Updated: Dec 12, 2020
It’s the last Thursday before Easter and my couchsurfing family, a wonderful woman and her two relatively grown up kids who have welcomed me into their home in Ecuador, are preparing for this very important weekend. Indaura, a devout Roman Catholic, invites me to come with her on her pilgrimage to seven churches in the nearby town of Cuenca. A bus leaves at the first church and I stand at the back, curious and silent while she joins the other women already sitting in the pews. Indaura tells me that in each church we will visit today, a priest has blessed some bread and water that represents the body and blood of Jesus. Over this holy sacrament, she will pray over for Jesus who, on this date and almost 2000 years ago, was arrested while having what’s now known as ‘the last supper’ with his apostles. We walk to the next church, and the next, and the next, and then three more, my new friend saying a small prayer at each holy sacrament. She tells me that this pilgrimage to seven churches began in 1553 when the church felt the people needed a way to atone for the sins they had committed during the raucous and typically liquor-filled Carnaval, held a few weeks prior to Easter weekend.
The Farez household is busy on Friday morning, the day representing Jesus’s crucifixion and death. Indaura's entire community will make their own pilgrimage to the top of a mountain behind their village where a large group of young adults will enact the crucifixion.
Indaura and I walk to the church where she tells me today’s ceremonial lunch is being prepared. In the courtyard of the iglesia, a group of women in white, bloody aprons sit on boxes around a huge tin bucket.
Piled high in the bucket are hundreds of trout, their scales shining silver in the sunny courtyard. My friend tells me that they will prepare three hundred fish today for this afternoon’s crucifixion feast. Fish, because Christians around the world avoid meaty flesh (apparently, fish doesn’t count as ‘meaty’) on this date to honour Jesus who sacrificed His flesh on this day for our sins.
From the church, we head over to the edge of town where villagers have already started the long trek up the mountain.
Indaura's worried because Peter has forgotten to pack sunscreen and so immediately starts to weave in and out and up through the crowd. I follow her as best as I can, this good mama who’s agonizing at the thought of her baby burning in the sun, but everyone is walking on each others’ heels and it’s almost impossible to keep up. I give up after an hour and continue at a much more satisfying pace that allows me to enjoy the sights.
Fathers walk with wilting babies on their shoulders and old women trudge up the path in their heavy velvet skirts, their long black braids hanging down their backs. Many carry umbrellas to shade themselves from the sun and they wave them around dangerously. I warily keep my vulnerable eyes at a distance. Children entertain themselves on the long walk, teasing each other and sneaking looks at me, giggling when my camera points toward them.
We walk for hours in the hot sun. Finally, we reach the top of the mountain. Families that have lost each other on the walk up reunite and join up with other families who’ve already staked their space and have set up a blanket on the grass field to watch the ‘crucifixion.’
Indaura's son Peter, who is sixteen years old, is one of the actors, a soldier who guards Jesus as He carries a heavy wooden cross up the mountain.
The play starts. Jesus and two common thieves have been sentenced by the Romans to die. In the centre of the surrounding crowd, three skinny boys in long dark wigs stand in front three crosses driven into the ground. Before them, wailing women, one of them assumedly a young and lovely Mary who bows her head before her son and is comforted by the others around her. Spectators and actors alike are very serious during the hour it takes to enact the crucifixion. Even the small children are quiet as they watch.
The ceremony over, family members move toward the actors, pulling their sons and daughters off to the side to take photos of them in their fine regalia, their crimson togas and shiny golden sandals. They amble over, family by family, to get in line for lunch. ‘My’ family and I join the line and soon have in our hands, plates of fried trout, rice and beans. Hopeful dogs hover nearby, waiting for leftovers but, other than the lucky dog beside me, they’re out of luck today. I see nothing left on any of the plates other than an odd fish fin. Bones and heads have been crunched, devoured, and sucked dry of every drop of grease; it seems the long walk has built up everyone’s appetite. I, on the other hand, have not been hungry enough to eat the bones, skull and eyes of my fish, and so, there’s a very happy pup at my side. I reflect, as I eat, on how grateful I am for today. For the joy I get from receiving simple food that’s given with love, and from spending time with all these kind strangers whom I sit with here in the sunshine on a mountainside in central Ecuador.
Sunday arrives. I want to make a meal for the family, and because it’s Easter Sunday, of course I plan a roast chicken dinner. Indaura's other son,
Alexis, offers to take me to the market to buy what I need to make my feast. What a crazy place! Skinny yellow chickens lie in a pile, their sickly yellow limbs stretched out, beckoning to me with their sharp curled claws. Wrinkled old women press struggling roosters to their chest and turn their heads away from me and my intruding camera that I can’t help but aim in their direction. All around me, piles of white home-made cheese, and what looks like a billion species of dried and fresh fish, each species lined up in neat silver rows that go back as far as I can see. Alexis leads me quickly around the market that he knows so well, going past stalls I want to stop at in favour of another whose price he knows is better. We head home in quick order with our bags of fresh veggies, spices and dead chicken to make Easter dinner.
Alexis hovers over me, totally intrigued with what I’m cooking for them. He's a budding chef and so excited to learn how to cook and eat these weird foods I’ve described, like stuffing and gravy (What?! Fat and flour and water? Doesn't sound that great). He's a great sous-chef though, and takes the dirty job of decapitating this poor chicken's head for me. I quickly see, however, that he's not quite as excited to wash all the dishes I’m dirtying. Apparently, it’s a woman’s job to do dishes?
As dinner slowly comes together, and I’m starting to dish the mashed potatoes on to plates, more people begin to arrive at the house. First, Indaura's brother and family, then the little cousin from who works for Alexis, and finally (thankfully), a friend of the family and her husband. Apparently, it’s a dinner for eleven, not four as I’d thought. Jaysus, how am I going to feed them all with this little chicken? Alexis and I pull more plates from the cupboard and I steal chicken from the prepared plates and put it on the new ones, then make new, much smaller piles of mashed potatoes on each plate.
At last, everyone’s got a plate in front of them and I breathe with relief. Everyone else, however, is looking a bit concerned as they look at their plates of completely unfamiliar food. Alexis is digging in enthusiastically, however, clearly anxious to try what we’ve made together. Someone asks Indaura where the rice is. She explains I, her Canadian friend, have made a Canadian Easter dinner which doesn’t include rice. They look at me like I’ve got two heads. Indaura goes to the kitchen and pulls out some prepared rice. Everyone looks relieved when she brings it to the table a few minutes later.
Easter weekend over, I must now leave this precious and overwhelmingly welcoming family. Although they beg me to stay longer, I feel I’ve already overstayed my welcome and so decline and pack up my bags. It’s so difficult to leave, but I say a sad goodbye to the boys.
Indaura walks me to the village church where a bus soon pulls up. We hug again and I climb up into the vehicle, waving to her as we leave. She walks down the street toward her work, teetering a little precariously on her high heels. I’ll miss her and this family.