Storms and Holy Week

“My instinct, in this city I was learning to love, was to observe, and become involved, and enjoy.”- Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram: A Novel.

It’s been storming in Panecillo this week, all thunder and lightning that booms through the valley, shaking our little house and sending my host siblings crawling into bed with me.

It’s also holy week, semana santa. Where before I managed to hide my lack of faith behind a thin veneer of mumbling under my breath during prayers and conveniently having to work during mass, this week that wouldn’t be sufficient. It was back to church for me.

I was lucky in a few ways. One, I got my visa, so Heidi and I spent a few days of the week waiting in more lines at the ministerio, thus avoiding mass. Also, for every holiday in the Ecuadorian’s celebrate with food. So I ate well.

This is the only week of the year where Fanesca is made: a hearty, delicious chowder made of corn, beans, malloco, eggs, chochos, avas, cabbage, and everything else grown on these mountainsides. It takes hours to prepare it, with all the shelling of the beans and grain preparing. Almost all the families in the village make it, except for mine. But not to worry, four separate neighbors brought us buckets of the the chowder in one night.

Quichinche Cemetery

Thursday was Dia de Los Difuntos, day of the deceased.  It was also my host mother’s birthday. The significance of this- the birthday of a woman who frequently talks of death coinciding with the day to honor the dead- was not lost on me. I had been thinking about an appropriate birthday gift for her for a few weeks.  So as we walked to the cemetery, and I heard her whisper under her breath, “My wonderful mother, and nothing to decorate her headstone.” I took the bait. The road to the cemetery was full of vendors selling plantains, soda, wreaths, crosses, chocolate, and roses. I stopped and bought a wreath and flowers for Aurora.

I talk a lot about her, my host mom. This is on purpose. I feel like if I am able to tell the story of Aurora Gualsaqui Imba, with honesty, compassion and understanding then I will have done something good. This travel blog-“American Girl Goes to South America: Says Life is Changed”- has been done many, many times. But the tale of an indigenous women’s life, especially one like Aurora’s, is not done often enough.  For all the depression and pain of Aurora, I really love her. She’s honest, darkly funny, and has welcomed me into her home with grace and kindness. Her story will come in paragraphs. Moments in entries about other things. She will appear. I don’t profess that it will be perfect, and it’s true that her story would be better told by her. But if there is one thing I know from spending so many hours with Aurora, it is that she is desperate to be heard.

I realized all of this as we sat at the base of her mother’s grave. The grave she professed to have wanted to throw herself in at her mother’s funeral. Like the hundreds of other people in the cemetery, Aurora was lying a blanket down in front of the big cross headstone. It looked as if a name and date had once been written in sharpie, but the years of rain had worn it away.

She carefully placed bread, plantains, fruit and beans on the blanket. Then, we waited for the holy water.

I would have expected there to be an air of melancholy at the cemetery. So many dead loved ones. Thinking about them, placing their favorite food where they lie. But it was exactly the opposite. Children jumped over gravestones, chasing each other. People played loud reggaeton off of their cell phones. Vendors weaved their way through graves, selling ice cream, chocolate, drinks. People talked, shared food and laughed. I was amazed.  Even Aurora, notorious for her heavy sadness, made a joke. As the old man carrying the bucket of holy water approached, she pointed at her Father-in-Laws grave and said, “Him first, he needs it more.”

The clouds were bloated and dark above us as Aurora’s laugh filled the air.

Mass was today and I was dreading it. So long, so many prayers I don’t know. So many times when you have to cross yourself that I forget. But we went: Aurora, me, and my five host siblings. I wore the one skirt I brought that’s appropriate and ankle length, all the kids washed their hair and braided it back. It was as predicted: lots of kneeling, lots of hushed prayers, lots of crossing ourselves. Just my family filled a whole pew.

I’m still carrying on with this Catholic facade because I want to understand. I want to know what messages the church is telling my family. I want to understand this community. I want to be accepted in this place that’s beginning to feel like home. But admittedly, I don’t like it. I don’t like the cavernous quality of the church, I don’t like the white faced saints staring down at us from every corner. But it’s tradition here. And it makes my family happy.

So I survived it. I made it through a week of Catholic rituals by smiling, nodding, and following my family around.  Now, It’s afternoon. Although you’ll read this online, I wrote it in my moleskin journal that I drag everywhere with me. I’m waiting for lunch before I go into town. It’s pouring rain outside, and that distinct thunder-all cymbals and bass- is back. Since gas only comes on Mondays, Aurora is behind the house, under cover, reheating the Fanesca over an open fire.

3 thoughts on “Storms and Holy Week

  1. What a clear picture you have painted…Aurora has found her voice through you. Your host siblings too, I expect.

    Love you….Aunt Vic

  2. Thank you for sharing this Lizzie. You are making such a difference in your host families
    I love you!


  3. Despite the grim and sober topic, I couldn´t help but chuckle at the familiarity and irony of Ecuador and how you captured it precisely. I think that is often the challenge here; never knowing what kind of day we will encounter. I suppose that is true anywhere in the world, but perhaps it is the range of tragic or frustrating possibilities that press deeper into our hearts and emotions here than at home.

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