So excited for this next installment in our Latin American Expat Series! I actually met Shelby in college at Michigan State University in an ESL/ELL course that we were both taking. I’ve been admiring and following her life as an expat in South America through social media ever since – I realize this sounds mildly stalkerish. Either way, Shelby’s life has been a personal inspiration for me through her yoga journey and her career working with a women’s empowerment group to provide fair wages and free education to female artisans – www.huaywasi.com
Please provide a little introduction about yourself.
I’m 26, born and raised outside of Chicago. I’m a lover of yoga, music, and human connection and healing. My priorities include showing up for the people that rely on me in my personal and professional life, taking care of my body and mind with proper nutrition and exercise, finding time to express myself artistically through music, and spreading love and contentment throughout the world.
How long have you been in Peru? How long do you plan on staying?
I first came to Peru in January of 2015, so it’s been a bit over 2 years now! Things are kind of up in the air in terms of how long I’ll stay, but I’ve been thinking about moving back to the US sometime in 2018.
Where did you live at before coming to Peru?
Before moving to Peru I was living in Lansing, Michigan. I was working as an Americorps member at a non-profit there after having graduated from Michigan State.
What made you decide to move to Peru?
I studied Spanish in college and really wanted to master the language in an immersive setting. I was also looking for an adventure and unique work experience that I couldn’t get back home. Essentially one day I was looking on idealist.org for jobs and volunteer opportunities in Women’s Empowerment in South America, and I ended up finding the perfect fit with an NGO outside of Lima!
READ: Saya: Expat Life in Guanajuato, Mexico
What was the visa process like?
I’m lucky that my job provided me with the documentation that I needed to get my visa here, so for me, it wasn’t too bad – just a few annoying long trips to the External Relations office in Lima. But now I’m legal! So that’s always comforting.
How do you make a living?
I work as the Program Director for a fair trade artisan project called Huaywasi. Huaywasi is an extension of the Women’s Empowerment Program with an NGO called The Light and Leadership Initiative, which is the organization that I volunteered with when I first moved to Peru back in 2015. So I’m employed by the non-profit part-time, working to provide fair wages and free education to female artisans, and managing our online store – www.huaywasi.com. The other half of my work life has been a mix-match of jobs throughout the past couple years. The first year and a half that I was in Peru I was teaching English online through a company called Open English. The second year I was teaching yoga at Lima Yoga studios, and this year I’ve moved to planning and hosting yoga retreats! I just hosted one in Machu Picchu with a big group of yogis from Michigan, and it was way awesome. So yeah, I tend to kind of follow my current passions and interests and then from there figure out how to make money doing those things.
What is the average cost of things in Peru?
It really depends on where you live. Lima as a city is quite expensive; we’re talking around $400 to rent a room in a shared house in the most touristy areas. But if you live slightly outside of Lima, which I do now, you save a ton of money (for example, I now rent an entire floor of a house with 2 bedrooms for around $200 a month – but it’s a trade-off. It takes me about 2 hours to get to the central areas of the city). Living anywhere far from the city of Lima is way cheap, like in the highlands or the jungle, but it’s hard to find jobs and not feel isolated. But even still, if you know your way around Lima and have the time to go to the right markets, you can live pretty frugally.
What have you learned since becoming an expat in Peru?
Oh man, this could turn into a novel. I will say this – living for an extended period of time in a foreign country rewards you with moments of overwhelming solitude, and just as many moments of profound oneness and connection. You’re trained to look at yourself and your world in ways you didn’t know were available to you. It’s a really beautiful thing.
What is your favorite thing about being an expat in Peru?
I think being an expat here makes everything just slightly more interesting – whether it’s good or bad. Being a foreigner, you’re always sort of out of your element, you’re constantly surprised by cultural differences, new Spanish phrases, the landscape, everything. When you look at your day to day routine things start to seem normal, but when you take a step back, you realize it’s all an adventure.
What is the worst thing about being an expat in Peru/Lima you live in?
This is an easy one – constant sexual harassment! This is partly because I’m foreign but mostly just because I’m a woman. There is not a day that goes by (provided I’m outside of my house, of course) that I don’t experience some form of sexual harassment – taxi drivers whistling, creepy dudes staring me down on the bus, the list goes on and on. Sometimes it really gets to me, but I try to stay focused on my work and remember that in order for these things to change, we need to provide better education to our children and empower women.
What do you miss most about home?
The first thing that comes to mind is “tacos,” but that seems shallow. I really miss my family and friends of course. I really miss having a car and having everything at my disposal at the supermarket down the street. Lima has such horrible traffic and an errand that would take me 25 minutes round trip in the US will literally take me an entire day here. Also, I miss trees, a lot. Lima is a desert so I feel a huge lacking of green things. And yeah, Peruvian food is amazing but we don’t have a very wide selection of restaurants other than Peruvian food here. So seriously, I really miss tacos.
