My mother, sister and I arrived late Saturday night in Lima, Perú, and crashed unceremoniously upon the bed at our hotel room. Around midday the next day, my exchange buddy, Arantza, and her family picked us up from the hotel and drove us to their house. Later that afternoon, relatives began to stream into the house, kissing me on the cheek as they arrived. That greeting still takes a bit of getting used to. Every now and then I forget and have to pray that I didn’t accidentally offend someone. The relatives were extremely friendly, though, and soon I was enjoying a game of multilingual Monkey in the Middle with some bright-eyed, manically-smiling little cousins. At the urgings of my host father and some of the uncles, I tried Inca-Cola, an extremely sweet Peruvian soda that tastes at first like lemon-lime and then almost immediately after like liquid bubble gum. They were very eager to see if I liked it. Apparently it´s the sort of thing you either love or hate, but I still haven’t quite made up my mind.
The next day was my first day of school. I followed my exchange buddy around nervously. She was fully on top of everything: introducing me to her friends, explaining to the teachers that I was an exchange student, and taking me to the tech center so that I could get signed into the school system. Even though most of my energy that day was spent on basic survival maneuvers (such as figuring out where to sit in class while being as unobtrusive as possible, and understanding Spanish), I could still appreciate and respect the efficiency with which Arantza took care of things. When she introduced me to her friends, usually I would add in a shy ¨hola¨ and they would ask (in Spanish) if I spoke Spanish. This touched off a funny little struggle in which I had to ask them to repeat several times before I understood the question, then claim that I actually did speak a little bit of the language.
The first couple of weeks were tough on my ¨developing¨ comprehension skills, but I found that by the end of the second week I was more able to pick words out when listening to conversations. It’s the end of my fifth week now and I still have a lot of trouble with comprehension. It’s hard and exhausting trying to speak another language. I now understand enough Spanish to be able to figure out what a conversation is about, but not enough to know what people are actually saying. In comparison to the beginning of my exchange, when I understood zero things, this is an improvement, but I still have millions of kilometers (ha! Take that, imperial units) to go.
Markham College is very different from Athenian. It´s a British school in Perú, so all the faculty and students are fluent in English but generally speak Spanish outside the classroom. The educational style is different too. The school prepares the students for various sets of tests. While the homework load is light, the general expectation is that students spend the extra time studying and reviewing (which they call ¨revising¨) for their tests. Classes at Markham also seem to ¨teach to the test,¨ emphasizing that the students learn the necessary facts and techniques for what will be asked of them on their exams. Because of the standardized nature of the education, new units often do not connect to the previous ones. Class sizes are slightly larger than those at Athenian (twenty students or so, as opposed to sixteen to eighteen) but not necessarily any less efficient for it; however, unlike Athenian, class discussions are not a part of the curriculum.
What I have noticed in the people I have met here in Perú is that they are incessantly generous and always happy to take you in as one of their own. My host family is the primary example of this. They´ve been wonderful to me. When I got Covid, they were very attentive, making sure I had enough food and water and calling a doctor to come and see me, just in case. The extended family members that I have met are all friendly and kiss me on the cheek or hug me when I come to a weekend family gathering (those seem to happen a lot). The cousins were unfazed by my arrival and seem to view me as the temporary American cousin, readily including me in games with them.
With the teenagers I met at school, it was a little more difficult to make friends because the language barrier would almost always leave me out of conversation. In the first month, I felt extremely isolated because of the language barrier and thought that my peers were somewhat prickly, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Thinking back, I realize that they were actually incredibly kind. Arantza´s friends were happy to adopt me into their weekend get-togethers and include me in their pre-party preparation routines. The Markham students were happy to switch to English for me once I had exhausted my Spanish abilities and in my last few days at school, people I´d considered friendly acquaintances went out of their way to tell me how nice it was to get to know me, and how sad they were that I was leaving. The people I have met in this country have been nothing but welcoming and kind, and it makes me wish I had more time here.
My recommendation for those going on exchange is to be intentional in taking care of yourself. Since your routine will be so severely disrupted, remember to do things like drink enough water (sometimes you forget but it’s important), get enough sleep (especially if you are spending lots of time trying to understand a new language), eat enough food, and exercise to burn off steam. Joining your school´s sports team is a good way to do the last one. Other things to consciously try include seeking out people to talk to (you might want to hang out with people beyond your exchange buddy and their friends, which is normal), which is tough but worthwhile. Be intentional about having fun, too. Remember that you will only be there for one to two months, so (within reason) you get to do things you wouldn’t normally do, and it doesn’t matter as much. One day, another exchange student invited me to come with him to rugby practice. I had never played before, but discovered I sort of enjoyed. I went to my first party, which was something that would have scared me in the US but that I realized was a totally manageable experience. Sometimes, I don´t do my homework because it’s my summertime and it won’t affect my Athenian grades. It’s totally okay.
Oh- and if you end up in Perú, eat as much food as you possibly can because it is excellent. I recommend all chicken dishes, as well as lomo saltado (a beef, rice and potato dish), chaufa (a Peruvian-adapted style of fried rice) and huancaina, a type of pepper sauce. If somebody offers you a stuffed pepper, eat it- everything here is so flavorful.
I’m closing in on my last few days here in Lima. I have learned so much and wish I had more time to get to know the people, the country, the language, and of course, the food!