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The Kirwan Twins Adventures We've finally graduated, so we're setting off for three months to backpack around India, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand before entering the "real world."

Nelly's Kitchen

ECUADOR | Saturday, 23 February 2008 | Views [1513]

Chota, an Afro-Ecuadorian community bordering Columbia in the Northern Highlands, is a vibrant family of well-endowed, generous women, sex-driven men, and playful bands of children with precious smiles coining nicknames; my friend Flaco became "la Candela Tropical," and Paola "la Gata Feria."  Coangue, one of Chota's pueblos, is composed of approximately 300 families, though according to unique male norms where men have several girlfriends, a wife, and a substantial clan of children, the population settles at around 1,000.  Coangue appears limited to a square kilometer banking a ferociously wide river that is apparently tripled in size with the rainy season.  In the dry season, the mountainsides are rubbed clean with dirt and a desert sun charms the dust and steam from the ground, lightly coating Coangue.  Cement homes topple down the mountain slope, half constructed, leaving dirt paths for meandering from one place to the next.

My friends and I arrived at Diana's house, a cement block perched on the hill housing four spotless bedrooms.  The bathroom was in a smaller cement block below, and constantly occupied by the 30 plus people who apparently shared it.  Somehow, it remained spotless.  Diana is a Fulbright Scholar studying the bomba music of the region for her PhD dissertation, and thus, we were fortunate to have an insider's perspective of the culture during our stay.  

So, although Carnaval brought us to the little universe of Coangue, Chota, Nelly's Kitchen proved far more interesting.  My friends and I arrived at nightfall, and with rumbling bellies, we followed Diana's lead with headlamps, navigating the dark trail to the kitchen.  We squeezed into the narrow room where Nelly hovered over an industrial pot spitting rich fumes into the tight quarters.  She paused to usher us in with welcoming hugs and sit us down as we waited for our meal.  From the doorway, to your left is a large table adjacent to the wall, a narrow space for chairs and perhaps a standing person, and a large shelf against the opposite wall for glass and dishware.  To your right are a small stove, a refrigerator, a sink, and a window opening to Nelly's living room by which she passes food to an ailing family member.  Diana, on occasion, also uses this window as a door.  So we sat in a row of chairs, our posture maintained by the shelf behind and the table in front, and waited…

A strapping lad walked in and dreamily saluted the gringas, though he was most smitten by Ecuadorian Paola's rare blue eyes and curvaceous figure.  Paola, an aficionado for negros (and I assure you this term is used freely in reference to Afro-Ecuadorians), was likewise pleased with this immediate display of attention.  This trend would become a staple of the visit.  It was casually made known that this young man had recently been with sixteen girlfriends, but he was now, conveniently single.  

Malé skipped into the room, chatting freely with our newly arrived gang.  We quickly discovered that she had also just stepped off the bus from Quito, where she worked as a housemaid.  Meanwhile, a tiny boy with the face of a wise man who had just seen snow for the first time, lingered outside the door swaying from side to side and disappearing behind the wall when his timid glances were met.  Malé, noting the direction of our stares, peered outside the door and scooped up her son, coddling him with emotion.  Like many of Coangue's children, he lives with various extended family members who take care of him while his mother works in Quito.  As almost everyone is related, there is never a shortage of second mothers, aunts, grandfathers, sisters, brothers, uncles, and cousins; a permanent daycare community.  

Juan Carlos inched his way into the kitchen, a polite, sweet young man and also "the voice of Coangue."  Tomorrow we would have the privilege of hearing his lyrics onstage during the Carnaval festivities.  

Nelly began to pass steaming plates down the line; a small mountain of rice with a trunk of fried meat, potatoes, and the usual decorative salad.  My foresight suggested that a dietary cleanse might be necessary after the trip.  We packed in our meal and through mouthfuls saluted the various family members and friends who came and went sharing news and embraces.

