July 12, 2019
My mom has always been annoyingly well-traveled. Growing up, I could casually mention any state, country or global tourist destination, and she would immediately recount tales of her experiences in seemingly every place imaginable.
I always felt the opposite. My dad’s job as a golf course superintendent prevented him from taking time off in the summer, making family vacations somewhat rare and unfamiliar territory. Besides our two big trips to Disney World and Arizona (both taken in the dead of winter), I felt tied to the confines of my small Pennsylvania hometown and the occasional visit to the Jersey Shore.
Despite this, my mom always emphasized the importance of worldwide exploration, so when my brothers and I reached high school, embarking on the summer student travel programs run by our foreign language department was essential.
As Spanish language students, my eldest brother traveled to the Dominican Republic in 2015, my older brother went to Spain in 2017 and I waited patiently for my turn in 2019, when my teachers announced that summer’s destination: Peru.
As I boarded the plane with my peers and teachers that July to fly to South America for a week, I felt unsure of myself. I wasn’t confident in my Spanish skills, I didn’t have many close friends in the travel group, and I was nervous about leaving the country for the first time feeling so alone and unprepared.
On July 12, our group was set to begin the service portion of our trip at a small girls’ school in the Andes Mountains, called the Sacred Valley Project. The school’s mission was to provide boarding and education to young girls from low-income families in the area.
When we arrived, we were told we were going to help build a greenhouse, so the school could better provide fresh and nutritious meals for their students. In the blazing summer heat, we threw on work gloves, grabbed shovels and started to dig and move rocks and debris to create space for the greenhouse.
As we worked, street dogs and young children from neighboring houses approached the group and had no reservations about interacting with us. We laughed and kicked around a ball with the young kids, and I may have broken protocol by sharing some bread I had with the stray pups.
We spoke with the girls at the school about the challenges they faced in receiving their education, but also about their hobbies, favorite foods and families. The eagerness and drive they had to learn despite adversity deeply resonated with me.
Despite our differing circumstances, they, too, were teenage girls just like me. We shared the same passions, dreams and aspirations, and their stories and experiences taught me that all people, regardless of culture or language, are bound by their humanity.
That day absolved me of my initial fears and doubts about the trip. I was immediately immersed in the vibrant culture of Peru, and I was proud of myself for successfully speaking fluent Spanish, helping others and making important connections.
The trip was life-changing for me in many ways; we were part of another culture, exclusively speaking Spanish, eating new foods and visiting the country’s beautiful landscapes. Our group bounced from city to city, stopping at main attractions, like Machu Picchu and the ancient Incan ruins of Saqsaywaman, but I found that my favorite parts of the trip were the moments when we got to interact one-on-one with the people of Peru.
Given the full week’s itinerary, July 12 was far from the most exciting day in Peru, but the intimate and almost average nature of life in another country made it not only my favorite part of the trip but one of the most defining days of my life.
It ignited my love for travel and solidified my goal to continue exploring new places and cultures throughout my life, just like my mom. I realized that my initial fears and doubts about the trip had instead given way to confidence and resilience. Although I was navigating unfamiliar places and cultures with my second language, I was able to establish deep connections and complete meaningful service work which shaped me into a more appreciative and open-minded individual.
My journey in Peru was a physical expedition but also a way to step outside of my self-centered mindset and come back a better person. I saw how vast the world was beyond what I was used to, and I now understand that every person is living a life as vivid and complex as mine.
Rarely traveling and spending much of my life trapped in my hometown bubble made my daily life feel so consequential. Once I had the opportunity to leave home and witness new people and ways of living, I was reminded that I was small and insignificant, but in the best way.
July 12, 2019, allowed me to foster a broader perspective and nurture a genuine appreciation for the boundless joys of existence. I now carry the spirit of Peru with me as a constant reminder that connecting with others and embracing the unknown is key to a fulfilling and meaningful life.