I wrote this next piece for a Peace Corps Newsletter for Volunteers called "Pasa la Voz." The subject is what it is like to live with a Quechua family.
If I had to describe what it’s like to live with a Quechua family, I would start with bewilderment. This is how I felt much of the time for the first several months. When I first arrived to my site, my room was filled with 50+ bags of nitrate ammonium, a commonly used fertilizer. I had yet to buy a bed, and I was given a straw mattress on the ground. It was cold and I won’t lie, I thought the smell of the fertilizer was going to give me permanent brain damage. Of course I began negotiating with my host dad regarding the removal of the fertilizer. A month or so later, he and my host mom moved it all in one go. Each bag weighs about 100lb’s and I helplessly watched as my 29 year old “dad” moved all the bags by himself.
My host dad works in the local preschool by mornings as a maintenance man/teacher, and a combi driver in the evenings, my host mom, also about 30, works in the fields most days. My first few days I observed an unusual pattern; after breakfast I would be in my room and hear the door close, after this, no one would be home all day, sometimes until after dark. There was no menu spot so I was left to fend for myself in the food department, casually stopping by my host family’s relative’s houses around the lunch hour, hoping they would invitarme to some papas. It didn’t take long for me to purchase a gas stove and get my cooking on. Many things are simply left unsaid, and even if you ask, or try to prod, you may get the most vaguest of responses, along the line of “mas tarde”, “ahorrita”, a shrug, or the ubiquitous, “claro.”
Meals with the family were an interesting affair. On many occasions I found myself sitting with my host mom, with many gaps of silence, wondering, when were we actually going to eat? I check my watch, 9pm; my stomach says, “food now please!” But it wasn’t until my host pop rolls in after his combi shift that the plates are served. The kitchen is a tarped off area in the back patio, a low bench serves a seating for all as my host mom tends her cocina de leña. Dinners were usually potato soup, yerba (tea), and a piece of bread. Quechua conversations dominated, especially if grandma or grandpa stopped by, which happens frequently. I would stare off into space, willing myself to understand the strange sounds.
While I was vigorously pursuing the completion of my CDS I did many community walks, trying to get a feel for my new home. Sometimes I would step out my door and hear gasps, followed by “griiinga!” Yes, there were times I wished I had a cloak of invisibility, or at least a pollera and tall wide brimmed hat, the local garb for women in this part of the sierra. I started exploring the landscape surrounding me, the endless ups and downs of steep hills and valleys mirrored my emotional states in the early weeks of my service. But the more I trekked around, spoke with people-sometimes having to use gestures and super basic Spanish to communicate-the more I began to learn. At first I felt self conscious to just wander around while everyone was doing hard labor day after day, but this faded after accompanying my host family to their chacras a few times. Yes, I harvested potatoes, picked peas, and cultivated hard earth. I got blisters and felt exhausted from the work and the hike just to get to the field, but I got street cred; cooking and eating in the chacra, I made friends with my host family and showed that I wasn’t too delicada. These days I’m happy just to pasear and people are used to me doing this, but the days I spent in the fields were certainly important.
The people in the sierra are timid-a hug qualifies as a tap on the back-you have to approach the mames and tetes and strike up conversation, but people are curious, and are usually happy to speak with you and have plenty of questions, such as:
· Where are you from?
· Are you single?
· How old are you?
· How many hours to your pueblo? Response: “I took an airplane, about 8hrs.” Response, “aaaso!” or “beeestia!” Then…
· How much does the pasaje cost?
· What crops do they grow in your pueblo?
· How much do you miss your mom?
· How much does she miss you?
· Will you stay forever? Response, “no, two years.” Response, “how about if we find you a husband?”
· Are you used to the cold?
· Are you acostumbrada yet?
It has been a challenge to become accustomed to a new way of life, an unstructured work schedule, new foods, climate, culture, language, etc. I feel lucky however to have been placed in the Quechua speaking sierra, how many extranjeros get this experience? Each day I get a deeper understanding for life in this small town, and at the very least feel equipped to tell a good story.