A Christmas Story
Updated: Dec 28, 2021
12.25.2017 I’d been stranded in Cuenca, Ecuador for almost the entire month of December, staying in a hotel and waiting for parts to repair my motorcycle, concurrent with the holiday season and delays inherent in the culture. I was under much stress, watching my timeline to beat the snow at the southern tip of the continent slip away, unsure as to whether the motorcycle could be repaired - if not, my trip was finished and if so, would it be reliable for the rest of my trek? I could do little to affect an outcome and buried myself in a routine of leaving the tiny hotel room to walk the streets of the city, shooting photos and grabbing a coffee or lunch in one of the little shops around town.
A few days previous to Christmas, the hard-working maid at the hotel came up to me and peeled off a non-stop 5 minute diatribe in Spanish, pointing and waving in her discourse. It was so fast and long that I only gathered two words - "niños" and "nueve". Since we'd never spoken, she of course assumed I spoke Spanish... I mean, what sort of fool would ride a motorcycle through South America that didn't? Smiling and nodding like Jethro from the Beverly Hillbillies probably didn't help.
I mulled it over a day or two and figured she might be talking about an upcoming parade in Cuenca. A day or so later she repeated the discourse and then I began to wonder if she was warning me that the hotel would be closed for Christmas. I located the hotel owner's son, Marco, who spoke a little English and asked him if they were closing for the holiday but he assured me no. Relief.
Christmas eve morning, the maid again gave me a brief, machine gun fast conversation and my stress level increased. I'd been invited to an expat party that same day to watch the “Pase del Niño Viajero”, a massive festival and parade featuring children in Biblical costumes that engulfed the entire city. At the party, I'd slipped away from the balcony view and disappeared into the crowds for the experience rather than observation. It turned out to be a beautiful spectacle that lasted all day. Back at the hotel that evening, the owner rambled a fast discourse to me, of which again she emphasized “nueve” and also mentioned “niños”. She was stern and serious, so I figured I'd better be ready for something at nine in the morning. I assumed it was yet another children’s parade or something.
That night my constant head and chest congestion from the diesel pollution worsened. I got very little sleep, groggily waking around 8:30 am to the sound of heavy rain hitting the windows. I felt bad physically and didn't want to get up, taking some comfort in the fact that maybe the event planned for the day had been rained out and I could just stay in bed. I had trouble getting going, finally rolling into the shower about 9 or so. At 9:30, there was a knock on my door and the well dressed hotel owner was pointing at her watch and staring at me sternly.
Now, I’m the type of guy who's always early and the one time I drag my feet, I get caught. I frantically grabbed a couple of things and ran down to the little SUV idling in the courtyard. Sheepishly I squeezed into the back seat and rode with the owner and her adult son, the only sound in the car being Ecuadorian pop music on the radio. The emotional silence was deafening however, so I sat ashamedly and stared out the window.
After about an hour and a half, we turned off onto a dirt side road in the mountains and parked. Moments later a small pickup pulled up next to us, carrying the hotel maid who rolled down her window and spoke to us. We followed them and in a moment, the truck turned off onto a steep dirt road about the width of a bulldozer blade. We climbed higher into the mountains on the rough and narrow red dirt scrape. Out the window and out of place, I spotted a crazy, middle-eastern, onion domed castle on a hillside across the valley. My mind began to wonder...
Our two car caravan worked its way up to the crest of a steep hill and finally turned sharply into a driveway. The house was a partially constructed concrete home with a stellar view of a valley and mountains below. Outside sat a few of the family, while a big brick and clay oven spewed smoke and the smell of something roasting. The "something" turned out to be a whole pig.
The uncle and son manning the operation spoke no English, but we had fun communicating anyway. I gleaned that the pig was to be roasted for 5 hours. Beside the oven sat an old darkroom timer that went off with a buzz every three minutes, at which point they'd leap up and drag the large tray with the pig on it out of the oven, spin it 180 degrees and shove it back in. I was informed this turning had to be done every 3 minutes for the first 2 hours, before letting it roast unmoved for the last 3. They took the job very seriously.
