I walk along the backstreets of Cusco, and I find half-finished houses that are being occupied by full families, culture that isn’t for sale, and people who are nice to me because I am another person and not because they hope I will give them money. My housemate and I hike up nearby mountains that loom over our neighborhood, itching for adventure and the peace that can only be found on a mountaintop. We play in Incan ruins and take naps in a hammock overlooking suburban Cusco. We buy water in jugs bigger than our torsos and sleep way more than we’re used to because being two miles up in the air isn’t a joke, after all.
When I’m running late to class, I hop in a public transport bus, or combi, that are originally fitted to seat about ten people but are actually used to transport up to thirty. When it’s time for me to exit, I yell “BAJA!” and force my way through the sea of people to the door. But most days I prefer to walk the hour-long trek to classes, navigating the winding roads marked with Quechua names and dodging past vendors on every corner offering me alpaca hats and massages.
During class breaks I take walks with my fellow classmates through the local market, occasionally buying fresh fruit (with a rind, so that it’s safe for me to eat without getting sick). My favorite indulgence is the fresh juice stands, where you can watch your juice being made with 100% real fruit and no added sugar. I sit and debrief from classes with my friends over a couple of glasses of orange and pineapple juice, which costs me about one American dollar.
After my last class I rush to my service-learning host organization at a small youth development center right outside of the main plaza, Plaza de Armas. There, I help local kids of all ages with their homework and play games with them. The girls ask me about my clothes and play with my hair while the boys quiz me on sports, music and whether or not I have a boyfriend back home. It’s just a small room off a side street in downtown Cusco, but I have experienced more unbridled joy there in a language I can’t completely understand than I have seen anywhere else.
I finally return to my home, where my host family is awaiting my arrival. The house is constantly filled with music and laughter and dancing. I play with the two kids of the family, listening to their jokes and starting tickle fights and dodge Bob, their little dog who is still not completely sure what I’m doing in the house. I finally collapse into my bed a few hours earlier than I normally would back home, completely exhausted and wildly happy and ready for another breathtaking day in Cusco, Peru.