StuffWhitePeopleLike Count: 7.
It’s 9 a.m., I’m sitting in my hammock, and hell has frozen over.
As an American in Peru, I was actually late to something.
Here is some background on Peruvian culture to explain why this is certainly a sign of the apocalypse: in Peru, nothing starts on time. I don’t feel bad making this broad cultural generalization, because it is just inexorably true, and all attributable to what Peruvians refer to as “hora peruana” (Peruvian time). But to merely say that nothing starts on time doesn’t really hit upon the utter detachment between what a clock might say (least inventive $100,000 Pyramid category ever) and a day’s events that pervades this country. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a variation of this conversation: Peruvian: “Is it two o’clock already?” Alyssa: “It’s actually four-thirty.” This complete ignorance of clock-time gets more pronounced the further you get away from urban centers. I have waited for meetings in the campo to start for upwards of three hours before. Hora peruana is, as you can imagine, consistently one of the biggest challenges for Americans in Peru. Even if we’re not always on time to things in the U.S., there is the recognition that this is a good thing to be. When we walk into meetings late (and, really, how late are we talking, 15, 20 minutes?), we do not reveal the full height of our bodies and hope for shoes that don’t squeak and a seat in the back. Not so here in Peru. It is considered rude to walk into a meeting at any point in its duration and not say in your normal speaking voice, “Good (insert time of day)” to either the audience at large or (again, especially true in the campo) every attendee individually, including the speaker his/herself, with a handshake. It is really a totally different conception of time and our obligation to it than we have in the U.S. It seems hora peruana is something Peru is starting to recognize as a detriment to its role in the international arena, and at the beginning of President Alan García’s term, his administration threw a parade in Lima to celebrate the kickoff of their “Punctual Peru” campaign. The parade started at exactly 12 noon. Granted, the parade, if not the campaign in general, was widely interpreted to be a jab toward García’s predecessor, Alejandro Toledo, who was a notorious aficionado of hora peruana, but whatever.
So, as always, back to me. Today rounds off my 20th month in Peru, and hora peruana and I were on pretty good terms. And this was a big step for me, because I LOVE time. The only time I take my watch off is to bathe. I check my watch unconsciously and generally without regard to social appropriateness. I set alarm clocks mostly out of formality, because I can wake myself up at whatever hour, usually with creepy exaction. This isn’t to say I’m never late to things, but it’s usually a calculated, minimal lateness, almost never owing to me losing track of time. But I’d gotten into the mentality of the hora peruana. Mostly, you just have to emotionally detach yourself from any expectations you have for an event and relish in the alternatives, i.e. “My friend Miguel was supposed to meet me at my house to take me to the campo at 8, and it’s 10:30, oh well, isn’t this issue of Newsweek I’ve been reading for 3 hours fascinating and not at all sensationalist?”
This morning, I had assigned myself the task of walking around with the trash workers with a map of Santo Domingo and marking which houses don’t participate in the trash collection, with the eventual hopes of doing some sort of survey and finding out why. Though this was going to be tedious, I was excited about it, because the idea of families not taking out their trash and imagining what they do with it instead keeps me up at night (no, seriously). Daniel, the head of the trash workers (who had originally written the report to the municipality reporting that a fair number of people don’t participate, simultaneously confirming my darkest suspicions and impressing me with the rare treat of correct spelling and grammar), told me that they start at 8 a.m. near the recycling storage center. So, at 8:05, 8:10 maybe, I was waiting by the storage center, Newsweek in hand. After 45 minutes of finding out that Barack Obama probably IS too international to get elected and that Somalia practically IS Iraq, I slowly realized there was probably no way the workers waited until 9 to even show up to work. So I headed up the hill to where they would have been collecting, where I found Daniel and the other workers, nearly halfway through their route. I said good morning and told him I had been waiting for him at 8 o’clock. “Oh yeah,” he responded didactically, “We’re on hora exacta here.” My mind was summarily blown. I couldn’t tell whether I was more insulted at the insinuation that I had kept hora peruana inappropriately or gleeful that something so important had started on time. I didn’t know whether to apologize or congratulate. I think I sort of did both, and then went home. Luckily, the trash route for tomorrow begins at my house, so that’s kind of hard to miss, and I can catch the first half of today’s route on Monday.
As an homage to time and to any future Peru 11/12 Volunteers that may have sought out internet guidance as to what they’re about to get themselves into AND to my friend Loren who just got her invitation to serve in the Philippines, the rest of this entry will deal with the oft-posed question, “What is a Volunteer’s daily life like?” I remember this exact curiosity from training, feeling like Peace Corps trainers were always bringing up extreme circumstances, like having to move out of your host family’s house, or over-arching activities, like a latrine project, or Peace Corps theory, like always emphasizing sustainability, but not seeing how this could add up to a day’s work. So yesterday was a pretty “typical” day. Okay, yesterday was a pretty good day, but no harm in making myself look good in my own blog. If you want to see a typical “bad” day, just take out any segments where I’m doing something productive and replace it with “Television on DVD/books/Scrabble.” So this was my yesterday, in painstaking detail:
6 a.m.: I wake up, somewhat unnecessarily, since I have no obligation to get to work before 11. I lie in bed, ice my hurting knee, and read “The Count of Monte Cristo” until I fall back asleep.
