Saraguro/Namarín, Ecuador – Homestay Time
Man, oh man! After almost 7 weeks in Cuenca, it was time to take our leave and I admit we were a bit nervous about heading out again. Just so long in one place, we needed to get into the groove of being on the move again. Luckily Aaron’s dogged research skills found us some incredible opportunites in the small town of Saraguro and the surrounding villages about 4 hours south. After leaving Cuenca by bus, we arrived in Saraguro – high in the Andes (read: chilly!) near the southern border of Ecuador. We made our way to a little tourist office (seriously, just a guy and an office) to meet with Lauro – a man Aaron had managed to make email contact with the day before. Lauro, the organizer at Saraurko, said, “Just come and we’ll figure it out once you’re here.” (all in Spanish…so once again, I thank Aaron’s H.S. spanish teacher for making this trip possible).
In addition to arranging three artisan visits (Aaron will blog about those), we got to do an overnight homestay with some indigenous farmers in the neighboring village of Namarín. We spent about a day and a half with Maria, Marcelo and their children; an experience neither of us will soon forget and, so far, one of the biggest highlights of the trip!
We stayed in a hostel run by Saraurko the first night (Hostal Achik Wasi – “wasi” is the indigenous Quechua people’s word for “casa” or house). Saraurko is part of the Fundacion Kawsay, an organization working to promote tourism with the local indigenous tribes to help them retain their cultures by showing them to tourists and visitors.
About the cold – it was between 50-60 degrees most of the time. Our hostel was darn chilly and no heat…you just load up on blankets and cuddle. We were in Saraguro and Namarín for three days and two nights and by the end we were wearing every piece of clothing we brought! The night of our homestay we were quite chilly and asked about doing a fire in the chimnea. It definitely took the edge off, but it also filled our room with smoke! The perils of lighting wet wood… so we had to open the door. I think it was a net gain of heat, but it was a little tricky.
Aaron told our homestay mom, Maria, that where I grew up there are “mucho, mucho grande” corn fields. Not missing a beat, Maria asks “chemical or natural (chemico o organico)?” We explain that most are probably grown with modern fertilizer/chemicals, etc. but there are some that are organic. This is a theme we’ve noticed throughout Ecuador where people pride themselves on natural and organic living. Everything – EVERYTHING – around Maria and Marcelo’s home was edible or medicinal. There were multiple trees, all with different fruits, along with multiple gardens and fields. All of it used to feed their family and a little extra that they can sell.
Horchata in Ecuador is an herbal tea kind of drink that is very popular here (not the rice-based version common in Mexico). We were first introduced to it in Cuenca (a version made and blessed by nuns) and neither of us liked it at all. When Maria asked Aaron if we like horchata, he said “it’s not our favorite”…but after Maria made it we are both SOLD! Maria used their herbs, fruits and flowers fresh from the garden and cooked them up into a warm, pink, sugary drink. We both LOVED it!
Every meal had soup and was (I think) vegetarian — probably because veggies are in the yard and don’t need to be purchased, but that’s just my guess. We always ate with these little wood spoons. I was worried about Aaron, but he loved the food and aside from the lettuce salad he ate everything. Breakfast was barley, a potato and salad with a sauce on it. Gotta say, that filled us up and we were ready to go after that!
Nothing about the homestay is structured, so it’s what you make of it and whatever the family happens to be doing that day. We tried to take our hand at a few of the chores and such around the house.
Maria sells veggies from the garden (people just know to stop by to make a purchase), these scarves and beaded jewelry. After seeing how involved beading is, I have a new found appreciation for it. I couldn’t help but buy some jewelery….I mean, it’s me after all!
We learned that every morning Maria walks their flock of sheep up a big (steep) hill so they can graze. At night she usually sends one of the kids to fetch them back down. On this visit, we had arrived in the afternoon so she took me and Aaron to get them. It wasn’t too hard of a hike, but you all know I’m not in great hiking shape…Maria’s 5 1/2 year-old daughter Genesis ran circles around me in her dress shoes. Me and my fancy hiking shoes? Yes, I fell. It’s not a hike until I slide down a hill. That said, it was a beautiful hike! We loved it and joined Maria in the morning to take them back. At night the sheep sleep under a tarp behind the house.
A quick word about the kids: Marica and Marcelo have four kids ranging from 5 1/2 to 17, plus another boy who stays with them. The three girls are in school, but the boy doesn’t go – he just doesn’t like it apparently. The oldest girl, Gabriela, is about to graduate and is hoping to go to college to study business. The mid-kids, Gladys and Samuel, didn’t say a whole lot while Genesis, the littlest, was super shy but very sweet. She stuck close to her dad. After school that first afternoon she was finishing her homework (tracing shapes) and I enticed her into a game of peak-a-boo which was a big success. After that she wasn’t shy at all! Then I broke out my colored pencils and we drew pictures together until it was time to get the sheep. She decided to go with us!
We noticed that the kids didn’t fight or squabble…they rarely called for their parents, they just seemed to go about their business doing school work, house work, chores and hanging out laughing and talking together. Gotta say – we liked that a lot. In fact, we’ve encountered very few whiny/crying kids in Ecuador.
Now, back to the sheep:
While we were at our homestay a filmcrew and a still photographer came out to take some imagery for a new video promoting tourism in Saraguro and the area (there are a number of indigenous communities who consider themselves connected to Saraguro, including Namarín). They asked if they could take pictures of us eating breakfast and then a video re-enacting us arriving and departing our homestay. Why not? We’re willing to be famous! Actually, it was pretty funny as when we first met Gabriela, Maria’s oldest daughter, she had asked if Aaron was a movie star! That made for a good laugh, but now he just might be! They said the video should be out and on youTube by April. (UPDATE: Here’s the video and you can see us for a whole second or two at the 1:01 mark. We’re famous!)
When we were doing our village walk with Maria after dropping off the sheep in the morning, we stumbled upon another film crew and they immediately incorporated us into the scene. I think we must have been the only gringos in the area, but we were more than happy to try the local beverage (a pre-tequila drink called “chich” made from agave plants) and say “queso” for the camera. Anything we can do to help promote tourism for these wonderful folks, we’re glad to do!