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Ecuador and the Galapagos

April 26th, 2011
The waterfall was at least a hundred metres high. I had been there before, when I took part in my first Natemamu ritual, several years ago. This time though, it felt different. Maybe it was my involvement in the event. In that first Natemamu I was a participant that knew almost nothing about Shuar culture and their use of medicinal plants that grow in the jungle. But that was before I had spent a total of six months living with them in the forest, observing and learning. Even now I am still not an expert on Shuar culture, let alone the use of the medicinal plants that they find in the forest. The more time I spend with them, the more I feel that I am only scratching the surface of their delicate and intricate culture. I doubt that anyone who has not grown up among the Shuar could ever comprehend the true spirit of these people. However, the many smaller ceremonies that I have done with the Shuar in the past seven years has at least given me the confidence to start leading groups into the Ecuadorian rainforest to connect others with them and their unique culture.

The power of the waterfall rolled over me like a huge wave. To call it a tsunami of energy would be a little inappropriate these days, I guess. Thousands of litres of water fell every second and the screams and cries of our group, letting go of their stuck emotions, could hardly be heard. The dazzling effects of the Tobacco plant added to the mystery. Besides smoking Tobacco, the Shuar also snort its juice up their nose. For Northeners with frequent sinusitis this is a sure way to get rid of their ailments. The Shuar consider Tobacco as one of the most sacred plants that grow in the rainforest, a plant which has nothing to do with the addictive substance that annually kills so many people worldwide.

Drink! Drink! Drink!

It was also the first time that I drank Tobacco juice. Just a few sips of it made me vomit massively within minutes, accompanied by a tremendous increase of vibrations in my body and my perception of the forest. It was already dark and when I lay down I floated away in a sleep-wake-sleep stupor, with a continuous stream of lucid dreams. The camp that we had built next to the waterfall, in the middle of the jungle with all its unfamiliar sounds, turned out to be an excellent location for seeing jaguars in one’s dreams!

It had taken our group of eighteen, including the shaman and one of his sons, a day to even get to the waterfall. It was not a ‘walk in the park’. For some of us it was laboriously hard work, especially for those who could not help but curse the harsh conditions of the forest. Along the way we saw many different kinds of plants and insects. They were grouped by the Shuar, mainly into edible and inedible categories. Honesty demands me to say that some of these edible insects are true delicacies, a kind of caviar of the rainforest. Hortencia, the shaman's wife, once said to me that she hoped that the people in my country did not look at them as ‘primitive insect eaters’. If only she knew how many people from the North would benefit from even adapting some elements of their healthy lifestyle and diet, which includes little fat, almost no artificial elements and a tranquil mind. No New Age raw food nonsense is necessary for these people.

In the jungle you are either eating or being eaten

When the shaman caught a large rhinoceros beetle he licked his lips. Fortunately he could be convinced that the beetle was better off being photographed. Butterflies have less to fear, as they are not considered as an afternoon snack. There were hundreds of them flying all around us, in all kinds of colours and patterns. In Shuar lore they bring luck to the person that they pick out to land on. Those wearing colorful t-shirts definitely had some gross portions of luck steered towards them during the two days of jungle-trekking.

Due to the width of the path leading to this specific sacred waterfall, the shaman could not explain much during the trip. He more than made it up to us later that week when we toured past all the various medicinal plants that grow in his garden, similarly with another trip into the rainforest that was close to his home. His knowledge on medicinal plants is immense. Simply point randomly at a plant in the forest and he cannot only tell you a story about it, but the plant will probably have some sort of use in Shuar culture. Thousands and thousands of years of working with these medicinal plants have made the Shuar experts on what can be found in the rainforest that will cure diseases. This knowledge is passed from Uwishin to Uwishin, the honorary title of a Shuar shaman. They do not get this title for free. It includes a yearlong solitary stay deep in the rainforest, with a daily diet of medicinal plants that teach the apprentice how to use them. And only after that year does the real studying start, with visits to sacred places and the practicing with clients. It is hard work with a lot of discomforts. The study is also open for those who were not born Shuar, but those who are born Shuar have a larger chance of accomplishing the study because they are already adapted to the discomforts.

Even the flies have great colors here

Why do I volunteer to take people into the forest to meet with the Shuar and participate in their ceremonies? Firstly, I have had many wonderful experiences in the rainforest and I wish for others who are interested to also enjoy this unique culture and people that have such veneration for medicinal plants. Secondly, the visits stimulate the local economy. When the family buys rice and vegetables, they will buy it at the local market. And when the shaman asks other healers to assist him in the ceremonies, he pays them for their services. The bigger picture is that this kind of tourism attracts people who are truly interested in Shuar culture and customs. It makes the economy in Shuar territory less dependent on other sources of money.

At the same time it enables them to protect that which is an important element of both their culture and of tourist interest, the rainforest. Or, in other words, money generated by this kind of tourism helps the Shuar to not to have to sell their souls to the Chinese gold mining companies that have not a single grain of compassion or interest for them, their culture and their forest. Sure, our visits affect the local culture somewhat, but the alternative of a destructed habitat with the Shuar culture destroyed with it is a far darker perspective. It is not an imaginary perspective, because all over the Amazonian rainforest oil companies and loggers are threatening the forest.

A tree frog in a banana tree

The effects of the gold mining became inconveniently clear when we wanted to camp at a beach where we had camped during the previous Natemamu ritual. We could not camp there anymore because gold digging machines were busy ploughing it over, in search of the precious metal. Those people that think that gold mining can be done in a responsible way, or in a way that hardly impacts nature and Shuar culture, are fools. The shaman’s brother-in-law Julio eloquently summarized this when he said at a local meeting “Even if the Shuar get some money from the gold mining, what are we going to do if all of our water, all of our air and all of our plants are polluted?”

