Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fausto, Temascal

Early in the school year, we met one of Mia's teachers, Fausto M. He had been an exchange student in Tennessee when he was in high school, and comes from one of those families whose name is on streets and institutions all over Cuenca. He is also one of her better teachers, offering challenging and thought provoking homework. At our meeting, he also floated one of those somewhat ubiquitous, and not necessarily sincere, invitations to his "quinta" (or country home).

Well, lo and behold, at another meeting in January, he asked Mia to call me over, and he wanted to firm up plans for our coming to visit his quinta. And so a couple of weeks ago we met him in downtown Gualaceo, about 45 minutes from Cuenca, and he brought us out to his place.

It's only a few minutes from the center of Gualeco, and on the drive out, he pointed out how the city had grown, and highlighted some of the older buildings in town as he discussed the local traditions of leather working and the local cuisine. Although his family dates back to at least the 1600s in Cuenca, it was only his grandparents who bought the quinta, which has now been divided into various properties owned by Fausto and his siblings. One of the buildings on the property is a small "castle," just a two story tower and an adjoining room, which was built by his grandfather, originally as a place for the grandkids to play. Three different Ecuadorians presidents have visited the castle, and Fausto currently lets locals on their honeymoon spend the night in this romantic building. The rest of the property is nicely kept up by the caretakers who live on site, and has lots of organically grown fruit trees, a small pond with papyrus growing in it, and the carriage that his great-grandmother owned. (His great grandmother was so wealthy, that, during Carnival, when the tradition is to throw buckets of water on other people, she would, the rumor has it, throw buckets of gold dust instead!)

We had a lovely lunch prepared by Fausto's wife (who is, incidentally, the granddaughter of a famous early 20th century Ecuadoran president, whose name also adorns many public spaces in Cuenca and throughout the whole country), and our kids played with their kids, having a blast on the mini-4-wheeler.

Part of our discussion that afternoon was about Shamanism, both from a medicinal plant aspect, as well as the idea of "other realities." This is something that has interested me for a while, and although I know it is a big part of the Andean culture, it is not something I had heretofore been able to learn about directly. So I called him up some days after we returned, and arranged to meet him in his office to discuss it further. We chatted about many things, and decided that the best way to learn was by experiencing it. He called up his friend, Taita Alejo ("Taita" means "father" in Quichua, and is the honorific given to shamans), and learned that he would be holding a Temascal, or sweat lodge ceremony, at the end of the week. We decided to go.

El Temascal
Taita Alejo's place is outside of Susudel, In fact, we passed the gate to Jaime and Rita's (ex) property on the way in. We followed the road another kilometer or so, and then we turned left into his property. The road into Taita Alejo's home is made of rocks and dirt, is very narrow, and winding, with steep drop-offs. We crossed 3 small dry runoffs, where the "bridge" is nothing more than a dozen stout branches. And we dropped in altitude - perhaps 1000 feet, enough to notice the difference in the temperature.

We arrived about 5:30 pm, and spent some time walking around the place, and meeting the others who had come for this monthly temascal. Along with Fausto and me, there were 10 or 15 others, ranging from some 20 somethings who we picked up on the way, to a fellow Mason of Fausto's, to an indigenous couple from Saraguro.

The temascal itself is a small, circular structure, about 8 - 12' in diameter, constructed of branches, and covered with a tarp. 16 branches define the circle. They are bent over, and tied in the middle, so that the structure is only about 3 ft high in the center, where a hole is dug, to hold the hot stones that are brought in during the ceremony. The stones are heated in a large bonfire, which is started many hours before we entered.

