2013, a summary (part 1).

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2013 is a year I’m going to put in a box, tape up thoroughly, label “DO NOT OPEN” and toss in my attic.

Figuratively speaking, of course. Though if I could do it literally, I would.

2012 was such an amazing year that I could take my Facebook posts and pictures and organize them in such a way as to accurately describe my year. But 2013 was too dark for social networking and pictures to portray. It was kind of like 2011 in that bad things happened, but the difference was that the tragedies of 2011 created me. The tragedies of 2013 just tried, and failed, to break me.

So instead of a long list of cool stuff that I did in 2013, I’m going to reflect on it in a more abstract way about the things I’ve learned.

I’ll give it to 2013: it taught me a lot about life.

Martyrdom is overrated.

The beginning of 2013 ushered in a great many questions for me centered around, “How can I make the world a better place?” My perception of every person’s sworn duty to this world was to give relentless kindness and generosity toward others. I still believe that’s a noble endeavor, but like all goals, they need to come from a healthy place.

My drive to selflessness was spurred by the idea that I was an empty shell of a person, but I still functioned as a person, so I should thus work toward helping people who aren’t empty. That’s not really healthy reasoning, and I found that the more I gave, the more irritated I was with not being thanked and recognized. I saw myself so high and mighty as to be able to give without wanting anything in return, but what I was asking for in return was blind adoration so it would convince me that I was the saint I sought to be.

I did two acts of excessive generosity this year: one was amazing and I’m hoping to do it again this year; the other, although I don’t regret it, I wish I had handled in a different way.

Though I won’t discuss the latter (in short, do not give to the point where you can no longer help yourself), the former was my trip to Peru where I volunteered to teach English in a shantytown called Huaycan near Lima, Peru. My first experience volunteering abroad is really enough to be its own post, but to summarize, I learned that the most effective way of helping people is to instill in them a sense of community and equality. Charity is an interesting thing in that pitying people does not help them, and our perceptions of “the third world” being somehow worse than the first world are just wrong (the numbering alone implies we’re better somehow). Just because a group of people has fewer things and fewer luxuries does not make them poor. And just because a group of people live in a different way than we live does not mean they want to live like we live.

Because of this, I believe that volunteering is less about charity and is more a symbiotic relationship. Huaycan and the Light and Leadership Initiative helped me as much, if not more, than I helped them.

Family is underrated.

My family has always been my foundation. I owe every success in my life to them. But like all major influences, you only notice how powerful and important they are when they’re in jeopardy.

For years, I never understood the idea that family could ever be a bad thing. I never understood (and still have trouble understanding) the concept of individuality. Why would you be one person when you can be all the amazing people in your family put together? Why wouldn’t you want to grow up to become them? Why wouldn’t you want to hang out with them? Why wouldn’t you consider them your best friends? Why wouldn’t you listen to and apply their wisdom and respect them?

So when my family started changing, my worldview was turned upside down. It’s like the ground started moving under my feet, beginning with the passing of my father in 2011. And although the marriages and babies have been happy changes, they’re still changes nonetheless. So I’ve been adapting as best I can.

When my mother was diagnosed with cancer this summer, it was like being punched in the gut, but it was the wake up call I needed to realize that I need to stop focusing on helping everybody in the whole world and start focusing on helping the people I love most. I need to become the foundation they’ve been for me.

Instead of being the best person I can be, I’ve been working very hard to be the best daughter, sister, granddaughter, niece, cousin, and close friend I can be.

This realization of the importance of family led me to acknowledge that what family provides is a sense of community, which is something that I’ve noticed is missing with a lot of my friends who are all in this chaotic stage of newfound independence like I am. Community is such a powerful thing, one of the most important influences in the shaping of our identities, and when I noticed that so many people I cared about lacked it, I wanted to fix it.

So I started community meal nights. It’s a really simple concept: I cook a big meal and invite anyone who wants to come, and I ask $5 toward ingredients. We sit around my dining room table and talk and drink and have a good time, and a few hours later, everyone goes home. It’s a great way to introduce people to one another and make new friends, it’s a great way to try new foods, it’s a great way to feel welcome and at home. And I hope that the people who attend the meals enjoy them as much as I do, because I think they’re amazing.

