Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Otavalo Extravaganza

Incredible Otavalo Valley View

Las Palmeras is a converted 150 year old hacienda near Otavalo, close to both Cotacachi and Imbabura volcanoes. Almost each room has a fireplace, which is often necessary in winter, but the weather is balmy this visit, so not having a fireplace was not an issue. Our days always start early when we are traveling with the students. Breakfast was pancakes, eggs or fruit with yoghurt, coffee and tree tomato juice. First on our agenda was a visit to the Otavalo market, which is most active on Saturdays, but every day including today, most of the vendors are out on the 'Plaza de Ponchos' by 9:30. It was not busy, and bargains were available, and all the students went on a shopping spree. I take longer to shop and an hour and a half is not long enough, but I know that I will be back in a few weeks and again a month later. Every tourist to Ecuador wants to visit the market, so I am sure I will be back several times.

Bananas Bananas

Maya Buying Dreamcatchers


More Produce


Being in Otavalo feels like traveling back to a time before. Most of the people on the street are dressed in traditional attire. The women wear colourful blouses and long navy blue or black skirts with intricately woven belts and necklaces of coral and gold. The men wear white wide legged calf length pants, dark ponchos and felt hats with a long braid down the back. The children wear the same clothes as their parents. I like visiting the food market with the variety of fruits and vegetables and grains and pigs roasting. One of our students bought bananas and mangos and Eric chose a guanabana, a babaco and a few other exotic unknown examples to give the students an opportunity to taste. I gave them to the kitchen at Las Palmeras, and asked the kitchen staff to cut them up for us and serve them, but there must have been a misunderstanding and they disappeared. Perhaps they thought it was a gift for them.

Eric's Favourite Fruit/ Guanabana

We visited a foundation started by an American couple. It was called 'Ali Shungu', which means 'good heart' in Quechua, and happens to be the name of the wife of the couple. They had an import export business for fifteen years, coming to the area for three months a year to buy products and then selling them in the United States. They moved to the Otavalo area 22 years ago and ran two hotels for many years, and became interested in 'giving back' to the community. They started this foundation that interests itself in providing better education and medical care for the 700 members of the community. We visited the recently built but unfinished clinic building and were entertained by a delightful group of four and five year olds. Frank was very enthusiastic about his projects and invited us all to return and volunteer to help with the clinic or the school and I believe several students were interested.

Junior High School Students

It was a glorious sunny day with incredible views of Imbabura and Cotacachi and the valleys between. We had lunch at Casa La Hacienda in Iluman, which is a town that has a large concentration of shamans, or'yachaks' which is what they are called in Quechua. Each town in the area specializes in a particular art or craft or skill, and we had a very interesting visit to a yachak last year, so we decided to try the experience again this year. There is no need to have an appointment. Eric and Jose got out of the bus and walked along the main road knocking at doors until they found a deaf but functional yachak who was able to do a 'cleansing'. One of our students (named Pause) volunteered to be a subject, so she was asked to stand in the middle of a mat in front of a table set up as an altar, with a collection of buddhas, sacred rocks from the mountains, a pyramid, eggs, a Jesus figure, and other amulets and objects infused with good energy. His daughter explained that he only helped people and brought good energy out, rather than working with the dark side.

He filled his mouth full of sugar cane alcohol and spit on Pause several times. He covered every part of her, including her neck and throat and back and had her pull up her shirt so he could get at her midsection. He took eggs and rubbed them over her body, taking away her bad energy. Later they were to be thrown away in the stream. He voiced incantations which appealed to the spirits of the mountains and the Catholic saints. He kept asking for strength for Pause and repeatedly requested a 'lifting up', and added the sign of the cross over and over. He rubbed nettles over every inch of her, spat on her some more, and then spit fire at her from every angle. It was shocking to watch him spit fire at her, and Pause was amazingly accepting and calm, at least throughout the cleansing. It was difficult to watch, but fascinating at the same time, and lasted a very long time. Pause looked shocked after it happened, in fact all of us were stunned. I had never seen anything like it.
Fire Breathing

Going anywhere after the cleansing was a bit of an afterthought. We drove to Peguche to see a small textile museum. There are two looms, a backstrap loom and a more traditional loom, and wonderful rugs with much finer designs but far more expensive than what we saw in the marketplace. We then visited a musical instruments museum/workshop and watched a man make a pipe and a small demonstration of the many musical instruments made and played in the Andes. I could not quite come down to earth after watching the cleansing.

Musical Instrument Demonstration

Andean Music

Otavalo Dancing

Maya Trying out a Flute

Eric had arranged a 'vaca loca' for our evening entertainment (a vaca loca is a paper mache cow with fireworks attached, so that when lit at one end the fireworks are set off one by one, while a man carries the cow on his head and back and runs toward the spectators in an effort to scare them). Unfortunately although it was a great looking cow and it had excellent fireworks, it was set on the grass and did not move, so it was not exciting, and it turned out to be a 'vaca tranquila'. I am not sure why I like the 'vaca loca' so much, it is such a crazy event, with the vaca on fire and fireworks spinning all over the place and scaring and exciting all the spectators. Eric tried to run around the vaca few times to make it more interesting, and a few students followed him. Andean music and dancing followed, and Maya joined Eric and I on the dance floor. Andean music is easy to dance to, but Eric was trying to remember his salsa moves, which made for challenging dancing.

It feels as if our day was jampacked with activities. So much to see and do, there is little chance to think or reflect, we just observe and absorb. Any interpretations or reflections will happen later. Although I have done this trip year after year now, each time it is new and interesting and I see and learn something I have not seen or known before.

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