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By Olivia

My first host family challenge is chronicled in a notes doc titled “PEOPLE.” It reads:

Tanya — natural remedies
Jonny — vet guy with horses
Rubén — soft-spoken, auto engineering
Marisol — fancy government job
Juanito — small nephew (6), Minecraft, dinosaurs
Josué — big nephew (12), FIFA, TikTok
Ceci — biker girlfriend of Rubén, good hugs
Matt — upstate NY boyfriend of Tanya, bad handwriting
Becky Lou — skinny cat (“wants a boyfriend”)
*other cats do not have names

These names, hastily typed under the table in an attempt to keep everyone straight, began as a mere list of words. But now they mean so much more. They’ve become a cast of three-dimensional characters, whose lives I’ve gotten a real window into.

My window into Rubén’s life came in the form of a presentation on frontal truck collisions. Last Thursday I got off work early and rushed across town to the polytechnic university, where I (as per usual) found myself quite lost. With the help of a man who’d been cleaning the bathrooms, I found my way to Auditorium One, where my well-groomed and very nervous host brother was standing before a line of professors.

His thesis presentation went beautifully. At least, I assume it did, from what very little I could understand. But despite my confusion, it felt very special to see him in his element, talking with clear passion about what he’d dedicated the last six years to. My normally soft-spoken host brother fielded the judges’ questions with confidence, and I could tell from their concealed smiles that he was doing well.

When it came time for Rubén to thank his family for their support, my host sisters and mom were in tears. I felt so privileged to be let in on such an important life event and to share in the joy and accomplishments of my new family.

My window into Tanya’s life came in the form of a moon festival. September 21st marks the celebration of Killa Raymi, a day to honor fertility, female beauty, and Pachamama, the Andean earth-mother deity. This period of fertility applies to women trying to conceive, but also extends to seedlings and anything else with the potential to sprout life. My sister explained this all to me with the utmost expertise and reverence. She owns the natural remedies shop adjacent to our house, and spends her time matching ailments to traditional tea blends and giving massages, which more often than not turn into therapy sessions. She is a practicing Catholic, but also cares deeply about saving indigenous Andean knowledge and spiritual tradition.

On the day of the festival, we piled into the car and started our ascent into the mountains of Cajas National Park. After twenty minutes of ear-popping, we found ourselves in a cold but beautiful clearing, surrounded by foggy peaks. First came the ceremony, during which we crowded around a shrine on the ground and honored the four elements. Tanya knelt in the middle of the circle, tending a small fire that smelled of incense. I was so proud to point her out to my friends and say, “She’s my sister!” Next came reforestation. Taking advantage of the sacred period of fertility, we trekked to a nearby riverbank and planted hundreds of native trees.

Though I don’t have space to document them all in this short blog post, I’ve gotten to see glimpses of all of my new family members’ lives. I saw Jonny (noted in my document as “vet guy with horses”) at work sterilizing pigs and giving them crucial vaccines. I saw Marisol (“fancy government job”) shaking hands and talking politics at a French fry festival she’d helped to put on. And I’ve played endless pretend games with Juanito (“small nephew (6), Minecraft, dinosaurs”). I feel so lucky to have been incorporated so eagerly and lovingly into this family. I’m also glad that I no longer have need for the notes doc.

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