Attachment and Loss at 10,000 Feet

Travel Stories:  Leigh Ann Henion often fears losing her past. When she met up with an 8-year-old girl at a festival in Cuenca, Ecuador, the last thing she expected was a lesson in living in the present.

06.05.08 | 3:09 PM ET

Cuenca, EcuadorPhoto by heldr via Flickr, (Creative Commons).

“The whole secret of existence is to have no fear. Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.”—Buddha

I‘ve been at the Corpus Christi festival in Cuenca, Ecuador, for over an hour before I notice Maria, the small-for-her-age 8-year-old I befriended a few weeks ago after she’d asked if my canvas tennis shoes needed shining. They hadn’t, but Maria seemed to find my spotty Spanish interesting. In the weeks since we met, she’s taught me a plethora of gestures considered rude in her culture, and I’ve taught her to play patty-cake.

Maria is a child, but she is also a businesswoman, and tonight she is going about her work as a shoeshiner. Coming from a don’t-talk-to-strangers culture where easy-living childhoods are promoted as a right, I find it strange to watch Maria as she approaches people to ask whether they need her shoeshine services. When she finds customers, she follows them to one of the square’s benches where she kneels at their feet and begins her work. I know from our talks that her family depends on her to make money to feed her ailing mother and infant brother. She bears a great responsibility and, though she is an exceedingly sweet child, I have never seen her smile.

When the festival has gained too much momentum for Maria to find anyone willing to sit for her shiny-shoe magic, she walks over to say hello. Her work is over for the evening, she says, so she takes my hand to lead me across the square.

Corpus Christi is officially a Catholic celebration, but here in the Andean highlands it’s combined with the traditions of Quichua-speaking locals whose ancestors celebrated harvests around the summer solstice. It is hard to tell where one history ends and the other begins. The festival is a kaleidoscope of colors and sounds. Streams of pipe music flow from every direction. Vendors in felt bowler hats and brightly colored skirts hock rainbows of sugared delights I’ve never seen before. Men in smocks sell balloons to people craving the thrill of watching something beautiful move away from them into the night air. A giant, motorized caterpillar full of laughing children weaves its way through it all. The scene is a bit surreal.

I’m tempted to indulge in the holiday sweets, but I’m really here to see castillos, the homemade structures that will be burned tonight. Like Tibetan sand mandalas and these freshly made candies carefully decorated by hand, castillos are intended for destruction just days after their conception.

The castillos are tall scaffolding-like structures made out of what looks to be the soft tinder of balsa wood. These symbolic castles covered in multicolored tissue paper are lined up in front of the square’s cathedral. I study their temporary, three-story skyline and can’t help but feel a little forlorn that they are going to be turned to ashes. As an insatiable traveler and a hoarder of souvenirs, I tend to see the world as a museum of objects with the power to recall the lives they’ve touched. It seems a shame these works of art are going to be destroyed.

My habit of collecting souvenirs, and taking pictures, and mourning the loss of castillos before they’re even burned, is a bit problematic. I’m often collecting souvenirs in my travels when I should be taking that last swim or climbing that last leg of a mountain trail. At the moment, I find myself behind a camera when I should be face-to-face with Cuenca. My fear of losing the past, and my persistent worries about the future, sometimes keep me from reveling in the present. Letting go is an art I have not yet mastered, but one the castillos’ creators obviously have.

From a distance, the dozen castillos look like giant paper kites. As Maria and I get closer, one of the firework-bejeweled castillos begins to pop. I jump a little, but Maria is unshakable. She pats my arm and tells me not to worry, that I’ll get used to it. “It’ll be fun,” she promises in her native tongue. As she speaks, the fireworks on the castillos start spinning like devilish pinwheels. Flames spit in every direction as the crowd closes in.

In the United States, there would be a line of policemen holding the crowd back. The castillo makers would have to be insured. Onlookers would be required to wear protective eyewear. There would be a fire engine on hand. In the United States, castillos might not even be allowed to burn.

But here, burn they do. Soon one end of the square looks like the sky over Disney World on the Fourth of July. Maria drops my hand and says she’ll see me tomorrow if I take my usual walk through town to the local panaderia for breakfast. Then, she runs off into the still-thickening crowd.

The group gathered around the castillos moves closer and closer. As the flames spit farther and farther into the crowd, the towers begin to sway like wheat in the wind. When the crowd experiences a near miss of fiery debris, everyone explodes into laughter.

I’m up for adventure, but I am a born and bred seat-belt-wearing American, and this is making me as nervous as when I see elderly women jump onto moving buses in Quito. Slowly, I push my way through the crowd until I reach the back of the mass. I notice a group gathered on a balcony over the square. The balcony is only two stories high, but I imagine its view would make a nice wide-angle photograph, so I find the plaster-lined staircase leading to the perch above. From the balcony, the crowd looks a little like a Pentecostal congregation waving wildly in prayer.

The caterpillar is still winding through the square, though most of the children at the festival have found their way to the castillos. A few of them are hanging tightly to their parents’ necks, but several have worked their way to the front. Maria is one of them.

I have an urge to scream down to her, “Maria get back. That’s dangerous. Move to the back of the crowd.” But I do not scream anything. As the castillos reach the peak of their performance, I watch Maria, and a half-dozen other children covered in the black soot of shoeshine, break loose from the crowd entirely.

Maria has left her wooden shoeshine case behind. She is unencumbered. Together, the children chase the flames as if they are as benign as snowflakes. They dance with their palms open to the heavens in hopes of catching a golden piece of Corpus Christi’s burning castles. And in the pulsating light of those beautiful, fire-breathing monsters, I finally see Maria smile.

I find myself unexpectedly smiling back at her, and I briefly forget how dire things could turn. I forget that I have come to take a photo of this smoky scene. Despite the distance between us, I catch Maria’s eye, and we both begin to laugh.

This town square is a dangerous place to dance at this moment, but Maria is conjuring joy. She has found beauty in the castles’ loss, a flame to burn her sullied day to a shine. Maria and I are close to heaven, at Cuenca’s altitude of 10,000 feet, and in this moment, we both seem suddenly, surprisingly, unafraid.

Leigh Ann Henion is a freelance writer and photographer. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Washington Post Magazine, Smithsonian, The Christian Science Monitor and Orion.

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4 Comments for Attachment and Loss at 10,000 Feet

Eva Holland 06.05.08 | 4:38 PM ET

I really enjoyed this, Lee Ann. Thanks.

Tim Patterson 06.05.08 | 5:00 PM ET

Terrific article, well done.

Candice 06.08.08 | 1:34 PM ET

I adored this piece, what a beautiful story. I found myself teary-eyed at the end.

Sam Wilson 06.10.08 | 5:56 PM ET

Great story, the vivid descriptions really brought it to life.  Reminds me of the Semana Santa festivals in Spain.  Thank you!

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