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.

There was a little tower on the island we could climb to get this view.

There was a little tower on the island we could climb to get this view.

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!

Little island girl

Little island girl

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.


Four-year-old Isaac, the American tourist, and his teeny-tiny friend

Four-year-old Isaac, the American tourist, and his teeny-tiny friend

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's house

Catalina’s house

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.


Ready to go dancing

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.


How Catalina got my Quechua phrase book


It’s not fair


We get offended at the language we’re learning sometimes. This is usually because it has way too many words that sound like each other. I get mad at Spanish a lot. It’s not fair–why is lechuga (lettuce) so close to lechuza (owl)? This matters when you’re talking about Harry Potter; it’s embarrassing when you say Hagrid gave Harry a lettuce for his birthday. It can get worse: you might say ano (look it up) when you mean año (year). Or how about those words that use a different form of “the” and that’s the only difference? El papa is the Pope, but la papa is the potato. Or when just a change in accent makes the difference: mamá is your mother but mama means someone’s breastfeeding. I say eggs when I mean bones (huevos/huesos); bookcase when I mean a visit (estante/estancia); I leave a gift when I mean to leave a message (regalo/recado).

Or suppose you’re translating for someone who wants to open with prayer, so he says, “Vamos a orar” (“Let us pray”), only you think he said, “Vamos ahora…”: “Now let’s…” The two phrases sound the same. You look at him expectantly; the group you’re translating to looks at you expectantly. Let’s what? And then he bows his head and starts praying. Whoops. None of this is fair! Whoever made up Spanish was definitely not considering the foreigners who were going to try to learn it.

But think about English–it’s not fair either. We had visitors from Colombia recently who were trying to avoid that stereotyped hispanic accent–“Geeve me a beeg kees!” so they worked at our short-I sound (like the vowel in if) and overused it a leetle beet. They used it when they asked for “shits” (sheets) and when they wanted to go for a walk to the “bitch” (beach). Not fair–they only changed one little bitty vowel. And what’s fair about where, wear, and ware; there, their, and they’re; to, two, and too; weather and whether; hear and here; I and eye; tow and toe? The lesson: it’s what your teacher told you in seventh grade: It’s not fair, it will never be fair, and nobody ever said it would be fair. So try to stop worrying about that and enjoy trying to communicate. Enjoy it like a game of Twister at a party. You’re supposed to get all tangled up, fall down and laugh. You’re not going to take yourself too seriously playing Twister. Put speaking Spanish (or Turkish or Japanese) in the same category.

In one conversation with my Colombian friends, I referred to gangs in our neighborhood as computer screens (pandillas/pantallas), a scarf as a rug (bufanda/alfombra), and my hair as a horse (cabello/caballo).

I think what we have to remember is that most of the native speakers we try to talk to are going to be gracious to the point of indulgence. My international friends laugh a little at what I say, then correct me without making me feel stupid (yes, even the French ones). Then we go on with the conversation, which is what matters anyway. It’s really a great deal–we’re only trying to communicate, but we get to laugh a lot too. If you’re ever afraid you are driving a native speaker crazy with your mistakes and your bad pronunciation, just remember the last time you spoke with a new English-speaker. Did you mind their accent or their mistakes? You probably thought they were charming. What does this mean? You, too, are charming–hooray! Enjoy it.

Kimsa: Feeling the numbers


Today is big–I’m going to share my most important language-learning secret with you. But first think about this: when was the last time you learned a new word in your own language? For me, the most recent one was gigabyte. Thanks to a parade of new technologies marching into our daily lives, we are learning more new (non-foreign) vocabulary than any adult ever needed to before, probably in the history of the world. Most people have learned their own language by the time they’re 49 (my age), and new words barely ever come along. But I’ve had to absorb gigabytes of new words every year (did I use that correctly?); and so, I’m sure, have you. This is a good thing, because it gives you a frame of reference for absorbing new words in a new language. Take google, the verb, for instance. I suppose it means “search,” if you want an English synonym. We learned that new word while putting it into action, didn’t we? We repeated the action–dozens, hundred of times a day because it was so cool and kind of addictive–and all the time, we knew that what we were doing was googling. We never had to stop and instruct ourselves, What I’m doing is googling, which means “searching.” We just googled. And this is what you do when you learn a new word in another language.

