A Look Back

April 5, 2011

Disclaimer – I wrote this sermon in January of 2011, a little over 5 months after leaving Peru and moving back to the US.  I delivered it to my home church, Oak Ridge First Presbyterian Church on January 2.  Although it was a few months ago and most would think I’m “readjusted” to the States by now, I still struggle.  These are a few reflections on my experience…it barely scrapes the surface.


At first, when I was asked to speak to you about my experience as a Young Adult Volunteer in Peru, my initial instinct was to say no. I admit – I didn’t want to. The thought of talking about my experience, summarizing it, sharing its impact on my life, is a daunting one. How do I tell you – honestly and fairly and vulnerably – about how hard it was for me, physically, emotionally, and spiritually? How do I help you see the Peruvian people as I see them – beautiful and wonderful and complicated reflections of God?  How do I paint you a 12-15 minute picture of Peru where you can feel the thinness of the air in the Andes when you breathe, the sticky and pungent heat of the Amazon, the dry desert of Lima where the pollution dirties your hair? A picture of Peru where you taste the best avocado of your life and learn to haggle prices with taxi drivers trying to take advantage of a gringa? A picture of Peru where you struggle to communicate even simple ideas but eventually learn how to crack a joke in another language? A picture of Peru where you’re surrounded with more shades of green than you knew existed, and where you are accosted on all sides by the overwhelming colors and scents and sounds and sheer mass of pressing people in the market? How do I paint you a picture of Peru where you look up and swear you can see God in the millions of stars twinkling through the thin atmosphere, and then look down to see hovels for houses and children digging through garbage to see if there’s anything worth selling?

How do I paint you an honest picture of Peru? I want you to see Peru as I see it – its spectacular beauty and abject poverty at odds with one another in my mind. It seems an impossible task. I don’t even know what my experience meant to me – how could I explain it to you? Let me start by sharing one or two short anecdotes that were particularly meaningful to me. Some of you may have heard them before, so bear with me.

* When I first arrived in Peru, I was placed with a very poor family. I hate to put it that way, because they were so much more than that and saying “poor” is too much of an oversimplification, but the fact remains that by our standards, they were very, very poor. Many of our first (very simple) conversations revolved around what life was like in the United States. Do all houses really have a yard with a garden and beautiful flowers like on TV? Does it really snow in the winter and is it always hot in the summer? (Keep in mind, the city of Huancavelica is at 12,000 ft elevation, so it is always cold. Their seasons are cold and wet vs. cold and dry.) In the United States, do people really speak English and does everyone have blue eyes? Are there really cemeteries for pets?? Eventually they asked me, point blank, “Does your family have a car?” In Peru, especially in the poorest provinces, owning a car is a huge sign of wealth. Was my family in the US rich enough to have a car? I said yes, we had a car, but simply couldn’t bring myself to tell them that we had three.

* Halfway through the year, I moved to the city of Moyobamba in the Amazon for health reasons. I worked with Paz y Esperanza (Peace and Hope), a non-profit organization that worked on social and environmental justice issues with the surrounding indigenous communities. On one of our trips into the forest, we visited a community called Huasta, a very small town of maybe 25 families. While walking around with other Paz y Esperanza workers, I discovered that this community had no electricity and no running water. The children were barefoot and sometimes naked. Their bellies were distended and hair course and pale, signs of malnutrition. Our guide offered to show us where this community got its drinking and cooking water and led us down a small path. To the left was a muddy puddle of water with a decaying log to its side. To the right was another puddle of water, slightly deeper, where a young woman about my age was bathing. She showed no embarrassment at her nakedness and stared at us with a detached gaze as we were told the puddle to the left was for drinking water. I felt sick to my stomach when I thought about the drinking water that fills our toilet bowls.

After what I witnessed and experienced in Peru, how can I presume to stand behind a pulpit and talk about God when my faith has been challenged beyond any previous limits and, if pressed, I really couldn’t tell you what I believe?

My mom asked me last night what the “theme” of my sermon was. What theme? I wish my theme was all of the ways I saw God at work in Peru. Sadly, I was more frustrated with all of the ways God seemed to be absent, both in my life and in the lives of the most destitute of Peru. I kept waiting to “see” God. I kept waiting for God and kept getting more and more frustrated. I felt abandoned.

I must be honest with you. Standing behind this pulpit, I feel like something of a fraud. I’d like to tell you I had profound revelations about God, but I didn’t. I’d like to tell you that my faith overcame incredible obstacles, but it didn’t. I stand before you more confused (and sometimes angry) than ever. This world is unfair. Poverty is unfair. Wealth is unfair. Our sense of entitlement is unfair. No, it’s more than that – it’s dangerous and harmful. Peru left me with a lot of unanswered questions and a lot of unresolved feelings, most of which are some variation of guilt or anger.

When I think about God and the justice that seemed to be lacking in Peru, I realize that God has given us the tools and, moreover, the empathy to live in a fair and just world. God isn’t letting us down. We’re the ones letting God down. God didn’t create the system that allows for such disparities in the world. He created us, and we created this system.

So what is my theme? I suppose my theme is a little more upbeat than the rest of my sermon has been, because, although I struggled more than this sermon can allow me to express, I also grew and learned invaluable lessons. I witnessed both incredible beauty and indescribable poverty.

