Sunday, June 24, 2012

Getting Down and Dirty...


I'm sure many of you are curious about the living conditions in a developing country like Peru... How am I sleeping, what am I eating, how am I getting along without the substantial luxuries that the United States has widely (but, of course, not freely) available. Well then, let me tell you!

Exhibit A: The pre-disrobe warning call... 
When people live together here, it really is living TOGETHER. It's more likely due to the fact that more space equals more costs, rather than Peruvians generally being smaller people as some may initially conclude, but houses here are not large. If you have a large house, it means you have money - which effectively puts the majority of Peruvians, regardless of family size, in a smaller sized house. What does that mean for us, a volunteer group ranging from 8-17 people? Three bathrooms, but only two that function at any one time! A clothing line that hardly ever seems empty (until recently, when we’ve all gotten smart and started wearing things one, two, three… four, five or six days a week)! Two to three sets of bunkbeds per room, letting you relive grade school summer camp (or even every day up until college, like I did)! Getting to hear your bunkmates talk in their sleep, sometimes in Spanish! And finally inadvertently mooning your roommates, which happens despite the pre-disrobe warning call of “I’m getting naked!”

Exhibit B: Thermarest what??!
Special note needs to be made about our mattresses. As I lay in the middle of the bottom bunk, imagining the damage the termites are wreaking on the second set of bed boards above me, my entire right side slopes downward. You know those awesome ‘memory foam’ mattresses, that conform to the shape of your body when you get in, cushioning you with “just the right support” as you count sheep and dream of fluffy clouds? Meet Memory Foam’s estranged hick cousin. These mattresses also conform to your body… except they don’t bounce back when you get up. There is a permanent indentation on the right side of the mattress where I lie at night. There’s another one halfway down and farther left where I like to sit and read. Yet another one is at the end where I put on my shoes in the morning. I’m positive not all mattresses in Peru are as such, but unfortunately, these mattresses are proudly stamped with “Hecho en Peru”. A smart producer might have slapped a big ol’ “Made in the USA” sticker on it, and let someone else take the heat for this awesome piece of backbreaking technology.

Exhibit C: Mi espacio es tu espacio...
The general sense of shared communal space extends outside the home, especially to public transportation. Poverty-stricken countries typically don’t have vehicle capacity and road regulations high on the priority list. One more person in the bus, collectivo, taxi, mototaxi, or motorcycle means one more sol to take home at the end of the day. If there’s an extra inch to spare, there’s room for one more. Similarly, don’t let that single dashed line fool you. The roads here actually accommodate three lines of traffic. Despite this, surprisingly, amazingly, and perhaps understandably (norms tend to find their own internal logics) accidents don’t seem to be very common.

Exhibit D: Cold showers aren't just for the guys...
There’s one water temperature… whatever it happens to be in the large holding drum on top of the roof. As it’s winter here in Peru that would be: cool, cold, and colder, depending on the time of the day. For those poor cleanly souls who brave it every day, the bathing process consists of, 1) deep breath in, 2) jump under the water, trying not to shriek and gasp too audibly, 3) vigorously, and quickly, soap and rinse, and 4) jump out. Another process, advocated by one of our country directors, Ibada, consists of the first two steps, followed by 3) one good spin (or a few depending on the water pressure), 4) turn water off and suds up, 5) turn water on and spin to rinse. Shampooing was purposely left out of this process, as it only really happens one to two times a week. Needless to say, not all of us brave the cold shower every day. Piura is located on the incredibly dry northern coast. Think dirt and sand everywhere. And although it is winter, it never really drops below 60… at night. Why take a shower every day when you’re just going to get sweaty and dirty again?

Exhibit E: A culinary adventure for the entire digestive system...
If there is one thing that nobody can deny, it’s that the food here is delicious! Ceviches (fresh raw seafood dishes drowned in lime juice), various mixtures of chicken, potatoes, and rice slathered in innumerable different kinds of tasty homemade sauces, fresh bananas that are grown minutes away rather than a 500 miles away, a number of different fruits I’ve never seen before and I am only now being able to pronounce… this is comfort food, Peruvian style. Unfortunately, Peruvian food goes the same route all other food goes, which, combined with a delightful case of traveler’s diarrhea – inevitable, no matter how careful you are to wipe glasses, keep your mouth closed in showers, and apply hand sanitizer – makes for quite the digestive adventure. Luckily, because everyone gets it, there is no shortage of understanding among your fellow roommates. What receives no sympathy, however, is accidentally forgetting that you can’t flush toilet paper and flooding the entire bathroom during said process.

Exhibit F: It's okay, the mototaxi drivers still think you're hot…
So you find yourself 3 days out from your last shower, trying to remember the last time you washed your hair, hunched over from last night’s “sleep”, suffering from another bout of digestive fun, and trying not to inhale the dust kicked up by your trek down the street. It’s okay, you will still be whistled at like you’re the most attractive thing on those mototaxi drivers have ever seen.

I don’t want to leave anyone with the wrong impression. There is no resentment or contempt in this sarcastic narrative. In a rather strange and beautiful way, there is no better way to find personal growth than in experiencing life outside one’s sheltered and comfortable existence back home. At the very least, it makes you more appreciative of what you have, as little as it may seem relative to those around you. It shows you how little you actually need those comforts. Life goes on without hot water and daily showers. You will not perish without your grande mocha frappuccino, your X-Box and Wi, and your king size bed with its 1000 count sheets. After living like this, it all might even seem just a little bit silly.

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