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Ecuador Diaries: Feliz Día, Mountain Mamá!

 

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Counselors speak often of broken homes with absent fathers, but what of broken homes with absent sons? Homes constructed to perfection, all the proper foundations laid, only to eventually be razed by the son’s ambitions? Just as it is the parent’s responsibility to provide the child with necessities for existence, it is – almost inevitably – the child’s responsibility to exist, to maintain a presence, particularly on days in recognition of the family’s existence and each individual role – birthdays, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day – designated days when the roles are acknowledged and acted out, the parent receiving a gift for having given the rest of the year, the child giving a gift for having received the rest of the year, and all present at the occasion to display that they are a coherent family unit. But I ask you again, what of the absent son? He didn’t create the family, so where exactly does his responsibility lie? His loyalties?

This is not my first Mother’s Day abroad. Through growth, through the enumeration of years, the guilt of the absent child inside of me has been somewhat pacified. I have developed a tradition of e-mailing my mother an absent, intangible gift as well, an Amazon.com gift card – the gift of choice for vagabonds – with some sort of apology woven intricately into the “thank you” note. Yet I’m not accustomed to entertaining the holiday’s ghost in whatever city I’m in, particularly a ghost as oppressive and encompassing as the clouds, such as the one that exists in Quito. More prevalent are the billboard reminders, more expansive the smiles on the faces of glamorously photographed model mothers, more available the products peddled to make you a generous giver and make it apparent that you are indeed a fortunate son. In every shop window, in every beauty parlor, in every bank façade, “Feliz Dia Mamá!”, hung with ribbon and streamers, inscribed with icing on cakes. And, for those who dabble with English and its vogue, “Thanks Dad!” paired on a billboard with a laptop advertisement, “Thanks Mom!” paired on a billboard with an mp3 player advertisement. Advantageous, in that they prevent you from forgetting your home responsibilities while in an alternate land. Cancerous, in their reinforcement of guilt for missing a celebration as contrived as the conscience receiving the guilt. Inevitable, in that this journey is chiefly a visit to your brother, so the family stakes have been driven into the grounds of your trip, and you will play some sort of role in the process of family, regardless.

The reason I am able to familiarize myself so well with Ecuador (chiefly Quito) without speaking the language is that my brother has developed intricate relationships with the city, worked with its government, spoken extensively with all classes of its people, lived in apartments that are at the center of attention as well as mountain hovels that are on the fringes of being noticed. In his new life as a South American, he has established new families, and – just as he is the bridge between my language and the country’s – he is the bridge between the original concept of family and the adopted one. He must still celebrate with the family he has established here, and, as the bridge, he transports me along, coalescing birth family with found family and consequently colliding two alternate universes. His host family in Quito is indigenous, speaks Kichwa (the original Incan dialect), and thus inhabits the mountains one can view from the bathroom window of my brother’s seventh story city apartment. The family maintains a separate life from the city, yet they are not immune to its influence, the dominance of its language and economy, even its Westernized customs. They are therefore expectant of some sort of reception on its holidays.

It is for this reason that my brother and I spend Mother’s Day morning on a trolley, walking the streets, in search of a cake to take to the mountains and its cradled concept of family, particularly the lofty matriarch who lives there. Bakeries are picked over. Prices are gouged by opportunists (holidays are invented by opportunists). We gave up on purchasing an immaculate, Western-style cake at a Hilton in the northern part of the city and now comb through the historic city center in search of a modest Colombian bakery. The streets are busy, the air busier. There is a certain supra-linguistic buzz leading up to the event’s climax. But what is the climax? A thank you? A gracias? Gracious are the sons to their mothers, the husbands to their wives, the fathers to their daughters-cum-mothers. Mothers everywhere, all holding some sort of balloon or fistful of flowers to accompany them wherever they’re going. Children everywhere, as well: attached to hands, kicking inside of bellies, cliff-hanging from backs, dangling from necks in papooses like giant prized necklaces. The holiday carries so much weight. Mothers buy their children treats of whipped cream dolloped into ice cream cones or iced milk scooped into paper cups to preserve a sweet taste in the child’s mouth during an impossibly long day. Giving, constantly giving, on their day of reception. Cobblestone streets filled with mothers who don’t treat balloon strings like one more hand to hold. Many gifts certainly inherited by children from fathers and passed on to mothers.

