Cleansing in the Amazon

Illuminated by a single candle, the shaman’s weathered face appeared kindly, like that of a sympathetic doctor, with painted red marks also suggesting a calm, fierce authority – both qualities that I would rely on during the dark and uncertain hours ahead. He sat on a wooden stool carved into a tortoise, and wore turquoise beads around his neck and a crown of crimson feathers. A table beside him displayed the modest tools of the ceremony: a fan of leaves, jungle tobacco, a gourd bowl and a clear plastic soda bottle containing an opaque, brown liquid.

“You will start to feel a reaction in about half an hour,” the shaman, Tsumpa, said, as my guide translated. “When the effects come, you must concentrate on what the medicine is trying to communicate.”

The open air of the hut, animated with night sounds, grew still with expectation. Tsumpa grimaced as he drank the brew. After pouring a bowl for me, he cupped the gourd in his hands and for several minutes whistled a sweet melody into it – the high key of a tin whistle or courting bird, seducing the plant spirits to aid me.

The potion tasted acrid and bitter. I rinsed my mouth with water before rolling tobacco into a plantain leaf cigarette.

And then I waited.

It was the final night of my weeklong trip to explore the Ecuadorian rain forest and an indigenous people, the Achuar, who, for more than a decade, have been using limited tourism as a means to preserve and protect their land and way of life. I had travelled by car, plane, boat and foot – more than 160 kilometres from conventional civilization – to reach a place where the old ways have not been forgotten, where local people interpret the world through their dreams and the forest spirit known as arutam is said to inhabit the mighty kapok tree, and where healing and insight is sought from a hallucinogenic plant brew the Achuar call natem, known elsewhere as ayahuasca, or “vine of the soul.”

The trip was to be a departure from the typical Amazon tourism, which tends to package wildlife viewing with a certain cultural voyeurism. I wanted something more immersive and participatory.

Earlier in the visit I had landed in Quito, Ecuador’s capital. With me was David Tucker of the Pachamama Alliance, a San Francisco-based nongovernmental organization that supports the cultural and territorial rights of Ecuador’s indigenous people and operates specialized tours into their homeland. David had arranged for us to drive early the next morning to the Amazon basin, fly to a remote community that had recently built a small tourist camp in the forest, and then travel by foot and river to a more established lodge. Only, despite a long layover, our bags were delayed from Miami – an inauspicious start that would waylay us a day. David thought I might want to experience a “cleansing” from an indigenous Quichua shaman he knew living in the highlands two hours north of Quito, and the next morning hired a car to take us there.

The shaman’s two-floor yellow cement home was modest but the stateliest around. The shaman, named Don Esteban, emerged wearing a knit V-neck sweater and slacks, beaded necklaces and a yellow-feathered headdress. He beckoned us into the adjacent treatment room.

Don Esteban sat opposite me, next to his wife, a smiling woman with an array of gold teeth. “Here, rub this over your body,” he said, handing me an unlighted candle.

After I did so, he sparked the flame and gazed into it intently. “Andres espiritu, Andres espiritu,” the shaman incanted. “Your spirit is not tranquil. It is sad, and longs for a new energy and path. It is struggling to balance your health, work and body.”

I told him that my father had died two months earlier. “That is why there is sadness and disequilibrium,” he said. “This ceremony, and spending time in the mountains with Pachamama” – Mother Earth – “will help make your spirit whole.”

Riding back to Quito, I reflected on what the shaman had gone on to say. Three times, he had placed rose petals sprinkled with floral water into my palms, and told me to rub them all over from head to toe.

“Andres,” he said all the while, “open your heart.” When we arrived at the hotel that night, our bags from Miami were awaiting. Numbering around 6,000 on an ancestral territory of a little more than 800,000 hectares in southeastern Ecuador, the Achuar people were among the last of the country’s rain forest tribes to be contacted by outsiders, when some Salesian Catholic missionaries arrived in the 1960s. Elders say that in the early ‘90s they began having dreams about an imminent threat coming from the external world. Soon after, they learned the western edge of their homeland had been given over to Arco as an oil concession.

But the Achuar had watched northern tribes struggle against oil companies.

Recognizing a need for outside allies, they met with a group of Americans to form the Pachamama Alliance, which for the last 15 years has helped the Achuar and other Amazonian indigenous groups from its Quito office with land titling, skills training, economic development and policy advocacy.

With proponents of oil development – including Ecuador’s president – continuing to press for exploration on their land, the Achuar now find themselves embroiled in a classic struggle for power and resources that native people have almost always lost.

We found Chumpi Tsamarin (also known as Luis Vargas), who had been the Achuar’s first president. Tsamarin described the current territorial struggle in terms of psychological warfare

So far, Tsamarin said, tourism has presented the most viable, nonpolluting source of economic security. In 1996, the Achuar opened Kapawi Lodge & Reserve, which receives an average of 1,000 visitors a year. Though the lodge was initially set up in joint partnership with an Ecuadorean tour company, the Achuar have assumed full ownership.

After spending a night at the luxuriant El Jardin Hotel in Puyo, we were cleared for takeoff the next afternoon in a small Cessna operated by Aerotsentsak, the Achuar’s aviation service.

After an hour, we landed at a dirt airstrip beside Chichirat, a forested settlement of 10 families north of Tiinkias.

I immediately felt transported by the absence of mechanical ambience. David and I stepped off the plane as dozens of villagers stared at us quizzically, and a man with a round face and thin moustache walked forward, introducing himself warmly as Shakai. He would be our guide.

The next day we reached Tiinkias after a short trek through the muggy forest and a motorized canoe ride downriver. Its two dozen inhabitants were awaiting us in the communal house

Over two idyllic days I found myself content simply in the Achuar’s mellow presence. We reached Kapawi by motoring down the Bobonaza River, up the wide Pastaza, to the Capahuari. The lodge is set on a sheltered lagoon

But Kapawi places an emphasis on cultural activities, and guests can learn how women make nijiamanch or spend a night in a local Achuar community. But through a local shaman who knew and trusted David and Shakai, I received a special invitation to drink natem, which is how I landed, on that final evening, in Tsumpa’s house.

It was dusk when we arrived

Tsumpa served me the natem in an adjacent hut. All appeared normal, until after what seemed like 20 minutes it no longer did. A montage of images emerged from the darkness – neon crystals, a lion. Soon my body dissolved into the surroundings, swallowed by a sea of energy. Unmoored and disoriented, I was adrift in a more expansive reality.

This brought a greater awareness, and I began to perceive things that had been imperceptible. My thoughts drifted between visions. Then my father appeared, seated in a chair before me, like a ghost. For several minutes we exchanged the sentiments that I had regretted not expressing before he died: What a life we shared, we both seemed to say. I looked down and noticed I was sobbing, and when I looked back up, he was gone.

“Look at the stars,” Shakai said. The night was alive and glorious. Stepping outside felt like entering a larger room, the constellations stretching overhead as a low-hanging ceiling. David noticed my lingering sniffles and offered a bowl of tobacco-infused water, a traditional remedy, to clear my nose.

David and I returned to Quito later that morning and parted ways. I had given myself a few more days in Ecuador without a plan, but now I knew where to go. I travelled south through the highlands to Riobamba, and then ascended to Estrellas de Chimborazo, a cozy mountain lodge set beneath Ecuador’s highest peak, “Father” Chimborazo.

It was precisely the time with Pachamama that Don Esteban had prescribed for me. And as I had envisioned myself.

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