As we leave the table after every meal, we say gracias. We’re not thanking each other for the food (though of course I’m very grateful to be eating so well here), but to thank people for sharing their presence during the meal. It’s a practice that encourages gratitude for others and recognizes the power in simple presence. As difficult and sometimes lonely my life here can be, I have so many people and moments to be thankful for. Here are a few of them…
For “Libre Soy”
Marmi is a thirteen-year-old who lived and worked full-time in my host family’s house. Her parents are farmers who live near Tarapoto, around two hours from Moyobamba. She was working full-time in order to attend school next semester. Every once in a while I’d hear her humming the melody to “Let it Go” from Frozen under her breath. I found the Spanish version, “Libre Soy” (or “I’m Free”) and played it for her. Every time she happened to catch me alone, she’d ask if we could listen to it again. She then asked if I could write out the lyrics so she could practice singing it when I’m not around. Then when she discovered I had the version in English, she asked if I could write out those lyrics as well. In the following weeks I’d listened to the song enough to make it my most played song on my phone. We’d jam together and sing it dramatically on the roof of the house or when no one else was around. We saw the new Disney movie, Moana, on her birthday. Unfortunately I could only find “How Far I’ll Go” in English, but she asked for the lyrics anyway. Marmi left a few weeks ago and as far as I know will be heading back to school in March when summer vacation is over. I like to imagine she’s no longer practicing under her breath, but belting like a true Disney princess would.
For a long time, my abuelita rarely understood anything I said. My Spanish was faltering and my accent was (and still is) terrible. Even when I think I nail the vocabulary and grammar, she turns to someone else in the room to say exactly what I’d said but with a better accent. She couldn’t understand me at all and was convinced I knew nothing. Whenever she spoke to me she’d yell one word at a time. Most of the time she was saying it so slowly and loudly I couldn’t understand her at all, which just reinforced her idea that I knew no Spanish. One lunch however, I was telling my host family about Hurricane Matthew and the damage my hometown in South Carolina suffered. She interrupted, totally shocked, and exclaimed, “You can speak Spanish!” I’m now proud to report that she speaks to me in full sentences and she only occasionally has to ask others to translate my terrible accent.
For Kristen and Catherine
We had our first retreat in November in Kristen’s home city for the year, Huánuco. I didn’t realize how much I needed to hear their experiences, their struggles, and their joys. I needed to remember that I’m not alone in this experience. Through hearing their stories I came to understand my own a little more. Though we live across the country for each other, I’m grateful to have this community who get it. I’m also grateful for Jenny and Jed and their wisdom, support, and insight.
For Peruvian friends
I’ve made some really wonderful friends here in Moyobamba. They’ve made me feel loved, welcomed, and have taught me so much about life here. They have unbelievable patience with me as I ask them to repeat themselves four or five times. They’ve invited me on adventures, like hiking to the third tallest waterfall in the world or meeting coffee farmers in the Amazon and listening to the stories of the farmers’ families. They also invite me to do random things around the city, like going to what was basically a Spanish version of Avenue Q one night and a wrestling match another. They encourage me to explore, to practice my Spanish, and broaden my horizons. They also set awesome examples; I’ve gotten to witness one of my friends shutting down racism and another shutting down machismo (aimed at me). They aren’t afraid to call people out and help me understand some of the injustices I’ve witnessed but don’t know how to process. I’ve learned so much having woke friends from a different culture. They help me further understand how sexism, racism, and ableism operate in this particular context, with this particular cultural history.
My friend Leydi, her four-year-old son Diego, and I on a hike to the third tallest waterfall in the world!
My friend Lily teaching me how to harvest coffee!
For mothers who learn sign language
Every Monday and Thursday at Paz y Esperanza, we offer sign language classes for the community. With the exception of one father, everyone who attends is either the mother or grandmother of the deaf students. A few weeks ago, we had an end of the year celebration where everyone chose a story (like Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, or The Three Little Pigs) and told the story on a stage in Peruvian Sign Language. Several of the participants even brought props to tell their story. One especially quiet abuelita even dressed up as the Pied Piper, brought a flute, and danced around onstage.