Yesterday, I had breakfast with Roz Ice, who, as many of you know, spent two years in Chile with the Peace Corps. It was wonderful to talk with someone who had also lived abroad in South America and could understand some of my struggles. At one point, she explained that her life had been on a certain trajectory before she went to Chile. After her experience in Chile, however, her trajectory changed based on what she had learned and experienced. “You’re on a new path,” she told me. That really resonated with me, because I can feel the changes.

More than anything else, I feel a new sense of responsibility. I have seen a world outside ours of wealth and privilege and self-importance, and it shocked me. It pained me and challenged me and made me question the God I’ve always loved and trusted. I can’t pretend I didn’t experience something profound. We have a responsibility as a nation and as individuals, wherever we are. We can work to create the just world that God intended.

After feeling incredible worthlessness at the beginning of my time because I lacked the language and professional skills to really contribute much of anything to the organizations with which I was working, I began to realize that I don’t have to move to a 3rd world country to change the world. I have a college degree and wealth and privilege here in the States, and instead of being ashamed of them, it’s up to me to use them. It would do no one any favors for me to abandon the life I have here to “change the world” in another country. I am blessed with my life. I have been blessed with an embarrassing amount of wealth – wealth of education, money, family, opportunity – and it is up to me to use them to glorify God and work toward a more just world. We all have that calling. To meet God where we are and where we’re going, instead of simply waiting for Him to show up. And the nice thing about that is I can work toward a better world from wherever I am – in Peru or the United States – even during difficult times. We all can. And maybe, one day, this world will be a little more balanced.

Amen.

Catching up

June 10, 2010

Disclaimer – I am a procrastinator. While this may come as a surprise to you (doubtful), it is the sad truth. As such, I have not updated my blog in over a month (do I get points for having started three separate drafts?). Since you have been (blissfully) unaware of the happenings of my life as of late, this will serve as a catch-up blog. I will try to be brief.

It’s funny how your perspective changes after you’ve lived for an extended period of time in another country. First it’s the little things, like the definition of a hot shower or punctuality. Then the bigger things, like what it means to be patient or to belong to a community. And finally, the mac-daddies of perspective changes: health, wealth, and power.

Let me start with health, mainly because I feel I won’t be able to truly reflect on the much more complicated issues of wealth or power until this experience has come to a close.

The saying “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone” has some truth (and a catchy tune) to it. In the United States and other first-world countries, being healthy is a given for the general population. We are only aware of our health when we don’t have it. While my family is possibly more aware of this than some given my brother’s life-threatening encounter with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, we still, without a doubt, take our health for granted.

Living in Peru has taught me, among other things, to appreciate the healthy days. To appreciate normal-bowel-movement days (ask me again about our YAV bowel-movement identification system) or days without some type of general malaise. After leaving Huancavelica for Moyobamba, most health problems disappeared for me, save one that I couldn’t have anticipated – Dengue Fever.

Yes, a few weeks ago, I caught the dreaded Dengue Fever. When I first heard the words “Dengue Fever,” I immediately pictured some terrible Amazonian epidemic that Indiana Jones must avoid while recovering some priceless artifact and saving the woman he loves (obviously Marion from Raiders of the Lost Ark). I imagined this terrible disease wiping out entire villages, leaving writhing victims and cold bodies in its wake. I basically imagined some kind of hybrid between leprosy and the Black Plague. Yes, this was all without knowing a thing about it and yes, I have an overly active (and morbid) imagination.

You’ll be happy to know that I discovered (when I contracted Dengue Fever in early May and subsequently began freaking out) that none of this is true – except for the occasional writhing victim (it is nicknamed the “bonebreaking disease,” after all). I was lucky. I had a very mild form of Dengue that only left me bed-ridden for five days, gave me an occasional but mild fever, and a few aches and pains. Not once did my bones feel like they were breaking. The most persistent symptom of mine was the inclination to sleep all day, which isn’t all that out of the ordinary anyway. All in all, it was worth it to solidify my status as a badass.

Altitude sickness, check. Parasites, check. Dengue Fever, check. Now all I need is Typhoid to finish the year with a bang.

Terpstra family reunited in Central Plaza of Lima

Shortly after recovering from my bout with Dengue, I flew back to Lima to meet up with my family (the original Terpstra clan reunited, sadly sans brother-in-law Jake) for my May vacation. For the benefit of all, I will summarize this best of all vacations in a reader-(and writer-)friendly manner.

Friday, May 21

  • Sarah arrives in Lima and has to wait impatiently until her family arrives the next day.
  • Sarah spends the evening with fellow YAVs Sarah Baja, Anna, Alissa, and Ginna (plus Ginna’s wonderful family) before they fly out the next morning to hike the Inca Trail. Pizza is eaten and beer is drunk. And sangria. And wine.

Saturday, May 22

  • Sarah whiles away the hours nervously checking flight information and arrives at the airport two and a half hours early to wait for her family.
  • She regrets this decision after her 3rd Starbucks coffee and 4th trip to the bathroom.
  • Terpstra family arrives(!) and all are transported to Hotel España, the best little hostel there is. Sarah does not stop talking for an unknown number of hours.

Sunday, May 23

  • Family goes for a stroll around the Central Plaza of Lima. Sarah accidentally buys four (really cute) hats she doesn’t need.
  • Family is introduced to Peruvian Menu – a lunch tradition that includes three courses (you can choose from a list for each one) and a drink. They are appropriately impressed by how delicious Peruvian food is and how much Inca Cola tastes like cream soda. Sarah does not stop talking for an unknown number of hours.
  • After more walking and a lovely siesta, family reunites for an epic battle of Hearts. Insults are thrown, tears are shed, and Dad wins, surprise, surprise.

