Today marks my one year anniversary of living in beautiful Chacas, Ancash! This means that I have exactly one year to go on this Peace Corps journey! Leading up to this day, I have done a ton of reflection about my first year and what I feel proud of in my service and what things I would like to do better in my next year. I also referred to that emotional map I wrote about a few months ago, and was able to justify some of my feelings of not have gotten enough done in my first year. It is a natural feeling that I think many volunteers feel after their one year mark. Time flies in Peace Corps and volunteers come in with such grand ideas, but as soon as projects start picking up, a year is already gone!
In this post, I want to share my biggest challenge of Peace Corps, so far. My host family. I want to start by saying that I have so many volunteer friends that have amazing host family experiences. It is like they are really family and stay connected for the rest of their lives. This is not my case, however.
I live in a very conservative part of the sierras of Peru. People are generally quiet, closed, and indirect. My host family is no different. I believed that all of my problems with my host family were because of my cultural insensitivity, so I decided I would work on it. My first 6 months with this family, I focused on learning the language as my host mom speaks Quechua better than Spanish, so her Spanish grammar is often mixed with Quechua. Also, I learned the dynamics of my family. My host family runs a bodega out of their home so there were drunk men at my house daily, often trying to persuade me to drink with them or yelling out at me. My host mom regularly asked me to work in her bodega while she left the house. I would tell her I was not comfortable being alone in the house with drunk men, and she would not take no for an answer until I just stopped giving her the opportunity to ask by staying very busy all of the time. After 6 months of making little progress with having my family open up to me, I spoke with my Peace Corps Regional Coordinator to get some advice about how to strengthen our relationship. I made adjustments but nothing seemed to work.
I hit a breaking point a couple of months ago when my host mom gave me a long talk about how she and her friends decided I was in Peru to find a man, because I have a Peruvian boyfriend. She also told me that the community would only remember me for this and not for the work I was doing. She would gossip about my relationship with the drunk men in her bodega and I was hurt by this. Peace Corps suggested that I start looking for a new host family, but that I should consider what she was saying about me and that I need to be careful about how I am perceived because I have a boyfriend. This was a bit of a shock to me, because I am working very hard in my community every day and, not to mention, I am a 28 year old adult.
I began looking and interviewing new host families, but at the one year mark, Peace Corps Peru volunteers can choose to live independently, and after my first host family experience I had a lot of hesitation about choosing a new family. I decided to stick out my remaining 2 months with my family and focus my energy on moving independently and moving forward.
After searching option after option, I found the perfect apartment for me right in the Plaza de Armas of Chacas. Peace Corps sent staff to come look at my apartment, negotiate a lease, and tell my host family I would be moving out. In front of Peace Corps staff, my host mom took the news surprisingly well considering she would be losing my income. She said she understood and then my move was not mentioned again until weeks later. Out of the blue one morning, my host mom broke the news to me: she would not let me take my cat with me.
I was shocked. I had paid for everything for my cat and she lived in my room and slept with me every night. I had also told my host family several times that I would be taking her to the United States with me after service. She was my family when my host family was not one. I tried to negotiate with my host mom saying that I would pay her whatever amount she wanted and I immediately found 2 cat replacements, but she said no. It became clear to me that her intention was to hurt me.
I called Peace Corps to see if they would have better luck with my host family but my host dad responded by saying that it was simply impossible to take the cat as my family needed the cat to catch rats in the house. Peace Corps called me and said there was nothing they or I could do- I just needed to let go of my cat. I was devastated and in tears holding my cat when Jorge showed up to help me move some of my big furniture. I explained to him what happened and he walked around to the front of my house’s bodega and tried to negotiate with my host mom. My host mom and dad immediately started yelling at Jorge and insulting everything about him. My host dad even threatened to beat Jorge up and said that no one would care because it was “in” his house. When I explained this situation to Peace Corps, I received a response saying that they were disappointed in how I handled the situation since they had already tried to negotiate with my host family and had told me I need to drop the issue.
It was a heartbreaking loss for me, but has also been an incredibly eye-opening experience. I have learned where I have support. My Peace Corps friend Jessica was the first person I called and she immediately backed me up (like always). My other Peace Corps friends Chris and Joe have been there for me as I am trying to move on from losing my cat, Killa. I have also had countless people in my community offer me animals to make up for my loss and it has been incredible to see support from so many people, even if they don’t really understand why I am so upset about losing an animal.
Now I am officially moved in to my new apartment and so many things are immediately looking up. I am closer to work and town so I have been able to be involved more with spontaneous events in the Plaza de Armas and at the high school. I am also getting to know a whole new group of business owners because of my proximity to new businesses. I feel more connected to the community and I feel happy to surround myself with people who support me rather than living around constant negative energy. I am also incredibly proud of myself for having the endurance to live a year in an uncomfortable situation. I know more challenges will arise during my next year of service, but I feel ready and empowered to face them head on.