I hadn’t been in Ecuador for a very long time before I was able to put together ways for Edie and I to get to the country cheaply and easily. Our HiLux, El Fantasma, was yet to join our family. We were using city and inter-provincial buses along with mixtos to bring us to or ferry us about the wilder places. I was hiking on a mountainside trail one afternoon when a steep and rugged path diverged from it.
Scrambling downward toward the sound of rushing water, I could barely make out the rusted tin cover of a small bridge peeking out from the mist-laden vegetation. Bromeliads and ferns steadily dripped the remnants of a fresh rainstorm as a good swing from a branch and a leap landed me on the split-wood roadbed of the bridge. Past the bridge, a small road wound along the water’s edge. Nearby, a mud brick house clung precariously to the hillside and it was there where she had taken up her station.
We never actually met. We simply shared time and space for a few moments. Three years have come and gone since that grey afternoon along a rain-swollen mountain river. I called to her repeatedly from my position under the overhang of the rickety bridge whose main structural member was the trunk of a huge eucalyptus tree. The waters turbidity was so great that its roar denied us communication past friendly shouts on my part and a subdued wave on hers.
Toes peeped at me from the worn out soles of her shoes as I began to study the scene. Her knife flashed in the dull light as she steadily crafted her goods. Her expression was pensive and, after I met her eyes a couple of times, I decided it reflected her mood. Piled behind her was a very large stack of cane, the type that is stripped, split and then dried for the purpose of weaving baskets. The woman was busy stripping the usable fibers of the cane from its hollow shaft. She was gathered in thought as she worked.
I eased my camera out of my pack and placed it in my lap. When she looked up I raised it, suggesting a photograph was in order. And so our exchange continued as we swapped gazes and expressions. She was into that cane and I wanted a take away that reflected her mood and her artisanal skills. As I continued studying the scene, I realized that she was working with the poorest quality cane I had seen. The joints weren’t straight and further, the cane was not fresh as was evidenced by its aged purple and tan color. But, she was obviously quite practiced at her job and the strips continued to peel away revealing the bright straw color that lay beneath. Finally, she looked up again, raised an eyebrow, cut her eyes and presented me with her best tight-lipped expression which I accepted by pressing the shutter button! I was grinning back at her as the camera recorded the scene, capturing another gem of Ecuador’s countryside.
There was a long hike out of there waiting for me, so I quickly stowed my gear. By the time I had straightened my rain jacket and pants, the light mist that had begun minutes earlier had turned into a steady drizzle. She had abandoned her station and there was no sign she had even been there. The pieces of stripped cane were gone, obviously whisked away to a dryer environment. I crossed the muddy road and called a couple of times for her but to no avail.
I fished a dulce de leche lollipop out of my pack. Further digging turned up a green rubber band, a scrap of paper and a yellow pencil stub having the faded identifying stamp of a bingo parlor. In the rain, I scrawled her note on the damp paper. Carefully attaching the note to the lollipop stick, along with a bill I had removed from my wallet. I stuck the combination in the end of one of the hollow joints of cane with the golden wrapper showing gaily against the muted background colors. I called again, wanting to actually place the items in her hand, but the only sound was the steady drumming of the drizzling rain bouncing off an old metal bucket.
It was past time to go and I knew she wasn’t returning whether she heard me calling or not. A gust of wind separated old leaves from their respective branches and as they were whirled away to another place, they seemed to join the thoughts that whirled in my head. I thought of all the wonderful things that had happened to me in my life, all the places I’d seen and all the things I had accomplished. I smiled to myself as I considered my good luck at another chance to give a little something to the people that have given me so much joy by coming to know them and their colorful culture. As I considered the afternoon’s events, I saw her face in my thoughts and I watched her read the note I had made for her. I saw her shove the cash into the front of her shirt and the lollipop was jutting out the corner of her mouth. There, in the mud, lay a green rubber band and a small wadded up scrap of paper. Scribbled in pencil and hidden under its crumpled folds were the simple words, “para zapatos nuevos…” A crack of thunder returned me to the present as I saw a streak of lightning dance across a puddle in front of me, reflected from the sky above. As, I turned away from her simple place, I smiled again knowing I was going to be in Ecuador for a very long time.