Friday, September 9, 2016

A Glimpse of the Future Coming from Behind by Paula Veselovschi

Santiago de Okola

The strong August winds were swiping the barren fields of this tiny village on the Bolivian shore of Lake Titicaca. Don Tomas invited me into his house. Surely, he wouldn’t leave me sitting outside to freeze. Don Tomas, the organizer of my homestay there in Santiago de Okola, was trying to get a hold of Doña Lucia over the telephone. My host. For the next three days, I would be sharing her house, food and company.

“There’s one thing I forgot to tell you, though,” he said. “She doesn’t speak Spanish.”

“At all?”

“Well, a little bit. But you’ll mostly have to talk to her in Aymara.”


Aymara, an indigenous language spoken in parts of Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Argentina, wasn’t completely new to me. A few years before, while reading a book, I had come across an unusual bit of information: this language, it said, sees the future as behind us, rather than in front of us. The strangeness of this worldview stuck to my mind and now, years later, I arrived in La Paz, contacted the Aymara Language and Culture Institute, and took some lessons. Spending three days with somebody who spoke only Aymara, though, took the challenge to a new level.

“Don’t people here speak Spanish as well?” I dared to ask.

“Some of them do. The young people in particular, but Doña Lucia is seventy-two.”

I moved my gaze across the room, trying to find an escape from my newly-found apprehensiveness, but in the austere-looking home of Don Tomas I found few things to distract my attention – a table, a gas stove, an old black radio, and Don Tomas himself, standing. He had just offered me the only chair he had.

“Don’t worry, she’s a lovely lady,” he said. “Her husband is dead, her son is in La Paz, so she’s thrilled to have somebody around for a couple of days.”

Santiago de Okola was desolate in the winter. Houses there were scattered far from each other, separated by distances rather than by fences. Two pigs and a woman sorting frozen potatoes in her yard were the only living beings in sight.

We found Doña Lucia in the kitchen, sitting on the ground, legs crossed under her ankle-long skirt. As she saw us, she rose slowly, greeting me with a beaming smile and uttering words which I didn’t understand. Don Tomas showed me my room. I dropped my backpack, and off he went.

I went back to the kitchen, a small windowless adobe hut crammed with old burnt pots, tins, buckets, sacks of potatoes, corn, beans, and a few vegetables on a shelf. The wind was blowing through the cracks in the walls and the door was wide open to let the light in. Doña Lucia was peeling potatoes in a plastic basin, and boiling some water on a small stove. My lunch.

I tried to recall what I had learned in my classes. Some words that sounded vaguely familiar, the conjugations for about ten verbal tenses I had no idea how and when to use, and countless rules for constructing a basic sentence.

Nayax aymar yatikta,” I said as I took a seat on a piece of wood by the entrance. I had crafted this sentence beforehand and rehearsed it in my head for four minutes or so. “I’m learning Aymara.”

She already knew that. Don Tomas had told her. She replied quickly, as if she were talking to another villager. I didn’t understand a thing. But that was fine. The ice had been broken.

Jumax phayta?” I tried again. This time I knew the phrase was incorrect, but I still hoped the message would get through. “You cook?” Doña Lucia was now washing some vegetables and I wanted to offer my help.

She somehow seemed to understand. She pointed to the bucket and said something. I understood “uma”. Water.

As I came back with the full bucket, I gained a bit more confidence and tried to name some of the objects around us. Potato. Cat. Beans. Tomato. Corn. House.

Jumax,” I started, but I realized I lacked the vocabulary to finish the sentence – what’s “to eat” in Aymara? I dried my hands, rose up quickly and ran to my room, to bring my pocket-size grammar manual. Will you eat with me, Doña Lucia?

The second day, I told her about my parents. She showed me an old picture in black and white. It was her, with her late husband and her son.

Qauqi?” she then asked, pointing at me.

Qauqi? What’s that, I thought.

Maya, paya, kimsa,” she said.

Wait, Doña Lucia, I’ll get there. Maya, paya, kimsa are the numbers. One, two, three. She was asking me how many brothers or sisters I have. None, I am an only child. 

It always took me some seconds to break her sentences down into words, a few more to figure out if I recognized any of them, and reassemble them into a message. Most of the times, I simply didn’t understand. Some of the times I did. Our conversations were slow and bumpy.

That evening, Don Tomas dropped by to check if everything was alright.

“Are the two of you getting along?” he asked me.

“We do. I just wish I could understand what she says and talk to her,” I said. “It’s been tough.”

“Don’t worry,” he interrupted, “Doña Lucia told me she adores you!”

“Really? How come?”

“You speak Aymara.”

In Bolivia, a country where most of the population is indigenous, Aymara is one of the four official languages, the mother tongue of some 1.2 million people in the high Andes plateau. However, this number is decreasing. Schoolbooks in Aymara are rarely available, despite the country’s objective of having education in indigenous languages. And speaking Spanish is a must, if you want to find a job. As a result, an ever rising number of indigenous families, especially from the urban environment, now choose to raise their children only in the country’s lingua franca. Santiago de Okola was no city, but even there, Don Tomas explained me, it was mostly the adults and the elderly that used Aymara in their day-to-day conversations. What is now a living language may, in a few generations, become silence. But we don’t know that for sure. The future, in Aymara, is behind us because we cannot see it.

The fourth morning, it was time to say goodbye. I needed to catch a ride to the main road to La Paz. Doña Lucia offered to help. We walked to the main square. I dropped my big backpack and leaned it against a wall. It was a sunny day, but the air was crisp. The August winds were still swiping the barren fields of this tiny village on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

A young girl came in our direction, carrying a bag of envelopes. The postwoman, I thought.

Kauks saraskta?” Doña Lucia greeted her.

“No, no, no, I’m sorry, I don’t speak Aymara, no entiendo,” she replied.

“She’s asking you where you are going,” I translated Doña Lucia’s words to the girl. Then I waited for her to answer.


Paula Veselovschi is a traveller from Romania, passionate about discovering the intricacies lying under the skin of the places she visits. In love with all things South American, she has been travelling and living on the continent since 2012. Her current home is Colombia. 

Judge's Comment: This story turned my vision of the world and of communication upside down. The author describes Aymara, an indigenous language spoken in several countries of South America, a language which '...sees the future as behind us...' The future behind us...what a comforting idea.