June 18, 2009

Latacunga Apothecary

Dana's friend is leaving soon for Ecuador, where she'll spend most of the summer traveling through the Andes with an educational tour outfit that brings teens and chaperones to small villages in need of free labor. The travelers roll up their sleeves and participate in building and cleanup projects.

Hopefully the group will stay healthy. If they get sick, they'll likely be bussed to Quito for a dose of modern medicine, but villagers might suggest a trip to the local shaman for some traditional healing.

In Latacunga, an Andean town near magnificent Cotopaxi volcano (which has twice wiped out Latacunga), I was fascinated by the block-long selection of traditional remedies spread out by vendors at the outdoor market in the town's main square.

Like many Central and South American countries, Ecuador takes traditional healing seriously. Indeed, within the country's health ministry there's a Bureau of Indigenous Health that respects the place of traditional healing in the lives of populations like the Quechua while providing access to and education about modern medical resources.

In Latacunga I ate guinea pig -- cuys -- which, of course, tasted like chicken. I later learned that cuys is also used in traditional medicine. A healer passes guinea pig innards over a sick person, then examines the innards for nasty or unhealthy-looking spots. The corresponding spots in the person are then treated. Herbs, amulets, cinnamon, dried banana peels and chocolate are used as remedies.

In Ecuador, over 900 plants are used in traditional medicine, mainly to treat psychological ailments, respiratory disorders, urinary tract problems, fever, malaria, rheumatism and conditions of the nervous system. Indigenous Ecuadorans believe that illness is primarily a social phenomenon brought on by poor relations with friends, family, one's community -- and with nature. Not properly honoring Pacha Mama, Mother Earth, can make you ill.

Your shaman might prescribe a trip to the local healing vendors for a pinch of this and a pinch of that. While you're perusing the aisles of bright-colored bags stuffed with plants and herbs, be careful not to trip over the 12-foot-long dried snake skin or the jaguar pelts.

I was saddened to see the pelts. There are only some 50,000 big cats of the species Panthera Onca left in the Americas, and I was standing in the Latacunga market staring down at the remnants of at least a dozen of them.

Made me feel sick.