Island Life (Amantaní)

Sometimes we travel long and hard to arrive at our destination. And then sometimes the journey itself is so beautiful and interesting that it is part of the destination.

Getting to Amantaní is one of the latter. The hour-long motorboat ride through the lake was was both fascinating and relaxing at the same time. A vast expanse like the ocean, but calm, with only minuscule waves, passing islands along the way that I had seen from the shore just a day before…and passing the shore that I had been on just the day before, staring out to where I now was in a boat!

When I arrived at the dock, I was greeted by a smiley and warm, short and round woman who introduced herself as Silveria, the wife of Romulo, with whom I had organized the stay. She led me up a steep sidewalk with many stairs along the way, and after just 5 minutes I was huffing and puffing with my 15 kilos of backpacks and just my second day in the altitude. But luckily, we had already arrived!

Their house is located close to the dock, and my room had big windows with an incredible view of the lake!

Just like in Ccotos, in the shade it’s cold and I need my 2-3 layers, but sitting in the sun for a few minutes I could wear just a long-sleeve or sometimes short sleeve t-shirt, so I sat in the sun while Silveria prepared lunch.

Chatting over a delicious lunch of local varieties of potatoes, an assortment of vegetables, and local bread, I learned that Silveria had run from one side of the island to the other in the morning, first helping her step-mom on her farm, then working on her own farm on the other side of the island, and then running to the dock to meet me. She said it took her about 30-45 minutes to run from each side of the island to the other.

Over lunch, we shared stories, getting along so well that we even began sharing about our childhoods and a summary version of our life stories! After a rough childhood, she was very happy to have a peaceful life with a nice house and a nice husband, living a good life without want. She reminded me of a sweet and hospitable southern woman, someone who had grown up in a machista culture and had a rough childhood but had made a better adult life for herself and lived constantly thankful for what she has now, moving and speaking in a manner that was both self conscious and humble, yet confident in its own way.

In Amantaní, similar to Ccotos and the surrounding areas, people’s first language is Quechua because that is what is spoken in the home. I asked if Quechua was taught in school, and the response I got was, “No, everyone knows Quechua so they don’t need to study it in school.” I was told that typically children speak only Quechua until age 5 when they begin going to school, where they start learning Spanish and school is pure Spanish.

It was interesting to me that, while speaking to Silveria, she was quite self conscious of her Spanish, even commenting that my Spanish was better than hers (though as we talked more and became more comfortable talking, her Spanish flowed more and more fluidly.)

In the late afternoon, Silveria walked me up to the path that led to the highest points on the island-two hills close together, each with a sanctuary to Pachamama* and Pachatata, respectively.

She left me and I continued to climb, slowly, step by step…up to 4,200 meters, my lungs wondering where all the oxygen went, and the temperature dropping rapidly. I was surprised as the land and hills began to give way to water on either side (apparently I had forgotten I was on an island).

My plan was to watch the sunset from there, but the clouds rolled in cutting it short. What I did find as I got closer to the sanctuaries was a ton of tourists! (And a ton of local women selling chullos* and sweaters and crafts and souvenirs all along the paths)! The tourists had all come out from hiding wherever they were staying on the island, and everyone had come to watch the sunset up here.

I got a little confused getting back to the house, and as I asked an older man who was walking with a child, he sent the little girl to walk me to the corner where I needed to turn. I found this simple reaction to be so strange and so kind – but very different from most places where everyone is in a hurry and busy with their own things and also worried about sending kids off alone, even for a few blocks.

That night over dinner, speaking with Romulo, I learned that the island is actually quite organized around the home-stay tourism and they usually partner with tour companies who bring in large groups of tourists at a time. The community is divided into 10 communities, and each community rotates being the host of a group of tourists, with each family in the community offering space in their house and meals to the visitors. Each community also has a community center where they perform traditional dances and have a party with the group of tourists. (I had bypassed this system, contacting Romulo directly, and he said this was a much better deal because he directly receives the payment, and they even have a problem with one tour company that never paid the island for hosting a group.)

I was really impressed by how organized the island of 500 families was. They meet every Sunday, first the whole island, and then they break into meetings just for each community. Romulo explained that it was their only way to get news since there wasn’t a radio station on the island just for news about the island (though they do get regional radio stations from Puno and Juliaca).