Trust is a commodity.

Because I grew up surrounded by people who had nothing but my best interests at heart, I have a kind of naive attitude toward other people. By that I mean, I trust too easily. I trust that people who aren’t like me will always accept me for who I am and won’t judge me. I trust that I won’t get mugged or hurt by a total stranger. I trust that people aren’t using me for some malicious, ulterior motive.

Well, that should all be past tense.

It has been brought to my attention, harshly and in large and many doses, that people work very hard toward self-satisfaction, and for some people that means getting it at the expense of others. 2013 has repeatedly shown me that both total strangers and the people closest to me are capable of incredibly cruel deeds.

This is a lesson I’m still having trouble with. I went from trusting everyone to trusting no one, and now I’m chewing on the idea that maybe I can give my trust to only the people who understand the gravity of the concept itself.

As it has been described to me by people older and wiser than myself, one of whom was my father, that I have to get my head in the game. Because that’s what life is: a game. One you can win if you play your cards right. In 2014, I plan to strategize my life and live more intentionally in order to protect myself. In 2012, I convinced myself I was invincible, but 2013 beat the crap out of me to show me that I’m not.

Stay tuned!

Okay! So I hope you check out my last 4ish lessons of part 2 whenever I get a chance to write them. And because I don’t want to end on a sad note, I’m going to list all the good stuff that happened in 2013:

1. I traveled a lot! I went to Vegas, Portland, Peru, Baltimore, Ann Arbor, and Indianapolis.
2. I got a big promotion at my job!
3. I met a ton of new, really great friends!
4. I learned how to cook and bake!
5. I accomplished some goals! I kept a budget all year and I lived in the same place for more than a year (the first time I’ve done this in six years). Yay!

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humans of peru

Taking a cue from Humans of New York, I thought I’d elaborate on my Peru trip in the form of portraits and mini-stories.

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Being in the desert with open windows meant that every inch of every surface was covered in dirt. We had a cleaning woman, Queta, come in daily to clean: “dust maintenance” someone called it. Everyone I met who had been at the house for long enough spoke of Queta like she was an oracle, or a best friend, or a surrogate mother, grandmother, aunt, sister. It made me incredibly sad that she and I couldn’t communicate, so I took her picture instead.

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The first time I met Mauricio, he threw a football at my head. I caught it and threw it back. An American football is an unwieldy item to throw without someone showing you how, so I ran over to him before he could throw it back and guided his fingers to the laces, made the motion to throw it overhead. I ran back to my spot and caught a perfect spiral straight to my chest. I gave a thumbs up and threw the ball back.

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Juan wouldn’t speak to me, which was fine, because I couldn’t understand what he would have been saying anyway. The great thing about three year olds is that they find ways to communicate without using words because sometimes they can’t think of the right ones. I handed him some paper and a big bucket of crayons. He stared at me blankly. I handed him a blue crayon and pointed to the paper. He started coloring meticulously, scribbling all over the page, like it was his sworn duty to color every inch of it. Like I had given him a mission. Eventually the crayon caught on the paper wrapper and he handed it back to me. I ripped some of the paper off and handed it back. “Brilliant!” the look on his face said. He squatted down and started using his stubby little fingers to pry the rest of the paper off the crayon. When he finished, he handed it back to me, beaming. I looked at my watch. We still had two hours to kill. I picked out another crayon, peeled a bit of the paper off to get it started, and handed it back. He ripped all the paper off again. This went on with about six more crayons, until he started taking crayons and exasperatedly peeling off the paper, as though he were divinely obligated to do so. It was the entire purpose of his being and it burdened him the way factory workers are burdened with manual labor in order to support their families. Finally, our time was up, and I handed him back to his mother. It was like punching his time card. He was finally off the clock.

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Most people ignore all the stray dogs in the area. They’re not like dogs in America: they’re more calm, less spoiled. There was a mangy-looking dog around the classroom, who was just looking for a bit of love and maybe some food. He wasn’t bothering anyone. However, this woman, whose name I don’t know, dressed completely in traditional Andean attire, threw rocks at the dog, all the while shouting Spanish curses at it. She didn’t throw them to hit the dog, just aimed them so that they would land near it and it would scurry away. It didn’t work, though. The dog kept coming back.

