Category Archives: Natem

Returning To Quito For Some Basics

I’m back in Quito after more than a month on the road circling Ecuador. From Otavalo and Cotacachi in the north to Guayaquil, Zaruma and Loja along the coast and in the south, to a retreat near Cuenca, I’ve met some wonderful sights and seen some interesting people. Or is it the other way around?

Rooming at the SAEX/Quito Clubhouse for the next month, I have set aside this time to review what has transpired and what will come next before I leave this amazing country and move on to Perú. Having 2 months left on my visa I expect to flesh out the 2 big targets on my agenda: the Amazon Basin and the Galapagos Islands.

Through connections here at the Club I am negotiating a trip to the Amazon, most likely from the city of Coca. With a population of about 45,000 people, Coca is the staging point for trips to both the Cuyabeno and the Yasuní Reserves and sits at the confluence of the Coca and Napo rivers.

The Napo is a major tributary of the Amazon River and was the route taken by Francisco de Orellana when the conquistador made his way east as the first person to cross South America from the Pacific to the Atlantic. You might have seen the movie “Aguirre: Wrath of God” (1972) that was an artistic take-off of the expedition. I’m hoping my trip won’t be quite as surreal! And anyway, Brazil’s pretty expensive, so I’ll skip the Atlantic for now.

On the Road to Cuenca

On the Road to Cuenca

My way back to Quito from Loja included a 12-day retreat near the village of Gualaceo, itself about an hour outside of Cuenca, which I have now visited 4 times. I’d have to say that the road from Loja to Quenca, only a few years old and in beautiful condition, has to be one of the most stunning I have ever traveled, anywhere. Within minutes of leaving Loja the road begins its love affair with the mountains and canyons separating the 2 colonial cities. This twisting route hugs the cliffs along the way and reveals to the traveler wondrous vistas of mountains, rivers and bottom land, often a thousand feet below the pavement. I’d consider visiting Loja again, just to repeat witnessing the drama along the highway that leads there.

After a night in Cuenca I made contact with Javier, the axis of a multi-generational family of taxistas. He drove me and 2 others over another beautiful but rough road to a private 55-acre retreat that we will call Sacred Earth for now. Javier is the person you want to know in Cuenca. He seems to know everyone and every place and will connect each to the other upon request. I enjoyed his company immensely and we’ve since traded several e-mails. We had a great conversation about life on our way to our destination.

I had reserved a spot at this retreat 2 months earlier and I was eagerly looking forward to repeating my spirit world journeys of April/May while visiting the Shuar. But it was not to be. Just because both retreats each held ayahuasca and san pedro ceremonies, just because both use state-registered shamans, and just because both profess a path to the divine, was no assurance that both would, or could for that matter, deliver the same experience. And this turned out to be the case.

Community Center Garden

Community Center Garden

In the most charitable of times I might be able, I suppose, to consider the Sacred Earth retreat as a kind of summer camp with ayahuasca. Though we received many pep-talks at Sacred Earth about how we were there for spiritual growth and how Sacred Earth was set up for this “life-transforming” purpose, in fact and in deed this was really not the case. More attention was placed on and directed to Kumbaya-style creature comforts with a little jungle medicine thrown in for authenticity. And very little at that.

In nearly 2 weeks of very comfortable living, we attended 4 ceremonies: 2 each of both ayahuasca and san pedro, with a lot of free days in between. In comparison, during the 18 days I spent with the Shuar, the participants attended 16 ceremonies, 11 of which were natem (ayahuasca in the Shuar language), a san pedro ceremony, and 4 other ceremonies relating to the ayahuasca vine that also provided opportunities for spiritual assessment.

Each of these 2 very different retreats had set participants back about the same in costs on a per diem basis: about $125/day. In comparison this expense is a 1/2-off bargain to what is available at the new age-y retreat extravaganzas in Perú, where you can also get your hair done and your teeth straightened, with maybe some paragliding thrown in too. But what was delivered by these 2 Ecuadorian retreats differed immensely both in quantity and in quality. Surely let the buyer beware.

To The Ceremonial Maloka

To The Ceremonial Maloka

Sacred Earth is truly an ayahuasca beginner’s resort and and it’s really rather more an introduction to the Wonders of South American Spirituality. Compared to the Spartan offerings of the Tsunki retreat, this experience was closer to a Club-Med for your summer vacation. I suppose if I had read more closely between the website lines and asked a few more pertinent questions beforehand I could have detected the difference, but Así es la vida, such is life.

What with the 3 full-size hot tubs, a “sauna-ish” room, a media room in the Community Center with an extensive video and music library, wi-fi connectivity and a yoga pavilion, massage and Reiki, we were offered any number of diversions with a high level of creature comfort. Oh, and don’t forget: an ayahuasca ceremony on Tuesday; try not to be late! But don’t fret, because Saturday is a free day and we’ll all hop into vans and go into Cuenca for shopping, ice cream and dinning out at any of the numerous groovy restaurants.

