Nothing Goes As Planned–And That’s Good

Peru is a country of surprises. Yesterday I woke up to find that my host mother had spent the night before baking me an orange cake. When I strolled into the kitchen she offered me the whole cake and a mugful of hot chocolate. Then she pushed a candle into the top of the cake and lit it. Admittedly, it was my 21st birthday, and this was certainly not the most unexpected thing that had happened in the kitchen. The night before the solstice I came home at 9 pm to be dragged into the kitchen and urged to participate in a session with a clairvoyant. He happened to be both a family friend and a ghost hunter whose name was the Spanish equivalent of Julius Caesar. Fortunately, I now know that I’m going to grow up to be a brilliant, successful man. What a comfort.

It only strikes me now how great a metaphor the kitchen is for my time here in Peru. Generally I know what to expect when I analyze data or come home to eat, but sometimes I’m spectacularly surprised.

I have been in Peru for about a month now, working at my internship and laying the groundwork for my research project. As could be expected, the research isn’t going quite as planned. I’m finding it difficult to obtain good quantitative information to analyze because the NGO I’m working with has difficulty obtaining data. The women they work with do voluntarily fill out information, but oftentimes that information is not reliable. For example, some women think that if they provide accurate financial information to the NGO, the NGO will stop working for them. This makes it impossible to know how the total incomes of families are changing and whether the lowest-income women are benefiting as much as the highest-income women.

Sometimes the problems with the NGO’s data collection relate to misunderstandings or mistranslations. The office here in Ollantaytambo is bilingual, with all official meetings held in Spanish and translated into English as necessary. Likewise, the official surveys are written in Spanish by the staff here. However, all of the women in the high-altitude communities conduct their day-to-day tasks in Quechua. Some of the women speak Spanish, but many of the women in the most remote communities can read neither Spanish nor Quechua. As a result, all questions are read aloud in Quechua by a translator. This allows for more errors, especially in cases where the surveys are not administered at the same time and must be performed more quickly or where a precise translation is difficult to produce.

The final problem in gathering data has to do with cultural differences. Concepts such as a division between home, work, and community spheres do not exist in the higher-altitude communities in precisely the same way as in Ollantaytambo. Additionally, concepts related to time do not translate as well for some of the older women who are used to measuring the days by means other than hours.

As a result of the above problems, the only quantitative data that is reliable is that which has been collected about the NGO itself or can be directly observed. This includes statistics like the total revenue generated by each woman (but not the income of their household) and characteristics of the women’s households, such as the type of material the home is built with, the number of rooms, and the number of animals kept there. I will be retooling my focus in the coming days to take advantage of the information that is available to me.

Still, I am optimistic about the possibilities for my research. Even if the quantitative data is sometimes difficult to obtain, there’s still much information that is both reliable and useful. In addition, Awamaki is a young NGO and is still in the process of gathering more data. This means there are still lots of places to look for quantitative data and that staff members here are constantly developing new methods for extracting information. And of course, there is a lot of high-quality qualitative information that can still make up the core of my final paper for this project. All in all I’m feeling pretty good about the potential for this project to turn out really well.

I will post again in a week or two when I am able to compile a set of research questions that are possible to answer based on the resources that are available to me here. Maybe I’ll run into some other hiccups–or perhaps a shaman–before then.