Water. It was the only thing I could think about—drinking it, sweating it out, crying. The already-oppressive air seemed heavier after the hike up the 444 steps to the church. My mind turned to the heat radiating from me, sweat sliding under my tired legs on the wooden pew, as I half listened to my group leader guide us in a quiet reflection.
“You weren’t meant to do a trip like this alone.”
She said it softly, as if the words were a quiet prayer she had recited thousands of times, but my eyes snapped into focus.
You weren’t meant to do a trip like this alone.
* * *
Seven months ago, I got on a plane by myself. Six hours later, still by myself, I got off of a different plane and stepped into a different country. I was ready. Ready to learn a new culture, to call a new place home, to save the world.
Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I walked out of the airport to meet the people I’d be staying with, Americans who ran a local nonprofit in a poor area of Lima, Peru. They greeted me, holding a sign with my name on it like you see in the movies. ¡Bienvenido, Kathy! Later I would learn that they don’t pronounce the ‘h.’
The drive back to the Community Center where I’d be living was quiet as I observed the lit city outside of my window, only jolting out of my lulled trance when the car bumped off of the pavement and onto the sandy, rock-riddled roads. Buildings quickly turned to shack-like plywood boxes that families appeared to be living in. Muddled breeds of dogs began appearing everywhere, some sleeping in the middle of the street, others fighting. We pulled up to the Center as my companions rattled off a quick version of the village’s history: it was the poorest area in the poorest district of sprawling Lima. With no electricity or plumbing, it remained a squatter’s settlement in appearance despite its established legal status.
The car bounced to a stop.
“Ready?” Emily, the founder of the non-profit, asked me.
I nodded, opening the door and hiking the stairs to my darkened room, falling asleep almost instantly.
In the morning, I found out that June in Lima is the opposite of what it sounds like. There is no heat, and despite being in the 60s, the cool humidity dictates pants and pullovers to keep warm. Grey air hangs low above the plywood houses, keeping the air dim enough that you never have to squint to keep the light out of your eyes. I got dressed and padded out to the kitchen where my host mom, Marta, was feeding her baby.
“Hola,” I said shyly.
“Hola Kathy, como esta? Que te gusta para desayuno?”
I smiled and nodded to cover my confusion.
“Desayuno means breakfast, right?” I wondered, searching the small (and apparently lacking) archive I had acquired the semester before in Spanish 2. The words I was supposed to respond with stuck in my throat, their jagged edges hurting my confidence more than anything else. My eyes darted to my American roommate with a look of pure fear. She responded for me in rapid Spanish that I didn’t understand, and a few minutes later a fried egg and some tea was placed in front of me. When I was done, I gathered my notebook, keys, and an extra sweater in preparation for heading downstairs to work at the Center. Tutoring and the youth leadership group were on the calendar, and, for the first couple of days, I was supposed to help the other volunteers run the programs. After that, I was informed, they would all be leaving the country, and I’d be on my own.
“Listo?” It seemed to be the question of the hour, but as I took in the reality of what I was about to experience, I forgot how to answer in Spanish.
Eight days later, I realized I wasn’t doing so great by myself. I had boarded the plane with naive dreams of teaching English to adorable children who were eager to learn, but instead I found myself surrounded by a steady stream of Spanish that I almost never understood. With only one semester of it under my belt, I spent most of the day wondering what I was thinking when I booked the round-trip tickets in the first place. But more than learning how to perfect the Spanish accent or teaching any of the children how to master my own language, I was learning lessons in instability. The Peruvians’ way of life was unstable enough; their poverty trumped anything I had ever seen in the U.S., and even in my relatively privileged dwelling, the water would cut out on me mid-shampoo. But the real instability in Lima was me. I woke up in the morning feeling dejected and defeated, went to bed feeling determined, and somewhere around 2 p.m.—like clockwork—an afternoon storm of self-deprecation would rain down. My days often ended with showers meant to prevent me from crying more than to clean the dirt off of my body. I pretended the water was my tears. I let them fall over me and brushed my hair out.
On day nine, I went to work early and shut the door to the office. I hadn’t heard a word of English since the other Americans left, and so I Skyped my parents. As the tone rang out over and over, I sniffed and blinked, jostling my leg to keep from crying before they even picked up. I had been wrong the whole time—I wasn’t ready and I definitely wasn’t saving the world. Needing to be saved myself, I took a deep breath as my parents picked up.
I had no tissues left by the time I hung up, and as I went quietly back into my room upstairs, my Dad was searching flights to Boston. Feeling more relieved and disappointed than ever, I froze as someone knocked on my door.
“It’s ok to come home,” my parents had said to me just minutes before. “You aren’t failing by knowing when to leave.”
But their reassurance melted away as guilt rose hot to my cheeks and my hand rose to grip the doorknob.
“I have to go home early,” I lied through tears, too ashamed to admit the truth. “My mom isn’t feeling well and they need me.” But really, I wasn’t feeling well and I needed them. The next day, a taxi driver arrived to bring me back to the airport.
I nodded solemnly. “Ready.”
Packing my luggage and failings into the trunk, I banged the dirt of the unpaved roads off of my sneakers for the last time and waved goodbye to my host family.
“Gracias,” I said.
Lo siento, I thought. I’m sorry.
* * *
Seven months later, in a church at the top of Goat Hill in Ecuador, I forgave myself. I rubbed my aching legs as I thought about my group leader’s words and the unforgettable week I had just experienced—eight days in a place that looked a lot like Peru, but felt nothing like it. My mind was wandering again, this time not to thoughts of water or heat, but to a moment in a school I had visited a few days earlier.
The class I was helping in was coming to an end, and as the teacher packed up his things, he gave his students one last chance to practice their English speaking:
“Thank you for learning,” he said.
“Thank you for teaching,” they responded.
“Thank YOU for teaching,” he said.
“Thank YOU for learning.”
I smiled and breathed deep, stepping out into the humid, sun-lit air of the South American summer.