Written by Maja Otović
After a two-hour drive through the mesmerizing Ecuadorian mountain slopes, we stop at a small mud house in the middle of nowhere. At first, it seems like nobody’s there as you can only hear the wind blowing and the dogs barking, but soon we are greeted by a gentle smile of an elderly lady in a bent posture. Her tenderness and vulnerability are exposed through her bare feet, shabby clothes, and the air of loneliness that surrounds her. Like so many other elderly women left to themselves high up in the mountains, she too has lost all of her family members. The immigration rate is very high in this part of the world. Also, some of these women were never married, or they even watched as alcoholism was taking away all of their children one by one. However, their smile tells a different story. It transmits the deep connection these people have with Pachamama, providing them not only with food but also comfort, healing, and joy.
She asks us to leave the food donations in her bedroom. It is not the first time that we are asked to leave the rations in the room rather than in the kitchen. We are puzzled by it, but we accept her nodding as the right thing to do. Before leaving, I remain outside for a second to soak up a million-dollar view from the cliff. Stunning! As I walk to the truck, I notice that a neighbor has already paid a visit to our lady. The odor of alcohol is overwhelming, and he can barely stand upright. I can hear her explaining to him that we have only given her one small bag of rice and nothing else. He is too drunk to question it, and the donations are safe under her bed for the time being.
We move on as we have another 25 houses to visit, and they are quite scattered. The people we meet are usually over 80, with visual or some other disability, and often alone. They are so happy to receive us, to have someone to talk to, to be hugged after a long time. On one of the next stops, our volunteer fixes the radio that was this lady’s only companion. She is so thrilled she asks him to stay longer with her and rejoin us later, maybe even move in with her as she has some extra space. One of the regular requests we receive on our deliveries is to bring them a husband or a grandchild next time. The sense of humor of these people demonstrates the strength of their spirit.
Theodelinda is also smiling. She has only words of joy to spread, and yet our eyes are filled with tears. We are struggling to breathe in the dim room as we watch this tiny woman that’s unable to move from her bed. Her both legs and one arm are paralyzed. She lives alone. We suppress crying our hearts out and embrace her cheerful tone in which she takes us on a journey through her youth. She’s afraid that if she stops talking that we would leave, so she won’t even make a short break to catch enough air. Finally, we find an opportunity to direct her attention to the special present we have for her: a wheelchair. Poor Theodelinda, her face is no longer lit up; instead, fear is written all over it. She’s begging us to take it away from her. The kind neighbor that cooks for her daily jumps in to explain to us that she’s afraid she’d be taken somewhere for good in that chair. Apparently, she sat in wheelchairs before when visiting a doctor, scared of probably many things in that strange setting, especially of never again returning to her land. These people have merged with that soil, with those bird songs, with open skies, and with those dark cramped rooms.
We don’t always cry on our visits to the rural zones. We once danced! Oh, what a party it was! People from another province came, and they brought lots of food and a stereo with them. It was a religious holiday that had to be celebrated in Evita’s house. Evita, as the only living representative of her family, was the holder of a sacred painting of Jesus, and that meant that she was also the host of the religious celebration related to it. I had never seen her so happy. She was so joyous to see many people dancing and having fun that she even agreed to put on the new sweater we got for her. Almost one hundred-year-old Evita that can barely see was once again experiencing the fun-filled atmosphere in her home like in the good old days. She has no one now, and her neighbor and some dogs are her only companions. When we come for a visit, she always tries to make sure we don’t leave empty-handed. She insists we should take some corn with us, which is the only thing she has, as she knows very well that the indigenous principle of reciprocity should be respected at all times. She is the true guardian of traditional values. Through her spirit, and of many others’ like her, humanity is gifted with a beacon of humility, child-like innocence, and resilience. So we should take good care of them while they’re still here among us.
ACT Ecuador can deliver donations to the rural communities on a regular basis thanks to the consistent support by ACT Foundation USA for food supplies, as well as a couple of our friends that provide us with additional help. We are often remembered by the elderly that we visit frequently and mostly so by the warm socks that they value so highly. Another 80+ year-old lady is showing us how she’s still wearing the socks we gave her last time. Neighbor’s doggies also have a good memory. Even though we fed them just once several months back, they are running up to us drooling. The life of domestic animals is not easy in the countryside, and we sometimes can’t resist setting free a dog that we find tightly chained with no shelter nor food. And we always promise them we’ll bring even more dog food next time.
In just a few years we can see how the condition of these people has sometimes drastically changed for the worse. We are welcomed by a woman whom we’ve met several times. Only this time she can’t stand up on her feet, but is kneeling down. She’s hungry and weak. In her house, there’s no running water nor electricity, and she’s around 85. So, we start cooking for her hoping some conversation and the company would cheer her up. And it worked. She gained back the appetite and is now looking forward to the cooked meal. We have to hurry up as we still have some houses left to go to, and it is slowly getting dark.
There she is. The smile is gone from her face and there’s no more spark in her eyes. She greets us in a friendly manner, but her usual enthusiasm is missing. She allows us to hug her, so that’s a bit of relief. It’s hard to find the right words, yet there’s the need to break the lingering sorrowful silence. So we start talking about the weather and the colorful clothes that we brought to her, and such. We don’t talk about what neither one of us can digest. She probably doesn’t even know the meaning of the word “rape”. She is one of the several 80-85 year-old women that were sexually abused by one young man who also stole their modest monthly financial help. Nobody believed it till one of them got a medical confirmation. Most of them don’t even understand what happened to them. Just the sadness and an aching left shoulder speak on their behalf. Cause they cannot, and nobody else wants to. Life is not easy, especially for the women, far up on the mountain tops, but somehow they gather this herculean strength to endure.
There are not many men up there who get to live to over 80. But our completely blind friend is one such example. Perhaps it is his blindness from an early childhood that taught him how to withstand life’s challenges. He can still take care of his animals and the crops, and he’s usually in a good mood. Just by slightly touching the bag he can immediately tell what type of foods we brought him. He bids us goodbye in the usual manner: “Que Dios les bendiga”, or “God bless you”. Our apparently empty sacks now carry loads of blessings and good wishes from all of the people we’ve visited and that we need to deliver now to all of those who have taken some part in these acts of kindness.
It’s almost sunset. Time for us to go back. Feeling so blessed, so grateful for another opportunity to meet maybe the last highlanders of the Andes. With their passing away, their entire world will be gone. Who will teach us about humility and oneness with nature then? Who will show us that the human spirit is greater than any misery? The Lights of the Andes, may you shine bright for some more time.