7:30 a.m.: I wake up for real, get out of bed, eat some bread and peanut butter (which is accessible but expensive at the grocery stores here), put my workout clothes on, brush my teeth, etc.
8:20 a.m.: I work out to a dubbed-into-Spanish Billy Blanks Tae-Bo DVD, obtained at the pirated-stuff market in Lima. My knee has been hurting, so I go for the basic workout instead of the advanced.
9:00 a.m.: I realize I am out of coffee and go up to store to buy some of the amazing pseudo-organic locally grown (on my friend Juan’s farm) coffee.
9:30 a.m.: I make myself breakfast (raisin bran in rehydrated milk), eat it, and then separately, afterwards, drink my coffee (French-pressed). I love coffee but dislike drinking it while I’m eating, so the fact that I have pretty much unlimited time for breakfast is ideal. While I’m eating, I watch some second season Arrested Development (obtained from the same market in Lima) on my laptop. I laugh really, really hard at Ron Howard’s delivery of, “In fact, Lindsay had the engagement ring on her middle toe. Roast beef.”
10:30 a.m.: I decide that the basic workout doesn’t make me sweaty enough to face the frigidly cold shower in the corral, nor do I have time to heat up my own hot water, so I accept the fact that I am repulsive, change into acceptable work clothes (corduroy pants, a t-shirt with a picture of a poodle saying “Oui! Oui!” turned a full 180 degrees, courtesy of the store in Lima where factory rejects go to die, and a hoodie).
11 a.m.: I head one block uphill to the Municipality office, where I hang out with my counterpart Jorge and discuss work stuff: the status of the public trash can installation, the environmental commission meeting we’re having next week and whether or not he can write the invitations, the fact that International Environment Day is June 5th and we should coordinate something for it with the schools, my plan to accompany the trash workers, etc. I also perform my weekly task of skimming the documents on the tops of piles to see if there’s anything interesting to me. I sneak onto Jorge’s computer and check my email until he needs his computer back. I then leave to go visit the schools and see when their teacher meetings are so we can plan environmental activities for this school year.
12 p.m.: I visit the primary school, and while I have a nice visit, they don’t have regular enough teacher meetings to tell me when it is, but they promise to tell me the next time they do. I visit one of the high schools, the San Juan, where they tell me that their meeting is today at 3:30 and I have little option but to go to it if I want to reach the teachers.
12:30 p.m. I go back to the municipality office to tell Jorge about the San Juan meeting, but he can’t go, so I make the big sheet with my points about environmental education planning for the meeting and hunt down an environmental education book that the municipality educational office has been holding hostage for some time now.
1:00 p.m.: Jorge goes to lunch, so I steal the internet again and start the Peace Corps biennial survey, which turns out to be quite the task, and I’m only about half done before it’s lunch time.
2:00 p.m.: Lunch! The Peruvian day revolves around lunch. I eat lunch at Rachel’s host mom’s house. She has a business of cooking for people who are too busy or unequipped to cook for themselves (health center staff, mostly). Lunch is pretty delicious, as it turns out: some sort of squash-corn stew-type thing, well-seasoned (it tastes cinnamon) chicken, white rice, raw cabbage salad in lemon juice, and papaya-banana juice. I haven’t really seen Rachel in over a week, so we sit talking about her trip to Lima for her Close of Service conference (among other things) until it’s time for the meeting at the San Juan.
3:30 p.m.: I go to the San Juan. The meeting actually starts around 3:45, impressively. I get to be the first presenter, so I talk about my goal to have 2-3 teacher-facilitated environmental activity days in each of the schools before the end of the school year. We toss around some ideas for International Environment Day. Mostly, the teachers want to deal with trash. I’m okay with it.
4:30 p.m.: I go vegetable shopping at various stores along the main commercial street, possibly my favorite activity in Santo Domingo.
5:15 p.m.: I get back to my house, carry my dishes back to the corral (the only place in the house where there’s running water) in a big tub, and wash dishes in the spigot water while listening to my iPod. I’ve forgotten to take off my tennis shoes before doing this and when I head back to my room my socks are really, really wet.
6 p.m.: I consider starting dinner, since Rachel’s coming over at 7, but play Scrabble by myself instead. It’s a good game, no impressive words or 7-letter bonuses, but good use of the board makes the final scores average to 335.
7 p.m.: Rachel comes over. I make guacamole and squash & red pepper fajitas (Mexican-style tortillas bought at the grocery store in Piura, everything else from my vegetable shopping trip).
8 p.m.: It’s pretty delicious, if I do say so myself. Rachel and I watch Friends on my laptop. We eat some Hershey Kisses Rachel got sent from home, which are a total treat.
9:15 p.m.: Rachel goes home, I find myself hungry again and eat a bowl of raisin bran. I keep watching Friends.
10:15 p.m.: I change into my pajamas, brush and floss, vacuum my bed (probably the most absurd part of my life, but you try getting hospitalized because of a bug bite you got in bed, see if it changes your outlook toward Being Hardcore)
10:45 p.m.: I go to bed.
And that’s it. I talk about the environment, I eat, I hang out with Rachel, and then I do it all over it again. And that’s what being a PCV is like if you’re me.