For What Ails You

Cuenca, Ecuador

I’ve always had a cowlick at the top of my head. I want my hair to “poof” and have body on top, but the dang cowlick has always made it just fall forward and look flat. When I was a little girl, my grandmother owned a beauty shop. Like two mad scientists with a fully equipped lab, and a test animal (me) that couldn’t do much about it, my mother and grandmother made my hair their project. My cowlick was a major conundrum.  


Much to my chagrin they snipped, permed, frizzed and teased, all with the feign of making me “cute.” Now, I was not into the “southern miss” thing. I preferred playing with mud over playing with Barbie. So just about all of the time, my clothes were muddy, my face was dirty and my cowlick just did it’s thing with my hair. To their horror, I was a mess.

When I was shown off in public, they did what every respectable mother and grandmother did to make their kids look presentable…they spit on me. Not right in my eye, but working up a good mouthful of moisture, they licked their thumb or finger and wiped the grime off my face and tried to make my hair look “cute.” Ewwww!!! I hated it when they did this, mainly because I smelled like spit for the rest of the day. Can you relate? Makes me shiver just thinking about it.

I guess it’s kind of weird that I subjected myself to what I’m about to tell you. Hold on to your Panama hats folks and get ready for the story of the “ladies under the market stairs.”

Cuenca Markets Have it All

We love the markets here in Cuenca. They are huge. Not Super Walmart huge, but more like football field gigantic, huge. They house everything you can imagine: fresh fruit and veggies, meats, beans and grains, eateries, clothing, shoes, trinkets and women who will cast away evil spirits and heal what ails you.  Oh yes, read on.

Every Tuesday and Friday, there is a group of women that set up under the escalators, at the downtown market, Mercado 10 de Agosto. Each of them have a tall stack of greenery, some vegetables and eggs. They refer to themselves as “Ancestral Healers” and perform cleansings, to remove evil spirits that cause illnesses and even children’s frights.

Some of them are old and others are young mothers, but all of them do this work to support their families. They don’t talk much and they definitely don’t share their ancestral healing secrets. Most learned the process from their mothers, grandmothers or some other female member of their family. 

A healing session costs $3, and we were told that if you leave a tip, ask questions or say “gracias,” it undoes the effect of the healing. Their “patients” come from everywhere. We saw locals, children and a few Gringos going through the process or waiting in line to be next.

The Cleansing

John had been to the Mercado on a day I was at a meeting for local writers. He knew what was about to happen. We had decided that I probably had more ailments than him, so I was chosen to take one for team, while John took photos.

I chose one of the younger healers. She looked like she knew what she was doing and she looked, well, nice. John had warned me not to speak during the process, so as to get full benefit of the procedure. I figured I wasn’t about to open my mouth or I was going to get a mouthful of herbs and greenery! But, I’m jumping ahead. Here’s what happened during my cleansing.

The first step is called the curandera, where the healer, also called the curandera, gathers a big bunch of greenery that had a few tiny flowers attached. The bouquet (I later found out) included eucalyptus, penny royal, elderberry, chil chil, guanto, santa maria, altamisa, and rue. I was supposed to keep my eyes closed and concentrate on getting better, so that’s what I did. She then started praying and passing the herbs over my head and my belly button. 

Then the fun began. She started swatting me with the bouquet. Like all over! My head, chest, arms, legs, back and belly got pounded. She did this until the flowers and herbs started to wither. Then she held the greenery next to my face and motioned for me to breath deeply, which I did. Man oh man, not sure which of the herbs it was, but it sure smelled good and completely cleared my head. I wanted to keep sniffing the wonderful stuff, but she pulled them away and prepared for step two.

She put some sort of liquid in her mouth (I later found it was rose essence, alcohol and holy water) and she spit on my head and started chanting, “choo, choo,” like the second part of a sneeze, then she poured something on my head.

After the chanting, pouring and spitting, she pulled out an egg from a bucket beside her. She spit on the egg, then proceeded to roll the egg all over my body. Actually I wasn’t sure what it was at first, but when I peeked, I saw it was an egg, I was scared it was going to break, especially when she got to my hard head and belly. But I was amazed! She rolled that egg all over me and it didn’t even crack. 

