Monthly Archives: May 2012

More than Language, Part 1: Quechua

June will begin our 5th month of the allotted 6 months our visa allows for us to be in Ecuador. We’ve used this time to rent an apartment, go to school, meet some locals and try to immerse ourselves in the local culture and language. What I’ve come to understand in a deeper way is that immersion in culture is not a separate undertaking from immersion in the language. You do not learn them in categories, separate from each other. Culture knowledge informs language learning and language learning illuminates culture. They are each other’s “in”. We didn’t know that part of our cultural immersion would include learning some (very) basic Quechua, but it’s been one of the best surprises we’ve had.

Quechua, some facts:

Quechua (sometimes, Kichwa), is the language spoken by the indigenous populations of South America’s Andes regions. That means it incorporates what is now Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, parts of Argentina, Northern Chile, and Southern Colombia. It was the official language of Tawantinsuyu, or as it’s called in your middle school social studies class: the Incan Empire. Given Quechua’s massive reach and extensive history, there are some large variations in pronunciation and spelling from one end of it’s territory to the other. For example, speakers in Northern Peru will understand the little differences of speakers in the neighboring provinces or two, but by the time you get to Southern Peru it’s almost a whole other language. One of the things I’ve learned is that given the variations it is called a “language family” as opposed to a “language” and, according to Wikipedia, “It is the most widely spoken language family of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, with a total of probably some 8 to 10 million speakers.”

I’m going with the version we’ve learned from Elena. Elena is a beautiful indigenous woman who has served as friend and housekeeper to Bo and me, and whom my children love more than any other person they’ve met here. She loves them even more devotedly in return. In case it’s not clear: We Treasure Elena. 🙂

These are the phonetic spellings as I tried to stick strictly to Elena’s word usage and her Quechua is verbally learned, not something she’s ever seen in written form. When I asked her how to spell these words she did her mirthy laugh that shows her eyes and hides her teeth and gave me a look that says I’m so very odd, but in an endearing kind of way.

Quechua, our two favorite bits:

1) Ali punja, Ali Chishi, Ali Tuta

One of my favorite things about both Quechua and Spanish are that they are both the language of greeters. In Quechua these consist of: Ali Punja (Good Morning), Ali Chishi (Good Afternoon), or Ali Tuta (Good Evening). A revealing fact about the Quechua greetings is that they add a term naming the person to whom they speak as being family.  When Bo opens the door for Elena in the morning he’s greeted with an “Ali Punja Tio” and if I’m there as well I receive an, “Ali Punja Tia”.  Now, if one of the boys says it, Elena responds with a purred, “Ali punja, mijo” (Good morning, dear son) and then immediately folds them up into an embrace so tight their giggles are barely heard, being so completely muffled by fabric as they are. Despite being notably pale skinned in the land of copper and tan, we’ve been given the title of uncle or aunt, even son, in her greetings. This makes us extraordinarily happy. It also reflects one of the core beliefs of this indigenous population. Lighters in the air folks, here it is:

We are all part of the same family.

I know that’s bumper sticker gold, but it’s also…wonderful…to witness and be included in, firsthand.

As was the case last week; we passed an elderly woman in indigenous dress, head tilted to her shoulder while she was resting against a warm wall in the last rays of sun (what we consider evening, they don’t switch to “tuta” until 7:00pm), and I watched Luke do a full stop, bend his head to meet her eyes, and say,

“Ali chishi, Tia.”

She straightens. Smiles.

“Ali chishi, ñaño.”

Good Afternoon, little brother.

And then his blonde head skipped back up to where Vaughn and I were waiting.

Some moments mean more than others.

They just do.


2) I got another laugh/look from my Quechua coach when I asked, “Como se dice ‘gracias’ in Quechua, Elena?”

I soon came to see that that laugh/look was due to the fact that I would undoubtedly have a hard time grasping this one. First of all it’s a whole phrase that they say as one word. Quickly and jumbled with intentional slurring together of syllables and sounds. Also, “thank you” in Quechua is different from Spanish and English in that there is no direct translation for the act of giving thanks. Okay, bear with me, this is as close as I can get to Elena’s word: “Díosonlopuí“. It doesn’t mean “thanks” as we know it, it means “God will pay you”.  This really puzzled me. An American mindset is trained to think that if I did something for you – you thank me, the one who did the work.  I’ve had my boys parroting thanks to every waiter and bus driver this side of the equator.

However, once you consider that if you are in a culture where it is held that everyone you meet is part of your extended family, and family simply helps each other out as a matter of fact (not choice), then to say “thanks” to someone for doing simply what they should — doesn’t make much sense. In that light, saying ‘God will pay you’ is a better way of showing gratitude. You’re acknowledging that they did something that took extra effort on their part and the Creator of the universe Himself honors that act. Suddenly this seems a much more true and powerful form of thanks to me.

