My soup is gone and I sit at the table, watching my host sister absently tear chicken from its bone with her hands. The time I meant to leave the house for the next activity has passed, but I feel no urgency. I can run there if I need to. In fact, I feel a silky pull holding me in my chair. My host sister has found that not only can I understand when she tells me her complicated relationship with her family or her difficulties with school and friends, but I share similar experiences and want to hear hers. She tells me, with little hesitation, of her secret boyfriend, but informs me her mom doesn´t know. She talks about visiting her dad in Argentina and feeling uncomfortable in a home she didn´t grow up in, how she wanted to come back to her house in Tiquipaya even though she feels closer to her aunt than her mom. I say little, only smile and insert affirmations to assure I am listening. Because I am.
Later, when I unintentionally wake my sister from a midday nap and she emerges drowsy and disoriented, her slight frustration with me is exactly what I would expect from family. In between excessive apologies, I can´t hide my smile.
Laughter is unquenchable when I show my mom and sister pictures of my home, and they point at the moose in disbelief at the oddity of Alaska´s cows. Aunt Salome begins her late dinner after selling auto parts in the city, but she soon forgets about her boiled potatoes because she´s never seen a sunset so pink. The uncle with whom I was informed there´s a slight family feud puffs with pride as he explains how the salmon swim upstream and the bears don´t like to eat people. Initially when I ask about traditional holidays and customs they tell me the bare minimum, but they soon ask me what more I want to know, far surpassing my assignment but my grin envelops my face and I scribble down the Quechua words I can´t pronounce.
The first morning I told my mom I liked fried eggs to make conversation as I ate my bread and fried eggs. The next night we had a fried egg on our rice instead of meat.
We sit degraining corn even though they tell me my hands will hurt later and my mom laments, half laughing and half melancholy, about how I will never return. There are empty rooms upstairs, she says. I can come live in Tiquipaya and laugh with them when she, like her mother now, is 98 years old. I insist I want to bring my family to meet her.
It´s midday and I grab my 85-liter, size men´s medium backpack to embark on a 24 hour bus ride to Peru. Maria, 98 years old with no front teeth and an impeccable understanding of Spanish but capable of communicating only in Quechua, holds my hand in her gnarled, experienced ones. She kisses me on the cheek and makes sounds I can´t decipher but somehow understand. She pats my face many times in what is meant as an affectionate gesture but I don´t think she knows her own strength. My many one-sided conversations composed mainly of smiles have paid off.
Four women spanning three generations fill this house with ancient magic of sisterhood. I have never heard a complaint and they laugh when I wash my clothes in the cement sink yet they remain repulsively dirty. We celebrate when I manage to push a ginormous dead bug out of the tiny spaces in the light bulb. Sometimes we don´t speak, but we look up over our bowls and we smile. This family is not defined by blood.