Thursday, December 10, 2009

little old quechwa women

Before I go any further with this blog, I need to define one key actor:
The little old quechwa woman: Little and old are both redundant here. No woman from my community is over 5 feet (the men are diminuitive as well; I’m a 5 foot 4 giant, for the first time ever) and, after a certain point, ages here begin to blur; a grey haired woman might surprise you by introducing you to her yuyu(baby). The important thing here is the outfit: hat, tall with a wide brim and a detail a bit like a fantail on one side; manta, basically a brightly colored blanket which can be worn as a cape, as a shawl, or folded to carry babies or giant loads of firewood/alfalfa/crops (the other day a young woman asked me to translate manta into English. I told her I didn’t think that we had mantas, to which she replied: Then how do you carry your babies? I told her I was too young to know); cardigan, appearing for all the world like a preppy thrift store find; blouse; pollera, a brightly colored knee-length wool circle skirt that can be fairly plain or have sparkles and/or rich embroidery; leggings or pants (it is freezing here); and either loafers, sandals made out of old tires or no shoes at all. She strikes quite a figure, especially when carrying a load twice her size and trotting up a little mountain path.
My admiration for these women only increases as I see them in action. Whether carrying loads, digging holes to plant trees, scything grass to feed to their guinea pigs, or waking up in the middle of the night to crouch on the street and sell produce for hours, their stamina (and propensity to giggle constantly. I can only assume that quechwa lends itself to jokes and gossip and cannot wait to be a part) is unending.
Over the weekend, I convinced my host mom to take me with her to the market. This is no ordinary trip for weekly purchases. Rather, it is a commercial venture that begins several days before, when my host mom, dad and grandmother harvested hot pepper from one of our fields. Then, they sort the ricotto into three different sizes and bundle it up into four huge bundles to be loaded unto a community truck Saturday afternoon. After sending the goods ahead, my host mom, little brother (he had also asked to come for a birthday treat) and I went to bed Saturday night and woke up early—at 1 am—and left to take a collectivo (a shared taxi) down the unpaved, washed out mountain road in pitch dark (with three other quechwa women in the backseat with my mom, blissfully gossiping the entire 1 hour trip) to the market town.
When we arrive, we find our bundles of ricotto waiting for us, and hunker down, next to other bundled up women (and a few men as well) in street lights so dim that from 10 feet you couldn’t distinguish a quechwa woman from her bundle of produce. Soon enough, the market vendors came to purchase in bulk, haggling in quechwa with my mom and nearby vendors and soliciting second opinions from bystanders. Gradually, the streets fill, first with vendors, and, then, with the morning light, with purchasers. There are stands selling everything from fresh produce to electronics to bedding and satisfied customers toting all of these purchases through the increasingly crowded streets.
Of course, I was an object of utmost curiousity—the only gringa, and a head taller than most everyone else present. Never have I been such a stranger as I am here. When I go for my near daily paseos, the reactions I encounter—from dumbstriken staring to unstoppable giggling—are at times hilarious and others discouraging (I don’t notice as much but I can only assume people’s bafflement when they see me with my two sitemates, speaking in the quechwa of the United States, English).
At the market and in site I am mostly happy with my confusion, awkwardness and excitement. Over all I am so excited to be here, but I certainly admit to moments when I wish that instead of hearing people call me “gringa” I heard them call my name.

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