out from somewhere. I was so shocked watching the blood pour from my heel and pool in my shoe that I forgot to get off at my stop. By the time I finally yelled, “baja!” I had no idea where I was. I had to call Mike, my sitemate, to come find me and bring bandages because I was trailing blood through the street.
3. What’s the best gift you’ve received from a Peruvian?
a. Robyn and I were admiring earrings at a restaurant where we sometimes go for menu, and the lady who owns it gave us each a pair!
4. The most interesting thing that’s fallen on your head?
a. I was at Jessi’s, from the health post, birthday party and a snake fell from the ceiling onto my head as I was sitting eating lunch. I jumped up very quickly, and Manuel valiantly came over to kill it. It wasn’t a huge snake, but it was big enough.
5. What keeps you sane in site?
a. Writing. Whenever I feel like I just can’t do it anymore I sit down and write an e-mail or a blog. Afterwards my life seems okay again. Also Daniela, my 10-month-old host niece. She can always make me smile.
6. Peruvian custom you enjoy?
a. Kissing people hello and goodbye. It’s such a nice greeting.
7. Favourite Peruvian holiday?
a. My birthday (the day of Santa Rosa de Lima)! Claro. But if not that then New Years. Nothing says, “this year is gonna rock” like stuffing a life-sized effigy full of fireworks, lighting it on fire, and watching the ensuing explosions chase children down the street.
8. Biggest Success?
a. So far? My host family talks to me and appears to actually like me. It took me 6 full months for my host mom to respond to anything I said to her.
9. Biggest language blunder?
a. When my host family in training asked about my religion, I said, “Soy Quaker.” I meant that I am a Quaker- you know- the Society of Friends? It came across as a combination of “me cae Quaker,” which is, “it was really awkward,” and “I worship a breakfast cereal.” My host dad laughed so hard that he nearly fell over.
10. Favourite place in Peru?
a. Peru is full of magical places. Nonetheless, as cliché as is may be, I pick Machu Picchu. There’s a reason it’s one of the 7 wonders of the world.
11. Why do you love your site?
a. Because my host family lives there. Also because there are wild parrots and at least four types of hummingbirds that live outside my house. Plus it’s almost always sunny and I love how unbelievably neon green freshly planted rice can be.
12. What do you love/hate about Lima?
a. I love all of the food, the fact that there are always other volunteers around, Tania, and the cliffs by Larco Mar. I hate the traffic and the fact that it takes forever to get anywhere! Also, I’ll admit it, when I’m in Lima I miss cumbia.
13. Craziest health problem:
a. This one time, some jerk dragged me down the street behind his mototaxi because he wanted my wallet and broke my pelvis.
14. Best comment by a Peruvian child:
a. Child, “Sarah, do you hate children?”
b. Me, “No! Of course not!”
c. Child, “Then why don’t you have any?”
15. What was the most useful thing you learned in training?
a. How to eat rice like it was going out of style.
16. Favourite/least-favourite Peruvian dish:
a. Favourite: CEVICHE, chupe de langostino, anticucho, ají de langostino, crema de ají on anything
b. Least favourite: Lomo saltado, sudado de pescado, pork laced with triquina
17. First meal you’re going to have in the States: Pork green chili burrito with good beer and the biggest fresh salad of my life.
18. How many cell phones/ bank cards did you lose?
a. Lost my cell phone at Reconnect, and, as Karrie puts it, was “violently separated” from my bank card during the mototaxi incident.
19. What do people in your site consider your strangest behavior?
a. Drinking cold drinks when I have a cold, reading, eating raw vegetables.
20. What was the weirdest Peruvian remedy that actually worked?
a. My host mom told me to put rubbing alcohol on a super-swollen ant bite that I had. It stopped the itching immediately!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The link you´ve all been waiting for...

(Even if you didn’t know it).

So yes, I am a professional promoting health in rural Peru. However, let’s not forget that I’m also a 24-year-old kid far from home. So, to add some fun to our lives, Sarita, Robyn, and I made an amusing music video. I did all of the choreography and directing, Robyn did all of the editing, and Sarita was a rock-star with the acting. The whole thing was filmed in our three sites. Yes, Sarita’s site is on the beach. She is super-lucky. So, go ahead, laugh at me: I promise it’s funny.