Though rising with full bellies in the morning, we skipped back down the trail to Nelly's Kitchen for breakfast.  Though we were unaware at the time, a storm had arisen overnight, and Nelly was grudgingly cleaning its debris.  This included a bloody, torn dress shirt and a disgruntled mother blocking Nelly's doorway, arms crossed and refusing to budge.  Apparently, one of Nelly's many sons and one of the woman's many sons were in a fight, resulting in Nelly's son almost killing the woman's son.  The victim was currently in the Ibarra Hospital, and naturally, undergoing various tests and x-rays that spelled M-O-N-E-Y.  Nelly, uncertain of the course of events and unwilling (or unable) to pay the patient's medical bills without accountable witnesses, also refused to budge.  The worried mother finally left, and was shortly replaced by Nelly's raucous son who insisted that he was threatened and merely defended himself, apparently to the point of murder.  He reclaimed his soiled shirt and stormed out of the kitchen.  This all on display for five wide-eyed strangers cautiously sucking in the morning air.

I was beginning to understand why Diana chose to eat fried meat, rice, eggs, and other fried foods on a daily basis.  She would otherwise be missing the greatest news channel in Coangue, Chota. The plates were passed down; fried eggs and fried baby hot dogs.  Chocolate milk, juice, bread and cheese topped off the morning newscast, and we emerged from the kitchen into a vicious Carnaval water war.

Carnaval typically elicits romantic images of Rio de Janeiro's streets paraded by ornate costumes, festive dance, and sweet music flowing from the city's most obscure corners.  A once-in-a-lifetime party that happens more than once if you're lucky.  In Ecuador (as I also recall from my 6am runs in Peru), Carnaval means a three-day water fight and carioca battle (a staining foam that one blasts from a can, not unlike whipped cream).  Take a moment to imagine: you wake up from a happy dream and lazily wander onto the terrace to admire mother earth and soak in her rays.  You reach your arms high up towards the clouds, stretching out any cobwebs that followed you outside.  Below, a group of children giggle and shriek, hopping out of a water gun line of fire.  You smile and sigh "Oh children," turn on your heel to go inside and get properly dressed, and SPLASH!  The mother of five children below and her older daughter have ambushed you; with a laundry-washing front, they've filled their buckets and emptied its contents onto your happy morning body.  Well yes, that leaves little point in changing, and what's more, a fiery revenge.  So you immediately make plans for attack and SUCCESS!  But the squad of boys behind you have noticed that you are a free target and BAM!  You chase the littlest one down the street and steal his bucket, hiding behind a car and peering out to make sure all enemies are clear.  You run back to the safety of your home but another young woman materializes from her home and WHAP!  Through sopping hair you fill the bucket and beeline for the women who are clearly more dangerous than the boys from whom you've stolen their only weapon…

And yes.  This continues for approximately an hour.  It's fun, you get a mild workout, and the sun's heat dries you off in seconds before being doused again.  Oh but to play all day!  To play all day!  Mind you, as a bleach-blond, blue-eyed freak of nature in the midst of a purely Afro-Ecuadorian community that is amplified by the thousands more who descend on this town for Carnaval, you are a clear target.  Water and carioca out your ears becomes particularly annoying, and far more unappreciated when night falls.  As the desert heat quickly evaporates with your patience, Carnaval suddenly becomes very unappealing.  At this particular moment in time, Paola and I sought out the liquor de ovo vendor, and sat in his thatched hut warming our tired souls with the sweet fermented spirit and mustering our courage to cross the ring of fire back to the house before the bands began to play.  

The townspeople spend the entire year preparing for Carnaval festivities.  An enormous ring of bamboo huts emerges, with a stage clasping it shut.  Food and artisan vendors occupy their respective tienda, dishing out typical delicacies such as roasted choclo smeared with homemade mayonnaise and rolled in crumbled cheese, or roasted platano maduro.  Cerveza and aguardiente (moonshine) are more than a-plenty with staggering, advancing men as evidence.  Where the river has dried up for the season, tons of sand has been imported to create a parking lot, and a barrier of stones keeps the flowing water from rushing in.  Unfortunately, this barrier does little to keep people and their buckets out.  It is also a measly restraint for the fire trucks that fill up their tanks and drive into the ring dousing the dancing crowds.  When it was dark out and mist swirled about the stars and faintly hid the moon, the stagehands began to warn those still intoxicated by water fights that "they were showing a lack of culture."  I particularly enjoyed this slight brainwashing, as I heard sisters admonish their brothers, "ugh, estás sin cultura!  Que falta de cultura naño!"

