The summer after my senior year of high school and before my freshman year of college I had a chance to study abroad in Lima, Perú. Studying abroad was a transformative experience for me and returning to visit my host family, an excellent experience.
If you have not yet read about my follies and fumbles through our “weekend” trip to Lima, it’s worth your time. Here it is from our peaceful beginning through an unanticipated stop in Mexico City, the value of elite status and why it was so important on this trip, the apathetic service from LAN, and the stinky Sheraton Lima Convention Center. This post is a primer to why I would be returning to Lima, Peru.
Rotary’s Student Exchange
When I was nearing the end of my high school education, my friend and I had discussed doing a study abroad program through Rotary International. I was vaguely familiar the business group but had never attended a meeting and was kind of following along on my buddy’s lead. We applied at the same time and our original idea was to go to Buenos Aires, but then switched to Lima as Argentina was entering the beginning of their financial collapse (they had five presidents in six months during the planning stages). It was not a good idea to go to Argentina at that time, and now I was going alone.
For those that are unfamiliar with the program, Rotary’s Student Exchange or Programa Intercambio arranges students in both countries (the US and in this case Peru) to stay with another Rotary family in the other country. My parents did not host a student, it’s not required you are a member of Rotary, but because of it, I am a big fan. Your host club pays a stipend to the host family (usually members of Rotary in that country) to support you at no cost to the student. The student then pays for their own airfare, and whatever spending money they want to bring.
The Rotary Exchange program prohibits the four Ds. No drinking, no driving, no drugs, and no dating. I will only tell you of one of these I broke.
My exchange may have been different than others, but my experience was a cultural education like I had never seen before nor since. I went to college classes (though it wasn’t required and I received no credit) with my host family and even lectured for an English translation class. If you know a high school student that would be interested, this is a great program and it changed my life.
When I first came to Peru, I was on my own, on an international flight for the first time. I was 17 years old and flew from Omaha to Dallas to Lima. The last flight was on a Boeing 757, one of my favorites, and it was my first trip on American. I started earning miles on that trip and they have been my airline ever since.
I went to baggage claim and found my luggage. It was easy to find. It was the only suitcase on the turnstile not wrapped in tape with Spanish written on it. I walked to customs, groggy from the then “long flight” of five and a half hours and handed my passport over to the officer. Completely Spanish she asked me how many days I would be there. I had answered “more or less 30 days” in Spanish. She wrote the number in my passport and sent me on my way. The arrivals hall opened up and even at this late hour it was packed. There were two floors of people awaiting their relatives and all of them seemed to be shouting their names.
I was immediately overwhelmed and walked slowly like a deer in the headlights through the mass of people. I was nearly delirious trying to comprehend what I would do if I could not find them. Then I saw a sign with almost my last name on it (it was missing an important letter). I approached them, and in perfect English my host sister introduced herself. My bags were grabbed by her boyfriend at the time, and my host mother as well as Caro, my host sister and I all walked to the car. We drove for what seemed like an hour (maybe half that) and I was mixing in Spanish where I could keep up and English when I could not.
Going to School
I felt an obligation to go to classes with Caro who was a couple of years older than I was. It seemed like the best use of my time and maybe a taste of what college would be like at the end of the summer. We would take a series of mini-busses getting off on some random street corner to hop on to another informal bus for less than $.50/journey sometimes driving with the sliding door open.
Caro was fluent in Spanish, English, and French and was at towards the end of her educational career. I would go to class with her (her instructors could not have cared less that I was there) and for her English translation class, the one we went to the most, I would often speak before the class for an extended period of time answering questions about American culture and at the end of my time there, about American foreign policy for which I was woefully underprepared.
I took a french class with Caro too, one time. Trying to learn college level french translation (I had only a year or two in high school) while instructions were given in fluent Spanish made it clear that would be a course I skipped.
Some afternoons, not all, we would go with her friends to a bar across the street. Everyone would buy a big beer (what I would now call a 40 oz) and pour small glasses and drink together. There was a tradition of peeling off the labels on the beer to write a message to your friends. Only the virgins could pull the label off cleanly, or that’s what we were led to believe (not true). The messages would go to one person per label and everyone would write a little note, something funny or something nice. I still have one of those labels now 13 years later.
It was just like college would be in America, though I think Caro went more than I would in my freshman year following my trip. It was as much about education as it was about dealing with people and deadlines. The only real differences between my freshman year and that summer in Peru were the llamas and a small sense of being a celebrity on campus.
Out and About
Like any Spanish speaking country, it was a late culture, we would not have considered going out before 10 PM. No one would be out yet. It was usually Caro and her friends as my host sister Patti was a little bit older and working as a teacher, and my younger brother Juan Carlos was 14 so a little too young to join us.
