Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Visit with the Cañari People

We recently went to Cuenca to see what many deem the most beautiful colonial city in all of South America. Cuenca is famous for its straw hats so we visited the hat factories,

...and went to the famous museum at the Banco Central which has real shrunken heads. Yes, that’s right, the Shuar Indians living in the Amazon perfected the shrunken head method. They also shrink a sloth’s head as a boy’s coming of age ceremony. We had the best carnivorous meal of my life at a small restaurant called Tiestos and we had ice cream at some of the best sweeteries in town.

But Tim and I have learned that our kids travel best when they do something. Museums, restaurants and shopping are not their forte. At our hotel, I noticed a brochure that advertised living with the Cañari people who have been in Southern Ecuador for more than 3000 years, even before the Incas ruled the area. Just 20 minutes outside of Cuenca, the group offered horsebackriding, organic food and claimed it would be the best cultural experience of one's life. We could learn about their medicinal plants and even stay the night. Why not? Cuenca shuts down on Sunday since most people leave town to enjoy the gorgeous countryside.

At 9:00 am the next morning, Jaime picked us up from our comfortable hotel. He had a warm smile and seemed like a nice young man. We all jumped in his taxi and drove to the outskirts of Cuenca. As we made our way 15 kilometers south to the town of Parcoloma, I was expecting to see adobe homes and Cañari people wandering around the hillside; instead I saw mini mansions, much like those in suburban California. Jaime explained that many of the homes were built by Ecuadorians living in the states and they had sent money home to their families. He told us that most families have relatives in either Spain or the United States and that many of the homes are vacant.

We drove down a dirt path and pulled into the driveway of Kushi Waira, which means “sweet wind” in Quichua. Sixteen year old Maria, wearing her traditional red skirt, welcomed us into their adobe home. She served Tim and I a warm welcome tea laced with potent sugar cane alcohol. We also ate a breakfast mixed with mote (cooked corn), eggs and cilantro.

After breakfast, we walked up the steep hill behind their home, breathing hard since we were at about 12,000 feet altitude. We went inside the forest and Jaime showed us the various medicinal plants that his family uses to cure all sorts of ailments from plain old colds to kidney stones. "These plants have helped my 93 year old grandmother remain strong and healthy," Jaime told us. At the top of the hill, Jaime took us to the place where he and his father had built a treehouse. The view from the treehouse showed the green mountains and the infamous Inca trail where its possible to walk all the way to Peru.

Up here on the hill, we met up with Jaime’s neice, Divna, and his nephew, Wilmer, who brought a horse for the kids to ride. Together they looked like Hansel and Gretl from Grimm’s fairy tales. Hardworking Divna carried a basket full of food which she handed to Jaime. The two spread out a long, narrow tablecloth on the ground and began preparing our “Pampamesa” or earth table.

Hail fell from the sky leaving marble-sized ice on the ground which the kids ran around to catch. Apparently, it rarely hails. We huddled underneath the shelter to begin our meal. Jaime poured cooked corn right on the linen, next came the beans, potatoes and home-made cheese. This is a typical festive meal, Jaime explained. There were no plates just the big pile of food spread elegantly along a common tablecloth. We each were handed a wooden spoon (though the Cañari traditionally eat with their fingers) and we spooned up the food, enjoying the food, tasty hot tea while the hail bounced around us.

For dinner, Jaime wanted to serve us Cuy (guinea pig) their favorite meal. We had visited their guinea pigs caged on the hill and I just wasn't eager to indulge in a culinary adventure.

Moreover, I had a very smart and lovely Guinea Pig growing up, so we opted out of Cuy. Instead, Tim suggested, tortillas. Little did we know that meant grinding the corn on the 200 year old stone and then passing it through the finer grinder for several times before cooking the tortillas in the open fire inside the kitchen.

I helped Jaime’s mother, Maria Luce in the kitchen which was separate from the main house and was also made of adobe. Maria had a number of different pots boiling at once. Her kitchen had running water and a propane burner, but Maria also liked to cook on the open fire in the corner of the room. Kai and Wilmer played with the fire while Maya and Divna drew pictures and Maria and I babbled away in Spanish.

In the early morning, Tim and I rose at 6 to help Maria milk cows. We walked about one mile up the hill and over the Inca trail to the family's cows. Since there were no fences, the cows were tethered to a stake in the ground. There were two calves. Maria let one of the calves free and it moved its wobbly legs as fast as it could to its mother, sucking quickly as if this was his last meal. That helped the cow let down its milk and Maria showed us how to milk the cow.

Tim and I only succeeded in getting a little milk to squeeze out of the tit, whereas expert Maria easily milked two teats at a time, with the milk rushing into the pail. Altogether we had 8 liters of milk to carry back to the milkman who buys the milk for 32 cents a liter and sells it for twice that.

Momma Maria taught Kai how to spin wool.

Just as we were getting ready to leave and head back to civilization, Kai went to say good-bye to the puppy and kitten that he had been playing with ...

and then --- I’m not sure what possessed him -- he turned to the side of the adobe building and held his hand out to pet a bigger dog. Suddenly there was barking, snarling and Kai ran back to us. He bravely held back his tears, pulled up his shorts and showed us the dog bite which was on his right inner thigh.

Immediately, Maria came out with alcohol to clean the wound. Kai said this stung more and later we learned that the Cañari traditionally use alcohol on all wounds. Tim and I had visions of a rabid dog and having to go through the litany of required shots. The family assured us that the government has a program that vaccinates the dogs in the area. We looked at the certification, but it didn’t add up. So we headed to the local doctor where for $15, we got Kai properly cleaned up and for another $15 we purchased antibiotics as a precautionary measure. The Doctor instructed us to stay in touch with Jaime who should monitor the dog for two weeks to make sure it wasn’t foaming at its mouth. It's been more than two weeks and fortunately we have clean bill of health.

In retrospect, was this the "cultural experience of our life?" It was interesting to be part of Jaime's family and to get a glimpse at the Cañari life. I'll always remember cooking with Momma Maria and at one point in the evening I had to do a double take and pinch myself as I thought for a moment I was in one of the museum's display of life thousands of years ago. Indeed, the 24 hours was definitely unforgettable; we just wished that it had ended on a better note.

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