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September 9th, 2010
With a determined look in our eyes we stood in line facing the sacred waterfall, firmly holding our walking sticks. We all had different reasons for being there. Some wanted relief from their physical problems; others were just curious. Some desired to shed their addictions; others looked for more clarity in their lives. Whatever the reason, we were now together in the same boat.

The water fell down with thundering power as it had done for thousands and thousands of years. The shaman had given us all a little ball of Tobacco to put in our mouths. This was the opportunity to give our emotions to the Tsunkis, the deities that live in the jungle’s streams and waterfalls. I have never seen a Shuar cry publicly and crying together with the waterfall seemed like a good opportunity to release emotional blocks. With a loud scream we jumped in.

We had walked for several hours to get there. Every step took us deeper and deeper into the jungle. For every stream that we crossed there was some time devoted to a small ritual with the Tobacco. It was ingested the Shuar way, through the nose; and once through the mouth, just before we went to bed in the evening. Through each ritual we asked for support from the Tsunkis; support that we would need for the coming six days in the Natemamu ritual that would follow after our trip into the forest.

Calling for the Tsunkis

During the hike we continuously pointed at plants and for each one of them the shaman told us its medical purpose. He took a branch from one of the bushes next to the path and ripped of the leaves. “Here,” he said, “this is what coca is before it is transformed into the dreadful substance that the people in the North take to satisfy their addictions.” It gave us that bit of extra energy to compensate for the strict fasting. Nothing compared to a can of Red Bull, though.

Cold but more relaxed than before, we got out of the water and changed our clothes. The Tobacco that had helped us in this Tsaankumarta ceremony was put on a nearby rock. Slowly and silently we made our way back up the rocks while the shaman conducted a special ceremony for the lady in our group. Men and women have separate ceremonies at the waterfall. Dusk was already approaching but the sun still cast its rays on some glittering spots on the rocks. “Gold” he said. There was a lot of it around. This place would be torn down in no time if those in favor of gold mining in the Amazonian rainforest had their way.

We assembled around a large stone in the middle of an open spot in the forest. It had turned green with moss. It the middle of the stone was a hole. It was not a hole that had developed naturally. Over centuries the rock had been corroded away by the juices of the small packets of Tobacco placed on the stone by the Uwishin, the traditional Shuar healers. This place was ancient.

A wasp. Yes, they sting.

We cleaned the open spot of weeds and branches and put down our mats and sleeping bags on a carpet of banana leaves. In a corner the shaman made a small fire to keep us warm during the night. He explained that sometimes an anaconda snake would appear in one’s dreams in this sacred place. “Better an anaconda in our dreams than insects in real life,” I thought before pulling my sleeping bag over my head. Out of the two, the anaconda unfortunately did not appear.

It was still dark when I was woken up by drops of water hitting my face. It had started to rain. For most of us it did not come as a surprise as, after all, we were in the rainforest of Ecuador. Although the dense canopy offered some protection it was time to move back to the Shaman Lodge. On our way back we had another opportunity to release emotions in a much smaller, but also much intimate waterfall.

At home Don Luiz was already busy with the preparations to boil the ceremonial tea. He was a seventy three year old Shuar elder that regularly helped the shaman with preparing his medicines. The many pieces of the Natem vine that we had harvested several days before had already been cleaned and hammered into loose strings. They were put into big kettles with water and set to cook for the whole day. Some of us assisted him in the process; others were busy cleaning new wood or took care of banging the ceremonial drums. The energy coming off the drums not only brought the drummer into an adaptive state of consciousness but also fed the boiling tea with energy. Natemamu is foremost about putting in an effort.

Don Luiz, a Shuar elder who helped
us with preparing the tea.

The sun was almost down when the core of the Natemamu ritual began. The shaman took several pieces of Achote fruit, opened them and stirred the reddish mass inside with a piece of wood. It was time for traditional face painting, but everyone in the group got a Shuar name first. Spiritually, having a Shuar name makes it easier for the vibrations of the medicine to find the owner of the name. There was also a very Earthly reason: the Shuar simply could not remember our Northern names.

