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Hutton Honors College

 — Indiana University

Laura Ertmer
Lima, Peru
Academic Year 2003-04

Before leaving for Lima, my friend's mom gave me a cultural guide to Peru. I browsed through the photos of fiestas and markets thinking that these images would seldom be encountered. Surely the guidebook showed only the rare and interesting aspects of Peruvian life. It wasn't until I returned home from Peru and reread the guidebook that I realized how well it portrayed the intricacies and nuances of the culture I just experienced. I became so well acquainted with the society's history, struggle, politics, and people that the pages seemed to tell me of my home.

I arrived in Peru with little knowledge about what to expect from the country. I entered the loud, gray city with no tools to interpret my surroundings. Luckily, however, I arrived as a student with access to the university and the chance to explore my experiences in an academic setting. That first semester was a quest to discover Peru.

Sadly, never before had I felt such a strong and vital connection between my studies and my life. In Peru, it was essential that I learn about the history in order to understand the poverty that plagued Lima. My class, The Social Reality of Peru, introduced me to influential Peruvian thinkers who attempted to explain and overcome the tragic consequences of the Spanish invasion. They explored the role of the Indian and the land, the dangers of North American Imperialism, and the benefits of the informal economy of Lima. In my Peruvian Narrative class, I examined how José María Arguedas bridged the gap between the Quecha speaking population and the Spanish speakers. He wrote of the tensions between Lima and the rural towns, between Western modernity and Indigenous tradition. My class about the social and political processes of Latin America introduced me to common struggles among the South American countries, and the historical events that have defined their distinct development.

I studied these topics in order to understand my daily life. In some cases, it helped me evaluate the consequences of the free trade agreement being formed between Peru and the US. On travels, my classes gave me background knowledge about the cities and ruins I visited. My travels throughout Peru brought me in contact with the indigenous populations. Having studied their traditions and life-style through Campesinado (a class about rural communities) and the works of José Marîa Arguedas, I was able to better understand and interpret what I was seeing. I was always open to being taught, and I asked questions frequently. My curiosity in Peruvians was matched by their curiosity in me so that we both entered the conversation willingly and left satisfied.

One of the best learning experiences was spending a month in rural Huancayo with a farming family. I became interested in agricultural issues shortly before arriving in Peru. I had just been introduced to works by Wendell Berry and found his ideas about small farming communities inspiring. The connection between land, community, health, and the environment that Berry praised was the way of life for most rural Peruvians. Farming in the Andes was necessarily done on small plots of family owned land. I was awed by the interconnectedness of their lives and their work and wanted to find out more about it. I did not want to praise the merits of small farming without participating in the hard labor myself.

The month of February I spent living and farming with a family in a small town in the central Andes called Tres de Diciembre. With my family, I learned how to harvest potatoes, spinach, lima beans, alfalfa, tunas (cactus fruit), guindas, and carrots. I spent afternoons on grassy slopes talking with El Abuelo about his farming practices, his ideas about the US, and his problems with Peruvian president Toledo. We exchanged wonders about the beauty of the land and thoughts about the use of pesticides and the effect of pollution on the climate and his crops. He was knowledgeable and interested in US agriculture. With Aiday, the mother of the family, I spent the afternoons harvesting spinach, the evenings cooking, and the early morning hours going to market. It was with her that I learned the details of the farming economy. Again and again, I was struck by naturalness of their way of life. I do not romanticize the hard work, but I do admire the reverence they had for the earth and their self-sufficiency.

After my stay in Tres de Diciembre, I returned to study another semester at the university in Lima. I was thrilled to take a class called Campesinado that analyzed the peasant farming life. Again, my studies and my life were completely intertwined. I felt wonderfully curious and enthusiastic all the time. Meanwhile, I enrolled in a ballet class and settled myself into life in Lima. Having traveled so much first semester, I was very happy to invest my time in exploring Lima and deepening my Peruvian friendships.

I found an outlet for both of these goals with a volunteer group at the university called Marcataqui. Sundays we would go to a barrio jóven, or slum, called El Agustino to tutor the children there. With this group, I was given the opportunity to witness Lima's other side and do my part to combat the poverty it embodied. I met enthusiastic kids who greeted us every Sunday with smiles and hugs. We played soccer, made kites, worked on English and Math skills, and read books.

In my last months in Lima, Marcataqui developed a plan to build a new community center for the neighborhood. We had been conducting our workshop in the neighborhood cafeteria, which was little more than some sheet metal topped with straw and garbage. It was not a safe place for the mothers to cook the children's meals, nor was it large enough to hold all the kids that attended our workshops. The group has worked incredibly hard to plan the construction of a new building. With help from the university there were able to get engineers to conduct land surveys. They've entered a social improvement contest at a university in Lima in hopes of winning the $4,000 that will pay for their project. I wish I could be there to help when the construction starts!

My life abroad was marked by curiosity and eager involvement. Without these two together, I would not have come to know and love Peru as I now do. I am so happy to have been there as a student, and not a tourist. I was able to study all I saw, and from study able to interpret and understand it. In this manner, I could let Peru be what it was without feeling the desire to make it 'foreign' or 'indigenous.' As I learned more, I fell in love with the fascinating blend of cultures, classes, tradition, modernity, barrenness, and beauty.

I believe that the Honors College IEP grants offer a life changing educational experience. My time abroad shaped my vision for the future and my understanding of myself. It provided me with confidence and courage to take ideas and make them realities. Thank you so much for your support in my study abroad experience!