We are so happy that our friend and talented writer, Magdalena, has given us permission to share another interesting story with our readers about her life here in Cuenca.
For more of her writings and her bio, you can search this blog.
IN SEARCH OF MAGIC IN ECUADOR, II
By Magdalena Herreshoff
It is the world of Ecuador’s medicinal plants that intrigues me
the most with names such as Santa Maria (feverfew), Toronjil
(Melissa), Yierba Luisa (lemon grass) and more. Apparently,
there are some 215 medicinal registered plants in Ecuador. These
plants are used for mal aire (bad air), mal viente (bad wind), susto
(loss of spirit), espanto (fright), mal ojo (evil eyes) and envidia
Every Thursday, at the Rotary, here in Cuenca, indigenous
curanderas treat children and adults with a cleansing ceremony,
a limpia. I tried one of these limpias on a day when I was not
feeling well. The heavily lined, ancient looking curandera struck
me repeatedly with a bouquet of herbs, pushed the smashed herbs
into my nose so forcefully that I could barely breathe, sprayed
perfumes made from plants into my hands to inhale, rubbed an egg
vigorously over my head and even spit one of the concoctions in
my face. Albeit taken aback by the spit attack, I left smiling; the
laughter of the curanderas lingering behind me.
Last week, I walked across the San Francisco Square, where I
came upon a little table displayed with bottles of herbs, spiders,
octopus and excrement from some kind of animal. The man
showed me every bottle with a creature inside, his face close to
mine. His face was encrusted, dark and sweaty and I could not
tell for sure if he had been drinking but I suspected he had. I felt a
unease in the pit of my stomach as he showed me the yellow salt-
like stones, rubbing them on his temples to absorb the bad air of
headaches, the magnetic black undulating hairy forms to balance
bad influences and the alcohol preserved armadillo feces.
Taking a deep breath to quell my stomach discomfort, I asked
him about his herbal plant concoctions. He had about 8 bottles
of various plants soaking in alcohol and he opened each one for
me to smell. With his fingers, nails embedded with dirt, he sifted
some of the liquid into my palm. I rubbed the liquid between my
palms and smelled each one until finally I hit upon the one that
drew my in, a deep lemony earthy smell. I asked him for the price.
“Thirty dollars” he said, which seemed like a lot to me. I shook
my head “no”.
He wildly gestured that he collected the plants himself and that
some of them were rare. They were used for limpias, clearing of
bad air and disease. I was fascinated but ended up walking away
empty handed except for the lingering smell of his tonics on my
Sitting in the Parque de Calderon, the light and the colors
seemed unusually bright, as if I was stoned. I did not wash my
hands for most of the day, bringing the intoxicating smell to my
nose repeatedly. I finally washed them after having been on the
bus with standing room only, holding onto metal rails above me
and in front of me. My hands now smelled of metal and sweat,
but I could still detect the faint smell of the man’s tonics. Even
after I had thoroughly washed my hands with soap I sensed his
undercurrents. I was by now very sorry I had not bought the tonic.
I had lost track of magic by worrying about money.
I went back the next day to see if the man was in the same spot at
the square. I felt a bit anxious about seeing him and was relieved
to see his low table with his bottles of various liquids but not him.
He was nowhere to be seen. The bottles were the size of Zhumir
bottles (a sugarcane liquor) with yellow and blue tops, all of them
dirty from having been opened and closed repeatedly. He also
had large coke bottles, encrusted with dust full of various colored
liquids from amber to dark brown. The woman who was selling
eggs next to his table said he would be back in a while. I took
advantage of the situation and crouched down to take a closer look
at what was displayed on the table. I started to reach out for one
of the bottles, when I heard a voice behind me. Turning, I saw the
man belonging to the table run over.
This time I looked him over very carefully. He did not seem
nearly as intimidating as the day before. His black hair was neatly
parted to the left and his face was relaxed. He smiled at me and
again he showed me his bottles with plantas, some of them nearly
empty. Pointing out to him that the bottle was empty he said “no
problema, I will put more alcohol in the bottle. It will draw out
the essences of the plantas”. He pulled out some little glass bottle
with a long neck and an image of the Virgin Mary on the front.
I knew what that was and asked to smell it. Sure enough it was
some kind of cheap cologne and alcohol. He poured the content
of the bottle into the Zhumir bottle, added some amber liquid from
one of the plastic coke bottles, grabbed another large plastic bottle
filled with plantas that looked and smelled vaguely of cabbage and
earth. I tried to keep up with him to smell the liquids as he poured
them to discern what he may be mixing. But he worked quickly,
shook the Zhumir bottle and once again strained the liquid through
his dirty fingers into my palms, telling me to rub it all over my
head, my neck, and body. He pulled out a big wad of money and
sprayed some of the tonic on the bills and put them to his nose.
Grinning he said “Esta es bueno para el dinero”.
We bargained for the price of the tonic and settled on the price
of $25. I asked him for his name and he told me he was a brujo,
a sorcerer. His name was Milton along with four other Spanish
names, which I have now forgotten. I told him my name was
Magdalena and he made me write it down on a piece of cardboard.
He read my name slowly: ”Magdalena” making an approving and
He told me “un momento” and ran off to the other side of the
street where he dove among the indigenous shops. He returned
in no time with a green cloth saddlebag out of which he dug a set
of tarot cards. He wanted to lay the cards for me. He gestured
for me to shuffle the cards. After some shuffling I gave them
back, but he told me to shuffle the cards more. He repeated that 3
times and then asked me to cut the cards into smaller stacks. This
did not happen real smoothly because I was confused with his
instructions. He grabbed my hand midair and kept telling me to
use my hands. He finally demonstrated what he wanted me to do
with another deck of cards. Next he asked me to pick up each little
stack in the order I wanted him to pick them up and asked me if I
was “seguro”? “ Si.” I responded.
He proceeded to tell me slowly about my life, demonstrating,
smiling and frowning: my parents were dead; he feigned being
passed out. I laughed, but that was easy. He proceeded to tell
me that I liked to dance and drink, true. We both laughed. I said
maybe drinking “no es bueno?” He shrugged his shoulder, threw
his head and body back with a big smile, obviously, for him “no
hay problema”. Then he got serious and told me a part of my body
was missing, that I had a son who was “enfermo”, that I worried
about him, that I had problems with documents. All true, none
of which he could have known; yes I have a missing body part,
a breast. And yes I was having problems with documents. I am
still waiting for my Retirement VISA to be approved after eight
months. But when I asked him how long I would be in Ecuador,
he told me 3 or 4 years and then looking at me more intently,
tilting his head askance: “si, cuatro años.”
We parted shaking hands several times, his hands warm and
comforting. I did not want to let go of his hands, but I knew I
would see him again.