Volunteering in Otavalo PART II
Once the sun begins to shine once more, and Imbabura looms back into sight as the clouds disperse, the focus changes once again. Mama Rosa, an expert in traditional medicine who learned her craft from her grandmother, takes the volunteers on a tour of the herb garden, explaining which plant can help which part of the body. The talk is interrupted by a yellow bird whose tree-top song stops conversations in their tracks.
“He’s the owner of this land,” Mama Rosa laughs. “He sings because he’s jealous.”
As the tour continues Mama Rosa reveals her secrets: Hallelujah herb for constipation, Cow’s Tongue can be used as a bandage for serious cuts until you can get to hospital, Geranium can prevent cancer. The volunteers jot down notes with wide-eyed vigour.
One by one, they give Mama Rosa a list of their ailments and she prescribes just the right herb, asking each plant for permission before instructing the volunteer which to pull out: Valerian for depression and Aloe Vera for acne, as just one of the combinations, before the colourful bundles are taken away to be added to hot water to create healing personal healing infusions. The volunteers sit on steps, sipping their rainbow- coloured herbal teas.
The eight-day program is punctuated by activities to complement the yoga and wellness. There’s kundalini yoga surrounded by horses and among the sacred pyramids of Cochasqui, as well as Andean cleansing ceremonies, a traditional ritual involving local herbs and plants and fragrant woods, to cast out bad energies.
A treatment that had one of the most profound impacts on the group was the sweat lodge, another activity that promotes connection to the earth. The activity involves entering a small, womb-like cabin where the temperature is steadily increased by stones heated by fire, to induce profuse sweating. Some members of the volunteer group were nervous at the beginning of the ceremony, they say, but the Indigenous people leading the ceremony, as well as their new sense of comradery with the other members, soon calmed their fears.
“It’s small, dark, with moist air. You do feel like you’re in the womb,” one explains, describing the scene of a woman dressed in a beautiful red dress with a rainbow-coloured sash conducting the ritual.
“When two people went out for a break, the rest of the group physically felt their departure and we were worried they weren’t going to come back. But when they did, we all cheered,” another recalls.
A further aspect of the program is work with a local school, where 50 little children of three nearby communities receive basic education. Last year, My SachaJi helped the school to build an extra classroom, and continues to help provide materials like crayons and paper. As the volunteer group were keen to have a celebration with the community, Maria Teresa suggested that they paint murals on the school walls, and then practice fun yoga with the children and parents before a feast of traditional food.
She has always considered service to the community to be integral to My SachaJi, ever since community leaders granted her access to water in the early days of the ecolodge, “and once they give you water, you are automatically accepted into the community,” she explains.
According to the school’s teacher, the children benefit enormously from meeting the volunteers, as they learn how to greet strangers and to appreciate their importance to the outside world.
What makes My SachaJi’s volunteer program so special is the exchange of energies, culture and ideas with the local community, as well as a profound connection to the earth. As one volunteer points out, the two aspects are inextricably linked. “The earth is their language,” she explains, staring at her mud-caked feet. And seeing as somehow the two sets seem to communicate seamlessly even though the Indigenous women mainly speak in Quechua, and the volunteers can only muster a few Spanish words between them, it’s the only language they need.
President Victoria Perugachi
On the gentle slopes at the feet of Imbabura volcano, mere steps from the San Pablo Lake near Otavalo Indian market, the usual peace is disturbed by a harsh, metallic cry.
It is a crackling loud speaker heard for miles around, calling the women of Angla to the community gardens to work.
One of the first to arrive is a tiny woman bent double under a load of spring-like purple flowers, as if they were growing from her very skin.
Did we know that these were radishes, and that radishes are full of iron, and Andeans feed them to cows and guinea pigs so they grow big and strong?
Aim is to bring in more tourism, and make commercial teas.
In 1994, nine women from the communities of xx met for the first time with the intention of buying some land to create their own herb garden, specifically for women.
We would note when they came back from work and snuck out to meet at the church to discuss the project.
The men were against the idea and discouraged the women, telling them it was the men’s job to work, and that the women should stay at home, look after the children, and cook.
The men would shout at them “mujeresvagas! You have to look after the children!”
But the women kept meeting.
Government payments for development came in. Sold chicken and eggs, saving the money.
Each ended up putting in $120 and then with a little loan they managed to buy the land. No one helped them.
Very few of the men of the village came to help build the buildings.
Some US visitors came and donated money.
“20$ is a lot of money for us!”
Now they are 28 women, and they have support from most of the husbands.
“We fought, and fought and fought and fought!”
“Before, we were so timid we couldn’t hold a conversation. We spoke with our hands covering our mouths. We weren’t allowed to laugh. It was really, really hard.”
“Then we lost the fear.”
“When one works, one feels happy.
Grandfather was a curandero (healer) and he taught the kids when they were little, which plants can cure which illness.
Which plants for fever.
The garden is a pharmacy for us. We never go to hospital. We know how to treat a fever. We don’t even own a thermometer.