by Cassie Silva
“Welcome to Amantani Island. One of these women standing before you will be your new Mama for the rest of your stay here,” our local guide Roger yells above the whistling warm wind of the approaching thunderstorm.
Fifteen Peruvian women in traditional dress line themselves up before us, wrinkled brown hands smoothing back their fly-away hair as they jabber amongst themselves rapidly in Quechuan. I clutch the plastic bag of food I am bringing as a gift for my host family, and wonder why there are so many more potential mothers than there are participants wanting a room for the night. The scenario reminds me of middle school gym class — will the women select which tourists to bring home with them, or do we go choose the Mama we want to adopt us? The ladies all look kind and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
My friends and I departed the vibrant city of Puno, Peru earlier that morning to board the small boat that would drop us off on Amantani Island, a basket-weaving community on one of Lake Titicaca’s fascinating islands, for an overnight homestay. Before boarding we were told to go shopping at a nearby market to buy presents for our new family.
Roger said the most appreciated items were food: rice, pasta, fruit, sugar, etc. and toys or school supplies for the children. After a bumpy rickshaw ride to the boat dock, we were off on a nauseating several-hour voyage on a rocking boat to Amantani Island, while our local guide passed around papers with common Quechuan phrases. “They don’t speak Spanish?” I asked, alarmed. I hadn’t been as nervous about the homestay as my friends were because I could communicate fairly well in Spanish. They smirked at me — we were all in the same boat, literally.
We stand now as still as statues, staring at the ground, feeling like we are on display for the troop of potential Mamas. “David and Chris!” Roger announces, and our friends brush past us to go join Mama Gladys. She hugs them warmly, and leads them away by their hands. He keeps calling names, but none of them are mine. I finally look up, and realize that my friend Michelle and I are the last foreigners remaining in the windy field.
This really is like middle school gym class.
“Cassie and Michelle!” Roger finally announces and we step forward anxiously.Â He proclaims again: “MAMA GILDA!” I fight the urge to say “Come on down!Â You’re the next contestant on….Take Home a Tourist!” A tiny woman steps forward, and the others who were not selected pick up their knitting bags and turn for home, skirts blowing in the wind, grumbling under their breath. Our honorary Mama turns her back and begins hiking up a steep hill. We aren’t sure if we are supposed to follow her, but we do anyway.Â We are soon huffing and puffing — any exercise at this altitude is exhausting.
Eventually my plastic bag breaks and oranges go rolling down the hill. Mama Gilda takes the bag from me as I scramble to pick up the fallen fruit and she continues on, still without speaking. We arrive to a modest two-story home with outdoor stairs leading to the upper storey. We drag ourselves up the stairs and tread carefully along the ledge with no railing as she opens the door to our bedroom.
The door is about five feet tall, so even though at 5’7” I don’t consider myself tall, I find myself ducking. The room is basic, with two firm twin beds and a dresser. There are sheets acting as curtains, and best of all — a small working light above the dresser.
“Jayka Wawayoj Kanqui?” I ask carefully, consulting my Quechuan phrase page. How many children do you have? Mama Gilda nods yes, and turns away, piling thick blankets on our beds. Okay, we seem to have a communication problem here. These are going to be an interesting few days. She turns to me, and says a Quechuan phrase that I do not know. I stare at my list helplessly and wish I could magically understand. She repeats it, and this time I miraculously understand her. Praise the Incan Gods, I can understand Quechuan! Then I realize this time she had spoken in Spanish. I remember my guide book mentioning that frequent trade with the Spanish-speaking mainland has forced the Amantani people to abandon some of their ancient traditions and become bilingual. How unfortunate for them but lucky for me.
Roger told us that in the busy tourism months, these families will have guests joining them every single night. What a life — sharing your home with new tourists every day who call you Mama and can’t speak your language.
Mama Gilda, in her traditional dress and her “New Zealand” cap, is a shining example of the effects tourism has had on the Quechuan people. I stare at the list frantically, looking for anything to use to make conversation. “Munay Wasi!” I finally exclaim. Beautiful house! She nods, gives us each a chullo — a traditional Peruvian hat with earflaps she made herself, and leaves.
Michelle and I unpack our clothes into the small bureau, pull on our chullos, then step outside where we are greeted by a stunning view of Lake Titicaca. We wander down to the main part of town, where we had agreed to meet our friends after getting settled in.
The guys are playing a game of soccer with local children. When we ask if we can play soccer too, Roger’s face grows concerned. “I suppose…maybe…girls don’t usually…if you want to perhaps?” Instead, we watch the boys for a bit, huddled on the sidelines with dozens of Amantani women, knitting and speaking quietly amongst themselves. Our friends look hilarious, as they all wear unique-looking chullos made by their own mamas.
