Straight from the heart

May 25, 2016 | 8 comments


A Familiar Stranger

He simply appears, every few days, in Vilcabamba.

He visits us from the Malacatos / Taxichi area, always walking the 10 kilometers, always barefoot, in rolled up pants that are seldom belted. One hand holds a stripped tree branch or two, the other holds up the loose pants. No hat, no jacket or sweater, in all weather conditions. When he returns, often night has fallen, and the journey along the main highway can be dangerous. On occasion, after nightfall, our regional bus’s headlights show him crouching in the drainage canals that parallel the road: he squints and turns away as we blast past.

When he arrives in Vilcabamba Parque in the mornings, he visits the cafes for a free coffee or a bowl of soup.

I’ve been watching him now for over four years, wondering what his real story is. There are conflicting versions of what happened to Arturo and what makes him exceptional from the rest of us. What event created the separate reality that he lives in today? Where does he sleep, who clothes him?

When he is in town, he moves slowly, often abruptly changing direction. Sometimes he drops his sticks and sits next to them surveying the surroundings with eyes that reflect both innocence and wariness. Hugging his knees or leaning on an arm, he quietly scans for the opportunity to beg a few coins. Suddenly, he pops up and runs over to an individual or a group of locals or foreigners and with outstretched hand and implores: “Pesetas, Pesetas!”

At first I thought he was asking for the obsolete Spanish Peseta, but was told recently that it is a reference to the now defunct Ecuadorian Sucre 25-cent coin.

His presence is benign, he is part of the transient social landscape of Vilcabamba.

He has been known to sneak a squeeze of a female bum now and then. But he is never aggressive or violent. I’ve never heard him utter a word other than “Peseta”.

Once at sunset, while sitting in a cafe I saw the directional sidelight project his shadow against a nearby wall. The light lasted no more than 20 seconds, time enough to create the portrait of Arturo that I had been patiently waiting for, forever, it seemed.

His shadow speaks of another side, another reality, most human shadows do … watch them.

I cropped the borders tight around him to suggest that there is a fine separation between his world and ours. Finally his hand reaching for his staff created an emotional dynamic: was he grabbing for the stick in defense or to attack, or neither?

The one-source light gave a Velázquez modeling and richness that highlighted Arturo’s handsome features and clothes. He appears of another time, Renaissance, remote, mystical — our own familiar stranger.

— Thomas H. Ives


Photo taken in Vilcabamba, Copyright: Thomas H. Ives 2014, Contact:

Thomas Ives is an American-born photographer who has worked for international news and feature magazines for over 38 years. His photo essays and images have appeared in National Geographic, Time, Geo, Stern, Newsweek, Life, Smithsonian, and many others publications. He currently lives in Vilcabamba with his Ecuadorian partner.

Thomas Ives

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