Wednesday we traveled to a district called Acobamba. The day began at the municipality. We arrived early and had time to burn. My friend, Alex, and I meandered to the local market to enjoy a cafecito. Afterwards we were greeted by the mayor. He had a few words and so did some of the trainees. We then listened to the psychologist from the local health post. We shared coffee and muffins with employees of the municipality and chit chatted casually.
In the afternoon we went to the school and split up and facilitated our classrooms. This time I was solo. I was definitely nervous. I’ve had experience in front of groups and with kids, but not much in the classroom and zero experience in Spanish. Much to my surprise things went well. Of course there were errors, and grammar and silly moments. But overall I enjoyed the session, and the students did also.
Our second facilitation with parents was a little bit more difficult. Today’s were missing one of our group members, lisa. Unfortunately she waa feeling sick and needed to go home. Without her, our session was not as fluid. On top of that, the parents were more quite. Once again however, in small groups, they were much more willing to share. I shared a table with 3 women who all had sons at the school. We talked about their boys, and their desires for them to grow up to be responsible, brave, honest and hard working.
The day finished with one of the most beautiful soccer games I’ve ever been a part of. We drove over to the soccer field to play song pichangas (friendly matches ) with the local soccer club. The field was grass! Up until today, i had been playing on concrete. The field also sat amongst beautiful, toewering mountains.
We started with the youngsters. Gringos v. Peruvians. The altitude quickly kicked my ass. Acobamba sits at around 10,000 feet above sea level
Luckily however, we won our first game. I scored the winning goal. But before that, I had the unfortunate experience of drilling the the goalie in the face. I felt terrible, but he took it like a champ. No blood, no black eye, no fat lip and no tears. After the game I asked how his fave was and he said it was all good.
Vengeance came quickly during our second game with the youngsters. We were struggling to get anything going due to the swarm of Peruvian kids on everyball. Debilitated by the altitude I switched into goalie with another trainee named Briauana. Immediately after taking my new position a ball gets crossed in, and volleyed quite elegantly into the left hand corner of the net. Ecstatic, the swarm of players ran screaming. The game ended quickly afterwards and the Peruvians chicos took the win.
After the youngsters we switched to the teenagers. Once again, gringos vs. Peruvians. The field was bigger, the goals were bigger and the players were better. We could barely keep up. Luckily for us, 3 players from the local club switched over to help us out. Without them, we would have lost but luckily we tied, which was a win in our book. The second game we weren’t so lucky. The Peruvian help we had the first game switched back and our lungs were all ready to explode. Exhausted k could not play both directions. Either I was running forward to attempt a futile offensive attack and walking back to defense. Or running back to help survive one more onslaught by the other team and walking back to play offense. As to be expected we lost, 1-0.
Despite the loss we were still in high spirits. We shared water and chatted with the players.All the players were friendly and eager to learn a little English. My friend Alex was teaching some of the kids how to say ‘what’s up’. With a little blood in the lungs and tired legs, we retired to the bus to return to our hostel for the night.
This day began earlier than all the rest. We woke up at 5am in order to leave by 5:30. The reason for this was because we had a 2 hour bus ride to Cuarhomayo. The town of Cuarhomayo sits at around 16,000 feet above sea level, making it the highest PC site in the world. On our way there, I attempted to fend off my sleepiness in order to enjoy the beautiful journey. We continued up, up and up. The bus driver zigzagged up switchbacks and fought through poor visibility and fog. He passed every truck he could, honking his horn and flashing his lights to alert oncoming traffic. Each time he veered into the other lane I couldn’t help but readjust in order to gain a better view of the lane ahead of us, as if me seeing better would improve the situation.
After the switchbacks we surmounted and found ourselves in high sierra plains. Very few trees grow here. Very few animals live here. With the Cordillera Blanca far off in the distance, we pulled into Cuarhomayo. The community was bustling already at 7am in the morning. Moto-taxis delivering students to school and semi-trucks finishing their deliveries. We stopped in front of a fruteria and greeted the current PCV, Phillip. After picking him up, we bumped our way along dirt roads to the school.
Upon entrance I was blown away by the size. It is by far the biggest colegio we have visited. The students were already in formation and receiving words from the director of tutoria. Our group of trainees awkwardly made their way to the front of the students. After a few words from our Program Manager Jorge, we each took a turn introducing ourselves and sharing an inspirational quote. I chose I piece of advice from the Dali Llama; “if you speak, you are only repeating what you already know, but if you listen, you may learn something new”. After rejoining my group of trainees, I was hit by the obvious irony of the quote. This made for a few good laughs. Phil also helped with the laughs after he accidentally said comida instead of comunidad; the error echoing throughout the valley thanks to the microphone we were using.
