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America South: Fire in the Sky

Pablo Tapia - Guacamaya - Ecuador - art
There was no one else staying at the hotel and the doors of the empty rooms were left open. My room was on the third floor and looked out at the plaza and the basilica and across the rooftops to the higher mountains. Cañari men and women crossed the plaza. The Cañari were short and dark and wore wide-brimmed felt hats and the women bright pink wool skirts. It was cold in the mountains and the shops closed early. The plaza was empty and clouds came up from the valley.

From the window, I watched the clouds rising. They covered the mountains beyond the town and covered the town itself and then, finally, the plaza.

The clouds covered everything. There was only the glow of the hotel’s pink neon sign below my window.

The next day, it was clear and bright and I went out of the hotel for lunch. A Cañari man stopped me in the plaza and wanted to know where I came from. What was I doing in Suscal? He was called Alberto and he wanted to know my religion. Was I married and did I have children? He wanted to show me his hardware store and together we walked to it. Inside, Alberto presented his wife to me. She was very short and dark, and she stared at me from beneath her wide-brimmed felt hat.

Then Alberto asked if I might prepare a message for the people of Suscal and deliver this message to them at the evening church service. I agreed to do it. We would meet at 6pm in front of the basilica.

Walking through the plaza, I made the steep climb up across town to the main road. A man passed me carrying a basket of potatoes on his shoulder and wished me a very good afternoon. Within an open door, there were women weaving on a large wooden loom. At the top of the hill there was a restaurant, and I went inside.

A young man and a girl were drinking bottles of Coca-Cola and watched me sit down. The young man wore a New York Yankees baseball cap and a red Nike t-shirt. “Gucci” was written in glitter across the girl’s shirt. The old woman came from the kitchen and I ordered the lunch special. The young man and girl laughed and whispered something.

Ingapirca Ruins - Province of Canar - Ecuador

The Ingapirca Ruins in the Province of Cañar, Ecuador.

I began to consider the message I would deliver to the people. I thought to make remarks about the simple beauty of the Cañari mountain culture and the strength of their religious beliefs and how it sustained their happiness. But were they happy? I did not know. What did I really know of them? I had seen the ruins at Ingapirca, and I knew the Cañari had resisted the Inca successfully — until the Inca used intermarriage with their women to defeat them.

The old lady came back out with a tray and set down the plate of carne, rice, and plantains, along with a glass of tree tomato juice, and she wished me good eating.

They defeated you through the women. That was one way to do it. I would tell the people not to be defeated again.

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Do not let the gringos defeat you. Ingapirca will bring gringos and maybe one day some of them will stay at Suscal and make a hostel. That’s how it will start. Then other gringos will create a bar and a restaurant and more gringos will come. There will be gringo money in the town and so far you will think it is good.

With the gringo money, you will pay others to do what you once did for yourself and you will begin to forget how things are done. You will learn to want gringo gadgets and pleasures. So you will have to learn the professions that make gringo money. A few will prosper in this, and the rest will be promised to prosper one day.

You will learn to stop sharing. You will learn to hoard. You will learn to take advantage of your neighbors and to create marketing deceptions and clever accounting tricks. That is called economic growth. The economic growth will cause bankers to come and make loans, and these loans will raise the value of assets. Those with assets will become very rich. Those without assets will have never been poorer, but with bank loans and indebtedness the poor will make of their lives an approximation of the rich.

With the gringo money, you will be able to live in large homes without your parents or other family members, and you will fill the home with things and diversions. They will say that you have achieved a higher standard of living.

They will build tall towers so that many can live inside them and be closer to shopping centers.

They call it economic development. It is measured by the size and number of parking lots and shopping centers. They will expect you to become sober, aspiring, middle-class wage earners. But still, with a few of you, they will expect you to wear traditional clothing, work the traditional trades, and be a curiosity for tourism.

To repay the loans and maintain this standard of living, new income must be found. Men will come to dam up the rivers. Corporations will come to farm the soil until it blows away as dust. Others will cut down the mountains to extract valuable ore. What cannot be monetized in the natural world will be called waste and treated as waste. They determine this through a cost/benefit analysis. There are professionals who perform this analysis and you will learn to trust them.

What is fast and cheap and efficient will be what is important regardless of its consequences. And there will be consequences. The families will break apart and mothers will be less important. People will be on their own in an individualistic pursuit of pleasure. There will be women lusting for cocktails and shopping instead of raising children. The basilica will be empty, and other than the very old and the incurables, no longer will the people have any need for God or the spiritual realm.

———————–

I thought it was a good message. I finished eating and called the old woman over and paid the bill. The young man and girl were gone. I walked back down the hill through the town and crossed the plaza, then went up to my room at the hotel. Perhaps my message would not be understood. Perhaps it would not happen that way at all. I stood at the window looking out. Beyond Suscal, far away in the valley, there were more clouds gathering.

Indeed, I had come south to receive messages, not to deliver them.

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The featured painting up-top — inspired by Cañari legend, with an archetypal, macaw-like female figure — is by Ecuadorian artist Pablo Tapia. View more of his amazingly eye-popping work here.

Peter Dahlstrand is our peripatetic correspondent at SimplyGood. He left Miami (and the U.S.) to explore life beyond what he was accustomed to and hopefully glean some insight for us Westerners sitting comfy in our cubicles. Find his dispatches from South America (or “America South,” as one local once bluntly told him) in the Features section, including another entry from Ecuador, this one from Ibarra, here

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