I remember the first time I heard the sound of Fabien, our local guide, playing his flute, and the image that immediately came to my mind of a lonely herder in the mountains. I remember my homestay brother, Leonardo, in the indigenous town of Hapu, scraping and cleaning our dinner pots using his hands in freezing cold water. I remember the community lunch of Pachamarka (made of a freshly-slaughtered sheep) in the schoolhouse in Cochamarka, the joy on the children’s faces as they happily peeled at potatoes they ate everyday, and the men who packed away bones in plastic bags to bring back to their families. I remember my homestay sister, Nancy, in Cochamarka, how she laughed non-stop at my clumsiness for slipping off a rock, and how she held my hand on our second night there, tugging at me to tickle and play ‘hide and seek’ with her. I remember Nancy’s mom, and how she didn’t know what or where China, my home country, was. I remember Fabien rushing over to a mule that had just urinated, and rubbing the urine on his back to ease his back aches. I remember the face of the mother with her two children at the top of the mountain pass, and her little baby who was in danger of dying from dehydration due to diahrrea. I remember my homestay mama in Quico Chico, who ordered us to ‘comer papas!’ (eat potatoes!) and half-yelled Quechua at me the entire night, despite knowing that I wouldn’t understand a word.
But it is not enough to only remember. From the sound of Fabien’s flute, I learned to love the serenity and beauty of being in the mountains. From Leonardo, I learned that age does not determine the responsibilities you must take on for the family. From the room of community members in Cochamarka, I learned the importance of smiling at even the most common things in my life, and to appreciate how much choice I have in terms of food. From Nancy, I learned to not take myself so seriously, and to laugh when a child who doesn’t speak my language is laughing at me. From Nancy’s mom, I learned how simple human interactions can be–through only smiles, laughter and actions–because she doesn’t need to know what or where ‘China’ is to cook me potato soup. From Fabien’s use of mule urine, I learned how fully the indigenous communities in Nacion Q’ueros use every resource Pachamama (Mother Earth) gives them, how self-sufficient they are, and how a culture survives by passing knowledge from one generation to the next. From the mother and her baby at the top of the mountain pass, I learned to be grateful for all my ready access to medicine, something I hadn’t even given a second thought before that moment. From my homestay mama in Quico Chico, I learned that not only those who speak my language can make me double over with laughter.
To me, these people, sights and sounds are the reasons why I trekked into Nacion Q’ueros. They have humbled me, taught me, and made me more self-aware. Never have I been so self-conscious about all the noise I was making with the trash bags I was using to waterproof my backpack, about how weird I must’ve looked with this beam of light emanating from the middle of my forehead when I had my headlamp on, or about how peculiar I was in my sleeping bag, wrapped like a caterpillar in a green cocoon with only my face showing at the top.
In the mist of these Andean communities, where reciprocity is an important part of their worldview, I have also learned to stop and reflect upon what my visit has brought to my homestay families. Apart from material and financial support, did I bring them an outlook into a new (and possibly over-whelming) way of life? Did my presence make them yearn for a life with more material and technological goods, or was it as simple as giving them an evening of laughter?
When the instructors asked us yesterday to close our eyes and remember our visit through Nacion Q’ueros, tears rolled down my face, At that moment, I knew that although I will never learn the full impact of my visit and that I might forget many details of these five incredible days, my heart will not forget the impact this place has had on me.