Raincoats and Repellent: A Trip into the Amazon Rain Forest

The Amazon River

The Amazon River

A boat ride on the

A boat ride on the “Highway of the Amazon”

It was one of the more surreal moments of my life when it started raining in the Amazon Rainforest. Perhaps it was momentary jungle insanity brought on by the humidity, or the sheer shock of feeling like I was on a whole new planet, but I started laughing. It wasn’t until this downpour that it truly hit me, I am in the middle of the Peruvian Rainforest. This is crazy.

We trustingly followed our guide into the jungle (in the middle of the night no less) to hike in the middle of one of the largest ecosystems on earth. Surrounded by thousands of plants, animals and wildlife, I was armed with nothing more than my flashlight, iPhone, and bug spray doused rain jacket.

At one point during the hike we all decided to pause and turn off our flashlights. The darkness settled around us, still and expectant. It was so dark that when I held my hand just inches away from my face, I still couldn’t see it. My tongue rolled over my teeth to release some declaration- of curiosity, of astonishment- I can’t remember, but no words escaped. There was no need to say anything.

I was suddenly struck by the overwhelming feeling of insignificance and power of nature. Some of the most fascinating species on the planet- bullet ants that could kill a person with a few bites, poisonous tree frogs, and my personal favorite, bioluminescent fungi- were all less than meters away from me. Nothing quite dwarfs us more often than the vastness of nature.

The feeling struck me again the next night. After spending the day fishing for piranhas, climbing palm trees, drinking water straight of a tree branch, and hunting down caiman, we returned towards the lodge on our boat. I was resting my head against the rail as the water of the river splashed against my face when suddenly the boat’s engine stopped working.

Once again, we found ourselves in the middle of the Amazon engulfed in darkness. While waiting for help, I stared up at the Milky Way. I have never seen the stars like this. Back home in Kentucky, the most I’ve ever seen is one or two, and now I can see thousands, millions of them. I tried to wrap my head around the intricate complexities of the cosmos, but came away just marveling at the sheer size of the universe and thinking about how incredibly fortunate I am to have traveled here.

Stargazing in the Amazon

Stargazing in the Amazon

The otherworldliness of it all still hasn’t caught up to me even weeks later. Stunning. Breathtaking. Enchanting. I don’t think a language rich enough exists to describe the Amazon. I’ve ever felt so removed from the world as we know it, and it was exhilarating.

Llamas, Alpacas, Vicuñas- Oh My!

Occasionally you get this feeling when you travel of being totally and completely clueless. You no longer have home country advantage. The common knowledge, the common language – everything changes. Suddenly every 6 year old is much smarter than you.

This becomes particularly evident when it comes to local animals. Before traveling to South America, it may be best to know the difference between what are known as the Andean camelids- the alpaca, llama, vicuñas, and guanacos. So before you get an eye roll from the locals for squealing “Alpaca!” the first time you see a cuddly baby llama, here is a quick crash course of what each of these animals looks like and what they are used for.

  1. Alpacas

The alpaca was first domesticated about 6,000 years ago by the Quechua Indians and bred to be fiber producers. Their hair is used for making a number of woven and knitted products and almost all of the handmade clothing in South American markets are made with their fiber. They are much shorter and fluffier than llamas and their ears are not as large as a llamas’. Alpaca are also occasionally used for food and you can order alpaca in many traditional Peruvian restaurants.

A baby alpaca

A baby alpaca

Making friends with Alpacas

Making friends with Alpacas

Feeding Alpacas at a Llama and Alpaca Sanctuary

Feeding Alpacas at a Llama and Alpaca Sanctuary

  1. Llamas

Llamas were domesticated around the same time as alpacas. Unlike alpacas, llamas were bred to serve as pack animals and can carry over one fourth of their body weight. Anyone who has walked the Inca trail or hiked in the Andes Mountains can see why pack animals would be essential in rugged terrain. The Inca culture thrived thanks to these creatures who were able to transport supplies and products from every corner of the empire. To easily spot a llama, look at the ears. Llama have curved, almost banana shaped ears. They are also about twice the size of alpaca and have course hair, which is usually shorter.

