How Catalina Got My Quechua Phrasebook
Catalina sits in her firelit kitchen surrounded by pots and utensils made of blackened clay or bright plastic; like her home and her country, she is a resilient mix of ancient and modern, living very much as her ancestors did 500 years ago while still doing shrewd business with the twenty-first century. She cooks on a low stove made of clay, and for fuel she uses bits of wood and fallen eucalyptus leaves. Early each morning she gathers leaves from under those tall, straight trees that are not native to the island. (Now an established part of the landscape and the economy, they were brought to the Andes in a 1950s reforestation project.)
Catalina’s people are Quechua speakers. Her home is a tall, round island you can only get to by taking a long boat ride on Lake Titicaca in southern Peru. (I try never to say the name of that lake out loud, and if I have to I usually can’t help apologizing for it.) Its silhouette is much like Saint-Exupéry’s drawing of an elephant inside a boa constrictor in The Little Prince. Amantaní Island is actually a mountain peak rising out of The-Lake-with-the-Embarrassing-Name, which itself sits 12,507 feet above sea level and is the highest navigable lake in the world. There, the culture is old but the industry fairly new: tourism. Amantaní is a popular destination, where tourists have the opportunity to spend a night with a local family like Catalina’s and see what daily life is like for the indigenous people of the Andes. Our family opted to do this in 2007, and our experience was a mix of fascinatingly magical and uncomfortably voyeuristic. Even so, I would do it again.
Our trip began in a rickety motorboat at the edge of Lake You-Know-What in the city of Puno. We paid a lump sum for a tour to the floating Uros islands and Isla Amantaní. It was a bright, chilly morning; the sun was 12,000 feet closer than we were used to seeing it, but we drenched ourselves with Bullfrog spray and climbed to the top of the boat, away from gasoline fumes down by the testy motor. Our first stop was one of the famous floating islands, which the Uros people (Aymara speakers) literally build out of the reeds that grow so abundantly in the lake. Their houses and their boats are also made from these reeds. We were met by photogenic entrepreneurs with voluminous, crayon-colored skirts, tiny felt bowler hats, thick black braids and sun-damaged cheeks. Each tended a “shop” on a blanket, in a long row of blankets that seemed to stretch across the small island, laid with embroidered textiles and toys made of reeds–here was the way for us to pay for our curiosity!
The sun was relentless; it was so bright and warm on the island that we wandered about in a daze, squinting at the handicrafts and shading our eyes as the tour guide explained all about the economy of reeds. We learned the islands were made hundreds of years ago as a refuge from the wars on shore; that the islands are several feet thick and have to be renewed from above regularly as the bottom layers decompose; and that you could even eat the reeds. We passed one around and it was crisp and refreshing, a sweet cross between watercress and cucumbers. Several young backpackers from our boat had signed up to spend a night on the island, and they were led to their individual reed guest huts. I felt their dismay as they peered inside, wondering what they were going to do until bedtime. We were offered a ride on a dragon-headed reed boat; our driver brought her toddler daughter along and punctuated the whole trip with alarmed shouting (in Aymara) whenever her little one leaned over the side. The tiny girl was engulfed by her clothing, a giant bright skirt and a wide-brimmed knit stocking cap that hung down to her knees. She and our 4-year-old son played together, picking loose pieces of reed off the bottom of the boat and throwing them in the water. We held on to the backs of their sweaters.
After the dragon-boat ride we puttered on toward Amantaní Island, where as we pulled up we saw a row of women watching for us along the cliff’s edge above the small harbor. Hand spindles bobbed up and down; while they waited, they were making yarn. They came down to meet the boat, and we were all assigned to households. Catalina was our host: not 5 feet tall, she grabbed the large duffle bag my husband was struggling with and tossed it onto her shoulder, then jogged up the steep path as we hurried to keep up. Catalina’s house sat atop a ridge where you could look out over sloping green fields, earth-colored homes, and rambling paths descending on all sides towards the rocky shore and the cobalt-blue water. Her house was overgrown with flowering vines, a pen of sheep on one side and a neat vegetable garden on the other. It was lovely, built with ancient-looking mud brick, its doorways framed in thick, weathered boards, and its dirt courtyard surrounded by low rooms. She showed us to one of those rooms, dim and crowded with primitive furniture. Five twin beds were stocked with alpaca blankets and lumpy pillows stuffed with clumps of sheep’s wool. After giving us a few minutes to settle in, she called me to the kitchen–helping with dinner is part of the tourist experience.
