Don’t worry. Everything is totally goat cheese:
One-sentence summary: Growing / cohabitation / cultural learning pains at host-family home; on text-belay with co-volunteers; circling the wagons (read: active procrastination) for a deadline building a community diagnostic presentation; located gas station tortilla chips and salsa; a successful full-hour phone conversation in Spanish; my first Peruvian friend-date; cultural adjustment fatigue at month three of service; and finally self-care: an escape to the low-jungle (selva bajo) for personal time, reflection, and a long overdue recharge.
Right Now: Tranquilo. Enjoying the quiet stranger-solitude of a day alone by the pool off-site.
Expression of the Week: Qué chevere. It equates to “how cool.” Not, in fact, “what goat cheese?” although I am fondly preferring this interpretation.
Lucky Thirteen. This week, as a new class of 58 trainees arrives in Lima for PST, Peru 31 officially tips the scale of more time logged in service than in training. We are no longer the babies in the family — we are now the hazardous toddler middle child. FUN. And I am ever-eager-ready to level-up from finger-painting and eating paste.
In 2007, when I was building a house, I noticed new aspects of homes specific to each phase of construction. For example, vents. Prior to this point, I did not know anything about vents, nor was I even aware of their existence. (They are discrete pipes, often PVC, that stick out of the roof to vent plumbing in the kitchen and bathrooms.) During installation, I suddenly only saw these roof pipes as I drove by people’s homes.
This week everything I noticed was cultural adjustment fatigue. And our collective vents.
In the first three months of training we are given an onslaught of data — information incrementally more useful on the Island of Service. I went for an archeological dig for the timeline graph “Cycle of Vulnerability and Adjustment.” So is it just me and this particular lens? Is it a full moon? Did I wake up a failure? Did I put my pants on backwards…again? Is mercury retrograding my saturn return in the house of a Libra?
I know! I drank cold water without my shoes on. That’s got to be it.
Turns out, feeling my perceived “low” at the doorstep of six months in-country is officially documented. I am right on schedule.
Last week I thought I was just hitting a normal “dip.” This week it sounded like all of my fellow volunteers were also venting from the same vulnerability ditch.
Nothing but vents.
Here is the real-time truth: It is week thirteen of service and I do not feel like I fully belong in my host family. But I want to. I love my host family, they love me, and this will pass. But right now, it’s hard. My host sister Jenny has withdrawn her normally gregarious personality to a “need-only” communication with me and me alone. This past weekend, my host-mom called me out for going on too many long walks and being withdrawn.
“I don’t want you to eat the day-old bread. I want you to eat the fresh warm bread.”
[This is code for please stop acting withdrawn and behaving like a second-class citizen in my house. We missed eating breakfast with you this morning because I was getting the fresh bread. Eat the fresh bread.]
“But Pauly. I don’t eat the bread. I eat my yogurt and fruit.”
>>I feel invisible. It has been three months. Pauly hasn’t noticed that I don’t eat the bread?
Not the point, Jessy. Pauly tries another 2×4:
“Are we bringing the mal? Or are we bringing the bueno?” [This is your house. Don’t ask permission for more segundos. Help yourself without asking. Stop being sullen and trying to be invisible. I see you.]
The tears wobble like filled buckets.
>>I want to scream, in some universal language that lets them hear me, SO WHAT DO YOU WANT? I am not a renter and I am not family! Everyone is ignoring me! After three months I am still called by the name of the last volunteer! I can’t make Jenny talk to me! You don’t listen or understand (?) when I speak simple words like “Mas jugo?”. [Arrgggghhhhhhhhhh.]
But I do not have the language. The nuance. The energy for kindness. And I do not know how to ask for help.
“We are bringing the bueno, Pauly.”
Pauly, a 4-foot-something 65-year-old Peruvian mother of 6, grandmother of 5, great grandmother of 1, host mom of 12 and counting, hugs me like a bear. I feel how genuine her worry and care is for me. She jokes her way through the discomfort, “Save your tears for when you are back in the States and I am dead.”
That did not make any of my buckets feel better.
It is odd how lucidly clear language is when it eviscerates.
A few days later, I had my first remote tutoring session with Orlando, one of my language teachers from training. (Orlando is simply one of the most lovely beings on this planet.) I talked on the phone in Spanish for an hour, telling him highlights and easily achievable talking points from the past three months.
“Que chevere!” He concluded the phone session by saying my language level was something-something-nivel-something bastante. (My language and fluency has greatly improved. Even though I just admitted to understanding two words of that sentence.) It was the first time, in enough length of time to be remarkable, that I felt like I was not failing in communication. I do speak Spanish successfully! I am not an utter failure! This invisibility at home is not all my fault!
I returned to the house, feeling the highs of my goat cheese chevere phone call, to bravely share with Jenny about my success of the day. “LOOK JENNY I GOT A GOLD STAR LOOK!” said the middle child, jumping up and down.
She did not even look up from sink to give me her one-syllable response: “Yah.”
So I got back on the phone, got back on the bastante Spanish horse, and made a reservation for a hotel in San Ramon. In Spanish. On the phone. Que chevere. If I am going to feel invisible and excluded I am doing it anonymously, in shorts, in a jungly garden by a pool with a pile of books.
The next morning, as I packed my never-worn summer clothes, bathing suit and sunblock, I received a message from another volunteer that my Lima host father, Vidal, had died. At home in the night from heart failure.
I had just messaged Maria the day before: All was todo bien.
The news unearthed a cenote of tears.
This same week four years ago [told you September was hard] I remember where I was, what I was wearing, and what specific annoying thing at work I had to go do. Then a phone call with news about my mother, found just out of reach of the phone on the floor, having suffered a stroke the night before. I was in Wyoming and needed to get to the hospital in Virginia immediately. When time folded in on itself.
How do you share that news with your new host family on your way out the door for a weekend at the pool? You don’t. You splash cold water on your face, smile and say, “See you Sunday.”
My heart goes out to my Lima host sister Jazmin, just 16, fierce and lovely and just now coming into her own adulthood. She laughed mercilessly at my mispronunciations and helped me with my language homework. Fiercely stubborn, I want to sit with her on this bridge moment and let her know she will continue to exist without her parent. I want to look into the eyes of Yessica and tell her I was her age when I lost my Dad too. I want to stand silently next to Maria, scary kingpin of all the volunteer Moms, and her stricken loneliness and violent shift of livelihood. Maybe more bravely than I was able to do for my own Mom.
I want to stand beside them and hold space for their grief. Instead, I am going to walk on a little further, quiet in my own.
This is Peace Corps.
Leaderboard: One padded envelope arrived from Maine! From Mom’s BFF Suzie! Who is off tomorrow on an adventure in Africa! (Sent July 10.)
I head back to La Merced for EIST next week. Will check again sometime during September 16-22.
Hermana Jessica Rice, Cuerpo de Paz
Apartado NO. 120 SERPOST La Merced
La Merced, Chanchamayo, Junín, PERU
Please note: 1) This mailbox is two hours away 2) It costs a lot of money to send me stuff – (like $23 for $5 of candy) and only send through USPS to SERPOST 3) Keep packages under 1lb (or to not appear worth $100) or they get sent to Customs Jail in Lima. 4) Customs Jail is as arbitrary and random as my blog posts, so don’t send me anything that you’ll be sad goes missing. 5) The last numbers are my Peru cell phone and they will call me if it gets lost. Place them in the spot you would look if you were lost.
I have Port Townsend visitors coming mid-November if you want to pass something to them.