Thursday, October 24, 2013

Learning to Drive in Arequipa

"They say that if you can drive in Arequipa, you can drive in any part of the world." This is how my host mom responded when I once asked her about the traffic in Arequipa and if there are many crashes.  Not surprisingly, her answer was "yes". The streets here are highly congested due to the recent population explosion, and to the eye of the foreigner, the rules of the road often appear to be replaced by pure anarchy.  Lane markings are ignored (cars often travel three abreast on a two-lane highway), stop signs appear to be optional, and merging onto the street usually becomes a game of chicken between multiple drivers.

We have now officially crossed the half-way point of our time here in Arequipa, and looking back on past experiences, I cannot help but notice how what we often see in the streets is similar to how we have felt while learning a new culture.  When we first arrived, many aspects of life were new and confusing.  We cautiously tried to maneuver around without making any serious mistakes or forcing "crashes" between cultures.  Despite our best efforts, we have often found adjusting to our new lives here difficult, confusing, awkward, and...well...hilarious and embarrassing.

a fairly typical looking combi during the morning commute
When I first arrived at the house where I am living this semester, my host mom showed me the bathroom I use and told me to turn the knob to the left for the hot water for in shower.  The mornings here at a high altitude are quite cold, and I spent the first week showering in what felt like ice water.  I gradually developed a workout routine before showering just to raise my body temperature enough to be able to stand under the water for a few seconds. One day I decided to see just how cold the water could actually get if I turned the knob the other direction and ... yup... you guessed it. I nearly burned myself because the water was so hot.

Many of us have noticed that public displays of affection between couples is fairly common here.  This can be awkward enough in parks and street corners, but it reaches a whole new level on the combis, which are the van/bus combination public transport.  As you can see in the picture above, these vehicles are often completely filled so that there is literally no room to move.  One great night I had the privilege of being plastered directly up against a peruvian girl...who decided that this commute was the perfect time to cuddle with and kiss her boyfriend.  I was stuck in this position for about 30 minutes...

Because embarrassment and awkward loves company, I asked some other members of our group for their own examples, and here are some of their stories:

Megan:  I went to go do some volunteer work at an elderly women's home with some other Calvin students. When I asked where the other students were a nice woman told me they were in the living room. When I walked into the living room there were not 20 Calvin students awaiting me but rather 20 toothless grinning old women. I was paralyzed, but put up with the "Que liiiiiiiinnnnddddaaaaas" (how beautiful) and listened for a while before I decided to leave. I had apparently gone to the wrong old women's home after calling my professor.

-Talking to friends, "Soy Paruta" instead of "Soy Bruta" ("Soy Paruta" does not mean anything at all. Soy Bruta means I am an airhead. I think the point was clear)

-Talking to friends, "Tengo novio" instead of "Tengo enamorado" In the United States we were taught that "novio" means boyfriend, but in Peru it means fiance. So everyone was asking why we were getting married so young and where our rings were. 

Carmen B: I think my music professor is really funny, because he always seems to make the rest of the class laugh. I never catch on to his jokes and always end up just sitting there with an awkward, clueless smile on my face.

Hannah K: One time in the Plaza de Armas, I got swept up in a war protest which was targeted at the United States just after the Syrian Crisis. There were torches and shouting and paintings of President Obama in devils horns. Of course, I happened to be the only person in the crowd with blond hair, and someone promptly asked me which country I was from. Uuuuummmm… United States? Awkward. 

I told my cousin that I liked his fart (pedo) instead of that I liked his hair (pelo). 

I told a peruvian she was naked (desvestida) instead of that she was divided (dividida) from the group. I still have no idea how I did that.

In addition to these stories, multiple people have asked store workers if they have colored eyes (ojos) instead of sheets of paper (hojas).  Many of us have accidentally gotten on the wrong combi and ended up in unfamiliar parts of the city, and we have all experienced the awkward stare-down when we forget to greet someone withe the customary kiss or handshake.  At least two of us have had bird . . . excrement fall on us while calmly minding our own business in the plaza. We have also learned how to pretend we follow conversations we do not understand and are able to laugh at the appropriate times, which works well until someone asks our opinion on what was said.

Despite these challenges, we continue learning and growing through new experiences, and what was once strange and foreign is gradually becoming familiar and comfortable.  We have eaten (and occasionally enjoyed) new foods such as cuy (guinea pig) and ceviche (raw fish).

We are used to wearing long pants even as the temperature increases for summer, and we often find ourselves staring at tourists in shorts and sandals and find ourselves thinking "hehe, gringos."  We are no longer confused when a class requires us to make a photocopy of an article with a front page that states: "the total or partial reproduction of this book is not permitted... electronic or photocopy..."
We are also able to order in the school cafĂ© or photocopier station without waiting an hour trying to figure out where the line is of people ends - there isn't a line. We can also cross the busy streets without feeling like we are playing a human version of the old video game "frogger".  It is becoming more common for tourists on the street stop us to ask for directions, and occasionally they even ask us first if we speak English. Although we occasionally stand out, we are learning how to blend into the culture.  We are also meeting many new people and forming a number of meaningful friendships.

It is clear that we have all grown in our short two months hear.  We have gained a deeper understanding of who God is and how he relates to His creation, and have seen how others relate back to Him.  We are learning more about who we are and who we are becoming.  While thinking about how much we have grown in just half a semester, we are excited to see where we will be and what we will have leaned after the next two months.  Although there are still bumps along the road, it is slowly but surely becoming clear that we are learning how to drive through the culture of Arequipa.

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