They also coordinate which communities plant which crops when, and they rotate, making sure the land has time to rest. Because of the population and limited amount of land, the island is not self-sustainable and the crops produced are not enough to feed everyone so they do have to buy food from the mainland in addition to what they produce. Because of this, the money brought by tourism is crucial for the residents.

The night was so quiet and peaceful and the stars so incredible!! And it was cold. I didn’t dare shower and I slept under about 6 heavy blankets. Before going to bed, they told me if I had to use the restroom to use the “pee bucket” under my bed instead of trying to brave the cold and go to the bathroom. I had heard of these “pee buckets” from other Peace Corps volunteers that lived in the mountains, but I had never seen them for myself. (Turns out it was just a plastic tub.)

The next morning I took a stroll along the shore…

And then we all had a crepe-like “pancake” breakfast, learning about each other’s families.

Later, Silveria walked me to another spot on the island that the tourists often like to visit, the Inca’s chair. To walk there, I noticed that she took time to put on a nice shawl, and she also brought along her knitting…and continued to knit as we walked there! (I was highly impressed.)

Everything on the island is somewhat of a climb…at this point I realized that as an island, it’s really just a big hill or mountain jutting out of the middle of the lake, with the middle of the island being the high points and the shore the low points, so you really have to climb to get anywhere unless you are literally just walking along the water.

I really fell in love with the island, with its stone paths connecting the 10 different communities. I saw the island to be filled with with trees, houses and farm plots. There are no vehicles – everyone walks. (Though I did see one motorcycle in the two days I was there.)

The Inca’s chair was a beautiful spot on the beach and I camped out there until lunch, writing, and then returned after lunch to watch the sunset.

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Dinner was delicious and a really great conversation, including Romulo showing me a photo of Silveria and complimenting her to me (with her sitting there in the kitchen) saying what a beautiful wife he had and what a great cook she was. I practiced a few of the Quechua words they had taught me, commenting that the food was delicious and thanking them for it:

“Sumaq micqvi” – delicious food!
“Yoshparasonki” – Thank you!

(My Quechua spelling is surely not correct, but that’s how I remembered to pronounce it.)

Muña- the minty-smelling herb that helps with the altitude and stomach problems. We had fresh muña tea every meal!

Before daylight broke the next morning, I left the warmth of the 6 heavy blankets and headed out to run/walk up to the highest point of the island, the sanctuaries to Pachamama and Pachatata, to watch the sun rise and start the day with some yoga and meditation at 4,000 meters (13,000 feet).

Starting at 3,800m, and climbing to 4,200m (13,000 feet) was not a walk in the park and I had to stop to breathe a few times and also take off some layers, but in about 45 minutes I reached the sanctuary and did a few sun salutations because, well, for obvious reasons.

While I was meditating I heard what sounded like a fan motor off to my left. Then I suddenly heard it in my my right ear, I opened my eyes and was amazed to see a hummingbird (“luli”) floating just one foot from my face, checking me out and whispering (quite loudly) in my ear, with its thousands-of-beats-per-minute wing-flapping motor. After 3 seconds it flew away, but left me feeling like I had just received a message from Pachamama delivered by a Chaski* in the form of a hummingbird.

After breakfast, I had to say goodbye, and I mentioned that I was sad to be leaving because I really felt at home with them and was so thankful for their hospitality, and as I saw their faces light up with genuine happiness, I was really touched to have met such kind people that opened their homes and lives to me for a couple of days!

When I had arrived, I had greeted them with the handshake, hug and air kiss that I was used to in Peru, but awkwardly found that they were expecting only the handshake. Out of habit I accidentally made that mistake twice! But upon leaving, they each reached out for a hug, and I felt a special connection to this family and this beautiful island in the middle of the highest navigable lake in the world.

Famous Footnotes:

*Pachamama – the Incan word for mother earth, which is revered with a god-like respect and reverence

*Chaskis were the Incan messengers that traveled the Incan roads delivering messages throughout the Incan Empire

*Luli – what Silveria called the hummingbird – maybe the Quechua or a local word for the hummingbird. She said it was a sign of good luck for my journey

*Chullo – the warm hat with ear flaps commonly used in the mountains of Peru and Bolivia. I learned from Romulo that if your ear flaps have dangly balls like mine, you can tie the earflaps back when you are eating so they don’t get in the way!

