Differences are only different

The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt. ~Bertrand Russell, English Philosopher, Mathematician, Author, and Political Activist

In September 2016 I moved to Cusco, Peru, a city high in the Andes Mountains of South America, known as the gateway to Machu Picchu, a travel destination nearly everyone has on their bucket list.

I decided to move for a variety of reasons. My stay revolves mostly around a decision to volunteer and work in the field of micro-finance and economics of developing countries.

“Going abroad” to gain experience and worldly understanding is much more common in European countries than in the U.S. as well as more common in younger adults than myself.

But I wasn’t going to let that stop me! The trip is a mid-career gap year for me and the value is incredible.

While I’ve traveled outside of the U.S. a few times, actually living in a country like Peru is an eye-opening experience in ways you don’t get from vacationing.

An extended stay grants the opportunity to discern certain cultural difference of which I can categorize into two groups:

  1. The little things that seem odd.
  2. The other things that make you scratch your head and wonder wtf?

I’ve discerned several pet peeves over the months, yet one of my biggest is the dirtiness. Cusco’s Central Historic District and the places tourists frequent are cared for well.

However, Cusco’s neighborhoods where the locals live, work, do business, and conduct their daily lives is a different story. The people of Cusco don’t show much pride in how they care for their beautiful natural landscape and incredible historic city.

I’ve witnessed older ‘distinguished looking’ men in business suits walk along a sidewalk and simple toss food wrappings on the ground. In the mornings, people often drink juice from plastic bags with a straw and discard them freely in the streets. Trash is everywhere.

It’s a behavior I cannot understand.

Anyway, because I like bookstores, I found one in Cusco that sells English language books in a tourist part of town, many of which are trade-ins from travelers. The selection is limited but I can always find something to peak my interest.

How does a bookstore tie into a story on cultural differences? I’ll explain.

Bare in mind that my taste in books may not match yours. I bought a 1968 copy of Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography. So who was Bertrand Russell and why would I buy THAT?

He was one of the great minds of the turn of the 20th century; philosopher, mathematician, author, and liberal political activist among other titles. His contributions were many. I enjoyed reading an account of his life written by his own hand from birth until the age of 42. (Wouldn’t it be nice to achieve a status in life in which you could write about yourself and have people care enough to read it?)

In the book, I was struck by a line from a letter written to him by a friend and colleague named Edward Marsh. During the time of the letter, Bertrand and Edward were both living abroad and exchanging unpleasantries about the people of the countries they found themselves among.

“. . . but it’s merely a matter of education, one cannot object to individual people because they behave in the way they’ve been brought up to. . .”

Made me think about the trash situation and a host of other oddities in the behavior of the people of Cusco by my American standards. The children here see the adults throw trash hither and thither, therefore they duplicate without question. It truly does come down to culture and rearing.

So, now as I look around at the differences between me and the people I am living among, I’ve decided not to be as judgmental.

“I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.” ~Bertrand Russell

I’d like to take some liberties with the cultural comparisons and the way they may apply to a country like the U.S.

The United States of America is such a large and diverse place comparing young adults who’ve grown up in say… a small town in Nebraska as opposed to inner city Detroit wouldn’t be much different than comparing me to Peruvians in Cusco. Both are American but have grown up in virtually incomparable worlds with social norms being on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Food for thought and the unique perspective only going abroad can give. Differences are only different no matter where you are in the world.

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