The ceremony is divide into 4 parts, or "puertas" (doors - so called, I believe, because the tarp door is opened in between each phase. The parts are supposed to represent the 4 ages of a person: 1) in the womb, and early childhood, 2) youth and adolescence, 3) adulthood, and 4) old age. The ceremony starts as everyone enters the temascal, on our hands and knees, because the door is only about 2' high. It is pitch black inside, so one enters and continues in a circle clockwise until you bump up against the person in front of you, and there you sit. The floor is dirt. Hot rocks are brought in and placed in the center, Every time a rock is brought in, the bringer said something in Quichua, to which we all replied "hop" (or something like that). After a certain number of rocks are brought in, the door is closed, and a hand drum started and Taita Alejo began talking and singing. The rocks are warming up the inside, but there is a moment I remember quite clearly, preceded by silence, then followed closely by the sound of water dripping out of a tin cup that was dipped into a bucket, followed immediately by a loud hiss as the water is thrown onto the rocks. Steam, and heat, begin to fill the room. This first "puerta" was the only one in which the participants spoke, saying our name (introducing ourselves to "el Gran Espiritu") and telling what we were seeking. More chanting and drumming, and the heat is rising, and then, everyone shouts at once "PUERTA" at which point the door is opened, letting in a little cool air. A bit of a rest, a bit of checking in ("Todos estan bien?") and then an introduction to the 2nd puerta. More rocks are brought in, and some sort of incense is dropped on each rock as it is brought in, sparking and sometimes igniting as it hits the rocks. A similar chanting, drumming begins, more water is thrown on the rocks, raising the temperature inside. It is quite hot, and crowded. We are seated in two concentric rings around the rocks, and the person in front of me is drumming, but also moving around, trying to get comfortable while maintaining the rhythm, but also "getting in my space," something I eventually had to come to accept. "PUERTA." The door opens a second time, bringing in a welcome flush of cool air, although from my vantage point opposite the door, I had to imagine it for a few long moments before I could actually feel it.

The temascal represents many things. Its form, and the darkness inside, along with the slightly uncomfortable, cramped way in which we all sat, represents the womb. Additionally, the four primordial elements are all present: earth - the floor we sat on; air - when the door is opened; fire - the hot rocks; and water - which turns to steam on the rocks, are all part of the ceremony

The third puerta. More rocks, fresh from the fire. Drumming and some singing are offered. More steam as the drumming and chanting continue. Taita Alejo continues to pour water on the hot rocks, and the steam is getting intense! My shoulders, my face are burning. I put my hand in front of my mouth to attempt to somehow keep the steam from burning my lungs as it enters. The heat is relieved briefly as Taita Alejo throws a few cupfuls of water on all of us inside the temascal. (This reminded me of a hot,outdoor concert, when you finally dance your way to where someone is hosing down the crowd.) A few people are yelling something ("no aguanto" perhaps - I can't take it anymore) and someone near the door says something, which takes some time to register for me, but finally I get it, and I put my head down to the floor, where the air is cooler. "PUERTA." This time along with the fresh air, cups of water are passed around to pour over ourselves, to cool off.

The fourth puerta is a little less intense, or perhaps I learned how to regulate the heat reaching me by dropping down closer to the ground. It gets quite hot, but I didn't feel the burning like I did during the 3rd puerta. At the end of this phase, drinking water was brought in. This puerta should have been the last, but somehow one rock was left burning in the fire, so they decided to do a 5th puerta, this one directed by a Taita-in-training. We didn't have the intense heat, but it did go on and on, and I felt myself unable to focus on the moment, instead wondering when it would end and we could get out into the fresh night air. Finally, "PUERTA," and an orderly exit into the night. I crawled out, completely drained, and spent some time coming back down to earth. Finally, I made my way to the hose by the house, where I was grateful to be hosed down and cooled off, head to toe.

After spending some time drying off, cooling down, locating my glasses (!) and getting dressed, I made my way into the kitchen, where Taita Alejo and six or seven others where talking. Many people come to this place for a "vision quest" and the conversation turn on this. A vision quest starts with a temascal, and then the seeker is "planted," somewhere in the mountains, in an area of about 10 square feet, where they are expected to stay, night and day, with no food, water, nothing but their thoughts. They might be planted for 4 days, or seven, or even 13 - on the longer stays, a bit of food and water is brought after day 4. Many around the table had experienced this. Taita Alejo shared one experience during one of his plantings, where he was praying for water (after I don't know how many days) and the sky seemed to open up, and a single drop of water fell from the sky, directly onto his face. I asked later if he thought this was really a drop of water, or perhaps a vision of water. He didn't know, but it clearly didn't matter - with this drop, real or envisioned, he was refreshed.

