Struggling as an “involvement junkie”

Hello, my name is Kyle and I have an involvement problem.

It sounds funny, but this has been true my whole life. For the last eight or so years of my life, I have been involved in the maximum extracurricular activities possible. I thrive on a varied list schedule that includes music, volunteer work, theater, religion, writing, sports and much, much more. I also like to excel in these interests and take positions of leadership and extra involvement.

As a result, my days are often packed. While studying at Macalester, 17-hour days involving four org meetings, two classes, a work shift, a choir rehearsal, and laying out The Mac Weekly were not uncommon. It’s how I make friends, it’s how I challenge myself and it’s how I grow. I’m not bragging, but pointing out one of the largest struggles I’ve faced here:

I feel woefully uninvolved.

In an average day here, I get to work at 8:30 and leave around 1 for lunch. I’m back at 3 and then here until around 7. Then I go home to relax with my family before bed at 10:45. I also don’t have regular weekend plans outside of attending church for a couple of hours on Sundays.

You might say, well look you’re working a lot of every day! Yet, as you know, I’ve been struggling to find relevance in the office. I’ve had a few unsuccessful attempts to be more involved and work on an evaluation of their program, but most days I sit in the office without making even the shadow of a contribution.

I’m struggling with just sitting around. I’m struggling with boredom. And time passes slower. I’ve been here less than two months, yet moments from September feel like they happened half a year ago. Likewise, boredom allows me to dwell on moments of sadness like I’ve never been able to before.

Specifically, I’ve spent the last week distressed over the death of my 19-year-old cat Arthur. I always knew it would be sad, as he’s the first part of my core family to pass away. Yet without any distraction, it’s filled my thoughts the last few days.

Added on top of all that boredom is that I realize I’m not sure how to make friends outside of organized activities.

Yet, I would be remiss if I failed to mention the other end of the extreme: over-involvement.  Specifically, my level of involvement brought me to a fairly low point and I found myself in need of regular counseling sessions for the latter half of my senior year and following summer.  Granted, there were other issues besides my busyness, but it was that stress that led me to reach out for help. It’s why the title and framing of my involvement as an addiction does not feel too crass to use.

I sat down with Paco recently to talk about how I feel bored and under involved here and without any knowledge of my past, he touched on that very issue. Specifically, he said that he believes there is a reason I am here and that good things may come out of a year of relaxation. Likewise, many YAVA (specifically, Peru YAVA) have emphasized how important patience is to my year. They recognize how challenge it is to “practice patience” on this level.

Given my recent history of over-involvement, I can agree that there may be some benefit to a slower year. Plus, there may be some important growth out of a more attentive grieving process to the passing of Arthur. And it’s so important to know how to just make friends without some support system like work or a club.

Still, I’d love to start contributing to CEDAP and move from being a complete stranger to one with connections outside of my house.

I can help make that change happen. I have tried to take more initiative in the office and asked to sort files. Also, I have continued to play soccer with the guys of CEDAP, flaunting my lack of talent. I’ve decided to explore the Halloween night celebrations I’ve seen advertised around the city. Yet, I’m most hopeful for an invitation from David, a co-worker I have bonded the most with so far.

David is hosting a lunch on Saturday, which aims to raise funds for the high school which his daughter attends. I have no idea what to expect, but I think it is well worth the 10 S/. (roughly $4) to go out and just be with people in the city.

I may have been joking in my Onion-style, mock journalism post last weekend, but honestly, I would like some steady friends. I want people to spend time with. People who help me engage during my time here, because to me that’s a central purpose of my place here.

Sitting at table

This is another blog based on my experiences at Monte de los Olivos, the little church I attend here in Ayacucho. This comes from a sermon offered by Paco this past Sunday. True to his seminary-professor self, a few moments were highly technical.

Preaching on the passage Matthew 26: 31-49, more commonly known as The Last Supper, he discussed the connection between this passage and the liberation of the Jews in Exodus. As he put it, you cannot ignore the prior story of liberation if you want to understand this passage.

He also touched on several other technical elements of the story and brought up many a hermeneutical point.

While his point on The Last Supper-Exodus parallel was helpful to my own understanding, I was most moved in my own thoughts by an attempt to bring us, the listeners into the story.

On two different occasions, he spoke about our connections to the story.

First, he spoke about the disciples’ reaction after Jesus announces that one of them would betray him that night. Raising his voice to imitate a disciple, or really anyone trying to clear their name, he said, “¿Quién, yo?” or “Who, me?”

Humorous though it might be, Paco said, we can all relate to the disciples here. Jesus has just dropped a bit of a bomb and their first thought is their own part in what Jesus has brought up. They want to make sure they are not the betrayer “whom it’d be better if they were never born.” It makes sense. Betraying Jesus would definitely mess with your chances at salvation, even if it was prophesied.

After that, Paco moved through the story, discussing Judas. He laughed at Judas’ decision to name himself after Jesus explains that the betrayer was the one who put his hands in the bowl. Admittedly, he would make a terrible mole. Paco did not focus on Judas, however, he moved onto how Jesus must have felt.

Specifically, he asked us to consider how we would act in Jesus’ position. Could we remain so calm with our betrayer sitting at the same table?

Honestly, I really don’t like those comparisons. There’s too many things about ours’ and Jesus’ life that are way too different for these comparisons to carry any weight. For one thing, Jesus had a lot more on his plate at the moment. Specifically, that he knew he would die within 24 hours and it was all part of “the plan.” That’s not something with which anyone has experience and ignoring it might help bring you closer, but it is bringing you closer to a different story.

Still, I want to entertain the comparison. If we think in terms of scale and scale down from what Jesus was experiencing, I can see how a place for Paco’s question: “Could we remain so calm with our betrayer sitting at the same table?”

