Peru stole my heart, my imagination, and every spoiled thought that had once ran through my mind. In their places are now a heart full of compassion, striving desperately to show even a fraction of the hospitality and warmth that the people of Peru showed me; an imagination trying to examine the every day life I lead through their eyes and dreaming of new places and cultures to visit; and thoughts that only consider how incredibly lucky I am to have been born to the people, place, and time that I was.
Surely the point of trips such as my twelve day excursion in the diverse landscapes of Peru are meant to be culture shocks. They’re meant to take you out of your comfort zone and force you into situations you may not know how to handle or what the outcome will be. These moments are meant to challenge, to teach, to invigorate. And they most definitely do that, but I’d argue they do this in ways we may not expect. New cultural experiences are like wide rivers that cross our otherwise even path and give us two options. One, to float across in our safe, secure boat, quietly observing the river until we’ve made it to the other side, largely unchanged, though perhaps a little more appreciative. Or we may chose the second option, to jump fearlessly into the river and swim across, allowing the water to absorb into every part of ourselves, to feel the magnificent power of the current, and to emerge on the other side, literally and figuratively immersed in this part of the journey. Which path we chose to take teaches us things about ourselves. One of the professors on the trip pointed out that most students who are introverts prefer to take pictures of landscapes, buildings, animals, and the like, while extroverts tended to take photos of people and of themselves with the landscapes and buildings as backgrounds. And then she challenged us to do the opposite and to take pictures of anything we found beautiful, even if that meant a dozen pictures of our dinner plates.
But perhaps most importantly, these cultural experiences invigorate us. They take us to far away lands to meet very different people that we already know, to eat different food, to speak different languages. The very structure of the trip was meant to be action packed; always on the go from one location to another. While it was exhausting, it was strangely exciting at the same time. There were always new things to see, new places to explore, new people to meet. As the trip drew to it’s close I began to think about what my life would be like once I returned home. I dreaded the monotony of working a desk job in corporate America, I dreaded returning to my routine that now seemed so lacking, I longed for more adventures. But maybe most of all, I dreaded returning home and having everything be the same as when I left. Certainly I wasn’t the same person as before, but would that translate to the rest of my life, I wondered.
It’s been only four days since I returned home from Peru, but already I can feel myself sinking back into the comfort of routine and the familiar. I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing, but something to be mindful of. To be sure, I will not be the same person that I was before this trip, and I’ve already noticed small ways in which this is happening. I didn’t finish my meal one night this week and I couldn’t help but think about all the hard work and labor that went into making that meal possible and how easy and on demand it was here at home. At my second homestay, we ate in the kitchen while our host mama cooked each course, fresh and with a gusto that never seemed to fail her.
We learned that the food grown within the first community is planted and harvested by hand – no machinery, no animal-pulled plows, just a simple tool to break the earth and lots of man power. They never use pesticides or fertilizers other than what the earth gives them naturally. And in order to make a meal to feed fifteen hungry Americans, countless hours, days, and even months, had to go into the making of my food. Every meal I have had since returning home has reminded me of the incredibly privileged status I hold being an American.
Then there are the times people have complained about the cold. It’s May in Iowa, a time where the seasons seem to change every day and irregularity is the norm. It’s been in the 60s since I got home, quite typical for this time. After spending two weeks in the highlands of Peru where temperatures dropped into the 30s at night, I had hopped for a bit warmer weather back home. So while that hasn’t been the case, I’ve also had to remind myself of the privileges I have here that weren’t in Peru. I can turn up the heat in my car as I make my 15 minute journey to work, while many Peruvians must muscle through the cold day in and day out. But at the same time, the indigenous populations, and even those in the larger cities, seemed to have adapted to their weather much better than some in Iowa have. Their traditional clothing has been made specifically for their climate. The methods of weaving those clothes have been fine tuned over hundreds of years to keep the cold out. Their homes have been specially designed to keep the cold gusts and the hail out, and even a pop-up hail storm was handled with skill and ease, barely affecting our activities.
