Thursday, August 30, 2012

All these places have their moments...

I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted.  The last three weeks have been a whirlwind for good, bad and sad reasons.  Ideally, I would create three posts for three weeks – all full of witty creativity and insights – but I can’t really do that this time.  I am going to just type and get it out there.  Because that is what my soul just needs to do.

August 12-16 I was traveling with Heifer.  I visited a region called Puno.  We were in the city of Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca.  I was there with a co-worker and the purpose of our visit was multifaceted:  Attend a Pass on the Gift Ceremony, meet with local project holders and project partners, and for me to begin my research on the impact of Heifer Peru’s work with women.  Immediately following my trip, I created a blog post about my experience at the Pass on the Gift ceremony.  Because the trip was almost entirely Heifer related, I am waiting on permission from Heifer International to share more of my experiences there.  It may be posted on the Heifer blog if I’m lucky and I will share it with you all that way.   I can say though, that it was a great trip.  It allowed me to see Heifer’s active work for the first time in Peru.   (For those of you who aren’t completely familiar with my work here and where I am, Heifer’s main office in Peru is located in Lima.  The actual “field work” where we provide training and deliver animals and other inputs is located in the more remote, rural regions of the country.  So I work in an office, but will often visit the field to see, evaluate and monitor projects.) 

I gave a presentation – in butchered Spanish – to a group of campesinas.  I shared my experiences in Nepal and compared the two countries and the challenges that women face in each – there are many similarities.  The women seemed to soak it up and appreciate it.  And I very much appreciated what felt like my first small success/accomplishment with my work here.  It was good for all of us. 

The trip to Puno was a very good chance for me to connect more closely with Heifer’s work here in a personal way.  And I needed it.  I posted earlier about the stages of culture shock and how I’ve been feeling.  Seeing the face of poverty up close provides one with a good swift kick in the gut.  When an old man walks up to you with tears in his eyes and says “Don’t forget us”….. you never will.

Once I returned from Puno I was more fired up about being here.  I returned on Thursday and went to work for half a day on Friday.  The weekend was great.  My boys and I (thanks to Bryan’s exploring) found the San Isidro market.  It is between our house and the ocean and just a short walk away.  What a great find!  HERE we can buy fresh fruits and veggies, bread, paper goods, cereal, flowers….lots of stuff that is way overpriced at the nearest grocery store.  Good to know.

So then back to work on Monday.  All is good.

Then I get an email from my mom on Tuesday telling me that she “hasn’t heard anything about Frances but I’ll let you know if there are any changes.”  What?  This is totally news to me.  I knew Frances was in the hospital recovering from surgery, but what is this about?  Why the need for an update?  So, of course the panic sets in.

Frances Hardin Byrd is the mother of my Dad’s best friend, Paul Byrd.  If you know me and my family you’ve heard me refer to the Byrds all my life.  Paul and his wife Jane were there when I was born and Jane boasts that she was the first to see me.  Paul and Jane have five kids.   They named their firstborn son Thomas Edward after my Dad.   
*Here is where I need an editor.  I have no idea how to explain in words the meaning and importance of the Byrd family in my life.  After the sentence “Paul and Jane have five kids” I could go on for years.* 

I’m digressing….

So Frances Byrd is special – to say the least.  As far as I have ever known, she is my grandmother.  I’ve spent every Christmas Eve, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and a thousand other southern nights at her home with her and her husband, former Justice Conley F. Byrd.  They lived at 2711 Byrd Road in Redfield, Arkansas.  My hometown.   It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I learned that I wasn’t actually a “real” cousin – whatever that means.  They Byrd family was and is my family.

Back to Tuesday, the email from mom, and my panic:  Apparently, Frances’ body had just had enough.  A few weeks ago she fell and broke her hip and was hospitalized.  One of her sisters had passed away on the day of Frances’ surgery.  During her recovery after the surgery in the hospital, her kidneys and lungs just started shutting down.  She suffered from emphysema and diabetes but was a damn tough woman and you would have never known, usually, that she was even sick.  But, the last year has been harder on her body and her mind.  But in the back of my mind, and perhaps all of her grandchildren, she was invincible.  All she had to do was get over this one more road bump and she’d be back in her chair by the window.

But not this time.  Frances passed away on August 22 in the early morning hours.  She was 85.  Her children had had some warning and she was surrounded by love until the very end.

My mom sent me a text saying “Frances has passed” at 8:36am on Wednesday morning. 

