By Rachael Jennings
Over March break, twelve students and two faculty members spent twelve days on an immersive adventure in Peru. Students visited Lima and then traveled to the Andes and the countryside of the Incan Empire: visiting Cusco—the Incan Capital, the Sacred Valley, Ollantaytambo, Aguas Calientes, and the world famous Machu Picchu. Along the way, students enjoyed homestays, wherein they resided with families, spoke Spanish, and had the opportunity to hear real stories and see “non-tourist” sights with their host parents and siblings.
Along the way, from historic landmark to new town to new host home, students found themselves developing their Spanish listening and speaking skills in transformative new ways.
“I am able to comprehend a lot more in terms of just listening and understanding what people say to me,” says Senior Shaneil Wynter. “We had little moments where someone might stop and say things to us in English, but that was rare. My listening is much sharper.”
AJ Lee, who is only in Spanish 1, found the immersion really helpful. In his homestay, he and his fellow Dublin students lived alongside not just their Peruvian family but a few other travelers. One woman in the homestay, who was from the Netherlands, arrived speaking no Spanish and was fluid after two months. “Everyone around us spoke in Spanish, the guides in the museums, everywhere,” AJ describes. “I started thinking in Spanish, too, a little bit. Primitive Spanish vocabulary,” he laughs, “but yes, I did.”
Adunni Abrams credits the immersion experience to newfound confidence in her Spanish speaking. “Being forced to speak Spanish constantly and [learning] how to function on [her] own in a new environment” challenged her to think differently.
Aidan Carter reflects that one of the best memories he had—and one of the best Spanish language challenges—came from a simple deck of cards.
“It was the second or third night at our host stay, and Angela, our tour guide, had given us a deck of cards. I brought it out and started playing around with the cards in front of my host family,” Aidan says. “The little kid, Thiago, who was five, came out and started looking at me as if wondering what I was doing. He came over, and I started to play cards with him. I am okay with kids when it comes to speaking English, but I was not too confident about speaking Spanish with a kid, especially with someone who might realize that I wasn’t super fluent [and be understanding of that]. He would speak to me really quickly and with slurs, and I just had to interpret quickly. We played the card game war. ‘Uno, dos, tres, guerra!’ For me, that experience was really cool. I had to explain the rules in Spanish, and everything after that. After that, he would hug me, come over to say ‘hi,’ enjoy speaking with me.”
Shaneil describes stating in the homestays as one of the highlights of her Peru trip, too. “Staying in the homestays with our homestay mom Consuelo and her two daughters was the best. She was really sweet and told us a lot about her life. We went out to see this show one evening—the cultural dances of Cusco—and it was really cool. They played music and did all of these dances.”
Shaneil, a dancer herself, enjoyed the show from an athletic perspective but also learned a great deal from a cultural perspective.
“My favorite moments definitely happened at Amani, Adunni, and my homestay,” Katia Dermott describes. “Our family was so welcoming and absolutely hilarious which means a lot when you're in a new place trying to adjust. There was this one night when one of us was trying to say something in Spanish to the father of the family and accidentally just said the completely wrong thing, so everyone was super confused, but we all ended up laughing about it for a while afterwards. I think that just goes to show how good of an experience it is to delve into cultures and languages that are new to you and also how possible it is to surround yourself by people who support you even when you can't speak their language perfectly.”
AJ found his host family incredibly welcoming, too, and they helped show him more stories and more sights of the city. “We had downtime with them. The father was really willing to spend time with us. He went for a walk with me and Emil one night. We went to the market, and we entered the back way to the market, which none of us had done before. I remember seeing the heads of horses and bulls on the ground. We saw houses and shops and less touristy sections because we could see how people really live, without the veneer of tourism and shops.”
Yet, at the same time, students were exposed to tourism as an essential industry that, in a way, was new to them.
“The Peruvian economy is almost solely based on tourism, and that’s how many, many people make money. Bartering is a huge part of life. Little kids will be outside bartering instead of being in school. You’d think that everyone has their own progression: you go to school, you get a job. But it is not true everywhere. That’s a misconception I had before.”
“For me, I went to Mexico the year prior and saw many people who were less fortunate than I am. I started to feel sympathy, but when I left, I readjusted to life,” says Aidan. “Here in Peru, I saw poverty to even more severe degrees. And here, now that I’ve grown emotionally and intellectually, I realize that I shouldn’t be showing just pity. That’s their life, and if I put it in those terms, I am making myself superior. I used to feel this in New York City with seeing homeless people, too. What I see is a homeless person. I don’t see the whole picture. It’s not complete.”
Senior Sabrina Hayden has been to Peru with her family eight times before, since she is half-Peruvian, She was familiar with the bartering system and with seeing large-scale poverty. Yet, she experienced something new during this trip.
“We were in Cusco one way, and there are many people asking for money on the streets,” Sabrina described. “This time felt special because it was this three year old boy asking to sell these beautiful handmade llamas for one sol, which is the equivalent of like thirty cents in the United States, so I ended up buying three and giving him more sols than he needed and a fresh sandwich. Seeing this little boy working so hard and this little boy begging—I had never seen that. I had never seen a boy in poverty walking around alone. It really strikes me when it is the children.”
Alongside the begging, Sabrina notes seeing more of a complete picture: the pervasive kindness and friendliness of Peruvians. “What always strikes me when I go to Peru is how kind the people are. Everyone wants to talk to you and get to know you. I think we can really learn from that.”
Adunni echoes that, saying, “I learned that it is important to be open toward cultures different from your own. With this you can fully enjoy and learn from another culture.”
“I knew that America was pretty materialistic, but being in Peru really drove that understanding home,” Katia says. “The Peruvian people live with so many less objects. There's not clutter, or obsessive objects in everyone's houses in the same way there is in the United States. I loved seeing how happy people are without so much stuff. It really showed how much happiness doesn't rely on the things you own.”
Happiness is—from Shaneil, cleaning rocks and joking around and playing soccer with Peruvian kids; from Adunni—visiting the Salt Flats and standing in awe of their beauty; from Sabrina—learning independence in a familiar place but alongside new travelling companions. Happiness can be, at its core, as simple as a deck of cards and a few good laughs.