Update and cultural differences

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Hi everyone,

Its been a while since I posted, and I want to give you all a bit of an update on what I am up to here…heres the Coles Notes:

I got back from my trip to Chiclayo, Cuzco and Lima, arriving to an extremely warm welcome from my host family, who welcomed me back with open arms...this made all the difference since I had been pretty homesick in the Lima airport, knowing that I could conceivably get on a plane and be home within 10 to 12 hours.
I started teaching Phys Ed at Fe y Alegria (Faith and Joy), a Catholic school here in Chincha, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. After a few chaotic classes with my 4, 5 and 6 year olds, I realized that I was drastically OVERestimating the level of organization they could handle, and drastically UNDERestimating how much time was needed to explain each activity we were doing. Since then things have been going well and the kids seem to have taken to me (Profesor Da-VEED, Profesor Da-VEED!) and I have pretty much fallen in love with them.
On the other days of the week (Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday) I am still helping to build houses, but work is less frequent and less intense because Blaise, the Canadian Oblate brother who runs the whole operation, is on vacation in Canada and he is the one who approves any new construction.
Last week, we had three Canadian visitors here, as a part of a Canadian trip to see the work that Oblate priests are doing here in Peru. Since Blaise was out of the country, and the Canadians spoke no Spanish, I was their translator. It was a great experience…I got to see new parts of town and meet people in the community that I had never met before, and I learned a lot since the Canadians were full of questions that I had never even thought to ask. It was also great to practice switching between Spanish and English, and I realized just how far I have come with my Spanish so far.
Also last week, I had my birthday (24 years old!), which involved being woken up at 6:30 in morning by my host family serenading me. For lunch (the main meal of the day), my host mother then made my favourite Peruvian dish, the specialty of the Chincha area: Carapulcra sauce (made with dried red pepper, potatoes and peanuts) and Sopa Seca (pasta with basil and a local spice called achote). It was so good that I ate until it hurt (4 platefuls) and then I ate it again for breakfast the next morning too (due to the general deliciousness of my host mothers cooking, and my tendency towards gluttony, my waistline is expanding…surprise surprise). And at night, we ate some cake, drank some beer and danced…all in all, a pretty great birthday.

Now that you all have a bit of a background, I want to talk about some cultural peculiarities, or differences that Ive noticed so far. Keep in mind that Im not an anthropologist, this is just how I see it.

This is probably no surprise at all…but religion is not the same in Canada as it is in Peru. Before I left, I was aware of the following differences (easy to find in a good encyclopedia), and Im assuming many of you know this as well:
-the vast majority of Peruvians are Catholic, while Canada has more different groups of Christians (Protestants and Orthodox), as well as Jews, Muslims, and Hindus
-Peruvians are more likely to describe themselves as religious, while Canada is more secular, with a larger population of agnostics and atheists
-Peruvians are more churchgoing, while many Canadians who describe themselves as believers do not attend church (or organized services) regularly

This nuggests of info, however, really don’t quite describe just how different religion is for Canadians and Peruvians. I would put it this way: religion is a cornerstone of life in Peru, in a way that it is not in Canada. It is absolutely fundamental to the Peruvian communities I have seen, and this is not the case in Canada.

In Peru, as in all former Spanish colonies, the centre of the town (or Plaza de Armas) is a square with a church to one side, government buildings to another and a mix of houses and businesses to complete the lot. The Plaza de Armas is the centre of life in the town, and Peruvian churches reflect this. The central parish in Pueblo Nuevo (the part of Chincha that I live in) is so much more than a church…there is a discount clothes store and bookstore, where donations from abroad are sold at extremely low prices; a kitchen which sells food at prices cheaper than anything available off the street; a clinic, where a doctor can be called in for those who cant afford a private consultation, and discount medicines are sold; an auditorium for 600 people, by far the largest public space in Pueblo Nuevo, which is used by any group in town that needs to address a large group of people; a psychologists office, with free consultations (this has become extremely important because of the traumatic effects the 2007 earthquake had on the public here); and plenty of multi-purpose rooms for all kinds of activities – addicts support groups, choir practice, and so on. In short, the church is the community centre, and the only option for support for the many people who are too poor to afford things otherwise. Where there is a need, the Catholic Church (as the major denomination here) seeks to meet it, with the belief that we should help the poor.

At one time (for example, when Anne of Green Gables was written), things were similar in Canada - the church played a central role in peoples lives. It was understood that Sunday would be a day of rest, and that at some point you would go to a service. The church was the centre of social life, and if you didn’t meet your spouse in the one-room schoolhouse you were taught in, there was a decent chance it would be at church picnic (okay, that is pretty much taken right out of Anne of Green Gables).

This isn’t the way things are in Canada anymore…our society is more secular, and many people are happy about this. In some circles, religion is seen as a force for bad in the world…something that divides people, and makes them feel bad for doing things that are perfectly natural human instincts. Im not trying to romanticize the past, or suggest that things were better before. I have met plenty of people who have very bitter memories of religion in Canada – being unable to marry or even fraternize with people from other religions, children born out of wedlock being shamed for not knowing their fathers, and of course, the residential schools. But what I do want to suggest is that as more and more Canadians have become less religious, our society has lost something as well.