Do you speak Spanish fluently? What was your language process like?
Yeah! I majored in Spanish in college and did a bit of traveling to/volunteering in Spanish speaking countries in the years that I was studying, so I definitely was at an advantage moving here and being thrown into the language immersion. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t tricky adjusting to the accents and learning all the slang that Peruvians use. I’ve improved immensely since I’ve been here. When I meet Latinos from other countries outside of Peru, they constantly make fun of my Peruvian accent and way of talking, so I consider that a sure sign of language success.
What did you do to meet people and integrate into your new home?
I’m a pretty extroverted person so it’s never been hard for me to make friends. I’ve lived in a few different cities around Lima so each time I meet people differently. My first year here it was easy because I lived in the volunteer house with my non-profit so I had automatic friends. But I also made a point to hang out with Peruvian friends in our neighborhood. The second year I met lots of friends when I started teaching at the yoga studio. I actually ended up moving in with one of my students and we became really close friends and lived together for almost a year. Then I started singing in a band and the guitarist became my (current) boyfriend who I live with now! So again, I just try to stay focused on doing the things I love, and that usually leads to crossing paths with really cool people.
What custom/ habits did you find to be the most different from your own culture or find to be the most difficult to adjust to?
Well going back to the sexual harassment thing, the machismo culture of Latin America is really hard for me to stomach. It’s a daily struggle for sure. It’s little things, like, I’ll go to a restaurant with my boyfriend and the waiter will only address him. Or even, my boyfriend will accompany me to the doctor and the doctor will explain to my boyfriend what medicine I need to take instead of addressing me – the patient. And I’m like WTF YO WE’RE TALKING ABOUT MY BODY. So, in this case, I don’t think it’s a matter of adjusting to that culture because it’s something I profoundly disagree with, but more learning how to exist in that culture without being constantly frustrated, and staying positive that change is in our future.
How do you feel that the people of Peru see you? Are you treated any differently?
Oh for sure, I stick out like a sore thumb here because I’m blond and super light skinned. Sometimes that works in my advantage, but most of the time its kind of annoying. It gets frustrating when you’ve lived somewhere for over two years but everyone you meet still assumes you’re a tourist. But, it’s cool, it’s all part of the experience.
What is a myth about your adopted country?
One myth is that everyone who is white has money. I think a lot of Peruvians assume that all gringos are rich, because of what they’ve seen on reality television and how the media makes things appear. When really yes some white people are rich, but maybe (like me!) really don’t have a lot of money.
What is your favorite dish and/or drink in Peru?
Ahhh this is another hard one. Peruvian food is seriously incredible. Here in Lima, we have really good seafood so I’m going to go ahead and say arroz con mariscos (seafood rice) is my favorite dish here. I don’t really drink alcohol often but a well-prepared pisco sour can be quite lovely.
What advice would you give someone when traveling to Peru?
Try as much food as you possibly can. Save room in your suitcase for artisan goods – in my opinion, Peru has some of the best artisanship in the world. Don’t spend a ton of time in Lima – focus on the highland cities like Cusco, Huaraz, Arequipa, and Ayacucho. Wear a fanny pack. And hit me up if you want further guidance or suggestions!
Any crazy stories about life in Peru?
I once did a Huachuma (San Pedro) ceremony with an Argentinian friend that I met while traveling in Cusco. Huachuma is a sacred cactus from the Andes that is used medicinally for holistic healing. While preparing for the ceremony in the forest of Cusco, a strange dog approached us out of nowhere and started nervously barking incessantly. About a minute later, a pack of 7 dogs came running out of the forest, chased the barking dog away, and then sat in a perfect circle around me and my friend, protecting us throughout the entire 6 hours of our ceremony. They didn’t try to play with us or hardly even interact, they just sat there guarding us. The connection between all living things that day was something I’d never understood so vividly before. When we left the forest, the dogs followed us down the road to the point where we had to force them to stop because we didn’t want them to get too far away from wherever they came from. It was one of the wildest things that I’ve ever witnessed, anywhere.
Have you been able to travel a lot in Peru or South America? What are your travel plans for 2017?
In Peru, I’ve covered some pretty decent ground. There are of course more places I still want to see, but as we say here, “poco a poco.” In South America, I’ve visited Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. I would love to make it to all the countries in South America, but again, all in good time. For 2017 I don’t have any crazy travel plans. I recently took a trip to Mexico with my family which was stellar. I’ve got some little trips around Peru planned, but nothing too crazy for now.