Have you ever met someone and within a very short amount of time felt an immediate close connection with them? I have thought I felt something like this before but I never could have imagined just how close you could get to someone in five days.
Five days ago my program traveled to Putre. Putre is a small rural mountain town on the border of Bolivia. For our five days there we were staying with a homestay family in groups. There were three other girls and myself staying with a family in Putre. Throughout the entire time we were there, our host family was so welcoming and caring.
Our mom gave us small flutes that had llama/alpaca designs and said Putre on them at lunch the first day together. The first night at dinner we had an amazing conversation about religion. Our mom asked us if we were religious. This can sometimes be a very touchy subject but she was very open to hearing everyone’s opinions and beliefs. We talked about being spiritual without adhering to a specific religion and about Buddhist beliefs as well as Christianity. At the end of the conversation she even said to us that our differing beliefs about religion would not separate us. After dinner we even went to the Evangelical church that she is the pastor of and participated in the service. It was very different from religious services I have attended previously. The majority of the time we were in the church we were singing. For every song there was a video that accompanied it. Some of the songs we sang in Spanish and for these the lyrics were part of the video projected up on the wall of the church. Many of the other songs we sang came from a hymn book. In the book each song was written in both Spanish and Aymara, the native language of a large majority of the people who live in Putre. Because we were there, they decided to sing in Aymara for us. These songs all had videos to accompany them with images of people in traditional clothing in fields with different animals or in water playing instruments and singing. We followed along in our hymnals trying our best to sing in Aymara. For the first two songs it was really challenging but it got much easier as we started understanding the pronunciation. After singing two songs in Spanish and four or five songs in Aymara, our host-mom read a gospel passage and started her homily. Then came the Sign of Peace. After that we all headed over to another small building next to the church that had a kitchen and an dining room with several long tables. On one table there were three plates of sopapilla that had been made before church and cups of tea. We sat there for about 20 or 30 minutes just talking to the other members of the parish. They were all so welcoming of us.
Throughout the rest of our time in Putre I consistently felt so welcomed by our host family and also by everyone we met. Part of the program was talking to the Aymara traditional medicine providers in Putre. Señor Teófilo is the yatiri. His role in traditional medicine within Aymara culture is to communicate with different spiritual entities. He does this to read hojas de coca (coca leaves) for people. Within these readings he can tell you about your health, your job, and your love life. He can use this to help figure out if someone has an imbalance within their body that is causing them to be sick. Additionally, Señora Fausta is the qulliri/usuyiri of the town. A qulliri is the person who uses herbs to help cure illnesses and prevent illnesses as well. A usuyiri is a traditional midwife. Both of them were very welcoming and taught us so much. I even went to Señor Teófilo one morning to get my coca leaves read and Señora Fausta made me a jarabe (a solution of eucalyptus, honey, and a root of an herb called yareta) for my cough and bronchitis as well as a cream for muscle aches. I feel like I learned the most from them. Through them I saw the potential for intercultural medicine to succeed. They worked with the local health center to treat patients and they were so open to learning about and incorporating occidental medicine in their traditional practices. They used occidental diagnoses to help cater traditional remedies and medicines for their patients and they also understood which types of illnesses they were able to effectively treat and which ones they were better treated by occidental doctors. However, this system does not yet go both ways. The medics at the clinic in Putre change a lot. At least every four years there is a completely new medical team in Putre. This means that some of the doctors that come are more open and accepting of traditional medicine and its benefits than others and it presents even more of a challenge in creating a sustainable system of reciprocity between the two types of medicine to best benefit the patients in Putre and surrounding towns.
The last night that we were in Putre the group of girls that I was staying with went stargazing and on the way back we saw that our host parents were in church so we stopped in. It was just about the end of the service so we stayed. At the end our host mom said that she was so happy we had come to Putre and that she hoped we learned a lot while we were here and that she had learned a lot from us. After that she asked us is if we wanted to say a few words about our time in Putre. We all said that we felt we had created a very strong connection with the people and the place in the short time we had been there and that we learned a lot about the Aymara culture. Then another woman from the parish started to close the service with a prayer. Her prayer lasted for five minutes or so. I have never heard so many well wishes for strangers in my life. A large part of her prayer was directed at us and wishing us well in life and in our studies. It was amazing to see someone who thought the best of everyone, even people she had only met twice for very brief instances. By the end of her prayer I was almost in tears and one of the other girls I was staying with was crying. The rest of that night was spent saying very heartfelt goodbyes to our host father since we wouldn’t see him the next morning. Our sister-in-law gave us hair ties that she had made for us. They were flowers made out of fabric with traditional patterns.
The next morning we left at around 9:30 but as we walked to the bus we saw our sister-in-law again. She was in a store and beckoned us in. Once we were in the store she asked us if we wanted any snacks for the ride home. As we started to get out our wallets she quickly told us no, she would be paying for whatever we wanted. It was very sweet. We each ended up getting a lollipop for the drive up Lauca National Park, where we were visiting before returning to Arica that day. It was very hard to get on that bus and leave behind Putre and our family. I don’t think I have ever connected to someone so quickly and with such strength before in my life. I couldn’t have imagined an better first trip out of Arica.