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Two Dragons welcome the sunrise with an improvised dance atop the Andes. Photo by Ryan Gasper.

My Heart is a Dove

Saturday morning after breakfast Ronaldo, our homestay father, led us down the slope behind the house to the river to see the trout their family are raising. Sarah and Elisabeth walked in front of me, each holding one of Flordurique’s small hands. Flordurique is Rosa and Ronaldo’s daughter, our ‘hermana’. Though she was a bit shy when we first met her a few days ago, now we are her loyal playmates—every night before dinner we’ll play ‘¿Donde está conejo?/Hide the Rabbit’ together. It’s a game quite similar to hide and seek, except instead of hiding ourselves, we hide a rabbit finger puppet we gave Flordurique, and the bounds is the adobe building that houses the kitchen. We’ll hide it in her school work book, our jackets, her sandals, under stools and wool blankets, in the niches in the earthen walls—once Rosa, previously occupied with cooking a pot of potatoes, conspired with me to hide the rabbit in her sweater pocket.

Ronaldo and Flordurique led us down to their tanks, structures dug out from the dirt slope and lined with stone and concrete, stream water redirected into them. We all helped feed the fish, throwing handfuls of fish food into the tanks. The water would come alive, with twisting slippery slick black bodies, flashing silver and rainbow when they caught the light at the surface. There were literally hundreds of trout in the two tanks—800 more fully grown fish in one, Ronaldo informed us, and 400 tinier ones in the other. Ronaldo slipped his hand under the chicken-wire netting above the larger tank and stuck his hand in the water, trying to catch one. Fish after fish would slip through or wriggle out of his hands. The water is snowmelt, and after about five attempts he laughed it off and let the fish be. Flor threw in more fish feed, laughing as the water rippled with fish competing for food. The fish are so small it looked as if the water itself was moving, swirling. I was quite glad to stand there in the fresh clear morning alpine air surrounded by the sound of the rushing stream and Flor’s laughing and the sight of that enlivened water.

We walked back up the hillside on the other side of their property and looked at the view—the view Elisabeth, Sarah and I wake up to each morning. The hills are covered with grasses and brush, grazed short by llamas, alpacas, donkeys, cows, and sheep (and accordingly covered with their scat); there’s adobe walls blocking off different properties, covered with cacti on top for extra security. That morning in the distance we could see some of the guys playing hacky-sack with their homestay family. Their family was playing American dance music, loud enough for us to hear all the way up on our slope. In the morning our family plays radio too—peppy Spanish songs and Quechua songs, some Christian. I grew to enjoy recognizing this pattern in their daily life.

That morning takes its place as one of my favorite moments with our homestay family in Paru Paru. Another moment—that night before dinner I asked Flor if she could accompany me to the baño. She agreed and whispered something in my ear, intending to perhaps conspire with me, but her words were lost on me as I understood little Spanish. She then promptly took the headlamp from me as soon as we left the kitchen and switched it off. I was worried because I couldn’t see anything around me or what was approaching, including their dog Oso (bear), who protected the property and family from strangers, i.e. me, which was why we always asked a family member to accompany us to the bathroom or to our bedrooms, for fear of being attacked by Oso. At that moment I was afraid he was going to jump out at any moment. She took my hand.

A beat later I became aware of all of the stars I could see. Insane. Imagine—we were in a rural community at over 13,000 feet—that was the quality of the stars. A whole slew of them, clear against a dark blue sky. On the way back from the bathroom I tried to express to Flor how beautiful I found it all, but the Spanish floundered in my mouth—Estrella—que Linda—muy bonita!—I tried. We kept walking through the wide field where they kept the donkeys—then out of the darkness came Oso! Leaping and barking, chasing another black dog around. Flor just kept laughing and laughing, while I worried, aware of the dogs snapping at each other, their jaws close to our legs. Once they peeled off a bit, we ran back to the kitchen, hand in hand.

