Defining “Home”

by Teagan, Civic Semester Participant

As a child of a big family, “the second oldest of six” is my most used epithet. I grew up in a house overflowing with laughter, and I learned from a young age the value of collectivism and cooperation. I never imagined a dinner table with less than eight chairs or a life in which I didn’t share a bedroom.

That is until this weekend.

When I was accepted into Tufts, one of the first things I did was research study abroad programs. As much as I love my family, I knew that I could not live in Medford for another four years of my life. I submitted my application to the Civic Semester, a program for students to study abroad during the Freshman fall, and before I could even blink, I was on a plane to Peru.

Since arriving on September 1st, time has flown by. In our home we call Rocafuerte, this group of strangers quietly transformed into a family during the “in-between” moments—making dinner crammed in the kitchen, logging onto Zoom for class, or sharing cups of tea while watching the Milky Way.

Last Saturday, we sat together facing twelve Peruvian host moms and dads dispersed among our suitcases and duffle bags. We squeezed each other’s hands with nervous excitement as Pablo, one of our instructors, announced our future parent’s names.

At that moment, I felt nostalgic for the memories of a place I had called home for only two months. I couldn’t comprehend what I would do without waking up alongside Sophia or being a few steps away from Elaine’s dorm for our nightly “chisme.” We sat in a state of suspension, and I asked myself if I even had the right to call Rocafuerte “home.” I asked myself, when a place has such a strong impact, does it matter if you live there for two months or two decades?

As a second generation Medfordite (yes, a real term), I feel a little tinge of resentment every time a Tufts freshman calls Medford “home.” It’s not that I want to keep the city to myself, but Tufts students miss so much about the city’s rich and complicated history that can only be learned through stories of my mom’s childhood or shared experiences in Medford High School. Medford is so much more than Tufts. It is so much greater than the Hillside. And when Tufts students generalize, I feel as if my city is cheated out of its complex identity.

Pablo called my name, and I was brought back to the present. I looked up apprehensively as my Peru mom, Yaki, ran toward me with open arms. She smiled ear to ear, and we embraced in a hug. At my new house, I met my two “hermanitos,” Santiago and Gabriel (who immediately gave me the nickname “Snacks”). With them, I felt back at home with my own brothers, Cullen and Declan. I guess I had forgotten what it’s like living with boys who love roblox, wrestling, and doing anything to avoid putting the toilet seat down.

It has only been a few days, but I have been welcomed into the family of Yaki, Rafael, Santi, and Gabo. Just this weekend, we traveled to Cusco for trick-or-treating and our bisabuela’s birthday party, and event filled with karaoke, traditional dishes, and games of sapo. Gabriel, Santi, and I watch Netflix together after school under a new profile named “Tiguen” that they made. I realize how much I had missed home-cooked meals every time Yaki places a plate of pasta or egg frittata in front of me, and I smile every morning when I am woken up by the quiet voice of Gabo asking “Snacks, ¿puedo entrar?”

I was so nervous to leave my cohort—after two months in Rocafuerte—but, last night, as I laid in my very own bedroom for the first time in my life, I realized that nothing is as scary as I expect it to be. Knowing that my cohort is going through the same emotions as I am makes me feel less alone and intimidated by what lays ahead.

So yes, it has only been a week with my host family but I already feel at home. No matter how you define it, home is created by the people just as much as the place itself. Whether at Tisch Library or Tenoch in Medford Square, I hope that all Tufts students can find their own place in the city I am grateful to call home. And maybe we can value our chosen families just as much as we do those related by blood.

Life is Life and Thread is Thread

by Iris, Civic Semester Participant

After a forty-minute drive (and a slight detour when we walked right past the bus depot), we arrived at Tika, a women’s weaving co-op. The outside of the building is unassuming – located on the side of a large road, the only thing that identifies it as extraordinary are the colored tassels hanging from the doorway.

Inside is a different story. As we enter, we are greeted by stacks and stacks of fabric in every color, pattern, size, and shape you can imagine. Along one wall are tablecloths and shawls; another holds thick, soft sweaters made of alpaca wool; tables are lined with intricately woven bracelets and wallets; hats and bags hang from hooks on the ceiling. We walk upstairs, where we meet Lupe, one of the women who works at this organization. We learn about different natural dyes (did you know that there are bugs called cochineal that can be used to make almost 10 different shades of red?), and then we learn to make Kipus. We tie brightly colored rope in specific knots to signify numbers and dates of significance in our lives. Lupe explains that the meaning of the Kipus was lost for a long time and an Archeologist came to where they lived and taught them about it. This is something that we’ve seen a lot of in the Sacred Valley – the traditions of the indigenous people were so thoroughly demolished during colonialism that they didn’t get the chance to be passed down from generation to generation. Instead, scholars (often Westerners) have had to relearn and then teach Peruvians their own traditions. This dynamic is complicated and more nuanced than I can properly dig into, but important in understanding Tika as an organization.