It’s how you learned your native language too. You got used to the cat curling up next to you on the couch, and someone called it a cat. There was no other word for “cat” in your head; it was the actually identity of that purring creature beside you (or that scratching, fleeing creature, if you messed with it). After you’d heard the word a few more times, that animal was a cat, and the cat was that animal. (Of course, they may have actually called it Patches, in which case that would have been your word for cat, and maybe even your word for lion, dog, and raccoon until you learned there were different kinds of furry animals.) But the point is, you saw a cat, you thought cat. In a way, the word was the object.

This is what I recommend when you’re learning your other language. Find something around you you can’t yet name, and look it up in your little pocket dictionary (which you really ought to have with you at all times–add it to your before-you-go-out checklist: cellphone, wallet, dictionary). Maybe your object is a sidewalk. Once you know that the sidewalk is, say, acera in Spanish, don’t just chant acera-sidewalk, acera-sidewalk and stop there. No, look at the acera, walk along on it for a few minutes and think about how the acera feels under your feet, how it felt that time you skinned your knee on an acera like it when you were ten, how the acera looks all gray but actually catches light from the sun and twinkles a little, how far the acera goes ahead of you and behind you…. Experience that acera the same way you did when you were a toddler and someone told you that the thing you were walking on was a sidewalk. Do this until acera feels like a sidewalk and the sidewalk feels like an acera and you don’t have to use italics for it anymore. And make sure you do the same thing again tomorrow, to glue that word into your memory.

When I was very young, my 3 sisters and I loved to play with Fisher-Price Little People. Back then they were wooden with plastic hairdos and lathed cylinders for bodies. Our oldest sister was our leader, our teacher; we learned all the ways of the world from this authoritative six-year-old. So when she held up a Little Person with blond pigtails and said, “This is Susie,” we misunderstood a little, and imprinted on that: These are susies. From then on, all the Little People were susies, and when we wanted to pull out those toys, we said, “Let’s play susies.” To this day, even though my big sister is now 51 and knows better, we all call them susies. We can’t stop; they are Susies. And that thing you walk on is a sidewalk, and to my friends in Peru it is an acera. No extra steps of explanation or translation in your head. No italics.

This is Susie.

This is Susie.

These are susies.

These are susies.

Yes, I still have a collection of susies. I try to pretend it belongs to my kids.

Now that I’m learning Quechua, I’m working hard at “feeling” the numbers in this way. The foreign numbers I’ve truly learned up till now are in Spanish, French, and Portuguese, and they all sound like each other. Cuatro, quatre, quatro. Not only that, they are related to quantity words we use in English: quarters, for instance. But not these Quechua numbers; they sound like something out of the first Swiss Family Robinson movie, the one where I swear the director must have told his “native” actors to make up their own language as they swarmed over the beach in pursuit our heroes. Huk, iskay, Kimsa, tawa. Especially tawa–it gives you the same feeling as the word tatanka when Kevin Costner utters it with such endearing hesitancy in Dances with Wolves.

Those Quechua numbers didn’t feel like anything to me when I first learned them in order, the way I once learned to count in Japanese (“Itchy knee san shi…”) and it sounded like one long, unintelligible word. So I started using them when I was out for my morning run. Trees–I see a lot of them in groups of 1 to 4, as it turns out, so I began by counting them. Out loud–and more often than not, because I’m very slow, another runner would brush past my left shoulder just as I declared, Kimsa! Later, I found the word for tree and formed phrases, hooray! Tawa sacha–3 trees-(another runner passes me and speeds up a little). Suqta hatun sacha–6 big trees–and a disconcerted, slightly freaked-out runner peers back at me. (What do I sound like–a witch muttering magic words?)

