Riding horseback high in the Páramo of Cotapaxi National Park, overlooking a valley crested on either side by volcanoes, I tried to mold myself to my horse’s back. At first, as my white horse labored uphill, I couldn’t find a rhythm with him, and every one of his steps threw me gently against the back of his saddle, worrying me about the pain I was causing him. The sky was steel gray and low, but the colors of the ponchos of my fellow riders were saturated red, and striped, cream and brown.
At the crest of the hill, at 14,000 feet, we stopped under a bare rock promontory. The wind blew hard and cold, rippling the silvery grass and billowing my ochre poncho around me as our guides served us hot, clear tea. It was tangy with a hint of cinnamon and naranjilla. After a few hours of riding, I fell into a peaceful rhythm with my horse. Below, us the thatched-roof hacienda blended with its surrounds, and far below that, the emerald squares of cultivated fields quilted the broad valley. It was hard to absorb. Up ahead, silvery threads of sunlight sifted through the clouds, and illuminated the black safety helmets of the riders so that they looked silver, like the helmets of the conquistadores five hundred years ago. Rather than conquering, though, we were conquered by otherworldly light and unbelievable beauty.
Only a few days later, gliding in dugout canoes along the Cuyabeno river at night, I rested my head against the back of the seat and delivered myself up to the starry sky, which for the first time, didn’t look like a sequined tent roof, but rather like the dimensional space it really was. I could feel the space between the planets and stars, flung far and near. I felt myself just a small being, plastered to the side of the planet, looking over the balcony of earth into infinity.
You have asked the students of SUNY Adirondack’s International Education course 204 (INT 204) to explain what we learned about the culture of Ecuador and how the experience changed us. It is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that teachers ask us to sum up and categorize things which are beyond words. We learn by telling a story, but we also know that the telling of the story changes the shape of what happened, rendering it lost, in a way. One way or another, the experience dissolves, the traces it leaves in us sometimes indecipherable.
Emotionally, on this trip, I went into a wordless place, where I took copious notes on everything I saw and heard, but could think of little to say to the other people on the trip. I listened to people talking on the bus and wondered what they were talking about. I know, when I’m in this space, that big shifts are going on somewhere deep in my mind, but they rise in their own time, not on command. I came on this trip to feed my imagination since so much of my writing seems to stem from my year and a half in Chile when I was between the ages of eleven and thirteen.
I grew up traveling, embedded in cultures different from my own, so this was not an entirely new experience. But it has been nearly 30 years since I’ve left the country. I was excited to see the Andes again, because the mountains, volcanoes and rain forests of Chile had carved a space in me that nothing else could fill.
Before the trip, I had reviewed some of the Spanish I had lost over the last 30 years, and as we traveled around the country I found myself entering first that confused space where my English began to wither as my Spanish returned. Then, I’d alternate between moments of a sudden ability to speak in complete sentences and a complete inability to speak in either English or Spanish. Often, I’d search for the Spanish word for something, and it would appear in my mind as if by magic. Other times I had to ask.
At the end of the trip in Quito, I had an elemental conversation at the Indian Market with a woman from Loja, the southernmost province of Ecuador. I was buying a black and white designed plate that was different from everything else I’d seen and which reminded me vaguely of Acoma pottery, as well as a small wooden mask of a fox. I said in Spanish, “I’m crazy. I’ve been buying too many things.”
“But think of the good memories you’ll have when you look at them,” she said.
We Americans descend on the Otavalo market eager
to spend, hoping to capture
a piece of Ecuador
forever. We buy
prisms of color woven into fabric,
stories rolled into clay fingers,
night creatures carved into wood masks.
Here philosophy spirals onto gourds,
and the confetti of life is painted in petals
on bowls and spoons
in carnival colors.
We try to buy the stray smile
of the Otavaleña, or wisdom that has guided deft hands
along Intiñan, the pathway of the sun,
to reap corn under the volcanoes
for five thousand years,
only to find, when we open our suitcases back
home, that all we brought back
I felt guilty about my American display of materialism and of the hole I made in my family’s bank account as I went into a buying frenzy the first three days of the trip. That is something I’d do differently if I had to do it again, wait until the end of the trip to buy, and buy less. On the other hand, I felt good about paying these artisans, who had been doing their work for thousands and thousands of years, as we saw in The Museo Casa Del Abado in Quito that very first day. Clay and stone figures from the Valdivia, the Tolita, the Guangala, the Manteño, the Napo, and the Jama Caoque manifested intricate world views and rituals.
Diego, our gracious host who was constantly generous with his copious knowledge, pointed out an accordion figure carved by the Valdivia from stone 4000 years ago. A figure of a man was carved on either end. His head was a big square and his eyes were wide and large, like an owl. The ridges between front and back, Diego said, represented all the different dimensions we live in through time. The largeness of the head symbolized a big spirit. Visiting the markets felt a little like that.
These same people from thousands of years ago had accordioned themselves through the rise and fall of the Incas, the rise and fall of the Spanish, and no less than twenty different constitutions as the country of Ecuador birthed itself, and here they still are, dressed in their embroidered blouses, wrapped in skirts and tightly woven belts, telling their stories, weaving, painting, carving and making their art.
