October 14, 2013
Using the thinly veiled excuse of a “research trip”, I recently took a two-week jaunt to Peru.
Don’t worry, this is not one of those “my trip was so great” posts. I do not intend to gloat.
Still, I’ve got to say that the trip, as travel generally does, reaffirmed a long held belief of mine: I’m a giant wimp. This has been confirmed time and time again by both happenstance and circumstance, but I don’t think I’m alone.
A second long held belief of mine is that, on the whole, most people are wimps as well. This is because we all have our safe zone, our sphere of life that we generally don’t travel out of. Not just physically, though that is certainly the case too, but also emotionally.
We like the familiar, the comfortable, the easy, the safe and the boring. We like going to the same restaurants and knowing how to navigate our cities without directions because, ya know, we were here before they put in the crosstown throughway and turned the old meatpacking district into overpriced, overhip live/work lofts. We like being locals and we like being within arms reach of the people we love. We like our shops and our things and our people and our above average wifi. This is all well and good, but it makes us soft.
At least that’s the way I was feeling recently.
I have been living in a nice hermetic bubble that extended from L.A. to Iowa to Minneapolis. I stayed in the arts district, the warehouse district and the suburbs, rarely venturing to anywhere that would even make me feel the slightest bit uncomfortable. That’s because A) no one necessarily likes feeling uncomfortable and B) I’m not sure there are too many of those places in those areas.
L.A. has its fair share of places that could be considered “rough.” But like any solidly middle class, cultural tourist, I went there for the food and retreated back to my $5 espresso haunt after the meal was done. This is something that I actively hate about myself, a guilt associated with being white and raised in a respectable middle class home by a loving parental unit consisting of a teacher and an accountant. I am extremely grateful for this upbringing, but I also recognize that I am an inconsequential and privileged speck in this giant, awe-inspiring world, which is what makes my aforementioned proclivity toward safety/comfort so damn aggravating. There is so much to experience and yet here I am experiencing the same things over and over and over and over and over, ad infinitum.
So when the opportunity arrived to take a trip to South America — and by opportunity I mean a good friend suggesting “Hey, why don’t we go to South America?” — I jumped at the chance.
Peru is not particularly high on my list of “Must See Destinations.” It does not, in fact, even break into the Top 25, but that’s exactly the point. I knew little about it, I didn’t know what to expect, I speak exactly 22 words of Spanish, I’ve heard a smattering of faint praise about it, and they have great ceviche. I’m in!
But the trip also gave me the chance to regain some perspective by pushing myself outside my comfort zone.
Now, Lima is not like the edge of the world. It has even been called “The Paris of South America,” but that moniker really only applies to a very, very, very small part of the city of 7 million. Much of it is very poor by anyone’s gauge, and some may not exactly fall into the “sightseeing” category, but it is all brimming with a vibrant culture and teeming with life. It was my goal to soak up as much of the varied sensory experiences as I could, most of which occurred well away from the standard tourist zones.
I went to a soccer game for local club Alianza Lima in the gritty, working class neighborhood of La Victoria, a game that the lovely lady at our hostel said wouldn’t be the best idea because “Some there like to steal the white people.” But we went anyways and it was glorious. We chanted and sang along with the home crowd to a 2-0 victory being absolutely the only white people for miles.
We went to the San Juan de Lurigancho neighborhood and visited a prison that’s considered one of the most dangerous in the world. We rented a car and drove in the hellish thunderdome that is Lima’s traffic to the desert in the south. We always tried to eat at the places that looked the sketchiest and buy goods from the smallest roadside stands. I chatted up anyone I could with my limited Spanish and took part in things that weren’t meant for me. Dances, singing, conversations, and collective gatherings.
This is not a test of our courage or anything ridiculous like that. Rather, it’s a confession. A confession that I know next to nothing. I could go to Starbucks, and unfortunately did while in Mirraflores, but that would be only because I have no idea where else to go. Starbucks is safe (and terrible). So then, why not ask those who do? Why not venture outside of my comfort zone, of the things I do know, to experience something new?
So I frequently played the role of dumb white guy, Estados Unidos was generally my generic name, but I was fine with that. That was in fact the point.
And when I say that perspective is important, I do not mean it in the self-righteous, American-exceptionalistic way that someone, say, just back from a mission trip to Haiti might. I do not mean that we should all travel to Third World countries and help those who are less fortunate some that we can be thankful for all that we have. I wouldn’t sound like such an absolute fool.
What I mean, is that everyone needs to get outside of their known world once in a while. We need to see what’s just beyond the hedge, how other people in the world live. We need to experience new things, meet new people, and view new landscapes, even if it’s uncomfortable. The people I met in Peru and the experiences I had were invaluable. It was not a “sit next to the beach and sip cocktails” type of vacation. In fact, it wasn’t relaxing at all. But it, like all new experiences and new places, made me a more complete person. It reminded me that this world is a very large place and if I stay active and vigilant, I may be lucky enough to visit a few of its many facets in this short lifetime.
So next time when considering a week in wine country, why not opt for Bangalore instead?