I also don’t want to romanticize religious life here, because there are definitely many problems. The presence of the Catholic Church in peoples lives does not stop some absolutely deplorable things from happening: robberies, especially in the poorest areas, which lack the security of a house and makes the people an easy target; abuse and neglect of spouses and children, since the breadwinner sometimes spends a large chunk of his paycheque on alcohol and drugs; and unethical behaviour by factory owners, who break labour laws by making their workers work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, because they can replace them if they complain, and they can bribe the authorities that they need to. And at times, I suspect that Catholic teachings might be hurting, not helping…such as in the case of the plethora of young, single mothers, who probably never received the sex ed that could have helped in their decision-making. Additionally, some of the problems that plague the Church in Canada – specifically the pedophilic abuse of minors – are said to occur here as well, but given the stature of the Church in Peru the cases are kept under wraps.

That being said, in my opinion, the best aspects of religion (read: Catholicism) in Pueblo Nuevo are: the way that on Sundays, almost everyone in the community leaves their place of residence to meet and mingle with other people in the community; at mass, people have time to reflect on the way they are living their lives and if there is anything they should be doing differently; the ethical message that there is more to living life than making money and buying things with it; and the good works that are done in the name of Christian charity. At their best, this is what religious communities in Canada do, and continue to do today. And I believe that as Canadians have slowly abandoned religion, they haven’t replaced the good aspects of religion with a secular equivalent: time to meet with others in the community, time to reflect, doing good works for those in need, a belief in the value of ethical behaviour – and not the in assumption that power and wealth are inherently good.

When my Beyond Borders professor, Joanne, visited Peru last month, she told us about being in Uganda and watching a British TV special with the celebrated atheist Richard Dawkins debating the value of religion in modern society with a devout Christian of some sort…at the end the audience was polled and over 90% said they believed that religion was a force for bad in society! At the same time she was visiting all sorts of Church-based groups who were the boots on the ground and the community organizers in one of the poorest and most AIDS-affected places in the world, helping some of the worlds poorest citizens.

Things just aren’t as rushed here in Peru…if people plan on meeting you at 8, its generally okay to show up at 8:15…for those of you who know me well, this is great news because I have a bad habit of showing up late for things. Except that in Peru, its not really a bad habit, its called showing up when you need to! And as in most of the developing world, any time you do anything that requires technology (booking a flight, withdrawing money, using the microwave), theres a decent chance that it will inexplicably fail on you. The website you are using to book a flight wont load, and you cant use your credit card over the phone; the ATMs that have the PLUS sign on them to indicate that foreign debit cards can be used in them just wont work, with no explanation; and the occasional blackout will take away electricity.

Im sure that for a lot of people I know, this would be a nightmare, but Ive done okay with it so far. Basically, the best strategy I have come up with is to figure out what is incredibly important (Do I have money on me? Where is my passport? When do I need to book my flight?), and give yourself a huge lead time when addressing any issues with them, because you can bet that something will go wrong. For everything else…don’t worry about it too much, things will sort themselves out.

I also think there are valuable lessons to be learned from technology and systems failing on you. For one, you realize the value of simplicity…the simpler your answer to a problem, the fewer links in the chain of events that need to take place, the less likely things will go wrong. For another, the time you spend waiting, or frustrated, is time for you to reflect…suddenly, there is nothing to do but wait, and I think that is something that North Americans are generally uncomfortable with. Sometimes Im at a construction site, all ready to go, but there is something missing and we cant get to work right away…my instinct is to make myself busy but the Peruvians with me generally take the opportunity to socialize and catch up with whatever is going on in each others lives, or in the World Cup.

Buying/Spending money and alternatives
The community I am living in is pretty poor, so the people don’t have the disposable cash that North Americans typically do. They just cant afford to be pulling out their wallet all the time, other than to buy food and transport. If they do go shopping, it is to go to the market for food, and possibly some clothing…although if they want to buy clothing they generally make the trip to Lima, since everything is cheaper there.

The cost of living here is lower, not only because things are cheaper than in North America, but because there are plenty of things to do that don’t involve spending much money. In two months with my host family, we have only eaten out twice, and that was for family members birthdays…its just much cheaper to eat at home. Instead of socializing by going out for coffee, drinking or dancing, the people I know play soccer at least 3 times a week. It only costs 1 sol per person to rent the cement court we use, plus another sol if we share a couple litres of pop afterwards. If you want to go out and see people on the weekend, you can go to the Plaza de Armas at night and just hang out (it helps that the weather here is pretty good – warm and dry, by Canadian standards).

Don’t get me wrong, there are still advertisements, and flashy displays, and the market is an absolute chaos of people trying to get you to buy something from them. But since many people cant afford to buy things, they find alternatives – and often that means doing things for themselves. As North Americans, we can buy our way out of most problems we are faced with…feeding ourselves (tv or microwave dinners), building shelter (architect, contractor and subcontractor), and washing our clothing (ie, the laundromat). In some cases (especially in the case of microwave dinners) the bought solution really isn’t the best, but we don’t know how to do anything else, so we just keep buying…and as such, we have lost a lot as a society – traditional knowledge passed down through generations. I also think that every time we buy a pre-made solution, we lose confidence in ourselves…we are reliant on that bought solution to feed us, clothe us, clean our clothes, entertain us, etc. I think that the average Peruvian, if dropped into the wilderness somewhere, would fare much better than the average North American.

I have some more thoughts, but Im out of time for now, so Ill stop here. I hope you are all doing well!