And so,

Díosonlopuí, Tia...

Categories: From Jamie | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

We Love Trains!

A love that only grew into being because our eldest child LOVES trains. In fact, it is possible that the conversation [announcement] about picking up and moving to South America for a year may have involved some assurances [bribes] in the form of promised train rides. Now that we’ve finally kept good on that…um…promise, Bo and I are both wondering what took us so long. It was incredible. Stunning scenery, beautiful people, music, dancing, warm breezes and a heart-stoppingly pure smile on Vaughn’s face that followed him into his sleep.

We went to buy our tickets at an unusually beautiful depot in Ibarra just before 8am because we believed the train to be leaving at 8:30. Our info on that was wrong, which of course never happens to us here, and the train didn’t leave until 10:45*; and the tickets to the standard train were sold out already so we ended up buying seats on the “Truck-Train” instead. As far as I can tell that is just a single train car with a truck facade and it fortunately still met with Vaughn’s approval, thankfully then helping us to bring one of Luke’s big interests into the day as well!

We walked across the street to the several city blocks conglomeration of ramshackle tin-roofed booths that make up the Ibarra mercado in search of breakfast and distraction. Wow. That sensory experience alone could have been enough aventura for one day, but 10:30 found us back at the depot watching Vaughn bounce on his toes with excitement as the train backed into our track and began loading. The ride itself lasted about 2 hours and ended in the small rural town of Salinas which is a climate and culture so far removed from the Ecuador we know here in Cotacachi we felt we had to have traveled much farther than that amount of time could have allowed. That place is probably the poorest we have seen here in Ecuador, but the town is SPOTLESS and it’s people have a smile and dignity that we were so drawn to and humbled by.  Salinas means “Salt Land” and it’s occupants are Afro-Ecuadorians that have been salt and sugar-cane farmers for generations. We were greeted with performances of their traditional music and dance, taken on a tour of a salt-mine, given a demonstration of just how one gets table salt from dirt, shown to the town’s only restaurant for almuerzo, and then loaded back on to the train for a sunset ride home.

This is a post that really needs more pictures than words, so here ya go!

*For our Ecuadorian friends wanting to take this trip: Buy your tickets a day or two ahead of time if you want the standard train ride, either in person or you can try online here, the cost for either train is the same, $15.00 for adults and $7.50 for kids.

Categories: From Bo, From Jamie | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Safety Schmafety

So…a couple days ago I was logging on to Facebook with my morning coffee in hand (c’mon, you do it too),  and the top two posts on my page were as follows:

Danger on the Playground: Riding the Slide with Your To…Yahoo!: When your toddler is clamoring to ride down the big-kid slide at the playground, most parents assume that the safes… “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing”- Helen Keller

And somewhere between snorting coffee out my nose and and shielding the computer from said snorting I had quite the realization.

But first, a confession:

I have always been a nervous mother. I wish that wasn’t the case.  To be clear, I’m also a loving, funny, tender, smart, creative, and dedicated mother. The nervousness though, it gets extreme and has long been one thing I wish I… wasn’t.  I know there is another way to be because I see it in my amazing girlfriends that, to my eyes, live their motherhood with the peacefulness that eludes me.

I can see danger lurking in everything, from sky to gravel, nothing escapes my wary eye.  For that to not seem quite so odd, you should know that part of my internal make-up was sculpted by having a brother that was killed in a awful collision between his bike and a reckless driver’s truck when he was 10 and I was days from that first teenage year. It was bad and I’m not going to go into it much here, but presumably my uber-nervousness has some roots in that experience.  For example, in the infinite wisdom only a newly 13 year-old can have, I soon adopted the mantra of making sure that all my energy and attention went into preventing bad things from ever happening again to the people I love.

‘Cause THAT’S a healthy goal.

It is now decades later and while my ability to find countless things to worry about can be burdensome to me, it has at least provided wonderful fodder for my husband over the years. Here is a photo that my amused spouse took of me as we left the hospital with our firstborn son in tow. Actively driving away from what to me was a wonderfully sterile environment stocked to the brim with trained professionals and high-tech machinery that buzzed and beeped signals of his health and steadiness for me round-the-clock:

That’s how you know you married the right man. He finds your neuroses funny instead of traumatizing. Provides perspective.

Fast forward to more recent history and let’s take this loving-and-obviously-completely-normal mother I’ve just described and drop her, with her young children, into the middle of a developing South American country for a decisively extended stay. Away from beautiful guiding girlfriends, any plastic resembling a BPA-free mold, and the familiar sterile environments stocked to the brim with trained professionals and high-tech machinery for those health traumas that require (for me) beeping reassurance.

