It’s been almost seven months since I first moved to Cusco just two days after retiring in the United States. A lot has happened and I’ve learned so much so I thought this would be a good time to share some random thoughts about my experience living in Cusco so far.
Nothing is more important than making friends. Period.
I’ve been very important to have made a lot of friends from all over the world, but especially the wonderful Peruvian people.
Those who know me well know that the most important thing of my life is surrounding myself with a great diversity of friends who a wide variety of backgrounds (cultural, religious, political, etc,).
That has been the key to adapting to life in a foreign country. I say hello to everyone I pass in my neighborhood and, as a result, I’ve made a lot of friends in a neighborhood where transient tourists are not always accepted.
From the lady at the small neighborhood tienda who always asks about my cat to the little girl around the corner who introduced me to her family and her dogs, Josefu and Blanca, I’ve made so many friends who always smile and say hello when we meet. Little things like that me feel like I live here instead of just visiting.
In a city of nearly half a million people, I still run into friends on the street all the time. This doesn’t happen in Texas — probably because people in the most parts of the US don’t get out nearly as much. We depend on our cars and stay inside more watching TV or playing video games or insulating ourselves in our comfortable little cocoons. Peruvians, in general, are outside far, far more.
I miss this when I go back to the US. I’ve even come across friends on the street many times in Lima — a city of almost 10 million people! That simply doesn’t happen back home.
Learning About My New City
Another important part of the adaptation process for me was to get out and wander the streets of the city. Besides learning where things are in a city of almost half a million people, it is so important to get a feel for the real culture of the city.
99% of visitors to Cusco are here for just a few days and rarely get outside the historical center dominated by the tourism business. The truth is, that is a very tiny part of the city and is not what Cusco is really all about.
It seems that most people are afraid to get outside the “safe” zone and explore neighborhoods where foreigners rarely go. That is where I feel most comfortable.
In my first few weeks here, I spent almost every day walking all over the city. I discovered new places and met all kinds of people. Even the neighborhoods where I was warned to be cautious, I found the people to be extremely friendly.
Just the mention of becoming a permanent resident resulted in a huge change in everyone’s attitude. Suddenly it was obvious that they no longer saw me as someone just passing through. There is a great deal of appreciation for someone who appreciates them and their special city.
In my first couple of months I was always very busy. I hated to stay at home even if I had things to do. I felt a kind of obligation to keep busy and not waste time.
Part of the reason was because I was losing so much weight because of the constant activity. (Believe me, that was a great thing and quickly resulted in a huge difference in my health and vitality levels.)
I was also pushing myself to do as much as I could as quickly as I could. There is so much to see and do just in this one small part of South America — probably more than in any concentrated region of the entire continent. I simply had to get out every day and do something.
After a while, I realized that probably nothing was going to disappear if I waited to get out. An extra day of rest allowed my tired body to recover after some long day treks in the mountains at very high altitude. It also allowed me to catch up on some things that needed to be done at home since domestic obligations never go away.
Accepting that I didn’t have to be going non-stop allowed me to relax and view Cusco more as my home than as a place I was passing through.
I’m very fortunate that I’ve been to Peru many, many times since 2005. While my grasp of Spanish is not great, I certainly have more experience with the language than most tourists.
Long before I moved to Cusco, I recognized the need to be able to communicate in Spanish and I worked hard to increase my vocabulary and improve my understanding of Spanish grammar in order to function as normally as possible.
Being able to communicate in situations like shopping or transportation became an immediate priority in order to go about daily life as smoothly as possible. Fortunately, Cusco is an international city and patience with foreigners is built in to interactions at many places.
One of my pet peeves is being able to speak Spanish correctly. I spent a great deal of time practicing correct pronunciation. Growing up in Texas and spending so much time in Mexico, I have more experience than most in rolling r’s or saying vowels correctly. (Probably because of an accent that I didn’t recognize, I was asked a couple of times in the past what part of Mexico I’m from!)
Now I frequently have to ask Peruvians to speak slower to explain that I don’t understand everything. I’m frequently complemented on my pronunciation, but I have to explain that, even though I speak Spanish well, I may not know what I’m saying!
(NOTE: I heartily recommend Mundo Antiguo to learn Spanish while in Cusco. I don’t have any affiliation with them except that the staff and the teachers are wonderful people and I learned a lot in the two weeks I studied with them. Sadly, I haven’t been back because I hate giving up so much time when I could be exploring Cusco! I stay in touch with the people there and will be going back once the heavy rains begin soon which will put a damper on my daily explorations.)
Technology and Communication
One of favorite phrases is “modern technology is a wonderful thing.”
My first big purchase upon arriving in Peru was a small desk where I could set up my laptop and keep in touch with my friends back home. My apartment was so sad with this one piece of furniture!
Being able to communicate with friends all over the world has never been so easy. I primarily use Facebook as it’s easy and popular and is free from data charges using Claro as my local cellular provider.
Claro is the only company in Peru that allows foreigners to get local cell service including data with just a passport and cash. It’s amazingly easy and considerably cheaper than the US, though they do not allow me to recharge my account with more than 3 GB of data at a time. Still, the cost is less than $10 USD and is quickly recharged at countless places.
I also use Skype a lot for voice calls with the US. Occasional problems have arisen when I needed to make calls back home and Skype has never failed. I used to ask if the call was clear and the response was always that the party on the other end couldn’t tell the difference.
Not in Kansas Anymore
Few things are more important in my adaptation to Peru than accepting that things are different here and no amount of worry and impatience is going to change that.
I’ve met many foreigners who have a lot of trouble dealing with life here. Many complain online as a release knowing nothing is going to change or seeking advice from others on how to deal with the peculiarities of life in Peru, but some expats never seem to find a way to blend in to life here.
For example, one of things that drives visitors crazy is what is jokingly referred to as “Peruvian time.” The tourist industry in Cusco is a bit immune from this, but the rest of the city (and the country) is not. For example, if your Peruvian friends say they will meet you at 8 pm for dinner, don’t be surprised if they show up 30-60 minutes later.
They don’t mean to be rude or inconsiderate. It’s just part of the culture living in Cusco. Time has a different meaning and a different importance here.
Again, having spent so much time in Peru in the past made the transition so much easier for me, but situations still arise that are hard to understand and hard to deal with.
I am often asked if I am happy living in Cusco. Every once in a while I stop and think about how I should honestly answer this question and always I immediately reach the same conclusion.
Yes, this city and this country are where I want to be. No place is perfect, but I’m constantly reminded how fortunate I am to be living in such a magnificent place with such a grand history surrounded by scenery that is the equal of anywhere in the world.
I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve stopped and said to myself, “this is my home” when I see some breathtaking scene or realize I’m walking in the footsteps of history that few people every get to experience.
I hope that I am moving past being a tourist and am becoming a traveler in this wonderful world with which we’ve been blessed.