During the Shuar ceremonies each participant had an understanding of reverence for the procedure. I don’t remember it ever being discussed as a rule to follow, but for at least an hour before the beginning of each ceremony, as we singly prepared for what we knew would be a long and difficult night, there was little to no talking since each of us was focused on the intent of being there for our personal journeys into the spirit world. Even as a newcomer I understood that this was a sacred undertaking and by no means a trivial jaunt. Silence and contemplation, like the Zen retreats I attended many years before, was a given and an expectation; you just did it.

Maloka Ready for a Ceremony

Maloka Ready for a Ceremony

At Sacred Earth however, each lead-up to a ceremony was entirely light-hearted and even when the shaman appeared and began his incantations, his songs and his prayers, the group behaved as if we were taking part in an adult version of a sleep-over; with jokes and silly banter and fluffing the pillows just right; all this sharing was going on back and forth around the circle as the night closed in and the ayahuasca took effect.

I was speechless at such a casual approach to what I’ve previously only understood to be regarded as a deeply religious experience. Yet at Sacred Earth we were assured that all was taken care of and everything would be fine, because the tobacco smokers among us would have the option of a smoke-break part way through the night’s proceedings! Sacred indeed.

In the past few years, as ayahuasca has become quite well-known in the “developed world,” a division has grown between 2 groups seeking out this indigenous medicine. There are those who recognize the power of the vine and its ability potentially transform one’s life. This group believes that through millennia the people of the Amazon developed their protocols based on keen observations and their integration into the natural world around them, and developed the reverence necessary to realize the full potential of this powerful path.

Those who studied these cultures and their approach to the path of self-discovery both accept and welcome the traditional steps necessary for such an experience. As it happened, the majority of the people in my first retreat had been working with the plant for years. A woman from Germany who helped introduce me to protocols during the retreat, believes, by her own calculations, that she has taken ayahuasca about 80 times.

Then there is the other group that I can only regard as tourists: people who add the ayahuasca “experience” to their lists as just another must-do, like storming the disco bars down in the Zona Rosa, like buying the perfect trinket for a new setting on the dining room table. These are the ones who race to South America’s natural wonders, grab a selfie, and move on. Sacred Earth fully caters to this second group and is really nothing more than a beginner’s guide to what’s hot and what’s not in natural medicine south of the Equator. It’s really pretty sad as it lowers the drinking of this important medicine to just another thing to do while on vacation. Wait ‘till we tell the guys back home; I should say.

Oh, right, I just did.

Ecuador Calls and Hostal Curiñan Answers

Otavalo, Part III

Comfortably into my 2nd week here in Otavalo and I’m at somewhat of a crossroads. I could easily stay here, even while Inti-Raymi is winding down. Though today is the official end, more festivities go on until Friday, and then there are 3 “spill-over” religious rites that last until early July.

BigHead, Inti-Raymi parade

BigHead, Inti-Raymi parade

Tomorrow, with my senior discount 20¢ fare, I plan to visit Cotacachi via a 30-minute bus ride. This small village, known around Ecuador and beyond as the Nirvana of leather goods, it is also home to a growing number of expats. Sue, one of the guests at Hostal Curiñan is one of them.

She and her husband are “mule farmers” in Alberta and are also homeowners in Cotacachi. They have just sold their original home in the pueblo and are in the midst of constructing their 2nd one. Sue is a true expat in that she speaks a passable Spanish and knows how to always have a backup plan.

Plan B is critical for when the plumber doesn’t show up as promised, or her Ecuadorian lawyer disappears at a critical junction in her property negotiations. Or worse yet, when he asks for double the original fee for handling the legal papers. Not only does Sue have a Plan B, but she plugs it in with a laugh and a smile.

Ruth blew in and blew out of the hostal this past weekend. A retired physics professor somewhere north of age 70, this New Zealander has been a solo traveler for decades and she taught me a thing or 2 about bargaining with alpaca weavings vendors, traveling light, and converting inches to centimeters on the fly. We had a great (but frigid) boat ride on Cuicocha Lake the day after she bought me a pitcher of tomate de arbol (tree tomato) juice for my birthday.

Judy Goldberg is another one of the Hostal Curiñan clientele crew. She and I share acquaintances in Santa Fe that go back more than 20 years, though the 2 of us had never met when I lived there. She and her husband have lived in New Mexico for more than 40 years and she’s in Otavalo for the next stage of her anthropology grant. A professional videographer, Judy is interviewing Matilde and José Miguel for the 2nd year running and she recounted to me a bit of the extraordinary lives that brought them together and that they are even now living as the hosts of this wonderful inn. 

Years ago Judy created a non-profit in Santa Fe that is now very alive and healthy. As time moves one she wants to pass it on to others as she grows her Ecuadorian projects.  In addition to recording the Hostal owners, she is also making audio recordings of a family split apart during the Ecuadorian diaspora. I had no idea that the 4th largest Ecuadorian city is NYC! I do now. Now that she’s interviewing the brother of a New York Ecuadorian radio-show host. The brother lives here in Otavalo. Where else?