A funny llama (Photo taken by Becky Casto, another ISA student)

A funny llama (Photo taken by Becky Casto, another ISA student)

A llama with the distinctive banana shaped ears

A llama with the distinctive banana shaped ears

  1. Vicuñas

Unlike llama and alpaca, ‪vicuña and guanaco were never domesticated. These wild animals are small, almost deer like creatures that roam the highlands of Peru and Bolivia. They are more closely related to the alpaca and produce a fine fur that is one of the most valuable fibers in the world. Due to their endangered species status, they cannot be killed for their fur but the Peruvian government allows for a certain number of the animals to be caught, shaved, and let go unharmed. The fur gathered during this process can cost thousands of dollars per yard.

A vicuña

A vicuña

4. Guanacos

These wild animals look very similar to llamas due to the fact that they are closely related and share a common ancestor. Guanacos are very common in the Andes of Chile and Argentina. Economically they do not have as much importance as the fiber that alpacas provide or the strength and transportation that llamas provide. They continue to live in a completely wild state.

Adventure Awaits in Peru

I have lived in Peru for only four short weeks but already I am in love.

The always gorgeous Miraflores

The always gorgeous Miraflores

I came with virtually no preconceived notions, but I’ll admit I’m still amazed by the sheer diversity of the country. Everything from the Andes to the Amazon can be discovered here. In my new home of Lima the ocean laps at the the parched desert. Towards the East, cloud forests spill into the Amazon Basin. Inland, dry forest and scrub-land rise to the snow capped Andes Mountains. Everything you could ever want to try, paragliding, fishing for piranhas, or riding the sand dunes, are all less than a cab or plane ride away. It is a country filled with warm people, rich history, delicious food, and gorgeous architecture. Bored is a nonexistent word here in this sprawling, vibrant country full of surprises.

“Having the time of my life and whatnot” was the caption on one of the many photos I shared on social media and at the time I meant it in a lighthearted way, but honestly I’ve never written truer words. The phrase feels a bit heavier now that I’ve reflected on it.

Taking in the beauty of Machu Picchu

Taking in the beauty of Machu Picchu

My first month abroad has been a month of firsts. I went fishing for piranhas on the Amazon River. I learned how to surf in the Pacific Ocean. I’ve strolled along the coast in Miraflores. I hiked to the Sun Gate at Machu Picchu. I climbed a palm tree in the Amazon Rain Forest. Without stepping a foot outside of Peru, I’ve met people everywhere from France to Fiji, from all over the United States, from every culture and walk of life. Most days I still can’t believe I’m here and that this is my life now. I am so thankful for every inch of this beautiful country I’ve been able to see and everything I’ve experienced.

Exploring the markets in Cusco

Exploring the markets in Cusco

So while I continue to use silly captions on social media and lightheartedly speak of my adventures abroad, more seriously I truly am having the time of my life. I have learned more about geography, history, food, culture, world politics, and surprisingly, myself, than I would have ever thought possible in four weeks. I’m grateful I have another three months to be able to fully immerse myself in the culture here.  The coming days and weeks are going to be full of unreal adventures, unbelievable moments, and (yes, mom) maybe even some studying for my classes.

Don’t Knock it Till You’ve Tried it: 7 Unique Foods to Try in Peru

I won’t lie, I’m a bit of a picky eater. So when a full plate of anticucho (skewered cow heart) was placed in front of me, I wrinkled my nose a bit. But being in a new culture is all about trying new things, particularly food. Luckily for me, Peru has some of the most distinctive and delicious food I’ve come across during my travels abroad.

Sampling new fruits at a market in Cusco

Sampling new fruits at a market in Cusco

Peruvian gastronomy, considered among the best in the world, developed its fusion of flavors over a long process of cultural exchange between Europe, Asia, and West Africa. This mix of flavors gave rise to staples like Ceviche, Peru’s emblematic dish. In the Andes region, indigenous foods such as alpaca and cuy (guinea pig), also serve as part of the country’s national flavor. Different still is Amzonian cuisine, which harvests its foods from the biologically diverse Amazon Jungle. The following foods are some of the most interesting dishes I’ve tried so far.

