Pilgrimage

When I think about Ecuador now, the memory comes in senses.

The smell of cuy popping and sizzling in an open-air market. The taste of fresh fruit eaten during a much-needed break from working. The constant sound of children, asking me for my name or my age or my shoes. The feel of a sudden downpour drenching your neck and back and then your face as you tilt it towards the clouds.

Ecuador is a colorful place, not only in its landscapes and food and fabrics, but in the faces of its people, who wear different skin and hair and clothes depending on whether they live in the mountains or the plains. I found that while the Spanish of the big city was easy to understand, the Spanish of the rural areas was faster and blurrier. That is, if they spoke Spanish at all. Some places they speak only indigenous languages; some places stay hidden.

I was in Ecuador to build houses as part of a short-term project with Habitat for Humanity. I was part of a team of 13 people – American, British, and Australian – who had come to Ecuador to seek self-sacrifice, or personal change, or life experience. We worked hard, mixing concrete, building wooden forms, laying brick in the achingly humid heat of Ecuador’s rainy season.

On weekends off we rested and recovered, or, if we felt brave enough, sought out an adventure in Ecuador’s tapestry of landscapes. I remember body surfing in the pounding waves of the Pacific Ocean. I remember wandering the winding streets of Quito, listening to street musicians and drifting through parks selling local art and food. I remember salsa dancing by the stars because it was still too hot to sleep. And I remember Cotopaxi.

Cotopaxi is a 19,000 foot volcano just south of Quito that has been inactive long enough for a glacier to form across the mountain’s summit. It is a paradox: this volcano covered in ice. Cotopaxi looms over Quito like a sentinel, omnipresent and powerful. We had to set out early in the morning to have enough time to climb Cotopaxi. Three of us hired a local guide, Pedro, who loaded us into his jeep and drove us to the base camp in the foothills of the mountains. Then, we ascended the mountain the only way possible, one foot in front of the other. As our elevation increased, the temperature dropped, and by the time we reached the little rest lodge at 14,000 feet, the world was white with swirling snow. We stopped to warm up with soup that Pedro had prepared for us before continuing up another 1000 feet onto the glacier.

Ecuador lies on the equator, so the top of this mountain was the closest I will ever be to the sun. In so many ways, those few minutes of quiet tiny breaths on Cotopaxi’s peak were the top of the world.

Later, while traveling from Quito to the Cloud Forest to spend a few days volunteering at a bio-reserve in the middle of the jungle, I got robbed. I lost my camera, my CDs and portable CD player, and my wallet (containing a hefty amount of cash). My teammate Rich and I had taken a public bus, and since there was no stop for the Bellavista bio-reserve, we simply showed the driver a spot on the map to pull over to let us off. As the bus drove away, leaving us on the side of the mountain road, we discovered our missing belongings. The moment felt alternately hilarious and heart-breaking, like it was the worst turn of events and the thing we needed most all at once.

We went over the events in our heads the whole 12 kilometer hike to where Bellavista sits, nestled at the top of a rolling valley. The Cloud Forest is a magical place, worth every penny I spent and lost getting there. Abundant with hummingbirds and exotic flowers, shrouded in mist, it is green and wet and wild. After the robbing, we only had enough money left to pay a fraction of the cost of our stay, but the manager was generous and sympathetic and let us stay anyway.

When I returned to the States a few weeks later – exhausted, changed – I realized I was unable to share my experience with people. Partly because all my photographs were gone – me triumphantly summiting a glacier, an ancient church overlooking Quito, the last wall of our first build going up – and partly because those kind of experiences cannot be sufficiently transmitted through language.

In the end, those memories live only in my senses, those experiences only in the pieces of my heart that changed during my journey. I cannot even be sure things happened as I remember them to have happened, and in that sense, they could not be more real to me.

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Note: I was in Ecuador in March of 2007. As stated in the story, the camera I had with me was stolen. Thus, the credit for these photos goes to my Habitat teammates.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Pilgrimage

  1. what beautiful memories, friend… thank you so much for sharing them with us. i can picture it all, vivid…

  2. pathoftreasure

    I’ve been to Ecuador, it was quite some years ago. I didn’t get to see the country side like you did– my trip was business-related. I also stepped on the “equator”– and I love that you mention it is probably the closest time to the sun we’ll ever be! May our times on earth be like that — close to the Son. Trips like yours are life-changing… this is a precious reflection of that memory and how it changed you, and formed you.

  3. Interesting observation about being the closest you’ll ever be to the sun… amazing how cold it can be even there!

    I know all too well the inability to share-back experiences. My life is so full of exotic experiences that it has become so irrelevant to the lives of the people I love. The more I experience the more isolated I become emotionally. Though traveling is what I’m good at, I want to stop and settle so that I can reconnect with humanity a bit.

    • I definitely know where you’re coming from, Kati. I found that, when I came home, a lot of people didn’t even know what kinds of questions to ask about my trip. I was a wilderness guide for a while and was on trail on the time — I had the same disconnected experience then, too. It is very hard to maintain intimate relationships when you’re off having all these transformative experiences somewhere else all the time. But then I sat still for a few years in grad school and started to feel restless and tied down. So I guess it’s a tough balance for us wandering souls…
      Your life certainly does sound exotic! I often don’t even know what to comment on your blog. For now, I’m praying that you can find some roots and some connection in the midst of all the chaos of living transitionally. I hope someday that you and I can both find the community we’re looking for, whatever that ends up looking like!

      • Thank you so much for the kind words. Every glimmer of understanding means so much! I’m planning a big move ‘home’ (a place that isn’t really home but where I have some real ties, at least) and want to discipline myself to really stay there for a while, but I’m a bit terrified of learning how to do it. My new prayer is one I honestly don’t expect to be answered but I am trying to ask anyway: that when I get there I have at least one friend who is also ‘coming back’ to process it all with… Being different has its ups and downs, but it sure helps to have at least someone to talk to, I think.

      • Do you know when your move “home” is going to be? I’ll offer many prayers until then, and I look forward to hearing how the transition goes. I hope you will find kindred souls, even when/where you least expect them!

  4. wow! i took a latin america studies course, and this stirs up all those old longings to travel. beautiful story, beautifully told.

  5. Hey Bristol, thanks so much for commenting on my blog! I always enjoy connecting to readers. Thanks for sharing your insights on ACT / SAT testing. And I really enjoyed your photos here too. Come back and add to the conversation any time! I hope God is blessing all you do.

    • Oh, if only I could take credit for the photos! I hope wherever my camera (which was technically borrowed, not mine) ended up, someone enjoyed my photos before re-selling it! 🙂
      I look forward to reading more of your blog, Matt. Having just discovered it, I already appreciate your voice!

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