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Río del Lavandería

Almost four years ago, I caught a bus for line #19 and rode it to its termination point west of Cuenca. It was a year before our truck, El Fantasma, would make his berth wherever Edie and I went. I entered the Yanuncay Valley on foot that day by way of Via Soldados, which was dirt and rock at that time. A plethora of the most wonderful people and sights welcomed me to the valley, and the rest is history.

As time passed, I invested more of my personal time in gaining an intimate familiarity with the area. As I came to know it’s geographies, so I came to know the customs of the families peopling the Yanuncay Valley. A custom that I greatly appreciate, yet that is not limited to the valley, is the support  young people provide to their families. I observe this to be more common in El Campo than in La Ciudad. There’s plenty behind the scenes that all youth do for their families but perhaps the two most obvious tasks encountered are babysitting and laundry.

Now, I’m sure there’s a washing machine or two in some houses along the Río Yanuncay. However, they’ll be rarities. I’ll bet only one in thirty homes, if that, has one. The other twenty-nine homes have a waist high concrete basin out front with cold water on tap at the faucet. Clothing is beaten and rubbed on the pebbly concrete surface of the basin to loosen dirt. It’s line dried for that super-fresh smell…well, the fresh smell may be a by-product of the necessity of air drying, rain or shine. That leaves the most popular method for getting your duds cleaned up. Grab your loads of clothes and head for the river!

And what better way to prevent idle hands with a teenage son or daughter than to enlist their aid in laundry duty!? From what I’ve seen, they are glad to pitch in whether required by Mamá and Papí or not. Teenage boys often seem to dote on their moms, holding their hands or walking arm in arm as a form of affection but also to protect them from the uncertain footing of the environment. It gladdens my heart to see these displays. One afternoon, after only a few hikes up the River, I encountered a mother and teenage son as I crossed one of the many covered bridges providing passage of the Río Yanuncay.

I stopped on the bridge and shouted a greeting to be heard above the rushing waters. The young man acknowledged me with a wave and a grin but his Mamá only cut her eyes from the side of her blue ball cap. I pulled some Crema de Leche chupettes from my photo back pack and, at the same time, I removed my camera anticipating the opportunity to create a photograph. The first two chupettes I threw to him went in the drink; he tried to catch them but the footing was way past slippery. He made an NFL like move when I sailed the third one home, caught it and pocketed it. I made signs for him to catch another and give it to his mother. He did catch the next one but pocketed it too. Regardless of my gestures, he offered none to his mother but put up his hands and called for more. He had seen my camera but, in this case, it didn’t matter. His knowledge of the photographer wasn’t going to ruin the scene. It wasn’t his demeanor.

He had been able to see that I wanted to make a photograph of he and his mother. He had cajoled her repeatedly to look up and give the camera her face. But, she had no response at all. The woman just kept beating the wet clothing on a rock after she had soaped it up with a big blue bar. Finally, she decided to take a break from that laundry. The camera had been up, I was waiting, he was grinning. She looked up at me from a pile of sudsy socks and washcloths. The camera fired for posterity’s sake.

These days, I know many more families in the area and they know Edie and I. We hike often in the lower reaches of the Valley and stop and visit with our indigenous friends. They speak our names. It’s very special and way past heart-warming. We love them. I ride my cross-country mountain-bike high into the Yanuncay Valley’s upper reaches. Along my route, there’s a broad flat area providing easy access to shallow turbid waters and big smooth rocks. Women gather to wash clothes there. I can’t say the reason why but once, when passing a big group of the washwomen at high speed on my bicycle, I let out a bloodcurdling cry. It sounded like something between the imagined cry of the abominable snowman and a rebel yell. Every head of the dozen women jerked up offering me rapt attention. My call was loud and long. As I flew by on my turquoise and red bike, wearing my brightly colored bike clothes, a lone and very brave woman threw back her head and let out an unexpectedly long and startling shriek. As I shot down the road, a chorus gathered from the stream bed and I swear you could’ve heard it back in Cuenca. They had joined in. The sounds I heard were loud and emotional screams and cries as mine had been. I was grinning from ear to ear as I dropped into a long steep hill. Since then, I’ve never passed that area without giving my loud and long cry. If I don’t start my cry right away, right when coming into view before they spot me, their joyous shouts and cries of greeting just drown mine out.