I found myself sitting in a little mountain hut in the Austrian Alps enjoying my coffee after lunch. With a breath-taking view of the massive mountain range, I was caught in my thoughts, recalling the past and basically thinking about my life as a young man suddenly stumbled over my table looking lost and confused. I asked him kindly if he would need any help and I quickly realised that he could not speak a word of German and only broken English. “Español“, was the word he gasped. A switch turned in my head and I repeated my question in his mother tongue. From the look on his face, I recognized that he was surprised to find a person speaking Spanish literally in the middle of nowhere. As a kind person and always willing to help, I invited him to sit with me at my little table next to the big window so he could relax and calmly explain his situation to me.
“I was lost in the woods for two days in an unknown area”, was his first sentence, and my instant reaction was to order a big plate of Wiener Schnitzel with parsley potatoes, salad and a big jar of water for him. The first thirty minutes, we spent more or less quietly because he was enjoying his food. Due to the fact that he had not eaten in quite a long time, I was very happy to see him satisfy his hunger and thirst. Thinking about being lost in nature and not knowing how to find help was the scariest thing in my view. And it seemed a bit stupid but I did not want to make a judgement before I had heard his story.
He was visibly happy and thankful for the food and beverages. I asked what had happened and how he got that exhausted. He had travelled all the way from Peru to go on a three-week adventure holiday in the Austrian and Swiss Alps with just a backpack. Unfortunately, he had underestimated the power of nature and even though he had been born and raised in a small village in the Peruvian Andes, his knowledge and equipment were not sufficient to do such treks on his own. After four days of walking, he had decided to ascend a climbing path because it was the only way to reach the top of the mountain. He had underestimated the challenges of the route and fell down some two meters and became unconscious for – he didn’t even remember for how long.
After wandering around for more than 24 hours, visibly confused, he was relieved to find this little and secluded hut. But he was even more surprised to encounter a young woman who was fluent in Spanish. Therefore, he asked me where I was from and why I understood him, especially with his Latin American accent. “Well…” I said, “I just came back from Peru.
I lived in Cusco for six months and completed an internship for my studies.” From the look on his face I could tell that he was overwhelmed and pleased to meet me, and our conversation focused on me from that point on. This guy was very eager to hear how I enjoyed his country and what my overall experience had been but I was not able to describe my Peruvian adventure in just a few sentences. That’s why I asked him what he had planned for the rest of the day. As he did not need to see a doctor immediately and the meal had made him feel alive again, we agreed to enjoy the next couple of hours together, sitting in this cosy mountain hut sharing our stories.
I told him that Peru would always be an experience which I would look back on and say: “It was the best but simultaneously the worst time of my life!” Explaining why I came to this conclusion I recalled my past and revived some of my most imprinting moments. I began by asking him to just imagine a young woman with the thirst for adventure leaving her comfort zone and travelling to the other side of the world, not knowing what to expect.
That had been me six months ago when my parents said goodbye with tears in their eyes at the airport. It marked the first moment when I asked myself what the hell I was actually doing. But it was also a moment of excitement – finally I was going to go to South America and to live my dream. Knowing that someone would be waiting for me at the airport in Cusco made me feel comfortable and my motto had always been not to expect too much because then you cannot be disappointed. But when I was driving through the streets of Cusco for the first time after a long flight I asked myself again: “WHAT AM I DOING HERE?!”
Most of the houses were unfinished. There was dirt everywhere and the street dogs scared me. I was in a stadium of shock. Of course, I knew that there were places on our earth where people lived in a less developed environment, but seeing such a place for the first time really opened my eyes. After a few days of settling down in my new home and experiencing the city, I started my internship at a family owned hotel chain in the heart of Cusco. All my colleagues, as well as my boss, made me feel very welcome.
It was clear to me that I needed to improve my Spanish quickly, otherwise I would have some major problems with becoming a member of the Peruvian society. I really enjoyed working in the hotel because the building was an old colonial house with a special and vibrant atmosphere. I shared a desk with my colleague and soon he became my mentor. If any problems arose, he was the first person I would contact. We also shared the same sense of humor. I was the only intern and all my boss said to me was: “I want to know what we can improve in our business!” This posed a challenge to me due to the fact that I was more or less thrown in at the deep end.
Luckily, I found ways to reach that goal and after a short time, I realized that the expectation on my work was not that high. I grew up in a male-dominated environment. Therefore, success was important to me and I had always done my best to achieve goals. I accomplished the task in the usual manner. At the meeting with my boss, I received a lot of recognition which made me feel very proud. But through my work, I also spotted some negative aspects at the company.
As the hotel was family owned, there were big differences in how employees were treated. My boss’s brother, who was responsible for reservations and tour planning, showed up only once or twice a week for a few hours because he was allowed to work from home, and I doubted that he really did. The mother of the two brothers was the owner of the hotel chain, but was not involved in business activities. Nevertheless, she dropped by many times in order to check if the hotel staff was working efficiently. Every day, all receptionists received a free breakfast at the cafeteria, but the housekeeping boys did not. As there was a high unemployment rate in Peru, people were in constant fear of losing their job. They would never come into conflict with their superiors and ask for more rights and equality.
