The world is a big place, yet in some sense it is quite small. My visit to Peru was my first trip to South America, and I arrived with an open mind, devoid of expectations. The airport in Lima was just like any other, a barrage of advertisements on the wall, people bustling about, and drivers asking "Taxi? Taxi?" as I responded with the universal “no.”
Even the city of 9 million people dressed so similarly as in any big city in the U.S., listening to the same American pop music, walking past familiar palm trees like the West Coast, plucked familiar thrums of home on my heartstrings. The ocean, too, rushed in frothy waves of the same cold, Californian Pacific saltwater, with the sole difference of the colored stones underfoot in place of sand. Although, the hazy salmon sunsets on the cliff overlooking the ocean were some of the most beautiful I have ever seen.
The first days of our mission trip rapidly broke down any perception of familiarity. Thrust among the stark disparity of the 30 percent living in the shanty towns in the arid slopes of the Andes just outside Lima, my eyes were open to extreme poverty so archetypal of third-world countries. Few families with electricity. Living on day-to-day wages. No running water. Dusty dirt streets filled with unneutered canines and scattered refuse. Jerry-rigged huts of plywood and corrugated tin roofing. Our mission was one of construction: to finish building the community center, and then to lay a concrete staircase to improve footing in the mountains for families who had to make the perilous trek down the rocks each day to haul water from the blue storage drums back up to their makeshift shacks for cooking and bathing. To do this, we worked together with men from the local community. It seemed paradoxical that men so proficient at their trade would require assistance from young adults so ignorant of construction; yet without our fiscal aid, they had no means to either procure materials or relieve themselves for a few days from their jobs to devote time to improving their community. So through a comedy of fate, we had arrived in Lima to engage in an encounter that would permanently alter both our lives' spheres through this mutual intersection.
Communication was difficult. At times I resorted to primitive measures of pointing and quizzical looks after attempting broken Spanish and realizing some of the men spoke only the old Incan Quechua. Little by little each day we learned the most efficient methods of mixing concrete by hand, what the appropriate ratios of sand, water, and cemento sol were, and the exact consistency the amalgam required. In the evenings we would go back to our hostel in central Lima and live among the rich. I soon began to feel alienated as the only group of white English-speaking people in a city of dark-skinned Spanish-speaking Peruvians. What a strange feeling, being a cultural minority .. like living in a glass house--outside, yet distinctly separated from the outdoors. Even in the shanty town this separation-feeling persisted. It wasn’t until the sun had begun to set on our mission as we finished the staircase and placed our handprints alongside those of the native Peruvians that we began to feel a strong community bond with the men. The children, though at first cautious, were much quicker to dissolve the unseen barrier and accept us into their family after the first day or two, laughing and smiling and hugging us as we played with them during our breaks. Though growing up in the shanty town of Pamplona Alta, they shared the unbridled joy characteristic to all children, unmarred by their poverty.
At the close of our mission, the town hosted a celebration in the community center, and I will never forget the elated smiles filling their faces on that last day, or their praise to God and thanking us for what we had done. We had built more than a staircase to heaven, but a bridge between two communities. It was here in this impoverished, dusty town that I learned that there is a universal language common to all peoples, which surpasses the boundaries of class, culture, language, and color. There is only one language. And that is love.