Culture shock is fading and I have begun to observe and appreciate the cultural differences around me. In particular, I have started noting the intersection between the traditional Kichwa culture and the more modern Westernized Ecuadorian culture. Today was a prime example.
I wake at 4am to go to a traditioanl guayusa ceremony in a nearby Kichwa community. Six interns and the program manager pour clown style out of a taxi and the first thing I notice is the music blasting out of a nearby house. It is currently 5am. Latin dance music is reverberating throughout the community. The ceremony takes place in a round one-room building with bamboo walls, thatched roof, and dirt floor. It is still dark outside so the electric lights are on in addition to the fire. We sit on wooden benches placed around the edges of the room. There is a fire in the center and a tin pot of boiling water balanced on top. The radio is playing when we arrive but they turn it off after a few minutes. Carlos and Maria are the Kichwa couple who own the building and invited us to their ceremony. They are in their seventies and were married when he was 18 and she 13 as part of an arranged marriage. Both have faces painted with a henna-like plant. She is in traditional dress, he is wearing a polo and shorts. Maria hands us guayusa in bowls made from dried fruit shells. Carlos is busy making bamboo flutes and Maria speaks very little Spanish so their son, wearing a t-shirt and athletic shorts with long hair pulled back in a ponytail, tells the seven gringos present stories of guayusa.
There are many myths about guayusa. Some say the plants of the jungle spoke to the Kichwa and told them to brew it into a drink, some say they have always known about the plant, but all agree on the plants beneficial properties. It seems guayusa can do just about anything. The Kichwa drink it every morning for the energy it gives them to start the day, rather like an elaborate coffee ceremony for the entire family with a spiritual vibe. They put it on their skin to wake it up and to heal it. They say the guayusa protects them from snakes and other dangerous jungle animals. While they never explicitly call it holy, they are certainly not talking about an ordinary plant.
The ceremony itself begins around 4 in the morning when the mother of the family prepares the brew. Some families wake even earlier although in general families are waking later these days. Later as in 5am. Carlos informs us that he wakes at 2am everyday. I think of life at Brown and how on a good day I go to sleep at 2am. These are not a lazy people. The rest of the family members and some neighbors trickle in and gather to drink, wake, and share stories. Carlos asks us if we had any dreams we would like him to interpret for us. We are a little too groggy to remember. Their daughter is sewing. She is wearing brightly colored spandex leggings which is what all the Ecuadorian women in this area wear. Maria leaves and comes back with a parrot on her shoulder.
They have stopped talking about guayusa and have moved on to discussing music. They are part of a group that performs traditional Kichwa music and dance. Instruments include drums, flutes, a turtle shell, and one that looks like a bow and is played with the mouth. They have performed in Quito and despite the rampant racism in Ecuador they say they faced less discrimination in Quito than in nearby towns. They play for us. In the background we can still hear the music blasting from the nearby house - techno now. A song I have partied to for years. It competes with the flute and turtle shell being played next to me. Carlos has informed us that their neighbors are playing the loud music to wake up everyone in the community. The kids have to go to school. I think of home and the disaster that would occur if someone played music that loud that early in the morning. With the techno music playing in the background it feels like a late night and I am suprised that daylight is dawning and I am going to have to start my day.
The guayusa is gone, it is daylight outside, and we rise to say our goodbyes. Maria spits guayusa onto the sleeping puppy because "it is time to get up." We shake hands, leave the hut, and head off to work. It is 6:30am.