Finding the bakery is difficult when every threshold is obscured by a salesman conceiving ways to make his product – a TV, a soccer jersey, toys, cell phone card recharge – relevant to the holiday at hand, and every pedestrian on the street stalling, wavering in decision over whether to reach out and grab that proffered hand (“Will this add meaning to the holiday?”). The bakery is on the corner of the main, traffic laden street of potholed cement extending distantly downward into nowhere and a perpendicular, ascending cobblestone alley rising toward cathedrals, government buildings, something historical. My brother mentions immediately upon entrance that all the employees are distinctly Colombian, and I concur despite cluelessness. The cakes are light like most tortas south of the border, not composed of butter and laden with lard, but rather iced with whipped cream, topped with a few different fresh berries for aesthetic appeal. My brother chooses one from the diner-like glass display case, works something out in either Ecuadorian or Colombian Spanish, and I find myself back on the street, tailing him, among 200 opposing directions of motion. We stall curbside with the long-distance travelers waiting on a bus, the correct one taking its time as everyone else boards and departs for places more familiar. A five-year-old boy to my left does the bidding of Mother Nature and drops his trousers to his ankles, pees into the street and its flow of traffic, his little protruding penis like that sculpted onto a statue of a cherub in a fountain. Our bus finally arrives, tires treading through the boy’s modest puddle of urine, and my brother and I lug the cake, the sack of gifts for the host family’s children, into its weathered interior. Bus seats are typically a luxury to be enjoyed by the elderly and impeccably-timed, but today – on this bus – they are plentiful. Perhaps not every boy in Quito has a mountain mamá to visit.

As most passengers get off, we remain seated, cake whipped cream starting to cascade like a mudslide from the plateau, no real relief from the heat reaching the bus except relief generated by movement – the breeze sucked into the bus’s open windows from the stagnant air outside because of the bus’s continuous motion. We endure the heat until the city fringes, where the bus spits us out quickly onto the lone, remaining cobblestone street, paralleled from here by dirt paths with scattered gravel that zig-zag all the way up the mountain. To reach our home, we have the option of climbing the mountain on a more direct trail of dirt and brick and stone or forcing ourselves into an (already) over-capacity van with indigenous faces pressed to the windows in segments like framed family portraits. Not wanting to become a burden to an already-burdened people (or perhaps using humility to mask timidity), I declare that we are to climb the mountain on foot, and so it shall be. Thus spoke Zorrothustra.

The gravel road does not become necessary until approximately half way up if we want to shorten our hike, so until then we traverse whatever the mountain deems pedestrian-friendly, which is a path of stones with a levelness somewhere between stairs and a ramp (basically an inconvenient – but natural – hybrid of the two), a bridge of aged and unfastened wooden boards to cross a ravine, a combination of brick and stone approached best with zeal and the child-BandAid mentality to distract from exhaustion while rising so quickly with the altitude. One must always look at the ground while walking in Quito, even in the mountains. In the city, streets are uneven, ugly, often hunchbacked, blockaded for construction with yellow peligro tape undoubtedly woven by arachnids, streets prone to protrusions of stone cylinders but also to pits deep enough to bury a standing body, square pits of sidewalk construction exposed and unmarked, so that one misplaced step would yield an irreparably broken leg and unanticipated extended stay in the country. Here on the mountain, the stakes are different, yet walking is still a game of hopscotch, where each step is carefully planned before taken, and most steps are calculated far in advance. And so I climb rocks steadily behind my brother in a way that could never be considered rock-climbing because of its horizontal tilt, a circle of sweat burgeoning outward on the chest of my t-shirt (black, because of lessons learned), circumference gaining ground quicker than blood on gauze. We are two sons leaning forward, silhouetted against the sun, sweating for their sins, producing incoherent exhalations that could be glossolalia.

Reaching the road is worthy of pause after enduring the steady ascent of the mountain path, worthy of removing eyes from the ground and looking backward to gaze down at the collage of tin roofs below exhibiting silver and reflecting gold, at the multi-colored pastels of houses arranged sporadically on the mountain across the valley with the verdant peak looming above them unsettled amongst the clouds – a scene often depicted in the region’s art for its color and contrast, yet every home could never be accounted for in a painting, too many lives to be restricted to a canvas –  looking upward to gawk at the Andes in all their ambition and the kind of neighborhood they have chosen to nourish: a neighborhood of tiers, of mounds and plateaus, houses on these mounds with shells of cement block expansion and exposed steel rods on top, houses down on these plateaus with clothesline as fencing and every article of clothing imaginable dangling from the line, positioning of houses having nothing to do with economic well-being, sincerely, just products of the land, chickens loose and running wild with dogs, donkeys restrained by barbed wire and nodding with cows, all ground off the road either vibrant green grass or rich brown mud, and the omnipresent, multi-hued laundry can-canning in the wind. Children. There is an abundance of wandering children, too, who hold no mother’s hand.

