of What Was Missing
Leigh Ann Henion
I have just reached my hotel in Quito, Ecuador. It is a city screaming
with bus brakes and rabid dogs. I am already weary, but I pause
to talk to a woman who has set up shop on the stoop outside of the
lobby. Her name is Rosa. She is 79 years old, and she has spread
her white linens over gray cement, where they appear as fully bloomed
lilies growing in stark contrast to such a gritty city.
Each piece of material is covered in the colors of wild mountain
flowers, intricately embroidered with such detail that I remark,
"Que bonita, how pretty!" They are the most beautiful
and delicate pieces of hand embroidery I have ever seen. Rosa smiles
when I tell her this. She hides her pleasure behind weathered hands,
but her eyes betray her delight. I soon realize that they have also
betrayed her. Strained from years of her craft, they are nearly
Traveling the Pan-American Highway from Quito to Cuenca by bus,
I am struck by the absence of human presence. This pocked passageway
is so rural that sometimes there are no signs of settlement for
hours at a time. It feels like we are in the middle of nowhere.
Given this, it is striking to me that there are wooden crates of
empty Coca-Cola bottles sitting by the side of the only-partially-paved
highway every now and again.
The bus driver explains that these crates have been brought to the
road by people living deep in the Andes, people who are waiting
for a delivery truck to replace these empty boxes with bottles full
of a magical sugar elixir. But even when the replenished containers
are carried back to the huts with thatched straw and cornstalk roofs,
they will still be empty of nourishment.
are deep gashes in the Pan-American Highway. There are large sections
where the earth has gone missing. These are trenches made by indigenous
people who seek to protest economic policies that do not include
their interests. The native residents of this area have few tools,
but they have their labor, their hands. They know how to dig into
The protesters sometimes find discarded tires to burn in these holes.
Here, at 11,000 feet, they send smoke signals to those above them.
I do not know if they are meant for politicians or gods. I wonder
how long these burning earth-scars will remain.
The bus stops at a small store that is nothing more than a cement
building. Three brothers with eyes streaming puss clamor to greet
us. They hold their tiny brown hands out, cupped to catch whatever
coins we might have in our bags so that they might fill their own
shallow pockets. I ask them their names, and they look at me, puzzled.
I do not speak Spanish very well. No tengo muchos palabras de
Espanol, I do not have many Spanish words, and the ones I do
have are not strung together very well. But I soon realize that
they have none. They are Quichua speakers, and we are both foreigners
to the wealthy people of this land.
Our bus driver's name is Juan. He has veered off of our straight-to-Cuenca
itinerary to take us to the Jardin de La Virgen. The Virgin
Mary has been reported to appear here for at least twenty years.
At least, that's what Juan tells us as we bounce down the bus stairs.
People come from all over Ecuador to drink from the river in the
valley below. They come hoping to be emptied of ailments, to be
filled by faith.
Juan says that he himself has seen miracles here. He says that once
the sun shone only on one section of the valley to form a dome,
like a halo over the land. A friend who was with him took a photograph
to prove that the strange lighting had occurred, but the photo hadn't
turned out. "Many people try to take pictures of the miracles
here," he tells us, "but somehow the miracles always elude
I imagine Juan and his friends examining their own photos of the
valley. I think of how they must squint even still when they look
at those photos, concentrating on the image, running their fingers
across the gelatin of the print. Not seeing what is there as much
as what is missing.
version for easy reading
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