Peru+Risk= Sabbatical

By Alison Schumacher

Leave our friends, family, comfortable existence and move to South America? Sure, why not? When do we leave?

Two years ago, my family moved to Peru for a year-long sabbatical. At that time, my husband, Sam, had been running Global Gifts for 11 years and wanted a chance to learn more about fair trade from the other side of the supply chain: working with artisans instead of solely selling their products.

We arranged our own volunteer stint with a fair trade exporter in Lima. They had several projects for us; our main responsibility was to interview their artisan partners and put together marketing materials based on their life stories and photos of their handcrafts. And while many people thought we were nuts to move to a foreign country with a toddler, we figured our son would roll with the punches. And so it was.

Interviewing reverse painted glass craftsman Apolonio Alejandro while my son rolled with the punches by sleeping his way through the visit. Photo credit: Sam Carpenter

Interviewing reverse painted glass craftsman Apolonio Alejandro while my son rolled with the punches by sleeping his way through the visit.
Photo credit: Sam Carpenter

The only real “risk” I anticipated was that of our personal safety. Somehow everyone who had ever been to Peru found us and wanted to share their experience of crime, danger, or attacks. While they were well-meaning, their stories were not helpful. Although we count ourselves as seasoned travelers, I was terrified by the time we arrived.

Having a young child along helped us establish warm interactions with others. Here, our son is with Emilio Hurtado, a carved gourd artisan in Huancayo, Peru. Photo credit: Sam Carpenter

Having a young child along helped us establish warm interactions with others. Here, our son is with Emilio Hurtado, a carved gourd artisan in Huancayo, Peru.
Photo credit: Sam Carpenter

I am happy to report that those stories were not our experience. In our year of traveling to every corner of Lima and across Peru, we felt so cared for. People on the bus overheard our conversations and helped us navigate. In the middle of sketchy neighborhoods, people saw our son as an invitation to talk. Asking questions about him quickly segued into help with directions or sharing about their lives and asking about ours, which usually began with some version of “Why in the world are you here?” We were always out of place and noticeable, but perhaps we were so obvious that anyone wishing us ill steered clear.

On the way to an artisan’s home in San Juan de Lurigancho, a poor district in Lima, where residents have built homes into the side of a mountain Photo credit: Sam Carpenter
On the way to an artisan’s home in San Juan de Lurigancho, a poor district in Lima, where residents have built homes into the side of a mountain
Photo credit: Sam Carpenter

I choose to believe otherwise. I believe that people opened up to us out of kindness and curiosity. I think some people were so surprised to see a white family navigating around places where tourists (and many residents of Lima’s more affluent areas, for that matter) never go, that they wanted to protect us and make sure we had a positive experience in their world.

In the end, the risk was NOT getting out and exploring. We met plenty of other expats who had luxuries of private cars and chauffeurs and still never left their own, safe version of Lima.  They were shocked when they learned we took public transportation each day with a toddler, and that we routinely visited certain dangerous, impoverished areas without a Peruvian escort. I remember being that afraid, so I don’t blame them. They had no reason to push past their fears, while I eventually had to in order to do our job. But I am so thankful I got past that fear; we would never have known Lima otherwise. And that was a risk I couldn’t afford to take.

Explore other views of risk during the 18th annual Spirit & Place Festival, running from November 1-10, 2013.

Alison Schumacher is the editor of MennoExpressions, a bimonthly publication of First Mennonite Church. She also volunteers as an ESL teacher, reads anything she can find by Louise Erdrich and Ann Patchett, and is on a lifelong quest to become fluent in Spanish.

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