Tag Archives: ayahuasca

Dramamine Monologues: Galapagos, Pt. II

After the first week spent exploring the most populous island of Santa Cruz I was ready for a change. Knowing, though not focused on the warning to beware of what one wishes for, I was in store for a very big change on a much deeper and purely personal level.

So I hopped on a 6am speedboat headed to the largest of the islands, Isabela. By now it was mid September and the calm, tranquil waters offshore were gone. By far the best times for diving were over. With rough seas came silt and sediment, so underwater visibility is greatly diminished.

sea_sick_railing_cartoon

Those of you who SCUBA dive would be best served by fighting the hoards of the July-August high season, when the water’s warmer, calmer, and clearer. It’s also rumored that those times don’t demand a wetsuit either. But 2 weeks after US-Labor Day the lazy days of summer are gone. And so was breakfast for at least 1/3 of the 15 or so passengers on board for the commute. Oddly enough though, not for me.

Some of my earliest childhood memories, predating Kindergarten no less, were of the times spent puking on Sunday drives with the family. Joining my dad, smoking one cigarette after the other motoring down the highway, my mom riding shotgun and passing around sandwiches and kool-aide, was my older brother pasted against the left side of the back seat, hoping to avoid any backsplash. He was mostly lucky in this regard.

670px-Treat-Motion-Sickness-Step-4

Motion-sickness has whipped me about the head, shoulders and stomach my entire life. I’d get sick in wide-screen movie theaters, riding the ferris wheel, often even a teeter-totter, anything that moved in more than one direction at a time; for-my-entire-life. Often my motion-sickness has been the deciding factor, the weakest link, in determining directions, adventures, roads not taken for more than 65 years. What was going on now, here in the Galapagos?

The chop was breaking over the bow from about 10 o’clock, and we were headed due west with a strong wind from the south. This 40’ sport fisher, with twin 300hp Yamaha outboard engines (and a monster 500hp spare) was battering through, under, and occasionally over waves while fish-tailing and slipping sideways with constant irregular lurches. And I wore the biggest ear-to-ear grin the entire time enjoying the bouncing and pitching and rolling the sea was throwing our way.

So here’s a disclaimer: an hour before launch I had downed a Dramamine. Having grown up using the drug I also knew that it rarely if ever had a damping effect on my upchucks. But I had received what may turn out to be a lifetime supply of the stuff earlier in the year from my support staff back in Hawai’i, specifically delivered to me for my Galapagos trip. I really wanted to visit these islands and overcome my dread of the sea with handsfull of the pills.

But not only didn’t I have the least bit of queasy feelings, I pushed my luck and started reading my Kindle part way through the ride. The chop was so intense though, that I had to stop for fear of cracking the tablet lens on my forehead. Nevertheless, this was a major event; I couldn’t bring on even a hint of discomfort. Another test was in order.

Six days later I boarded another boat, this time from San Cristóbal back to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz. Believing that I am my own best Guinea Pig, I chose to wait until the boat was underway before downing a pill; normally Dramamine takes 1/2hr to an hour to kick in. 

This trip, if anything, was even more violent than the first and I was sitting amid-ship, inside and away from any views of the horizon or anything else but fellow passengers. This location was where the pitching was far more noticeable. It’s hard to imagine, but my grin was even bigger than during the first trip. What was going on here? An older gentleman taking the commute in the stern of the boat and confined to a wheelchair was thrown to the deck 4 times from the strength of the battering waves (he was grinning though the whole time though, a great sport). I badly needed a reality check.

Back in Puerto Ayora I met with Janina for a deep debriefing. The week before she told me that when she was younger her father had insisted that she have an ayahuasca ceremony. She had been experiencing some very serious health issues that were just not responding to “conventional” medicine and he believed that it was time for a more traditional indigenous approach. So, knowing that this woman is wise beyond her years, I sat down and talked this nausea thing out with her. We both agreed that something deep was going on here.

During my April-May ayahuasca intensive I received 2 separate messages from la medicina. The 2nd message dealt with my immediate future in Ecuador and revealed that it was time to quit Quito, which I subsequently did. But it was the first message that had a connecting link to this motion-sickness issue.

