It is rather hard to fathom that our time in Tiquipaya concluded on Wednesday night following three weeks gone by too soon. Initially, my experience with my host family was very awkward and rather unsettling. Seeing as I am used to almost constant conversation during meals with my family in the US, and sitting in silence with Doña Virginia and Don David for the majority of our meals was very uncomfortable at first. I wracked my brain for questions to ask, conservation fodder to introduce, or new things about my life that I had yet to tell them, and thanks in large part to the (semi-formidable at the time) language barrier between us, I failed to come up with much to discuss after the first few days of getting to know each other. I was rather at a loss, and felt as though I would never get to know these people and we would remain at arms-length for the duration of my time at their house. Without a central gathering area in their house, and David and Virginia´s tendency to retreat to their room almost immediately after the conclusion of the meal, I was left spending most of my time doing exactly what I had told myself I would avoid at all costs: sitting in my room and not interacting with my family. I had had admittedly rather lofty expectations for my homestay, and after the first week or so, I felt defeated.
Yet change did come in my relationship with my host family, thanks in large part to being finally able to help out with the cleaning and sorting of the home-grown vegetables that Virginia would bring to sell at the market in Cochabamba the following day. Following some very good advice from our instructors, I focused intensely on perfecting my little task, no matter how small it was (in this case it was cleaning the dirt off the leaves and stems of the vegetables), and before you knew it, I became the best damn vegetable cleaner the house had ever seen. Virginia and David found it rather odd and a little funny seeing me spend so much time on each little speck of dirt, but I could tell they appreciated my attention to detail as well. The time we spent together with the vegetables after meals also helped me to feel closer to them in a major way; as I talked about in my previous yak, Virginia and David, both native speakers of Quechua, began to teach me some Quechua phrases, and found it absolutely hysterical when I tried to pronounce them. It was a great way to break the ice, and I had found a new way to bring about conversation with them which they very much loved. By the second week of my homestay I would call out greetings in Quechua when I returned to the house after afternoon activities, and with every afternoon they would get a little more complex in their responses, rendering me tongue-tied and confused but leaving everyone (including myself) laughing.
I was also able to have some really valuable conversations with the normally-reserved David about his favorite topics: Che Guevara and the political situation in Bolivia throughout his life. This all came about because I noticed that the family keychain had a photo of Che on it, and when I prompted David about his thoughts on Che, we ended up having a conversation about his life and impact on Bolivia and Latin America as a whole for over an hour. Mind you, David is a man of few, few words, and I was normally happy to receive over a sentence answer to one of my inquiries, so to be able to sit and hear his thoughts and beliefs for that long of time was unbelievable. I was able to understand about 60 to 70% of it, especially Che´s overarching theme of the necessity of unity between the campesinos (farmers living in more rural areas) and the people living in the cities in order to advance as a country and bring about the change that was desired so strongly by la gente in Bolivia.
This is not to say that every moment of every meal was suddenly filled with conversation and laughter – far from it. While I got much more comfortable with my family and was able to joke around with them and having meaningful and thoughtful dialogue, there was still a good amount of silence. Thanks to my 25 minute or so walk from my house to the Dragons program house every day (four times a day usually) as well as from learning from David and Virginia, I further realized the impact of said silence. In Andean communities, silence is a far more important component of interaction than in the US, and it is far, far more common to simply sit with one’s thoughts and reflect on the day instead of loud, boisterous conversation, which is primarily viewed as a negative. I would pass Don David sitting in his chair outside his room on my way to do my Spanish homework and practice guitar, and pass him again an hour or so later to use the bathroom only to find him in the same exact position, still thinking his thoughts. Me being a very loud and outgoing person by nature, it was very cool to witness this sort of thing on a daily basis, and motivated me to try and bring more silence into my life, which was granted to me by my walks, with only the mountains and a good deal of cows as my companions.
If you had told me on day 6 of 7 of the homestay that I would expressing all this about my family after leaving them I would have thought you were crazy, but it speaks to the necessity of persevering through not-ideal situations and adapting/learning to interact with people from different backgrounds and ways of life that I am now in La Paz missing Virginia and David a great deal (as well as their three dogs, Betito, Princesa, and of course my great friend Lester). I was fortunate enough to learn a lot from my family, and I will remember the time I shared with them, cleaning vegetables, learning Quechua, and growing comfortable with the silence as I go about the rest of my life back home.