The Spirit of the Andes

The Spirit of the Andes

Roopen Roy

After a three and a half hours’ journey through the winding Andean mountain roads , I was tired. The mountain sickness was showing signs of overpowering me. The dizzy headache was not meaning to go away. I had had several cups of hot tea made of coca leaves which is a medicine for altitude ailments.

It was just past 6 PM . Being near the equator the sun sets daily at the same time, without fail. The chill of the mountains was engulfing us as we stepped out of a rickety Chevrolet.

I walked past the huge gates of Hacienda Tungurahua which I spotted as we were driving past. They did have a room to let. The attendant came to take my luggage and smiled with the usual greetings ,” Buenas Tardes, Señor! .” I greeted back,

“ Ola, Buenas Tardes.” My driver Juan went to find a room in a posada in the nearby village and promised to come back to pick me up next morning.

I was allotted Cottage #03 in Hacienda Tungurahua. The hacienda took its name, I presumed, from the imposing active volcano that stood in all its splendour in front of the hacienda. Haciendas in Ecuador are like ranches which once were huge estates rearing cattle, producing fruits and vegetables, corn, potatoes and quinoa. This hacienda was tucked away in the Andes mountains – originally the home of indigenous people called Panzaleos who learnt Quechua from the conquering Incas. Until the Spanish conquistadores came and converted them to Christianity and taught them Spanish.

I placed my bags in my cottage and walked around the vast Hacienda admiring the lemon trees, the golden berries and the huge cedars and oaks. I decided I must go for some liquid blanket to warm myself. As I entered the main building of the Hacienda, I saw in the corner, a crumbling old bar with two enchanting paintings hung on the ancient wall. There was a strong black fighting bull on one side of the wall, its nostrils inflated and almost poised to charge. On the other side of the wall was the painting of a matador in full regalia dressed to kill, his heels cocked, his red caper in flourish and his weapon of death shining in the rays of an afternoon sun.

The bar was dark. But while I was engrossed in the two paintings on the wall, the dim oil lamps were lighted. The flames , created strange shadows on the stone walls. An old man with a white French beard and typical Panama sombrero ( hat) was standing near me.

“ Buenas tardes, “ he greeted me, “ Welcome to Hacienda Tungurahua. I am Hektor, I created the Hacienda for enjoyment of travelers like you. Tungurahua in Quechua means the throat of fire. This is a 200 years old Andean Hacienda which used to be my family home and farm. You have come to the bar, señor, do you care for a drink?”

“ I was looking to sample some local Ecuadorian rum –perhaps San Miguel or Abuelo?”

With a brush of his hand we waved away my suggestion.

“ Ah no Señor, they are very poor quality rums for people who are unable to afford good Ron ( rum in Spanish). We used to receive good Cuban and Guatemalan rons in the past but they have become very expensive because of import taxes. But not to worry, I have left in my private collection a limited quantity of Zhumir Reposado Extra Special Reserva.”

He realized that I was worrying if I could afford his special rum and he said, "Don't worry Señor, you are giving me company as an amigo ( friend), the drinks are on the house.” as he poured two generous portions from an antiquated bottle covered with dust into two coloured glasses. This Ron is made from the honey of the first crush sugar cane and matured in sherry casks for a minimum of 25 years. They are absolutely fantastic.

I had tried the famous Andean drink aguardiente, fire water literally. This drink was smoother, full bodied, flavourful and dark as the visage of the diablo ( devil) himself. It set all my senses on fire as I took in the spirit of the Andes. A few hot empanadas with spicy salsa were on offer which went well with the aged Andean rum.

Hektor continued his story , “ My forefathers came from the Basque region near San Sebastián and we were farmers. I planted most of the fruit trees myself, some of them are local and some brought in from Spain and Portugal. There are many mangoes, avocados, limes, oranges and tree apple plants.We had many cattle in this Hacienda, cows, goats, sheep, llamas, alpacas and vicuñas. But now not so many. The government confiscated some land and passed the land reform law in 1964. “

He saw I was shivering. He smiled,” There are some old warm Alpaca blankets in your room but perhaps you would prefer the fireplace to be lit up. I will tell Johanna, the house-keeper of this hacienda.”

We went on talking about the magic of the Andean highlands, about the old governance and tax system introduced by the Incas, the importance of the sun and moon, the bounty of Pachamama( Mother Nature) and the mighty Inca God of creation Viracocha. After three drinks and a long day in the mountain roads, I was feeling a little disoriented. I took leave from Hektor and thanked him profusely as I straggled to the dining room. Johanna had arranged a nice spread for me, the only guest at Hacienda Tungurahua. Most Andean dinners consist of three course. This time there was a hot soup of potatoes and avocado, a pepper steak and some fresh fruits topped with cream.

After dinner, I snuggled into my bed and covered myself with a warm blanket of alpaca wool. All through the night there was rain beating down on the roof of my cottage as the crackling wood in the fireplace fought the chill bravely.

I woke up very early. The mountains all around were a refreshing green, the flower and fruit trees enjoyed the rain and the streams from the mountains were gushing down to the valley. The Tungurahua volcano was standing majestically with its crest now gleaming with freshly fallen snow. The throat of fire was quenched with rainfalls. My driver Juan was already there with his rickety Chevrolet ready to take me to Cuenca.

I paid my bills with a credit card and thanked Johanna for the wonderful night at the Hacienda Tungurahua.. Hektor was not around, so I asked Johanna to thank him on my behalf.

“Did you say Hektor, Signor” asked Johanna incredulously, “ he had a heart attack and passed away in 1964 – the year in which the Ecuador government passed the land reform laws and took away most of the land from this hacienda."

“ But I had drinks with him last night, Señora, I swear I did.”

“ May be you were lucky Señor, Hector rarely performs the Andean magic and comes alive sometimes.”

We left for Cuenca. 6 weeks later I received the bills from the credit card company. There was no charge from Hacienda Tungurahua. Did Hektor perform an Andean magic again or was Johanna too part of the great illusion of the Andean spirit. I fiercely googled and binged for Hacienda Tungurahua, I could not find a place by that name.