It’s been a while…Why? Well January and February were rough: incredibly busy yet boring and lonely after being back in the US for the holidays and remembering what I was missing. Incredibly busy, because I was running around (or rather hiking around) day after day, up and down mountain after mountain, installing stoves. Boring, because everyone except for what felt like five families went to Lima or Huaraz for the winter vacation.
I can pretty much say I am done with the installation of the stoves (out of the 41 stoves I only have three left to install). THANK GOD! I will never go into construction work of any form. EVER. Really, EVER.
Okay, so there were parts of the stove installation process that were fun. For example, I enjoyed the days where it was just me and a mom carrying and cutting heavy adobe bricks and throwing mud around to build the stove as we laughed together at how ridiculous this all was. I think I was given more food these past few months by the beneficiary families than all the food I was given last year put together. I have at least 200 potatoes sitting in my room. Good thing I love potatoes! (I actually hate them, and over the past two months have cooked three in total). I’ve also had days where I have eaten more carbohydrates than anyone should probably eat in a week.
The not-so-great parts… Being in charge of the installation and coordination of the installation and all the steps leading up to it, without much if any help. My health promoters are great, but when it came to the stoves there wasn’t really a role for them to play as I was the one who had to program the dates to visit the families and check on their tables and mud before the stove installation, then visit again to install the stove, and then make countless follow-up visits to make sure the stove was working and being used correctly.
I thought about initially training the health promoters in the stove installation and having them install the stoves for the moms in their communities. Unfortunately, when it came down to it, they are just too busy like everyone else at this time of year (we are in the middle of the planting and harvesting season), and it didn’t seem fair to give them such a responsibility when they were not getting paid for their work and I had the time to do it.
And then there was the day during almost every installation when I had to haul the iron plate part of the stove on my back up a mountain on my own. Each iron plate weighs about 20 kilos (which is a bit over 44 pounds). I recommend finding a donkey or car or anything other than your back.
Everything became a lot more stressful when it appeared that the stoves were not working correctly. I freaked out a little wondering how I, someone with literally no building or engineering experience, was going to troubleshoot this. Thankfully, it turned out that the stoves work pretty slowly in their first days of use as they are not completely dry inside. I also figured out that we had to change the height of a few parts of the stove in order for it to heat up more quickly. After those changes, which meant another big round of house visits and countless hours of extra hiking, almost every mom that was using their stove had good things to say.
I say almost everyone, because there are a few exceptions. Take one of my health promoters who complained to me that her stove was super duper slow even after several weeks of use. I finally made it up to her house, which is literally up—up a mountain for two hours. Thinking of every possible reason as to why it would not be working on my hike up, I started laughing to myself when I walked into her kitchen and saw her cooking on top of the iron plate circles that are used as a cover when you are not cooking (these plates are meant to be taken off when you cook!). In other words she was cooking with her pots on top of the incredibly thick iron plate instead of directly over the fire on top of the holes made for exactly that purpose! She explained that if she took the plates off her pots would turn black, which she was not willing to have. I explained, it’s either black pots or a slow stove, your choice.
In addition to the stresses of the installation “ups” and “downs,” there have been other stove-related “downs.” I had a scare when two of the stoves were missing from the room where I am keeping them before they are picked up by the families. Immediate thoughts when I noticed two stoves were missing were: someone robbed them! Turns out a neighbor wanted to show some family members in a nearby community what they looked like, as they are considering buying one, and so instead of waiting for me to get home and ask me if he could borrow them, he took off with the stoves and I nearly had a heart attack.
In addition to this scare I have on average five people asking me daily, “Where is my stove?” I keep finding myself listening to one grandma after another asking me for a stove. When I explain that the moms receiving the stoves are moms with little kids and that they also came to a number of educational sessions, they often don’t appreciate my explanation.
So on a happier note; recently there have been a lot of “ups.” The stove installations are coming to a close. The moms are overall very happy and appreciative since I worked out the kinks and we made the changes.
Now that the stoves are almost all installed, the parties have begun. We have been having stove inauguration parties with each group of moms. What does this mean? A lot of food and chicha (fermented corn drink, kind of like moonshine). I normally spend the morning with the moms cooking huge pots of rice and potatoes and some sort of meat. By this point they all know I don’t eat meat and are pretty cute when they get really pensive about making something different for me. I normally get eggs from their chickens with rice or lentils or beet salad and of course more rice and potatoes if I’m lucky. I’ve also been making cakes with them at each little celebration with veggies from their gardens like squash or pumpkin or carrots. At a recent inauguration party the moms all thought it would be pretty funny if they had me cut the chicken they had just killed. After I gave in, they thought it would be even funnier if they took pictures of me holding up chicken legs. I’m glad I could give them a good laugh.
Another positive change that has been awesome to witness is how giving the moms a new stove has motivated them to make all sorts of changes in their kitchens. Some of the families have bought transparent metal roof/covering of sorts (I can only translate so much into English these days…). This is awesome because almost all of the moms are cooking in tiny little rooms with almost no light and killing their eyesight.
These roofs of sorts bring in an incredible amount of natural sunlight! A number of moms have also built shelves to store their plates and pots and food. This is another awesome improvement, because before having shelves, plates and pots and the random carrot or tomato could be found strewn all over the kitchen. Some families even built entirely new rooms for the stove. One of my favorite moms painted the walls of her kitchen bright blue (I don’t recommend painting directly over a mud wall, but this mom seems to be happy with it).
Aside from the stoves, things are back in full swing in Llama as classes are just beginning after a long summer vacation (it’s the equivalent to summer vacation in the US even though it’s our winter). I haven’t figured out what or where I will be teaching yet, but I have my eyes set on the youngest group of high school students for a self-esteem course that would include some empowerment education. I’m also planning on working with a group of older high school students on the same sex-education course I attempted last year. This year, however, I am taking it on with a professor that makes a commitment to join me at every class—I quickly learned last year that the combination of sex education, horny pre-teens, and myself got way out of control without the help of an older professor. The trouble-maker of the group last year asked me if there would be a practica for the teen-pregnancy session. I’m also going to continue working with the same moms from the healthy homes project with a year-long healthy homes competition. In other words you get prizes if you keep your home, garden, cuyero, clean and organized.
In addition to all of this, things are in full bloom in Llama as the rainy season is coming to an end. Fields of corn can be seen everywhere you look. And it’s not just any type of corn. Families plant numerous varieties of corn with seeds that have been passed down for generations within the family. These seeds grow sweet white corn (that I notoriously ate raw last year before cooking), corn used for making popcorn, purple corn used for a traditional drink called maiz morado, and corn to feed the chickens. Fields of wheat and barley and beans spread out everywhere you look. These days I often find myself stepping on fruit that has fallen from trees above me on hikes, whether it is a fig or an apple, orange, or berry. That always makes me think that I am pretty lucky to live in a place like this even if it has its “ups” and “downs.”