The fools include people who are high up in the Shuar Federation. Traditionally the Shuar have lived in the forest in small settlements, which is one of the reasons that the Spaniards were never able to conquer them. They are extremely family orientated with little inclination to form family transcending institutions. However, with their world opening up more and more to the outside world, several decades ago they formed the Shuar Federation to give them more influence on the outside world. It can be questioned, though, whether they are truly represented, if even some of their leaders chose the destructive gold mining over the protection of the forest.

Ever seen a beetle with a horn?

The ancient Natemamu ritual is a great way to be introduced to Shuar culture. It involves drinking large quantities of a watery tea made out of Natem, another sacred plant of the Shuar. It is a vine that is found deep in the rainforest, and the brew that is made from it carries the same name. Some people know Natem from the concentrated liquid that is sometimes taken during healing ceremonies. The tea that is used in the Natemamu ritual is not concentrated and litres and litres of this tea are supped in two or so hours, for several days in a row. Participants engage in a process of drinking and vomiting, drinking and vomiting, until they are completely done with it. First timers may have difficulty in downing the liquid, but after having participated in three of these rituals I can attest that some techniques exist that certainly help to push yourself to take another bowl. And another one. And another one.

Most people associate vomiting with something bad, with something that is only done after a night of heavy drinking. The contrary is true for the Natemamu ritual. The ritual cleans out every aspect of one’s system, not only on a physical level but also on an energetic level. Muscles lose their stiffness, thoughts become clear, and after a few days into the ritual a general feeling of wellbeing dawns upon the participant. During the night, the medicinal components of the tea assist in a process of deep introspection that helps to get rid of emotional and mental ballast. It is a complete reset, a fresh start. Although it is not a panacea for every disease but it mostly certainly helps your body and mind to heal itself. It is one of the oldest spiritual practices in this world.

Out of Space

The drinking starts in the early evening after the day has been spent cleaning wood, hammering it in strings and cooking it in large kettles on a fire. The cooking is accompanied by drumming on a Tuntui, the traditional Shuar drum made out of a hollowed tree. The person guiding the cleaning and the cooking is Don Luiz, a Shuar elder who is an uncle of the shaman. He is one of the sweetest people that you will ever meet. Don Luiz not only embraces Shuar culture but he also carries a crucifix of Jesus Christ around his neck. At first I was puzzled by this because if there is any force that has been destroying, and in various countries is still destroying indigenous culture, it is the Catholic Church and its various ramifications. But it seems that this admiration has not so much to do with the ecclesiastical structure of the church but with admiration for the person Jesus Christ himself, probably a true shaman in his times.

After the Natemamu ritual last August the group gave Don Luiz a photo of himself in his traditional Shuar dress. This time we had a different gift for him. While he was watching the cooking process, me and the family rented two jeeps to travel to his house, deeper into the forest, where his wife also lives. The women in the family had taken jewellery and traditional dresses with them and with those they gave Don Luiz’ spouse a super Shuar makeover, which I photographed. Normally the Shuar do not walk around in their traditional clothes because ‘Northern clothes’ are more practical, but for special occasions they go a long way. When the group handed him the photo of his wife at the end of the Natemamu ritual, his first reaction was puzzlement, quickly followed by a “I know that woman!” and ending with moist eyes.

A curious lizard

Another special guest at the ritual was Don Pedro, one of the shaman’s teachers. He is actually not a Shuar but a Quechua, from the highlands. I truly enjoyed watching him do his healing work because it enabled me to see that every shaman seems to have developed his or her own set of tools with which they can treat people. There were so many things that he did differently from what I have seen other shamans do. Apparently there is no ‘one way’ to do this kind of work.

When I had to leave Shuar territory to travel back home for work, the shaman called his whole family and extended family together. Then, in the presence of all of them, he emotionally thanked me thoroughly for the work that I have done for him in years past which has enabled him, his family and his village to build a healing centre and a dance hall where the village can practice their traditional dances. Though I did have my share in that, I feel that all those other people who help Miguel with his work, and those who participate in his ceremonies, deserve the credit just as equally as I do. So, on behalf of the Shuar, thank you for your contribution, you guys know who you are!

Warm regards from the rainforest,

Next time: The Naadam Festival

Last time: The Holy Land

The Natemamu-group of this trip Don Luiz, a Shuar elder
who helps preparing the tea,
is also into Jesus
Don Luiz

The wife of Don Luiz This cow was the guest of honor on
the opening party of the new healing centre.
In pieces, though.

The jungle is filled with plants in all kinds of forms And all kinds of colors As are the insects

Flowers on a branch Kermit the Frog really exists!

A colorful grasshopper, found during a jungle-tour Purple Delight A shiny bug on a tree

The Shuar know the rainforest like their
backpocket, if they had one.
Some insects are so small that you can
hardly see them with the naked eye
Others are a little bit larger

Assisting in pollunation Traversing the thorns Getting to the core of things

A venomous toad Winchuu, a weird looking red plant The smallest mandarine oranges in the world
grow in the rainforest here

Sometimes meat is taken from the rainforest Maize is an important staple food for the Shuar Maggots fed on palm are an absolute delicacy here

Snack? Anyone? The Shuar fish by putting poisonous leaves
in the water, and scooping up their catch
Mr Miyagi would have been proud

Annai helping her mom
slaughtering some chickens
A Shuar family