A Christmas Story
Updated: Dec 25, 2020
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 other delays inherent in the culture. My routine consisted of leaving the little hotel room to walk the streets of the beautiful 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 I only gathered two words - "niños" and "nueve". Since we'd never spoken, she of course would assume 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 the 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 spotted 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. That day, I had been invited to an expat party to watch the “Pase del Niño Viajero”, a massive festival and parade featuring children in Biblical costumes that engulfed the entire city. It turned out to be a beautiful spectacle that lasted all day. When I got back to the hotel that evening, the owner rambled a fast discourse to me, of which again she emphasized “nueve” and also mentioned “niños”. She was quite 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 hear heavy rain hitting the windows. I felt bad physically, but also some relief that if it were a parade it was now rained out. I had trouble getting moving, finally getting into the shower about 9 or so. At 9:30, there was a knock on my door and the nicely dressed hotel owner was pointing at her watch and staring at me sternly. Did I mention she was stern?
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. I sheepishly squeezed into the back seat and rode with the owner and her adult son, the only sound 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 waited. Shortly after, a 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 completely out of place, I spotted a crazy, middle eastern, onion domed castle on a hillside across the valley. My mind began to wonder.
Eventually we worked our way up to the crest of a steep hill and turned sharply into a driveway. The house was a partially constructed concrete home with a stellar view of a valley and mountains. Outside sat a few of the family, while a big brick and clay oven spewed the smell of smoke and 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 talking anyway. I gleaned that the pig was roasted for 5 hours. Beside the oven, there 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 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 felt like a fish out of water in a family gathering where no one spoke a smidgen of English and I was quite the enormous gringo rarity. Mama was busy in the kitchen, but welcomed me and demanded 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 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 had made a lunch meal just for the three of us and 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 me, but mama insisted the daughter rewash mine immediately. They then poured me an inch or two of the milky brown liquid and all watched me intently. Under the eyes of my hosts, I could smell the odd aroma of the concoction, but as I sipped it, it was sweet and had a kick. They smiled and someone said it was "caña", a homemade “Cuencan whiskey" as one said, a potent liquor made from sugar cane. I downed it and it was quite good. They continued watching to see my reaction. I smiled and said "Muy bien, rico suave!" 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 a bit strong, the warm rush and relaxed feel with a mild swimming head. All I can say is that was some very strong “caña”!
After the meal, the few families that had gathered outside began frantic activity. The children were dressed in costumes of Biblical characters, angels and as local adults. I realized they were part of an upcoming parade and one of the adults said "Pase del Niño”. I realized we were going to the local town to repeat the parade I'd seen in Cuenca the previous day.
I waited outside, looking at the beautiful vista of the valley below while chickens and chicks scrambled in the yard and amidst the coffee plants and 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 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 with a big smile, holding three more of the large bottle rocket type fireworks, the long, split cane tails of them in his left hand.
The gathering at the house grew as time went past, maybe 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 seat. 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 cranky and crying, dressed in its little white angel robe. I held her tiny halo and set of wings for the mom, as we sat waiting for the other trucks to leave with the family members aboard, all standing in the beds and holding onto steel side rails.
Finally our turn came and we 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 girl immediately exposing her breast for the baby against my arm. I looked away as quickly as possible, but it really didn't matter as the mother looked at me and smiled. I was part of the family.
I watched out the dirty windshield to the slurps and sounds of a suckling child next to me, fanning 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 town below, like streams flowing into a river, other trucks and families joined the line from side roads, heading for the iglesia below. We finally stopped at the church, the first and only ones there. The kids and family piled off the trucks excitedly for pictures, the older ones standing 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 follow dutifully in the heat of the sun. Along our way, two other young teenage girls joined from the sidewalk. One was probably 14 or 15 and carrying a baby girl, 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 young mother, who was very shy and embarrassed, surprised and uncomfortable to see a big gringo and then have to interact. 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, then joined the now 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 and I sat in a chair in the back, watching the children’s fascination with each other's costumes as the families arrived. Here and there, a dog would wander in and take its place on the floor as the metal building filled up for the service.
I eventually gave up my chair for a mother with family and stood at the back, to the serious and un-ending gaze of some of the older men around me. My splitting headache, probably from the sugar cane moonshine, eventually drove me across the street 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 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.
One young girl of nine or so came to me and stood looking up, staring intently at me. Her beautiful face was accented by a deep scar under her chin. Her gaze didn't retire or weaken, unsure whether to return my smile or not. She left her position in front of me as the service ended and the people flowed out. Smile after smile came my way, something I wasn't used to and did not expect in a small town unused to seeing Americans.
Our little family group reassembled for the trip back up the mountain, followed by the other vehicles. When we arrived, a large number of locals were already there and waiting in the back yard of the house.
