Marcello, a driver for hire with a good reputation among the local expat community in the Canoa area, picked Wayne and me up in front of our fractured condos. His older model car, a prized possession typically spit-shine clean, was damaged and still covered in dust from the violent shaker that ripped portions of Ecuador apart. The passenger side backseat window, which was on my right, was shattered and in Ecuadorian practicality (a trait born from necessity that I’ve grown to admire) Marcello had duct-taped the spider-webbed glass back into the metal frame. His efforts were effective, but the trouble was, one could no longer, due to the maze of tape, see out the car’s portal. Frankly though, that’s not such an awful thing for the view these days – it’s of sadness and sadness is everywhere. The window, as Wayne and I were to find out, was a casualty of a much larger catastrophe for our driver. The damage was caused when his home collapsed during the horrific upheaval. His family is now living in one of the many tent cities that have sprung up in the back country, out of sight and I fear soon to become “out of mind”.
Marcello, already familiar with the new hazards of the roads, whisked us away, his foot swiftly alternating between the gas pedal and brake, swerving around blind corners, broken down, abandoned trucks, fallen trees and split asphalt while all the time avoiding the buckles in the pavement. Honestly, I as a wimpy driver would have viewed these new obstacles as nature’s speed bumps, but the road crevasses and V-shaped asphalt mounds didn’t daunt our driver – not in the least.
Wayne and I, white-knuckled and a bit frazzled, were delivered safe and sound to our intended destination, a small pueblo called Rambuche. Rambuche is approximately an hour north of us nestled in the lush, low jungle hill country and was very near the epicenter of the 7.8 earthquake. We came to this small, somewhat invisible community because over the past few years Jan and I have gotten to know a married couple from the village, Mercedes and Luis. And Wayne is close with another man, Jorge, who resides, with his family, also in Rambuche. Jorge, not surprisingly, is related to our road demon, Marcello.
There was no way of informing anyone in the community that we were coming for a visit. In good times, let alone after a major event such as this, there is little to no communication with these small communities, so we just showed up, uninvited, worried sick about our friends. We had no idea if they were okay and how their community fared, and we feared official help would be slow to arrive, which indeed it has been. We were concerned that our friends and their families and neighbors would pretty much be on their own as the resources, understandably, are mainly focused on the larger (therefore seemingly more devastated) communities.
When we stepped out of our informal, unmarked taxi there were hugs followed by English and Spanish words and though un-translated for each other, it didn’t seem to matter, for we came, and they welcomed us. Arms, as they broke free from the hugs, started moving unreservedly in the air in an unofficial but internationally recognized (though still garbled) language, expressing concern for one another and each others’ casas. Once the commotion settled down we tentatively asked if it was okay if we looked around.
Jorge and Luis took us on a tour of their flattened village while Mercedes and the other women, in their outdoor, makeshift community kitchen, started hand mashing deep fat fried plantains into a peanut butter mush which then was sprinkled with cilantro and rolled into a shape that resembled a large Idaho potato with green freckles. This foreign (to me) meal, it turned out, was to be served to Wayne and me when our surveying was complete. I was stunned, for here these women were, their homes laying in ruin, their children sleeping in the dirt and mud and at night their baby’s virgin flesh becoming a mosquito’s dream buffet, and they still possessed the grace to put aside their grief and serve us a lunch. Could I? Would I if the roles were reversed, be capable of such amazing hospitality? I doubt it.
At first, Wayne and I felt awkward about peeking into the teetering, wall-less concrete and bamboo houses, their fluttering curtains dangling out glassless windows, for it was an invasion of strangers’ lives and homes -homes and families made crippled and laid naked, exposed and particularly vulnerable to ogling. We were concerned for we didn’t want to be perceived as two foreign gawkers with cameras flashing for later family slideshows and popcorn.
However, Wayne and I were greeted kindly and encouraged to take pictures as we walked the two narrow, dusty roads that connect the village. Observing the tilting structures with their walls partially tumbled to the ground was disturbing. In fact, many of the houses had the 2nd floor crushing the modest furnishings on the 1st floor making it difficult to grasp what we were seeing and to make sense of the devastation. As we walked along the road, I was secretly longing for Marcello’s car with its eclipsed passenger window for I wanted to be blinded to the sight of these destroyed homes and deny the calculating going on in my mind of the magnitude of what it would take to recover. It was all too overwhelming.
Each male inhabitant we encountered turned from his work to greet us with a warm handshake, a welcoming smile and then a proud, somewhat convoluted explanation as to how they were related to our tour guides. Some of the men and young children joined us on our examination of the pueblo. Others returned to the tearing down of what was once their tiny home. (As a side note, I must come clean. This gringo nodded, pretending to understand the vastness of their family tree as it was being explained to me in Spanish, which to my disgrace, I do not comprehend. But, in my mind, the intricate, interwoven connections seemed more like the entangled jungle engulfing their homes as compared to any tree that I might understand – nothing even close to the North American type of family tree from which I sprout, whose trunk is nearly limbless, and whose few branches that exist often are somewhat disconnected with roots that run shallow.)
I traveled to Rambuche in hopes of figuring out how Jan and I and some of our friends who have so graciously given of their resources, could help our Ecuadorian companions and their families in the rebuilding of their lives and community. What I hadn’t figured on was that they would assist me in reconstructing my faith in the human spirit – a spirit that bands together, (and against all adversity and despite life’s natural and human injustices), picks up a hammer and chisel or plantains and peanut butter and begins the daunting task of carving and mashing in order to create a new life for their families.