They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Travel Diary (15 out of 28): Peguche voices

Travel Diary (15 out of 28): Peguche voices

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated and commented by Sara Plaza

[Diary of the journey by land across the ancient Inka Empire, from LIS Meeting to LIS Meeting, through Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and NW Argentina, from November 5th to December 1st, 2006]

It was Saturday evening when we arrived in Peguche, fleeing from the first raindrops that were the announcement of the ones that would be falling in large amount a bit later. We were seeking for lodging to spend the night and get some rest. We had been touring without interruption and we really needed to sleep for a while and lay down on a bed. Still blinded by the profusion of colors we had seen in the Otavalo market, with every smell inside our head and each sound –music, Quichua language...– dancing in our ears yet, we trod on the grounds of that little community, placed a couple of kilometers far from Otavalo main square. "Taita" Imbabura mount was threatening, showing that bad weather was likely. Clouds covered the highest summits of the range that we guessed on the dark horizon, while flashes of lightning struck the sky.

In Peguche, our contact was Elena Huenala, a teacher whose surname –we came to know it later– was old enough to be well known and respectfully pronounced everywhere. A native speaker of Quichua, she owned an exquisite culture and a natural kindness; she had been a tireless traveler and managed to survive very bad times. Elena welcomed us to her house with open arms –though we were strangers– and let us stay with her and her family that day and the following. It took us nothing to feel at home, and soon we sat down with her in a little room and talked to each other while we heated our hands and our throats with a hot cup of a herbal tea.

It was Sunday morning, the 19th of November; birds singing awoke us very early and Sara and I went quickly to the windows and looked out of them. There was mist on every hillside and since our room was overlooking the entire horizon we could see Imbabura summit on one side and Cotacachi summit on the other. The first one was completely naked, while the second was totally covered with snow. We also discovered the small village at our feet, the rows of tiles on the roofs, the orchards, and the people walking in the stony streets with quick steps, probably to meet their duties or to join the mass. It was curious to see that most of them were dressed with their traditional clothes, something that I had only seen in La Paz, with Aymara women, before.

We went down to help the family with the household and the breakfast but they did not allow us to move a finger. Trying not to be get in the way of their movements, we put ourselves aside for a moment while our hosts taught us how, in the Andean way of thinking, mountains, in addition to be the protective spirits' homes, were considered to have sex. That way, Imbabura mount was male and was called José Manuel. Cotacachi mount, on the other hand, was female and was named Blanca Nieves (Snow-white). The legends that join one mountain with the other, in many different ways, are a lot, and make up a great part of the oral tradition that is still alive among the indigenous groups of this area. And there were many aboriginal communities from Ibarra to Otavalo, sparsely populated among the mountains. In those valleys, raised many little villages, whose names reminded me of a good number of traditional "sanjuanitos": Tabacundo, Iluman, Chimbaloma, Cotacachi, Carabuela... In each place a particular handicraft was made; felt hats, shoes, textiles and so on, where the sort of products that those communities, and Peguche itself, felt proud of.

While Elena was preparing the breakfast, her sister took us to their orchard and showed us the plants, herbs, trees and fruits that grew there. We found some types of fruit that we had never seen before –"uvilla" and "granadilla", for example– and some others that, even if we knew them, tasted so sweet and delicious when grabbed them from the tree.

We could not avoid thinking that most of the children that live in a city do not even know that mandarins grow on a tree, how the corn plant looks like, and that potato, from which their "snacks" are made, is a tuber that grows underground. Perhaps the library and the school have a very important role to play in naturalizing what has been denaturalized, in bringing children –men and women of the future– near to the land that sees their growing.

Breakfast included "tree tomato" juice (another piece of fruit that we had not seen before), bread, cheese, herbal tea and "kanguila" (popcorn). Elena's father arrived just before we had started to eat. This man did not know his own age –neither his daughter knew it – but had an extraordinarily clear mind and expressed himself with astonishing lucidity. He was one of the most important music players, song writers and composers of his community. So, once we had enjoyed with some of his stories and his curiosity –and the rest of the family curiosity as well– had been "satiated" by asking us many different questions about our own countries, someone brought me an old flute made of plastic and from that very moment, a completely different dialogue took place between both of us. With a song going and an anecdote coming back, that old musician begun to pick different chapters of his artistic life from his memories, sharing with us the happiness of being the proud author of his community anthem, which was titled "Peguche tio" (Lord of Peguche). Our conversation around the table was delightful, sometimes in Quichua, sometimes in Spanish, sometimes through music, sometimes in silence... The mutual respect shown by every family member together with the humility of our own voices created a strange atmosphere of comprehension behind the words. It was also curious to take notice of how Elena's father talked to us only looking at me at the beginning, and turning his face to Sara a bit later –whom firstly he had put aside and after a few minutes invited to come closer and sit next to him.

