Kathy's Peruvian Experience

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Farewell Peru, and Thank You

It's hard to believe, but this is the closing chapter of this intern's Peruvian book. This last month has passed by in a flash due to a busy time at work preparing for the dairy plant development project in Soritor and finishing up the coffee certification program comparison study that I have been plugging away at for months. With regards to the former, it is a satisfying feeling to leave with the knowledge of having helped to acquire and initiate a project. It is this feeling of contributing to the empowerment of a disadvantaged community that I hope to spend the rest of my career pursuing.

Although it sounds cliche, this year I definitely learned what the true spirit of the holidays is. I had travelled to Tarapoto with my friend Sumeep to attend the wedding of Cesar (Sheshin) Villanueva, the co-worker with whom I spent my first experience in the field and who has become a good friend. The wedding was an incredibly good time, with everyone in attendance dancing salsa and meringue until the wee hours in the tropical heat. (In the photo I am with fellow MEDA Peru worker and sister of the groom Jessica Villanueva). I then spent Christmas Eve with Joey, a former Agromonitor programmer, his girlfriend Lorena, and their families, dining on fried bananas and panetón (think fruitcake, and think large). Their concern that we would have to spend Christmas Eve alone was really touching, and to be included like we were members of the family confirmed my previous opinions that Peruvians are among the warmest, most inclusive people on the planet. Leaving my Tarapoto friends for the final time was really hard, and I'll always appreciate the glimpses of the "real" Peru that it offered.

After Tarapoto, Sumeep and I headed directly for Cuzco, which I had dreamed of visiting since first seeing pictures of the mix of Inca and Colonial architecture in an introductory Spanish course a few years ago. Despite visiting during the rainy season, which is certainly deserving of its name, we packed in tours of many ruins and churches and, of course, delicious local dishes. As a vegetarian, however, I had a valid excuse for avoiding the "cuy al horno", i.e. baked guinea pig.

Although the New Year's Eve celebrations in the Plaza de Armas were a mind-boggling crush of people setting off fireworks and running in circles (which I am told is a tradition called "correr la manzana"), the highlight of the Cuzco trip was, hands down, Machu Pichu. It had been raining every single day prior to our visit, but the day we went up to the site it was sunny and the sky could not have been clearer, allowing us to appreciate the stunning views without foggy obstructions. I would definitely include the moment when I reached the top of Huayna Pichu (the tall mountain in the background of the photo) and was able to appreciate the ruins from the height of the clouds among the most memorable of the last 6 months, if not perhaps the last 21 years.

There will be a number of things that I will, and will not, miss when I return. For example, I will not miss traveling on buses designed for people half a foot shorter than me, nor the sacks of dead animals that people carry with them from town to town. Also, I am really looking forward to being able to drink a glass of water from the tap without fearing a stomach infection that can put you out of commission for days. On the other hand, I will seriously miss having meetings with farmers who bring freshly picked tropical fruit, being called "La Señorita", and being able to travel only a couple of hours and finding myself in a completely distinct geography and climate. Most of all, I will miss the overwhelming generosity and openness of the Peruvian people. It's not often in Canada that you are offered a place to stay or a meal within a few minutes of meeting someone, with only the intention of making you feel welcome.

Most importantly, the injustice of the poverty of so many children and families is no longer only the subject of a textbook to me, but a real phenomenon that I have witnessed in person. Thus I feel satisfied for having completed the first step of my career attempting to understand this phenomenon and find its solutions.

Thank you MEDA and thank you Peru, I'll miss you! Best of luck to my fellow interns as they complete their assignments!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

It really is all relative

I spent all day yesterday in the town of Guadalupito, just outside of Trujillo, accompanying Jenniffer (a Peru office project manager) on her mission to group together farmers to participate in the artichoke agro export project. No matter how many times I leave Lima I can never get over the extremity of the urban/rural dichotomy in living conditions. But this time the variation within the town itself - which couldn't possibly have held more than a thousand people - was truly mind boggling. We spent the morning in the office of the junta (local agricultural council), which was equipped with flat screen computers and intern connection. But when we asked to use the facilities, we were taken to a little convenience store about half a block away whose washroom consisted of a room with a hole in the ground with a curtain as a door. It fascinates me to recognize modern technologies while other customs should still be so foreign - in other words, how culture resists the development process.

