This past summer, I went on a Global Intercultural Experience for Undergraduates study abroad service trip to Cusco, Peru. To be completely honest, I chose this country mainly because I wanted to see Machu Picchu and because I’ve always wanted to go to South America as well. I didn’t really know much about Peru or Cusco prior to getting into the program and attending the learning team meetings.
The work we were doing on this trip involved getting up early every day, a lot of mud and a lot of manual labor. Still fresh in my mind are the squeals of the guinea pigs and the chirps of the baby chicks that we had to try not to step on while working inside people’s homes in the rural mountainside of Peru. Other vivid memories I have are throwing up on buses, hearing my groupmates throwing up on buses, nights in the San Jose Clinic with an IV attached to my arm and headaches so strong I thought I might faint. Of course, that’s not what I chose to showcase on my social media, but a lot of the times it was not easy. Between the high altitude and the freezing nights, and half of our group contracting salmonella, I can’t say we didn’t experience hardships during this trip. I’m not going to lie and say it was all glamorous and Instagram, travel-blog worthy. I’m not going to lie and say I didn’t have a few mental breakdowns, go to sleep shivering under several blankets riddled with homesickness or daydream about Arabic food.
What I’m also not going to do is gush about how this experience made me so much more thankful for what I have, because that was not the purpose of this trip. Before embarking, a lot of our learning team meetings stressed the importance of abandoning the “white savior” mentality and not going in with the intention of “fixing” a community that was doing a perfectly fine job at making a life for themselves. The purpose of this trip was to become fully immersed in a country and its culture, to partake in a mutually beneficial relationship and to work with a community to better their conditions while simultaneously learning and gaining firsthand experience in a culture a world away from our own. Most of the time I was there, I felt as though I was the one that needed help or guidance, not the other way around.
However, my time in Peru did provide me with countless worthwhile memories and valuable insights. While the language barrier often made it difficult to understand each other, I learned that communication transcends verbal expression. The universal languages of compassion, kindness and hospitality seeped through the cracks of broken Spanish and confused pauses. I felt it when the locals in the homes we worked in brought us potatoes and popcorn and rushed to get us mud and rocks when we ran out. I felt it when my 7-year-old host sister hugged me after I walked in the door at night and when my host mom put a jar of olives on the dining table every day after learning I liked olives. I felt it when taxi drivers tried their best to converse with me using slow, simple Spanish, trying their best to understand me and learn where I was from and what I was doing in Peru. Being the only visible Muslim in seemingly the entire country made me nervous and self-conscious at times, and while I certainly felt out of place, I never once felt unwelcomed.
People always say studying abroad changes your life. I don’t know if my trip “changed my life” per se, but it definitely changed me. It made me more adaptable, more equipped to deal with uncomfortable situations and being unsure. It gave me amazing friends that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. It allowed me to basically live like a local for a month, becoming fully immersed in this country by learning about its history and interacting with its people. It challenged me to adapt to an unusual setting rather than expecting my surroundings to adapt to me, as Americans often do. I think everybody should study abroad at some point in their undergraduate career, if able to. If it does anything, it changes your perspective on travel and being a tourist, volunteer, voluntourist or whatever it may be. My advice to anyone who is going on a service trip or study abroad experience is to take all the expectations you have prior to embarking on the trip and dispose of them entirely. It is best to go in with a fresh mind and open heart, ready to take on whatever challenges and triumphs the country and your program throw at you. Be open, be present, be respectful and mindful, try to learn and practice the language while you’re there, show gratitude, show humility. Remember that what distinguishes you from just an average, mindless tourist is your desire to truly learn about and understand the place you are in — its history and cultures and traditions and people and struggles. Remember your experience is partly what is planned on your agenda and mostly the unfiltered, raw, beautiful moments that no camera can capture. And also, don’t forget to buy at least one cheesy tourist sweater.