Written by Fidgit
“I bet you thought I was going to jump,” she said.
I first saw Maria crouched in the middle of a high bridge, leaning on a stock of sugar cane, peering through the trestles at the river roaring below.
The bridge was one of those metal affairs with panels which moved and clicked as cars drove over. It was 6 pm and the lowest elevation point in a 40 km day with 4 km on into town. Evening had settled and I was pushing along with the momentum of the downhill, my will waning as I looked to the uphill into Palanda.
I looked to see what she was looking at but as two trucks came to the bridge she stood hurriedly and walked on, a bit ahead of me. The trucks clunked over the metal panels, I felt the entire bridge tremble as they passed, inches from me. Something I am well used to at this point.
We walked along the bottoms, past the hand painted sign marking the Barrio. “
They wouldn’t let us into their wagon circle, so we made our own.” “They wouldn’t give us a neighborhood sign, so we made our own.” I assumed she must live down here so I was surprised when she walked past the last little house.
We fell into pace at opposite sides of the road, lost in our own worlds for a bit, I, quoting dumb movies in my head and contemplating the color of the dirt. Eventually I chalked up the nerve to ask, “what were you looking at from the bridge?”
“Just the water flowing past. It is really beautiful and quite high.” I was delighted to meet someone who stopped to enjoy beauty. It is not something I often notice locals doing. It also reminded me to do as much.
We walked on, quiet for a bit. Then, randomly, she began to talk:
“The Doctor told me I need to walk 30 minutes a day, every day. I have to keep going, for my children.”
“Have you been walking every day?”
“No,” she laughed, “But today after working I told everyone else to go on, that I preferred to walk. They probably think I have to take a dump. I was just looking at the river but then the people in those trucks were staring at me so I started to walk.”
“That was when I saw you, on the bridge. I was not sure what you were looking at.”
“I bet you thought I was going to jump,” she coughed a macabre laugh. This was a woman used to a harsh reality and facing it alone.
It was uncomfortable but I chose to let that hang and settle between us. Fortunately, at this point, I am pretty used to being uncomfortable. I see great value in it.
So, we had both considered throwing ourselves off bridges at some point.
Instead here we were, walking.
She became reflective, “My husband died five years ago. I have to keep going, for my children. So last week the Doctor told me I have to walk 30 minutes each day.” It felt like she was repeating it to convince herself. Again I fought the urge to comfort, and instead, simply received.
She brightened, “When I started to walk, I had a headache but now that I have walked it is going away.”
“That is wonderful! But you also need to drink,” I offered her my half strength Gatorade, she drank as we ambled along.
I told her a bit of my story, of being medicated through much of my youth, some in the name of depression.
“For depression you need to eat a sweet lime each day, it will help.” As she described the fruit I realized it was one the sugar cane woman had given us each a week ago. It was a delicious fruit.
“There are so many remedies and herbs in the mountains, I don’t even know them all,” she said and reached just off the side of the road, coming back with a handful of small purple berries, “these are good to chew on, they help your stomach.” We munched them as the sun set and the clouds were cast in pink.
She picked a 4 leaf purple flower from the roadside, “these are also good to eat, but only the buds,” I popped one in my mouth as she watched me. Sheesh was it tart! I puckered up and she smiled, “yeah, I think they are tart too.”
“What are they called?” I inquired.
“I don’t know, I only know them by sight,” she replied.
“Well, I suppose if I had the choice between recognizing something or knowing its name, it would be more useful to recognize it.” What is in a name, after all?
A moto came puttering down the hill toward us, she smiled, “See, I told you they could not believe I wanted to walk.” He circled and she shouted, “go back silly, I said I wanted to walk, I’m fine.” He laughed and shook his head, shouted something back then buzzed away.
“How many children do you have?”
“There are five of them,” she listed their names, “the 3 older ones are in night school, the two younger are in day school.”
Night school is a common educational alternative for children in secondary school in several of the countries we have walked through. It enables them to work and to complete their education, an option many of their parents did not have.
“My boys said that at school some girls were calling them bastards because they don’t have a father. I told them not to listen to those girls, that they are a team. That they have to stick together. They were raised like a hen’s chicks, always together. They need to stick together.”
“My mother died when I was 11, so my sister and I had to grow up and become mothers for our siblings. We worked and bought them clothes. We didn’t buy clothes for our father but we took care of the other kids. My brother did not complete school past the age of 12 but now he is a well known artist.”
A small, elderly gentleman had fallen into pace with us, “an artist you say? What is your brother’s name?”
They got to chatting in colloquial Spanish, so varied between countries, trying to adjust is a matter of eaves dropping on conversations just such as this.
“Do you think your children will graduate?”
“Next year my 3 oldest will.”
“Then they will come out further ahead than you did in school, you have propelled your children ahead of you, even alone! That is amazing. Do you think your husband would be proud of you?”
“Oh yes, I have sacrificed and worked my whole life for our children.”
We entered the outskirts of town and a little girl ran up, “this is my youngest,” the girl curled under her mother’s far arm and watched me, then skirted around her and walked in between us as we strode into town, 3 strong and with a confident gait.
For some reason, I was holding back tears.
I felt honored to share these ranks. She played with the sugar cane in her mother’s hand then traded it for the last of the Gatorade.
We reviewed the body parts in English and talked about what an 11 year old learns in school. As we arrived to the town square, she stopped and we all said goodbye in the middle of the street.
I hurried to our hotel room to scribble it all down. This post and all of our other web presences are possible because of you.
We have been particularly empowered by your support on Patreon to share the journey like this. For example, because of you we are able to afford chips for our phones and to keep them charged up so we can stay in touch from the field. We have benefited greatly from individual gifts coming in from a few consistent, Silent Givers aimed specifically at allowing us access to stay in places with internet in the exponentially more frequent towns of northern South America.
I write Maria’s parts of the story in quotes when actually they are paraphrases. These are the kinds of exchanges which I do not know how to make flow on a camera, nor roll true on a recorder. So what I offer is as close as I could understand and recall. I choose to do so, despite my shame of doing so imperfectly because,
Maria is a mighty woman.
A little mother too soon, a widow too soon, out for a walk and at just the moment to propel me up a hill without our even noticing.
Aged beyond her years but also so fresh to a particular path in life that she refreshed my eyes and challenged me to look for the beauty in the evening air, I wonder if she knows what she started when her daughter asked, “but mom, why are you walking?” and she replied simple, “because I want to.”