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Dispatch 4 - Saquisili / Macas Grande

Ecuador, Tanicuchi church The next town down the road is Tanicuchi.  At the time we passed through it was quiet.  Among its distinctions is a bull fighting stadium (which didn't look to have been used recently) and a central square. The Catholic church has a commanding position on the square.
Ecuador, Tanicuchi church
Ecuador: school girls Ecuador, Saquisili ChurchAfter visiting a couple of small towns, looking around the squares -- mostly dominated by the church -- and enjoying quiet rural riding -- on paved roads -- we came to Saquisili -- where once again the nicest building on the square was the church (right).
Ecuador, horticulture, green house


Ecuador, Saquisili, Mariscal Surce Primary School



A high point of the morning was the visit to Mariscal Surce Primary School, Saquisili.

The director generously volunteered his time to discuss education in Ecuador.  Resources at the school and in the community are slim so it challenges students, parents and teachers to be very creative with education.  When asked what would make the most difference the director quickly answered, "getting some computers to help the student bridge the digital divide in the future."  After the formal introduction we went to visit and "teach" in the classes.  The students performed admirably, but what got them really excited was when the director offered to take some pictures of our group with the students.  The excitedly lined up for the photos.

Ecuador, Saquisili: Mariscal Surce Primary School
Ecuador: road to Macas Grande From Saquisili, which is in the valley, one excursion is to Macas Grande.  It is no easy task to reach Macas Grande, which is perched on top of a ridge.  The cobblestone road switchbacks as it climbs steeply into the mountains.  We were told few outsiders make it there and even fewer make it by bike -- really!  We were told that we were the first tourists (June 2001). 

Once you get to Macas Grande you have the feeling that you were learning important lessons of life.  Macas means warriors.  This is no surprise when you reflect on, though a generally quiet people, they have a high level of self-confidence and pride.

Ecuador: road to Macas Grande

Ecuador, Macas Grande, view down the valley

Unlike most indigenous people of Ecuador the Macas own their land out right.  Most of it is steep hillside property, but they have been successful enough eking out a life that the from an original community of 30 people in 1937 they have grown to a population of about 7000, and they have money saved to buy additional land to accommodate the future growth.

Ecuador: road to Macas Grande
Ecuador: Macas Grande, greeting residents

After greeting and getting settled into the community center, we went to visit to the health center while the finishing touches were made to lunch.  The medical assistant walked about two hours every morning up the mountain to get the health center.  A doctor comes about once a week.  The health centers best hope is health education.  It sounds like Macas Grande is generally a pretty healthy community, which is a good thing because they can't even get all the vaccines they need.  If there is an emergency they have to find a vehicle in the community (generally there may be one or two, if they aren't broken or already in town) or someone has to run down the mountain.  There is no landline telephones, but cell phones are on the cusp (2001).

The days of no telephone in Macas Grande are numbered.  Our guides traveled with cellular phones.  Their activities of making phone calls didn't go unnoticed -- perhaps we were watching the first phone calls initiated from Macas Grande.


Ecuador, Macas Grande, checking out bicycles
Ecuador, Macas Grande As we walked around the community we could here music coming from a house on the hill across the valley.  The festivities were the third day of a four day wedding celebration.  We were invited, but to be culturally appropriate in the presence of the party we would be expected to do some heavy drinking.  Not being a group of heavy drinkers, we opted out and kept ourselves busy in activities with other members of the community.

Ecuador, Macas Grande, guinea pigs

Macas Grande has a fairly autarkic economy -- it doesn't have a lot of trade with other economies.  Almost all the food for our meals came from local farms -- pure locavores or localvores.  The main dish was malloco, papa and habas (yellow tubers, potato and fava beans).  After lunch we walked up the hillside and looked at what was growing on the steep farms.  The crops included choclo (beans), habas, papa, quinua (kinua), cebada (barley), oca (tastes like sweet potato) and squash.  At the Nicholas's farm house (a town leader and our main host) they kept rabbits, cows, donkeys and 100s of cuyes (guinea pigs, a national delicacy). 

In their spare time they weave ponchos.

Ecuador, Macas Grande
Ecuador, Macas Grande

The cell phone story adds a new twist when we were up on Nicholas' farm.  A friend of his in Quito knew that the phone was in the community and called to speak to Nicholas.  Aqui, Macas Grande's first incoming phone call.  Nicholas was pretty impressed as well.  We figured that on his next trip to town he would be getting a cell phone plan and come back to the community and rent out use of the phone!


Coming down the steep path the women were more sure footed carrying a baby and a load, than our group did with two free hands.

Ecuador, Macas Grande
Ecuador, Macas Grande, residents

Dinner provided an opportunity to try additional products from the local farms.  The menu included oca, habas, chocho (beans), queso (cheese), agi (salsa) and tinfo (a soothing herb tea that is good for a cough and stomachache).  It was a table full of tasty food.  We ate like royalty.

We learned more about the community at an evening meeting with some of the community leaders.  They govern themselves with a five person management committee, which is elected for one year terms.  Any member of the community over 18 years old can stand for election and everyone can vote.  One of the main institutions of the Macas is the "minga" or work team.  These can be 100 to 150 people.  They build and fix community infrastructure and work on farms.  There is both private property and farms and communal land in the community.  The Macas run their own justice system through what was described as a community process.  Cases are often resolved with restitution or punishment like whipping or a cold shower.  To avoid problems of a small gene pool, men can bring wives into the community.  The reverse is not allowed -- women cannot bring men into the community -- but presumably marry into other communities.. click to enlarge

At least once a day so far there was a discussion on the social dynamics:  It seems that a large number of Ecuadorian men between the age of 18 and 35 move abroad, in Spain, the U.S. or elsewhere in Latin America and do immigrant labor.  In some towns there are virtually no men left in this age range.  In Macas Grande, they say only one man from their community has left!

Ecuador, Macas Grande

Ecuador, Macas Grande

To balance the discussion we introduced ourselves and answered some questions about our lives and what brought us to Macas Grande, but the topic that interested the community most was what could they do to have more tourists visit their community.  That conversation went on for close to an hour.

By the time the final hands were shaken and hugs exchanged it was late.  There was no question that we had had a full day. 

Leaving Macas Grande we return to Saquisili.  The hill that took a couple hours to climb took about twenty minutes in reverse. 

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