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Spanish in Peru by Sarah Allat

At Machu Picchu In July 2007 my sister came back from spending 4 months in Calca, Peru with Projects Abroad. Although I had spoken to her lots on the phone while she was there, and seen some of her photos, as she had loaded them up while abroad, it wasn't until she came home with even more photos, many presents, and the feeling that she had a new family in Peru that I fully appreciated what an amazing time she had had. And so I started to think - could I do that too?

I was nearly 30, married, had been working for around 8 years, and loved traveling but had never had a gap year. I was fairly confident while traveling in Europe as the French and German I had learnt at school were good enough for me not to feel lost and to make myself understood in a variety of places. But on the occasions I had been to Spain I had not been able to understand a word, and hated feeling such a 'tourist'. So perhaps the opportunity to learn Spanish was just what I needed? In addition I would love the opportunity to experience a culture so completely different to my own.

I started really looking around the Projects Abroad website more thoroughly. I was delighted to find the flexibility of the courses and stays that are offered. I could go for 1 month, and I could go just to learn Spanish, which was just what I wanted. And even then there was a choice of countries! I rejected Mexico (too much of a big city) and Argentina (too much meat!) and felt myself still drawn to Peru, with the bonus of Machu Picchu, and with the bright colors of my sisters photos still in my mind. By October I had made the decision that I really wanted to go, and started to put things into motion.

Visiting ruins I had to arrange time off work, and up the tentative discussions I had had with my husband about us being apart for a month. Everything was actually much simpler than I expected. My work immediately agreed to let me take 2 weeks unpaid leave, and that combined with 2 weeks holiday would give me a month off. My husband could see this was something I really wanted to do, and was reassured by the fact that phone and email contact would be no problem. My sister kept in regular contact with the family she had stayed with, and I requested to stay with them as well. So everything was booked for me to leave mid February.

So after a few frantic days tidying up loose ends at work, a rather emotional Valentines day with lots of hugs and reassurance, I was at Gatwick airport early in the morning to start my flight to Cusco via Madrid and Lima. I had a suitcase that contained lots of presents from my sister and me to the family, lots of space for me to bring back souvenirs, a Spanish dictionary and basic textbook and my camera. And so I was off!

Delighted to arrive at Cusco in one piece and with all my luggage, I was met by Fernando who explained that he would be my Spanish teacher. He welcomed me to Peru and I set off in a taxi to meet my family. I had heard a huge amount about them from my sister, and I knew they would be very welcoming, but I had something to tell them that I needed to say straight away............so after all the introductions, smiles, showing me the house and my room, I used one of the Spanish phrases I had made sure I knew off by heart before I left. There were only a few of these. I had decided that 'I don't understand' 'Can I help you', 'please', 'thank you' and 'slowly', together with my dictionary and the Projects Abroad handbook would get me through the first few hours. But there was one more - 'Estoy embarazada' - 'I am pregnant'. The only other person who knew was my husband - as I was 7 weeks pregnant when I left we decided that telling any of our families would be better left until I got back. The doctors saw no reason for me not to go, and so with many injunctions to take care of myself, here I was!

With my shawl Everyone was wonderful. I explained that my sister didn't know, and so when she called and emailed they must keep it a secret from her, but that in Peru I thought it was best that everyone did know, in case I had any morning sickness or needed medical attention for any reason. And so with that behind me I concentrated making the most of my 4 weeks. I had Spanish lessons every day, generally 10am - 2pm, in Pisac, which was a half hour bus ride from Calca. I made the most of being in Pisac every day to stroll round and round the market in order to be able to buy souvenirs and presents when I left.

I explored the Sacred Valley in the afternoons, visiting Ollantaytambo, Pisac ruins, Chinchero, all the sites between Pisac and Cusco, and my weekends I spent in Cusco, Macchu Piccu, and Lake Titicaca. As my Spanish improved at a rate of knots I was able to spend more and more time talking to my host family, and generally soaking up the atmosphere. My host family were very considerate and I would leave the house each day to a chorus of 'look after yourself' and if I was away for the weekend 'drink lots of milk and eat fruit for the baby!' My favorite spot in the house was a hammock outside my room which my sister had left for volunteers to enjoy - it had a wonderful view of the mountains which were high enough to be covered in snow whenever we had rain in the valley.

New baby in Peru outfit

My 4 weeks passed very quickly. All too soon it was my last week, with much brainwork expended on what I could give my family to say thank you, what I could take home for my family, and how to write a card that would say thank you adequately. On my last night my family cooked a special meal, beautifully presented by one of the family who is a trainee chef, and gave me some presents to take home to my sister. They then turned my chair round and I saw a baby doll wrapped in the traditional Peruvian shawl used to carry everything from wood to children. Underneath this were a pile of presents - they had thrown me a baby shower! I was absolutely lost for words, and thrilled to open the lovely baby clothes they had given me. One of my favorite photos of my whole time is one of me being shown how to carry the baby on my back wrapped in a shawl - I am smiling from ear to ear, I was so overwhelmed!

So now I am back at home, sending my host family photos of me getting more and more pregnant, and in addition to the pile of white baby grows I have llama jumpers and baby ponchos all ready for when the baby arrives. More photos will wing their way to Peru of baby in all his/her finery, and I hope one day to go back and show my child to my family in Peru, who became so much a part of my life at such a special time.

Sarah Allat

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