Group Update from Peru
As we come to our half way point of our nine months on Peru, it is incredible to reflect back on all of the new experiences we’ve had during our time here. Complete strangers have quickly become our new families. We’ve fallen asleep to the sound of a thunderstorm in the Peruvian rainforest. Many of us have tried Guinea Pig. We’ve learned just how much one can do with some mud and a few bricks. Most of us wouldn’t have expected even half of the experiences that we’ve encountered thus far on our Bridge Year journey. But there are a few experiences that we never EVER expected to have. Never in a million years…
Never in a million years did I think that I would dance in a kurta(the traditional clothing of North India) to a Bollywood song ..... in front of thirty Peruvians in a Peruvian party. But for the celebrations of my host aunt Tania's birthday, upon insistence from my host mother, I put aside all hesitation, put on the kurta I had thought I'd never use, and danced to "Ai Mitwa" from the movie Lagaan. But here's the interesting part, the music was not mine, it was my aunt Tania's. When I came to Peru, I was ready to be the first Indian anybody would have ever seen and the ambassador of a culture that nobody would know anything of. But I was proven wrong, and over my four months here, I have found India in Peru, halfway around the world.
My aunt Tania is not the only one to have Bollywood music, every Peruvian household has their stash of Bollywood CD's. Every Peruvian knows of the Indian celebrities Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan, and every one of them has cried after watching the legendary 70's movies "Joker" and "Mother India". Sometimes I hear Indian music while walking in the streets of Cusco and have now passed on my collection of music to at least one member of every family I know.
It's not just Bollywood, apart from the expected Yoga classes and curry restaurants, there are at least five Indian clothing stores in Cusco, despite there being an Indian population of almost zero in the entire region. There are also two Hindu temples in Cusco, with resident devotees of the Hare Krishna cult that organize Hindu festivals. In Cusco and the Sacred Valley, I keep running into the holy Hindu symbol Om and images of Hindu gods and godesses, mostly in vegetarian restaurants. My host aunt Sofia has a meditation room dedicated to Hindu godesses and for Diwali(one of the most important Hindu festivals) I went to celebrate with Hindu devotees in Cusco.
Also, the average Peruvian knows more of India than you would think. They keep asking me if what they saw on Discovery Channel is true and sometimes even I wouldn't have heard of some of the customs. They all know of Mahatma Gandhi (my host cousin is named Mahatma) and Mother Teresa (I use her name to inform people where I'm from). They know of India's growing economic prowess and know of at least one Indian businessman in Peru. India is very much present in Peru, as much as the United States or Germany are.
One of the things that has provoked me to think the most during my short time in Peru has been the phenomenon of globalization. I am an Indian, volunteering in Peru, thanks to a university in the USA. The entire Sacred Valley is waiting for an international airport and learning Japanese is one of the biggest trends in the region of Cusco. Even in the small town of Urubamba it is not surprising to see a sea of Canadians and English is considered an asset even in high Andean communities. In the Sacred Valley, there are scores of international NGO's with volunteers from all over the world, trying to help the local communities.
But while globalization may provide a great exchange of ideas, people and resources, it has prompted many questions for me. After all, can a foreigner ever really know what a Peruvian villager wants or needs? Can trans-national altruism ever be sustainable? Should it be more important for a child to learn English than to learn the native Quechua? Is the parading of kids in traditional Andean clothing with a baby llama honoring the culture foreigners hope to learn from?
Globalization is a phenomenon that I had witnessed in India as well and it had troubled me then too. The radicals in my liberal school would refer to it as neo-imperialism. Though I still don't think it's all bad, being a willing actor of the phenomenon has made me skeptical of all the "good" foreign aid and tourism promises to do. But then, maybe it is just the Cusco region that witnesses such great globalization, maybe it is all for the better. I definitely know very little of the dynamics of the phenomenon, and only of small regions in the world. But my short experience in Peru has only motivated me to further explore this phenomenon that promises to dominate more and more human interactions as time goes by.
Never in a million years did I think I would be looking down a 13,800-foot mountain at a fogbank obscuring the end of the half-millennium old stairs I was supposed to descend. But there I was, my recently acquired hiking poles clutched tightly in my hands, as the realization dawned that the most challenging part for me wouldn’t be the climb up, like I had expected; it would be the climb down.
