Oil painting of Peru by Jorge Rheineck titled Panorama Íntimo

An Indelible Year

A look back at the transformative experience of a year spent in Trujillo, Peru

Speeding in an outdated taxi on a bumpy dirt road, windows down, wind in my hair, I laughed louder than the Pacific waves crashed upon the scorched desert beach in Huanchaco. The taxi driver, passenger side, also roared with laughter. My two friends from the English department, not so much, they were on the floor in the backseat half terrified, praying for the ride to end. It is hard to believe that was me—living and driving wildly, young, and straight out of university. 

The year I spent in Trujillo, Peru was a transformational experience that changed my life in ways that even decades later impact me.

In many ways, Peru was where I grew up. I learned resilience, assertiveness, and how to truly find beauty in our complex world. A professor of mine had connected me to an opportunity to work in Peru at La Universidad Privada del Norte in Trujillo. I sat on the offer for a year, uncertain because it was to teach English; what I really wanted to do was to work in international development. A friend of mine from college, Meredith, suggested writing a development proposal and she offered to go with me. In the end, we were both hired to do both. We left our homes in Ohio for a year abroad.

Arriving in Trujillo, we were assigned a, um, bodyguard for the first two weeks. He was a tall man and the head of the university security squad. Everyone called him the watchyman. He accompanied us to the large open market where we went to buy fruits and vegetables and climbed in our taxi when we went to the center of town. He took his job seriously, using walkie talkies with his staff to describe our every move. We never understood why we needed a guard day and night. He was eventually replaced by only a night guard, outside of our building at dark. There was never an explanation, so we could only assume the university felt we had acclimated.

The first shock was the work culture. We dressed up our baby faces in suits and heels. I taught classes beginning at 7 a.m., had a break from noon until 3 p.m. and was expected to leave the university at 8 p.m. Even though I was only 23, I was exhausted. I didn’t nap when most did during the afternoon and I didn’t like waiting until 10 p.m. to have dinner.

We set to work immediately, excited to work on social and environmental development. The president of the university, a woman, introduced us to key figures: the former governor, the mayor of our vecindario, or neighborhood, the local priest, the owner of the university, etc. We later met the heads of several NGOs and began working on the issues we cared about. We were introduced to endemic issues such as poverty, property rights law, population growth, water contamination, lack of safe public spaces, public health challenges and so on. Meredith and I were ready to tackle it all.

Woman with backpack sitting near a glacial lake in the Andes in Peru
The author along Laguna Churup, an alpine glacial lake at 14,600 feet in the Andes Mountains just outside of Huaraz, Peru

First, I worked to implement a community recycling program. I identified a French NGO that agreed to partner with us. Our target area was the 51 blocks surrounding the university. This NGO had an onsite warehouse with living quarters for homeless youth. By recycling, they developed a means for the homeless teens to make a living, learn a trade and access school as well. This organization essentially turned garbage into goods and created a social enterprise to resell those goods, such as restored furniture and clothing. The CEO agreed to pick up the recyclables in our neighborhood at no cost to our residents. Unfortunately, this was my first failure in Peru, actually in my life. I put in weeks, months of effort into planning and trying to convince our university faculty and students to canvas the neighborhood with me. I discussed this issue with the mayor and the priest who nodded yes and agreed to work on this project, only to find out they would stand me up at the implementation meeting. One student, only one, came to my first meeting. No one came to the second. I was disappointed and couldn’t understand the lack of interest in something I felt was so important. 

Similarly, I had recruited a group of young women to accompany me to a women’s group, a Club de Madres, in a slum. The slum was accessible only by entering through a small blue door found in between two Spanish colonial houses. This secret place was just two blocks away from the university. Opening the door led to a tiny world of houses, streets and stores, all built of mud and straw where bunnies and guinea pigs lived in kitchens. As I stepped through that door, I realized the students were still standing on the street, afraid and unwilling to take that step. Nothing I said could convince them to join me. I faced another failure that I would only later be able to comprehend.

It would take years for me to learn how to successfully lead community building. I attribute my year in Peru to teaching me the resilience needed to persist. Over the next 15 years, I worked for nonprofits, community organizations and universities. After many years of reflecting and recalling our experiences, or let’s call it what it was, inexperience, did I understand our approach was faulty. By having strong mentors and trial and error, I learned how to involve others in meaningful work—it is by building up grassroots ideas driven by community members. This had been the missing factor in our work. 