  1. Chifa

Chifa, or Peruvian style Chinese food, has become one of the most popular types of food in Peru. There are thousands of Chifa restaurants across all districts of Lima and throughout the country. Be sure to try arroz chaufa (Cantonese-Peruvian style fried rice) and have your meal with a bottle of Inca Kola, the iconic Peruvian soft drink, the locals swear by it.

Trying Chifa in historic downtown Lima

Trying Chifa in historic downtown Lima

  1. Granadilla

Affectionately known as the “alien fruit” by my friends, this fruit is quickly becoming one of my favorite foods here in Peru. Don’t let its strange appearance fool you, this fruit is delicious and has numerous health benefits.

Granadillas

Granadillas

  1. Juane

Juane, a dish regional to the Amazon, is rice seasoned with turmeric, and chicken wrapped in banana leaves. Of all the foods I tried in the Amazon, this one was certainly my favorite.

Trying Juane in the Amazon

Trying Juane in the Amazon

  1. Cuy

Cuy is, you guessed it, guinea pig. It took a bit of coaxing to convince myself to eat it, but I’ll try anything once. I’ll admit it’s not my favorite, but the gamey flavor was certainly one to remember.

  1. Alpaca

“It tastes like chicken” or “it tastes like beef” are common when trying out new meats, but I’m not sure either applies to an Alpaca steak. It’s lean, tender, and almost sweet. As one of the healthiest and oldest food sources of the Incan’s and pre-Incans, it remains a South American delicacy.

Sampling Alpaca meat in Cusco

Sampling Alpaca meat in Cusco

  1. Piranha

I caught it, and then I ate it. After a morning of fishing for piranhas on the Amazon River, this was one of the most memorable lunches I’ve had abroad.

Catching lunch on the Amazon River

Catching lunch on the Amazon River

  1. La Tuna

Much to my initial confusion, la tuna is not the fish you can find in a can. Tuna, also known as cactus fruit or prickly pear, is a fruit cultivated in Peru since ancient times. It is oval with a thick skin, green or orange to red in color. The bright red to purple inside contains many small seeds and tastes similar to a juicy, extra sweet watermelon and can be processed into jams, jellies, and juices.

La Tuna

La Tuna

Wash down any of these foods with the Peruvian favorites Inka Kola, limonada, or chicha morada (a sweet drink made from purple corn) and you’ll be sure to have a delicious meal.

Rendered Breathless at Machu Picchu

The region of Cusco in Peru brings together history, adventure, and a mystique that surrounds the entire Urubamba Valley. Within the mountains lies a wealth of Spanish colonial towns, awe-inspiring Andean vistas, and most famously, Machu Picchu. It is to this fascinating and storied land that I am heading.

Cusco, Peru, Schell, Photo 1

Stunning views of the Andes Mountains on the plane

Cusco, also called the “Rome of the Incas,” is studded with some of the finest Inca ruins in South America, thanks to having been the capital of the Inca Empire before Spanish conquistadors colonized and appropriated the lands of Peru. The city also happens to sits at a dizzying altitude of 11,200 feet that makes Denver’s altitude of less than 6,000 feet look like child’s play.

Sucking in what little oxygen I can from the thin Andean air I am grateful that we are going down in altitude from the city of Cusco to the Sacred Valley towards Machu Picchu. It is easy to become winded with a mild headache from the high altitude. Mate de coca, a tea made with an infusion of coca leaves, is what the locals recommend. The adjustment to the altitude is easily ignored, however, when you focus on the incredible scenery. The rain-swollen river, snow-capped mountains, and clear skies make the two hour train to Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu feel much too short.

Urubamba Valley, Cusco, Peru, Schell, Photo 2

On the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes

The beauty of the train ride through the mountains is only the precursor to Machu Picchu, one of the new 7 wonders of the world. This sacred citadel was abandoned by the Inca, reclaimed by the jungle, and lost to history until it was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911 and excavated. When Bingham rediscovered Machu Picchu, it is said he took around 2,000 photos for the National Geographic Society. Today, visitors seem to want to surpass his amount of photos. Even I myself fall victim to taking hundreds of photos, but none of them fully capture the history and significance of its magnificence. Photos don’t do this place justice. Some things- like the pureness of the air and the firmness of the land-  simply can’t be photographed and that is part of what makes it so beautiful.