Catalina had an air of authority. When she called, I raced to the kitchen door, but it was lower than I expected. My forehead slammed into the wooden frame, and I flew backwards and landed on my backside in the courtyard. This was a first for me; at 5 feet tall I’m used to at least a foot of air space above me, and I felt like Alice after she had the “eat me” cake. I stood up gingerly and staggered, stooping exaggeratedly low, into Catalina’s kitchen to find her squatting by her little clay stove. We forged a conversation in Spanish–her second language as well as mine–while I peeled potatoes and she prepared soup and fed leaves into the little fire. Catalina was accustomed to having guests almost every night, so she was all business and I was all fascination. She answered my many questions with the resigned patience of an ox hitched to a plow for the hundredth time. When dinner was ready, we sat on benches around her worn wooden table. Quinoa-and-vegetable soup was the main course; the tiny squiggly macaroni-like stuff was a complete novelty to me, and I wondered how we were going to make it till breakfast on just a bowl of soup. (Years later, I learned I’d been eating a “superfood,” but in 2007 no one I knew had heard of it.) After dinner Catalina sent me out to the pump in the yard with the dirty dishes and a little tub of some kind of dish-washing paste. As I pumped cold water over the dishes, she called out to me, “Don’t use too much soap!” and I mentally silenced clamoring memories of state-department warnings about bacteria and parasites and decided to let our immune systems do some work. Later, she took me to the garden to pick some greens for her sheep, and we hand-fed the fat, fuzzy creatures whose wool she was still spinning as she walked. Catalina never seemed to waste a minute.
When night fell it was time to get dressed up for the dancing–a highly touted part of the visitor’s experience–and Catalina had a basket of spare traditional clothes for us. My daughter and I walked to the town hall feeling exotically beautiful with Catalina’s skirts over our jeans and her embroidered shawls hung from our heads like Madonnas in Italian paintings; my husband and the boys following in ponchos and ear-flapped hats. We entered a room full of music and colorful movement, merging with other hosts leading their tall, pale, visitors in hiking boots and borrowed Amantani party clothes. Accompanied by pan pipes and charangos, hosts began leading guests onto the floor. A woman as old as the island, it seemed, and smaller than my 11-year-old daughter, with the deep-lined face and bright eyes of a Kentucky apple-head doll, grabbed me by the hands and showed me how to do little hop-skips and swish my skirt from side to side. Our communication was all smiles; no one was sure who knew what language. For an hour or so we danced and celebrated as if we’d just brought in the harvest, knowing they were doing it all for us. I wondered how these hardworking residents felt about attending a party every night of the week as part of the tourist package. At around 10:00 I sank down on a bench with Catalina and she confided she’d gotten up before sunrise. We all walked back, and out of the blackest sky I’ve ever seen, the stars swooped down and surrounded us, reminding me of giant flakes at the end of a snowstorm. Though Catalina quickly outpaced us, I had to stop every few feet to snatch another glimpse of the infinity while picking my way along the dark, unfamiliar path, trying to fix it in my memory forever. It worked; the vast quiet of that starry night is still with me, and I can close my eyes and see it now.
I don’t remember how we slept on the lumpy-sheep pillows, with our hearts pounding at the unaccustomed altitude, but it was a good night. We had Catalina’s pancakes in the morning, and after more washing-up under the pump I pulled out my Lonely Planet Quechua Phrasebook. Maybe I wanted to prove to Catalina that she, her people, her culture and language, were more than just another tourist attraction to me. Or maybe I just wanted to impress this woman who could, I felt, do anything–raising sheep as well as the plants to feed them (and her family), building cook-fires with leaves, and knitting intricate hats out of wool she’d sheered from those sheep, dyed with plants from her garden, and spun into yarn while running up and down steep hills. And all of this while hosting curious foreign visitors and going dancing with them every night. She actually was impressed–with the book, not me. I watched her search the pages, completely absorbed and occasionally nodding in recognition, and wondered if she’d seen much of her own language in writing. But as she reluctantly handed it back to me, she said she’d like to get a book like that someday–it would help her learn English so she could communicate better with her guests. Here in a mud-brick kitchen with the smell of eucalyptus smoke thick in the air–here was fellow language junkie–a woman eager to get to work on her third language. We were more alike than I’d realized. I was about to get on a boat back to a world where I could walk into a store and buy yarn or vegetables or a knit hat or a whole new tub of dish soap, or even a sheep, I suppose–or a new Quechua phrasebook. So I had to hand that copy back to Catalina. She smiled at me when I gave it to her, a smile I knew wasn’t just part of the tourist package. I imagine her now, stirring Quinoa soup over the fire and practicing new phrases out loud: What time does the boat arrive? How can I buy a ticket? Is this seat taken? while I’m at home with my new copy practicing the same phrases in Quechua.