The Pope, the Shaman, the Taxi Driver & U.S. Customs Agents

on the road to Guayaquil

on the road to Guayaquil

Well, I can’t resist one last Cañar Chronicle, given the prefect storm that accompanied our leaving Cañar last week. How could we have known when we made our reservations six months ago that El Papa would be flying into Ecuador the next day? That there would be no buses through Cañar because all were going straight to Guayaquil for the Pope’s mass, where a million people were expected? That protesters against President Correa would take advantage of the turmoil and close some roads around us the day before we were to travel? El Papa 2Making this trip more complicated (and interesting), Mama Michi was traveling with us to visit her daughter in the U.S. Fortunately, the day before our flight, and seeing trouble coming, we had hired Jacinto, our friend/taxi driver, to take us to Guayaquil. We agreed to leave Cañar at 3:00 for a flight on American at 11:00 PM.

As Jacinto tied Mama Michi’s two enormous bags on top of his car, I asked her why she was taking so much luggage for only a month’s visit. “It’s food,” she whispered. “I’m worried about the food there.” She was also, of course, taking typical Cañari fare as gifts for her family. I asked her to name what was in the bags: five cuyes (guinea pigs), cleaned and ready for cooking, and one already cooked; one rabbit cleaned and ready to cook; five bottles of Zhumir, the cane liquor so important at any ritual event; a bag of fresh shelly beans, another of peas and one of choclos (fresh field corn in husks) – all harvested from Mama Michi’s fields in the days before the trip; a bag of dried corn to make mote, an essential filler at every meal; and a pound of máchica, dried ground barley added to milk or other liquid for a drink that everyone loves; PLUS a big box full of tamales and chiviles (another type of tamale). Everything for the Andean diet except potatoes.mama michi now

After Jacinto picked up his wife – an unexpected fourth passenger – and stopped at the local roadside shrine to collect holy water, which he sprinkled on the car, on Michael in the front seat, and a few last drops on we three women crowded in the back, we were off…in plenty of time, so we accepted Jacinto’s invitation to stop at his “coast house” for beers. Every Cañarejo seems to want a warm place on the coastal plane, 9,000 feet below, where they can grow bananas and other sub-tropical crops not possible in Cañar. And have flowers galore. Here is Mama Michi posing with a “bear’s paw ” bush at Jacinto’s casita. She uses plants in her curaciones, so she was fascinated with the the flora. (A bundle of dried flowers and plants in one of her bags would figure in our near future.)

I should stop here and explain that Mama Michi (Mercedes Chuma) is one of our oldest friends in Cañar. I met her in 1991, on my very first trip to the (then) village for a meeting on a research project. I was a volunteer, ready to teach two young Cañari men photography and sound recording, and one of those young men was Mama Michi’s son, Jose Miguel. At a time of great distrust of outsiders, she welcomed me and found me amusing. She was an early and one of my best portrait subjects. Back then she was a community leader and a tired mother of 6 children with a sick husband, Serafin. After her husband died, Mama Michi became a curadera, a healer, or – as her passport says – shamán. She said she always knew she had the talent but her husband prevented her from practicing. Since then she has built an impressive business that has lifted her family well out of poverty. Mama Michi, however, did not have the advantage of an education beyond grade 3, and for that reason she needs to travel with someone – she cannot read nor write. Here she is in her first portrait, circa 1993.

Mama Michi Chuma

After the stop at Jacinto’s, it was a straight shot to the airport, except for a traffic police stop for no other reason than our out-of-province license plates and pure corrupt shakedown. We passengers watched in the rearview mirrors much arm-waving and angry gestures as the officers’ demand was negotiated down from $125, to $75, to $50, to $25. “Que disgracia! Que disgracia!” sweet, honest, religious Jacinto kept saying as he got back in the car. What a disgrace.MM & Michael in airport

me Mercedes in airportOnce at the airport we had plenty of time to relax and run into friends. Now that the US Consulate has begun to give out visas to Cañarejos, after years of refusing just about everyone, there’s lots of traffic visiting family, mostly in New York and New Jersey. Waiting, we ran into Mercedes Guamán, one of our first scholarship graduates and now a busy attorney and alternate member of the national congress.

At check-in, Mama Michi’s bags were overweight, and as I had a nearly empty suitcase I stuffed several unidentified packages from her bags into mine. “Bad idea, very bad idea,” Michael kept murmuring. But I forgot to ask MM about her carry-on, and that caused the first contretemps as we went through security. What are these? “Bottles of agua florida for my for my ceremonies,” she said. (Basically cologne with magic powers for “limpiezas, buena suerte, y protección.”) 

agua florida label agua florida

You can’t take those.  What’s this? “Olive oil, used for massages,” she said. Can’t take that, or that big tube of hand cream. And what is this? “My tupo, to hold my cape.” (A tupo is an essential part of every Cañari woman’s clothing – a sort of medallion with a small skewer about 4 inches long.) The security folks gathered around to test the point with their fingers, and shook their heads. I could see it was a beautiful silver tupo, maybe her mother’s, but in any case a treasured item. “You can’t take that,” I said. “It’s part of her heritage, her identity.” Without a word, one of the security women quietly stuck the tupo into a pocket of Mama Michi’s purse.

the long long hallway

OK. I think I’ll skip the drama of passing through Immigration in Miami at 4:30 AM, when Mama Michi was lost for an hour and a half in the visa-holders’ line and no one could let us go back to look for her once we had passed through the US citizens’ line. After a tearful reunion we grabbed our bags and rushed to customs, fearing we would miss our flight to Chicago. (Meanwhile I’d transferred her goods from my bags to hers.) There, Mama Michi’s luggage was opened by an agent to reveal all the glory of her hard work and planning and preparing and packing. Polite young agents who spoke Spanish gathered around and began to look for insects in her beans and corn and peas. “Yes, there’s a laper-something,” (Latin name) said one young agent, carefully peeling back the husks of an ear of corn with vinyl gloves. A young woman came over with a small vial to collect a nearly microscopic bug. “Can’t take the corn, sorry” he said in Spanish, very polite.  Oops, what’s that worm we see in the beans?  Sorry can’t take those. Nor the peas. What else do you have?

With that Mama Michi began the litany of goods: surprisingly, raw guinea pig was OK, but not beef or pork (she had none). Bottles of Zhumir, no problem. Dried corn and barley, fine. The bundle of dried flowers and herbs, OK. And the large box of cooked tamales and chiviles – looks good! YOU MAY GO.

By the time we were done, we had missed our flight to Chicago. That meant lining up to be re-routed with hundreds of other international travelers who had missed their connections. But again, very nice American Airlines helpers who spoke Spanish, all interested in Mama Michi, and in keeping us together for the remainder of the trip. “What tribe are you from?” asked someone along the way?  “Is she from Peru?” asked another. “May I speak to her?”

It was barely 9:00 when we were liberated into the Miami airport, exhausted, with two long flights still ahead, but we’d got to Guayaquil despite the Pope’s visit, survived Immigration and US Customs, and could begin to recover with coffee, breakfast, and a bit of rest.

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Leaving Cañar

P1100509There must be a good metaphor for the closing up of a house, slowly divesting it of color in rugs, pillows, throws, weavings. Darkening the rooms with exterior shutters. Rolling up rugs and mats. Taking art and photos off the walls. Shutting down the patio fountain. Emptying shelves, packing away clothes. It’s all good for cleaning and ordering, but maybe brings on a touch of melancholy. Continue reading