6 Things to Get Used to When Living in Cusco

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Moving to Cusco for a year was not a decision that either Caroline or I took lightly. While Caroline spent her semester studying abroad in Buenos Aires and exploring South America, it is my first time in the southern hemisphere.

I like to think of myself as a bright and open person, willing to try new things, but there are just some things that my liberal arts degree (with a minor in Hispanic Studies I might add) did not prepare me for…

1. Not flushing toilet paper
This is the golden rule in Cusco. For some reason, this is one of the strangest things to me. Also, you have to learn to carry TP with you everywhere. You know you’re in a nice place when they have toilet paper in the bathroom waiting for you.

2. Stray dogs EVERYWHERE
You don’t see a lot of stray cats around in Cusco, probably because there is an insurmountable amount of stray dogs in the area. Peruvian views of “man’s best friend” are different from what I’m used to in the States. First, nobody wants a “worthless” female dog so they often go unsold and end up on the street. Second, it is uncommon to neuter your dog because, in the machisimo culture, it would be inhumane to take away your dog’s masculinity. This leads to an unfortunate cycle with an increasing number of unclaimed dogs. The city’s current solution is putting rat poison in the trash bags on the streets (stray dogs’ most reliable source of food).

3. Learning how to ride the bus
If I didn’t have Ali and Carly to show us exactly how to take the various modes of transportation, I’d probably be alone and crying on a Cusqueñan stoop after peeing my pants out of fear. The bus system is great because it is so cheap (only 70 centimos – about 22 cents), but that’s pretty much the best thing about it. It is usually very crowded, making it difficult to get on and off. There is virtually no leg room in any of the seats, if you’re lucky enough to grab one. There are no lists or route maps for any of the buses, only the main stops are listed on the side of the vehicle. Bus stops have a blue sign, but the name of the bus stop is not written anywhere; therefore, you have to listen and look to match up the name of the stop to the location. Thankfully, after two months of making mistakes, I finally feel confident in my ability to get anywhere in the city by bus.

4. People calling me “Mami”
I am not a mother and will not be anytime soon, so this is not a name I am used to being called. My initial thought was this was a degrading way to get the attention of a woman walking on the street, and I just need to keep my head down and ignore it. But after doing some research, I learned that this is in fact a term of endearment. Whether it’s one of my chicas, a casera, or a construction worker, I am still getting used to being someone’s “Mami.”

5. Being out of breath on the uphill
Cusco’s location in the valley of the Andes around 11,200 feet means the air is low-oxygen. Let’s just say the combination of these two geographical facts is not pleasant. After spending an extended amount of time here, you get over the initial shock of no oxygen and the risk of altitude sickness (nausea, headaches, loss of appetite, etc.) but one symptom that never goes away is shortness of breath, even while doing activities that are easy at sea level. So many stairs!

6. Paying to pet or take pictures with the baby lambs
In the main square, Plaza de Armas, and the surrounding areas, women and children wear traditional Andean outfits and carry baby lambs adorning the cutest little hats you’ve ever seen. Of course, these women are trying to make a profit, so you have to pay to interact with the little lambs. The struggle is real. I know once I start to pay to pet the lambs, I’m going to keep coming back, and soon enough I am going to come home with a little lamb in a hat. I’m not sure how our landlady would feel about that!

While I am still trying to make Cusco home, this process of settling in is scary, but quite the adventure! Every day I fall into another routine while also learning something new. I can’t wait to see what else this chapter of my life has in store for me!

Hasta luego,