I hope to return to Taita Alejo's for another temascal, perhaps as soon as next month. For one thing, I didn't bring a camera (Debby and the girls had it as they were visiting another friend's quinta), and I'd like to take pictures of the structures, and the surrounding landscape. For another, I'd like to learn more, and experience the temascal another time. Now that I know a bit of what to expect, I can better prepare myself and focus on the ceremony. I also really enjoyed talking with him, and the others about their journeys. I also need to talk with other Ecuadorans I know, so I can try to understand just how this fits into the society here. Shamanismo is no longer a hidden thing, repressed by the Church, and my feeling is that most people have some knowledge of it, experiential or otherwise. I guess this means I'll be writing about this topic again.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Dia de los Reyes

After all the tourists have left town after observing the "Pase de Niño Viajero," Cuencans have a grand, home-grown celebration on Jan 6, the "Dia de los Reyes," also called the "Dia de los Inocentes." (In Spain and most of Latin America, the Day of the Innocents, commemorating the masacre of children in Bethlehem, ordered in an attempt to get rid of Jesus before he could grow up to be a trouble maker for the Roman empire, is celebrated on Dec 28. For some reason, it is celebrated on the 6th here.) Avenida Solano, one of the main streets outside of the center of town, a north-south arterial with two lanes plus parking in each direction, and a large grassy median, is closed, and a large parade is held on it. Anyone can participate, and it is not religious in nature (unless you count the group dressed like pregnant nuns). Most of the floats/groups are costumed, men and boys frequently dress as women, and most groups poke fun at local events, sometimes political, but not always. While the Pase de Niño Viajero draws its participants and viewers from the surrounding rural areas, this is strictly an urban event. (For more photos from the event, click here.) It is crowded! The paper announced that it would start around 4:00, we arrived at about 5:30, and it actually started around 7:00. When we left around 9:00 (there was school for the girls the next day), people were still streaming in. It probably went on until around 2:00 am. We know that it was very quiet the next morning!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Christmas Vacation

It's been a while since we've posted, so here's a long one covering quite a few topics. Still, I think it's interesting:

New Year's Eve
Just after Christmas, "monigotes" and "mascaras" began to appear. Monigotes are life-sized "dummies" made of a shirt and pants, stuffed with newspaper and given form with corrugated cardboard. Mascaras are paper maché masks, painted to resemble political, cultural or sometimes fictional characters. Popular masks included Paul Granda (mayor of Cuenca), Rafael Correa (the President), Fabricio Correa (his brother, who has been embroiled in controversy over some shady road contracts he had with the state), Michael Jackson and others.

These figures, once the mask is attached, and perhaps some other personal touches are added, are commonly known as "Años Viejos" (Old Years) and are burned on the 31st. Many are displayed during the day at residences or businesses, and may represent personal characteristics or things that happened during the year that the burner hopes to be rid of in the new year. Along with these pre-purchased "Años Viejos," many people also make their own. In fact, there is a competition amongst neighborhoods, where entire scenes are created out of these figures. I don't know who won, but some of the more interesting themes we saw included a boxing match and a wrestling match between the president and his brother, a "Thriller" motif, various references to the "Communication Law" currently being debated in the congress, which many feel impinges on freedom of speech, and one which poked fun at the new Cuenca logo of "Todo Un Mundo" ("A Whole World") turning it into "Todo un mundo de Baches" - A Whole World of Potholes.

In the afternoon on the 31st, Nikki bought a kid-sized monigote and a Michael Jackson mask, added a paper bow-tie, and we ignited it at midnight. We decided that the monigote would represent Debby´s brother, David, who had a pretty serious ligament tear that ruined his whole summer and fall. We burned Uncle David in hopes that he´d have a better year next year and that he´d be able to fully exercise and come to the Adirondacks for the Heath annual gathering in August. We really missed seeing him before we left for Ecuador last summer. (The flame retardant polyester pants took a while to catch, and didn't smell too good when they did, but....) Michael/David was joined by hundreds of others on our street, throughout Cuenca, and all of Ecuador, I'm told. We saw many people running around the block with a suitcase, hoping to insure a year of travel, and others jumping over their burning Old Years for extra luck.

