A Child in Need
Before I went looking for her family in the Ecuadorian cloud forest, I fell in love with a baby girl named Maria de los Angeles. This was during my first summer working in a shelter for young children in Quito, Ecuador in 2008. The police had brought Maria to the shelter because neighbors had found her crawling in the street unattended while her father was out drinking with his buddies. She was 15 months old.
Within a week’s time, her parents came looking for her. Her father showed obvious signs of alcoholism and her mother was mentally disabled. After visiting Maria’s uncle’s house where her parents said they lived (they were actually homeless), the shelter’s social worker, Margoth, encouraged the aunt and uncle to visit Maria so she could have contact with relatives.
A week later I was devastated when Maria’s aunt and uncle came to visit and, after spending a half an hour with her, decided to take her home with them for a week. I had taken care of her for five weeks and had become very attached. I taught her to wave bye-bye and play pat-a-cake. She was just about ready to start walking. The following week they came back to the shelter and asked permission to keep her indefinitely. I never saw her again that summer.
Into the Cloud Forest
When a child is brought to the shelter it is the social worker’s job to investigate the family. Although the aunt and uncle’s home was perfect for her, the maternal grandparents are legally the first in line for custody. Through interviews with the parents we learned that the maternal grandmother lived in a little farming community near Pucara in the cloud forest. The only directions we had were to follow the road towards Mindo and stop when we came across a statue of the Virgin. From there we were to follow a footpath up the hills to the community.
It was a cloudy, misty day as we headed towards Mindo. When we came across the statue of the Virgin we pulled over at a grassy area beside a stream. Margoth, her daughter, the shelter psychologist, the driver, and I headed up a muddy trail that was only about a foot and a half wide. After climbing the road for a half an hour, we were sure that we would find the little community around the next curve, but continued to see no signs of civilization. The clouds became ominous as we climbed higher and higher along the winding trail. Finally we turned a curve and came upon a beautiful community of little white adobe houses tucked along the mountainside.
Unfortunately, however, we had only come as far as where Maria’s great-grandmother’s lived. She wandered out barefoot to greet us, but was deaf and unable to speak. She offered us gooseberries in a cracked porcelain bowl as the neighbor explained that her daughter lived about another hour’s walk on the other side of the mountain but that we could go back down the mountain and drive on the road to Nono to find the place where the grandmother lived.
The Slippery Slope
It was raining hard as we headed down the mountainside. The little trail was so steep and muddy that every five or ten minutes one of us would fall and slide a little down the trail. We finally reached the bottom of the trail; we were muddy, wet and cold, but also entertained and laughing. One of the things I enjoy most about Ecuadorians is their wonderful sense of humor and their ability to laugh at themselves. Soaking wet we headed out on the road to Nono.