We were about a third of the way through Inca Trail Day 2, which is notoriously difficult, in large part due to the four hours of 45-degree climbing that constitute the first segment of the day’s journey. Reaching the peak of “Dead Woman’s Pass,” which culminates the upward trek, was a triumphant moment; I celebrated with an absurdly expensive bag of Skittles that I had purchased at our last stop to rest. After allowing us ample time to catch our breaths, the guides congratulated us and said, “Bueno – now all you have to do is get down!”
Easier said than done, as I quickly discovered, for a couple reasons. For one, I am not a fan of heights. Or, more accurately, I am not a fan of heights from which I could easily fall to my death. I love roller coasters, and peering over the edge of the banister-encircled roofs of tall buildings is always a pleasant thrill; on the other hand, when we were climbing down the relatively tame (but high) stairs at the well-trafficked Ollantaytambo ruins, I had to ask Charlotte to hold my hand because there was no railing with which I could prevent myself from pitching head-over-heels to the bottom. The stairs that I now beheld were the opposite of tame. They were unevenly spaced and quickly becoming slick with rain. Worse, I could not see where they ended because of the thickening white mist – so I had a long way to fall.
Another reason is that I am not a hiker. Before this year, the most rugged terrain I had traversed was the gentle green rolls of Central Park, and “camp” meant two weeks sleeping on a bunk bed in a cabin with electricity and hot showers. I purchased my first-ever pair of hiking boots and first proper sleeping bag two weeks before I left for Bridge Year Orientation at Princeton – I never got around to getting a frame backpack. I have lived in New York City all my life, and I never felt the need to venture beyond its limits to find fun; after all, all I wanted was within an hour’s subway ride from home. It should then make sense that when asked to write down what our biggest apprehensions regarding the upcoming nine months were, I wrote, “That I have zero hiking/camping experience.”
But of course we weren’t asked to plunge onto the Inca Trail without some practice first. We hiked to the ruins at Pisac; to a valley nestled in the mountains of Chicón (an inauspicious first camping experience because all the girls got sick after); to and away from the saltpans at Maras; to a mountain village along a route that even I, normally not terribly moved by nature’s splendors, thought was stunningly, outrageously beautiful. I will not say that I have become a hiking enthusiast because then I would be lying. Nor will I say that I have enjoyed every moment of every hike. But I have caught a glimpse of why other more athletic, outdoorsy people (every other person in the group, was the anxiety-inducing impression I got at Orientation) might love it. The rush that comes when I reach the end of a hike or the top of a mountain is a singular feeling; I may be hot, sweaty, and aching, but there it is, the view that makes it all (or almost all) worth it.
The preparatory hikes seemed to serve their purpose. I almost always brought up the rear on the Inca Trail, but even during the most difficult parts of the second day, I was never gasping for breath – a feat for me and something I took pride in. The dink-dink of my hiking poles as they preceded me on the path, the rustling of my plastic poncho around my ankles, and the sound of my own steady breathing created a comforting music that allowed me to forget the passage of time, even when my hair was soaked through with rain, and I couldn’t feel my hands because of the cold. I was even able to stop and admire the piercingly red Waqanki flower, sprouting cheerfully out of a crevice in the mountainside, that Roland, one of our guides, pointed out.
Seeing those seemingly interminable stairs, however, threw me off balance – figuratively and, I feared, maybe literally. Going down was supposed to be the easy part! I let everyone go before me and then began, taking the stairs one-by-one as a toddler might.
“Here, let me adjust your poles for you,” said Roland, taking my hiking poles and lengthening them. “Put the straps around your wrists and put down your poles on each step before you go down.” Roland stayed with me the entire time, pointing out where to step when a stream, swollen with the rain that was still pounding down, overflowed onto the stairs of the trail itself, and helping me across particularly treacherous crossings. While descending steps that second day and the day after, we discussed his one-year-old daughter, the relative importance of work and family here and in the States, the origins of kumbia and its various incarnations, and the differences in the Peruvian and American education systems. The never-ending stairs were a surprise I had not been expecting, but so was the easy conversation that Roland and I struck up.
