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Hola from the Southern Hemisphere! Words can’t explain how crazy and amazing these last 2 months have been. 2 months since I’ve left the US and everything I know. 2 months since I’ve left my comfort zone and my family and friends. 2 months in an amazing country I now get to call my home.
The day I left the US was a pleasant memory. My family and best friend sent me off to the airport and my other best friend left for her exchange that same day. That day was a range of emotions..it was indescribable in a way. I couldn’t put a pin on how exactly I was feeling because there were just so many different emotions crossing paths in my mind. What I could say, however, was that the most prominent emotion was definitely excitement for the crazy step in my life I was about to take. I came into exchange with an open mind and zero expectations at all. Not that I didn’t want to set myself up for disappointment, but because I wanted to make this journey my own and with a blank slate I could create myself. This was the start of an amazing and once in a lifetime opportunity. Nothing was going to get in my way.
Once me & 3 other exchange students landed in Lima, that’s when reality hit..I had to actually start speaking Spanish. My host mom in Lima didn’t speak very much English which made for a lot of me digging in my brain to make as much use of the high school Spanish I had learned prior. A funny thing that was hard for me in the first weeks was not realizing I had to respond to Spanish. Because I had never been used to responding Spanish in the US, I wouldn’t realize when a person was talking to me and I would seem like I was ignoring them.. Good thing I got used to this and I’m more alert now when people call me!
Key differences I’ve noticed between here and the USA:
-Spanish people love adding ito and ita to words (ex.- Sabrinita, aguita, ahorita)
-The greeting here is a simple hola and 1 kiss on the cheek, regardless of if you know them, how old they are, or what their gender is. Even in school, some teachers will kiss you everyday when you come in!
–a lot of respect is held within greetings, if you don’t greet someone it can be seen as disrespectful
-most people here only know basic/ minimal English, or none at all, which definitely reinforces the need for Spanish
-public transportation is HUGE here, with majority of the population using taxis, Uber’s, buses, and combis
-water isn’t free in restaurants like I am used to in the US, and tap water isn’t safe to drink so everyone drinks bottled water
-shoes are worn inside the house! I’ve asked a couple of different Peruvians about why this is, and I’ve received varied answers like – it’s cold, there’s a lot of dust , feet are dirty, etc.
-there is lots of slang (jerga) used here, which is a bit difficult to learn because there is so much and they are not in the dictionary… they also vary by every Spanish country
-Peru is a very conservative country!! Especially in comparison to its bordering countries
-when eating, you don’t really wait for everyone to get their meal because it will get cold and there can be a large difference in the times different plates arrive
-there is a big difference between the upper and lower class , with a small but growing middle class. Most of the time, your family is either very wealthy or very poor
-most of the time you have to pay for public bathrooms..even if it’s only .30 soles which is very cheap, but just the thought of having to pay to use a restroom is a little strange to me. Also, you can’t flush toilet paper- but this is usually only the case for public restrooms
-peanut butter is not a popular food here! Coming from a country that peanut butter is a common household pantry item, I personally couldn’t function without it. My family had to go to 4 different grocery stores to find it!
–most people have never even tried peanut butter, (my host family included) so I introduced to my family pb&j sandwiches which was really nice to share some American culture with them
-most people that have been to the US have been to FL, mostly Orlando and Miami, in part because of the proximity and also because of Disney world and Universal
-everyone knows where FL is so when I tell them where I’m from, they immediately ask if I go to Disney everyday
–most people, however, are not aware of the less known mid western countries
-many, many people here have studied abroad already or want to at some point in their lives
School here is very different than the US and it was where I received the most culture shock.
I attend an all girls, private, Catholic school called Colegio de Los Sagrados Corazones. What I have noticed is that school is just as boring no matter where you are in the world. While the language is indeed different, learning a subject in a classroom setting is the same anywhere. The dynamic at my school is very different than what I’m used to…no phones are allowed, uniforms are worn, teachers are more relaxed and viewed more like friends with the students. To get the teacher’s attention, students yell out “Miss!” pronounced “Mees!” If the students whine enough about not wanting to take an exam that day, they can convince the teacher to push it back another day. I was very confused with this at first because that sort of thing just didn’t happen in my high school in the US. Whe I told one of my classmates this, she was shocked because of how normal negotiating with the teacher is here. When a teacher doesn’t show up, most of the time it is just a free period. Having religion in school has been very different as well because I have always been used to a secular method of teaching. My school is the equivalent of K-12, with all the grade levels in one school- and even then, it’s less people than just my graduating class in the US. Every school here is different and this is just the case with my school.