Inti-Raymi in Otavalo

Inti-Raymi in Otavalo

Judy was having some issues with language subtleties during a few of the interviews, so Marcela stepped in to help. A young Chileña psychologist, beautifully fluent in English, she had the room next to Judy at the Hostal. Marcela is here buying medicinal herbs to use with her curandera during an upcoming San Pedro (mescaline) ceremony. She felt comfortable revealing this after I recounted my own Natem experiences from last month.

Marcela, even while directing a UNICEF program on a farm outside Santiago, is a fellow traveler in the spirit world. She and Judy, José Miguel and Joselito, and I all journeyed to Peguché at midnight on Monday to enter the waterfall for a ritual New Year’s bath.

We all swapped e-mail addresses and my pals: synchronicity and serendipity, being what they are we may well and we may easily cross paths sooner or later. But the hostal is quiet today. Sue and I are the only ones left and she’s headed back to Alberta tomorrow.

Yet even as she’ll be hopping buses back to Quito’s airport, the Hostal is set up to greet a dozen new faces scheduled to arrive on the same day, some for the night and some for longer terms. Among them will most certainly be some worth knowing. Hostal Curiñan and the loving people who own and operate it attract guests who also bring with them this energy and this love. Should I go or should I stay? I’ll have to answer that question at some other time. Right now, more people are dancing in the street outside the restaurant, and I’m going out to watch

The Natemamu Vision Puts Me Out Of The House And On The Road

Natemamu, Part IV: The Spirit World Among the Shuar

For the rest of the time at the Finca we continued with ceremonies every night except the last one. The idea being that the final day would start early, about 6am, and be quite full before nightfall. The following morning, a Monday, we were to board, first the taxis, and then 2 separate buses that would take us to Gualaquiza, in Morona Santiago province. Paul wanted our energy levels high for these leapfrog transportation undertakings, and it was just as well. Non-stop ceremonies had a cumulative effect for by the end of a week none of us found much time for sleep.

Once the goodbyes concluded, we worked our way back through Catemayo where about ½ of the group split off to return to Quito for flights back home. The rest of us, about a dozen or so, purchased tickets for Loja where we would locate a bus to Morona Santiago. The weather, as it had been during the retreat was in the mid to high 70’s and no rain, so moving our mountain of luggage, though much smaller, was also easier in these pleasant conditions. And we were all grateful since the scenery, which was certainly beautiful outside of Catemayo continued its dramatic unfolding with grander, broader vistas of misted mountains and rivers that kept increasing in size.

While we were dropping in elevation the mountains within view remained quite high as we followed Andean drainage basins and at some point crossed a continental divide. Now, instead of flowing to the Pacific, these rivers were all destined for the Atlantic via the Amazon. We passed through Loja province and into the southernmost Ecuadorian province of Zamora Chinchipe, and when we reached the provincial capital of Zamora, we headed north into Morona Santiago. It was a full 8 hours of bus rides that finally dropped us off on the highway to lug our bags (they’re not called luggage for nothing) 20 minutes up a hill to Miguel and Gabriela Archangel’s compound.

By then it was late afternoon and time for some quick introductions and another simple but tasty meatless meal. Shaman Miguel had built his own Lodge, one that Paul had lent him several thousand dollars to build. But with this being wet Amazonia, the dirt floor was far more plastic and sticky than that at the finca. And for the 5 days or so that we were there, along with some days of rain, we relied even more so on those Wellington boots.

Landry, Our Oglala Sioux Frenchman

Landry, Our Oglala Sioux Frenchman

The ceremonies, which began that night, were of a different type and style. Each night we were expected to sit upright on hard benches in almost total darkness, while Miguel and Paul sang, chanted, and played their instruments. And mid-way through these ceremonies we had a surprise when Landry, a tall young Frenchman in our group, began playing the drum and beautifully chanting North American Oglala Sioux songs. He was really good! He later explained that he had studied (and studied quite well) with a Sioux elder who took up residence on the small island off central France where Landry lives.

Gabriela Archangel

Gabriela Archangel

By this time Gabriella was also regularly attending the ceremonies. We had been told earlier by Paul that she herself is really a shaman, but she denies all talk of this sort. However her touch gave her away and we all knew from that personal physical contact that she has powers that probably surpass her husband Miguel. After the first night’s ceremony, which was a far stronger brew that brought on difficult struggles for the whole group, Gabriela started passing by each of us and placing her hand on the top of our heads as we were seated on the benches and feeling the first hallucinatory effects of the brew. By sharing her touch, she was able to convey an amazing feeling of peace and tranquility. She also came outside and stood with us while we vomited, since a number of us, myself included, lost muscular control and the ability to make it back into the Lodge on 2 feet.

I had neither visions nor hallucinations during the stay here with Gabriela and Miguel. I discovered later that the reason was due to lack of technique. In preparing for a ceremony, a participant needs to prepare with a heavy dose of introspection. And the product of that introspection needs to take the form of a petition to La Medicina.

The vine should be addressed with a question or an enunciated goal that is both quite clear and very specific. I knew none of this at the time and as a result I came away with little more than a clean digestive tract. I was also still having sessions that were diverted away from the spirit world by heavy body-energy discharges. Diarrhea, just so you know, is also a common method of purging, though usually not as frequently a purge as vomiting, therefore a number of us came away very clean after our stay.

