By Caitlin Self
As I sat in my powerlessapartment in the “fancy” district of Lima, Peru, I began to contemplate my new life as an English Teacher in Latin America.
I was grateful for the opportunities that the International TEFL Academy afforded me through the online TEFL course, but in that moment I was annoyed. I was thinking about the bus driver who swore up and down that the bus fare was “un sol cinquenta” instead of the single sole fare I’d been paying for the last 3 months. In that moment, I felt a twinge of regret for my choice of location. I’d assumed things were hunky-dory from day one, but always being a foreigner starts to wear on you. I didn’t realize how long it would take for the culture shock to set in. It’s not always a true shock of ice-cold water in the face. Sometimes it’s a slow trickle that becomes an insufferable form of cultural water torture. You realize the leak isn’t getting fixed, so you have to adjust your reaction to it or take a hike.
It starts with luck-based expectations.
Do you know how lucky you are to be born in a modern, developed country?
Do you know what kind of expectations you have because of it?
Some days I sit and think about all the luxuries afforded to me, simply by being born on this side of the border. Politics aside, it’s a simple fact. Though I wasn’t raised in a money-heavy home, we were able to access and afford the necessities of life – food, clean water, power, Internet, a cell phone – and even a few luxuries such as hot water 24/7, meat for dinner every night, and a two-car garage. Well, moving to Peru quickly changed all of that.
In my first few weeks living in Miraflores, Lima, we lost power 4 times, once for about 24 hours. We spent 2 days without running water, and 2 weeks without hot water. Our Internet, always running at a snail’s pace, stopped working for about a day and a half, then mysteriously returned. Our water heater, located on the roof, busted a pipe, causing a leak in the bathroom that lasted 3 days, and we haven’t had a ceiling light in there ever since. There’s nothing like a midnight bathroom trip when you can’t see a thing.
But hey, that’s part of the experience, right?
Well, when you spend 50% of your time working, and 25% of your time traveling to and from work, it’s frustrating to deal with these “trials and tribulations.” But then I realized that’s it. It’s merely frustrating. We could walk 4 blocks to Starbucks and use their Internet, their water, their caffeine, and their bathrooms. These are the things we Americans have come to call our necessities, and living without them seems like some sort of half-life.
Then you find out that nighttime taxi drivers work full time jobs during the day before a 6-hour shift in a cab, that the maid makes less than 20 USD for 12 hours of work, and that haggling over an extra PEN is fighting over less than fifty cents.
You suddenly realize, the cost of living isn’t that much lower elsewhere around the world, but the divide between upper and lower class is beyond your imagination. All at once, you care, you really truly care, about the well-being of your adopted country’s citizens. You disregard the comforts of home, and ignore expensive imported products, even if that means giving up peanut butter for a year. You want the local culture, the indigenous flavor, and a deeper understanding of your new country’s every day life.
That, my friends, is the travel bug. It’s not always about the fine food, the crazy party atmosphere, or the breathtaking sites. It’s not always about bragging rights for seeing 30 countries before your 30th birthday, or having the ability to talk like a pro-traveler at your next family function. It’s about the people. It’s about their struggles and triumphs, their attitudes and ambitions, and their individual right to make a better life for themselves. It’s about adding a new perspective to your personal narrative, and finding the compassion to share it.
Sure, you don’t want to be seen as the naïve tourist, paying an extra cinquenta for the bus, and you don’t let anyone take you for a fool. But then you pause, consider that churro you planned to buy on your way home, and toss the coin to the vendor, happy that it won’t cost you any more than that.
Caitlin Self is a long-time writer, runner, and eater, with a voracious appetite for travel. After years as a citizen in San Diego, she finally made the leap to become an Expat in South America. She’s currently teaching English as a second language to business professionals in Lima, Peru. Once she’s traveled the entire world, she hopes to do it again.
Check out her other Alumni submissions:
Catlin's article: "A Varied Palette in Peru"
and Caitlin's blog: http://runningtheworldtravel.wordpress.com/