This is where I take a break from typing to regain my composure and dry the tears that seem to constantly be on the surface these days…..

By noon on the same day – thanks to my wonderful, resourceful husband and through the speed and graciousness of the Heifer headquarters F&A staff - Davis and I had tickets to Arkansas on bereavement leave.  We departed Lima at 12:15am on Thursday morning.  My mom picked us up at the airport and we drove straight to Redfield to 2711 Byrd Road – where I stayed for almost three solid days. 

Frances also had 3 other children, 17 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.  Her obituary is here.  Something to notice when you read it (and if you don’t read it then I’ll point it out for you) – is that my parents were listed as honorary children and my sister, Bryan and I were listed as honorary grandchildren.  I had the honor of speaking at her funeral alongside some of her other grandchildren and children.

Deep breaths.

You see, I could write a novel about those three days in her home and all the memories I have with her and her family.  Actually, novels HAVE been written about Frances’ family, her sisters and brother and her own parent’s legacy.  I could write about all the stories that were told, the raw emotion her husband expressed as he grieved the loss of his wife of 63 years, the laughter that was shared when reflecting on some of her pranks, the many reflections on how it was such the typical “grandma’s house” like how her candy basket stayed full and no one ever saw her fill it, the dozens and dozens of people that walked through the doors to offer condolences, and the angst  that we all felt as we realized that when we left for our own homes at the end of the weekend, that the place would never ever be the same again.  That this was the last time we would see it just that way.  With her nick-knacks everywhere, her letters and papers she stacked everywhere, the thousands of pictures she kept in albums full of her family and friends, the books, the smell…so much.  It is impossible to describe.  She was one of the greatest women that I’ve ever known.  She was “green” before green was cool.  She was a writer, a teacher, a farmer, a lawyer when her husband was sick, a campaign manager, a newspaper editor, a chemist, a champion free-throw shooter, a fierce competitor, mean checker play – a mother, wife, sister, friend and more.  What she was best at (and this is according to me – one blaring theme of the weekend is that everyone had a different reason for Frances being special) was making every single person that knew her feel like they were special to her for their own special reason.  That you and her had a special bond like no other.  That you were #1 in her eyes no matter what. 
Ms. Frances.  I believe that in a person’s life they can count, usually on just one hand, the number of people in their lives that will love them no matter what.  Like hard core love, through thick and thin.  When you make mistakes, they don’t care.   For me, Frances was one of those people. 

When I spoke at the funeral, I read a letter to her that I wrote a few days after she died.  It was buried with her in her coffin, along with a plastic Easter egg with one Peruvian Sole (coin) inside of it.  She hid the same plastic eggs every year.  Each with a dime inside.  Davis put a bag of turnip seeds in her coffin from him and his Papaw.  She loved my Dad’s turnip greens.  I also spoke on behalf of my father at the funeral.  He is currently in Alaska and couldn’t make it home.  His absence was very weird.  Everyone kept expecting him to be in the back room somewhere drinking coffee and telling stories.  At first, he didn’t have anything he wanted to share at the funeral, but he changed his mind at the last minute and sent it to me.  Here is what I said on his behalf:

“Now that I can think better, I DO have something you can say for me about Frances.  From Tom Tom, from Alaska:  Frances had the house and home where I could go and visit.  Where I could jump off this fast spinning world we live in and just REST.  A place where I could go and listen to her describe the people I would have loved to have met.  People like Alf Hardin, Walter Wolfe, Slick Caw’ze, Orvel Clark and XL Carter.  I could listen to her describe the farms that washed away and the people that made things keep going.  The timing in her speech, that only she had, that went with the stories she told was like a gift, like her.”

It was one of the most moving and intimate services I’ve ever attended.  No one gave a sermon to save souls – it was just a few people who told their favorite Frances story or special memory of her.  It was beautiful.  So many people were there.  She would have loved it.  Family and friends – that was what was most important to Frances.  And afterwards, everyone went to her home and ate.  Just like always.  Just like she would have wanted.

2711 Byrd Road.  This is what home looks like to me.
SO.  I am now back in Peru. Getting a dose of my family and friends in Arkansas was a surreal experience.  It was a great feeling to be in Redfield albeit for a crappy reason.  Bittersweet.  Everyone kept saying that – that they wished I wasn’t there but they were glad I was there.  I felt like I was in some movie, like Fried Green Tomatoes or Steel Magnolias.  It felt like a dream.  And now I’m back and I still feel like I’m in a dream.  I got back to my house in Lima in the wee hours of Wednesday morning and was completely exhausted all day.  Today, Thursday, is a national holiday in Peru and we are home again.  I’m still dazed, still kinda confused, and still wondering just how my world works without Ms. Frances being at the end of 2711 Byrd Road when I get back home next summer.  I’ve ventured out once in the last 24 hours – to the grocery store.  Turns out, life kept moving over the last week while mine seemed to stand still. 

