Getting Lost

by Austen, Tufts Civic Semester Participant

To put it mildly, I’m not the best with directions.

One of my biggest worries about spending three months in Urubamba was spending three months without the assistance of Google Maps, which has always been my guiding light, whether I’m driving somewhere new or walking around my own neighborhood. As someone who had to use a GPS during the drive to school every morning sophomore year (it was about three turns away), this was a legitimate concern. Walking solo to Spanish class, or to my favorite cafe (Antojitos obviously), or to the gardens where I work seemed like an impossible feat.

Thankfully, a few weeks in I found my compass; the central market. It’s one of my favorite places, and it’s always easy to find. It sprawls out over about two square blocks, is characteristically noisy, and everyone in the city can point you to where it is. If I know where I am in relation to the market, I can find almost anything else. And even better – because I go there so often, I can find everything inside the market! It’s great.

This spectacular plan failed about a week ago. Last Thursday, it was announced that the big indoor market was going to be closed for cleaning, much to the dismay of both the women working there and the people in my group. We took one last trip to the market to stock up, assuming that we wouldn’t have access to life-saving staples like yuca sticks and chocolate covered raisins during the upcoming weekend. The next morning, I made a trip past where the market was – and for the first time in weeks, found myself utterly lost.

All of the streets surrounding the market had been closed off to make way for a hundred vendors, selling fruits, vegetables, meats, and our beloved snacks beneath the bright blue shade of their tarps and umbrellas. The women of the market had single-handedly turned their city into something unrecognizable. Once I entered, the effect was both beautiful and disorienting. The sky was completely blocked out, pieces of the city only visible through chinks in the plastic armor valiantly protecting produce from the sun and heat. All of the market stands were in an unfamiliar order (to my dismay), and everything was washed in a watery glow. It was impossible to see what was at the end of each blue corridor until I was just a few feet away. All in all, it was otherworldly and stunning and very, very unhelpful for someone with my gift of navigation.

After several minutes of struggling to exit the maze I had unwittingly trapped myself in, I eventually made it to the Plaza de Armas, feeling like I’d just solved a particularly grueling sudoku puzzle. Of course, I had to brave those uncharted waters again the next evening; I spent approximately four hours hunting for strawberries. Little by little, however, a mental map of my surroundings began to emerge. The fruit vendors were on Huascar street, the grains were parallel to the meats, chocolate quinoa could be found on a little offshoot. By day three, I had a brand new compass.

Sensing this, the outdoor market disappeared the next day. I was both relieved and disappointed.

Being in Peru has been an exercise in adapting to change; change in language, diet, environment, and culture. Even during the time we’ve been in-country, we’re constantly relocating, getting to experience life in touristic cities like Aguas Calientes as well as rural mountainous towns like Cancha Cancha and Paru Paru. At times, it’s felt more than a little disorienting. There’s not a map available to show us the best ways to spend our time, help our internships, or even find our way through the market. Even if there were, as my many lost hours searching for strawberries have proved, routes in Urubamba are always unpredictable and changing. We have to figure things out the old fashioned way, by stumbling around until we find our way through them.

As much as I miss the security of Google Maps and a predictable schedule, I’m certain that I’ve gained more than I’ve lost through the past few months of trial and error. I still may not be able to find my way out of a paper bag, but I understand more about how to deal with uncertainty, and I have more faith in my ability to navigate unfamiliar territory (both literally and metaphorically). I’ll keep my GPS, though, just in case.

Originally posted here.

Wow, I’m lucky.

by Ann Yancey, Tufts Civic Semester Participant

I am truly in love with Peru. As much as I miss the comforts of having parents to come home to that understand without me having to explain, being able to take a car to the grocery store, coming home to my own bed at night, and getting to see my sister’s face every day, I’m already dreading saying goodbye to this place and the people that make it so special. However, I have my host-family and the women at Tika (my placement) to thank for making this place feel like home.

