After arriving at the airport in Lima, Peru I experienced my first realization of the cultural difference. We got off the plane not by going through a gate but by walking down the steps onto the tarmac. We all piled onto a tram that would drive us to the main airport. It was a short trip but it gave us our first sense of Peruvian driving. In Peru I have come to learn that marked driving lanes are ignored and cars have the right of way over people. If you have been to Peru you know what I am describing. People cross the road and cars don’t stop so you have to be quick and time your crossing well. There are designated crosswalk areas but the ratio of people that I saw using them was a small percentage. The number of close calls I saw of people nearly being hit was mind blowing, not something I see in often in Chestertown. In the airport we walked through quickly found our luggage and went through customs and we exchanged our money. We walked through to meet Alicia, Alejandra and Rodrigo. We were greeted with a kiss on the cheek and a hug, not something we do in America, it was that moment, I was overcome with the realization that we weren’t in Kansas anymore.
I have never been anywhere like this and I think it may be hard to explain unless you have but this place is incredible. Lima is packed, with a population approaching 8 million you would think it would have to be. The city is built up not out. This statement can apply in more ways than one. The mountains pose no issues to the Peruvian peoples. They build houses on mountain sides with ease. Shops and stores line the streets and houses are built on top of these. We walked through town and saw the architecture, because I have nothing to compare it to it is hard to describe but there is a stark contrast from building to building unlike anything I have ever seen. Driving down the street you will see a beautiful contemporary house next to a building that is falling apart, there is no rhyme or reason to where houses are built it’s just where and if there is space. Another thing I noticed about Lima was that everyone dresses up their dogs. I asked Alejandra one our of coordinators here in Peru if that was normal. She said unfortunately yes and that she thinks it’s strange but everyone does it. Seeing a terrier in a pink fur lined hoodie is not something that I expected to see. The only reasoning that I might be able to justify this practice is that they want to distinguish between the stray dog population and what we consider to be the more domestic population of canines, although you would think the leash would be a dead give away.
Lima was an experience within itself. I didn’t see the masses of people I had heard about and without the incredible numbers of homes I wouldn’t have believed it held such a large population.Lima is nothing like what I expected it to be, there was a mall and excellent food everywhere we went. There were a few reminders that we were in Peru along the way but you could pick parts of Lima up and move them to Baltimore and people might not see a huge difference.
Being a minority is something else I have had to adjust to, it’s not like it makes me act or see things differently it’s just nothing I have ever experienced. I often caught short glances which made me think no matter how much Spanish I know I will stick out no matter what. I don’t think I want to blend in though, I would have thought before coming here that I would want to assimilate with the culture as much as possible. This is partially true and I do try to communicate as best as I can in their native language but it is difficult. You don’t realize how slow we talk until you hear someone respond fluently. The other day I got up from the dinner table and wanted to ask where the bathroom was. I sat there in my seat going over it in my head, “Donde esta el bano?” I went over it in my head and went downstairs to ask the host. I asked and he smiled and responded back in Spanish. Out of all of the words he uttered I caught one I recognized…”piso”. Just as clueless as I was walking down the stairs I thanked him and walked back up more confused, piso is floor, and I don’t know how that would help me find the bathroom. The looks you get when you try to communicate in Spanish are mixed, some people don’t want to give you the time of day as your desperately try not to butcher their language and others exert patience and smile. We aren’t the first tourists here though so we have to continue to respect their culture and be grateful that many people welcome us with open arms. In Lima you do not feel like you are in a desert, maybe it’s the millions of people that have populated the area or simply the massive overtaking of the landscape.
In Lima we visited the Museo de Nacional, we were able to see the pictures and images of the political struggle, most notably in the last 35-40 years. The truth and reconciliation commission is responsible for the collection of pictures and historical accounts of the pain and suffering of the Peruvian people. The Museo reminded many of us of the Holocaust, while the scale was smaller in Peru it is not something to brush over in history. The pain and grieving was portrayed through images taken during the political conflicts. The greatest period of suffering and internal war started in 1980’s with clash of groups like the Sendero and the Shining Path with the government. Thousands of innocent lives were taken due to suspicion that they were members associated with Sendero. The suffering portrayed throughout the pictures in the museum forced us to look into a different countries past, a historical period of turmoil that was heightened during our own short lifetimes.
It is crazy think that all of the pain and bloodshed was occurring here in Peru while we were back in the United States taking our freedom for granted.