As I was preparing to leave for Peru, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I had done some reading about the culture, but I didn’t have a clear idea of day-to-day life would be like. After all, reading a book doesn’t exactly capture a way of life—only living it firsthand does.
Stepping off the plane in Cusco, I was immediately struck by the view. Even from the runway, the sky glowed with a clarity unmatched in the U.S, a deep blue canvas painted with spots of white clouds. Looking around, I noticed “VIVA EL PERÚ” carved into a mountainside. By the time the crisp (and thin!) air started hitting my lungs, I knew I was in an entirely different place, a place only experience, not a book or a website, can do justice to.
For the first four weeks of my trip to Peru, I lived with a host family, which, as corny as it may sound, gave me the perfect opportunity to directly absorb Peruvian culture. Living with Hugo, my host father, a Cusquenian architect, plunged me headfirst into the Peruvian lifestyle. He explained everything from holidays to foods to me in great detail, pointing out all the cultural hotspots and must-see destinations. Hugo also related his life experiences to me. My host kept me grounded in the authentic experiences of Cusco, balancing the glitz and glamour of tourist sites with stories about what life in Cusco is actually like. (It’s quite easy to go through an entire trip to Peru with tourist-blinders on and remain oblivious to all the issues the city faces.) Hugo and I shared our opinions on politics, music, sports—just about everything!
The next day, I really had the chance to submerge myself in Peruvian culture. Fortunately, I arrived just in time for Inti Raymi, the ancient Inca festival celebrating the winter solstice and the sun-god. Hundreds of Cusqenians, dressed in traditional robes and carrying offerings to the sun, danced through the streets. The procession moved through the city, starting at the ancient temple of the sun, Qoricancha, and ending at the ruins at Sachsayhuaman, a small mountain overlooking the entire city.
After the celebration, I began my study at the Amauta Spanish School prior to starting my volunteer work. With four weeks of intensive Spanish courses, my command of the language improved radically. And the school provided another benefit: in addition to my immersion in the Peruvian way of life, I met countless other Spanish students from all around the world. The teachers at Amauta, all native Cusquenians, brought their own experiences in Peru into the classrooms, raising our awareness of the issues facing the country. Best of all, everything is a learning experience since it’s in a foreign language. Even going to the bank is an opportunity for personal growth!
By the time I began volunteering at INABIF, an academic reinforcement program for poor children, I felt like a real Cusquenian. It was during this time that I learned the most about Peru, its people and customs, and myself. I served as a more or less of a teacher (“Profe,” as the kids called me), helping them with their homework, teaching them a little English, and playing soccer with them. It amazed how deeply interested these children were in hearing about English and the United States. For the first few days, any time we did anything, like having a snack or reading a book, the children would excitedly ask, “How do they do this in your country?” And as these kids would frankly tell me about their daily lives, I gained piercing insights into what life in Cusco is truly like. As they would often tell me, there was so much to the city beyond the tourist traps.
I didn’t expect to change these children’s lives. I knew that the arrival of one teenage American college student (with a limited knowledge of Spanish) wasn’t going to solve the social problems these children wrestled with every day—especially in just four weeks. And while I didn’t turn their worlds upside and impact them for life, I certainly made a day-to-day difference in their lives. Just by giving them a soccer ball and someone to play with or helping them with their homework, I was able to make their day a little more fun. Each morning, I was greeted with excited shouts of “Profe!” Their smiles were all the proof I needed to know that my trip to Peru was a good one. And I have the InterExchange Foundation's generosity to thank for one of the best summers of my life.