of What Was Missing
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 blind.
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
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 earth.
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 capture."
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.
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