What Going to Peru Taught Me About Business…and Life

Molly McCowan Business Storytelling 5 Comments

Ever since I studied abroad in Spain and backpacked across western Europe, I’ve had wanderlust. My husband and I both speak Spanish, and we try to go to Mexico every other year or so. We prefer to travel off the beaten path, so you usually won’t find us at the common tourist hot spots. Instead, we rent a car and drive from town to town, getting to know the locals, going horseback riding at out-of-the-way ranches, searching for the best swimming beaches, getting pulled over by the Federales (yes, they really do ask for bribes), and learning how to cook traditional dishes.

Traveling to Spanish-speaking countries pushes me to live in a language that’s not always easy or comfortable. In fact, a lot of the time it’s quite challenging and uncomfortable—especially when I’m lost in a new city or trying to express something complicated. I haven’t written much about my love for traveling, but it really does make me a better editor, writer, business owner, and human being.

The Rewards of Going Outside of Your Comfort Zone

I was recently talking with one of my longtime clients, a Ph.D.-level researcher from Israel. English isn’t her first language, but she needs to write papers, teach classes, and speak at conferences using it. She does very well, but we had an interesting discussion about how hard it is to feel like yourself in a second language. You’re not able to express yourself like you would in your first language, and it’s almost as if you adopt a second personality to go along with the second language. The more languages you learn and countries you live in, the more the question becomes, Are people getting to know the real me? 

This client also brought up the importance of having an editor if you’re writing professional-level work in your second or third language. She applied this to her area of expertise (communication studies), saying to me, “You are the medium through which I share my ideas.” She talked about the difficulty and frustration of not knowing the exact word to use in English when discussing complex research theories, and said that this is where I often help her: I make sure that her insights are expressed as precisely as possible, that her research will be understood, and that her writing accurately conveys what she wants to portray—all without changing her voice or writing style.

I’m a big believer in pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, and I enjoy challenging myself when I travel. Feeling like an outsider reminds me that the world is a very big place with tons of different languages and cultures—all with their own beauty. It puts things in perspective and makes me think about communication, language, and identity.

Trekking, Canoeing, and Riding Horses Through Peru

My most recent trip was a three-week excursion to Peru, in late September and early October. A friend and I trekked and canoed through the Amazon cloud forest and rainforest, our eyes wide in amazement whenever we spotted a bird, monkey, or gigantic spider. Our guide would point to a bug and casually say, “Don’t touch it, it will kill you.” He taught us that you can eat termites out of the nest (they taste like lemon), and one time he handed us little flowers and told us to eat them. We chewed them and were about to swallow when he—again, very casually—mentioned, “Don’t swallow—it’s poison.” (My whole mouth went numb for about twenty minutes; it turned out that the flowers were used as an anesthetic.)

After we returned from the Amazon, we rode Peruvian Pasos in the mountains near Cusco, visiting terraced Incan ruins and learning how the Incans were master horticulturalists and astronomers. Then we spent two days hiking to and around Machu Picchu, in awe of its grandeur and stunning beauty, which made us feel tiny and insignificant (word-nerd trivia: in Romantic and Gothic fiction, this is called the awe of the sublime).

Life in Peru moves more slowly; Peruvians take the time to sit on the stoop and chat with neighbors, take a leisurely stroll around the main plaza, spend hours roasting cuy (guinea pig) and entertaining family and friends, or enjoy a pisco sour and watch the sun set over the mountains. Even though poverty is rampant, sick and injured street dogs are everywhere, and many families live on the equivalent of $1 a day, Peruvians seem to smile and laugh often, and they are usually very welcoming and polite to newcomers (even though they are a bit shy with strangers). They’re very proud of their Incan heritage, and most still observe Incan customs, like spilling a bit of their drink on the ground as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth).

What Peru Taught Me

My trip to Peru came during a difficult time in my business. I had agreed to take on more projects than I could handle, and I was pulling all-nighter after all-nighter trying to finish everything. Hours before I boarded the plane, I was still frantically putting the finishing touches on a book, sending the files to the author and texting her to make sure she had everything she needed before I went offline for a few weeks. It was hellishly stressful, and it taught me a hard lesson: know your limits.

Although my trip to Peru was a non-stop, whirlwind adventure without a lot of downtime, I returned to Colorado with a much bigger perspective on my work as an editorial business owner. The trip was a welcome (and needed) slap in the face: a wake-up call that screamed, “Life is bigger than your work! Quit overloading yourself with projects and stop to smell the roses.” It also reminded me not to take the little things for granted: hot water (hot showers!) on demand, access to a washing machine, drinking water straight from the tap, and being able to flush toilet paper are still small miracles to me.

So, word nerds, stop what you’re doing right now—this instant—and think about what you have to be thankful for. Hug your loved ones extra hard today. Take a relaxing walk and tune in to nature (it’s fall here in Colorado, and the leaves are a cascade of bright reds, yellows, and oranges). Take a deep breath and just be: there is more to life than work, and those experiences are what make life worth living.

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Where do you want to go next? What does traveling mean to you? How does speaking another language broaden your mind? Let me know in the comments.

Molly McCowan
Molly McCowan is a professional writer and editor from Fort Collins, Colorado. As the Lead Word Nerd at Inkbot Editing, it's her job to make you look good.