Shaman Alberto Catan

Shaman Alberto Catan

So when the time came to leave I believe that all of us looked forward to a change. And thankfully Paul had saved the best for last. Heading further north to Macas, the provincial capital of Morona Santiago, we started hearing about Alberto Catan’s place. Alberto, if you remember, led our first ceremony at the Finca, and his wide open smile and good nature from that time nurtured our anticipation of staying with his family outside of Macas. Paul had also prepared us with the knowledge that we would take part in the yearly celebration of the Chonta palm and the harvest of its fruit.

In a phrase, Alberto’s compound was a Garden of Eden. He had a fast-flowing stream running through the center of the property and a separate sleeping lodge for guests, which we gladly inhabited during the week we were there. Alberto, his wife María, and their extended family welcomed us all and we could tell that this part of the journey would be fine. And it was.

Shaman Lodge and bridge to our guest house

Shaman Lodge and bridge to our guest house

There was a separate Shaman Lodge, a separate dining house (that straddled the stream), beautifully planted grounds, and an overall peacefulness that we immediately absorbed. As with our first Shuar family, we also began our ceremonies here on the first night. There was some concern among us that, like the first ceremony at the finca, this first ceremony at Alberto’s place would also be a spiritual assault. Alberto cooks a mean brew and sees no reason to dilute his creation. That first session at the finca gave everyone strong hallucinations, so we prepared as best we could.

And strong they were, though again, because of my ignorance, most of my time fell to purging and calming my body reactions. As with Miguel and Gabriela, these sessions were endured on hard benches, though his fire was more substantial, and this helped us keep from stumbling. More light also feeds hallucinations with the increased visual input, and later many reported just that effect. Me? I was standing on the bank (when I wasn’t bent over) and watching the river flow.

But on the night of Natemamu I got my second vision and loved every bit of it. Natemamu is a ceremony quite different than the “standard” natem/ayahuasca ceremony. During a natem ceremony the brew consists of the pounded inner bark of the natem vine and at least one other plant, usually just the leaves of the yagé, though often a leaf or two of toé.

With Natemamu however, it is only the inner bark of the natem, make into a thin tea. And the goal here is to consume as much, and more, as one think’s they are capable of drinking. I was up with the leaders in this go-round, and made 8 or 9 bowls of about a liter each. It was hard to keep count since my bowl never emptied with Alberto’s family circulating with huge pitchers full of the liquid. These never-ending bowls were also accompanied by vigorous shouting and chanting from the family to, in Shuar, “DRINK, DRINK!!!”

At the finca, about midway through the retreat, we had 2 successive nights of Natemamu and somehow each of us found the will to consume this unkind beverage. The afternoon before the first night Paul was explaining the protocol and what was expected of us. Even those of us who had participated in Natemamu before were apprehensive. I, of course, hadn’t experienced this sort of thing, but from listening to the others who had, I thought that I’d rather clean the toilets or something.

As Paul explained it, “It all sounds pretty horrible, but actually, it’s much worse!” He wasn’t exaggerating. You think that you can’t possibly down anymore of this stuff, but there’s shouting all around you, you’ve already returned a good bit of it to the soil at your feet, but you remember why you’re here, and you drink some more. He had already counseled us to be ready for a heightened sensory awareness, and that we would be able to hear the earth’s rhythm. Again! The guy really knew what he was talking about. I could sense this noise pattern at the finca, and now here again at Alberto’s compound.

There were new sounds (no, not just the puking) all around me and even though the sun had set some time before, it was light enough to see. A heavy, droning, thumping tone kept injecting itself into my awareness, and I guess that this was the earth’s rhythm Paul mentioned. And then at some point Alberto somehow knew that we were done, and it was time to return inside the Shaman’s Lodge.

We were all pretty weak by this time, and I somehow found the strength to climb up to the 2nd tier of the racks inside the Lodge, and I sprawled on my back in utter exhaustion. Sometime later, and I had no way of telling if it was minutes or hours, I received my next message. Again, the delivery was a mystery, but this time I did have a strong visual that drove home the message.

By this time I had already been in Ecuador four months and most of that time I was quite comfortably ensconced in the house of my school director’s parents. Sofía’s parents are my age and we have become very close, laughing, joking, commiserating with each other as age takes its toll. And I could very easily stay at their place until Immigration pounds on the front door. But I wasn’t sure that that’s really the right way for me to be traveling. Well this message put all these questions to rest.

You have no doubt seen those gag greeting cards that have a pop-up that jumps into place when you open the card, right? Well I essentially received the same setup in this second message. I was seeing the landscape of Ecuador as a giant carpet unrolling, with trees, rivers, mountains and all popping up as the carpet unrolled. And at the same time I was receiving the message that my Quito phase was over and until October, when my visa runs out, it’s my mission to hit the road.

