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Crossing the river before summiting 17,500 Pico Austria. Photo by Ella Williams (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest, 2nd Place), South America Semester.

Familiarity in the Unfamiliar

When visiting another country, often one of the sole goals is to take in what is new around you, what is foreign. Yet, my first month or so in Bolivia, I found myself struck again and again, not by the differences, but by the similarities to my own life back in the U.S. It seems odd in a country so far physically, culturally, linguistically, historically, etc. from my own, but the similarities continued to stay with me. Some was likely a side effect from spending so much time in a place that is truly so different from what I know; a futile attempt to find pieces of home as the waves of homesickness would slowly creep in from time to time. Other moments were not the small tastes of familiarity or triggers of childhood memories, but were plainly similarities across cultures, despite the space between.

During my homestays I would notice the similarity in the parenting styles I saw in my homestays compared to the parenting I have experienced firsthand in the U.S. I initially noticed this in my first homestay with the Valdez family in El Alto. My two homestay sisters were aged 7 and 10, and mealtimes were somewhat of a beautiful chaos. Often the parents would critique their daughters’ eating styles, particularly the way they were sitting in their chairs. This immediately brought to mind the near constant nagging I would receive from my father at the dinner table growing up about  not putting my knees up at the table or not tipping back in my chair. In my second homestay in Tocaña, the mother, Reina, would offer similar reminders to her son, Matias, on table manners and especially not putting to much sugar in his tea, which felt all too familiar, coming from my mother’s worry about my sisters and my sugar intake as a child.

There were also the special moments that offered a brief, yet sometimes much needed taste of home. There was a river crossing on our first trek, done mostly barfoot since all our Chacos and Tevas had been left on the bus that day due to the extra weight, which reminded me of my childhood when my sisters and I, plus whatever friends we dragged along with us, would spend hours in the summer wandering up and down the stream that flowed by our house in West Virginia. On our last night in the homestay in El Alto, Audrey and I played Just Dance with our homestay sisters and it brought to mind the only other times I had played Just Dance; with my neighbors in their basement dancing to classics like Pricetag by Jessie J. Then in Tocaña, on a night when I had been experiencing my first real bout of homesickness, and I was overjoyed to see fried chicken on the table for dinner. Not only is this considered a classic southern dish (I for one, consider Virginia to be part of the south for better or for worse),but for me brought back memories of ski team in middle school, when after a freezing cold Thursday night of skiing, we would stop at the gas station at the bottom of the mountain for homemade fried chicken.

Now with less than two weeks left, I have begun to find new familiarities, ones that have nothing to do with my life in the U.S. There is the comforting taste of te de canela, which reminds me of my homestay in El Alto, where I drank at least three cups a day for the entire week we were there. During my three weeks in Tiquipaya, my trufi journey to my ISP – first the green 106 to El Paso and then the El Paso Mixto to Quillacollo – slowly became a relaxing routine, as opposed to my first time coming home from my ISP when I nearly cried in the trufi because I thought I was lost and didn’t know enough Spanish to be able to communicate this to the driver or even to ask to borrow his phone to call the instructors. I remember being overjoyed when I was able to navigate through the city of Quillacollo to Don Alfredo’s house, without asking for directions, when I accidentally got off too late. It was such a moment of personal triumph for me, and made me feel comfortable in a place that had previously been so stressfully unfamiliar. Last week in Nacion Q’eros, while cutting heads of garlic, following the Pachamanka, I was not reminded of cooking at home, but of making ensalada everyday for almuerzo with Doña Cirrila, my house mother in Tiquipaya, and used the knife skills that she had taught me during those three weeks. This morning having breakfast in Ocongate, there was a segment on the news on Andean music and I was surprised that nearly every song playing from the TV on the wall of the restaurant was one that I had heard before.

I have been thinking a lot about going home lately, particularly after my experience at Machu Picchu, when I was shocked at how uncomfortable all the signs in English and the amount of English being spoken around me, made me feel. It was strange to have something that should have felt so familiar, and perhaps two and a half months before would have put me at ease, feel so strange. In less than three months, my sense of what was familiar and comfortable had shifted so much so that while in Machu Picchu Pueblo I felt more relaxed eating milanesa de pollo in the mercado with the locals than eating a subpar pizza off the tourist menu in one of the restaurants. I don’t quite know what this all means, but I hope that when I go home in May I continue to find the small familiarities around me, things that I recognize not from my first 18ish years of life, but from my last three months in Bolivia and Peru. Throughout these three months of travel, not only have I been able to find deeper connections through the similarities I see to my own life, but I have also been able expand my own sense of what is familiar.