Earlier this week, I posted on Facebook a picture of me eating a cuy (pronounced coo-ey), better known as a guinea pig.  Yes, those fuzzy animals that we in the United States use as a classroom pet, are actually an historic and culturally important food source for the people of the Andes region.  They grow them on farms to eat at restaurants and at family celebrations.  I was a bit dubious to eat the little guy that arrived on my plate with head and paws attached, but the meat was tender and juicy and it actually tasted great!  (Please note, my response might have been biased because it was the first piece of meat that I’ve had in over a month that wasn’t cooked to hard rubber stage!)
Anyway, after eating the cuy, I figured I had passed some Ecuadorian integration test and I could be done with that.  Not so fast!  The following day, my adventure with cuy continued. 
Please note, the rest of this story is graphic, and NOT for the lovers of furry animals or animal rights.  
Read on at your own discretion!
In order to help us learn more about the Indigenous communities of Ecuador, our Peace Corps training group headed north to Otavalo.  This entirely Indigenous community is known for its talented artists, and tourists flock to their artisanal market each day to buy blankets, 
sweaters and more.

The Indigenous Communities of Ecuador have had a similar plight as other Native Americans.  In recent years, they have united together and are now recognized as a formal voice in the government of Ecuador.  This has earned them some rights to live their life as they have for hundreds of years. For some, this includes having the ability to practice their own religious customs, their own language or dialects, or practice their own medicine.  Last Sunday, we visited the Centro Medico Jambi Huasi in Otavalo to understand more about how they practice medicine.  

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This is a traditional medicine woman.  She, with other practictioners, treat all kinds of diseases and conditions at this clinic.  But in order to diagnose what is wrong with you, she has to “clean” the energy from you. Here she is rubbing a random volunteer’s body with an egg.  The energy (positive or negative) from this person’s body is being transferred to the egg.

Then she cracked the egg and diagnosed the volunteer’s energy by analyzing how the egg peels, and by the look, texture and color of the egg white and yolk.  After her diagnosis, which included both physical and emotional ailments, the volunteer confirmed that the doctor was spot on.  
She then explained that if a person had serious symptoms, a more thorough investigation of the body’s energy was needed. For this, she used a live guinea pig, or a cuy. 
She rubbed the cuy very vigorously over the head and body of this volunteer. 
After about 5 minutes, when she was finished, the cuy was dead. 
She then took a knife and cut open the tail and started to skin the animal. 
When she had it skinned, she analyzed its outer physical body.

Then she made a slit in the abdomen and let the blood and organs drain out.  During this entire process, she was using the condition of the cuy to diagnose the health of this volunteer, as his energy (both healthy or unhealthy) had transferred into the cuy.  Here for example, she was commenting on the health of his blood.
Finally, she took apart each organ and commented on the state of his intestines, liver, kidneys, gallbladder, heart and lungs. 
By the time she was finished with her analysis, there was nothing recognizable that was left of this cuy. We asked what she did with it, and she said that they feed it to the pigs. In the end, nothing notable was wrong with the volunteer, but she did ask about some specific medical issues he had in the past which he agreed had existed.

I’m not going to pretend that this demonstration didn’t give me pause or concern.  I’m lucky that another volunteer next to me was a medical student in a previous life and she was whispering to me the names of each organ as the doctor extracted them from the cuy.  This made it feel more like a dissection in a science lab – and well, that’s exactly what it was.  

As I sat and watched this demonstration, I had to question my own reaction and my own biases.  For example, I’m a carnivore, and I like to think I know where my food comes from.  I do my best to eat sustainably and close to the source.  My dinner of cuy was exactly that.  On my plate, however, it’s easy to forget that an animal gave itself for me.  Watching it die in her hands, brought that a little closer to home.
So, is Indigenous medicine heartless?  Western medicine is not blameless.  We make it easier on ourselves when our specimens arrive in class pre-killed or soaking in formaldahyde.  And, I don’t like to think about the fact that Advil has probably killed a lot of mice over the years to help stop my headaches.  The sacrifice of a  mouse isn’t any different from a guinea pig.  They both are being used to further our education and help make a person feel better.  The reality is that sacrificing animals for the sake of food, education, medicine, and our fashion is not an easy subject for many of us to swallow.  We all learn to justify our actions or change our behaviors based on our religious and political beliefs, and how we were raised.  I use animals and their products every day.  I shouldn’t have been so shocked that the Indigenous doctors use animals too. 
In the end, this experience is what I’m coming to call a Peace Corps moment: A slice of life that sets you on your heels, pushes you out of your comfort zone, and makes you reconsider with new insight.  Although I’m not banging my drum for western medicine, I probably won’t be heading to the indigenous clinics either.  But maybe, just maybe, if we can put aside our biases of what we think should be right, we can listen, learn from, and share our knowledge and cultural competencies with each other.  And maybe, if we find this balance, the world can be a little better for it.