Thursday, October 21, 2010

Ayacucho, Lima, Sickness, and now Huaraz

Well it has been a very long time since I have written and per usual it has been an incredible and jam packed few weeks.

Starting back in Huancavelica. I spent several days in the town visiting and talking to people working in the local hospital and making friends with a comedor owner and her daughter. After joining them in some political rallying, and then for dinner, I headed out on a 4 am bus to Ayacucho. Taking a dirt road connecting to another distant town and then on again by micro bus I finally arrived 8 hours later atmy destination. Shocking that it took so long, as the distance between the two towns is really not far if you look on a map... but the roads are just asi.

The ride itself was incredible, especially the first leg on the dirt road as it passed though some really isolated towns and the most majestic landscape I have seen as of yet (saying something as Huaraz is nothing to dismiss). The coolest part about this very early AM drive was passing though some pretty tiny, isolated villages. I was so impressed to see that almost all had Puestos de Salud- fairly basic, but nonetheless, health outposts where people could get meds and treatment by nurses or tecnitions. People are really reached in Peru, health-wise, in a way I didn't see in Guatemala.

The second leg was not so great as I was slow off the bus, realizing as people literally jumped out of their seats, pushed their way off the bus and then into another line that I might be in trouble. I was, while it could have been worse, I spent the 3 hour drive to Ayacucho sitting with my back to the driver (and windshield of the car) hunched over. Making matters worse I had 2 kids sitting across from me who spent the majority of the ride vomiting... shockingly, despite the smell, no one opened any windows!!

Ayacucho was really a cool city, a little overwhelming after the quiet pace of Huancavelica but nonetheless made another friend. This time no parade but a nice conversation in the Plaza de Armas. The man was an engineer and told me about the political corruption that was riddling the most recent public works project in the town. After serious mudslides that killed several people last year the government decided to tear up the streets so as to construct a drainage system that would prevent a similar disaster from happening again. Elections were also coming up so what the hell, nothing like a little public spending to win reelection. Turns out the rainy season starts nowish and the drainage system is nowhere near complete, leaving the potential for a far more dangerous rainy season this year. My engineer friend told me additionally that the system was poorly constructed and had taken so long to finish mainly because money seemed to continuously disappear from the project budget... hmmmm. This type of political corruption is really nothing new in Peru and is in fact the most common story I hear told when talking with people.

After Ayacucho, I returned to Lima on an overnight bus and 3 days later got really quite sick- in and out of the hospital for a week. Front row seat to how things work! Thank God for the kindness of Yevette, her family and the women in my hostel (they call themselves my Peruvian mothers- there are 3+ of them quite dedicated to my mothering). They all cared for me as well if not better than my own family would have and made being so far from home and very frustratingly sick far less difficult than it would normally have been. I´ll call the illness week character building and leave it at that.

So many amazing things over my time in Lima, I´ll give one anecdote.

I went with Yevette and a friend of hers to a free talk given by the Museo de la Nacion in honor of Intercultural week. Could I get any luckier? The evening began with 2 speakers. One was an anthropologist who had taught Arguedas- a Peruvian writer/anthropologist/hero who was really the first to write about and emphasize the need for the inclusion of Peru´s historically marginalized indigenous populations within Peruvian society. And the other was a very well known and distinguished historian/columnist. Their talks were INCREDIBLE. Not only did I learn so much about Peruvian history but also got insights in to the cultural diversity in this country and the slow but vital shifts that are going on in society to include and recognize that diversity a central part of Peruvian pride. Repeated talk of political change and transparency as essential if Peru wants to move forward also caught my attention. Both lectures really opened up social theories, perspectives, and transformations for the listeners, something this anthro major could not help but drool over.

As if that was not enough... after the talks the three best Peruvian guitar players got on stage. Each from a different part of the country, each with different Peruvian heritage and each with different musical traditions (Sierras, Criollo, and Afro-Peruvian). Never have I been so awed, moved to the point of tears by how beautiful the music was and how skilled the players were. And all so distinct!

The whole thing culminated in a highland battle dance between two beautifully and intricately dressed men, one from Ayacucho and the other Huancavelica. Each took turns and performed incredible physical feats in hopes of besting the other all the while keeping beat with a scisorlike chime. Yeah, think about that for a moment.

I walked out even more in love with Peru than I already was. As if to justtake it over the top in celebration of intercultural week we all went out for some delicious Peruvian Chinese food (huge migrant Asian population in Peru).

After several more days living in Lima- seeing the parade for Lima´s most special saint from the courtyard of one of its oldest public hospitals- I made the move to Huaraz. A highland town flanked by some pretty incredible snowcapped mountains. I think the highest range after the Himilayas. Got here yesterday AM, caught up on sleep after an overnight bus ride and today went and spoke with a guy in a local NGO... interesting approach (too much to write here, my blog stamina is fading) and again problems of respiratory illness and malnutrition... the biggest difficulty to implementation success... POLITICS! Tomorrow I go back to talk to the Health director of the organization, and then in the afternoon head onward to Caraz/Yungay/Lago LLanuco... depending how things go. Will keep you all posted!

