Group Update from Peru
Coming into the Bridge Year experience, the concept of the homestay family was one that filled each one of us with both excitement and anxiety. Will I be able to communicate? Will I fit in? Will I ever feel truly at home? Though there were original concerns, without a doubt, getting to know and love our respective families has been the most enriching part of the transition to Peru. Just as life in Urubamba is varied and dynamic, each of our host families is unique and defined by a distinct personality. Acclimating to a new country and culture has its challenges, but becoming an adopted member of a Peruvian household, being immersed in language and life, has made all the difference. Whether it was a distinct moment, or a slower, dawning awareness, we have all come to the realization that here we are truly part of a family.
“Going Through The Doors”
After smacking my head into multiple door frames at my house in Peru, I have become completely aware of their significance. I am on average an inch taller than most of the doors at my house. At first, going through each one was a conscious effort, but over time, it became second nature. I have adjusted to ducking down a bit while walking through the doors at my house as I have adjusted to life in Urubamba with my family, who have greatly shaped my experience here so far. Doors are just small pieces of wood that can seemingly separate two different worlds. For the first few days I was in Urubamba, I felt as if there were both literal and figurative doors that were separating me and my new family.
The literal doors are the ones surrounding the garden and patio of my family's house. I have my own little apartment, and so does the rest of my family. The only real common space is the kitchen and dining room area, and for a while, it was the only real place I was able to converse and connect with my parents and siblings. After meals, my family would disperse and I would default back to my room, where I was told to "descansa, descansa" (rest, rest). I would sit in my room and wonder how my brothers would react if I sat down next to them in their parents’ room and watched TV with them, or if my sister would think it was weird if I sat next to her and listened to music. I would sit on my bed and think and think about what to do. One day I just decided to try it, why not, I was already the new "gringa" living with the family who says funny things in Spanish. I just stood by the door, took a deep breath, knocked and said "Puedo entrar?" (Can I come in). A huge smile broke out into my face when I was greeted with a chorus of "entra!" "entra!" (Come in). I exhaled, pushed the door open, ducked my head, walked through that door that had been consuming my thoughts.
The thickest and most obtrusive door between my family and me thus far has been the language barrier. The first night I was at my house I used up all the Spanish phrases I remembered from my not so helpful Spanish classes in high school, and there was a lot of awkward smiling and laughing to fill in the space where I hoped someday my Spanish would be. I am taking regular Spanish classes and am learning so much. But for some time, I was unable to just let loose and try to go ahead and speak with my host family. I would worry that I wouldn't make any sense at all, my verb tenses would be off, subject-verb agreement would be atrocious and after all of that, I would be further away from making sense from where I started. But one day over lunch (the biggest and most important meal of the day) I looked up from my chicken and rice and said "Que Tal hoy?" (how is your day going?), and I was met with four sets of brown eyes that immediately smiled and explained their mornings and their plans for the afternoon. Then it was my turn, fumbling over the past, subjunctive, and future tenses, I explained my day in Tamboccocha (the town where ProPeru is starting to work) and then my Spanish classes and volunteer dinner in the afternoon. I was surprised by two things: how confidently I was able to speak even though I knew I was going to make mistakes, and also by how incredibly supportive my family was with helping me work through a word and understanding my pantomimes. Even after I took that first step, I am far from perfect in terms of my communication with my family. One night my mom came into her room where I was playing Tapy-Tap (a very common game), and asked "Quieres cenar?" (want to eat dinner?), and I responded with "Ah, no, hace una hora come chinita." When it came out of my mouth, I didn’t know I was saying that I had eaten a Chinese woman an hour ago. My brother broke into a fit of laughter, and I did too once I realized my mistake and said "canchita, come canchita, lo siento." (popcorn, I ate popcorn, I’m sorry.) I have said, and will definitely continue to say ridiculous things to my host family for the duration of my stay. But now I can sit and talk to them for hours on end and laugh and converse just like I would with my family back home. For me, sitting with one of my family members with a cup of tea and talking about anything that comes up is just as fun and fulfilling as spending that time on a hike or playing football at the park. I have quickly understood that a good conversation is appreciated and enjoyed universally.