Child laborers in Peru showing artwork made at a week-long university summer camp
Child laborers, who worked at the local graveyard, at the week-long summer camp program created by the author during her time at La Universidad Privada del Norte in Trujillo, Peru

After many failures, we had, what I termed, a micro success. Just a few blocks from the university, we identified a small group of child laborers. These children worked at a local graveyard during the day. There was a government program that provided education as a part of their day and also access to social workers (many of the children had trauma). Our success was crafting a summer camp for the children to incorporate fun and love into their lives. For this one project, we found an NGO partner, a local sponsor for the food and drinks, and traveling Argentine puppeteers who designed a skit at a discount (which we paid for out of pocket). To our surprise, more than 20 student volunteers participated. It took months to plan and culminated in a one week camp hosted at our university. I’ll never forget the day the youngest child, a 5 year old, got off the bus at our university gate with her baby sister. She dragged her by the dress because she could not carry her. Many of these children lived in abject poverty; it changes you to your core when you realize you do not have the power to help some lives. These children and their smiles taught us to never resign to failure, but continue to do whatever it takes to make even the smallest impact. The week we spent with the children was filled with laughter, music and play. We continued to visit the children after the camp ended at the graveyard and we were always greeted with love and hugs. 

Peru was eye opening and fascinating in more ways than just my professional life. Day to day living and travel lent more experiences. I found myself in places and situations I had never dreamed of. Sometimes the truth of how hard reality was hit hard, such as when we arrived too early to an Amazon “tribal show” only to see the performers run up their huts to change out of their jeans and tshirts into grass skirts. Other situations were humorous or weird, like the time I saw a car pull up to a butcher shop, park, and a man pulled an entire cow carcass out of the carpeted trunk. 

Visiting the ruins of Chan Chan, once the largest city of the pre-Columbian era in South America

I traveled all over Peru, from the desert coast to the Andes to the Amazon. I met people with different heritages such as German, Chinese, Spanish as well as new Asian immigrants and indigenous peoples. I ate lunch every day at a Buddhist Tiawanese immigrant family’s home for Chifa Vegetariana, or what translates to Peruvian/Chinese vegetarian cuisine. This special family hosted both Meredith and I for our birthdays at their home, which was serene and peaceful. I loved the vast differences in the people, the land, the history, and the country.  I explored Cusco and Machu Picchu thanks to a trip my parents made; I was earning the local currency, Nuevo Soles, and sadly would not have afforded the hotels on my salary, which was the equivalent to $420 dollars a month. 

The first time I stopped at our community store in Trujillo, I politely tried standing in line to wait my turn to order at the counter. Many people cut in front of me and elbowed me as I tried to inch my way forward. After a month, I shockingly found myself pushing others out of my way as I shouted, dame papel higienico, or give me toilet paper, which happened to be behind the counter. Peru made me become more assertive for my own survival. It taught me that I can still be the quiet, reserved person I am, but I can also be firm and stand up for what I need. 

Once a student of mine passed me a note that said, “teacher, I saw you and Meredith buying queque, or cake, on the street.” Meredith and I discovered early on that we enjoyed Peruvian sweets. Then one day, back at our community store, the man behind the counter pointed out to me that I had gained weight. I protested, but he pointed to his chin, grabbed his own flesh and told me I had a double chin. After that, I stopped eating so much queque. 

There were many Germans, Dutch and Australians passing through Northern Peru where we lived, but I almost never met another American. We had to travel to Ecuador every 90 days because we were not working completely legally; our paperwork was always en tramites, or being processed. We had gone through the proper immigration channels with our assigned immigration officer, actually named Marco Polo. Marco Polo was not attractive in any way. I thanked God every time that he crushed on Meredith and not me. He liked to caress her hand during our meetings to discuss official immigration business. We had to visit him frequently until our work permit was approved by the government, which finally happened 9 months in.

