This archived article was written by: Kellie Henderson / Kara Heaton
Leaving your native country for the first time is often an experience met with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. For us, we also felt an overwhelming sense of humility; we were embarking into the wide world and were beginning to realize how little we actually knew about it.
We left the United States for Peru with our family to visit our sister Amber and Mike Wadman and their three boys, who had been living there for the past six months. Mike served an LDS mission in Peru and had returned there to create a chain of grocery stores, called Cali, to help relieve the poor.
After arriving in Peru, we were immediately bombarded by a language and culture almost entirely foreign to us. With an extremely limited Spanish vocabulary, we experience first-hand the frustrations of living in a country without knowing the native language. Without Mike as an interpreter we had to hope that whoever we needed to communicate with knew some English, or we had to rely on pantomimes and piecing together the few Spanish words we knew.
In the short hour it took to travel from the Lima airport to the Wadman house, we were confronted with more Peruvian culture. Peru is a third world country with over 50% unemployment, so we were constantly surrounded by people selling candy and household items, helping you park, and generally do anything that would earn money. Asking for a tip, even demanding one, is not considered rude in Peru as tipping is not considered optional.
Riding in a car in the crowded city of Lima is a unique experience, where painted lanes and traffic lights are suggestions, cutting someone off is standard, honking is constant and slamming on the breaks to the brink of rear-ending the car in front of you is considered a good stop. Pedestrians do not have right-of-way, and seeing people darting through traffic is quite common.
In addition to adult street vendors, many children sell candy and do tricks for money on the streets. It is tempting to give money to these children, who are often ragged and tired, but most of them are slaves. These children were kidnapped from their families and taught how to perform tricks or beg for money, all of which goes to whoever owns them. Because we did not want to help the slave industry, but still felt bad for the children, we had to settle on giving the children crackers or any other type of food we had with us.
Our first breakfast in Peru was almost painfully delicious. It consisted of German pancakes served Peruvian style with fresh lime juice and powdered sugar (we definitely recommend it) and fresh mango and pineapple. As Mike explained, Peruvian produce is grown in the local rainforests, giving fruits and even vegetables a sweeter flavor. Most would not have marked this as a significant part of their journey, but as we are obsessed with fresh produce, we were experiencing heaven on earth with each meal.
Probably the most culturally-rich experience we had in Peru was shopping at the open market in downtown Lima. The market stretched several blocks and continued throughout the day, with small shops and street venders selling everything from batteries and hand-knit underwear to ice cream and household items. Currency is called sol (pronounced soul) and three soles (Soul-ays) are equivalent to one dollar. As Peruvians are not accustomed to seeing more than a few white people in one place, our group of nine Americans drew many stares and perplexed expressions.
Although Peru is a relatively safe place, we had to take some necessary precautions. Peruvians are not a violent people, but it was still necessary to stay in a group because we were in a poorer area of town where theft is common. At Cali, Mike had to employ five security guards, four that would work twelve hour shifts in pairs, and one that worked a full twenty-four hour shift on Sunday. While we were driving through the poorer section of town, we had to hide our purses, cameras, and couldn’t wear any jewelry or flashy clothes that would draw attention to ourselves.
We also had to be cautious when showering, brushing our teeth, or any activity involving water as it is not properly filtered as it is in America, making water in Peru unsafe to drink. We could only drink bottled water. If we went to a restaurant and wanted water, Mike would have to specifically ask for bottled water. If we wanted ice (Peruvians don’t drink ice because they think it will give you a stomach ache), Mike had to ask where the water had come from.
Nothing from our life could have prepared us for such widespread poverty we found in Peru. The neighborhood surrounding Cali housed people in more desperate conditions than we had ever seen first-hand. Streets are covered in garbage, human waste, and homeless dogs that were literally crawling with fleas. Houses, or better yet, shacks, which were usually unfinished because partial houses are tax exempt, were crammed together and reached all the way up the mountain side.