We make our way to a shop beside the playing court, where a woman melts chocolate over a fire to make us hot chocolate. And here I thought making hot chocolate from scratch meant boiling the water and adding it to the powdered mix yourself rather than going to Starbucks!
A crack of thunder soon disbands the soccer game and people flee to their homes. Michelle and I hike up the mountain in silence, trying to find our new home in the dark, while thunder rolls and huge bolts of lightening light up the lake. We realize that at nighttime, every dirt path looks the same and each house nearly identical.
“Mama Gilda?” we call tentatively. Michelle thinks she spots our house and leads us up a trail toward it. We pause in front of a two-story house. No, that’s not it. Thirty minutes later we finally find Mama’s rickety gate, rush through it, and bolt up the stairs.
While racing inside I crack my head on the doorframe and groan in pain. Now I know how tall people feel.
We clean ourselves up and nervously walk down the stairs to the kitchen where the rest of the family seems to be waiting for us. We enter a dark room with a dirt floor, where Mama sits on a pile of straw in front of a small rustic stove, cooking supper. We greet our host father, sister and three little brothers. I hold up the plastic bag of goodies I brought and the boys’ hands are inside it the second I hold it up. They are used to the routine. They know foreign siblings always bring gifts. They’re not interested in the food, but shout with glee to find the bag of marbles, pencil crayons and coloring books. The youngest boy sits on a pile of hay in the corner, slipping his hand into the bag and fingering each smooth marble carefully.
It seems Mama and the men have eaten already, as our sister Soledad serves us thick clay bowls with quinoa soup, then a plate of rice and chicken. She sits with us as we eat in silence. We take coca leaves from a pot on the table and drop them in hot water to make coca tea. We make conversation in Spanish with Mama and Papa, as we ask questions about island life and they ask questions about our lives in Canada.
After supper the men disappear as Mama and Soledad dress us up in traditional outfits. Each family wears specific colors and patterns and so Michelle and I now look like clones of Mama Gilda! Mama ties our woven belts so tightly we can barely breathe.
We waddle down the hill in our heavy outfits to the community hall where the locals have organized a dance. I slump against a wall on a wooden bench, sweating from the layers of dress. A local man walks over and extends his hand, asking me to dance. I let him pull me up, and I toddle out to the dance floor where we begin an energetic dance. I watch the women around me to copy their twirling, skirt-swirling moves. My belt has finally loosened enough to suck in a deep breath without it hurting. Mama Gilda races over and starts undressing me. I look around worriedly, but she only removes a couple layers. She slides her callused hands under my cape and I gasp as all the air once again leaves my lungs. She is tightening the belt, and ties it again firmly. She remarks proudly in Quechuan, likely saying something to the effect of “There! Try getting out of that one!”
After the locals perform several traditional dances for us, we make our way back home. On a late-night excursion to the outhouse, I happen to shine my flashlight down at the ground in front of us, and scream, flinging my arm out to stop Michelle from taking another step. Our front feet dangle over a ten foot hole in the ground. Sleepy-eyed sheep stare up at us in confusion. We carefully find our footing, and take a safer route to the outhouse.
After a freezing cold night we walk down for breakfast. Mama places a large plate in front of me with a large flat crepe. “Pankeke!” she announces proudly. She also offers the jar of marmalade I had given her as a gift yesterday. We were right–whatever we brought would be served to us, so we made sure to bring items we liked! I spread a thin layer of marmalade on the pancake, and begin to eat. It was cold, but it is my first pancake in over a month! Mama reveals another pancake and offers it to us. We shake our heads no, and she carefully rips it into pieces, offering chunks to her daughter and her neighbor who sit around the fire silently. They chew their pieces of pancake staring at the dirt floor.
We collect our bags and prepare ourselves for the long hike down. I drop my heavy backpack on the ground, and turn to pick up a different bag. By the time I turn back, little Mama already has my heavy bag swung over her back. “No, Mama!” I gasp. I pull the bag from her back, and strap it to my own instead. Mama looks grateful.
The walk to the dock is easier this time now we have adjusted more to hiking at altitude. I purchase bottled water from a woman on the dock and a Coca Cola for Mama. When our friends arrive, we bid our Mamas adios, step onto the boat and settle ourselves in.
Yuspagarasunki Mama Gilda!Â Thank you very much!Â Ripushayku Isla Amantanti! Good bye Amantani Island!
“I wonder if Mama Gladys misses me yet,” Chris wonders wistfully as the motor starts up. “She’s probably replaced you by now,” we tell him dryly, but he refuses to believe it.
“She’ll probably retire once I’m gone.” We humor him with an understanding nod as our boat putt-putts away from the island.
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Cassie Silva is a writer and children’s theatre director from Vancouver, Canada who most recently spent two months traveling and volunteering her way across Peru.