My name is Abby Lee and I have recently started Pre-Service Training for the Peace Corps as a Youth Development Volunteer. I have been living in Perú for 21 days in a small town called Huascaran, near the capital city of Lima. This extraordinarily diverse country is divided into three main geographical elements: la Costa, la Sierra, and la Selva. Currently I am living in the coast, but I am definitely getting the itch to explore the mountains and the jungle, and see firsthand the varied topography of this country. There are two official languages in Perú, Spanish and Quechua, which is just one example of the cultural amalgamation of the European hegemony and the Incan Civilization. The current government is the Republic of Perú, a presidential representative democratic republic with a multi-party system that was founded the same year I was born – 1993.
So far Sundays are my favorite days of the week, commencing by eating tamales with crisp French bread, and sipping on black coffee in the company of mi familia anfitriona. I have immediately fallen in love with my Perúvian host family whom I have been living with for 3 weeks. Mis padres, Nelly and Virigilio, their children Claudia, Norma, and Victor, as well as the newest addition, my little niece or sobrina, Marcielle, have introduced me to the generosity and reverence that embodies the people of Perú. Nelly is my bighearted and patient host-mother who cooks me fusion vegetarian-Peruvian meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She also tolerantly listens to my attempts at her secondly-mastered language (she is fluent in Quechua as well), and gently corrects my mistakes, while also being my chief Perúvian cultural informant. Nelly was born in a rural area in Cuzco with 10 brothers and sisters and her father died when she was 9. As in most countries, the harsh reality of rural life in el campo is a stark reminder of the inequitable development in Latin America. Her hard working spirit is reflected by the fact that she now lives in an upper-middle class suburb, and has 3 children all on their way to graduating from university in Lima. She wakes up at 4:30 every morning to prepare food for the whole family, including myself, goes to work as a caretaker for an elderly man, and returns to continue her labor to provide 7 people and 2 dogs with all that they need to feel safe, loved, and especially, well-fed. Nelly is the epitome altruism, tolerance, and patience.
My father, Virigilio, was in the Perúvian army and now works security for high-level government officials. The first day I met him he took the time to show me how to open a granadilla, a delicious type of fruit that looks like a hard-shell orange with a stem coming off, by cracking it like an egg and peeling off the top to get to the tart sweetness inside. Later he showed me photos of him in the army 20 years ago, holding guns and looking like it was straight out of an ad for some national recruitment campaign. He works a lot so I do not see him that often, but he always goes out of his way to ask me how things are going and help me with my Spanish. Together they have raised 3 amazing children, and now have a beautiful 4-month-old granddaughter, or nieta, who is the pride and joy of la familia.
Words cannot express how thankful I feel for this opportunity to work in a breathtaking country with such inspiring cultural resiliency. It is hard to believe that I already have 1 month down, but then I am reminded that there are still 26 months to go… and am definitely humbled. BUT here are some highlights of the past 31 days:
- Tried street food ceviche (despite my Peace Corps Medical Officer’s warnings) and it was the best seafood dish I’ve ever had
- Had my first taste of Perúvian public transportation, which consists of antiquated buses, or combies (jammed with way too many people for it to be safe and definitely wouldn’t have met US transportation standards 30 years ago)
- Been chased and nearly assaulted by several dogs (as my friend says, this IS dog country)
- Interviewed youth in la Plaza Mayor in central Lima about what they thought their biggest problems were
- My 1st world gut has experienced the unpleasant inception of foreign bacteria (let’s just leave it at that)
- Visited the church dedicated to Santa Rosa de Lima with some other volunteers
- Attempted to learn traditional dances from the students of El Colegio Mayor del Presidente (founded as a free educational institution for the country’s most talented and brightest youth)
- Drank a Pisco Sour (Perúvian liquor and their version of a Margarita), and highly recommend it!
- Become accustomed with taking only COLD showers (yes, there is not even a nozzle with a little red strip for me to dispense hot water in any faucet, sink, or shower head in my house)
- Ridden a combie pulled over by la policía and witnessed my first blatant act of bribery
- Attended the Catholic Sacrament of Confirmación for youth that resulted in me buying a t-shirt and a lot of dancing and singing (poles apart from my own formal and strict Confirmation)
- Spent hours incompetently hand-washing my dusty clothes in the company of my 2 perritos who live on the roof
- Tried my 1st Perúvian beer: Cusqueña Rubia (muy delicioso)
- Laughed with cheeky high-schoolers at a local colegio secundario as they taught us some slang or jerga
- Been honked at more times than I can count when walking to training every Monday through Friday (still unsure as to why)
- Saw hundreds of thousands of human skeletons when I visited las catacumbas (the 1st public cemetery in Lima)
- Tested the boundaries of my 1st ever “curfew” (being enforced at 23-years-old) that resulted in some teasing reprimands
So now that you have a glimpse into my life here so far, you’re probably wondering why I chose Peace Corps service. As with most decisions in life, we usually feel the need to validate our course of actions, if not to ourselves, than to other human beings, or to something greater than us all. So let me finish by explaining why I decided to come to Perú and devote 27 months to a community of strangers:
At the end of the day, I know that I want to look back on this life that I have chosen to leave behind, and be able to feel sincerely that I did something beautiful. And right now, having finally gotten to this stage where I have absolute autonomy in my path, having to hit pause on all of my former relationships, having to commit myself entirely to the lofty and intangible goal of world peace, having taken an apprehensive dive into the unknown, having immersed myself into a disparate culture and language, having dared myself into this daily confrontation of failure, and having realized this dream to serve in the Peace Corps, all I can say is that this is my wholehearted search for something that is madly beautiful. And beauty is in the eye of the beholder, certainly. But for me, beauty is in the daily connections we make with our environment, other people, and in ourselves.
So this is my journey over the next 2 years of my life: discovering the beauty in this country of Perú, attempting to understand the beauty in grassroots human-to-human development, and realizing some of the beauty in myself along the way.
☮ Abby Lee