Thus far during my time at Tika, I’ve brought new ideas to the organization; however, I’ve undoubtedly received more from working alongside Guadalupe, Mari, Maribel, and Rosi than I could possibly give. In a tangible sense, I’ve learned how to weave (a little bit), and the small amount that I’ve improved is due only to my inability to retain the process, rather than a lack of hours that the women at Tika have dedicated to teaching me. From a philosophical perspective, I’m learning that being hardworking while remaining flexible and relaxed is possible. I struggle to balance work and relationships but the women at Tika always take time in their busy days to sit, talk, laugh, and share a meal together. Furthermore, I’ve learned how to be genuinely hospitable, making guests from any place feel welcome and treating strangers with love and compassion. One day, when a family of tourists from Germany came into the store, sick with food poisoning, Guadalupe forewent her usual demonstration so that she could prepare a medicinal tea for the customers and give them head massages that they swore healed them. In addition, my coworkers have effortlessly shown me how to care about understanding a person for who they are, rather than where or what they come from. From my first day my coworkers were eager to teach me about their histories and weaving processes, so I would feel like part of the family. They engaged me in conversations, asking me about my opinions and experiences here. However, they didn’t ask me about my biological family or life in the U.S. until they got to know me as a person. With time, they showed interest in my life at home, but it felt nice to first be understood in an individual way. Finally, Guadalupe, Mari, Maribel and Rosi are the most generous people that I have ever known. They have a passion for teaching and sharing with others, yet they never expect anything in return. I won’t try to begin describing the countless cultural experiences that these women have shared with me.

In terms of what I’ve been able to return to the women at Tika, I’ve established an inventory system using an Excel spreadsheet to make this collection system easier and more sustainable for future use – given that taking inventory by hand monthly is too time-consuming for the busy lives that the women at Tika lead. Furthermore, I’ve begun making a website for the business, on which I’ll post photos that I take of the women and my Tufts peers this weekend; I think my coworkers are really excited for this, as it will provide publicity for their business. Finally, I hope to create price tags for the items at Tika, to dissuade customers from bargaining, because the products are already very fairly priced. However, when I think of what I’ve given and received during my time at Tika, the contrast in the value of these things is obvious. While the contributions I’ve made are useful for the company, they’re all material. In contrast, I’ve received lifelong lessons from my coworkers. Accepting the reality that I’m the true beneficiary in this situation, I can only hope that genuine reciprocity will result from the friendships that my coworkers and I have developed.

Each day that I have the opportunity to work alongside these incredible women at Tika, our relationships grow, and the amount of time that we spend laughing increases. Over time, the trust that I’ve developed with my coworkers has led me to open up about some of my most vulnerable personal struggles, which for the first time in my life, I’ve found shockingly easy to share. Mari has a unique ability to empathize and make one feel loved without saying a word;  Maribel effortlessly makes me feel completely understood before I even open my mouth to express myself or share an experience. Guadalupe and Rosi have a contagious laughter that makes those around them feel instantly comfortable and included, and they never pass up an opportunity to initiate a good, shared laugh. In return, my coworkers (and trusted friends) have been generous in sharing their own challenging pasts; yet in spite of each of the difficulties that they’ve faced, they are such joyous, appreciative, selfless people.

If I could go back and thank my past self for deciding to press the “send” button on that email to Jessye and Mindy that confirmed my decision to participate in this program, I would – a million times over. Again, I am truly in love with Peru, and I simply cannot think about saying goodbye to this place and these people; I’m already planning out a return visit here – maybe even as a temporary place of residence. While I have loved every hike that we’ve taken as a group, and I wouldn’t trade the incredible daily views that come with living in the Sacred Valley, it is truly the people that make this place so special; I especially have Guadalupe, Rosi, Maribel, and Mari to thank.

Originally posted here.

I’ve Got 99 Problems and a Problem Ain’t One

by Jason, Tufts Civic Semester Participant

When I asked Julio what problems existed on the farm he answered with a simple “we don’t have problems, only opportunities”. The journey of my internship, and any internship, is to create space for future opportunities for yourself. Working with experts and finding mentors develops knowledge and passion for any given field. In my case, I am here to directly learn from Eco-Huella and the Nina siblings themselves. I aim to develop my knowledge and skills in the field of sustainable agriculture, but there is another purpose of my presence here: sharing my perspective. I did not realize this until I was given permission to realize it, when Raquel (our Dragons instructor) visited my placement and facilitated a discussion with Julio regarding our goals and his expectations. Julio said something along the lines of “I want you to start sharing your opinion more, because I value every outside perspective I can get”. I felt surprised, because I thought I had so much more to learn before my perspective became valuable. I thought that my work ethic was the only thing I had to offer. Now, in fact immediately after he said that, I was more encouraged to even just ask questions. I had permission to be less polite and more inquisitive, which he values. So will the farm.

