Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Elián Gonzalez and the Battle of Ideas

By Katie Campbell Morrison

Telling a story about Cuba is always complicated. The Elián González case is one of the most complicated stories in the history of Cuban American relations, in part because it is a profoundly human story. It was a time when the entire world stopped to look at the life of one family and evaluated if they valued politics of division over family love. It was a time when people united over hate and division.

It is easy to relegate the story to a corner of history or to say that Fidel manipulated one side of the story whereas the Cuban American National Federation manipulated the other, but that argument would miss the true essence of the story.

This was time when the American family and the Cuban family united to overcome politics of division being spread by a super minority that used the burgeoning 24-hour news media to sow seeds of division “similar to the Trump phenomenon,” as highlighted by Ricardo Alarcon – Former head of the Cuban National Assembly. When fundamental truths of humanity were nearly destroyed by destructive and divisive politics of hate and division based in historical events.

Even if you don’t know anything about Cuba or the Elián González case, I imagine you can understand grappling with your concept of humanity, government and society in the face of vitriolic hate. All of us have had to reexamine how we have let the moral sins of our history continue to create deep divides and hate in our present.

In Cuba, the Elián González case is called The Battle of Ideas. My grandmother was the main intermediary between Cuba and the United States and to me, the battle wasn’t in between communism and democracy; it was a battle between love and hate; a battle for family.

My grandmother fought fearlessly for a Cuban child she had never met to reunite with his family because she believed it was the right thing to do, she stood on the side of what was moral, just and true. It was a time when love truly trumped hate, because people such as Rev. Joan Brown Campbell had, as Mariela Quintana, Elián’s paternal grandmother, called it, “the voice of the oppressed.”

Leaders formed bonds with families across cultural and language barriers to fight for love and compassion. It was a crisis that brought out the best and the worst in us and forced us to choose between love and hate.

At a time when our nation is reeling with the fallout of Charlottesville, Elián shines a light on a different point in our history, one where we chose to ignore the super minority and fight for love; a fight that changed the trajectory of the history of relations between two nations.

As Elián himself has said, “It was a moment when the relationship between Cuba and the United States turned around, the American family began to see the Cuban family in a different way, began to see it as a family, they began to see that Cubans felt joy in their family life, began to see the love between it, for theirs and that way changed the vision they had of the Cuban people.”

Elián calls us all to question how we can transform the paradigms of today to assure that a history of hate and division do not continue to define our future.

Elián will premiere on CNN Thursday August 24, 2017 at 10 pm EST / 7 pm PST.

Katie (KCM) Campbell Morrison was based in Matanzas, Cuba when she worked as a production assistant on the Elián documentary. She coordinated the Cuban interviews throughout filming with Ross McDonnell, Co-Director, and Oisin Kearney, Assistant Producer. All the interviews cited in this piece are pulled from personal interviews she conducted during while investigating for her masters in theology thesis at the Seminario Evangélico de Teología, which she did while simultaneously working on the film.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

This is an Open Letter to any Donald Trump Supporter or Apathetic Voter,

I want to explain what is at stake on Tuesday.

I am a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Peru for 3 years, 2011-2014. Although highly stereotyped Peace Corps is one of the hardest jobs you can do within the federal government that gets little of the respect it deserves. As the bastard child of the federal government its budget is roughly the same as the Naval Band.

I served during the great recession, and saw how politicized the Peace Corps budget is. It seemed perpetually on the brink of being burned from the history books. If the ultra conservative moment had its way they would deny there ever was a federal agency that worked to harbor peace and form trust between the “others” and us. Deny that thousands of Americans worked to create stronger cultural ties in an ever more intertwined world. If Trump is our president I fear our history would be forgotten and rights stripped away.

I care about our rights.

In my third year of service I was a highly specialized volunteer in Chachapoyas, Peru working to establish an early childhood education program to offer free educational and nutritional classes for mothers with children under three. Halfway through my third year I was drugged and raped in a taxi. I knew the protocols of how to report and trusted that the medical staff would be incredibly helpful and understanding but I chose not to report. Primarily because Peace Corps policy dictates if you report a violent attack in your community you are moved to a new community.

I would lose my job and all of our progress if I reported the rape. I chose to stay because I chose to believe in the good the Peruvian community; that what we were doing for the future of their children’s education was important. That our work was more valuable than the horrific actions of one individual, that the community was more important than I was in that moment.

I don’t ever think I have worked that hard to prove a sacrifice was worthy. I am proud to say that today the program is still running. But when I came home I paid dearly for the sacrifice. Stateside I began to have severe anxiety attacks. I had three therapy sessions covered by the Department of Labor within six months of my return home as an RPCV.

It was unclear how to get treatment and I was in desperate need of care. I only had 1 week left to get the therapy sessions covered so I decided to pay out of pocket and get reimbursed. I wanted to start a claim to seek long-term care and exercise my rights under the Kate Pozey Act, to lifetime medical care for conditions caused by sexual assault in service. I found someone to assist with my recovery; in my first session she diagnosed me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from rape and recommended long-term psychological care.

When I went to establish my case, I realized how much red tape there is between a female RPCV and her rights. Since I didn’t report the rape while serving I had to prove the rape happened in order to be covered. My fear of repercussions prevented me from reporting in Peru, but at home I faced different equally devastating repercussions.

Fortunately I had a wonderful caseworker that held my hand through the process. As the first volunteer who did not report a rape in service but was demanding their rights I had to jump through a massive amount of hoops to prove my case. My medical records were scoured to piece together physical evidence. Two different mental health professionals had to diagnose me with PTSD. I had to ask those I told about the rape to write testimonies about what I told them as well as my psychological state.

After nearly six months of fighting I was in tears in the Peace Corps office. I felt humiliated by bureaucracy. I was being victim shamed and my right to care was on trial. It was so re-traumatizing I spiraled to rock bottom and nearly had a mental break down.

I didn’t know what it meant to fight for your rights until then. I chose to fight and not let bureaucracy victim shame me. Not let the world tell me my voice didn’t matter because I spoke up at an inconvenient time. I was willing to fight for rights I knew I had as a woman who served this country.

