Author’s note: This is one of an occasional series detailing the challenges and aspirations of rural Ecuadorians and the importance of preserving their villages tucked in the hollows and perched on the ridges of the high Andes. By the way, some of you may remember — and some of you may have been onboard — when CuencaHighLife transported two busloads of expats to Quingeo in 2010 for the carnival celebration. The MC announced over the town plaza intercom that it was the first visit ever by gringos except for a Peace Corps volunteer and a couple of lost tourists. Click here for the story.
Tim Nacey came up with a fantastic way to escape the noise of Cuenca and see the countryside. He invited Cynthia Mills and me along on a tour of places served by green buses that provide public transportation to nearby rural communities.
The necklace of pretty hamlets, villages, and towns that circle Cuenca provides much of the food we consume; nearly 50 percent of the produce sold in Cuenca is grown within a 40-mile radius of Parque Calderon. These rural communities also provide much of the city’s workforce – in fact, too many. Too often, the smallest jewels are crumbling, not under the weight of worldly pressure, but from a far more amorphous force. Emptiness.
San Pedro de Quingeo takes your breath away. Rooted among the rocks at 8,400 ft., the village looks like an old western movie set. The meticulously manicured central plaza is surrounded by a collection of buildings representing the full range of architectural styles that defined this once successful and nearly two-hundred-year-old center of commerce. Now, however, the buildings serve as a reminder of how quickly a loss of population can lead to a cascade of dilapidated conditions that threaten the ability of the village to weather the future…and survive.
As is true for many towns in Ecuador, the challenge of keeping ‘the kids down on the farm’ is becoming increasingly difficult. The allure of urban living, driven by the relentless influence of social media, is taking its toll in significant ways. Whole villages, Quingeo among them, are seemingly deserted even at noon — a catastrophe that is becoming all too common. Fortunately, some government agencies are awakening to the alarming consequence of overpopulated cities and abandoned villages and are taking action to mitigate the damage. I had the good fortune to witness a bit of this good news the other day in Quingeo.
On 1 July 2018, President Moreno established the Literacy Project for Senior Adults (GAD), a program designed to combat the isolation of seniors by developing critical education and service programs. A major regional component of this project is busing seniors from the surrounding countryside into Quingeo twice a week for classes — a critical resource required for seniors living in the campo. This simple measure allows seniors to have access to programs that will increase their skills, makes availability to social programs manageable, and encourages seniors to join activities promoting creativity and social interaction. When we visited last week, three classrooms were full-to-capacity with eager and engaged students. It was a true joy to see.
The Quingeo literacy program is particularly impressive. It currently has a student body of 150 participants, all over 65, who are studying the art of reading and writing. Watching them work was more than inspiring; I relearned, yet again, that only by slogging through the minefield of hard work does one learn how to confidently grasp the tools of language and put them to good use.
Senior classes also include personal hygiene, painting, ceramics, and the unfortunate, but all-important study of domestic violence and how it reflects the culture and history of Ecuador. Central to this instruction is the means to identify the many forms of domestic abuse, and the best practices on how to combat it both at home and in the community.
We found a single restaurant that was open when we visited — and I think they opened because we visited, so packing a lunch and picnicking in the lovely central park is an option you might consider that would be fun. If you do decide to bring your provisions with you, fear not — the locals will provide you with cold beverages, a warm welcome, easy conversation, and — shock, shock — an enthusiasm for being photographed that is as refreshing as it is rare.
Quingeo is a captivating set piece of old Ecuador including three and four-story buildings of colonial architecture, Spanish adobe buildings with wooden pillars, tile roofs, and once lovely balconies overlooking the town square. Although, there is significant interest in revitalizing the village, it is a task that remains uncertain due to the financial urgency and unrelenting squeeze of city life. The life-blood of any community is the youth and these precious few are being drained away at an alarming rate and without a cure.
The time may come when a desire for the home fire and a new found respect for the old ways will prevail, but from today’s vantage-point, that seems to be a long distance into the future.
In the meantime, another building will crumble; another beam will fall nearly silently, or with a great roar.
In the meantime, one can only hope that there will be enough left to preserve when it is needed and that this pretty little place will not be lost as many others have and many more will.
Quingeo is a treasure chest of history being buried in the soil of neglect. I wish it were not so.
“Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
― William Shakespeare, As You Like It