Here we don’t have the big yellow school bus, instead there are multiple caravan type cars called a “movilidad escolar” that picks up students from each of their homes. Because I’m the first stop, I’m on the movilidad for an hour to go to school and an hour to get back.
Something also interesting is that to enter a university, students take an exam that determines whether you are accepted or not, while in the US- it takes grades, SAT scores, essays and more. I actually took a university entrance exam and it was very difficult, most likely more so for me because it was all in Spanish. I feel for the students here because they have to study really hard for these exams if they want to go to university. One funny tradition they have here is if a guy passes the exam, they shave their head.
A really cool opportunity Rotary in Peru gives exchange students is being able to go to university in the second half of our exchange. I’m so excited to experience how different the dynamic is and to see how a Peruvian university differs from the ones back home.
All I can say about the food here is that it’s one word- amazing. I now understand why Peru is the gastronomical capital of South America. One major pro to eating in Peru is that it’s all super cheap, especially in comparison to the prices I would pay for going out to eat in the US. You can have a nice meal at most places for the equivalent of 6 USD. $1 here is approximately 3 soles, which definitely works in my favor. I’ve also noticed that I eat a lot healthier, and food has a lot more flavor and a lot less grease here. My favorite foods so far have been ocopa, lomo saltado, and my all time favorite- queso helado. It translates to ‘cheese ice cream’ but it’s a creamy dessert topped with cinnamon and it is to die for.
I’ve also tried many new fruits and vegetables here that I’ve never tried before. Being able to see how much more our planet has to offer us has been amazing. Also, a big difference is that water isn’t readily available or free in restaurants like it is in the US. Everyone drinks bottled water, never tap water. Coca Cola and inca Cola are the top beverage competitors here in Peru. Inca Cola is an extremely famous drink here that is yellow in color and has a taste similar to bubble gum. I personally don’t drink very much soda so it was a little odd in the beginning to get used to so much soda. When ordering water, the immediate question is “con gas o sin gas?” which means “with or without gas?”
Traffic here is an absolute nightmare! Most people do without cars because 1. it’s difficult/scary to drive on the roads here, or 2. public transportation is just easier. I would equate driving here as a free for all…there are stop signs and rules set into place but they are very loosely adhered to. The popular modes of transportation include walking, taxis, buses, and combis. Combis are basically small buses stuffed with as many people as possible. They all usually have a little man standing in the opening of the car yelling out different destinations that the combi is going to. These are the cheapest ways to get around, but not always the most secure, because they are famous for having valuables stolen. I haven’t been in a combi yet but when I do, I will definitely make sure to be smart and keep all my valuables away. To add even more fun in driving, there are people that take advantage of red lights to provide their services in efforts of making money. These red light shenanigans can range from street acts of juggling balls of fire to people selling their products to even people offering to clean your car. All within the shortspan of a red light…I personally find this really cool and something I would never see back home in Florida.
Here in Peru, we have something called “Peruvian hour” which is basically an extra hour Peruvians give themselves before parties or meetings. If a party starts at 8 and you come at 8, the host will probably still be getting ready. With the Peruvian hour in mind, 9 will be when everyone ends up arriving. I think this is a big reason of why the traffic is so bad here. I personally wouldn’t recommend a very punctual person to live here because of this!
Experience in Lima
Before settling in our respective host cities, all the exchange students stayed in Lima for the first 2 weeks of our exchanges to explore the capital and for our inbound orientation. I myself had an amazing time in Lima. My Lima host family was very accommodating and so friendly. I lived with my host mom and her parents, and because my host family was divorced, my host siblings switched back and forth between the parents houses. All of my host siblings were very nice to me and I got really close with my host sister especially. My host mom was also really sweet and we often went walking around the Pentágono right in front of the apartment building. We had a man that would open the doors for us when we came in and elevators that took us straight to the apartment which I’ve never seen before but it was interesting to see. Most people live in apartments here and mine in Lima was beautiful and had an amazing view of the city.
My host sister and I visited Miraflores and Barranco, which are 2 very nice and touristic districts in Lima. They were both equally beautiful and many of the buildings were very European in architecture. We also visited the Historic Centre of Lima, where we were able to see catacumbas in the Convento de San Francisco, and where I tried authentic ceviche for the first time. All of the exchange students were given the incredible opportunity of meeting the First Lady and President of Peru as well in the center of Lima. We were able to witness 3 different native Peruvian dances, listen to the First Lady speak, and we all danced together with the Peruvian dancers at the end. It was truly an amazing experience I will never forget.
In the Southern Hemisphere the seasons are switched, so when I arrived, it was mid winter. Winter in Lima was extremely cold- I wasn’t prepared at all. I brought one thin jacket and scarf and the rest summer clothes because I didn’t think winter would be that cold…no warm clothing combined with no sun in Lima was definitely a wakeup call and had really made me appreciate the ever so existent sun in Florida.
