When we think of native medicine, we usually think of “power plants” like ayahuasca. However, food is another way to elevate consciousness. At the age of twenty-five, Taita Puma Qero, from the small community of Shuyo, discovered this path, through his grandmother’s humility and knowledge. At every meal, she would say: “qiqin mikuy, qiqin hampi” (may your food be your medicine).
Puma Qero —a yachac (shaman) from Chimborazo and dean of the Colta Indigenous University— and his yanan (wife) Quizhpe, welcome us with a spiritual cleansing (peppermint, cinnamon, palo santo and rosemary to balance the energy as Sumak Guambra (young and beautiful), their dog, follows us closely to show us around.
They quickly notice an adobe construction just below their house. “We are building a shelter for our younger brothers,” explains Puma. He’s referring to the guinea pigs they have lovingly raised and that, in three weeks time, will have a new, more comfortable home.
The couple dedicate themselves to the secret art of ancestral farming. Their seeds and methods have existed for centuries; and require patience and wisdom. Something few possess. So, few follow in their footsteps. Everything here seeks harmony with the environment. The guinea pigs serve that greater purpose, as well. “They will help us improve the land for our little plants,” says Quizhpe.
It is enough to look up and realize that the crops are grown on terraces. This ancient technique, in the words of Puma, is an “ageless, universal” tradition: “the Incas, our older brothers, were experts.”
Quizhpe explains: “The first floor is called yuyu (baby), it gives us the first clues for how to grown the plants” “Then comes the guagua (toddler), guambra (child) and mama (mother) terraces,” she continues. “So, is this farm built like the stages of life?” I ask. “Indeed it is! That is how our ancestors conceived it.”
Through trial and error, they had figured out how to care for their crops. At the moment, mama has been the most productive terrace. “She has treated us like a real mother,” jokes Puma poignantly. This floor, the fourth, has been the most successful; it receives more hours of sunlight and production has been constant.
The following floors are still in an “exploration phase”. From yaya or taita, the fifth terrace, complimentary to mama, the couple expects good results. The highest terraces, which correspond to hawa (the upper plane), continue to grow in breadth, seeking new knowledge of the land and its capabilities.
Next to the higher terraces we find a cabin. “Come, welcome, feel the energy of this place.” I stand in the middle of the structure, from which, under cloudless skies, one can see all the surrounding sacred mountains.
Bundles of corn tied to the columns catch my attention. This is an ancient harvesting technique, where the plant is harvested with everything and its fruit. Then they’re turned face down and the sugar in the roots continues to nourish the seed as it dries! The technique was also used with pumpkin, and mashua and oca potatoes, a true treasure of ancient wisdom.
Fruits such as the toronche, from the family of the Andean babaco (an Andean papaya), the guato, a giant broad bean and the mulli, used to heal respiratory ailments (including Covid) are some of the seeds that are being conserved. “We must never lose these seeds”, Puma points out.
The idea is to always share the seedlings with neighbors and visitors so that they can take them home and plant them. The knowledge must spread from this small garden, located in the heart of the country, to the world.
Back to the Origins
As the afternoon sets in, we collect dry leaves to build a fire. Puma and Quizhpe invite us to taste their star “colada” beverage, made with máchica (roasted barley flour, cinnamon and panela sugar).
As they prepare it, Puma tells me a story, something that ‘he holds deep within him’. On a visit to a nearby community, he heard a young girl say that she wanted people to “plant like before”. For Puma, this was an unmistakable signal. Young people also want to return to “the roots.” It is not an easy task. The system, he says, has forced us to do everything backwards: eat fast, nourish ourselves unconsciously.
Puma is convinced that those who visit him are somehow connected to his worldview. From his scope as a healer specializing in ‘preventative natural medicine’ he understands that both health and disease come from what we eat. Rethinking ancient medicine, in addition to health, provides “existential security”. I agree with these words, though I feel I don’t truly grasp what they mean. But I take with me the motto that shall accompany me at every meal: let your food be your medicine.
Photos: Bernarda Carranza