It’s probably dramatic, but I started crying as I said goodbye at the airport to my family and best friend. I had this overwhelming feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach at the thought of leaving everything that is comfortable in my life to go live in another country, another continent, another hemisphere. The feeling followed me as my mom and I boarded the plane and then for the entire six hours on the flight. We landed, and I started panicking.
What am I even doing? Why did I think I could do this? I CANNOT do this…?!
I’m not sure if my mom was aware, but I was in full fight-or-flight mode as we headed to baggage claim. I was prepared to throw punches.
Now that this experience is almost a year behind me (which feels unbelievable), I am convinced I would have broken down if my mom hadn’t been there with me. She’s a tiny woman, she has absolutely no sense of direction, and she definitely wasn’t about to throw any punches, but I absolutely would not have made it through that first week without her. Not everyone can say that their mom would take a week off of work to move their daughter into an apartment in another country, but that’s what makes my mom so wonderful.
Anyways. Let’s just say that first week was… exhausting. I think I’ll save the gory details of the trip for another time.
Right now, I want to focus on what I was hoping to gain from this experience (inspired by this train of thought). My purpose in Peru became clear to me much, much faster than I was expecting.
I wanted to know my heritage. My mom. My family. My grandmother, Mami Eva. And honestly, I wanted to finally know if this was actually part of me. So much of my life has been filled with answering questions, sometimes insensitive ones, about what my ethnicity is, where I’m “from,” why I’m so much tanner than my dad, etc. etc. etc. So many times have I quickly given the answer that I’m half Hispanic. So I wanted to see how this half of me really was in context.
And boy, did I get to see it in context.
I was so afraid that I wouldn’t fit in, that I wouldn’t be accepted, that my family wouldn’t understand me. I was so afraid that once my mom left I would be alone and unsure of why I even did this.
All of those doubts were put to rest within the first twelve hours after my arrival. My Mami Eva’s family let me know immediately that I was one of them. I hadn’t seen most of them since I was a child, I hadn’t even met a few of them, but they fed me, guided me, protected me, and loved me. Just like Mami Eva had.
They took me around the country to check off my bucket list items, they came to check in on me in my apartment, they took me grocery shopping, they brought the doctor to me when I was too sick to move. Just like Mami Eva had.
They told me stories about my mom, my uncles, my cousins. They told me stories about Mami Eva. They took me to her favorite restaurants. They showed me her favorite places in Lima that she visited often. They showed me pictures of her when she was young. They mourned her with me.
At that point, it had been almost two years that I had been trying to understand her death and to accept it. I had been trying to come to terms with how I never felt that it was resolved.
But sharing memories with my family in Peru, eating food that reminded me of what Mami Eva used to make me, knowing that she loved these places I visited just like I was growing to love them, all of these little moments felt like healing. It felt like the last piece was being put in place.
By the end of my stay, I was getting around without a map. The barista at the nearest coffee shop knew my order (which has still never even happened here in the States, so I was very excited about that accomplishment). My Spanish was so much better than I could have ever anticipated. I was able to joke around with my family, and actually make them laugh, instead of nervously sitting in the corner just trying not to have a panic attack.
It was the first time in my life that I actually felt like I understood my heritage instead of simply witnessing it. It finally felt true for me, like I could go home and claim my heritage proudly instead of addressing it sheepishly, like I wouldn’t be believed if I told people I was Peruvian.
Last Christmas, before I left for Peru, my oldest cousin gave me a gift with a tag attached. He wrote, “Mami Eva would be very proud of the woman you have become.”
That stayed with me as I ordered at restaurants in Lima alone, as I sandboarded in the desert, as I flew the Nazca Lines after having dreamt of doing so my entire life, as I went for drives up the coast with my cousins and watched the sun set over the Pacific.
I hope she would be proud of me. I hope she knows it was for her. I hope, even though she’s gone, she’s happy that her little gringa became her Peruanita.