When we would head out it was either to Barranco or Jockey Plaza (I never saw a sign for this area and only knew it as it sounded in Spanish: Yo kay Plaza so I never associated the name with sponsor underwear brand). The bars would keep us amused until near dawn almost every time. We would slip back into the house without making a sound (probably not) and wake up late the next morning.
I learned how to dance in Peru which was probably a disappointment to my long-term girlfriend at the time who had danced her whole life. My wife makes me break it out from time to time though I resist. We would take these dangerous little cabs called “ticos” which were Daewoos but not as reliable as you might remember. We got in one at least once that did not have a backseat. We would negotiate with the driver for a few minutes unless they gave us a good price. The driver would start at something like $5 for a journey a few miles away and we would then negotiate down to about $3. I learned then a lot of important skills in negotiating including not robbing them by forcing them to go too low so that it would not be a fair exchange.
I would like to say that we went out and had pisco sours and ceviche but everyone we hung out with (including me) was a broke college student so it was beer and cheap rum and cokes. We went out all the time and it was a great way to improve my Spanish and get a better look at the culture from an age group with which I could relate.
During my time there were various characters that I would encounter. My host father was a well-respected businessman in the community and his friends were a variety. He was a very accepting man and respectful. He was the kind of man you hoped you would be when you were his age.
One of his friends was a congressman so I got a behind the scenes look at Congress in Lima. Another was an employee of the American embassy. I was there over the fourth of July weekend and went to their house for a BBQ. It was a polite gesture but I felt out of place even though we were with other Americans.
There were people that I would meet that just assumed that I had money because I was from the States and would try to get close to me because of it. I quickly learned to identify the difference between genuine interest and guided interest. The professor for English translation at the college also became a friend. We corresponded months and even years later when I had a question or was homesick for Peru.
Host Family/Real Family
Most of all though, it was the family experience that mattered. My host mother, Margarita, though I have always just called her Mama out of respect was a beautiful matriarch running her family and their kitchen with help from Soledad, their live-in help. I was spoiled in that house, with Soledad (for whom I did not get along but in a comical way) washing my clothes, making my bed and cooking me meals.
Mama would cook and I remember waking up from a nap to the smell of Arroz con Pollo cooked with her signature ingredient, a heavy amount of beer. The taste of her Arroz con Pollo could not be replicated and upon a wayward smell of someone cooking with beer I am taken back to my room in Lima, and my feet hitting the hard wood floors and rushing downstairs to join them. There were other dishes that I had eaten and forgot about too, but between the Arroz con Pollo, and her “burn your face off” homemade ceviche were hallmarks of what I would remember of my time at her table.
My host father was generous and stoic. He was kind and polite and was the absolute center of their lives. Neither Mama nor Papa spoke very much English so our conversations were limited. While I was there to improve my Spanish, my progress was stunted by returning to English when I got stuck and Caro was there to translate most of the time. I remember several times, however, when I would sit down to talk to Cesar (Papa) and we would chat for 20-30 minutes with me catching more and more of the conversation over time. It taught me an important technique for learning new words when abroad. If I didn’t know the word for ice (heilo) I would describe it as water that is very cold and becomes hard or solid. We got through conversations on world matters this way and slowly the crutches began to dissipate and I was able to communicate on my own. I often miss my time at the kitchen table.
The feeling I left with, however, was that I was always Peruvian and had happened to be born in America. I identified with my host family, I felt like they were my real family. This is not meant to take anything away from my parents or brother. I had a great lifestyle growing up with them and a sense of family. But I also felt like I was part of my Peruvian family in a natural way. Months and even years after I would return to the States, I would call long distance (using calling cards for a reference to how long ago that was) and talk to them on the phone over the summer and at college. When it was time to leave I was crying like a baby and had considered extending my stay.
At My Best
In Lima, I found out who I was. I found that I was at my best, doing things in the community, learning all the time. I had declared an international business major but now I had changed who I was. It wasn’t a passive career choice whereby I would “fly around and sign contracts” (that was literally what I used to tell people I wanted to do for a living). I wanted to live abroad. When I was in Peru, I was at my best. Many aspects opened me up to this from Rotary offering me a spot in the program, to my friend backing out – maybe I wouldn’t have been so inclined to get so involved if I was hanging out with my American friend all the time. I was also open to learning new things, to trying everything once including chicken feet out of respect for my host family – one time was enough for that.
Somewhere along the way through college and life, I lost some elements of my experience. For some trips it became more of a conquest to “see” this or “do” that and not the experience of being in a place and understanding it fully. My Spanish slipped over time, though I try to keep it alive, and my sense of travel and adventure even vanished for a two-year stretch inconceivable to think about now.
Life is different now. I am married, I have a daughter, and they have all grown up too. After more than 40 countries in the last five years, I still want to see more and do more, though the list is getting shorter and more exotic. And I had already seen and experienced Peru so my return was put off because there was always someplace else to be.
After 13 years it was time to return to Lima, return to them and share my experience with my family.
Have you studied abroad? Where did you go? How was your experience?