LIMA, PERU--The guy behind me at the Lima airport baggage claim had warned me. "You just can't plan for anything in South America," he said.
He shared these words of wisdom in the midst of a mini airport crisis: The Lost Suitcase.
The situation snowballed as we learned that not one but every single piece of luggage on my flight had been left behind in Atlanta, leaving myself and fellow passengers clueless, baggage-less and clean underwear-less for four days.
This was my first lesson in Peruvian unpredictability.
The subsequent lessons have proved less harsh--and more hygienic--the most important of which has been unlearning seven years of textbook Spanish.
There's a big difference between drooling over novels like Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and actually living its magical realism in the crowded, crazy streets of Lima, where Peru's rich history oozes out of every eclectic storefront and every crumbling colonial mansion.
In the first two weeks I have been here, I have seen things I have never seen before.
The brown-clad guards decked in bullet proof vests and army boots hold tight to their automatic weapons and stand as stoic as ancient Incas. They stand outside of banks, law firms and movie theaters, keeping vigil and protecting the city from the city itself.
I first balked at the sight of armed guards on street corners, but now the guards are as natural as the almost never-sunny Lima sky.
I have grown accustomed to a friendly, affectionate culture where kissing on the cheek is favored over handshakes, a lesson learned the hard way on my first day of classes at Catholic University when fellow students were taken aback by my cold hand extensions.
I have become spoiled by fresh-squeezed tropical fruit juices made by my host family's housekeeper every morning: papaya, passion fruit, chichi morada, a strong, sweet juice made of blue-black ears of corn.
My once-vegetarian tastebuds have even sampled ceviche, a Peruvian delicacy of almost-raw fish in a spicy lemon sauce, an unexpected delight.
I don't find it weird anymore that on my way to classes I can buy anything from packs of gum to clothes hangers to brightly woven Andean textiles through my taxicab window while stopped at a red light. That is, when the driver actually stops for the red light.
I have found that stop signs, turn signals and one way streets are as much of a joke to Limeño drivers as the surprisingly bilingual Backstreet Boys who dominate prime time Peruvian MTV.
I have let my imagination run amok, hanging out in the dusty ruins of an ancient civilization on the outskirts of Lima.
I have imagined men with heavy gold earrings weighing their earlobes down to their shoulder blades and honorably sporting (now dead) enemies' heads on their waistbands. I picture them in vests of pure gold, like the ones I saw in the dark basement of the Peruvian Museum of Anthropology. I often think the armed guards on the street corners look similar to these ancient warriors, minus the earrings and severed heads.
I have imagined the grandeur of the colonial era and what the insides of the mostly defunct houses look like. Their exteriors are as impressive and ornately decorated as Russian Easter eggs.
But I've been most affected by the kids.
I was not expecting a shaggy-haired boy to approach my table at a lakeside restaurant, a few hours from the bright lights of Lima. I thought he was trying to peddle some wares--a pack of gum, some clothes hangers, a brightly woven Andean textile.
I was not expecting him to ask for the scraps of ceviche I capriciously left on my plate.
The feeling I got and still have in the pit of my stomach is no longer culture shock.
I had been warned about expecting the unexpected in Peru.
But I can't write this off as Peruvian unpredictability--no matter how much I let my imagination go or how much I romanticize about the surrealism of South America.