Otavalo, Ecuador: Camera stolen in the early morning haze of travel, either on the bus or in the bus terminal, literally snatched from a bag I was carrying, that I never even set down beside me or had away from my view. Do I remember when it happened? No. Perhaps the girl behind me leaving the bus? Nothing out of the ordinary, not even a hint of being pressed against too closely. I had no idea it was gone until hours later, when I searched my bag frantically, and even then I held the unreal hope I had left my camera behind in the hotel.
And now gone are all the snapshots of rustic campesino life. The farewell shots with my host family and me, proud, work-weary, wholesome farmers and an itinerant gringa. Gone these images of dedicated mountainside farmers, the close-knit family and their American visitor. Gone these images of farmland and cows interspersed with Andean cloud forest, gone the picture with the cow who wandered right in the middle of the lush cloud forest. The waterfall, the luscious over-sized leaves, the overlapping shades of green, the idyllic, natural, dense beauty of this scene. The view of the village of Cuellaje taken from the mountainside, various shots of me on these mountain trails, with the splendor of the Andean background.
Gone are all the pictures of the goods the family had reaped: tomates del arbol, coffee beans, bushels of plant fiber, hanging banana branches, plantains, seeds left to dry out for planting, seedlings prepped for planting on their farm.
Gone are the images of their rustic house against the countryside: gone the images of the clotheslines against the greenery, gone the pictures of chicks in the courtyard, next to a flower garden of calla lilies and roses. Gone the dazzling display of poverty and majesty juxtaposed.
Gone are all the pictures of the moths, various alien creatures, eerily beautiful and frightening, who arrived in hordes after evening rains to our semi-outdoor bathroom. Gone the snapshots of this basic, bare bathroom, an outhouse with electricity and plumbing, with worn toothbrushes and a handheld mirrors strung on the wall with wire.
Gone are the pictures of all the animals. The horses, carrying their loads, bushels of fiber, my suitcase, produce to sell at the village market. Gone the pictures of the calves, alone and suckling their mothers desperately, intimately, beautifully. Gone the pictures of the chicks, the hens, the roosters, the turkeys. Gone the pictures of the guinea pigs – cuy – in their handmade cages, at least 75 of them in the shed, all with utter obliviousness that they are being prepped for slaughter.
Gone the pictures of my meals, of the heaping portions of potatoes, rice, soup, gone the images of exotic fruits and fresh fruit juices.
Gone the video clips, of the countryside, of the cow scratching its horns against the mountainside, of the kids I taught English to.
Gone the pictures of the campesino children and their school, Escuela de la Patria. Gone the images of the school’s Disney mural, jarringly artistic and vibrant for this nine-student rural schoolhouse. Gone the snapshots of the scenery, inside and around the school, the candid group shots of the children and their work. Gone – gone – gone.
Gone the pictures of the family at work on their farmland, gone the close-ups of tomate del arbol plants and wildflowers. Gone the picture of me in campesino rain boots, gone the picture of my host mother with her wicker basket backpack, full of fresh crops. Gone the pictures of two of my host sisters hiking up from the village with two calves, roped and leashed.
Gone the pictures from the bus, gone the pictures taken in Ibarra, with the Ecuadorean teacher I’d befriended and who’d introduced me to her family. Gone the pictures of her children, ecstatic, free-spirited beings who beamed when found in the spotlight of my camera. All of this dissolved into the past, into fragile memory.
Gone all visual record of most of my experience in Ecuador. And I am afraid this experience will seem less real to me over time: the hospitality of the host family, their incredible humility, their openness and generosity and the toughness of their spirit. I need to let these powerful experiences eclipse this loss. I witnessed and lived this extraordinarily different way of life, was largely invited into it, I have a family outside of Cuellaje who already longs for my return.