Noticing beyond the human in the Cajas Andean mountain range

During my first week in Ecuador, educators Estefania Crusellas and Marieli Castro invited me to join them for a hike through Cuenca’s expansive neighbouring mountain range at El Cajas National Park. In Ecuador, it is often said that people of the Sierra are ‘sky people’, as there are hand-fulls awe-inspiring places across these high altitude regions where land meets the clouds in such a way that it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. In places such as El Cajas, the divisions between above and below are not so clear. In Quechua, the language of the original Cañari peoples who have tended these lands for millennia, there is no direct translation for the English word ‘sky’. ‘Hawapacha’ translates to English as, ‘the world above’ – a reminder of the ways in which language is so much more than communicative in the Andes. The Quechua language creates particular kinds of worlds and sustains these worlds by specific ways of orienting to and coming to know them.

As Ecuador’s Spanish colonial name ‘El Ecuador’ (in English, ‘The Ecuator’) eludes, this place is quite literally in the middle of the world. The bio-geographical and socio-political diversity that comprises the small country of Ecuador coastal fishing towns in the West, lush Amazonian rain forests in the East and the interior’s expansive Sierra mountains are starkly unique regions, yet relentlessly inter-dependant. For example,

Ecuador is truly in the middle of things. Located along the ecuator, it is situated at the meeting places of atmospheric forces colliding from North to South. Many people here say that Ecuador has a geo-magnetic pull that propels immense geo-biologic diversity and intense spiritual energy across human and more-than-human worlds.

Walking through the narrow trails of the Cajas, here in the middle of the world, feels like stumbling through the sky. It often comes with an effervescent feeling that my head may actually have left my body to join clouds. Following Estefania and Marieli, I noticed myself continually looking down at my feet to assure myself I was indeed grounded. On this first hike, Estefania brought along a kite which she had recently made with her son. Designed carefully with thick, black garbage bags, cabuya grass, white string and decorated with colourful plastic tassels – the presence of this kite along the tops of the towering Cajas oriented us in this in-between space. Refiguring bodies and responses as we moved about the mountain side, kite strings activated attention and conversation about lively, sympoetic correspondences existing with and beyond the human in the Cajas.

Sympoetic choreographies: reconfiguring to wind-rhythms, repetitions and improvisations

Her bones are of Carrizo 

The body of a dancer, strength and flexibility

Repetitions and improvisations

Ancestral choreographies play out in the movements of a human-kite-wind waltz

The perfect synergistic relation of reed grass and polymeric material

The logics of plastic in convivial spaces

Simultaneously sealing-off, and thrusting-with

Configuring ourselves among string constellations

Ravelling and unravelling with the insatiable demands of wind

Mapping string figures and getting lost in the tangle 

Running to catch up with her speed, pulling/pushing

Seeking those spaces of calm where she’ll agree to hold us, but only for a moment –

Then we are back again – in her dance, she is the lead, we try to keep up with her

To hold her for a moment,

But she taunts us with only a glimpse of what it feels like to pause, to be held, to be soothed –

To be in the palm of her hand as she watches us and laughs at our naïve attempts to follow her steps

She pulls us down the mountain side, stumbling through tall grass,

Hidden are the compositions of earth-moss-rock and hole –

The perfect way to catch a gringita who tries to follow her steps

We rely on the intersections between land, hand, string, plastic and wind

Criss-crossed pathways,

The collective movements between each part frame a desire to hold a connection –

One hand in polymorphic rhythm with multiple others

With a slight shift, the entire assemblage is reconfigured

Our fingers burn as she pulls our strings

Sometimes, unpredictable movements bring us closer to the suspension we yearn for,

Where all of a sudden our footwork is of hers, and we’re dancing

In tiny moments of weightlessness,

she lets us glide

she dips us –

yet, caught up in her romance

we lose our place

And she drops up sharply to the ground

We plummet, with no apologies to follow

Kite pedagogies do not abide by human reason

Rather, they call on us to take seriously the agency of worlds that exist beyond a human eye

To listen and respond to their urgencies

Repetitions and improvisations