Just call me Sister…We are family now.
Peru was always on my list of places that I had to see, but I never could have imagined the gravity of the connection that I would make there. I had never been on a trip where I had changed my flight on purpose to leave later, other trips I was always ready to go home, but this time, I cried as I watched Cusco melt into my beloved mountains from the plane's window. But this will not be my last trip, after all, I have family there now. I think I had such a hard time parting with Peru because I was parting with a piece of myself, and I was leaving my new family behind.
I experienced many facets of Peruvian life. I experienced the good, the bad, the ugly and the most beautiful. Some of my fondest memories are not the obvious tourist attractions. Don't get me wrong, feeling like I was on top of the world at Machu Picchu, floating on the Uros Islands in Lake Titicaca, flying over the incredible Nazca Lines, eating fresh ceviche in the Paracas National Park, and witnessing condors soar in the Colca Canyon were all experiences that lived up to my expectations, and then greatly exceeded them, but Peru to me was the most amazing when I had moments of feeling like I belonged there. It was walking around the San Pedro market, drinking a "Jugo Especial" and having a conversation with the saleswoman where she opened up about how happy she was to be working. It was going to art shows where the local artists were right there to explain first hand what their work meant to them and their roots. It was seeing familiar faces in the Picanterias, and discussing our hopes and dreams over a glass of Chicha. It was the beautiful conversations that I had with my host mother. It was being in the midst of seeing how the Peruvians struggled with social injustices, low wages for difficult work, indigenous communities' rights, and wanting to jump in and help them fight for what was right. When I couldn't take the bus because the strikes had blocked the road, I wanted to walk and shout "Viva el Paro!" to show my support for their cause. I appreciate all of the feelings that Peru made me feel, although at times I may have felt frustrated, scared, lonely, or even helpless. It forced me to become so in touch with my own feelings, and to be empathetic to the feelings of those around me.
The experiences that I had at the local Picanterias gave me a chance to interact with the locals and to see what typical dinner conversations were. It was easy to make friends, because we all quickly found out that we have similar goals in life, and that our concerns in the United States were some of the same concerns that Cusqueños had. Just like me, many others were struggling to find a career, struggling to figure out how to take care of bills, or struggling to find acceptance within our own societies. It didn't matter if you had known the person sitting next to you or not, by the end of the night, you were family. As I learned in Quechua, there is no word for "friend," only brother and sister. The idea that we are all related is a beautiful way to look at the person next to you, something I now apply to my own life, and will pass on to everyone I meet.
The Spanish classes were fantastic and gave me an opportunity to work on my doubts with my speaking and writing abilities and to get a clear idea of what I needed to work on. I got so much satisfaction from the classes, and being able to communicate opened up many doors and opportunities to learn from as many people as was possible. The teachers were very willing to help me in any way, and always offered a sense of comfort and support.
For my volunteer project, I had the pleasure of working with some wonderful young women at the Casa Acogida de La Virgen Natividad. Everyday at the center was such a great experience. I had my suspicions that the girls may not want to bring up their past, given the fact that they had endured such a traumatic and difficult time in their life through commercial sexual exploitation that would take years to heal. Given our short time with the girls, I was surprised at how well-received the volunteers were at Casa Acogida. The girls were very willing to invite new people into their lives. I have many fond memories working with the girls and was very grateful to be there for the ones who wanted to talk to someone about their frustrations, or even just to offer unlimited hugs. I was honored to be one of the volunteers that they found easy to open up to. There was nothing better than being able to sit with one of the girls, who was so frustrated about being in the center and afraid of being alone on Christmas that she was brought to tears. I did not leave until she was calm and after a half-hour listening to her and offering words of comfort and strength, I left the center feeling like she would be ok. When I came in the next day and asked her how she was, she answered "Very happy, Miss!" with a huge smile on her face. That is when I knew I had made a difference, even if it was just to make her tomorrow happier. I enjoyed the days where they turned on the radio and I choreographed dances for them, I loved the arts and crafts that we did together, and the lessons in Math, English, and Geography. My most memorable lesson was one where I did a project with the girls on self-esteem. I bought each girl a mirror and had them look at their face and to study it, looking at all of the things that they saw to be beautiful about themselves, both on the inside and out. I urged them to write down what they thought in their books and allowed them to share their observations with the others. We also passed around papers with each of the girls names on the top, and had the girls write nice things about each other. They read their comments aloud and smiled at the nice things that were written about them. The girls enjoyed the project and learned about respect for others, in such an unguarded and natural way. I am so glad I was able to do this with them, and to restore a bit of the security that they had taken away from them.
The people of Peru are like the diverse, striking landscapes. The different heights of the mountains, vibrant colors of the varied flora and fauna, small hills juxtaposed with snow capped peaks, made me feel like I had my own private viewing of the wonders that God had created even when I was surrounded by hundreds of people. They were a majestic, breath-taking backdrop and perfect complement to the beautiful people of Peru. The cultures in each of these different landscapes had their own distinct way of life, and it was incredible to see how all of these different groups could live next to each other in harmony. I was very lucky to experience it. I am sure I make my family crazy with my constant rehashing of my memories, but Peru spoke to me, it awoke something inside of me that makes me hungry for more. I was so fortunate to experience a side of Peru that went beyond being a tourist. I appreciate the fact that Peru was so honest and raw with me. I will always go back and think about the experience, and how fortunate I was to have been a part of their daily life. Peru taught me to live more simply and that you can get used to just about anything. You can find comfort in something that may seem so out of the ordinary at first glance. I am eternally grateful to InterExchange for giving me the chance of a lifetime, and the opportunity to grow as a global citizen, and as an individual.
A fan of independent cinema and proponent of the Oxford comma, Matthew began his career at a Miami-based tech startup before returning to West Virginia University to pursue his M.A. in Foreign Languages. He has worked at InterExchange since 2006 and currently serves as a Marketing Project Manager.