Language, the Eyes of Culture

The Language of the Inca: Runasimi

As I walk among piles of fresh fruits and vegetables–sacks of beans, rice, and coca leaves, so large they make me question how they sell it all–I almost can’t believe I get to be here. Smells and colors overwhelm my senses, but I’m comfortable, I feel at home walking through the business of this market. For the past 7 months I have lived in Cusco, Peru, the capital of the Incan Empire. Although the Inca may have fallen, their spirit still lives in the streets, preserved in the stone work, and alive in the voices of the people, kausaysharaqmi

The place I have found this spirit most alive is in local markets. The hustle and bustle, the smells, the kindness, the laughter all entice me. I rarely shop at supermarkets. I buy milk and cheese from a local shop near my apartment, my milk carefully carried in a plastic bag tied with a knot. I buy papayas from Maria, a woman down the street, and potatoes from the woman outside of Titos market. Everything is more personal here. When I’m shopping, I am face to face with the person, there’s connection, a give and take. They’re taking care of me, I am taking care of them.

When you walk into a market everyone has their food on display, piled high and sorted. There’s order in the chaos: every item has its place among the fruits and veggies, some of which I have never seen. All this food, lifetime supplies of beans, rice, and noodles packed into the space the size of a small closet. Among the business, if you listen closely, you may notice that not everyone is speaking Spanish exclusively. Between the quickly spoken Spanish and the bargaining you might be able to pick out some words you don’t understand, the language of the Inca: Quechua. 

I have been learning Quechua since January and to say the least I am not very good at it, but I get by. In Peru, a country of 33.7 million people, about a quarter, 7.7 million, speak Quechua. You can hear and see it everywhere. The names of streets and stores, in markets and on the bus. But something you don’t see very often, if at all, is a gringo speaking Quechua. I have learned the best way to learn any language is to speak it as much as you possibly can. Anytime I get the chance I try to use my broken Quechua. “Allin p’unchay kachun panay (Good day, sister).” At first they don’t notice, and usually they respond in Spanish “Buenos días papi”. “Kashanchu masara? (Do you have any cheese?)”. The second time I speak in Quechua they smile, and women at neighboring shops start to giggle. “Ahri arhi kashanmi turay (Yes yes, brother, I have).” I am grinning and laughing along with them. How silly it must be to see this blond haired gringo speaking their native language. When I walk away and hear the laughter behind me, it brings me an immense amount of joy. Every time I can surprise someone and show them that I am trying, I am filled with this deep sense of connection with Perú and the people here. 

This is the reason I come to these markets, not just to support families directly but to be part of the community, this web of connection. Everyone here is looking out for one another. When one Casera doesn’t have enough change or doesn’t have the item you want, they’ll run to a neighboring vendor and get you what you need. There’s this unspoken system of sharing and caring for one another. This system of communal care was passed down from the Inca, the idea of the M’ita, Mink’a and Ayni. The Inca had no currency, so everything relied on reciprocity. Giving to the gods and everyone, Mink’a; giving to your community, M’ita; giving to your family, Ayni

When I came to Perú my goal was to learn and connect with the culture, the people. Eat where locals eat, see the corners of Peru that not many tourists get to experience. I have done this, frequently visiting small villages, exploring places in Cusco usually only locals go to. But this is all I am… or feel that I am, a visitor. I struggle with the feeling of being a tourist in a place that I feel a deep connection with. I know I can’t hide my gringo-ness. On the bus, I am the only person whose head is touching the ceiling, and when I go to rural villages there is no way around the sideways glances and the wide-eyed stares. What makes me different from other tourists? Nothing, I believe I will always be a tourist. No matter how many people and places I get to know, how much slang and Quechua I learn, I will always be the white guy from the US.

When locals ask how long I’ve been in Perú, sometimes my study abroad friends will make jokes, “Él es básicamente cusqueño (He’s been here for 7 months, he’s basically Cusqueño).” We all laugh, but I am not sure if any amount of time spent in a place could make me any less of a tourist–and that’s okay. Although I may be considered a tourist, I have accomplished a lot of what I came to Perú to do. I have made friends, connected with various communities, my Spanish is more fluent, and I have started to learn Quechua. I have been very fortunate to experience many parts of Perú. To live how different people live: from the upper class, living in mansions on the beach in Paracas, to people living in traditional stone huts in Pitumarca. I feel very privileged every time I walk into a market or Picanteria, any time I get to experience the living spirit of the Inca. The people, landscapes, and cultures have left an indelible mark on me, and soon that’s all it’ll be, a memory, a part of me partially estranged. I would mention something about needing to say goodbye soon, but in Quechua there is no word for goodbye. Maybe it is because encounters with people and places become part of one’s identity. Once a moment has passed, a place left, a goodbye said, it all will forever be part of who you are. No need for goodbyes. Tupananchiskama, I will see you again.

Kele Ramsay is a student at University of Minnesota Duluth and an ISA Featured Blogger. He is studying with ISA in Cusco, Peru.

Author: keleramsay

I am a third year student at UMD, studying Physics and Spanish. I love the outdoors and learning new things.

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