Monday, May 24

  • Family flies to Cuzco.
  • Missing: one bag of luggage. Contents: Mom and Dad’s warm clothes for cold Cuzco. Location: unknown.
  • After a lovely city tour of Cuzco during which Mom and Dad buy 100% alpaca sweaters to replace their lost clothing, Family has the most delicious meal of the trip and agrees that lomo saltado is the best Peruvian dish. Well, and ceviche. And stuffed avocado.

Sacred Valley of the Incas

Tuesday, May 25

  • Family goes on tour of the Sacred Valley of the Incas.

Wednesday, May 26

  • Family leaves at 5am for Machu Picchu. After a bus and train transport, Family arrives in Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu.
  • 9:30am, Family walks into Machu Picchu! Llamas abound.
  • Ben and Katie disappear down the side of a mountain “trying to find the bottom.”
  • Sarah reunites with the other YAVs (plus some) who have just arrived after their four-day hike of the Inca Trail. She is the only non-smelly one.

Thursday, May 27

Is this the photo?

  • Family buys extra tickets and returns to Machu Picchu. Sarah searches for the Machu Picchu picture and takes 350 photos in the process.
  • Family takes train back to Ollantaytambo that night, hops on bus transport and narrowly escapes a 3 hour hold up along the road thanks to Spanish, light-up nalgenes, and our tour agency, Peru For Less. Ask me about it and I’ll tell you how we nearly died.

Lost City of the Incas

Friday, May 28

  • Returned: one bag of lost luggage, just in time for our flight back to Lima. (Apparently it had fallen off the transport, was confiscated as a bomb threat, and emptied of all its exlposive trail mix. Threat diffused.)
  • Family returns to Lima, this time staying in MiraFlores.
  • Another epic Hearts battle, the outcome of which was so ridiculous and impossibly unbelievable that I can’t repeat it here. (Katie won.)

Saturday, May 29

  • Happy Birthday Sarah and Mom!
  • After museum-visiting, a celebratory birthday dinner is had in Barranco with the other YAVs and Harry, wonderful husband of our site coordinator Debbie.
  • Sarah accidentally has 5 free pisco sours, but it’s okay because it’s her birthday.

Sunday, May 30

  • Family attends mass (we’re not Catholic, 80% of us don’t speak Spanish, and 20% of us don’t pay attention anyway).
  • Dad meets with a Living Waters for the World group before Family prepares to fly back to the States.
  • Family says goodbye in the airport over Cusqueña beers.
  • Sarah, sad and alone, goes back to Debbie’s and prepares for her flight back to Moyobamba the next day.

Photo entry – A day in the Amazon

May 4, 2010

When reflecting on how best to describe for you one of the most amazing days of my life, I realized I was thinking in images and colors and scents and sounds, not words. Therefore, for now at least, I have opted for a photo entry to show you just a few images from my day spent traipsing through the Amazon Rainforest. I accompanied a few Paz y Esperanza coworkers and two local guides on a more than 10-hour trek through the jungle, visiting small villages and measuring the flow rate of the streams used to carry spring water to the communities. It was, in short, a wonderful day.

Morning Market

Amazon Trail

Machete

Spring

Alvaro

Drinking Water

pre-Starbucks

Flow Rate

Ormigas

Amazon

Cornfield

Max

Machete

Reflection

Sunset

Good day

Good Friday

April 14, 2010

We were gathered in the central plaza of Ayacucho, our feet stepping in a frenzied, tiptoed dance with a sea of partners. Behind us, insistent people, pressing for their private piece of pavement. Before us, transient masterpieces of colored sawdust and flowers and leaves and grass that would not last the night’s coming rain.

Night fell, but slowly, blanketing first the mountaintops in her cold embrace, muting all but the earth-bound stars that clung, yellow, to the distant hillsides. She continued her descent, eventually reaching the city, bringing with her that reverent and subtle silence of a thousand hushed voices that falls each night to mourn the death of another day.

As darkness reached the plaza, harsh fluorescent lights were extinguished, replaced slowly, deliberately, by the faint flickering of candlelight.

Silence.

The silence of a thousand hearts beating, a thousand wicks burning.



A shift in the air. The breeze brought us distant voices – men’s – singing slowly, tenderly. In the yellow darkness, bodies passed before us. Bowed heads, yellowed by candlelight. Metronome steps, measured by breath. We watched, intruders. Foreigners to this somber, sacred march.

When Jesus entered the plaza, he came in a casket. Carried on the shoulders of weighted men, heavy with sorrow and touched by the darkness, the glass casket outshone the candles. It shone blue, ethereal. Alien. Hundreds passed before us, furrowed brows, silent, mourning an execution we have never understood, will never understand.

They passed. The blue casket faded, floating above the sea of firefly flickering candles. The body of Jesus, broken for you.

Before us, the plaza lay silent – empty but for a thousand souls. Under the feet of the passing men, a child’s face depicted in the sawdust before us had been transformed, mutilated. Her face, distorted, seemed to cry out, tears running up her cheeks and into her hair.

A hollow, wailing melody of a hundred women’s voices broke the static silence. The women, unseen, sang a song of sorrow. Mary’s song. We waited, unmoving. Listening, eyes closed.

Bodies passed before us once more. Women, beautiful and dark-skinned, walked with graceful and deliberate steps. They blended with the night, their black dresses of mourning forming a daunting darkness broken only by candlelight on tear-stained faces.