Between Two Worlds

For many, part of being a Peace Corps Volunteer is feeling like you are living between two worlds – where you grew up in the US and where are living while you serve. Two-thirds of our role as Peace Corps Volunteers is to try to bridge that gap through fostering intercultural understanding and exchanges.

Last year I found myself living between two worlds, but two different worlds within Peru – and I was surprised to find it more challenging than expected.

While I have always lived in cities of more than 1 million my entire life, I adapted pretty seamlessly (not without challenges, but generally pretty seamlessly) to my new, rural lifestyle in Peru, thanks to great friends and a great host family. Then, after two years, I started dating someone from Lima – that fast-moving mega city of around 8 million people, and specifically, someone from a higher socio-economic status in Lima.

gestion.pe

A few months in I started to feel the stark contrast between the culture in which I was living in my Peace Corps site, and the culture of upper class Lima. While I had known that Peru was a diverse country with a great diversity of cultures within the country, I now started to see more clearly a lot of differences between the upper class lifestyle in Lima and an average lifestyle in “provincia”. (Anywhere in Peru that is not Lima is considered “Provincia”).

Many people think of the world in terms of rich countries and poor countries… people speak of “the developing world” and “the developed world”, or “the third world” and “first world countries”. You have probably heard and even used these terms, and it’s common to think that each country fits into one of those categories.

Image Creator:Rosamond Hutt, from “Is the term ‘developing world’ outdated?”, World Economic Forum

Unfortunately, this distinction in wealth is much more common than the reality that WITHIN every country, there is an economic divide between the wealthy and the poor.

In Brazil, a country considered “developing”, there are more than a quarter million millionaires. Meanwhile, about 12% of the US population lives in poverty (US Census Bureau, 2017), and about 1.5 million experience homelessness in a year, in a country considered “developed”.

In some countries, this divide in wealth is not as pronounced; the countries considered “wealthy” that have the lowest poverty rates are:

  1. Finland – 6.3%
  2. Czech Republic – 6.4%
  3. Netherlands – 7.9%
  4. France – 8.1%
  5. Norway – 8.1%
  6. Slovak Republic – 8.4%
  7. Austria – 8.7%
  8. Slovenia – 9.2%
  9. Sweden – 9.2%
  10. Belgium – 9.9%
  11. UK – 10.9%

But I digress.

Over the last few years in a rural but somewhat progressive town in Peru, I have grown accustomed to my lifestyle and that of those around me. My family lives paycheck to paycheck. I work with people in the more rural farming communities, where most are farmers and others sometimes have work and sometimes don’t. The people around me always have food, but they don’t always have the healthiest variety of food. Sometimes we don’t plug in the refrigerator because of concern about being able to pay the electric bill.

My host nephew here is a dinosaur fanatic, like many kids his age. He plays dinosaurs every day at school and always talks about them. When I saw that my nephews in the states had gone to a museum and saw dinosaur bones and all kinds of things about dinosaurs, I realized that it is unlikely that my host nephew here would get the opportunity to do that before his dinosaur phase passes.

I have definitely been living more with the concept of “scarcity mentality” – making decisions in the moment based on the idea that there are limited resources, (not enough time or money for example). When we operate in this “scarcity mentality”, sometimes we sacrifice long-term benefits because we are operating to stretch what little we have in the moment (minimizing the grocery bill by buying fewer fruits and vegetables, we will have more money for other bills in the short term, even though we might be paying higher medical bills in the long term). We also do this with time – we don’t feel like we have enough time, so we don’t do that 30 minutes of exercise or self-care that we know we should do.

With fewer resources coming into my bank account over the last few years, I certainly started to adopt more and more of a penny-pinching scarcity mentality, without even realizing it.

Then, as I began spending time in social circles with people who grew up in wealthy families in Lima, I suddenly found myself in a different world for a few days at a time. On one hand, the culture of natural products, expensive health food, gym memberships, and that urban upper and upper-middle class lifestyle was a comfortable reminder of my life in DC before Peace Corps.

