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6 American Habits I Lost When I Moved to Peru

by Kayla Washko Apr 4, 2015

1. Ordering seafood past 2 p.m.

Listen, I grew up in the Laurel Highlands of Western Pennsylvania, where buying truly “fresh” seafood was never an option. So imagine my surprise when, after falling in love with Lima’s exquisite seafood, I made the following suggestion to a group of friends:

“Let’s get ceviche for dinner tonight.”

They stared at me in silence for a moment.

And then they burst into laughter.

Needless to say, I looked like an ignorant fool, because ceviche and other seafood dishes are not typically served past lunchtime. The reason? They say the fish loses its freshness after twelve hours. While I learned to accept this rule, there was one idiosyncrasy I could never quite wrap my head around: ceviche is off-limits, but Limeños don’t think twice about eating nigiri sushi for dinner.

2. Buying personal bottles of beer.

When I’m out with a group of friends in the States, we each tend to buy our own personalized 12-ounce bottle of beer. But in Peru, it’s more common for a group of friends to buy one or two big bottles to share among the group. Most times, each drinker gets his/her own refillable plastic cup, but occasionally, only one cup is given, obliging members to drink their fill before passing the coveted glass onto a friend. It might not be the most sanitary form of consumption, but it promotes a level of sociability I grew to respect.

3. Thinking of people as “acquaintances.”

When I first moved to Lima, I joined Conversation Exchange as a way to practice my Spanish with native speakers. I met up with a Peruvian girl for coffee once who was perfecting her English for an upcoming study abroad experience in Australia. We had a nice chat, but didn’t make plans to see each other again. A few months later, she sent me a direct message on Facebook to invite me to her sendoff party. I realized that had it been the other way around, I would not have done the same. I would have invited only close friends and family members to bid me farewell.

It was then I learned that when you meet a Peruvian, they are quicker to count you in than to count you out. I can’t tell you how many seemingly one-off interactions with Peruvians led to these types of invitations, but I can tell you that it made me more open to expanding my own definition of friendship.

4. Flushing toilet paper.

In the United States, we don’t give a second thought to flushing our toilet paper. But in Peru, you’ll see the message “Por favor, no botar papeles en el inodoro” posted in almost every bathroom stall. Some argue that this rule is due to the country’s “unsophisticated plumbing,” while others claim the t.p. won’t actually clog the toilet. I always aired on the side of caution. No one wants to be the gringa responsible for clogging the toilet…

5. Relying on metered taxis.

In Peru, taxis do not have a meter. There are pros and cons to this unregulated system of transport. The pros: no minimum ride fee, and no fuel or “wait time” surcharges. The con: haggling with the driver before you get in the car. As a new expat, it can be difficult to navigate these negotiations when you don’t know how much a ride to the airport or a quick trip to the supermarket should cost. I’ve even had friends who thought they negotiated a fair price in soles, only to be told by the wily driver at ride’s end that he had been negotiating in dollars (thus making the ride about two and a half times more expensive).

I felt uncomfortable and hesitant at first because in the United States, I’m accustomed to paying a set price for everything. But learning how to skillfully negotiate is sort of a rite of passage in Peru, and I ended up taking pride in my new skill, especially when I could show it off in front of my Peruvian friends.

6. Expecting to find posted schedules and routes for buses.

As Americans, we’re accustomed to planning trips by checking pre-posted bus routes and schedules. These schedules are easily accessible in brochures, websites, and downloadable apps. Heck, you can even plan your trip by plugging Point A and Point B into Google Maps and clicking the bus icon. In Peru, demystifying the transit system is not nearly as simple. Apart from the newly constructed Metropolitano and Lima Metro, transit is largely privatized in Lima and the rest of the country in the form of dilapidated microbuses (known as combis). While there are plenty of combis on the road, good luck finding a schedule or route map to plan your trip. And you can definitely kiss the concept on arriving on-time again goodbye.

My first six months in Lima, I rarely traveled by combi without a Peruvian onboard to guide me. When I did, I would shyly ask the cobrador if the combi traveled to my destination and ask him to alert me when to get off. It was only after I got comfortable with combi culture that I finally felt like I could call myself a true expat.

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