I cannot imagine Donald Trump to the head of the Federal Government. The thought of it hurts me deep in the core of my humanity. Donald Trump has proven he disregards women’s rights, diversity and unity in a profoundly disturbing way. He has sown seeds of discord and brought deeply rooted hatreds to center stage. It devastates me to think of what another RPCV would face. What anyone who differed from a prescribed norm would be confronted with.

If he becomes president he would be in charge of the federal agencies that dictate our access to rights. I am petrified women would struggle more than they do today to access health care. That women reporting a rape would be dehumanized by the system and rape culture would prevail.

Even those of born the “right” race, creed, gender or socio-economic class would be subject to his federal policies. He is bringing out the worst in us and is a threat to our rights as women, as Americans, as human beings.

November 8th isn’t just a vote for who you agree with more, it is a vote about the fundamental nature of who we are as Americans. Voting for Trump condones racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophoia, classism. Relegates entire groups of Americans to second-class citizens. As a woman who has fought for her rights in a devastatingly personal way, I beg you to not jeopardize our rights.

Our vote on November 8th isn't just a vote for our country but a vote for the world. A vote to show the world who we are as a democracy and what the word democracy means. A choice between forging a road to harmony or paving a path for chaos. Exercise your civic duty, vote, if we fail our democracy will fail. It is time we take our country into our own hands. We the people define the course of our nation. Let’s draw together to vote for what we know is just and right.

Let us remember the best in ourselves. Let us unite as a nation and say to the world that we are truly the land of the free, the home of the brave; we hold these truths to be self evident that all men and women are created equal.




Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Different Perspective

As I am sure every American knows at this point there is a child immigration crisis of children from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala flooding into the USA by the thousands. I can obviously only garner how this crisis is presented to the American people from news clips, articles and talking to people stateside. It seems like there is a lot of yelling, spinning in circles, blame gaming and no real solutions provided. It seems like everyone wants to find the culprit, but are unwilling to look in the mirror.

The first thing that comes to my mind when thinking about this crisis is how war torn and dangerous El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have become in the last several decades. For a mother to choose to let her child go to another country on her own is a sign of serious social instability. The only reason my mother would have let me another country by myself when I was 14, without it being a well planned out and chaperoned trip, would be because she thought it would be safer than where I was. Because she feared I would die if I stayed. These are mothers willing to send their kids off to detention centers because living in a US detention center in Texas is better than living at home. Because the probability that you will die on the streets or in a gang is so high that the thought of US jail is a relief. Because at least when you are in a detention center you have a temporary respite from the rampant violence plaguing the streets.

Living in Peru has given me an interesting perspective on things such as drug trafficking, American drug consumption and social disruption. International policy and wars have always fascinated me. I have a secret desire to go to the Central African Republic, but I know that would be just a terrible idea, so clearly I won’t. Learning how places handle different controversial situations has always interested me, because often it is the same goal and yet so handled so differently.

Growing up in the US I feel like I never heard a productive argument on how to handle the drug trafficking problem. There is a lot of grand standing about a war on drugs that never seems to be won. A lot of blaming the “other” and using our military might to resolve it. We were the conquering heroes here to solve the world’s problems. With the recent legalization of weed in Colorado and Washington the conversation has started to change. But when I think back to my childhood the words that come to mind when thinking of anything drug related are crack baby, Crips vs. Bloods and evil. Obviously I had an extensive knowledge on the subject.

In recent history the conversation has changed. There is no longer the Reagan hero complex war on drugs. But now there are immigrant children flooding the streets and states are considering legalization so the paradigm has shifted. The conversation is different. I think the US should take a different role in the conversation than it has in the past.

Currently, Peru is the world’s largest producers of cocaine. If you thought about that under the US paradigm you would think the streets would be littered with disorder and gangs. You would probably assume there are paramilitary groups such as Columbia’s FARC reigning disorder and the obvious solution would be to rain parasites from the sky to kill the coca leaf. Such as what happened with Plan Columbia, a US backed program to end coca production. This program unfortunately, actually ended up hurting the poor farmers and pushing the production back to Peru and Bolivia than ending production all together. The US and Columbia efforts to kill coca production has caused a balloon effect. The production has decreased in Columbia but it has become concentrated in Peru and Bolivia as a result, because it is still a billion dollar industry and someone will do it. You would think since the production was kicked into Peru it didn’t come running into every town with a vengeance.

In fact, in most parts of Peru it’s the opposite. Drug trafficking is an understood part of life, but unless you go out of your way to go to the places where they actually produce the cocaine you cant see drug trafficking violence in the streets. Sure there are bus lines and casinos that are suspected of existing to help clean drug money. Parts of most major cities that are too dangerous to walk through. And you hear stories about airports that only have private flights from 2am to 4am or peoples whose stated job does not match their annual income, but most of the streets are not running red with blood from drug wars.

If you went into the Peruvian red zones looking for the coca producing towns you might feel differently. I have head the legends about areas where they shoot to kill if an outside comes in, or doctors get given chickens as a gift for stitching someone up. These are the places that are dangerous and you might run into some serious trouble. But to go into these areas by yourself would also be reckless. Your not going to wander around PG Country or South Side Chicago at 2 am on a Saturday, so why would you meander into the cocaine producing parts of the jungle?

Don’t get me wrong I am not saying that Peru is some safe utopian. There is a presence of violence. I myself have been robbed at gunpoint, wrong place wrong time. There are several volunteers I know who have been held up with weapons, pickpocketed, and nearly every girl has a semi-constant fear of sexual assault, especially in taxis or when going out at night. Even though it seems like you have to have your guard up in the cities or chaotic coast, for the most part if you keep your wits about you and are street smart you can reduce your chance of being a victim by a big percentage.

Although there is violence and you should be aware of your surroundings and things, volunteers in Peru can walk around the streets of the nicer parts of Lima. The worse parts, of course not, and unless you were working there you would really have no reason to walk through those areas. We can travel to most parts of Peru, except for red zones, but the vast majority of the country is not a red zone. While traveling I have generally felt safe, as long as I keep a good eye on my things. Thankfully, generally when we do travel, we don’t have to go through areas that have some of the highest murder rates in the world.

