Sarah Lyon '13 in Peru

Lyon, center, with young local weaving students, at el Museo Inca in Cusco. The weavers are wearing traditional clothes from their community; the students had woven their blankets themselves.

Sarah Lyon ’13 decided after a summer in Ecuador that she wanted to follow up her Spanish training with six months in Cusco, Peru during the spring and summer of 2012.  After completing a semester at the School of International Training (SIT), the Monson, Massachusetts, native began an internship at the nearby Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC). At the Center, she works on organizing the museum’s collection and photo archive, writes brochures in English and Spanish for the weavers in Cusco, puts together a monthly newsletter, does some weaving herself, and, perhaps most importantly, works on putting together a book of weaving designs that have traditionally been recorded only in the weavers’ memories.  Lyon will return to the U.S. and to Williams at the beginning of the fall.

Where, specifically, did you go, and why?

I went to Cusco, Peru, with School of International Training (SIT) on their program Peru: Indigenous People and Globalization.  I arrived at the beginning of February and I will be here until Sept. 1st, in total 7 months. I decided to study abroad in Peru for a variety of reasons.  First, I wanted to practice my Spanish, so that narrowed my options to Spanish speaking countries.  I wasn’t interested in Spain mainly because I felt that everyone who wanted to study Spanish went to Spain, and I wanted a different experience.  Also, I had done an internship at a tutoring program in a poor barrio called Guasmo Sur in Guayaquil, Ecuador, the summer before, at a community center called El Movimiento Mi Cometa.  After living in a coastal city, I wanted to know what life was like in the Andes (the coast and the sierra (mountains) are two very, very different regions).  So I started looking at programs  situated mainly in the Andes.  I finally decided on the SIT program in Cusco because after doing a little investigation into the city, I found that they had a prominent textile museum/center called the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC), and I was very interested in studying exactly that.

What was the biggest “culture shock” for you on entering Peru?

Cusco, Peru

I can’t think of any huge culture shock on entering Cusco.  I knew most of the big ones from my years of working with Mi Cometa.  It wasn’t Cusco culture that shocked me; it was the tourist culture.  Cusco survives on tourism and the touristic center of the city around la Plaza del Armas is teeming with tourists, here for just a week or two.  What shocked me was just how little these people knew about where they were, the effect their presence and money had on the place they were visiting, and how little they cared to find out more about Cusco.  Unfortunately, there is a lot of corruption in the tourism business, and often tourists think they are supporting local people, but in reality the money is fed back into the rich hands of the large tourism agencies. Additionally there is a lot of racism here against people of darker skin and indigenous features, and often restaurants, bars and discotecas that cater specifically to rich tourists flat out refuse to let Peruvians enter or make them pay.  Most tourists don’t have an inkling about this and only fuel the system, and unfortunately I have seen that many just aren’t interested in knowing.  They are just here to have a good time and don’t care about the consequences; they will be gone in a week or two.  For me that has been the greatest shock.  I can’t imagine not wanting to know everything about the place I am traveling in.

How did your expectations of the culture of Peru change as you became acquainted with it?

I’m not sure if I had any expectations of the culture of Peru.  I can’t think of any.  But concerning expectations I would say to always keep an open mind because things just simply aren’t going to be what you expect or what you want. They will be totally different, and if you keep an open mind and always want to learn, you are going to find things better than what you expected.  I keep learning crazy new things everyday, and now that its almost time to come back, I know there is so much more still to see and I’m not sure I’m ready to return!

Does your experience abroad relate at all to your major?  Will you incorporate your experience at all into, say, an independent study or thesis?

My time abroad sort of relates to my major, Art History.  The SIT study abroad program I participated in was based on anthropology, so the classes aren’t going to count toward my major.  However, at the end of every SIT program is a part called ISP, Independent Student Project, when you have a month to investigate the theme of your choice and then write a thirty- to forty-page report on it.  I studied traditional textiles of Chinchero and Huilloc and was told that this could count toward my major. And I would love more than anything to turn this into my thesis or to continue my research in an independent study.  The majority of the work I did was field-based research, interviews, surveys etc., and I need to expand it with secondary sources.

Has your study abroad experience affected what you think you’ll do as a career or what you will be interested in in the future?

Yes! My experience abroad has most definitely shaped how I see my future unfolding.  I have always been interested in textiles, sewing, quilting, weaving, but have never formally studied this.  It’s only ever been a hobby.  After studying and working here this is what I want to do more than anything, mostly because now I can see that there actually is some kind of work in what I love to do, that it can be more than a hobby.  My advisor for my ISP is the head of CTTC, the textile center that initially attracted me to Cusco. The Center has an internship/volunteer position that I applied for when I started my ISP.  Right after finishing my ISP, I began to work at the CTTC with another student in the same position who was funded by a Fullbright grant. My advisor has told me that there would be a lot of work for me here if I ever chose to return, essentially saying that I have work here if I want to come back after I graduate.  Which is exactly what I am thinking about now.  I would love to see if I can combine some kind of grant, like the Fullbright, with a graduate program in textiles. We’ll see.

And yes, I have enjoyed the experience and continue to do so!  I would recommend, more than anything else you do at Williams, to get out of Williams, study abroad, and see something new.  Studying abroad, at least for me, has taught me so much that I would never have been able to learn at Williams, mostly outside the classroom.  To be totally honest, most study abroad programs are not going to be as academically rigorous as Williams.  But for me the whole point of studying abroad was not the classes I was taking, but everything I learned outside of the classroom,  just living in another place totally different from where I grew up in Massachusetts, and where I go to school, also in Massachusetts.  This has taught me more than any class on it in Williams could have taught me.