Thanksgiving has always been a holiday I looked forward to. Since I was young, I understood that Thanksgiving meant a reunion of family and friends, delicious food, and drink that’ll make your grumpiest uncle merry. But it wasn’t until I traveled abroad when I realized the true meaning of the holiday.
I grew up in a home where my mother drilled the saying “finish your plate, there are people starving in Africa”. What I never understood was how me finishing my plate would help those people at all, but I knew she meant well, and that I should be grateful for all that I had. However, when I followed the beaten path of those before me and traveled abroad, I realized my life would change forever, and my love for Thanksgiving would balloon with an overwhelming emotion of gratitude.
Ironically enough, it was that same saying from my mother that catapulted my interest in travel–I knew nothing about the rest of the world. Though I didn’t grow up in the best of circumstances in comparison to other families, my siblings and I always had enough food. And even if we were wearing hand-me-downs from older cousins before us, we were warm when the winter rolled around. Though I shared a bedroom with my sister, we each had our own bed. And when we awoke on those frosty mornings, we looked forward to a hot shower and the usual morning cartoon lineup. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for many children I saw throughout my travels.
Having a good grasp of the Spanish language, I opted for a tour of South America as my first extended trip abroad. Another factor I considered was the cost of living. I knew my dollar would get me further in South America than a backpacking trip through Europe, though I wouldn’t really understand what that meant for the local people until after stepping foot on sacred lands..
I began my life-changing journey in Colombia. My family and friends were terrified for me, so having burdened themselves with enough fear for my entire life, I went in fearless. Anxiety-ridden? Yes. Nervous? Hell yes. Excited? Absolutely. But scared? Not a bit. I spent two weeks mostly on the tourist trail. While exploring in Bogota, falling in love with the art and music in Medellin, jungle trekking the amazon, and soaking up the sun at Tayrona National Park, I was relishing in all of the newness and excitement that kept jumping at me. Which is probably why I didn’t realize the call for help from the locals until I crossed the border into Peru.
When I stepped off the plane, the crisp winter air slapped me with reality. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was once again alone in another new land, or how the chauffeurs flocked to help me with my luggage and escort me to a taxi before I could grab my suitcase off the conveyor belt, but I will never forget the eery feeling of my own privilege that I’d never noticed before. I had no explanation why it happened at that moment when it did. There was nothing unusual about the airport, its policies, or even the way the drivers so enthusiastically catered to me. I’d traveled within the states, and the same thing always happens. So what was it about now that made me feel so uncomfortable?
I can only imagine it was the lingering ancient energy of the indigenous people of this land who sent their reminders of my privilege in aggressive wisps of wind that continue to slap me in the face. Though many Peruvians attempt to maintain the indigenous culture, language, and customs, I know that the strife of the people is a direct result of hundreds of years of colonization and oppression.
When I arrived in the city of Cusco, a designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I witnessed small children and the elderly, dressed in their traditional clothes, and speaking their native language of Quechua, selling small candies, ice creams, and textiles all day. One day, after a few beers and a night of dancing, I watched an elderly woman sitting on the curb, almost falling asleep in 30-degree weather, with her cart of goodies, hoping to sell items to the drunken tourists. It was that moment when I realized I needed to change my own life.
Instead of staying at the hostel like I had planned, I rented an apartment in a residential neighborhood about 45 minutes from the main square. I had no heat, and the hot water was limited to a specific timeframe. This was a huge challenge as late nights and early mornings hovered around 30 degrees. Essentially, I lived in an ice box. And when I did have hot water, it was scalding. I learned that others never got hot water at all.
On my first day, I woke up around 7am, bundled as best I could, and stepped out into the street to witness what daily life was like in this part of the world. Some people began setting up their carts, others began their treks with rucksacks that looked about 40+ pounds, while others bustled about in the small restaurants, which also weren’t heated. No one ever took off their coats and hats. The children’s faces were caked with dirt, probably hoping to avoid cold water for as long as possible. While I visited, the children were out of school due to an indefinite strike from the teachers. The government didn’t seem too concerned, as the strike was on since before I arrived, and continued after I left a month later.
As I walked around my new neighborhood, I wasn’t greeted with friendly and cheerful smiles like I was in the more touristic routes of Colombia. The weathered indigenous faced instead displayed skepticism, cynicism, and a defense I wasn’t used to as I smiled a weak, unsure smile their way. Then they’d look away and continue working. I wasn’t sure how to get through. To make them feel comfortable, and less threatened by my foreign presence. Yet, I understood why they felt this way, given the history.
I was committed to integrating with the locals, and showing them I was there to learn, not to collect. I continued to smile their way, more confidently each day. Soon I was returned with smiles, first confused and awkward, and then a bit brighter. I began waving at the children, and speaking with them while they played. I peeped into the restaurants and introduced myself. I ordered at their local establishments, and complimented their delicious soups, and lomo saltados.
By the middle of my second week, I offered my help. Some were resistant to my meddling, others threw tasks at me immediately. I was just grateful to have made an initial connection, and to have gained just a smidge of their trust. By the end of the week, I was volunteering with two different families.
Through our interactions, I learned about the Inca empire, and the communities’ commitment to maintaining the indigenous customs and traditions. They feared the shift toward a westernized world which they could feel in the foreigners who stayed abroad longer, and their own people who chose to learn English to cater to them. Though they understood how the tourists contributed to the overall economy, they, like many others, were left out of the financial gain. And if a majority of their people were still living in poverty, why should they contribute to the industry that continued to commercialize their culture?
For a number of nights, I was tormented by the idea that I was directly contributing to the western boom that the local people didn’t not approve of. I decided to address this issue with my new acquaintances directly. At the end of my third week, I asked, “Do you resent me for being here?”. Bertha, whose family owned one of the small restaurants in the neighborhood immediately stopped chopping the vegetables and looked up at me. “I did,” she said, “when I didn’t know you”.
I got just about the same answers from others who I’d come to form relationships with in the community. The children didn’t understand. To them, my face was just different. And so was my accent. But to the elders, they all agreed that they first met me with resentment. Yet, after a few weeks of working with them, being genuine, forming bonds, and attempting to see the world through their eyes, they acknowledged their own contentment of me being there. “I need help, and you help me. You’ve never asked for anything in return. So, I thank you. Now I know there are people like you in the U.S. I never felt anything but animosity toward them. And now for you, I feel friendship.” This was said to me by Eduardo, who did work in the tourism industry but whom also felt a disconnect between his work and his beliefs.
I cut my trip shorter than planned and immediately flew back home after my time in Peru. I needed to reflect on who I was, what I had learned, and where I had been. It was hard saying goodbye to the beautiful souls I met, but I learned valuable lessons I will cherish forever. This Thanksgiving, I sit at my home, uncomfortable in a luxury of comfort, but full of gratitude for my experience, and for all that I have taken for granted up until this point–opportunity, community, and even small things you don’t always think about, like water! I’m grateful for having been able to connect to people from a vastly different world, and to have been able to contribute even just a little bit to ease the burden of someone else.
I am expecting to travel again soon, and this time with the realization of who I am, where I come from, and how I might be perceived. I’ve vowed that regardless of where I go, I will learn about the local people FROM the local people, and to volunteer abroad every single time.
By: Samantha J.