Field Note #4 — Being Sick in the Field

Kichwa word of the day: sumak kawsay = buen vivir / good living

Okay Karma, you got me good.  In my previous post I bragged about how I managed to escape the wrath of altitude sickness, and it’s almost as if as soon as I hit “Publish,” my body decided it’s time—bring on the headache, the fatigue, the light-headedness; take away her usually insatiable appetite, and for the love of god, do not let her get any sleep. 

You win this round.  Since getting sick my diet has consisted solely of Airborne tablets, hierba luisa (lemongrass) tea, and sopitas made by my host mom and sisters.  

Sopita de borrego (lamb).  Homecooked meals have a healing property in them, you can fight me on this.

Today, I was supposed to go to Otavalo with my host family for a wedding ceremony; I had been looking forward to it since I got here. But this morning at 5:45 AM I crawled out of bed, tired and frail and snot dripping from my hose, to tell my host mom I was too sick to go with them.

Word spread fast; soon the entire family was standing around me.  Qué te duele?  It was my clogged nose, my stuffy chest, my tired eyes, but mostly my head.  My host sister nodded, handed me a dollar coin, and pointed to my host dad José.  “Give this to him.  He is going to clean you.”  Clean me?  Clean me how?  Clean me where?  I followed José up to the roof; it was still dark out, and I shivered in the thin night air as I stuffed my hands into my pockets and sat myself down on a plastic crate.  I looked up at him.  In his hands were an egg and a lit cigarette.  Closing his eyes, he inhaled—chest heaving in the air—and puffed out a big cloud of smoke onto the egg.

I could describe in vivid detail what happened next, but there’s a sacredness to this ritual that I wouldn’t be able to do justice through my writing.  I don’t feel right writing about it—not so much because it might be a secret performance, which it very well may be, but more so because any attempt to explain it and make sense of it would be futile.  I’m starting to learn that not everything has to be written into my own language, to be analyzed or shared, even though as a researcher it’s tempting to use every experience as data.  But I can tell you that by the end of this cleaning ritual, my headache was gone.

So it looks like today is going to be spent mostly in my bed, and my only task is to just get over this damn illness—delaying the start of my research even more.  It’s hard to find the balance between self-care and productivity.  I know I’m doing what’s best for myself—but still, I’d be lying if I said I felt good about taking the day off.  Prioritizing my wellbeing in the field doesn’t feel good the way a kale smoothie or an hour of cycling does at home; it just feels kind of pathetic, like I’ve come all this way just to lie in bed and go through an entire roll of toilet paper blowing my nose.  

But it was a good few days before the sickness really took over.  The other day my host family taught me how to harvest corn.  

My adorable host family!  We spent a few hours out here, gathering three full bags of corn to be turned into the fermented corn drink chicha.
How to harvest corn:
  1. Create a puncture in the husks from the top, then slice through all the way down.
  2. Pull apart the husks to reveal kernels inside.
  3. Gently twist the ear a couple times to detach.

I had an absolute blast tearing these bad boys open.  Opening up the layers and layers of dry husk to find beautifully packed rows of golden kernels is what I imagine delivering a baby is like.  You don’t know what it’s going to look like but you can feel it in there, waiting for you, and the moment it reveals its face the whole world stops for a minute to watch and you just want to cradle the precious thing in your arms forever.

Qué precioso! Organic native corn, untouched by Monsanto’s grimy corporate hands.

And the scenery, holy moly. Each time I looked up from the stalks towering over me, I was captivated by the sheer beauty of the Andes.  We were tucked deep in the Arias Pamba, surrounded by lakes and farms and the volcán Imbabura.  Nearby was the Parque Cóndor, home to Ecuador’s endangered national bird (today happens to be National Condor Day!). 

Climbing on the back of the pickup truck, Cesar, my host cuñado (brother-in-law), closed his eyes and faced the wind: “The air is so pure here.”  We all took in a big whiff of the mountain breeze and nodded.  Coming from some of the most urban areas in the world (Tokyo, Los Angeles), it is impossible to not be taken aback by how delightful the air tastes and feels when the atmosphere is free of human influence.  

After our morning harvest we visited a brother in Otavalo for more breakfast (this is a family of nine siblings so there’s a lot of family to meet).  He brought out sugary black coffee with beautifully dense croissants and slices of cheese.  He also prepared hard-boiled eggs for us, but I was feeling quite full so I politely declined, only to be peer-pressured by everyone at the table raving about how good these farm fresh eggs were—so of course, eventually I had to take one.  And it was a marvelous egg.  As my advisor Dr. Loyd once told me: say “yes” to everything.  On this day I said “yes” to this hard-boiled egg, and I’m glad I did.

Oh, and remember how I said I was going to make dinner for everyone?  It turned out to not be Taco Night because I couldn’t find tortillas with the right masa and size for tacos at the grocery store—but instead we had Quesadilla Night!  I had a lot of fun running around the kitchen like a madman trying to serve up enough quesadillas for seven people.  They’d never had quesadillas either so they were mesmerized by me laying down the tortilla onto the butter-coated flat iron skillet and piling on handfuls of shredded mozzarella.  I stuffed the quesadillas with chicken and a beef sauté made by my host sister, paired with pico de gallo, sliced avocado, and of course, ají.  I think it was a hit!

As for an update of my research . . . It is Day Five at my field site and I have not yet met up with Samara, my primary participant, because she was out of town and now I am sick.  Still not much progress made.  But if any of my advisors see this, don’t worry, don’t drop me! I set up my data collection timeline for eight weeks, even though I’m here for ten, meaning I have up to two weeks of leeway.  See?  Turns out I do know how to plan in advance.

. . . But if I don’t recover from this illness soon I’m going to lose my mind.