By Dick Duerksen
We were far up in the Andes of Ecuador, just below the summer snowfields and right in the middle of hillsides covered with potatoes, squash, wheat, rye, and thousands of brightly waving sunflowers. Our arrival brought a chorus of alarm from a clutch of tawny dogs.
A once-white schoolhouse squatted on the ridge, its tin roof rattling in the morning breeze, its walls cold, in need of a sweater.
As our Jeeps rattled to a stop, an old man put down his hoe and greeted our driver with thickly accented Spanish.
“You have brought us the doctors and the dentist, yes?”
The medical team piled out of the vehicles, each person stretching to find feeling in squashed muscles, and then quickly scrambling for their warmest jackets.
“Were you raised here?” I asked.
“Yes. Far back to many parents before my grandparents we have lived on this mountain. This will be the first time I have seen a dentist.”
“What crops grow best up here near Heaven?” “Ground nuts and potatoes. The rest we have to sing to so they will grow tall. Sheep also. They grow well here.”
“Where do you worship?”
“We have a small chapel over there beside the mountain. God is good to us up here. We are closer to Him than others. Yes?”
I knelt in the dust to photograph a group of young boys playing marbles, listening as others continued the conversation with Armando the shepherd/farmer. The day was the typical controlled chaos of a mountain clinic. More patients than expected, all talking happily at the greatest social event of the summer, everyone admiring the others' new medicines.
Scores of small boys pushed chairs around back so they could peer through the school windows to see their parents at the dentist or watch a doctor examining Auntie Rosa.
Then I saw him. A well-jacketed young man of about 11, riding a blue-green mountain bike across the fields behind a herd of about 20 sheep. He rode like a national champion, guiding the sheep into their pole pen.
“I have never seen a shepherd ride a mountain bike so well,” I greeted him.
“It is nothing,” he laughed. “I have been riding for many years. It is much easier than walking behind them with a stick. Would you like to see my house?”
Alejandro took me to his house, introduced me to his grandpa and the family dog. Then he asked if I would also like to see his “old” house.
The old house, where he had been born and where his great-great-grandfather had lived, was made of crumbling dirt bricks capped by a green grass roof. Yet, somehow, he seemed to like it better than the 12x16 cement block house with the glass windows where he now lived.
“It was a warm home,” Alejandro said, kicking the black cinders of an old fire.
“Alejandro, what are you planning to do with your life?”
He stared quizzically at me, moved the bike closer and lowered his voice.
“It is very hard to make a living here, and even though it makes my father, Armando, sad, God is calling me to go to the university in Quito and study to be a doctor. Maybe someday I will be the doctor who comes up the road to do a clinic in the schoolhouse. Yes?”