Sunburnt in January
Well, I made it. It’s been over a week and I’m still alive, and believe it or not, things are going well. In this past week I haven’t cried, puked, or been kidnapped and had my organs stolen, despite what I thought would have happened by this point. I have quickly fallen into a routine here in Arequipa, Peru. I have adapted to the food, the altitude, the city, and a different way of life. I am aware that it has only been a week and a half, but at this point I feel comfortable in being away from home for the next 6 months. While each day I feel more at home in Arequipa, the shattered pepsi bottles stuck to the tops of walls to discourage intruders reminds me that I am a far ways away from quaint Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Despite the fact that I am feeling more and more at home here, I am constantly reminded that I do not quite belong. Granted, I am loved by my host family and cared for by my newly found friends, but I am a foreigner and this city will not let me forget it. The crick in my neck reminds me that I can’t stand up straight in the combi’s (Arequipa’s public transportation) because they are not built for individuals over 6’ tall. The discoteca worker who gave us free entrance and alcohol because our group was foreign further engrains the simple fact that we do not belong and can be exploited for business as “exotic.” The whispers of “gigante” by the schoolkids when I walk into any room, or the remarks about my blue eyes, or even having to crouch to reach the doorknob of my bedroom door reminds me that this part of the world is not used to people like me. I am certainly adapting, but I am painfully aware of the fact that no matter how much adaptation occurs, I will never really belong. But I am not here to become Peruvian, nor should the Peruvians feel the need to make allowances for me, I am solely here to understand and learn about the culture and the experience it provides.
Although I am physically quite different from the Peruvians surrounding me, their beliefs and practices also differ from that which I am accustomed to in the United States. This became clear to me when I walked into my host family’s kitchen for the first time and met my host sister’s aunt and grandfather. After greeting me they took a quick look at my arm and immediately questioned me about the bright tattoo sitting below my left elbow. They exclaimed their disapproval and angrily asked what I would do if my father or mother became sick and I needed to give blood. I refrained from mentioning that I already could not donate blood in the United States because I am gay. Before arriving I had been unsure as to whether I would come out to my host family but after seeing their reaction to my tattoo I was positive I would keep that part of my identity a secret. Apart from the difference in body art, religion plays a much larger role in this city than it does in Chapel Hill. While exploring the city, it quickly became apparent that Jesus Christ is a pretty popular guy in these parts. Whenever riding in the combi’s around town and we pass a church, several people around me punctually draw a cross across their chests. And the picture of Jesus Christ smiling down at me from the wall as I teach English every day hardly lets me forget the conservative and religious nature of Arequipa.
In contrast to the conservative nature of Arequipa and some of its inhabitants, many of my fellow AIESEC volunteers are much more liberal and accepting, which is good, because discretion has never been my strong suit. While in the United States if I make a slip up about someone being gay it goes unquestioned, but here, it can leave someone homeless and ostracized. On my second night in Arequipa I was invited to a birthday party for one of the volunteers where I met a boy named Leo. He’s the life of every party, conversation, and interaction he steps into. Without fear or discomfort he displays an unrivaled will to live and experience the thriving world around him. Since that night, he and I have been walking the thin line of quasi-dating but aware that our time together will come to a screeching halt on the 16th of February when I fly to Chile and he returns to Brazil. I only explain the fairytale nature of my experience with Leo as a way of explaining gay culture in Arequipa (at least what I’ve learned in the last week and a half). While spending time with the other volunteers who come from Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Switzerland, Germany, Argentina, etc, there have been no nasty comments, backlash, or discrimination whatsoever. In contrast however, on the night when we met and sat together talking, a Peruvian girl at the party took the opportunity to throw a gay slur in Portuguese to Leo. Another person in the program had to change to a new host family when his family found out he was gay. This hasn’t stopped Leo and me from spending time together in public but I have a constant fear of violent backlash from those who have differing views. Of course, this is only my experience and hardly speaks for the whole of Arequipa. Just like anywhere in the world there exists a mix of beliefs, these are just the ones I have encountered so far.
While in the United States I was scared that I would have a hard time arriving and adapting, but now I’m afraid I will have a hard time leaving the life I am carving out for myself here in Arequipa. J.R. Tolkien once wrote, “The world is not in your books and maps. It’s out there.”, and what a world it is.