Week 1 in Lima, Peru: What Makes us Human

This summer marks the third College of Education faculty-led study abroad trip to Peru. Dr. Melissa Gibson and 11 of our students are studying and learning in Lima while also traveling the country. Their blogs are originally posted on Marquette Meets Peru, and we’re excited to share them with you!

By Lily Regan

Holy cow…talk about an overwhelming week — from Chicago, to Miami, to Lima! And now even within Lima, moving from Pueblo Libre, to the city center, to El Agustino, to Pamplona Alta, to Miraflores. Within just the past week, I have seen so much more of Peru than I thought I would see in my entire month here. From rich to poor and everything in between. From sitting in hours of traffic and listening to the constant symphony of honking horns to driving up unpaved roads with dogs wandering the streets. From places with no running water or electricity to the bustling marketplaces selling everything alpaca. From the seemingly endless levels of homes housing who knows how many relatives to a small shop that can only fit about three people comfortably. This trip has been a trip of stark contrasts and surprising similarities; every place has had something totally unique to teach me about Peruvian culture but has also shed a light on what it is that connects and unites all of us as human beings despite geographic location or class differences.

The first stark differences that I saw when first arriving to Peru were mostly in regard to the collectivist mindset and the way people live. For example, when I first got to my host family’s house, I was extremely thrown off. As I was getting a tour of the home, I noticed that some of the house was exposed to the outside. As I walked from the living room into the dining room and kitchen, there was an external wall to the left and a roof over my head, but there was only a half wall to my right. I could feel the light mist in the evening air on my face as I walked through the hallway towards the kitchen, yet I was still walking through what they called their home. As I peered over the half-wall to my right, I saw what appeared to be other houses all situated around the central courtyard. This was very confusing to me at first. I wondered who the people were that were living in those other “houses.” I could not wrap my mind around why the wall was not built all the way to the ceiling. Was the courtyard that was in the center of all the “houses” a common area? And where was the privacy? Who would want to live with neighbors surrounding you? In the past week, I have begun to fill in the gaps and now have a more complete understanding of how crucial family is to the Peruvian culture and why exactly the house is laid out in this way.

I have come to understand that there needs to be spaces open to the outside; there is no air conditioning, so having the constant air flow is crucial. Because the temperature in Pueblo Libre rarely drops below a temperate 13 degrees Celsius, there is no need for air conditioning or heating, and the outside air maintains the house’s comfortable temperature. In addition, rain other than mist is very uncommon here in Lima, the second driest capital in the world, second only to Cairo, which means that full coverage of your house is not completely necessary. Also, what I assumed were other houses surrounding the courtyard are all connected to the “main” house and essentially function as different apartments within the house. The different sections of the house actually are homes to many of our host family’s extended family members. This was very much a shock; coming from the United States where independence and individual achievements are praised, I was not expecting to see adults choosing to live with their extended family. However, Peruvians have traditionally valued the success of the community and familial relationships over individual achievement. In addition, while there is not as much privacy in the house, it does not seem to be an issue for anyone living here. Privacy and personal space do not exist here in Peru as they do in the United States, which can be seen based on their typical greeting of kissing total strangers on the cheek and families living together long after they “should have moved out” according to the United States’ standards.

These things were all especially confusing to me because before the trip I was told that I would be going into a middle-class neighborhood with a middle-class family. However, middle-class families living in the United States do not have portions of their home exposed to the elements, and middle-class families do not all live together unless absolutely necessary. Certainly, this was not a middle-class family.

But it was! My host family, and the surrounding neighborhood is considered a “B-” neighborhood. In Peru, the classes are classified by letters, with A being the most affluent and E being the most impoverished, so this was a solidly middle-class family. These people did not necessarily need to be sharing all of their space or having so much of their home open to the air; yet, these were all choices that the family was making based on their culture. That was one of the things that took the most getting used to. It was a difficult hurdle to leap in my mind that independence does not necessarily equate to a better family or a better individual.

But despite all of the seeming differences, I have also seen so much that reminds me of home. The values that people share regardless of geographical location or class and the commonalities that make us all human are so much larger than all of the physical differences that I was able to see.

The neighborhood that seemingly had the most differences from the life that I live in the United States was Pamplona Alta; however, it was also where I was able to see the most connections to home. The “pueblo joven,” or young town, which is situated on the hills in the outskirts of Lima is considered a class E neighborhood. They do not have running water or electricity, and the roads are unpaved. Many people have to make an hours long journey to get simple necessities such as food and water from more accessible parts of Lima to their homes. This, in my mind, gave everyone living in Pamplona Alta the right to be miserable. But I actually found quite the opposite to be true. Every person that I saw on our short visit to the district was smiling, waving, welcoming us with open arms. I saw parents and grandparents working hard so that their family might have the opportunities that they did not have when they were growing up. I saw kids smiling, drawing, and playing with friends. All around me, if I looked past the physical objects that become the center of attention all too frequently, I saw people who reminded me so much of home and so many values that I strive to live out. I saw people that were determined, hard-working, grateful, happy, proud of their accomplishments, loving.

But it did, admittedly, take me quite a while to recognize all of these similarities between my own town and this newly developing community. When I initially saw the physical differences, I was immediately saddened by the “desolate” community that I saw. I wanted nothing more than to donate money to the schools, to help people fix their homes, to pave the roads, to install running water and electricity…but then I had time to reflect on the very long, trafficy bus ride home. And I came to realize how wrong I was about all of my initial reactions to the community. First of all, upon reflection, I was able to identify just how similar the community really was to my own community, and secondly, I was able to recognize the fault in my initial instinct to help the people in Pamplona Alta by making it “better” according to my own standards. I thought back to the article that we read for class written by Jacob Kushner titled “The Voluntourist’s Dilemma” that explains why these well-intentioned thoughts and subsequent actions by “well-off” people may ultimately cause harm to the “less fortunate” community that they are trying to help. Instead of asking the community what they need, volunteers come in and supply the service that they deem to be the most urgent; they take jobs that could be done by members of the community because they naively try to help the community. With these actions, the volunteers place themselves above the people they are trying to help. They do not see the members of the community as humans; they see the community as a project and the people within the community as helpless people that NEED help. I realized that this was my gut reaction to seeing the neighborhood.

Based on Kushner’s article, my own experience with the people of Pamplona Alta and the time I took to reflect, I have come to recognize that these ideas could not be further from the truth. I had to imagine how I would feel if someone that was not from my country or culture and did not even speak my language came into my community and began “fixing” everything they saw wrong with it; they began to go over all of my hard work with what they thought was better. From this perspective, of course these hard-working, proud people do not want me to come in to “fix” their community! It is this simple shift from sympathy to empathy that allows me to be able to truly see the communities that we visit in Peru. Understanding that even impoverished communities are rich in culture, history and relationships and finding the similarities has aided in this transformation.

Despite the language difference, the cultural difference and the geographical difference, it is incredible to me that there is so much that connects us all. This past week in Peru has really taught me how to value the similarities just as much as the differences in communities. From what I have seen from my time here in Peru and my time living in the United States, humans are humans. We are hard-working, take pride in our work, and want the best for our children. Children are children. When they are nurtured and cared for, they are happy; they love to play; they are filled with hope. No matter the number of physical belongings, in the end, we are all humans. No matter the cultural background or longitude and latitude, it is good to be reminded that at the core we have so many similarities that far outweigh the differences.

 

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