About a week before I came home from Huanchaco, Peru, my mom called to finalize some travel plans. She said she missed me and couldn’t wait to see me. I felt terrible when I couldn’t say it back. Of course it would be wonderful to see her again, but I was enjoying myself and learning so many wonderful things in Peru. I wasn’t ready to come home yet. It felt strange calling the U.S. “home” when I also felt perfectly at home in Huanchaco. My heart was divided between two places.
I never thought I could feel out of place in the United States. Nor did I think it possible that I could forget, after only a short time, the social constructs I have known all my life. Yet being back in the U.S., I have to constantly remind myself that I have the right of way as a pedestrian, that used toilet paper goes in the toilet and not a waste basket, and that it isn’t appropriate to kiss strangers on the cheek after only a brief conversation.
Aside from those few hiccups, my journey home has been full of reflection and introspection. I am realizing that there are many things I desperately love and miss about Peru. I miss the relaxed time-tables, the delicious locally-grown foods, taking siestas, the constant music playing in the streets, and the rich culture. The hardest adjustment is being away from the people I grew close to. My peers and professor became my family. A group of kind, generous locals became my dear friends. I value the relationships I formed, so it is strange living without them. Before coming home, I recommend gathering contact information for anyone you wish to stay in contact with. And take pictures with the new people in your life so you can relive the amazing experiences.
Being back in the United States, I have become consciously aware of certain amenities that I sorely missed in Peru. It is really nice having garbage cans readily available in public spaces. It is also nice that bathrooms come stocked with their own toilet paper. Knowing that drinking water is filtered, safe, and free of disease is also a great comfort. Drinking fountains, too, are a pleasant feature. I also never realized how much I appreciate enforced traffic laws.
Now that I’ve returned home, I’ve been able to recognize some major differences between the U.S. and Peru. In Peru (currently) prices are very low and reasonable for foods, clothing, transportation, and artisan goods. The majority of foods and goods are locally produced. Coming back to the U.S., I have been frustrated by the comparatively high costs for the same items. I miss having organic foods, handmade products, and locally produced goods available at a reasonable market value.
Another difference is the state of security and the role of the police. Many Peruvian cities have a high crime rate. I learned to be hyper-aware of my surroundings at all times in order to keep myself safe. I don’t have to do that to the same degree in the U.S. The police have limited authority in Peru compared to the U.S.: in many instances, they are not permitted to intervene in violent crime or even make a traffic stop. I witnessed many crimes take place right in front of police officers, and they legally could not do anything about it. It made me appreciate the justice system we have in the United States.
Gender equality is quite different in Peru and the U.S. Peru is still a very patriarchal society, in which many women are oppressed and expected to maintain traditional gender roles. During my time in Peru, many men on the streets (or even in restaurants) would cat-call and make unwanted advances. I learned very quickly how to defend myself and how to avoid such situations. Of course there were also many men who were incredibly respectful to women, but they did not appear to be the larger norm. As a woman, I feel safer being back in the United States, knowing there are social and legal statutes to help protect me.
Access for people with disabilities is also quite different. I spent a lot of my time studying access as the topic of my ethnographic research. As someone with a disability, I was able to assess how accessible different spaces are (buildings, walkways, modes of transportation), as well as how feasible it is for people with disabilities to find employment. Access in Peru is not to the same level as in the United States, and the government has only recently begun to offer assistance. But there is an interesting cultural factor which makes life with a disability more manageable. Peruvians value the family unit, and are incredibly invested in caring for loved ones. When a person has a disability, they are cared for by family members and nearly always accompanied by a loved one to help fill in the gaps where places are inaccessible.
Reverse culture shock is a strange phenomenon. I sometimes feel frustrated that I am back in the United States, missing the host culture I left behind. It gets lonely knowing that my family and friends don’t share the amazing experiences I had in Peru. I do my best to share the stories, but there will always be a disconnect. It’s strange returning to my regular routine. I almost feel out of touch with myself. I feel as though a piece of my heart is still in Peru. Thankfully I can easily keep in touch with my Huanchaco family, which makes this transition much easier.
Something to keep in mind is that “home” can mean anything. Home can be the house you were raised in, or where your parents live. It can be your hometown, your college town, or where you currently live. Home can be a person or a group of the most important people in your life. You can have more than one home. Your definition of home can change at any time. I am redefining my concept of home constantly. My home simply expanded to a little corner of Peru. My home called Huanchaco. And maybe someday, I go home to Huanchaco again.