In my next life, I want to be an Inca

Trip Start Sep 29, 2008
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Trip End Mar 27, 2009


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Where I stayed
Digna's House

Flag of Ecuador  ,
Tuesday, October 28, 2008

You can throw all the clichés you want at this place. A slice of Heaven. The Garden of Eden. The Good Life. A Step Back In Time. It takes them all and saps their meaning and spits them back out at you. This is the Real Deal.

Ecuador is not the best country to visit for Inca ruins. Stick to Peru and Bolivia for your Machu Picchus and Tiwanakus. But if you want to meet an Inca... The indigenous Quechua (known as Kichwa or Quichua in Ecuador) of the Sierra are the descendants of this mighty empire. The language has not changed in the 500 years since the conquistadores marched in on horseback, hailed as Gods because of their prophesised white skin and bushy beards.

Their way of life has changed marginally more than the language - running water and electricity are available in most of the clustered communities, though become more scarce further up the Andean slopes. Subsistence farming and a tangibly strong sense of community are what keep these traditions going, despite the electronic beeps, alarms and sirens of the 20th century growing ever closer.

Digna is a Quechua woman who lives in the small community of Santa Barbara, a 20 minute drive from Otavalo. Her house, built by her husband and brother, sits in a green valley which rises up to the steep slopes of Imbabura and Cotacachi Volcanoes, known as Taita - "Daddy" - Imbabura, and Mama Cotacachi. Surrounded by small fields of corn, quinoa, carrots, potatoes and spinach, all tended by Digna, the modest house is a bubbling hub of family life.

A brief lesson in Quechua explained the names of Digna and her husband Ernesto's three daughters. Waita, the youngest, friendliest and giggliest of the girls, means carnation. Pacari, the serious thirteen year old, means dawn, and Tamia, at 16, and with hopes of leaving the village to study engineering, means rain. The names are a simple expression of what is important to the family, and to the 45 neighbouring Quechua families. Nature, their proximity to it, and their ability to work in harmony with it. As we spoke the rain poured down and hammered on the plastic roof. The valley was green this year, they explained, because summer had never arrived and the rains had nurtured the soil.

Nature's role in the family's existence is pivotal because it provides them with food. A farmer on any continent must learn to predict the rains, to ration in times of drought, to alternate periods of cultivation and fallow, in order to gain the most from his land. He will have food, he will earn money. But as we sat and listened to Digna and Ernesto describe their existence, it soon became clear that food was also the key to the preservation of their ancient lifestyle, their indigenous culture, and the modern communities of the Andean slopes. No family grows food for profit. But food could be traded to allow for the surplus and deficits of each individual huerta. During certain festivals, the women of the village come together to bake bread in a wood-fired oven. At other times, following days of food preparation, the families will come down into the square to exchange their dishes. But this is no free-for-all - each dish is made with a community member in mind, each dish has a name. The meals are prepared with this person in mind, and giving and receiving is part of the celebration.

And so the Quechua dig their roots further into the soil they have inhabited for centuries, heir branches extend out and mingle with other branches, until one cannot distinguish one tree from the other.

The conquistadores, the missionaries, the tourists and the modern world, then, have not managed to erase the traditions of the Quechua culture, as they have with so many others. But the tiny whitewashed church standing guard at the corner of a field, the carved Virgin and Christ on its wooden doors, and even the name of the village itself - Santa Barbara - testify to the presence of Catholicism. For the Quechua, however, it is another means for bonding, for parading saints down the streets of the 48 neighbouring communities during Holy Week, for a week-long party for all the saints' days at the end of June. These fall just after Inti Raymi, the traditional celebration of the summer solstice, but for the Quechua there is no conflict of interests. Christmas is indistinguishable from the winter solstice, and again, beliefs and traditions are mixed indiscriminately. The Christian means of celebration - gluttonous quantities of food, gross displays of gift-giving, drinking and decoration, are non-existent here. They remind the economically-poor Quechua of the proximity of poverty, the vast chasm between the rich and poor that exists in Ecuador. Indigenous celebrations may splurge on the food, the dancing, and the community spirit, but do not cost a penny.

The food also works on a smaller scale to bring each family closer. No TV dinners here, no takeaways, no working lunch. The families prepare the food together, and eat it together, crammed around the table with the plates covering the ubiquitous rainbow-coloured cloth. Everything we ate came directly from the fields in front of the house, and was cooked by the same woman who had sown it, cultivated it and harvested it. It was as delicious as one would expect, and incredibly filling. We washed it down with fresh mint tea, sweetened with a spoonful of locally produced honey, which kept us warm throughout the chilly Sierra evening.

As our elbows knocked together, we asked each other questions about our lives, each a distant dream for the other. Digna and her daughters were dressed in exquisite blouses, which they made themselves. They bought the lace-trimmed white cotton locally, and embroidered the incredibly detailed pink flowers around the neck and sleeves. This could take up to a month.

No-one is in a hurry here. Things run to the rhythm of the seasons, the sunrise and sunset and the rainfall. The chocho beans need boiling for three hours, before being left for three days in running water to remove their bitterness. To make traditional chicha, corn is left to swell, to ferment, for seven days and is then boiled for several hours until the froth is high. This is left to ferment further for three days, for four days, sometimes even longer, with sweet panela and herbs, each chicha acquiring its own particular taste.

A town, a village or a city is defined as an urban area, a cluster of houses, of flats, a network of roads and paths. It is a collection of buildings, of industry, of residential areas, connected by jammed roads and public tarnsport networks. Santa Barbara, and the neighbouring communities of the valley of Cotacachi are not villages, or towns. They are not defined by concrete, or the proximity of one building to another. They are called communities, because what defines Santa Barbara is not the physical layout of the place, but the emotional and social bonds between its inhabitants. How many people in a modern city are on first-name terms with their next-door neighbour?  In Santa Barbara, the families and friends, neighbours and colleagues have grown together and are the essence of the place. The rustic houses may be scattered, no more than one or two visible at a time, but even if they were on opposite sides of the volcano, this would still be a community.
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