Majority of the exchange students are located in Lima. Rotary in Peru also gives us exchange students another amazing opportunity and that is switching cities in the summer. I am returning back to Lima for the summer (January/ February) and I am very excited because there are many things to do in the capital and also to see my former host family and friends back in Lima! Being able to experience the capital of Peru was incredible and I am very blessed that I was able see everything I did for the short time that I was there.
Experience in Arequipa
I was welcomed in Arequipa with a beaming host family, posters, flowers, Rotarians and more. I could not have asked for a better welcome and host family. My host family here in Arequipa is also incredible and I seriously can’t ask for more. They have made me feel so welcome and like their real daughter.
The difference between Lima and Arequipa is major! Arequipa is much more calm and tranquil than the busy capital of Lima, with small streets and not as much noise. Don’t get me wrong though, Arequipa is beautiful, and called “la ciudad blanca” for a reason. Almost all of the buildings are made from a white volcanic rock called “sillar” and gives the city a very antique and historic look. Arequipa is surrounded by 3 volcanoes- Misti, Chachani, and Picchu Picchu- which can be seen from all around the city. The people of Arequipa are immensely proud of their city, and some even consider it as separate from the entire country. The dialect here is a bit different than in Lima, with a more singsongy sound when they speak. There are even foods and drinks that are specific only to Arequipa, including a beverage called “Kola Escosesa” which tastes like Cherry Coke, and can only be found in Arequipa. One thing I love about living in Arequipa is the close proximity of everything. I have 2 other exchange students within a 2 minute walk from me, and the others within a 2 mile radius. Because of this, all of the exchange students in Arequipa meet very often and we have all become really close.
Another major difference is the weather here. It is sunny year round, no matter the season, but only during the daytime. In the daytime it is usually about 80 degrees Farenheit, and in the morning and night time, it can hit 40 degrees Farenheit, which calls for very confusing mornings when trying to choose what to wear. Coming from Lima with no sun to coming to Arequipa with sun all day was really nice and it made me realize how much I really missed it. Because Arequipa has a very high altitude of 2,335 m, the sun is very strong and apparent. Getting used to the altitude was a little bit difficult for me in the beginning, but thankfully now I am accustomed to it and have no problems.
One thing I will definitely say is that having four years of Spanish prior to coming here has helped tremendously. I had an amazing Spanish teacher in the US that really instilled the Spanish culture in our classes and really made me enjoy the language. It was really cool to come into the country and already know the lyrics of popular songs here because I had already listened to them in the US. However, no amount of language classes can prepare you for a full immersion in a country that speaks basically only that language. First landing in Peru was definitely a wake up call because everything was in Spanish. One great thing with having Spanish classes beforehand is that I can understand almost everything. Personally, speaking for me is more difficult because you have to produce the language spontaneously and it is more out of my comfort zone because I always feel like I will say something wrong. What I have learned so far on exchange, however, is that you have to accept that you’re going to make mistakes in the beginning and the only way to improve is to just practice speaking all the time. I am slowly but surely getting out of my comfort zone regarding speaking, and having host parents that don’t speak English has helped tremendously. During my first month, speaking was my biggest struggle but in my second, speaking has become much easier and more comfortable. When you have no choice but to speak the language, you definitely pick it up much faster and make a stronger effort to learn it.
For any family or friends reading this- I am doing great and I am having the time of my life! The people here are one of the most hospitable, welcoming, and friendly people I have ever encountered. I feel so welcome here and honestly feel I’ve lived here all my life. I haven’t really felt any kind of homesickness yet, but there are definitely times here and there when I miss my friends or family.
If you are from the US and reading this, please do me a favor and go get some Chipotle or Chikfila. I didn’t think I would miss American food very much, seeing how amazing the food is here, but I guess some things never change. Fast food is more expensive here and not eaten as often as it is in the US. Some restaurants and fast food chains that I still have here are: McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, Papa Johns, Chili’s, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and more. It has been really interesting to see how these chains differ internationally and how they acquire specific items on menus depending on the location and culture.
Everyday I wake up in this beautiful country, I am reminded how lucky and blessed I am to have this opportunity. Having never left the United States before, this is has been by far the most incredible way to travel to another part of the world and completely submerge myself into the culture. Thank you Rotary, for allowing me to be apart of this amazing global organization with the means of changing world perspectives at this age. Time already feels to have flown by so fast and its only been 2 months. I can’t wait to delve deeper into the abundant and rich culture that I am already getting lost in and falling in love with.