But at the same time, I was not receiving a salary that could support that type of lifestyle, and I found that I had a hard time bridging the gap in our current experiences and connecting with people in that circle because of the difference in our economic experiences. Maybe because I didn’t have the language (in Spanish), or maybe I just couldn’t wrap my head around the differences (and also didn’t have the language in English!)

The paradox is that I had left a very comfortable economic situation – on purpose. I was trying to experience and embrace what it was like to live with a lower economic status, or less economic power, to appreciate that reality and understand it better. And now, I was simultaneously trying to relate to people who had grown up in wealth their whole lives, were used to a culture of comparing wealth and trying to always have the best and latest things. They had never experienced poverty, and would never risk being poor, wanted to ensure that no one ever saw them as poor, or even as less wealthy.

Peace Corps teaches us to adapt to different cultures and situations, and I tried to navigate these different worlds as best as possible. Focusing on things we had in common, I was able to fit in fairly well, especially because of my previous lifestyle. It was exciting to be able to walk between the two worlds, and I realized it was quite a privilege to be able to do that. But there was always an underlying disconnect that I couldn’t put my finger on.

It was really nice to eat big, healthy salads in nice restaurants (but I worried about spending that much). It was nice to see new beaches in the south, but I cringed knowing that only people with money could afford to have property there and enter and enjoy them. I found it interesting to get from place to place in Lima in a personal car instead of bus, public van, or taxi (though I worried about the carbon footprint). I saw the world of people with nannies and gym memberships and who spent the summer in their beach houses outside the city, and it contrasted sharply with the lifestyle I was living in my site.

At the time I didn’t realize it, but my host family had trouble understanding the world of my partner and often felt intimidated or looked-down-upon. My partner couldn’t fully understand the economic pressures that led to the scarcity mentality that my family had for certain things, or why I was so stingy with my money for certain things, (and honestly, I didn’t even realize that my relationship with money had changed!) I could not find the words and the appropriate communication to bridge that gap, partly because I was still trying to wrap my head around what I was experiencing.

It is hard for anyone to understand how to navigate the disparity in wealth we experience, especially as we are each just trying to make sure that we maximize our own wealth to live comfortable lives. While my experience navigating two economic worlds has been a challenging one, I am really thankful that it has made me more aware of the world in which we live. A few highlights:

-Our economic situation actually impacts our paradigms, habits, hobbies, experiences, and even our friends a lot more than we often realize. It can be really eye-opening to reflect on how our economic situation impacts all those areas of our life…take a minute to think about it.

And then I would recommend that we consciously try to branch out of our bubble of comfort to connect with people in a variety of different economic situations. It is so important to stop thinking of “poor” people – people with less opportunities and in a tougher economic situation – as inherently different from us, lazy, unintelligent, or less valuable people. You are not less valuable or lazier or less intelligent than everyone who has more wealth than you.

-A team is only as strong as its weakest player. And a community is only as wealthy as its poorest. If we don’t “mind the gap” – the wealth gap, that is – if we just let it get wider and wider, it can eventually lead to a breaking point in our society.

-It’s so important to recognize our own “scarcity mentalities” and make sure they are accurate. Do we really not have enough time to take care of our own health? Do we really not have enough money or time to choose the healthy food option over the crappy one? (On a side note, we really are depleting the world’s natural resources and they are becoming scarcer every year, so I would also ask, do we really not have enough time or money to choose the environmentally friendly option?)

-And finally, reconsider “Ambition”

Most people just generally want to make more money, no matter how much they are currently making. Sometimes we carry around a fear that if we aren’t maximizing our wealth, we will end up poor in the streets one day. Interestingly, in my circles in Peru, describing a person as “ambitious” doesn’t always have a positive connotation like it does in English. Here, people are also described negatively as “ambitious” when they try to make more money just for the sake of making more money, and then neglect relationships or other human priorities.

While we should always want to improve, if we can change the “ambitious” mindset from only focusing on having more wealth for ourselves and our family, and ambitiously aim for a balanced life where we also look out for the most vulnerable people in our communities, within our own country, and within the human community, we will all live more peacefully and happily.