My new life

Hi everyone,

I’m very sorry that I’ve been totally neglecting my blog as of late. I’ve been a little down because I’ve been pretty sick, and so I wasn’t feeling too inspired to write. Peace Corps also recommends that we write in our journals on bad days and on our blogs on good days. So today I had a good day.

Let’s see- I’ll start with my work. I’ve actually been doing work, so that’s a wonderful start. My first month and a half was devoted mostly to healing from my injury, and getting a handle on living in Malval. I guess I didn’t realize just how outgoing I was going to have to be. The day I arrived in Malval I knew no one, had no fixed plans, and had no deadlines. Everyone in town already had fulfilling lives without me. My job was to poke around and try to find a space for myself, and eventually for my projects. That’s a pretty tall order, especially for someone who gets exhausted talking to people she doesn’t know well, in English, in the United States.

Anyway, towards the end of January things finally started to fall into place. I spent a couple of days writing a 47 question encuesta (survey) to be implemented with 100 mothers in Malval who have children less than three years of age. (This is because children under three are a vulnerable population, and because most of the mental development takes place before a child is five, and so there is still some time to intervene.) The questions cover many aspects of health including the material of which the house is made, if there are animals living in the house, if there is a latrine, if they purify the drinking water, if the mother breastfed, what the nutrition of the child is like, if the child is vaccinated, if the child has recently been sick, if the family exercises, if the mother has ever had a pap-smear or breast exam, if the couple uses birth control, the level of education of the parents, if they think HIV/AIDS is a problem in Malval, etc. The encuesta has two main goals. The first is collect information about the state of health in the community that may guide my choice of a primary project, and will at the very least familiarize me with some of the challenges and opportunities of health in Malval. The second goal is to get me out into the community; meeting people and walking around.

It turns out that 100 is an awful lot of encuestas. I solicited the help of the local health promoters to help me with them, and so far we’ve completed 60. I hope to complete the remaining 40 before the first week of March, but that’s going to be a big stretch.

In addition to the encuestas, I’ve been coordinating with my local health post to collaborate on their projects. The town nurse, Darwin, and I have plans to work with the schools during the school year on a Peru-wide program called “Escuelas Saludables” (Healthy Schools), and we are also going to train the health promoters on various subjects. I’m in charge of the sessions on diarrhea and upper respiratory infections in children, nutrition, and basic first aid.

Additionally, Peace Corps Peru won a small grant from PEPFAR (former President Bush’s HIV/AIDS relief plan) to work on HIV/AIDS prevention in four departments in Peru, including Tumbes. We had our first meeting launching the program in December, and in March we are going to have meeting to elaborate our work plan for the year. I’m very excited about this initiative because Tumbes is at a point where the HIV/AIDS infection rate is not astronomically high, but has the potential to become so. Thus, it is the perfect time to intervene with an education program that could potentially have a very positive impact, and prevent Peru from ever looking like Botswana (well, it’s going to take a lot more than just the Peace Corps to do that, but we can be a part of it). Also, we met with a doctor last Friday who wants to do research in the area about HTLV, which is another scary STI that I didn’t even know existed. His research sounds quite interesting, and he has asked us to help out.
Aside from health things, I also started a small English club. I didn’t want to teach English here (for many reasons- ask me if you like), but the kids just begged and begged me. I eventually decided that if nothing else, it would be a great way to get to know some of the kids. It is. Almost all of the kids in Malval know me now, as do most of the kids in my caserios. More often than not I’ll be walking down a road I’ve never been on before, a couple of miles from my house, and I group of children who I’ve never seen will run passed me yelling, “Hello Sarah!” It’s pretty cute.

As for Tumbes and Malval- they’re growing on me. It’s the rainy season now, and so it rains every night (strangely it just started to rain as I typed that sentence). That means that everything is green and blooming. It’s quite beautiful. There are also all kinds of tropical birds that have come out of hiding. I’ve seen four different types of hummingbirds and wild parrots! Unfortunately the mosquitoes are also out of hiding. At 6pm tonight I put Deet all over my exposed skin. By 7:30pm I had five bites on my back underneath my shirt! Not fair! I wouldn’t be too worried except that both malaria and dengue are endemic here. I’m taking malaria medication and I sleep under a mosquito net, but dengue is scary…

I’ve been making a point to go out hiking around my town, and it’s been wonderful. Saul, my host nephew, knows the names of all of the plants and birds, and often goes with me. Last week he took me fishing as well! My town is surrounded on one side by hills that are strangely reminiscent of parts of the American Southwest, and on the other side by banana and rice fields. There’s also a canal that runs through town that is now home to three crocodiles!

