Very naturally, as if I was one of her babies, Juanita patiently repeats simple Spanish words and phrases to me. Juanita Cerda is the cook where I am staying and we have become friends through simple exchanges. “Como esta?” is her morning call and “Muy bien” is my proud response.
Juanita lives with her husband, Anibal Torres, and their four children in the San Cudo Community, which is a mile away at the end of the path by the river. San Cudo is named after a type of mosquito, not an obscure saint.
The night before my visit to Juanita’s home, the rain fell, heavy and drenching for 8 hours without a pause. The Rio Napo breached its banks and the canoes were pulled up near the path for safety. We set out for her house after lunch, but the track to her house was still flooded and fish were swimming among our feet. With a leap and cry of, “Pescado!”, Juanita lanced one with the tip of her umbrella and wrapped it, still flopping, in a foot-long leaf to carry home.
The Torres-Cerda family lives in a five room house. The ground-floor room is mostly for storage. The stair to the second story leads into the kitchen, which has a large window, without glass or screens. Off the kitchen are two bedrooms and a family room with TV and VCR and a couple of beds for lounging. There is electricity but no running water, so rainwater is collected in the cistern for cooking and washing. The bathroom is in a small separate shed behind the house.
At home were three of Juanita’s four children, Edison, Andrea and…
baby, Natalie, who enjoyed chicken for lunch. Couples tend to have large families in this region and are proud of the fact. In a place were income is small, perhaps many children and...
many chickens are satisfying sources of wealth. After the kids and fowl were fed, Juanita and I followed the line of laundry into the garden.
The laundry, like family flags, hangs on a rope that stretches from the house deep into the garden. Sheets and towels and shirts and shorts hang flat, until they catch a little breeze and inflate into the shape of people whose sweat and stain is bleached and sweetened by the sun. It’s better than confession to watch laundry on a line.
The clothes line ends at a quiet stream, which catches the light of the sky and tucks it beneath the lemon trees.
Unlike gardens in the North which are sown and harvested on a timetable set by the seasons, this garden grows and dies everyday. Lines and grids are suitable for gardens on a schedule, but a garden with no beginning or end forever evolves and the shape it takes is irregular and temporary.
When the banana tree flowers, fruits and falls, the trunk quickly rots adding nutrients to the soil, which is so quickly rinsed to depletion by the constant rain.
The space left by the old banana tree is used for a new crop of yuca, a ubiquitous plant whose tuber is a staple of the Amazonian diet.
Besides yuca and bananas, the garden produces plantain, corn, rice, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, sugar cane, papaya, cacao, grapefruit, lemons, limes, and a variety of medicinal plants like, Sinviyo, (pictured above) which is a natural insect repellent.
Juanita also grows Cuyamuyo, a fruit whose hard shell is used for bowls. Like fancy china, this tableware can be monogrammed.
The stream feeds a fish pond which is stocked with Tilapia and ringed with beans and bananas, and …
another lemon tree loaded with the drooping nests of the Oropendola.
Hidcote and Longwood are glorious but this little equatorial garden is just as lovely and more poignant for feeding the family of Juanita Cerda.