 

Footnotes: References and further reading:

Poverty data from www.lovemoney.com

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/08/which-countries-have-the-most-wealth-per-capita/

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/11/is-the-term-developing-world-outdated/

Building A Home

Living for 3 years in a different culture, a second language, starting from zero to make friends, foster family and build a community, is an experience like no other. Even for an independent-minded person like me, it challenged me in ways I couldn’t have predicted. One of those was challenging and changing my ideas of “home”.

What do you think of when you think of home? Maybe a house. Probably a certain place like a neighborhood or a city? Usually we think of a place.

But maybe it’s an atmosphere of comfort, usually created by certain people, like family, friends, or community.

I moved away from home at age 18 to go to college in another state, where I fairly easily felt at home in the university atmosphere, surrounded by other people my age in a very similar situation far from where they grew up and looking to meet new people and make new friends, in a place that had been adapted over the decades to make students away from home feel at home.

Later I moved to DC, where I adopted a family and made incredible friends pretty rapidly thanks to some good friends I had made in college. Though I didn’t own a home in DC, I felt part of a community of really great people and I really felt at home. Even though my family lived far away, we were able to see each other a few times a year and of course I could pick up the phone and call at any time.

Despite being content at my home in DC, the time came to fulfill a some of my life goals: to live in another country, immersed in a different culture and a different language and to serve in the Peace Corps. The times I had traveled to new places for a few weeks at a time I had always had the great experience of being welcomed by people and to feel like I had a home away from home wherever I had gone. Now I would put myself to the test and see if I could make a home not only for a few weeks in a completely different place and culture, but for a few years.

My sadness at leaving my friends and family for a few years was counter-balanced by the great excitement for the adventure ahead, the opportunity to fulfill important personal goals, to try to share my knowledge and experience to help improve the lives of others, and the certainty that I would return.

 

Building Home

When I moved to my new home in Oxapampa, I adapted fairly quickly to the place – a beautiful site with really friendly people, much more peaceful and slower paced than all the big cities I had ever lived in, but I was happy for a slower pace especially while trying to learn the language (which is exhausting in its own right). I had my own room with a bathroom, I could walk across the town in 20 minutes and I could find all the basics that I needed, which all helped for a smooth transition.

There were a few inconveniences to adapt to. While I only had cold water to shower with, we sometimes didn’t have water for hours (without any warning), there were a ton of mosquitoes buzzing around my head every night, the meals were carb heavy and lacked vegetables (and I had been a vegetarian before arriving), people often burned brush and trash at night, filling the air with horrible smoke, when it didn’t rain dust filled the air when a motorcycle passed by, public bathrooms didn’t have toilet paper or soap so I had to carry around toilet paper and hand sanitizer every time I left the house, and in the rainy season clothes rarely dried completely (no dryers) and any heavy fabric had a permanent smell from not drying completely (to name a few of the most obvious challenges).

But for me, these were minor inconveniences that I adapted to pretty quickly, especially because they were compensated for by friendly people, the beautiful landscapes, being able to connect with good people, and having my own space when I needed it.

While conveniences and inconveniences played a role in adapting to my new home, the biggest factor that affected whether I felt at home or not had nothing to do with physical comfort and everything to do with the people around me.

I was really lucky to live with a family that was patient with my language and created a space for me to feel at home, with family meals and conversations, asking about my work and my daily experiences, inviting me to extended family events, and treating me like an adopted daughter. This made the transition incredibly smooth, despite the frustrations of trying to work in a professional atmosphere where people didn’t respect my ideas and intelligence because of my low language level.

I was incredibly content with and thankful for my relationship with my host family, so when I started to make friends my age, I was surprised that I suddenly felt even more fulfilled, in a way that I hadn’t before. Even though I had felt that I could share anything with my host family, being able to converse and connect emotionally and intellectually with people my age turned out to be another essential piece of “home” that I needed.

A few months later I made friends that loved biking in the outdoors as much as I do, and we started to go on outdoor excursions – long bike rides through the beautiful hills of Oxapampa. Unsurprisingly, this took me to a whole different level of feeling connected and feeling at home – finding those friends with whom we shared the same passions and ways of de-stressing and having fun on the weekends.