It's Time to Move On

It’s Time to Move On

So after this plane touches down in Lima, I finish my work there, and return to Ecuador, I’ll be on the road, circling the country. I’ll start in Otavalo, an indigenous pueblo north of Quito and witness Inti-Raymi, the Andean indigenous New Year. Since December 31, I will then have witnessed 4 separate New Years in less than 6 months: the calendar New Year (which I celebrated by going to bed before 11pm), the New Year in el campo at the time of Guaranda’s Carnaval, the Shuar Chonta Harvest, and finally Inti-Raymi. It will be a lot of fun.

Since Wood Ashes Repel Vipers, We Could All Purge In Peaceful Bliss

Natemamu, Part III: Knocking on Heaven’s Door

It’s now June 2nd and I’m sitting in the international terminal of Quito’s Mariscal Sucre airport. I’m on my way to Lima, Peru for 9 days. I’ve got air-miles from American Airlines and they’ve been burning a hole in my virtual pocket for some time. So since I had some personal business to attend to in Lima, it was time to cash in some of those air-miles. It’s free, right?  Yeah, right. And this ticket only cost me some (pretty high) taxes; so much for “free flights.” I’m here ultimately as a result of a message that I received during my second encounter with natem. But this presents a chronological disconnect, so let’s back up a bit.

Before we had arrived at the finca Paul’s assistants had already “ringed” an outer perimeter, 10 to 20 feet away, and completely around the Shaman’s Lodge with a border of wood ashes. It seems to be common knowledge in el campo of Ecuador (and perhaps elsewhere too, I’m a city-boy and don’t know these things), that wood ashes keep vipers away. They simply will not cross such a barrier which can penetrate their scales most painfully.

I’ve never corroborated that notion of ashes, but I will say that none of us reported any snake sightings for the 8 days we were there. We did hear from several of the support staff that the week before there were several sightings, and snakes in Ecuador I’m told are almost always poisonous, and neurotoxic at that! So each night, religiously wearing my knee-high rubber boots, I always remained hyper-aware of a possible encounter while puking my guts out, or removing negative energies, as it were.

Though I never repeated during successive ceremonies the intensity of the Opening Ceremony’s hallucinations, each night’s journey to the edge brought me visions of heightened energies from the plants growing everywhere. No, it was more than visual manifestations , I could sense, I could feel and even hear these energies. And I’m supposed to watch out for vipers too? Were those leaves on the low bushes by my feet moving because of the wind? On more than one occasion it took me some time to return back to my mat after voiding my innards.

I do have to explain that there is a difference, a very big difference, between hallucinations and visions. The hallucinations are visual “fantasies?” I guess you might say, while visions are more than just visual messages. These visions involve multiple sensual inputs which present one with a very different type of communication.

Paul and both of the Shuar shamans took great pains to remind us over and over that a shaman does not provide us with answers. A shaman is a facilitator who helps us prepare to receive our personal messages from La Medicina, the vine. Shaman’s break down the barriers, through the use of various techniques, between ourselves, or better yet our outer selves: those visible characteristics (our ego, in Freudian terms?) we present to the world, and our inner selves. And the medicine then bridges that gap and delivers the messages from our inner selves. All this is taking place in the spirit world that the Medicine Hunter frequently describes.

In my own case, I received my first message and I was totally unprepared for it. So when it arrived, I was only too happy to be lying down. I know that I would have been knocked from my feet had I been up and about during a purging. I say this because not only was the message so true and so fundamental, but the delivery was also as powerful.

As I write this, hoping the Lima plane will be on time, I’m feeling a rising level of anxiety since the very act of articulating this experience will fall far short of doing justice to what transpired. What makes this recounting of the ceremony so weak, so insufficient, is that I still don’t know how I received the message.

Was it spoken to me? No. Was there writing, perhaps delivered holographically? Not really. And yet the message was very real, very personal, and answered a nagging, serious, and chronic problem that had been physically eating away at me for years. Somehow, some way, the message arrived from elsewhere and imprinted so firmly in my psyche that I had no choice but to accept it as real. And even after nearly a month of returning and immersing into my Quito routine, I know that this separate reality will be with me as long as I live.

To those of you waiting for some juicy gossip, here’s a spoiler alert: I ain’t sayin’ nuthin. My message was for me and if you decide to take part in a natem or ayahuasca ceremony, your message will be for you. The shamans are all very clear about this. The conversation one has with the inner self, mediated by the vine, is as personal an experience as one will ever have. So while I will reveal a later message I had in a later ceremony, this first message is off limits to the casual reader.

A technique common to all shamans is the use of icaros. These are songs, some of which are passed down through generations during the rigorous and life-threatening training a shaman receives in order to finally become a shaman. Other icaros are presented to the individual shaman during their own journeys to the spirit world and then the shaman brings them forward to those he is helping to cure. And still other icaros are of another sort.

Paul Eijkemans

Paul Eijkemans

Paul, who by his own reckoning, has undergone more than 700 natem ceremonies along with other deep training, is also a shaman. Of this there can be no doubt. He is of the first generation of cross-over shamans who originated in the “developed world” and answered a call to enter this more primary Amazonian Basin world of the vine.

