The only remaining people in the native Ecuadoran village of Agua Santi were women, children and the elderly. There was so little water that no one had bathed or washed their clothes in several weeks. The only food left was fava beans. Most of the men had left home to find work to help feed their families. Patricio, one of the only farmers who still had a trickle of water, remained behind to help supply food for his people and care for his trees and his grandmother. 2010 saw the tipping point of a severe drought that plagued the Chimborazo Province in the heart of Ecuador.
A few years prior, Patricio had lost his two young daughters in a cistern he had built that was intended to supply water to his crops. Since then, his heart’s mission was to reforest Mt. Si Sic, which stood behind his farm. Centuries ago the Spanish had pushed the native people from their land and had destroyed much of the surrounding forests. Patricio believed that if he could restore the forest on the mountain, the rains would return. In his “spare time” he raised native tree saplings and trekked up the mountain with water to plant them. When he began his mission he quickly discovered that planting non-native trees destroyed the quality of the soil. As he overcame a sharp learning curve, he began to understand which trees were native and how to effectively cultivate them. By the time of our meeting he had managed to re-forest scores of acres on Mt. Si Sic.
On his occasional trips into the town of Rio Bamba Patricio would stop at the library and learn a few more English words on the Internet to serve as a bridge between the western world and his native Kichwa. Somewhere along this path he met Jonathan Sparrow, an ethnobotanist who had taught himself to speak Kichwa. Jonathan had been traveling to numerous indigenous villages in Ecuador. His sole purpose was to teach the native people how to support themselves and their communities by protecting their forests. He was succeeding and the people were deeply enthusiastic. Over the previous decades many native communities were seduced into working for companies who would clear-cut the forests to harvest the wood and make room to grow coffee and other crops. Over the years, Jonathan had helped Patricio carry out his mission and they had become close friends.
We were a small group of women healers from the World Healing Exchange and Jonathan was our guide. This is a branch of Acupuncturists Without Borders whose purpose is to help heal trauma in communities who have been stricken by disaster. Until the psychological aspect of trauma has healed, it hinders its victims from moving forward and participating in the healing of themselves and their communities. Our purpose was to reach out to these indigenous villages and exchange wisdom with their native healers while helping them to move through these difficult times. The remaining indigenous people of Agua Santi were experiencing deep loss and trauma. We performed an acupuncture protocol for trauma called, NADA, on the entire village. Afterwards, the village gave us fava beans (I still can’t believe they fed us), and insisted that we come with them to the top Mt. Si Sic.
At age 75, Margarita and her friends from Agua Santi ascended Mt. Si Sic in their brilliant native indigos, reds and purples, as if they were fairies floating effortlessly up through the young secondary forest. We struggled to keep up as they guided us, eager to show us something. When we arrived at the top, Margarita and her elderly friends were lying on the forest floor laughing and throwing pebbles at anyone who dozed off in the filtered sunlight. A few children played on rock outcroppings. When everyone finally arrived at the top we all walked together towards the mysterious project. It was a cistern that the community had been building that would supply water when the rains came again. Jonathan was there to help them with the final construction and afterwards there was a joyous ceremony with chanting and blessings.
The following morning we woke to find that Margarita and many others from Agua Santi had walked several miles from their village to the monastery where we were staying on the outskirts of Rio Bamba. Patricio was there too. Their smiles were as bright as the sun and they wanted to come with us. The Ecuadorian government had kindly provided us with a small bus for traveling through the country and we managed to pack in everyone. No one in Agua Santi owned a car. As I understood it, for some, this was their first ride in a motor vehicle.
There is a certain odor that a person develops when they haven’t been able to bathe or wash their clothes for months. Yes, their drought was that bad. I never would have believed I could associate such an odor with pure joy. However, riding in such close quarters on what would become a magical day, that particular odor permeated everything. Afterwards, I could never bring myself to wash the blouse I wore that day. I keep it in a plastic bag in hopes that it will never lose that beautiful, loving scent.
That morning we visited and treated another village that was even worse off than Agua Santi. It was more populated and the people were despondent. This is a story for another time but I want to mention something that I will never forget where we convened in their town hall. While we were there, one of the native people stood up and screamed something in Kichwa. He was clearly angry. Jonathan translated “You tell your people to take back their poison seeds and give us back our own! You brought us these seeds that produce only one time and then they are barren!” Jonathan explained that some people from a corporation had come in and shown the amazing plants they could grow from GMO seeds. They gave them the seeds in exchange for their own. They failed to mention that they were hybrids. The following year, when the people planted the seeds from these crops they found that none of them could reproduce. These poor people wasted their energy and their water on planting seeds that could never sprout. This was a dangerous scenario that threatened their food, their animal’s food and their ability to survive.
We left the village that afternoon and Jonathan mentioned that there was a hot spring about an hour away. No one from Agua Santi had ever been to a hot spring. We went and soaked in the healing waters of San Francesco. I’ve never seen such joy pouring from other human beings. These beautiful people, who were surviving a severe drought, hadn’t bathed in weeks were splashing and playing and laughing for hours. The elderly ladies unbraided their hair that reached past their wastes and let it float and swirl in the water. As the day came to a close, the waters were drained out of the pools. The people of Agua Santi all gathered in the main pool that had a likeness of St. Francesco. In it, they all held hands and prayed and chanted. As the water drained out, they moved closer and closer together so they could remain in the water. They held hands and said prayers until the very last drop had drained out.
Several days later, when I arrived back in civilization, I came to realize that this day, with these people whose drought-stricken village bore the namesake, Saint of Water, happened to be International Water Day.by