What Exactly is Ñamarín?


The name baffles the tongue, upon reading it for the first time.  And once you figure out how to say it, you might ask yourself, just what is Ñamarín?

To call it a village might not be quite accurate, because most villages I’ve been to, as tiny as they may have been, were built more densely than here.  But the collection of homes scattered around the hills outside the community of Saraguro, in the province of Loja, have a palpable unity greater than what can be achieved by simply building houses close together.

In Ñamarín, many of the men, young and old, still wear their black hair long.  They usually have it tied back into a braid, and covered with a high, black, narrow-rimmed hat not unlike one your grandfather might have worn.  Like many of the men living in and around Saraguro, they also wear the distinctive black pants, the legs of which not quite reaching the ankles of the fellow wearing them.  More often than not, a blue dress shirt, covered by a black vest – and on colder days, a black jacket – completes the Saraguro man’s traditional garb.

That the men who identify themselves culturally as indigenous Saraguro maintain their traditional clothing is, in and of itself, a feature that speaks of the kinship felt amongst the people of the area.  Even the chola cuencana, the archetypal country woman to be found in and around Cuenca, with her unmistakable colorful pleated skirt, white flowing blouse and white “Panama” hat, has no easily identifiable male counterpart.  At least not as far as his clothes are concerned.

The Saraguro woman, for her part, is also easily identified: by her long black skirt, often embroidered along the bottom, by her usually white, long sleeved blouse, and topped off with, like the men of her community, what we norteamericanos might think of as a Prohibition-era black fedora.

Long before I visited Ñamarín for the first time, I had become acquainted with Saraguro culture primarily because of their distinctive clothing.  As I made my obligatory visit to Vilcabamba as a newbie to Ecuador, I recall having noticed the traditional clothing of the people as we rolled along a dusty road of the town of Saraguro itself.  Later, having made the connection with that particular style of indigenous dress, I began to pick up on it as I wandered around the streets of Cuenca.

It’s truly incredible how in our minds, we make such clear distinctions amongst groups of people based purely on their clothes.  A police officer, a doctor, a military man, or a clergyman is instantly labeled as such by what he (or she) is wearing.  In Ecuador, ostensibly since centuries ago, groups of people have been long identified by how they dress.  Even today, a trained eye could trace any traditionally-dressed individual back to her specific region strictly by recognizing her distinctive outfit.  Interestingly, in the cities as well there is an unmistakable connection between the uniforms of working professionals and which bank or other institution they happen to work at, as much as there is between the mobs of school children spilling off the sidewalks at lunchtime, and their corresponding educational center.

The sociologist would be better suited than I at analyzing what it is about Ecuadorian culture that has rendered country and city folk alike to be so notably tuned in to what might be referred to as “the culture of the uniform.”  Who knows, maybe someday I’ll hit the streets of Cuenca with a camera and do my best to document it myself.

As usual, I digress.  Because the real purpose of this month’s message to you all is to share our trip last November to the home of José and Juana Cartuche.

It is largely thanks to the hospitality of this couple that the name Ñamarín means anything to someone like me, who would have otherwise sped by it on a bus heading south to more popular destinations, too fast to notice the sign with the puzzling name.

Several years ago, as José explained to me, a peace corps volunteer came to work in his community.  She lived with his family, and her work – and her stay with them in general – helped them to formulate their plan to become hosts for travelers, and to build the infrastructure to make a stay here attractive to people from outside their community.

Today, they have built Inti Samana Wasi, which is to say in Quichua, “the place where the sun rests.”

And, as José said to us, his guests are like the sun, who come to his home to rest briefly, before continuing on their journey.

This heartfelt explanation came to us at the beginning of our two-night stay, and as we spent time with them, as they shared with us all the meals that Juana prepared, they both proceeded to show us the heart behind the name they’ve given to their lodging.

When I had spoken with José on the phone to let him know we’d be arriving, he told us that he’d meet us down at the highway, winding through the valley below Ñamarín.  Not really knowing what he would look like, I remember sitting on the always-crowded bus heading to Loja, barreling noisily around the hills, when I happened to glance out the window across the aisle to see the flicker of a man’s face, there, and then gone.

That had to be him!  So we quickly gathered up our things, ourselves, our baby, as we hollered to the driver to stop the bus.  Our fellow passengers helpfully joined in the litany of voices, and a man in the front seat pounded on the door separating the driver’s cabin from the rest of the bus.  A lurching stop, the stumbling of the passengers standing in the aisle, a flurry of feet and baggage, and we were soon deposited on the dusty roadside.

