To Attend a Natem Ceremony, You Can Retreat From the World But You Can’t Retreat From Yourself

Natemamu, Part I: Catemayo

It began easily enough: I received an e-mail from Paul saying to meet the group for breakfast at “La Bachita” restaurant, near the town square. How hard can that be in a town whose central business district only extends 3 or 4 blocks away from the town square? Thing is, there are actually 3 La Bachita’s on the same block!. It must be that in Catemayo, if you want to open a restaurant, at least on that block, you’ll name it La Bachita or find another line of work.

image La Bachita number one, according to my hotel’s front desk, was the breakfast bar on the top floor of the hotel itself. Well I knew that the breakfast bar, 7 flights up, wasn’t what I was looking for. La Bachita number two, the actual meeting place, was conveniently, if confusedly, located right next door. And the third one was down the block on the other corner. Of course, that’s the one I decided must be the place.

Since I was up early, had already eaten (at La Bachita #1, where else?) and feeling full of energy, I walked around the Plaza Central and surrounding blocks, watching the tiny town bloom into its weekly Saturday morning market. In towns this size all around Ecuador, the weekly market is both the family buying spree and the chance to happily catch up on community gossip. Everyone I met was in a friendly mood, even to an obviously out-of-place gringo. So, slowly circling back to the hotel, I came across La Bachita #3 and hung out there waiting in vain for my intrepid retreat buddies to appear.

It eventually dawned on me that this was not our rendezvous, so I doubled back and looking in the window of #2, recognized Paul from his website photo. The group was just finishing their meal, and after some hasty introductions, people split up to raid the food mercado and local merchants for last-minute purchases like Wellington boots and ponchos and bushels of carrots.

By now it was nearing mid-day and time to collect our baggage from a mountain of various backpacks, duffels, and other luggage at the back of the restaurant. Paul had contracted for 6, 4-door Toyota pickup taxis to meet us in front and we bucket-brigaded all our gear, 25kg. sacks of potatoes, and other sundries on board the trucks and raced out of town.

We were headed to a finca, or farm, up in the cloud forests above Catemayo. These cloud forests extend the length of the Andes from Colombia through Ecuador and Perú down the coast to Chile. They are a major source of water for these countries and, through over-development in many places, endangered along with the flora and fauna they sustain. Little rain falls in these parts and so the life in the cloud forests depends entirely on moisture left by the clouds as they ceaselessly track across this steep and craggy terrain.

After an hour’s ride through this stunning mountain scenery, catching glimpses of tiny indigenous villages impossibly perched on narrow ridges or up steep defiles, we arrived at the finca. For most of the year this isolated property is only visited by it’s owners, Mario and Susan and young Mario junior on the weekends, when they escape the “urban madness” of their home in Vilcabamba, a village of around 3,000 people. But now all three were there, with 8yr old Mario junior bouncing from taxi to taxi, greeting everyone in both Spanish and English and highly articulate in both.

Susan, a retired attorney from the US, and Mario, a Peruvian national also retired from years as a financial advisor, are far along in the conversion of their property into a wonderful spiritual retreat center. They already host several gatherings each year, and with a creek and a river and a half-dozen waterfalls rushing through the property, it’s easy to see why. Their goal is an off-grid haven for personal growth.

With this abundance of water, they have their own supply of domestic water, captured high up on the mountain. It’s as pure and cold as one could hope for, and it made our morning showers a delightful, if frigid, wake-up. Cloud forests are poor locations for solar heating, so personal hygiene was a choice between the showers or the river. All of us switched between the 2 frequently throughout our time there.

Also there to greet us was Alberto Catan, a Shuar shaman registered with both the Ecuadorian government and the Shuar Federation. Ecuador is one of the few South American countries that both recognizes and regulates indigenous healers as viable health-care professionals. Shamans, curanderos(as), uwishin, yachacs and other healers are federally certified and often work side-by-side with modern physicians, exchanging patient information back and forth quite freely.

Alberto had come to deliver all the natem we would consume for the duration of the retreat and he stayed on to conduct the first night’s opening ceremony. He and Paul, along with Paul’s assistants would be working with us individually and as a group. While most of the attendees had been working with natem for some time (Ursula, from Berlin, had for example taken natem about 80 times by her account), several of us were attending ceremonies for the first time.

imageBy now we had all unloaded our gear and we gathered in the group dining room for lunch and a rundown of the events and schedule for the rest of the day. The lunch, like all of our meals during the time there, was light, vegetarian, with hearty portions of flavorful soup. No onions, garlic, fats (including all forms of dairy), or sweets, though the teas and coffee did have raw sugar available.

The idea was to be kind to our digestive tracts because natem is a natural purgative and the introductory ceremony was only a few hours away, beginning just after sunset. As you might suspect, those of us who had never taken part in a ceremony had more than a smidgen of apprehension regarding the idea of a night of puking. It’s not normally something one might willingly seek out. But then too, none of us “newbies” was unaware of the process involved. We were first-timers but we all were well aware of the order of events involving ingesting natem.

imageThe ceremony, and the majority of the rest of the ceremonies at the retreat, was to be held in what we referred to as the Shaman’s Lodge. It is an open affair with a roof to keep out the rain, and a low wall circling about a third of it to compensate for the slope that it was built into. The Lodge was down a very steep slope from the main house, and the path to it was a series of cobblestone steps (163 someone counted). This was also our bedroom for the 20 or so of us who were the participants plus Paul’s assistants.

We had our sleeping bags spread out around the perimeter and each of us had a thin mattress to place under the pad but on top of straw mats that also circled the outer portion of the Lodge floor, which was hard-packed dirt. I’d guess that the Lodge was at least 60’ in diameter, with a continuous wood fire in the center. This fire, banked during the day, was the sole source of light during the ceremonies, though the Lodge did have a single, very dim light at the peak of the roof (maybe 20’ above the floor) that only came on for custodial chores at other times.

At this point we were ready: the sleeping bags were spread out, we each had some form of flashlight/headlamp, we all had knee-high rubber boots for avoiding the poisonous vipers when we needed to leave the lodge to vomit, and the working toilets, shower, and common sink were less than 20’ from the rear entrance to the Lodge, lit with low-voltage lighting. All we had to do now was wait for sunset.

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