Connecting with the ancient Cañari culture: A day of magic and friendship

May 5, 2018

Cañari customs, many associated with agriculture, remain strong. (El Tiempo)

By Juanita Ruth One

This past Thursday the Mingles social group from our International Christian Community made a day-long visit to a community dedicated to preserving the traditions and culture of the Cañari people who were the original inhabitants of this part of the world that later became Ecuador. This community, named Kushi Waira, lies less than an hour southeast of Cuenca (which, itself, was the capital of Cañari nation before the invasion by the Incas.)

The author goes horseback up the steep mountain trail.

They speak only Quechua and Spanish, so I was drafted to translate into English the information they shared about their history, customs, and ancient healing knowledge.  Our host, Alfonso, was a short, stocky man who looked to be around 40 years of age but shared that he is 66 years old and has never taken a pill or gone to a medical doctor. The tribe proudly lives a very natural lifestyle, growing all of their food organically and utilizing medicinal plants.They are very beholden to and connected with Pacha Mama, their name for Mother Earth.

The primary focus of our visit was to experience two ancient ceremonies designed to cleanse our bodies of all negativity and to experience healing from combining the energies of Father Sun, Sister Moon, and Pacha Mama.  These take place at two different clearings in the primeval forest atop their mountain.

The mountain is high and the trails are steep. The inhabitants are used to running (literally!) up and down the trails several times daily to attend to their crops and animals as well as to participate in community rituals.  However, for our group of middle-aged and elderly expats, who are not accustomed to strenuous activity at these high altitudes, the climb was slow and arduous.

The Cañari people continue to raise crops much as they have for generations. (El Tiempo)

About a third of the way up, I stopped, completely out of breath and facing great protests from my arthritic knees. I looked at the two native women who had stayed with me and, shaking my head, disappointedly admitted, “I’m sorry, but I just cannot go any further.” They looked at me compassionately, turned to each other and then said, “Cómo por caballo?” Within minutes the younger one had run down the hill and come back up leading an already-saddled horse!

I hadn’t ridden a horse since junior high school so I was a bit taken aback, plus the stretch to get a foot in the stirrup was really HIGH! But with the help of both women and a strong young man, Aaron, from our group, I was hefted upon the horse and settled into the saddle. Then I held on for dear life, eventually relaxing as the young woman led the horse through the narrow zig-zag trails up the mountain. I was very grateful not to be struggling any longer and was able to breathe in the incredible beauty of the bucolic scenes unfolding below us.

As we caught up with the group at the mountaintop, my arrival via trusty steed was greeted with uproarious laughter! Just as our host began explaining our day’s activities, the sky began to spit a bit. One lady, near to where the horse and I stood, quickly whipped out and swished open her umbrella.  The combination of unexpected motion and sound spooked the horse who immediately rared up and tried to bolt off down the mountain! Thankfully, our host quickly retrieved the lead rope (which had fallen to the ground) and halted the horse’s intended escape! (One woman in the group later told me that she had never seen anyone’s eyes get as big with fright as mine had!)

I quickly dismounted and the young woman led the horse back down to his valley pasture.

Juanita gets a piggyback ride.

Alfonso oriented us to our location pointing out that in one direction we could see a mountain marking the border between Loja and Azuay Provinces and in another direction could see a mountain peak in the neighboring country of Peru! He explained that we were on an Andean plateau ridge and that one side led to the coast while the other side became part of the Amazon jungle. We would be experiencing the rituals in two different clearings within the mountaintop primeval forest.

The forest was intriguing and I felt like any moment we might encounter elves, fairies or other mythical creatures!  The two rituals through which Alfonso led us — first to rid us of negativity and secondly to flood our bodies with healing positive energies — involved a number of gestures and sounds which we imitated. Aaron and his mother, both from India, were quite surprised to find that many of the gestures and chants were familiar to them from their childhood yoga practices! She was so intrigued that she had me ask him whether these were modern adaptations or historic rituals.  He assured us that both the gestures and sounds were ancestral rituals of the Cañari nation. That just reinforced my belief that much of the ancient healing wisdom practiced worldwide is indeed from a universal source!

