She was always there. Every Sunday morning she came at the same time. It was during my early days in Ecuador, when I walked in the area, that we met. I studied her and familiarized myself with her mannerisms. She was a disabled person. Her handicap was the inability to walk. Awareness can arrive in a lot of ways. It has many vehicles. I found some on a concrete island in a sea of dirty cobblestones somewhere off lower Sangurima.
I know what awareness is and I know the definition of the word handicapped. Both are experienced at various levels. And, as I observed her, I began to better understand the intricacies of her burden. We all offer the right of way to handicapped people. We see they have a disability and so we move our bodies to accommodate them. We may offer additional assistances in the form of holding a door open, helping with a package or offering something to help with dinner. And then, right after those thoughts and actions, awareness normally falls away quickly.
I like to walk a lot. And, high into the mountains I go, along rocky and steep trails. I walk the entire city of Cuenca. I only use my truck to get myself to destinations of greater distance. I’m comfortable with my own personal locomotion and very adept at using it. She, in a deeply contrasted manner, eases an old wheelchair and beat-up metal cabinet down a broken sidewalk that’s shedding pieces of concrete under the daily assault of other pedestrians. Ecuador seeps into my deepest recesses, an ingraining process for lessons in humility.
As I watched, her hardships continued to unfold. I saw her almost pushed into the street by passersby on many occasions. She always had trouble with the rocks she used to chock the wheels of her newspaper cart to keep it from rolling into the street. Periódicos are what she sold. The green plastic twine that operated her sun umbrella in a makeshift fashion blew out of reach as the wind tugged at it and her well-worn clothing. There were so many things this woman fought, she was a warrior in her concrete jungle of a seldom used side street.
One day, after watching her for a couple of months, I decided to try something. I opened a dialogue with her using my limited Español accented by hand-signals. I spoke to her briefly about the importance of her job in the community, the timely delivering of the news. Papers are popular in Ecuador. She always seemed to sell out. I wanted to provide something to her we all need but that I somehow sensed, she had been denied. Plain enough, it was her dignity and a sense of purpose. As I spoke and signaled, she smiled as I drew a parallel between the news photos in the paper and my intent to report on her with my own photograph. The following week, I photographed her in the way I wanted, on her own island of concrete turf, deep in east Centro.
Three weeks later was the last time I ever saw her, she vanished from her corner as if she had never been. Almost two years have passed. I’ve had lots of other humbling experiences in Ecuador which edified me but this was my first. It’s stuck with me
I’ve not seen her again. But, I made a new habit here, early on, based on my experience. When I acknowledge the people of Cuenca who have the most menial of jobs with the least pay and the greatest hardships, the smiles and bright faces are many. I like seeing those smiles a lot and I promise, you will too. Shoveling tinder filled with kindness into the firebox of a heart makes the brightest sparks fly.