In addition to all these great relationships I made, I always had my best friends from my Peace Corps cohort. My phone service was terrible and I didn’t get to talk to them very often, but when I did get a chance to have a real conversation it was a whole different dimension of feeling connected and understood and supported. Suddenly I had the ability to talk to someone going through something similar, and express myself in my native language, with all the humor and cultural references and slang that I couldn’t skillfully insert into conversations (or pick up on) in Spanish with friends and family.

Similarly, when I was able to talk to my family or long-time friends from home, it filled an even different important space, being able to talk to those people that have known me decades – or since birth! Those that I have known for years, we share long-term memories and experiences, we have seen each other change and seen what stays the same, and they could offer a long-term perspective on some of the things I was feeling and experiencing.

Maybe a year into my service, I started dating, realizing that with all the great relationships I had, I was still missing having a deeper level of emotional intimacy with someone. I had never “dated” before because my partners had always been friends of friends, and for the first time in my life I actually was interested in trying to date. I realized that I had new feelings about relationships and the types of partners I wanted during this time, and I suspect that it had something to do with the unique situation in which I was in, being in a new place and needing to find or build a community around me.

Defining Home

Even within the first few months of the transition to my new home, I had already realized that the best part of my life was the relationships I had made – the best part of a day was connecting and sharing with someone – and having those positive relationships was the foundation for my happiness, (especially in this situation of starting a whole new life from scratch…but in life in general too).

A few years later, having lived here for three years, I have adapted and gotten used to my site, having the newness wear off, having days where I am so busy I forget to appreciate the beauty that surrounds me, where I get caught up in the day-to-day. I know how to navigate a lot of the culture and the way things work, and that makes things smoother but some of the little things aren’t as exciting. And yet, even without the newness and excitement, I still love this place. Probably even more than before. I sometimes catch myself when I forget to appreciate the beauty around me and I have to stop and breathe, and drink it all in for a minute. When I get frustrated with the inconveniences, I remember all the perks.

Similarly, my relationships have passed the initial phase of a new relationship where you only show and see the best side of a person. Having overcome some of the real challenges of a deeper relationships where you have to adapt to people’s idiosyncrasies and talk through differences, I have a deeper level of trust and emotional connection with my closest friends and host family here.

I still don’t have the history of growing up here and I don’t know everyone – which is different from most people here. I still don’t understand all the cultural references and slang. I am still somewhat of an outsider, but since there are actually quite a few “immigrants” from Lima, from the mountains, and even from other countries, it’s not so strange to be an outsider here.

All in all, I really do feel at home here. I really feel equally or more at home here as I did in Nashville, where I lived for six years, or in DC, where I lived for seven years. I have found another home in the world.

And now it is time for me to leave home. Again.

Some people, like many of my friends and family in Oxapampa, live in one city for all their lives, and their home changes as they change their physical house and/or as their immediate family changes, getting married or having kids. Some people, like many of my colleagues that work for Peace Corps or international development organizations, make their homes in completely different countries every few years. However drastic the changes, we all go through changes in the nature of our “home” throughout our lives.

However those changes happen, home is not just the place where we live, it is where we get our comfort and with whom. It is that place where we are comfortable with ourselves, it is those people who help us feel comfortable with ourselves.

And like life, it’s not always constant, it changes throughout our lives as the circumstances of our lives change. It is not something we build once and forget about; we are actually always building and maintaining our home – always working to maintain and enrich the important relationships in our lives, always working to build positive communities around us, and always working to have a positive relationship with ourselves, so that we can always feel at home in this world.

A Sharper Image

They say the best way to learn another language is immersion…go live in a society where no one speaks your first language. Yes, I can attest that it is as exciting, terrifying, difficult, and crazy as it sounds. And for me, it was actually a much longer process than I expected to really become fluent. Overall, language has been the most challenging, frustrating, and enlightening part of my job.

Take this example of when I had been in my new home for just 3 months, living in Peru for a total of 6 months:

Six months in Castellano: A 5-year-old professional

First of all, trying to be a professional in a language that I’ve been speaking only for about 6 months is ridiculous. I can’t think of a better word because it is a mix of hilarious, frustrating, challenging, exciting, and…just ridiculous. I know I have good ideas to share, but when I share them I sound like a 7-year-old. And half the time I don’t understand what other people are saying so I have this really weird look on my face because I’m concentrating so hard to try to understand what they are saying. They are probably thinking “what’s wrong with her?”, but they actually say, “She doesn’t understand what I just said.” And the funny thing is that I do understand that part. And usually I understand the topic, but can’t pick up the details.  