Watson Quarterly Report

Thought I would attach it here so you can all see how I sum up the last 3 months- Im sure some is repetition.

Hello Watson!

I can´t quite believe the last few months I have had. The wonder I feel when I think about what I have seen and learned is entirely the result of my project focus and that pesky Watson loneliness. Both these aspects of the Watson experience (no other name for it) have compelled me to talk to numerous people over the course of my travels. And in this talking I have found the most meaningful part of my journey so far and the theme of this long letter home.

When I say talking I think it is best that I introduce the Spanish verb ¨platicar.¨ Perhaps because most of my talking has been in Spanish or maybe just because I love the language, for me, the Spanish verb really embodies the feeling behind the talking I have engaged in. The two sidedness of the verbal exchange is an inherent and important part of the meaning behind the ¨we¨ plural form of the Spanish verb: platicamos. When we think of ¨talk¨ in English this feeling of give and receive is far less emphasized. So pardon my Spanglish but the most wonderful part of this journey has not been that I have talked but rather that I have ¨platicado¨ with the most diverse group of people I have ever come across in my life. From each person kind enough to initiate or accept my often clumsy attempts at conversation I have been given a rich and varied vision of each country I have visited.

To give you an idea, I have platicado with: A cardamom farmer, APROFAM sexual health educators, librarians working in ¨Bibliotecas Comunitarias Modernas¨ dedicated to encouraging community engagement with reading and learning in a new kind of community focused library space, bus drivers, a government accountant who oversees and manages municipal spending, a Vietnam war vet turned expat in the mountains of Guatemala, NGO directors, Peace Corps volunteers, government health workers, a marble miner, a social worker, a politically fiery comedor owner, the medical director at a distant Peruvian Puesto de Salud (clinic outpost), the urban LimeƱos who design and consult on the management of Government and USAID sponsored maternal and child health projects in the ¨campo¨ of Peru, clinic directors, regional hospital workers who coordinate logistics for distant clinic outposts… and the list goes on.
While over the course of traditional travel I may have met some of these people, the power of my loneliness and my interest in public health made me search most of them out. For those I didn´t search out and question, my interest in public health focused our conversations giving me insights and information I never would never have been able to develop or otherwise uncover.

From many of these conversations I came away with stories of failed projects ill conceived and inappropriate. Nonetheless, there are many sparks of hope. I heard stories of people, who recognized the failures in their initial attempts and then realized the importance of cultural understanding and worked to incorporate those realities into a revamped approach. One example is that of a fuel efficient stove project in Guatemala that initially had little success with their model stove. Finding them to be unpopular to the point people were simply tearing them out their homes, the organization did a type of market research survey (the kind the organization should have conducted before designing a stove but better late than never!). The organization found the griddle to be too small for cooking of the large number of tortillas most Guatemalan families consume with every meal. The already overworked women didn´t have the extra time to spend over the stove and so simply reverted back to the easier less efficient stove model.

While hearing about improvements in projects was revealing, even more interesting were the examples of those organizations/projects that made cross cultural exchange and understanding a central and primary goal in any change they worked to bring about. In other words, those interventions that were implemented after a study of the local culture had been conducted. Every successful intervention I saw was sensitive to and integrated with place and every innovative approach made use of the local knowledge.

The APROFAM health educators (an organization affiliated with Planned Parenthood) understood the religious context and large family tradition they were working with and rather than pushing radical family planning methods in their education sessions, they tailored each talk to age and social group. Their goal was to work gradually using education to make change people could accept and appreciate. The high school talks I participated in focused on body education, sexual abuse, everyone’s right to bodily privacy, STD transmission, and personal hygiene. The final message was that the APROFAM clinic was a safe space where any questions could be answered and help could be found. The discussion was left open and topics were introduced that educated adolescents about sexual health without pushing too hard against the cultural factors at play in their lives. These culturally sensitive and respectful education sessions garnered a trust that then created a space for the bigger social changes APROFAM ultimately wanted to encourage.

These stories of success bring me back to my theme, platicando. Talking showed me how important interaction with the beneficiaries of any intervention is. Finding the boundaries, the problems, and the needs as dictated by people in the situation is essential and must be any projects first step.

So while I have been truly challenged by my project and more than anything by my own aloneness- man did I miss home while in and out of the hospital this last week with stomach pains- both have forced me to search out, meet and platicar with a collection of people so diverse that they have enriched my experience and changed who I am. Pretty unbelievable for a span of only 3 months.


Sending the US my best.