For some reason, kimsa was hard for me, but not since the day I rounded the last curve on my route and noticed 3 perky stop signs at the corner. They are now my kimsa, and I look forward to seeing them.



After a few weeks of counting trees I’ve decided I’m ready for license plates. This morning I read them out loud off bumper-to-bumper parked cars as I walked back from the Lakefront Trail, trying not to care if anybody saw my lips moving. Where I live, which is inner-city Chicago, you can throw a rock and hit 2 halfway houses and 3 social-service agencies, so people talking to themselves on the street aren’t a big deal. At least that’s what I’m trying to tell myself. 

And when I go home, I count my children:

This is my other favorite kimsa photo.

Kimsa warma (3 kids)–or suqta alpaka, if you prefer to count the animals

What’s the word for adorable in Quechua?



People tell me one of the main obstacles to learning a new language is the fear of making mistakes. In the interest of helping you overcome your fear, I’m going to share some of my best mistakes with you.

A Ball of Shit

When I was 18 I had the privilege of being an exchange student in Brazil. Every year we had 2 or 3 exchange students at my high school, and their experience seemed like a dream come true. Not only did they get live in another country and be immersed in its language and culture; they got to experience a cool American senior year, become instantly popular, and dream in a foreign language. Yes, this was what impressed me the most: when the student would amble into school a few months into the year and say, “Yeah, I dreamed in English last night.” This was what I wanted!

Finally, at the beginning of my senior year, I applied to AFS (still doing exchanges 30 years later, and still awesome). On the application I had to say what countries were my first choices, and I put Japan (because even then I was looking for something completely different) and Norway (because of a tall, blond Norwegian exchange student I’d admired from afar during my junior year).

AFS accepted me and–surprise!–sent me to Brazil. Just about the opposite of Norway or Japan, but it didn’t matter to me. I can honestly tell you I would have gone anywhere. And Brazil turned out to be very good for my reserved little self. Here is what people in Brazil are like: relaxed–in bold and italics. And very huggy-kissy-touchy. Here is what I am like: Not relaxed. Not huggy-kissy-touchy.

When I arrived, my entire host family was at the airport to meet me, and everyone from the dad to the 7-year-old boy gave me 3 kisses on the cheeks. I know, you only have 2 cheeks, but they have a habit of kissing each one and then going back for another. Five people, 15 kisses. We went home to their apartment for a grill-out, and I met 20 or 30 of their friends. That’s 90 cheek-kisses hello, 90 cheek-kisses goodbye. My family said I had a tan when I got home from Brazil, but I think it might have been a permanent blush. Actually, you get used to this type of greeting surprisingly easily. The hardest part, when you’re uncoordinated, is not to miss and get someone on the lips by mistake. That happened to me once, and I was so embarrassed I never spoke to the guy again.

But what about the shit? One of my greatest discoveries in Brazil was coconut ice cream–another dream come true! I am crazy about coconut. As an adventurous language-learner I was determined to order for myself the first time I stepped into a Brazilian ice-cream parlor. I asked my friends how to say scoop, and they said bola (ball), so I danced up to the counter and sang out, “Uma bola de cocô, por favor.” The shopkeeper’s eyes widened and everyone around me burst out laughing. Who’d have thought one tiny accent mark could make such a difference? Coco, with its accent on the first co, means coconut. Cocô, with the accent on the last syllable, means shit. So I ordered one ball of shit. Fortunately they gave me ice cream anyway.

I’d like to buy a Butt….