Finally Mary, garments of black, vestments of sorrow, shouldered by twenty women whispering prayers while watching the ground. She wept.

When the last woman passed, stepping in time with her heartbeat and her candle held at her breast, there was but a moment’s silence. A moment, a breath, of divinity. A tender, holy pause before the sounds of the city resumed. A baby cried at my shoulder, girls ran before us, laughing at life’s secrets, a woman with a face of worn canvas scolded her husband, You got wax on my shoes.

I paused a moment longer, lingering in that holy place. I turned, a prayer on my lips, and went on my way.

Grace Enough

March 29, 2010

Below is a prayer that I wrote my senior year for our Convocation ceremony.  A few weeks ago, I re-read this prayer in preparation for a devotion I was to lead on our beach retreat and I realized that it is much more appropriate and applicable now, while I am living and loving and struggling in Peru, than at any other time in my life.

Almighty Creator,

As we come before you, equally flawed and imperfect, please hear our prayers and allow us some of your limitless grace.

Grant us grace enough to embrace our gifts

and grace enough to be humbled.

Grant us grace enough to feel others’ pain

and grace enough to share our own.

Grant us grace enough to be frustrated

and grace enough to learn from it.

Grant us grace enough to be happy without cause

and grace enough to weep.

Grant us grace enough to be angry with injustice

and grace enough to fight it.

Grant us grace enough to embrace others’ faults

and grace enough to accept our own.

Grant us grace enough to be lost

and grace enough to be found.

Grant us grace enough to challenge our faith

and grace enough to trust it.

Grant us grace enough to hear your voice

and grace enough to listen.

And God, grant us grace enough to see your grace in others

and grace enough to show it.

O Lord, in your Son’s name, grant us grace.

Amen.

Seven Months

March 24, 2010

Joe, Anna, Me, Sarah Baja, Ginna, and Alissa

For those of you keeping track, I have been living in Peru for nearly seven months now. That’s right, folks. Seven months. Hard to believe you’ve gotten by without me this long, huh?

Joe photographs the sunset. I photograph Joe.

I have recently returned to my home in Moyobamba after our mid-year, week-long retreat relaxing on the beautiful beaches of Máncora, Peru. As I have mentioned, the YAVs reunite every couple months for a retreat in different parts of Peru. These retreats serve as periods of support, discernment, and, of course, good food and lots of laughter. Our beach retreat in Máncora also served as a celebration of having survived over six months in Peru and an opportunity to take a day trip into Ecuador to renew our visas.

Writing on the beach.

During our time at the beach, I spent a lot of time thinking. I would think about how some days it felt impossible that six months had already flown by, leaving me with this almost visceral urge to squeeze the most out of my time left. Give up my sometimes self-pitying ways, grow up, and do something with the remaining months. Then I would think about how on other days, the harder days, it felt impossible that only six months had passed – time was inching by. I felt that I haven’t contributed anything yet and that there was no way I could contribute anything before July 27 when I fly home. It’s on these down days that I try to remind myself of some of the ways I have already changed and grown since coming to Peru.  Try to remind myself of the things I have learned in the past six months. I would like to share a few of those things with you.

What I’ve learned so far:

Spanish – While this is probably the most obvious (and I still have a long way to go), I still take pride in the fact that my Spanish skills have improved leaps and bounds and I will be mostly fluent when I return to the States.

Never show up early…or on time – If you do, you will be the only one there. Wait half an hour and try again.

Patience – This includes patience with myself, other people, situations beyond my control, and a culture that at times is illogical or frustrating.

Asking for help – For someone used to an independent lifestyle and normally being able to figure things out for myself, learning to admit vulnerability and ask for help is challenging – especially with questions that can be embarrassing or awkward, like asking how to flush a handle-less toilet (you just pour water in the bowl until it flushes).

Santiago, son of my host parents

People are the same, no matter where you are or what language is being spoken – Children love to laugh, grandmothers will feed you like you’re being fattened for slaughter, and 20-somethings are sarcastic, idealistic, and kind of lazy.

Being challenged is good – Good but painful. I’m learning to challenge myself in the obvious ways (living in another country speaking another language for a year) and the not-so obvious ways (using my time in productive ways, such as reading or writing, or with my family…not as easy as it sounds)

Peru is wonderful – One of the most beautiful and diverse countries on the planet, Peru is also peopled with a warm and generous and vivacious people.

A shift in world-view – Addressing a 3rd world reality from a 1st world mentality is painful at worst and life-changing at best.  Ask me about it when I get back – I still need time to digest this one.

Taking life a little slower – harder than you might think but worthwhile when you take the time to appreciate a relaxed meal or conversation.

I am proud to be an American – Although I am still frustrated with our country and our arrogance (viewing the US from a 3rd world perspective is humbling and often embarrassing), I am glad to be North American and have been forced to recognize the true beauty of the phrase “land of opportunity.” Living in a land where educational, economic, medical, social, and career opportunities are limited and often non-existent for much of the population gives me a new appreciation for the past 22 years of my life.

We’re all connected – Cliché? Maybe. Inconvenient? Yes. Recognizing that the people of the world are more connected than we’d like to admit requires us to re-evaluate our actions, as individuals and as a nation, knowing that we impact people beyond ourselves.

Portrait of a Picking Community

February 26, 2010

Welcome to Huasta.

The road to Huasta.