I would say that the Inca Trail taught me valuable life lessons, but really, it just reinforced what I began to understand and embrace as soon as I opened the e-mail informing me that I had a spot in the Bridge Year Program: Try new things because you might like them. Expect the unexpected. Go at your own pace. Don’t be afraid to stop and appreciate the near-normalness of your breathing or the patience of a guide who is still in awe of the trail he has completed hundreds of times or the beauty of a fearless flower, poking its bright head out of a sheet of barren gray rock, surviving, thriving, inspiring.
Never in a million years did I think that I would be celebrating Yom Kippur by meditating to the sound of running water from my seat on an Inca terrace. “Feel that your body has weight…deep breath in, deep breath out…feel the connection between your body and the ground…”A smile crept over my face as I followed Avishai’s instructions. On the most important of all days on the Jewish calendar, I felt quite at home in this synagogue of sky and mountains, meditation and reflection.
Just one month earlier, there was a constant thought on my mind – “What will it be like to be a Jew in Peru?” In the United States, I keep kosher, or Jewish dietary regulation, celebrate Shabbat every Friday night with my family, and it’s not uncommon to hear words such as Schlep, Mench,and Oy Vey! in my home. My Jewish background and upbringing is proudly part of who I am, and something that I was excited to bring along with me as I began my nine month journey abroad.
I had set some things straight from the very beginning. One - I would temporarily suspend my dietary restrictions so I could fully sample the Peruvian gastronomical palate. (Fun fact! Guinea pig, a Peruvian delicacy and culinary staple, is not kosher.) Two – I would find a way to celebrate the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Ha’Shana and Yom Kippur. In search of this, I found Avishai and, with his help, an incredible new way of looking at my religion. Three – I would not be afraid to share my customs traditions with my Peruvian family and friends and be open to learning about Peru’s Catholic culture. Here, I was led to some of my most cherished moments with my host family.
Avishai and his wife Viviana run a bed and breakfast, Chacra Emek, in the lovely town of Yucay, about a mile and a half away from Urubamba. Avishai, from Israel, proudly hosts Jewish holidays and festivals at his bed and breakfast, though in a way that I have never experienced before. For me, the High Holidays had always involved putting on my best suit, crowding into a packed synagogue, and a beautifully sung (yet very long) prayer service. Yet as I quickly learned, Avishai does things differently. Without the words for the traditional Kol Nidre prayer at hand, Avishai and I hummed its haunting melody together, each time getting louder and more confident. And in lieu of the correct prayers, Avishai led a meditation session on the Inca terraces of Yucay next to a rushing Inca irrigation canal before performing tashlich, the ceremonial casting away of sins by throwing breadcrumbs into a moving body of water. We reflected upon what we want to change in ourselves, and what we want to keep, all while trying to become more in the present moment. And as the first stars appeared in the sky, we broke fast not with bagels and lox but with a stew of fresh vegetables and meats from his organic farm. We had observed the true essence of the holiday, examining our lives and looking for ways to improve ourselves, both in discussion and silent meditation. It was perhaps the most meaningful Yom Kippur of my life, and I would return to Chacra Emek often for Friday night dinners and other Jewish holiday.
I never forget that I’m in Peru when at Avishai’s. We always give an offering of wine to Panchamanca, the sacred Mother Earth of Andean culture. We sing songs and prayers in Spanish. We use what Avishai calls “Urubamba napkins” – toilet paper! But Avishai’s is not the “real” Peru. What is it like to be Jewish outside of Avishai’s haven?
Explaining and practicing my religion with my host family has undoubtedly been one of the most rewarding parts of my Bridge Year experience. At times I was met with confusion. Before starting my Yom Kippur fast, I described what I would be doing to my host mother – restraining from food and water for 25 hours from sundown to sundown. At first she nodded in skeptical agreement, until her face became taught and her eyes widened as the implications hit her, “Wait, you’re not going to eat breakfast? YOU’RE NOT GOING TO EAT LUNCH?!?!?!?” To my host mother, the idea of willingly missing a meal, yet two, seemed like insanity.
Once in a while things get funny. I literally laughed out loud when I saw that my host mother had placed my menorah smack in the middle of our family’s Christmas wreath. Soon afterwards, I shared one of my most memorable experiences with my host family, when I spent the evening playing dreidel and describing the significance of the festival of Hanukah.
