(After a month of 12 hour days, we have almost officially finished running programs. Because an entry is so overdue and I think it would be tedious and impossible to try to sum up the last four weeks of experience, I will instead regale you with amusing stories which I hope-in their own little ways- can capture what it was like)
“Come sit on my lap.” She was saying, her thin, age spotted arm reaching towards me. With her palm to the ground she flapped her hand at me, the Ecuadorian way to say get over here.
It was the beginning of the Carpe Diem program. For 10 days, my co-leader Stephanie and I were living in Achupallas with ten students and their two leaders. The mornings were spent working on building a green house, and in the afternoons we planned activities.
This day, our activity was to visit Abuelita, the local healer in Panecillo. Abuelita is the host grandmother to The Tandana’s founder and director, Anna Taft. Some of our Carpe Diem kids were interested in traditional healing and shamanism, so Anna set up a little talk with Abuelita.
Yes, Abuelita just means “grandmother” in Spanish. But that is what everyone calls her. On the average day, she can be spotted sitting out on her porch talking trash to whoever happens to pass by on the road.
She is tiny, like most Ecuadorian grandmothers. Less than five feet tall, definitely less than one hundred pounds. Her skin is dark and spotted with age, her face wrinkled like the deep grooves that rain leaves in dirt roads. She parts her gray hair down the middle and plaits it in two braids, and wears a dark green panama hat tight on her little head. She speaks wildly and in metaphors, often puncturing her sentences with “si, Anita?” and a questioning look at Anna. We were sitting in her living room and the Carpe group, all between the ages of 17 and 21, perched around her in a semi circle. She was busy talking about a leaf she uses to cure cancer when Anna said:
“Abuelita, Lizzie needs to be cured of Espanto.”
Espanto is a traditional affliction that translates to “a fright.” Locals say you can catch espanto if you’ve been scared or shocked so badly that your soul literally leaves your body. Local healers like Abuelita can cure it. After what happened in Quito, we decided I had probably been infected with Espanto. Getting healed by Abuelita would be an interesting learning experience for the students.
So there I was, watching this tiny, ancient grandmother, gesture for me to come sit on her lap.My five foot ten body is going to crush her, and all of these people are going to watch.
Abuelita is wagging her wrist at me vigorously. I slowly rise from my chair and sit as lightly as possible on her lap. Her hands are wrapping around my waist, and I can feel her head resting in the middle of my shoulder blades. She starts to chant, methodically. Asking God to take away the demons inside of me. Asking God to bring back my soul while pulling the devil out of my heart. Everyone is staring at me. I’m starting to feel uncomfortable. I mean, sure. I haven’t felt all that wonderful since the incident in Quito, but I don’t really think it’s Satan. I kind of just think it’s the altitude.
Then her hands start roaming over my arms, and then my chest. And then, so quickly I don’t really have time to react, her bony little hands are on top of my bra and she is squeezing.
Oh Jesus, I’m getting felt up by a ninety two year old woman in front of a group of people I barely even know.
This goes on for a few minutes. The discussion of demons in my soul, and awkward grabbing of body parts and I’m giggling but trying not to-holding on to my last grasp of culture appropriateness- and people are taking pictures and then, as quickly as it all began, Abuelita pats my leg and says I’ve been cured.
“Well,” I think to myself. “That definitely was an interesting learning experience.”