Written by Fidgit
Ecuador is a spiderweb of roads. Crossing it has been a matter of connecting back and sometimes principal roads, periodically bisecting the PanAmerican highway, grateful not to be walking along it, but wondering where the other long travelers are headed at such great speeds. Still, it is life in the villages and countryside which most fascinate me. People who seem unable to understand hurry. They are one of my constant reminders to remain present. Through Ecuador we have not gone more than a day without passing through some sort of community.
A few days south of Cuenca, at the top of a ridge, a lomo, was the quintessential grotto to the region’s virgencita, a view of the agrarian landscape ahead, and a man leaned against his moto with a small sack of food.
“There must be a shop around here.” I thought, and asked. He pointed me to the house across the street.
Entering the gate a dog came and sniffed me and an elementary school age boy regarded me warily.
“Hello, do you have a store?” I asked.
He nodded and led me to a door at the back of the house. Down a dark hall piled with pots and animal feed, then through a door into the kitchen. All of the adults, two grandparents and his mother, were finishing breakfast.
This wasn’t what I had meant exactly when I asked for a store but here I was and they were all looking at me. I told them I was looking for food, South America has taught me to be general in this request.
“Would you like some hot breads, or empanadas,” grandmother offered. It had been a drizzly morning of a long climb so that sounded wonderful.
The boy hopped and perched around the room like a nervous little bird. Sizing me up, sneaking up to my gear from the opposite side. Grandmother brought a mug of hot water from the kitchen. As I began to mix the instant coffee I noticed all four of the family seemed to be watching and waiting.
I had missed something.
Ah, the coffee mug said “I love NY.”
“You know New York?!” I inquired. Everyone in South America has heard of New York and Miami.
“Yes, We have friends there,” they announced proudly.
“I have a very good friend who lives there too!” (Hi Jeff!)
“Oh, he probably know our friend! Her name is Amy!”
“Probably! But you know, it is a very big city.”
“Yes,” replied the adult daughter, “we are working to visit there someday. We have to go present ourselves to get our papers next month and get him his passport,” she placed her hand on her sons back and he beamed. “He speaks English,” she offered coyly, then hurried to the back of the kitchen.
I resumed mixing and as I have learned with the nervous ones, I did not look at him directly but said loud and clear, “hello.”
“Hello,” the boy all but bounced forward.
“How are you?” I followed the script they teach in the schools.
“I am fine, thank you. Where you from?”
Once greetings were exhausted I asked in Spanish what other words he knew. He thought for a moment then pointed to a picture on the wall of a bunch of fruits.
So we earnestly pursued a conversation naming fruits.
I in Spanish, he in English.
We both really liked kiwis because we did not eat them often and because the word was the same in both languages.
The adults eavesdropped. Periodically interjecting their stories. The grandmother was a healer. She was from this valley, her husband was from the next one over.
Or asking their questions:
“Is that tube coming out of your backpack for oxygen?”
“No, it is water so I can drink while walking.”
“What’s with the doll head on your trekking pole?”
“It is my guardian. I found it in Argentina and we made a deal that so long as it protects me from being hit by a car I would carry it. I have not been hit yet, so it is still with me.”
Eventually the grandparents excused themselves to go work for the day, she would be selling wares in town and he was off to the chakras. “But please, stay and converse with our grandson as long as you like.”
“Goodbye grandmother, goodbye grandfather!” he sprung about with the words and held the door open for them.
By this point, he was downright exuberant with the heady power of communication. It turns out, he loves English. He is also the only left handed person in his family. Both being matters of great distinction to an almost 8 year old.
His mother sent him out to feed the chickens and told me, “He won a competition for English in his school. Look!” She showed a photo on her phone of him standing on the highest podium of three amidst a crowd. We both beamed.
I finished up and paid, feeling honored to be the bridge of your support to a business and and family like this. Son and mother both walked me out. Dog stood waiting just outside the door and the boy dramatically slapped the heel of his hand to his forehead, gesturing at his pet and said, “DOG!”
He was right! How could we have forgotten to discuss animals?! We made up for it in double time as he walked me to the gate, pointing out the chickens, cat, cows, horse, sheep every animal we saw or could think of.
“Open the gate for her,” his mother called from the doorway in Spanish.
“Yes mother,” he could not help but skip as he replied in English.
We said goodbye several times and spent an inordinate amount of time waving until I had crested the lomo and resumed walking with belly and heart full, so giddy from the exchange that I too had to skip a bit.
The encounter got me jazzed enough that I tried for a treacherous short cut mid day and instead lost several hours trying to navigate a waterfall, scramble the loose cliff above it, and eventually backtracking to the road.
This journey creates the space for and has a special way of allowing me to feel the swing of emotions and still demands I hold the keel straight.
I was feeling dejected but determined to make up the ground as I walked a dwindling dirt road, when a boy whizzed past on his bike. A kilometer or so later I stopped to eat at a bridge where he and his cousin and their dog, Lobo, came to stand a few meters away.
They were somehow both businesslike and casual as they looked up the river and watched me out of the side of their eyes. I wasn’t sure I felt like engaging after such a defeating afternoon, and they seemed skeptical of me but their polite curiosity got the better of me, so I asked where the road went from here, as it abruptly disappeared.
“There was a landslide,” they explained.
“Are you unaccompanied?” one of the boys asked tentatively.
“I am,” I smiled, as I packed up and hefted my pack onto my back.
The boys looked at each other and nodded as if an agreement had been made.
“Then we will escort you past the landslides,” he announced, “we know this land.”
I accepted the gracious offer.
For a while we were silent as we picked our way around the loose, pocked dirt around the edge of the landslide. Once in the grassy field above the landslide, they began asking questions. When we had made it through the usual inquiries one asked,
“You are out here following the caminos antiguos, aren’t you?”
I may be tired of being asked if I am married and where my children are, but I love questions like this.
“I am! Have you explored them much?”
“Oh yes, I have walked almost all of them in this region,” he declared proudly.
“Did you know there are 40,000 km of caminos antiguos in the the Andes?”
I offered them some of the cookies in my hipbelt pocket.
“No ma’am, you keep those for yourself,” I realized I had offended their sense of maturity.
“Would you like a toothpick?” I opened the case of Teatree toothpicks Cloudbuster had left with me. One of my favorite things to keep my mouth from getting dry.
“But you should know, they are kind of minty,” I warned. This only increased their interest. We diligently worked them around in our mouths and diverted to explore an abandoned house whose owners had died some years ago, per the boys. We inspected the various rooms then stood outside, poked the mud wall with sticks before walking on through the tall grass and scrambling down the broken embankment to the road.
We arrived to another bridge and stopped to peer down.
“This is new land to us,” one of them announced, “we’ve never gone this far.”
“Then you have expanded your horizons today,” I replied, “But I have kilometers to go before I sleep, so I must go.”
I thanked them, we bid goodbye, and I paced up a creek bed short-cutting to the next abandoned road, along which I walked happily into the sunset.