Let’s consider the fact that none of us, save a select few living far more exciting lives than me, have or will ever sit at a table with someone whose betrayal would mean our death. More likely, we might sit with one who has betrayed our trust through lies or even more likely “tattled” on us for our own wrongdoing. I’ll focus on the first, because that betrayal does not involve a personal shortcoming and is therefore closer to Jesus.

Lies are terrible. They can ruin trust in even the deepest friendships. Yet, we are capable of sitting at a table with them. It’s uncomfortable, sure, but it’s not impossible. When needed, we can manage a conversation with little or no moments of anger.

Now put that in Jesus’ situation. Cause it’s Jesus, everything is inflated by a large factor. The betrayal will lead to Jesus’ death. The betrayal comes at the hands of one who swore to follow him, not a friend. The betrayal is also part of some greater plan. Most importantly though, this betrayal carries much more weight.

And Jesus, being Jesus, is able to manage with about as much grace as we can manage being around a liar. In fact, I’d say Jesus manages even better than we might in our scaled down equivalent situation.

So as Paco preached on about each moment of the passage, working verse by verse like a good seminarian, I pondered what message there was in making this comparison. I came away with, “all things are more extreme” with Jesus.

A bigger betrayal? A larger level of forgiveness. Like most messages in this blog, this isn’t a new one: “Jesus and the triune God’s love is extreme.” Still, I’ve never arrived at the point through this route and as my high school physics teacher, Mr. Prziedwiecki used to say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” And like complex mathematical proofs, I feel more assured that I can find more than one path to this message.

And how does that message get applied? Through grace. If Jesus could sit at the table with Judas, arguably his greatest betrayer, then Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit can sit at table with us no matter our “pre-existing conditions.”

Again, not original, but so powerful when truly taken to heart. In fact, it’s unsettling. Consider the greatest sinners of our time, such as Abimael Guzman who led the Shining Path in Peru or President Fujimori who led the violent government response to the Shining Path. God could sit at table with them and even those who have sinned even more, even when we could not.

I do not know whether we are called to welcome those individuals. Still, I do know that we can take heart knowing that God can and does offer us a seat at the table no matter our history of shortcomings.

Feeling Oniony: Young Adult Volunteer just searching for some friends he can neglect

So, I get sarcastic sometimes and sometimes it’s how I deal with situations I struggle with. Specifically, it is helping me deal with the struggle of finding communities within not only a new city, but a new culture. I kept telling myself I just missed familiar people so much, but then I realized that I was lying to myself if I thought that I would somehow always be spending time with them. It’s not a new realization, that we fail to realize the importance of what we have til it is taken away. Still, I think this is a fun way to talk about it and maybe contains a takeaway message for those of you at home.

Young Adult Volunteer just searching for some friends he can neglect

Ayacucho, Peru

Ayacucho-based Young Adult Volunteer, Kyle Coombs, admitted that the toughest change has been the lack of friendships to forget to cultivate.

“Honestly, I have access to clean water, incredible food, internet, and cable TV,” he said of his standard of living. “What I don’t have are people I can forget to hang out with or who have concerts or sporting events I can fail to attend.”

Coombs said he has struggled going through life without the underlying guilt that he really should give Jimmy a call because it’s been months and who knows how junior year is treating him? He is craving the chance to create elaborate excuses for his choice to stay in to drink booze and watch Doctor Who instead of barhop on a Friday night.

“Seriously, I’ve got so many excuses racked up,” he said, exasperated, “But I just have nowhere to apply them. And this is the kind of thing where you either use it or you lose it.”

The volunteer admitted that his use of Facebook remains fairly unchanged.

“I message with friends and family a bunch to stay in touch,” he said.

Still, the contact feels different now.

“Instead of being a halfhearted replacement for actual interpersonal communication that I could get with a phone call or visit to a friend’s,” he reasoned, “Facebook is basically all I’ve got.”

He added that the phrase “Oh we should Skype sometime!” actually includes the intent to Skype.

“I mean that’s a go-to empty gesture for my generation,” he said. “So that’s been a huge change.”

Upon further reflection, Kyle admitted that there may be some wholesome lesson about not neglecting friendships and cherishing those around you.

“Of course, if I start self-actualizing on that level I will definitely have to check my privilege,” he conceded.

Being a forastero

Last week in church, the passage was Matthew 25:31-46, informally known as “The Sheeps and the Goats.” The passage tells a bit of what will happen when the Son of God* comes into glory, specifically related to what will happen to the people. The Son of God separates the people with the “sheep” on his right and “goats” on his left.

The sheep receive the Kingdom of Heaven because of how well they treated the Son. As the Son of God puts it, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’”

Meanwhile, the goats get a much worse deal and are cast out into the eternal fire prepared for the devil. This is because they did not do what the sheep did, they were neglectful of the Son of God.

Logically, both groups are fairly bewildered. Neither remembers encountering the Son of God during their lifetime. The sheep want to know where they went right, the goats want to know where they want wrong. As it determined the rest of their eternal lives, it’s a fair question.

The sheep hear, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” The goats get: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

I could delve into what this means for grace and whether or not this is a veiled promise of damnation, a more allegorical tale, or something more, but honestly I don’t have the scholarly training for that. And I’d rather talk about the unique role this passage played in church last week.

I have been attending Monte de Los Olivos Presbyterian Church since I arrived. It’s the closest Presbyterian Church to my host family’s home and they have a close relationship with the pastor and his family. Emerson, the pastor, is a few years younger than Paco, while their children are similar ages.

On church this past Sunday, Pastor Emerson, covered the basic meaning of the passage. Most of the sermon was in Quechua, but I surmised from the sections in Spanish and my small knowledge of Quechua that he mostly covered the basic meaning of the story: “Be sheep, not goats.” He also added that being faithful was not all one could do. He added the message that church attendance is irrelevant without social work. Mainly, I had to agree with him.

