I’ve been to Mercado Diez de Agosto on the day when the old ladies summon up all their strength and wisdom to beat their paying customers with green branches of herbs or blossoms. I’ve also been to the Rotary where the same (?) old ladies rub eggs on kids and sprinkle flowers around while incense burns. I know nothing about these practices and am more than a little afraid to ask the ever present old ladies about them lest they mistake me for another client in need of a good branch beating and maybe an omelet. What I do know and feel is that the rituals, the traditional skirts, the street names, even the language here is so influenced by an indigenous present. While the European architecture and the modern facades of restaurants and cafes conjure a small Seville, the ever present chola skirt or the Saraguyo hat brings us back to Ecuador, to the Sierra, to the place where Pre and Incan cultures still thrive.
Working in Cuenca does not leave much space and time for travel, coupled with the fact that my social circle consists of maybe a 20 block radius, when given the opportunity to go see something different, to experience a space outside of the city confines, I jump at it. Talking with some friends got me involved in an agricultural-educational-tourism-sustainable development project. And while we are still working on some logistical aspects (like all of them), this project does lend itself to some interesting research opportunities.
Trying to bring tourists and their dollars to revitalize mostly abandoned farmlands is a task that in most places of the world would be impossible and just plain uninspiring, but from my first visit to the small farm in Sanglia, with its cozy house and fertile, if undeveloped, tracts, I could see nothing but possibility. So in keeping with the premise of our project, we organized a small experimental hike on a trail adjacent to the farm house – el Camino del Inca.
Now Cuenca is beautiful in all the ways a place that inspires coffee table books should be. It’s got mountains, rivers, architecture and museums. But, to me, its biggest appeal is its mysticism. There’s a secret society of something going on here. I have witnessed the indigenous and the modern coexist not just in scenes but in words culled from Spanish and Quechua that are understood in circles that have lived this reality. As an American, I don’t get it, but maybe, I just have to feel it.
So, our small group of intrepid hikers left the city, got on a bus and disembarked on a road with no identifiable markers. We greeted the artisans making bricks from the local resources and took a path that put us face to face with the most breathtaking view I’ve seen thus far. Only in Ecuador do the Andes open up and form two chains that run down to the rainforest on one end and to the coast on the other. What this means is at the elevation of 8,500 feet, you become nothing less than a Sun god. The land opens up revealing an expanse of sky and infinite peaks and this is where the Incas carved their way through South America building and connecting their empire.
I knew about Ecuador as the place my mom was from, a long time before she and my dad raised me in a Sunnyside apartment. But maybe because of time, space, memories best left behind, my connection to this country never fully manifested it was never a reality for me living my life as an American. But there I stood that Saturday, literally in the footsteps of my ancestors. There in the lush green, with condors flying overhead, butterflies darting around and tiny roots confusing my feet; it was there that I finally felt it. I felt that mysticism, that intangible something that drives the impulse to preserve tradition, to hold it sacred and still while the world around evolves and changes. Those stoic mountains framing the perfect Andean sky, elevating mere humans to the edge of the divine, witnesses to what existed before the worlds we know did; those mountains adopted me that day. They forced me to accept my humanity and divinity in a context I never fathomed I could, here in Ecuador. I shuffled ahead aware of the sun branding my cheeks and let myself be guided through this path by my ancestors and Paul.
Paul is a local historian, guide, good guy. He is filled with the pride and knowledge of being an heir to a legacy not yet anthologized. He is a storyteller, replete with the gifts of orality received from our ancestors. His explanations of the history, the events that took place in eras we can’t ever pinpoint, stopped our little band from gazing at the beauty of our surroundings for a few minutes as we contemplated the lives lived here, the reality for those humans whose work paved our way, whether 2,000 or 20 years ago.
I take my job seriously, I always have, but although part of my reason for being on the hike that day was to serve as a translator, Paul (and yes, I’m blaming him) and his narratives, enthralled me to the point where all I wanted to do was listen, to take in and absorb. I didn’t want to think in English, much less produce the sounds. I wanted to find a little pocket within this mystical space and receive the warmth of the sun and the sound of his voice re-telling me stories I sort of remembered from a long time ago. But, inevitably and not surprisingly, I felt that bump, the elbow to the arm contact of someone trying to get my attention and I remembered that I was not alone and it was my duty to make sure all in our little group had a taste of the magic that exists only here.
A two and a half-hour hike and more than two thousand years traversed ultimately leads to hunger so we exited the Camino del Inca for sustenance in the form of Doña Maria’s seco de pollo. With the identity shaping, shifting, redefining and strengthening part of my day complete, I was left with the feeling that the path of the Inca walks straight to the heart of el Centro de Cuenca and may even reach Sunnyside, Queens.