Volunteers who lived in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, did not have that luxury. They could not walk on the streets of the capital. Nearly the entire country had incredibly high murder rates. And a couple of years ago they had to suspend the programs because a volunteer got shot in the leg on a bus. In talking to volunteers who served there it seemed nearly impossible to avoid the drug related violence.

Peru on the other hand has gang related violence that riddles the streets of parts of Lima, Ica, Tumbes and other major cities but unlike Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador the roots are not in drug trafficking. The growth of gangs in Peru can be traced back to the social disruptions in the 1980s and 1990s. During the 1980s and 1990s there was social disruption is Peru caused by the populist terrorist groups Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Army and the Shining Path. Much like gangs in nearly every part of the world they were born from social disruption. But unlike parts of Central America it was not drug related social disruption it was a populist movement.

During this time the terrorists and police terrorized various regions of the country, particularly concentrated in the department of Ayacucho, and the surrounding departments. Entire communities were massacred and disorder and disruption reigned. Nearly 200,000 people were displaced from their homes during this time. Mothers from terrorist controlled areas sent their children on buses down to Lima to find a relative that lived there because they thought they would be safer in Lima than in their hometown. Because similar to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, it seemed better to send a child off searching for family by themselves than staying where they were.

Imagine showing up to Cleveland and only knowing you had an uncle Raul that lived there but had no real way of figuring out how to find them. It would be a daunting task and nauseatingly overwhelming. Inevitably there was a growing group of lost boys, of children impacted by the violence, fleeing, and looking for a way to survive. These were the children that got sucked into street gangs, drugs and violence. A vulnerable population ripe for the taking.

In Huancavelica I lived in a town impacted by terrorism, and the residual effects could be felt in the population. Although it had been a stable and tranquil population for at least a decade, the trauma still lived on in their hearts and minds. My host mother admitted that she wouldn’t let me live with her at first because she thought I would kill her and she didn’t know my intentions. As many times as her daughter tried to remind her that the terrorist were Peruvian and not gringos, she refused to believe it. For the first few months she would barely talk to me. When she would invite me to eat she would put the food on the table and promptly leave the room. She was terrified of outsiders, because the last time that outsiders came through town it ended terribly. Thankfully after several months she learned to love me, but at the beginning I defiantly felt the wayward glances coming my way.

The social disruption, lost children and general chaos left the perfect opening for gangs. Now keep in mind, I am not an expert on Peruvian political or social history by any means. I am gathering this information from stories I’ve heard, conversations I have had, personal experience and articles I have read. This is my opinion and mine alone based on my experience and opinions. The social disruption of the 1980s and 1990s served as the perfect strengthening ground for gangs. They could strengthen in numbers because civil society was struggling with violence.

The Shining Path has shriveled to around 500 members, and they have become tied to the economics of narcotrafficking. After the movements were decimated many of those could or would not reenter civil society or had evaded the law moved into the jungle to join with the narcotrafficking forces. When the Shining Path was in their heyday Peru was producing coca leaves, but the mass production was located in Columbia. The movement was started for proletarian rights not for control of drug trafficking routes. It was the strongest in mountainous zones where you cannot even produce the coca leaf. They moved towards drug trafficking as a way to economically prosper after the movement was quelled.

Today gangs in Peru are tied to drugs, much as gangs in the United States are, but they are a residual effect of the terrorist movements, not a growth out of drug trafficking. They grew out of social disruption instead of growing out of the economics of drugs. I am sure the gangs have some conspicuous dealings in drugs, but I cannot personally speak on the manner. As a general rule of thumb I avoid gangs and their economic activities. Just seems smarter that way.

On a different note, when you look at the history of the coca leaf in Peru you have to trace it back to the Incas. The Incas believed the coca leaf to be a sacred crop and held it in high esteem. In todays society many Peruvians still use the coca leaf for its cultural and medicinal purposes. In most mountain towns people have daily contact with the coca leaf. Chewing it for energy while farming, drinking it as tea to help with headaches or altitude sickness, and integrating it into various cultural celebrations. Where I lived in Huancavelica they believed that coca leaves could help to fight the spirits of the mountains that could kill you. Whenever they married cows or vicuñas they laid coca leaves down near their head. Well that’s a sentence I never thought I would say. It is an integral part of many people’s lives for deeply cultural reasons.

Since it would be impossible to ever convince people to stop producing the coca leaf because of its cultural significance in Peru they would have to take other routes than those taken by Plan Columbia. I have heard that there is some effort to have the farms that produce it registered, so the government can track its production and consumption. Unfortunately, Peru does not have the world’s best record for government oversight. Not that I have ever tried to pay off a Peruvian government official, it doesn’t seem like it would be that hard. Especially given how many politicians and police offices are investigated for corruption annually.

In my opinion, if we ever want to actually take on the drug trafficking that is leading to an immigrant children crisis, every country involved has to look in the mirror. They have to think their own accountability in the situation and how they can change the future. For instance, I think if they could create a genetically modified coca leaf that had all the same medicinal effects when chewed or used in its leaf form but couldn’t be broken down to powder form and there was real government oversight, Peru could take steps towards stemming the production of cocaine. If there was a change in drug policy and consumption habits from some f the other countries involved there could be even more changes.

The United States has a long a spotty history with Latin American politics. Promoting various military coups, helping to exacerbate political instability and implementation drug wars that served to strengthen gangs and consolidate power instead of ending the drug game forever. Lets get serious they are never going to be able to end a multi-billion dollar industry through force. For decades they made sure that those in power helped to promote the US interests, often at the detriment of the Latin American populations.

The US led war on drugs did help to stem the Caribbean transit routes, but that only served to concentrate the power in Mexico. Now 90% of the cocaine that comes into the United States Enters through drug routes in Mexico.* There still is a drug flow but it has become concentrated in the land routes rather than the sea. El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, are those ground routes serving as intermediaries between the Peruvian, Bolivian and Columbian production and its exportation. Although the US cut off one leg of transportation, consolidated the power in another and increased violence. The one thing that has not changed is the demand. As long as there is a demand there will always be those who supply.