He also added that it is challenging to see times when you can set yourself apart as a sheep. In fact, he added we may often find ourselves realizing we acted more like goats or that those around us seem to be goats. I found it interesting that within this church, the social action angle was the tougher part of being Christian. Within my cultural and relatively privileged setting, being good has been the easy part. Praise, belief, prayer, and testimony is what’s challenging.

Then, Emerson turned to pointing out ways we can all be sheep. He talked about giving alms to the poor and helping in the world, caring for the environment, and several other obvious examples. Then he turned to me and pointed that I was a “forastero,” or a stranger, and he hoped the congregation must welcome me.

Then he asked me how I felt here in Peru. Struck dumb, as this moment came immediately after I had tuned out during a lengthy bit of Quechua, I managed to say, “Bien.” Emerson saved me by suggesting words like “acogido” for welcomed and that generally, he hoped I felt more a part of the community. I nodded, saying that I did feel welcome, and thanking my lucky stars that I am used to being a sermon metaphor. (I’m looking at you, mom and dad.)

Mainly, I was not sure how to respond. I’ve largely received a kind welcome into Peru and into the church. Emerson and his wife have especially reached out to me and given me a hug, but otherwise most of the congregation has not reached out in any special way. We shake hands during the passing of the peace and exchange niceties, but otherwise nothing beyond that.

I know everyone wants the story of the church member that bends over backwards to make me comfortable or shares their limited resources to give me all they possibly can. That’s just not the reality though. I am at this point, a normal member of the church, and slowly entering the community. There is no accelerated path towards full participation and acceptance just because I am a gringo.

Instead, I am trying to take a more active role. Emerson offered for me to play guitar with him and accompany the music. I seized the opportunity only to find that the guitar was as far from in tune as it could be with old and creaky tuning nuts. I attempted to get it into tune before the service started, but unfortunately found that the process required a half an hour I did not have.

So, I played quietly, but at least I played. I found that the majority of songs in the church are based around the key of D and Emerson alternates between a C and D in the base. It’s not particularly harmonically complex and as a result I could fake my way through the service. Hopefully, in the future, I can be even more active, tune up and learn a few more songs. And perhaps, I’ll push them into new harmonic lands.

More importantly, it felt right to be up front playing. It’s often been my role in church services. It keeps me engaged and allows me to have a more prominent role in the community. I want to move from an observer to a participant and this will help.

And I think for me, that’s part of being a sheep or a goat. If I sat passively and without participating I would not be doing right by my own personal talents and call this year. When I engage with the members of this church, I am doing so with the Son of God.

So that’s a rough take on what could possibly be a much better written sermon. All the same, I like the metaphor. When I am being present with the congregation, I am being present with Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit, or whatever I feel like labeling the divine that day.

*I think the translation is really Son of Man, but as I’m not getting into historical linguistics and semantics, I’m defaulting to more inclusive language.

Evaluation: Not something you can do overnight

As my job description becomes increasingly clear, it also becomes increasingly unnerving. Unnerving in the sense that I don’t believe it’s possible. At least, it’s not possible in the way I was trained.

I’ve been asked to perform an economic evaluation of CEDAP’s programs in Peru. For a while, I wasn’t sure what an economic evaluation meant to CEDAP. Specifically, I did not know if they wanted estimations of the effect of their actions or determining causality of their programs.

The first isn’t so hard. It involves me learning about the programs and working out an idea of the expected outcome. For example, I can look at the program “Nutrihojitas,” which provides nutritional supplements to kids in kindergarten. I can do some research and work out a relative idea of the relative effect of this type of program from existing research. Similarly, I can do that for most other programs.

Now causality is much harder. Basically, it involves an approximation of the counterfactual, i.e. what would happen if the intervention didn’t occur. Then you compare the two. The best way to do that, or the “gold standard” of development economics, is to perform a randomized control trial. Randomized control trials involve a treatment and demographically similar control group. The idea is you can check what would have happened without the intervention with the control group. It’s a great way to say: “Look, this highly similar group of people did a lot better with our program.”

CEDAP does not have a control group. Now there are other ways to fake it with which I am fairly familiar like instrumental variables or regression discontinuity. Unfortunately, CEDAP seems to lack the data necessary for those as well. Plus, there are several other government and NGO programs in these communities, so there are convincing alternative reasons for positive changes in the communities.

So I finally asked Tulia what she was seeking. In a quick answer, she said “la diferencia sin programa y con programa” or a look at causality. This comes swiftly after Tulia gave a speech about CEDAP at her small birthday celebration a week ago. She hopes to provide a more comprehensive economic report on 2014’s programs to help grow CEDAP.


I’m hoping to have a lengthier conversation with her about the evaluation next week. Specifically, I need to figure out how comprehensive it should be. Likewise, I’d like to know exactly what criticisms she has received in the past when she said that people frequently ask for an economic evaluation.

Also, I’m not going sit on my hands. I’ll pull together what I can for an evaluation of 2014, but more importantly, I am planning to help CEDAP move into a more program evaluation-focused mindset.

For example, I am hoping they can add economic surveys before, after, and even throughout the competition. Likewise, I am going to push them to include a control group if and when it is possible.

Additionally, I want to help them move away from paper towards digital records. This means they use thousands of sheets of paper during the development competition, Pachamamanchikta Waqaychasun (PW), which means “Let’s Conserve Our Mother Earth.” Specifically, I want to design an app or program that can be run off of a basic cell phone for the scoring during PW, as well as to complete the evaluation process.

Tulia said she likes the idea of automating the process. Plus, it will help me learn to program an app, which is a pretty useful professional skill. Essentially, everybody would win and it would help them evaluate in the future.

I also considered the possibility of helping set them up with academic evaluation in the future. I contacted a former professor at Macalester about possibly connecting CEDAP’s data with her International Economic Development course. There could be a class project around evaluating the data even after I leave in July.