She shows us how to make yarn from alpaca wool, holding a spindle in one hand that she spins effortlessly between two fingers, switching quickly to thinning out the wool so that it spools easily into a perfect bundle. Once the spindle is full she does something magical that makes it reset. She hands it off to us to try, but all we can manage is a pointlessly spinning spindle and a couple of broken pieces of thread (she magically fixes this, too).

I’ve learned about so many skills over the past month and a half that I never really considered before. In America most of us are completely insulated inside a bubble of office jobs and machine assembly lines, making us forget that for most of time humans have done things by hand. Here in Urubamba, there is no distance from creation – nearly everything that we have is made or grown by hand, by locals. There is so little separation from the producer to the seller to the consumer. I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about how yarn is made before coming here, but now I walk through the market and see people absent-mindedly working the thread through their hands as they go about their days. I love that my eyes are being opened to the details of life and that I’m thinking more about how things are made.

I am wary of over-romanticizing Peru, but also want to reject the narrative that these people make our lives seem ‘lucky’ by comparison. Instead, I’m trying to let it just be: life is different here, but life is and will always just be life. And I will go home knowing what it takes to make yarn by hand, and maybe that will change things and maybe it won’t. What I want to hold on to more than anything else is the universality of personhood. I am often tempted to assign meaning to everything: I saw a woman use a spindle to create thread from fur, and it struck a chord in me. What does it mean? Where’s the metaphor? So we’re separated from the means of production, and being closer to it doesn’t solve all our problems. What then?  What do I want to say about this?

But I’m not sure I want to keep assigning meaning to people’s everyday lives. Or, rather, I want to assign everyone’s lives the same meaning, which is that it’s a life, and it’s valuable and interesting and rich and complex just for that, and the thread in her hands can just stay thread.

Painting all the Tires Yellow

by Zhiyi, Civic Semester Participant

It was such a new experience for us to play a game as the beginning of a day’s org visit.

We confusedly paired with kids and ran left and right without knowing much about the instructions. But we quickly learnt and started to have our own fun from getting to know more and more Quechua words. Hearing ‘Apu’ (which means mountain), my teammate Paroma, a seven-year-old smiley girl, hold her arms high up in the sky to form a triangle. I copied her movements carefully. When the teacher yelled ‘Pacha Mama’ (which means mother earth), all the kids quickly lay face down on the ground, opening their arms to hug the mother earth. Me and Paroma kept standing up and lying down, running here to there, acting like tigers or horse-riding… until we became the last few groups that were not knocked out. I hugged my little girl to celebrate our win and watched her walking into the classroom.

It was a normal Monday morning in Kuska School, a rural elementary school and kindergarten located right next to the Inca rail to Machu Pichu in the village of Ollantaytambo. It is hard to tell Kuska is a school from its appearance. The three separate classrooms and an activity room took much less space than combination of the playground with a swing and a slide and a farming field with nest for Guinea pigs and two lambs.

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Day in the Life!

by Teagan, Civic Semester Participant

¡Buenos días!

My name is Teagan, and I’m hoping to share what our day-to-day in Urubamba, Peru looks like! The Civic Semester is the only study abroad program of its kind that combines civic leadership, experiential learning, and Spanish immersion. What makes it especially unique is that it happens during the first semester of college!

Without further ado, ¡vamos!

7:30 am – I wake up and say good morning to my roommate, Sophia! The mornings are pretty chilly so I throw on a flannel and make my way to our outdoor/indoor kitchen and living area. We rotate making breakfast in groups of three, and today is my turn! I cut fruit while Nica fries eggs and Veena sets the table. We sing along to our morning Spanish playlist and brew a fresh pot of coffee for the day.

8:00 am – We text our group chat that breakfast is ready, and they slowly trickle in to eat. We talk about our goals for the day and laugh at our dreams while passing fruit salad and toast across the table in a comfortable rhythm. We have already hit the 1/3 mark of our trip, but none of us can remember what life was like before Peru.

9:00 am – After doing some dishes, we log in to Zoom for our first class of the day—Latin American Civilization. Today the topic is the Haitian Revolution and its effects on the liberation of Latin America in the 19th century. We have Latin American Civilization on Tuesdays and Thursdays and Community Change in Action on Wednesdays. By taking two courses over the summer, our course load is relatively light so we have more time to focus on our organization visits and internships.