The exchange of religious ideas and customs in my household has been a two-way street. As I share my Jewish traditions with my family, my family has likewise been sharing their customs with me. Celebrating my first Christmas was incredible. I drank hot chocolate, saw ornate Nativity scenes grow in my house and in the houses of my extended family, played Christmas carols on my Saxophone, and went to mass holding my very own Christmas doll. A few weeks earlier, I attended my host brothers confirmation and first communion ceremony. The celebration at my home that followed involved a whole lot of delicious food, a whole lot of laughs, and a whole lot of dancing.
Yes, my time in Peru has involved me learning a new language, and growing to know and love an entirely new culture and people. But just as importantly, it has given me a time to discover and fully appreciate the aspects of my life that are the most important to me. Only by living in a society where I share my religious beliefs with so few have I come to fully respect the intense connection I have with my faith. I have learned that I can make the most of my faith in the most unexpected ways, and especially in the most unexpected locations.
Never in a million years did I think I would spend Thanksgiving rubbing down nine turkeys in spicy aji sauce.
“Mas mantequilla!” (More butter!) Irma, one of the cooks, prodded me. I stared at the turkey, already caked in butter, and dubiously slathered more on. Ten minutes later, I found myself haggling for the price of cooking the massive amount of meat at an horno (public oven).
Before coming to Peru, I’d never been away from home for more than two weeks, let alone for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I knew this holiday season would be unlike any I’ve experienced before. As the weeks drifted by on my calendar, I viewed the approach of November and December with a twinge of anxiety. Yet, celebrating the holidays in Peru has been more exciting and fulfilling than I ever imagined.
“Dia de Accion de Gracias,” (Thanksgiving) was a holiday my family was familiar with only through having other volunteers from the States. When I mentioned it to Ana, my host mother, she summed it up with, “Si, Cristobal Colon. Come mucho pavo.” Christopher Columbus, eat lots of turkey. An accurate assessment if there ever was one.
On that fateful November 22, I found myself having the time of my life cooking nine turkeys in a kitchen roughly the size of a walk-in closet because of Pro-World. The organization decided to throw a big Thanksgiving party for all the staff, volunteers, and host families in Cuzco and Urubamba. After cooking all day (which, for me, meant trying not to get in the way and following orders as obediently as possible) we finally arrived. Two huge buffet tables and chairs filled the spacious event hall, arranged Peruvian party style, around the dance floor. A dance party at Thanksgiving dinner? I thought doubtfully. Yet three hours later, after consuming approximately my weight in puree de papa (mashed potatoes) I found myself whipping my hair back and forth with my little sister in the middle of a circle of volunteers, jumping up and down enthusiastically to the beat of Latino pop music. I ended the day feeling grateful for friendship, fun, and the Peruvian belief that a party is not a party without dancing.
For a Christmas elf like me, I mark down the days on the calendar every year with happy smiles and jingle bells as soon as December 1 arrives. This year, I was curious and a little intimidated, wondering how the family celebrated. I didn’t want to interrupt any traditions or tread on anybody’s stockings.
The morning of December 2, I sat down at the breakfast table and took a deep breath.
“I bought some decorations,” I said, “Does anyone want to help me get the house ready for Christmas?”
I wasn’t ready for the family’s enthusiastic response. It turns out they had boxes of tinsel and Santa hats just waiting to spread Christmas cheer, and I contributed strings of lights that played carols. We shared the classic trauma of putting up the lights (“Where’s the nearest outlet? Why aren’t they all lit up? Could you hold these still?) and marveled at the final effect as a family, a cheerful, warm glow illuminating the courtyard.
Celebrating the holidays in Peru also reminded me of the importance of service and compassion. One morning in December I was talking with Tina, our family’s cook and my good friend, when I asked her if she was excited for Christmas. Unexpectedly, she frowned and shook her head.
“There are so many children here who don’t get gifts, or even have enough to eat. I hate seeing them sad.”
I realized in all of my excitement for the holidays, I let the whole purpose of my time in Peru, service, slip to the background. From that morning on, I started planning a Chocolatada with other ProWorld volunteers and workers for the women’s groups in Media Luna and Chicon. (A Chocolatada is basically a holiday party with hot chocolate and presents for local children.) The day of the Chocolatada, we spent the morning preparing: decorating, cleaning, cooking, and struggling with the technology we needed to project Elf in Spanish for the kids. As the women began streaming in, we blasted Christmas music and gave everyone a warm welcome. When everyone arrived, I asked my boss, Mila, if she wanted to say something to officially welcome the families and start the party. “Why don’t you do it, Maddie?” she asked.