While the differences between our cultures are often obvious, that isn’t to mean that we in the States lead a better life. This is probably the biggest lesson I’ve tried hard to retain. Sure, their communities are lacking in some areas, but so are ours. No matter where we went, we were constantly waived at from people waiting to catch the next ride into town. We were given gifts, hugs, handshakes, cheek kisses, and smiles every where we went. We left our first homestay on a Sunday, a day for the children to play and just be kids. And what happy kids they were. Several swung from a tall chain-link fence gate, giggling with each ride back and forth. Others played with the sheep in the village, or kicked around soccer balls.
One little girl in my home spent a solid hour and a half playing the same three videos over and over again on my phone, enthralled by the idea of a touch screen come to life. But most importantly, all were happy. It seems cliché to return from such a trip and lament about how incredible it is that people can be so happy with so little, because we hear that all the time. And yet, it still seems to be one of the biggest takeaways, and rightfully so.
Obviously, one can’t travel to Peru and not comment on the incredible landscapes the country provides. Made up of mostly the Andes mountains, every day provided a new, breathtaking view of this beautiful country. Every mountain was incredible, every glacier awe-inspiring, and every stream a crystal clear beauty. Perhaps two-thirds of the pictures I took were of the scenery because I just couldn’t get over how incredibly beautiful it was. As a history lover, the ancient ruins gave my imagination enough fodder to sustain me on some long bus rides, imagining what they had once looked liked, who had lived here, what their story was. And then to finally stand at the entrance of Machu Picchu, a place I had only dreamed of visiting, not really believing it would ever come true, was indescribable and I caught myself holding back tears on a few occasions. The floating islands of Lake Titicaca stand as a testament to the long history of human ingenuity and creativity. The numerous temple ruins, specifically the Sacred Valley of the Incas reminds us how feeble and reliant we are on modern techniques as to not be able to imagine an era in which cranes and power tools were not used. The entire country seems to stand as proof that humans have done and can do great things, regardless of obstacles and challenges in their way.
And yet, with every cathedral we saw that was built on top of the ruins of an Inca temple, and every looted archeological site, every holy place destroyed by Spaniards, I was also reminded of the limitations of humans, especially regarding acceptance. It’s not a new thing for any student of history to learn about how horrible people can be and have been to one another. It’s another to see that destruction right in front of you. Every time we were told that a temple had been destroyed by Spaniards to either build their own cathedrals or to crush the religion of the indigenous population, my heart twisted inside my chest.
It seems so reckless, so heartless, so hideous now to have done such things, all in the name of a religion or king. I asked our guide (a truly incredible person, by the way) about how much resentment the indigenous populations have for Spaniards for destroying the ancient buildings of their ancestors, and her response surprised me. She reminded me that the people of Peru aren’t just indigenous decedents, they’re also Spanish decedents, that the blood of the conquerors of their country runs through their veins. She told me this is a part of their heritage that they have to reconcile with, deal with, and accept. In recent years, there’s been a lot of effort to ramp up preservation of these sites, and that has led to many great things. But the people of Peru also have to acknowledge the negatives of their heritage as well. In this sense, I think we (Americans) and Peruvians can learn a lot from one another. We both have these pretty dark spots in our history, pieces of ourselves that we would rather ignore and pretend wasn’t a part of us. But they are, and no amount of denial or ignoring it will make it go away. Perhaps this is something we can work on together.
My biggest goal in returning home from this trip is to make sure that I don’t see the world and my life the same was as I did before I left. I believe allowing myself to sink back into my old life, my old ways, my old thoughts would be a disservice to myself and not culturally or intellectually honest. I want to keep looking at my own corner of the world through the Peruvian lens, wondering what they would think about what I’m doing or seeing. I want to take time to see the beauty of the state I live in, because there’s a lot of it. I want to meet every new thing not with the thought, “That’s weird,” but rather with, “That’s interesting, tell me more.” I want to keep my privilege in check, to recognize when something really isn’t as big of a deal as I’m making it. I want to spend more time with people and less time with things. I want to be more compassionate, more giving. I want to be a global citizen without boarders, lover of all cultures, student of all nations. I want to make a conscious effort to make myself, my country, my culture, and my world better. And perhaps most of all, I want to go to new places.