As we rocked and pitted along the muddy and nearly impassable road, I watched the passing land through the open window to my right, breathing deeply. The scene framed by the window was beautiful – lush and verdant and vibrant and soft. Catching only glimpses of the sun on the mottled road before us or through the thick treecover above, smelling the simple purity of the forest mixed with the distant yet distinct scent of pineapple, hearing the birds whistling and singing around us – as we passed deeper into the forest, I was reminded of the National Geographic magazines I once so admired. My knees doubled under me, curled on the floor and holding my breath, I would pass my fingers gingerly over the glossy, two-dimensional photos, imagining myself taking that photo. What was beyond that lens? What sounds and smells and sensations? If such a simple and distant image could evoke such a sense of wonder – of awe – in me, what must the photographer have experienced, completely enveloped? I longed to be there, dreamed of seeing such beauty firsthand.

And here I was.

Deforestation in the Amazon

My first impression of the road to Huasta was of its untouched and unblemished beauty. But shortly, I began to see a different reality. Entire swaths of trees had been cut down, harvested, leaving broken stumps as headstones. I watched with a helpless sadness as we passed stump after gnarled stump, dead under the harsh and oppressive sunlight that just moments before had seemed to playfully dart between the leaves and shadows.

After alternating between treecover and sections of naked land, we finally arrived in Huasta, a town identical to the road we had just traveled – improbably beautiful and tragic.

Drying palm leaves near the Community Center

There were very few homes visible from the road. Those we could see were one-room buildings walled by bamboo or wooden planks and covered by thatched roofs of palm leaves. Shoeless, half-naked children watched as we drove boy. We arrived at the center of the community, marked by multiple houses, the community center – the only building constructed of cement – and an open field of palm leaves drying in the sun. Huasta is a community of self-proclaimed Aguaruna (also called “Awaruna”) natives fiercely proud of their heritage. Spanish is not spoken.

Roberto, our translator.

With our translator, a pastor from a nearby community, the Paz y Esperanza team – Luz, Ronald, and I – walked to the river. As we walked, discussing the problems faced by the community, we passed from the forest into cultivated fields bisected by the road. To our left were trees heavy with rich green papayas and beneath one tree I saw the remnants of someone’s lunch – a machete and the shaved orange husk of a ripe papaya. To our right stretched endless rows of trees boasting enormous beautiful green bananas. Swatting at the mosquitoes that had appeared in plague-like proportions, we finally arrived at the river. Looking across the rushing brown water, I saw a pull-out on the other bank that apparently led to a neighboring community which was accessible only by canoe. Sitting on the rocks, I learned a little about the history of Huasta and other indigenous peoples of the forest.

Traditionally, many of the indigenous Aguaruna communities of the Amazon rainforest lived nomadic lives. Every twenty years or so, entire communities of families would pack up and move to a different part of the forest, rotating in a large circle and returning to the same location every hundred years or so. While they maintained relationships with other nomadic tribes through occasional inter-tribal marriages, there was little to no interaction with the world that was modernizing around them. They were hunters and nomads – this was their way of life as it had been for century upon uninterrupted century. Their culture was rich and undisturbed.

A home in Huasta

Predictably, the government grew greedy for the wealth of resources offered by the Amazon, prioritizing the fortune to be gained from its petroleum, trees, and minerals over the protection of the rich cultural heritage of its indigenous people. Peruvian and international companies alike grew restless to harvest the treasures of the land inhabited by the Aguaruna people and other indigenous communities. As recently as the 1970s, laws began to be passed, and soon formerly nomadic peoples were confined to small sections of land in the Amazon Rainforest to free up much of the forest for harvesting. Forced to sacrifice their entire nomadic way of life, communities such as Huasta have had to adopt agrarian lifestyles, leaving them with new and often devastating problems and destroying their cultural heritage. As my boss told me, “It’s like what you did to the Native Americans in your country, only here it happened thirty years ago.”

The papaya fields of Huasta

Initially, the communities over-hunted the forests. In the previous centuries of hunting and moving on, the forest and people adapted to each other. The natives had hunted animal populations of one area for a period of time and then moved on, allowing the cycle of life in the forest to replenish itself. In a fixed, permanent home, however, they soon began to exhaust the forest’s resources. Not only that, they were not farmers nor have their people ever been farmers and they are currently struggling to learn by trial and error how to care for the land in a sustainable way – how to cultivate crops year after year without ravaging the land and leaving the soil barren. Additionally, they have been forced to engage in the public market for the first time, traveling to nearby cities to buy fertilizer and meat when food is scarce. As a result, they have had to rely more and more on their poor-yeilding crops as a source not only of nutrition but of income, a new necessity for them.

These are some of the problems faced by Huasta. As we left the river and walked back to the town, our translator told us that much of the pineapple and banana laden land around us was actually rented to foreign companies. The people of Huasta rented their land in response to their farming struggles and in a desperate attempt to utilize the land and receive guaranteed income. Foreign companies with short-term investments come into Huasta, inject the land with powerful fertilizers, harvest fruit for a few years, and then leave when the soil is useless. The people of Huasta are left with very few options.

The water source for Huasta

When we arrived back at the community center, one of the few local men who could speak Spanish offered to show us where they bathe and get their drinking water. Across the muddy road, we descended a steep incline. To the right was a small pool of water. “That’s where we bathe,” he said. To the left was another small pool of clear water surrounded by mud and a rotting log. “That’s where we get our water.” I asked if there was anything they did to clean the water. He said no.