After opening those doors into a new part of my life filled with laughing faces, new Peruvian culture (Peruvian game shows, quick Quechua lessons after lunch), and open arms, I feel infinitely closer and more a part of my host family. Opening these doors goes both ways as well. One day I was working on my Spanish homework in my room and my mother came in asking "quieres una vaso de Coka?" (want a glass of Coke?); this was the first time I had seen her attempt to enter my room, and I opened my door with as much kindness and gusto as she had opened hers for me. She ended up staying on my couch for two hours, helping me with my Spanish homework and talking to me about my family and her family. We both shared what pictures we had of our friends and family and had a great time. The door to my room is almost always open now when I am inside, and I love it when my brothers pop their heads in to say hi or my sister comes in and we share a chocolate. Slowly but surely, doors are opening here at my host family's house, and I love the new experiences that each one brings.
Every time I have opened a door to, with, and for my host family I have walked right into an exciting and fulfilling place. I never want to stop experiencing new things during my time here in Peru. I will continue to walk through as many different doors as I can, whether it be with my host family, with my service work, or with my daily life, let’s just hope I can remember to duck my head.
¡Ten cuidado! Be safe! I could be heading into the Andes Mountains for an overnight camping trip, running out the door to catch the combi to my service project, or meeting with friends in the evening at La Plaza de Armas, just a five minute walk away. No matter where I’m off to, I leave the house with a kiss on the cheek and a ¡Ten cuidado! from my host mother Yance. These may seem like typical words of caution, but to me they mean much more - they remind me that I am part of the family.
As I prepared to depart on my Bridge Year in Peru, there were many things that I was nervous about. Would I have to eat a guinea pig? Would my service project really have an impact? Would I like the other six students in my location? But out of everything, I was most nervous about my homestay family. What if they don’t like me? Would my six-foot-one frame fit on a Peruvian bed? Would I be able to communicate with them using my basic Spanish? It only took one evening together before all of my fears were put to rest (as well as myself on my normal sized bed!). When my host-brother Marcelo saw me, he ran up to me an gave me a huge hug, yelling “Ah-rone!!!”. And when my younger host-brother, Amaru, a cute-as-can-be three years old, saw me, he immediately wanted to be rocket-shipped into the air. Since then, Yance has constantly reminded me that “tu eres mi hijo,” “you are my boy.”
It is one thing to live with a host family. It is another to be part of the host family. From my very first night, I’ve truly felt like a part of the family. How do I know? After only a month, I can share inside jokes with my Uncle Ever; I join in the weekly visits to the cemetery with my extended family and drink the traditional brew of beer and Inca Kola; I even have a secret handshake with my grandfather, Papa Lucio.
However, nothing makes me feel more like I am part of the family than their concern for me. When I came home with an upset stomach, I could see the anxiety in Yance’s eyes. I was immediately given the universal Peruvian remedy for illness – a steaming cup of mate, or tea. For the next few days, not a meal went by where I wasn’t asked how I was feeling. Another time, after coming home sunburned, I was given the penetrating stare that only a mother can give, and asked in the all-knowing voice that only a mother can master whether I put on sunscreen that morning. And recently, when I returned home after a night spent camping in a terrible rainstorm, I was told that Marcelo had been worrying about me all night.
Most amazing to me is how I’ve come to match my host family’s concern for me with an equal concern for their well being. A few weeks ago, I learned that Marcelo had to do a science project, any science project for a school science fair. We immediately started brainstorming. We decided upon a project involving eggs, toothpaste, and vinegar to help demonstrate the importance of brushing one’s teeth. We set up the project together, and I anxiously awaited the results of the science fair. When he didn’t win, I felt genuinely disappointed (but it was great to hear a few days later that he got a perfect score on his project!). Someone who was a stranger just a week or two before was suddenly someone whom I cared deeply for (and who had a number one fan for his science project).
I am thrilled to have eight more months to spend with my new family. They opened their arms to me and allowed me to be part of their family without hesitation. I’m not just another mouth to feed at the dinner table, or someone who is living in a room in their home. No, a ¡Ten cuidado! as I leave my house each day is all it takes to remind me of how much they care for me, and in turn how much I care for them.
