Three weeks ago, I woke up at 4:45 and headed to DCA. I grabbed my three bags and sluggishly headed out the door to a car full of family members. This was the start of a new chapter, a part of my life that would change me forever. I was headed to Peru, to learn a new language and experience a new culture. As my first international trip, I was terrified about how I would communicate and interact with other people. But at 5 AM, I was only worried about when I was getting breakfast.
When I landed in Callao, Peru I was shocked by the amount of people that were bustling through the airport. It was as if it’s population of almost 1 million was in the parking lot outside. Cars were honking and chauffeurs were asking, “Necesitas Taxi?” I politely told them I had arranged transportation in broken Spanish and patiently waited. With my phone dead, it was a waiting game for my driver, Clemente to spot me in the sea of people.
A few minutes later, I see a man, short and in his late 60’s, stare at me for a good few seconds and then say with a thick Spanish accent, “Joshua?” I confirm with him and he gives me a warm hug, an action that immediately made me relax and unconsciously drop my tense shoulders.
The streets of Peru are akin to those of New York City’s — if they were on steroids and had complete disregard for mandated traffic laws. All cars are manual, so you feel the back and forth of the midnight traffic. With limited Spanish, I initiate a conversation with Clemtente, a native Peruvian from whom I found out prefers Chevrolet over Toyota. The drive to Miraflores was long, with lanes congested with small cars called tuk-tuks. These drivers are fearless, but thankfully, so is Clemente.
Miraflores is an affluent city in the Lima district of Peru with a population of just under 100,000. I met with Lily Silverthorn, a mission leader of LAMA Peru at her apartment that we stayed in for while we waited for a church group from Illinois to arrive at the airport.
Walking along the streets of Miraflores is like diving head first into a pool of ice water. Everything is new…and in Spanish. Advertisements, logos, store signs, all of it. Nobody waits for anybody. The cars are on a mission, but so are the people. The latter walks with sheer bravery against traffic with the hope that a car won’t hit them, and they never do. The transportation system might seem chaotic and flawed, but it’s much more fluid and tactful than in the United States. The city’s stop lights have timers, telling you when it will turn red or green. The drivers play a waiting game with the pedestrians. But city natives know that drivers won’t hit them, so they cross when the timer hits zero and the drivers let them pass. Despite Lima’s high percentage of road fatalities, you would never think so.
Even at night the city is bustling, but it provides for some much needed reflective time. Just two days in and I am already starting to miss home. I see food, clothing, and restaurant chains that remind me of the ease and comfort of home. I fondly reminisce on how easy it was to get what I want when I was home, but I quickly realized that I have the full power to have that same comfort — but the solution wasn’t enviable. I had to immerse myself, fully, if I wanted to get anywhere. That meant, ordering food by myself, buying groceries, overpaying because I can’t understand the cost of something. All of this, even in America, would make my head spin in a new environment. But add a foreign language on top of that and you never want to leave your apartment.
The thing I found out about language is that you don’t have to understand everything just something. Then you build off that something, no matter how insignificant.
As Americans, we ramble. If someone asks about a purple vase and how much it costs, a vendor might tell you the price, but then they might go on about the vase’s hue, where it was made, what it is made out of, and perhaps the dimensions of the vase. While those things are helpful in making your decision, the buyer only wants to know the price. It is almost the exact same way in another language. Which only makes it harder.
As a teenager, especially in my generation, I’m so used to having access to everything and being able to take shortcuts to achieve my desires. But in another country, I quickly found out that’s not the case. When I went to buy something, I couldn’t stay quiet while they rang me up for something because there was also a million components that went with it: “Are you paying with cash or card? Do you have a membership with us? Do you want an informal receipt or a formal one? Do you have your identification with you?” But all in Spanish, of course. Usually that line of questioning ends up with me blankly staring at the cashier and them getting annoyed. Who knew buying a sandwich would be so difficult?
In that situation, and in so many others, I couldn’t just shrug and hope for the best. I had to answer. I had to react.
In America, we usually skip the formalities, or fill the awkward silence of setting our groceries on the conveyor belt with fluffy greeting and hollow salutations. But something I noticed in Peru, is that they want you to answer. It seems that it’s in their nature to genuinely care. It took me by surprise. Even with limited understanding, I could hear the empathy loud and clear. It was something that I found rare and refreshing. But in that realization, I stumbled upon an ugly truth: American society has become accustomed to the void of emotion and passion in our daily lives.
Think about it. No, really. When was the last time you went to Target and were greeted by someone and you felt they actually cared if you found everything okay or if you were doing okay? My guess is not in a while. This stems from the drag of daily life. We think that because we are stuck in the motions that the people that come to us for our services are encased in the same orbit. But, is that really true? Is going through the motions really something to complain about?
I could go on and on about the poverty here in Peru , but that doesn’t apply to you as an individual right now. What does apply is how to address the lack of gratitude in the heart of you and I. That’s where the fluffy greetings and the feeling of going through the motions stem from. If we could truly address the things in our lives that are going right instead of wrong, how could that impact our life? How would that affect our workplace, kids, or attitude?
This isn’t some rant about how we need to be grateful for every single thing in our life because it’s human nature to look passed the small stuff. But it’s the simple effort of waking up in the morning and addressing what you’re thankful for or going to bed and thinking about what went right instead of wrong that day. Simple actions like that can make the biggest difference.
So — and this is a reminder for both you and I — next time life really screws you over or you’ve had the best day ever, make sure to address what you’re grateful for, regardless of the significance. Then, maybe your greetings might feel a little more genuine and your life might feel a bit less mundane.