This is a guest post from Marie!
We arrived yesterday in Loja (pronounced Lo-ha), but with impressions from La Guaca still fresh in mind. We had a going away party, a despedida, on the 29th, our last day in the community, and all of the families who make up the coffee co-op joined together to make a nice meal of roast chicken, fried potatoes, and rice. Each member of the co-op gave a short speech, thanking us for our work and our time with them, and telling us that we now have Ecuadorian families who would welcome us back at anytime with open arms. It was very moving.
Overall, the main things I will remember from La Guaca is the intensity of the rain, and the kindness of our families amidst some very difficult ways of living.
Francis mentioned the rain in his last post, but I don’t think I could properly give a realistic depiction of my impressions without also talking about it. When we planned to go to La Guaca, Lenin, our communications dude, warned us that it was the rainy season. Francis and I talked about it and dismissed it as a concern, saying, “Oh, we’re not made of sugar!” And of course, we’re not. But, wow! Rain pounding down, HARD, for at least part of every day, was a challenge! My homestay was only accessible by a footpath, and it turned into a veritable creek after every rainfall.
My favourite moment in the rain was when we were caught in it, down on a lower part of my homestay’s farm crushing sugar cane and looking at some yuca plants. We ran with roman to his parents-in-law’s place, and sat under the porch overhang, watched the rain fall.
Francis smoked a cigarette from fresh tobacco that they rolled in a scrap of paper, we sang some songs to one of the kids, and they made us coffee and fresh tobacco. It was a pretty wonderful afternoon, calm and with an air of collectivity. Overall, though, the rain made it difficult, as we didn’t have work to do when it rained, and so we went some days without any planned activities.
Because of the ever-present rain, though, we really took advantage of sunny moments. We also learned to take people up on every offer to take us somewhere or hang out with us (my homestay family loved playing cards, and we played every day- I ended up leaving my deck behind because I felt like it gave everyone in the house a reason to sit together).
One super fun thing we did was go swimming in a natural pool, at the bottom of a waterfall. Francis’ homestay “brother” showed him a really wonderful spot, and he took me there a few days later. To get there, we took a meandering walk through mountain trails, with rocky, wet areas, beautiful mountain areas with grazing cows and horses, farms with banana and guava hanging everywhere, and slippery barren clay areas, down to a very magical spot, with rushing icy cold water. It was so refreshing, and in such a special and unique area!
One exceptionally kind thing my homestay family did for me was prepare an Ecuadorian specialty, when they heard I hadn’t tried it; cuy.
Yes, those are guinea pigs. They raise their own, and they would otherwise probably not eat them as cuy is quite expensive, by Ecuadorian standards. I was offered to hang out during the whole process, from slaughter, to preparation, to consumption. Ramon broke their necks, and Rosa, my homestay mother, prepared them by dipping them in boiling water, de-furring them by hand and then burning off the last of the fur around their nose and feet. They then roasted them in an outdoor adobe oven. I must say, I couldn’t mentally let go of the fact that I was eating a guinea pig enough to fully enjoy it. With every meal, as a guest I was given the most choice piece of meat, which was very kind though I always felt bad for the mom, who seemed to subsist on the scrap pieces. Oh, moms… Always taking one for the team! Cuy tastes a bit like rabbit and is kind of delicious; Francis loves it! Maybe if I didn’t have the piece with a charred, heat-curled paw I would have been able to better enjoy the flavour, and not imagine my childhood friend’s pet on my plate!
Other foods that we had: rice at least once a day, often with fried eggs. My homestay had a lot of freshly picked plaintains (similar to bananas, but less sweet- usually fried or mashed) and yuca (a somewhat bland root veg that adds wonderful texture to soup), many different soups, and queso fresco (milk boiled with a starter to make a fresh, salty cheese). One other specialty dish I was given was beef tripe, on rice.
To my surprise, oranges were not in season in the southern climate of La Guaca. A major impression of the local-based food system is that you really just need to enjoy what’s available- I gorged myself on fresh bananas, and juice made from a fruit called a “tree tomato”- yum! There are trucks that come through at specific times, and people would arrange to meet them in order to buy other items- on Wednesdays, freshly-caught fish, and on Saturdays, different fruits and veggies.
The cost of living is something I often thought about while in La Guaca. To make six dollars, a farmer would need to plant a banana tree, wait a year, and harvest a very heavy load- and then start again as banana trees only produce fruit once. Rosa told me that a family’s income would be less than 300 dollars (USD) per month… So, while they eat organic, fresh food every day, they also really don’t have any money. In a capitalist society, Ecuadorian farmers struggle with being able to provide for all aspects of their family’s lives, but I was repeatedly impressed and touched by the care and love expressed through action and words that our home stay families gave to the land, the plants, and their families.