“Charlot, podemos grabar ‘Yo Soy’?” I turn to look at Alison, my eight year old host sister, holding my gaze with her dark pleading eyes that allow her to get away with almost everything. I smile and hand her my laptop. Together we go through my music, making a play list of songs that will be on “our show.” For every song she dislikes, she wrinkles her nose, and gives me a light slap on the arm saying, “Charlot, que es esto!? Que medio raro!” When she finally finds a couple of songs to her liking, she rifles through my clothes, puts on my hiking pants, a button down, and a sideways baseball cap, to assume, who she believes, is a close interpretation of Michael Jackson. Soon her cousins come pouring through my door, and we add more contestants to the pool. And there we are, all wearing bizarre outfits, lip synching Adele and Beyonce, and critiquing each other in various voices.
I’ve learned that I should never expect what the next day will bring. One day, I may be filming the Peruvian response to American Idol, the other day I may be accompanying Dulia, my host mom to sell plaster to an Alpaca themed hotel. Dulia has so much family (she has eight brothers and sisters) that there is a birthday party almost every week, sometimes even twice a day. A couple of days ago, Dulia asked me “Do you have a dress?” When I suspiciously offered a yes, Dulia, smiled and said “Good! We are going to a baptism!” An hour later I was sitting in my dress, with Dulia pulling my hair into a French braid and dousing me with perfume without my consent. We rushed outside, with Dulia cursing every mototaxi that didn’t stop for us. When she finally hailed one down she pushed us inside before it came to a halt. We made a stop at the bakery to pick up some cookies and then literally ran into the church. As soon as I entered a sea of glossy dark-haired heads whipped around and stared at my light curly hair that wasn’t fooling anyone in Dulia’s braid. We sat down in the back, with Alison in between us, sneaking me cookies with a sly wink every ten minutes. I had never been to a Catholic church service and relied on Alison to poke me in the gut every time I needed to stand or kneel. Each time I tried to cross myself she just laughed and shook her head at my flailing arms. When the service was over one of Dulia’s friends handed me confetti and instructed me to sprinkle it over a girl’s head who I’d never met. In the US if a stranger threw confetti over my head I may be a bit taken aback. Instead, the girl thanked me for my congratulations and gave me a kiss on the cheek.
Even daily activities such as lunch are just as unpredictable. Everyday we set the table to maximum capacity and just see who shows up. Dulia prepares a mountain of food and serves it to any of her eight brothers and sisters, her nieces, nephews, or even friends of friends, all of whom assure me that I don’t eat enough even after my second plate of food. At first not knowing what the future would bring was a daunting, overwhelming feeling. Now I just find myself happily swept away in the whirlpool of Dulia’s family, of the seemingly endless celebrations, and the warmth that I’m greeted with every day.
Seeing the bed in what would be my room for the next nine months in Peru might have possibly been one of the happiest moments of my life. After living out of a suitcase and temporary living arrangements for about two weeks, I was ready for some stability in my life which came in the form of a bed, a dresser, and a host family. “Descansa, descansa,” they said on my first night at home. After much gesticulating on Papa Lucio’s, my host dad’s, part, I understood that meant that I should relax. I unpacked my bags and stretched out on what can be considered heaven on earth.
The peace this heaven brought was interrupted when I woke up the next morning because, since I had not spent more than ten minutes with my host family the night before, I was a little wary of what they would think of me, and I tried to avoid the confrontation altogether. After spending about an hour in my bed pretending that I was sleeping while listening to the sounds of my new family milling around in the area outside of my room and hoping they would like me, I decided that I was being completely ridiculous, got dressed, and put my hand on the doorknob. That was when my life flashed before my eyes. Just kidding; it was scary, though. I opened the door. As soon as they saw me, a wave of chatter was in the room, there were hugs all around, and I finally felt at home. My fears of not being accepted by my new family were gone from my mind for good. After that, my family wasted no time in immersing me into their version of Peruvian culture.
