Traveling: The Cheapest Education You Could Ever Have

I’m not sure where the speaker is on my computer. Do you mind saying something so I can test the connection to my phone to see if it picks up the recording? Hi Lee, it’s me . . . Lindsay. Can you hear me?

You never know when you are going to make a connection with a stranger while traveling. Sometimes it happens right away, sometimes  it develops over time, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. A few years ago while checking my email at work, I stumbled across a flight to Panama for a price that I couldn’t afford to pass up. While making my way from Panama City to the San Blas Islands I met a Peace Corps Volunteer on medical leave from Peru. Her name was Lindsay and we’ve stayed in contact with each other ever since we met on a remote island; a place so beautiful and magical it could have easily inspired the word paradise. 

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I was able to get to know Lindsay while swinging in hammocks and walking around an island that we and a nomadic musician were the only human inhabitants, well at least for a couple of hours or so. She told me about how she viewed traveling, life, and a place that she ultimately thinks of as home, Peru.

When I was in the early planning phase and questioning if I should quit my job so that I could backpack around South America, Lindsay was one of the strongest advocates in favor of me putting my life into a storage unit and hitting the road. And it just so happened that she would be back in Lima, Peru while I was making my way across the continent, so we tentatively planned to meet in March.

I had wanted to travel to the region where Lindsay had started her service with Peace Corps in order to talk with some of the people that she had gotten to know over her four years of service to see not only how their lives had changed, but also how, or if her life had changed.

But the same circumstance that brought us together in Panama, a cheap flight that I couldn’t pass up, would also keep us from meeting in Peru. Lindsay had emailed me early on in my travels to say that she had found a ticket back to the states. A ticket so cheap that she had to by it. We decided to try to talk about her experiences has a Peace Corps volunteer over Skype.

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Name: Lindsay Jean Buck
From: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Occupation: Former Peace Corps Volunteer based in Peru

Yeah. Okay. So, this will work. I can hear you on the recording loud and clear! So can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with Peru? I know you first went there as a Peace Corps volunteer. Sure. Well, Peace Corps places you in a location-based on langauge proficiency tests and because I spoke a little bit of Spanish they placed me in Latin America. You can’t really choose where you get placed. They just placed me in Peru. I had never been there before so I was excited about it. I guess I was super excited about it because I had heard that Peru had some of the best food in the world, but especially Latin America. So yeah, I was placed in Peru in 2006 and Peace Corps service is typically two years long. So I served until 2008. I felt that I wasn’t ready to leave yet, two years is not a lot of time when you’re working in a developing country. So I ended up staying for an additional two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. At four years I felt like I had accomplished everything that I wanted too.

Now, I met you in Panama, it most have only been a couple of years ago, but it feels like a lot longer. You were on medical evacuation from Peru? Yeah I was. Where were you in terms of service, were you done with your four-year service? Do you remember exactly what year that was? I don’t really. I can find out though. Hmm, let me think about that. I want to say . . . I think it may have been 2010. Yeah, so at that point I was living in Lima, which was a lot easier than my Peace Corps service where I was living up in the Andean Mountain range. I was living in the capital city and I was working in the main Peace Corps office and still volunteering in a orphanage for girls, which I did part-time. I think I was done with my third year, starting my fourth year when I was sent to Panama where I met you.

So you were recently back in Peru. What were you doing back in Peru? Well, I had planned a visit to go back and visit friends that I had made. But it just happened that my friend was doing a shirt-line. And her factory is Peru. So it aligned really well with my trip and I was able to help her get the shirts completed, because she’s not down there. She’s in the states. It was a little bit more difficult than we had anticipated because of the communication differences between Peruvians and Americans. But it was something neat to do. It was different. I got to learn a lot about the textile industry. It was cool.

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Now we were going to meet this month (March 2013) in Peru, but I received an email from you saying you had found a cheap flight back to the states and you were changing your plans and leaving earlier than you had thought. What happened? Yeah I had planned to stay for a longer amount of time. My friends came down to visit me over New Years and we encountered a lot more trouble in Lima than we usually do. Lima is getting a lot more dangerous. I wasn’t living in the safest area. I had just finished the project, there wasn’t anything left for me to do except wait for you and while you’re worth it, it was just feeling like something weird was going to happen. Like I shouldn’t be there. So I happened to find a really cheap ticket and I just thought that I would come home and spend time with family and friends before going to Africa rather than stay in a place that didn’t really feel safe. There was just a lot of movement and my instincts were telling me to go.

Why do you say it felt unsafe this time? What about your situation made you feel that way? I was feeling like I was getting more negative attention than I normally do. I was also having to fight a lot with people. For instance, the laundry mat stole some clothes from me, I had to fight for that. Every time I went to the grocery story I had to fight over . . . I mean this is really negative stuff and I don’t want people thinking this is what Peru is like, but realistically speaking it’s becoming a little bit more dangerous. I mean even Peruvians will tell you that.

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Since you’ve had a really long relationship with Peru can you tell me a little bit about your first perceptions of the country and how it’s changed over the years? My Peace Corps site was in the Andes up north. It’s like a 15 hour bus ride away from Lima. It’s a really rural area in Peru. My site was really primitive. There wasn’t electricity. There was water . . . sometimes. My house was made out of mud. I didn’t have phone access for most of my service. Nor did I have internet, obviously. But now, this is just like six or seven years out of my service and it seems like most Peace Corps volunteers have internet access now. They have phone service. So the sites are a lot less primitive. So I think Peru is growing at a pretty rapid rate and that’s really exciting to see for someone who has been there for a while and in love with Peru. So, that’s neat. And Peruvians seem really excited about the changes as well. In Lima you can the changes in more superficial ways. Like there are a lot of really upper class malls going up. But in the providences its neat to see because people are seeing things for the first time like escalators and internet. So that’s a neat development that’s happened over the last few years. But, I’d say Peru, outside of Lima is staying the same. They embrace the simple life and it’s just a really beautiful country.