One terrified mother was visibly shaking as she was telling the story. As soon as she finished, she flew outside and began sobbing. “I left out so much of the story, and I couldn’t remember the sign for ‘animal,’ and…” She was speaking through tears, so I missed a lot. In the lulls I’d try to repeat back what she said to make sure I understood. She would repeat herself more slowly, and I’d repeat what I thought she said back. Sometimes what I repeated back was just so incorrect that she starting laughing and trying to explain it another way. After months of feeling useless with my Spanish, it was the first time I felt like my lack of Spanish was useful. I was so impressed with her going through with the performance despite this evident fear. This is one of the most dedicated group of women I’ve ever known, and their dedication is rooted in learning their children’s language, illustrating to them that they are worthy of connection.
For maduros and the people who sell them
Maduros are fried plantains you can buy on the street for about thirty cents. They’re cut through the middle like a hot dog bun and can be stuffed with queso or crema de mani (literally peanut cream, like less sugary peanut butter). There’s one woman I especially love buying them from. Jovana works in a store across the street from the office, is the caretaker of a mentally and physically handicapped child of the storeowner, and grills maduros every weekday around six, when I get off work. I go almost every day and she always gives me the biggest one. We laugh, we joke, I tell her about my work, and she tries to set me up with her nephew. We have a great time.
For host moms who know what tea will cure stomach problems
I’ve had a few bouts of stomach issues since I’ve been here, sometimes with very embarrassing results (I may have once pooped my pants on the walk home from the gym). The first time I was sick, I figured I’d wait it out. It lasted six days and I was starting to feel consistently nauseous and dehydrated. I finally told my host mom, and she gave me an extra helping of rice and anis tea and I was cured! It was a beautiful reminder that I don’t need to be alone in my pain, especially when I’m physically ill.
For women who use the squat rack
I love lifting weights. In the States, I was frequently the only woman in the weight room. I felt uncomfortable dealing with the stares, the unsolicited advice, and the general hyper-masculinity. I quit the gym in Little Rock because of this. But here in Peru, I was once at the gym for an hour and watched woman after woman in a continuous line using the squat rack. Women were just as interested in heavy lifting as men and nothing was unusual about this. It was so refreshing to see literally powerful women becoming more powerful. I was so pleasantly shocked to see the hyper-masculinity I’ve usually encountered in spaces like these comparatively non-existent to its counterpart in the States. Basically, I’m grateful for powerful women.
For seeing Star Wars with four deaf women
One characteristic of privilege is not realizing that you have it. I’ve never thought about what life as someone who is deaf might be like before this year, like what activities are or aren’t accessible. I’ve also discovered several assumptions I’ve made about Deaf culture. For example, two of my deaf friends happen to be the best dancers I’ve met in Peru. They’ve watched movies and television, and can bust a move better than anyone I know.
My deaf friends and co-workers also love going to the movies. There aren’t any subtitles, so I assumed they wouldn’t want to go. We just need to see movies with plenty of action, or at least physical humor. For example, Doctor Strange has a simple plot and lots of action. There was only one scene that needed to be translated into sign language. Last Friday, four deaf co-workers and I saw Rogue One, which also had lots of action but considerably more plot. I was the only person who could hear present, though of course my Spanish still isn’t great. Star Wars can be confusing in English as well, but there were a few times I understood enough of the Spanish to be able to translate it into sign language. I felt for the first time in a while that I’m actually making progress with learning languages. I’m also grateful for a growing awareness of inclusivity and the mental shift required to notice your privilege.
For Christmas in the Jungle
Christmas is here just as “summer” break is finally upon us. We have two months with no school, and then back to Nueva Cajamarca in late February. We finished the year on Thursday with a huge performance at the local government office. Each class performed a skit related to Christmas, including the Nativity Story. The event was called “Bienvenidos a Navidad en la Selva” or “Welcome to Christmas in the Jungle.” We’d been working on the skits and decorations since October
I wasn’t sure what to expect with Christmas in Moyobamba, but there are Christmas decorations everywhere! In the main plaza, the main nativity scene includes a 20-foot fake tree on one side and a waterfall with a jungle backdrop on the other. There are llamas in attendance at the birth of Jesus and, inexplicably, a polar bear.
Honestly, I have a lot to be thankful for. My life here feels very full and everyday I feel like I have so many new experiences to process. I’ll leave you with a song that was stuck in my head in English for a year and is now there once again, but in Spanish:
Libre soy, libre soy
Sugiré como el despertar
Libre soy, libre soy,
Se fue la chica ideal.
Firme así, a la luz del sol
Gran tormenta habrá
El frío es parte también de mi
Happy Holidays, y’all!