My first instance of this immersion was on my birthday, only two days after that first eventful morning. My host mom, Soledad, or Mama Sole as I call her, told me to invite all of the Bridge Year Peru crew and she would take care of the rest, and she could not have done a better job. I came home from the office to find boatloads of food set out on the dining room table and my host mom, dad, and brother chatting away. My host mom had set the party to start at five o’clock, so, naturally, my two sisters, brother-in-law, four nephews, and the six other Bridge Year volunteers showed up at my house at six. Everybody was speaking in Spanish, and though I probably only understood half of what was said (and that is giving me a LOT of credit), I was having a blast. When everybody had been served, my host sister, Yang-Tzé, pulled me aside and taught me how to make Pisco sours. When they were brought out, everybody cheered and raised their glasses, saying “salud,” and it was down the hatch from there. The best part of the party was when they turned off the lights and brought out the torta (cake) with my name, or the way that many Peruvians pronounce my name, “Chard,” on it. After singing the English, “Appy Bersday,” and the Spanish version of it as well, they told me to take a small taste of the whole cake…and promptly shoved it in my face. That has definitely been one of the tastier aspects of Peruvian culture.
Comunicación, cultura, y cariño. Communication, culture, and affection. Those are the three most important things that my host family has provided me. Comunicación. Papa Lucio and Mama Sole help me along in my Spanish, correcting mistakes I make to help me improve. Cultura. My host family has taught me that it is perfectly normal to stay up singing and dancing to Huyno music until three in the morning. Cariño. I doubt that this needs much explaining, but my host family has not only opened up their house to me, they have opened up themselves, their family. One night, Papa Lucio pulled me aside and told me (in Spanish): “It is the custom of our family to sing and dance until early in the morning, and when the time comes for your mother’s birthday, we will stay up all night, singing, dancing, and laughing. We do this because our family has heart. I am glad you are a part of this family, hijito (son).” They spared no time in accepting me as part of their family and in helping me to immerse myself into Peruvian culture and customs (and cake, for that matter). I look forward to sharing more experiences with my family; the next eight months here are definitely going to be a crazy good time.
Running through the courtyard in the rain wearing Minnie Mouse ears, I slipped and fell. For a moment, I sat still on the damp stone of the patio, bemused, as my little sister burst out laughing. Slowly, as the mouse ears began drooping down my face, I began to grin. How did I end up here?
'Reina de los Ratones,' or Queen of the Rats, is just one of the games that Mariana, my seven year old host sister, loves to play. Each evening is a new surprise as I'm pulled into her endless imagination. Sometimes we're famous chefs, magicians, circus performers, or soccer players. Sometimes we play volleyball for hours on end as Naomi, my three year old host sister, looks on, interrupting with unintelligible squeals of Spanish and clapping gleefully. The fun only ends in time for cena, or supper, when the whole family gathers in the kitchen to sip soup and tea.
My hermanitas (little sisters) aren't the only little children around. Between the hours of 7:30 and 1:30, the house is filled with 30 toddlers screaming, giggling, and running through the first floor, which doubles as a nursery school. Every morning I'm greeted with huge shouts of "Hola!" as I descend the stairs from my room.
Having thirty toddlers in the house leads to some surprises. One morning I was eating breakfast alone in the kitchen, happily munching on cereal, when a noise alerted me to the presence of an intruder. Peering under the table, out popped a little Peruvian boy of four or five years old.
"Who are you?" he demanded seriously, brown eyes wide.
"Who are you?" I asked.
Just then, Mariana, and Ana, my host mother, ran into the kitchen, scolding the lost boy.
"Mariana, who is she?" the boy asked, peering at me suspiciously.
Mariana stamped her foot. "Madelena is my big sister," she insisted.
"But she doesn’t look like you!"
Ana looked at me, and smiled. "This is my daughter."
Ana's statement holds true in the way both Ana and Carlos, my host father, have treated me with love and compassion. When I was violently ill after a camping trip, Ana stayed up with me, made me hot tea and home remedies, and made sure I was warm enough to fall asleep. Velma, my abuelita, or little grandmother, wakes up early every morning to make sure my breakfast is always waiting for me. When I received bad news and started crying in the middle of the kitchen, they all stopped what they were doing and gathered around with words of support, encouragement, and many hugs.