After introductions we returned to the city center. With the extra time we had before our next visit to the school, we were free to find breakfast. I returned to the fruteria that Phillip had recommended and ordered maca especial and pan con queso. Cuarhomayo is famous for its maca. And maca is famous for its properties as an aphrodisiac, among other things. The maca came like a warm smoothie. It included 2 raw eggs, ground up maca, soy milk, boiled water, honey and some cinnamon. There might be more ingredients but that’s all I saw go into it. We slurped down our maca and headed over to the municipality for a meeting with the mayor.
Upon arriving we were greeted by 4 flights of stairs. Despite walking slow, I still was breathing hard. And just to test my limits, I ran the last flight. I made it to the top, accompanied by a thumping head and heavy breaths. Luckily the headache did not last. The mayor of Cuarhomayo was a nice man. He was passionate about his community and very proud of its maca production. He also made sure to share info about the local lake, which is the largest in Peru at that type of elevation. During his presentation we were served coffee and donuts, and asked to participate in a one question interview. With not one but two cameras, we were recorded introducing ourselves and explaining something we like about the city. I said I enjoyed the beautiful drive to Cuarhomayo, the views, and of course, the maca. After the mayor, two representatives from two different Peruvian social programs, Pensión 65 and Juntos, came to share their knowledge. It was humbling to see them present and hear the passion in their voices.
After the municipality, we returned to the school for more presentations. The psychologist spoke and the director of tutoria. We learned a lot about local problems the youth in Cuarhomayo are struggling with and the school programs/ curriculum that is designed to help some of those things. After much talk, we loaded the bus again to head over to Phillips house for lunch. We arrived to a large home, a friendly family and cozy couch seating for the whole group. We were quickly served panchamanca. Panchamanca is a traditional Peruvian dish. Pancha signifies earth while manca signifies… Essentially the dish is cooked in a hole in the groud. Rocks are heated to ridiculous temperatures, and used to cook potatoes, whatever type of meat, beans, and sweet bread wrapped in corn husks like tamales. The plates were overwhelmingly huge. Everything tasted great. This was by far one of my favorite meals. The simplicity of the meal, and reliance only upon the natural flavors of the ingredients (with a little salt), some dirt, heat and smoke make for a one of a kind experience.
Loaded up with lunch, it was time to go back to the school to facilitate our last classroom. Worried that I would not be able to shake my food coma, I lumbered into the classroom, shaking loose whatever energy I had left for the day. Much to my pleasure, the session went really well. The students were excited to be there and participated fairly well. At this point I had led the session two other times. I felt more comfortable than ever in front of the class. I was left with helpful feedback and encouraging words from my observer, Marcos.
With more free time I sat down for coffee with a friend Ben in the school cafeteria. We chatted about the day, Peruvian politics and my research. After everyone was done presenting for the day, we loaded the bus to head back down the hill to Tarma. As the sun nestled into the Peruvian peaks in the distance, our language instructors began our Spanish class for the day. With a 2-hour per day requirement for Spanish, and a 2-hour bus ride, we agreed that class should be held on the way home, instead of in Caurhomayo which would have delayed our departure. With rain and hail on our heels, we flew down the highway. Out one side of the bus the sun set, mixing with storm clouds and casting beautiful reflections upon the lake. This by far was the most beautiful Spanish class I’ve ever head. It was also quite nauseating.
Our last day of field based training began like all the rest. I woke up early and enjoyed a banana with peanut butter up on the roof of our hostel. I also mowed down a mandarina and some bread with local honey. Knowing that it was the last day of FBT, I was excited to get the day underway. We left around 7:30am and headed for our visit community, Paca.
Two hours later we arrived to a sleepy mountain town. There was very little activity. This was partly because of the lack of people, the town only has around 800 people. It was also because most everyone was gone for the day and working in the fields. We found most of the activity at the local primary school. There we met a current volunteer Evan, the staff and the kids of the school. We were greeted by the fifth grade class. They helped serve jello, popcorn, cookies, and fermented potatoes called chuño. In between the snacks, they each recited a poem, some written by Pablo Neruda. This was by far the cutest thing we had seen all day. After we sang songs in English and Spanish, including the childhood favorite, the hokey pokey.
