She was barely as tall as my shoulder, protected from the morning chill by a long black coat and a black wool scarf wound round her throat. Equally black deep-set eyes smiled up at me from behind her black lace veil. How old she was I can only guess—70s? 80s? Maybe only in her 60s. Life can be hard here, making ages difficult to determine. People past middle age often seem older than their years, their faces lined with wind, sun, and struggle.
“What are you looking for?” she asked.
Surprised out of my reverie, I told her, “Nothing. I’m just trying to learn the names of the streets.” I was embarrassed at having been such an obvious tourist, caught with my neck craned in study of the street signs.
We were both headed toward the market, she with an empty pail to be filled with milk, I with a blank page to be written with the day’s adventures. So we walked together, she and I—teacher and student, hostess and guest, guide and gringa.
Ibarra, high in the Ecuadorian Andes 90 miles north of the equator, was my newly discovered paradise. I had been drawn back for a second trip by indelible impressions of mountaintops ringed with fog, poinsettias growing on trees taller than I am, people who go out of their way to make me feel welcome. The sign outside the city proclaims Ibarra as “the city to which one always returns”—no idle boast.
My companion pointed out places of interest along the way. She showed me the train station where people gathered every morning for the Bluebird school bus on rails to take them to San Lorenzo, some 150 miles to the northwest on the Pacific coast. There is only one train a day, and no roads. The platform was already crowded with hopeful travelers jockeying for a position that would assure them of a place on this day’s train.
Seeing them reminded me that I, too, was a traveler. I wondered how I would feel about this town if I had been born here. Would I be content if I had lived here all my life? Or would I yearnfor adventures abroad? Would I be dreaming about a life of luxury in the United States instead of a life of simplicity in Ecuador?
My guide and I threaded our way through vendors of pirated music—rock to Rachmaninoff—and entered the market among the aromas of the food stalls. We passed by whole roast pigs and other choice fast foods into a visual and olfactory feast of bananas, oranges, guavas, avocados, and tomatoes. We covered what seemed like several city blocks of market, passing by shoes, shirts, tools, pots and pans, stopping occasionally while my guide spoke to a friend. I never found anyone in too much of a hurry to say hello to a friend—or to a stranger on the street.
Greetings are always accompanied by at least a handshake. Among close friends there is also a kiss on the cheek. With Pepita, a friend I met later, it seemed perfectly natural to hold hands or link arms as we walked through the city—something I wouldn’t expect to see in the United States except among children or as a political statement. It was in a nearby village where I learned the custom of “shaking hands” by touching the backs of wrists when one’s hands are dirty from work. The important thing is to touch in greeting, regardless of the circumstances. This is a country where a person does not feel compelled to apologize for brushing up against another.
When I described my impression of Ecuadorian culture to a North American friend, he said that it seems to be a very feminine society. I guess it is in many ways, but at the same time strongly patriarchal. Paradox rules. Life is not easy here, but there is a softness about it that seems to temper the hardship.
Out into the sunlight once again, my companion left her milk pail at the store where she would fill it later. We continued to walk and talk, the latter an unlikely activity for two people with only a few words in common, but not all that difficult.
Finally, ready to turn back toward my hotel, I told her I would be going on in a different direction, and I thanked her for her kindness. I felt like she would have walked with me out of the city and into the countryside if I had been willing.
Before we parted, I introduced myself and asked her name.
“Clemencia,” she said.
Of course. Clemencia. Merciful. Angel in black.
I looked back from across the street. We waved to each other and went our different ways.
©1992 Nancy Grona Meredith