The rich people of Peru have built was it called the Wall of Shame. They built this wall along the top of mountains because they don’t want the poor coming and building on their land. On one side of the wall there are million-dollar homes and on the other side, shacks.
The government in Peru has established many laws protecting poor people. One law states that if a poor person builds a house on any land, owned or un-owned, they can not be evicted. This has caused the wealthier people to build walls everywhere, even if they aren’t using their land for anything else. Sometimes the rich will grow plants on this land, but generally it is just left barren
Another culture shock is the way hired help is treated. Amber and Mike hired a native woman to come and assist them while they were getting ready for our family to help watch the boys when we couldn’t take them with us. Her name was Carina, she only spoke Spanish, and was from a very poor family. When we would walk into a room she was in, she would instantly stop whatever she was doing and leave. She wouldn’t even eat with us.
At first we were surprised and even offended, but then Amber explained to us that in a normal Peruvian household, maids were expected to be scarce and not seen. Amber and Mike disagree with that completely, but because they are not the only people she will ever work for, they conform to the culture so she will know what to do when she joins a real Peruvian household.
We rented a taxi for the few days we were in Lima, and driving around the city gave us another surprise. Our taxi driver’s name was César and he too was poor. He didn’t own the car he drove us around in; he was too poor for that. He had to rent it from a company, who would take half of whatever he made, then César would have to pay for gas out of his half, which is much more expensive than it is here.
When we would stop to eat, if we were at a more expensive restaurant we would ask César if he had enough money for food, and he usually didn’t. When we were in cheaper areas, we’d invite him to come in and eat with us. He never sat by us when we ate, but accepted the food we gave him. Most Peruvians would never invite their taxi drivers to eat with them, or even care if they had enough money for food.
We also invited César to come with us as we toured around the area. We visited the Pachacamac ruins just south of Lima. These ruins are vast so we had to drive to each different site. When we would get to each site, César would follow behind us, even though the tour guide spoke English he could not understand. There were other taxi drivers there, but they just sat in their car and waited. We felt that considering César was poor and would probably never have an opportunity to do anything like that again, we could invite him.
For the first three days of our vacation, we went to Iquitos, a small city on the Amazon River. We stayed at Ceiba Tops, a tourist lodge up river from Iquitos. While there, we experienced a whole different type of culture.
The second day there, we went and visited a river village called Yagua. The villagers were pure Peruvians, meaning they had not married into other tribes an did not have mixed blood. They had strong features that looked nothing like those of the workers at Ceiba Tops. They were once a large tribe, but now there were only about eight or nine families left. Their culture is rapidly dying because the youth leave Yagua for the bigger cities, like Iquitos, so the only people left in the village were the very old and very young.
Their whole life is based on tradition. They dressed traditionally in grass skirts, shirts and headdresses. They sang songs and danced dances that they have been singing and dancing for a long time. They weren’t just doing all this for the tourists; they genuinely wanted to dress, sing, and dance the way they have been doing for hundreds of years.
They also live very simply. We were not taken to their main village, but they showed us their main community building, which was built out of mud, branches, and leaves. They still make pots and bowls out of clay, canoes out of trees and still hunt with blow dart guns.
Money also doesn’t seem to be much of an issue with these people. After they danced and sang for us, and showed us their dart guns, they took us to a small pavilion were they showed us jewelry, purses, fans, wooden sculptures, dart guns and other trinkets, all hand made. Generally, something hand made in the United States would be more expensive than something from a store. In the Yagua village, it was the exact opposite. Most of what they sold was only for a few soles and there was probably nothing over twenty soles.
In life, the most valuable knowledge is not gained from textbooks or white boards, nor is it displayed through essays and tests. The purpose of knowledge is to eliminate ignorance, and experiences outside your comfort zone and native culture are the best ways to become aware of the world around us. Without exposure, how can we be assured in our perspective of the world? How can we be sure of the beliefs we hold to be true?