VILCABAMBA ODYSSEYThe old man and the broom

Sep 11, 2008

By Ron Gordon

This morning, early, I walked to the village of Vilcabamba.  To sit quietly, in the town square at early morning is to move into a Garcia Marquez novel.  The village, so sleepy on its surface, is vibrating with energy. The skies seem ready to rain butterflies at any moment, covering the park, covering the church, and covering the little white donkeys that carry the children wherever they wish.

In the central square there is a small park that has been cultivated into the campesino version of a formal garden. It is laid out symmetrically, a small fountain at the center, with trimmed hedges, tall trees and, of course, an abundance of flowers. If you look closely you can see that the rows are not so straight, and the hedges could use some trimming. But this is Ecuador, not Versailles, and the park is all the more enchanting for its homespun quality.

In the years since leaving Ecuador, I have had a favorite memory of sitting early in the square, drinking tea at an outdoor cafe, and watching the man with the broom.

There was an old man, very old, with a broom of sticks. It was his job, early each morning, to sweep the sidewalks and streets of the square, removing the leaves and trash that had fallen or been thrown. This man was ancient, and moved very slowly. Each morning I watched him, and learned.

At first, to my norteamericano sensibilities, he seemed to be moving too slowly.  So much so that, at first, I had to resist the impulse to walk over, grab the broom from his hands, and begin sweeping furiously, saying "Here, now that’s how you do it!"

But as I watched from day to day, I realized that he was teaching me and that I had been wrong. He worked slowly, not because he was lazy, but because he was old, he had the time, and he enjoyed his work. What first seemed to be random sweeping revealed itself to be surprising and elegant in its arrangement.

He moved around the square in distinct sections, first picking up the largest trash and leaves in his hands, then sweeping the rest into perfectly shaped piles.  When the piles in a section were complete, he would invariably stand back to survey and admire them. Then, with apparent regret, he would sweep each pile into a battered dustpan, and deposit the sweepings into a large trashcan on wheels. All this occurred at glacial speed. So large was the trashcan and so small the man that they were equal in height, and moved about like brothers.

And so, this morning, I went to the square wondering.  Would the old man still be there? I was afraid that he might have been replace by a younger man or, much worse, by some trash-sweeping machine.

He was still there, and when he saw me he smiled in a way that let me know he remembered me–the man who, years earlier, had sat at the same table each morning.  There was only one difference. The village of Vilcabamba, in an apparent explosion of civic pride, had outfitted him in an international orange jumpsuit, several sizes too large, on the back of which was written, in large black and sewn-on letters, "Hygiene".  He was also given a matching orange cap.  If he were wearing an astronaut’s suit he would not have looked more out of place than he did in his jump suit. The hat, also too big, covered his eyes but not his smile.

Returning from my walk, as I turned up the path to my cabin, I met Jaime, the owner of the inn where I was staying. I had spoken with him on earlier visits, but only in passing. This day, however, we sat together, in front of his small house, and enjoyed each other’s company.

We chatted about this and that. I told him about all the recent changes in my life–the uncertainty and fears, the blessings and dreams. We talked about Buddhism, meditation, and other things spiritual.

He told me not to worry, and said that he was sure that if I let go, I would be "taken to the right place". He was silent for a moment, and his eyes narrowed slightly. He assured me that this had been true for him, even though he couldn’t see it at the time. I know that some years ago he lost his son, a little boy who stumbled into a pool and drowned in the few moments that he had turned his back. He must have been overwhelmed at the time, yet I believed him when he told me that everything that happened was meant to be, and was for the best.

As we sat, a bright yellow bird landed in a tree directly in front of us. About the same size and shape as an oriole, its wings were black with white bars, and the rest of its body a pure, luminous yellow. Jaime seemed stunned. 

When he recovered he told me that this bird was exceedingly rare, and that he had seen it only once before in his whole life.  As we watched it, a second bird, identical, landed beside the first.  It was carrying some soft and fluffy plant material in its beak, and commenced to build a nest. Jaime thanked me for bringing the birds.

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