Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Deeper into the Onion

The longer we stay in one place, the more of our new world reveals itself to us. Each day is yet another layer of skin off of the onion.

At first glance, Peru is an awe-inspiring natural wonder, with mountains steeply rising meters away from our front door and a crystal blue sky framing both the landscape and the human activities bustling and hustling below us. This image retains its potency, but as time passes, we look up to admire it less and less often. We focus on the issue of the hour, or the goal for the day, forgetting the beauty that drew us here, that continues to beckon to millions of visitors every year. The natural beauty and grandeur of Pachamama is like a deep, clean breath, helping us to refocus on the things that are important.

I need a deep blue lungful right now. Because as I unknowingly trod across the delicate garden of this culture, I learn more and more about the individuals, the families, the groups, and the country itself. And not all of it is roses. First-hand cultural education is necessarily full of tripping hazards. The more involved we are with the people around us – one of our main goals in this experience - the more we learn, and not always the easy way.

I, like many extraneros, came to Pisac wanting to do some good for someone other than myself. I wanted to volunteer my skills and time and give to a group that needed what I had to offer. I am so much more fortunate than so many people here. And so I taught ceramics to high school kids and English to elementary and high school kids. I offered after school lunch-and-learn English sessions. I ferried delicate kiln-loads of student projects back and forth between school and the local potter’s studio across town. I made a hot lunch (a daunting task for me!) for kids so they wouldn’t have to walk 45 minutes to their homes and 45 minutes back again just to participate in class.

I paid for school supplies and transported heavy boxes of donated books from Cusco on a crowded bus. I searched high and low for glaze for the ceramics students. In short, I did what any parent would do for their kids’ school in the US. The big difference is that I did all of this in a foreign language of which I can only claim about 25% proficiency, in a new culture whose customs and systems are strange and obscure to me, in a foreign land where I do not know my way around. Hence, I misstepped and made mistakes. I stepped on the proverbial prize-winning rose, resulting in bloody scratches from the invisible thorns of Peruvian manners.

As my big, fat American foot came crashing down, I did not see a valuable garden full of significant blooms and healing leaves, but a weed-choked patch of rocky soil. It was only after I mangled a few plants that I was told that they are beautiful to their owners. Now, I look again and try to see it. I understand the idea, but it is still difficult to truly recognize the nurtured buds from the despised prickle bushes. And so it is with human emotions and the border between individuality and group cohesion. As I go about my daily business, trying to fulfill goals and achieve some form of success, I find that I am, in the end, working for myself, evaluating my work by the standards that I brought with me from home. I am selfishly building my own castle, regardless of whether it truly benefits the people I am here, supposedly, to help. I forget to look up at the grand beauty of the place, forget to remember where I am and why. The garden is not mine.

But even as I acknowledge these things to myself, I grapple with the fact that I personally do not agree with some of the values and ideas widely held in my new community. Some of the purported ‘flowers’ remain weeds to me. Where does ‘working for people who need help’ stop and ‘working against my own standards’ begin? Although I support part of the vision and message disseminated by the different groups I work with, there are some finer points that I find unrealistic and even self-defeating. Sometimes the grand plan, as gorgeous and well-intentioned as it may be, needs to make room for the realities of modern life in an impoverished country. Of course the same can be said in reverse. In the end, these two extremes both are needed to further a stronger, healthier, more stable world.

The fact that I am able to perceive and participate in these conflicts at all is proof that I have penetrated past the surface, through a few of the top-most layers of life in Pisac, the symbolic onion. Through my gaffes, I discover weak spots, the edge between courtesy and real emotion. My errors introduce me to the personal quirks and sensitivities of individuals and I start to understand, slowly and reluctantly sometimes, more about these people I am here to assist and learn from. The deeper I am integrated into this small community, the more opportunity I have to screw up – and to do more meaningful work. In one sense, mistakes offend, but they also mean that something is happening.

Conflicts arise like tectonic plates coming together - the big picture ramming up against the details. Either the plates grind together, turning both sides into dust, or one passes over the other, taking its turn in the superior position this time. Meaningful conflict shines a light on a side of people unknown to the passer-by. For a foreigner, it is a privilege to see, even though at times it may appear ugly. The people in question might find those facets of themselves attractive. Which causes pause. If what we call a blemish, they exalt, perhaps what we ourselves pride, they consider a fault. There is no universal truth. This realization allows us to re-examine our belief systems and decide, now that we see that there is a choice, how we want to perceive character traits, in ourselves, in others and in groups and communities.

Above all, being aware at a level where we can participate, even in unpleasant conflicts, is a reward in and of itself. It is an opportunity that informs us. It broadens our awareness and allows us to experience life differently than we normally would. It is proof that we are more than just a stranger passing through. We are making a difference. The question remains, however, a difference for whom? Is it me that is changed by this new understanding, or the others? Or do we both grow closer to that wide, calm, middle-ground that is acceptance and understanding? That is my goal.

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