Oh, The People You’ll Meet!
By Talia C. Harris – Emzingo Fellow (Perú)
When I graduated from high school, it was incredibly popular to give newly-minted graduates the children’s book Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss. I think they may have even read it out loud at our graduation ceremony—that’s how important it was deemed for us as we took our first steps out into the adult world.
Eleven years later, I sit in my Lima apartment reflecting on all the places I’ve travelled in the world and in Perú, and I’ve come to a very important conclusion: It’s the people you meet that are really important.
That is not to say that the places are not important… of course they are. Machu Picchu stands out as the most transformative place I’ve visited in my life. But mostly it’s the people who have made my time in Perú so memorable: they have made the country come alive for me through a series of relationships, and it seems fit as I enter my last week in Perú to reflect on these relationships.
Jesús: I find it strangely appropriate that the man who’s teaching me to surf—a form of walking on water—is named Jesús. But really his name is inconsequential. What is meaningful is that he is patient and cheerful. He doesn’t baby me because my Spanish is less than perfect and sometimes flat out incomprehensible. Instead he treats me as if I am more than capable of understanding the rapid-fire explanations he shouts at me over the waves. And surprisingly I AM capable of that, or of going out to the big waves with the experienced surfers. Like any true teacher, he has a talent for seeing the potential in people, and his acceptance has been like a stamp of approval with all the surfers in the group. They follow his example and speak with me in Spanish even if they also speak English and always help share in my triumph of getting up on my board for a good wave. ¡Buena ola, Talía! ¡Buena ola!
The Bread Guy: Today I made a connection that was simple and fleeting but nonetheless fulfilling with the guy who weighs and prices the bread at the local supermarket. Normally, the clerk will take my bag, look inside, print the price sticker, and hand it back. But today, I got my bags back with a smile and a question about whether I was buying for breakfast, lunch, or both. It was a short interaction, but it made feel that I belonged and that I wasn’t somehow lost in the fabric of a foreign country. I doubt the clerk will ever know the magic he was able to work for me just by smiling and asking a question that I knew how to answer easily. I realize now that I have missed being able to chat and make ephemeral connections with strangers… so thanks to the bread guy for helping me do it even in Spanish!
The Shaman with the Llama Sweater: After considerable debate and many questions, I purchased my baby-alpaca sweater with the llama motif trim. But the woman who owned the little shop in Cusco didn’t just take my money and hand over the sweater, instead she asked for my name. “I am a shaman,” she told me and then blessed my sweater and “programmed” it to bring me happiness and warmth. When I showed interest in what she was doing, she opened up even more. She offered to do a prayer ceremony for me the next day and then explained to me how I could connect with the special energy of Machu Picchu when I visited. She even gave me coca leaves to give as an offering before entering the sacred place. When I arrived at Machu Picchu two days later, I thought of her as I let the coca leaves fly into the wind. I appreciated the gift she gave me of not only the spiritual guidance, but the time she took to explain a custom that I might not have otherwise known.
These are only small samples of the connections I have made in Perú. Some of the relationships lasted only a few seconds; others have lasted for weeks; still others promise to maintain a connection even in the future. But all have helped me grow to love this country and to learn a little bit more about the customs and people here by accepting me—even if briefly—into their lives.