Over the course of the last three weeks I have gotten more comfortable with Eco-Huella. More specifically (and importantly), I have developed bonds with my co-workers. Manuel and I debate the pros and cons of Nuclear energy and the best path forward to fight climate change; Yoel and I share jokes and nick-names and many hours in the invernadero (greenhouse) pulling weeds and planting seeds; and Jessye Nina (Julio’s sister) has become a caring mentor to Yong Quan and I both. This means that going to work is less about watching and listening closely as they show us what to do and when to do it and more about trying to understand the deeper operations of the farm (understanding why they do things).

When I asked Julio what sort of problems he had, I asked the wrong question. To a man like him, that question immediately puts things in a negative context. Instead, I have learned to ask about what is difficult (i.e. an obstacle that will be overcome). Today I asked Jessye this question while we ate at Nuna Raymi, the upscale restaurant in Cusco at which all of the vegetables are supplied by Eco-Huella (yes I remember picking those exact leaves of lechuga). She answered in a serious manner, explaining the difficulty in keeping track of how much they were producing and planting, and that the ordering system (by restaurants) could be drastically improved from what it is now (a simple list sent via Whatsapp). It began to pour out of her, and I could tell that this was something she thought about every single day.

Again, these are opportunities. “Maybe”, I found myself thinking, “I could help with this”. In this manner I have started to find a balance between learning and sharing my perspective productively. It’s satisfying. Allow me to clarify: I still believe my primary purpose is to learn and improve myself, because they would do fine without me, but now I feel like more of a part of the team and that means that this internship now feels like a real job. One that I’m motivated and excited to produce for. And so I am immersed in Julio’s world of opportunities. My co-workers are, and always will be, my guides.

Originally posted here.

Sharing is Caring

by Olympia, Tufts Civic Semester Participant

The very first line of interaction between me and Narda, my host mother, was not exchanging names and hometowns but rather a comment on the style of my hair. Flavio, my host brother, was trodding along to my side as we walked up Sucre towards the house. The streets of Urubamba were busy, especially as we neared the market. A woman advertised her cart of Chicha while her daughter snacked on a pack of Casinos, but I didn’t really pay much attention as I was riddled with anxiety and anticipation to see where I would be spending the next three months.

“Mira a tu pelo, que bonita!” Narda exclaimed pointing to my scalp.

“Ya, puedo tocarlo?” Flavio begged.

When I reached down to let Flavio, my eight year host brother, feel my braids for the very first time, I had yet to realize that my hair duo would garner so much attention for the following three weeks. As we sat at the dinner table that night, Narda’s colleague had asked how long it took to complete my braids. After admitting that it took about 6 or 7 hours, she hammered on with fascination, asking more questions about the processes and characteristics of my natural hair. All complicated questions that I fumbled to answer with my limited expertise of Spanish. It was difficult enough trying to explain braids to someone in the States, yet there I was giving a detailed lesson about black hair on my very first night with my host family. I was not as much overwhelmed, as I was confused by why anyone was so interested in the first place. Narda later explained that my style of hair was really uncommon and that you were most likely to find someone with braids in Lima. What she also meant was that there wasn’t very many people who looked like me in Urubamba. This became abundantly clear after making several trips around the city. Men would stare. Women would smile and nod. Every now and then, young girls would point and ask questions about my braids. Sometime during my second week as I was passing a Botica, a little boy grinned and pointed so urgently at me, shouting for his mother to look before I had passed. Another time, I was on my way to Spanish class when I had noticed that I was being followed by a group of preteen girls who had tracked me down only to give a quick compliment and go off on their way. Though being the minority in any given place never really phased me, I realized that my appearance would surely shape my experience throughout the next three months. Towards the end of the night as we sipped on Mate, we moved on to talk about the school system in Urubamba and the upcoming parade in Plaza De Armas. I breathed a sign of relief to have the attention not be on me. However, the night was only brought to a close after I had promised to reveal my natural hair to everyone, whenever it was that I decided to take out my braids later in the month.