That’s how I found myself standing in front of more than 50 people, giving a speech in nervous Spanish. “We’re here not only celebrate Christmas, but also to celebrate a year of working together, of friendship and love, and the promise of a great new year of progress,” I spoke. Looking at all the familiar faces smiling back at me, I felt happy and confident. And later, hearing the shrieks and laughs of the kids bouncing soccer and volleyballs, I hoped that maybe, just maybe, their mothers would look forward to Christmas this year.
Though Christmas Eve and Christmas were a blast, I found the moments and events leading up to those special days to be the most meaningful. I learned that Thanksgiving dinner can be a party. I learned that throwing a Chocolatada can be just as fun for you as the children. I learned the best hot chocolate recipe. And I learned the importance of sharing your traditions and creating some new ones; how two separate cultures can blend together to create something beautiful.
Never in a million years did I think I would be hiking down a mountain with a pot of rice on my back, following a woman in brilliant colored skirts along a narrow path. We were bringing the enormous lunch that she had prepared to the chacra, or field, down below for the men, the only indication of their presence their bright sports jerseys and the swaying cornstalks that betrayed their concealed labor. As we got closer, they stood up and stretched their backs, allowing their arms to rest momentarily before they resumed their tedious plowing. I helped the woman, Elena, lay the food out on the thick textiles we brought with us. Elena’s friend, who had accompanied us down the mountain, opened the plastic gasoline carton that was filled with acidic, frothing chicha beer. Its pungent scent mingled with the smoky remnants of fried cuy, or guinea pig, that she unwrapped on a different plate. When the men finally finished the rows, they sat around the food, eating with an urgent hunger and joking in Quechua. Every now and then, when it was clear they were talking about me, I would ask my friend to translate in Spanish, so that I could give my hosts more than the stolid expression that usually accompanies my blatant Quechua ignorance.
Never in a million years did I think I would wake up at six in the morning to cram in a taxi cab so that we could go to a birthday party and set off firecrackers to wake up the unfortunate birthday girl with explosive, sulfuric bombs that went off in rapid succession. By eight in the morning, the celebration had begun; one of my host mother Dulia’s million relatives arrived with crates of beer, the prelude to the opening act of dirty jokes that were to follow, the entertainment of most Peruvian parties, by which people compete to make their audience cry of laughter first. I never thought that knowing and telling said jokes would be as essential to social acceptance as shaking hands or learning basic table manners.
Never in a million years did I think I would climb up a wall so that I could get a clearer view of a bullfight, watching the matadors take swigs of beer as if they were shots of adrenaline before sprinting across the ring to taunt the bull. I watched with stunned silence interspersed by nervous laughter as a drunk man leapt off of the ring where we all sat, and challenged the bull to a duel with a speech and image that reminded me vaguely of a statue we studied in Art history, the Orator, the telling difference a completely empty beer bottle in the hand that addressed his attentive audience.
Never in a million years did I think some of the rules that Avaneesh and I would make for the youth group in Chicon would include; no impromptu wrestling matches, no firecrackers inside, and above all, no sheep in the classroom.
Never in a million years did I think showing up to a Quinceñera (most comparable to a sweet 16, but for 15 year olds) four hours late is arriving early by Peruvian standards.
Never in a million years did I think I would wake up to the smell of a roasting guinea pig, with the process of eating my breakfast eerily similar to an anatomy class project.
Above all, never in a million years did I think I would be so comfortable with being uncomfortable. It isn’t to say that new things no longer dazzle me or all experiences seem condemned to a boring state of comfort. But certain things seem second nature; picking up rocks to scare away stray dogs, being wonderfully lost in a Spanish conversation that attacks me from all sides of the lunch table, hailing down a moto-taxi, or eating a various variety of mystery meat, which most recently includes bull testicles. In a Socratic way, I am comfortable with knowing nothing, and realizing that I can never learn everything. I’m not going to come out of this year tricking people into thinking that I’m Peruvian. But every now and then, there are special moments in which I trick myself.