Oh yeah, like millions of Ecuadorans, we all wore yellow underwear to ensure a lucky 2010. According to superstition here, yellow undies bring good luck, red bring love and green bring hope.

Another New Year´s Eve tradition, brought from Spain, is eating 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight. Of course we did that as well and thought of our amigas madrileñas, Merche, Paloma and our half gringa- madrileña friend Kelli!

Noche Buena and Christmas Day
Christmas Eve is one of the most important religious celebrations of the year. Preparations begin in November, or earlier, and at the kids´ school, Nikki's class began rehearsals for their Christmas chorus. They had 3 performances in December, and they all dressed as elves, green satin pants, red turtlenecks, and white knit hats (which they dutifully turned in after each performance, to be redistributed for the next performance, likely to a different elf. Luckily, no lice sitings yet!) Performed at malls to an audience of mostly parents, it was awfully cute! We were really impressed with Nikki - she learned 14 new songs by heart!

Outside of the school world, celebrating Jesus' birth starts becoming public on the 15th, with "novenas," gatherings of family and friends to recite some prayers and ask for help for those in need (those in prison and kids in hospitals were most commonly heard at the novenas we attended). We were honored to be asked to participate with Jaime and Rita and their family, and we attended the first 2 novenas. Also during this period, we witnessed a few "Pase de Niños" or processions in which a group of families or parishioners walk through the streets, behind a decorated car, truck, horse or float, with small children, beautifully clothed in heavily embroidered and bejeweled white robes. These neighborhood "pases" culminate on the 24th with the "Pase de Niño Viajero" thru the streets of the historic center.

This big procession lasts from about 10:00 to 3:00 pm, and is mostly made up of three types of participating groups. Some are on flatbed trucks, representing biblical scenes surrounding the birth. Others are "bailantes de Tucumán" or what we´d call maypole dancers, in which one person carries a pole, about 12 feet tall, from which hang about 15 to 20 colorful ribbons, each attached to a dancer. The dancers do intricate weaving steps, braiding and unbraiding the ribbons around the pole.

The final group consists of an exquisitely clothed child, astride a horse or donkey, who is also covered with a jeweled robe. Additionally, this horse-cloth is also covered with strings of food, both natural and packaged, toys and sometimes money. Following the animal and rider are groups of native dancers, in traditional clothes, often lead by a completely masked dancer, like what we saw in Chunchi. We watched the procession for a couple of hours, and on our way to lunch, we passed a small plaza where many of the groups who had finished the parade were having lunch. We learned that all the bounty which adorned the horse is later shared by all in the group.

The procession gets its name from the fact that it is opened (or closed, depending on who you ask - we didn't see it) by a group carrying the "Niño Viajero," a baby Jesus statue which "traveled" ("travel" in Spanish is "viajar") to Bethlehem (or Rome) by a Cuencan bishop, many years ago.

The evening of the 24th we spent with Jaime and Rita and their kids and grandkids. We had a secret Santa gift exchange, and received a visit from Papa Noel, bearing gifts for the kids. We ate a huge traditional Turkey dinner at about 10:00 pm, extremely late for a family that typically eats only a small sandwich for "dinner" around 7:30. After dinner, Papa Jaime joyfully distributed bags of animal crackers and sweets to the kids.

Our family turned in shortly before midnight, but on Christmas morning, we awoke to a small pile of gifts under our small, borrowed, artificial tree. (Special thanks to our friend, Santa Susan, who brought down two extra bags of goodies from home, giving some important volume to our Christmas! We were SOOO excited to get Vermont maple syrup and Vermont sharp cheddar cheeses from Aunt Karen, as well as some Trader Joe´s treats like chocolate covered almonds and dried mangoes.. Susan also lugged down about 40 books for the kids.) Around noon, we headed down to our friend Gladys' penthouse (Gladys is Jaime's cousin, who spent about 14 years in new jersey) for a Christmas Day dinner with our visiting Seattle friends.