For a couple of hours we listened to all of them and heard of travel stories, of the many places they went to and the many more they had to leave, of failures, of the envy felt inside the community at the success of one of its members, of problems, of the sacrifices they made...

We did perfectly understand something we had heard before about people from Otavalo: their spirit of struggle, their intelligence, their capability to adapt to modern times without losing ancient traditions, and their determined initiative. However, we also discovered that underlying those extraordinary qualities there was the great love that they felt for the ground where they stand, a huge feeling of melancholy when they are far away... I had seen that feeling before: it was there, in Spain, in the eyes of my Ecuadorian friends.

After having breakfast, Elena's sister invited us to go for a walk up to the Waterfall of Peguche, one of the most important natural tourists' attractions of this village. It is located two kilometers far from downtown. Walking slowly along the main street we could observe the morning life running on both sides of our path. Here, there was someone selling "guavas" – very big pods filled with seeds, which inner part tastes sweet; there, a couple of women carried their bundles alongside with their children on their backs; a bit further a grandfather was sat on the threshold. "Ñanda mañachi" greeted our guide: "lend me the path" she was telling in Quichua, a greeting that was something like a sort of permission for overtaking someone showing your respect. The streets were covered with "guava" seeds and we followed Elena's sister jumping over them and listening to the stories she told us concerning the history of Peguche, the origin of those lands that now belonged to the community but were first owned by a landlord, the work done by "comuneros", the land divisions and the different uses given to it... Further on we crossed the "chagras" ("chacras", corn fields) where seeds were starting to sprout little by little.

It was great to be learning while we were walking, since our friend shared with us what she knew about the plants and herbs that we found on both sides of our path, about customs, about the kind of relationships established inside and outside the community, about their way of life... From time to time, she stopped briefly and told us how to prepare a mixture of herbs and fruit that it is considered to be an excellent remedy for reducing the effects of "chuchaki" (hangover); how they cut in strips the leaves of a plant –the "penco", similar to an agave, a plant that grows in hot dry areas, with sharp points on the leaves– and use them as washing powder to wash on the shores of the narrow streams surrounding the fields, which clean your clothes and whiten them without polluting the water with foam and other harmful compounds... A few steps further on she explained to us the different uses of "cháwar" or royal agave, whose fibers were used for weaving textiles, and from its pulp, fermented a bit, was made the "cháwar mishki" (a drink that tastes nice and sweet), or if fermented for a long a time, was obtained something very similar to the Mexican "pulque"... While we continued walking, she showed Sara her clothes and told her what the old traditions were for the women to get dressed. She pointed out how in the past, women and men were considered equal to each other were grown up to be respectful of dual conception of the Andean universe. Regretfully, with the conquest and later, during colonial times, machismo emphasized the importance of being strong rather than being intelligent and sensitive. However, our friend, with a very funny smile on her face and brightening eyes, commented on the strong determination and independency of the women from Otavalo – something that we had notice the previous day in the Market: most of the traders were young and adult women, even girls, who had haggled with us about the price with great dexterity. Sara and I were very conscious of how fortunate we were having the opportunity to listen to this indigenous woman, a person with a lot of knowledge, determined to share it, maintain if alive and widen it day after day.

In less than an hour we reached the entrance of the natural park where was written on a wooden board "Welcome to the faccha". Something broke out in my head, I could almost feel the emotional explosion: that was the title of a song that I loved very much that was played by the Italian group "Trencito de los Andes" (Andean little train). Though I had never known what the meaning of "faccha", I loved that song a lot. Right there I learnt its meaning: "faccha" was the same as waterfall in Quichua.

The song I referred to above described, step by step, a visit to that waterfall, which was a ceremonial place, the source of many legends and where people meet before festivities. That way, whispering the lyrics of that song –kept in my memory since I was an teenager– and holding Sara's hand, we started going uphill following the narrow paths in the shade of the forest, touching slightly the trunks of those tall eucalyptus, treading on the curbs of the irrigation channels –at the beginning made of stones, today covered with concrete– up to the river, which had had a good number of mills in the past. There was the waterfall: a beautiful cascade falling down a steep slope with rocks and vegetation.

We enjoyed getting wet by the water cloud that formed at the bottom of the "facchita", while our friend told us one of its legends: there is a big pot full of gold hidden inside the walls behind the cascade and many are the ones who still look for it. Some nights you can listen to the pot crying and lamenting its luck.