Like the Zen Buddhists of the 60’s that I met in Rochester NY some decades ago, or the yogis of the 50’s that I met even earlier in Honolulu during the Flower-Power years, Paul is here, working as a translator to help those of us from the northern countries knock on the doors of perception down south in the jungle. One of his translations is music.

Often using a shaman’s fiddle, a primitive 3-stringed instrument vaguely resembling a western fiddle or violin, or another, single-stringed Shuar instrument that looks like a bow that could shoot arrows, he will play some traditional Shuar icaros, often singing in Shuar. These icaros are tools that a shaman uses to both call the spirits and to help us as participants prepare ourselves to receive messages. He uses these icaros to great effect, and they do get results.

Or he will call on Nial. With his name pronounced like “dial” Nial is from Dublin and not only plays a beautiful guitar (he’s a professional recording artist) but he throat sings, and can make his voice sound like a harmonica, a whistle, and an amazing number of other sounds. During our retreat Nial, as a senior assistant to Paul, brought us his highly evolved ability to read people. And in my case, he knew exactly what I needed to hear.

During this second ceremony each of us individually received a personal cleansing by Paul while sitting on a stump in front of the fire. When my turn came, I sat there waiting for Paul and Nial began to sing. He mixes his own compositions with popular rock and folk songs, knowing somehow, ahead of time, which song is needed for what part of the ceremony, for which person.

A recurring song he played, The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil” always got a huge laugh, and also always turned into a huge, highly animated sing-along. Another sing-along was “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash. These songs and others were played a few hours into each of the ceremonies, after the initial hallucinations and purgings were over and we were ready to make connections with our inner selves.

Since I was easily the oldest person at the retreat, and my age was more than once the topic of interest during several group discussions, Nial realized that a unique opportunity presented itself and would be to my advantage. So as I was sitting on the stump, waiting for Paul to prepare himself mentally for this cleansing, Nial started singing Bob Dylan’s “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” and I instantly understood just why I was there.

For far too long, for too many years, for too many decades, I had been postponing decisions in my life. Crucial, critical, and truly life-affirming decisions had been deferred, and for far too much time. Now, in my later 60’s, it was quite clear that the time for deferral, if there ever was a time for it, was most assuredly over; I either act or I go to the grave denying certain personal truths.

image

Thanks again, Nial. You knew exactly what I needed to know. Dylan’s song, like all good icaros, bridged the gap between my outer self, and the self that lives in the spirit world. It prepared me for receiving that first core message later in the night. After all those years, I was finally ready to listen.

In Which Our Traveler Finds Natem and Also Finds That He Doesn’t Feel So Good

Natemamu, Part II: A Strange Brew

So what is it that makes people willingly take a glass-full of a bitter, thick liquid when they know that they will probably be bent over an hour later, purging not only their last few meals, but what the shamans believe are negative energies? Why subject oneself to this knowingly and repeatedly? That was something that certainly ran through my mind as I was bent over mid-way through the introductory ceremony. People not only pay money for this, but they actually come back and do it again? And again?

Chris Kilham, more famously known as the Medicine Hunter, and senior health editor for Fox News, regards this plant brew as the most potent healing agent in the world. And since, by his own admission, he’s participated in several dozen ceremonies, Kilham is positioned well to hold this opinion. He now leads groups to the Amazon to experience for themselves the healing powers of this amazing plant.

Known to the Shuar as natem, to others as ayahuasca, yagé, daime, la purga and many other names, this concoction has been in use for thousands of years in the Amazon basin. Now it is undergoing many clinical trials in South American countries following rigorous laboratory protocols.

Kilham, investigating medicinal plants for more than 30 years and a tenured professor at UMass-Amherst, believes (as do I and thousands of others) that natem unlocks a spirit world and permits us to enter this world in a highly personal way. He also goes on to say that those who criticize, those who disbelieve the existence of this spirit world are invariably those who have never attended such a ceremony. Like the Medicine Hunter, I’ve always believed that it is so very easy to have an opinion, and a very strong one at that, of something about which someone knows nothing.

The only thing that I knew, mid-way through that first ceremony, was that morning couldn’t come soon enough. Within 45 minutes of drinking my first cup of natem, I began seeing some interesting geometric hallucinations. They were tiny, moving lights forming a kind of spider-web pattern overlaid on my “normal” vision. Having experienced LSD many times more that 40 years previously, these hallucinations were actually pretty tame in comparison. I was expecting some of the pure terror that often accompanied LSD “trips” but natem is far kinder in its greeting.

My biggest problem with this first experience, and as it turned out, for the next several nights worth of ceremonies, was that most of the energy of the natem was focused on very stern, almost violent body reactions. This first venture was for me almost completely dominated by heavy twitching and shaking of my lower extremities. My legs were reacting as if I had just completed a marathon. There was no pain, and I was very lucid, but at that point my main concern was that my shaking and jerking about would disturb others around me. While they were making contact with this spirit world, each in his or her own way (and silently, dammit!), I was laying back on my mat behaving as if someone had inserted electrodes into both legs.

