Lily Ellenberg - Ecuador

January 2, 2012

It’s a quiet Sunday in the Andi-Cerda household. We’ve just finished lunch when I notice my host-dad Juan cutting up something brown outside.


“It’s tobacco, we’re going to mix it with water,” Irene, my host-mom, explains.


“Its part of our culture,” Juan interjects, “want to try?”


Although I dont know what it is I am trying, I agree with a slight nod of my head. Why not? I think.


“We put it in your eyes and nose to cleanse the sinuses, afterward you see more clearly and have more strength,” Juan states matter-of-factly.


My eyes widen, “What have I agreed to?” Seeing my expression, my great-aunt, Seraphina, who is visiting for a while, lets out a loud laugh. She’s 63 years old,  skillfully wields a machete in a skirt, cooks up a mean empenada verde, and knows a thing or two about life.


“Then, we pop your head,” Irene interjects.


At this point I’m utterly confused, pop my head? But, I figured, just like many things in Ecuador, if I just wait and see, things will become clear.


Soon enough, the brown concoction is ready. First, my little sister, Nina, gets the treatment. She is not a fan. Then its Kambic’s turn. Afterward, he blindly stumbles to his bed and in turn, cries himself to sleep. So, not exactly the best recomendation for the whole cleansing ritual. However, I’m not backing down. I sit down, rather unceremoniously, and while Irene holds my eyelids secure, Seraphina rains brown tobacco-water into my eyes.


Instant pain. The sting is terrible, my eyes start to water uncontrollably and my face screws up in discomfort. After about two minutes they tell me to open and close my eyes. My body tells me this is a terrible idea, but with a few blinks, the pain evaporates.


Finally, it’s Irene’s turn. Her eyes water too but you can tell its not her first time around the block. Once she recovers, Seraphina sits her down, wraps her knotted finger around a clump of Irene’s long black hair and pulls slowly but forcefully. At first I think the noise is the popping of her own finger. But then again and again, pop, pop, pop, the sound occurs, convincing me its not just her joints. With each pull a short scream passes through Irene’s lips. I decide the tobacco cleanse is enough for me. I sit back in my chair and when Seraphina motions toward me, I smile broadly and say, “Thank you, but maybe another time.”

Lily Ellenberg