One of the most anticipated challenges in moving to Peru was spending two years away from my family. I knew it would be tough not seeing my friends, but the fact that I would be living with other volunteers and making new Peruvian amigos was a source of consolation.
Family is different, though. While friends change throughout one’s life, family is irreplaceable. For good or bad, they are the ones we have with us for the long haul.
Thus, I was understandably skeptical to learn that shortly after arriving in Peru, I would be spending two weeks living with a host family in Cusco. The reason given for this retreat—to take language classes with a tutor and get to know the culture—seemed reasonable enough. But living with a group of complete strangers? I had my doubts.
For example, my understanding was that the family wouldn’t speak a lick of English. While this made perfect sense as a means to improve my Spanish, “jumping in head first” sounds better than it feels. I could just imagine my language deficiency leading to meals eaten in complete silence. This was something I had not regularly experienced since elementary school when our principal, Mr. Colwin, used to turn off the lights whenever students made too much noise. I had no intention of revisiting those days.
Such worries were rattling around my head on the Sunday morning my fellow volunteers and I boarded the bus from Andahuaylillas to Cusco. First we dropped off Susan, the other first year JV, at her host family’s house.
I hated her family immediately. Why? Because I was supposed to stay with them until they decided they wanted a girl. Why else? Because they were perfect—a nice couple in their 30s with two adorable children, a 5-year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy. There was no way JVC’s luck was good enough to land two stellar host families. I was sure I was headed for the pound.
I must have looked pretty sullen as we rang my host family’s doorbell, but I smiled and said hello as a kindly woman in her 60s answered the door. Named Elida Yabur Mar, my host mother welcomed us in and invited us to sit down.
As the other volunteers made small talk, I pondered how my friends’ impending departure felt a lot like my parents abandoning me at daycare when I was a child. Inevitable, but painful nonetheless.
We said our goodbyes, and moments later, it was just me and Elida. She made the first move, asking if I would like some breakfast. Well played, Elida.
I agreed, and she subsequently suggested I unpack and rest while she prepared some food. This was too good to be true. Right off the bat, Elida had encouraged two of my favorite activities: eating and doing nothing.
And then there was the food itself. I can’t remember exactly what she made that morning, but it was to be the triumphant first taste in two weeks-worth of delicious meals. It’s not that Elida made anything I wasn’t used to eating. There were a lot of eggs, rice, potatoes and basic fruits and vegetables. The way she prepared it, however, was unique and always fantastic.
Eating, of course, was not the reason I was in Cusco. Bearing in mind my mission of cultural immersion, I decided one of the best ways for me to get to know what it was like living in Peru would be to get to know the family I was living with.
Besides Elida, there are five other people living in the Yabur Mar house. Elida’s husband, Miguel, is a retired engineer. Over the years, Miguel has learned some English, which he takes great pride in practicing with native speakers, i.e. me. Though Elida would scold him and remind him I was supposed to be practicing my Spanish, Miguel simply couldn’t bring himself to stop asking, “Brian! How are you?” In his free time, Miguel enjoys playing guitar, perusing the Internet (he calls the famous search engine “Googly”) and consuming somewhere in the ballpark of five cups of coffee a day.
Together, Miguel and Elida raised five children, who are now all grown. One of their daughters, Iracema, lives at home and works as a psychologist. I didn’t get to know her particularly well, as she usually worked until about 8:30 in the evening. Apparently, she is a bit of a night owl; sometimes I would hear her singing full volume in her bedroom at 10:30 p.m.
Miguel has an older sister named Zoila who also lives with the family. Though she always appeared cheerful at mealtime, she spent a great deal of her day in her bedroom. Sometimes, I would pass by her door and see her lying on her bed, smoking a cigarette, doing a crossword puzzle, watching a telenovela or some combination of the four. Once in a while, she would invite me in to say hello and ask how I was doing. On one such occasion, I happened to turn to see the telenovela she was watching. It was a particularly intense scene: a woman was hiding under the bed a couple was passionately making love on. Zoila laughed and laughed as I made some excuse for why I needed to leave.
When Elida was about 3 years old and growing up in a distant community, her parents took in a little girl who had been orphaned. This girl, Vicki, continues to live with Elida and seems to play a sister-like role in her life. She is exceedingly quiet but exceptionally nice. Because she helps Elida in the kitchen and around the house, she was one of the reasons I ate so well while in Cusco.
And then there’s Giovanna, a 17 year-old girl originally from the town where Elida and Vicki were born. Because Giovanna wanted to study and saw a greater opportunity to do so in Cusco, Elida agreed to take her in. In exchange, Giovanna helps Elida and Vicki around the house.
I took great pleasure in getting to know all these people, but as in so many families, the heart and soul of the Yabur Mars is the mother. Initially, my appreciation for Elida was probably as selfish as I’ve made it sound. I liked that she
cooked wonderful meals and gave me a comfortable room where I could study Spanish and relax.
As time went on, however, I began to comprehend how much of a grace the time I got to spend with Elida was. One of the four pillars of JVC is spirituality, and Elida helped me to develop an idea of what this could look like in my life over the next two years. Before I arrived in Cusco, one of the older volunteers had suggested I make a point of going wherever my host mother went—to the market, to visit one of her childrens’ homes, for a walk, etc. Because the day I arrived was a Sunday, I ended up going to mass with her. I had yet to begin my Spanish classes, so I didn’t get much out of the service.
Undeterred, I asked her if I could accompany her the following Wednesday on another outing she had told me about. I originally thought she was going to a hospital to spend time with patients, and I figured it would be a good opportunity to get a glance into Peruvian health care. As it turned out, we were actually going to a meeting for a faith group she belonged to. Called the Legion of Mary, this team of five or six women in their 60s meet regularly to pray the rosary and, as I would imagine, discuss Mary-related matters.
I probably hadn’t prayed the rosary in about 10 years, not to mention that I was now supposed to pray it in Spanish, but I followed along as best I could. The women were all remarkably kind and seemed more than happy to have this scruffy, 22-year-old American man crashing their party.
We finished the rosary, and my fellow Legioners began talking about whatever it was they had on the agenda that month. I think it had to do with spiritual direction, but it didn’t take long for me to give up hope of comprehending everything they were saying. Nevertheless, I figured the atmosphere made it appropriate to partake in some prayer of my own.
I can’t remember exactly what I prayed for over the next 45 minutes or so, but I do remember feeling as peaceful as I had since arriving in Peru. There was something incredibly reassuring and calming about being with these people who took their faith so seriously and consciously made it part of their lives without calling attention to themselves.
What also gave me pause was how these ladies carried their goodness with them when they weren’t gathered in church. We decided to go to a bakery after the meeting was adjourned, and though I had made no contribution or brought any forseeable benefit to their group, they refused to let me pay for my food. And then when we returned home, Elida wanted to cook me dinner.
All this is to say that Elida provided a model for how I would like to treat other people. Every day, her generosity went above and beyond what she was required to do, and every day, she gave freely and gladly. In my final days in Cusco, she went so far as to tell me I should consider her house mine, and that I was always welcome back (I returned just over a week later for New Year’s Day lunch).
But I think this also has something to do with why I knew I would miss my family so much. For almost 23 years, my parents, brothers and extended family have given me unconditional and often undeserved love and support. When something so vital is suddenly experienced at a new distance, it is only natural to feel the change.
That, I suppose, is why family is so important and, as I said, irreplaceable. It is uncommon for relationships to consist in such selfless giving, even within many families. Though I am sad I will go so long without seeing my actual family, I feel so lucky to have met Elida and encountered Peruvians who demonstrate the love of a family to me.