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Pachamama

This Sunday, I had no idea what I would see and feel as I climbed into the back of a Jeep station wagon straight out of 1977 with my homestay parents. They told me we were going to wash blankets, and I wasn´t sure what that entailed, but in my mind it did not involve driving into the water along a riverbank. As we pulled up to the river, entire families gathered along the banks with all their dirty clothing and sunhats. Their family cars were dwarfed by the immense mountains behind them. Around the rocky bank were clusters of plastic bags. I held my breath a little as one family dumped their detergent water into the river. I was deeply uncomfortable, and felt very out of place. I felt the sun pounding on my skin. I was sure that I was already sunburnt. People stared at me as I walked up to the water behind Doña Marta. I watched as she filled a metal basin with water and detergent and used her feet to push the blankets underwater. I could smell cow patties from along the bank and I couldn´t help but think about the pollution and squirm to think that I had slept so soundly on blankets washed this way the night before. My paternalist Uncle Sam swooped in, wanting to tell these people that this was not the way, how foolish they were to wash their clothes in the river. But then I looked at the mountains, and I thought of mother earth. Who am I to say to those who have washed their clothes this way, living from the land and the water this way for generations, what is right and what is wrong? The plastic and waste along the river that poison this tradition are not a result of their culture, but of western interests and economic “improvement” that has destroyed the land. Instead of feeling consumed by the smell and the heat and my discomfort, I started to notice the beauty of the mountains, of the cholitas and their children, and hear the birds. I felt connected to the culture of my family in a deeper way. I spent that evening with them watching soccer and eating in a small restaurant as everyone cheered for peru and drank. Doña Marta taught me to say, instead of cheers or salud, hallulluh pachamama. She laughed whenever I said it, but it meant a lot to me. I liked being able to thank pachamama for my growth that afternoon at the river. It was a beautiful moment for me.