Don Luiz had the privilege of giving everyone a Shuar name. Each time he chose a name you could see him tuning into the person’s personality before coming up with something. Most names got an approving nod of the Shuar watching the face-painting. And most guys were quite happy with the warrior names that they often got. One cannot deny that the old man had a sense of humor in picking names. One of the participants was a slightly chubby guy that could hardly motivate himself to assist in any of the preparatory work for the cleansing tea. He was named after a big fat bird that lazily roams the jungle tree tops.

Don Luiz was painting my face while everyone else was in the Shaman Lodge. “Are you married, Shakeim?” he asked. “No,” I answered him, “I am not married.” He seems to be a bit puzzled by my answer, as I was far beyond the age-group in which most Shuar start families. It felt like I owed him an explanation. “I have not found a woman yet that is both strong and sweet and can support me in what I do,” I said to him. You could see him circulating my words through his mind. “Indeed, indeed,” he said, “It is very important to have a woman that gives support in manifesting your dreams.”

Tarantula, up-close and personal.

‘Shakeim’ is the name that I was given by the Shuar one year earlier. It is the name of a deity that protects the forest and all the animals in it. To me it sounded more like the name of a tall black cocky NBA-player. But it is a name that sticks and quite some Shuar now know me by that name. When I passed Don Luiz’ house several weeks later he recognized me, remembered my Shuar name and invited me in for some chicha, the breakfast of champions. His wife turned out to be one of the sweetest grandma’s you can imagine.

The eleven of us gathered around the large kettles with tea. The shaman, his sons and Don Luiz started to fill the bowls with the lukewarm water that contained the essence of the Natem. Then they opened the drinking-ceremony by singing a prayer in Shuar. We all took a bowl in our hands and gulped it down in one go. The tea tasted slightly bitter but was not very difficult to drink. The empty bowls were quickly filled again for another round, and another one. It did not take too long after the third bowl before I heard someone rushing towards the bushes behind us, quickly followed by several others. A massive wall of sound resulted, as if several volcanoes erupted at the same moment. The vomiting had started.

Curious Shuar girls.

Luckily most of us managed to drink three bowls before the vomiting started because this allows the stomach juices to leave the body together with the tea. Without these stomach juices the medicinal components of the Natem are allowed enter the digestive system without being neutralized, and can do their healing job.

For the next two hours this practice was repeated many times. Taking a bowl, drinking its contents, vomiting out the tea, and taking a new bowl. With every new bowl it became harder and harder to drink. The shaman and his assistants were pushing everyone to the limit to empty it. “Umarta, umarta (Drink, drink)!” they continuously shouted. “It is a good medicine for you.”Finally every one of us arrived at a point where it was not possible to drink any more tea. For some this was after fifteen bowls, for others it was after twenty-five bowls, but for all it was after drinking many liters of tea. It was not only the overstuffed feeling in the stomach that caused discomfort. The medicinal components of the tea created a dizziness that barely allowed a person to stand up straight. All kinds of thoughts and fears ran through my head. I cursed myself for being there in the rainforest doing this. I felt my intestines hurting, bloated from all the tea that I had taken. But then I straightened myself, put an end to the whining, and drank another bowl.

The world as seen through
the eyes of a parrot.

Then it was enough. I took my walking stick and stumbled towards the Shaman Lodge. There I lay down on a mat and pulled my sleeping bag over my body. The Natem started to do its work while the shaman and his sons played their traditional instruments. They would be playing and singing the whole night. I could feel the liquid creeping through my intestines like an anaconda snake. Everywhere it touched a part of my system there was a reaction. I felt cramped parts untighten and slowly relax. Old pains came up and were almost immediately annihilated by the tea. I felt these blocks leave my body with every breath.

