Published July 21, 2010
Travel is exhilarating and enlightening beyond beliefTHE OLYMPIAN
LIMA, Peru — It is another day at the schoolhouse in Spanish-speaking Peru, and conversations are looming around me like strange hieroglyphics. There is a certain discomfiture about a setting that is instantly so familiar yet so dizzyingly encrypted. So I slouch down into my tiny desk, and doodle. I am here, across the world from everything I know, thanks to the generosity of the Lacey Lions Club, and its Youth Exchange program, It is something I urge anyone under 21 with a sense of adventure to apply for. My own application led me around the globe to this particularly undersized desk in a classroom in Lima, where I loaf in place, considering my host family’s dog. She is a small and sniffling sort of animal, with a way of resting her hairy jawbone on my thigh when she wants to be fed. It occurred to me that I am like this dog. I, too, have developed rituals as compensation for my inability to communicate in this oh-so foreign country. When I am tired, I blink a lot. When I can’t find the milk, I pantomime a cow, scowling at the indignity. Usually the household maid, an amiable whirlwind of a woman, is highly perceptive and accommodates my clumsy requests. But there are times when she cannot understand, when no one can, and it is then that I feel as helpless as a yapping dog, trapped behind the barrier of my English language. This is how I felt when the 16-year-old son of my host family (let’s call him my host-brother) was almost attacked. He had been having problems with a group of 10 or so rather unscrupulous boys in his class, who I had noticed occasionally took time away from scorching their desks with lighters, or leering hideously at their female classmates, to babble incoherently at my host-brother. I was astonished to learn that they weren’t saying nice things. But stripped by my muteness of both my spears and my olive branches, I could do little more than watch in anxious silence as the situation escalated into a clamorous confrontation on a dirt road involving brass knuckles, some twisted sense of honor, a gang of chain-smoking Peruvian teens, my host-brother, and me. Out of pure luck, a few burly adult bystanders intervened, and no one needed to be hospitalized, which is what I’m told has been the outcome of these confrontations in the past. To me, it felt like a dream. I couldn’t understand why my host-brother was so caught up in this little battle; didn’t he know there was a whole world out there that would go on spinning whatever the outcome of his pointless showdown? So, let’s just turn around and go home, OK? But his home wasn’t in some far-off land, this was his home; for him it was no dream. And then I thought about my own battles (physical and otherwise), and how they would look compared to the world, and was humbled. My life, too, is but a distant dream to others. It must be only after you have been kicked and stung and beaten about the face by the smallness of your own life that you come to realize how big it really is. Because somehow, insignificant as it may seem to the world at large, I can’t stop thinking about hugging my parents, and my best friends, for nothing more or less than living up so fantastically to those very titles. Travel is exhilarating and enlightening beyond belief. But I like to think it’s telling that as I sit and doodle idly, I find my paper filling up with evergreen trees, here in a schoolhouse in Lima, Peru. Emerson Hardebeck, junior class president at Timberline High School and an editor of Timberline’s student newspaper “The Blazer,” is a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors. He can be reached at email@example.com.