A malnourished boy of Huasta

Walking back to the community center, I saw a group of children playing. The youngest, a boy of probably about two, was wearing a shirt and no pants or shoes. Perhaps when you don’t have the resources for diapers or for cleaning soiled clothing, it is simpler and more practical to let your children go without pants until they are potty-trained. He looked at me. His belly was slightly distended and his hair was thin and light brown, indicating malnutrition. I imagined him drinking from the spring and it suddenly struck me that, in the United States, I shower every day in drinkable water.  We flush our toilets with drinkable water.  I imagined him drinking from the spring and tears filled my eyes.

Welcome to Huasta.

It’s a jungle out there!

February 8, 2010

The hallway on the first floor of our house.

Having abandoned my nap, I sit here cross-legged on my bed, looking out the door of my bedroom into the small garden across the hallway. It’s raining today, and I can hear the soft rain fall from the strategic hole in the roof onto the plants outside my door. It’s one of my favorite things about my new home in the jungle – every time it rains, it literally rains inside, filling the house with the sound and smell of falling rain.

That’s right, as most of you are probably aware, I have finally moved to my new placement in Moyobamba – a quaint and charismatic Amazonian city in the Northern part of Peru. Although I have only been here roughly two weeks so far, I can already tell that this is a much better fit for me, physically, emotionally, gastrointestinally. My new host family will be a great match as well – I will be living with Ana and Jorge and their 11-month-old son Santiago, the cutest, happiest, most flirtatious baby I have ever met. I will be working at the non-profit Paz y Esperanza (Peace and Hope), where Ana works as a journalist and Jorge as the Director. They are both impressive and intelligent people, and we spend most of our dinners discussing Peruvian and U.S. politics, cultural differences, and Peru’s violent past.

The office of Paz y Esperanza

In addition to a better living situation, it appears that my job will be a much better match for me as well. Although we are still in the process of figuring out details, Jorge has told me that I will be able to contribute in many areas including environmental education of local children concerning the rainforest and conservation of water, working with our lawyer on issues of domestic and sexual abuse, helping by photographing events and archiving their current photos, and finally possibly writing articles (in English!) for their English publications. This is still fairly tentative because four university students have recently arrived from Spain and will also be volunteering in the office, so it remains to be seen exactly how we will all be working together. Needless to say, I am excited!

As far as the climate and my surroundings, it is beautiful here. The ever-present green is so comforting and familiar and is evident everywhere. Even the office of Paz y Esperanza is quite beautiful. To help you get a better idea of my impressions of my surroundings, I will end with an exerpt from a journal entry I wrote the other day when I accompanied the Paz y Esperanza team to “el campo” for a meeting with an indigenous community about building a school.


The ride up here was beautiful. Although I’ve been here two weeks now, it still took my by surprise – we were driving through the jungle. There was such a profundity of life. As we drove a road of orange mud, we would often break through the treecover to see mountains and valleys of fog covering the verdant hillsides. The fog, although thick and penetrating, remained at the top of the hills, obscuring the tops of the tallest trees and blurring the line between land and sky. My window was cracked just enough to smell the mud spinning off our tires mixed with the rain that had fallen the night before. I could hear the sound of water droplets falling from the leaves of trees, birds and insects, and even the occasional monkey.

In the town of Jepelacio

I kept flashing back to trips to el campo with ATIYPAQ in Huancavelica. Driving through the Andes was spectacular and beautiful, of course, but it was foreign to me – an alien beauty. Here, though. This is a familiar beauty – a comfortable, welcoming beauty. No, I don’t live in the rainforest in the U.S., but I have always felt sheltered and safe in the trees of the East TN mountains. Here I feel the same. There is a profundity of life, as if there’s nothing else for the trees to do but live. Nothing for them to do but grow and stretch out their arms and embrace the sun or the rain or simply the sky. Life can’t help but live. Driving through the jungle, surrounded by the forest dripping with a symphony of sounds, I thought of Eden. This must be what God intended – every living thing seeming to flourish if only to celebrate life, to glorify God.

And then we drove through a small town. I’m not even sure it could be called a town, it was so small. It appeared out of nowhere, hiding amidst the fog and trees. There were homes, a few of them, built from bamboo and boards and palm leaves. There were holes in the walls and roofs. They were houses of one room with sad animals tied outside, standing with bowed heads in the rain that had begun to fall. Everywhere was mud. Mud was everywhere. We passed a woman and her son making their way slowly along the road. She wore black pants with holes in the knees and a pink shirt that clung to her skin from the rain. She rode bareback atop a donkey and wore no shoes. The boy walked in front of the donkey, his bare feet sinking in the mud. They didn’t even look up as we drove past in our truck. It was a reminder to me that, even amidst such peaceful and comforting and awesome beauty, there is poverty. Extreme poverty. While some live in such wealth, there are so many with so little. This can’t be what God intended in this land intended by God.


Photos galore!

February 2, 2010

A picture is worth a thousand words, right?

Many people have mentioned to me that they want to see more of my photos from my time here in Peru.  Although I have been updating photos regularly to my facebook account, I recognize that not everyone has a facebook account, is lucky enough to be friends with me, or stalks me on a regular basis – therefore, for whatever reason, I realize that not everyone has access to the photos I have already posted online.

For that reason, I have opened an online Picasa account for your viewing pleasure!

The albums are posted in reverse chronological order with the most recent photos at the top, so if you want to see my photos in the order I took them, be sure to start with the bottom album entitled “Bienvenidos a Peru” and work your way up.  I’ll be uploading on a fairly regular basis, so be sure to bookmark the site and check back frequently!