And so, the water slowly became invisible with an occasional squirt here and there, and we were able to wiggle our tails with the salsa, bomba, and rumba rolling of the stage and shaking those hips like only African mammas can.  After the stage had been broken down, the beats were revived in Coangue's only discoteca indicated by a chiseled sign nailed crookedly above the door.  The cerveza did little to alleviate my discontent in this man-packed bar where old and young drunks attempted to twirl me between the crowded belligerents, and I clung onto Flaco's arm rescuing myself from the predators.  Some idiot released a gas bomb that sent the entire bar packing outside for air, wheezing and recovering from the acute burn that slips down your throat and leaves you breathless.  Milling about in confusion, the boy of sixteen-previous-girlfriends took advantage of the opportunity to ask me if I wanted to "estar conmigo."  Though aware of these sex-crazed souls, I was a bit taken aback by his blunt question.  "No indeed I did not fancy being with him," and "why?" he responded like a hurt puppy dog, "because I have an enamorado and it is not you, nor do I know you or have any interest in you," but "es solo una noche, y no tenemos ningunas promesas," and "yes! Precisely for that reason, it is only one night and I will not risk my physical health or moral dignity, and NO!"  Tugging Flaco's arm urgently we escaped to our little home, our haven where we found Paola outside sitting like an African queen with her negro puffing slowly on tobacco and passing us a last swig of beer before retiring for the evening.

In the morning, Nelly prepared enough food to hold us over for the day's road trip.  Bolones de verde, fried eggs with diced ham, pan y queso, chocolate milk, and juice.  We watched her carefully wrap the mashed green platanos around a ball of cheese and toss it into the frying pan.  She also prepared the traditional guangul, a type of bean, to stew for the evening's soup.  Bulging, we set off in Paola's car for a dry mountain adventure.  We climbed past Pirampiro, stopping at an overgrown cemetery to admire the flowers framing the gravestones.  We continued, guided by signs towards "Nueva America," an unheard of destination though it seemed fit to reach it, trotting over cobbled roads and passing fascinating crop designs like water droplets and eddies, and fields dotted with white harvest bags where family members worked together to lift the crops from the ground and place them carefully.  Three chickens roosted tranquilly on a fat, black chancho and instead of yelling "Para, para!" so that our photographer, Flaco, could capture this unique image, I begged "Mira, mira!" and heads turned in every which direction missing the miracle and failing to stop.  We arrived in a secluded mountain town with a solitary, deserted plaza and continued on towards "Nueva America," though before reaching the hidden city, we entered a fabulous cloud forest mirroring the Amazon at 3,000 plus meters filled with orchids and furry vines mingled with bushy trees and transparent clouds descending over the flora.  Our red Rodeo pushed on, but we feared that we were nearing Columbia, and a neatly cut thief's cave in the brush by the roadside confirmed that we might be off the beaten track and it had already been three hours and Nelly's food was no longer sustaining us.  So we turned around and began the fabulous descent downhill through patchwork and pleasant people and mountain vistas on end.

We returned to Coangue with a bag of fruit in tow for Nelly to make us a morning salad, and in time for dinner and a second session of music.  We filled up at the station and pranced off to the ring to spend our energy dancing.  We masterfully avoided water the entire day, and tucked ourselves in at a decent hour to set off in the early morning.

Nelly had made us a gorgeous fruit salad.  She had also prepared fried eggs and French fries, and crackers with cheese.  So, our attempts to return on a healthy note were banished and we gave in to the rich grease.  We gave Nelly a generous compensation for her hearty meals with strong hugs good-bye.  At Diana's we collected our belongings and saluted her and the family below.  And like all good Ecuadorians, on the way back to Quito we paused in each town to buy its respective specialities: Cayambe for bizcochos and queso de hoja, an attractive looking fritada stand near Otavalo, and the land of chirimoyas outside Quito (a fabulously sweet fruit).  Full and bearing more food for our families' and friends, we returned back to the sanity and routine we had become familiar with in Quito.

Tags: Adventures

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