It’s a really weird world to live in. A little bit frustrating when I’m trying to gain respect as a professional and when I really want to be a part of the team and help out but have to ask people to repeat themselves when they are already pretty busy and pressed for time. But people are typically pretty awesome at being patient, speaking slowly, and explaining things. And it’s really cool when I am able to share knowledge and help solve problems, and have more fluid conversations with people. It is definitely worth it (“vale la pena”).

If you wear glasses or contacts, maybe you have experienced that moment when you put on a pair of glasses with the correct prescription and suddenly the world is so much clearer! Without your glasses (or the right prescription), you were living fine, getting around, but with the right glasses…wow! A whole new world! A sharper image! Fine edges, more brilliant colors, more detail! The world suddenly seems so much richer!

“I am speaking and living in my second language, and sometimes it feels a little bit like a handicap, something that impedes my ability to understand and communicate with people at the same level that the average person communicates with others.”

Every few months I have that experience, not with my vision, but with language. As my vocabulary grows, I begin to understand the world around me on a deeper level…even still at 2.5 years living here. It’s amazing how the dinner table conversations with family have changed from a blurry 70% of understanding the conversation to 99%.

The same has happened in my conversations with friends – suddenly in addition to just catching the drift of the conversation, I can also pick up on how their word choice adds humor or certain sentiments to the conversation that I just wasn’t able to pick up on before. Those blurry edges are becoming sharper, and I can now see the different tones of the colors! (And I realize every day how much patience everyone has had with me, considering my lack of understanding before!)

Maybe you have experienced something similar when reading a book, with a dictionary at your side. Sometimes you come across words that you don’t know, but you can guess from context clues what the word means, so you continue reading. But then when you take time to look up the word, you realize its full meaning and it actually gives the sentence – and sometimes the story – a richer meaning that you would have missed out on if you hadn’t understood the full meaning of that one word. (Or every now and then you find you were completely wrong about the word’s meaning in the first place!)

This adequately describes my verbal life as well. I usually don’t realize it when it happens, but sometimes I don’t understand every single word that someone says, but because I understand 95% of the words, I can continue with the conversation not even realizing I didn’t hear or understand one word. (This isn’t unique to speaking in a second language; the human brain is wired to fill in the blanks of what we don’t see or don’t hear, and that’s why optical illusions exist.) Usually it works out perfectly and helps the conversation flow, but every now and then it leads to a misunderstanding when that missed word was important in the communication.

It’s easy to get frustrated when someone doesn’t understand us when we’re both speaking our first language, but I’m reminded that we still come from different contexts and even the same words can have different meanings and connotations for different people. (More on this in the next part.)

I am speaking and living in my second language, and sometimes it feels a little bit like a handicap, something that impedes my ability to understand and communicate with people at the same level that the average person communicates with others.

It makes me extra grateful for the people that have a little extra patience with me. And it reminds me that we all do have different levels of understanding, communication abilities, and contexts, and it really is worth being patient with one another to try to achieve successful communication – to more fully understand each other and appreciate where each person is coming from.

Part II. Language is more than words; it’s concepts

One thing that I have learned (and now I see daily examples of this in action) is that communication is based not only in language but in what we already know, our schemas, our preconceived notions, past experiences, etc.

For example, one day, 6-months into service (and craving vegetables having been practically vegetarian before moving here), I decided I would try to order a vegetarian version of what was on the menu (knowing full well that the odds of success were low…but wanting to give it a try anyway.)

First I ask if I can have the “cau cau” without the meat part (cow’s stomach lining) because it comes with carrots and peas and potatoes, which sounded good to me. She looked at me confused and said no that was not an option.