And there, downhill, the man stood stoically on the embankment, still waiting.  We made our way back down the road, met the gentleman who was indeed to be our host for the weekend, and made our way up the steep hill into Ñamarín.  José informed us on the walk to his home that another couple would be staying that weekend as well, and that we might know them.  Sure enough, an hour after our arrival, Rachel, a new teacher at CEDEI who I’d just met the month before, and her boyfriend Nelson from the tropical town of Mindo outside of Quito, came walking into the Cartuche’s little patio where we were hanging out.

The patio, framed on three sides by the small buildings that make up their home and lodging, and on the fourth by José’s organic garden, is set up with nice wooden benches and two hammocks, a perfect place to relax and read in the sun.  The garden, a mix of herbs and vegetables, supplies Juana’s kitchen with fresh ingredients year-round, thanks to Ecuador’s high altitude formula of predictable sun, rain and mild temperatures throughout the calendar year.

During meals, as we all sat around the wide wooden table, being served soup ahead of big steaming main courses, all of us guests spoke prolifically about whatever came to mind.  José would eat, and listen, and Juana would smile and ask us if we wanted more.  As he was occasionally compelled to do so, José would ask us a question, or provide his opinion, or share a story.  But usually, he just listened to us, as I began to gather he must do with most of his guests.  In this way, beyond the travels that he mentioned he had taken to such places as La Paz, Bolivia, he gleaned what be of other parts of the world, and the chattering people that came from them.

And in this way, in his silence, I cultivated my respect for this generous member of the community from which he came.  From time to time, he would suggest a walk that we could take from his house to various nearby destinations.  The first walk we took, by far the most leisurely, led us along the main road through the community of Ñamarín itself, and the beautiful mountains that frame it, and shelter it.

We observed that the majority of the homes in the area were built from adobe bricks, and topped with the traditional red ceramic roofing shingles known as tejas.  To see an adobe home in other parts of Ecuador that I’ve visited, even in the countryside, is usually to gaze upon an old, old farmhouse.  But here, many of these adobe buildings were clearly newer, and some still under construction.  It was refreshing to see a place where natural building methods were still seen as a perfectly logical way to make a home.

During our walk, Nancy also pointed out how there was no loud music playing, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise on a walk along a country lane, one would think.  But go to the countryside around Cuenca, for example, and you’ll see where many families from the city have bought a cheap slice of the outskirts of town and built themselves a concrete mansion or perhaps a simple country villa.  Either way, such families love to go to these weekend vacation homes and have themselves an all-day party, with loud music to go along with it.

In Ñamarín, this was fortunately not the case.  These homes were far too distant from any city to make for a regular weekend getaway.  The people are here because this is where they live, and their weekend pastimes bear few resemblances to your typical Ecuadorian city dweller on a country excursion.  Granted, we still saw groups of teenagers playing soccer or volleyball, much as you would around Cuenca.  But these kids were distinct from their urban counterparts in the noticeable lack of accompanying party music, as much as they were for their black pants and ponytails.

The next morning over breakfast, don José recommended another hike to us, up to a little waterfall.  It was easy to find, and we’d easily be there and back before lunch, he assured us.  So we made our way up there, Nancy, Tamia, and I, along with our new friends Rachel and Nelson.  This was Tamia’s first real trip out of town, and our first time taking her for a walk on a steep trail.  But Nancy had rigged up a handy sling out of a long scarf made from durable fabric, and just like that, our then three-month-old was along for the ride.

Before we took this trip to Ñamarín, Nancy and I knew that we’d have many road trips in our future.  Not only for our own enjoyment, but also to Guayaquil, for example, where we’d be taking care of official documents for our dual-citizen child.  We thought a short trip like this one would let us know how Tamia would do on a bus ride, and just being outside of her ordinary routine.  Plus, we decided that it would be a good chance to get her accustomed to such an experience.  Fortunately, our little daughter doesn’t seem to mind being on the road at all, as a look back a couple of months, at some of our more recent trips, will show.

The picture to the left, incidentally, also features the edge of an open cave that overlooks the steep, deep valley issuing forth from the little waterfall only a few steps beyond Nancy’s shoulder.  Before running down the valley and into the rushing river a thousand feet or so below where we stood, it passed through a small, natural basin which would make for a handy place to bathe.

We had to imagine that at one time, many people must have done just that.  Here one would have had the very fortunate combination of a high, wide cave for ample shelter, a source of fresh water for drinking, an accompanying natural pool, and the protection of a steep, narrow valley, well visible from the cave itself.  It wouldn’t have been a bad place to spend some time in the days before indoor plumbing.