My host family has not only accepted me with open arms, but has taught me values that I want to carry over to my work here in Peru. With the same imagination that Mariana uses to create her own worlds, I will brainstorm creative and diverse solutions to the problems I see in my work with women's groups. I will harness the same contagious energy I'm surrounded and greeted by everyday to conquer tasks that seem new and intimidating, tackling them with a child's belief that anything is possible. The compassion that Ana and Carlos have shown me inspires me to work with a sense of family and community that I would not have considered, and a sense of understanding I would not have thought possible.
How did I end up here? I thought, sitting bemusedly in the rain.
Maybe 'here,' isn't a time, or a place, but an opportunity. An opportunity to fully immerse myself in the energy and the excitement of my family, to commit to the people I meet, to embrace the idea that maybe lingering an hour over tea with Angela, my older sister, or playing a game with Mariana is worth the time I would have previously scheduled to the last second. Maybe 'here' is exactly where I need to be.
At the campsite overlooking the gorgeous gorge beneath Chicon's waterfall, as the raindrops percolated through the tent walls and flooded the floor, penetrating my sleeping bag and five layers of clothing to soak my spine, I could only think of home. But not my home 11013 miles away that I had left a month ago, but my home seven miles away. My Peruvian home, with all the hysterical family members and chaotic activity all day.
My host-family, the Durands, is a party of the most fascinating personalities. And for me the most interesting part of the day is when we all congregate for meals in the kitchen. Especially the most important meal, lunch. And though I'm vegetarian and the family loves meat, I am always served the most delicious and nutritive meals. As you enter, the radio is always blaring in the kitchen, no matter what the time is, even if there is nobody at home. It sets the background and is the source of information for this surprisingly well-informed family as everybody hardly ever watches television and newspaper aren't common in Urubamba.
Grandmother Espe always arrives first, no matter how early I may arrive. As the oldest member of the family, she occupies the head of the table. I always sit to her right, and Mecha, my host-mother, to her left. In my time here, I have never seen Mecha not doing something. From five in the morning to later than I have ever stayed awake, she is either managing the household or delivering capacity-building workshops for her NGO in nearby rural communities. Though she no longer works for ProPeru, she pioneered the water-filter project that Charlotte is currently supporting. Every meal, we have the most impressive discussions about development and culture. I always reflect with her on my field visits and she shares her enlightening and thought-provoking opinions developed through decades of development work.
Soon Jhasiel, Mecha's elder son, appears and sits next to me. Jhasiel is seventeen, has just graduated from high-school and is crazy about soccer. Although he is soft-spoken and gentle otherwise, he dominates the entire soccer-field. Last Saturday we played for two hours in the torrential rain as he refused to let anything stop the weekly soccer match. Sebastien, the younger son, then comes and greets everyone. Peruvian greetings are so warm and long that I usually have to schedule fifteen minutes just for the good-byes. Each time, the person joining or leaving must go up to every other person, greet them (it's a peck on the cheek if even one girl or woman is involved, and a handshake between men) and then ask about their day. Sebastien is just thirteen and is still in school, but incredibly smart (I tutor him in math everyday and he always solves most of the sums), well-mannered and helpful. If Cesaro, Mecha's husband, is not working in the Amazon, he would come in with his huge smile. The Durand family is very close and he hates being away, as he would like to guide his children and take care of Mecha.
Soon come Aunt Marcia and Uncle Jorge from the second floor. Marcia is a professional cook and brings her delicacies downstairs. She treats Jhasiel, Sebastien and me as her own sons, ever-curios and caring. Jorge is the youngest fifty-year-old I've known. We go running for four miles every morning at six along with our huge hound Wayki who has recently started following my directions. Jorge was a bartender in the US for fourteen years, and loves to join the teenagers in conversations about music and movies and the weekly soccer game.