No Friends Like Home Friends
On Dec. 12, our friends Don & Susan, their kids Ian and Meghan; and Kelli & Alex, and their kids Miles and Lydia arrived in Quito. We've known Don and Susan since Ian and Mia started kindergarten together. Kelli and Alex joined our group of friends a few years later, when Miles started school with the siblings of some other members or our original kindergarten parent gang. We've all been looking forward to their visit for a long time. After they spent a week exploring the north part of Ecuador, we met them at the coast. We rented a 12 person van, picked up our girls at 111:00 am, immediately after they finished their last exam, and drove to meet them at the Azuluna hotel near Puerto Rico.

We spent the 1st day chillin' at the beautiful, long, wide beach across the street from the hotel, where, unfortunately, Nikki (and to a lesser extent, Mia) got a pretty good sunburn, which "colored" the rest of the trip for Nikki. (I think the pain of the burn was compounded by the fact that this group, although she has spent a lot of time with them, has never really been "her" gang, as she has no classmates in it.) We had planned to go to Isla de la Plata on day 2, but a number of kids had been sick the night before, so we changed plans, and most of the group went to the indigenous community of Agua Blanca, while Nikki and I spent the day in Puerto Lopez. Puerto Lopez is a sweet, small, authentic fishing village, with a few low-key tourist amenities, like restaurants and hotels. We watched some boats unload: piles of small fish carried by the dripping boxful from the boat to waiting trucks, which took them away to be baked and ground into fish meal for animal feed. Watching the frigate birds and pelicans dive and scavenge for scraps was like being inside a scene from National Geographic.

On day 3, we finally made it out to Isla de la Plata - the "poor man's Galapagos." An hour and a half boat ride brought us to the island, where half our group took the 4 km trail to view blue-footed boobies, white-beaked (?) boobies and sea lions, while the other half took the 7 km trail, and saw red footed boobies instead of sea lions. All the boobies were nesting, so we saw the females, sitting atop an egg or two, inside a circle defined by the boobie-poop she'd kick out from the center. We saw a few newly hatched boobies, protected by mom as well. The island is pretty harsh - no water or shade to speak of, only a few low-growing, grassy shrubs. We finished our trip to the island with a bit of snorkeling, then the 1.5 hour ride back to Puerto Lopez. We arrived in time to watch another fishing boat unload, this time in the crisp late afternoon light.

Day 4 had Ian, Miles, Mia and Don F went 4-wheeling on the beach at Olón, while the rest of us explored the pristine beach of Los Frailes. Dinner at an Italian restaurant and a late night skinny dip closed out a great day!

The ride back to Cuenca was a long one, because of 1) a wrong turn off the highway, which resulted in a fleeting, but interesting view of the "guasmos," or slums of Guayaquil, where we saw people living in bamboo and plastic huts, and begging by the side of the six-lane, divided highway, 2) a potty break with the A/C running, which lead to a dead battery, and the subsequent purchase of battery cables (no one seems to carry them!), which allowed us all to witness a pedestrian funeral precession thru the gas station parking lot to the nearby cemetery, and 3) the fact that hauling 12 people and their luggage from sea level to 12,500 feet in the fog, and then down to Cuenca (8,500 feet) is just not as fast as moving four people the other direction! Anyway, we made it in time for the Christmas eve described above.

On one of their last days in town, eight of us went hiking in Cajas Nat. Park, about 45 minutes from Cuenca. This was Debby and my third visit, and our best yet. All the kids did a great job hiking the 4 km trail, and the variety of peaks, lakes, flowers and rivers was spectacular!

Our friends left on the 30th, and we were all sad to see them go, but grateful for their visit.

New Year's Day we packed up our bags for a trip to the small town of Saraguro, about 3 1/2 hours south of Cuenca. When we got there, we discovered that the circus was in town, and we decided to go. The circus was a typical small town affair - Debby and I had both seen similar ones during our Central American travels. This was a 5 or 6 person show: 2 clowns, 2 acrobats, a magician/hypnotist/escape artist, and a woman who cooked popcorn, sold and collected tickets, and starred in some of the karaoke skits (actually, all the performers had multiple roles). Only about 50 people were in the audience - this was the 3rd to last day of a three-week run. I was pulled from the audience to help tie a rope around the escape artist's knees - he escaped. Go figure.