As long as we’re swearing, let me tell you about the apron. In Ayacucho the Indian women wear two kinds of traditional skirts. Both are heavily gathered, and this is why Andean women look bell-shaped. One is wool, with beautiful trapunto embellishments and pleats at the hem; this is the good skirt. One is cotton, usually plaid with machine embroidery and eyelet lace all over the place. This one is really an apron that ties in back and goes over an eyelet-lace petticoat, and you’ll see women wearing these while they’re working. On a recent trip to Peru with a group of high-school girls, I was helping one of the chaperons buy one of these apron-skirts for his wife. While we looked for the perfect color and size, I made small talk, explaining to the shopkeeper that my friend’s wife would use the skirt as an apron when she baked. The lady looked puzzled and, I thought, a little unhappy, so I went on trying to explain: “They’re so pretty that when you wear one, even when you’re cooking all day, you feel as pretty as a princess.” I made apron-tying motions as I talked, and then probably (because communication in a foreign language is a whole-body effort) baking and prancing-like-a-princess motions, until the lady’s face looked happy again–success!

As we walked away with the new skirt my mind ran idly back over the conversation, and the words replayed themselves in my head. I stopped short on the sidewalk and 2 or 3 people ran into me. Did I really? No, I couldn’t have. Yes, I did: I used the word for butt instead of apron. No wonder  the lady’s face fell. The word for butt and the word for apron are not at all similar: one is trasero and the other is delantal. But tras means behind and delante means “in front” and I often mix those two direction words up.  Unfortunately that means I may be doomed forever to mix up the words for butt (trasero) and apron (delantal). 

This is a delantal.

This is a delantal.

This is a trasero.

This is a trasero.

They threw what on the floor?

I was recently explaining to a Colombian friend (in Spanish) that my kids used to have the irritating habit of throwing the couch cushions on the floor when they played in the living room. The word for cushions is cojín. They threw the cojines on the floor. Cojines, cojines, cojines. Only I accidentally said cojones. You can look that one up–it’s not very nice–on my favorite online Spanish-English dictionary:

Oh all right, I’ll tell you. It means balls. Not the  bouncy kind.

There, does that make you feel better? Now go and be a proud language klutz. Be wiling to make mistakes. It is fine for you to trip up all over the place, as long as it means you keep moving.

How different could it be?

not many houses...

“Only in the square are there many houses.” (Sorry, I know this isn’t really a square, but it was near one. Best I can do.)

So you’re considering studying a language that’s completely different. Your first question is probably, How different can it be? Are there pronouns? verbs? Do they conjugate the verbs? What about masculine and feminine nouns and the adjectives that are supposed to agree with them?

Here’s something I find very comforting: Humans all over the world seem to have settled on certain basic communication needs, and all languages will fill them somehow. That means you’ll find something familiar wherever you go. For instance, you can go to the internet and find out how to count in Tuvan, Tagalog, and Irish. Everyone counts. Or at least most people. (I did read in National Geographic about a language that only had 3 numbers: “one, two, many.” I kind of like that. You’d only need one year of math in that culture. Maybe only one month.)

People count in Quechua too: Huk, iskay, kimsa, tawa, pichqa, suqta. (I’m going to stop at six, because that’s as far as I’ve gotten. More about that later.)

They also say yes and no. Hooray!

And they have pronouns. I didn’t know whether to think they would: is that something everybody needs or just something the Romance people made up? (I don’t mean Harlequin, just so you know; I mean Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Romanian.)

But here’s a big difference: Quechua is suffix-based. When I first read that, I had to think about whether a suffix came at the beginning or the end of a word. It’s at the end, actually, like -ing or -ed, and it changes one word into another related one. In English, a suffix can change the present into the past, a noun into a possessive, a verb into a person who does something. In Quechua a suffix can do all of those things and much, much more!

You add suffixes to Quechua words to show everything we would normally do with verb endings, prepositions, adverbs, possessive adjectives, conjunctions, question marks and exclamation points, and even a lot of gestures and facial expressions.

Here are some cool ones:
-paya: indicates a repeated action done with especial interest
-naya: indicates desire
-iki: “obviously”
-puna: “without a doubt”
-yku: action done with a variety of emotional nuances (honestly, this is what my Spanish/Quechua glossary says: acción realizada con diverso matiz emotivo. I looked up every word in my Spanish dictionary.)
-qa: topic (indicates ‘This word right here is what I’m talking about’)

But my very favorite is -m/-mi: This tiny suffix means that the speaker is sure s/he is right about what is being said. I’d like to use this one in English, all the time.

