Initial Culture Shocks in Arequipa, Peru

I first felt culture shock when I moved to Orange County, Calif. after college. My first weekend there I had to work the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, one of the most hardcore surf scenes, if not the most hardcore, in the world. A couple weeks later the AVP sand volleyball tournament in Newport Beach. My first month in the OC threw me into ground zero of Southern California beach culture.

I was a product of urban Midwest culture, a city particularly devoted to hip hop and rednecks with plain vanilla suburbs in between. The OC was a shock. I felt out of place in a Detroit Pistons basketball jersey. The trucker hats trend hadn’t arrived in St. Louis, but they were everywhere on the beach. There were tattoos, but not like mine. And there were muscles, but not like mine. The OC had tanned PED muscles from magazine covers. Nobody on the beach was as white as me. How did I get that white?

Within a few months I had all but thrown away my dress shoes with rubber soles, and only wore flip flops. Wearing a collar was something for guys over the hill. When I came back to St. Louis for Christmas after less than a year, I felt like the Deliverance characters visiting Appalachia. The obesity, the NASCAR, the worship of sports. What’s wrong with this place?

Culture shock is like getting a new phone. Learning the new buttons and functions can be a pain. You don’t pull your hair out and have a panic attack, but it’s a shock. You get over it. And as I did in California, you become one of them.

Yes, you become one of them. At the end of a year, I was a Californian. A Southern Californian to boot. I had adopted what outsiders see as superficial attitudes and obsession with physical appearance. I remember rationalizing how I should not have overweight females for friends. That sounds absurd to a non-Californian, but it makes sense to many Californians. And I had somehow arrived there. Coming from Missouri, imagine!


I’d been to South America before, so I was ready for a difference in traffic rules. 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, buses and pedestrians all navigate the streets by getting in where they fit in. I’ve seen cars, including taxis and buses, 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, so he doubles as a carnival barker.

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.

The buses can be crowded. Being 6’3 and 225 lbs, I often can’t stand up straight or fit into many places.


Dogs running the streets without leashes are common. I haven’t seen a leashed dog yet. Within my first hour here, I saw a prowling dog on a downtown street and froze up like a deer in headlights. Roy told me to relax. I came to see they are domesticated without leashes, and almost never bite.

I see a dozen dogs every day now. They don’t 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 have seen 100 dogs running the streets, but haven’t seen any dead ones.

My friend 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 bin 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. My shower has a box affixed to the shower-head. After turning on the cold water, I turn on the switch to this box 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 never stocked with toilet paper. Public toilets often don’t have a plastic 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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