Cau Cau. Image from: https://decomidaperuana.com/receta-del-cau-cau/

So then I explained that I would like to eat a dish with just vegetables, so she nods in understanding and excitedly says “we can make a salad with lettuce and tomato and cucumber”. While that sounded good, I needed some sustenance in my life too, so I tried to explain that I’d like cooked vegetables with some rice maybe. I ask if they can make me a plate of vegetables like onion, carrots, and peppers, like “lomo saltado” without the beef.

Lomo Saltado. Image from https://wapa.pe/hogar/1264144-recetas-preparar-lomo-saltado-comida-gastronomia-peruana-almuerzo

Confused again, she shakes her head no and says “like beans and rice with vegetables?” For a split second I think she has finally got it, but having already experienced that many people’s idea of vegetables is lettuce and tomato and cucumber, I knew I needed to clarify before I get my hopes up. So I asked, “Will the beans be made with onions, carrots and peas?”.And like I expected, she says, “No, it comes with lettuce, tomato, and cucumber”. Realizing we are speaking the same language but not speaking the same language (and to her I’m probably being a difficult customer), I agree and ask for the beans and salad.

This same concept misunderstanding has happened to me too. I work in the municipality office and so paperwork is pretty much everyone’s life. And the mother of paperwork is the “cargo”, which is the copy of the document you keep for yourself and have everyone sign to verify they’ve received their copy. When I first arrived, I had 3 different people at three different times explain this concept to me, and I understood the words they were saying, but I just couldn’t get the concept. Since I didn’t have experience with the process and for some reason couldn’t imagine the concept (I guess I was just too used to the world of e-mail and digital documents), I couldn’t understand the meaning of what everyone was telling me.

Then there is the water system operator that I work with that is really hard for me to understand; I rarely catch 75% of his words and am always subconsciously filling in the blanks to carry a conversation. (And this is still, after 2 years of being here!) However, I have about 10 years of experience in engineering and rural water systems, so when the operator was explaining some technical issues about his water system, with the 75% of the words I caught, I understood him more quickly and thoroughly than my team members, who are native Spanish speakers but are much younger and just have fewer years of experience in water systems. In this interesting case, I understood something better than my native-speaking companions simply because I was more familiar with the concept.

These are just a few examples of daily occurrences where communication across cultures is made more difficult because we have different schemas – different experiences, memories, priorities, things we’ve thought of before and things we haven’t ever thought of.

I think this is so important to realize for a few reasons…

“sometimes other people are explaining something that I just have not experienced before”

It takes a different mindset to understand something that you haven’t experienced before or haven’t learned before. To understand something new, I’ve noticed my mind has to be open, like I’m sitting in a classroom trying to understand something completely new, trying to connect it to my past experiences and sometimes just taking in some new information on faith, with an open mind. Usually, my mind is not in this mode – it is in the mode of trying to understand things based on my past experiences, as quickly as possible.

When I hear something new, I try to relate it to something I’ve experienced so I can understand what is happening, how someone else might be feeling, or how I should react. But this method of understanding isn’t always the best or most appropriate way to approach communication, because sometimes other people are explaining something that I just have not experienced before. Or maybe I have experienced something similar so I immediately relate their experience to an experience I’ve had before and I am sure I understand them… but actually I end up misunderstanding and maybe offending them because their experience actually had differences from mine and I didn’t take time to try to understand that difference because I was sure I already understood them.

This happens all the time in our relationships, both on an interpersonal level, and on a larger political level. I think this is a component to the problems the US is having right now when discussing race relations, immigration, and police brutality. While we can try, the reality is that white people don’t know exactly what it is like to be a person of color, especially a black man, and those of us whose ancestors migrated to the US many decades ago don’t actually understand what it’s like to be an immigrant. If you have never experienced life as a person of color or a minority, it’s likely you haven’t experienced the blatant or the subtle racist comments and attitudes that exist in society, directed at you and who you are. If we are too quick to say that we understand the situation of racism in the US, we most likely are not even close to understanding the reality.

However, if we take a lot of time, through many conversations with many people of color and minorities, in many different scenarios, and with a very open mind every time – with that mentality open to trying to understand an experience we have never have had – we might be able to come closer to understanding what racism really is, and what forms it takes, and then we can start to create ways to live together better, to create a more peaceful and more just society.

(Header image from http://jacksonvillevisionclinic.com/lenses/4115670)