San Clemente: The land of guinea pigs, tortillas, and misery

This past weekend Two weekends ago Five weekends ago (I am slacking so hardcore right now-but I did start writing this over a month ago!) we took a 4-day, 3-night visit to the indigenous village of San Clemente, located ~4 hours (via bus) north of Quito. Our trip, per usual, began at the crack of dawn on Thursday morning. We departed from our coveted central meeting spot, Hotel Quito, and embarked on our merry way.

Halfway between Quito and San Clemente, there is a place called El Café de la Vaca…it is otherworldly. As you all must know by now, my program’s director, Juan Aulestias, is hooked up! He has connections with everyone and everything rico in Ecuador, so it was no surprise that we were treated (on us, actually-all program trip fees are part of our tuition) to the most delicious breakfast I have ever had in my life! There was nothing particularly different about the food, except the QUALITY. Commencing with my fresh raspberry juice in a mug (that drink was as close to Oktoberfest as I got) which was followed by a bread basket overflowing with crunchy and buttery biscochos (biscuits), flaky croissants, and fluffy whole wheat bread. As always, I told myself I must withhold from digesting any more carbs after warming up my palate with a biscuit and chowing down on  a hunk of croissant. What a lost cause. I lost all control, subsequently demolishing the contents clean, with the help of the other 4 people with whom I was supposed to be sharing, of course. After indulging in eggs with ham  and some coffee with fresh-squeezed cow milk, we were ready to hit the road.

San Clemente is located in the province Imbaburro. The population there, beginning 10 years ago, began to participate in making their community a site of ecotourism. Ecotourism, according to The International Ecotourism Society, can be defined as “uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel.” This fairly novel phenomenon has been picked up as a great way to both profit on extranjeros’ (foreigners’) fascination with a completely different way of life and to find a reason to maintain and preserve the many traditions and rituals that would otherwise be lost.

Our experience in San Clemente was sort of a tumultuous mess, if I am telling the truth. We were there for three nights and stayed with different families of the community. The trip itself is not worth going into too much detail, because it pains me to virtually relive the vomiting, nausea, and discomfort that we all collectively shared (no worries, I didn’t get sick myself). The trip consisted of a temazcal ceremony (a steam sauna in a cave that we constructed), multiple feasts, Pairs stayed with families from the community. Another girl from my program and I stayed with a baker and his wife and two kids. I helped him make tortillas the last morning in a fire pit.

Me, Stephanie (from my program), Margarita (our mom for the weekend), and Natalie (our baby sis for the weekend)

Cooking up some tortillas

Hands down, the highlight of the trip was the cuy limpia, which is a diagnosis done by a yachak, or a medicine man, using a guinea pig. First, the yachak takes volunteers who are feeling ill or just want to be diagnosed. In our group’s case, two guys ended up in the hot seat. The man of wisdom takes a living guinea pig and breaks its neck, thereby killing it. Next, he proceeds to dangle the guinea pig by one of its legs and swings it back and forth, swiping the “patient’s” entire body and head (not face, thank God) with the limp rodent. This process takes around 3 minutes and we all sat and squirmed as we watched the guys sit and squirm. Subseqently, the yachak takes the cuy and peels its skin back and carefully dissects all of the poor little cuy’s insides. All the bloody guts are placed in a shallow bowl of water. At this point, the yachak picks at the wet mess and he diagnoses all of its organs. The ailments of the guinea pig diagnosed by the yachak are supposed to correspond directly to any illnesses the patient is experiencing. Key words are “supposed to” here. All of us were completely disillusioned by his diagnoses because he claimed that the first patient (my friend Luis) was suffering from sadness, a broken left knee, and a bad kidney. Everyone experiences sadness, Luis NEVER had a problem with either of his knees and ok, fine, let’s just say the yachak is correct of the bad kidney. The second patient, Johnny, was simply told that he “shouldn’t smoke” and “should go to a doctor immediately because he has bad lungs.” Yes, he does smoke, but really, it’s not that hard to tell. You would know what I mean if you looked at him.

Luis, the yachak, and the cuy.

Bloody guinea pig guts. Yum.

Anyway, after four days of gluttonous eating and awkward exchanges with members of the community, we fled the community quite eagerly. Now you may ask what made our stay there so unpleasant, and there are many reasons. 1) This poor attempt at “immersion” resulted in discomfort on both ends. We were encouraged (as always) to refrain from speaking English with one another in order to facilitate conversation with the community members. Yet for some reason the people of San Clemente refused to speak to us in Spanish. All of my interactions with them ended up being interview sessions in which they reluctantly answered my questions with one word responses and then would revert to speaking in Kichwa, an indigenous language, with their family members and friends. 2) They didn’t talk to us; all they did was feed us. We ate in absolute excess because that was all that we were given to do. More than a few people left with awful stomach aches and at least two people suffered evenings of endless vomiting. I don’t think it was the food itself; the real problem was the quantity.

The weekend left a bad taste in our mouths, to say the least. We were all elated to be heading back to Quito, where being a gringo isn’t actually a negative thing, and we aren’t typically force fed breakfast, lunch and dinner. I did come back with 30 tortillas (no more, no less) for my host family, and my mami truly appreciated them (she said that they reminded her of her childhood because her mom used to make them over the fire as well).

Thankfully, my next post will discuss how program trips can also be enjoyable and pleasant. Sorry for the bashing, Duke in the Andes. It just had to be done.

Huk Ratukma!!


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