After our visit in the school for the morning, we loaded up and headed for the local municipality. We were told that the local Pension 65 group was holding a meeting. Pension 65 is a Peruvian social program that attempts to reintegrate Peruvian senior citizens who have otherwise struggled to maintain in mainstream society. The beneficiaries of this program must be above the age of 65, and classified as ‘poor’ or ‘extremely poor’. With Pension 65 senior citizens are assisted, given company, and encouraged to participate in senior citizen groups.
We arrived to a room full of people. We quietly made our way to the back of the room while the meeting continued. We listened intently to the presentations. The participants had been separated into groups or teams, obviously at a meeting before our arrival. Each team was asked to present a certain cultural aspect or activity. The first group that spoke was teaching about shoes. They showed the evolution from moccasin type shoes with animal hide, to sandals and eventually to shoes. The next group that presented spoke about the production of wool. In Paca, if you’re not farming, you’re raising animals like sheep, alpaca and llama. Each speaker had instruments for preparing or stitching wool. One man was in the process of making socks while another woman was preparing a sweater. Finally, a group came up to talk about music. A man serenaded us with a song on his…fiddle? Violin? I’m not sure but whatever it was it was pretty damn entertaining. All the while, the other folks in the crowd gossiped and chatted with their friends. Each individual conversation getting louder and louder because of the inability to hear very well. They were constantly reminded by the Pension 65 representative to quiet down and listen up. At this point I couldn’t help but notice the similarity between the senior group chattiness and the students we had worked with the day before. Some things don’t change.
Having arrived shortly before lunch time, we eventually made our way out of the municipality and headed off to lunch. We took a leisurely stroll through the neighborhood on the way to Evans house. It was on this walk that I learned that many of the buildings in Paca were now abandoned. The city used to be much bigger, Evan said, and a tourist destination due to the nearby lake. Due to some land disputes in the past, things had changed and people moved away. If the declining local ecotourism continues to slow down, Paca may continue to struggle.
Eventually we reached Evan’s house and sat down for lunch. We were served potatoes, salad and an entire river trout. I’ve never been a big fan of eating fish, let alone pick them apart from their bones and stare into their now dead eyes. Eating like that was a big step for me. I didn’t finish my fish, but I must admit, the flavor was quite good.
After lunch we shipped off to another close by community called Acolla. This site is open, and will be the future home of one of us trainees. We were going to the school to facilitate a feria de dinámicas, which is essentially recess. A dinámica is a game that teaches some sort of lesson. They often get used to start sessions in a fun and intriguing way. We arrived to 70 some odd students eager to play games. We began with capture the flag. This was a stretch for multiple reasons. What really is the lesson of capture the flag? Can you teach it in Spanish? And will the students even like it?
Capture the flag did not go so well. Partly because of the language barrier and also because of the inability to clearly see who was on whose team. This is because in public schools in Peru, all the students wear uniforms. After 10 minutes of confusion, we decided to split the group into smaller parts and switch the game. In my group, we played gente como yo, a game designed to elucidate common ground amongst the players; el nudo humano, a game designed to facilitate group work and communication; tiburones y peces, a game with the intention of fostering leadership and strategic thinking; and finally la linea mas larga, a dinámica designed to encourage creativity and teamwork.
After almost two hours of games, we moved to the last event of the day. In Acolla, one of the locals, with help from past volunteers, opened up a cultural center. This was by far one of the coolest spaces I had seen in any of the communities. It was decorated with art and murals, and was home to a small library, meeting space and yoga studio. In the back yard, a fire pit was found alongside a teepee (under construction), garden and beehives. At the cultural center we enjoyed presentations about local dances, more poetry and music. Towards the end we heard a heartfelt toast from our program manager and were congratulated for having finished FBT. We toasted with juice and broke open a piñata to celebrate.
Overall FBT was one hell of a whirlwind. The days came and went fast. I was exhausted, sick, energized, healthy, happy and sad. The effort and organization that went into the week on behalf of the PC staff and PCVs was pretty mind blowing. Each and every one of them worked hard to make sure the week went smoothly, and to support us when changes were made. Many thanks to all—the staff, trainees, and volunteers—that helped make FBT such a productive week. It felt really good to get away from Lima, out of the training center and into the sierra and communities of the Peruvians we will eventually be working with.