The Power of a Single Word

A picture can tell a thousand words, but sometimes a single word can paint
an entire picture. If my time here in Ecuador has taught me anything, it’s
the importance of a single word. Living in a Spanish-speaking community
while speaking a limited amount of Spanish, has made me realize how
important words are. On occasion, I will catch a nothing but a single word
that someone says, but that alone will be enough to give me context to
respond and continue the conversation. I find it fascinating how after I
learn a word, I tend to hear it everywhere. For example, the week after I
learned the word chumado (drunk in English), I was shocked – had my host
family always talked about the drunken populations of Pimampiro for every
meal or was it a coincidence that just happened to occur right after I
learned the word?

Since learning even the simplest of words, like chumado, plays such a
crucial role in my daily communication, I started to think about how I had
come to learn many of the words that are now a part of my vocabulary.

Chupar I will always remember chupar as the first word I learned in
Pimampiro. It was my very first day in my homestay, my Spanish was so
minimal and the best way to describe me was a terrified puppy who was
unsure how to communicate with its’ owners. I was standing in my kitchen
with Carmita and Inecita, my host mom and sister. Not sure how to break the
awkward silence that occurs when you invite a foreigner who doesn’t speak
the same language in to your home, they offered me a piece of fruit.

¿Quieres chupar esto?, they said. Chupar? I dug as deep as I could through
the mediocre stash of high school Spanish I had, but was stumped. I didn’t
understand. They were clearly asking me if I wanted to eat the fruit, but
why weren’t they using the verb “comer”, the word I had learned for “to
eat”. Not sure what was going on, I asked ¿Comer, comer frutas, no cierto? They
laughed and shook their heads. No Mija. No puedes comer fruta – solo puedes
chupar frutas.

And it may sound insignificant, but from that moment on, my views of both
eating fruits and language learning were changed. I had no clue what the
definition of “chupar” was, but I sure knew that I was going to “chupar”
fruta from now on and that I would not “comer” fruta for a long, long time.

Achachay This word is actually from the Kichwa language, one of the
indigenous languages in found in the Ecuadorian Andes. Despite the fact
that most of the population communicates through Spanish and I live in an
almost entirely Mestizo (non-indigenous) community, it’s common for Kichwa
words, like achachay, to be thrown into everyday conversation. Although
there’s no direct translation, achachay essentially means “brrrr” in
english or “que frio” in Spanish.

The first time I remember hearing this exclamation was a chilly evening in
Pimampiro after track practice. At this time, I had been coaching the youth
track and field team and we had just finished a solid 8 by 200 meter
workout (in retrospect, the only workout I ever got them to do), and they
were whining and begging me to take them to the free, outdoor public pool
around the corner. We showed up at the pool, literally right before dark,
and to my surprise they all stripped off their clothes and jumped in.

I, seeing as it was about 60 degrees out, didn’t have a change of clothes,
and that we were about a 30 minute walk from town, was sitting on the side
watching with a few of the girls from the team. As boys do when they want
attention from girls, the guys grabbed Tonya, one of the 14-year-olds on
the team and tossed her in to the pool in her clothes. Absolutely sobbing,
she scrambled to the side of the pool screaming and tossed her soaking wet
cell phone on the the pool deck. I had no clue what to do – Tonya would not
stop crying and the phone was very much broken and it had all happened
under my “supervision”. I ended up just sending the boys to the nearest
tienda to buy some rice for the phone and hoping for the best. While they
were gone, amidst the tears and sobs, I just hear a cha chaaayyyyy, a word
that is usually said in a happy manner of exclamation, was just sadly
moaned from Tonya’s’ lips.

Remolacha Of course, another food related word because the majority of what
I do here is consume food. Remolacha was introduced in to my life some
Monday during my first month in Ecuador. In Pimampiro, and apparently in
most of the Sierras, it is custom to preapre the same meal every Monday for
lunch, so every Monday, we eat rice, remolacha (beets), beans, and a
special type of soup with chicken bones (which I do not consume, but
exists). From my very first meal of remolacha pink-dyed rice and chicken, I
was fascinated by this tradition and the word for beets immediately glued
itself in my mind. The remolacha is SO important in my house for this meal;
this Monday, Carmita forgot the beets on the table and Inecita, Don Rami,
and I all nearly had panic attacks about the thought of eating los comidas
de Lunes without our precious remolacha.

Picadura Picadura is quite possibly my most frequently used word in
Spanish. It has been a relevant concept in my life since the very first
evening I spent outside in Imbabura. Picar, picado, picadura – all words
I’ve learned that run in line with this subject – the dreadful moscos of
Valle de Chota. As someone who is incredibly stubborn and who refuses to
uncuff their jeans regardless of how many bugs are out, my ankles have
essentially been covered in bites, scabs, and scars since I set foot in
this country. Los moscos estan picando. Que horrible, los picaduras. Those,
and more, are phrases I hear everyday as my family and concerned friends
watch as the local gringa incessantly scratches the skin off of her already
bloody ankles.

Caminata The first true caminata I ever experienced was a 7-hour
pilgrimage, in honor of the Virgin Mary, from Pimampiro to Shanshipamba, a
rural community up in the mountains above where we live. Starting at 6 am,
I trekked with my “neighbor,” Beljica, almost 18 kilometers under the hot,
equatorial sun. 7 hours later when we reached our destination we were
greeted by a festival and we feasted on empanadas and ice cream for hours.
A good memory, but what truly stuck with me from that day was the name of
the event, The Caminata. As someone who loves to hike, I had been trying to
figure out how to say the word “hike” or “trek” for almost a month, and I
finally realized after that day, that caminata, meaning “long walk”,
“march” or “hike” filled that hole in my vocabulary perfectly.

Pata Patas, or animal feet in English, was another word I learned in the
context of food. Constantly, for the last three months, my family has tried
to convince me to gnaw the meat and flesh off of a chicken foot (pata), and
up until this week, I was able to resist. A few days ago, it was 9:30 pm,
and we hadn’t eaten dinner yet. ¿Patas?, they asked, as the women wheeled
the chicken-foot-selling-cart by where we were playing in the park.
Initially, I shook my head, but then as I remembered my new found love for
eating meat off little bones with my hands that’s developed since living
here, and more importantly, how hungry I was – I said sure. I found out
that night that chicken feet are actually quite good and now when I hear
the word “patas”, I associate it with a crispy ‘lil snack you can buy as
street food and not as the paw on my newborn puppy.

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