So, that’s a bit of a glimpse into my life as of now. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to e-mail me. Sometimes I forget how much my life has changed in the past five months (I know, I’ve been here five whole months!!), and so I unknowingly leave out important details. Plus, one of the goals of the Peace Corps is to educate Americans about life abroad. That means me, yes, but also you. Take advantage and ask me questions! Also, please don’t forget to update me on your lives as well. I still care, and I still miss you.


Sunday, February 1, 2009


The sound of the rain on my roof is deafening. It’s not raining very hard, I’d say it’s raining steadily, but my metal roof amplifies the sound. Not to mention that water is pouring off the gap in my roof and into the gutter right outside my door. It sounds like I’m living behind a waterfall. There’s even a steady drip, drip of the leak in my ceiling. When I look up I see that there’s a whole in my roof that was covered by cardboard. The cardboard is not enough tonight. I’ll have to remember not to leave my laptop there later.

I think it’s interesting that in the United States we associate rain with sadness and melancholy. Here, I associate rain with life.

As you may have guessed, it’s the rainy season here in Tumbes. It rains every day, but not all day. In fact, in almost exclusively rains at night. Each morning I get up to a world of mud and puddles and frogs jumping between the two, but to a sun shining brightly in the sky.

Tumbes has been transformed into a jungle of green. Although we technically live in the dry forest, this part of Tumbes is very close to the jungle. Just to the north, near the mangroves, is the only place on the continent where the jungle reaches the Pacific Ocean. These days, you can really tell how close we are. The air is filled with the songs of tropical birds, and beautiful flowers seem to be bursting from the trees. I saw a flock of wild parrots in my front yard.

A month ago the soccer fields of Tumbes were dust bowls. Now they are covered in grass. When no one is kicking around a ball, horses, donkeys, and cows graze there. It’s clear that they need it. You can see their ribs shining through their coats of fur, but now, finally there is food. Tumbes has come alive.

Of course, if the rain continues for too long there could be death. The damp, humid climate is a haven for upper respiratory disease, and the numbers of sick children at the health post has skyrocketed. The puddles of rain breed mosquitoes, and with them come bouts of malaria and dengue. Worse yet, the river could flood and kill all of the crops. It’s happened before, setting Malval up for a rough year of poverty.

But for now, the rain is beautiful, and a welcome break from the heat. Let’s just hope that we don’t get too much of a good thing.

Monday, January 5, 2009


On this first day of the first month of a new year, it seems appropriate to take a moment to reflect on all of the firsts I've experienced since coming to Peru.

Since September 12, 2008:

I've had my first bite of goat, beef heart, cow stomach, black sea scallop, granadilla, maracuya, aji, rocoto, Sublime, and ceviche.

I rode in my first combi, mototaxi, bus-cama, and car trunk (sans seats).

I had my first experience in black market clothing design.

I heard my first Grupo 5 song (and have heard at least five a day since then).

I was "semi-violently robbed" for the first time.

I accepted my first "paying" job for the US government.

I took my first sip of SODIS water.

I went skinny-dipping for the first time.

I went to my first Latin American baptism, Peruvian birthday party, Chosica anniversary, Andean horse race, and Tumbes fair.

I spent my first Christmas away from home.

In order to continue this tradition of stretching my boundaries and trying new things, I brought in the New Year with two more firsts: My first New Year's in Peru, and also my first quinceñeras.

I'll start with the New Year. As much as I felt I'd rather spend Christmas in the US than here, the opposite is true of New Year's Eve. Here is a recipe for a New Year's Party in Tumbes, Peru:


Yellow underwear

Yellow balloons and streamers


The biggest loudspeakers you can find

More beer

Cumbia music

A life size paper-mache doll stuffed with newspaper and fireworks.

More fireworks.


