“Thoughts are slippery little devils.”– Zach, age 13
Padre Chupa is a tiny village situated high in the mountains, in a particularly rugged part of the Andes. The dirt road that is nearly impassable during rainy season, hugs the side of the hill while plunging precariously off the other into a deep valley. The single lane road leads to the center of town: the school. The houses of the community sit far and wide from the school, but the kids trudge up and down the steep trails every day, wearing knitted hats, sweats and rain boots, prepared for the school day.
I was bringing a group of eighth graders and two chaperones from Headwaters Academy in Montana to Padre Chupa. We would spend four nights sleeping on the concrete floor of the school, playing with the kids, helping in volunteer projects and enjoying cultural activities. It was my first time being Lead Coordinator. When we had hosted other groups in March, I had more of a support role. Sure I made arrangements and lead groups, but I was never the lead. I wasn’t the ultimate person responsible for the group. And suddenly, I would have to be.
The woman who works at the Padre Chupa School is Pilar. Pilar lives in Quichinche, very near my house, but she commutes to Padre Chupa on Mondays and stays until Friday. She is a small but robust mestizo woman, with grey streaked hair, bright lipstick and an easy laugh. We had a few meetings before the program began, mostly which involved her feeding me beans and rice and exclaiming what an excellent time we were going to have. Whenever I expressed concerns she brushed them off and said, “Tranquila, Lissie.”
I was nervous about lots of things, but mostly I was worried about the roads. It is notoriously hard to get bus drivers to take you all the way to Padre Chupa. And the last few weeks it has been pouring rain here. Every afternoon the storm clouds obscure the peak of Imbabura and send us running into our homes. The day before we were to leave for Padre, the Headwaters students and I got stuck in a downpour that left us drenched and cold to the bone. I kept saying to Erin, the Tandana volunteer and my co-leader, “What if we can’t get through?”
But the next day, everything turned out okay. Two local Padre Chupa men with trucks came and met us at the turn off. I piled my kids in the truck, and then Pilar showed up on her motorcycle. She was wearing a giant full body rain jacket and flapping her wrist at me energetically. “Come on Lizzie!”
I jumped on the back of Pilar’s motorcycle. I hadn’t really thought about this part of my plan. I had gotten as far as, “Get kids safely in truck” But as Pilar started speeding down the bumpy, gutted out road, I started to worry. The bike was making a strange wheezing noise, and something sounded like it was trailing along the ground behind us.
“Meet Moto!” Pilar yelled, smacking her hand against the very flimsy plastic. “She’s been through a lot with me!” I laughed, nervously. Pilar was turning her head to talk to me, narrowly missing the edge of the road and our imminent death. Suddenly in my head I was flashing back to my dad’s motorcycle accident this summer, when he hit a deer going fifty miles an hour on his bike, sending him flying into the other lane of traffic. He was okay, minimal injuries. But I was wearing jeans and a flannel, no helmet. Pilar was swerving around the deep pot holes and my hands were around her waist gripping for dear life. I suddenly remembered “donor cycle,” the phrase Dr. Hugh told me ER doctors coined for the death machines. Although my hands were around Pilar, every time she turned a corner the lower half of me was sliding dangerously off of the moto. Pilar cheerfully called out to the animals as we passed them, “Hola vaca!” “Hola chanchitos!” When we plowed through a very deep puddle she said, “Want to go for a swim?” She didn’t seemd to notice my nails digging into her waist.
Thirty nerve wracking minutes later, we pulled into the school. I was drenched, covered in rain water and mud. I tumbled off of the bike. The Headwaters kids were already out of the truck, playing soccer with the Padre Chupa kids. My legs were shaking as I stumbled up the hill. “LISSIE,” Pilar yelled my name, in what would soon become a very familiar fashion “Did you like moto?”
That night, we divided up the kids for bed. The boys sleep in one room, and the girls and I sleep where Pilar and the other teacher, Anita, sleep. Pilar had offered me her bed, and avoided the question of where she was sleeping by saying, “In the tree!” Laughing, and then running off. When I finally came to the room I discovered her in Anita’s bed and my headwaters girls in their sleeping bags on the floor. “The tree is comfortable!” She said, under her thick wool blankets. “Oh, and Lizzie, it’s not a problem if Freddy sleeps with you right?” Her seven year old popped his head out of my bed and waved.
I didn’t sleep most of the night because Pilar and Anita were giggling and Freddy was snoring. All night I just kept thinking, “Sometimes my life is so weird.”
The next morning we all went for a hike to a water fall that sits deep in the crevice of one of the nearby hills. The Padre Chupa kids sprinted down the steep hills, wearing their rain boots and carrying bags of sugar to dip the berries they picked off of the bushes we passed. My kids were weighted down with water, rain jackets and snacks. Once we got to the waterfall I stayed behind with the stuff. Until Pilar pulled me up through the river, across the wet rocks, and threw me under the waterfall.
I stood under the waterfall, one hand in Pilar’s, the other against the rock behind me, and let the warm water soak my hair and clothes and hiking boots.
“ LISSIE! I knew you would love this!” She yelled at me through the water.
It is raining still. My students are still writing. The students and some of the parents of Padre Chupa have gathered around me, hands on my shoulders, watching my type. They keep making little “tsk tsk” noises, copying my noisy typing style. Their talking about me, in Kichwa. I can hear Pilar calling for me in the kitchen, probably to check that she hasn’t over salted the food. It is an interesting life down here, and an interesting job. All about trying to control the chaos. Here I am, almost done with a week I was very, very nervous about. But it’s okay. The kids are having fun, and as Pilar keeps repeating to me, Tranquila Lizzie, tranquila.