As I was introduced to the family inside the house, I immediately felt like a very large fish out of water in a family gathering where no one spoke English and I was quite the enormous gringo rarity. Mama was busy in the kitchen, but welcomed me and insisted I sit at the family table rather than outside in the plastic chairs with the growing company of locals who were arriving.
As I watched, a hot meal of freshly cooked "free range"chicken from their yard, yellow rice and potatoes, "mote", a corn similar to hominy in the US, fresh bananas and soda was brought to our table. They'd made a lunch meal just for the hotel owner, her son and myself. We were treated with honor. The food was delicious, then an old milk jug with brown liquid was pulled from the refrigerator and placed on the table. Glasses were produced for us, but mama insisted the daughter rewash mine immediately. I watched as they poured me an inch or two of the milky brown liquid, eyes watching me intently. I could smell the odd aroma of the concoction, but as I sipped it, the flavor was sweet with a swift kick in the pants. They smiled at my nod of approval and someone said it was "caña", homemade “Cuencan wheeski" another said, a potent liquor made from sugar cane. I downed the musty and earthy concoction while they continued to watch my reaction. Through the burn, I smiled and said "Muy bien, rico suave!" to their big smiles. I was later to find out that was a mistake, but it was very good indeed. In less than 5 minutes the effect came on strong, with a flush and swimming head. All I can say is that was some very strong “caña”!
After the lunch meal, the few families that had gathered outside began frantic activity. The children were dressed in costumes of Biblical characters, angels and even as local adults. It was apparent they were part of an upcoming parade and one of the adults said "Pase del Niño”. I realized we were going to the nearby village to repeat the parade I'd seen in Cuenca the previous day.
I stood outside and waited, taking in the beautiful vista of the valley below, while chickens and chicks scrambled in the yard and amidst the coffee plants, banana and cacao trees on the steep hillside below the house. Behind me, I heard the loud rush of a fireworks rocket, followed by the loud boom so famous or infamous in Latin America for occurring at all times of the day and night. I turned and above saw the small brown cloud of the rocket's explosion. It was a signal to the locals and I could see the father of the house with a big smile, holding three more of the large bottle rocket type fireworks with long, split cane tails in his left hand.
The gathering at the house grew as time past, possibly from the fireworks signal. Then a family member indicated for all of us to hurriedly get into the cars since it was time to leave. I piled into the back seat of the tiny Chevy Tracker with the owner and her son in the front. Crammed next to me was one of the daughters with her newborn baby and another relative filling the other side of the seat. It was hot as we sat packed together in the back seat. The baby was cranky and crying, dressed in its little white angel robe. In my hand I held her tiny plastic halo and a set of wings for the mother. We sat waiting for the other trucks to leave with the family members aboard, who were standing in the beds and holding onto steel side rails.
Finally our turn came and the little Tracker lurched up the steep, tiny dirt road behind a little Nissan flatbed pickup loaded with grandfather, grandmother, family members holding babies and children in costumes. Next to me, the baby began to cry, the young mother immediately exposing her breast for the baby against my arm. I looked away as quickly as possible out of respect, but it didn't matter, as the mother looked at me and smiled. I was just part of the family.
I watched out the dirty windshield to the slurps and sounds of a suckling child next to me, fanning both the baby and mother to cool them with the tiny angel wings of her costume in my hand. Ahead, I watched the family group in their robes and attire pitch and sway, standing in the back of the truck as it fought its way in the mud and rough dirt, branches brushing the sides on the narrow road. It was a scene forever burned into the channels of my mind.
As we neared the village below, like streams flowing into a river, other trucks and families joined the line from side roads. Reaching the town, we finally stopped at the iglesia, being the the first and only ones there. Kids and family piled off the trucks excitedly for pictures, while the older adults stood in the shade of the side of the church.