Be warned – there are a lot of photos, so take your time and enjoy them.  And feel free to leave comments on your favorite photos!  Your feedback is always appreciated.

My Picasa album:  http://picasaweb.google.com/smterpstra

Facebook friend disclaimer –  these are, for the most part, the same photos I have already posted to my albums on facebook, so if you have been following my photos on fb, you can disregard this post.

This past month…

January 28, 2010

Disclaimer – This entry is fairly long, but after a month of not updating, all of you better have the patience to make it to the end. It’s about where I’ve been for the past four weeks, anyway, so it’s obviously incredibly interesting.

As you probably could have predicted, I begin this blog with an apology. To the seven to thirteen of you who have been checking back regularly (Site Stats tell me how popular I am on a day-to-day basis), I apologize for not updating in so long. For the past three weeks, I have been living the life of a vagabond, traveling throughout Peru and even to Bolivia, leaving me with little internet access or time to write. This entry, therefore, will primarily serve to update you on where I am and what I have been doing, because I have to admit – my life is awesome.

Christmas in Peru

Because the decision was made for me to change placements, I spent Christmas in Lima with fellow volunteer Ginna and her host family instead of with my family in Huancavelica. Although it was tough to spend Christmas away from my families (in both the US and Huancavelica), I had a special time with Ginna and her family in Carabayllo, a very poor district of Lima (yes, where Paul Farmer worked, for those of you with impressive reading retention who have read Mountains Beyond Mountains).

Cathedral in Barranco, Lima

In the days leading up to Christmas, I had to keep reminding myself that my favorite holiday was at hand. I wasn’t near family, there were no Christmas carols being sung, there was no Christmas tree in the house, I wasn’t frantically rushing around buying gifts, and it was summertime for crying out loud – how could it possibly be Christmas? Truthfully, aside from the steady march of the calendar and the increasingly universal presence of Panetón (an actually sort-of tasty version of fruit cake that Peruvians LOVE), there was very little to indicate that Christmas was at hand. To compensate for the lack of Christmas spirit in Lima, Ginna and I spent our evenings watching Christmas movies (such as A Muppet Christmas Carol and Elf), drinking wine, eating chocolate, and harmonizing with each other on our favorite Christmas carols (Ginna is a fantastic singer).

I must be honest. When I first realized that I would be spending Christmas in Peru, I thought, “That will be cool. What a great opportunity to learn about another culture.”

Me and Ginna

However, when December 24th rolled around, the only place in the world I wanted to be was sitting next to Ben, Katie, Jake, Mom and Dad in our pew, third from the front on the right, our faces lit by candlelight as we sang Silent Night.

Instead, I found myself sitting close to Ginna on her bed that night, our eyes closed and our feet resting on a dirt floor in Lima, Peru, slowly singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” Singing with her, I finally began to feel what I had been missing. I finally began to feel that warm peace that I feel every year. There was still that void, of course – that unavoidable emptiness that comes from being away from my family, but there was also that peace. That familiar and comfortable peace of Christmas.

I wish I could tell you more about Christmas in Peru – like how at midnight on Christmas Eve the city lights up with twenty minutes of fireworks in every direction, or how most families do Secret Santa gift exchanges to save money – but I fear if I continue to wax eloquent I will never get to telling you about the rest of the past few weeks.

Playing Tourist

While moving to Peru for a year as a YAV might seem exotic (and indeed it is), the purpose of this volunteer year is not to play tourist. As a result, although I had been living in Peru for four months by the time Christmas rolled around, I had only been to Huancavelica (my home), Lima (for orientation and Thanksgiving), and Huanuco (for our first retreat). Therefore, when planning for our two-week, post-Christmas vacation with the other YAVs, we decided to do a Tour d’ Peru and hit up some of the most well-known cities.

The monastery in Arequipa

Our first stop was the city of Arequipa in the southern part of Peru. On the 27th of December, after Ginna and I spent a night with Anna and Sarah Baja at Loki Hostal in Lima, the four of us hopped on a thirteen hour overnight bus-ride to Arequipa where we were to meet up with Joe, his girlfriend Erika, and Erika’s friend Stacie. As an amateur photographer, I was looking forward to Arequipa. Nicknamed the “White City” due to the local white stone that was used to construct much of the city, it is considered one of the most beautiful cities in all of Peru.

The Monastery in Arequipa

When I arrived, however, I was feeling a little under the weather and was unable to join the rest of the group for coffee and a trip to the monastery, one of the most-visited and most-photographed parts of the city. It turns out I had come down with one of the most miserable 24-hour stomach viruses of my life and spent the better part of that day and the next in bed with a bag at the ready. Luckily, I began feeling a little better the following day, so that afternoon I went by myself to the monastery, my camera in hand. The monastery in Arequipa remains one of the most photogenic places I have ever visited.

That evening, Anna, Sarah Baja, Ginna and I arrived at the bus station at 9:15 for our 9:30pm bus to Paracas only to discover our bus wasn’t there. “The bus never left, so the bus never arrived,” the woman behind the counter calmly told us, her half-opened eyes never leaving the computer screen. While our American senses of reliability and punctuality were incredulous and, truthfully, pissed off, our Peruvian sensibilities told us to look for another bus leaving that night. So, in a frantic rush, we were reimbursed (initially with two fake 100 sol bills) for the delinquent bus, bought four tickets to Lima on a different bus line, and were ushered in the nick of time onto our new bus…

…which crashed on its way to Lima.