Just as we were finishing the second ceremony, we realized that the two women had climbed up the mountain with preparations for our lunch.  Known as Pampa Mesa, this is a traditional communal meal spread out on a long, white ground cloth with piles of food spread in the center line and individual napkin-wrapped wooden spoons indicating places to sit along both sides. There are no plates; rather, each person uses their individual spoon to scoop from the various food piles directly into their mouths. Although the Ecuadoreans cut up chickens differently than we North Americans do, making individual pieces often unrecognizable, each place featured a delicious piece of flavorful grilled chicken. Then there was a white pile of carbohydrates which included mote (an Ecuadorean staple corn that we Southerners know back home as hominy). The second pile was sort of a salad made with avocado, kale and other greenery. All were eagerly consumed by our group who had worked up vigorous appetites. Individual cups of warm tea were passed out and the meal was finished with a shot-glass sized thick drink that seemed to be oatmeal based and flavored with cinnamon and other spices. It was quite a satisfying repast!

After lunch, we followed Alfonzo through more forest to arrive at a section of the ancient Inca Trail. This was the historic connection between the Inca’s two largest cities — Cuzco and Quito. I remembered having learned in Latin American History classes about the amazing long-distance runners who delivered messages between the two locations in just a matter of a few days. Today’s modern adventurous thru-hikers allot several months for trekking the same arduous, mountainous trail!

The time arrived for us to descend the mountain.  The narrow trail led through thick jungle and frequent words of warning were passed back through the line, “Watch out for roots to step over, don’t trip!”; “Low bridge overhand, watch your head!”; “Slow and easy. It is really slippery!”  There were definitely some steep, muddy spots and at least two of us (including me) fell on our derrieres. Progress was slow and cautious. Eventually, Alfonzo came to me (who was definitely slowing the line) and suggested that I hold on to his shoulders as he led the way. This we did for a while with him occasionally urging “mas duro, más duro” suggesting that I depend upon him even more.

The next thing I knew this tiny man — shorter and probably weighing less than I, agile as a monkey and strong as a bull — had hoisted me onto his back and was running down the trail carrying me piggyback!  I was both exhilarated and terrified! Once again, I was delivered to the rest of the group amid riotous laughter and unceremoniously delivered to the communal house where our final festivities would occur!

First, the women served us a warm, refreshing herbal tea. While Alfonzo demonstrated grinding corn by hand between two stones to produce a fine powder which he then mixed with an herbal sweetener and passed around for us to sample. It tasted like popcorn! Then the women demonstrated carding wool into a thread for traditional weaving.

Among his many talents, Alfonzo is a musician who creates his own instruments — drums and various types of flutes — from wood, bamboo, and reeds.  He demonstrated each of them and sang a traditional song to which the women danced. Then he got out his accordion and played a lively tune that we all danced to while contributing peals of laughter!

Our final activity was a lottery of sorts in which a ceramic vessel was passed from which we each drew a slip of paper, one reading, “si”, another reading “no”!  The twelve who had drawn “sí” were then taken outside for a second game. There they encountered, strung head high between two posts, a line from which hung small ceramic bowls spaced about one foot apart. What followed resembled a game of “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” as each person was in turn blindfolded, given a stick, spun around and then left to their own devices to approach (with guiding shouts from onlookers) the line, find and tap one of the small hanging bowls. Then he retrieved the paper from that bowl. The result was that 8 of the 12 participants won one of Alfonzo’s flutes to take home as a souvenir! But first, they had to join with the women in a free-for-all dance while trying to elicit a sound from their flute!

There was hardly a peep to be heard on the bus ride back to Cuenca as our happy, but exhausted, group cat-napped after a very exciting day of cultural exposure!


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