Ms. Frances hated it when I travelled.  I’d be so happy to tell her where I was going next and always surprised when she frowned and said “But WHY?”  She did not want me to move to Peru!

So, Ms. Frances, I’m sorry that I wasn’t home when you passed.  I’m sorry that I chose to travel far away from home and that it worried you.  And now you’re gone.  You’re up there with my Papaw and my other grandparents.  And while it is extremely hard for me to understand and trust, I know that I’m going to be just fine in this country and on this adventure.  And not because you’re looking down on me from there.  But because of what you equipped me with when you were here. Thank you. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Things: Part III

This is the third and final installment of a 3-part series:
1.  Things I Miss
2.  Things that are better (so far) than in the USA
3.  Things that are different, or that I have yet to understand

Let's see how these evolve over the next year.

Things that are different, or that I have yet to understand - so far.

Car Alarms
I don't get this.  Everyone who has a car seems to have a totally obnoxious alarm on it.  When they lock and leave their car - BEEP BEEP!  When they unlock their car - BEEP BEEP!  When you walk by a car and don't do anything - BEEP BEEP!  And the volume is turned up as high as it will go apparently.  And it doesn't seem to take much to make an alarm go off.  I hear them all the time while working and at home.  Car alarms are everywhere.
Many of them also BEEP like a semi when they are in reverse.  You would think that a 50,000 lb semi was making its way through.  Nope, just this:
And of course, with a big city comes a lot of car horns.  I feel immune to it already, but dang.  Lots of car noises in general.

Turns out, toilets are pretty much the same BUT you are not supposed to flush the toilet paper down the toilet!  Ever!  Ahhhhh!  You throw it in the garbage can.  Do you know how hard it is not to do this when you've been doing it your whole life?  And when I forget I'm like "Dang!" and I apologize out loud while sitting there.  No one hears me. 

The guest bathroom in our house.   Nothing but trouble.

The metric system
You don't know how American you really are until someone asks you your height in meters.   I had to do this for INTERPOL processes and a nice young man from the law firm handling my immigration papers was helping me.  When he asked me my height, I said 5 feet, 2 inches.  He looked at me and said, "In meters".  My face must've drawn an obvious blank and he just died laughing.  And not like, "ha ha, that's funny" but more of a "HAHAHA, you Americans!  You don't use the metric system like the rest of the world.  HAHAHAHA."  When I think about it, America doesn't really have a good excuse for not using the metric system.  We were just hard headed.  So I get to suffer for that now.  
But one good thing about making this switch is that when I am riding in a car and feeling car sick (which happens all the time) and a sign says that my destination is 45 kilometers away, I assure my self that it is less than 45 miles so it isn't as bad.  Don't judge my logic.

Fahrenheit and Celsius
They use Celsius here. And I don't have any observations to make about this because frankly, I have not even begun to try to understand the difference.  I do know that zero in Celsius is freezing and that's it.  I just nod politely when someone tells me the temperature in Celsius and try to mimic their expression of either exasperation or relief.  

Lunch is the biggest meal of the day and they start eating around 1:00 or later.  In some of the public schools on the outskirts of Lima and elsewhere, the children come home for a long lunch break so they can dine with their families or each other, and then they go back to school.  In the office where I work, to have a lunch break lasting over an hour is not uncommon.  And the lunches can be 3-5 courses.  
So in theory, dinner should be much later and much lighter.  

LUNCH:  Ceviche - and it is freaking delicious.  This is just the appetizer.

The main course for lunch - This is roasted goat with beans and rice.  I forgot to take pictures of dessert and the soup.
This meal thing is an adjustment for me and my family.  We still haven't found a groove.  At Davis' school, he actually eats lunch around noon and then by dinner time (6:00 or so) he is ready to eat.  When I get home at 6:30, I'm not hungry because I ate a 4-course meal from 1:30-3:00.  And Bryan, who may go the whole day without eating (because he is kind of a weirdo) is totally ready to cook a  giant meal and eat at 8:00.  And I'm still not that hungry by then.  So we're all on wacky schedules and they're not lining up yet.

