Parasites: The Best Thing to Happen to Me Abroad

Hiking in the Peru mountains

Alessandra Rigamonti is an archaeology and pre-med student at Cornell University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú in Lima, Peru in 2016.

Oh, the places you’ll go.

You hop in a taxi and feel the sweat forming on your quizzically raised brow

“Hacia, ‘The Place’ en Miraflores, por favor,” you manage in your sleepy confusion

You try to take a mental picture of the people, the noises, the traffic, the smells (what is that?)

don’t worry,

you are here for months

The forty-minute ride passes faster than you expected…

And the next minute you hop out of the taxi-

hauling the oversized suitcase, purse, and hiking backpack that contain what you think will be your entire life for the next 5 months

Your life that was things

Soon, will be people, memories, experiences

Little do you know–

your life is just beginning–

I am a senior studying archaeology and pre-med at Cornell University and recently returned from a semester abroad at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú in Lima, Peru. Looking back on my Peru experience, I think about things very differently than when I was there. My perspective has vastly changed since before study abroad (ex. I think that the price of guacamole at Chipotle is OUTRAGEOUS!). For me, my study abroad experience is divided into 4 stages: arrival, parasites, Arequipa, sweet spot.

I spent a large portion of my time studying abroad, 2 whole months, sick from multiple stomach infections and intestinal parasites. During that time, I would get angry, frustrated, home sick and wish that I could go home and feel better. Thankfully, I did not go home early, and I was able to eventually really enjoy my time abroad.

My study abroad experience definitely could have gone more smoothly, but now thinking back on my time abroad, I realize how very glad I am that it went exactly as it did. I learned a lot about myself in my almost 5 months abroad, and most of that learning came in those difficult and uncomfortable 8 weeks. Study abroad pushed me in ways I had never been pushed before. I finally learned to advocate for myself—an invaluable lifelong skill. I went multiple times a week to various doctors and clinics explaining my symptoms until finally I decided that I needed to be in control and called a doctor from home who got me on a medication that finally made me better. I was unable to get the internship I wanted to work in a clinic in Lima, but I was a patient in 4 different clínicas.

I know that the quality of medicine I received, while not quite as good as at home, was superior to that of many indigenous Peruvians because of my nationality, skin color, and pocketbook.  The variability in quality among these clínicas is absolutely insane. It was incredibly upsetting to me, and it confirmed how passionate about the availability of equal access to healthcare for all people I am. Having this personal experience confirmed that being a doctor is not enough for me. I will also need to work to create a world where everyone receives the same quality treatment.

During the weeks of being sick, I spent a whole weekend in Arequipa initially depressed. I had flown there only to get sick right before a 4-day hiking trip to Colca canyon that I had been dreaming about for weeks?! I spent all day in the emergency room in Arequipa. I wasn’t alone though, my good friend from my study abroad program stayed with me the entire time. For the record, you know you have a lifelong friend when they keep you company in a hospital instead of checking out a cool city.

In my short stay in Arequipa, I didn’t go to a single class, but I learned so many things about myself.

I experienced immense kindness from strangers all eager to make me feel better. On the second night alone, I was able to score some fresh banana bread and I noticed a major shift in how I was feeling. I stopped feeling victimized by parasites and started thinking about all the cool things I had managed to do in the first weeks while abroad despite this inconvenience.  I took charge of my last day, convincing myself I was healthy enough to walk around and see the city on my own. The streets were still bumpy from the stones of the Spanish conquistadors and the sun shone over the mountain peaks and glistened off the cathedral. It was amazing—absolutely the same city I had walked into 3 days earlier, but also completely different.  

I got back from Arequipa a changed person.

I pushed myself harder than I ever had before academically, I began taking more risks in speaking Spanish, I changed my route to school (and even saved myself 2 soles a day for a month!!~ do you know how many avocados (palta) that can buy you in Peru? 60! Yes. Peru is amazing). After Arequipa, I embraced my adventurer side and started finding little things that made me enormously happy. I found myself a cafe with incredible cappuccinos and the best desserts in Lima to frequent. I wrote final papers in Spanish, completed the bulk of a group research project final, and climbed Wayna Picchu Mountain during our trip to Cusco despite my sudden development of a fear of falling. In Lima, I interviewed Peruvians on the streets about the impact and treatment of disabilities in Peruvian society and even created a photo collage from my interviews and experience in Lima.

But for me, the best post-Arequipa experience I had was our program’s trip to el Carmen. El Carmen is a predominantly afro-Peruvian community south of Lima. It was a completely different world that I had no idea even existed prior to this program. I knew about indigenous peoples in the Andes from archaeology classes and history in school, but somehow I had never learned about afro-Peruvians.

We stayed in a beautiful country house-styled bed and breakfast (with a pool) and were taken in by a very lovely family who explained the history of the treatment of afro-Peruvians from slavery up to racism of the present, provided typical dishes from the region, and taught us generally about the culture. Learning about afro-Peruvian culture was my favorite. We learned about afro- Peruvian music and its subversiveness during slavery and the dance style that developed with it (I was pretty good, not going lie) and the food. If you go to this region, make sure you get to eat sopa seca. It’s a weird noodle dish with beans that in no way is like Italian past, a but in all ways will fulfill a craving for food without rice.

Before leaving for study abroad, I predicted what I would get out of my study abroad experience. I thought I would be more fluent in Spanish, try new foods, be able to study archaeology in a country full of ancient sites, and make new lifelong friends. I could never have predicted how much more of a confident person I would be after my study abroad program.

Since being back, I find myself more willing to take risks and generally more positive. I joined a group of students who recently returned from being abroad and found out one of the best things about study abroad: no two abroad experiences are the same.

Hasta pronto, Peru~ te quiero.

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