Returning to grounds that were both literally and figuratively similar to Chile was stirring in a wordless way. I was delighted to see that little had changed. People still sold quail eggs on street corners from makeshift tin stands, and knit sweaters with their babies wound to their backs with scarves, and school children still wore navy uniforms. After eight days of wide-eyed wonder, I found myself growing emotionally sensitive as the some of the students formed cliques.
On an episode of her podcast show, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert talked about how we have two selves, our social selves and our essential selves. I think because I’ve traveled so much, my social self has not been one I could rely on – because social behaviors are transient, temporary and sometimes random. Living at the edge of so many different cultures, landscapes and income brackets may have demanded that I live and operate from my essential self—the self that endures no matter what the surroundings, no matter what language you’re speaking, no matter where you are.
Since I’ve been home, I’ve been waiting for the wordless thoughts to form into thoughts with words so I could answer the questions your assignment posed, Finally, I realized that was just going to have give you this kaleidoscope or collage of thought. I struggled just now with the spelling of kaleidoscope, because on the trip, I had ventured pretty far into Ecuadorian spelling…. the “k” sound is usually spelled with “que,” the “wa” sound is either spelled “gua” or “hua,” and a jaguar is pronounced yaguar, and the “I” sound is spelled “ai.” In big ways and small, the trip continues to reverberate.
What stood out for me the most tour of Ecuador was the country’s geographical and cultural diversity. About twice the size as New York State, it has 3 million less people than New York, yet, geographically, it has some of the most active volcanoes in the world, and at least five distinct ecosystems, according to Diego, the high altitude páramo, the higher nival (tundra), the dry forest, the rain forest and the Chokó (the cloud forest?). Reports on the diversity of the population vary, with the Moon guide to Ecuador reporting that 25% of the population is indigenous, and Diego told us as much as 40% of the population is indigenous.
The indigenous people themselves are comprised of numerous different cultures. In addition, it has had a diverse political history, with no less than 20 different constitutions. This diversity is what I loved the most about Ecuador, I think. People dressed in a variety of traditional attire was a common sight in every city and town, from the Otavalo with their embroidered blouses and wrap-around skirts, to the other Andean Indians with their derby hats and shawls. Even though I got the distinct sense that there is still a great deal of tension between the mestizos and the more traditional indigenous people living in the Andes and the Amazon (as when an Ecuadorian visitor to the Tapir Lodge on the Cuyobeno told me this was her first time on the Amazon, and that most Ecuadorians don’t vacation here), the diversity of Ecuador seemed woven into is fabric at every level, like it’s woven into me.
For that reason I’d be hard put to say which part of the trip was my favorite part. Certainly the fruits we were introduced to us at the Alpaca Wasi, were as much a part of the magic of the country as was everything else: the passion fruit with its orange breakable shell, filled with a white sack of jellied seeds, or the tree tomato and goose berries, or the sweet, floral, custardy cherimoya, and the marshmallow fruit or guava that came in a long wide bean pod like those that hang off coffee trees or catalpa trees.
Or maybe what stood out most was eating lemony termites, or chewing on the bitter quinine bark of the calla brillo tree with our hawk-nosed guide, “Condor,” during our knee deep slosh through the swampy inlands of the rainforest. Or maybe it was spotting the Saqui money in tree branches, or listening to the careful Spanish of the red painted Curaca/Shaman who translated for us into his mother’s Siona language and his father’s Cofan, which sounded almost Chinese or like a bushman dialect from Africa. Then again the visit to Italo Espina’s house to see his “diablo” sculpture with Trump and Hitler in its mouth was a favorite, or the Indigenous village where we listened to the musician and then went to the weaving workshop, or the Paylon Del Diablo waterfall, or the cable car up to Pichincha, or the basket cable car across the chasm… we did so much!
I know that today, as I walk my dog, the sun is shining and a mythical wind is blowing, similar to the one on the high sweeps of Cotapaxi, only warmer. The cottonwood tree is shedding its seeds, which fall like fairy snow summer snow down. Through it, Saratoga Springs high school students drift homeward on their last days of the school year. Even though it’s beautiful here, I can’t help but think that the way the mountains and volcanoes rise about everything in Ecuador, literally overpowering the identical cinderblock constructions that sprawled like termite nests in the crevices of their volcanic arms, the way the black water of the Amazon is so smooth on top and so opaque that you can’t see what it hides, the way the Ceibo tree spreads its arms over all, makes it harder to forget that earth rules us, and that we are part of a mystery deeper than we can ever understand.
I really can’t put the whole trip into one unified message. All I can say is this:
After the spit and frenzy of buying,
We mount the bus triumphant,
Our bags bulging with “compras.”
We step past the tiny Otavaleña woman who
barely reached my chest
in black skirt, red head scarf, and gold beads,
her face creased and chipped,
like an old clay figurine,
her lips collapsed inward over her toothless gums.
She smiles, her eyes slanted slits.
She tilts her head,
presses her palms together and opens them,
splaying her crooked joints
We roar out of town,
leaving behind the farmer who leads four goats
down the street,
selling fresh milk from their udders.
Excitedly, we showcase our purchases to each other,
Laughing, pointing, congratulating and exclaiming.
Later, atop the mountain
at Condor Park,
Reina, the gray raptor, soars overhead.
She splays her edge feathers to navigate the gray sky,
carving a circle out of rain-pricked wind.
Again, and again, the falconer throws her over the wall
into the abyss between Cotacachi and Imbaburra.
Again and again,
she spreads her wings and rises,
aching necks and all,