American consumers largely fuel the demand for illicit substances and yet there has never been a war on American drug consumption. I have never seen a campaign directly target at white upper class party kids who are consuming cocaine in an effort to show the global impact of their consumption. It seems a little counter intuitive to use violence to try to squish a problem internationally instead of trying to take on the consumer demand internally. Why not take the frat houses or apartments notorious for cocaine use and convert them into housing for the children fleeing Central America? Or instead of putting someone in jail for posession, just send him or her to live Guatemalan drug lord? Obviously these ideas are ridiculous, but they get the point across.

In the US cocaine is an expensive drug, and as a result it tends to have wealthier, whiter consumers. Obviously the vast majority of cocaine consumers in the US had little to nothing to do with the politician coups of the past or the US involvement in Latin American history, but they can change the current conversation. There has never been a move to connect their drug consumption to the impact on the streets. The current conversation about the children fleeing their home countries doesn’t seem to mention that there are United States citizens helping to fuel demand.

As with most illicit activity it is illogical to think that you will get people to stop doing it all together. We all know how well Prohibition turned out. Generally when you tell someone not to do something it only makes him or her want to do it more. There will always be experimenters, party people and those who enjoy illicit activities. Even though you can’t get everyone to stop doing illicit drugs and kill the demand for it thus killing the drug routes and violence, the US can enter into the conversation. They can look at the historical and present role that they play in the matter and enter into the conversation honestly.

There are talks in Central America about changing drug policy to alleviate the violence, but until the US enters the conversation, it will be about as useful as the Kyoto Protocol. Things may change, they may get better from the policy changes, but the US involvement in the conversations will help to tip the scales since they are and have been such a major player in Latin American politics. They can help to turn over a new leaf, but the first step I think, it admitting their role in the past and present and be willing to enter into the conversation, with other ideas than militaristic might.


Saturday, February 15, 2014


This is a story of Rocita, a girl from the annex where I worked. She was a 19-year-old mother of an extremely malnourished child. Her 1 and a half-year-old had the healthy height of an 8 month old and with that level of chronic malnutrition it’s likely that she will never recover. Her mother was young, timid, uneducated, and had extremely low self-esteem. She was a young girl who used to run away from nurses during vaccination campaigns, whose father told her it wasn’t worth his time and money to help her go to secondary school, whose primary teachers cared about her education so little they didn’t even teach her how to read. She was a young girl who had no income but for the first and a half of her daughters life could not enter into the Peruvian welfare system. She was a young woman who had been written off as a hopeless case by nearly everyone.

There was no real reason for me to have much faith that working with her would change anything. She had proved difficult, resistant and unwilling in the past. She was stuck in a cycle of patterns that seemed unbreakable. And yet there was something about her that drew me to her.

I first noticed it when I would be wandering around the community trying to hunt down mothers to do house visits. Since Rocita didn’t have her own chacra she was around the community more than most other mothers. Whenever I was walking around it seemed as if she was there peering out at me while masking her face with her hair. Curious about what I was saying and ease dropping on my conversations.

During our first few house visits I found myself getting frustrated with her lack of knowledge. It seemed like I was asking the same damn questions time and time again and we were getting nowhere. Was it that she didn’t understand me? That he didn’t want to understand me? That she never would? As time drew on it became more and more obvious that it was in fact that she didn’t understand me. Not for lack of trying, she actually had the best attendance of any mother in my Vivendas Saludables project. It was that I was using words often outside of her rudimentary vocabulary.

Things that seemed so simple to me were in fact complex concepts to someone who spoke Quetcha as a first language and only had a primary school education. Words like protein, development, even diarrhea were things that had never been clearly defined for her. Time and time again the nurses in my site had explained these concepts to her when she went for her child’s doctors appointment but no one had realized that the actually had to go further back and explain the basics. Because as simple as diarrhea seems to us it is actually foreign concept to someone who has never had it explained properly to him or her.

On top of low education and knowledge level her abysmal self-esteem made her self conscious to answer any question. She would get this feared look in her eye; clearly preoccupied that someone would judge or scold her for responding incorrectly. Better to stay quiet in the corner than express an incorrect opinion.

Throughout the course of the project as shy and self conscious as she was, she would arrive to every meeting on time, participate and pay attention, which is more than I can say for some of the mothers. During our house visits she was able to explain more and more concepts, and had a growing pride in the development of her child. I was able to deduce when she didn’t understand a concept I was talking about on a fundamental level and break down the word or concept to a more basic level.

I cannot report to you that her chronically malnourished child was miraculously cured and is now growing healthily. Nor can I definitively say that the next child she has wont suffer from malnutrition. I can hope tat it will be less likely. I can say that she understood that you should play and interact with your child on a daily basis in order to develop their brain. I can say that I saw a growth in her. Something that was different than many of the other mothers I worked with. I think partly because she was coming from such a lower point. She was a case that seemed so hopeless that the world had all but given up on her.

Her parents had essentially told her at a young age she wasn’t worth advancing. The educational institutions had cared less about her intellectual future. Her community had relegated her to the position many women were in, young, with child and stuck in the campo forever. The health post had tired but they didn’t have the time to sit there with her time and time again to try to explain things. Also since she was not a part of the welfare program they couldn’t force her to come to her daughter’s doctor’s appointments. And I know I wouldn’t go to an appointment regularly that was a 2.5 hour walk away that just made me feel more inadequate than I already felt.

What I realized was there had never been anyone to just sit there and talk to her. Someone who had the time to figure out what she didn’t know before assuming she knew the basics. Someone who would not get exacerbated when she didn’t answer question and keep prying for answers.

She was by no means my most successful mom in terms of behavior change, but she showed me something that I often think is hidden in modern day society, the value of taking the time to talk to someone. If you spend your whole life surrounded by people who cant seem to take the time to care: health workers overloaded with work and pressed for time, indifferent teachers, uninterested parents, a community with low expectations for you future you become a product of your surroundings. There is really no chance for growth and change. You never really had a chance. It is if she was predestined at birth to be a campo mother with a malnourished, under stimulated child because it was all she knew and all people expected of her. There was chatter behind her back about how her child was one of the most malnourished in the community, a bad mother, but no one took the time to talk to her. Everything was accepted as indelible fact.

