“The geography of Ecuador has always dominated the humans who have come to make their homes on her soil.¨ Albert B Franklin, Ecuador: Portrait of a People
In 1967, the Colombian journalist Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote a little book called Cien Años de Soledad (A Hundred Years of Solitude). Set in the imaginary town of Macondo, Marquez created a novel that would define the Magical Realism style and win him a Nobel Prize in Literature. There are many special things about this novel: the multi-generational story, the fluidity between the real and unreal, the overarching political message and the way it followed Colombian society without ever mentioning the country. Isabel Allende did nearly the same thing in her novel, The House of the Spirits.
There are whole classes taught on Marquez´s Macondo, the creation of a town, a setting that is strong enough and volatile enough to hold generations of a single family and the entire history of a country.
Panecillo feels like my Macondo. Sometimes, usually right when I wake up, I feel like I´ve fallen straight into a magical realism novel.
I wake every morning to the bright gold rooster who struts around our patio, calling out his morning song. While I blink and try to remember where I am, I can hear the fluted, ethereal music that floats through the air as the sun comes up. I had no idea where it came from until today. It is the gas truck, whirring through the town and announcing it’s arrival with a surprisingly sweet song.
Once I am fully awake, I pad my way to our tiny, cramped kitchen where my host mother is boiling the herbs and leaves she uses for our morning tea. She speaks like Ferula, one of the characters in The House of the Spirits. Maybe it´s her Kichwa laced Castellano, but I think it´s more her words. After her mother´s death, she told me, she wanted to throw herself into the grave with her. Often she will look at me and say, ¨La vida es buen duro, no?” Life is very hard. There is tragedy in her dark brown eyes, I can see it when she smiles.
Afternoons are a mix of teaching, running into Otavalo for errands, or playing with my host siblings. One of the best parts about traveling and moving somewhere completely different is never really knowing what is going to happen. I have spent afternoons haggling with vendors, chasing Matteo around the house, hanging off the back of pick up trucks as they ascend into the mountains, or at a meeting of indigenous leaders discussing what the Tandana Foundation can do for their village.
At night, when I climb the steep hill from the Quichinche bus stop to Panecillo, the fire flies come out. Fireflies are a magical thing to me. I didn’t grow up with them, I’ve only really seen them once before, on a balmy night in Ohio. Everytime I see them I instantly perk up, Up here, where the air is thin and my second language is lacking, they make me feel a little less alone.
Once home, Aurora cooks dinner. Usually Don Vicente, the vice president of Panecillo, is up at the school reading announcements that boom out over the whole village through huge microphones strung up on phone poles. Sometimes he invites the whole village to a mass, other times he just plays music.
I had been tossing this idea around in my head for a few days. Thinking about how mystical yet clearly rooted in reality my life feels here. I drifted off thinking about this. And then I woke up to an earthquake. I knew instantly what was happening, could hear the clinking of the glasses and plates in the kitchen as my bed swayed back and forth. It wasn’t a violent earthquake, it felt simply like I had boarded a boat on a rough ocean for a few seconds. Even the tectonic plates dance to a different rhythm.
Otavalo and the surrounding villages hold on to their indigenous population like the roots of a very old tree. Most of the women walk around in full Naco, the traditional dress: embroidered white blouse, blue ankle length skirt, hair braided back, and a company of tiny golden beads clamped around their neck. At the mass held at the school, the choir alternates singing in Kichwa and Spanish, but all odes to Jesus. We eat potatoes with potatoes with corn, the food of these hills, the food of these people. It is a place that is steeped in tradition. Yet, Ecuador is changing quickly. With Raphael Correa at the helm, the country is experiencing sweeping govermental changes. Socialized medicine, tighter immigration laws, a growing partnership with countries that don’t ally themselves with the United States. An interesting move when Ecuador is so entrenched in the U.S. economically that they use the dollar. Everywhere here are signs that Correa is trying to unify the country, create a deep sense of nationalism. Signs cry out, “Todas, Todos Somos Ecuador.” We are all Ecuador. It is an ambitious task. Ecuador has had an almost caste like division here for as long as it has been a country, blacks on bottom, then indigenous, then mestizos, then Spanish. Heidi pointed out the contrast of the slow moving traditional society with the rapidly changing government to me on our way back from Quito.How does a place like Panecillo, a place created and maintained by it’s indigenous identity, keep up with the winds of changing sweeping the country?
Well right now it doesn’t. As beautiful as things can be, as miraculous as moments can be here, you can still see the opression these people have faced, etched into their faces like the ridges on the surrounding mountains. The indigenous have been left behind by the government for centuries. I can only hope that is beginning to change.
The difficult part about Magical Realism is the dance between the fantasty and the reality. The mixing of something imaginary and something that is so real it shocks the reader.Between the firelies, the earthquakes, and the poverty I witness everyday, I’m having a hard time deciding what is real and what isn’t.