Fortunately, the differences mostly seem to make sense. In the end, I get to say what I need to. For example, if I want to describe the population density of an area in the remote peaks of the Andes, I can express it in Quechua: “Only in the main square are there a lot of houses (and I’m sure about that).” Only I won’t need more than 3 words and 5 suffixes to say it: Plasallapim achka wasikunaqa.

I can break that down for you: Square-only-in-(I’m sure) many house-plural-topic. “Topic” (-qa), by the way, is the suffix you tack onto a noun to say, “This is what I’m talking about. I’m talking about houses here, get it?”

I actually get really excited these days when I see a word like achka that doesn’t have any suffixes.

Why Quechua?


If you’ve read my “about” page, you know I’m just starting to learn Quechua–Ayacucho Quechua, to be specific. 

If you know anything about language-learning, you’ll know I shouldn’t be doing this: I’m 49 and that is way too old to start a new language. However, I did start studying Spanish when I was 38, and I’m pretty close to fluent now, so I’m willing to take my chances.

There has to be good motivation, though, for a 49-year-old to start something like this. So what is it?

Could it be pure pride? I’ve lately felt that French, Spanish, and Portuguese make up a poor resume if I want to be considered a polyglot. Those languages are all very closely related, and closely related to English too. I do happen to speak them. Yawn…

But then wouldn’t Japanese, Arabic or Chinese be a more useful non-Romance alternative? Yes, especially if you’re in college and hoping to find a job someday, but Quechua may be of more use to me at this point. I actually have hopes of using it to communicate someday soon. Communication–the desire for it–has to be the strongest motivator for learning a foreign language. If you don’t need a language for communication, what is the point? By communication, I mean a giving and receiving of information and ideas, which could include conversing, reading, listening to music, or watching movies. Are there any Quechua books or movies I’ve been dying to read or watch? No. 

But I have been to Ayacucho, Peru, and I can’t seem to stop wanting to go back. The first time, it was to adopt a baby. Isaac Danielito–born to a probably-Quechua-speaking mother who couldn’t take care of him–was living in an amazing little orphanage there when we met him. (Please take a look at their website; they are wonderful people: ) He was almost a year old, and we were allowed to take him home to Chicago a few days before Christmas. But before we could go, we had to spend 3 weeks in Ayacucho getting vetted by the state social worker. We spent many hours at the orphanage, where we got to see how much love the staff pour into those children; and the older kids would climb all over us–a mom and dad! and quiz us about what life was going to be like for Isaac in America.  

We also spent hours roaming around the markets–more time than normally needed to pick up souvenirs for the people back home, because we had Isaac with us. We could hardly walk 5 feet without someone stopping us to ask (politely) what we were doing with a Peruvian baby; and then I would start to explain in my beginner’s Spanish, and soon a crowd  would gather around us and we’d be having a little convention about Isaac’s adoption.

One day I bought a manta from one of those merchants–the cloth that Peruvian moms use to carry their babies on their backs. Soon several older ladies were trying to help me get Isaac on my back and once again a crowd had gathered. As soon as he was “installed,” Isaac started grabbing fistfuls of my hair at the nape of my neck and I yelped. The ladies gestured to their own braids, meaning “Now you know why we have them,” and put my hair up into two braids, tying them with pieces of their wool yarn. I proudly walked around with Isaac on my back, to the approval of all the Indian ladies there. At one point another mom stopped me; she had the most beautiful little girl on her back, and when I asked her the name, she said Isaaca! I told her I had an Isaac on my back, and we had to take a picture.


At the end of our time in Ayacucho, the orphanage threw us a party with cakes, speeches, and gifts–they were giving us gifts, when they hardly knew where their next meal was coming from. We could never forget about them–the kids or the staff–and we went back 3 years later as a family and a few times after that with high-school groups to serve at the orphanage. 