When we got back, our host explained to us a bit more of the cultural reality of the region. Without libraries in the communities, with very few bilingual education programmes, with not very well organized efforts, with many foreign hands wanted to help at the beginning but leaving soon without having improved anything... People from Peguche seemed to know that they need a library, and they remembered that once there was one in Otavalo with an indigenous collection, but it is not being used nowadays. It was as if there had been many things in the past that were disappeared at the present. Listening to this fact, I thought of the many useless hands, of the thousands colleagues who do not know what to do with their profession, of the thousands of students who neither know how to face their studies nor how to explain why they are studying LIS... I thought about the brilliant conferences given by those great librarianship characters, about those nonsense meetings, about the people foolish enough to write very stupid things, about the many books that continue forgetting the ones that were always kept in silence. I thought that there is a great deal of hypocrisy, a lot of lives wasted on dreams that they do not believe at all... What a shame to find here so many dreams that only need someone pursuing them in order to make them true, to leave them spring into live and bloom.

I thought and thought and as it always happens when someone realizes that things will never change if we do not try doing it in a different manner, I felt an enormous rage and could not stand the frustration of not being able to put upside down an engine that does not work anymore.

We were going downhill, repeating "ñanda mañachi" here and there and chatting with our friend about schools, education, communitarian problems, families jealousy of one another because they did not have the same resources and had not got the same welfare state (something that did not happened before but modern "culture" taught to them), when we met the most typical example of "foreign tourist" that we could have found in our way home: a North American woman. Not even trying to speak to us in Spanish, she came closer as we passed and in English told us that she was looking for a particular shop where she could see a family weaving textiles as in the old times. She did not stop criticizing what she had seen and heard till that moment and wanted us to ask our friend where she could find what she was seeking. It was embarrassing for us, but still we got the information she demanded and went with her to that house. We became red in the face when she started haggling for the price with the weaver and accuse him of selling their products more expensive than the ones she had seen the previous day in the Market. Some people do not seem to understand how much time and effort is needed to weave those beautiful tapestries, carpets, bags, belts... Some people do not seem to notice the different between industrial and homemade production, between quality and quantity, between traditional clothes and colorful souvenirs. Some people would do much better staying at home, or if they decide to travel abroad, being with their mouths closed and their ears open for they have a lot to learn and very little to teach...

When we almost had arrived at Elena's house, we discovered another where instruments were made by true luthiers, artisans that worked as their parents and their grandparents did before. I wanted to ask for the prices of some. What we had enjoyed the most would have been to see those persons working, but they were not at home that morning. We came in shouting "minga chiway!", and found ourselves in the middle of a court where bundles of reed pipes of different size and thickness where piled up and there were many instruments on the walls exhibiting how the final work looked: "rondadores", "zampoñas", "quenas", "mohoceños", "tarkas", "quenachos", "pífanos", "flautas traversas"... The artisan's wife explained to me, in Quichua, how his husband made those instruments and I was absolutely delighted looking at his working table and imaging his rough hands choosing the right pipes, testing its vibration, its sound, cleaning them...

No, I did not ask about prices at the end of our visit, I simple decided to enjoy the opportunity of witnessing something that does not exist anymore in many parts of the world, parts where once upon a time it was also a common activity. Before our departure, Huenala family invited us to have lunch with them and they offered us rabbit meat, a dish that people do not eat every day in Peguche. While Sara helped women in the kitchen, stirring the smelling liquids that boiled in the "pailas" (copper pots) and sharing many stories and a few recipes with them, I laid the table and placed the wooden benches around it, thinking that our stay in Peguche had been, up to that moment, the most incredible thing we had experienced through our tour: maybe due to its simplicity, to its purity, to its authenticity, maybe because we had learnt a lot, much more than what professional congresses were supposed to have taught us. Definitely, valuable things are not in those important places: you can find them turning the following corner. We found them in that community, with such a nice and generous family; we found them in Quito, in our friends' home and hearts. They were as the small threads of happiness that touch you without previous notice.

We had lunch with our fingers as our hosts, using only the spoon for the soup. We ate salad, fried pieces of rabbit, potatoes and corn that had been pulled out of the land a few minutes before, under the persistent rain that would be with us the rest of the day. We drank water and had something absolutely delicious as desert: "quimbalito", cooked dough made of eggs, flour and sugar that is boiled wrapped in "achira" leaves.

We left a bit later under the gentle rain that started from behind "taita" Imbabura. When we got on the small bus named "Imbaburapak" that took us back to Otavalo, we could feel for the first time in our lives how it looks like to be different: everybody was indigenous, they were traditionally dressed and the only language they spoke was Quichua. However, our differences did not make us feel uneasy since people continued smiling after having gazed at us with very kind and sweet eyes. How many people from occidental cities can be proud of treating those who are "different" with respect?

From Otavalo another comfortable bus took us to Quito, where our friends Gloria Añazco and Eduardo Proaño would welcome us with an enjoyable "merienda" (that is similar to our dinner) and left us in the hotel a bit later.

The following day –that would be a rainy one as well– we wanted to go downtown. Those would be the last free days before the IX Ecuadorian Librarians Meeting took place in Riobamba. And we certainly wished to make good use of every minute. We will let you know more about our steps tomorrow.

A big hug.