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The very van we declined in favor of exercise rattles past behind us with faces of a much different weariness still pressed to its windows, faces amused at the two winded, lanky white males standing to the side of the road. We follow its exhaust up the road at a much more comfortable pace, spread out from each other so as not to stifle or smother individual release of liquid, vapor, walking purposefully, yet calmly in the middle of the road as if being filmed returning home after a considerable journey. The road allows plenty of walking room but no actual sidewalk, the sides of the road entrenched, actually, likely for water flow down from the mountain on days of heavy rain in avoidance of mudslides.

My brother veers from the road and I follow, toward the house on a plateau accessible from the road, a house now renewing itself in my memory having visited it once with my real parents for a meeting of the families a year prior, the clothesline extending like a telephone wire outward from the right corner of the roof (roused memory of helping pull down tiny, pinned socks and shirts during an afternoon rain that gathered confidence with every landed drop), each piece of wavering laundry a flag, plastic furniture and toys piled and arranged in some kind of unintentionally postmodern structure out front by the doorway, the walls themselves unpainted cement as opposed to the surrounding houses dressed in various coats, the dog, Bongo, whose breed is simply “dog,” or – more accurately – “big dog,” bounding through the grass and mud to welcome one brother home and greet another brother he’s never truly known. My brother enters the open doorway and hugs an indigenous mother half his height dressed in blouse, serape, full length skirt, picks up the youngest girl (both daughters dressed like their mother) in an embrace as she squeals with delight at her weightlessness, provides the older daughter – a recent high school graduate – with the kind of hug 20-somethings give to late teenagers, pats the shoulders, hair of the teenage son, who wears a soccer jersey and seems to be the most excited about our arrival. I greet everyone the same, even taking the young girl off her feet, because I am nothing but an imitator here. The floor her feet leave is either packed dirt or dirty stone, though likely stone with a thin film of dirt, because no footprints are made while walking inside. This antechamber is the living room, the foyer, the den, every superfluous room distilled into one practical space with a couple of cloth chairs, a couple of plastic lawn chairs, a TV stand and TV, and some shelves for storage, lighting of course natural and entering not from above but from the sides, from the open doorway and the sans-glass window embedded into the partition separating the living room from the dining room. Attached to this room’s perimeter are a few closed wooden doors, likely two bedrooms and a bathroom.

Mother leads us to a doorway on the right, and we step down into the dining room, which doubles as an extra sleeping quarter because of the spare space to the right of the table and the bed occupying that space. A modest kitchen containing a pair of gas stoves and decorated practically with corn husks, mounds of potatoes, dangling spices, bags of oranges – the kind of perishables that Westerners would purchase fake versions of to make their kitchens fashionable, homely – sits to the left. Inside is a cook with a baby hanging in a cloth hammock from her back. My brother greets the cook amiably, as he knows her. I smile my smile. We set the cake and presents down and all sit at the table, where a crumbling half-eaten, yet nearly identical, cake rests, exposed to the air and occasional fly. “It was left over from church this morning,” my brother explains. The mother catches up briefly with her son across the table, alternating words with yawns, as she was apparently up all night aiding patients at a local hospital. They continue to converse, and I either correctly discern what they are discussing in Spanish, or recognize a few key words and concoct a story that is entirely different from what they are actually talking about, i.e. I hear numbers and punto for period, the word for “bad,” looks of incredulity on my brother’s face, and I assume they are talking about someone unjustly failing a field sobriety test with a blood alcohol level of only about 0.02; in reality, they are discussing someone who died from cancer despite very low levels of leukemia being detected.

Mother informs me via translation that we are only having cheese and corn for dinner and knows that I will be disappointed with the meal’s modesty, rejuvenating a running joke from my previous visit concerning my consumption of 2-3 plates of chicken and rice (accepting seconds only because they were offered) and my professed love for a grain that is ubiquitous in Ecuador, eaten every day, especially by the poor or those on a budget because of its availability, yet treated by me as a luxury. All this gluttony after eating appetizers of soup and an entire crab, which is considered an extravagance, incorporated into the meal only because of the illustriousness of the occasion – the meeting of the two families. I remember the crab sitting petrified on the plate in its most preserved form, like an interactive museum artifact, presented as a puzzle without any utensils or silverware for cracking it open. My blood family swapped eyes and brows about how exactly to go about eating the thing. The crab’s eyeballs protruded from its head on stalks, intact, staring hazily in the style of dreamers and the dead, so my brother and I ripped them off with our fingers and began to throw them covertly at one another, while my parents sat frozen in polite terror – museum artifacts themselves – residing in the tension of Southern eating etiquette tugging at their left and American aversion to food resembling its original form tugging evenly at their right. After failing to break the crab legs properly with my bare hands, I observed the tactics of the indigenous family, and then employed my molars, learning that they do serve a purpose. I spent the next fifteen minutes vigorously transforming the crab from an intact artifact into a discarded exoskeleton. Because I could not use language, I used my appetite – which was much talked about, made fun of, genuinely appreciated – for initiation into the family.

