I am a “mature” undergraduate, which is in itself an adventure. But last summer life surprised me with another great adventure: I received a scholarship to study abroad, which made me an exchange student at age 53. In Cusco, Peru, once the heart of the Inka Empire, I studied the Quechua language. There I discovered that being a solo traveler and a student is a magical combination.
In the rooftop dining room, the early morning sun glows through a yellow Plexiglas ceiling.
Pigeons scuttle overhead, their yellowish shadows crossing the table. I finish off my avocado sandwich and mango juice and thank my host mother for breakfast. Then I hurry down 5 narrow, spiraling flights of stairs, out the front door and into the bright, cold morning of a tropical mountain winter.
Stepping over a threshold strewn with marigold petals (an offering to Pacha Mama—Mother Earth—I’m told later), I follow the dirt road to its end, skirting a pack of feral dogs nosing through bags of garbage someone left during the night.
Because I live halfway up a mountain, I must climb two flights of iron stairs to the street above on my way to school. I turn onto a cobblestone street laid centuries ago for foot or perhaps llama traffic. Timeworn buildings crowd the sidewalks, and several times I must flatten myself against aged stone as cars squeeze past.
Soon I emerge into the bright Plaza San Blas, where old women in braids gather on the steps of a 500-year-old church for morning mass. A young artist intercepts me with his portfolio open, insistently offering paintings of red-roofed houses, snowcapped mountains, and babies peeking out of shawls on their mothers’ backs. “No, gracias,” I say, and keep moving.
A little farther, a gaunt, dusty woman steps in front of me and holds something so close to my face I have to blink it into focus—a small gourd covered with minutely etched Andean scenes. An unexpected, stunning work of art. But “No, gracias,” I say and keep moving.
A few steps later a grizzled, hungry old man carrying an armful of knitted hats begs me to buy as I squeeze past. “No, por favor,” I beg back and keep moving. I shouldn’t be short with the poor man, but every morning it is the same gauntlet of “No gracias.”
At the corner I turn steeply downhill and the oldest houses in the city rise like cliffs on my right and left. This is Cuesta San Blas, the most famous street in Cusco, where first the Inka and then the Spanish rulers made their homes. Colonial mansions squat atop Inka foundations of massive, squared boulders. Though the mansions are decaying, the stones below have preserved their regal, timeless perfection.
I pass a woman dressed for a festival that won’t be happening: She’s wearing a disc-shaped red hat, a matching jacket, and a fantastically embroidered skirt. Next to her on the stone sidewalk is her miniature—a tiny girl with a very runny nose and the same festive garb. The little girl holds the rope of a baby alpaca resting beside her, and her mother invites me, “Una foto?” They will wait all day to pose with tourists; this is how they earn their living.
It is still early for the ubiquitous tour groups, but I pass clusters of people speaking French, Japanese, and something Slavic. Two steep blocks below, I see that the Inka (or rather, the man who dresses like the emperor who ruled this place half a millennium ago) is already out. Also waiting for photo ops, he stands protectively by the most famous bit of wall in Cusco, the 12-angled stone in the Inka foundation of the Archbishop’s Palace. Every single tourist will stop and admire that special stone, 12-angled because it has been masterfully fitted among its neighbors in a wall of carefully shaped boulders each weighing many tons.
Soon our modern Inka will be surrounded by Europeans with cameras, and he’ll be shouting “Don’t touch the stone” in 3 languages and glowering imperially for pictures with men in shorts and new knit hats, their arms thrown around his shoulder.
Before I reach the Inka I duck into a small door cut into a huge one, high enough for a Conquistador on horseback to enter. It fills a stone archway still faintly etched with Moorish-Spanish designs; a sign above announces its modern identity: the Wiracocha School. Suddenly it is quiet; I am in a courtyard garden. The peace of hundreds of passing years permeates this place as if the busyness just outside is a dream.
Although it is winter, roses and fruit trees are abloom and giant black bees, their wings a cobalt blur, are beginning to visit them. Through another archway and courtyard I find my tiny classroom. Bundled up with coats, hats, and lap blankets, our breath visible between us, my teacher and I sip hot coca tea and converse in beginner’s Quechua. I am an exchange student in Cusco, Peru. I am 53 years old.
Back to school
How does a middle-aged mom become an exchange student? First she becomes a college student. I was looking at colleges with my 19-year-old daughter when I ran across a degree program that worked for me. Before long I was in school again, 31 years after dropping out. That alone has been an adventure, but sometimes one great adventure begets another.
For me that greater adventure was foreign study. Until recently I thought students abroad had to be twenty-somethings (and wealthy), but in fact there is no age limit and there are scholarships available for the less wealthy. I applied for one and six months later was on my way to Peru to study Quechua, the Native American language of the Andes.
Quechua may sound like a random choice, but I am a language nerd with a special connection to Peru: I adopted my son from there 14 years ago and Quechua is the language of his ancestors. There are still millions of native speakers in Peru, and millions more in the five other Andean countries that span South America from top to bottom.
With a few obscure books and a smattering of online resources I’ve been trying to learn that language ever since. Over the years I’ve wrested a basic understanding of the outrageous (from my linguistic perspective) grammar, but it’s hard to pick up conversational Quechua in Chicago, where I live.