Open markets
Like, with guts and stuff hanging everywhere.  I love this.  There are markets everywhere in Lima.  Textile markets, Inca markets, food markets, all kinds...  You can go to a market and stop at the different booths or stands and find anything.  Near my office is the Magdalena market and I can buy groceries, cleaning supplies, fresh veggies, some clothes, office supplies, dishes, some furniture and the prices are lower than in the supermarkets or retail chains.  

You know you want some.

No air conditioning and no heaters
Our house, my office, restaurants...none of them have central heating and air.  No biggie, really.   Not having central heat/air in our house is surprisingly not a big deal.  If you keep the windows closed, it's really okay.  You just have to layer on the blankets and have warm PJs.  Currently, during the day it is about 63 degrees in Lima and with the high humidity, it actually feels really cold outside.  It kinda creeps up on you.  I know that as I type this my friends in Arkansas are miserably hot - you have my sympathies.  I'm sure that in the summer, I will be cursing the Peruvian air because I am hot-natured and hate to be hot and like as much artificial coolant as I can get.  But right now, I'm okay.  I like "cold" weather.  

This is a not so great shot from the roof of our house.  This is looking west towards the ocean.  You can smell it from mi casa!!
Which actually leads me to another difference worth noting...
It's winter here!  This whole flip in  seasons is just so bizarre.  It's August and I'm cold.  And Christmastime is hot! Weird!
And really, there are thousands of other differences between Peru and the USA and even more that I don't understand.  But humanity is the same:  love, hate, stupidity, joy, grief, work, home, family, friends...It's all here people.  It's all everywhere.  And as far as the differences go, it simply means that I have a lot to learn,  a lot to experience and a lot of ways to grow. 

Just because...
One of the things that I loved in the USA were sweet potatoes.  And Peru has more varieties of potatoes than any other country in the world and the sweet potatoes here are awesome!!!  Here they are called "camote".  I took one picture before the last bites.  DELICIOUS.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Got to Get You into My Life

I am struggling right now.  I know this is to be expected.  I have read and understand about all the stages of relocating to a different country.  Unfortunately, the excitement has waned and I didn't prepare myself for the harsh reality of ‘culture shock’ and anxiety I have felt over the past several days.

So, I've done more research and I've confirmed what many of my friends who've done this before said to me before I left.  I trusted ole Google, which led me to which led me to a very revealing article.  Very scientific methodology, right?

Symptoms of Culture Shock
  •     a feeling of sadness and loneliness,
  •     an over-concern about your health,
  •     headaches, pains, and allergies
  •     insomnia or sleeping too much (both, actually)
  •     feelings of anger, depression, vulnerability
  •     idealizing your own culture
  •     trying too hard to adapt by becoming obsessed with the new culture
  •     the smallest problems seem overwhelming
  •     feeling shy or insecure
  •     become obsessed with cleanliness
  •     overwhelming sense of homesickness
  •     feeling lost or confused
  •     questioning your decision to move to this place

The Culture Shock Model

Step 1: The Honeymoon Stage
Like any new experience, there's a feeling of euphoria when you first arrive to a new country and you're in awe of the differences you see and experience. You feel excited, stimulated, enriched. During this stage, you still feel close to everything familiar back home.

Step 2: The Distress Stage
Everything you're experiencing no longer feels new; in fact, it's starting to feel like a thick wall that's preventing you from experiencing things. You feel confused, alone and realize that the familiar support systems are not easily accessible.

Step 3: Re-integration Stage
During this stage, you start refusing to accept the differences you encounter. You're angry, frustrated and even feel hostile to those around you. You start to idealize life "back home" and compare your current culture to what is familiar. You dislike the culture, the language, the food. You reject it as inferior. You may even develop some prejudices towards the new culture. Don't worry. This is absolutely normal. You're adjusting. This is actually a pretty common reaction to anything new. Any adjustment can cause you to look back in awe and wonder why you made the decision to change.

Step 4: Autonomy Stage
This is the first stage in acceptance. I like to think of it as the emergence stage when you start to rise above the clouds and finally begin to feel like yourself again. You start to accept the differences and feel like you can begin to live with them. You feel more confident and better able to cope with any problems that may arise. You no longer feel isolated and instead you're able to look at the world around you and appreciate where you are.

Step 5: Independence Stage
You are yourself again! You embrace the new culture and see everything in a new, yet realistic light. You feel comfortable, confident, able to make decisions based on your own preferences. You no longer feel alone and isolated. You appreciate both the differences and similarities of your new culture. You start to feel at home.