The little group formed up and headed down the dusty street alone, waving for me to join them dutifully in the heat of the sun. Along our way, two young teenage girls joined from the sidewalk. One was probably fourteen, carrying a baby girl and shading her from the sun with a scarf. As I walked next to them, I smiled and asked the baby girl's name. “”Yazmeen” (Jasmine) was the response from the very shy young mother, who was embarrassed, surprised and uncomfortable to both see and interact with a big gringo. She slowed with her friend to make sure I passed them quickly.
I had begun to wonder if our little group was to be the entire parade, but rounding a curve there were several groups coming towards us in the heat. We waited until they arrived, joining us, now a somewhat larger procession back towards the church plaza.
The church was a large metal warehouse, the exterior plastered. Inside, everyone sat down in preparation for the service. I sat in a chair in the back, watching the children’s fascination with each other's costumes as more families arrived. Here and there, a dog would wander in and take its place on the floor as the hot metal building filled up for the service.
I eventually gave up my chair for a mother and family and stood at the back, to the serious and un-ending gaze of some of the older men around me. I had a splitting headache, probably from the sugar cane moonshine, that eventually drove me across the street to a little tienda for a bottle of water in the shade, until the sounds of an Andes flute drew me back to the church and its beginning rhythm of rituals.
An old and beaten Dodge van arrived, dispersing a mix of young and older people who joined us at the doorway. They looked weathered and different, some with physical issues and some with apparent mental deficiencies, but they were attendant to the service.
In front of me and around me, the darkened faces of young women stared, brown eyes peering hard into mine to see what they needed to see. I had no connection, yet was deeply connected somehow.
A young girl of nine or so walked directly to me and stood looking up, staring intently at me. Her pretty face was accented by a deep scar beneath her chin. Her gaze didn't retire or weaken, unsure whether to return my smile or not. She abandoned her position in front of me as the service ended and the people began flowing out. Smile after smile came my way, something I wasn't used to nor did I expect in a small village unused to seeing Americans.
Our little family group slowly reassembled for the trip back up the mountain, followed by the other vehicles we'd followed down. When we arrived at the house, a large number of locals were there and waiting in the back yard.
I wandered about until the nephew who'd been roasting the pig motioned to me and shouted "arriba!” He led me to the front of the house and up a set of steep concrete steps to an open balcony with a stunning view. There sat his uncle and a couple of other men, before them on the table the old milk jug I’d met earlier filled with brown caña, along with some empty glasses. Yes, they were smiling and excited that I'd liked their lunch liquor and were going to make sure I got my fill.
My smile hid my inner thought of “Oh God, no!”, remembering the powerful punch of just the small amount they'd given me at lunch, but they were determined and poured me a full glass… not a shot glass, but a full-sized glass. I couldn't help but notice they only poured themselves about a quarter of what they poured me. They were very happy and proud and loudly toasted “Salud!” I was honored that they were honoring me, and would not have refused their request... however somewhere in my paranoid brain I had visions of a big drunken gringo, dressed in ribbons wearing a papier-mâché head and being chased and beaten with sticks by children to the sounds of laughter of the adults in some unknown Ecuadorian ritual…
Nonetheless, not wanting to offend my gracious hosts, I downed my entire glass as they watched happily. To my rescue, a call came that it was time to come down to the yard below. I had almost reached the bottom step of the steep concrete staircase, when the “caña” caused me to almost reach the bottom step. The demon rum had slammed me with a wave of lightheadedness on the stairs just at the bottom. Luckily, my hosts (or captors?) were a few steps ahead and did not get to witness me missing the last step. I suppose if someone had seen me, it would've been similar to watching a football player catch a pass and lose his balance, trying very hard to run fast enough to catch up with his upper body. I landed on the hood and fender of one of the small pickups and decided to pose there as if in thought, until I felt I could actually walk back down to the yard.
