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Photo by Tom Pablo, South America Semester.

Homesickness in the Andes

¡Hola a todos! It is incredible to think that in the past ten days, I met the people I with whom will be spending the next three months, explored the town of Urubamba to the point where I almost know my way around (I can at least find my new favorite panadería, the mercado, and can usually orient myself around the town square), and went on a beautiful trek through the Andes, reaching to an altitude of 4800 meters at its highest point.

This week has been beautiful, surprising, and exciting, but it has also been really hard. Leaving college to get surgery was not an easy thing for me to do, and it has been hard to throw myself into a new social dynamic, knowing that my friends at Princeton have the comfort of familiarity in each other’s company that I lack in this new group. It has not helped my sense of homesickness that I have had diarrhea for the past two days, making it difficult to eat or drink anything. Nor did it help to be away from my family on Yom Kippur, one of the most sacred days in the Jewish calendar.

Though the instructors were very kind and understanding about Zoe’s and my desire to fast, and Zoe and I had our own makeshift service for the holiday, I desperately wanted to be home to hear my little brother complain about having to wear a button down and listen to my dad mumbling Hebrew next to me. Growing up in New York City with primarily Jewish friends, it has always been easy to take my heritage for granted. Being in Urubamba, Peru, where there is not a synagogue for miles and miles, it was not so easy.

Zoe and I could not simply go to synagogue and sing the prayers that the cantor pointed out in our siddurim. We had to look up the prayers that were important to us and create our own booklets. We could not fast with a community of Jews who validated our decision. We had to decide what was important to us on our own terms. We felt like we did not have a community, and we were both surprised at the force of the loneliness that accompanied that change.

Then, the instructors suggested that I ask Yami, our host mom at Hostel Ccatan, if she had a ram’s horn to use as a Shofar. She shook her head in regret, and explained in Spanish that she did not, but she could go into town and find one if we needed. I laughed and said that it was okay, and I knew it was a long shot. I got up to leave the kitchen, where the instructors were planning the next week on couches and Yami was cleaning dishes in the sink. Randall, one of the instructors, asked how to say “buenos noches” in Hebrew. “Lila tov,” I explained, touched by his thoughtfulness. As I left to go to bed, I smiled and Yami and said, “buenos noches,” greeting her in her language, as we were all taught to do when we arrived in Peru. Yami, having overheard my conversation with the instructors, responded, “lila tov.”

Somehow, that one moment made me feel okay about being in Urubamba instead of at home, stomach grumbling in unison with my father’s. I am on this program to challenge myself, and challenge is not always comfortable. What makes those challenges worthwile, though, is what I can learn from them. If I were at home, my faith would go unchallenged. Here in Peru, I have put myself in a position where my faith, my race, my nationality, and my privilege, make me a stranger in a strange land. That is scary, but I can also learn a lot from that sense of loneliness and the way it is alleviated by people like Yami.

The shared compassion of learning someone’s language, both literally and metaphorically, is a compassion that means more to me than someone who comes from my background, because it is a form of compassion that is more difficult to give. Being greeted when walking into synagogue by another Jew wishing you a “yom tov” is beautiful, but it is also effortless. So too with religion: if your faith is never tested, then it is impossible to gauge its importance. From spending Yom Kippur in Urubamba, my faith is strengthened, but so is my certainty that my belief does not exist in a vacuum. Universal compassion and exchange of cultures and ideas is a part of my religious practice, just like the Yom Kippur fast, and I never want my practice to get in the way of my ablility to experience and learn from the world around me.

I reflected on Yom Kippur by writing in my notebook next to a tiny Peruvian boy taking a bath in a blue plastic tub, shouting, “¡Mami! ¡Mas agua!” and playing with toy cars. The sun was beating down on my back, and Yami told me to put on “ice cream” (sunscreen) on my neck so I wouldn’t get burnt. I said my amidah and Yom Kippur prayers in front of a beat up truck, with the hostel’s weiner dogs rubbing out their fleas in the grass that was my prayer space. Zoe and I figured out which way to pray by looking at the sun. This kind of observance wouldn’t work for everyone, and it wouldn’t work for me forever. But Judaism wouldn’t be Judaism if I didn’t wrestle with God, and, this year, this is what my Yom Kippur looked like. Refusing my favorite banana-maize smoothie at breakfast, praying to a pickup, and planning a Yak while baking in the hot Andean sun.

(Lo siento about the lack of photos; I’m still figuring this Internet cafe thing out)