- Parkin Fellows
I was on my flight to Lima with about one hour left. My travel day had begun at 4:30 a.m., and it was now almost 10 p.m. You would think I would be ecstatic to get off the plane, but I was beginning to freak out. I was all alone in a new country whose language I only partially knew. But after arriving at my hotel that night and meeting some of the other volunteers, I had already forgotten what I had been afraid of, charmed by the city of Lima. What had I been afraid of? The unknown. Of stepping into a new culture, one where I had no idea what it would be like.
Huancayo is situated about nine and a half hours outside of Lima, so I had assumed that it would be a rural area with a small population. But what I found when I arrived was completely different. I found an actual city, bustling with activity and the constant sounds of cars honking and people selling their goods on the sidewalks. I met my field director on the first day for a quick orientation and introduction to Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children (FIMRC) and the city of Huancayo.
“Don’t greet people with 'hola' (hello in Spanish). It’s rude," he said. "You should always say Buenos días/tardes/noches depending on the time of day.”
Fighting that instinct was hard for me at first. I would walk up to a store or any person and have to hold back the “hola” on the tip of my tongue. It was something so simple, yet so different from the way things are done in the U.S. While in Huancayo, I traveled constantly and met so many different people: teenage mothers, sexually abused women, orphan children and teenagers. At dinner one night, another volunteer told their mother what we had been doing, to which her mother responded, “Doesn’t that make you sad? Seeing all those people?” As we talked, my friend explained how feeling bad for the people of Huancayo never crossed her mind because so many of the people we met were so happy. Yes, some people were struggling, but I was surprised at how happy many of the “underprivileged” people were. I feel that Americans are conditioned to believe that we should pity or feel bad for people who don’t have as many physical things as we do, or the most advanced technology.
This idea was shattered during my time in Huancayo. Some of the people that I remember as being the happiest, most gracious and vivacious, were some of the most underprivileged people I have met. Yet, at the same time, it was clear that many of the situations had taken quite a toll on their lives. For some of the teen moms, it meant they had to grow up faster, never getting the childhood many of us have in the U.S. For some of the sexually abused mothers, it meant their self-esteem and confidence had been taken away from them. My Parkin Fellowship allowed me to have an experience of total immersion in another country, another culture, another way of life. Life in Huancayo is too diverse and complex to be put into any box or take on a label. As for the all the Peruvians I met whose lives had been hard and complicated, I saw strength and maturity in them that amazed me. I am grateful for them because they showed me the true essence of optimism; how to take horrible things life had thrown at them and change them for the better.