November 17th, 2014
If you walk 21.5 kilometers in my shoes, then you shouldprobably also wake up at midnight to take a five-hour car ride south to the province of Loja.
At 5:20am we stepped out of our car and started walking past a church and market that was selling food, hats, clothes, shoes, toys, absolutely anything and everything. We were to follow the Virgen del Cisne through the verdant Andes mountains to a massive Catholic church, where she had been since 4am. Elevation, Incline, and Heat – there’s a lot to learn from such an intense experience.
I remember the journey in three parts.
Part 1: Confusion – The beginning, when I had so many questions about where we were and what exactly we were doing so far away from home. How did so many people know about this? How many miles is 21.5 kilometers? I was surprised by the vendors of ice cream, sombreros, shoes, candy, fruits, and the man who was selling the infamous plant for pain, ortiga. We were still in the early stages of the voyage; everyone was together and we were weaving in and out of other families on a nicely paved road. I was still under the impression that this was being done more out of sport than religion. I had only been exposed to masses making long journeys for their own personal gain rather than a purpose larger than themselves. I was still the newbie who needed nothing, asked for nothing, and needed no one.
After what I believe was five miles, we stopped for lunch. I had gotten a little tired but I regained my energy after a good ol’ seco de pollo (rice and chicken stew). Between not being able to speak the language well and being a generally quiet person sometimes, I had a lot of time to think over the past kilometers. To get the most out of my year here, I was going to have to stop saying “no” to things. Usually I would say I’m pretty reserved and not a big spender. This all changed when I had Ecuadorian cotton candy, a treat I would have never bought in the US. The cotton candy here actually tastes like sugar instead of colored air. Surprisingly, this really changed my view on opening up and trying new things, or even the things I thought I knew but are completely different in Ecuador. As we continued walking, I tried the delicious jugo de coco (coconut juice), fried maduros (plantains), and some more cotton candy.
Part 2: Bonding – As the day got hotter, the incline got steeper as we were getting closer to the cathedral. At one point I found myself falling behind and my muscles were on fire. Carrying the three-year-old on her back, my host mom reached out her hand, took mine, and started recalling all of the babies she had carried on this same journey. I had just become one of them, but I didn’t mind. We were walking through another market and my host sister took one look at me and announced: you’re thirsty. By default, I said I was not but as the water entered my body I realized how parched and borderline-dehydrated I had become. Something that has always amazed me and continues to amaze me is how in tune with other people’s feelings my family is, whether someone is sad or hungry or really happy.
As we were getting closer, there were different virgenes placed in glass cases embedded in the mountain with flowers. Imagine a huge U made by the mountain top; on one side we stoodand on the other we could see the immense cathedral painted blue and white and topped with gold. It was the last leg of the journey. The sun had been covered by clouds, the mountaintop had flattened out, but I still held on to, now, my host sister’s hand as we walked into the city of El Cisne.
Part 3: Awe – As we entered the city, strings of flowers and fruits and pots were strung above us, and there was the Virgen del Cisne with an abundance of flowers all around her, busy restaurants and packed stalls selling everything from sweets to candles to toys. We followed the crowd and entered the Basilica and took our place squeezed in front with other voyagers. I was awestruck at the crowds of people kneel down after such a long journey. At how everyone sang as one. How the old woman who had made most journey without shoes closed her eyes and shook her hands as she prayed with the priest. I was in awe of the intricate beauty of the cathedral. I was in awe of the immense faith I was witnessing, even if it was not my own.