The seven of us, Wayki and two cats make up the occupants of the house. But extended family members keep coming to the house for meals; surprisingly there is always just enough food to fill everyone. You have the semi-professional soccer-player Uncle Gonzalo coming on his motor-bike after teaching in a high-Andean village. You have Aunt Tania dropping by to make us laugh to the point of choking and to discuss the next party. You have Uncle Marco coming with his twin sons right before heading off to the fully-equipped workshop in the yard to make a new machine; he also designed and built the machines that make the water filters that Charlotte works with. You have Aunt Sofia coming to read our palms and talk about spirituality; I spent the last Sunday afternoon at her house reading the Bhagvad Gita with her. You have Aunt Rosie coming before-hand to cook some excellent dishes, or her son Israel who is a chess champion and can solve the Rubik's cube in a minute. And you might have the cousins; the excited Egla who invites me to parties in Cusco and the contemplative Galileo who is studying civil engineering in a prestigious Peruvian university.
Such is my family, the centre of my life in Peru. I may go to the villages to build cleaner burning stoves, but I only fully comprehend what I witness after discussing my observations with my family. I may learn about the subjunctive tense in Spanish class, but it only makes sense when I converse about my goals with my family. I may go mountain-biking or play football in the rain, but I always come back home to be ordered by my caring host-mother to take a hot shower, change my clothes and drink hot tea.
I like words, which is why I have spent perhaps an inordinate amount of time thinking about the differences between the phrases “host family” and “homestay family.” The two are used interchangeably to describe the Peruvian families we’re staying with, but, at least in my mind, there are subtle differences. “Host” makes me think of dinner parties and guests and parasites. “Homestay,” however, is two very pleasant words compounded: “home,” with all its warm connotations, and “stay,” which aptly, though not completely, describes what we’re doing in Urubamba for nine months. Needless to say, I prefer to use “homestay family,” though I often slip up because “host family” is one syllable fewer to say.
The first night of my homestay, I felt very much like a guest. Eli, my host mother, did not speak much in the mototaxi (which is basically a motorcycle towing a covered car cabin mounted on training wheels) on our way home. After a few investigative questions, I lapsed into silence and fretted some more about the amount of luggage I had. When we got to the house, Eli asked her second-eldest daughter, Itala, to heat up some food for me. I felt awkward even asking for a napkin, especially since I couldn’t remember how to say the word in Spanish (it’s servilleta). It was already dark outside, although it was only six o’clock, and I worried that I wouldn’t like the house (my first impressions were bathed in the not-so-flattering light of incandescent bulbs). Even after I got more comfortable and came to realize how warm Eli is (and saw the house’s beauty in the light of day), I found myself asking permission for everything, much as a guest would. Eli would always respond with, “¡Claro que sí! Jeni, no tienes que preguntar.” Of course! Jeni, you don’t have to ask. One time, she added, “Quiero que lo hagas con confianza.” I want you to do things with confidence.
As the days and weeks passed, my homestay family developed different ways of addressing me: Jeni, Jenicita, JLo, chinita (which might bother me if I didn’t know it was a term of endearment). My favorite, though, is hijita, which means “daughter.” The first time I remember Eli calling me hijita was an otherwise unnoteworthy event; she was calling me to the breakfast table and said, “Siéntate, hijita,” over her shoulder as she swept back into the kitchen. She didn’t see me pause slightly as I got up from the living room sofa, though she did probably see the smile that remained on my face after I had complied and sat down at the table. True, hijita is a term of endearment that people often use with loved ones who aren’t necessarily their daughters, but, just the same, I felt like there had been a shift. No longer was I just a guest; I was one of the hijitas, someone to laugh with and share burdens with. I smiled some more when Eli told me how a boy who lives across the street had pulled her aside and told her that there was a chinita robber breaking into her house every day, with keys! After playing along for a bit and then laughing, Eli said, “No, no es. Es mi hijita.” No, she isn’t. She’s my daughter. (“But why is she chinita?” “Ah, well, her father is chinito, you see, and those genes are more dominant.”)
I do things con confianza now, or at least con más confianza. I still haven’t figured out a way to ask if I can use the family’s washing machine instead of bringing my dirty clothing to the laundromat, but I no longer feel the need to ask before getting a glass from the cabinet. Eli may not assign me chores like she does with my four sisters, but I am enough part of the family that she accepts with a smile when I offer to do dishes. And it’s only been a month – I can’t wait to see how things develop and change during the rest of our time here. For now, I am happy just to remember the promise of the phrase “homestay family”: This is home. I’m here to stay.