Asking a Fish to Describe Water

I'd never entered the southern hemisphere before, and when we reached the equatorial line, I jumped out of the car to see if I could tell a difference. Nothing. I was assured by some of the locals who were standing around watching me hop back and forth that when you flush your toilet in the northern hemisphere the water rotates in the opposite direction compared to flushing it below the equator. We took their word for it and didn't wait for a demonstration, figuring we'd find out for ourselves sooner or later.

We were on our way to meet Maria Juana, a shaman living in the village of Agua Longo near Otavalo. After spending a couple of days in the busy city of Quito, we were getting our first glimpse of Ecuador's countryside and its people--men and women working in the fields, people on the roadside hitching rides, and small groups of children playing outside their mostly adobe houses.

Outside the city of Otavalo we veered onto a bumpy road that would lead us to Maria Juana's village. Many of the roads in Ecuador are like this one--unpaved, pothole-ridden and dusty--as the cost of paving is often too great in rural areas. This was a last minute detour, and we had no appointment to see her. We hoped she could meet with us.

We pulled up to Maria Juana's simple house next door to the village school and waited while Christina, our guide, inquired within. She told us Maria Juana was busy performing a healing, but would be done in a few minutes. In the meantime her extended family, people from nearby homes, children playing in the street, and the many village dogs, had all gathered around to assess the foreign visitors.

Soon enough we were ushered into the front room of Maria's house, the waiting area for her patients. The pungent smell of alcohol--used in healing ceremonies--filled the air, a man sat waiting on a bench, cradling his arm, and several women lay on the floor wrapped in blankets, sipping soup. We were led into an adjacent healing room and seated on a bench across from Maria Juana and her husband Alberto.

Maria spoke some Spanish but mostly Quichua, the indigenous language of people all over the Andes. Our guide didn't speak Quichua, but Maria Juana's daughter was fluent in both Quichua and Spanish and translated for us as we told her about the project and requested an interview.

I wasn't certain that she understood what we were talking about, as her face remained attentive but expressionless. But she said she would be happy to be interviewed, and asked where we would like to film. Her home was small and very simple with concrete floors in the lower two rooms and a ladder leading to an upstairs loft where corn was stored and dried. We asked if we could shoot the interview upstairs, where we thought the corn would make an interesting backdrop. Maria agreed and we began setting up our equipment.

While we were unpacking the gear I took out my video iPod and asked Maria Juana if she would like to see some of the people we had already interviewed for the project. The gadget got quite a lot of attention, especially from the kids running around the house, who crowded around us to get a closer look and try to touch the device.

Oneness

I played a clip of Rose Pere, a Maori elder we had stayed with in the North Island of Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Maria Juana was mesmerized. In the clip Rose sang in Maori, and Maria loved listening and watching, asking me to replay it again and again. "She is singing about the mountains and the sea," said Maria. "I don't know what language she is speaking, but I can understand her." It was such a surreal scene to witness, standing in a small house in a small village in Ecuador with technology connecting these two women who live worlds apart.

It was too dark upstairs to film without lights and for power I was directed toward a cable with two outlets coming in through the window. I plugged in the lights only to reel backwards suddenly, my fingers tingling. I had been mildly electrocuted. This was in fact the second time I had been electrocuted while traveling for this project, the first time while at the home of Australian shaman/healer Gary Simon. With these two experiences I can only assume I need to be more conscientious when visiting the home of a shaman!

Plan B, suggested by a member of Maria's family and suddenly sounding very attractive given my still-tingling fingers, was to shoot at a waterfall nearby, and we quickly packed up our gear and piled into the car along with Maria Juana, her husband, daughter and grandson, with the rest of the family following behind. Everyone was along for the ride. We arrived at the waterfall, which was spectacular, but unfortunately it was crawling with people all coming to bath in the waters that are considered sacred. It was too crowded and noisy to shoot.

Maria's grandson Diego insisted that he could find us a place to shoot back in the village, and was eager to help us by carrying gear, holding boom poles, etc. He led us to a nearby relative who was happy to let us shoot in her front yard among the chickens, pigs, dogs and playing children. We set up, and before long half of the village had gathered around to see what was going on, with all the kids wanting to become our assistants and hold the cameras and boom poles.

After we had set up and miraculously managed to explain to everyone the need to be quiet while we conducted the interview, the camera started rolling.

Maria sat next to her husband as her son translated from Quicha to Spanish while Christina and Denise translated my questions into Spanish. I began by asking Maria about "oneness" but soon found that it was very challenging to formulate questions in such a way that wasn't 'lost in translation.' The word and the concept of "oneness" are not present in the Quicha tradition in the way we had been thinking and talking about it with other interviewees so Maria and her family didn't understand why we would need words and concepts to describe something that just is. Why would you separate yourself from anything? It makes no sense--so there's no reason for a word or concept describing what it's like to not separate things.

Asking Maria about oneness was like asking a fish to describe water.

Pachamama

Maria spoke about Pachamama--"mother cosmos" to the people of the Andes--and the respect you need to have for her, the source that nourishes and sustains.

As the original "Mother Earth" deity, Pachamama provides food and life force for the people, and provides Maria with the power she needs to heal and cure those who come to her. Whatever Maria takes from Pachamama she must give back in ceremony and thanks, lest she displease Pachamama, who might withhold providing further nourishment needed for life.

Maria spoke only of how Pachamama related directly to her and her family and people in her village, and did not understand when I tried to ask her if or how this deity related to the rest of the world. Maria had very little concept of life away from her family and village, and did not seem too interested in what was going on beyond. For example, I asked her if she thought the environmental changes occurring in this part of Ecuador as a result of global warming were effecting Pachamama but she couldn't make the leap from her immediate surroundings and relationship to Pachamama to a larger global view of the world.

Throughout the interview, chickens were roaming around us, dogs were fighting, and men and women were driving cows home along the road behind us after they had been grazing on the slopes of the Volcano Imbabura above the village. At one point the grandfather of the family who lived in the house where we were filming got up from his bed next to the cow shed and walked in front of the cameras, clearly oblivious to what was going on.

So too, cell phones rang every few minutes from any number of people who had gathered to watch the interview. It seems that no matter where we go, the cell phone is always there, a constant reminder of globalization no matter how far removed from the modern world you think you are.

Packing up our gear we said farewell to Maria Juana and her family, thanking them for the time they shared with us before heading off to a small hacienda in a nearby village where we would spend the night.