Never in a million years did I think would I have thought I would utter the words, "And then I fell into a hole in the sidewalk after hitting my head on an avocado on my way to work this morning," and to be completely honest, I never really thought I would use walking as a form of transportation. Growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I always had my bike and public transportation at my disposal at all times. I found walking to be inefficient and oh so boring. Whenever I had no other options and I had to walk somewhere, I would plug into my iPod, concentrate on the cracks on the sidewalk and try to get to where I was going as quickly and painlessly as possible. Maybe it was hitting my head on the avocado, maybe it was falling into the hole in the sidewalk, or maybe it was just me taking the time to appreciate where I am; but it definitely took coming to Urubamba for me to learn how to utilize one of the most basic human motions.
The first morning we were in Urubamba, we met at the Plaza de Armas, the town’s main square, at 9 am. Patrick, our group director, had given us the morning to explore our new hometown and to just soak everything in. I walked the two blocks that felt like two miles of unknown Urubambambino streets, and we met up and started our self-guided tour. I scrambled to remember the location of our Spanish school, our office, and even my own house. The town that had been described to me as small and peaceful seemed huge and bustling. I was doubtful I would ever get to know, let alone make a home in a place so different from where I had spent the last 18 years of my life. But as time has been flying by, Urubamba has become more and more familiar to me and more and more my own.
I fell into the now infamous hole while walking home from a group meeting in the program house one day. While I was waist deep in an Urubambambino sidewalk, laughing my head off with Chad and Aaron, I thought, "Only in Urubamba would a person need to be cautious of oddly human-sized holes in the sidewalk." I suffered no injuries -- maybe some sore abs from laughing so hard. But I will never forget that moment, and many many other moments where I have danced, laughed, cried, and had a very very very good time while walking the streets of Urubamba. When I pass that hole now (which I highly doubt will ever get fixed), I chuckle to myself. It seems like I have made memories on almost every street in Urubamba, so when I walk to anywhere in town I can think about and reflect on what I have done, who I have done it with, and what I would like to do for the rest of my time here. When I walk to places in Urubamba now, I notice things that I didn’t notice before; I have started to recognize patterns, people and places. I now know that from 5-9 there is a woman selling Anticuchos (meat and potatoes on a stick that you can find almost anywhere in Urubamba) outside of Spanish class. I know the children who play soccer near my house, and sometimes I join their game for a few seconds when I am walking by. I know where the aggressive dogs are in the morning, the afternoon, and the night. I rarely leave the house without recognizing something or someone in the Urubambambino community. And in return, the population of Urubamba is starting to get to know me. I have been told that I am known as "the tall, blonde girl who dances in the plaza," and also "the tall, blonde girl who has the same princess backpack as my five-year-old sister." When I hit the pavement every day, Urubamba is still full of wonder for me. The memories of my friends and family in Urubamba are more important to focus on than a bad pop song on my iPod and the cracks on the sidewalk. By walking around in a town full of memories I am making Urubamba a very special place for myself.
For my first month in Urubamba, it would be weird if I didn't hit my head on the avocado hanging from my family’s tree on any given day. It was just hanging there in front of my door, seemingly waiting for me. When I left my house in the morning for the first few months here, I was looking at my feet and usually shuffling along the way I used to back in the States. But when I started hitting my head every morning on the avocado, I realized I need to pay attention to where I am. I am living in the Sacred Valley, one of the most beautiful places in the world, and I was walking with my head down. Hitting my head on the avocado became a nice habit. It would be a kind little tap on the head to remind me, "Hey buddy, just remember to appreciate where you are today." I am in the heart of the Sacred Valley, one of the most beautiful places in the world. I am in awe of where I am, and it took a small tap from an avocado to really appreciate it. One day, my mother and I were enjoying a cup of coffee in our kitchen, when she started telling me a story about how she was walking to work and hit her head on an avocado. I burst out laughing. Soon after that, the avocado was cut down and eaten in a delicious salad. Even though the avocado is gone, the lesson that I learned will stay with me forever. Sometimes all a person needs is a small reminder to look up and appreciate where she is.
I am positive that I will learn more about Urubamba and my place in it as I continue to enjoy my newfound love of walking, holes in the street that I can fall in, and avocados that I can hit my head on. I am also sure I will continue to make memories in Urubamba that will make me smile, and I will continue to look around and appreciate where I am for these next few months.