Machu Picchu, Peru, Schell, Photo 3

My view of the mountains from the Sun Gate

As I walk through the ruins I hold my hand out, dragging the pads of my fingertips across Inca walls. The smooth blocks are so tightly fitted that even 500 years after they were put into place you can’t slip a pin between them. I think of the people who have come here before me– People who didn’t have the luxury of planes and buses and trains to get here. People who hiked for weeks to come and had never seen photos of the famous mountains. I think about how incredible it would have been to see it for the first time.

Machu Picchu, Peru, Schell, Photo 4

Beautiful vistas at Machu Picchu

There are still people today who have saved up money their entire lives to make the trip here. When I arrive, it is easy to ignore the tourists milling around with selfie sticks and just take a moment to reflect. I am really here, a moment I have been waiting for for years, and it is better than I ever thought it would be. I don’t know if it’s the high altitude, the pure beauty, or a mixture of both, but I’m left breathless.

Machu Picchu, Peru, Schell, Photo 5

Fun fact- you can stamp your passport at Machu Picchu

Want to read more about Peru? Check out “How Peru Changed My Life”

Learning to Trust Myself: My First 48 Hours in Peru

Do a quick image search on the word “adventure” or “study abroad” and you’ll see everything from cliff divers to white water rafters in a wide array of perfectly tumblr-esque pictures. Stunning images of people who are propelled by adrenaline and seemingly devoid of fear show off how they treat the world as one giant playground.

Insert me. I’ve always been lost, timid, anxious. There’s doubt in my chest, fear in the slope of my shoulders, and I constantly question how much I should trust myself. I am, by no stretch of the imagination, the tumblr-esque picture of adventure. I don’t take risks much at all. Or ever.

But here I find myself landing in a foreign country I know very little about, about to embark on a four month experience living in Lima, Peru and studying with local students at la Universidad del Pacífico.

There are a million thoughts zooming through my head as the plane lands but mostly I’m focused on a random phrase that pops into my head, comfort makes for complicity. To me it means that the only way to grow is by challenging yourself, broadening your horizons, and being ready for whatever life throws at you.

My first glance of my new home.

Grateful to stretch out my legs after hours of sitting, I’m enjoying the buzzy mix of adrenaline and elation bubbling in my bloodstream as I land. A flurry of Chinese, Italian, French, Spanish, and English greets me and I fumble my way through the airport.

Before I meet the woman I’ll call my home stay mom for the next four months, I flatten my hair nervously as if that will somehow make it look like I haven’t been traveling for the better part of the past 20 hours. My brain is clouded by a need to sleep but adrenaline seems to have wired my eyes open. She speaks to me in a whirlwind of Spanish and I’m left in a new bed, a new apartment, a new city, and a new country.

The next morning, my home stay mom speaks to me again in rapid fire Spanish and I suddenly feel my throat tighten. My eyes suddenly sting and I’m left floundering. She asked if I wanted my eggs scrambled or fried, right? I find myself frustrated. The switch in my brain between English and Spanish is refusing to budge and I find myself just nodding my head, much to her confusion.

Accepting comfort is starting to sound good to me. Simply walking to the ISA office turned into a monumental task when my roommate and I took a wrong turn and literally got lost on our own block. To an outsider, everything- from the sprawling city’s traffic patterns to the bus system- is particularly confusing.

The street in the Jesus Maria District

My first few days here in Lima have been at times overwhelming but I remind myself that it’s natural to face language barriers. It’s normal to get lost in a city you’re not familiar with.  It’s part of the experience to face challenges and cultural differences.

The moment comes when you have to decide if you’re going to embrace challenges abroad for what they are, or if you’re going to stubbornly hold on to your comfort zone. I chose the former and it has made me a much more flexible and empathetic person because of it.

I can already feel myself changing. I can’t help but feel at home here, even if it’s a vastly different world from the one I’ve grown up in. I’m starting to prefer the sound of Spanish to English, I’m starting to get around the city more comfortably, and I can affirm the cliché with some pride that study abroad really has helped me to grow as a person and expand my comfort zone.

My best advice for starting your adventure abroad is to embrace the unknown. Comfort is overrated. Try to do the things that scare you as often as you can. The best way to learn about yourself and your host culture is to test your own limits.