What do you mean by embracing the simple life? Well, like I said in my region a lot of people are farmers. They are very family oriented. They work hard during the day and spend time with their families at night. And they can occupy themselves with a lot less than we can here in the States. I don’t think they have as many distractions so they can prioritize a little bit better, than I would say, I do here. It’s a lot healthier lifestyle and I think they emphasize really good values. Like spending time with family and working hard.

Have there been any cultural changes in the time that you’ve been there? I don’t know necessarily that there have been many cultural changes. It’s a really culturally rich place. Like a lot of the more primitive areas outside of Lima, people are still wearing traditional gear. They go to church. I think in Lima that isn’t as . . . I mean there is no nice way to put this, put in Lima people are really racist so the culture is being pushed out of Lima. You don’t see it that much. One thing that I have seen in the recent years is that people in Lima are starting to embrace artisan products from indigenous areas because they are really amazing. And they’re now selling them in boutiques in Lima a lot more than I saw that being done when I first got there. So while they aren’t necessarily embracing indigenous people they are embracing things that indigenous people are making that’s neat to see because a lot of artisan products that I saw at my site being made by people really well are now being sold in bigger stores in Lima.

Lindsay had started her service with Peace Corps as a youth development volunteer. The key, she said to having a successful tour of service is working closely with the community to figure out  what they need and what they want and thing to figure out how you can best help them achieve that goal. During the time she spent in her community she helped create youth groups, an arts and crafts program, started a health and nutrition campaign and helped counsel women and teens in crisis. But her time spent wasn’t always in service of the people she was living with, she’s the first to admit that there were days that passed by while she read stacks of books.

What was your greatest accomplishment while serving in Peace Corps? Learning to speak Spanish well enough to stand up for myself and barter in markets. My greatest altruistic accomplishment was emotionally supporting Peruvian women and teens who were in crisis.

Any regrets about things you didn’t do while in the community? I’m an introvert. I typically don’t like socializing as much as Peruvians and I wished I had forced myself to do so.

How was the experience working for the office in lima in an administrative position? Working in the office was nice because it made me feel closure as though I had come full circle, but my personality is not necessarily one that craves being in an office or at a desk. I like to be out and about with each day being a little bit different from the one before.

So from what I know about you, it seems that the Peace Corps has really changed not only the way you travel, but also your life. You basically go back to the United States save up some money and then travel again. Can you tell me about why you are living this sort of nomadic lifestyle? I’ve always like to travel. I started going to Latin America when I was sixteen or seventeen and I really liked how it made me feel. I feel like it’s a really energized place, people are really friendly. It made me feel more alive than I do in the States. But I think I always had this notion that it would be too expensive for me to live aboard. And I think that’s what Peace Corps taught me, that you don’t need nearly as much money as you think to live aboard. If you make contact with locals and figure out how they’re living, you can live just as inexpensively as they’re living. So after living on such little funding for some many years, when I come back to the States and realize how expensive it is it shocks me into thinking that I don’t want to pay such a large amount of money to live in a place where my quality of life isn’t as high. So yeah I save here, it is easier for me to make money here in the States, and then I just devote as much time as possible to traveling. It’s the cheapest education and the coolest thing that I think you can do with your time.

Four days after our Skype conversation, Lindsay would be boarding a plane and making her way to Morocco and then on to South Africa before planning to then flying to Thailand to settle down for an undefined amount of time. Like most travelers that I’ve met she has pretty open-ended travel plans because she knows that things always come up and she wants to be flexible.  She’s confiedent that she will find her way has she goes.

When I asked her how her family was feeling about her fast approaching departure to Asia, when no return date, she took a moment to think before replying: My family . . . a couple of Aunts are skeptical but they’re keeping their thoughts to themselves because they know this makes me happy. My dad is already planning a visit over to Thailand so, he will come and see me. I mean generally, the reaction that I get is one of envy because its fun to travel. It’s a lot more fun than being in an office so people have responded very warmly to it.

Are you leaving it so opened ended that if you get there and you have a complete culture-shock break-down . . . would you consider returning to the states? Yeah, but I usually wait a really long time before giving up on something because I know it’s going to be uncomfortable. They say it takes you two years to be fully happy in a new place, whether that’s in your own country or another country. So I think it’s kinda of funny when I’m not enjoying things, because I usually am, so to see myself handle stress of that sort, it’s kind of entertaining. So I’ll stick it for a really long time. I can’t imagine anything making me want to come back except for maybe a serious health or safety concern. But you’re going to have growing pains.

Do you have any advice for other people thinking about backpacking what would you say to them? You never need as much money as you think you do and you never need to plan as much as you think you need too. I think those are just excuses that people use because they are afraid of plunging into the unknown. I would really recommend doing it while you are young, because as you get older you don’t have the tolerance for some cultural differences that exist. But yeah, everyone should travel. It’s the best way to learn about yourself and other people. And also learn what your supposed to be doing with your life. It’s really inspiring and eye-opening.

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I know you don’t want to paint Peru in an unfavorable light, but the way you left this time, do you think you’ll return to Peru? Yes I’ll definitely go back. I think I’ve left Peru like seven times thinking that it was my last time but keep going back. Who knows maybe I’ll end up there in five days it’s really unpredictable. Peru is my home. It’s the place I’ve spent the longest amount of time. I don’t think my relationship has changed I think I just need space.

If you are interesting in finding out more about Lindsay’s experiences you can read her blog here.

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