My scholarship took me to a school in Cusco for four weeks, with four hours of private instruction per day. Perhaps this doesn’t sound like fun to you, but I was in paradise. My teacher and I (very fortunately) hit it off, and the hours, days, and weeks passed quickly. I’m now able converse with anyone patient enough to wait—and wait—for me to construct every word in my mind before I say it.
Construct, I say, because Quechua is very much like Lego. It is an agglutinating language, which means any wordy problem can be solved by adding a suffix. Need to say “in the house”? Just add a suffix to “house.” Need to say it’s your house we’re in? Add another suffix. Need to say oh dear, it’s not your cute little house we’re in? Add 3 more suffixes. The words can get quite long and terribly meaningful.
Besides the constant peril of mispronouncing one tiny sound and saying something insulting or obscene, there are popping consonants to contend with. Cusco’s Quechua dialect has three different ways to say Q, and one of them seems to involve gagging (the others sound like water being flicked into a skillet of hot oil). There are three Ts and several Cs, Ps, and Ks.
My Cusco neighbors probably thought I was crazy, because I practiced the more difficult consonants out loud on my long walks to school. Q’. Ch’. Chh. T’. P’. Qh. K’. I must have sounded like a stuttering squirrel. With a cough. Though I may never master those sounds, I comfort myself remembering I’m one of very few people in this world who speak Quechua with an American accent.
A city crowded with history
When I wasn’t in class I was free to wander. After 21 years of parenthood, it felt decadent to step out of my school alone and ask myself—only myself—how I’d spend the rest of the day. Cusco is crowded with history, much more than you can see in a month—what possibilities!
One day I hiked out of the city with a fellow student, up, up, up to a branch of the Inka highway, which was once a 20,000-mile road system that ran from modern-day Colombia down to Argentina. The way is unmarked, and we had to ask directions from farmers we passed on the grassy, stony road. Those who succeed in finding this lonely place are free to wander; there is no one taking admission and visitors come and go, scrambling over the rocks or sunning themselves while imagining what the temple was like when it was teeming with religious workers and pilgrims.
The Temple of the Moon presides over a wilderness of scrubby grass and giant boulders, and at first sight doesn’t seem manmade. A beautiful fusion of nature and engineering, its stair-step walls and mysterious niches and platforms are built into and around natural rock and caves, as if the boulders had gathered themselves and taken shape on the mountainside.
Across the valley below, the Inka highway disappears into faraway hills where families, tiny and distant, can be seen leading their llamas down to water. The wind whips the tops of tall eucalyptus trees and hawks soar in the wide sky above them. Over my six weeks in Peru I visited many ruins, most considered more important than this one, but I loved the Moon Temple best for its wild, windblown solitude.
Another day I walked into the heart of the city to visit the Moon’s brother—Qorikancha, the Temple of the Sun, which rises out of grassy gardens bordered by busy streets. Perhaps the most spectacular temple in the Americas, its walls were said to be covered with gold. Now they are mere rock, but what magnificent rock.
Five centuries ago Spaniards demolished as much of the temple as they could, shipped the gold to their emperor, and crowned what was left with a temple of their own, the Church of Santo Domingo. But under its roof remain six Inka chambers which were incorporated into the Spanish construction, revealed not long ago by an earthquake. Inside, it is dim, quiet, and magical with the blending of ancient and more ancient, Spanish and Inka commingled. Outside it towers proudly over the city, and though the church above is itself huge, the immense foundation seems to rule over it.
A satiated falcon and a water paradise
Another day, I took a bus to the famous ruins above Cusco: first the temple complex of Sacsayhuaman, whose name means, inexplicably, “falcon that has had enough to eat.” From the sky you can see that this “falcon” is shaped like the head of a puma, and its toothy walls, a crazy quilt of massive stones, zigzag to the horizon. Most likely a place of worship, it was used as a fortress in the last, brutal and hopeless, battle against the Conquistadors.
From there I went to Tambo Machay, an idyllic country resort (from tanpu, an inn or resting place) a thousand feet above Cusco. Also called the Inca Baths, it is celebrated for its sophisticated system of aqueducts, and its springs are thought to heal the sick and turn women young and beautiful again. I admit I filled a small bottle for myself. Though it is a little hard to catch one’s breath, here is birdsong, a breeze, and a sense of peace, refreshing after the imposing, violent mysteries of Sacsayhuaman.
Wandering Cusco, studying, and wandering some more, I felt as if I was being filled up inside and out. What a rich way to know a place: roaming its ancient constructions, majestic even in ruins; walking among its descendants and breathing the same (thin) air they breathed; and learning to use their very words.
These gifts from my time in Peru will be my treasures forever.
About my scholarship
The Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship, offered by the U.S. Department of State, made this trip possible for me when it seemed completely out of reach. It is a grant program designed to increase the diversity of Americans who study or intern abroad by “supporting students who have been historically underrepresented.” If you’re a U.S. citizen and an undergraduate student who receives a Pell grant you may be eligible for the Gilman Scholarship, even if you’re a middle-aged mom.
Every year they award almost 3,000 students up to $5,000 ($8,000 if they study a critical-need language) for terms of study ranging from two weeks to a full academic year. Gilman Scholars have studied all over the world—maybe you will join our ranks.