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Photo by Teva Corwin (2018 Summer Photo Contest Entry), Peru 4-Week.

On Accents

Have you ever painted with watercolors?

They’re one of my least favorite mediums to work with, because of their notoriously unforgiving nature. Their effects are beautiful. If you paint two colors side by side while both are wet, they will bleed into one another in unpredictable ways. Cornflower blue turns into muddy green, crisp lines melt into soggy puddles, pristine yellows become shot with violet. If that’s not the effect you’re looking for, you’re supposed to wait until the first color is completely dry, then begin the second coat.

Even then, it’s not guaranteed that the colors won’t mix at all. Even if one color has dried in the same place for years, the presence of fresh water and pigment can still reactivate it, making it blend and bleed with its neighbors. Watercolors are always adapting, forever open to the possibility of change. And perpetual change, though difficult to work with, can have dazzling results.

Living in Peru has made me think a lot about change, and about language. It’s impossible not to think about language when you’re talking in one that isn’t your own for the majority of the day. I’m constantly translating in my head, my original thoughts going through a gauntlet of grammar and vocabulary before emerging as something that is oftentimes unrecognizable. I’m met with frustration when I reach for a word that isn’t there, and I clumsily talk around conjugations I haven’t yet learned. I’m incredibly thankful for these challenges; they mean that I’m learning more every day than I ever would have imagined to be possible.

I’m realizing that another phase of this ceaseless learning is unlearning other things. Language resists total change. It refuses to be painted over, insisting on mixing and bleeding and creating not a unified entity so much as a cacophony of expression. My Spanish is tinged with a colorfully American accent, which is imperceptible to me but clearly marks me as a foreigner to others. Even if I spend years learning the mechanics of the language, it will take many more to erase that inflection. I expected that aspect of learning a new language. What I never expected, however, was for that resistance to be a two-way street.

I noticed a slip in my American accent only two weeks or so after arriving in Peru. I’d been talking in and listening to Spanish for several hours, during a lunch with my wonderful host family. When I switched back to English to talk to another student, it was like a lingering aftertaste had followed me. My vowels were lighter, my r’s strayed to the top of my mouth rather than the back, my v’s sounded more like b’s. It only took a minute or so to wear off, but what struck me was just how natural it felt. I’d never understood so intimately how one language could express itself in another as an accent. Even though I feel as comfortable with English as I do in my own skin, change is still not only a possibility, but a certainty.

This constant change isn’t limited to language. I know that when I arrive back in the United States this December, pieces of my time here will bleed into my life. Little things, like always carrying around change, only throwing tissues into bins, a love of plantains and mate de anís. Bigger things, like my connection with my host family, my experience with the process of organic agriculture, and a better understanding of how to bring change to a community. Just as my years living in the United States have shaped my voice here, I know my time in Urubamba will continue to impact me long after I leave. The delineation between here and there will blur, becoming something in between.

It’s intriguing to imagine how that change will manifest, but truthfully, I have no idea what the final picture will look like. Watercolors are temperamental. They run and trickle and warp and bloom in the most unexpected places, just when you think they’ve finally settled. I’ve never had the patience for them; I’ve always preferred the polite stability of oils and acrylics. Maybe Peru will change my mind.