Smoke curled under blackened plantains on a wood tray that hung above the open fire. Flames licked up from a pit sunken into the mud floor. It was my first Sunday in Cotundo, Ecuador and my host mom and I had hiked for miles to visit her mother’s farm – the epitome of a campo, which is an indigenous working community. I was offered a type of fruit that they called chirimoya. It was custardy, white on the inside, and prickly and frightening looking on the outside. I was sure to ask how to eat it, because the night before I had a significant learning experience when I was given guanabanilla, which is deliciously soft and white and sweet, but is flush with black pepas, spicy seeds which make one’s eyes water profusely. I of course was eating both the delicious and the horrific part of the pod, and attempting to indicate smilingly through my comical abundance of tears how much I loved the fruit. “Are you eating the seeds?” my brother asked me, concerned. Of course, he was talking very fast in Spanish and I couldn’t understand his seven or eight initial warnings, being very busy trying not to drown in the pepa-induced flood of tears. He finally grabbed one of the seeds out of my mouth and showed me what I was doing wrong. Once I got the hang of it, I actually did like it – the chirimoya was far easier, the next day, once you crack the thick skin, and far messier, which made it all the more enjoyable.
Sitting with Nancy, my host mom, and Jocelyn, my cousin, enjoying my messy chirimoya and getting up only to pluck mandarinas from the trees that surrounded us, I was a little more than shocked when a lethal-looking piece of metal dropped at my feet. I was even more surprised to look up and see the wrinkled, toothless smile of my abuelita, who is one of the most muscular women I have ever met, and who was holding another machete and a powerful-looking axe. “Vamonos!” Nancy laughed at the expression on my face and stood up, dusting herself off, indicating that I should pick up the incredible weapon in front of me. I did. It was relatively heavy and felt like a good weight in my hand. It was crudely made and well sharpened, I observed, bringing the weapon close enough to my face that my breath could fog the metal. I followed my grandmother’s lead, as she slashed at vines and trees in her way to make our way down the sloping side of her farm. Nancy and Jocelyn followed, laughing amiably at my wide swings and the impressive stream of inelegant English curses I let loose when my machete and I got tangled in a prickly vine and I lost a shoe trying to extract myself.
I remember the thought “What could we possibly be trekking through the jungle to find?” crossing my mind a couple times. More often “I’m cutting down the freaking Amazon to make room to walk… I think this is against my life philosophy.” I am exceedingly glad to have broken with that philosophy, in this case, considering what followed. My abuelita stopped suddenly at a gentle cliff. I tried to do the same, throwing my weight around in what I thought would be an immediate stop. Luckily, my grandmother promptly caught me without blinking an eye or turning around when I tripped forward into her.
“Here we are,” she announced shortly, and turned to her right, where a towering prickly chonta tree stood, looking like an unreasonably overgrown cross between a cactus and a palm tree. The axe swung inches from my face and I hurried out of her way and straight into a foot-deep pit of mud. My left shoe lost itself again and our laughter began to verge on hysteria. Abuelita determinedly ignored me and continued axing. I was well occupied dancing out of the way of the dangerously abundant and sharp spinos when she indicated that I should bring my machete close to hers, which I did without hesitating, seeing that she behaved like a born lumberjack, even at sixty or seventy something.
“Go and pull,” she instructed.
“Of course, of course,” I agreed, having no idea what the heck was going on, as per usual.
“Now! With the machete. Por favor.”
I pulled, the top edge of the machete wedged into the tree trunk against her machete.
I jumped a little and obeyed.
And the tree trunk split open. Strange white hairs spilled out, and she stuck her hand into the mess. No more bark, just a mass of little white woody hairs . She pulled out a handful, letting her fingers sift through, and dropped almost all the pelitos (little wood hairs) on the ground. Remaining were two mildly obese white worms. She smiled at me contentedly and congratulated me. My stomach turned as I managed a grimace back. More worms were crawling in the opening we had created, and the entire family commenced digging around inside the trunk. I did, too, of course. Follow their lead. We began dumping all the worms into a white bucket. I tried hard to understand what was going on, but the answer evaded me.
And then it found me, an hour later standing over the open fire with white worms roasting in oil.
Of course we were going to eat them. Of course.
Chontacuros, a type of worm found in the chonta tree, are an Amazonian delicacy in Ecuador and a very special treat to offer guests. I ate mine with gusto. They tasted like some kind of gelatin-y chicken (typical of insects, apparently). It was not bad, and I enjoyed it just as much as I was sure to say out loud. Chontacuros are considered to be incredibly healthy. They are used by the indigenous Kichwa people to cure flu, fever, and stomach pains.
I ended my first Sunday with a dessert of fried worms, or gusanos, as we call them. And one night taught me to look at grandmother-hood, insects, and machetes all in a new light. In the Amazon, there are a million ways to see and use everything that crosses your path. I want the jungle to teach me how.