“Ok, I know how the situation is in Peru…,” my new acquaintance said, ”but what about everyday life? Was there anything else which was challenging for you?” I thought back. The toughest moment of my six months in South America was when I ended up in hospital and was all by myself. I could see from his face that he knew exactly how I must have felt because he found himself in a similar situation just now. “Oh my god, what happened?” he gasped and I continued recounting my memories.
The hygienic standards in Peru were simply not as high as in the Western world and even though I got vaccines like Hepatitis A and B before the trip, I experienced some stomach issues during the first couple of weeks. Of course, I did not drink the tap water. But using it when brushing my teeth or drinking table water while having dinner at a restaurant could cause abdominal problems as well. One day, after approximately three months in Cusco, I felt sick again. I told myself, “It will be over soon. Tomorrow is a new day. It is just the effect of living in such a country…” Well actually, not a bit of it was true!
On the fourth day of not eating properly and just drinking Mate de Coca and a lot of water, and still going to work, my colleagues told me to go and see a doctor because I looked very exhausted and was very weak. I contacted my father. He confirmed that my insurance would cover treatment in a private clinic. At this point, the last thing I wanted was to wait for hours in a public hospital and maybe not be given the right treatment. After all, I was on my own. After explaining my conditions to the doctor, she tried to take blood for further examination. But due to my advanced dehydration and exhaustion it was a tiresome procedure.
Afterwards, I immediately received an infusion with analgesic medication. At the same time, I had to talk to my insurance company in Austria and take on the role of an interpreter. I had to make sure that I would get the right treatment and that the private clinic received confirmation that all accrued costs would be fully covered. However, the only thing I really wanted to do was sleep and get some rest. This was the first time I really wished that someone of my family was by my side. I cried myself to sleep.
Even though there were only a few patients in the clinic, it took the whole day for the staff to investigate if I either had a parasite or Salmonella. The nurses were very nice and empathetic, one even held my hand for some time which made me feel more comfortable. At night, they provided me with the necessary antibiotics to treat my salmonellosis and after that I wanted to leave and get some rest at my Peruvian home. But unfortunately it was not as easy as I thought.
The clinic still needed the final confirmation that my insurance would pay 1000 Euros for the treatment. I called the insurance again but the time difference of seven hours posed another problem. In Austria, it was the middle of the night and the documents needed to be checked by a doctor during the day. Luckily, the lady on the phone was very kind and told the hospital employee that the costs would be covered.
“This sounds like a really tough experience, but I am glad that you received the right treatment and everything turned out well. Were there also good times in my country or was it more or less a streak of bad luck,” the Latino asked. I denied immediately, because it was both. As I had mentioned earlier it was the best and worst experience in my life.
I had some magical adventures which will stay in my memories forever, simply because I was able to make them. For instance, my trip to Machu Picchu was just life-changing. All by myself, I went to the small village called Aguas Calientes. I just told myself that this would turn into a precious experience and that it was ok not to share it with anyone. Then, on the train, I sat next to three lovely people from Honduras, namely a boy of my age, his aunt and his cousin.
But it would not have been Peru if the train had left as scheduled. There was a tree blocking the railway and we had to wait for almost two hours until our journey began. To kill time, I engaged in a very nice and interesting conversation with my new acquaintances from Honduras. This marked the point where I, as an ambitious person, really wanted to become fluent in Spanish as I could not say everything I wanted to say. Upon arriving in the small touristic town, I decided to go to the hot springs. This was the only reasonable activity there besides visiting Machu Picchu and I relaxed in the 40°C hot water for some time.
Suddenly, a boy asked me where I was from and I started to talk to him. He told me his story. He was the oldest of four children and his dream was to study tourism and to travel the world. But unfortunately, his parents couldn’t afford to finance his studies as the acceptance exam was very expensive. Curious, I asked him how much it cost and his answer was 300 Soles, approximately 80 Euros. I turned quiet for a second.
It made me realize again how privileged I was, or generally everybody in Austria or Europe. He was amazed to hear how many countries I had visited already, that I spoke several languages and that I was doing this journey all on my own. One the one hand, I thought, that I could easily give him the money so he could pay for his exam, but then, on the other hand, I asked myself if it would really change his life. Would he be able to afford the additional fees for his studies? But I was sure that he would never have accepted the money anyway.
What a different life this boy was living and I was taking mine for granted. He seemed very shy and insecure, and it made me feel very happy that he approached me and that we ended up talking for almost two hours, just sitting in the hot springs. This showed me how different the problems were we needed to deal with, just depending on where we were born or which cultural background we had. That evening, I went to bed with a lot of thoughts in my head. At the same time I was excited, because I would be able to tick visiting Machu Picchu off my bucket list the following day.
