We saw them right away, walking by the side of the highway between the airport and Quito. He was trotting along on a donkey, wearing calf-length pants, a poncho, a fedora, and his hair gathered in one thick braid at the back of his head. She trotted along behind him, on foot, with her baby on her back. She too wore a fedora, but two braids instead of one, and as she trotted she spun wool from a hand-held spindle. Both were short and broad chested–this, we were told, was an adaptation that enabled Indians to survive in the Andes\’ oxygen-poor air.
At age ten, I was short too–close to adult-Indian size–and my most vivid memory of the crowds through which we passed each day was the smell: of chicha, a fermented yucca drink; of unwashed bodies; of tightly swaddled babies being changed on the sidewalk right next to where their mothers sat and sold fly-covered meat. And everywhere the all-pervasive stench of urine: the smell of poverty. (Years later, I smelled that same smell in an unfashionable area of New Orleans.)
They were quiet people, those Indians, whether out of preference or from a long history of suppression. Even their revels were semi silent. Their music, based on the five-tone scale and piped out of Pan pipes, was melancholy. Many of them spoke little Spanish, and communicated in Quechua, the language of the Incas. We found them difficult to understand.
On Saturday evenings, families would sit outside their houses grooming each other\’s hair: the father would groom the mother, the mother the eldest child, and so on down to the youngest, who would groom the dog. And I mean \”grooming\” in the primeval sense of the word–they would pick the lice eggs off the hair strands, and they would eat them. We were told, when we asked about this, that the nits tasted sweet, and that some substance in them protected against typhoid.
What followed the grooming sessions was more disturbing, for that is when the drinking would begin. On Saturday nights drivers would need to slow down and swerve to avoid drunken men and women who would keel over and pass out in the middle of the road. And when the feasting was over you could see tiny barefoot children, dressed in ponchos and little fedoras, dragging their parents home.
I found the Indians sad, and distressing. The constant presence of their poverty robbed those years of much of their beauty and excitement. Across the road from our house was an open field. I had once seen a cow there who had just given birth and was walking behind her calf with the placenta still dangling from her vagina. One day some men came to our door, and asked my mother for some milk for a woman who had just given birth in that same pasture.
Behind the field where the cow and the woman had given birth was a frieze of snow-capped volcanoes. I was too young to appreciate the beauty of the mountains, to find in them the constant source of pleasure and amazement that my parents did. But I couldn\’t get the woman giving birth in the field out of my head.