Our lives touched briefly, thrice.
The first time occurred a number of years back, during a period of about 4 years when I was immersing myself every Sunday afternoon for four hours in a church of about 150 monolingual Quechua persons who met to study and worship God one half a block from the central square of our city, Cochabamba, Bolivia.
I’d set myself to become part of this group of people partly because I wanted to learn deeply and well the Quechua language, which is not one of the easier world languages. My personal goals for fluency in it were high, and I felt I needed more conversational and listening exposure, combined with an experience of sustained immersion in an authentic Quechua cultural context, in order to progress effectively toward reaching my foreign language and culture acquisition goals.
Every week during that time frame there were visitors from several different rural areas of Quechua Bolivia and a weather-worn woman in, maybe, her early sixties, with a strong distinctive face and her older, infirm-seeming husband always beside her, and a string of children and grandchildren always with them, their whole family from Pocoata, was one of them.
So, that was the first time our lives touched briefly.
The second and third times, the most significant times for me, were when one afternoon a year or so after this, I stood working in my kitchen upstairs preparing an evening meal for some guests who were invited to come over, and for our own family. I’d been helping our kids with their homeowork, getting in my self-set quota of self-set language study hours and calling some ladies about information for our weekly study.
My heart sank a little when the property front gate bell buzzed twice, then thrice, for our apartment.
Setting the timer for the bread loaves I’d just shoved in the oven, I opened the door and raced down the creaky rainforest mahogany front stairs, flew across the tile portico, the cement walkway and impatiently jerked open the heavy property gate.
I took in the petite, weary-faced figure in front of me. Her face had deep lines and crows’ feet etched by the harsh Andes sun and a harsher lifetime of toil among the rocks and clods of dirt on the hardscrabble Quechua farms of the high mountain regions. Dirt lay under her fingernails and a strong unwashed odor emanated from her. Hers was traditional rural Quechua clothing – homespun wool, coarse, faded and worn, undyed. Some of it looked like rags.
Her long black hair, streaked with gray, greasy and smelly, lay parted in the middle and falling down her back in two thin scraggly braids.
Black eyes, deep-set and infinitely tired, looked into mine.
I remember glancing down and noticing that her little wide bare feet were encased in mud-crusted coarse homemade sandals made of recycled rubber truck tires pounded together with cheap iron nails.
Her toenails were long and scrappy and even dirtier than her fingernails.
She carried no purse or wallet – only a faded and ragged striped homemade carry-cloth (agwayo), resting on her back, the thick ends knotted across one frail shoulder.
“Good afternoon, my sister.” In Quechua.
“Good afternoon, Sister. How are you?”
“My husband is very ill. He almost died. I took him to the doctor and, the doctor says he must have an operation to take out his gall bladder, tomorrow. We don’t have the money to pay for the operation. May I borrow one hundred dollars from you? I promise to pay it back in exactly two weeks from today.”
Socially acceptable REASONS for turning her down were already on the tip of my tongue when, from the outside street I heard footsteps approaching, then saw the tall form of my husband come up beside the woman and he greeted her in Quechua. She re-iterated her story , and he told her “YES”, went and got a one hundred dollar bill, and placed it in her hand!
She thanked us profusely and quickly melted away.
I was VERY ANNOYED with P. and told him so! We both “kissed the money goodbye” forever, and forgot about the whole incident.
Two weeks later, to the same time of the DAY, our doorbell rang again and I flew down those stairs and pulled open the round-topped heavy wood and metal door, expecting my teenage son who had stayed late at school to play basketball.
It was SHE, in the same clothes, same rubber sandals, same raggedness, same smells. She held a crisp one hundred dollar bill in her outstretched hand, and gave it to me.
“Thank you, my sister. May our Great God bless you and keep you.” She held the money out to me. Shocked, I slowly extended my hand and she laid the bill in my hand, as I slowly thanked her, and then asked her how her husband was.
“Fine, now”, she joyfully told. “He’s home recovering, and doing well. Goodbye!”
She melted away, again, down the street.
2 Bolivian Quechua Friends conversing with P. in the Q. language and working on their weaving, the figures of which have been handed down orally and through imitation and practice for a thousand years.