If you are doing a white-knuckled grip on your chair right now, you are one of my kindred spirits.

If you are laughing at the foibles foreshadowed, you are one of my girlfriends.

If you are doing both, you’re my mother. Or a close relative. Hard to say.

Whoever you are, you probably already know that we have all had (and by “we” I mostly mean “Luke”) some serious scares here in our life along the equator. Horrible falls, monkey bites, malaria threats, parasites, painful and mysterious red welts, hyper-extended knees, theft, countless near-collisions on the roads, cuts, scrapes, sunburns –you name it. In fact, if it was something I feared before we came here, it’s happened.

Had Luke’s fall down the stairs in Ayampe occurred in the States, you couldn’t have gotten me to the emergency room fast enough.  Remote as we were though, a doctor, let alone an emergency room, wasn’t even an option. We just handled it as best we could and thankfully he healed. We then agreed to stop in towns only large enough for at least one medical clinic. In any case, somewhere along that list of maladies above I began to suspect one simple possibility:

It is absolutely, categorically, undeniably, IMPOSSIBLE for me to make all of South America perfectly safe.

Most of you were probably already aware of that, but I assure you, it was news to me.

I hadn’t realized how protected from ourselves we are in the United States (and how much that fed my compulsions) until we brought our family to live here. The playgrounds in Ecuador are, by American standards, shockingly unsafe. They are also, by anyone’s standards, vastly more fun. What’s not to love about thread-bare zip lines careening your child over the grazing body of an unattended and untethered stallion? In this life, seat-belts are as rare as unicorns and pedestrian crosswalks as adhered to as stop signs — which is to say not at all. It is not uncommon to see an infant in the lap of a driver passing a taxi that is loaded to the gills while another young child walks their goats home along the same road.

Suffice it to say, there is not time in my day for me to “find things to worry about”. This truth has forced me to force my children to become more aware for themselves. I cannot be their only eyes and ears and gauge, there are simply too many things coming from too many directions at too many speeds. I can’t pad every corner or plug every socket or geld every stallion. Ummm…okay, anyway…here’s the coffee snorting revelation:

Even if I could, I wouldn’t.

Yes, it was disconcerting for Luke to be bitten by a monkey in the Amazon Jungle. But he was warned not to stick his fingers at them like that, and he probably won’t make that mistake again. Plus, the scar and (slightly exaggerated) story will likely come in handy over his teenage years. He is now learning to control his body and take more responsibility for the consequences of throwing himself into the air above what is absolutely not the rubber-padded surface of his old American haunts. On the flip side, Vaughn’s slightly more timid nature is benefiting from the lack of people-afraid-of-getting-sued-saftey-codes as well. He is taking in his new environment with a keen eye and actively choosing to test his strength and endurance in ways and situations he would never have had to grow in back home. In short, they are thriving in the freedom they have here to flex both their muscles and their wits as they navigate this landscape. They are building strength in an oft-touted but rarely used muscle known as Common Sense. And they are having Amazing Adventures in the process. And I am letting them.

I am still a sometimes-nervous mother, but more days than not, I am a brave one as well.

That first ‘Don’t Slide with your Children or Risk Breaking their Legs’ story would have made me physically ill not 5 months ago. I’m not proud of that, but it’s absolutely true. Reading it now- it started the whole choking on my coffee episode and then elicited a puzzled shake of my head as to why it was even written. I much more related to the words that came next, “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” from Helen Keller. There are a lot of things I want for my sons, safety is one sure- but “nothing” doesn’t even make the list. So I entwine my fingers with my husbands steadier grip, try to match his smile out on the world, and let go.

I am a loving, funny, tender, smart, creative, brave, and dedicated mother who is much less nervous than I once was.



Categories: From Jamie | Tags: , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

1 Gringo + 43 Indigenous in Baños?

“Do you like go a Baños con mi family this night?”
“Si, si! But necesito to check with Jamie before I do no bueno!”

“Honey, is it okay if I go?”
“Claro! Have the best time!”

With this quick Spanglish exchange between our landlord’s son, Giovanni, me and Jamie, I was headed to Baños, Ecuador the next morning at 2 am with 43 indigenous Cotacacheños on a private bus!

While I was clearly the much whiter, taller, stepchild of this group, they were wonderfully kind, welcoming and fun. It was an adventure filled with double takes, new and mostly delicious food and monkeys! Speaking of monkeys, below is my 1 minute documentary I made using iMovie to shine a light on the tough life these monkeys lead:

Here’s a sample of the some of the sights (wish I could add the smells too!):

Categories: From Bo | 9 Comments

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