After I was thoroughly “egged,” she cracked it into a glass of water and started studying it. I was nervous that she was going to make me drink it, but she indicated that I should check it out, so I did. The egg can evidently tell the healer many things about the person’s condition, like if they are stressed or have a nervous condition and such. 

Examining my egg’s contents revealed several brown dots of something next to the yolk plus a few bubbles around the yolk. I couldn’t understand what my healer was telling me this meant, so being my nerdy girl self, I combed the Internet and found out. The brown spots mean I have a disease (I guess that was the PsA and Meniere’s), and the bubbles around the yolk meant that I have a lot of good spirits watching out for me. I figured that was you guys, our readers, who take the time to follow what we are doing. Yay! Thanks! 

After the egg part, my healer picked up the bunch of herbs again, gave me a thorough swatting. This time she was more aggressive. She pulled up my sweater and made me roll up my pants legs and swished the herbs and flowers all over, making sure there were no parts of me that hadn’t been swatted. 

And then…and then…she put some sort of flowery fragrant oil on my palms, moved my palms to my face and indicated that I should breath deeply. It was so marvelous at that point, that I was ready to sit there all day and just breathe! Ahhh!

Here’s a short video of parts of the process:

Medical  and Governmental Acceptance

Most medical professionals agree that, for a person to stay healthy, there must be balance within the person’s life. It’s the imbalance, like for me, an overactive immune system, that causes problems and disease.  Most all of the national health organizations, here in Ecuador, accept ancestral medicine and healing as a complement to traditional medicine. The Ecuadorian Ministry of Public Health (MSP) even encourages the use of medicinal plants to complement conventional medical treatment or as an alternative to some drugs. 

And the Ecuadorian government, in 2008, recognized the importance of ancestral treatments with a new constitution making the treatments legal, not only for the indigenous communities, but for the general population of the country.

There are several types of ancestral medicine practitioners. The Yerbateros are healers who use plants to cure and heal. This would be similar to our friend, Kim, that we met and wrote about in Belize (see Doctor, Doctor). In some areas, a sobadores assists midwives or helps with bone injuries or misalignment. These healers would be similar to a chiropractor in conventional medicine. 

To me, ancestral healing is a lofty profession. These ladies are not claiming that they can cure cancer or diabetes, but they focus more on the imbalance of the soul. And you have to admit, with all the turmoil and malfeasance in today’s world, it’s easy to have a stressed or even sick soul! The ladies at the market believe in the power of nature to act as a pharmacy to heal. Sure if I break my leg, I’m heading to the hospital. But if I’m continuously tired, because I can’t seem to get a good night’s sleep, I need to realize that there is something in my lifestyle, my diet, work patterns, or relationships, that needs a tune up.  Ancestral medicine takes a holistic approach beyond the physical and provides stimulation to our intuition, so that we can take better care of ourselves.  

So you better believe I got over the spitting thing and allowed my amazing healer to “have at me.” This was something way out of my comfort zone, but was something I’m glad I did. I felt the caring spirits from the special ladies under the Mercado escalator. And with all the oils, bundles or flowers, saliva and the egg, that I experienced during my healing, I’m pretty sure that now my cowlick isn’t as prominent and I’ve definitely been showered with love. 

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5 Responses

  1. Hey Cuz I enjoyed the article but was unable to view the video as it was unavailable and marked private. Are there any settings I should change? Hope to see you and John when y’all get back to the States. As always lots of love, hugs and prayers for you both.


    1. Hi Audrey! I fixed the video. I zigged when I should have zagged on testing the YouTube new beta editor. It’s up now!

      As always, thanks for your support! We love you!

      ~John and Anel

  2. Anel I love this. The ceremony is certainly more flamboyant than my blessings from Buddhist monks in Thailand and Cambodia. I’ve made a mental note to include this on my list of activities when we travel to Ecuador, I think it would be wonderful. It might even cure my own hair issues.

  3. Nice work. Finally got around to reading it and enjoyed it thoroughly. But I don’t think I’ll go rushing down to 10 de agosto for a cure – brave you!

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