Dear Friends: Well, creating this web blog has been more difficult that I anticipated. The problem is my broadband service, delivered from a communications tower on a nearby mountain, through a device mounted on a 3-meter pole in our garden and pointed at the mountain. Early in the mornings, when no one else is on-line, I enjoy a fast connection and can, say, upload photos to my website. By 2:00 PM, when all the kids are out of school and have flooded the commercial Internet places that have sprung up in town like fast food venues at every other storefront, I can barely send e-mails. It’s a little bit amusing to think how I’m sharing the ether with all these kids hunched over computers (with little partitions dividing them), cruising Facebook and UTube and who knows what else. Then I have to wait until next morning for my fast connection. So, before this chronicle gets too out of date…
Never look a gift gallo in the beak? *
Last Sunday was a marathon of visitors bearing gifts. First, Estela, a nursing student in the scholarship program, came by to collect her monthly payment, bringing fresh fava beans and new potatoes.
Then Alexandra and her mother arrived from Suscal, an hour away, with a bag of warm, justly-made chiveles (a form of sweet tamale). They’d come to ask if I would be the godmother of Alexandra’s high school graduation on Friday. Yes, of course.
And finally, a man I know named José knocked on the door, wanting to inquire about the scholarship program for his daughter, who I could see hanging back at the front gate, looking embarrassed and holding a wriggling feed sack.
“It’s a gallo!” said José, once we’d sat down in my studio. The shy daughter opened the sack and I looked in to see a big beautiful rooster. “But we have nowhere to keep it,” was, I’m sorry to say, my first response.
“Eat it!” replied José, making a chopping gesture with his hand. ”Put it in a pot and cook it and eat it!”
I called to Michael, walking by, and he came in and peered into the sack. “Thank you so much.” He said sincerely and walked out. So it was settled. The only other animal we’ve been given in Cañar was a white rabbit a few years ago. We named him Narizon for his pretty black nose, and kept him in the patio until our interior garden began to smell like a rabbit hutch. We gave him to our compadres and didn’t ask after his fate.
As soon as José and his daughter left, Michael ran up the hill to inquire if our neighbor, Rosario, would like a gallo. She came within minutes, and I requested she pull the rooster out of the sack for a photo before she took him away. “Will you eat him?” I asked. “Oh no, he’ll be good with my hens,” she said.
“Yeah,” Michael said knowingly after she left, “that rooster will soon be over here pecking through our compost and trying to get into the garden.” Sure enough, a few days later I came home to find the rooster strutting around our front yard with two hens in tow, looking quite pleased with himself. At dusk, Rosario came looking for her flock, bearing four beautiful fresh eggs as a gift. “With that new rooster, the hens have really started laying!” she said with a laugh.
* Latin text of St. Jerome, The Letter to the Ephesians, circa AD 400, contains the text ‘Noli equi dentes inspicere donati’ (Never inspect the teeth of a given horse).
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A couple of weeks ago I was happy to be asked to photograph the Fiesta de San Antonio in the mountain village of Junducuchu, a few miles above Cañar. I’ve done this several years now, and it’s the most exciting and rewarding of local fiestas. Also a little bit dangerous. I’ve been knocked off the bull ring fence by a wild bull, along with a bunch of boys, and limped home to go to bed for a day; pinched on the butt by a vaca loca (men acting like “mad cows” and allowed to do this only during fiesta); and this year I slipped and fell in the road while walking backwards photographing the procession, and I was accidentally bopped on the head by one of the giant puppets.
San Antonio de Padua is the patron saint of Cañar, but no one has been able to tell me how a how a thirteenth-century Franciscan monk who was born in Portugal and died in Padua, Italy, in 1231, came to be venerated in this remote Ecuadorian town. I suppose the first Spanish priests decided to introduce this particular saint to the native peoples of the region. Anyway, that’s him in the little box above, or rather an 8-inch, doll-like icon of San Antonio in a sequined gown, carried by the ñusta, or queen, of the fiesta. Next to her is a fiesta host señora carrying a baby Jesus (universally call el niño) in a little chair. These two women, along with about a hundred others, including a brass band and a whole herd of vacas locas, had walked from the church in the town square to high on the mountain, a procession of several hours. Usually I walk too, but this year I got lucky and was offered a ride to the halfway point, having vowed last year never to do that climb again.
The day was beautiful when I joined a second group waiting on a plateau for the procession. Young people who are called the “chorus” – the girls in scarves and veils and capes, carrying umbrellas the twirl when they dance; the boys in little skirts over their pants, wigs with long braids under their hats, and elaborate capes.
Also waiting alongside the road were these wonderful papier mache-over-wood-frame puppet characters, brought out and spiffed up each year for the fiesta. People animate them by carrying the over their heads.
And here comes the procession, led by a vaca loca and the village officials. Every detail of the fiesta is determined by a traditional but shifting hierarchy – who carries the saint, who plays the vacas locas, which hamlet trains the chorus, who eats when and where. (This was all explained to me today in an hour-long interview with Pedro Solano, a leader from the community, in anticipation of submitting a co-authored article for the patrimonial culture magazine.)
Today, I realized what a faux pas I made by not staying to eat, but by late afternoon maybe 400 people were crowded around the host’s house, all expecting to dine, and I simply could not figure out when it should be my turn to enter the house and take a seat at the table. (Also, I wanted to get home to Michael’s dinner.) Apparently the community leaders noticed that I snuck away before eating, and that brings shame on them (and on me too but they would never say such a thing). Next time, I’ll join the line-up and eat cuy!
At the house of the host, San Antonio and el Niño were placed in an altar made for the occasion. There they would stay during the next eight days, until they return to the elder of the community, a woman, who “owns” the saint as long as she lives. When she dies it will be passed on to someone else. Stay tuned as I learn more….