Mainly, it’s a start. It’s an attempt to add some sustainability moving forward and some definition to my job. And we’ll see what happens.

Pachamamanchikta Waqaychasun: Miscues and lessons

This past week, I went to the various communities in two rural districts outside the city of Ayacucho, the campo. I’m unsure of the geographical distance, but the drives to the both districts, Totos and Maria Parado de Bellido (MPB), took about three hours* each.

The visit was part of the final evaluation period for CEDAP’s development competition, Pachamamanchikta Waqaychasun, which is Quechua for “Let’s Conserve Our Mother Earth.” Between March and November, the participating families, communities, and delegates** work to implement various developments within their homes. CEDAP sponsors workshops on conserving soil, purifying water, local farming, and organizing the home to help. After the final evaluation of the familes development, the two top-scoring families, delegates, and communities receive a monetary prize.

I headed to Totos for four days and then MPB on Friday. If you’ve been reading closely, you’ll notice that I spent four less days in MPB then I had originally planned. In that one day though, I spoke to members of four communities in MPB who were at market in the district capital, Pomobamba. I made the call to take a shorter trip to MPB in favor of regrouping.

During the four days in Totos, I struggled with various challenges. First, I have little experience being the lone outsider. I have been to rural areas before, but this was the first time I went as the lone gringo. I find it much more challenging. Yet, I could have overcome that because it is central to the YAV year.

Instead, it had more to do with feeling disconnected from CEDAP. It’s no secret that I communicate less than I want with my supervisor and the rest of the office. On this trip though, I realized this is limiting my ability to help.

This lack of communication is partially a survey I prepared flopped. The goal was to get a representative sample of the economic lives of the poor. It also flopped due to a few of my own mistakes, like forgetting to include certain questions as I rushed to put together a survey.

Also, I could not walk the evaluators through the survey because they learned about it three days before the evaluation started. Understandably, they did not like the additional work and in many cases they did not fill it out. They added that many families felt the survey was invasive. I never got that answer when conducting the survey, but I expect that’s cause of the novelty of speaking to a gringo. There’s loaded racial stuff there, but pragmatically, it was helpful.

The logical step should have been for me to stick around longer and be the one feeling out the survey. Yet, I realized that even when I was filling out the survey the results were far too inaccurate. I will still try to do some statistical analysis, but it is likely to flop for various issues ranging from statistical power to sampling bias.

Overall, I got a little overwhelmed. Once I learned that I would need to stay in MPB with only the evaluator and no members of CEDAP, I felt it was best to take the daytrip and then come back home and regroup. It reflects a shortcoming, but at the same time I do not think it will limit my work.

Basically, it was unrealistic to think the survey would work. You need more than two days of planning to pull off an informative eight-day survey. Instead, this trip was about familiarizing myself with districts and the families therein, which I did.

Totos is larger and fairly spread out over different altitudes, but full of largely similar communities. MPB is more densely packed around its capital, Pomobamba, with equally homogenous communities.

Plus, I interacted with families and gained experience overcoming language and cultural barriers. I often felt uncomfortable pushing for concrete answers, but I also enjoyed working with them to get accurate approximations of the answers. Plus, I enjoyed the challenging of translation into and out of Quechua as needed. Many thanks to the various members of CEDAP, for helping there.

I also realized that I need to learn to articulate a more nuanced opinion of poverty that encompasses the differences between urban and rural poverty, and its structural variants.

I did not meet a family that was struggling with hunger. They had plenty of food. In fact, many of them are net sellers of food, which was a huge finding for my economic evaluation. Plus, they are consuming the crops they grow instead of selling them for less nutritional calories like noodles and rice. That seems to be the result of CEDAP’s encouragement and push for them to keep a small garden for vegetables and fruit, in addition to their larger cereal plots.

Also, every family had electricity, water, and access to propane gas. These families have access to radio and television. Granted these were all second hand, but many families also had cable. They have cell phones and some access to the internet.

Now, I need to be careful here. I do not want to fall into the trap of saying that these families are not struggling, so the help is unnecessary. Instead, I need to consider how our standards of livings differ. Not how mine is higher, but how they differ based on different circumstances. For example, none of the families had bank accounts. Yet, no one complained from the lack of a bank account.

That being said, it’s a structural issue. Structurally, most did not see any reason for a bank account or access to loans, but that does not mean they should not have access. Insufficient credit markets are a real problem in the developing world.

Likewise, many of the families had pleasant lives when things were going well. One family noted that someone had recently stolen a large amount of their guinea pigs that they were planning to sell. The result? They just lost them. There was no way to find the burglar and no insurance market.

Essentially, sudden shocks can quickly snowball into major issues. Of course, communities provide informal insurance markets via support, but that has its limits. For example, it does not account for community-wide natural disasters.

This more comprehensive approach will be invaluable moving forward.

I also confirmed my discomfort with the method of competition. During the evaluation we entered families’ homes to take photos and assign point values to how well they organized their wardrobe or made a map of their house. It felt very paternalistic.

Of course, some tasks were good. Points are also awarded for keeping a compost and how well the families maintained their garden. Others had mixed results. Points are awarded for families’ initiatives. Sometimes that meant points for a list of family values and at other times it had to do with whether they setup a solar shower.

Overall, I do not like the point system. Ignoring paternalism, it turns development into a terminal goal. Plus, it is ineffective. Organizing your clothes in a wardrobe is not going to revolutionize your standard of living if you do not farm well.

Also, I don’t think CEDAP considers whether a family was already doing stuff before the evaluation. Also, I saw nothing recognizing the fact that richer families are more likely to be successful in implementing changes. So essentially, you could win for stuff you were already doing and it enables the rich getting more money.

Somehow, I plan on letting CEDAP know my reservations about PW. I really hated walking into people’s homes and taking photos of their rooms. A member of CEDAP, David, indicated that the competition is voluntary for privacy purposes, but I’m not sold.