Despite only being away for a day, this was unfortunately still enough time to see a dead horse that had been left on the side of the highway, with his insides spilling out. I decided to put this one into perspective - maybe that dog whose eyeball had been eaten by the snake didn't actually have it so bad. On a similar note, I found out on the weekend that what had been making me so ill for so long had been E. Coli poisoning. The bright side is that now I have a basis for comparison for the doctor's comment when I had a Shingella infection that "it's about as bad as E. Coli." And, he was right!

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Some cultural observations


Yesterday I had an experience with Peruvian private medical care that made me appreciate our public system more than ever before. To make an unpleasant story short, after spending the entire day until 3 pm emptying out the contents of my stomach I decided that I should pay a visit to the clinic. I'm not sure if it's really a good thing that I was recognized as soon as I walked in, but at least it was nice that the doctor remembered my name and past condition. After being rehydrated by IV and given enough grabol to knock out a horse, I woke up feeling a little better. The doctor had advised spending the night, but after seeing my tab so far I decided that heading home to my wooden box of a mattress was the better option. (The day I receive my reimbursement for medical expenses here will be something to really celebrate!) It won't be such an exciting weekend waiting for this bicho (stomach infection) to pass, but I'm willing to do whatever it takes to have my digestive system back.

After having been here for almost 4 1/2 months, I have come to some conclusions about the Peruvian cultural conscience which really reveal its underdevelopment relative to Canada. In the first place, a tour guide once told me about a so-called witch in a small town that used to read children's palms, and the story would always go "you will fall in love, have a successful career, and get out of the country." Then the other day I saw a commercial for the Tratado de Libre Comercio (Free Trade Treaty between the US and various South American countries) advertising the agreement as a way for Peruvians to facilitate their entry into the US. The poverty and inequality here has lead to a self-destructive way of thinking - those who have the financial and human capital to effect change are directing their efforts toward creating economic opportunities in developed countries rather than within their own, which only leads to the further discouragement of future generations.

What's more, inequality is so extreme here that it is not just an economic phenomenon, but has become engrained in the cultural mindset. What I mean is that cleaners, doormen, secretaries, etc. are treated with a disdained courteousy that I have never seen in Canada. Lima itself is really two worlds within one city - the pueblos jovenes (shanty towns) on the outskirts are the frailest structures I have ever seen and in a state of despair that brings you to tears, while the neighbourhoods of Miraflores and San Isidro where the upper classes live and work would fit in nicely in the Rosedale area of Toronto. It's not that I have ever seen a cleaning person be outright humiliated by a corporate executive, but more so that there are unsaid but clearly understood definitions of appropriate interractions between classes that would not be acceptable in Canadian society.

The point of the above observations is not to criticize, but rather to suggest some cultural factors that I think are presenting barriers to the further development of the country.

And, as to not end on such a serious note, here is a picture that shows Peruvians really know how to do their moustaches right.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

A month that flew right by



After a nomadic first couple of months I have spent all of October in Lima, and it is nice to feel settled and to have a daily routine. Over the last four weeks I have been working on a business plan for a small coffee export company which would find contracts in specialty markets for the six producer associations supported by MEDA. As well, we have been working on a proposal for a project which would improve the competitiveness of a milk processing plant in the town of Soritor.

This last month I took advantage of the weekends to travel outside of Lima on many occasions. The first trip, which was officially dubbed “Trujillo Rocks Tour 2005,” was with a group of fellow Canadian interns and their Peruvian significant others and friends. Trujillo is Peru’s third largest city (with a population about the size of Winnipeg’s) and has a true colonial feel, having been founded in the 16th century by Francisco Pizarro. On the Saturday evening we went to a formal party at the Trujillo Country Club, which was a surprisingly unpretentious setting (I have never seen an unhappy person dancing salsa!). The highlight of the trip, however, was definitely the Moche and Chimu ruins located at 15 minutes outside the city. We visited Chan Chan, the second largest mud city in the world, and the Huaca de la Luna, an amazingly well-preserved temple built over a 500-year period ending in 600 AD. However, I do have to say that I am glad the custom of making a human sacrifice after every thunderstorm was not equally well preserved.

