Above the clouds the world remains undisturbed

By Pablo Corral Vega

The Twenty-first Day of isolation. All pictures are taken from a drone that can go up to a kilometer away from my house. Morning clouds over the Quito airport and the Guayllabamba valley. Quito and the Pichincha illuminated on the left.

Article originally published in Spanish by the New York Times

EL QUINCHE, Ecuador – Today I went for a few hours to Quito to take the apple harvest. The quarantined city has turned gray and lost its joy. I couldn’t hear the children playing, the usual car traffic or the carefree conversation of the neighbors. There was an electric stillness of motors, machines and distant humming, the rumour of a fence sparkling as if on a permanent circuit.

Then I returned to the countryside. I have been confined for the last two months in my childhood home in El Quinche, 50 minutes from the capital of Ecuador. Here I have been able to breathe the fresh air, walk at night in the middle of the fog, look at the stars and, above all, the clouds.

Faced with the ban on leaving the house, I have used a drone to photograph the clouds. And so I have seen a sea of white and grey coming down from the mountain tops. In various traditions, clouds are a representation of the spirit, a symbol of that which cannot be seen. In that conception there is an echo with these times: an invisible virus is stalking us. Dark clouds have come to remind us that nature has its own cycles and rules.

Day 36 of isolation. The Pifo and Tumbaco valley and a storm in the distance.

From one of those Andean villages with a deep connection to the clouds and the condors are the masons who built this house in El Quinche. The artisans of the Sinche family came from Sinincay, a village high up in the mountains far from here. They cut down the eucalyptus trees and left them to dry, woven the beams and columns, and shaped the adobe bricks with wet soil and mountain thatch. My father would come almost every morning to inspect the progress and would bring tiny papers with the ever-changing plans drawn by my mother. When the house was finished, and as a celebration of the work of more than two years, we all went to the beach. At almost 80 years old, Gonzalo Sinche saw the sea for the first time and remained silent. His eyes filled with tears and at the end he only said: “the sky and the sea have no end.”

When I can return to the sea, to my mountains, to my cloud forests, I hope I will be able to feel that same amazement and gratitude.

Day 51 of isolation. Calacalí and Guayllabamba on a foggy afternoon

In this isolation – especially those of us who are privileged to have a roof over our heads and enough food – it is possible to live. But there are days when we falter and the hugs we cannot give hurt. We are hurt by the distance from others, who have ceased to be our flickering, living mirror and have become a threat of contagion.

Perhaps that is why I began the quarantine by reading John Kelly’s The Great Mortality, a distressing reconstruction of the Black Death of 1347. That epidemic, according to his research, killed between 30 and 70 percent of the European population. In the most difficult years of the plague, many gestures of filial love and family affection disappeared, in some regions agriculture and almost all the rules of coexistence disappeared. I believe that now, faced with this new epidemic with a much lower mortality rate, there are ways to defend ourselves. Perhaps we will have to change, adapt, as we did in the face of the various plagues that have struck us in the past. This time, isolation and distance were chosen as public policies.

Day 56 of isolation. The village of El Quinche in the morning and the Mojanda Cajas knot in the distance.

Fortunately today we have digital tools that allow us to communicate and feel less alone. Language is the mirror in which we discover ourselves, it is the recognition that the other exists, that the other matters to us, that their perspective interests and enriches us. It is with language that we know our stories.

In these months, as curator of Postcards of the Corona Virus together with the editors Boris Muñoz and Patricia Nieto, I have had the opportunity to get to know dozens of these written and visual stories that confirm the resilience, the capacity that we human beings have to find meaning in uncertainty. The idea of the series was to portray our cities and their new rituals, to save for the future the memory of this shared experience. Despite the pain and grief, this pandemic has also been an opportunity to reconnect with ourselves and others.

This is how the ambitious project of putting together a polyphonic story that would bring art and literature closer to journalism, freeing it from the immediacy of news to open the way to the personal and subjective. This initiative will continue independently from The New York Times because it is important to continue documenting this historical moment collectively.

I believe that this set of stories helps to clear the dark clouds of these days. They leave room for hope. Now that I have portrayed the clouds of El Quinche I can see that above them the world is still undisturbed and the sun and stars are shining as they always have.