Traveling In Indigenous Ecuador
Article ID: 14132
Age Group: Adult
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Posted: December 5th. 2010
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When I began this journey, I set out with the intention of going to South America to observe the lives of the native peoples, compare it to my practices of modern-day Paganism and write a merry little essay about it. While on the trip, the world I found myself immersed in was a very different story; around me people led lives in extreme poverty, but there was also a spirit of unity, a hard-working attitude, and dignity. There was racism and exploitation against the native people, but when I uncovered the ancient roots of these peoples’ ancestry, I was astounded to discover just how like modern Paganism their lives and worlds were.
In summer 2009, my A Level (that’s junior year of High School for readers over the pond) Spanish teacher advertised a charity trip to Ecuador, and to raise money to fund a building project in a school in Quito, the capital city. It looked like a good laugh so I went along to the interview session and signed up. When accepted into the group, we were told that fundraising would be a lot of hard work and that we would need to be committed to the project, but when we had explained to us the activities we would be doing, the places we would see, and the attraction of a few days in the Galápagos Islands at the end, I enthusiastically agreed that it would be worth the effort.
From the autumn through to summer 2010 we embarked on fundraising projects including a barn dance, various gigs and sales, car washing, letting out the college car park during the Christmas shopping period, and a skydive. Along with weekly meetings, these activities amounted to the equivalent of the time and effort of another academic subject alongside my A Levels, which at times was tiring and frustrating and made me consider packing the whole thing in and letting someone else have my place on the trip. Thankfully, the hard work was worth it in the end, and when July rolled around we’d exceeded our fundraising target and were able to put extra money towards fixing other parts of the school.
On 14th July, our group of twenty-one students aged seventeen to nineteen and five teachers left very early in the morning for our flight from London Heathrow to Madrid, then onto Quito. When we landed in the city, my initial reaction was that it looked as though we’d landed in the middle of an enormous refugee camp; on the bus to our hostel, I observed that most of the buildings were falling apart and in parts it was barely a step up from a shanty town. There were garbage piles in the streets, countless stray dogs, and I saw an Indian family dressed in bin bags rifling through the rubbish.
In my first few days I made a number of geographical observations; Quito is the world’s second highest capital city, and thus is so high up in the Andes, it’s often difficult to breathe, and even going up a flight of stairs can be a breath-taking task. Because we were up in the clouds, the clouds virtually dictated the weather, which chopped and changed very quickly; while it was usually warm during the day, we shivered by night.
In Ecuador, as anywhere else on the equator, the Sun rises at 6am and sets at 6pm on the dot, year round, with little change in temperature apart from a rainy season. At first I thought this must be quite a convenient way to live, until I realised that they went without the great seasonal variations I’m used to in the UK. It made me appreciate all the more our Wheel of the Year and how different each sabbat is from the last.
When we arrived at the battered, underfunded school, we set about painting the walls, making mosaics and patching the place up. Many of the children came to help us, during their holidays, without a grumble and always brandishing bright, cheeky grins. Some local men began, with admirable speed, to assemble a third storey on top of the IT block building for which we had raised money. Rosa, the head teacher, who for the sake of the children had stayed in her post long beyond retiring age, goes to the poor side of the valley every summer and knocks on peoples’ doors, asking them to send their children to school in September rather than to work. The computers, and the computer block therefore, being a vital aid to luring children to school, were of utmost importance.
One afternoon, we went to the poor side of the valley to see the conditions in which some of the students live. The further up the mountain we climbed the poorer the families were, and our first stop was a corrugated tin shack held down by concrete blocks. As we stepped over the threshold, the mother apologized for the poverty her family lived in, and we were informed that two adults and twenty children lived in this humble abode. In another girl’s corrugated tin dwelling, she appeared from the ladder upstairs sporting two one-week old kittens of which she was very proud.
In no time, attracted by such a large swarm of white people, kids began to emerge from all over the neighbourhood, and anytime anyone whipped out a camera, they huddled in a frantic scrum to be in the picture and grinned from ear to ear. They had only a football between them, but they were happy. This, I think, is what I truly admired about the Ecuadorian people; they live for the moment, grab any opportunity, and they make anything out of whatever they’ve got, and thus create a society in which nothing goes to waste.
During our stay, we did all the touristy things; sitting on the equator line (which is apparently 240 metres away from the official line painted on the ground) , going shopping in the famous Indian market in Otavalo, and climbing mountains and volcanoes. On one occasion we went down into the Pululahua crater, and imploded volcano, which was a pleasant and scenic saunter down, but a very grueling climb going back up. While I puffed and wheezed and felt as though my legs were going to give out, I was overtaken by an old, one-legged man on crutches, accompanied but not assisted by a younger woman, which gave me an embarrassed last spurt of energy. As this old soul hobbled lithely up the mountain path, I thought to myself, if he can do it, then why not me, in my clearly unfit but at least complete body?
After this we visited the ‘Temple of the Sun’, a nearby Inca museum. The guide showed us a painting that represented everything that was sacred to the Inca people; Pachamama, which was Mother Earth, a solar god, a lunar goddess, and respect and reverence of the four elements of Fire, Water, Air and Earth, he explained casually. While other members of the group looked around, twiddling their thumbs in mild boredom, I was aghast. As a Pagan, I cringed to be at all associated with the group; when the guide explained that Inca society was predominantly matriarchal, many of the boys grumbled and protested, some of the girls giggled endlessly at a fertility relief piece of a woman with her legs wide open, and almost everyone rolled their eyes at the mention of a goddess and spirits.
