A few days previous to Christmas, the girl who works hard at the hotel came up to me and spent a good non-stop 5 minutes of Spanish, pointing and waving in her discourse. It was so fast and long I only gathered two words - "niños" and "nueve". Okay. 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 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 girl did the same thing and my stress returned. Then the owner repeated a similar thing that night, and I only recognized "nueve". Well crap, so I figured I'd better be ready for something at nine. That night my constant head and chest congestion from the diesel pollution worsened and I got littl sleep, groggily rising around 8:30 to hear rain outside the windows. I rationalized that they were speaking of another children's parade beginning at nine and I figured it was a rain out. I was very tired and a bit sick, and really had trouble getting moving, finally got into the shower about 9 or so. At 9:30 there was a knock on my door and the nicely dressed owner was pointing at her watch, indicating we were late.
I'm the type guy who's always early and the one time I drag my feet I get caught. I frantically grabbed a couple of things and went down to the car and rode with the owner and her adult son, only the sound of Ecuadorian pop music in the radio.
After about an hour and a half, we turned off onto a side road and waited, when shortly after a pickup pulled next to us, carrying the hotel maid. We followed them and in a moment, the truck turned off onto a steep dirt road the width of a dozer blade, intersecting with others as we climbed into the mountains. Completely out of place, we spotted a crazy, middle eastern, onion domed castle on another hillside. My mind began to wonder.
Eventually we squeezed our way up to a crest and turned sharply into a driveway, the house being a partially constructed concrete home with a stellar view. Outside sat a few of the family, and 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, informing me that the pig roasted for 5 hours. Beside the oven sat an old darkroom timer that went off with a buzz every three minutes, to which they'd leap up and drag the pig tray out, spin it 180 and push it back in. I was informed this had to be done every three minutes for the first 2 hours before letting it roast the last three. Holy crap, and they took the job seriously.
As I was introduced to the family, I felt like a fish out of water in a family gathering where no one spoke a smidgen of English and I was a rarity. The 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 people arriving. As I watched, a meal was brought to the table of freshly cooked chicken from the yard, yellow rice and potatoes, "mote", a corn similar to hominy in the US, fresh bananas and soda. The food was delicious and while I sat, an old milk jug with brown liquid was pulled from the frig and placed on the table. Glasses were produced for me but mama insisted the daughter rewash mine immediately. They poured me a inch or two of the milky brown liquid and watched me. It smelled a bit odd but was sweet and potent. Homemade "caña", "Cuencan whiskey" as one said, potent liquor from sugar cane. I downed it and it was quite good. They watched to see my reaction and 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 10 minutes the effect came on a bit strong, the warm rush and relaxed feel with a mild swimming head. Man was that strong stuff :D
After the meal, the families that had gathered began frantic activity as the children were dressed in costumes of Biblical characters, angels and locals. I realized they were part of an upcoming parade and one of the adults said "Pase de Los Niños" and I realized we were going to the local town to repeat the parade I'd seen in Cuenca the previous day. I stood outside looking at the beautiful vista of the valley below as chickens and chicks scrambled in the yard and amidst the cacao trees, coffee plants and banana trees of the steep hillside below the house. Behind me I heard the loud rush of a fireworks rocket, to be followed by the loud boom so infamous in Latin America for occurring at all times to the day and night. Above me the small brown cloud signaled to the locals a celebration was occurring and I turned to see the father with a big smile and holding three more, the long split cane tails in his hand.
The gathering grew as time went past, maybe from the fireworks signal, then a family member indicating to hurriedly get into the cars as it was time to leave. I piled back in the tiny Chevy Tracker with the owner and son in the front seat and one of the daughters with her baby and another relative. It was hot as we sat, the baby cranky and dressed in its little white angel robe. I held the tiny halo and set of wings as we sat waiting for the other trucks to leave with the family members aboard.
Finally we lurched up the steep and tiny dirt road, behind the little Nissan flatbed pickups loaded with grandfather, grandmother, family members holding babies and children in costume. 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. 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 with the tiny angel wings of its 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, brushing branches on the tiny road. A memory burned into the channels of my mind.
As we finally neared the town below, like streams into a river other trucks and families joined the line heading for the iglesia below. We stopped at the church, the only ones there, and the kids and family piled off excitedly for pictures, the families standing in the shade on the side of the church.
Eventually the little group headed down the dusty street alone, me following dutifully in the heat of the sun. Along the way, two other girls joined from the sidewalk, one probably 16 and carrying a little girl, shading her from the sun with a scarf. As I walked by them I smiled and asked the baby girl's name. "Jasmine" was the response with a shy smile and embarrassment from the mother.
I had begun to wonder if our little group was the entire parade, but rounding a curve there were several groups coming towards us in the heat. We paused until they arrived, then joined the procession back to the church plaza.
Inside, everyone sat down in preparation for the service and I sat in a chair in the back, watching the children who were fascinated with each other's costumes as families arrived. Here and there, a dog would wander in and take its place on the floor as the metal building filled up.
I eventually gave up my chair for a mother with family and stood at the back, to the serious, un-ending gaze of some of the older men. My splitting headache, probably from the sugar cane moonshine, 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 rhythm of rituals.