Let's just say I'm kinda – nope, solidly - in Stage 3.

More from the article...

"Sounds like fun, huh? Now you may have one of the above symptoms or a combination of a few; it's very individual and unpredictable. I know I tend to be much more emotional than I usually am, crying over simple things that normally I wouldn't even look at twice. Seeing people hugging or someone being kind to me would make me burst into tears. I didn't feel sad. Just sentimental. I suppose that should be added to my list. I also found that I clung to the familiar. E-mail and being in touch with people back home gave me a great source of comfort until I realized that I needed to remove myself from the old and embrace the new..."
Bottom line:  If I don't embrace this place, then this won't work and I will look back on this opportunity with regret because I couldn't let go of my comfort zone.   If I want to make this year work, I have to embrace the differences in culture, language, attitudes and cherish the gift I’ve been given.  That's why I'm here.   While I’ll always be "an American in Peru", I will accept the blessing of being a Peruvian while I can.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Things: Part II

This is the second installment of a 3-part series:
1.  Things I Miss
2.  Things that are better (so far) than in the USA
3.  Things that are different, or that I have yet to understand

Let's see how these evolve over the next year.

Things that are better (so far) than in the USA....

Fresh squeezed orange juice
There is no comparison.  In the grocery stores, there are sections where they squeeze the fruit (pineapple, oranges, nectarines, you name it) right in front of you and bottle it up.  Dee-lish.  Over the weekend, a farmer I visited actually cut the top off the orange for me and I sucked the juice out.  The oranges are better here, period. 

Walking or biking to the grocery store.  
It's so close!  I love this convenience! This is mostly because of where we live, but I am loving it.

Parks everywhere!  And there is one right by our house.
This is especially awesome for Davis.  One day, he spent 5 hours in the park.  It is safe, there are guards outside of it, other kids are everywhere and he can just run and play to his heart's desire.  He has made lots of new friends like this and even has "dates" set.  Last Thursday, he had a date to meet his friend at 1:17.  And it is helping him learn Spanish.

The math curriculum in the schools is better than the USA
The USA might have more gold medals, but sorry, Peru has you beat on this playing field.  Davis, as a second grader here, will be learning math skills three levels above most second graders in the USA.  I'm not sure if this is because his school is private, but it doesn't matter.  Boo-yah!

An abundance of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables
I've touched on this before, but it is just so different here!  I challenge any person in Little Rock to go to any grocery store and buy any produce actually grown in Little Rock or surrounding areas (except for the farmers market once a week in NLR).  But here, it's every day.  Everywhere.  All the time. 
I realize that some of you might take me up on this challenge, so to up the stakes, fill your grocery cart full of produce of multiple varieties, then we'll talk.  One tomato from Warren doesn't count.

Not paying for gas
I know that in my last post I mentioned that I miss my car, and I do.  But having to pay over $3.00 for gas, is not something I miss.  I can pay about $.80 a day to get to and from to work if I use the bus. 

No tornadoes

At night, it is quiet
Relatively.  Almost 10 million people live in Lima.  And no one has air conditioners or heaters so everyone's windows are usually open.  And when I go to bed at night, I can't hear a thing.  Maybe this is because of where I live.  But I find it amazing that it is as quiet here as it is in Redfield at my parent's house (in the middle of nowhere.)

People just do what they gotta do
I'm really not sure how to explain this.  And not that people don't in the USA, but people here work HARD.  Tired?  Frustrated?  Angry?  Not in the mood?  Who cares.  Get over it.  Get the work done.  I have seen people literally walking that extra mile to get whatever needs to be done, done.  This is expressed in the country office and in the communities I've visited.   And maybe it is just because there are much fewer conveniences, but there is a different mentality here.  I am sure I'll elaborate more on this later.

Nice people
(this isn't really different from the USA, but it is)
People are nice in every country, but Peruvians have a beautiful quality about them that I haven't observed in other places.  They want to help.  Have you ever been in a taxi and the driver gives you his name and number and tells you where he lives and the names and ages of his children and his life story and offers to help you with anything you need?  And then he tells you that you are lovely.  I have.  Dozens of times.  (Don't fret, mom.  I don't give them my personal information.)  This obviously doesn't happen with every taxi ride, but it has happened often. People here are just nice.
And flattery is the best way to communicate with me in general.  :-) 

And since I've only been here for 3 weeks, this is what I've got for now.  I know this will evolve and expand.

More to come....