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For me, this little girl is a perfect symbol of Huaycan. Maybe at first glance, she looks dirty, and poor, and maybe we assume that we should give her charity because of that. In actuality, she’s dirty because she’s been out playing all day with her friends. She may be poor, like the rest of the community, but despite that, no one seems to want for anything.

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Jefferson was the quintessential Bad Boy of his class. Because of the language barrier, I would point to my eyes and then point to him to show him that I was keeping an eye on him. So he started doing it back to me, repeatedly, and laughing hysterically, as though my watching him had any bearing on his classroom behavior at all. Despite all this, he was one of my favorite students.

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These guys were just rocking out in Barranco. When they saw I had pulled out my camera, they started serenading me.

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photography: shari and donnie’s wedding

Here are some of my favorite pics from the Weeks-Young wedding I got to shoot. (The last pic is of Kevin and Melissa, who recently announced their engagement.)

If you need pictures taken and you’re in the Southwest Ohio area, feel free to shoot me an email at sadrobotsdot@gmail.com.

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Peru: day 14

So I did it. I survived my first day of international solo travel. It was a very strange day.

Last night I said goodbye to my favorite shantytown of Huaycan by climbing a mountain, then promptly shoveling my face with food for the rest of the evening. Notable edibles included: choufa, Peru’s version of Chinese fried rice; two churros; a fruit salad which had fruit AND yogurt AND ice cream AND cereal; and two Pisco Sours, the Peruvian drink of choice. It was sad to say goodbye to my favorite shantytown, especially because at night it looks like the city in Blade Runner with less rain and more dust.

This morning I said goodbye to the other volunteers and to LLI and hit the road to Barranco.

After a long hot shower and a long nap, I set out to wander the city with a map and my camera. I stopped at a restaurant that was noted on my map because they had a Peruvian buffet and I chowed down. Nobody in the restaurant spoke English so communication was difficult, but I managed to get their wifi password and look up some cool stuff to do in the area.

I walked a block down to a photography exhibit by Mario Testino which was a series of photographs of traditional Andean attire. It was an amazing exhibit.

On my way back, I wanted to hit up the electricity museum but it was closed. I asked the security guard what the hours were and he shook my hand and wouldn’t let go. After an awkward two minute long handshake, I pulled my hand away and thanked him for whatever information he had given me that I couldn’t understand.

I decided to walk along the beach for a bit, and on my way I met a guy named Jeremy who excitedly stopped me and asked me where I was from. We had a little chat and he asked me to come listen to him play trumpet at this club we were conveniently a block away from. After he hugged me and kissed my face about three times each I finally managed to convince him I was due back elsewhere but would hopefully run into him later to listen to him play the trumpet.

I’m not sure if people are exceptionally friendly here or if these are circumstances I should be cautious of. Obviously today I played the cautious card, but learning the difference between opportunities and scams is something I’ll have to work on. I know in this place specifically, gringas are a bit of a commodity, so I’ll chalk it all up to that.

After a loooong walk, I made it back to my hostel without getting lost once. I had a lot riding on how today was going to go, and I’m glad it ended up the way it did. It was an excellent day.

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Peru: day 13

Tonight is my last night with LLI and my last night in Huaycan. Tomorrow I’m taking a taxi to my hostel in Barranco, where I’m going to relax for a few days before heading home on Friday. I was planning to go to Machu Picchu but I couldn’t swing it with the amount of time I have and money I brought (not enough of either). Hopefully I’ll pick up some Spanish and come back to South America someday.

I had a fun time these last few days. I finished teaching my classes and my adult class all gave me hugs and well wishes goodbye even though I only taught them for two weeks. One of them even wanted a picture taken with me.

The other volunteers have been going out for snacks every night and hitting up our favorite places. We determine our favorite places by whether or not the people who run them are nice to us. They receive our unrelenting devotion (and bottomless sweet tooth) with simple politeness. My favorite place is this bakery that has this hazelnut cake with coffee icing. There’s also the cookies I tried that had pop rocks in them. It was fun to figure out whether they were pop rocks or if I was having an allergic reaction. Every edible thing I’ve had here has been amazing. I’m actually a little sad to be going back to burnt coffee and turkey sandwiches.