As I stood at the entrance with a small crowd, a small van arrived, dispersing a bunch of young and older people who joined us at the doorway. They looked weathered and different, some apparently with physical issues and 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. 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 accented by a deep scar under her chin. Her gaze didn't retire, torn whether to return my smile back to me or not. She left her position as the service ended and the people flowed out. Smile after smile came my way, something I wasn't used to and would not expect in a small town unused to Americans.
Our little group reassembled for the trip back up the mountain, followed by other vehicles. When we arrived, a great 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 came to me and said "arriba", then took me upstairs to the balcony which had a stunning view. There sat his uncle and a couple other men, on the table before them the old milk jug filled with caña, and some glasses. Yep, they were smiling and excited that I'd liked their liquor and were going to make sure I got my fill. Dear God no!, I thought, remembering the strength of the small amount they'd given me at lunch, but they were determined and poured me a full glass. I got the whole thing down, and was rescued by a call from the yard below that the fiesta was beginning.
The nephew had some motorcycle related stickers on his car as we walked past and the discussion began. He understood my attempt to communicate my travel story and showed him a picture of the big BMW GS. 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 an exact copy and we laughed as he pointed here and there on his body indicating injuries. He showed how much he enjoyed the jumps with sign language of a hand launching into the air and chuckled as did I. 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.
Rounding the corner behind the house, there now sat over one hundred people, all lining the perimeter in chairs. I decided to hang near the house corner to remain obscure, but the owner of the house brought out a chair in a prominent place and insisted I sit. Reluctantly I did, and as I sat as 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.
Not long after, a couple of women brought chairs and sat near me. A moment later I was engulfed by a big, long hug from behind and was surprised to look into the face of a pretty woman behind me with a big, sweet smile. It was a bit weird, as I had no idea what was going on and the people were all staring at us. I had no idea if she was a local prostitute or something, since she was older and the long, embracing hug from a total stranger seemed pretty odd.
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 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, and I realized she was just very sweet and childlike in her understanding. Her long hug was just saying hello.
It was now 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 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 damn 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 what's important in life. I don't know.
I watched as the children were called up to play various games and receive little toys and bags of candy, 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 two hours later engulfed by strangers and love who had so little to give and yet so much.
The time came for presents to be given and a line was formed outside the house. I squeezed inside and watched as each child or special adult came in and received a toy, precious to them as anything. They would come and show me their plastic dump truck or doll and smile in disbelief. Dammit it was hard. I walked out and one of the girls grabbed my hand. She couldn't talk but could smile and she did, beaming and showing me her doll for a long time, squeezing my fingers and staring in my eyes. I just wanted to run, and made my way to the edge of the yard to stare into the valley below. Maybe being alone made the emotional experience that much harder. Then, as if God said to look deeper and harder, the woman child who'd hugged me hard at the beginning and her friend, who could do nothing but hold her doll and rock it constantly, came to where I was and sat in front of me, engulfed in joy with their dolls.
The Christmas fiesta continued, as the roast pig was carried into the house and set in the kitchen, while the 200 or so 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, the man who ran the foundation for the challenged and his wife. 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 roasted skin with the shallow layer of fat beneath, atop slabs of butter soft pork and rice, potatoes, yucca and more. I sat there frustrated as I watched the home owner and others wait for us, the people who'd worked so hard and were such incredible people honoring me, who did nothing. I ate as fast as I could so that they wouldn't wait and finally they began serving everyone outside.
I wanted to be out in the yard and left the table to get some air. Outside, the young girl whom I'd seen at the parade with her baby girl Jasmine, stood by her family and smiled, holding little Jasmine up each time I looked her direction. Behind her, her worn and weathered parents and sister would smile brightly. Many times that afternoon, she had stood looking at me in front of her parents, holding her child and quickly trying to get the baby to look my way.
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 a child and no father or future, and a gringo who was kind had fanned flames in the family that maybe he would be her way out, a ray of hope for their daughter. As it came time to leave, she came to me in the darkness and said "Estados Unidos?" with a hopeful look. I smiled, patted the baby and said "si". I could see her family watching on the road in the dark. It was very hard to just smile and slowly walk away. It was a day of many emotions.
The evening continued as the locals ate and began to disappear, 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 said, mainly everyone has a party with their friends and family and exchange presents with each other. I felt defensive, even though it was just a conversational question with no sense of anything else. I wanted desperately to tell her I'd worked with the homeless, that people did feed and help others, but it seemed pathetic.
Outside in thought, I just accepted that my Christmas' had never been about others, really.
The hotel maid, who seemed the sole employee of the hotel and always was working, cleaning and myriad other things, had been so instrumental in the day, so caring and working so hard with the children, the meal and the entire fiesta. I could see her love and excitement for the people and what her family was doing for them. I watched her, impressed with the care and love on a day devoted to others. I thought of how easily she could have been just another forgotten hotel employee in a little hotel I'd never remember, one of the faces forgotten or ignored due to stations in life or any myriad reason. Instead, I got to see a life lived with the best of heart, hidden to the rest of the world.
My Christmas Day in Ecuador will never be forgotten. It was a gift I did not deserve, which is the real message of Christmas.