The nephew had come back to check on me, probably hearing the thud of my hood landing, and it was his truck I was leaning against. The truck sported some motorcycle related stickers and the discussion began. I attempted to communicate my travel story and showed him a picture of my big BMW GSA. A two man party broke out and he indicated he raced motocross. The scar comparison began, pulling up his jeans to show a big ankle scar. I pulled my pants leg up to show a similar copy and we laughed as he pointed here and there on his body indicating injuries. In the same way Air Force combat pilots love to show maneuvers with their hands, he showed me his motocross jumps with hand language. I tried to communicate that I raced motocross in the late 70's but I'm not sure he understood. Nevertheless we were instant friends.
He motioned me to come with him, and I slowly and deliberately followed, one step at a time. Rounding the corner to the backyard area behind the house, now sat probably a hundred people, standing, talking, or lining the perimeter in chairs. I decided to stand near the house corner to remain as an obscure observer, but the owner of the house placed a chair in a prominent place and insisted I sit. Reluctantly I did so and became the center of focus for the entire ring of people. I never felt so "gringo" in all my life. Everywhere I looked, the stares were on.
After sitting alone for a while, a few more chairs were brought and placed near me. Shortly after, an older woman came and sat to my right. Not long after she sat down, I was suddenly embraced from behind with a big tight hug from a female. Around my neck and chest were the arms of a woman and I felt her head leaning against mine. I was in shock, not knowing anyone and certainly not knowing anyone well enough to be held in an embrace. Needless to say I was again the center of attention for the locals in the backyard who were really staring now.
For an unknown woman to be holding me so tightly, I made the assumption that maybe she was a local prostitute or something, which might explain the long embrace as well as the stares from the people.
As I was sitting in the embrace, a young man came and sat at the feet of the older lady next to me, followed soon after by a young girl whom I could tell I had mental deficiencies. Just about that time, the girl who was embracing me let go and squeezed past my chair to sit between me and the older woman. Then the older woman next to me was suddenly swarmed with people loving and hugging her. It turned out to be the same group of people who'd arrived at the church in the old beaten van. They were special needs adults and children with mental and emotional deficiencies and were very childlike. I looked at the woman next to me covered in them and smiled at her. She eventually shooed them away, smiled and said something about "fundacione". I smiled back and said "trabajo dificile", to which she nodded agreement. The young woman who'd hugged me stood between us like a little girl, despite her age which was probably in the 30s, and I realized she was just very sweet and childlike in her understanding. Her long hug was just saying hello.
It was now becoming apparent what was happening as more local families arrived, their children excited and expectant. This family I was visiting were hosting a Christmas meal with gifts for the poor local families and the special needs children and adults. The pig roast and giant pots of rice, potatoes, beans and yucca I'd seen were to be a meal for the poor. The realization flushed me with emotion and I looked up at the sky and thanking God that I was able to be part of this moment.
The owner of the home began announcing games for the children, while most of the special needs folks gathered around me and the woman adjacent, engulfing us with arms and sitting around like happy little children. I was touched by the situation around me and I won't lie, it was every thing I could do not to shed a tear. Something about this day had struck me hard and deep and maybe the emotions were a sense of feeling alive and of what's important in life. Maybe it was because I hadn't slept much. I don't know, but all my emotions were on the outside.
I watched as the children were called up to play various games and receive little toys and bags of candy. They were so excited to receive them, it was as if they were the greatest thing ever to happen to them. Maybe it was. I watched and thought of how blessed my life was, even more that I could be a part of something so simple and so powerful. One moment lying in a hotel room by myself, depressed and complaining about my problems and a few hours later engulfed by love and strangers, who had so little to give and yet gave so much.
The time came for the main presents to be handed out and a line was formed outside the house. One by one, the children came in to get a toy, so excited and overwhelmed with joy.
I squeezed inside the house to watch as each child or special adult came in and was given an inexpensive plastic toy. Some would come to me in wonder and show me their plastic dump truck, or little doll, smiling in disbelief. They were so happy.