On Saturday, we look around town a bit, then went for a hike to "Baños de Inca" a few kilometers out of town. This was a beautiful but hot hike up to a small waterfall and some caves.

Saraguro is a small, rural, largely indigenous town of about 5000 (?). It reminded both Debby and me of Guatemala. The men wear below-the-knee length, black trousers, (when we got into town Nikki says ¨hey, why is everyone wearing capris" ???) and the women wear a white blouse, black, full-length skirts, heavily beaded necklaces that cover their blouses from shoulder to shoulder, and a black shawl, held together in front by a heavy metal pin, with a large, flat, sun-shaped top. (Although beautiful, the asking price of about $60 for one of these "topos" was too steep for me.) The men and women also wear hats, but not the panama style hats that are seen in Cuenca, but more of a back, felt, Swiss style, or else a wide-brimmed white hat, with large black spots on the underside.

Sunday is market day, and we visited the animal market, but decided against buying any cows, horses, pigs or sheep. We did buy a number of scarves, earrings, and bracelets, and some beautiful weavings from some Peruvians who travel up form Cuzco, Peru (a trip of one week!) two times a year to sell in the Saraguro market.

It has been a very full vacation, but we are all happy to be back to our routine: school for the girls, coffee and long mornings reading the paper for Debby and me. We're already planning our next trip!

We hope that all who read this had a wonderful holiday season, and that 2010 had an auspicious beginning, and proves to be a great year for all of us!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Christmas in Cuenca- Mia

The main reason i am doing this is because my mom told me that the main thing she wanted for Christmas is to write on the blog. it may be in teenager talk and it may not have the best grammar but whatever.

so my friend emailed me a few days ago asking how they celebrate Christmas here. i was about to write a simple "the same as in Seattle" back but then i thought about it. in cuenca and many parts of South and Central America, Christmas is more of a religious holiday that anything else. its about the birth of Jesus, or "el nacimiento" in Spanish. its more about praying, and communicating with god your thanks and your gratitude. i have never been in a central or south American country for Christmas, so i cant really say that much on how it goes. today, was the 24th, and we saw this magnificent parade in the central square called Paseo Del Niño with every one dressed up as angels and mini Jesus. it was so hot out but that didn't matter to them. they were just happily sitting in their costumes, wanting everyone and anyone to take a picture of them. i get the feeling that the parents are just as proud as the kids with the parade, and i can see why. my parents told me that this was the pride and joy of everyone in cuenca.

anyway, right now it is I'm getting ready for dinner, at 8:30, (I'm turning into grandpa!!!!!) :) and my parents/friends tell me that this is the plan:
-hang out and talk until 9 or so
-open secret Santa gifts at 9:30
-eat at 10
-set off fireworks at 11
-and pray at midnight
my only question is, how do they expect us to stay up until midnight?!


last night we actually did it. i am exhausted. the plan went as planed. we had turkey, ham, and potato salad for dinner, which turned out to be traditional even though it sounds like an all American dinner with out any pie. our host family had a cute little tree (even though it was fake), and a nativity scene that was finally completed on that day by putting in the baby Jesus (you wait to put him in until he is born). our host family and many others have been doing "novenas" for the nine days leading up to Christmas. basically you get together every day until Christmas counting down and doing little prayers, sayings and singing as well. last night was the last one and it was "hermoso". wonderful. every kid and adult had to say something to Jesus, young and old. even the 2 year old asked Jesus to help all the kids in the hospital and make them not sick any more. when it was time for the secret Santa exchange, we had a little surprise. Santa came and visited!! he gave presents to all the kids from his big sack and explained that he couldn't come down the chimney because he didn't want to destroy the nativity scene that was set up in the chimney. between the presents, the praying, the food and the singing, i think that might have been one one of my favorite Christmas eves ever.