It’s Monday morning, 7:15 AM. We are driving rapidly through the thick Peruvian traffic, cars honking in alarm. Fabiola, my host mom, has a determined look on her face as she takes a right and enters a complex with ten-foot-high grey walls surrounding it. We park in an underground garage, the air smelling like car exhaust. Fernando (15) climbs out of the car, grabs his two backpacks, and hurries up the flight of stairs to our right. Joaquin (12) is not far behind him. Fabiola stops me before I can join them, snapping a picture of me in my school uniform (a white collared shirt, brown vest-jacket, brown shoes, and tan pants). She wants to send the photo to my mom. This is, after all, my first day of school.
I hurry up after the boys, toting two backpacks (one with school supplies, the other with my PE uniform) and a red lunchbox packed with food by the maid, Albina. As I reach the top of the stairs, I find myself amidst a cluster of multi-story school buildings, immaculate lawns, and gray paths teeming with students who look identical in their uniforms. Fernando pulls me over to the reception building to meet Mr. Kvietok (Mark Friedman’s counterpart at Markham) and my life in Peru begins.
Okay, not really. After a harrowing flight experience that involved a three-hour delay in SFO, I arrived in Lima, Peru on July 25. There I was reunited with Fernando Casteneda, a boy who I’d hosted for a week two years ago while he waited for the Young Round Square Conference in LA to begin. We’d kept in touch, and now here we are, together again for six weeks. I was welcomed into his family immediately. I quickly learned that Peruvian culture is one that welcomes guests with open arms. This cultural acceptance made it a lot easier to become accustomed to Peru over the next week. The Castenedas live in Barranco, a neighborhood perched on the cliffs overlooking the Lima coastline, and our apartment had a first-class view of the coast. I had to become used to their family never taking “no” for an answer; they insisted I take Fernando’s room to myself and opened themselves to every inquiry I had. School didn’t start for two weeks, so we had many day-long excursions to popular tourist attractions like Pachacamac (a site with tons of ruins from four separate civilizations), the inner city of Lima, and the parque de las aguas (literally water park). The parque de las aguas contains the largest fountain in the world, which can launch water up to 30 stories high! I was amazed at all the things there were to see in one city. (Lima contains a third of Peru’s population, so it’s a big city, but still.)
There were a lot of things I did have to get used to, however. One was the Peruvian schedule. During the break, the Castenedas woke up at 10:00, ate breakfast around 11:00, had lunch around 4:00, and would then have dinner anywhere from 8:30 to 10! Bedtime was midnight. The late hours were a big cause of stress for me early in my exchange, as I found myself exhausted almost every day. On top of that, the Castenedas were willing to go off on excursions at any time–and I mean ANY. One evening we left to explore the Plaza de Armas de Barranco–at 10:30 at night! We got back at 1:00. I got the impression that trips like this were very normal. By week three I have more than adjusted to this late lifestyle.
Another thing I was shocked by was the presence of maids in almost every house I visited. Here, maids are very affordable, so instead of being a luxury (like they are in the USA), here they are almost a necessity. I often would walk into my room, planning to tidy it up, only to find Albina or Pilar (the other maid) already doing it. I always feel uncomfortable when someone is doing work for me, so this took a while to get used to.
As for Markham… I can’t say much about it yet. I am writing this halfway through day two of my schooling here. The general student body is much larger that Athenian (with twice as many grades and twice as many people per grade). Still, everyone was very welcoming to me on day one. I did notice that people seemed to be not as open to starting general conversations with the exchanges as we are at Athenian. It may be a cultural thing, or I may just not be putting myself out there enough. Currently I am waiting for my schedule to be completed. The classes I do have excite me though, because some of them are not offered at Athenian (like Materials & Design). They also have many interesting after-school activities, such as surfing, cricket, and chess club. I’m going to sign-up for some of those tomorrow.
For now, my first impression of this school seems similar to other students who have traveled to schools with British systems: interaction between students and teachers are a lot more formal and are usually brief. Teachers are referred to as “Sir” or “Miss”, which makes me yearn for Athenian’s first-name system. There are eight class periods per day, but they are far shorter, and there are more breaks throughout the day. School starts around an hour earlier than Athenian, and ends at 2:45. But because of activities, most students leave school around 4:00, making school days about two hours longer than at Athenian. So no major differences, but a lot of small ones.
Well, that’s it for now. Next time you hear from me, I will probably be getting ready to leave. Luckily, that isn’t for another month!