Betty Stone: ¿Pueblo chico, infierno grande?

April 24, 2009

Betty Stone -


Let me introduce you to my grandson, Douglas McRae, who is serving a 27-month assignment in Peru as a health volunteer. I thought my readers might like to know something about what it is like to do that, so I asked him to share his experiences with us. It is new to me, too. What he sent me follows. 


"Small town life can get a bad rap. It''s hard to be inconspicuous when everyone knows your name and probably a great deal more about you. ''Pueblo chico, infierno grande'' as the saying goes in Spanish: ''small town, big hell.'' 


"More than a few literary works ranging from novels to Broadway musicals chronicle the ups and downs of the small town, yet perhaps no one type of person knows the nature of such places as Peace Corps Volunteers in Peru. 


"I hail from Jackson (not yet a sprawling metropolis), and I went to college in a small Vermont town, but of course neither of these compares to my current address, the tiny community of Potrerillo, nestled in the Valley of Chipillico in the north of Peru. Rice fields separate tiny clusters of adobe, tin-roof houses. Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins live in close vicinity of each other. Even folks who are not related have known each other for years." 




Small-town life 


"Peru conjures up for most people images of Incan architectural splendor and, for National Geographic subscribers, rural indigenous woman in long, colorful skirts with black braids hanging under brimmed hats. The most common hat in these parts is the ever-practical baseball cap, and people blast tropical cumbia instead of the quaint pan flutes of ''El Condor Pasa.'' In the year-round heat, my winter coat lies wrapped up in my suitcase, where I pray it will remain concealed from hungry mice until the moment I get to visit the Andes. 


"Potrerillo, however, is clearly rural. I wake up every morning to the crowing of roosters and the clanging of pots over the woodstove. Turkeys, dogs and pigs have free reign in the streets, and most people draw their water from wells and canals that alternately give nourishment to the rice and cornfields. Electric lighting just recently replaced candles and kerosene lamps in my home, but some parts of the community are still waiting for electricity. 


"The relative intimacy of this community of 1,600 or so makes it easier to get to know with whom I will work. As a community health volunteer, it is necessary to have the trust of the people you serve, especially in trying to implement new, healthy practices.  


"Finding people is usually easy, unless they''ve gone off to harvest rice or to wash clothes in the river. This makes it all the harder to avoid people: Sometimes when you''re rushing off to a meeting at the local health post, you have to choose your route strategically. 


"That''s not to say that I spend my day avoiding others; on the contrary, it''s good to sit, talk and maybe even be invited to a mango or two. People often have the same questions for me as a foreigner: How far away is the United States? What crops do we grow? Are there many Spanish speakers? What exactly am I doing in their little town? In regards to my adjustment to living in rural Peru, people also ask (often very emphatically) ¿Sí te enseñas?, colloquial speak for ''Are ya used to it all yet?''  


"As I get used to it all, I marvel how each small community is its own microcosm, with its own history, relationships and drama. It''s strange to think that I will become a part of that microcosm, if only for the relatively brief time of two years. My hope is twofold -- that the members of my host community can empower themselves to improve health practices in their community, and that I can leave a favorable impression of Americans, putting a face on that distant land that has so much impact on the world." 




Surprising connection 


"Unlike other famous small towns, Potrerillo is not isolated from time or the draw of the outside world. Lack of economic opportunity leads many people to leave their families and seek their fortune on the outside, often in urban areas of Peru but occasionally outside the country. Shortly after I arrived, my host father surprised me when he informed me he has nephews who for the past 20 years have lived in, of all places, Mississippi.  


"A few months later, he produced their 662 area code phone number, dispelling my doubts that they might, in fact, live in Miami or Missouri. We haven''t called them up yet, though I''m curious to know if they''ve adapted Southern accents, or if they prefer Mississippi or Peruvian tamales. Or maybe they''ll just be dismayed: Despite the distance of space and time, they just cannot seem to escape the long reach of the pueblo chico."

Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up in Columbus.