The following weekend I stayed in Lima and celebrated some international festivities – Oktoberfest and a belated Canadian Thanksgiving. The former was held in a large hall and was at least as authentic as the celebrations that are held in Winnipeg, including an imported German band and a greater variety of sausage than this vegetarian could ever want to see. Then on Sunday evening we had a belated Thanksgiving dinner with the Trujillo Rocks crowd and a few additions, both Canadian and Peruvian. One girl had asked her cook to make mashed potatoes, but not understanding why anyone would want to eat their potatoes mushy and formless, they were kindly rolled back into little potato shapes.

The next weekend I set off for Paracas and Nazca with a group of friends from the house. On Saturday morning we woke up at 6:30 in order to join a tour of the Islas Ballestas, a national wildlife reserve about 30 minutes off the coast. Although the smell of guano, a nutrient-rich fertilizer which was a principal export a few centuries ago, was a little overwhelming, coming within a few metres of colonies of sea lions and flocks of penguins was well worth it. The next day we took a two hour bus ride to Nazca, from where you can tour the Nazca Lines from a 3-seater plane for only 30 dollars. Seeing the lines was one of the highlights of my entire trip thus far, since along with Machu Pichu it is one of the two most important things on my list of tourist activities . The vividness and intelligence of their design, some of which date to 900 BC, literally took my breath away.

This last week we were visited by Jerry, Gerald, and Ben, the head honchos from MEDA Canada. My knowledge of local restaurants and nightspots was put to the test, and it was fun to play tour guide in a city I am just getting to know myself. I think my adamancy when bargaining with the taxistas took them by surprise. Ben decided to stay for the weekend in order to get to know Lima a little better, and we had tonnes of fun checking out the catacombs beneath the Iglesia San Francisco and sandboarding the sand dunes of Huacachina, not to mention going all out with our costumes for a Halloween party on Friday night.

The end of the Canadians’ visit brought us into November, and I can hardly believe that my internship is more than half done. I feel like I have accomplished a lot here, but also that I have a lot more left to achieve with my work and with becoming familiar with other areas of the country. Every area of Peru – coast, highlands, and jungle – has a distinct character in terms of food, personality, and economy, and I hope to gain an understanding of them all before leaving.

Monday, October 03, 2005

An eventful week


This past week started off with a bang, or more appropriately, a tremor. On Sunday evening at about 9:00 the northern region of Peru was struck by an earthquake which registered 7.5 (my sources say) on the Richter scale. The epicenter was the town of Moyobamba, which is about two hours by car from Tarapoto (where I have been located for the last three weeks). During the seismic activity, which lasted for about one minute, I was returning from dinner on the back of Jeremy’s moto and didn’t actually feel the earth move. We were therefore thoroughly confused by the sight of people running out of their houses, and by the sound of what seemed like a thousand stampeding horses. Shortly thereafter all the lights went out in the Banda de Shilcayo, the neighbourhood in which our house is located. When we arrived home the neighbours explained that the quake was stronger than any they had ever felt. Their grandmother had been thrown right out of her bed by the shaking. In our house a few things had fallen over, but the damage was minimal compared to the chunk of roof that literally collapsed in the Megasystems office building. If someone had been sitting in the wrong spot on the second floor the consequences would surely have been fatal. Needless to say, this week the office was moved to a safer location.

