Steve and Joanne and I are speaking quietly in the darkness, marveling at the sky. The Andean fog has settled in the valley below us, blocking the lights of the town that climbs up the lower slopes of the volcano. The mist reaches toward us over the vine covered rock wall that encloses the garden, but the stars are crisp in the thin air above our heads.
We arrived at the village of San Clemente long after dark. As the only semi-Spanish speaking person in our group, I was chosen to spend the next few days here at the home of Nancita and Raulito, who know no English. Joanne and Steve agreed to stay here with me and be at the mercy of the misunderstandings and smiled apologies that are sure to come. The bulk of the group has traveled further up the road to another, larger, home with our guide as translator.
I can’t help feeling that this turn of events is a portend of the magic that accompanies this Journey. Out of all the guests on this trip, these two alone have grabbed my heart. We have spent only a single day together, yet I can sense the specialness of each of these two people. As our hosts gently go about warming our delayed dinner, spreading colorful hand-woven cloths over a table in front of an acacia-wood fire, the three of us gather close together, closer than new friends would normally stand. Our shoulders almost touching, we speak of the day just experienced. The drive upcountry from Quito, crossing the equator, the wizened women at the market in Otavalo begging in the ancient, pre-Incan language of Karanqui.
The scent of flowery perfume and cane alcohol leaps from our warm skin into the cool air – the lingering alchemy of the shaman who cleansed our spirits and healed our bodies as we stood naked on a dirt floor earlier in the day. Each of us harbors a carnation dangling from a string under our shirts, talismans that we are to wear against our skin until they are fully dried, then keep for continued protection.
In the starlight, Steve begins to work a little magic of his own. After a few soft questions, testing our willingness, he starts to share his story: the existential homesickness that has brought him back to Ecuador, the wounds that his previous trips into the Amazon have healed. As he speaks, as he risks his vulnerability, I can hear the creaking of hinges as the door of my own heart opens, and I find myself revealing my own scars, uncovering the tattoos of wisdom that my own life has given me. Then Joanne flings her heart open, her warrior spirit standing in full view for the first time in years, taking deep gulps of fresh air and ferociously surveying its surroundings.
Nancita comes and hovers at the edge of the grass. Sensing the power of the moment, she pauses, then beckons us to the table, now laden with a terrine of soup, platters of grilled chicken, piles of quinoa cakes, pitchers of juice and tea. She is dressed as her people have dressed for hundreds of years, white blouse of hand-wrought tucks and embroidered flowers belted into a turquoise blue skirt of tiny accordion pleats that is hemmed in gilded ribbon and wrapped tight around her waist. A necklace of dozens of short strands of delicate gold beads climbs up her neck and drops down modestly to cover the top of her chest. They are the traditional beads of the people indigenous to this region, symbolizing the maize that is sacred to them.
The smile on her face is almost impossible to describe. The intensity of the calm, love, and joy that imbues her lips and eyes, indeed her entire face and posture, is no less, I am certain, than what flowed from the Buddha. It was a blessing simply to be witness to such contentment. As I watched Nancita and Raulito across the table during dinner, the simplest, purest love resting between them, I discovered tears in my eyes, and a verse from the bible rose up to explain them: I was in the presence of “a peace that passeth understanding.”
Rather than continue to stare, I dipped my spoon into the clear broth in my bowl. What reached my lips, however, was not merely soup. It was unlike anything I had ever tasted. Its perfection was not the result of a strange spice or exotic ingredient. This was the plainest combination of chicken broth and fresh herbs. Then I took a bite of grilled chicken, a nibble of quinoa cake. Each dish was extraordinarily simple, and impossibly delicious. I could see by Steve and Joanne’s faces that they were experiencing the same confusion I was: How could this food be so extraordinary? What culinary magic had transformed this broth into an elixir?
In the days that followed, I would discover the answer to that riddle. Each ingredient was grown in soil that these people revere, in fields that are watched over by Father Imbabura and Mother Cotacachi, lover volcanoes whose fertile valley has been the home of these people for millennia. The fields are tended, the seeds planted, the chickens nurtured, the crops harvested in accordance with the seasons, obeying the instructions of sun and moon. The ingredients were grown and threshed and the meals prepared by the same hands that served us. The same hands that built the gracious hacienda in which we were staying, that had woven the cloth that adorned the table and formed the pottery from which we ate. The reverence with which these people live their lives in communion with Pachamama transformed, I truly believe, our food from a mundane meal into a holy sacrament.
After dinner, Joanne and Steve and I again stood in the garden, curious to see whether it was true that from the equator you can view both halves of the sky. Yes. A single glance encompassed both the Big Dipper and the Southern Cross, and it struck me that the division of the heavens into North and South is purely a human construct. There is no equator separating the stars. We are all indigenous to our one Earth, dancing under an undivided sky.