  1. Set temperature to around 95 degrees.
  2. Don yellow underwear. It will bring you luck in the New Year, and if you end up passed out in the street drunk passerbys might have a chance to, umm, check.
  3. Hang yellow balloons and streamers everywhere; all around where you'll have the party, all across the streets, off light posts. Turn the town into a sea of yellow.
  4. Set up speakers, and at dusk, start blasting cumbia at maximum volume. No worries if you only have a few songs; it is perfectly acceptable to blast the same five songs for at least 12 hours straight. Make sure your sound system can school your neighbor's.
  5. Start drinking.
  6. When you get bored of drinking, set off fireworks.
  7. Drink more.
  8. Give the fireworks to kids.
  9. Drink more.
  10. At exactly midnight, set the doll on fire in the street.
  11. Run away.
  12. Dodge fireworks shooting at random from the burning doll.
  13. Hug and kiss everyone you see and wish them a "Feliz Año."
  14. Go back to drinking.

Note: The burning doll is not an effigy, despite its appearance, but is rather a symbolic burning of the old year.

Christmas in Peru

It has been harder than I expected to spend the holidays away. There's a reason why it's such a special time of year, and it's not fun to miss, especially when you are as blessed as I am to have such wonderful family and friends. Yesterday in Tumbes, for example, I started crying when a vendor wouldn't take my 10 sol bill because it had a tear. Not the sort of thing that should unglue me on a normal day, but it was Christmas Eve. I was in that sort of state- emotionally fragile, sentimental, a little down- until sunset. Sunset made everything worse. I was imagining a crisp, cold, night looking out over quiet, white snow, and I just couldn't imagine that Santa would ever make it down to a place where his reindeer would have to compete with mosquitoes for a place to fly. Luckily, around 8pm I struck a deal with myself- I could be melancholy and homesick, or I could take advantage of the fact that I was about to spend a holiday that many people never spend outside their own families outside my entire culture. I surrendered to my sense of wonderment, and since then have only cried once.

In Peru Christmas is celebrated at midnight on Christmas Eve, and from what I can tell, it's not as big a deal as Christmas is in the States. Yes, 25 relatives came over for dinner, and yes, the children have been hyper for days, but the sense of Christmas spirit that seems to sparkle off the snow in Colorado and Vermont just seemed dampened. The only sparkle I saw last night was the sweat glistening off of my face, because even the Peruvians were complaining that it was one of the hottest Christmas nights in history.

Anyways, let me back up a bit. The night before Christmas Eve was my first sense that Christmas really was approaching here in Peru. Sure, there's a Christmas tree in my house and lights flashing across the street, but those things have been up since I got here (December 1st), and everything here is so foreign that I wouldn't faze me to see Christmas decorations in July. It's been getting hotter and sunnier by the day, I haven't worn closed-toed shoes in a month, and I keep ending up at the beach. Not to mention that there are no recognizable Christmas tunes here, and the television does not play endless reruns of The Grinch. There's been nothing to trigger my senses and remind me that it's Christmas- not even a single candy cane.

The night before Christmas Eve, however, all of the women in my house were camped out in the open space outside my room preparing canastas. Canastas are food baskets, and they are the typical gift for Peruvian Christmas. The canastas actually make a lot of sense. The central part of the canasta is the Paneton. Paneton is Peru's version of a fruitcake, and in my humble opinion, it is disgusting. Talking to other PCVs it seems that Paneton is either one of those things you love or hate. It's hard to be neutral towards Paneton. Besides the Paneton, the canastas contain useful food items- milk, oil, noodles, and the like. I like that. Imagine how different Christmas in the states would be if we gave flour, sugar, and eggs instead of the latest electronics. Different. So anyway, I sat down and helped tie ribbon onto the canastas for the workers of El Molino, where almost everyone in my host family is employed.

My grandmother in the States (Grandma Sheep) sent me an instant Christmas package. You know those pill like things that you put in hot water and turn into sponges? Yeah, those. So, on Christmas Eve day I rounded up 5-year olds Isaac and Sarai (my host nephew and his cousin) and had them celebrate instant Christmas with me. They thought it was bien chevere, and they proudly carried around their sponges for the rest of the day. This did not change the fact, however, that Isaac still refuses to call me anything but "la gringa" no matter how many times I tell him my name. Sigh. Poco a poco.

