A number of weeks ago, I spent a lovely Sunday morning in the Jardin del Cajas. And if you haven’t yet been there, my friends, I encourage you to go. Pronto.
Our landlady, Margarita* had just returned from a six-week trip to see her daughter, ex-husband and friends in Germany. We informed her a few days before she arrived home that we planned to move at the first of November.
Our reunion was met with tears and bitter disappointment…on both sides. I have grown to dearly love this woman with a beautiful laugh and will miss her. She felt blindsided not only by our move but also the unanticipated departure of another tenant on a different piece of property.
“Everything seems so unstable,” she said.
She arrived home on Friday and asked me that Sunday morning if I wanted to go drive to church with her in the mountains. I didn’t hesitate.
Ten minutes later, we were headed out of Cuenca to the Cajas National Forest in her silver Hyundai.
The 20-kilometer drive was breathtaking. To say the mountains were beautiful is an understatement. They seem to go on forever. They tower beside the road, poking their rocky heads through the clouds. Fields planted up the side of the mountains resemble a patch-work quilt. As we gained altitude, I spied giant vegetable gardens behind small adobe homes. Lettuce, cabbages and radishes were ripe for the picking. We’d find them later in the week at the local market.
We passed lush green areas continually watered by the gently flowing rio tomebama and any number of crystal-clear mountain streams. Black and white dairy cows managed to stay on all fours while they grazed on impossibly steep inclines. A few were tethered just an arm’s length from the road. I could almost pet them as we passed. The cool air carried a hint of eucalyptus and jasmine.
Along the way I saw red-cheeked children playing around and under the feet of parents busily winding up weekend tasks about their homes. Laundry hung in the sun, on bushes, on the grass along the river banks. And the sun felt hot while the air grew cooler as we gained altitude. Brilliant white clouds contrasted beautifully with the bluest sky.
All was well in this beautiful world outside our car. Inside, however, Margarita talked of fear and disappointment and shock. I felt awful.
Her reaction to our move far exceeded that of an experienced landlord losing a tenant. I felt she was experiencing a mid-life crisis and our decision to relocate was the catalyst that set the crisis in motion.
She questioned what she’s done with her life, the decisions she’s made in the past few years. She misses her daughter who lives in Germany and she regrets the distance between them. Her former husband and she have had time to rekindle a good relationship. Her parent’s health is failing. Her bakery business is, too. Her employee of 15 years will have to be let go. This time of her life is muy dificil.
We drive the 40-or-so minutes to the Jardin del Cajas (Garden of the Cajas). This is a bit of land off the main highway that leads to the coast. The Jardin has become a site of spiritual pilgrimage for thousands of people in the past few decades after an Ecuadorian teenager girl was visited by the Virgin Mary on several occasions. The Catholic Church built a simple wooden church as a place for pilgrims to worship.
Margarita had told me nothing about our destination other than it was a quiet church. We arrived at a spot just after 11 am. We parked the car walked past a dozen or so booths,staffed by vendors of odds and ends. Freshly fried empanadas. Ponchos, dolls and trinkets. We stopped at the stall of a man selling candles. Margarita bought 7 — five for her and two for me.
Just as the booths ended, we walked across a small wooden bridge into a wide open area. Before us, a low, rustic chapel sat in the middle of a clearing. To our immediate left, the 12 stations of the cross began, leading worshippers through a small strand of trees that circled the church. Further ahead and to the left, statues of Mary and other saints doted the landscape. Sheep grazed nearby. I noticed a family of llamas on the hillside.
Dozens of people, families, couples, single men and women, walked the stony path ahead of us, many heading to the chapel, others to visit the icons and offer prayers.
We entered the church a few minutes after the service had begun. The rough wooden pews were full, so Margarita and I made our way to the front. At the left, she and I lit candles for our families and each other. We took our seats along the side of the sanctuary.
The service was all in Spanish of course. I’m making progress in my studies, but I still missed much of the homily. However, I understood enough to know that the message was perfect for Margarita. We looked at each other, smiled and held hands. God was with us in that chapel in the mountains, in the priest’s words and in the songs of the congregation.
Afterwards, we walked the pebbled paths to visit the shrines. Margarita washed her hands and face with water from a spigot–the source of water that many had blessed before taking home with them. I sat and watched. Prayed. Observed the beauty of nature that surrounded this quiet place. Gentle animals grazed nearby. Children ran in the open spaces. Elderly men and women sat on the benches and prayed. The sun shone over the mountains. Wind stirred the tall pines. Families walked together, some bringing picnics to share on this sacred place.
Margarita faced the statue of the Virgin Mary and said her prayers. I waited and prayed nearby. After about 20 minutes she nodded and we walked back past the church, across the bridge, past the vendors and to our car.
The drive back felt lighter. Brighter. More hopeful.
I visited a holy space that morning. The surroundings felt drenched in prayer. I imagine the hundreds of people that visited that day returned home, like me, with greater peace and hope.
In the past few weeks, David, Katherine and I have moved from Margarita’s home to a new place that suits us much better. It is half the rent and offers much more sunlight. We have been given a dog — to Katherine’s delight and David’s chagrin. Most importantly, Margarita and I have been able to work through some very tense moments with grace. Who pays for what, what needs to be replaced, how much one owes–the things that can destroy relationships–have been handled with grace and love.
Margarita and I shed tears, spoke harshly at times, but were able to apologize and get back to being friends.
I feel I could have easily lost my first friend in Ecuador but because of our visit that day to the Jardin del Cajas, I did not. Prayers were answered in ways she nor I could expect. She found new renters within days. We got a house that feels like home.
And I found a holy place to return to in the Cajas.
God is good.
*Our landlady’s name has been changed for privacy.