Initial Culture Shocks in Arequipa, Peru

Culture shock is natural when leaving home. I felt the most when I moved to the greater Los Angeles area. It’s similar to getting a new phone. Learning all these new buttons and functions can be a pain. It’s not that you pull your hair out and have a panic attack, but having to learn new things is different – a shock.

Last weekend I made good friends with two Argentine guys. We kept contrasting Peru with our home countries. We agreed neither culture is better or worse, but different.


I’d been to South America before, so I was ready for a difference in traffic rules. But I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly what. The first thing to notice is the use of the horn. You hear less honking in Midtown Manhattan during rush hour than Arequipa any hour of the day. In most of America, the horn is used to alert another driver of danger or if you’re mad at that other driver. In addition to these, the horn is used in Peru to alert a driver that you are in the next lane, to pass a car, when you have been sitting still for a few minutes, or if you’re bored. If a cab sees you on the corner and wants to let you know he’s available for hire, he may honk. When approaching an intersection and the driver doesn’t want to stop, he’ll honk. One day I was crossing the street at a stoplight for which I had the green. The light turned yellow when I was about halfway across. One of the taxis waiting at the red light honked, I assume to let me know that his green light would be coming soon. The decibel level outside my apartment is higher than any place I’ve lived or even visited during all waking hours of the day.

Constant honking is necessary for the difference in driving style. There are few streetlights in the narrow, short streets of Arequipa. Cars, taxis, combis (buses), and pedestrians all navigate the streets by getting in where they fit in. I’ve seen cars, including taxis and combis, turn right from the left lane in front of a car going straight. At intersections with stop signs, stopping is optional. But who has the right of way? Whoever gets there first. Right of way here is like a game of chicken. If two cars are each headed in contradictory directions, each one will continue to drive until one stops. This is how lanes are changed too. The right to any space in the street is determined by who can get there first, which usually involves enticing another driver to back off.


I take a combi to work every day. A combi is the public transportation equivalent to a bus. The size of these combis ranges from a bona fide bus to one of those old VW buses. The insides are hollowed out with benches against the walls and rails along the ceilings for standing passengers. You enter through a door behind the passenger seat, which is managed by a cobrador, or attendant.

The cobrador is responsible for collecting money, announcing the combi’s destination to passersby on the street, and punching the timecard. A second person is needed to take money and make change because the driver is preoccupied with navigating through traffic. The combi doesn’t stop at clearly defined bus stops. It’ll pick up anybody along the route and drop anybody off anywhere. Sometimes you literally jump on while it’s still moving and the cobrador runs alongside and hops on afterwards.

Combis don’t have a big, illuminated sign on the roof like buses in the States. Instead, they have a few cutouts reading its major stops taped to the inside of the windshield. So a cobrador is also needed to announce the destinations to those who don’t see or read.The cobrador is screaming out the side door almost the whole time the bus is in motion.

Finally, the cobrador is responsible for punching the time card. Similar to the time cards I used to punch when I worked minimum wage jobs in the mid-nineties, time-clocks are located on various street corners along the route. In traffic, you can see a cobrador sprinting down the sidewalk among pedestrians, punch his timecard, and run back to the combi to hop on. This saves the combi from having to stop.

As you’ve probably pictured, the bus can be absolutely packed. Being 6’3 and 225 lbs, I feel especially out of place because I can’t stand up straight or fit into many places.


Dogs running the streets without leashes are quite common. I haven’t seen a leashed dog yet. Within my first hour here, I saw a prowling dog and froze up like a deer in headlights. Roy told me to relax. I came to see that they are quite domesticated without leashes and almost never bite. I see at least a dozen dogs per day running free. You can walk by them as if they were human and they never bark or snarl or try to get you to pet them. Sometimes, especially at night, I’ll see packs of six or seven dogs running around together. I developed a theory about the dogs and shared it with a Peruvian. I said all the Arequipeño dogs that didn’t have a fear of cars in their genetic DNA were naturally selected out of the gene pool by this hectic traffic. This explains why I must’ve seen a hundred dogs running the streets, but I haven’t seen any dead ones. He told me my theory is wrong. Drivers hit dogs often, but they dispose of them immediately. They stop the car and dispose of the dog? How? Where? They throw them in the trash, he told me.


Having been to South America before, I knew about the little trash can next to the toilet. The first few wads of used toilet paper go in the toilet, but the rest get folded and discarded in the trash can. What is new to me is that I haven’t found a functioning hot water faucet yet. My shower has a box affixed to the shower-head. After turning on the cold water, I turn the switch to this box on to heat the cold water as it leaves the shower-head. It doesn’t get very hot but does guarantee that I am in and out of the shower quickly.

Public toilets are almost never stocked with toilet paper. Public toilets don’t have a toilet seat affixed to the bowl. You can see the holes where a seat was affixed at one time, but they were all removed. If you need to sit down, you sit down on the bowl. In my office, somebody took the time to type, print, and place a sign over the toilet which reads “DEMUESTREN SU CULTURA, APRENDAN A USAR EL SERVICIO HIGIENICO.” This loosely translates to “SHOW SOME CLASS, LEARN TO USE THE BATHROOM PROPERLY.” This toilet does not have a seat, there is never toilet paper or paper towels, and the lock on the door doesn’t work.

More little things coming later.

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