On a boat in the mangroves

Once, we decided to visit a quaint town in the Andes called Cascara, it was known as the local wine country. The 3 hour bus ride turned into the most adventurous road trip of my life. We lived at sea level and had to pass through valleys and climb the Andes in order to make our way to the town. Not even halfway into our trip, the bus broke down in the middle of a sugarcane field. The driver and all the passengers got off to fix the bus. Two little boys taught us how to break sugarcane to extract the juice. Once we got back on the bus, it would only drive in reverse, so we did that until we came across an even older model of bus heading up the mountains. We transferred to the older bus, which was jammed packed with people and chickens. This new bus stopped every 5 minutes up the pathway and would take much longer. Soon we had been travelling more than 6 hours and the sun was falling behind the looming Andes. It was quite beautiful to see the fireflies in the valley beginning to light up as the sun dipped. As a rule, Meredith was braver than I was; when I told her to look at what the driver and a passenger were doing and saw her expression of horror, I knew we were in a bad situation. The men were holding up a flashlight to light the road. The narrow road had precipes at every turn. Pandemonium broke out on the bus when the flashlights blew out, the women (myself included) began to scream that we stop. The driver would not, he claimed he knew the roads and could drive with his eyes closed. He proceeded to take us across a rickety bridge before we were able to demand that he stop. He then went into the nearest house and found replacement batteries for the flashlights. We continued on our journey. After only a few minutes, the new batteries also died and again we started an uproar. Getting out of the bus in the middle of the Andes did not seem to be the best option. One man on the bus asked if “the gringas” could light the pathway with their eyes, which was funny only in retrospect. The driver pulled over until another van showed up, he then negotiated for the van to light our path from behind. But soon, the van diverted into darkness. We had to create another uproar to make the driver to stop. Finally, we all deboarded. Some of the passengers eventually continued on the bus and a few of us, willing and able to pay more, caught a ride in an open air farm truck. We rode the last half hour of the journey up the mountain to the town. It was breathtaking to see the stars above and the fireflies below. This trip gave a whole new meaning to enjoying the journey and not the destination. We arrived so late that all of the restaurants were closed and there was nothing to do but sleep. In the morning, rather than seeing the town, we caught the first bus home. 

Since we would miss our first Christmas with our families, we decided to travel to the Amazon and flew into Iquitos, Peru. The head of security, or watchyman I mentioned earlier, arranged for us to stay with his elderly parents at a humble home. From eating a piranha (that I myself fished) to meeting a monkey that held my finger through a cage and cried when I left (I saw tears in its eyes) to canoeing across the river, I couldn’t believe the life I was living. 

Fishing for piranha in the Amazon River, Peru

The family we stayed with suggested we travel to a town called Nauta, which is where the roads and infrastructure end as they meet the dense Amazon forest. Their daughter-in-law worked in Nauta Monday through Friday as a teacher and she would accompany us. What was supposed to be a day trip took longer than expected, due to rain and mud. The bus got stuck and everyone got off to get the tires out of the mud. Arriving in Nauta, we went to the home of a single mother, who upon seeing us, told us she had dreamt that we were coming. She was a friend of the daughter-in-law, who changed into a short skirt, applied makeup and left without a goodbye, hopping on the back of a motorcycle. The single mother was so happy to host us, she said she saw us in her dream; only that in the dream we were wearing mini skirts. She and her daughter welcomed us with open arms and gave us a tour of the town. It began to pour down rain, so we ducked into a little store to wait it out. Once it ended, we had to walk to her home barefoot because the mud had sucked the shoes off our feet. We laughed in joy at the experience of being shin-deep in mud. It took a long time, and lots of laughter, to return to her home where we washed our feet and had dinner, eating on banana leaves. Later, we found out the buses were all canceled; the only way to return to Iquitos was to rent a hammock and sleep overnight on a river barge. Though it sounds fun, I was not at all happy to have to return to Iquitos this way, it felt vulnerable to be the only Western passengers sleeping among hundreds in hammocks that swayed as we put putted up the Amazon, with livestock under our feet. 

Drawing of tree with red border by Jorge Rheineck
A beloved pine tree outside the author’s window in Peru. Illustration by Jorge Rheineck

My year in Peru was not always easy. I saw such a deep level of poverty that it hurt, such as a boy catching seagulls and tying their wings together for dinner. I also saw great wealth in the governor’s house and could not believe the quantity of food consumed, it was glutinous. I experienced humor and discomfort at levels previously unknown to me, like when in the Amazon I decided to forgo my bath for a few days after finding a chicken, very much alive and well, floating in the tank that provided our bathwater (a rainwater catch system). I also remember crying over ketchup at the Lima Hardrock Cafe because it seemed to be luxurious and excessive. 

I lived in Trujillo for one year and gained life lasting friendships. Meredith and I became the best of friends, having shared so many moments. There were two artists in residence who taught courses at the university and lived upstairs from us, Jorge and Guillermo, from Lima. To this day, we are all four still friends. I’ve laughed overjoyed at watching Guillermo act on a Peruvian sitcom. I’ve seen Jorge’s paintings blossom into amazing international works. There was also a friend from London, Kafayat or Kay. Had it not been for Kay’s urging to visit her a couple of years later, I never would have moved to England to pursue a master’s degree. So certainly, my friendships and experiences continue to enrich my life. 

All in all, I learned so much about how the world can be a wild and complex place. I learned more than I could absorb in one year; that is how Peru has continued to affect my life year after year.

If you have a travel story you want to tell, I would love to hear it and help put it in words. Contact me using the subject line “Travel” so we can begin to share it with the community of Lyons.

Top image: Panorama Íntimo by Peruvian artist, Jorge Rheineck