Although I didn’t feel the movement myself I was quite shaken by the experience because one hour prior to the quake I was in the town of Lamas, the worst affected area. We had driven to Lamas in search of what is apparently the area’s best pizza, but the restaurant was closed for the evening and so we returned to Tarapoto. Apparently there were 20 deaths and 60% of the buildings either collapsed or suffered damage, which can be explained by their archaic mud construction. Alejandro Toledo, the president of the country, arrived to survey the damage the following day. Experiences such as this help me to appreciate the constancy and relative tranquility of life in Winnipeg, and also increase my belief that a higher power is looking out for my welfare.

Monday afternoon I traveled to Moyobamba, which served as base camp for my second trip to the field. The purpose of the trip was to interview the wives while the rest of the team continued with the baseline survey to the coffee farmers. My objective was to learn more about the daily routines of the women and their organizational involvement in order to identify opportunities for MEDA to intervene from a gender perspective. I was able to complete 10 interviews within three days, and plan to return to the field next month in order to round out the sample with members of the other producer associations involved in our project.

The three days I spent in the field were increasingly challenging, both physically and emotionally. On Tuesday morning we set out on moto to the town of Roque with a stopover in Neuvo Chota, a caserío which is located at about 1,400 meters above sea level. It being a rainy day, we were literally inside the clouds. The three interviews I completed that day really emphasized the injustice of life in remote regions of the developing world. In Nuevo Chota the nearest available source of water was an hour away by foot from the family we visited and is shared by fifty or more families. At the end of the day we returned to the house of Heine Dávila Ruiz, the president of the coffee producer’s association APAVAM. Descending a winding mountain path on moto through a blanket of fog in the pitch black was another experience which increased my appreciation for the flat geography of the Canadian prairies!

The most memorable part of the second day was my visit with Alexander Espíritu, an extentionist who works for the government of San Martín, to the chacra of coffee farmers Ramón Moreto Román and Maria Cordova Guaman. The farm, which is only accessible by foot or by donkey, was a 45 minute uphill climb from the highway. Despite their remote location and the tremendous difficulty of their daily life, these people were some of the most generous, sincere, and good-spirited that I have ever met. After the interview, Alex and I were invited to stay for a mug of coffee that was picked and processed by Ramón and Maria themselves. Despite the urgency of their need, they insisted upon presenting me with a small bag of their coffee as a parting gift and refused my payment. Speaking with a woman so intelligent and motivated (when I asked her if she would be interested in micro-enterprise she responded that she was already trying to organize the women in the area for that very purpose, despite having only primary education) filled me with hope that we truly can design a project that will improve the lives of these women and their children in a sustainable manner. (On a sidenote, the family dog had recently been attacked by a venomous snake which ate one of its eyes. No further description needed.)

On the final day of my trip to the field we visited the indigenous community of Nangao, located at a two hour climb from the main road. Speaking in my third language to women who were speaking in their second (Quechua being their first) was quite the cross-cultural experience. The level of need in this community was the most urgent that I have seen here in Peru thus far, and brought to reality the enormity of the development challenges the country faces. The women I spoke with had not studied a single day of their lives, and were taken aback when I questioned if they boiled their water before drinking it. Further, in response to questions about their daily diet, one family responded that they eat only two meals per day and that they rarely, if ever, consume meat or milk. Most painful is that they seemed completely unaware of the extremity of their living conditions.

I had originally intended to stay in the field until Saturday, but my stomach reacted strongly to the food and the untreated water so I decided to play it safe and return to Tarapoto. I am really looking forward to seeing my friends in Lima and returning to a more temperate climate. I will definitely appreciate the luxuries of the urban lifestyle a whole lot more! However, I will miss the friends I have made here in Tarapoto and will be happy to return next month to finish my research.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