We were then taken into a room full of dream catchers and were given an aromatherapy session with natural oils and native music. While others slouched and checked their watches, I was sitting bolt upright, grounded and centred, grateful for the first meditation I’d had for some time. Outside, we also took part in a solar fire ritual, while the priest, in full Inca costume, praised the solar god in the Quechua language. It was all simply so Pagan that it hurt. Being towards the end of July, I was grateful to have my Lughnasad celebration after all!
On our last day of work at the school, we gathered in a classroom for lunch cooked by local parents followed by thank you speeches from our group leader and from the school’s head teacher. They handed out multiple gifts to each of us and thanked us repeatedly for our time and service to the school, which for me embodied the true hospitality of the Ecuadorian people.
In our outings in town and country, I made a variety of other cultural and linguistic observations; I found that a strong nuclear family is highly prized, and there were posters and paintings all over the capital city depicting the ideal, loving family, and in the classrooms in the school, I found a list of what every child has a right to in life, and a poster of a sunflower, with a virtue every child should learn printed on each petal. I believe that these sorts of basic teachings would be a good kick-start in life for kids who might otherwise be led astray.
Catholicism in Ecuador, as in most other South American countries, has a big impact on society – most shops are shut on a Sunday, and the architecture and views from the Basilica del Voto Nacional Cathedral in Quito is most impressive. In a country where the average person has so little to their name, I found that everything is held together with rust and Christian faith, although I found, particularly among the native peoples, that Catholicism is merely a veneer for older practices, and that the two types of faith are often fervently combined.
Another observation that I deem to be a positive one, was the lack of health and safety, and therefore the regulations and horrendous amounts of red tape that comes with it in more developed countries, and people are rightly left to use common sense as a guide in life. Back home, I work in a convenience store, which throws away, every day, and entire shopping trolley full of fresh food that could feed a family for a week. The reason? EU food regulations deem the food to be a few hours out of date and therefore a hazard. In Ecuadorian fruit and veg stalls, I purchased at an extremely low price, battered- looking fruit that would have been thrown away several days before by British standards, but it was delicious, and perfectly safe. (Subsequently, coming home to continue this reckless waste at work was very difficult.)
Some negative things I discovered were maltreatment of the poor, and racism against the indigenous populations; on billboards on the motorways it was always white people or those of Hispanic origin, and the same again for high-class jobs in say, banking. Also, almost any soft or fizzy drink you could buy, and even some brands of water, was a product of the Coca-Cola Company – the impact of globalisation makes it easy to observe how easily the poor can be taken advantage of in these countries. Most food products were imported from the US, and whilst conversing with the locals in the best Spanish I could cobble together, I found that much of the vocabulary had been Americanized in ridiculous ways, and was not recognizably proper Spanish.
In the Galápagos Islands, prices of everyday things were double those of the mainland, but it was worth it – the incredible variety of flora and fauna that the islands boast really are worth the hype. On Santa Cruz, an island with a roughly 10 mile radius, sports the largest number of eco-systems I’ve ever seen in one place; to my eye there was a savannah-like landscape in the north with only cacti and some very dry-looking trees, a rainforest a couple of miles to the south, then beautiful, white sandy beaches, and the tourist town of Puerto Ayora (although the biologist on our trip may well have hastily corrected me with great agitation, the precise nature of these different habitats.)
On a small island we visited called Floreana, 100 or so people live a very simple lifestyle; they get two hours of running water a day, they only eat what they’ve grown and reared on the island, and the only school has eighteen pupils – yet they voluntarily chose to live there and they enjoy the peace and quiet it provides. Perhaps we can learn from them to stop and think every once in a while, and contemplate what we have and slow down our busy lives a bit. During my stay on the islands, everything, from the prickly pear cacti, the famous giant tortoises, Darwin’s finches, the lovable marine iguanas and comical blue-footed booby birds, made me stand back and gaze in wonder at the beauty and bounty of what the Goddess can provide.
On the journey back home, four successive flights crossing eight time zones was very unpleasant, and they took place across the 1st, 2nd and 3rd of August, so Lughnasad kinda didn’t happen, apart from some meagre prayers I managed to squeeze in before we left.
When I finally made it home, I was greeted by a bedroom so empty that it looked as though we’d just moved in; while I’d been away my mum had thrown out about two thirds of my belongings because ‘it needed a clearout’. To add to the dismay, when I tried to upload the almost 900 pictures and videos I’d taken on the trip, a paranoid firewall on my computer decided to delete everything on the spot, before they’d even made it onto the hard-drive, much to my horror.
When I was awake enough, I attempted a full Lughnasad ritual, but found it difficult to give thanks for what I had when I’d lost so much in such a short space of time. But then I remembered the enormous family that lived in a tin shack, the children with few to no possessions but were always smiling, the school that ran with such limited funds, and asked myself why I was crying over some thrown away knick-knacks and some deleted photos. So then, mid-ritual, I turned it all around; on our last night in Ecuador, we’d all gone round the room sharing what had been our best experiences and what we’d learned from the trip. In true Pagan style, I incorporated into my ritual what I’d ‘reaped’ from the experience, and decided that it wasn’t such a bad way to celebrate the harvest after all.
Sophie Horrocks, Southeast England.
(N.B. I later got most of my photos back –yay! -- through a recovery from a camera shop, and was better able to share my experiences with everyone.)
Location: Swansea, Wales
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