Today was that day. My extensions were getting old and my natural hair was peaking out on my scalp, so I announced that I was most definitely going to take out my hair this afternoon. As Sundays are dedicated to family time, I had usually spent my Sundays making trips with Narda to the market, playing escondidas with Flavio, or having a movie night. This Sunday was going to be different. As I had to explain that morning over breakfast, the process of removing braids was a long, exhausting one.

“Cuanto tiempo?” Abuelita asked.

“Para mi, cuatro o cinco horas,” I answered.

Everyone shook their heads in bewilderment. I was not looking forward to taking my braids out whatsoever. But I was excited to share apart of myself with my host family. Though I had Monday free, I had specifically chosen this Sunday so that everyone would be home to observe. I had started promptly at 10 am. Every now and then, Narda would come in my room to check on my progress and ask questions. She would repeatedly ask if I needed any help or simply watch attentively in silence. Around lunch, her brother had arrived to visit and see Narda’s new apartment. By the end of their apartment tour, they had stopped at my doorway and I got the chance to introduce myself. It was never my intention for my first interaction with Narda’s sibling to be with half a head of braids and half a natural updo, but I took the opportunity to share about the strenuous process with someone new. Similar to the rest of the family, he seemed shocked by the length but gave a nod of encouragement for the 3 hours I had left. Later on the in afternoon, Flavio popped in to share a celebratory dance for the appearance of my natural hair. By the time I was finished, it was 4 pm. I decided to rest before dinner and give my sore fingers and  back a break. That night at dinner, I had debuted my natural hair and received an abundance of love and kindness. After an hour full of chatting and feasting, we closed dinner and Narda had told me that having a feature so unique was truly beautiful. In that moment, she made me feel special though I was doing nothing other than being myself.

Throughout my whole life in the States, I had never received as much kindness surrounding my braids as I did in the three weeks that I had been in Peru. It is always a little bit overwhelming and intimidating to feel eyes on me as I walked from place to place, but it feels rewarding to share a piece of myself with my family (or sometimes random people on the street). What I see in the people I have come encounter with is genuine curiosity and  an intent to learn. I feel kindness rather than judgement. Though my hair is what gives me an entryway to teach about myself, I would like to share other parts who I am and where I come from with others as well. I don’t want my braids to be the endpoint, and I’m confident that it won’t be.

During orientation in Huaran, my group was instructed to write from the viewpoint that the semester had ended so that we can identify any goals that we had never really recognized. In my journal entry, I had written that I wanted to make the effort to connect with my host family through sharing. I yearned to give them something in return for caring for me for three months. I wrote that I wished to share a variety of things that signify by Nigerian-Jamaican-American background: my jerk chicken, my cocoa butter, my Cantu, my jollof rice, my Marley, my love for family, and my braids. I am proud to have checked something off the list, and I look forward to checking off many more.

Originally posted here.

Deja Peru?

By Chiamaka, Tufts Civic Semester Participant

Deja vu is a real thing. However, is deja vu in another country realistic? You may know it as a “motor taxi” but I know it as “keke na pepe.” I never thought I would see it again until one hot afternoon on September 1st 2019 – I experienced deja vu in Peru.

It rode right past me and I gazed as if it was the first time I had seen “keke na pepe” again. The last time I had entered one was in Nigeria when I was just 10 years old. I never thought that a country 9,479 km away from my hometown could remind me so much of it and bring back a little part of my Nigerian identity.

When I was 10 years old, my mom, little brother, and I would normally take a “keke na pepe” almost every Sunday in order to get to church. In Peru, I entered one for the first time in on an afternoon when I was returning from my internship. Immediately, a flash of memories, and a feeling of deja vu took over me. I heard my mother’s voice again, taking me back to my 10 year old self. I could hear her say “Chiamaka ri da ta motor a hu” which means “Chiamaka get down from that vehicle.” I could see when she paid the driver, I could hear her laughter and see my little brother as an 8 year old child. For the first time in 6 years – something, one thing, a vehicle reminded me of my hometown.

