No place like home

Published 5:15 pm Saturday, July 4, 2015

By Fletcher Stephens

“No place like home” took on real meaning during my recent visit to Cuzco, Peru.

With an estimated population of 435,000 people and an elevation of 11,200 feet, I experienced this South American country, where simple ways of life caused me to miss home and the excesses Americans often take for granted.

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Immersed in another culture and society, one expects shock and feelings of awe and amazement at new sights, surroundings and lifestyle changes. Settling in with my host family, I immediately started adjusting to the thin air, the craziness of the traffic, the burning stench from poor vehicle emissions, the lack of readily available clean drinking water, the 24-hour noise levels — all mixed into a festive atmosphere of happiness, pride, love, minimum crime and peacefulness.

The transient population of seasonal “backpackers” and roughly 60 students from other countries helped create a cultural melting pot of selflessness, sharing and celebration. Sharing of the simplest life staples is commonplace and if not accepted could be seen as rude by the Peruvian people.

My blessed and abundant American life was challenged by the local diet, starting the day with oatmeal, an egg and fruit. Lunch is the main household meal, consisting of soup served with fried egg and/or fried bananas, fried fish with rice, pumpkin and potatoes with a side of rice.

Peru is home to more than 2,500 different kinds of potatoes but no French fries. Peruvians eat in very small portions, and asking for more (or less) is seen as disrespectful to the host.

Also, wearing shoes and/or slippers inside is required, and taking showers meant turning on the “hot water switch” located on a little box above the showerhead, as solar is the primary source of energy.

Cultural values, practices and the country’s history are at the center of Peruvian life. I was constantly reminded of how few “creature comforts” are needed to be comfortable, happy and generous.

There are also constant reminders of the Incans’ history, with street art (different from graffiti) of sacrifices and symbols. I was most excited to participate in the Corpus Christi festival, a colorful and traditional ceremony that represents 15 saints and virgins, organized in several processions, arriving to “greet” the body of Christ, 60 days after Easter Sunday.

Experiencing life on the floating islands at the world known Lake Titiqaqa, as well as climbing to the top of Machu Picchu, a 15th-century Inca site located 7,970 feet above sea level, were notable adventures.

With no iPhones, Androids or Blackberries, they live off the land and are the happiest people I’ve ever met.

In addition to meeting academic requirements, we performed community service projects, which ranged from working at the zoo to day-care schools. Interacting with children in the villages, where soccer balls brought big smiles to their faces, was another reminder of the culture’s grace and love.

Crime is low — mostly petty thefts and pickpocketing — and police presence is mostly limited to traffic direction and helping tourists enjoy a simple, highly cultural experience.

I share my experience hoping more students will take advantage of opportunities to travel, explore and get outside their comfort zones.

I left Peru with an inspired and uplifted heart, knowing that God’s love, grace and abundance are sometimes all we need to enjoy peace, kindness and compassion. And, in spite of America’s humanitarian challenges, there is still “no place like home.”

Fletcher Kyle Stephens is a 2013 King’s Fork High School graduate and rising junior (2nd Cadet) at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. He is the son of Bob and Karen Stephens of Chuckatuck.