So thus the humor surrounding dinnertime and my presence at the table on Mother’s Day eve. We shift to the main room while waiting on the food to be prepared, and there the son presents me with a fan of six bootleg DVDs to choose from for entertainment – the majority of the films’ plots based on video games. I choose The Fast and the Furious 5, because it seems the most endurable, and I can always fall back on making fun of Paul Walker’s acting as my own petty form of entertainment if the entertainment itself fails me. I politely watch ten minutes of footage involving car chases and harpoon firing and Vin Diesel speaking Dieselish before asking my brother if we can’t go for a stroll instead, considering we’re in the Andes and the mountains aren’t exactly an everyday habitat for me. He mentions it to Mother, and we all gather light jackets before stepping out into incredibly breathable air. Mother leads the way up the road, accompanied by the blood son, the adopted son, the distant son, and Bongo after much verbal encouragement. The distant son remains distant, marveling at pigs and motor oil from behind a camera lens, often observing the gait of the other three from behind, photographing each memorable moment while still partaking in it, like a wedding photographer who happens to be the groom’s brother. During our walk I speak to ten different species of animals, unintentionally reunite with HoboTruck – identity confirmed by my brother (apparently his indigenous friends live on this particular mountain), taste eucalyptus and other medicinal herbs that Mother picks off the vine for us to chew, encounter at least three different recreational volleyball matches, view a panorama with houses dilapidated, yet beautiful, surrounded by foliage in the foreground so lush and effortless it could induce supplicated weeping to the Virgin Mother Nature and a view in the distance of thousands of humble homes kneeling at the altar of mountains with their heads in the clouds – a view that will instill in you a longing far surpassing that for your mythic childhood – all of this crowned by a sun frozen between theistically dark, nimbostratus clouds in that moment of turning off an archaic cathode ray TV when the screen flashes an isolated slit of brilliance in the middle before blanking uniformly. I leave the path and dirty my sneakers only to have them scrubbed clean by leaves of grass on the trek back to the house, one of the first times I’ve felt on top of the world while actually inhabiting that position.

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HoboTruck

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As we re-enter the house, Father arrives home for dinner, lugging a plastic bottle of cola as a kind of simultaneous necessity and ceremonial initiation for the meal. I take a seat next to my brother at the table because he will be necessary for comprehension if the rest of the family decides to incorporate me into the conversation. In the universal form of hospitality, guests are served at the table. Mother has surprised me and has instructed the cook to prepare beef and vegetables with rice – in addition to the maize and cheese – for my benefit, loading my plate and then smiling knowingly and reloading the plate when I tell her I’m full. I love the meal and devour it, tending to always devour what I love. The pace of the meal is quicker than I’ve grown accustomed to in Ecuador, because there is a tacit understanding that the world will continue as it always has tomorrow, perhaps even more importunately – and that my brother and I are not actually family members and must therefore leave the house and pick our way back home through a city that boasts extra dimensions of unpredictability at night. Goodbyes are pleasant but briefer than the greetings; I thank the family in ways that I can manage. My brother is fond of their company, but has no desire to challenge the nighttime authority of criminals in Quito, so we exit the doorway quickly without really looking back.

I do perform a good deal of looking around during our descent, though, as if inhaling in a panic the final breaths I know I won’t be able to take under the water’s surface. My brother walks a hundred meters downhill on the path ahead of me, and I continue to tread steadily, knowing that I can’t always keep up with him – nor do I need to, descending as the sun flickers, attempting to locate the path’s final stones with my feet and reach the road below before the sun burns out altogether. In the mountains – now behind me – beacons of light communicating the arrival of peace are ignited, waiting to be engulfed in the light of morning. And, glowing in the dark somewhere in the city on a laptop computer screen, our own mother’s profile awaits her sons’ virtual arrival.

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