Yet the most important lesson, was that I need to be more forward about communication with other staff members. Not only will it help me feel more relevant, but I’ll be able to help CEDAP far more. Many shortcomings in my survey could have been reduced had there been more initial communication.

I’ve already started working on that. I directly asked Tulia what she is seeking out of my economic evaluation and learned that I may need to reconsider how I do my work over the year.

*Keep in mind that Ayacuchanos rarely drive faster than 80 km/hr (50 mph) and many of the roads wind around the mountains.
**Delegates are those who have won in the past, but no more.

Last-minute information and getting over it

I have a confession to make. When I am out of the States, I become a massive U.S. sports fan. I go to great lengths to catch games. For example, I stayed up well past 4 a.m. two weeks in a row to watch the 49ers successful run for the 47th Superbowl from an Irish Sports Bar in Cambodia.*

Last week, I learned that the 49ers would be playing the St. Louis Rams on Monday Night Football, which my host family receives via the cable channel, ESPN Vivo. Upon learning this, Paco said we would have popcorn and beer to watch the game. I got excited to share a likely win by my favorite team with Paco.

Until Thursday night, when I bumped into my supervisor, Tulia, after work. I informed her that I would be attending the evaluation period, which starts Monday. The evaluations determine the scores of those participating in the CEDAP’s development competition, with modest monetary prizes for the winners. As I understand it, I’m headed out to talk to various families about their economic lives. Tulia asked if I had a sleeping bag, as we’d be staying overnight in the communities. I responded that I did, but I felt a moment of weird, out-of-place panic.

THE EVALUATION PROCESS IS AN OVERNIGHT AFFAIR AND I ONLY JUST LEARNED THIS NOW? My previous trip to the rural community had been a daylong event and from casual observation I had started to think this was the norm. My shock manifested itself as dread that I would miss Monday Night Football. Somehow, I thought, I had to find a way not to miss the game and my plans with Paco.

Then, I thought that perhaps overnight stays occurred in the three or four communities with evaluations in the afternoon. As most communities had morning evaluations, I felt less panicked. After all, Tulia wanted me to survey communities in both districts and so I’d need to be quite mobile during the week.

The next day, I spoke with Hiladio, who is directing the evaluation, to clear up my ignorance. They in fact would stay overnight, but he had not realized that I needed to go from district to district. That was a little confusing, as I remember him being involved in the conversation when Tulia said it would be best for me to survey throughout the districts.

So we set to work trying to figure out a way to get me between districts. I suggested, somewhat selfishly, a plan that would let me come home Monday night. It allowed me to get to an even split of communities between both districts; however, it also involved me traveling back solo to one of the districts on a 3 a.m. bus, Tuesday morning.

I’ve never done that before and I’m not comfortable going the road alone just yet, so I scratched my plan to watch the Niners.

I don’t want to dump on Hiladio. My ignorance could be my fault. It may be that he said to me in passing that we’d be staying overnight and I’d have to dedicate to one district, but I missed that. Maybe he assumed it was obvious, I mean had I even looked at a map? No, this isn’t all on Hiladio. No, Hiladio

Instead, I want to note the monumental scheduling effort that he and Silvia (another co-worker) put in to ensure that I would be able to first visit the Totos district followed by the Maria Parado Bellido between October 13th and October 21st. I’ll even get to stop back in Ayacucho Thursday night, to check the score and watch some highlights.

Yet, I’m still feeling a little apprehensive about the trip, which is disappointing. I mean, this is basically why I came to Ayacucho. I’ve pictured myself in this role professionally. So where is my excitement? I started find the answer through conversations with a few trusted supporters, a fellow Niners fan, my father, Jed and Jenny, and God**. Their support ranged from snarky, to understanding, to logical.

“[The 49ers] will probably be fine without you,” my friend and fellow fan, Alex, said.

“You’re just a little too used to being settled,” my dad suggested. He went on to discuss his own similar struggles with leaving the familiar and comfortable.

Jed and Jenny pointed that this is an amazing opportunity before me to step up and participate more within the organization.

And God, I guess God, reminded me to stop being so whiny. To remember that I’m here to accompany. To keep in mind that I’m hardly sacrificing much for the opportunity to help CEDAP secure further funding through a comprehensive economic evaluation.

Of course, that last bit scares the crap out of me. While I’ve found a good social atmosphere at CEDAP, I have to admit they haven’t provided the most vocational support. Learning I’d be staying overnight at the last minute is dwarfed by the fact that I still have no idea what an “economic evaluation” means to the members of CEDAP.

Where I would have preferred conversation, I was mostly handed documents pertaining to the various projects. I’ve got lots of questions, some of which I’m aware of, others I’m not (i.e. didn’t realize I should ask if I’d be staying overnight).Come Monday I have to dive in and start evaluating and hope my work pleases.

That being said, I haven’t sat passive in the office. I wrote up a survey to be completed during the evaluation which will include information on the incomes and general economic facts about each participating family. My hope is to create general statistical representations and possibly utilize some econometrics in my economic evaluation. Hiladio approved my final survey, though he was highly resistant to the idea of offering this to each family, which I understand. In fact, I had to insist that he make a copy for each family.

Of course, I’m expecting something to go wrong with my survey. There are far too many pitfalls that we didn’t get a chance to cover. Perhaps the income information will be separated from their relative family? Perhaps most families will not be able to fill out the income information? Perhaps the evaluators won’t understand what I was getting at? The fact that Hiladio only made enough copies for each family on Friday only adds to that worry. I wish we had talked more leading up to Monday. But we didn’t, so no use operating on wishes for the past. I just have to operate on hope for the future.

This might help explain why I’m feeling “apprehensive, but excited” as I told Jed and Jenny. I’m hoping that after eight days in the field I’ll move toward “hopeful and inspired.” Even if my survey completely falls apart.

