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Crossing the river before summiting 17,500 Pico Austria. Photo by Ella Williams (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest, 2nd Place), South America Semester.

Bridging a Gap

While lying on the straw floor with my head resting against the mud-brick wall of my family´s one room hut, I struggled to come to terms with how I could ever connect with the six worn, wind-bitten faces that stood in front of me.  My host family´s way of life seemed so totally and undeniably different from that which I have lived for 18 years.  The fixed gazes of four children hiding behind their mother´s torn skirt made me feel as if I were some sort of alien.  Yet just as I seemed so different to my host siblings, absolutely everything about my predicament seemed foreign.

My eyes burned from the smoke that heated the pot of boiling potatoes, but I didn´t mind too much because the heat from the flames warmed the hut up to the point where I could feel my fingers.  Despite initial uncertainty, I slowly grew accustomed to the 4 or 5 guinea pigs that scrambled beneath our feet as we ate on wooden stools.  I couldn´t help but notice the raw, blistered feet of my host father after years of living in the harsh climate with only sandals that merely wrapped around the heel and arch of the foot.  While we ate, my host brother opened up the door of the hut, urinated through the doorway, and returned to dinner.  Frantically searching for something to converse about as we peeled our potatoes, I scanned the room for anything to ask about.  Just as I thought absolutely everything was different, I saw a white soccer ball hanging on the wall by the door.  Hoping my host brother would speak Spanish, I broke the silence and asked if he liked soccer.  He suddenly broke his fixed glare responding affirmatively and looked toward the ball hanging on the wall.  Sensing a glimmer of excitement, I noted that I would be happy to kick the ball around the next morning.

Before I knew it, I woke up the following morning around 5:45 to my host brother standing in the doorway holding the white ball eagerly.  I crawled out of my sleeping bag, and we spent the next half hour or so kicking the ball across the damp, rocky terrain upon which the hut was built.  We began by talking about simple things like his new ball and what he liked about soccer, but I was gradually felt more comfortable asking deeper questions about the 80 person community of Yanaruma.  After departing later that morning for Lequepata, I slowly began to realize that soccer was one aspect of life that I shared with a majority of the people of Nacion Q´eros.

To my pleasant surprise, I spent a majority of that afternoon in Lequepata playing soccer with three new host brothers.  After we finished and returned to a dinner of soup and potatoes, I again felt more comfortable asking questions about the community and my family´s lives, as well as answering questions like: What do they grow in the U.S.?  How long did it take to get here?  Are there potatoes in the U.S.?

After connecting through soccer with the families with whom I stayed, two soccer games that took place on our second to last day in Q´eros also proved to be a big part of my experience.  The first occured while the three lambs we sacrificed cooked in an earthen oven and the second as the sun set over the Apus that surrounded the villiage.  In the first game we played with our arieros (bag-handlers) and guide against the men and boys of the community.  I got the chance to play goalkeeper for our team, and I breathed a sigh of relief when we pulled out the 1-0 victory after tons of sweat and laughter.  In the second game we played against the women and girls of the community, and I am happy to report that Group C remains undefeated in international play.

Despite having a blast in both games, I didn´t realize their importance until the following morning.  As our group was about to bid farewell to Q´eros and our arieros after a week of companionship, we conducted a circle of gratitude to express some things for which we were thankful for from the week.  Going around the circle, students expressed gratitude for all the incredible experiences we had, the people we met, and nature we encountered.  Then, the arieros expressed the things for which they were thankful for in Quechua.  I noticed that some of them had looked or motioned toward me when talking, and Julian even mentioned my name in his comment.  Eventually our guide, Fabian, translated their thoughts into Spanish, and I learned that the arieros had expressed gratitude for my performance as goalkeeper and for helping the team win the game.

Even as I think about it now, I still chuckle to myself and am amazed at how something as simple as soccer enabled me to connect on a deeper level with the people of Q´eros and even evoke gratitude from the men who cared for and guided us throughout the week.

Ned