I have always pondered whether Peru is my home. I have come to the conclusion that it is different – they speak Spanish not Igbo and English, they wear different clothes, they have different traditions that are not similar to mine. However, I and Peru both have “keke na pepe” also known as “motor taxis.” I and Peru both have a rowdy market, I and Peru both have a culture, I and Peru both have a language, I and Peru both have a sense of appreciation for our identities.

Even though I live in Cleveland, Ohio now, I feel a sense of home here in Peru because I may not have my family, may get homesick every now and then. However, I have everything else that makes me believe “Yes, this is where I should be.”

18601km: A Home away from Home

by Yong Quan, Tufts Civic Semester Participant

I stood in the freezing cold, as the grass rustled tentatively beneath my feet.  It’s 11pm, and I peered up into the night sky, expecting darkness. Instead, I was greeted by the stars, glistening in their brilliance and filling up the atmosphere. Then, amidst the speckled sky, a shooting star appears, shimmering and fading in the same moment. I bask in the moment, and think to myself: “I’m not in Singapore anymore, am I?”

Living 18601 kilometers (or 11558 miles; that’s almost halfway around the world) away from home is undoubtedly a rare experience in my life, and is one that I’m still coming to terms to. In Peru, it feels like I’ve exchanged familiarity for adventure, my daily Bee Hoon with Egg for Sopa de Verduras y Pollo, my Singlish for Spanish, my gardens for mountains and my family for a Peruvian one.  Within my group, I catch myself fumbling to switch from British English to American English, and attempting to understand the culture of a continent that has faced its own challenges for centuries, while reorienting myself within a totally different and new community. From personal possessions to lifestyles, these changes become indicators of my presence in Peru and consequently, my absence from home in Singapore.

Yet, upon the beginning of my 3rd week here, I have begun to discover myself from a different perspective. My favorite view (besides the Incan archeological sites and the mountains) is always moving: the 7:30am autobus ride to Calca where my internship placement is located in provides me a unique view of local agriculture, and how buildings are built with Adobe bricks (made of dried clay and straw). As I munch on breakfast, I pass by Catarata Arin (a waterfall in the town of Huaran) and am pertinently aware of the Sacred Valley’s towering heights and how it flanks me on both sides constantly throughout my journey, as the journey ahead seems like it opens up while the road behind looks like it’s being devoured by the mountains. Each new workday offers a visual invitation to embrace the unknown.

In my internship placement, I am sometimes confused by the intricacies of planting and harvesting (coming from a country with an almost nonexistent agricultural industry), as I prepare the soil for new seeds, harvest vegetables, and bond with my new found friends in Eco-Huella Farm. Nonetheless, I lose myself within the work, with every stab of the shovel and pull of the rake, I get closer to learning about Incan irrigation systems, how altitude affects everything, and the philosophy behind Quechua agriculture. In Peru, there are no difficulties, only opportunities to learn and, in time, to serve.

In my new home in Urubamba, I (try to) speak exclusively Spanish, stuttering and muttering as I think about how to translate from English to my new language, while hoping that I don’t end up breaking the flow of the conversation. I hope that my Spanish will improve such that I don’t need to hold onto my phone and open up SpanishDict, but till then, I grit my teeth and continue onwards, hoping to have the audacity to try and the discretion to appreciate the opportunity that has been given to me.

The incessant internal comparisons of the constants and the differences of life will continue. However, in retrospect, an exchange of the familiar for the different sounds like a compromise. As I’ll be here for 3 months, it feels less like compromise, and more like accumulation & assimilation. The idea that I may speak with a different accent (and even in a different tongue), but my eyes light up equally whether I see shades of white & red (my national colors) in the bracelets made by the local weaving collectives or the waterfalls and mountains in the region. That my heart feels a little warmer when the gardens in my farming internship remind me of the ones I have back at home. That I feel a rush of adrenaline on hikes, because being close to the earth and air and wind remind me of my time in the army when creature comforts were not as near, but the opportunities for self-discovery are.

I guess ‘Home’ will always be Singapore, but the idea of what constitutes as home is fluid & always changing for me. And while Bee Hoon with Egg will always have a special place in my stomach, so might Sopa de Verduras y Pollo.

Originally posted here.