I by no means think this is a problem unique to Peru, in fact I think it is quite prevalent in the inner cities of the United States as well. There are millions of people who are fundamentally ignored and pushed to the side. They never achieve anything because there is never anything expected of them. They become more by-products of society rather than whole people. And in the age of increasingly impersonal education I think the problem will only get worse.

Rocita taught me that even though someone may seem hopeless from the outside, if they have a curiosity inside, a semblance of a spirit to better their lives they are not a hopeless case. If they still try to the best of their ability to pay attention and grow there is still something worth reaching out to. They are not a hopeless case they are simply someone who was never given the chance. They may not achieve what you want but there can be growth and change, and a spark in their eye that grows with time and patience.

Third Year

Well this is a far over due entry. Let’s get serious I took a pretty hefty hiatus from writing on this blog. My life just became overwhelmed with building cook stoves, saying good-bye and all the change that I forgot to write. At points I thought no one would be interested but I’m starting to write again in the self-indulgent hope that you are interested.

I decided to stay a 3rd year in Peru, extending my service to be a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader in Chachapoyas, Amazonas, Peru. As I am quickly learning a Peace Corps Volunteer Leader (PCVL) is a lot more administrative work than being just a volunteer. 60% of the time I work as a PCVL, doing things like running regional meeting, helping with site development and helping volunteers with various projects and genera life and the other 40% of the time I am still doing health projects.

At the moment the health project that I am doing is helping the municipality to set up the Early Childhood Stimulation Center in a community in order to have a functional, sustainable and well-monitored center. I am also helping an obstetrician with her teen health group. She works with 120 kids from around Chachapoyas in creating youth peer educators.

Anyways the most common question that I get is why I decided to stay a third year. Most volunteers decide to peace the fuck out and head back to their lives in the USA. Well, there are several reasons for this. One is that I wanted to stay because I thought it would be a good chance for professional growth. So far I haven’t been wrong on that account.

I loved my old site in Huancavelica, but my whole first year was basically throwing rocks at other rocks. Literally. There was a rock where I got MoviStar cell service and I got really fucking good at throwing small rocks into a crevice created by two other rocks. I would personally go so far as to call myself an expert. But at the end of the day it’s a pretty stupid thing to be an expert in. so my whole first year felt like one long game of Survivor. Seeing if I could make it in Huancavelica and actually find work. During my first 6 months I spent about 4 relatively severely depressed, until another volunteer, my Peace Corps Volunteer Coordinator pointed out to me that I either needed to be institutionalized or pull my shit together. Luckily I pulled my shit together. As together as any a Peace Corps Volunteer can.

So since my first year was not, let’s say the most productive, partly because of me, partly because of my site, and my site was only 200 people I never got a chance to work on a larger scale institutional level; it’s al little hard when there are only 3 institutions to work on a large-scale level.

I felt that there was still room for growth personally and professionally and personally and if I went back to the states I would have virtually no idea what to do and would be taking a lateral step. I wanted to stay because I felt like there was still something more here for me.

I also wanted to work with my regional coordinator Miguel Angel, who is now in Chachapoyas. For those of you hat don’t know what a regional coordinator is, it’s a host country national that helps to coordinate site development, and security or work issues that may arise in a region and generally help to organize the region. During my 2 years of service he was the regional coordinator for Lima-Ica and Huancavelica. He was a very good person to have as a regional coordinator and helped me to survive my first year in Huancavelica.

So that is a brief understanding of why I became a third year. And so far it’s going well. The adjustment was a bit chaotic, moving to a city and simultaneously starting a job and trying to find and move into new housing. But now that my life has become a little more stable it seems manageable and I am optimistic for the year ahead.

Friday, November 1, 2013


In mid September I accepted the position as a third year volunteer and this seemed to coincide perfectly with the start of the construction phase my cocinas project, the realizing that I was in charge of a Field Based Training for new volunteers that would take place in my site, my teen peer educators project moving into its next phase, and the end of service. Of course it always works that way. In the end everything seems to happen.

It suddenly felt like the world was crushing me with responsibility. All the days I had spent time throwing rocks at other rocks both literally and metaphorically seemed to be coming to fruition into real things. I didn’t know if I was capable of handling it all and actually being successful. I suddenly felt like I had a million things in my hands, just waiting to tumble and fall apart…

My moms seemed suddenly disinterested in the cocinas or getting their materials together. I felt a rush of negativity and self-doubt. Nearly every other voulenteer around me was done with their projects, packing up to go home, and I was just buying chimneys?!?! How slowly time moves in Huancavelica.

Could I suddenly finish everything I had set out to do? Did I get in over my head? Would I epically fail at everything? And how the fuck did everything seem to be happening at once? Did my community even care about the project or did I just thrust it upon them? Ain’t that some luck.

I had seen changes in my mothers here, in the community organization of my annex, in the self-awareness of my teens. But somehow when I was entrusted with doing things like constructing cocinas for them, guiding the teens through their teaching sessions with their peers, I felt like I had accomplished absolutely nothing, what I had thought I had done was all in my head. I was simply hallucinating and the end would prove how much the beginning and middle were fallacies. I can’t quite put a pin on what it was but for some reason I just felt like I was going to crumble. Or at the very least I didn’t do enough. The fact the project was coming to a close so late in my service was evidence of my failure. The fact several of my moms lost interest in the actual construction of the cocinas was evidence of its unsustainability.

I began to feel like I had taken too much personal control over he project. I had chosen the cocina style. I had written the grant. How on earth was what I was doing actually sustainable? How was it not just another example of an American barreling in and telling a community what was best for them? I began to become overwhelmed with guilt, stress, and spiraling down a “would have, should have, could have drain.” Which is never a drain you want to be going down in Peace Corps. You could literally spend your entire service in that drain. I began to doubt how someone who did a project so riddled with errors was qualified to be a third year leading other voulenteers.