It was incredibly touching and I felt my throat tightening as I began to choke back tears. I hurriedly walked out to get my composure but one of the little girls grabbed my hand at the door. She couldn't talk, but she could smile and she did, beaming and then showing me her doll for a long time, squeezing my fingers and staring in my eyes. Damn, it was hard. Overcome with emotion, I just wanted to run, quickly making my way to the edge of the yard to stare into the valley below to get my breath back.
Then, as if God said to look deeper and harder, the woman-child who'd embraced me earlier, along with a friend, ran across the yard and sat directly in front of me on a tire. Her friend held her little doll with eyes wide in disbelief, holding it tightly and rocking it like a baby constantly and staring deeply as if it was real. I was forced to watch them so engulfed in joy at so little, and felt the hot tears on my cheeks.
The Christmas fiesta continued as the roast pig was carried into the home and set in the kitchen. The crowd outside sat in the mist of a darkening, evening sky. The mother insisted I sit in the home at the table, with the hotel owner and her son again, as well as a young man and his wife, whom I later found out ran the foundation for the challenged who were with us.
It was an undeserved honor and I didn't want it, as they brought the first of the pig to us, delicious pieces of crispy roasted skin with the shallow layer of fat beneath, atop slabs of butter-soft pork with rice, potatoes, yucca and more. When I realized the home owner and the crowd would not eat until we guests had finished our meal, it was humbling and uncomfortable for me. I ate as quickly as I could, getting up to go outside for some fresh air and because I couldn't stand the idea that all those hungry folks were waiting for us.
Outside, the young girl whom I'd seen at the parade with her baby Jasmine, stood with her family and this time smiling and holding little Jasmine up any time I looked her direction. Behind her, her worn and weathered parents and sister would smile at me as well. Several times that afternoon she had stood looking at me with her parents, holding up her child and quickly trying to get the baby to look my direction.
Her family would light up and smile as well, and it was with a bit of sadness I would wave back. It was apparent the young girl was alone with her child and had no husband or future. A gringo who was kind had probably fanned flames in the family that he might be her ticket out, a ray of hope for their daughter.
The evening festivities continued as the locals ate and family by family began to disappear for their homes, always coming inside to say goodbye and shake everyone's hand, including mine as they left.
I came back inside at dark and sat with my hosts and hotel owners at the main table. The hotel owner said something to me in Spanish about Feliz Navidad. I looked at her son who spoke some English and said slowly "She is asking if in the US you celebrate Christmas like this, feeding the poor?" I swallowed hard and hated myself for the answer I had to give. "No", I responded, “we just celebrate with our family and exchange gifts.” I felt terribly defensive, even though it was just a conversational question. I wanted desperately to tell her all the good things I’d done for people in my life, but it was futile and pointless.
Outside in the evening air and in thought, I had to face the fact that Christmas in my life and in the US was really about ourselves. I thought about the hotel maid where I stayed, whose family was the one hosting and feeding this Christmas event, and how easily overlooked someone like her could be. Yet, here she was joyfully serving and taking care of the people around her, a masterpiece of love.
As it came time to leave, I went into the home to thank all the people who had graciously treated me like family and royalty. Stepping back out into the night and the cool damp air of the mountains, I slowly walked up the driveway towards where the car was parked. The young girl with her baby Jasmine came to me in the darkness and said "Estados Unidos?" with a smile and hopeful look. Though it was dark, I could see her family silhouetted under a tree in the shadows, watching hopefully. I smiled, touched the baby’s hair and said “Si."
The day had been one of strong emotions and I was drained. The young girl's appearance was yet another unexpected moment, one that filled my heart with sadness... sadness as I knew her and her family were hoping for the impossible, sadness for her situation, and sadness because I had no way to help her.
It was very, very hard to do, but I just smiled and slowly walked on past to the car. It was a day of many strong emotions. I stood at the car in the twilight and looked at the golden points of light on hillsides far away and dim stars above me through a whisper thin veil of fog. My Christmas day in Ecuador would never be forgotten.
I was given a gift I did not deserve, but then, I guess that really is the message of Christmas.