On a non-physical level the tea also did its work. It created a huge space that allowed me to expand beyond ordinary thinking. Sometimes this expansion hit a dark corner. The music of the shamans helped to bring light to those dark corners. The vibrating sounds of their tumank, their mouth harp, helped to move into higher frequencies. The sounds of their two-string violin, the kaer, brought massive quantities of white-golden light that chased away any darkness. I slowly drifted away.

Shuar boys.

Then at 4:00 AM we were rudely awakened by a loud sound that pierced through the jungle. The shaman was blowing a large slugs’ shell to wake everyone up. Still a bit dizzy we got up from our mats and staggered towards the river in front of the Shaman Lodge. It was still dark. The cold water helped to wash away any remaining sleep and made our heads clear. After bathing we assisted Don Luiz in cleaning additional wood.

A few hours later, at the breakfast table, I felt completely reborn. Last night’s discomforts were completely gone and the space in both the body and the mind had increased significantly. I felt as happy as a child. What also helped were the large bowls of fresh fruit and copious amounts of fresh juice that the family had prepared for our group. The Natemamu ritual dictates a strict diet but fortunately this diet includes unlimited amounts of fruits and vegetables. It included fruits that I had never eaten before.

This went on for six consecutive days. With every day we got cleaner and cleaner. The group could relax more into the process, without having to plan things or having to know what would happen beforehand. The relaxedness made me able to feel more and more of my body and ground myself in it, but with every day it also got more difficult to drink the tea. I really had to push myself to it. The enthusiasm that we had the first day was definitely at a lower level towards the end of the week, as was the sound of the drums. We were quite relieved when the last day of drinking was over.

Caterpillar Fiesta.

Then it was time to put the icing on the cake, as we had cleaned ourselves out sufficiently to move to the next level. We packed our stuff and together with the shaman and his family we travelled to a beach alongside a large river where we set up camp in the afternoon. After some swimming and sunbathing we made a fire and collected banana-leaves to create a place to sleep. When darkness had fallen the shaman went around with a small cup. This time it contained the concentrated version of Natem; the same brew he offers in his regular ceremonies. It was washed down with a glass of water that contained the essence of Samik, another sacred plant of the Shuar.

It did not take too long before the night started to light up. I closed my eyes to start my inward travel. I found myself standing before an enormous transparent, but foggy, screen that was quickly being cleaned from the other side. Then they appeared. They did not look at all like I had read in books about the Shuar and their mythology. Instead of a female kind of form, sometimes described as a mermaid, they had a more insect-like feeling to them. Nevertheless they were eager to communicate with me and let me share in their energy. They were the Tsunkis.

Warm regards from the rainforest,

I am planning to return to the rainforest in August 2011 to visit the Shuar and to participate in another Natemamu ritual. Please check out under 'Natemamu' if you would like to join me on this journey.

Next time: Yalla! Yalla!

Last time: The Snows of Kilimanjaro

Ismael and his father. One of the sacred waterfalls of the Shuar. Isak and his son, baby Paul.

Natem. The jungle in the morning mist. Ivan, one of Miguel's sons.

When is the last time you hugged a monkey? Better ten Tarantulas in the forest
than one in your hand!
Tarantula, up close and personal.

Glenn getting his colors;
he was a great warrior.
Moments before we start drinking the cleansing tea.

Yellow-Violet. Butterflies come in many colors. My new Shaman-badge.

Ready for take-off.

Bats sometimes fly in and out of ceremonies Snack? Anyone? Better one bird in your hand.....

El Señor Presidente arrives. Unfortunately president Rafael Correa is in favor
of goldmining in the Amazonian rainforest.
Mother Nature is watching you.

The Mothman. The Shuar definitely like their dances. And their music.

The shaman checks the destructive clear-cutting
at another sacred waterfall.
Meissie, one of Miguel's granddaughters.

The skin of an anaconda snake.