On my last trip to Arequipa, I experienced some pretty significant culture shock. It wasn’t unfamiliar to me, but it is something I haven’t experienced in quite some time, though I did to a much lesser degree my 1st visit to the new mall in Cusco. It was the culture shock that comes from partaking in plenty in a land of want.
I’m sure in part because of my childhood in provincial Peru, but also because of choices I have made in my adult life, I slip easily into cultures of want. I don’t mean for that to sound trite or calloused. It isn’t that I somehow ignore the need or that I see myself as “one of them.” But operating in cultures of need is something I understand, something I can get my head around. Something I can settle into, secure in where I am and what it means.
Since June of last year I have been spending regular amounts of my time in a remote Andean village, sleeping in tiny adobe huts and corners of cement rooms, eating sporadically from chipped dishes and shared mugs, ignoring gristle and animal hairs while I gnaw the precious meat from greasy bones. I’ve pushed myself to the limits of discomfort and pain simply to travel from one location to the next. I’ve ridden bareback and in sheep trucks and on motorcycles racks with 3 other people in front of me, my pack and theirs hanging off my back for endless miles of winding mountain roads. I’ve crammed myself into the backs of station wagons, balancing bundles of bread and other peoples children on my feet.
And the buses. Questionably serviceable brakes and questionably alert drivers. Bodies stumbling into undesired intimacy, smells and noise and jarring stops. The first trip I took to Arequipa was 12 hours of this, no chance of getting off, no bathroom break. This is how I travel.
Then, on this last trip, I left Arequipa on a bus that cost twice as much as I usually pay. I got to the bus terminal, the crowds and the noise washing over me, comfortably familiar. Then I discovered I was in the wrong place. Walking across the parking lot I entered “my” terminal, a clean, neat building I had never noticed before, staffed with pleasant uniformed people who asked me in English if they could help. I stammered out something and followed pointed fingers to the check-in desk, where an immaculately manicured woman motioned for me to wait.
I tried to sit down in the waiting area, but I was too jittery, almost panicky. Upper class Peruvians kept shooting glances at my bundle of clothes tied up in a manta (a traditional cloth). Tourists would look up now and then from their Lonely Planets, pleased with themselves, I’m sure for experiencing a real Peruvian bus terminal.
When they called my bus I was instantly relieved. But that relief faded as we were ushered into the private waiting lounge. I stood in a corner, taking it all in, the terrifying niceties of moneyed travel. Flatscreen TV, cushy chairs, tea and coffee service, clean bathrooms. The panic was back. I sat down awkwardly with my manta bundle and my backpack, but again, I couldn’t relax. I was on the edge of my seat, my eyes darting around the room, frantically looking for any person who looked like they might have travelled in my ‘usual’ buses. Maybe that lady? She looks like someone who knows how to make 5 soles stretch pretty far. No, she’s complaining about something to her husband. The one in the suit. That hippie guy, who hasn’t washed in weeks? Well, no, he’s white, so it doesn’t count.
There have been few times in my life that I have felt so out of place. And I didn’t want to fit in. I wanted to stand up and shout across the lounge that I don’t belong here.When I finally sank into my seat on the bus, my manta bundle securely stored overhead, I was breathing too fast and my heart was doing a marathon. A staff member handed me a blanket, the HD movie began playing and I realized my hands were shaking. The only thing that calmed me down was a quick call to my husband to describe all the horrors of wonderfully comfortable travel.
The ride was wonderfully comfortable, with meals and an onboard bathroom, and I felt secure and safe traveling with my film equipment, which was the point of paying a bit more. But I am still surprised by my reaction. I didn’t expect it and I’m not entirely sure where it came from. Though I have a pretty good guess it has to do with my pride.
My pride in who I am, as a Peruvian, as the kind of person who lives “authentically” wherever I am, as a tough traveller who knows how to rough it. Maybe traveling ‘in style’ took some of that away from me. Is my own self-identity so weak that I need the props of a manta and a crowded bus to hold it up?
It’s made me consider what other props I use to define myself. House, children, language, film, clothes, books. It seems we all do this to some extent. But when we are in a comfortable place, surrounded by what we know, it isn’t as obvious how much we have internalized our surroundings. The more we step out of that space, the more we are forced to discover our true selves. When we take away the usual props what is left is more authentically us. Perhaps that is what frightens us so much. Perhaps that is why we need culture shock.