There remain a mere twenty-one days before I make my way south for a semester in Cusco, Perú. The countdown has begun. However, the magnitude of the journey on which I am about to embark has yet to sink in. The anxiety that accompanies the anticipation of parting with familiarity is easy to shrug off as I busy myself with preparation. I know that the weight of the transition will not fully register until I’m finally left with just my bags and my thoughts as I wait for my departing flight in the Nashville International Airport. Nevertheless, I feel confident in my ability to adapt to the uneasiness that comes with diving into a new language and culture. Everyone has their own unique methods in readying themselves for travel, so I thought I’d start this blog out by sharing my top 4 essentials in preparing for a semester abroad.Get Specific
READ! Some may consider this a pretty basic step, but there is absolutely no substitute for deliberate self-education. For me, being informed about my next travel destination is not having the literacy and infant mortality rates memorized nor is it exclusively pouring over the top five tourist attractions. The CIA Fact Book and travel magazines offer useful information, but a culture can neither be summed up by statistical analysis nor the often romanticized articles that are the products of foreigners. When beginning my often futile attempt at understanding a new culture before experiencing it first-hand, I like to be specific about what I read. I find a subject that interests me, and I dive in.
One of my favorite subjects so far has been the musical genre “Chicha”, a variation of Cumbia that originated in the Peruvian Amazon in the 1960’s. Incorporating the high treble, twangy elements of Surf Rock guitar with a winding, syrupy, African influenced beat, “Chicha” is the psychedelic baby of globalization. I’ve also enjoyed learning more about The Shining Path Insurgency (El Sendero Luminoso), a Maoist group that took root in Andean communities of Perú during the 1980’s and provoked a civil war that claimed the lives of over sixty-thousand. One particular book, “The Corner of the Living: Ayacucho On the Eve of the Shining Path Insurgency”, went on to examine how power, tradition, and inter-community relations affected which Andean communities took rank with the militant Communist group and which headed the counter-insurgency effort. It is a must-read for anyone interested in not only the insurgency, but life in rural Andean communities during the twentieth century. In short, I strive to get a grip on what I’m about to get myself into. Through finding the voice of the people as it is there, one will discover the heart of the society. Read things that will make you uncomfortable and possibly question your decision to leave the comforts of home, but also read the sensational and the mystifying. Poetry, mythology, and narratives are excellent ways to take a look at the place to which one is about to embark as they reveal the perspectives of those from within a culture as opposed to the removed opinions of fellow foreigners.
Curiosity did not kill the cat. It was procrastination. Packing seems like an easy enough concept. Throw all of your belongings into a couple of bags and you’re good to go, right? Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. I have found that it is extremely helpful to have trial packing sessions 2-3 weeks before the departure date as opposed to getting everything done the night before. As I pack and re-pack, I contemplate how I would use different items abroad, how much I use that item at home, and question if it is essential. If I hesitate at all in this mental evaluation, I throw the item out. I create the process into a game; a minimalist challenge of sorts. Every day I try to eliminate one non-essential item in order to reach maximum efficiency.
Learn the Lingo
It’s always a good idea to have some sort of knowledge of the host language. However, even those who proclaim to be fluent will face some trouble adjusting to the lexicon of native speakers. One thing I have done to ease the transition from five years of formal Spanish class to using the language in both living and working environments is to expose myself to Peruvian idioms or, Jergas Peruanas. I have committed myself to learning 3-5 new phrases every day and am excited to broaden my vocabulary in hopes minimizing my potential of feeling como gallina en corral ajeno.(Literally: Like a chicken in another pen) or, as you might say, like a fish out of water. My hopes are that being keen to local phrases will help my cultural transition to be una experiencia bestial (a tremendous experience)!
Make it Personal
We all have that one item that means the world to us. Whether it be your grandfather’s bowling league hat or your mother’s lucky apron, we all have keepsakes and heirlooms that we hold near and dear. It is usually not recommended to take such meaningful belongings abroad, as there is no guarantee that they will return home, but this is a chance I am willing to take. Accompanying me to Cusco will be my long time travel companion Kyle. No, he isn’t a hamster or a hermit crab. Kyle is my two-inch tall skateboarding California Raisin figurine and this blog is as much a documentation of his adventures as it is mine. I take him with me wherever I go and snap photos of him to record the places I see and the always interesting individuals I come across. Keep an eye out! He’ll be making periodic appearances.
Whether you are perspective students or concerned relatives I invite you all to join me in this experience as I try my best to relate what I see, hear, taste, smell, touch, and feel during my time living and working in Cusco, Perú.