A Perú: Con Besos y Abrazos

It’s been over a month since I walked on the dusty grounds of Peru: since I’ve indulged in their endless variety of potatoes, bargained an alpaca hat down from crazy cheap to insanely cheap, brushed my teeth with bottled water, and been close enough to the sky to touch the clouds. In the thirty days since I left South America there hasn’t been a day I haven’t thought about what I’ve learned, how much I took away from the experience, and what I wouldn’t give to go back and discover even more.

My senior spring break was better than your senior spring break—I’ll bet you 100 soles (that’s about $30…). At the beginning of April, I was accompanied by the most beautiful, talented, and lovely singers on a trip that was destined to change us forever. I can go on and on about what I saw, tasted, smelled, and how new and interesting everything seemed but I’ll keep it to the essentials…

This was my fourth overseas trip this year. And as much as I love travelling, sometimes I worry I will take it for granted, that I will only have brief memories of each place I have visited but never really grasp the full concept. False. Everything in Peru was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

I’ll never forget the day we took a bus ride over the mountains, whizzing past unfinished houses constructed from rotten wood and rusty aluminum, observing dogs eating out of dumpsters and barefoot families stripping corn in the dust. We learned that some of these children walked up to two hours each day to attend a somewhat decent school, walked two hours back, and still had loads of housework to accomplish. I squinted to clarify that the glimmers in the sun were indeed broken beer bottles put around roofs and fences as a type of security mechanism. I stared wide eyed as I watched women in traditional Incan dress herd sheep up the mountain. People still do that? What? (It turns out, they even make their own clothes from the wool of these animals…)

To say the trip was a culture shock would be an extreme understatement. To say it was the greatest surprise of my life could not do justice to the extent to which the trip educated and inspired me.

The morning we landed in Cusco we had the majority of the day to relax and adjust to the altitude. After a few too many cups of coca tea, I trekked out with a couple of friends to find lunch in this foreign city. Upon our trepidation that we would not find vegetarian food anywhere, I accepted a woman’s invitation into her homely restaurant and explained our situation. She graciously brought us a delicious corn and homemade cheese and set to work with two other women on making French fries. Homemade French fries. Sliced potatoes, greased skillet, salt. Unbelievable. We sat at our quaint table wide eyed as we somewhat incredulously observed the generosity and hospitality. The fact that they ran this restaurant out of a sense of friendliness and a desire to feed others rather than merely make a profit, stunned me. That a business would actually care about its customers as people rather than money disposing entities baffled me.

Later that evening, while most of our heads pounded and stomachs growled due to our inability to breathe, we found ourselves standing in front of a large group of orphans, expecting us to sing our hearts out. We gasped for air, leaned on each other for support during breaths, closed our eyes temporarily to ignore the pounding pains in our heads, but we performed each song with precision and joy. It was completely moving to me that as a group, we all came together and unified to make these children’s lives just a bit better. Through all our misery, we knew that their lives must be so much worse, immensely more difficult and continually painful, and full with unimaginable struggles.

Through the trip, I learned to appreciate music to an extent I never believed existed. I realized that our performances actually made a difference in people’s lives that it brightened their day to an extent that would never had existed had we not brought our music to them.

On our first afternoon, I was waiting in line for the bathroom and had a brief conversation with a woman from Argentina. She asked me if our group was visiting for a cultural exchange and I responded no, we’re just here to sing to the Peruvians. How wrong I was!

After each concert, the local audience would give us homemade treats and have us watch a performance they arranged. Each performance was more stunning, more shocking, and more inspiring than the next. The fact that we could share our music with each other, to truly interchange our cultures, our talents and joys, without a doubt made the trip worthwhile. I’ll never forget our reed boat ride in Lake Titicaca: as we sat huddled in North Face jackets, seven women in traditional dress stood on the side of their floating island sang to us in Quechua we laughed and clapped along until the tune changed to “Row, row, row your boat.” They then broke out into “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” As they approached the chorus, the twelve of us in the reed canoe joined in, “Bring back, bring back, bring back my Bonnie to me, to me…”

The sound continuously echoes in my head. I’ll never forget the uniting of the two distinctly opposite culture’s voices, the vibrato of trained opera singers melding with the sweet tones of a native Quechua tongue. I’ll always remember the grandeur of Machu Picchu; the bustling streets and colliding cars in Lima, the endless amounts of livestock, potatoes, and buffets (yes, you pronounce the T); the fun of bargaining; but most importantly, I will never forget the people of Peru.

They say you learn Spanish to communicate with the world. (At least, that’s what I was told for as long as I remember being forced to watch movies with Spanish speaking birds, singing songs about Hispanic children, and sticking impossible amounts of stickers onto every surface imaginable when all I really wanted to do was watch Arthur, listen to the Spice Girls, and play outside.) But all those countless years of Spanish lessons (am I thanking Sra. Rivera in this? 3rd grade was a good year…) end up honestly making the biggest difference in the world when you can talk to Dora from Peru about her solar powered, one room hut which houses her three person family, when you can bargain for a hand-woven sweater on the street in Puno, when you know what signs actually say, what announcements actually announce, and exactly what is going on at all times. I am forever grateful for my ability to communicate with the brand new world I entered and will never forget.

Peru taught me an appreciation: an appreciation for what I already have and what I am possible of obtaining. An appreciation for the ability to see and learn from different realities, never feeling stuck in my own. An appreciation for friends who are willing to explore foreign destinations in search of the perfect Alpoutfit. And, above all, an appreciation for experience. For new experience, old experience, and everything in between. For my ability to learn and continue progressing, for my passion to share stories from Peru with everyone, to teach them even more than what I learned on the trip, and inspire them as Peru inspired me.

And for now, Peru, you really do lie over the ocean, but I know through my photographs and elaborate memories, my Bonnie will always be brought back to me.