Yesterday we took the kids on a field trip to a yogurt farm. It was a lot of fun and the yogurt was delicious. I took a ton of pictures, which I’ll post later. I was confused as to how a yogurt farm could be in the middle of a desert, but it was kind of an oasis. Also the cows ate bananas instead of grass.

I had a great time volunteering and I’m going to miss this place a lot. Hopefully I’ll be able to write once I get to Barranco tomorrow!

(I had to write this hastily which is why it’s so poorly written. I promise better writing when I get home.)

Peru: day 11

I’ve actually run out of interesting things to say. The good news is that I’ve taken a lot of pictures, and I’ll probably also have a series of memoirs (hopefully), and if not maybe I’ll do a write-up of details I missed while blogging (what Huaycan is like, cultural differences, journal excerpts, etc).

I realized today that people are going to ask me, “So how was your trip?” And I’ll be expected to say something like, “It was fun!” But it hasn’t been fun. I mean it has, obviously, but not the whole time and that wasn’t why I came here. I’m 23 years old. I do nothing but work and have fun. I came here to experience something beyond that, to learn and get perspective.

I learned what it is to be a minority, to be stared at and scrutinized everywhere. I’ve learned about myself and how I react when when confronted with unknown and stressful situations. I’ve learned a tiny bit of Spanish, not much, but more than I came here with. I’ve learned how to wing it even better than I could before. I learned to be away from the constant contact of my social life and how to not take pictures of everything (because I couldn’t). I learned I probably shouldn’t be an ESL teacher (not because I haven’t enjoyed it, I really have, but for many other reasons that I’ll detail the aforementioned write-up). I learned how to adapt.

Best of all, I think I learned what I want to do next with my life and that’s a very exciting thing for me. The fear of, “What comes next? What if it’s nothing. Is this it?” permeated my winter doldrums. Now I have a renewed faith in the world and in life itself. It doesn’t have to be boring, and I can do whatever the hell I want. And what I want is to see every inch of land on this planet until I decide I want something else.

My point is that I think my answer to, “So how was your trip?” is going to be, “I got what I came for.”

Peru: day 9

I went from having a significant amount of free time to having none really fast. I have an hour to kill at the moment though so I thought I’d update on the shenanigans of the last few days.

Day 5

I had a ton of downtime on Monday but the day was kind of boring and not worth writing about. I hand washed my laundry which was a horrible failure for the most part. I have the soapy water part down but not the getting things clean part. The washing machine makes it look so easy!

Day 6

Because our teaching program is for after school/work and weekends, our weekends are on Wednesdays and Thursdays. On weekends, everyone treks to Lima (two hours via combi) for a weekend of money spending, good food, and general awesomeness.

On Tuesday, after a full day of teaching, we got dressed up and headed to Lima for salsa. Thankfully, I was not required to salsa because it seems awfully complicated and people get sweaty while doing it. And there’s a lot of foot-stepping-on which I’m not fond of. But I was happy holding drinks and jackets for everyone else and watching in awe as these amazing, attractive Peruvian dancers salsa-ed.

It was very Casablanca. (And by that I’m referring to the temperature in the club, the music, and the romantic-ish atmosphere.)

We stayed in a hostel called the Lima Wari which I will discuss in more detail at the end of my trip. I’m staying my last few days in town there next week.

Day 7

After a decent hostel breakfast and a cold shower (there was hot water, I just couldn’t figure out how to work the damn thing), we visited a little cafe for lattes. The rest of the day was spent shopping. In the evening, all us ladies got gussied up (I did only to the best of my ability, which still means I looked like a potato with a crooked line of lipstick on it) and went to this amazing fancy burger joint.

I’d tell you about the rest of my evening, but it was so strange that I’m typing out my first of a series of memoirs of my trip to post when I can accurately punctuate the Spanish parts of it.

Day 8

The damp atmosphere of Lima attacked my sinuses so I decided breathing was more important and took allergy medication. Allergy meds and I don’t get along. I learned that while abroad, they turn me into a grumpy, tired, irate mess. So I’m just going to forget yesterday even happened.

Day 9 (today!)

More teaching. More dirt. More combis. More yummy food. More reading. More thinking. It’s all good.

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