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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."

Welcome to Riobamba

ECUADOR | Friday, 5 October 2007 | Views [573]

According to my taxista, I´ve arrived in the most dangerous barrio of Riobamba.  This minor piece of news does little to abate my throbbing head which has been successfully clouded with carbon emissions from my three-hour bus ride from Quito.  Although, I should be counting my lucky stars, as most bus rides on this route trail smog fumes for four to five hours.  I suppose it was a “let´s-go-to-Riobamba” day because the bus filled up quite quickly outside Quito resulting in less stops along the way. 

During the ride I amused myself by staring at the starkly contrasted reflections of my neighboring passenger and me in the front window.  Me: strappy, Hi-Tec pack underfoot and an IPod serenading me, next to an indigenous woman adorned in traditional beads, a felt top hat with a shimmering plume emerging from its band, and enthroned with a sack of potatoes.  Despite the weight of the potatoes and her inability to find the seat recliner, she fell fast asleep within seconds and within minutes was gently swayed onto my shoulder as we cruised around a corner, which gave her quite a start at discovering that, yes, even gringitas have comfy shoulders!  She scurried off at the next stop, after which I spent the following hour discerning whether she was late delivering her produce or in a hurry to deliver the news about her new discovery, that being my shoulder.

I arrived at Riobamba in this confused and polluted state, but was instantly cheered by the hospitality of Doña Carmen Chauca.  Carmita is the mother-in-law of my research supervisor and one of the most charming elder women in existence.  When I ask Carmita how she has been since I last saw her, she replies; “luchando con la edad.”  Indeed, she is fighting with age.  Her upper body is nearly parallel to the floor and her knuckles are swollen and misshapen.  Moruja, her elder sister, is Carmita´s slightly heavier reflection, though much harder of hearing.  In Carmita´s case, however, her fragile appearance deceives her.  With twisted palms, she gracefully slices through a near-stale block of cheese which I have difficulty putting a dent in.  She manages to maintain a forever simmering cauldron of horchata on the stove alongside its faithful companion mote and a pot of tea infused with flowers from her garden.  When she isn’t cultivating potatoes, cauliflower and un montón of other organic edibles, she is tending to her breed of cuys, washing her clothes, or visiting the local market.  Her routines and daily interactions are met with a smile carved to perfection by wise contours and lit with twinkling eyes. 

Despite the vast distance in age, culture, and physical appearance between Carmita and me, we manage to broach several subjects that resonate.  We discuss family, love, spirituality, and food.  Though our conversations are intriguing, my posture is less appetizing.  Carmen´s kitchen is designed for people ranging between four and five feet.  This leaves me in an awkward state when we are leaning on the counter chatting as women do, and I´m nearly doubled over to find a resting place for my elbows.  On other occasions I occupy floor space and she sits in a chair, but most often we are seated at the table eating. 

Meals at Carmen´s are always eventful and innovative.  In the morning I slurp a bowl of horchata (a grain-based beverage that is heated with milk and water, and often touched up with herbal flowers and fruit).  I add a bit of sugar and bee pollen into my portion at which Moruja encourages me to add even more sugar.  Moruja has decided that I have a pathetic appetite, though I´m quite proud of my ability to finish my meals, which are double or triple my average portions at home (the word “home” excludes Ameican restaurants).  As I am finishing my bowl, Carmen and Moruja have moved on to a hearty chicken and vegetable soup.  Although satisfied already, they strongly encourage me to have a bowl of mote with queso (but we have already been over the cheese, and at 7am I am in no mood to hack at it).  So I politely accept my mote and why not a cup tea, and I am about to run out the door but I forgot to eat fruit!  So in goes half a papaya, a chunk of bread, and voila!  Off to work…

Dinner is more or less the same.  I usually arrive an hour after they have starting eating and depart an hour before they have finished, which when calculated properly amounts to three hour meals of which I take part in a third.  I help myself to a small serving of rice and vegetables with cheese and some mote, but Moruja doesn’t approve of my serving and therefore, piles half of her plate onto mine.  Half a tangerine and a pile of grapes somehow ends up on my plate next to a bread roll, and I plow in.  Moruja is chewing away happily, though I´m not quite sure how she is managing since her dentures have been sitting in the bathroom for the past two days. 

After dinner I help the sisters clean up.  Now this game can be tricky because there are three, sometimes four, compost bins designated for different purposes: dogs, cats, guinea pigs (cuy) and fertilizer.  I hover over each bin with the scraps from our dinner and Moruja makes various “yes” and “no” sounds until I´ve got it right.  The same goes for the plates on the plate rack, and god forbid I get it wrong.  Carmen, however, has a more efficient system of cleaning up.  She launches a soggy leaf of lettuce across the table at Moruja´s face, and then Moruja places it in the right bin. 

Now it’s time for bed, and I am not looking forward to repeating my first night here.  Put bluntly, it was a bit like camping. On the bottom bunk, the cold air creeping up from the floor efficiently refrigerated the straw mattress.  I fell asleep only after dressing in almost every article of clothing I had with me: long underwear, fleece pants, wool socks, two t-shirts, and a fleece pullover.  It took all my strength to resist tugging on a wool hat.  So tonight I am moving to the top bunk where the hot air rises.  I manage to rearrange the bedding while Moruja and Carmita pray to God and a mob of cats threaten to rupture our eardrums with their incessant “screech and hiss” on the balcony.  I finally crawl into bed and hear Carmita coo through the door; “Que duermes con los angelitos.”  And I do.

Tags: Culture

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