I hopped off of the bus at my stop in Santa Ana, a rural parish in Cuenca. I had been holding eight bags of garlic, I will now take the time to apologize to the person who sat next to me on the bus and had to inhale me for 15 minutes. The garlic was for the 7 chanchos (pigs) my host mom, la mami Chula, had to bake for an event in a nearby town. I walked into where she was working to find five dead pigs, splayed out on their backs, degutted, and being prepared by mami Chula, and two other women, to be put in the oven later. They invited me to have some soda at the back, which required me to walk further into the room where the dead pigs lay, and the smell, not incredibly unbearable, but slightly discomforting, filled my nose. After exiting the room, I looked to my left to find two more chanchos laid out on benches. After using my mediocre Spanish abilities in an attempt at conversation, I headed back to our house in the center of town.
I walked up the stairs leading to our house, passing our chickens who are able to run freely throughout the town, and always find their way back to the house for food. Once I enter the house, I have a flashback to the beginning of the week. It was my birthday. I hadn’t told them, because I didn’t want them to feel pressured into doing anything for me, especially in my first few days of being there. Little did I know, they already knew it was my birthday, but hadn’t said anything yet. So imagine my surprise when mami Chula called me that evening, and asked me to come upstairs so that we can finish dehairing the guinea pigs together. I ran upstairs to the kitchen, and there they were: five dead guinea pigs. I won’t tell you the gory details, but the night proceeded, we came together as a family, and I roasted my first guinea pig in the fire place. I decided to take a photo of it, and put it on my Snapchat (reminder that the danger of snapchat is only being able to provide a line or two of information alongside a photo, which is part of why I thought a blog would be important, as I could further explain the situation). The responses I got were along the lines of people not being able to believe that I would eat it, and it usually came from a place of fascination, confusion or general disgust. It really got me thinking, and I decided to share the knowledge imparted on me by members of the Chumbay Loja family (my host family), and also my perspective on the matter.
Mami Chula bought the guinea pigs for my birthday. The traditional dish is served at smaller celebratory events, for example, for birthdays and special family gatherings. Chancho is served at bigger events, and every edible part of the chancho will be eaten, no waste. Mami Chula raises chanchos herself. Whenever anyone in the family cooks breakfast, lunch or dinner, instead of wasting food, whatever can be saved to feed to the pigs, will be saved and fed to them later. She feeds and checks on them daily, brings them to the veterinarian every three months to make sure they’re receiving the right vitamins through their nutrition, and overall, acknowledges that they’re living beings and should be able to live under proper conditions and treated with respect as they’re being raised. I have yet to see any animal be mistreated here in this rural town.
Then there’s us, the meat eaters who consume meat that’s been factory farmed; animals who have spent most of their lives in spaces that barely allow them to move, being fed hormones and genetically manipulated to serve our needs, only to be killed by the hundreds or thousands in slaughterhouses, and packaged off to various locations to be sold in supermarkets. Of course, we do this all in the name of being able to ‘maximize output while minimizing costs’. We only really get that end product, the one that finds its way on to our plate. How easy it is to become desensitized to this gruesome process that farm animals have to endure in many industrial livestock production settings in order to meet our demands of meat consumption. Even though there are countless articles and documentaries about it, ones that might make us feel guilty for a second, but once that meat is in front of us, all marinated and cooked to perfection, the process of how it got there doesn’t seem to register anymore.
Now let me tell you why I’ve grown to admire the people I’ve encountered here, and small-time farmers in general. Almost everyone in the town farms, or grows some of their own vegetables and fruits. They seek out a neighbor who can provide them with milk, or sell them some cuys, or they buy pigs from different people and pay someone to bake them for large events. Small businesses rule, and support for community rules. People respect the land and its inhabitants, and do not harvest beyond what is sustainable, and available to them within that framework of sustainability. Because of this, I’ve noticed that they eat a lot more grains, vegetables and fruits. At home, when the family I live with does eat meat, you’ll know that the animal has lived a good life beforehand.
As for the guinea pig I ate, and how it might be considered strange to some. I can’t help but think: who are we to set the standard for what is ‘normal food’ and what is not? Let us not forget the historical, geographical, religious and cultural influences that play a role in what kind of food people eat today in various communities. Let us not forget that what we happily eat in our communities could be considered unspeakable to eat in other communities, and vice versa. Yet we would not want people, coming from a different cultural standpoint, imposing their ideas on us, of what we should and shouldn’t be eating. I get that guinea pig is different to what many of us are used to, but hey, at least it’s lived a better life than most of the chicken, cow, pig or turkey that’s ended up on my plate before.
Now, I’m not saying we all need to pack our bags and move to rural areas like Santa Ana, so we can have that security of almost always knowing where our food is coming from. I’m also not saying that we should all become vegetarian or vegan. What I am saying, is that there’s so much beauty in respecting small-time farmers and preserving traditional methods of farming; in not ignoring what kind of life our meat must have had before it came to be our meat; in putting the land before our constant want to consume, in making the conscious decision to consider the wellness of our planet, and what our approach to living a more sustainable lifestyle will be.