The Spectacular, The Life-changing, and The Less-Than-Glamorous: What to expect when you study abroa
For someone who has never traveled abroad, for someone who has heretofore never immersed themself in the distinct geographies and cultures and customs and cuisines of Latin America, planting feet on foreign soil is an eye-opening experience -- a rapidfire foreign language disorienting the senses, horn-honking drivers clogging the roads, street food vendors materializing on every intersection come sundown. Traveling abroad is not all smiling selfies at world famous monuments, nor should it be. Checklist travelers we are not. We're here to experience real life, to get to know real people, to share and celebrate our triumphs and confront inevitable challenges with gusto.
Someone who is preparing to embark on an extended adventure abroad needs to establish, as best as possible, realistic expectations. Certainly, there is no substitute for firsthand experience, and the following, ever-growing list of unordered anecdotes and warnings comes from my many years of travel through Latin America, specifically living and working with students studying abroad in Perú.
You might be one of the lucky few equipped with a imperturbable stomach. Chances are you won't be. For at least a few days, at some point in the trip, you're going to ingest capfuls of pink juice and plan activities that keep you within a certain radius of a reliable toilet. On the positive side, the soups that Peruvian mothers serve their recuperating kids are so phenomenal you might find yourself feigning illness on a regular basis.
You drink purified water and use ice cubes made from purified water only.
You don't flush toilet paper! Latin American sewage systems aren't equipped to deal with flushed paper, which is why every single bathroom across Central and South America features a small wastebasket. It sounds strange but you'll get used to it quickly. What's sometimes harder is breaking the habit once you've returned home!
It's good practice to carry a wad of toilet paper at all times, lest you sit down at a toilet and realize too late that there's not a stray square of toilet paper to be found.
You're going to fall in love with your host parents and host siblings and extended host families. Watch as Sundays, traditionally a family-centric day in Perú, become your favorite day of the week.
Share incredible experiences and moments with your friends, new and old alike. The first glimpse of Machu Picchu. An incredible bite of ceviche. The first time you realize you just navigated a real conversation in Spanish without even thinking about it! The moment you find yourself gasping for breath atop a snowcapped 20,000ft volcano, staring out at the tiny world below. The night you wake up and realize you just emerged from a dream in Spanish!
If you're a woman, especially if you're blond with blue eyes, chances are you're going to be catcalled at some point. Latin America, unfortunately, has a surviving mentality of machismo.
In certain regards, Latin America is a refreshingly less sensitive place than the United States, especially in regards to nicknames and terms of endearment. Depending on your complexion and build and any of a number of other characteristics, you will be called, by friends and with great affection, gordo (which translates to chubby), flaco (skinny), viejo (old dude), negro/moreno (black person), chino (Chinese person, a blanket term for anyone who has any feature deemed to be from any part of Asia), gringo (white person), etc.
Chances are you're going to be seduced into eating street food by exotic scents and the satisfied sighs of thronging customers and the unimaginably inexpensive prices. Just remember: sometimes you pay more in the long run for being suckered into an unbeatable deal. Ah, sweet salmonella...
At some point you're going to feel homesick. That is completely and utterly normal. Know it's something that happens to all of us, that it's not even kind of embarrassing, and let always us, the program staff, know when you're missing home or dealing with something, when you're feeling even the slightest bit unbalanced or stressed or out-of-the-norm! (And thanks to technology, it's easier than ever to dissolve homesickness with a quick email or phone call or video chat to friends and family anywhere in the world!)
Fact: some days, after practicing and thinking Spanish for hours and hours, your brain is going to hurt. Call a classmate and head to a local cafe or bakery or park or athletic field; speak a little English and unburden yourself, and then, once you're feeling refreshed, dive headfirst back into Spanish! The constant exposure, the moments of struggle through which you persevere, are going to reward you with beautiful, confident and fluid Spanish by the time you leave, and there are few, if any, accomplishments more satisfying than those you've achieved through hard work and dedication.
Expect to love eating! With three entirely distinct regions making up Perú -- coast, highlands, and rainforest -- the respective cuisines, from ingredients and flavors to styles of preparation, are alluringy different in ways that make each meal an undertaking worthy of excitement. If fruits and vegetables are your thing, take a trip to the market and select from a rainbow of colors and multitude of shapes (lúcuma and chirimoya come HIGHLY recommended!).
Latino-time is a real thing, so get used to people arriving late, events beginning long after the scheduled start, and deadlines meaning little to nothing. People are accustomed to sitting in traffic and waiting in long lines without complaining. Schedules are a relaxed concept in Latin America. In fewer words, learn to relax and accept the situations that are out of your control, no matter how severely they offend your hyper-punctual sensibilities.
Latin Americans are warm people. When you walk into a room, you introduce yourself to everyone, kissing all women and girls on the cheek, hugs or handshakes (if not cheek kisses) for every man and boy. Same protocol when you leave, even if that's a mere five minutes later. Always say hi, make eye contact, and make sure you compliment everyone's cooking!
Remember that we're all Americans.