At this moment I called my friend and former Peace Corps Volunteer Coordinator and for lack of better words a mentor. During an almost hour conversation she told me that it was not uncommon for volunteers to get really emotional at the construction point of a project. It is the culmination and suddenly when everything should be coming together but sometimes life doesn’t work as perfectly as you think it should. And in Peace Corps it never works out as perfectly as you think it should.

It can be hard when some mothers who had expressed interest in a cocina suddenly don’t want one. Others who had no interest in your work are begging at your door for a cocina…If only they had given any importance while you were working. It becomes emotional and overly stressful but then there is a moment when you have to just realize the mothers you worked with have changed. Combined at a point in your service when you begin to look around and think of all of the never finished projects, grand ideas you had that never came to fruition and knowing that the restraints of time will be your enemy it becomes a bit much.

Andrea pleasantly reminded me that with or without a cocina the mothers who genuinely worked with you would always have the knowledge and basis for behavior change. It does not necessarily have to be a package deal with a cocina. And in the end of the day I learned a valuable lesson about community development and sustainability.

Community development and sustainability are two of the hardest concepts to work with. After two years I still cant really answer the question of what sustainable development is. I can answer the question of what it isn’t. Oh so so so so much of my service has been learning what it isn’t. The project I am currently finishing up has taught me about 50% of those lessons.

There are many elements of my project that are things I shouldn’t have done to genuinely follow the model of the sustainable development. I think that that is part of what caused me so much stress at its final stages. I felt like I had failed at integrating the community enough in the design of the project and then in the construction stage I just felt like I was doing something with no real purpose. It felt like I was doing something that would just be forgotten the moment I walked away.

But then I was reminded even though there were admittedly parts of my project that didn’t follow the sustainable development model, or didn’t include enough community involvement during the design phase of the project there are parts of it that will be sustainable. Often these are the things you can’t tangibly grasp. The things that exist but are not as easily to put in a few sentences, the things that will stay long beyond my service. The gradual tilting of the projection of a rocket I will never see launch.

A teacher once told me that you should never write in pencil because over time it will erase and your wont be able to see it anymore, you should always write in pen. I have come to the realization that that Peace Corps is a lot like this statement. Strangely the things that make us as Peace Corps Volunteers feel like we are accomplishing something, like the structure of a cocina, or a mural, are the things written in pencil. The things that will be unreadable in 5, 10, 20 years.

The things we cannot easily wrap our finger around, the behavior change, a rise in self esteem, a change in outlook, a friend, a new door opened that we never even knew existed, a simple conversation or exchange, these are the things that are written in pen.

In all likelihood the cocinas that I have built, as much good as they are at the moment, will not be there in 10 years, they will be a faded memory, maybe changed, maybe destroyed, maybe gradually maintained to still work. Although I can see them today, in the scale of history they are written in pencil. Doomed to the inevitable fate of degradation of most structures or murals in Peru. They will succumb to the element of nature, human folly and time. Evolution will inevitably erase them from my community’s landscape.

Although the physical vibrant changes are the things that make a volunteer feel like they have actually been there. The things that make we grasp to feel like we actually served a purpose our physical changes, unless they are a massive scale municipal wind turbine, will disappear from the landscapes of our towns.

But it is the things such as behavior change, opportunity, hope, a new idea; these are the things that will not fade with time. They will change, morph, maybe fade into the background, but at the end of the day they will be there. You can never unmet someone, you can never un-live an experience, you can never un-eat a meal or you can never un-have a conversation. You may forget, or the memory may get blurry at with the sands of time but it still happened.

I think this is part of what is so hard about Peace Corps. So much of what we do is intangible. So much is hard to explain to someone who didn’t live it. And inevitably we feel like we could have done more. Or wonder will things actually live on once we leave. We can all figure out ways to describe what we have done, but in the end words are not enough. I will never be able to fully explain what I did or the experience I have had. And since I have picked up a really bad Spanglish habit I really wont be able to do it only I one language.

Although I have to come to the acceptance that this part of my service is ending and a new chapter is beginning I can only hope that some part of my time here is written in pen for at least one person. Even if its not necessarily what I think it is.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Welcome to the Jungle

This Fourth of July I went to the jungle for vacation and I have to say that it was probably one of the best vacations I will ever take in my life. I went with three other girls from my region for a relaxing vacation filled with hot jungle air and delicious jungle foods.

To start off we flew into the city of Tarapoto. Well actually if I’m being honest to start off I thought I booked the flights in the wrong direction and I would be taking the jungle adventure on my own. We flew into Tarapoto and out of Iquitos but my flight time was different than the rest of my friends for the flight from Iquitos to Lima and I couldn’t remember for the life of me if we were doing TarapotoIquitos or the other way around. There was a solid 36 hours where I thought I had booked the flights in the opposite direction of my friends and would be spending my vacation solo. Thankfully I did not; I only booked the flight home waaaayyyy earlier in the morning (8am versus 9pm) than my friends. With that debacle sorted out I headed off to the merry land of the Peruvian Jungle.

When we got off the plane and walked down the steps onto the tarmac in Tarapoto we were greeted with mountains lush with forest and life, a sky tinged grey with clouds, a brilliantly hot sun and thick wet air. Lucky for me I was in leather boots and jeans which I promptly took off to not die of heat exhaustion. After collecting our bags from baggage claim we headed outside looking for a taxi to head to the hostel. Funny thing about Tarapoto is that there aren’t really taxis. Instead there are open air mototaxis. To give you a description it looks like someone covered a three wheel motorcycle with a plastic roof, put a seat for two in the back and luggage rack behind the seats next to the wheels.

At this point in our service all of us have a pretty healthy fear of getting robbed and what to do and not do. The idea of putting your luggage on the back of a luggage rack only tied on by string seemed like the ultimate no. that was just asking to get robbed. But after about 10 minutes of searching for a taxi, realizing mototaxis were our only option and we should just hope for the best. Luckily we made it to the hostel all items intact.

