Fiestas of the Andes
“Eat the soup”, Karla said to me in English.
“But…”, I started.
Two bowls of Fanesca, a traditional Ecuadorian dish, had been neatly placed on stools in the middle of the dirt floor. We were in the heart of indigenous territory. Nestled in the peaks of the Ecuadorian Andes and miles from flushing toilets and running water, the frigid morning air bit my nose and turned my breath into smoke. The family looked at us with large smiles. I had no choice. I ate the soup.
I first found out about Zumbahau while researching for my thesis in the Silicon Valley. What? Did people really dance in costumes and head dresses covered in colors and mirrors, honoring the power of the sun, as the Incas did hundreds of years ago?
Well, I was there to find out. This innocent curiosity to investigate something so foreign to my upbringing near Los Angeles, had brought Karla and I to pueblos covered in dust and lost in time. It started as a six-month thesis project and turned into a lifestyle of living as a photojournalist based in Quito, Ecuador. “Where’s Ecuador? In Central America..?”, people would ask.
As we explored the fiestas of the Andes over the years, the history of South America developed in our minds and in our images. Simply put the Spanish came murdered, raped, and pillaged the natural resources of an entire continent. In Salasaca, Ecuador, the men re-enact the conquest during the fiesta, storming the village, ripping the underwear off the women and throwing it up in trees. Sometimes they go so far as to grab their pubic hair and put it into the chicha, a pre-Columbian drink made from fermented corn. In Peru, during Yawar Fiesta, or Blood Party, a wild condor is caught and tied to the back of a bull, a symbol of the fight between the Spanish and the Incas.
It is impressive that in spite of the efforts of the Catholic Church to completely destroy the indigenous culture, so much has survived. Pagan rituals, based in nature and the agricultural calendar, have been woven into the Catholic holidays, creating a syncretism impossible to untangle. In northern Ecuador, offerings are given to Pachamama, or Mother Earth. Shamans bathe under sacred waterfalls gathering the energy, while speaking of mountains and Saints. In Bolivia, llamas are sacrificed and the blood is sprinkled onto houses and motorcycles.
This investigation has been an ongoing journey into the depths of South America’s culture. We have learned so much about the horrors of history and the beauty of resilience. I have also learned, that fortunately, you don’t always have to eat the soup.