Never in a million years did I think I would NOT want to study engineering. I went to a high school which focused on math, science, and engineering and I absolutely loved it. I basically made school my life and many of the clubs which I was in were focused on some combination of the three. I always made excuses to give myself more work than was necessary, which took up most of the free time I would have had. In what little time I had leftover, I participated in musicals and cooked, but those were mere afterthoughts. There was definitely room to explore my interests, but I made it a point to only explore those which dealt with engineering. I spent my whole high school career building myself into a well-rounded engineering student, but I hadn’t bothered to notice anything else. The next step was college.
After being accepted into Princeton and the track to get a Bachelor in Science and Engineering Degree, the next four years of my life were set, and I couldn’t have been happier. But then I noticed a program which Princeton had advertised during Princeton Preview: the Bridge Year Program. I had always wanted to travel the world and spend a significant amount of time in a foreign country, and this sounded like the opportunity of a lifetime. I turned in my application and, lo and behold, I was granted an interview! I had the whole interview planned out with questions I thought they would ask, and I would respond with an answer related to what I knew best: engineering. However, during the interview, I was nervous and I talked in circles and mentioned engineering in every other sentence. But eventually I made it into Bridge Year Peru, and I knew it would be my chance to enhance the engineering skills I had learned in high school with some real world experience.
I held on to this thought for about the first two months of the program as I was trying to develop some sort of weekly routine. I went to work on my service project, afterwards I went to Spanish class, and at the end of the day I spent time with my family and friends. Each of those were fun, but they were not my own. They seemed as if they were part of a curriculum, or plan, and it also felt like the basic outline of life in high school. I felt that something was missing, and that’s when I began to pursue my other interests. I discovered I love to sing and dance to musical numbers. I enjoy hiking on mountains. I have a passion for food and a desire to cook. I sang and danced with the other volunteers any chance I got, and hikes were semi-sporadic in nature. I needed something that was on more of a schedule. Then, one day as I was meandering around the area of Urubamba about 20 minutes from my house, I found my answer: cooking school. Everything about it was perfect! There were classes three days a week for five hours and everything was taught in Spanish. So I would be practicing Spanish and learning how to cook simultaneously! After a brief interview with the director of the cooking school, I asked Patrick and Ober, the stoves project director, if I could start the cooking classes. They were all for it and I enrolled the next day.
I have been in cooking school since November, and cooking has become my “thing” in Peru. Any chance I get, I am in the kitchen experimenting with recipes for postre (dessert) or platos salados (savory dishes). Most of my concoctions come out fine, but my cooking has not been without its setbacks. For Christmas lunch, I surprised my family by making orejitas, small desserts which look like elephant ears. However, my host mother only ever uses the gas stove top and not the oven, so naturally, with my magic touch (of destruction), the oven caught on fire and the glass cover which protects the wall behind the stoves shattered into a million pieces. After disconnecting the gas and cleaning up the kitchen, I discovered that the orejitas were fine, and I served them to the family, and they all seemed to enjoy the sweet treat.
These delicacies and so many more, like arroz chaufa (Asian-style fried rice), cevíche de mariscos (seafood ceviche), and cheesekeke de maracuya (passion-fruit cheesecake) make me so excited. It is a thrilling experience for me to cook these, but even more of a thrill comes with letting my imagination run wild with what I could do with these recipes. I am so excited to learn more at cooking school with the friends I have made there, practice at my home here in Peru, and take my knowledge back with me to my home in Texas, and my future home at Princeton. Just from learning the culinary arts of Peru and reflecting upon what I have done, I have become a more open-minded person.
In retrospect, I came into Peru as a very close-minded individual. Everything was binary. 1s and 0s. Engineering and not engineering. It made life simple. I was not willing to budge from my mindset because I wasn’t willing to accept that there could be other things out there to do. I originally came into Peru thinking I would leave an engineer. Now I’m not so sure. Who knows? Maybe I will become a future Broadway star or study at Le Cordon Bleu or keep with the original dream of being an engineer, just with a broad mindset and wide array of knowledge. Even better would be to have all of the above happen. This is my year to explore and discover a different culture, country and cuisine and also challenge everything I know (which is basic engineering). This year is the key to unlocking – rather, freeing – my mind. My curiosity for life has been rekindled and I am ready to learn. So cheers to you, Peru. Thanks for everything you have provided me.