. Our first day there was pretty much filled with lounging around, exploring the city a bit and eating delicious foods. The jungle is unlike the rest of Peru. The markets and streets are more chaotic, the air is thicker and the rain more unpredictable. And the food is fucking delicious. The first night we had grilled plantains stuffed with peanut butter or bacon. Whoever invented that is a downright genius.

. The second day we woke up prepared to go on a hike to a remote waterfall, the jungle had other plans. The entire morning it heavily rained. And the idea of hiking in pouring down rain was appealing to roughly none of us. Instead we decided to go to the market to buy hammocks for the boat ride to Iquitos. When the rain finally let up we decided to make an adventure out to a waterfalls, but since it was already 1pm it was far too late to go on an 8 hour hike and expect to come out alive so we chose to go to the closer waterfall that is only a 30 minute drive outside of town.

On the trip out to the waterfall we passed through mountains dense with massive trees and coated with thick green vegetation. The waterfall was off in the distance majestically cascading down an impressive landscape. When we finally arrived to the entrance at the base of the waterfall we realized that coming on a rainy day was the ideal time to come. A place normally full of tourists was nearly deserted. The only other people we ran into on our waterfall adventure were a family of tourists coming down from the waterfall soaking wet.

. When we finally reached the base of the waterfall it became glaringly apparent why the family that was coming down was soaking wet. The waterfall was at least 30 km tall and had a splash zone of about 20 feet in either direction. It was falling with bone crushing speed and power. This was obviously the moment to get as close to the waterfall as possible while documenting everything with a waterproof camera.

. After getting thoroughly soaked by the waterfall we decided that it was time to meander back towards town and indulging in a decadent dinner of fish cooked in a banana leave and a sauce I would not be opposed to bathing in. In case it is not already incredibly obvious I fucking loved the food in the jungle.

. The next day we had to head to a port city about 2 hours away from Tarapoto called Urimaguas to get a boat to Iquitos. Iquitos is the only city in Peru that you can only access by boat or plane because it is surrounded on all sides by the Amazon. The boat was a cargo ship that you can buy space to hang your hammock to sleep or a cabin with a metal bare bones bunk bed to travel down the Amazon and arrive to Iquitos by boat. We got a space for the hammocks and a cabin for our stuff and just in case someone couldn’t sleep hammock style. And yes there are showers and food served on the boat. Granted you are straight bathing in river water but dirty water is better than no water.

. The boat trip is hypothetically a 3 day trip. I say hypothetically because the actual travel takes 3 days but there is the pretty high potential hat you will spend at least one day sleeping in the boat on the dock. Of course when we arrived they said we were leaving at 6pm sharp that night. That was just a bold faced lie. We did leave the dock at 6pm but not to head to Iquitos, to head to another part of the dock where they were building a new ship. We spent a solid two hours trying to pull one giant flatbed cargo boat propped up on logs off of land with another giant flatbed cargo boat in the water attached by one side with a thick metal string. As you can imagine this plan did not turn out as planned. After about two hours of strain on the metal rope it snapped in half like a twig with a loud snap and flying sparks. The wonders of construction projects in the developing world.

. The next day roughly every 2 hours we were going to leave in 2 hours from that moment. I have become accustomed to “hora Peruwana” but even the best of us begins to get frustrated when hora Peruwana turns into hora you have been on a docked boat for 24 hours with no end in sight. Thankfully at 6pm we left and after another hour of pulling, successfully this time, the boat off land into water we headed out towards Iquitos. And it was defiantly worth the wait.

The boat has an eclectic mix of people. The first floor of travelers is mostly Peruvian locals traveling for whatever reason. The second floor was mostly filled with backpackers, foreign travelers and a handful of Peruvians. On our boat there was a large group of young Haitians making their way to Brazil in search of a job. Every evening a young woman with a crystal clear voice would sing Creole hymns full of hope and sorrow. There were also backpackers from all over the world, mostly European and South American, traveling anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 years. There was also a Peruvian hair dresser who used to work in one of the nicest Peruvian salons but was moving to live with his brother in Iquitos, but we will get to him later.

The first day I suffered from bouts of narcolepsy. It’s hard to maintain consciousness when you are sitting in a hammock all day. Thankfully I was able to take in the view the next two days and not fall asleep in the middle of sentences. The first two days we were traveling on a tributary of the Amazon. The water was a grayish color and about footballs field length wide. On either side there was grass up to 5 feet tall, twisted trees lining the shore line and the occasional small village dotting the landscape. Since it was dry season the river was low and there was a clear white marking on all the vegetation about 3-5 feet above the water marking the peaks of the river during rainy season.

. The first day and a half of travel the houses were few and far between. Every so often you would pass a single house made of banana would and propped up on stilts. Normally not too long (under an hour) after spotting the first house there would be a small cluster of 5-10 houses, each made of banana wood and only one or two rooms. Sometimes the houses only had one or two walls, since it’s unnecessary to enclose yourself against the cold. These small villages often included a small school house and a cleared off area with something resembling goal posts that served as a futbol field. These villages were small and isolated. Often there were paths leading from the river into dense dark, tall, thick jungle. I always wondered where the paths lead and how on earth people didn’t just get lost and eaten by snakes when they took these dark and mysterious paths.

. There are parts of the Peruvian jungle where there are still un-contacted tribes. People living in the heart of the jungle the same way they have for thousands of years with no idea what else is out there. Obviously the villages that were right on the shore line have been contacted but I got a sense that their contact was limited. There were rarely ever power lines in the villages, no cell phone towers and a sense that although they had been contact they still lived a very traditional jungle life. When we would pass thick uninterrupted jungle or see a path leading deep into the jungle I always wondered where the un-contacted tribes are. What must it be like to live in a community and have the people you have known your whole life and nature be all that you know.

These are people who live I harmony in nature and have no concept of the information age which we live in. They are free to live regardless of the rest of the world. Their survival is dependent on a deep understanding of nature and skills honed over thousands of years. Something most other members of humanity have forgotten and replaced with dependency on technology and machinery. Even those who still use the tools of the past or understand nature in a way most Americans never will are getting pushed aggressively into the modern age.