The first time we went to Ayacucho, I thought of Quechua as a sort of relic of Peru’s past, like the mummies and Machu Picchu. As far as I could tell, everyone there was speaking Spanish. (And to be honest, at that point I didn’t know that much Spanish and I probably couldn’t tell the difference.) But as I became more conversant in Spanish I began to discover there were some people, especially at the markets, that I couldn’t understand. Their words were a little percussive, with a heavier leaning on the vowels. And the people speaking it were most often impossibly wrinkled ladies with long gray braids, brown felt near-fedoras, short wide skirts; and deep, bright black eyes. 

One day I went with my friend Gloria to the place we call the “chicken-foot market.” We call it that because they haven’t caught on to our American packing techniques yet. The first stalls you see are counters full of dead, plucked chickens, their feet pointing toward the customers in clusters looking like needles on pale yellow pine trees. Gloria would go to a stall, press her fingertips into the breasts of a few chickens and choose one; then the lady behind the counter would pull out a huge cleaver and thunk, thunk! you’d have several pieces of chicken. The chicken feet would seem to be waving goodbye as we walked away through a maze of other stalls piled with potatoes, bread, fruits, flowers, and some other very strange things.

That day we stopped to buy cilantro from an ancient lady sitting with her herbs on a blanket on the floor. This tiny, beautiful Indian woman in all of her beautiful traditional clothing with her beautiful black eyes gazed threateningly up at me and I saw unconcealed hatred; and as she glared at me, she spat out a stream of measured, enunciated, terrifying words–not in Spanish, and I couldn’t understand them, but the last word was gringa. “Greeeenga”: long, reedy, and dripping with ire. Now I have to mention here that Americans aren’t super popular among the older indigenous people of Ayacucho, and that’s a long story.

I asked Gloria, who speaks Quechua, what the lady said, and she answered without missing a beat: “She likes your beautiful red hair.” Uh huh. So that’s a good reason to learn Quechua: I’d like to know when I’m being insulted, and exactly how.

The last time I went to Peru with a high-school group, we helped plant potatoes on a farm that belongs to the orphanage. While we waited for the farmer to organize us into work groups, I watched his wife carrying bucket after bucket of water from a spigot across the yard to a huge barrel. Finally I decided to get over my shyness and offer to help, but when I tried to speak Spanish to her, she couldn’t understand me. She only spoke Quechua. So much for my Quechua-as-a-relic idea. A real, living, currently used language spoken by people I run into in real life (as long as I’m in Ayacucho, anyway). That makes it irresistible, in my book.

Someday I plan to go back to that old lady at the market, sit down on her blanket with her, and say hello. Then we’ll have a conversation in Quechua, and maybe she won’t hate the gringa so much. Isn’t that a good reason to learn a language?

Up and Down the Mountain with the “kids”


The hostel had at least 5 dogs, strays they took in; a loyal, well-mannered little pack. The first time Scott and I took a walk, the fox-faced one smiled and followed us up to the road. As we turned the first corner we heard flurried barking–wait for us!!!–and 2 others scrambled up a steep shortcut on the hillside. A thickly coated husky joined us a moment later, and finally a fat little heifer-patterned mama-dog waddled/ran to catch up. It wasn’t the perfect entourage for birding, but being parents, we instinctively accepted the company. They dashed in and out of the thick growth on the roadside, chasing–what do dogs chase in Costa Rica? I don’t know if I ever saw a squirrel. Maybe lizards. All five stopped frequently to mark spots along the way–“mine…mine….mine,” five in a row on one stretch, then a hundred feet later they’d do it again.