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Stories From the Land

by Sophia, Civic Semester Participant

One brisk morning, we hiked up to Pumacocha, a sparkling dark blue lake nestled between the peaks of Andean mountains. We were led by Mario, the oldest son of the campesino family we were staying with. This particular campesino community consisted of high-elevation potato farmers, intent on preserving ancestral practices and a remarkable potato variety. Along the trail, Mario pointed out plots of land that he had prepared for sowing, and explained to us his seven year rotation system to allow the soil time to heal.

As a city girl, born and raised, Mario’s proximity to nature and knowledge of its inner workings astounded me. He taught us that a thin, white petal strewn across the grounds near Pumacocha would soothe throat inflammation if chewed, and that the stones riddled with holes and chambers along the path were volcanic rocks from long ago.

When Mario tells his stories, he seems to conjure them out of thin air. There appears a boundless, everlasting quality to his words, and to his ability to remember them. I realize that oral accounts based on memory fueled storytelling for most of human history, but I somehow cannot trust my own mind’s ability to recall. Instead, I write, stringing words together, crafting a rhythm I will recognize later.

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Paru Paru– Excerpts from my journal, pieced together

by Emma, Civic Semester Participant

Excerpts from my journal, pieced together:

“I can’t believe I’m here, but I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”

Paru Paru is a community located about 3,800 meters above sea level. Paru Paru has a cold climate, surrounded by beautiful mountains and lakes used for planting and fishing. It is located inside the national potato park, and most of the citizens work in sustainably cultivating the land using ancestral knowledge and traditions passed down from the Incas. This past weekend, we stayed with the family of two brothers, Mario and Celestino. We were instantly welcomed as a part of their family, following their routines and experiencing all the different aspects of their lives.

“I feel like here I have experienced so much life.”

I reconnected with a sense of childhood.

“Today I was running around freely without feeling like it’s work, just experiencing and indulging in that urge. I was chasing Nica, both of us laughing the entire time. Usually I hate running, but today I couldn’t stop.”

I was a playmate.

“I love hanging out with the kids. I love seeing how Dabi laughs when we are sitting outside tossing bottle caps to each other, pushing Romario in his toy car, having Andrea braid my hair because she loves to (and is really good at it), asking Norma questions about her day, picking Diego up when he falls in the water and cries, and having Gabriel come sit on my chair and talk.”

I experienced fishing.

“Today we went fishing using cans, wire, metal hooks, and live worms. Veena caught a big one! I was so close to catching a little fish but then it passed me by. For lunch later that day the family prepared Veena’s fish into a ceviche dish for us to try. It was amazing to be eating such fresh and delicious food, where we knew every location that fish had ever been. That’s not something I am used to in the United States.”

I was a hiker.

“We went on a beautiful hike through the mountains and arrived at a lake. It was so hard, informative, and lovely. Along the way, when the incline was too intense for our wheezing lungs, Mario would tell us stories about the land and medicinal plants. They wait seven years before reusing any plot of soil, and in that time they ensure that animals walk through the land in order to re-fertilize it. In the end, we went for a cold dive in the lake. Our systems were shocked, our limbs frozen and tense, but we could not stop smiling.”

I experienced farming.

“Potato farming was very cool. We learned that there are over 100 types of potatoes here, all different sizes, colors, flavors, and textures. Before every planting, the community honors Pachamama (Mother Earth) with coca leaves, placing them under rocks. We tried cultivating the soil, which looked easy but required coordination and power that some of us (including me) unfortunately did not have.”

I was a traveler.

“I love trying new foods. Almost every meal we had a soup appetizer, with different types of beans, squash, and potato mixed in every time. Waking up to a view of mountains and water I have never seen before, and being exposed to a new climate, has been so thrilling.”

I was a friend.

“Here it is SO COLD, at night especially because the heat from the sun is stolen. I am in the room with four other cohort members, and last night we all pushed our beds together to create what we call the ‘mega-bed’. This way we are all a little warmer, or at least a little more connected.”

So, in conclusion:

“The trip here has been so amazing, so short, so tiring, so long. I don’t want to leave. I don’t want this to be my last encounter with this family I already feel so a part of. The mountains and water are so beautiful. The people are so beautiful. Even the cold is so beautiful. Even though this was an excursion, not an organization visit or class, I’ve learned so much.”

I am so grateful for Paru Paru, and to all of Mario and Celestino’s family. I hope to you see you all again 🙂