Community Language Learning
Waiting for a Jewelry Buyer:
Chela's Story

Terry Marshall

Note: This jewelry buyer page is part of a series of blogs that we did while learning Spanish language in Peru. This blog focuses on community language learning. These blogs are designed to show you how use the environment as a language learning center to implement Walkabout language learning strategies. Use our examples here for any language you want to learn. See the "More Peru Stories" list of links on this page for additional community language learning strategies.

Terry and Chela wait for a jewelry buyerTerry admires the jewelry Chela sells
Ann Marshall

I'm going shopping . . . well sort of. Today I'm waiting for a jewelry buyer while I sit in a ten-foot-square vendor's stall practicing community language learning to improve my Spanish and learn about tourism, politics, and hand crafted Peruvian jewelry.

This is the artisan market in the "base camp" for Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes, a tiny town sculpted into the canyon walls at the foot of the mountain. Read more about Mercado de Artesanias on TripAdvisor.

Tomorrow, 6 a.m., we take the bus to the gates of this great wonder.

Backpacker is only a Looky Lou

But today, I'm looking out at the tourists wandering by, hoping one will be a jewelry buyer. Beside me, Machu Picchu native Graciela Zuñiga patiently eyes a young German blond who is fingering one of Graciela's exquisitely fashioned pendants. We've strolled through many a Peru market, but here's a viewpoint I've not yet experienced.

"Cuanto es?" the German asks in Spanish.

"Cien cuarenta," Graciela says. (A hundred and forty sols – US$47.) It's handmade, she says. She points out the detailed inlay work, names several semi-precious stones. Graciela is the artist. She figures it took her a week to make the pendant.

The German girl turns it over, lays it down, glances over the smaller, cheaper necklaces at the end of the counter. She looks at some machine-made bracelets, then moves on to the next stall.

She wasn't really a jewelry buyer, Graciela tells me. The backpackers seldom are.

Practicing My Spanish

Graciela's friends call her Chela. I spend three hours in her booth today, watching tourists buy her work (and others reject it), chatting about being an artist, about growing up in Machu Picchu, about change in this gateway village. It is a great way to practice community language learning. This vendor's booth becomes my mini language learning center.

Chela is a friend of my tandem language learning partner in Cusco, Mariarosa Holgado Vargas. Mariarosa urged me to look Chela up when we visited Machu Picchu, then called Chela to tell her we were coming. Chela met us at the train station and helped haul our gear to the hostal.

While I'm with Chela practicing community language learning, she tells me that she spent her childhood helping her parents sell snacks and trinkets to tourists when they got off the train from Cusco. She didn't get to go to school. Now, she's sending three children to college with the proceeds made from selling her art, one piece at a time, to passing jewelry buyers.

The Artisans Banded Together to Get Recognized

Some years ago, Aguas Calientes began to boom as Machu Picchu's fame grew. Chela and a group of friends saw the growth – and the benefits – passing its longtime residents by. The new wealth to be made from tourists was going to outsiders. They lobbied for land to build a local market. Their pleas fell on deaf ears. They protested, demonstrated, pushed. Eventually government set aside land for them. They formed a vendors' syndicate and established an artists' market at the train station. It grew and prospered. For the past three years, Chela has been the syndicate's secretary, a tiring, often thankless, job. Think office politics, where your "office mates" are competitors, all trying to scrape out a living from passing tourists in this warren of stalls.

Ann is Chela's jewelry buyerAnn shows of Chela's jewelry
Terry Marshall

The 2007 designation of Machu Picchu as one of the seven wonders of the modern world has set Aguas Calientes booming anew. Tourist visits are expected to mushroom. As in other boomtowns, newcomers have swarmed in. They don't know the town's history, its customs, its values. Chela estimates that only thirty families from her youth remain.

We find Aguas Calienties to be a charming little town, tranquil, chock full of good restaurants. No traffic. No motorized vehicles – everything's on foot here. Its namesake hot springs is a delight: attractive, well-kept, scrubbed clean every night after closing.

But, as well-heeled outsiders flock into town, Peru shopping becomes burdensomely expensive for the locals. Chela frets over the skyrocketing prices. I worry for her. What price fame?

Lessons Learned while waiting for a Jewelry Buyer

  • Even a simple thank you can be a language lesson: look for opportunities to hone your skills.
  • Community language learning helps you learn more about the culture and history of the people you meet.
  • Try new things: look at the world from a different perspective.
  • Create a language learning center anywhere you go, even a day at the market.

--Posted by Terry, October 13

October 15-18 update: My visit to Machu Picchu produced an unexpected Spanish language learning opportunity. Back in Cusco, when I wrote Chela a one-page thank you note, it turned into a major lesson in my daily language learning sessions with Mariarosa. I wrote the original in my sub-novice Spanish. She corrected it, not only grammar and spelling, but content. I rewrote it. She corrected it again. I rewrote it again. She sent it off – via a friend rather than through the postal system. Chela called her; she was thrilled I had "bothered" to write. As for me, I tucked another tool – and a special memory waiting for jewelry buyers –into my community language learning strategies.

You too can participate in unique cultural and language learning like this one. Download the Walkabout Language Learning Action Guide. It shows you step by step how to create your own tailor-made language learning program.

Previous: Learn Spanish in a Taxi                       Next: New Seven Wonders of the World →

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