A previous night of our homestay, Elisabeth had had to go to the bathroom. When Elisabeth thanked Flor for accompanying her, Flor responded: ‘Of course, we’re amigas!’ Which sums up a general spirit of life in Paru Paru. Whenever we did activities with the community and learned about their lifestyle—from medicinal plants to weaving to potato planting—they always addressed us as ‘hermanas y hermanos’ (sisters and brothers), as that was what we became when we joined their community. There is a Quechua word ‘ayllu’ that we learned about prior to our stay in Paru Paru—describing a community as family, not only close-knit in the sense that separate families in small communities marry each other until family encompasses the community, but also in the nature and quality of relationships with others, blood ties or no. This morning Mario, the community member who set up the program house we met in daily (a beautiful adobe structure adorned with paintings of local powerful images—sun, moon, eyes, llamas, mountains), talked with us about the history of the community and his family, as well as the differences between the city and the country. He described how people who left for the city completely changed, forgetting to be proud of the place where they were born and losing pieces of themselves that they had had in Paru Paru. They became Westernized, stopped following the traditional customs, and spoke only Spanish, and when they returned, they thought of themselves as more important than the people who had stayed in Paru Paru. Mario described the endangerment not only of Quechua, but of the unique beauty and caring speakers had the ability to express. He remembered how his mother and his uncle used to speak with each other in Quechua with such affection and sweetness. Now that quality is diminishing in the local speech as Spanish and Western influences erode the singular expressiveness of Quechua. Another night of the homestay, I tried to thank our homestay family for the delicious meal they had prepared for us, using a Quechua phrase we had learned earlier that day: Urlpiyai sonqonyai chaskai palomai—my heart is a dove soaring to the stars. When I said it, the family—Rosa, Ronaldo, Rosa’s brother and father, and Flor—all laughed and replied in Spanish. I asked Elisabeth and Sarah to translate. “They said you sound like a grandma,” they told me. I laughed.

“They say no one speaks like that anymore—only the older generations. It’s really beautiful, but few speak that way anymore.”

I had thought they called me ‘grandma’ because I was speaking so slowly and pronouncing the phrase so strangely it was difficult to understand. Not because I was speaking traditionally.

“Well, I think it’s a little bit of both,” Sarah replied when I told her my thoughts.

Mario said life changed quicker in the city, trends came and went. Here in the country, in Paru Paru, life stayed more or less the same, changed slowly. On Saturday we learned about how they planted potatoes—two people work with knife/shovel-like tools to pierce the soil and push up chunks of rich, dark, thick soil, one person in the middle of the developing furrow pushing the clods to each side, alternating. There’s a rhythm to it. They then simulated the growing cycle—the woman plants the seed between each clod of dirt, while a man sprinkles in fertilizer. Then flowers come up, then the harvest. Then replanting. ‘If you come back in six months, in ten years—with families of your own—it will be this way. It will still be this way,” Celestino, our guide and host in the community, explained. Cycle after cycle, passed down from the Incas through this generation and onward. It’s 2017, yet time bends and circles back on itself here. Reflecting on the Paru Paru lifestyle, I think some part of the universe relies on the order this cycle creates, a cycle made sacred in its thousands of revolutions.

Yet Mario observes things are changing, the cycle is breaking, the quality of caring may be dying out. At least in our homestays we observe this is not the case: from helping with laundry to serving us cuy to admiring and laughing at the pictures of home we show them to letting us join them in cooking and planting and peeling potatoes, they’ve treated us not only as guests but as siblings, children.

While this caring I’m sure is common to other homestay experiences, and my observations naive, the stress on this quality is also unique to Paru Paru. One of our themes for this semester is ayni—a Quechua term hard to describe. When we asked Rosa about ayni, she said we ought to wait until Ronaldo was home, as his Spanish prowess was more suited to do the term justice. When Ronaldo and the brother and father arrived home, we asked again. “Let us have some tea first and think it over,” they replied. Then they discussed ayni amongst themselves before presenting their definition to us. Such was the care with which they treated the term. They said that ayni has been around since the Incas—since they didn’t have money, they had a system of reciprocal favors. “If you needed something, you could ask your neighbor, they would help you with what you needed. The next day, when you need something, your neighbor will give you what you need, this is ayni—now, it’s the same, you don’t have to have money to have help—you only need to have ayni.

“Ayllu is different: it’s the community you live in. Ayllu is the community. Ayni is what the community does.” Such was the spirit with which the Paru Paru community treated us, and which I hope does not change. Even if over time ayni subsides, at least we’ll have had this handful of blessed days, a testament to its existence.