Kelly: Field study to Otavalo & Cotacachi

February 24, 2011

Our program is divided into 4 tracks, one of them being a Public Health group, which I am in. Last Wednesday–Thursday we took a trip to Otavalo and Cotocachi to observe indigenous medicine practices (un parto vertical y práctica curativa por Yachac) and to observe the interrelations of health systems (medicina occidental y indígena).

Our first visit was to Hospital San Luis in Otavalo. This hospital is the only intercultural hospital in the area and has been making an attempt to integrate/co-opt/absorb/accept (the word choice depends on your viewpoint) indigenous medicine into/with the Western medicine system.  A unique part of this is the presence of a sala de parto, which is a room that mimics the house of a partera (midwife/doctor) where a woman would go to give birth. We were fortunate enough to be able to enter the sala while a young woman was in the process of giving birth. The traditional way of giving birth is for the woman to be kneeling and kept warm by layers of blankets around her, and usually to be surrounded by her family. The partera present explained the different herbs used and we saw how she used massage, touch, and her voice to aid the mother. She said, several times in different ways, “Da ayuda de un montón a la mujer, nuestras compañera.”

After we left the hospital, we went to a health center with a focus on indigenous practices called Jambi Huasi (Casa de Salud). We visited with a Yachac (medicine man) who told us that his grandmother lived past 110 years old and started teaching him how to heal when he was three. His children don’t know his secrets and he doesn’t use or promote plantas sagradas (like Shamans do). In his candle-lit room filled with animal skins, bones, shelves of dried plants, some christian relics, crystal pyramids, and other assorted “sources of power and energy,” he explained that his knowledge is not studied, that it is knowledge of his ancestors and wisdom from nature.

Next we filed into the fregador, where we met the experienced fregadora Mamá Juanita (who our chauffeur later described as poca expresionante). She demonstrated two forms of body cleaning for us—one with an egg, the other with cuy (yep- a guinea pig). I volunteered to be cleaned by egg. Mamá Juanita had me sit in a chair and proceeded to rub an egg all over my body, softly chanting the entire time. She paused on my palms and the top of my head to tap the egg against me, saying “Chunga, chunga, chunga.” When she had finished, she cracked the egg into a metal dish and examined the contents. She proclaimed there was nothing to be seen and that I was healthy. If the yoke is runny or has odd colors, it signifies that the egg has absorbed bad energy from some part of your body. My yoke was golden and perky. Chévere.

And now for el limpia con cuy… Adriana was the only one interested in volunteering. Before I explain the process, I feel the need to give a cultural disclaimer so that this practice isn’t misunderstood. So, in a cleaning with cuy, the cuy is viewed as a sacrifice for the health of the individual. The cuy dies in the process of the cleaning and is cut opened afterward to reveal what bad energies it had absorbed from the person.  To start: Adriana stood in the center of the room as Mamá Juanita pulled the cuy from the burlap sack it which it had been silently stationed. Mamá Juanita grabbed two legs in each hand and began vigorously shaking it up and down Adriana’s body. It was a bit difficult to watch as I remembered my former pet piggies Patches and Oreo. During the cleaning, we could hear the sloshing of the cuy’s insides; later, Adriana told us it was making little vocal noises as well. Mamá Juanita checked a couple of times to see if  the cuy had died, and after the third time she decided it had passed and let Adriana take a seat as she began to skin the cuy. Turns out Mamá Juanita had judged wrong because once she had removed most of the skin, we heard noises from the cuy and saw his back legs contract; Mamá Juanita looked up at us with a surprised laughsmile and said, “He’s not dead yet!”

Once she had examined all of the organs and musculature, Mamá Juanita told us that Adriana was pretty healthy, but had a bit of lower back pain (the cuy had had black area in his lower back). She added that Adriana’s heart is “muy fuerte!” Claro. We collectively decided that if our group is faced with an armed robber at any point, Adriana gets to protect us since she has a heart that will never perish.

Once we arrived at our rather lavish hotel, ate lunch, and took a little siesta, we had a conference titled Cosmovisión andina y la salud with Enrique Cachinguango. He talked with us about how the idea of an intercultural health system is lovely, but there are still many limitations and ways in which it is not being realized. I found much of what he told us profound—it was a life lessons, ways of living talk with Grandpa. He told us, “Viva fuerte y con amor, con mucho amor.” He stressed that, “No somos parte de la naturaleza. Somos naturaleza.” We took a walk to la cascada Peguche afterwards to take part in a what our syllabus called a “ritual ceremony.” What this ceremony consisted of was standing together in a circle, lighting our neighbor’s candle, telling Peguche our name, why we were here, and te amo. It was lightly raining, Peguche was continuing to fall, and I felt a deep sense of peace.

(Due to the title of this part of our day and religion, there was one individual who chose not to participate. This individual also read her bible the two hours from Quito to Otavalo. She explained later that she didn’t know what to expect and didn’t want it to conflict with her own religious beliefs. This seemed strange to me as Enrique had earlier explained the importance of putting all cultures/beliefs on the same level and not being scared of what is different.)

On Thursday our easily-confused driver got us to Cotocachi where we saw a simulación de parto vertical ancestral. Three women and a blushing man acted out how a traditional indigenous birthing process would happen. This partera told us as well, “We always help the mama.” Maybe I’ll elaborate on the whole process in another post.

Thursday night, two friends and I stayed with our couchsurfing friend Julio. We went out to a bar where I got a free, strong fruity drink topped with two cherries. In the Plaza de Ponchos, we got empanadas and walked back to the flat drinking beers. His two cousins and their two friends came over before we went out to dance the night away. At some point during the night a flaming shot was put in front of me. I almost drank the whole thing :) I’d say we brought my birthday in right.

Friday, the actual anniversary of the day of my birth, I returned to Quito, took a shower, and went with a friend to the museum and house of Guyasamín. SUPER CHÉVERE! Then we went to La Ronda with my parents, had dinner, and drank boiled wine. There was a live band that said, “To the cumpleañera!” after every song, thanks to my dad’s note to them. It was a very enjoyable evening.

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