I noticed the puma on my first day in town. The cartoonish, carved wooden mask hung just inside the open door of a store next to the hotel where I was staying during my time in Cuenca, Ecuador.
I do not collect many things, but masks are of great interest to me because of the way different cultures use wood, stone, glass, and ceramic works of art to cover their faces, shrouding their identities while revealing something deeper about themselves or their story.
I thought about the yellow and orange mask as I went about exploring the town – visiting the fragrant open-air flower markets, the bakery with sweet bread overflowing wicker baskets, and the Tomebamba River that flows through the town's center.
I was going to be in Cuenca for a month, taking conversational Spanish lessons, and I certainly didn't want to start buying souvenirs right away. But at the end of the day, when I turned onto the cobblestone street leading to my hotel and the store with the puma mask, I knew I had to buy it.
Little did I know that my fascination with this mask would lead to countless hours of conversation, teaching me more than my Spanish instructors ever could.
When I arrived at the store, it was crowded with fellow students who had just gotten out of their Spanish immersion classes, which were held throughout the day just a few blocks away. I loitered around the doorway until the store's owner noticed how intently I was staring at the mask hanging on the plaster wall, much too high for me to reach.
The shopkeeper had long dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, and he was wearing an alpaca vest that I recognized as Bolivian. He was only a few years older than I, but he was nearly a foot taller, so he had no trouble reaching the mask. When he handed it to me I couldn't help but inquire about the significance of the animal, the meaning behind the mask.
Juggling payments for alpaca purses and handmade jewelry, Diego, the shop owner pulled a dozen illustrated books out from under his sales counter.
He could not speak a word of English, and I was getting by on Spanish so limited that the night before I'd been amazed when I came across a Scooby-Doo TV show dubbed in Spanish. I'd been floored by the realization that even Scrappy-Doo could speak better Spanish than I could!
The word "puma" is the same in English and Spanish, and somehow Diego and I had a conversation about the animal and its symbolism. We talked until the crowds had filtered through. We talked around words we didn't know and in circles until I understood that the puma represented the ability to move through the world with grace. Also that, in many South American cultures, the puma is a sacred mountain animal that has an unfailing focus on what it wants from life.
We talked until it was time to close the store. "Come back tomorrow," Diego said in Spanish. "I have something to show you."
The next day, i discovered that what Diego had to show me was a collection of pan flutes, or panpipes, traditional Andean instruments that sound like ethereal versions of what they actually are, organic reeds that are given life by human breath.
The music Diego made on the panpipes was beautiful. When he stopped playing, I begged for one more song, and then we talked for hours. This became our daily ritual.
In time, Diego invited me to hear his band play. They were a group of young musicians carrying on their families' traditions with regional songs such as "Lake Titicaca," a haunting tune that makes a listener think of the echoing wings of a flock of birds taking flight over open water.
Listening to Diego and his friends play their timeless music in his living room became one of my favorite things to do in Cuenca, whose full name is Santa Ana de los Cuatro Rios de Cuenca. So, naturally that's what I wanted to do on my last night there. It had only been four weeks since I met my new amigo, but already it was time to leave.
Walking me back to my hotel on my last night in Cuenca, Diego handed me a book of Andean folklore and told me it was meant as airport reading. It was a thick academic book written completely in Spanish, and it didn't have any of the glossy images like the ones he'd shown me during our first meeting. I hesitated for a moment, intimidated by the immense tome of knowledge being offered in a language I had not yet mastered, but I reluctantly accepted.
Diego laughed at my expression, which must have been a look of intermingled gratitude and fear. "Don't worry," he told me, "you will finish it. You might not finish it in the airport, but you'll be able to read this book. You are like your puma. I've seen it in you. You're determined."
I've had that book for more than five years now, and I still can't read all of it. I also have a stack of letters from Diego. They bear his careful script and my sloppy translations, written with the help of my trusty Spanish-English dictionary.
I am still a language-challenged traveler who can't speak as well as a dubbed-in-Spanish Scrappy-Doo. I stumble over words and, confused, take the wrong bus from time to time when traveling through parts of the Americas where romance language lives.
But I am like a puma in search of my graceful, Spanish-speaking self. I'm still not giving up. That should be obvious from the look on "my" face, the wooden one that now proudly hangs on my living room wall.