Itʼs a gloriously sunny Vilcabamba day in the middle of a long and rainy Spring, perfect for making the trek by horseback down the mountain to the river to do a backload of laundry.
Raul fetches our horse, Camilo Cienfuegos, young and handsome and spirited as the Cuban revolutionary hero he was named after. We get him ready for the trip with saddle and bit and bridle. I fill the cloth saddle bags with dirty laundry, and we fling the bags across the horseʼs strong back. Raul helps me into the saddle and gives Camilo a friendly tap to send us on our way.
Camilo and I plod cautiously down the rocky mountain path. Iʼm grateful for the quiet birdsong and soft breezes. Iridescent blue butterflies flit by, looping through the warm air, landing for nectar and taking off again. I can hear small squadrons of bees buzzing harmoniously nearby. A bird makes the sound of a Jewʼs Harp and sends itʼs music through the valley. Another bird answers from somewhere. Camiloʼs steady footsteps make their own cadence, a “clock-clock-clock” sound that echoes a rhythm to accompany Natureʼs concert that we all seem to be marching to. This place is my cathedral, and I acknowledge the blessings that surround me.
I decide to veer from the usual path and head south on the river rather than north. I have never ventured in this direction. Everything I see is new to me. I have learned to trust the horse. He has taught me that he will take the steadiest path, and that he will stay near the river where he can drink when he needs to. I let him lead us. In the mountains, the river always leads to someplace that you want to be.
I am the only traveler that I see, and this pleases me. I know that when I find the perfect spot to do our laundry, I will have it all to myself, a place to relax and reflect while I swirl sheets, towels, t-shirts and tidy whities in the whirlpool waters of the laundry spot. Itʼs not long before I see a grassy area next to a deep whirlpool of crystalline water at the edge of the river bank. Large flat rocks rim the pool. Leafy green bushes create a soft fence for hanging laundry out to dry. Here is where Camilo and I stop. It is midday, and the sun is at its highest point, perfect for quickly drying the wet laundry. Camilo is happily tied to a bush where he can nibble sweet spring grass and drink cool waters from the river.
I methodically wash each item. There is a process for this. Sit on a wide flat rock at the waterʼs edge. Dip the laundry item, letʼs say a sheet for instance, into the water and thoroughly soak it. Pull it up onto the rock and begin rubbing a bar of Naptha laundry soap over every inch of it, starting at one corner and finishing at the other. Grab sections of the sheet in each hand, and rub the sections together, working from end to end. Dip the sheet into the water for a good rinsing, swirling it, dunking it, lifting it out and repeating this process until the water runs clear. Pull the sheet out of the water onto the warm rock and begin wringing it out from one corner to the other. Do this by grabbing a section of sheet in each hand and twisting it in opposite directions to squeeze the greatest amount of water from the cloth. Youʼll develop beautiful sculpted arms from doing this week in and week out. Once this step is finished, lay the sheet atop the bushes and allow the sun and breeze to dry it to exquisite freshness.
The river laundry process takes a couple of hours, about the same amount of time it takes at a laundromat in a city, minus the inconvenience and inevitable doldrums that accompany the task. Doing laundry at the river tickles the senses and massages the mind.
My heart hums happily when I see that my laundry is washed, rinsed and dry, that Camilo is dozing quietly as he stands in the shade, and I know my favorite part of laundry day has come. Itʼs time to immerse myself in the river for a lovely bath. Under my jeans and hiking boots and t-shirt, Iʼm wearing my yellow and orange bikini, a birthday gift of the year before from my mother back in California. Iʼm happy that I had thought to bring it with me to Ecuador. I thought Iʼd be wearing it poolside, never dreaming someday Iʼd be living in the Andes doing laundry at the river and needing it to provide modesty while river bathing.
The bathing is delicious. I step into the whirlpool and sink into the cool water. I lay back to float and find that the waters are gently carrying me in a circular path. I look up at the sky and peek through the lacy tree branches dangling overhead. A small bird in the tree whistles. Must like what he sees! I smile and graciously acknowledge the gesture by whistling back. Iʼm here for a while with no sense of the movement of time, and no need to be concerned by its passing.
Soon Iʼm back on land, gathering fresh dry laundry, folding it carefully, enjoying the meditation of the practice of touching corners to corners of fabric and doubling it into neat squares that will fit into the saddlebags.
Soon Camilo and I are lazily making our way back home, ambling alongside the river, taking in the quiet beauty that envelopes us. Iʼm happy the laundry is clean and dry and done. I acknowledge the amount of time and physical labor that I had put into the task. I feel satisfied and complete.
Camilo sees a grassy meadow and wants to cross it. I let him lead the way home, as I know he knows it better than I do. We pause in the middle of the meadow for Camilo to taste the grass. I think I hear a movement in the bushes at the edge of the meadow, but I let go of the thought. We continue across the meadow when very suddenly, a group of five teenage boys darts out from behind the bushes and sprints in our direction. They are each hauling two bucketsful of something, I donʼt know what. They are laughing, hooting and whistling as they get closer. I donʼt recognize any of them from the valley where we live. I donʼt have time to react before I find that Camilo and I are being doused with bucketsful of river water by five gleeful boys. Camilo is careful with me and keeps all four hooves on the ground. I sit in the saddle, stunned. Camilo and I can sense that this is not a threat, but we are both caught off guard. I see my laundry getting soaked, and my heart sinks. So much work doing laundry and now itʼs a soggy mess.
When the buckets are empty, the happy little gang of water throwers turns to run but not without wishing me a Happy Holy Week…and then it dawned on me. During Holy Week, or Semana Santa, the week between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, in Ecuador the custom is to ambush your friends, family, strangers, anyone at all and douse them with water. And for this blessing of sorts, there can be no complaints, only reciprocation, if you can pull it off.
Dumbfounded, I went home with the wet laundry. When Raul saw me dripping wet in the saddle, all he could do was chuckle and wish me a Happy Holy Week. Camilo seemed happy to have his wet rider and the soaking saddle bags removed from his back. He could now go back to his grazing while Raul helped me lay out the laundry to dry…again.
That was the day I learned the importance of being very stealth during Semana Santa in Ecuador.