As I lay there on the mat, flat on my back, I bent my knees and placed my feet flat on the mat. This slowed down the twitching and my motions were less noticeable to myself and others. The geometric patterns were gone by then, but I was developing a serious headache and some nausea. I found out later that having some water, and frequently drinking same would easily mitigate these reactions. But man, that nausea!

Over the years I have been plagued with nausea to such a degree that I’ve almost become a connoisseur. Almost, but not quite. From heavy and painfully frequent doses of motion sickness as a child, to more recent and regular daily bouts, nausea and I are no strangers. Diagnosed as suffering from intractable nausea 4 or 5 years ago, I even went so far as to register, first in New Mexico and then in Hawai’i, as a medical cannabis patient to fight off daily, and often multiple times a day bouts of nausea. Standard anti-nausea medication would either put me to sleep completely or leave me semi-comatose and unable to function. At least with the cannabis (a personal friend of many years) I could walk and chew gum at the same time.

Well the morning after my first natem ceremony I was so heavily nauseated that I knew that I was going to leave the ceremonies, leave the retreat, and somehow stumble my way back to Quito. This first morning, after having no sleep the night before, was enveloped in one of the strongest, most vicious encounters with nausea that I had ever had. After 6 decades of nausea, that’s saying something. And I was saying something too.

Having a picnic by the river and getting ready for a Ceremony

Having a picnic by the river and getting ready for a Ceremony

Ursula, the German woman who earlier told me that after 80 previous encounters with natem, she was now ready to do some serious personal work, was laying on her sleeping bag to my right. I was explaining to her, while others were slowly dealing with dawn and their own journeys, that I was probably done. I needed to see Paul and back out of this retreat as gracefully as I could. It was fortunate for me that she happened to be next to me, or maybe she planned it that way.

The 2 of us were older than the rest of the group by a full generation, and I am about ½ dozen years older than she is. In Catemayo, while waiting for the taxis, we began talking and resonated quite well. Though chronologically younger, as time went on she became my older sister and her help throughout the time we were all together for nearly 3 weeks, proved invaluable. And of all the help she provided, the most valuable was during that first morning.

She explained that since the nausea was the strongest experience that I took away from that first ceremony, then nausea was my target, was my subject. Ursula believes that nothing is an accident and my initial encounter was my personal message to return to the nausea that second night and ask why. Somehow I believed her. And with her German precision she would hear of no talk of backing out. It was inconceivable and therefore impossible to discuss leaving. Get up, get dressed, we are climbing those cobblestone steps, all 163 of them, for breakfast.

Thank you so much Ursula. You were, of course, correct.

I did make it up those steps. I had breakfast and felt fractionally better. And as the day slowly moved by and I was able to grab an hour’s sleep I realized that I really did owe it to myself to stay for a second night and maybe I could gain some benefit. After all, I had been reading about the amazing properties of ayahuasca for years, and really, a substantial reason for finally coming to South America was to drink the brew.

I had known for some time that ayahuasca is a healing enigma on the grandest scale. In the Andean countries and Brazil, many researchers, both psychiatric/psychological and medical have been deeply involved in trying to find out just how this mysterious plant works. It is, of course, an illegal substance in North America and all of Europe, as defined by the finest minds in politics. But down here, where people take a more rational view of the individual in relation to the environment, one can purchase the vine in an indigenous market a 10-minute walk from my room in Quito.

The term ayahuasca is loosely interchanged with both the vine, Banisteriopsis caapi, and the brew, which varies by country, by region, by shaman, and by what the particular shaman wants to accomplish for a particular ceremony. I refer the interested back to the Medicine Hunter for as much detail as you might like for these variations. His website, the Erowid website, and many others offer truly informative material for the truly open seeker of healing.

In my personal case, some years back I was in a losing battle with what finally was diagnosed as clinical, or major depression. But fortunately my primary care doctor put me in contact with a psychiatrist who is vehemently opposed to pharmaceuticals. She, along with a number of other renegade psychiatrists, were working at the time with the University of New Mexico’s Medical School, studying the effects of DMT as a healing agent.

DMT, from another crucial plant often referred to as chacruna, happens to play a critical role in the ayahuasca brew. My older sister Ursula would argue that none of this is an accident: my having depression, connecting with a scientifically curious psychiatrist, UNM/Med-School research, a plane flight to Ecuador, etc.

Now DMT, you must understand, has also been classified in the USA as a dangerous drug of no medical value. Along with cannabis. These classifications were determined to be true through rigorous medical research conducted by, wait for it: YES!, politicians. Aren’t we happy that they are protecting us from ourselves? Umm, no, not really.

With all of this information rolling around in my mind, there could be no debate. Following another tasty lunch and a shower, I came back to my mat, cleaned up some of the surrounding area, and got ready for the second, or Opening Ceremony. This turned out to be a brew of different proportions and, to put it in a most melodramatic way, it really did change my life.

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.