My 21st birthday in the Jungle


All 21st birthdays are special, but I believe that mine might just take the cake. As soon as I found out that I would be back in Tarapoto this week, I knew I had to take advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to celebrate in the Peruvian jungle. I advertised the event to my co-workers, to friendly strangers in the store, and to friends I made last time I was here. The plan was easy to make, given the fact that there is only 1 disco in town.
Come Thursday, the day of the big event, my co-workers began to disappear an hour earlier than usual from the office, but I didn't think much of it. At about 9:00 Ivan and I left to return to his house (where I am staying) and to stop by the grocery store to buy a light dinner. I was a little surprised when he encouraged me to buy more beer than I had been planning, but again quickly forgot about it. As we approached the house, he took out his cell phone and I overheard something about "te avisare cuando estamos cerca", or "I'll let you know when we get close", and finally the hamster picked up speed. The pitch dark house when we arrived affirmed my suspicions. Not only was it a birthday in the jungle, it was also my first surprise party ever!
But the story does not end there. Upon arrival I announced that I needed to shower before going out, given the 35 degree heat that persists all day. Maria, a co-worker, and Ivan both encouraged me to relax and said that I was fine as I was, which seemed to be odd comments to me. This time, the ball started rolling early, but I didn't know exactly what was coming my way. After a delicious birthday dinner of fried yuca, fish, and rice (and of course mountains of meat for the rest) came the birthday cake (with my name spelled "Katthleen" - which I assume was spelled as such because "Katty" is a common name here). During the singing, a bag was being passed around to everyone except me, and I knew some moment of truth had arrived. And a moment of truth certainly had - I was subjected to the Peruvian tradition of covering the "cumpleañero" in flour and raw eggs! This event was, oddly enough, organized by Jeremy, the Fulbright Scholar from the US who is also working from the Megasystems office, which leads me to question the validity of this "Peruvian tradition"...
Raw eggs and flour notwithstanding, I am very happy to be here in Tarapoto enjoying the sunshine and the world's friendliest people. I may be here for a while, as there is a significant amount of research to be done regarding the social and humanitarian situation in the districts of the coffee certification project. I have also been assigned the task of analyzing similar certification projects in order to make suggestions as to how MEDA and its partners should proceed. Although in Lima I have a large base of expat friends and enjoy the ability to choose between more than one place to go on Saturday night, the opportunies to make friends with Peruvians, to practice my Spanish day and night, and to learn first-hand the living conditions of rural farmers are too incredible to miss my other "home".

Monday, August 22, 2005

Sandboarding and Sun


As one of my goals for this experience is to see as much of Peru as possible, I took advantage of the weekend to travel to Ica - a sunny coastal town about 4 hours away by bus - with my friends from the house. We had planned to leave at 8:00 am Saturday, so we kept nicely with the "hora peruana" and were on our way by 9:00. As a group of 29 we essentially had our own bus! During the afternoon we hopped onto giant sand buggies and had a break-neck tour of the sand dunes. Afterwards we tried our hand at sandboarding, but after rolling down the dune on my backside I decided that sliding down on my stomach was a safer way to go. After a quick shower to get rid of the sand we had dinner in Ica (which consisted of a salad and a plate of rice - I don't think they see too many vegetarians!) and then spent the night dancing at the disco until the wee hours.

Sunday afternoon we had a personal tour of Ica with Marcela, who is a private Spanish tutor to many of the students in the house in Lima, and who grew up in the town. Throughout the day, Marcela and her boyfriend took care of us as if we were their own family. The generosity and graciousness of the Peruvian people never ceases to amaze me. First we tasted a number of local specialties at a popular seafood joint. Then we headed off to tour a pisco factory called El Catador. Pisco is a Peruvian national beverage made in a similar fashion to wine (but with a much higher alcohol content) that thrives in the region surrounding Ica due to the year-round sunny weather. At 11:00 pm we returned to the house, exhausted but wide-eyed and excited for our next excursion outside Lima.

With respect to my work over the last two weeks, I have been assigned the task of analyzing the global coffee market, with a specific focus on certified coffees and value-added products, which ultimately will purport to identify business opportunities for the farmers that MEDA Peru and its partners support. With my background in economics and my personal interest in fair trade and organic certification, the assignment is absolutely ideal. Also, I am loving the challenge of researching and writing in Spanish, and will be taking refresher courses with Marcela in order to ensure a professional report.

I feel settled and comfortable here in Lima, and I cannot believe that more than a month has already passed. Six months is much shorter than I perceived it to be before I left, and I will make sure to appreciate every single moment of my time here!