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The International Writers Magazine :Biblian - Ecuador

One Last Hurrah for Two Old Friends
Tyrel Nelson

I did a double take. While I moseyed toward the middle of Cuenca's Parque Calderón on that picturesque Thursday afternoon, I was almost certain that I knew the pair of young, specs-donning gringos ahead. Intent on clearing any doubts, I picked up my pace, focusing on the lanky man and his petite female companion, who were slowly walking side-by-side near the park's central statue.
With the help of a much closer look, I discovered that my hunch was right. They were Matt and Jannan, the lone married couple from my TESOL class in Quito. In fact, it was the first time I had seen them since we completed the course almost eight months earlier.
"Hey guys," I said loudly as I approached them.
Surprised, Matt and Jannan swiftly turned and faced me with a smile.

After exchanging greetings and small talk for a few minutes, I learned that my former classmates were on their so-called "last hurrah" in Ecuador. Matt and Jannan were going to be in Azuay's provincial capital for a handful of days before they were to return to Quito, tie up any loose ends, and then head stateside. Suddenly remembering that I had two more English classes to teach, I quickly made plans to hang out with my old friends on the upcoming weekend and rushed off to the Centros de Estudios Interamericanos.

Two days later, I met Matt and Jannan in practically the same spot. We spent the rest of that Saturday evening catching up over a superb Argentinean dinner. And when I found out they were looking for something to do on Sunday, I invited them to join me bright and early for a daytrip to the Cañar province (a small, mountainous region just north of Cuenca, which rests at the nation's belt buckle). I was excited, of course, to see that the couple eagerly accepted.

Despite stopping in Azogues (Cañar's capital) to pick up some more passengers, our northbound bus had only been on the road for about forty minutes when I saw three words that abruptly caught my eye: Bienvenidos a Biblián.

Not knowing exactly where to get dropped off and paranoid of overshooting the tiny town, I told Matt and Jannan, who were sitting behind me, that I was going to pay the driver a visit. The couple, therefore, immediately stood up and followed me to the front of the coach, where I subsequently tapped on the cab's glass door.
"I'm getting off," I told the boyish-looking fair collector, after he opened the door.
"Here?" questioned the dark-featured driver, who overheard me and took a second to turn his eyes away from the road.
"Yeah," I answered while collecting my change from the cobrador, who was leaning against the bus's giant dashboard.

And so, the driver brought the vehicle to a quick stop, opening the door to let the three of us off. With the bright Sunday morning rays in our eyes, Matt, Jannan, and I squinted at our destination. Teasing us from the steep, green hillside proudly stood Biblián's prized possession: El Santuario de la Virgen del Rocío. Still, although we knew where we wanted to go, the three of us had no idea of how to get there. To that end, my friends and I ambled along the short stretch of the Pan-American Highway that sliced through the middle of the miniature canton (one of seven that divide the Cañar province). We constantly investigated every eastbound byway in hopes to find the one that led to the monstrous, beige and blue church above.

Several minutes went by before Matt, Jannan, and I made a pit stop at a gas station near the southern edge of the pueblo. Sick of looking lost, I approached an attendant, who was manning the pumps, for directions.
"Good morning. Excuse me, but how do we get there?" I asked the middle-aged Ecuadorian while pointing to the towering cliff above.
"The church?" The miniscule man responded.
I nodded, somewhat embarrassed.
"Okay. Follow this road, turn on that street, and stay on it for a few blocks until you reach the church in the center of town. From there, take the road straight up towards that church," the weathered worker continued, indicating where to go with his hands the entire time.
"Many thanks. You're very kind," I replied.

Heeding the man's directions, Matt, Jannan, and I consequently retraced our steps along the Pan-American until we reached a diagonal artery, which led to the heart of the quiet community.
Upon arrival in "downtown" Biblián, the three of us couldn't get past the ugliness of the drab holy house that stood over the center of the township. The milky, light blue chapel was in urgent need of being sprayed down with a power washer. And after snapping a few photos of the faded, yet colorful square, we began our upward journey on the brick road that wound its way to El Santuario de la Virgen del Rocío.

The ascent proved to be quite challenging. Not only was the sun intense, but the grade was pretty steep as well. Within a few minutes, Matt and Jannan were removing layers while I was already sweating bullets. In addition, the climb was even more of a battle for Matt, who was gimping on a wrapped ankle that he recently sprained in Quito. As a result, our tired trio often paused to rest, see how much closer we were to the mammoth church, as well as appreciate the lush hillside and views of the verdant valley below.

After a good half-hour of slowly snaking uphill, Matt, Jannan, and I finally panted our way to the base of the huge holy house. Ogling the sheer enormity of El Santuario de la Virgen del Rocío, I was also impressed with how the ornate edifice was built into the rocky hillside. Moreover, I was intrigued with the several groups of people who had also trekked to the church. Everywhere I glanced, I noticed individuals pacing above, around, and below us. It appeared that this climb was a pilgrimage for our fellow Sunday hikers. (Although the church receives worshippers year-round, thousands of Ecuadorian and foreign pilgrims annually flock to it on September 8th to honor the Virgen del Rocío, the region's venerated patroness.)

While the late-morning sun continued to intensify, the three of us wandered around the colossal sanctuary, taking countless pictures of the Andean vistas and of the church itself. We also ascended its winding stairways and stood on various platforms, only to find more steps and balconies. The possibilities of exploration were seemingly endless. And just when my friends and I thought we had seen every inch of the grand structure, I came across more stairs near the sanctuary's peak, which zigzagged to the leafy hilltop above. Furthermore, the steps were accompanied by white crosses, which were not only housed in stout, stone altars, but also labeled with roman numerals, apparently to guide the way.
Initially, Matt, Jannan, and I ascended together. Jannan, however, climbed her way past the first few crosses before dropping out. Exhausted, she then descended to a bench close by in order to rest. Agreeing that we had to find out how many crucifixes there were and what they led to, Matt and I carried on nonetheless.

As Matt continued to fight through his injury and I kept on perspiring, we eventually found ourselves standing in front of cross XIV, which rested just below the prize awaiting us on the tiny, tree-lined mountaintop. My tall friend and I had, in fact, discovered the Sacred Heart of Jesus...another church.
Although the teensy, white and baby-blue chapel was rather unimpressive, our vertical trek wasn't a waste. The opposite end of the wee hilltop did provide Matt and me with excellent views of Azogues, which was distantly snuggled in the Southern Sierra Andes. It was interesting to see where our bus had been just a short while earlier, irately weaving its way through the thriving valley below. With that said, Matt and I soon left the puny peak, feeling like we had accomplished something after all.
Reconnecting with Jannan and eventually leaving holy ground, the three of us then discussed what the plans were for the couple's last few days in Ecuador.
"Are you going to have a farewell party with those who are left in Quito (two classmates were already back in the U.S.)?" I asked them.
"I don't know. Justin (our TESOL course facilitator) thinks we should have one," Matt answered.
"I would almost prefer not to have one. It's really hard for me to say goodbye to people," I added.
"Yeah, it is really awkward saying goodbye to someone you may never see again," Matt replied.
Realizing that my friends would be leaving Cuenca the following morning, I suddenly became tongue-tied as we slowly descended into Biblián.
Sadly, Matt couldn't have explained it any better.

© Tyrel Nelson July 2008
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