I called it faith. The next morning, right at the entrance of the wonder of the world, I met the three Hondurans again, and we decided to spend the day together. They immediately made me feel like I belonged to their group. We fed Lamas and took a tour through the whole area and climbed up to Wayna Picchu – another mountain within the tourist sight of Machu Picchu. I stood at the top, looking down on the ancient Inca ruins which took my breath away, and enjoyed the moment to the fullest. In the end, I shared this beautiful experience not with my Austrian friends but with my new friends from Honduras, a fact that I perceived as very special.
“Machu Picchu is a truly magical place. I have been there several times and it is nice that you as a non-Peruvian appreciate it as well! But how was living in Cusco,” the Latino interfered my recollection. I definitely called Cusco a second home, I replied, and it was always nice to go back there after my weekend travels. But it was also a very touristic city which made it hard to become a part of the community. I mainly lived with international students who participated in voluntary projects in a house close to the city center. Thus, I had people to hang around and go out with but there was constant change. It was exhausting to meet new people and saying good-bye again all the time.
Therefore, I had to come up with a way of meeting Peruvians who were my age and with whom I could catch up with in my free time. Salsa was the way to go. Almost every night, I went to the local Salsa bars and slowly but steadily enhanced my dancing skills. Through Salsa I met a lot of local people and, as I showed up almost every night, I became part of a really nice circle of friends. Basically, I discovered my passion for dancing and additionally practiced my Spanish.
That also showed me how beautiful it can be to live in such a country. The openness of the people simply amazed me and I was thankful that they happily included me in their life. For me, Peru was a beautiful country with gorgeous landscapes and a very interesting history. There was simply so much to explore and it had the power to change one’s life! After coming back home to good old Austria, I needed to settle down. There were moments in which I had to convince myself that all those things really happened in the previous months. When I came back it seemed so surreal that everything in Austria was the same as before I left.
“We live in such a fast-moving world. Experiences like these reduce the pace of your life and it is nice to sit back rewinding the memories and process the encounters and situations. People often tell me that they admire me and they ask why I would want to live at the other end of the world on my own. I have a very basic answer to that: I simply enjoy visiting a new place where nobody knows me. No one has prejudices or has heard stories about me. I compare it to a blank book which is writing itself during my time abroad. Everyone gets the chance to get to know the person I really am. Something that was – unfortunately – not always the case in my past. Additionally, I met so many inspiring people along the way. If you just adopt to little things each and every time you become the person you want to be. You also get to know yourself, your boundaries and capabilities. I can relate my situation to a quote from George Bernard Shaw that Life isn’t about finding yourself, it is about creating yourself.“ I caught my breath and continued.
“The most beautiful thought is that I built my dream and lived it. Creating your life is an ongoing process, until you leave this world. I believe that everybody can make the best out of her or his situation. Some people say that I am just lucky but I tell you I am not. It did not just fall into my lap. There is a lot more to it. It requires openness, ability to adapt, making back bows, and you need to trust in yourself that you are able to make the most of your time and the situation. But this is mostly linked to the cultural background of a person and the possibilities that are available in her or his life.
“Another advantage of travelling on your own is that you are not influenced by your home culture. You perceive things differently than you would experience them with someone from home, like a good friend or family member. It forces you to go out and approach people and leave your comfort zone. It shaped me a lot and I cannot express in words how thankful I am to have made such an experience. Therefore, I treat my memories as a treasure.“
“Very wise words for a young woman! I am very glad you shared your experiences with me and although you had some troubles, I am happy that you also call it the best time of your life,” the Peruvian guy said after I finished. We spent the rest of the evening chatting about a variety of topics. This random encounter showed us that no matter where we go in the world we can meet people who think the same way or understand our situation.
Summary of the scientific part
“A fish discovers its need for water only when it is no longer in it. Our own culture is like water to a fish. It sustains us. We live and breathe through it. What one culture may regard as essential – a certain level of material wealth, for example – may not be so vital to other cultures.” Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner
Culture can be perceived and defined by individuals in various ways. It may not be noticed until the cultural environment changes. Culture is a set of values and believes which are passed on to future generations, or new employees in the context of organizational culture. In order to identify differences between the Austrian and Peruvian culture, Hofstede’s model of cultural dimensions was applied.
Those dimensions explain for instance the inequality between individuals in a society or the degree to which individuals of a culture feel threatened by unknown situations and which measures are taken to avoid those situations. Another factor is if the orientation of a culture towards the future is of higher value compared to that towards the presence. All those factors explain that differences between cultures are important to respect as they contribute to a company’s performance.
In general, it was rather easy to write the story due to the fact that those experiences were made first hand by one of us. There was no need to come up with fictional content. But writing about the negative and tough moments was more difficult because it made her recall the past and relive the feelings she had when experiencing those troubles. Overall, Storytelling was a very good experiences and we would do it again!