Down some steep stretches and a couple turns we came to the river and followed a trail that led to a waterfall. This is where all the tourists are supposed to go first: at least, everyone asks everyone, “Have you been to the waterfall?” The falls are a letdown after the majestic posters advertising them–more like a tall rapids. But the walk is a first taste of birders’ paradise. It took us hours to go the 2 miles or so because we had to stop every 5 feet and pull out our binoculars. A strange sight turned my attention away from the not-so-majestic falls: there is a bridge over the river where you can stop and view them; when I looked over the downstream side of it something brown popped high out of the water and then instantly disappeared. A leaf? I watched for a few more minutes and it happened again: trout! They were trying to swim upstream like spawning salmon. When they reached a place between boulders where the stream became very narrow and the current correspondingly strong, the result was–popcorn! Each time it happened the surprise made me yelp. I stayed for a while at the bridge so I could tell the next passing hiker about it; and there I left her, intently aiming her camera at the water and waiting for a fish to pop.

Every time we met another birder on the path we apologized for the dogs: They don’t bite…they’re not ours…but aren’t they nice? We started referring to them as “the kids,” and when they were out of sight for too long we’d ask, “Where are the kids?” It felt natural to be keeping track of small beings running in different directions even though our children were back in Chicago with babysitters.

The “kids” kept following us day after day. The fox-faced one, Suri, would even curl up on the porch of our cabin and await our departure. One morning, we took a nap on the porch in the sun, and she and the little cow-dog curled up there with us. If we stopped in a restaurant on our way up the valley they would wait politely outside until we were done eating. One afternoon we stopped at a tiny family restaurant that was also a nursery with pots of flowers for sale on the front stoop. To our embarrassment, the kids made sure to mark every flower pot, “Mine…mine…mine.”

Another day, the dogs followed us exceptionally far uphill. We took hours to hike the 4 or 5 km; the road was steeper than our feet could flex, and our hearts were thumping loudly enough to drown out the river below us. Mama-cow was hard pressed to keep up, but very determined, and she made it the entire way. Late in the afternoon we stopped for a meal at a resort along the road; the “kids” faithfully waited outside as usual. The restaurant was so sleepy, it seemed we would have it all to ourselves. The lights weren’t even on, and we scattered our possessions on 3 or 4 tables on our way to sit down by the back porch. Then a group of 4 tall, blond, athletic Europeans walked in. We felt a little intimidated by their sophistication until they needed help translating the menu. By the end of the meal we’d become that special type of temporary tourist-friends, sharing a warm appreciation for each other yet knowing we’d soon part forever and never miss each other at all; we hitched a ride with them back down the valley when they mentioned they were going to the waterfalls. As we hopped into their rented minivan the dogs emerged from their naps in the shade and gazed at us as riding away. At the hotel, we worried that mama-cow would never make it home, that the hotel owners would find her fat little dead body halfway down the road. We didn’t see the kids the rest of the day, but the next morning Suri was there again to accompany us, and Mama-cow waddled up for a tummy-scratch. Thank goodness.

In the Cloud Forest


I’m in Costa Rica right now with my husband, Scott–just the two of us. We’re in a cloud forest 2200 meters up in the Talamanca mountain range. A place of pilgrimage for birders but we came here to relax. What we want most is to stay in one place and do nothing for 5 days in a row.

We took an all-night flight to San Jose, the capital, then a city bus to the terminal where we caught the bus that would take us up to San Gerardo de Dota. $1 for the city bus, but 5 taxi drivers stopped us in succession on our way to the bus stop to explain that buses can be “difficult” but they could get us to our terminal without incident for $25-$35. We got there without incident on the bus, and it was more fun. We noticed right away there were 2 types of tourists–older birders like us; and young, pierced, tattooed and dreadlocked, tanned-almost-charred surfers. Some of them look the same color of dusty from head to sandalled foot, as if they are in a slow process of turning into earthen sculptures of themselves. Both types were fun to talk to in the immigration lines, but we lost all our surfers when they went down  to the coast and we went up. We also lost the  birders; I think they rented four-wheel drives.