Lovers in Lima

Now, don’t fret. I am writing this blog entry, so I obviously wasn’t killed or even seriously harmed. No, the only lasting result from our crash was that I can now brag to people that I was on a bus crash in Peru, a country famous for it’s poor highway safety. During the night, Anna and I were jerked awake while our bus rocked and pitted, and we eventually realized that our bus was at a significant tilt when it finally came to a stop. It wasn’t severe. In fact, looking in the seats behind us, Ginna and Baja were still asleep (and would later be angry that we didn’t wake them for their first Peruvian bus crash). Apparently, our bus has simply veered off the road in an attempt to avoid collison with another car. We were back on track to Lima within an hour.

Representing Maryville College!

Arriving in Lima a day earlier than scheduled, we returned to Loki Hostal where we were joined by Anna’s mother just in time for New Years. I was also able to meet up (to see Avatar!) with an old friend from Maryville College, Brian Phelps, who is currently serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Peru. Then, on the 2n d (after swapping Sarah Baja for Alissa and adding Anna’s mother), our intrepid crew ventured North to Trujillo. While in Trujillo, which was not as interesting as we had been told, we visited three separate ruins, which were much more interesting than we had been told.

The Ruins of Chan Chan, moments before my camera broke.

For me, the most notable part of our trip to Trujillo was the devastatingly traumatic event that occurred at Chan Chan, our first ruin – my camera broke. Yes, I cried. Those of you who know me know how truly traumatic this really is for me. At the ruins I dropped my camera, a dear gift from a dear friend three years ago, on the rocks, breaking the screen. While the camera still takes photos, I can no longer change the settings or even see what I am photographing. Devastating, indeed.

After sucking it up and moving on as best I could, our group traveled to Huanchaco, a small coastal town about 45 minutes away from Trujillo and one of our favorite stops. After finding a hippie/indie restaurant with the best piña coladas you could imagine, we decided to stay an extra day. We spent our time walking along the coast, playing Hearts (it wasn’t the same without you, family), soaking up the sun, and competing in a subsequent sun-burn contest (Ginna won).

After two days playing beach bums, we went for as drastic a change as possible and took a bus bound for Huaraz, a gorgeous city in the Andes and home to Brian Phelps (see Avatar/Lima/MC). With Brian playing tour guide, Anna, Ginna, Alissa and I took an hour and a half taxi ride to Llaca, a glacier at roughly 15,000 ft elevation where we went on one of the most fantastic hikes of my entire life. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

And that’s with a broken camera!

Young Adult International Environmental Congress in Bolivia

An overlook in Sucre, Bolivia

After two weeks of playing tourist in Peru, I was fortunate enough to be invited to Bolivia to attend the 3rd Annual International Congress of Young People in Defense of Water and the Environment as part of the Peruvian delegation. Anna, Joe, and I were asked to accompany the team of Peruvian young adults as they traveled to Sucre, Bolivia to give presentations over some of the most prevalent environmental issues in Peru and how young adults are responding.

Although I was thrilled and honored to be traveling to Boliva to attend the conference, I must admit it was a little strange to be going as part of the Peruvian delegation. Would they see me as just some gringa getting a free ride to Boliva? Was I taking the place of a Peruvian who could have – or should have – gone in my place? What was I doing? Truth be told, I felt a little guilty and even a little disoriented as we got on the plane, but the disorientation could have been due to the flight leaving at 4am.

After over 27 hours straight of travel which included planes, buses, and taxis and a walk over a bridge into Bolivia (yes, I walked into Bolivia), we finally arrived in Sucre for the four-day environmental conference. As I sat down to breakfast on the first day, I looked around me. There were youth and young adults from different parts of Peru, Bolivia, and the United States sitting together at different tables, talking and laughing.

The Environmental Fair in the Plaza

A few hours later, the conference was opened and the presentations began. Over the next few days, a total of 14 presentations were given regarding environmental issues concerning water in the different parts of the Americas, such as the contamination in La Oroya (click here to learn more), contamination in the San Fransisco Bay, and many others. During the day on Friday, booths were set up in one of the plazas of Sucre and local people, as well as some tourists, came by to talk to us about the environmental issues being presented. Then, that evening, everyone (except me – I had a migraine that evening) participated in a “culture night.” Traditional dances were presented by the delegations from each country (the U.S. delegation danced the Virginia Reel…last year they performed the Hokey Pokey) followed by a dance that lasted until 3am.

A family's home on the floating islands

Returning from Bolivia, the three YAVs (Joe, Anna and I) were fortunate enough to stay an extra day in Puno, one of the highest cities in Peru and on the shore of Lake Titicaca, the largest lake in South America and one of the highest commercially navigable lakes in the world (at nearly 13,000 ft). We visited the famous floating islands of the Uros people, one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

(I would write more about the floating islands, but this entry is already longer than some of the papers I wrote in college.   I will simply include one more photo.   If you want to know more, I may write more in a later entry or you can just email me privately.)

The floating islands of Lake Titicaca

I hope this entry has sufficiently updated you on my life over the past month or so. I have been busy, but I thank those of you who made it to the end of this entry – impressive! As I settle into my new home in Moyobamba, a quaint and charismatic city in the Amazon Rainforest in the Northern part of Peru, I am thinking of all of you as I hope you are thinking of me.

God Bless.

An overlook in Sucre, Bolivia


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