This past May, I spent a little over a month traveling through Peru on a study-abroad trip with the University of Minnesota as part of a cultural and environmental field study program. I thought I was prepared emotionally, mentally and physically, but the complexity of Peruvian history and culture took me by surprise.
The geographical beauty juxtaposed against the social and environmental conflict took time to digest, while reminiscing only makes me miss this country more — and putting Peru into words feels nearly impossible. It’s truly a visual experience.
Yet I decided to try, because the lessons of the experience are worth sharing.
For two weeks our group of 14 students lived in the Amazon rainforest at the Villa Carmen Biological Station in the Madre de Dios region of the jungle. At the beginning of our adventure we posed a research question and hoped to answer it by the end of the journey. Now, I am not a hard-sciences person at all; in fact, my majors are probably the furthest thing from it – theater and global studies – so I paired up with two others who were social-science majors and we worked together to combine our love for people with that of nature and decided to interview those living in Pillcopata, the tiny town a mile from our station.
Our plan for these interviews was to get a sense of whether this remote community in the middle of the rainforest was more collectivist or individualist and to determine how much they cared about environmental protection. Our overall goal was to see what was inherently different between our “First World” lifestyle and their own customs, and to figure out which factors based on that information might help promote environmental protection. Our results taught us about environmental activism as much as they taught us about cultural differences, survival, and acceptance.
I went into this project knowing there would be a lot of work translating. Thankfully, 15-plus years of Spanish-language experience made it relatively easy, and the people were immensely generous in making me feel comfortable regardless of all the barriers that differentiated us. The biggest issue we ran into was explaining our rating system of phrases during interviews. We hadn’t realized that rating something on a scale is a concept they might not be at all familiar with, and most of these people had only had a primary or secondary education level. Unfortunately, we were unable to adjust our methods during the process because of time constraints but did address this issue when presenting our final project.
When we asked about environmental conservation, we noted that almost everyone thought it was important and felt that the way they could help was by reforesting the rainforest. We realized afterward that we neglected to ask how likely it would be that they actually do this in the future. They understand the importance the Amazon holds as a World Heritage site, and many of them moved to Pillcopata because they love the tranquillity of the jungle. But family is also vital to their culture and that means making a living out of this beautiful, and sometimes dangerous, environment. Families in this region tend to stick together, and they have to choose between what may be safe for the greater world community versus what will keep their children alive. In this case, as is the case in many impoverished areas, the environment comes second.
For Pillcopata and surrounding communities, deforestation is a big concern, but we also found that illegal gold mining in the region is something these people have to deal with on a daily basis. Mercury warnings in the local water and fish in the Amazon jungle made headlines in U.S. State Department missives while we were there, but went unmentioned in Pillcopata.
My time in Peru helped me understand my place and purpose in the world a bit more, while coming back and writing about it has helped me further realize some important things:
- Change is hard. But it is much easier for those with First World opportunity who don’t always have to choose between ethics and livelihood. Make a conscious effort to support ethical business practices. It starts with us first.
- We don’t need to be so afraid of people. We are inter-connected and dependent on each other. If everyone could experience the beauty of another culture, we would all be a lot braver.
- You don’t have to go across the globe to give back. Plant a tree. Pick up trash. Leave every place you touch a bit better than you found it.
Always be curious. Climb over the wall and see what’s on the other side, because overcoming fears while gaining knowledge and acceptance is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves. And right now the world could use a little more acceptance.
Alexandra Nedved, from Minneapolis, is a junior working on a double major in theater and global studies at the University of Minnesota. She is passionate about traveling, the healing effects of yoga, and pushing past her comfort zone to try to make the world a better place through understanding.
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