There are many reasons why I chose to study abroad in Lima, Peru, during the spring 2016 semester, but the dominant motivation was the choice to marry my husband, who is from Peru.
I always get mixed reactions when I tell people that I got married at the beginning of my study abroad program with IFSA-Butler, and rightly so. Our situation is unique in countless aspects.
However, as my husband and I have just celebrated our first anniversary, I have begun to ponder the extent that marriage truly affected my experience abroad. Not only did getting married at the beginning of my program drastically change my perception of Peru, but it greatly influenced my perception of the United States as well.
When I arrived in Lima on February 17th, 2016, I weaved through the myriad of sleepy passengers meandering their way through customs. I navigated the familiar corridors past duty-free and past overzealous taxi drivers. As I stepped through the sliding doors to find my fiancé, the bright morning light pierced through the windows, electrifying me with the warmth of the hearth. I found my fiancé and embraced him. We stepped outside to hail a taxi, and I was greeted with the smell of cigarette smoke gently caressing the essence of the sea. In a whirlwind, we traversed the city to the familiar streets of San Borja Sur.
By eleven o’clock, we were at city hall beginning the process of filing the paperwork necessary to our civil marriage. We spent the following weeks scurrying around the city arranging everything.
The first day of the program finally arrived, and we began orientation. As I had already been to Peru three times prior to studying abroad, most of the information wasn’t new to me, but helpful all the same. The days passed, and the day of the wedding presented itself.
We married in the summer heat at San Borja City Hall on March 11th, 2016. My immediate family Skyped into the ceremony and the reception. After most of our friends and family had left, we departed for a weekend honeymoon in the mountains.
I started school on Monday, three days after we got married. I remember one of my professors being extremely confused when I told her that I was a newlywed. Perhaps she was bewildered my age, the timing, or my choice; perhaps all three.
The semester was very odd for me. I didn’t bother to befriend many Peruvians at school, simply because I had already formed good friendships within my husband’s social circle. I also felt like I struggled befriending my peers in my program. I couldn’t exactly relate to many of their newfound discoveries about Peru, and I never had time to hang out. The majority of the time when plans were made amongst the group, I was halfway across the city with my husband. Even if I had wanted to join them in their explorations, I was an hour’s commute away. Most of my social experiences with them were arranged far in advance.
Despite my general lack of participation in the informal program social activities, I rarely felt as though I was “missing out” on something. Because I spent the majority of my time in a different neighborhood, I had the opportunity to experience a different side of the city. I learned how to take questionable transportation, eat questionable food, and confidently maneuver myself through crowds of questionable people. My husband introduced me to the best street food, restaurants, bars, and shopping spots. I didn’t have much money or time to travel around the country like many students do when studying abroad, so I had the opportunity to know Lima very well.
My relationship with my husband’s family became one of the most unique aspects of my experience while studying abroad. When my husband and I married, I ceased to be a guest in their home. After the wedding festivities, I became a family member. I no longer received special treatment or accommodation for being a foreigner. His family expected me to behave like a Peruvian. Previously minor issues like leaving the laundry hanging too long or eating out instead of eating the household’s lunch quickly became sources of conflict and strife. Not going out of my way to greet family members daily converted to strained arguments. Family reunions were no longer optional.
As the months passed, I realized that my rocky relationship with my husband’s immediate family was partly due to the process happening in the background. As soon as we got married, my husband and I petitioned for his immigrant visa to the United States. The application process encompassed the duration of my time abroad. As we slowly made progress, more conflicts would arise. My husband was an essential member of his household, and he would be dearly missed if granted the visa.
Escalating political issues back home concerned us both. This was during the height of the primary elections, and as Trump gained popularity through racist comments and negative remarks towards immigrants, my husband became engulfed with worry about his acceptance into the United States. Soon political tensions that once merely offended me became personal.
As the semester and the program came to an end, I began to feel very conflicted. I had grown quite fond of all of my fellow program participants, and even though I had not spent much time with them outside of class and program events, I realized that I would miss them after we all returned home.
However, this melancholic discovery became mixed with the possibility that I might never return to the United States. I knew that my home was with my husband. If he did not get the visa, we would be staying in Peru indefinitely.
The day of our visa interview arrived. We were a bundle of nerves, but everything went as smoothly as possible. Thankfully, our petition was granted. We booked our flights to Illinois.
We only had a few short weeks to say goodbye to our first home together as husband and wife. The grey fog that constantly envelops the city became a source of understanding and comfort as we bid farewell to our favorite spots, our dearest friends, our home, and our family. Not knowing when we would have the money or the time to return, we fought the tears as we embraced our loved ones. Disputes softened into loving silence.
The city of Lima is a sentimental place to me for many reasons. It is where I first met my husband, where we first kissed, where we got engaged, and where we got married. Lima is also the site of many memories during my time studying abroad. In many ways those months were like any other study abroad program, and in others they were not. While Lima will always be special, I can never leave the city because it is also my home.
I will always have something connecting me to Lima, something that pulls me back to the smell of saltwater and cigarettes. It will never solely be the place where I lived for a semester. Throughout the wild memories and the craze of building our life here in the States, there will always be a soulful longing pulling me back to the city where it never rains.
Julia Zuniga Alzamora was an International Studies major at Illinois Wesleyan University and studied abroad with IFSA on the Pontifica Universidad Catolica del Peru program in Lima, Peru in Spring 2016. She served as an alumni ambassador for IFSA.