People Watching

Jeannine Contreras - Ecuador


March 16, 2018

Since as early as I can remember I have been fascinated by people watching. I never intend to do it, never purposefully set out to turn strangers into curiosities, pieces of art that I puzzle over long after they’ve faded from my view and yet time and time again that is what I find myself doing. So I thought I’d share a few of the instances where I found myself people watching in Ecuador.  
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It’s her stillness that catches my eye.
 Around her the marketplace swirls, vendors call out their products, people walk to and fro going to unknown places, with unknown people, buses and cars race down the street but she stands still. A rock in the middle of a swirling river. 
Her red sweater is what keeps my gaze on her. It seems almost too real and too bright, shifting the background into a haze of unreality. It’s as if someone has focused a camera turning everything but her into an unfocused blur. 
She looks like a renaissance painting. Serene and a little sad, a study of everyday humanity. Beautiful in a jarring way, unexpected but once noticed unable to be forgotten. She has her arms crossed and her head tilted slightly to the ground eyes on the white sheet which protects the shoes she selling from the dirt on the ground. Next to her, a vendor calls out the prices for shirts – 5 dollars per shirt. She is silent, her gaze unwavering from its chosen spot. 
Our minds are the only places we can go and no one can follow. Solitary places, designed by ourselves alone, our thoughts, our choices, our wishes, our fears, intimate and sacred. At that moment I would have given anything to be able to peer into her mind, to see what she saw, to see that thought that had turned her from person to art.     
She fades from view as I walk past.
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The sun is setting. 
 I’m on the city bus, a bright blue giant with hard unforgiving seats. The setting sun gives everything a sated sleepy quality. I feel full with a quiet joy, a little melancholic in the knowledge that the end of this piece of my life is coming soon but even that seems beautiful in the dying light. The bus slides to a stop a bit jerkily like a ship on choppy waves. 
The bus is boarded by three pirates. 
They look young, and half-wild – familiar with long nights on cold benches and stomachs that won’t stop singing with hunger – they look happy and free. They head to the back one woman and two men, one of them clutches a bottle of alcohol. In the back, they chatter, not loudly but the bus was almost silent before them, they fill up the bus with the sound of life and reckless youth but a while later they too have subsided into silence, pulled in by the sleepy atmosphere of the dark bus. Suddenly a voice swoops into the silence.
“Anoche soñe que me bañaba en el ríooo”
There is a silence after that. It was one of the pirates, singing from the back of the bus not for money but for the joy of making noise to change the silence. He sings again.
“Anoche soñe que me bañaba en el ríooo”
In that sleepy, choppy bus his voice sounds prophetic and primal as if his very bones recognized the truth of what he was singing, the honesty of it. Outside my window the city passes by, flickering lights and a dying sun. 
As they get off the bus he sings one last time, a goodbye. 
“Anoche soñe que me bañaba en el ríooo” 
For a moment I see his flickering dream. A river, clear and clean, rushing down quickly but gently. The way the water slipped through fingertips taking away the dirt and heat, leaving only the joy of transient water, clean and crisp.
They got off the bus and I saw no more. 
That night I dreamed of an echoing voice singing again and again.
“Anoche soñe que me bañaba en el ríooo” 
I stand in the middle of a river, alive and on fire with joy.  
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At first, I thought he was the bus drivers helper. He stood at the back of the bus telling people how many seats were available and directing them to sit. As the bus pulled out of the terminal he walked towards the front and began, with all the flourish of a game show host, to speak.
“Señoras y Señores, disculpen la molestia….” he went on giving the usual apologies bus salesmen give to passengers. Most people on the bus looked out the window or watched with bland indifference. The heat made people lethargic and irritated. The crowded bus and felt seats made the bus all the more suffocating. 
I tuned out his words – I didn’t mind the people that came on the bus, to sell or sing or beg, but hated when they apologized – but I couldn’t stop looking at his hands. Large and expressive, the way he moved them was measured, as if he had practiced these gestures as if he had said these words on so many buses that it had become a script he could act out perfectly. 
I tuned back into his voice as he began to tell a story. 
It’s a common story told by many people who get on buses to sell or sing or beg.
Columbia, a life, a family, a future, derailed by poverty and an unstable government. The man was forced to flee when men with guns made it clear that the options were an uncertain future in a different country or a certain death. A difficult life but the need to continue, the need to provide for those left behind left the man no choice but to do what he could. Selling candy on crowded, overheated buses. He told the story well, with an actors grace. When he finished he began to pass out the candy he was selling with a smile a used car salesman would be jealous of. 
As he did this the bus flooded with people, packed to the entrance with people standing up and down the narrow walkway. The man continued amidst the silent but rising tide of irritation. He was friendly and playfully cajoling those who wouldn’t take the candy from his outstretched hand, his smile didn’t slip. As he got to the back of the bus one particularly disgruntled passenger threw out an elbow and caught the man in the gut. He bent over from the blow but laughed it off immediately, I wasn’t close enough to hear but I saw him talk quickly but calmly and shake the passenger’s hand.
As I got off the bus he was once again standing at the front of the bus. He was speaking but I couldn’t seem to hear a word, all I could see was his wide, wide, smile.

Jeannine Contreras