Besides aiming to promote sustainable development in developing countries around the world, an important aspect of the Peace Corps program is to encourage a friendship and a cultural exchange between Americans and other countries – the host country will learn about American culture through the PCV but also Americans will have the opportunity to learn about the host country’s culture. Clearly by living in Peru, I am learning a lot about Peruvian culture and I am also imparting some information to Americans reading this blog. However, there is also a program called “World Wise Schools Correspondence Match” where PCVs can volunteer to correspond with a class of students in the US inspiring inquisitive questions and answers about the country the PCV is working in. Conveniently, my father is a middle school science teacher and I am participating in this program with his class.
In my last letter response, I answered some great questions from the students and since it might be of interest to others, I thought I would post it in my blog:
Dear Students of Calkins Middle School,
Happy Holidays and Happy New Year! I hope you had a wonderful winter break and I heard it was a white Christmas in Rochester this year. Mr. Cowen sent me a list of your questions and I will try to answer a few of them in this letter:
What foods do people eat?
First of all, people in my community eat 4 meals: “desayuno” (breakfast), “almuerzo” (lunch), “lunch” (late afternoon snack) and “cena” (dinner). “Desayuno” and “lunch” are light meals that always include bread and tea/coffee/other hot beverage, although sometimes people also eat fresh cheese or fried egg (“sunny-side up”) with their bread. The large meal is during “almuerzo” (unlike the US where the largest meal is usually at dinnertime) and it usually consists of both “sopa” (soup) and “segundo” (main plate). “Cena” is lighter, typically leftovers from “almuerzo” or sometimes nothing.
The traditional foods are dictated by what types of food is available (and as I alluded to in my first letter, the types of food available is dictated by climate – what crops can be cultivated in agriculture and which animals can survive in the high altitude and cold temperature). The main crop is potato (as well as a tubercular vegetable called “maca”) and the primary livestock are sheep, cows and camelids (llama, alpaca, vicuña) although guinea pigs, pigs and chicken are also raised in small scale by households. For larger meals, my community eats A LOT of potatoes, rice and red meat (usually sheep or pig). The traditional dishes are usually different combinations of these foods. Because of the cold weather, soups are popular and typically contain red meat and potatoes although sometimes various types of vegetables, noodles and/or grains. “Pachamanca” is a unique traditional dish (that is DELICIOUS) that can consist of up to 5 different types of meat (sheep, pig, chicken, guinea pig, rabbit…or on occasion even llama!), “papas” (white potato), “camote” (sweet potato), “habas” (type of green bean/pea) and ¨humitas¨(looks like a tamale but is actually sweet in flavor) served with tasty sauces. However, many times it is prepared with only some of the ingredients more commonly just white potato and sheep or pig meat. Although it can be prepared in other ways, the traditional method is in the ground using alfalfa and covering in the dirt to cook. “Cuy” (guinea pig) are raised in many households but unlike the pets in the US, they are raised with the intention of eating them. In Junín, “cuy” is usually prepared with a peanut sauce. At every celebration, there are large “tortas” (cakes) – sponge cake with icing.
While all cooked food is prepared with fresh ingredients, in the small stores in my community there is an abundance of packaged junk food (candy/cookies/soda). With the exception of larger cities, there are no grocery stores (I miss Wegmans!) in most areas of Peru.
What sports do people play?
The three main sports are “futbol”, “voleibol” and “pelotaris.” “Futbol” or soccer is played on a large grass field or more commonly on a multipurpose cement court (“lozo deportivo”) which has small soccer goals but also basketball hoops. I have yet to see a real basketball in my community, although I think on rare occasion kids shoot soccer balls like a basketball. “Voleibol” (abbreviated “Vole”) or volleyball is very popular with the women. I am very impressed by their skills and intensity. “Pelotaris”, played by men in the community, is basically handball. There is a wall with a horizontal line and the players must hit the ball above this line and only allow the ball to bounce on the ground once. It looks very painful though because the ball is hard (usually they remove the outer part of tennis balls so it doesn’t bounce as much) and they hit it very hard with bare hands…It is one sport that I don’t have a desire to try.
Have you climbed the Andes mountains?
Not exactly. I live in an unusual plateau in the Andes Mountains right next to Lake Junín/Chinchaycocha (I actually help work in the National Park of Lake Junin – Reserva Nacional de Junin), so the area is flat with only a few hills. Other regions of the Andes have better “climbing” sites.
Do you speak Spanish?
Yes…or as much as I know right now! Everyone in my community speaks Spanish, but they refer to it as “Castellano” to differentiate from the Spanish spoken in Spain – there are some small differences in pronunciation and word use. The older people in my community speak (or at least understand) Quechua, which is an indigenous language in the Andes mountain range. Quechua is not taught in school and overtime is rarely spoken within households; as a result, the younger generation does not speak nor understand Quechua and it appears to be slowly dying out. Since no one speaks English (aside from the one English teacher who knows limited conversational English), I am forced to learn Spanish quickly. My success as a volunteer depends on it, but also it is crucial for my social sanity.
Navidad in Peru
In light of the holiday season, I thought I would add something about the Christmas traditions in Peru. Unlike Rochester, NY or most parts of the US, my community is not religiously diverse. Nearly all of the community members are Catholic or Evangelical (I would say everyone, but I am not completely sure). As a result Christmas is a community celebration, whereas in the US it is more centered around family. Starting the 23rd, Christmas music was playing in the central plaza: that day the mayor of the district of Junin came to distribute small toys to all of the children, along with Paneton (a sweet bread that resembles Challah and is filled with raisings and little pieces of fruity gummies) which is traditionally eaten with hot chocolate on Christmas and during the month of December; the 24th the mayor of my town did the same and we prepared a huge pot of hot chocolate for everyone in the community. The big celebration of Christmas is at midnight (since it is believed that Jesus was born then) and there are fireworks, exchanges of “Feliz Navidad” (Merry Christmas) and opening of presents. The 25th during the day is very relaxed spending time with family and community members and there is a huge feast at lunchtime. My feast included a soup with vegetables and red meat, potatoes with an “aji” (hot pepper) seasoned oven cooked chicken (not normally prepared here), and rice with “cuy” in a peanut sauce; although I have heard that turkey is also a traditional food served at Christmas. Paneton and hot chocolate was my breakfast. I am assuming this is a little different from your holiday meals!
I look forward to more of your questions!