That was my only Christmas celebration until sundown. At 8pm they set up giant speakers in the town plaza and started blasting cumbia. Peru is not known for its musical variety. Each section of the country picks its music and sticks to it. Ours is cumbia and Grupo 5. So, the same five songs were blasted in succession from 8pm until 8am at a volume so loud that it impeded conversation inside our house, at least 100 meters away from the plaza. In any case, all of the families went outside and listened to the music. The men stayed outside and formed drinking circles. The women went inside to cook. All of the boys in the town under the age of 10 started playing with fire, or rather fireworks. I watched with half amusement and half horror as they would light a fire-spouting thing, run like mad, realize the thing had malfunctioned, and send the smallest among them back to poke it and see what had gone wrong.

At around 10pm my Argentinean brother-in-law started grilling. At 11:30 he handed me a piece of meat. That's to say, he handed me a bone that was still so hot it burned my hand, and I got to gnaw the meat off of it. I don't even like meat very much, as most of you know, and here there are so many volunteers who never get meat at all, I feel that something went wrong that I ended up in a site where I eat questionable cuts of meat every day. Anyways, that was the appetizer. At midnight exactly everyone got up and kissed each other and said Merry Christmas. It was kinda like New Year's in the States. That I liked. Then around quarter to one we all sat down to eat. The main meal was turkey, spaghetti noodles with no sauce, and a potato salad, with Pepsi. For dessert we had Paneton (duh) and hot chocolate. That's as basic as candy canes and Christmas cookies to us. For the sake of the holiday I choked down the Paneton, and it turns out that it really is better dipped in hot chocolate.

The kids were supposed to be able to open their present (each child gets one) at midnight, but every single one of them was passed out asleep. So, we hung out for awhile more, and then around 2am everyone left. As each person left he/she got a gift from my host mom/sister. I got a purple tank top that says "Beach Place Paradise." Good times. I was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to sleep, but everything felt wrong. I know I'm supposed to do things the Peruvian way now, but I'm still American. And so, in the privacy of my room and under the blanket of the cumbia that was still blasting through town, I stood alone in my room and belted out my favourite Christmas carols at the top of my lungs. I was okay until I got to Silent Night, and that's when I started to cry.

Well, I'm sure the reindeer didn't like it, but Santa Claus did indeed make it to Malval, Peru. I woke up this morning to an embarrassingly large pile of presents underneath my fan (I love Christmas trees, but here I'd trade one for a fan ANY DAY), and a stocking hung by my electric plug with care. To all of you who sent me presents and cards- I don't even know how to say thank you. I was so unbelievably touched. What struck me the most was how much thought and care obviously went into each gift, picture, card, and word. I felt so loved, so understood, and so lucky. Thank you. (I will elaborate on how amazing you are in my thank you notes, so stay tuned.)

After I opened gifts I slipped on my new beach tank top and headed to the beach to meet Sarita and Robyn. I mean, if you're gonna spend a Christmas drenched in sweat, you might as well do it right. Plus, Peruvian Christmas is nice for lonely American Peace Corps vols because Christmas day is not a big deal. So, we can be with our families at night, and then take care of our sanity by being together for the day. So, I'll let my pictures do most of the talking, but we had a wonderful day. I had ceviche for lunch with a dessert of salt water as I was dragged out to sea by the undertow formed by beautiful cresting waves. I got to be with my new family and my support. We also spent the day calling around the country to wish the other PCVs a happy day. It was great to hear the voices of so many new amazing friends. And for all of the differences from Tumbes to Piura to Cajamarca to Ancash to Ica, we all felt remarkably the same: a little homesick, a little fascinated, and more than anything a little relieved. The day was over, and we had survived what was for most of us our first Christmas away.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A selfish list:

If you feel like sending me a package, here are some things that are currently on my wish-list:

Pictures of you!!
Orbit gum (any kind of mint, bubblemint, and cinnamint)
Glide comfort plus mint dental floss
Gummi candy (especially the fizzy kind)
Ginger chews
Reef flip-flops (size 9 women’s)
The New York Times (or at least the interesting parts)
The Economist
Interesting academic articles
Dried fruit/nuts
Cute tank tops! (you’ll have to guess at my size, every brand is different)
Knee length skirts or capris (size 8 or M)
A travel yoga mat
Tea- good black tea, peppermint tea, jasmine tea

I’ll try to keep this list updated on the side of my blog. A big shout out to Blair and Jeff who have set me up with tampons and peanut butter at least for awhile. THANK YOU SO MUCH!!

My address:

Sarah Walker
Casilla Postal #5
Serpost Tumbes

I also love mail!