It’s been a little over a week since I said goodbye to my family in Cusco, boarded several different planes, slept in several different airports, and twenty-eight hours later, finally arrived home. I still have a backpack to unpack, gifts to give, and pictures to show my friends and family. I’ve been living in a limbo zone, realizing the strangeness in the familiar as I reintroduce myself to my hometown. I’ve also been struggling with trying to answer the question everyone always asks me about my trip: “What was your favorite part?”
What was my favorite part? I don’t think this is something I will ever be able to pinpoint. I know, however, that all of the people I had the good fortune of meeting during my month in Peru are what made my trip the amazing experience it was. From my teachers at ECELA to my home stay family, I never felt alone; the saying “No man is an island” was never truer than during my exploration of, and immersion in, Peruvian culture. I now have a network of friends (and honorary family members) in Cusco who assured me I’ll always have a home with them if (but I like to think “when”) I return to Peru.
One of the best things about attending a language school like ECELA is that it gives you the opportunity to meet fellow students from around the world. People came and went during my four weeks there; others had been taking classes since before I arrived and stayed on after I left. In my conversation class, I shared my opinions on myriad issues with a Scottish doctor-in-training (who had lived in Chile with his family when he was a young boy) and a Brazilian who defied any and all stereotypes (he had actually left Brazil because of the Copa Mundial–“it’s just too crazy right now,” he said), among others. In my grammar class, a French girl currently working as a nurse in Switzerland shed light on certain parts and pieces of Spanish–her first language, also romantic, provided linguistic insight much different from my own. I also met fellow Americans from across the country, most notably the very awesome Leah of San Francisco, who became an honorary part of our Flagler College study abroad team.
My home stay family was, without a doubt, one of the highlights of my study abroad experience. Natali and Lucho, my mom and dad, treated me like one of their own from the moment I arrived. Four-year-old Antonella looked up to me like a big sister (and taught me many new words in Spanish when we played together!) and four-month-old Lucas brightened my school mornings as he danced his baby dance in Natali’s arms. I was absolutely heartbroken when I had to say goodbye to my family last Sunday because I realized that even though I will return to Cusco to visit them, Antonella and Lucas will never be those precious ages again. They will be precious in different ways, but they will change–as will Natali and Lucho–and that is both tragic and beautiful. Every moment we spent together meant and will always mean so much as time marches on and on and on…
My family keeps a special memory book for all of the students who have stayed with them. In it, we are able to write a page or two about our time in Cusco with the family. After writing a personalized note to everyone (even Lucas!), I ended with my contact information and a quote by Paulo Coelho, which reads: “El que está acostumbrado a viajar, sabe que siempre es necesario partir algún día” (He who is accustomed to traveling knows that it is always necessary to part one day). This quote perfectly summarized how I felt during my last couple of days in Cusco, when my impending departure loomed over all of my daily interactions. I looked around and even through my head cold, felt everything so deeply–all of my senses were heightened as my mind tried to wrap itself around the truth that it had been a month and it was time to go home.
I know my experience abroad would have been extremely different had I not gone with the wonderful group of students from Flagler College and Aggie Johnson, our professor of Andean culture, leader, and all-around saint. I am so incredibly grateful for getting to know each of the girls in my group so well–each of us contributed something special to the team. We saw each other at our highest highs and lowest lows; through sickness and health we stuck together, sharing personal stories over lunch, falling asleep on each other’s shoulders during long bus rides, laughing about things that would’ve otherwise made us cry. The lifelong friendships I made during my time abroad are the real souvenirs of my trip, warmer than any alpaca blanket and more beautiful, more precious than any piece of silver jewelry I could’ve bought.
On our last night at Azul Wasi, the orphanage where we volunteered, we made watia, a type of food that involves an oven of stones which, when collapsed, cooks the potatoes, beans, and other items underneath a layer of dirt. Some of us helped make the oven, waited for the wood inside to burn completely, and then threw the papas and habas inside to cook among the embers as we pushed the oven in on itself. Meanwhile, others played with the children: volleyball, football, drawing, bubbles, you name it. When the food was finally ready, the director of the orphanage brought out queso fresco and salsa verde from the kitchen. We dug through the pile of stones and dirt to find the cooked papas and habas and then sat back and simply enjoyed each other’s company, a potato in one hand and a piece of cheese in the other, while the sun bid farewell to yet another day in the most magnificent way imaginable.
So…what was my favorite part of the trip?
Looking back through this post, I think I’ve decided on an answer for that godforsaken, impossible question: friendship. Nothing could be more accurate because really, when it comes down to it, who would we be without other people? As Jonathan Safran Foer writes, “My life story is the story of everyone I’ve ever met,” and how true that is.
La amistad. Maybe it’s as simple as that.