Studying abroad: awakening the ache

Anna adjusts to life on her year abroad, which has taken her from Senegal to Peru.

Every nation tastes different. It can be quite a delight to drizzle one onto the tip of your tongue; momentarily savour its flavours, then spit it out before the exoticism fades. Learning to digest a location is very different. Some sludge straight through your stomach and leave it churning. Cumin-charred car fumes: the taste of frustration; acrid temporality, create snaking trails. Others fizzle off the tip of your tongue before they can be snatched between your teeth: fledgling friendships, thieb ou diene; the Call to Prayer. With each new city, fresh/familiar flavours warp and meld into one another: complimenting; clashing, cajoling. Each time, your body has to reset itself and learn to feed off this latest normality.

This is harder than I had anticipated. My life in Senegal feels vociferously muted.  After four months of caterwauling colours abruptly diverted by the dizzying familiarity of seven weeks in Sheffield; suddenly living 2750 meters above sea level in the Peruvian Andes feels surreal.  Gone is the omnipresent shoreline, gone are the mince pies: suddenly “home” becomes Cajamarca. This is a city warring between drinking water and gold mining; this is a city wrestling with its identity as the location where the Incan Empire fell.

Whilst transitioning into Peruvian life, I am conscious that being engaged in any present reality is always a deliberate choice. My mind could easily soar into the future or chug behind on a Dakaroise “car rapide”. Cajamarca’s adventures: opportunities; insights could sludge past, whilst my mind waltzes along to a romanticised alternative.

Thankfully, continual relocation aids me in manoeuvring my mind back to the moment. Self-reflection and continued perseverance have helped me to discover techniques that allow me to thrive:


My body slowly comes alive as Andean air squeezes into my lungs to the clobbering beat of Peruvian pop remixes. The frustrations: confusions; miscalculations of the day stream into sweat as aching limbs and a clamouring heartbeat steal the attention of my mind. In movement, everything stops.

Green spaces

Maps.ME has become an invaluable tool. The App swept me up my first logger’s path into the mountains. As the hours evapourated and the villages slowly dwindled, my feet snuck off along animal tracks: into dry drainage ditches and across tree-trunk bridges that promised the ever-elusive slither of sky, and its awaiting panorama.

This world belongs to the rusted wings of a sapphire-shelled beetle, to the smell of thyme, the croak of crickets: to the eagle’s faithful wingspan. In this land where hummingbirds swoop and rivulets roar, Cajamarca’s clamour falls silent.

Trying something new

After a three-month tussle with the Atlantic Ocean over my surfboard, in Peru, I am weighing up whether to contort my body into the coquettish Cumbia dance, or to attempt women’s football. The time created by living abroad, combined with the demand for human connection, creates the perfect opportunity to teeter further out of my comfort zone.

Accepting cross-cultural grief

There is the temptation to nicely slice life into continent-sized segments. This creates a temporary palatability. Previously, I have lived in Senegal. I normally live in England. For six and a half months I will be living in Peru. With each sweeping separation I can cleave into my emotions; dissecting and ostracising them from my daily experience. To love fully means to hurt completely.

However, by allowing a coagulation of flavours to flood my mouth, I have to learn to swallow this unadulterated concoction.  On a given day, I can be preoccupied for my friends in Dakar as the entire city has been without water for four days, whilst simultaneously appreciating my parents’ photos of Ladybower Reservoir and also trying to decide if the Cactus Fruits in a Cajamarcan market are worth all of the prickles.

Possessing cross-cultural empathy frees me from a single-minded perspective that could exclude anyone outside of my cultural periphery. My acceptance of ‘home’ as a temporary notion allows me to ache for and celebrate a world of inexhaustible variety. Grief births a growing gratitude. What a privilege to pine for worlds that temporarily lie an ocean away!

As my stomach roils over its latest nutritional adjustment, my breathing gradually slows. Every mouthful will become easier than the last. Today I laughed at a joke in Spanish. Yesterday, I discovered a dance school. My jaw will one day grow accustomed to what currently feels like gagging gristle. Food will one day slip down easily. Reminding myself of what an advantage it is to have a gut that laughs at vegetables and tap water from a myriad of locations, I lay back and allow my insides to spitefully gripe. Looking back, every mouthful was worth it.

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