Mainly, I think I just have to do as much as under my control from now forward. For example, I can ensure that in the 11 communities that I visit, the evaluators understand to keep the survey attached to each family’s score sheet. At least that way, I can ensure that half of all communities will be surveyed correctly.

I’m kind of disappointed in myself to write this blog. That I struggled this much with being pulled out of my “normal” to go do what I actually kind of came down here to do. Yet, writing this is part of my process. It’s helping me move from perceiving this as a challenge, to a grand opportunity.

And more importantly, it’s helping me realize that getting information like this last-minute, doesn’t really change much. Yeah, I’d prefer to have known more about how the evaluation period operated two weeks ago. But what does it really change? I’m still going, and outside of missing out on a little homeland, pigskin, comfort, I’m not sacrificing much. That’s sort of the joy of being a YAV, there’s not much keeping me grounded and unable to work for justice and one particular manifestation of God’s vision.

So, unfortunately, I’ll miss the game. And I’m operating on hope that I’ll get the best information possible from these evaluations. Yet no matter what, I learned to be a bit more proactive moving forward. The burden of my knowledge shouldn’t fall on the members of CEDAP. It may be in their best interest to help keep me informed, but they can do that best when questions point out my ignorance.

* I realize that’s problematic, given recent scandals and systemic problems within the NFL, but I’m going to put my thoughts about that side for now.
**That statement felt odd because I’m still figuring out how to openly acknowledge my faith.

Pizza in Peru: Baking simply?

It is official, I cooked my first meal for my host family. I had a lot on the line with this meal. Before arriving, I’d let them know that I enjoy cooking. I do, in fact, enjoy working in the kitchen, yet no matter the language, that is always communicated as: “I cook really well.” I’m not really sure where this unfortunate misinterpretation of words originated, but it put much more at stake than I might have intended.

Per their request, I tried my hand at making a pizza. To anyone who knows my history of internet-based kitchen literature, it may come as a surprise to learn that the meal, went quite well. Paco paused between a slice of the ham and pepperoni pizza and a slice of the spinach and red pepper pie to suggest I make pizza next Saturday. Celia suggested that I teach each of them to make pizza some weekend soon. Celia’s mother, who was visiting for the day, repeatedly thanked me and repeatedly insisted that the meal was “rico.”

Yes, the baking went well, and this was not an insignificant accomplishment. It took no small amount of quick thinking and (I’ll admit) some ingenuity to navigate the gaps between the equipment called for in my dough recipe and the equipment in Paco and Celia’s kitchen. Whether it be kneading in place of a dough hook or closely monitoring the baking process in an oven without marked temperatures, the process was far more thought-intensive and as such, rewarding, than I expected. Call it a new branch of living simply: baking simply.

I’d cooked pizza once before, with fellow member of Trinity Presbyterian Church and former pizza shop manager, Steve Parsons. Steve taught me how to use premade dough and canned tomato sauce to make a delicious pizza. As it turns out, neither of those ingredients are readily available in Peru.

I am not so sure about the tomato sauce. Celia bought ketchup when I asked for “salsa de tomate,” so it very well may have been a communication error. Call that the first hiccup of many I overcame in this battle to bake well.

No matter, I just had to create my own pizza dough and sauce. I’d never made a dough before, but with a recipe, it couldn’t be that hard! I found a simple enough recipe online and provided a list of necessary ingredients to Celia.

She bought all the ingredients and everything looked in order (save the ketchup, but we’ll get to that later.)

So I started out Saturday morning. First the recipe called for 1 ½ cups of warm water and 2 ¼ teaspoons of yeast. I looked around and realized there were no measuring cups around. Uh-oh, I thought, this is a measurement heavy recipe.

I’ll take a moment here to point that I am pretty sure Celia and Paco do not have measuring cups by choice. They live in a large house and have many possessions. No, I think measuring cups are just less essential in the recipes of the family and therefore are far less likely to find themselves in the family budget. My point is, the difference seemed cultural, not economical.

Not looking to eyeball my way through the recipe looked for anything with a clearly marked measurement. Soon I found a set of plastic cups labeled at 3 oz. A quick google using Celia’s phone, showed me that 3 oz. was .375 cups.

I grabbed a coffee mug and set to testing how much it held using water from the sink. The answer, 1.5 cups, just the amount of water I needed. So I poured a coffee mugs worth of recently boiled water into a cold bowl and used a smaller spoon to put the yeast into the water.

Moving onto the mixture of flour, salt, and sugar, I grew dismayed that the yeast did not seem to be bubbling in the water. Perhaps, there was too little?

I looked up the amount of teaspoons in 3 oz., which turned out to be 18 and found that six spoonfuls of water filled just a sixth of the cup. So I doubled the yeast and found that after some stirring, the mixture started to bubble gloriously.

Satisfied, I made sure to double all other amounts of salt and sugar in the dough recipe and kneaded the dough together by hand. Wrapping it up in a plastic bag, I placed the dough on the sill to rise.

All seemed in order, so I moved to making the sauce. I found three week-old tomatoes in the fridge and chopped them up and dropped them in the blender. I secured the top to prevent a messy, red catastrophe and pressed “Pulse.” And nothing happened. Later, Celia explained that the blender no longer worked, but in the moment I spent five minutes investigating until I discovered that the blender did not actually have blades.

So I moved on to the food processor. Having not used one before, I resigned myself to learn by doing and soon had one bowl of tomato juice and another of gutted tomatoes meat. I dumped this in a pot, which after a simmer I realized would not be enough for two pizzas of 10 and 12 inch diameters.

Apprehensive that my pizza my taste like old Domino’s, I dumped ketchup into the pot to make the sauce go further. In the end, I had just enough sauce to cover both pizzas and luckily, the toppings and cheeses covered up any notable vinegary taste from the ketchup.

