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I was back in the beautiful Mapacho River Valley this past weekend. It’s hard to believe that a month has gone by since I was there last.

This was a particularly exciting trip because it was my first time hosting the weaving meetings all by myself. When I say by myself, I mean without Sarah or Ashli. I did of course have somebody else with me to translate to Quechua. This time the Mosqoy student who joined me on my adventure was Johnny, who is studying tourism. Johnny proved to be an excellent travel companion and a wonderful translator. He had the weavers laughing and smiling throughout the meetings, and although I like to think I’m fairly friendly I’m sure it was because he was adding his own spin onto my statements. I didn’t mind though because it created a really positive atmosphere in the meetings and put everybody at ease. It seemed that he was explaining everything very thoroughly and the weavers were engaged in the topics we were discussing.

As I listened to Johnny explain payments, registration and the flaws or merits of a given textile in the weavers’ own language, I wished for the billionth time that I spoke Quechua.

I wished it again as I listened to him comfortably conversing with our hosts over a hot meal in their kitchen. I wished I spoke Quechua when all the weavers burst out laughing over something Johnny said, but he merely grinned and told me it was nothing when I asked him why. I wished I spoke Quechua when we arrived in Pitukiska cold, wet and muddy. The villagers put a steaming cup of coffee in my hands and my boots by the fire to dry. That’s I when realized I don’t even know how to correctly pronounce “thank you” in Quechua. “Gracias” gets the message across, but it somehow seems less sincere when Spanish is neither my mother tongue nor theirs.

I should have made more of an effort to learn a few basic words during my first couple weeks here. Many of the students in the house speak Quechua at home and often converse amongst themselves in their first language. I’ve been hearing it for weeks, but let me tell you, Quechua is not an easy language for an English speaker to pick up. The sounds are very different from English or Spanish. Johnny tried to teach me a few things but I had a hard time remembering when I couldn’t see it written down. An eight year old boy gave me a vocabulary lesson as we sat by the fire peeling potatoes and eating stew, but it didn’t go over so well. Or rather, it provided a great source of entertainment for everybody else in the room as they went about their business and let out the occasional burst of laughter at my terrible pronunciation. The eight year old thought I was pretty funny as well, especially when I didn’t even understand when he asked me my name. Then he made me feel even worse by passing me the sugar bowl for my tea and saying “sugar” perfectly in English. Where did he learn that?

When I came back to Cusco I decided I should look up some words so I’ll be better prepared in the future. Q’ente has a list of “Useful Quechua words” which I should have consulted with way back in the beginning. I’ll be printing it out and bringing it with me in the future. These are some of the key terms:

Hello, how are you? = ¿Imaynalla kashanki?

How are you? = ¿Allillanchu?

What is your name? = ¿Iman sutiyki?

Thank you = Añay or Yusulpayki Johnny told me I could also just say “Mama-ya” or “Papa-ya” when I am offered food, for example

Good morning = Allin p'unchay

Good night = Paqarin kama

Quechua is an oral language and attempts to write it down result in varying spellings. This is even true of names, as I’ve found taking attendance at weaving meetings! There are also many regional variations, so the Quechua spoken in the Cusco region may be very different from the Quechua spoken in Ecuador or Bolivia. According to good old wikipedia, there are 8-10 million speakers of Quechua in South America. It’s definitely alive and well, although I do notice that Spanish words are thrown in during conversations. This seems especially true for modern words like “highway” or “truck”. Like all languages, Quechua is evolving and adapting to the needs of its speakers. It’s remarkable that this “mother tongue” of Peru has endured Spanish colonization and increasing globalization. So many indigenous languages around the world are disappearing at an alarming rate. Language is intrinsically linked to identity, and Quechua is a central part of indigenous life in highland Peru. As Johnny said to me, for him, “everything has more meaning in Quechua”. I think it’s wonderful that Q’ente works with a Quechua translator at meetings instead of communicating through the few people in each community who speak Spanish. It shows respect for the weavers’ identity and culture, which is one of Q’ente’s fundamental principles. I feel that learning a few basic words would be a way for me to personally show my respect for the weavers. I’m sure that in time I could learn some simple phrases, and though my pronunciation may never be perfect I’d like to be able to thank my hosts in their own language. It seems only polite to try!

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