The thought crossed our minds to take a dip ourselves in that little pool, until we tested the waters with our hands.  Maybe it would warm up more as the day went on, but at 10 am, it was cold, cold, cold.  The heated shower back at José and Juana’s would be just fine.

And, after some time hanging around the cave and waterfall, and trying out a few dead-end trails, back to the Inti Samana Wasi we went.  We had another delicious meal, we talked José’s ears off once again, and he kindly recommended yet another trail to hike, this one far up into the mountainside that Ñamarín was settled upon.  Rachel and Nelson got a head start on us, as we spent some time relaxing after lunch.  And after awhile we three headed out once again, into the community and then, up above it.

Our hike took us quickly out of the community and up into the countryside.  Like many mountain hikes in Ecuador, this one took us from small patches of forest, through high mountain grazing pastures, and also to the inevitable potato patch at unlikely altitudes.  While the trees were nothing like old growth, nor did they seem to be native species to my layman’s eye, the sense that we had reached the edge of a wide expanse of secluded mountains took hold on us, as we looked out onto uninterrupted views of wooded hillsides all around.

It is, upon facing a sight like this, that some deep-seated recess of my psyche  comes forth, filling my mind with the fantastic realization that I could wander endlessly into the scenery.  Some primal craving for wilderness left unsatisfied by too many years in cities, which provokes the urge to let civilization fall away behind me and lose myself in the mountains’ embrace.

If I ever do give in fully to such callings, may I at least do so with a good head start in the early morning.  In this particular case, with dusk on the way and my young family at my side, the archetypal lure of the woodlands wasn’t too hard to dispel.  Its legacy that evening was, during the walk back down, my vocal insistence on a return trip with sleeping bags, tent and camping stove some day in the future.

With some luck, such a trip might be possible.  Later, over dinner, as I further articulated my wonder at the beautiful sights at the top of the hill far above us, José told me that he could arrange for guided multi-day excursions either on foot or horseback into those very open spaces we had witnessed.  It sure would be fun.  If any of you out there are interested, let me know.  With some outside influence like that, I could be pretty easily persuaded.

That night, our hosts had arranged for a youth dance troupe, who were learning some interpretations of traditional Saraguro ritual dances, to present some of what they had learned for us.  After dark, many young people from the community began arriving at our lodging, in successive waves.  While many of the kids were too shy to say much to us before or after, while they were dancing they were clearly having a good time and being themselves.

In all, they presented several dances for us that evening, with don José himself providing explanations of the significance of various movements and concepts that were represented in what we saw.  The dance you see to the left, as he told us, takes place in a circular pattern to illustrate of the cyclical nature of life, and of time in general, according to the indigenous Andean worldview.

I recall hearing a similar interpretation from a guide, regarding some symbols I had seen on old Aztec ruins outside of Oaxaca, Mexico.  Apparently the circular, cyclical nature of life was not lost on that particular group of indigenous Americans either.  But then, anyone living close to the Earth would begin to pick up on such things, with time and thought enough given over to them.  For those engaged fully in the rhythms of the Earth, it must emanate naturally in all sorts of creative expressions.  It’s only those of us who find ourselves separated by degrees from natural cycles who need telling, or at least reminding from time to time by people kind enough to share.

After the performance, one of the dancers learned that our daughter shared her name, and got a chance to hold her.  We learned that in this community, Tamia was a very popular name.  Which makes sense, being that we had borrowed it from Quichua for her to use.

We shared a warm thanks with all of the dancers, who went back to being shy and smiling.  They made a pretty quick departure after their performance, and soon after we were in bed for the last time of our short visit.

It’s worth mentioning that like most of the houses in Ñamarín, the Cartuche family has built their home and lodging with adobe bricks, and made a point to make the walls double thick.  This design lends itself to appealingly deep windowsills, rooms which stay cool on sunny days and warm on chilly nights, and a general sense of being cozy inside the ample walls with natural stucco finish.

So needless to say, we slept well during our two nights under warm blankets and thick earthy insulation, and awoke each morning to sunny skies.

We shared another delicious breakfast with our hosts, and all too soon we were saying our goodbyes, and making promises to return.  Indeed, we still hope to pay this couple and their fine community another visit.  If you’re in Ecuador or intend to be, you might like to do the same!

Brian Horstman
Brian Horstman is a teacher of English as well as a traveler, writer, photographer and cyclist. His interest in traveling around Latin America began while he was living in New Mexico, where he began to experience the Latino culture that lives on there. From there he spent time in Oaxaca, Mexico and has since been living in Cuenca, Ecuador and will be living in Chile starting in 2011. Cal's Travels chronicles some of his more memorable experiences from Mexico and Ecuador, as well as some side trips to other parts.
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