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ALPARGATAS

Sierra, c. 1994
Tumbaco, Sierra, Ecuador 
Leather, penko cactus fiber, 1 1/4 x 3 1/2 x 9 1/2 in. each
Courtesy of Nicola Dino, Ecuador, Juan Montalvo 1994–97

 

As Peace Corps trainees, we learned about the local culture through special programs at the training center in Tumbaco. I remember one particular performance by an indigenous dance troupe from Otavalo, a well-known center for the arts. The dancers wore beautiful costumes, but it was their alpargatas, the traditional sandals worn by Otavaleños, that grabbed my attention. (The daughter of a shoe repairman, I have always had a weakness for shoes of any sort.)

I had to have a pair.

My generous North American woman’s foot outsized even the largest Otavaleños men’s sandal size. I would have to have my sandals custom made for me. One of the Peace Corps trainers directed me to a local sandal maker. I went to his house, carrying with me a multicolored woven belt that I’d picked up at a market, hoping he could use the material in my sandal uppers. 

The sandal maker placed two dirty, white sheets of paper on the floor and asked me to step on them. Then he swiftly traced an outline of my bare feet. Two weeks later I had my very own pair of alpargatas, which fit me like a glove—and tortured my feet. The uppers felt stiff and the sturdy leather soles were inflexible, and the cord that ran across my ankles cut into the tops of my feet. I could barely make it across the room in them. How could anyone walk in these things, let alone dance?

I so wanted to wear my alpargatas, and I did try to break them in. But the mountain village of Juan Montalvo—where I lived and worked as a nurse and health care educator, traveling between sites on foot—had just one paved street. The only footwear that stood up to all that walking on rocky paths and protected my feet from weather and bug bites were hiking shoes.

So I set aside my alpargatas. 

But I finally broke in my Otavalo sandals. I’ve been walking in them for the last 20 summers since I came home. On my feet, they keep me grounded in my Peace Corps experience. They remind me of the lesson I learned from the Ecuadorean people—that perseverance pushes you to overcome obstacles, however uncomfortable they may be. They remind me to be humble and resourceful, like the people I came to admire and love.