When I signed up to spend four months in Peru, I knew the first few weeks would be a challenge for me. I knew no one in Cuzco, the city which I now inhabit. I had only taken one formal Spanish course in the university, which is far less than most who study abroad in a country that does not speak their native language. I was able to converse on a basic level with Spanish-speaking friends back home, but whenever my vocabulary faltered we could just switch to English. No one speaks English in neither the clinic where I intern nor my host home, so that safety net was left in the U.S. I knew this was exactly what I had signed up for, but I began to realize that all my thoughts couldn’t adequately prepare me for setting foot in another country for the first time. Excitement and nervousness churned together in a maelström that consumed my thoughts for several weeks before departure.
Upon arrival, everything started coming together. Cuzco is a beautiful city, full of rich history and exquisite natural beauty. I have adored mountains, since taking up rock climbing after a visit to Yosemite, CA. At an elevation over 11,000 feet, which is about one-third the cruising altitude of many commercial jets, mountains are inescapable. Awe washed over my exhausted body as I stepped off the plane and looked at the spectacular green peaks around me. When my host family came to pick me up, I was relieved that my Spanish was sufficient to communicate with them. Life would not entirely become a game of charades for the next four months. Female Peruvians greet men and women by touching cheeks and kissing the air. I knew these greetings were coming, but I still had some apprehension about putting them into practice. I quickly learned that going with the flow is the optimal protocol for figuring out cultural differences like that one. Additionally, I was fortunate enough to evade altitude sickness upon my arrival to this city in this clouds. Within a day or two, my previous apprehensions had settled.
Despite the lessening of this initial apprehension, there have been difficult situations to navigate and days that were hard to endure. For example, Peruvian public transport system is very different from the car-dominated area where I live in the states. I need to ride the bus 30 minutes every day to arrive at Clínica Belenpampa, where my internship is held. The bus system here is not organized the same was as in the U.S. Instead of having a list of when each bus route will arrive at my stop, buses come and go as they please. Each bus has a designated advertiser that shouts the stops and tries to convince people to get on. Buses navigating the same route under the same name are not an identical set; my inability to recognize this in homogeneity has caused me to wait for extended periods of time at bus stops on numerous occasions. Additionally, to get off the bus, there is no string to pull to let the driver know that you would like to get off at the next stop. Instead, the advertiser shouts the stop names so that everyone can hear, then listens to hear if anyone requests to get off. When sitting in the back of a packed bus with all seats filled and two rows of people in the aisle, communication with the front is difficult. More than once I have realized I was going to be late to my next destination as the bus flew by my stop.
That said, minor frustrations such as buses or the language barrier cannot stop me from loving this place. What I most appreciate and want to make sure I integrate into my life is the Peruvian approach to relationships. For example, when a Peruvian walks into a room full of family, they greet every person individually. A broad “hello” is not enough, because you are not showing your appreciation for each individual. I was invited to a family reunion with my host family this weekend in a nearby town, and I got to see the Peruvian value of family and relationships first hand. I did not time how long it took my host father to say goodbye to everyone, but I promise that everyone left that gathering knowing they were part of a loving family that cherished them. There are certainly cases of tight families in United States, but Peruvian culture seems to be a system that fosters care and value to all who partake in it.
Overall, my experience suggests that the most critical component of adjusting to a new culture is staying engaged. Getting frustrated should not lead to retracting and pulling away; it should nurture a new understanding that will inform the future. Every day I learn how to better navigate the bus system. Every day I learn a more of the medical Spanish that is rattled off at break-neck speed in the clinic. This ability to learn and grow in a new culture is often dependent on our ability to continue to pursue understanding and friendship even in the midst of miscommunication and frustration.