Homecoming to a Home I’ve Never Seen
On my father’s side I come from a long line of professional butchers and the processing of meat, from the hoof to the plate, is not unfamiliar to me. So I knew immediately that the screams from below my bedroom window came from a dying pig. It was the morning after a night that I’ve partially forgotten.
Arriving in Guaranda with my friend Jefferson mid-day Saturday, we shoved ourselves into a taxi after a great lunch in a Chifa, or Chinese restaraunt. Though these are not the big yellow taxis that we’ve come to know and love in the US. Like taxis in many primarily rural Latin American countries, these conveyances are Hilux pickups with space for standing room only in the beds of the compact little trucks. They have welded racks for the clients to grab on to while the driver practices his time-is-money routine by racing around curves.
Each time I’ve ridden in one of these, both in Ecuador and years ago in Guatemala, I’ve revisited an alien emotion: FEAR. I don’t care that there is a rack to hold on to, 40mph over bumps and around curves with a 3/4” metal tube between me and death does little for plans for the future. And I say this truthfully: I lost count, from the jostling and bouncing, at 22 of us jammed into a standard Toyota truck bed! That I was a head or two taller than all the other passengers allowed for the size of the passenger list, but still it was no easy delivery to the path leading up to La Casa de Los Moposita. Thank you Mother Earth.
Most of the family was out when we arrived, and so I was quickly introduced to Jefferson’s mother and 2 of his sisters. His mother was cooking up a type of marmalade (sambo) that is well-known in the region and highly sought after throughout the rest of Ecuador. I was unable to try any because it takes some time to prepare and age. Since the women of the house were busy preparing for the next day’s festivities, we walked out on to the property, past a grazing cow and her calf. The surrounding lands, including the Moposita property, are dizzily steep and they reminded me of photos I’ve seen of terraced lands in the Philippines.
As we retraced our path back we were greeted by Jefferson’s brother Diego and his 2 brothers-in-law, Jorge and German. After some pleasantries that I stumbled through, Jefferson left and I stayed near the cook-fire and sat down with the other 3. They had already been drinking the local Pilsener brand of beer by pouring small doses into a glass and then passing it around for each other. While I generally avoid all alcohol for personal health reasons, I knew that it plays an important role in indigenous communities. So, being the obvious outsider amongst 3 young men, I knew it was time to relax some personal rules.
All 3 were outdoing each other being cordial to the obvious rube in their midst, and spoke slow and clear Spanish to find out just who this whiteboy was. It was the first time that any of them had met someone from the USA. The talk finally got to age, and even after I showed them a copy of my passport, there were serious doubts of my credibility all round. None of the 3 were ready to accept that I was actually older than both of the Moposita parents. I could tell that this seemingly simple issue might change the mood, and certainly not change it for the better.
By now I had been there for half an hour or so, helping them work through their 2nd case of the beer (they were well ahead of me) and it was time for some quick action. Sitting with strangers well into their cups (or shared glass in this case) can start off friendly enough, but quickly turn sour with an unintended remark or gesture. So taking the lead, I mentioned that I had read about something called Pajaro Azul, the Blue Bird. I said that what I had read made me very curious. This stopped everything. No talking, no scratching (We’re men, what did you think we do?), no movement, nothing. Then each looked at the others, they smiled simultaneously, and the smallest of glasses appeared out of nowhere. From behind the wall, by Jorge’s feet, a repurposed plastic water bottle jumped into his hand and then the real fun began.
All Ecuadorians know of Guaranda. It figured pivotally in the country’s fight for independence from Spain more than 200 years ago, and universally these people know their history far better than we know ours. These same Ecuadorians know that Guranda has 2 unique treasures: its Carnaval, and Pajaro Azul, which only flies during the days of the fiesta.
Throughout Latin America distilled sugar cane is made into Aguardiente, a potent, clear liquor available everywhere. If one decides to distill the liquor even further (120 proof, minimum), and add a few spices, maybe some special family herbs, a pale, blue-tinged liquid comes out the other end. Over countless generations this liquor has been treated with the highest reverence and respect. After the killing of the pig the next morning, Jefferson’s father sprinkled Pajaro Azul on the ground where the bloodletting had taken place. The liquor helps to send the blood to the spirits underground with hopes that they will be pleased and then assure a bountiful harvest in the coming year. But we weren’t ready for all that right then.
The sun was going down and the women had been joined by the 2 other daughters along with my friend Jefferson. Since by now we had solved most of the world’s problems it was time for dinner. Meals in el Campo (the countryside) are pretty simple affairs that always start off with soup. Sopas (thinner) or Caldos (thicker, often gruel-like) that I’ve eaten daily since I arrived in Ecuador are some of the best I’ve had in my life, and this meal’s caldo was right there up on top, followed by boiled chicken and potatoes.
For desert, with the table cleared and the women somehow vanishing, Jefferson and Diego brought out a quitar and a violin and began singing a very simple but hauntingly resonant song of Guaranda and Carnaval. For the next 36 hours I was never more than 10 minutes away from that song, whether there at the Moposita home, or down in Guaranda, or hearing it/feeling it coming across the steep hills and valleys of the Campo as the mist settled in, sung and played in other homes, the song was there, always there, hearlding in the New Year.
I admit that I played a small part in continuing the melody, and my foot still hurts one week later, from crunching a stone in pitch blackness. But by now, after dinner had settled and the beer pretty much gone, it was pure Blue Bird and we were just about ready to get started on phase II.
End of Part II