After completing Field Based Training (FBT) in La Sierra, I have now seen 2 out of 3 of the geographical expanses that illuminates the tremendous biodiversity of Perú. Fun fact – Perú is among the 17 countries considered “mega-diverse” and contains 27 out of the 32 climates in the world. For FBT I went with 12 other Youth Development volunteers to experience the uniqueness of La Sierra – geographically it encapsulates the grandiosity of the Andes, with the ancestral lineage of Incans able to escape the reign of Spanish conquistadoras in the mountains, and the cultural resolve to maintain their vibrant and conservative traditions in a globalizing world.
We took an 8-hour road-trip on the ritzy bus service, Cruz del Sur, from Lima to Jaujau in the region of Junin. For those that are confused why I didn’t get on an airplane, bussing is by far the most popular form of travel in Perú, and it is done so with the same level of luxury and comfort as a Jet Blue flight – bus attendants, snacks, dinner, reclining seats, TVs for every chair. And for the vast majority of Perúvians who cannot afford to fly, the road’s the limit.
I love how the climate in La Sierra is cool and crisp in the mornings and night, but the sun subdues the briskness to provide a warm blanket en la tarde. Despite 1 volunteer fainting on arrival, we settled into La Sierra pretty smoothly, as we began to acclimatize to the high-altitude and mesmerizing 360° views of snowcapped mountains juxtaposed by mossy hills. Compared to the constant hazy mixture of dust and toxicity in Lima, it feels like we’re breathing more energized air, as our bodies settle in to the unadulterated atmosphere. 11,200 feet above sea level, in the first historic capital of Perú.
It has been exhilarating to see what life could possibly be like over the next two years of our lives. On our second day of FBT we got to meet Mixon, a 65-year-old Youth Development promoter living in this quaint city in the Perúvian hills, and see her in action as a Peace Corps Volunteer. She has her PhD from University of Tennessee, used to be a professor of psychology, was married for 15 years (and she can’t believe it was even that long), is an SEC fan through and though, wears a stylish pair of orange glasses, rocks bright pink lipstick, and when she teaches a class of Perúvian girls about resiliency in her broken Spanish, she lights up the entire classroom with her contagious vivacity. Mixon used rubberbands to demonstrate to the giggly and entranced teenagers about the term “bounce back”. Going through the ebbs and flows of life’s tribulations – extending and receding the rubber band – knowing your limits – distending until we saw the forceful snap of the band – and the astute ability to ask a friend for help when you have simply stretched yourself too thin – as a 13-year-old-girl tied the band back together and smiled proudly at her contribution to the interactive lesson. Mixon moved, she laughed, she teased, she emboldened the girls. And she taught like she really loved. Not only did she so manifestly love every little girl in that room, but she also loved every word that she was saying, because she said it with the sanguine conviction that this information could truly help these girls in some facet.
You can see the relevancy of Mixon’s lesson on resiliency everywhere in Jaujau – at the school with the young girls and boys who are avoiding the temptations to fall into the endemic abuse of drugs or alcohol, as well as pandillas or gangs; dealing with parents who are entrenched in this glaringly conservative and Catholic culture of silence; being suppressed by the intricately embedded sexism of machismo; while coping with the palpable deficiency of support and opportunities. However, in spite of this ominous shadow being cast on their futures, these girls are learning, absorbing, growing, thinking critically, challenging themselves, facing fears, and trying to be somebody. Resiliancia.
Meeting, working, and playing with these youth, feels like we have the luckiest jobs in the world as Peace Corps Volunteers. The children inquisitively ask us so many questions and are continuously perplexed by our seemingly parallel realities. But in actuality, I see so much of my old students and myself in them: what it means to be youth, how you feel, how you worry about not knowing who you are, or who you will become, or what will happen with your life. And then the language divergence doesn’t seem like such a gaping, intractable barrier. You realize that despite your polarizing cultural upbringings and distinct social understandings, the desire to be both understood and encouraged by previous generations is mutual. It gave me a lot of hope seeing Mixon teach these girls. Simply, she is a badass, who has so much knowledge, skills, and positivity to offer… and she is sharing it with the most deserving of people.
Another volunteer, Natalie, created a community center/yoga studio/library/English classroom/chess arena/creative art bungalow in her extremely campo, or rural, town tucked away in the mountains of Perú. It was a dirty, abandoned building before, and now it is so many things for this community. But above all, it is a safe space for youth.
We also got a taste of what it will be like to interact with Perúvian youth in our 1st Practicum, by teaching a lesson on the importance of high self-esteem. With two other volunteers, I planned a lesson using a ball of yarn to create a telaraña, or web, between all of us standing in a circle. Each student had to first state a positive quality about themselves (Yo soy inteligente) and then pass it to someone else in the circle, while giving them a compliment (Luz es cariñosa). It went better than we could’ve ever hoped for as the girls ages 13 to 16, laughed and giggled with us, mirrored our energy, pushed themselves to answer our introspective questions on the significance of self-esteem in their daily lives, and afterwards taught us how to play some of their favorite pastimes. As we taught that lesson to 3 different classes at colegios in Junin – all successful, intriguing, and interactive sessions– I realized that despite using the same content and structure, they were all very unique classes, and it dawned on me how much this experience is going to be a mutually impacting process. When I asked the students what certain words meant (solidario = supportive), when they shared little tidbits of their lives and culture in Perú, and when they tolerantly taught me the rules of voleibol… I became so impassioned by the idea that although I am going into these communities to share my knowledge, my technical skills, and my heart, they are embracing me and teaching me as well.
Within the immense array of things I am learning, I have become vastly more aware of the fact that one cannot adequately analyze the problems of youth, without first considering the healthy, creative, industrious outlets that their community offers them. After witnessing first-hand the work being done, I couldn’t feel more empowered by my mission to serve the Youth Development Program in Peace Corps Perú. Being able to visit several volunteers in La Sierra, observe the diversity of their projects, and see how their personalities shine through their experiences as volunteers has been truly inspiring. The potential feels endless and I can’t wait to get my foot in the door.
☮ Abby Lee