It`s difficult, when speaking of Nizag, to avoid waxing idyllic, so you`ll have to indulge me for a few minutes. Nestled amongst the towering peaks of the Andes, perched on a cliff that tumbles down into the Rio de Plata and onward to where the Nariz del Diablo train cuts into the mountainside, Nizag feels like the village that time forgot. Because it sits in a valley, it enjoys a microclimate of dry, bright days that get fairly hot due to the proximity of the sun. But nearly every day in the afternoon, the clouds roll up from the valley, covering the town in a thick, chilly fog. It`s pretty much the Andean answer to Brigadoon (I`ve had very little success with this reference in the past few weeks, so for those of you who have no idea what I`m talking about, see here).
It`s an indigenous community, so the first language is Quichwa. Most of the younger people speak Spanish as well, but the older generation often confuses the two languages, leading to an all-but-incomprehensible melange we liked to call ´Spechwa`. Although the men have lost their traditional white trousers and poncho as they made their way into mainstream society for work, the women still don the vibrant skirts and embroidered sashes, shawls, and hairwraps. At first I just thought they looked nice, but I soon discovered how seriously useful their clothes are. The sashes become utility belts to hold machetes, hand sythes, and the dyed cactus fibres the women are constantly hand-spinning to sew into little bags, shigras, which have come to epitomise the artesanian work of the village; and the shawls are tied in an intricate system of knots to hold melons, children, and everything in between. Everyone in the village is under 5 feet, so for the first time in my life I was classified as tall. I also, by Nizaggian standards, was over the hill; in a town where the average marriage age is about 17, I was definitely past my prime. One of the first questions you`ll be asked upon arriving to the village is, ´Estás casada?´ - ´Are you married?` (On the first day as I travelled in the back of a pickup truck down the switchbacks to the community, I misheard the question over the noise of the engine as `Estás cansada?`- ´Are you tired?` My response of, ´Not much, just a little` brought great amusement to the entire truckful of locals and it took me a few minutes to realise my faux pas.) Once I answered in the negative I was asked my age, and after my answer, they would cluck sympathetically and move on to my younger companions. There apparently was little hope for me.
The young couple I was volunteering with didn`t have it all that much easier in the end, though. The women would constantly hound them with questions of when they were getting married, when they were going to have children, and how many they were going to have. Being 19, they still had hope, but they were cutting it a bit close. The villagers decided to help them along during our last week volunteering. They were celebrating the feast of Corpus Christi, during which they took the opportunity to show off some of their customs, such as traditional dancing and a game of real-life Capture the Chicken:
...as well as finally marrying off the volunteer couple, if only symbolically. Luckily, this meant we all got to dress up in traditional garb to play the part, the stand-in mother of the bride giddy with excitement.
Nizag is certainly unlike anywhere I`ve been before. I harkens back to a time when everything was done by hand, when men worked hard and women worked harder, when people were completely a part of and defined by their culture. Is it better? Is it worse? That`s not for me to say; I was only there to observe and to learn. But what I did learn was of a vibrant community, fighting to hold on to its traditions in spite of globalised modernity, hidden away in the folds of the Andes.
More photos of Nizag here and here.
Next up: my last and final volunteer placement in a community tourism project in Machalilla Nature Reserve, and then off to Peru...