In His Shoes
After a year of coordinating, perhaps I was already numb to the idea, or maybe it was the adrenaline of adventure pumping through my veins. Nevertheless, as I stood at the edge of the Redmond Airport, I was doing anything other than standing still.
A year of planning and anticipation funneled into this moment. After all that time, the trip meant more to me than any vacation I had done in my life. The journey became my chance to get to know my uncle.
Seven years ago, my uncle, Tyler Anderson, passed away in a mountaineering accident slightly outside his hometown: Huaraz, Peru. At nine years old, I was never able to know him in the way that one should know their relatives. Nevertheless, it has been his legacy that has had a large impact on my family, changing our lives and mantras. A year prior to heading to Peru, my disconnect with my uncle's identity struck me. All of the stories I had heard of him were other people's views of him. The best I could’ve had was a second hand idea of who he was. I decided the only way for me to discover my uncle was to live in his shoes.
From this idea I began to explore others. I decided to travel to Huaraz, Peru, the town my uncle spent his life in. I never understood his love for the place, I had to see for myself.
However, while my uncle found joy trekking in the mountains, I find it working with kids. For this reason, I doggedly emailed two of my uncle’s best friends, Jenn Hrinkevich and Ted Alexander. These two had a herculean work ethic: they owned a restaurant, school, bar, brewing company, and tour agency. It was the school in particular that interested me, everything from its alternative nature to the outdoor setting spoke to me. I was nothing if not persistent so, after months, I landed myself with a job volunteering at their school. I was living in my uncle's town but as my own person.
So there I was, at the Redmond Airport, a pseudo-adult with a mission: discovering myself by living in the space someone else left behind.
After landing in Lima, Peru, I sought out my friend Diego. A lifelong local, Diego was quick to offer to spend the day with me as I wait for my bus ride — Lima was his city and he wanted to show me it’s beauty.
Whenever we drove, we spent our car rides chatting about Peruvian history, politics government and law. My grandmother told stories of my uncle Tyler’s knowledge of Peru. If her stories are to be true he won a night stay in a hotel from a trivia event against a busload of natives. In his spirit — and with a healthy dose of my own interest — I listened attentively, soaking up every word.
The first stop on Diego's itinerary was at a restaurant that served traditional Peruvian breakfasts. Sitting down at the table it was not the rich food that was memorable, it was the experience of paying for the meal. Seeing as Diego was so kind to show me a great time, it seemed almost natural for me to pay for our food. I slid some soles to the waiter and told Diego we were paid and ready to go. He turned to me and said, “Never do that again.”
Needless to say, I was shocked. Diego acted as if I had insulted him, yet all I did was return a favor. However, in his eyes, the kindness was no service to be repaid: it was a gift. Leaving the restaurant I couldn't stop thinking how this uncalled for selflessness is something I wouldn’t experience in the United States.
Seeing this foreign sense of companionship that Diego harbored, I realized one of the reasons my uncle loved this place so much. The
I arrived in Huaraz, Peru and spent my first day acclimating. Maybe it was the 10,000 feet of elevation, or perhaps it was the all miles-away-from-home catching up to me, but I was happy to have a day to ease into my new life.
The next day I headed off to Semillas de Vida, the school where I found a position to teach. Jenn offered to come with me to school on my first day and introduce me to the staff.
On my first day the teachers sent me to the wolves: I was slotted to teach a engineering activity… entirely in Spanish. Looking at the squirrely kids playing in front of me, I had two thoughts. The first was, Oh boy, here we go. Then, But what a better way to learn. So without fear, I jumped in.
My uncle was described to have this attitude, saying, “Screw it I may as well try.” Being in Huaraz didn't make me into my uncle, but it showed me the parallels that exist between us.
After the first day, my two weeks of teaching flew by. The students became like my little siblings; the teachers, my close friends. I came to school and the younger students would shout, “Wellllll!” Recesses were spent sending kids flying on the swings, and lunches were spent sitting and chatting with the staff. I had found my niche and another reason my uncle loved this community so much.
It was the school's atmosphere that was most unique. The teachers played and joked with the students and the kids reciprocated — one of the teachers had a birthday and the students attacked her with water, eggs and flour. The whole community flowed because of an activity every Friday where students and teachers brought grievances to the group and worked collaboratively to solve them. They shared a commitment to each other that changed the way I looked at my own relationships with people.
Aside from the relationships formed, the challenge of teaching was something I came to embrace. The teachers treated me like an adult, valuing my input and even allowing me to construct a whole unit. Each time I had self doubt, I reflected on the memory of my uncle. When he first came to Huaraz, he barely spoke Spanish. His tenacious spirit drove him to practice everywhere from Mexican restaurants in the United States to around a table full of guides.
After my two weeks of teaching came to a close, my last week flew by. I felt a connection with my uncle like I had never before. I went to the places he used to dance, I hiked the trails he used to hike, I lived the way he lived.
The three weeks I spent in Peru showed me the beauty that my uncle found there. An unexpected hospitality was displayed by almost everyone I met. I felt genuine connections with each person I got to know, from the hotel manager to a stranger who I kept bumping into on the streets after asking for directions.
Adventure lay around every corner — mountains loomed on all sides just waiting to be explored and the people I met were open to conversations that left you seeing the world differently.
Finally, in this Peruvian hamlet, I had the ability to chose to reinvent myself to be whoever I aspired to be. Though initially, this person was my uncle, I came to realize his style of life was just that: his. Though I didn't always live his life, I always lived in his honor. Instead, I found I could be an educator, a pseudo-adult, an explorer, or even my uncle's nephew.