Visiting The Shuar of Morona Santiago

In my earlier 3-part Guaranda postings I mentioned that I have been exchanging casual English lessons for Spanish lessons with my Ecuadorian friend Jefferson. We often meet at the SAEX clubhouse and talk over the days events. With the Club being what it is, namely a conduit for information transfer, I have received an invitation to teach English in El Oriente. This isn’t a formal offer, but rather a chance for cultural exchange.

A group of people, some from SAEX, most not, are leaving this weekend, the final one in April. The plan is to fly to the very south of the country, to Catamayo, and work our way northeast by bus and van.

Before I arrived in Ecuador I had already known that I would visit the Amazon Basin, but I had no clear plans as to just how to carry this off. What I did know is that I wouldn’t be staying in an eco-lodge paying several hundreds of dollars a day to hang out with other tourists, dress up like “natives” and play with blow-guns. So once this invitation reared up, I knew my chance had arrived.

For 18 days I will be traveling in one of the most undeveloped areas of Ecuador: the Province of Morona Santiago, in the southeastern borderlands fronting Peru’s Amazonia. This is the land of the Shuar, the only people on this planet who collected the heads of their enemies.

Una Cabeza Reducida

Una Cabeza Reducida

Known by the Shuar as Tsantsa, this “head-shrinking” practice which is agreed upon by many as having ceased, was done to acquire the warrior spirits, Arutam, of the enemy and to prevent these spirits from causing further harm to the Shuar. I believe that there is a good chance that I will return from this trip with my head still attached to the rest of me. The contents of my head however may not be the same as what I started out with.

There are 17 of us plus Paul, the leader. The majority of the group hails from Europe, with the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland among those countries represented. We will gather on Saturday the 24th to the south of Loja, the largest city nearby the farm where we will begin. Each of us joined this group to take part in 8 days worth of Natem ceremonies and to attend the workshops necessary to prepare for those ceremonies.

These are Shuar-derived ceremonies, evolved through millennia and developed as an intimate and participatory examination of human placement within, rather than imposed upon, this Amazonian environment. The Shuar are, as are all localized indigenous peoples, masters of the knowledge necessary to be fully integrated into this life. They know the plants, the insects, the animals, the land, the rivers, the skies, and of course the gods who weave each of these parts into the syncretic whole.

By taking part in these ceremonies the group will be exposed to the cosmology of the Shuar and how this unique apprehension of the universe is vitally relevant to the existence of the planet. There is a very real and immediate threat to not only the Shuar and their ancestral lands, but, as the “lungs of the world” this land’s endangered future is a threat to all of us.

The Ecuadorian government has doubled back on its promise to protect indigenous lands, allowing the Chinese, the Canadians, and others access to this vital Amazon watershed for surface mining, with plans to permit the largest surface mines in the world. These mines will destroy hundreds of thousands of hectares of unique drainage basins that feed the headwaters of the Amazon.

These watersheds are among the most bio-diverse ecosystems in the world and once they are removed from the Amazon’s life-cycle the entire planet will be adversely affected. Such an environmental violation will not have simply a small ripple effect, but rather an immediate and enormous negative impact on how the world breathes.

By inviting us to take part in such ceremonies the Shuar hope that the knowledge and experience that we gain will help us to help them tell the world of this most critical series of events. The Shuar, the Achuar, the Siona/Secoya, the Cofán, and others live in an ecologically unique part of our planet.

Just off the Ecuadorian coast, the large El Niño clockwise current from the north collides with the even larger counterclockwise Humboldt current from the south. Coupled with this phenomenon is the equally important and  constant collision of prevailing winds, both easterlies and westerlies.

All this occurs both near and above a small (about the size of Colorado) but topographically varied land that ranges from sea-level to 20,000 feet above the ocean. What results are more species of flora and fauna per square mile than almost anywhere on earth, only rivaled by Colombia just to the north.

The Shuar intermontane lands lie between the snow-covered Andes and the low flood lands of the Amazon itself. This area of hundreds of rivers, waterfalls, and jungle forests is home to an unknown number of species where new discoveries happen virtually year-round. So that they might protect this land, and that they might reverse an impending ecological disaster of immense proportions, the Shuar invite outsiders to their home.

After 8 days of ceremonies and workshops, approximately half of our group will continue on, further into Shuar territory, to live with 2 separate families. While with these families we will observe additional healing ceremonies among the families themselves. And I have been invited to teach English to the children from both of these families and meet with teachers in a high school near Gualaquiza. We will stay directly in the homes of these families, with the first family near the pueblo of Gualaquiza, then with the second family near the city of Macas for another several days, finally heading back to Quito by bus.

With Spanish as their second language, many Shuar believe that their children should pursue English to better position themselves as a voice to the outside world. They are now actively working to create a formal English language program and in the meantime welcome any preliminary help that they can find.

I have been told to expect a lively recruitment response to my visit, and look forward to conversing with them in what is a second language for both of us. What a fantastic chance to waltz through the linguistic minefield of subjunctive verbs!

There is a far better than fifty-fifty chance that I will be offline for the entire 18 days, so this could well be my last post until mid-May. Though unable to post, I will continue to write while traveling in Morona Santiago, capturing some to the wonder of this area, and I hope to convey some of that wonder when I re-connect.