At long last, I put on a small show for Ani and Franco as I tossed the dough and spread the crusts in their pans over corn meal (that stuff is non-stick magic, by the way). I plopped the meat lover’s in the oven, keeping a close eye over as the pie baked. As that pie finished, I did the same with the veggie lover’s pie.

By some magic, I caught each pie as the crust browned and cheese turned a light gold. In the moment I was shocked. The pizzas looked, not only edible, but their smells made me realize just how hungry I was after three hours of intensive kitchen work.

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My own pride and the compliments of Paco, Celia, and even Celia’s mother aside, the true moment of victory came when that evening Ani, who resists putting anything edible in mouth that isn’t cheese or slathered in butter, ate two (!) slices. I’m not sure she realized that I made the pizza and I’m not sure if that would have changed her behavior, but all the same I beamed.

So why share this with you? One, it’s my blog and I can write what I want, but also I feel overcoming these unexpected gaps between a Western, privilege-assuming recipe and the kitchen of Paco and Celia has an interesting message for living simply. If you are patient and stay logical it is completely possible to eat richly and live simply.

That said, it is pretty annoying not to have measuring cups and I doubt having them would have diminished my feeling of accomplishment.

Celia and Paco know what they’re doing

That’s how I feel writing this now after an unexpectedly uncomfortable intentional conversation with Celia and Paco. As I got up and start cleaning the house, Celia and Paco exchanged a look and asked me to sit down. The look made it clear, Celia and Paco had discussed having this conversation and to my mind that is rarely a positive sign.

You see I value intentional conversations as much as I tend to find them uncomfortable. In fact, I’d say that’s common for most people. They are essential to addressing issues and maintaining the health of a community, but it’s a rare person whose skin an intentional conversation doesn’t make crawl a bit. It’s easy to feel as if you’re making mountains out of molehills, or when you are the perpetrator of an issue, like you took the relationship for granted. Of course, I admit, I tend to be sensitive, so this experience may be uniquely my own. Still, I’d caution that most people feel this way to some degree, it’s a pretty convincing explanation for the rarity of intentional conversations.

So I was glad that Paco and Celia pointed out that they regularly try to speak with the YAVs they host. Essentially, they check in with YAVs to see whether they can improve and also point out areas they’d like the YAV to change.

That put me somewhat at ease, but the conversation held several uncomfortable moments. I soon realized that I had misinterpreted a few things and as such been less respectful than I thought. And as a temporary member of this family, that’s the last thing I want to do.

Largely, we spoke about logistics within the household, most of which was fairly run-of-the-mill. Additionally, we discussed how I could better interact with Ani and Franco. Specifically, how I could help them to better care for the kids, who are both going through a rebellious, barrier-challenging phase. They apologized that I’m often on the receiving end of this behavior and added that I can help by ignoring them when they act poorly and reporting misbehavior.

I’m hopeful that with time I can do a bit more than engage in approved tattling. More than anything, this strategy doesn’t really work in practice. I mostly just gather a laundry list of offenses to report to Celia and Paco later. For now, this is the best plan to make sure we are a united force. As time goes on, I hope both this phase ends and I will work out how to have authority beyond glorified tattle-telling.

So, most of that went well. Other than the general discomfort at the forced nature of these types of conversations, most everything seemed alright. And then, there was a terrible moment. A moment that felt like a first major failure during my YAV year.

Paco and Celia said that they were uncomfortable with the photos I had posted of their children on Facebook. As they explained, Peruvian culture puts a larger premium on respecting the privacy of children. For example, children’s faces are blocked out on the news. Without express permission of parents in Peru, you cannot show a child’s face in any public media.

I was confused at first. I thought that I had their permission. I remember asking Paco if I could take Ani and Franco’s photo to share with friends and family, and he said sure. As I look back now, that wasn’t even close. I let my excitement at getting to post photos cloud my judgment and lead to a major offense as a YAV.

And I feel terrible about it. Mainly, I don’t see how I could have screwed this up. I’ve heard the speech more times than I count and can condense the takeaway message in one quote: “Don’t assume that’s appropriate to ever post a photo on social media.” I just got so excited about sharing photos of my fantastic companions that I screwed up.

And no lame, “Well you didn’t say anything for the last three weeks,” excuse has a place here. That doesn’t really matter, in fact, it makes it worse. I’ve been acting out of order with the rules of the community for three weeks now.

As I understand it now, I should ask explicit permission before posting any more photos. The rule is not, “Never post photos ever,” but more “Check in. We the parents will approve this.”

Naturally, I appreciate and plan to follow that rule. I also immediately asked if I should take down any or all of the photos I had shared. I was offering a Band Aid for a gaping wound, but I stand by it. After repeating the question several more times to be sure, Paco and Celia said I could leave them up, but I should change my posting habits.

I left that conversation shaken and feeling as unsure of my place within the family. I violated their trust, though they are highly understanding. For a moment, I considered I might as well give up on the YAV year. “Don’t mess up social media” could be a fifth core tenet of the program. Yet, two things helped me move forward.

First, is a message I take from my mother on the “Promise of God/Assurance of Forgiveness/Pardon/whatever-you-want-to-call-it” within the PC(USA) tradition. In my church, we use the words, “The Good News is that in Jesus Christ you are free to begin again.” As my mother often read it the words were, “The Good News is that in Jesus Christ you are free to begin again, again, again, again, again, … , and again.” That indefinite repetition has obviously struck with me, whether she repeated just four times or 14, the message was clear: God’s grace is there for every single screw up you acknowledge and for which you seek to repent.

So that, naturally helped. Yet, even more important, more critical was the realization that Paco and Celia chose to speak with me. They chose to address the issue. And after the discussion, we moved on. I made pizza later that afternoon. On Sunday, we walked around the neighborhood for Election Day.