The bus dropped us at km 80 on the Interamericana highway, the entrance to San Gerardo, and we called our hotel for a pickup. While we waited, we watched the fog rolling and pouring in around the mountain peaks above us, and then it started to fall on us. Rain or mist? The stop was at 3000 m.; Doña Hilda came in her pickup truck and drove us down the steep, twisting dirt road to her hostel (I could correctly use the word tortuous here, but it sounds too painful for such a beautiful place), and we were glad we hadn’t decided to walk the 10 k with our suitcases. There, the sun was shining and the sky was deep blue striped with hulking, speeding white clouds.

Breathtaking. Hillsides covered with greenery or impossibly tall trees–a tropical kind of 100-year-old oak predominated, some over 100 feet tall. Vines, ivy, exotic flowers, furry moss and bright red plant-parasites on the trees. Giant ivy-covered boulders with sides as straight as man-made walls which seem to have broken out of the ground (a million years ago, I suppose). Birdsong. San Gerardo de Dota is a string of lodgings, restaurants, and tiny stores along this tortuous road on the Savegre River, a rocky, fast-moving mountain stream; glance into it anywhere and you’ll see trout (brook or rainbow).

People come here from everywhere to see the Resplendent Quetzal, but we think the forest and mountains are resplendent enough. The Quetzal is icing, however, really good icing, and we saw one this morning. Only the male gets to be Resplendent; it is a crested, green-blue, red, and white parroty bird with green tail feathers a foot long; when perching, he swings them as you would swing your feet if you were the one sitting on a tree branch. He arrived in a flash of red and a trail of green, about 7 a.m., to the joy of a crowd of birders and guides with thousands of dollars worth of lenses, scopes, and binoculars, all a respectful distance away on the dusty road.

At first he went from branch to leafy branch, stopping and posing elegantly several times before landing on a dead tree,  weathered gray and as bare as a telephone pole, dotted with large holes. A few more poses and then he scrambled into one of them, his chosen nest, which wasn’t easy; his tail feathers continued to swing outside the hole. Time to begin the day’s work of hollowing it out. His mate appeared and waited below; she was a little plainer and had no long feathers, but if she was jealous she won’t be for long–her mate will lose his tail feathers once the eggs are laid and he’ll look to be half his mating-season size (this bird is only resplendent part-time), making it much easier to get all the way into the nest-hole.

Having drunk in the sight of the quetzals for as long as we could, we walked up and down the road with our guide looking for less resplendent birds. My two favorites: the yellow-thighed finch, which is a gray/black bird with surprising yellow shorts as bright and fluffy as Grandma’s bedroom slippers; and the slatey flower-piercer: A would-be hummingbird with a too-short beak, it has its own way of drinking nectar on trumpet-shaped flowers. The top of its beak is sharp and curves downward like a bent sewing-machine needle. It uses its beak like a hole puncher, clamping it around the base of the trumpet and drinking the nectar from the side. “Flower-piercer.” Who’d have thought?

Costa Rican food: So far, only the coffee is worth mentioning, but very, very worth mentioning. They drink it strong and a little fuzzy with almost as much warmed whole milk. I love it. If I have some food with it, fine.

Having visited friends on the coast 3 years ago, we thought Costa Rica was just hot. HOT. Yes, the lowland jungle is awe-inspiring and everywhere you look you see toucans and parrots and scarlet macaws and big yellow spiders that spin yellow webs and pelicans and herons and even sloths and maybe a crocodile, but who can stand to stay there when it’s so hot? If you could only go naked. Well, this cloud forest is paradise. Sunny and 80 degrees F. in the afternoons, 63 and chilly at night. Stars pressing on your eyes in the darkness. In the morning you shiver, but so what–there’s that coffee waiting for you. Like Heidi climbing the mountain to live with the Grandfather, you put on everything you own, only to peel it off layer by layer once the sun comes out.

You have to take your binoculars to breakfast because there are so many birds outside the windows. I wonder, is that polite, binoculars at the table?

Incidentally, think about this next time you eat mangoes: They taste like Christmas trees.

Enough for today, enough! I should be outside.