Photos, stories, and experiences of a Peace Corps Natural Resources Conservation Volunteer in Ecuador.

"There is no way to peace, peace is the way."

Things I’ve Learned In Ecuador: #10 How to Ward off Yellow Fever

Since I got the yellow fever vaccine before coming to Ecuador, and I remember since it cost me a whopping $250, I wasn’t really in the market to learn any new yellow fever preventative tricks. However, I learned that and a whole lot more this past week after visiting the provincia of Santo Domingo for the annual Kasama festival which marks the Tsáchila New Year or nuevo amanecer.

The Tsáchilas are one of Ecuador’s many indigenous groups and live in the northern, inland coastal province of Santo Domingo de los Tsáchilas. When the Spanish arrived in Ecuador, they called the Tsáchila people colorados for their custom of painting their hair red with achiote seeds. This practice of shaving their heads on the sides, and molding the hair on top to look almost helmetlike and painted red with achiote dates back hundreds of years when the Tsáchilas were dying of yellow fever. As the story goes, a shaman prayed for a cure or treatment and the spirits, called oko in their language of Tsafiki, led him to the achiote bush. Apparently, it helped and deaths from the disease rapidly decreased after they started using the achiote and it’s a tradition that continues until this day.

The Tsáchila people also do ritual painting of their faces and bodies. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of the plant they use or the reason for it. Ooops.I did get my face and arms marked with the seed. You can see the seed and some of the markings on my face in the photos above. It took about an hour or two to show up but the stuff is super long lasting! It’s still on my arms right now and usually lasts about 7-10 days.

I was lucky enough to participate in a limpia, or cleansing ceremony, with a shaman, or pone in Tsafiki, while I was there too. The limpia I participated in was very interesting as well and something I’ve wanted to do for a while here in Ecuador. They do similar limpias in other indigenous cultures here such as the Shuar and Kichwa peoples of the Amazon. Some include shamanes rubbing eggs on your body or killing a cuy (guinea pig) to figure out what’s ailing you. The one I participated in involved lots of drumming while the shaman whacked me with leaves, spit aguardiente all over me and then finished up the job of cleansing my body of bad spirits with hitting rocks together and rubbing them on my head and body. You may think I wasn’t that impressed with the way I just described it, but honestly I did feel 10 times better the next day! It may not be our normal idea of medicine but the Tsáchila culture has been around for many years so we probably have a thing or two to learn from them. It’s also great to know that this traditional festival of Kasama continues into modern day even with bus drivers complaining that the Tsáchila’s achiote-painted hair stains their seats and the big, bustling city of Santo Domingo nearby.

The following day was the actual fiesta for Kasama and the seven Tsáchila communities compromising about 2,500 people (and a few of us gringas) all gathered together for an all day, all night party. We saw everyone with the achiote in their hair and the traditional dress. Women wear a beautiful multicolored woven skirt that’s called a tunan in Tsafiki and the men wear a similar one in black and white called a manpe tsanpa. The women’s skirts were beautiful and I just had to buy some of the woven material to have made into a skirt. I bought it for a shockingly low price of $18 considering the Tsáchila man I bought it from told me it takes about a month to weave.

The Kasama festival itself was great. In Tsafiki, kasa means new and ma means day and like I said, it marks their new year and is the only holiday the Tsáchila people celebrate. In the past, Kasama was used as a time for the men to ask for a woman’s hand but now it revolves around traditional dance, music and food.

While there, I got to try some of the traditional gastronomy of the Tsáchilas but passed on some of the others. A PCV friend bought some guanta which is a type of small capybara and yo probé un poquito. It was really good! Tasted just like chicken! (On a side note, I’m thinking I’m going to have to give cuy another try since I didn’t really give it a chance the first time I had it.)

Other than that, there was mallon or mayon depending on how each comedor felt like spelling it. (Remember, spelling is for nerds?) These are grubs that grow in a certain type of palm tree and are collected for food. They’re usually grilled and I tried some about a year ago on a trip to the jungle. They weren’t too bad taste wise. A flavor very similar to greasy bacon, but the texture was enough to make them a one and done for me. The Tsáchila friends we were hanging out with during Kasama and one very brave German decided to take it one step further though and eat the little big guys vivos y crudos. For those of you who need to brush up on your Spanish, that means alive and raw. Yuck! We all looked on in horror, but they did it! Andrew Zimmern, watch your back.

Overall, celebrating Kasama was a great way to spend my Semana Santa and I left determined to participate in more feriados indígenas this year.

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