I wandered about until the nephew who'd been roasting the pig motioned to me and said "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 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. I smiled, but inside thought “Oh God, no!”, remembering the punch of just the small amount they'd given me at lunch, but they were determined and poured me a full glass… not a small shot glass, but a full sized glass. I couldn't help but notice they poured themselves about 1/4 what they poured me. They were very happy and proud and 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 a brief vision of a big drunken gringo, dressed in ribbons with some papier-mâché head attached and being beaten with sticks by children who chased me around to the sounds of laughter of the adults in some unknown Ecuadorian ritual…
Nonetheless, not wanting to offend my gracious hosts, I downed my glass as they watched happily. Much to my pleasure, a call came that we needed to come down to the yard below. I had almost reached the bottom step of the steep concrete staircase, when I almost reached the bottom step. The “caña” had done its quick magic as it had at lunch, and a wave of lightheadedness had hit me at the bottom of the staircase. Luckily, my hosts (captors?) were a few steps ahead and did not have to witness me missing the last step. I suppose if someone had seen me, it would've been very 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 apparently, and it was his truck I was leaning against which sported some motorcycle related stickers and the discussion began. He understood my attempt to communicate my travel story and showed him a picture of my big BMW GSA. A two man party broke out and he told me he raced motocross and 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 him, one step at a time. Rounding the corner to the backyard area behind the house, there 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 totally in shock, certainly not knowing anyone and certainly not knowing anyone well enough to be held in an embrace. Needless to say I was once again the center of attention for all 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, as that might explain the embrace as well as the stares from the people.
As this was happening, a young man came and sat at the feet of the older lady next to me, followed by another 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. At the same time the woman next to me was suddenly swarmed with people loving on and hugging her. It was the same group of people who'd arrived at the church in the van. They were adults and children with severe mental and emotional deficiencies and very childlike. I looked at the woman next to me covered in them and smiled. As she eventually shooed them away, she smiled and said something about "fundacione". I smiled back and said "trabajo dificile" to which she nodded. The woman who'd hugged me stood between us like a little girl despite her age which was probably in her 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 and 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 were to be a meal for the poor. I stared at the sky and thanked God for his hand of provenance that I was able to be part of this moment.
The crowd grew and as the owner of the home began announcing the games for the children, 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'm not going to lie, it was every thing I could do not to shed a tear. Something about the day had struck me hard, 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 I could feel strong emotions deep inside.
I watched as the children were called up to play various games and receive little toys and bags of candy. They were as excited to receive them as I'd ever seen. The day went on as I watched and thought of how blessed my life is, and even more that I could be a part of something so simple and so deep. One moment lying in a hotel room by myself, 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 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.
I squeezed inside the house and watched as each child or special adult came in and was given an inexpensive plastic toy. Some would come to me 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 and one of the little girls grabbed my hand. She couldn't speak, 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.
Then, as if God said to look deeper and harder, the woman-child who'd hugged me earlier, along with her friend, ran across the yard and sat directly in front of me on a tire. I watched as her friend held her little doll in total love, rocking it like a baby constantly and staring deeply as if it was real. They were engulfed in joy at each of the little dolls they'd been given.
The Christmas fiesta continued as the roast pig was carried into the home and set in the kitchen. The crowd outside sat in the evening mist of a darkening sky. The mother insisted I sit in the home at the table, with the hotel owner and her son, as well as the young man and his wife, whom I later found out ran the foundation for the challenged. It was an undeserved honor and I didn't want it, as they brought the first of the pig to us, delicious pieces of the crispy roasted skin with the shallow layer of fat beneath, atop slabs of butter-soft pork with rice, potatoes, yucca and more. I sat there frustrated 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 smiled, holding little Jasmine up each time I looked her direction. Behind her, the worn and weathered parents and sister would smile. Many times that afternoon, she had stood looking at me in front of 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 no father or future. A gringo who was kind had probably fanned flames in the family that maybe he would be her ticket out, a ray of hope for their daughter.
The evening 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. I came back in and sat with my hosts and hotel owners at the main table. She asked me in Spanish something about Feliz Navidad. I looked at her son who said "She is asking, if in the US you celebrate Christmas like this, feeding the poor?" I swallowed hard and hated my answer with a passion. "No", I responded, “we usually just celebrate with our family and exchange gifts.” I felt 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.
As it came time to leave, I went into the home to thank all the people who had graciously treated me like family and as royalty. Stepping out into the night and 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 hopeful look. Though it was dark, I could see her family standing under a tree in the shadows, hopefully watching. I smiled, touched the baby’s hair and said “Si."
It was very hard to just smile and slowly walk away. It was a day of many emotions.
My Christmas day in Ecuador will not be forgotten. I was given a gift I did not deserve.
But then, I guess that is the message of Christmas.