My informant, who is from Ibarra, Ecuador, was told as a young girl:
“¡No te hagas de noche o so no te va a dar el mal aire!”
Translation: “Don’t stay outside too late at night, or you will get ‘bad air!’”
She explained that mal aire, or bad air, is something that you catch from being outside in the trees, but is not quite a sickness. She says, “You feel back pain, but it’s not like regular back pain… You just feel weird, like something is not right.” I felt that way once when I was little and spent too much time outside with my friends.
She was told when she was younger that her uncle caught mal aire while walking through the mountains to her aunt’s house. The only way to get rid of it is to place a small candle (like a tea candle) on a person’s back and cover it with a glass cup. If the skin “inflates” and looks like a lump in the glass, it first confirms that you have mal aire and also rids it from the body.
Yet, the threat of mal aire could just be a way to scare children not to stray too far from home, not stay out too late and stay away from trouble. Additionally, the method of testing and purifying oneself only reinforces the fear of mal aire in children. For anyone who tries it, when you cover a candle with a glass, it will create a vacuum and as a result, will raise the skin. By telling children that it this happens only to people who have mal aire, adults can easily prove and scare children with this technique. To further prove that it will happen to everyone, the mal aire “candle treatment” is similar to an ancient Chinese practice, called “massage cupping.” For those who use this technique, cupping produces a deep, therapeutic state of relaxation. This type of “massage” will likely remove the back pain my informant mentioned as well.