It was hard on the boat not to get overwhelmed by the vastness, majesty and spirit of the jungle. This is going to sound incredibly corny but I’ll say it anyways. The jungle is a very spiritual place. While on the boat you could feel the spirit of the jungle all around you. It was teeming with life in so many ways and yet so fragile. I think it is the ultimate representation of the power of nature, its fragility and our dependence on it. I’m the first to admit that I got really reflective about my life while sitting on the roof of the boat staring out at the sunset over the water and watching us gracefully move through space. It was so happy and peaceful, something unlike anything else I have experienced in my life.

As we got closer to Iquitos we began to see larger villages and stop to drop off the cargo. These villages were by no means large; they were just larger than microscopic. In these small villages of 20-40 houses we would drop off everything from eggs to beer to laundry detergent. It was obvious that the way that these villages got basic necessities and food stuffs was from the cargo ships. Every time we would dock to deliver something at least 10 women 15 children would rush on to the boat to sell food and beverages to the people on board. In the process of selling their goods at least 1 woman would get stranded on the boat, caught up in a sale the moment the bell rang and the boat left the port. To return home either a small wooden boat that looked like a canoe with a motor attached would come speeding after us from her village to get her or the small attached to the cargo ship would escort the stranded women home. Obviously these women could move from moving boat to moving boast as if they were walking on pavement. I imagined myself trying to do the same thing and just face planting into the water.

The closer we got to Iquitos the larger the villages got and the more chaotic each stop became. People would be rushing on and off bustling in either direction, passing on precariously placed wooden planks with a grace I could never even dream of.

Some time half way through the second day of travel we started traveling on the Amazon. Let me tell you it is a fucking huge river. That may seem like the world’s most obvious statement considering it is visible from space but it is a statement worth saying. It is about 3 football fields wide and there are huge tributaries or forks in the river that completely distort any sense of direction. Suddenly shorelines where you could once see clear detail seemed far off. The water was brown instead of gray and it was hard to orient yourself as to which way the current was going. We seemed to be engulfed by river and every so often the snout and fin of a pink dolphin would pop up. And yes in case you were wondering they are in fact pink.

Our original plan was to get off in a port city called Nauta and take a car into Iquitos. Now I know I said Iquitos was only accessible by boat, but from within the department you can reach it by car. Getting off in Nauta would have turned 8 hours of boat travel into an hour and a half of car travel. Violent protests about a newly passes accountably law prevented us, so we spent another day on the boat.

Naturally it was at this point that my friend sweet talked her way into a free haircut on the boat from the award-winning hairdresser. He completed her hair with a cute cut and then proceeded to do my other friends hair. It was at this point I decided it would be an awesome idea to also get my hair cut on the boat. Because how could getting a free hair cut while floating down the Amazon be a bad idea?

Before starting the hair cut I was very animate about how I wanted to maintain the length of my hair. Past horrible haircuts had scared me and I did not want a repeat. I will say that it was not the worst hair cut I have ever received but it was the most shocking. As he flipped my hair upside down and twisted it I wondered where he was going with it. He then promptly proceeded to lop off three inches of admittedly mostly dead and uneven hair. But even still I was not prepared for such a thing. I made what can only be described as the world’s largest gasp and stood up in horror. Nearly the entire boat heard my shock. After about 2 minutes of freaking out I realized that I had dug my grave and now the only thing to let him do was continue with the hair cut. In retrospect not my most well thought out plan but now I can say I got a haircut while floating down the Amazon so at least there’s that.

When we finally made it into Iquitos it was the afternoon of the final day of programmed protests. Even though there was no protesting still going there were still signs of the previous days protests littered on the streets. Literally.

When we got off the boat we had to hunt for a mototaxi to take us into the city center because none of them wanted to due to roads being closed from the protest. When we finally came about 2 mototaxis willing to take us I understood what they were talking about. Right at the entrance to the street from the port there was a huge pile of burning trash. The roads leading out were blocked with a hodgepodge of people playing futbol in the street, trash, small bon fires of god knows what and turned over mototaxis. We had to weave our way in and out of obstacles to find a clear path. All of the stores along the road and in the plaza had their doors half shut, shut or with a person standing guard. There were about 20 riot police standing and chatting in the plaza de armas. All around there was a creepy aura that something was about to happen. Fortunately for us it had already happened and we were just on the tail end.

Iquitos is a chaotic, hot, clustered, vibrant and fascinating city. You could spend an entire week there and not do everything there is to do. The markets are filled with monkey skulls and real tiger skin belts, countless isles every kind of fruit, nut and aji imaginable, and exotic foods. I indulged in eating grilled slugs, piranha, crocodile and a juice made of agroboina, honey, dark sweet beer and other random things I can no longer remember.

Since it is surrounded by water most of the travel involves taking a boat combi. Which is amazing. These boasts are small canoe looking boats, with a wooden roof over the majority of the boat and can fit up to let’s say 15 people. Naturally everyone from the selva can get in and out of these small boats as if they are casually walking off a subway platform. I on the other hand look like an elephant trying to cross a balance beam. Not so smooth.

Most of our adventures in Iquitos involved seeing animals in one way or another. The two notable trips were one trip to a very depressing zoo that was also accompanied by a swimming hole formed by the Amazon and jungle animals that looked like a giant guinea pig (roughly the size of a small dog). The entire time I saw them I just kept thinking of the South Park episode about the Peruvian Pan Flute. The other was a trip to a significantly less depressing animal rescue that saved animals that were abused, abandoned or on the black market. Since I have seemed to talk forever I will give you only one highlight from each place.

In the animal rescue I saw a fight go down between a cockatoo and a monkey. Please note the cockatoo won. Birds are scary as shit. The monkey accepted his defeat stole as many lichi fruits as he could hold and scampered off. In the zoo with severely inadequately sized cages a group of Peruvian teens were poking their fingers through a monkey cage and taking photos as close to the monkey as possible. As, what I can only think was a form of retaliation for pissing him off, the monkey quickly stole one of the girls scrunchies and no matter how much she begged he would not return it. I think it´s a fruitless effort to beg a pissed off monkey for your things back.

Well here is will I come to a stopping point. If you made it this far I applaud you.