Our group has been living in Tiquipaya for two weeks and two days now. There have been so many moments that feel priceless, rich with the opportunity to learn. I have been reflecting, lately, on what learning means to me. Real learning at this stage of my life, I think, is simply good living. It is a natural accompaniment to the experiences I have that truly affect me. Here, in Tiquipaya, Bolivia, a place that is new to me, I´m seeing everything in a sort of half light. I am understanding stories that differ from mine halfway, or just a little bit. And slowly drawing closer. That´s learning, I think: drawing closer to really seeing something. Sometimes when you can only see a sliver, a glimpse, of the thing you are trying to understand, it can be really beautiful. Where once you knew there was something you wanted to understand, but could see nothing real, nothing legible, nothing alive- there is suddenly half light.
I can´t tell you what I expected of this place. I can´t remember. But of the brilliant and wonderful things I´ve found, only a handful could I have predicted. The most delightful moments are the ones where I am caught, bewildered and unsuspecting, by the beauty of the people and the earth around me… Here are some that I have collected in memory to share with you now.
In the middle of the night, bleary and half asleep, slipping out to the backyard to use the bathroom and being met with millions of clear eyed, blinking stars. Estrellas, my host mom had told me, as I pointed up and asked in broken Español what to call those tiny points of light just two days before.
Looking up from the movie Bambi as I huddle among the blankets with my host siblings, and seeing my little brother on the bed, caught in perfect, half-gold light, his small face silhouetted in the window´s late afternoon glow. His focus devoted to two things: watching the movie, and the effort of tying his tiny, tiny shoes.
One night, washing the dishes after helping to prepare our cena, I was overcome by the beauty of everything: the luminous purple onions I´d sliced and their smooth and pearl-like texture and purity; the way I felt a part of this family now, by way of spending my days in their home, doing as they did and working side by side with them to make these meals for everyone; the garden full of succulents outside, bright and yet humble in their colored pots on the wall in the glaring night light; my host mom in her traditional Aymara skirt, beside me as I rinsed our plates from early in the day. I was overcome by the beauty of the sheer possibility of all of it: that I could be here, that I could make a home in this space, far from my roots and yet closer every day to the vision in my mind of who I am intent on becoming. Looking up from the cutlery in my soapy hands, I caught my own eyes in the window in front of me. How lucky, I thought, that I am alive and that I am here, exactly where I never thought I could be.
Another day, another detail remembered… how the rain sounded, on the roof of my temporary home. The water falling down and streaming onto the earth: from the gutter, from all the high surfaces, from the alleyways of the world of the roof. And how I felt cold and cozy at the same time. Sweater on, in my bed. And how when I woke up and walked to the Program House in the morning, something was different. The mountains that live in the near horizon had disappeared. White fog had come down and shrouded, hidden them, and it was as if we were living in an ordinary place. And I realized quite vividly for the first time that it is in large part the mountains here that characterize, that bring a unique and precious quality to this small town and place. How strange it would be, had there never been those mountains at all.
In the afternoon, as I join my little brother in the backyard by the swing, he plops himself down in my lap. It´s really sweet; not the first time he´s done that, but it surprises me a little every time. The orange that he´s eating, peeled neatly, whole and round but for the bites he´s taken in his sweet little fist. He is contemplative, then turns, gets excited, as is his way: “Mira, mira!” (Look!) The little cat that lives around the house next door is on the stone garden wall again. Half asleep. It is remarkably tiny, and my little brother (and I) are captivated by its every motion.
It´s something of a miracle to me, understanding my little brother better now, because it felt so sad to be wholly unable to two weeks ago. When a three year old speaks to you with passion and gusto, it´s hard to be wordless when trying to respond. Now, seated in my lap, he asks me what foods I like to eat, and I can tell him, and ask him the same. It´s no small moment for me. I´m so happy to learn that he likes carrots- only carrots, he says. Then what´s this? I ask him of the orange in his hand. I don´t like this, he replies, grinning. What a small interaction! Yet for me, it is something to be remembered, celebrated quietly with joy.
I had never experienced this before: slowly learning a language in a place where it is spoken by everyone. It is the most difficult yet delightful feeling. When I arrived here in Bolivia, I did not know any more Español than Hola and Si. It has been a real journey for me to try to grow into an understanding of the language through this kind of immersion. For me, it has felt as if the world surrounding me is slowly waking up and becoming vivid and alive in my mind. Hearing people´s conversations every day and not understanding, not understanding, not understanding and then slowly, slowly beginning to.. And then, one day, being able to be present for a whole conversation. It is a brilliant feeling.
Of course, there is so much that is still in the dark for me when I look at this language that I am beginning to know. There are still conversations that I have every day with my host mom that leave me feeling like I´m still reaching, in my mind, for just the right word to say. I speak slowly and I have a clumsy tongue, and I feel grateful to those who take the time, during these days, to listen to me. So I say thank you again to this space, for having me. Thank you to the people who live their ordinary lives within it as I pass through. It is true that I don´t always know how best to be here; how loud to raise my voice, how softly I should place my feet, where to put my things. It´s true that I am learning still how best to exist as myself in a land that did not ask me to buy a plane ticket, gather all of my belongings and arrive, wide eyed. I say thank you for that, too: the chance and space to learn how to be here. How to be here with grace, and enthusiasm and respect and a resilient nature and attitude. All of this feels like a blessing.
Here is a small poem that I wrote one day.
Today there is a song riding down the street
in the back of a trufi.
Today there is a dog
in the field of yellow birds.
Today my brother holds my hand
so that we pass through the market
and nobody is lost.
Today the sun sinks its strong hands
into the laundry on the line.
Today I am reading in the grass,
watching the sky for sparrow,
watching the street beyond the yard for anything
I know I am lucky to be here.
I know it so deep in the bones of me
that often, I forget.
Then I am reminded, by you,
or you, or you,
or any moment at all:
our dog escaping to the yellow field
a cloud separating from its original country
a hundred bananas arriving in the kitchen hand in hand.
Today, there is a gentle wind which wraps its fleeting arms
the marketgoers, the half-brown birds;
my small brother.
One last moment to leave you with before I go. Another day, under the sun on the step outside the house… I´m reading children´s books to my little host brother in Spanish and I don´t know what I´m saying for most of the story, but he knows. His head lolls back to rest on my chest, in the crook of my arms, and then he brightens with an idea: Two dandelions ready for wishes in his small hands. Para ti, he says, handing me one. I don´t know if he wishes on dandelions; indeed, if anyone here does, but I do, every chance I get. Will anything come of it? No, maybe not- or maybe so- but I think that I have everything I need now. Here, reading to my hermanito again, stray dandelion wishes caught in his silky black hair. One day, maybe I will understand every word of the story that I am reading. For now, though, for today: this half-light is more than enough.