Story and Photo by Raina Levin, Study Abroad
“When do you cease to be a tourist?” I had this conversation with a couple of friends in the months before I left for Peru. The three of us, who lived on the same hall our freshman year, would spend a year and a half dispersed on three different continents.
We discussed the question – what determines your “tourist” identity? Is it the length of your stay, the sites you visit, your lack of personal connections to a place? Where is the line between tourist and resident? Are you automatically a tourist if you have a return flight booked? I walked into my five-month study abroad experience equipped with these questions, and I still grapple with them now. As I reflect, I revisit the words I wrote during my stay.
8/13/18, less than two weeks into my semester in Lima:
“Apparently, it doesn’t rain in the winter here. Instead, the city is painted by a persistent drizzle, a faint mist you can breathe more than see, that manifests itself as the slipperiness of the pavement beneath your feet. Humidity permeates the city; with no air conditioning or heat, the cool dampness creeps into every crevice of every apartment. 24 hours after you’ve showered, your towel is still wet. You’re never quite certain whether your clothing is damp or cold, or perhaps it’s only your hands that are cold. The ever-present whiteness and wetness cast an air of uncertainty over the city, although to be fair, such uncertainty is probably reserved for tourists like me.
I stand out here. We all do, as international students; Lima isn’t like Barcelona, or even Buenos Aires, cities popular for intercambios estudantiles. The ten of us on my program are very clearly others in this city, as is reinforced to us every morning when we try to enter the university. Without IDs (we’ll receive them when we’re officially registered for classes in a couple of weeks), we can’t walk through the main entrance. Instead, we wait in line at the office for international students, where we show a copy of our passports and thank the very kind women who let us in every day. Outside of school, it’s also obvious that I’m not accustomed to life here. I’m noticeably hesitant on the buses – something I’m working on – and paranoid about my personal belongings. My phone, which on the T rests loosely in my hand as I listen to podcasts, is usually stowed in a zipped jacket pocket. If I need to consult it for a moment, I brace the edge of the iPhone against my body, my hand clenched tightly around it.
Lima takes “traffic” beyond any definition I’d ever known of the word. I’m not entirely sure that there’s a real rush hour; it seems like most every minute would be part of it. Cars honk with complete impunity here, in a very different way than back home. In the US, a honk serves to get another car’s attention, but here, each one is part of a very loud, city-wide conversation between cars, buses, micros, taxis, and pedestrians. The streets ring with a disharmonious chorus of inescapable beeps, so ingrained in the fabric of the city that any quiet moment seems surreal.”
11/25/18, four months into my semester in Peru:
“I was surprised by the combi system here. They take some getting used to – these old, discarded vans purchased from other countries, vans that weave through traffic with a cobrador shouting their destinations from the side door. It’s funny, in Cusco, when we arrived, we were picked up from the airport by a large white tourist van. As we loaded in, we compared our fancy van to a combi. In a second, we were all off, shouting our best imitation of our beloved Lima combis, using the street names closest to us. La Marina, La Marina, todo la Marina! Javier Prado! Benavides! Todo Benavides! It was spontaneous, unplanned, and uproarious. It hit us all in that moment how we’ve adapted to life here – there’s no way we would’ve been able to do that a couple of months ago.”
As I reflect on these seemingly disjointed memories, I wonder: did I stop being a tourist then? Did I cross the tourist/temporary resident line when I felt comfortable in Lima, when I could recite street names at will, when I didn’t need to check my phone for a bus route? I think it’s ironic that this moment took place in Cusco, an expensive city many Peruvians are never able to visit. It is home to one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world: Machu Picchu.
Before going to Cusco, I had a sort of haughty attitude about it. I waited a long time to go – it just wasn’t my priority. I was different from the other tourists, who treat Lima as an airport gateway rather than a city; I lived and studied there, afterall. I was dedicated to seeing all of Peru, not just trapezing through Machu Picchu, or following the “gringo trail,” as a man in my hostel called it. I was traveling the right way, meeting real people and speaking their language.
My pride evaporated with the early morning fog that shrouds Machu Picchu. Golden hour rays of light graced the verdant mountains, the casual llamas, the 500-year-old ruins, and I intently wished I’d scheduled more time for myself in Cusco – more time amongst the ruins and the crowds.
Just beyond Machu Picchu, a mountain of trash grows. In 2016, 14 tons of trash accumulated each day in the surrounding area. No one wants this; no one relishes in the transformation of a sacred city into a dumping ground. It’s easy to imagine a select group of tourists – a camera-wielding, conniving, littering band – as responsible for the trash; it’d be all too easy to vilify them. I could disparage these people while sauntering onwards, while drinking from a disposable water bottle. I could tell myself I’m not part of the problem as I throw my trash away in the proper receptacle, trying to keep my conscious clear.
But that trash isn’t there because of a couple of inconsiderate tourists; it would be much easier if it were. No, the trash is there because there are so many of us – thousands per day – all coming to visit the same place. And I, among them.
Balancing guilt and responsibility as a tourist is complicated. It’s why, when you see trash along hiking trails, you pick it up. It’s why, even when it’s muddy, you stick to the trail, preserving the flora that borders the path. You take each footstep up the mountain knowing that you are causing irreparable environmental harm. But you also contribute. You pay the institution that runs the tour. You tip the guide, who is good at his job and deserves to be told as much, in words and soles. You go to restaurants, to bodegas. You stay at a family-owned hostel and converse with the staff. In the small cities, they ask you to tell your friends about the place, to spread the word and attract more tourists. You promise you will.
Two months removed from my study abroad experience – my long-term tourist experience, as you could call it – I’m still working on it. I keep trying to find a line in the sand, some clear-cut way to cause more benefit than harm to the communities I visit. I haven’t found it yet. If you have any suggestions, please let this perpetual tourist know.