Somehow I found myself stuck in a van with 14 people, not including our driver, before 8 a.m. on a Saturday. On the way to Saraguro, an indigenous town two and half hours south of Cuenca, my group of comrades and I had no idea what our schedule for the weekend included or what we were about to plunge into.
For two days and a night, we broke out of the normal city life and drove into the countryside with the Andean mountains in full view. As a way to say “hello” and literally shake us awake on Saturday, we rode a chiva – or a really dangerous, no-door truck contraption – through the mountains surrounding the town. After a trip that deserves a better adjective than “bumpy,” we climbed atop the chiva and ate our host-mom-packed lunch in a rainy drizzle on the roof.
Once we finished our assortments of fruits and snacks, the words “let’s go for a hike” didn’t seem like that big of a deal. The phrase isn’t that daunting until you’re thrown onto the side of mountain and your instructions are “climb.” However difficult it was to keep my balance, the vastness of the valleys and the ability to “see forever” kept me going.
We crossed a stream on a rickety board stuck in the mud. We saw Incan constellation calendars (holes carved into the rocks to hold water and reflect the stars and moon). No one was around, just our group of travelers and some livestock. At our final destination—a dead end that left us sitting amongst the mountains—there was no room for pushing; we were surrounded by drop offs on all sides.
That night, after our journey back through the twists and turns, we were invited to visit a workshop in town that hosted countless looms for blanket making and a woman selling intricate beadwork at too low of a price. The craftsmanship and detail of all the pieces in the shop were suburb; it makes you question why things are so inexpensive – I bought two bracelets and a pair of earrings—all handmade and with many tiny beads for only $5.
Dinner was next door in a small building with a dining hall and stage area. Chicken, bread, soup, tea, potatoes and mate (fresh corn) tasted so good after hours in the mountains. Sharing our funny experiences so far on the trip, my friends and I started to laugh, just in time to loosen up to dance to the live Saraguro music that a group of men played and even to grab some instruments and try to jam ourselves (I improved on the pan flute, but nothing compared to the clear, strong sound from the Saraguro band.)
Then, we were off to the van to head back to the hostel. Before we could pull out of the driveway, however, an ominous-looking group of locals came walking down the road. Everyone was dressed in black and our coordinator joked that they were zombies. But then the group was advancing fast; one of the windows to the van was stuck open and a man with a red kerchief tied around his head stuck his head through it into the row of seats in front of me. Laughing and screaming, we didn’t know what was happening. The mass of people appeared to be wearing costumes and started dancing in front of the van. A bit scared that we might get robbed (and not caring at the same time), some of us jumped out into the street to dance beside the Saraguro clad in bed sheets and an assortment of old clothes.
Our trip director, Leah, who was dancing with them, explained later that night that the dancers were dressed as different Christmas characters, a tradition unique to Saraguro. Some were called wikis. As a night-before Palm Sunday tradition called supalanta, people roam around town in old clothes (they happened to be in Christmas costumes this time) asking for food like tamales and then giving seeds in return. If you plant the seeds, the characters believe that you will reap the fruit on the Palm Sunday of the next year.
My Palm Sunday began with another climb at 9 a.m. to a waterfall up a steep, muddy slope that was made even worse with the previous day’s rain. That might have been the reason we all had to sign a waiver that if we fell off the face of the earth, our Saraguro guides weren’t responsible. While trying to climb up one of the “built-in” steps, probably around since the time of the Incans, the thought crossed my mind: “What am I doing?!” But the resulting waterfall – loud and crystal clear – made the morning trek worth it.
Before our goodbye lunch, which consisted of cuy, or Guinea pig, hard-boiled eggs, barley and bread, we were invited to attend a traditional ceremony called ritual florecimiento, or a celebration of change and newness (like the flowering of plants in springtime). It turned out to be one of the most moving experiences I’ve had in a long time.
During yet another hike up a muddy slope, my friend Ellie asked “Why is everything up?” We slipped and stumbled over our hiking boots and worked our way through the mist and rocks to an eye-popping green clearing in the woods of Saraguro. Two women, dressed in black skirts and deep purple shirts along with a young man, were bending over a circle of yellow flowers and vegetables. A small bowl of charcoal smoked, and I felt a tense nervousness as the 14 of us positioned ourselves around the altar, not knowing what was next.
“No pictures, please.” It was so nice to not have clicking camera sounds and beeping cell phone noises. First, we knocked the bad energies out of ourselves with bunches of flowers and then stomped on them. One of the ladies (I’ll call her our Spirit Lady) spit a liquid onto our flowers that were full of our negative thoughts and such.
Later in the ceremony, we all drank an alcohol out of a seashell and could give thanks for something if we wished. After a friend’s tear-filled thank you, I squeaked out a line, my heart pounding because I was afraid of messing up my Spanish and because the emotions of being in a serene place were filling me up.
We were spit on, too, and waved smoke at to be cleansed; we squeezed one another’s hands and drank herbal tea. Our Spirit Lady gave us each a little purple flower. After, we gave out hugs. There’s a group picture floating out there that someone took after the ceremony—probably lingering on Facebook—but I just wanted the experience only to be in my head (and now in writing). Also, I had tears on my face and just wanted to appreciate the woods—not play with an electronic device.
Since I was the crying girl, our Spirit Lady spoke to me directly after the ritual. I felt that I could understand her words more than usual, a blessing because I am on a Spanish-learning quest, after all. She explained (which my director explained more of later in English) that the energy from the Earth is strong in the ceremony and that I should leave the bad things from my past behind—don’t take them with me into the future.
We walked away—up another hill—quietly slipping in the mud and trying not to get our shoes soaked. I felt an inner peace and was glad to leave behind my negativities in a forest in Ecuador. The next two days, however, I got a nasty cold—maybe from standing out in the rain that morning? But interestingly enough, our coordinator told me the next day that if someone gets sick after the ritual, it’s supposed to be evil/negative energies continuing to leave his or her body and mind.
Who knows? I just know I used a lot of tissues.