I am so thankful to Celia and Paco for initiating this conversation and for seeing the importance of open dialogue. In reality, we have a lot to learn about each other. There is no reason to try and do so passively and via context clues, like people often do. We have voices. We can communicate. So why not do it?

Paco and Celia know what they are doing. They do not shy away from intentionality, knowing all the positives it offers. And I’m hopeful you can find similar compassion in the company you keep.

My first excursion: Reflecting after observing

After a false start on Monday, I saw CEDAP’s work in action on Tuesday. I also learned a bit about fellow workers’ worldviews and personalities, which challenged my own opinions. Additionally, I saw the effects of global warming in real time, which was just startling.

I went with Alberto, an older, opinionated engineer who directs the “Dimanización de economías” program, Marco, an assistant engineer at CEDAP, and Paul who drives for CEDAP excursions. Dynamization of Economies involves giving more economic opportunities to the communities than they previously had. A large part of the “Dimanización de economías,” or Dynamization of Economies is a reservoir project. The reservoirs are used to provide water during dry seasons, which are growing more frequent and longer.

We visited the community of Santa Fe, in the Paras district of Ayacucho, and Catalinayocc in Chuschi, closer to the city of Ayacucho, to evaluate the progress of reservoir projects and drop off materials to finish the projects. Santa Fe’s new reservoir was near completed, while Santa Fe’s had at least two days of soil and rock removal left. This was our second attempt at the trip, having found out Monday morning that the local leaders were not ready for our visit. Having traveled in Latin America before, I wasn’t shocked by the false start, but I was apprehensive as I woke up at 4:30 a.m. for the second day in a row.

Luckily, we were off by 6:30 a.m. after stopping for breakfast and picking up member of the community we’d be visiting, Gordofreddy. And over the next two or three hours we navigated the llama-dominated roads.

This was the largest crowd during our drive. They just sort of takeover the road while the shepherds move them along.
This was the largest crowd during our drive. They just sort of takeover the road while the shepherds move them along.

First, we went to the Santa Fe community in Paras, a district of the state of Ayacucho. During the drive, I saw mountains covered in snow and as we reached our destination, at an altitude of 5,000 meters, the incline and slickness of the road proved too much for our Toyota Hilux. (Let me just give a shout out to Toyota for making the Hilux. I felt like I was actually in an off-roading commercial navigating the mountains.)

Very snowy mountains  at 5,000 meters up.
Very snowy mountains at 5,000 meters up.

We started walking over the mountain, through a half-inch layer of wet snow, and arrived at two reservoirs. The smaller one held around 10,000 cubic meters, while the one next to it, still under construction held around 60,000 cubic meters.

Alberto explained that these reservoirs serve to provide water for the local pastures and livestock herds during seasonal periods of drought. He also said that it was critical that I perform an economic evaluation* of these reservoirs. He also added that the larger reservoir cost just 13,000 soles, and compared that with a similar government project, which cost 1,000,000 soles. He said the government wastes money paying supervisors and other workers, which CEDAP does not face**.

Just 10,000 cubic meters of water there.
Just 10,000 cubic meters of water there.
60,000 cubic meters of water!
60,000 cubic meters of water!

Marco and Alberto surveyed the reservoir pump, which was not functioning correctly. They quickly solved the problem, saying that a bolt needed to have another nut added. Honestly, I’m not really sure about the specifics, but it was clear that they solved the issue. I was in a strictly observational role on the trip, save a few moments where I provided minimal manual labor assistance.

While I missed the finer details, I couldn’t miss the snow melting all around me. Alberto explained that just 10 years ago there used to be feet of snow on the mountain. After maybe an hour and half at the reservoir nearly all the snow and melted away and was flowing down towards the reservoirs. As we slowly climbed back towards the truck, the quickly flowing runoff only added to my struggle through the thin oxygen.

After an hour and a half all the snow had melted.
After an hour and a half all the snow had melted.

Of course, this goes far beyond a personal inconvenience. It has completely disrupted the water cycle and changed the ecosystems of the area.

Later, Marco suggested to Alberto that climate change was the primary factor leading to the lack of food in this area. Alberto said it was a factor, but he said it was secondary. Marco suggested that perhaps it was the increase in population, but Alberto said that was also secondary.

Instead, Alberto suggested that leading factor was a loss of communal knowledge for how to allocate and manage resources. This surprised me and I’m unsure whether I agree.

It’s not difficult to work out why communal knowledge stopped spreading after the Green Revolution and twenty years of political violence. The Green Revolution pushed for increased output via Western-technology-focused methods. While it did increase food output, it ignored the value of some cultural practices. The push of the Green Revolution in the 70s followed by the years of violence hindered the transfer of knowledge for an entire generation. So I can see how this knowledge could get lost.

Still I don’t know if I completely agree.

For one thing, I find little use in prescribing a leading cause for the poverty when so many factors are driving this issue. Plus, who is to say that the old ways to manage resources would hold up as the temperatures rose and altered the water cycle? And the population has started to increase in the area, leading to an increase in demand on the land, unlike previously known.

I like that CEDAP is they are sustainability focused, but not technology-neutral. New technology, like community-funded reservoirs, can help reduce the water crises in a sustainable way. So I wonder why Alberto argued that a lack of communal knowledge was to blame when a brand new technology is being implemented.

My response is that perhaps I misunderstood Alberto. Communal knowledge can grow and change, but that only happens when there is communal learning. And that process was most certainly stopped in the last forty years.

I’m hopeful that as my confidence increases both in my Spanish and in conversations with this thoughtful, but opinionated engineer, I can discuss this with Albert in the year to come. After all, communal learning is vital to any community.

*This term keeps popping up. I’m really hoping to get a chance to figure out exactly what an economic evaluation means in the context of CEDAP, because I think it means something very different to me. Look for a post on that later.

**Of course, I wonder whether CEDAP replaces the role of the supervisor. This will be part of the economic evaluation and it may not be one that CEDAP appreciates at first.