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¡Radio Felicidad!

Feliciana likes to turn the radio on while she cooks lunch in the early afternoon. Today is Sunday, no school day, and Camila and I sat on tiny wooden stools in the doorway, flipping through her older brother’s Spanish-English dictionary and practicing the alphabet. It was good practice for me, too, to think of words in Spanish that begin with F or E or S, simple ones that I could say to Camila to help her learn. A few words I tried to teach her in English: “cookie” (she was eating a bag of animal crackers), “hand”, “finger”. At noon, the macho voice of the radio announcer broke into the three-legged trumpet and drum race of the cumbia music and shouted, rolling his “Rs” dramatically: “¡Criollos a las doce!

Criollo is a soulful, passionate music that comes from the coast. It consists of guitars, gently strummed, mournful accordions, and male and female voices belting their woes to a sympathetic audience. I fell in love with it on my last trip. Of all the different types of music I endured on the many long bus rides, criollo was the first that caught me humming along, the first with which I connected in this foreign land. I like it for the same reasons I like Billy Holiday and Edith Piaf. It has that same antique quality; as if it’s being sung into a black and white room of suited men smoking cigarettes wearing horn-rimmed glasses, and women in nylons and smart evening dresses with gloves, heels, and matching clutches. Or, today, into a small, crowded kitchen lit with one bare light bulb, to a sympathetic gringa, her Peruvian madre shredding carrots and butchering a chicken breast, and her hermanita (little sister) in a sparkly pink sweater with her hair falling out of a tight bun. After every third or fourth song, the same macho announcer would remind listeners everywhere that they were enjoying “¡Criollo a las doce!” courtesy of “¡Radio Felicidad!” – Radio Happiness!

A stubborn cold has resigned me to low-energy activities for the last few days. “It’s because you wear sandals everywhere!” Feliciana scolds. It’s kept me close to home, where I’ve been able to work on bonding with my host family. Before lunch today I helped carry bags of textiles, hats, and other souvenirs to the plazoleta (small town square), where Feliciana presides over a wooden stall next to her cousins, nieces, and other relatives. The plazoleta is at the base of the famous ruins, through which all the tourists funnel. Unlike other tourist areas (the train station, for example), here the women sell passively. Their brightly colored wares attract enough attention without the women hounding the tourists: “Poncho, lady? Blankets? Hats?” I sat and practiced counting in Quechua (joc, iskay, kinsa, tawa, pisac, socqta, canchis…), wanting to regain the little proficiency I gained on my last trip. Feliciana helped me count, and I helped her translate each of her items for sale into English. Camila and one of her thousand cousins played with a stick and a red ribbon, and I took pictures. I had imagined doing this on my first trip to Peru: sitting and passing the time in the market, a fly on the wall instead of another staring tourist. The society of women and  children there fascinated me, but I was too shy to talk to them, too wary of offending with my very gringa presence. Today I felt protected by my position as Feliciana’s (paying) house guest. I was invited, welcome to sit and submerge.

Back to the kitchen. The humid childish warmth of Camila leaning on my knee, and her inquiring smile as she’d look at the dictionary and then at me as she practiced reading the letters made me feel relaxed, at home. A part of the household. The music swelled and ebbed, invisible men and women asked not to be abandoned, asked for their love to cherish them forever. Feliciana shouted up the stairs to her son, Aaron, with a mother’s loving frustration, stripped another hunk of meat from the chicken carcass, and rolled her eyes at me with a smile. And then the announcer came back; in case we’d forgotten, we were listening to “Radio Happiness! The best songs of your life!” Maybe. The best songs of my first week back in Peru? Definitely.

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