At the time I arrived in Ecuador, and for nearly 5 years previously, I had been plagued with what my primary care physician diagnosed as “intractable nausea.” He was of the notion that a chronic liver condition that I have was the root cause of the nausea, but being cautious he wanted additional opinions. So I spent several years and multiple thousands of (health insurance) dollars with medical specialists trying to pinpoint the origins of this nausea. All of these examinations failed to discover anything definitive, though I did receive several scares of more serious conditions. It was fortunate that those frights were all false alarms, and yet the nausea remained.

So when I received the first message from the ayahuasca ceremony, clearly explaining what the cause was and how to cure it, I was very happy to be lying down at the time. I was rocked to my core. And now, talking to Janina I realized that I was experiencing continued healing from that ceremony from nearly 6 months earlier.

Clinical research, both here in Perú and elsewhere in South America, has frequently shown that ayahuasca can and does have delayed healing effects. While it could be argued that my experiences are purely anecdotal, I’m getting ready for another experiment.

successs-sounds-a-lot-like-motion-sickness_Fotor

A few hours south of Lima are the Ballestas Islands, billed as Perú’s answer to Ecuador’s Galapagos. It is my intent to go there without any Dramamine at all. This Guinea Pig’s ready for some real action. As the year winds down we’re now heading into a showdown with El Niño and the seas are not smooth and they are becoming less so with the passing weeks and months. If I’m truly over my life long motion-sickness I’ll know it pretty clearly. If not, keep your boots on.

But enough about me, what about you? We were talking about Isla Isabela, the largest of the Galapagos Islands, so let’s get back to business.

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.

Climbing the Steps of the City of Zaruma and Climbing the Ladder of Success in Loja

Zaruma, de la Provincia de El Oro, is unquestionably the most vertical city that I have ever visited. Roads, at least those planed for motorized vehicles, are at best an afterthought throughout the entire municipality. In a city, a village really, of barely 20,000 residents there is a developed and inhabited area that marches up and down the mountain for more than 1,000 vertical feet.

Zaruma Steps

Zaruma Steps

This isn’t a place for someone with a fear of heights. Since as you move about in just the commercial area of Zaruma alone, you move along in the street, up steps, down steps, over curbs, up more steps and then repeat. A still active mining town, Zaruma is like no other. And because of this, Ecuador has petitioned the UN to place it on the short list of World Heritage sites. It certainly has my vote.

Though as beautifully unique as it is, a village this size only has so many things one can do, and with wi-fi being something that not all of the residents had heard about, keeping myself plugged-in was it’s own interesting challenge. It’s a nice, no it’s a great place to visit, but you know the rest.

Three days later I hopped on a bus out of town for the most beautiful yet frightening bus ride yet. The first hour was pretty tame: we coasted downhill to the smaller town of Portovelo where I changed buses after a long wait in the town square. Within 3 minutes of leaving Portovelo the pavement ended and we started climbing up into the Andes.

Zaruma to Loja Road

Zaruma to Loja Road

I was thrilled to be on this route because near the end it would meet up with the road I had taken out of Catemayo in April to attend the Natem retreat. That path ended at the door of the finca we stayed at and this ride would complete the rest of the journey coming in from the opposite direction. However these interprovincial buses are very tall affairs with great stretch out seats.

They are far taller than a Greyhound back in the US, so that when we rounded bends on the one-lane gravel road and overtook an overloaded mining truck, or met an oncoming pickup, my heart lumped up in my throat as the cabin swayed along the hardpack. We weren’t making much speed, since the gravel and washouts prevented over-jouncing along the way. But we were moving about, perched 8 or more feet above the road surface.

We did of course survive the trip. The drivers of these buses do this every day and know the twists and turns of their routes intimately. So at the times when I knew we were going over the edge, the driver carefully and methodically maneuvered this beast easily along to our destination. The days in Zaruma were a true march back in time and this bus ride punctuated the divide.

But now that I’m in Loja, life is different. Somewhere in the vicinity of 200,000 people call Loja home (accurate population figures and, for that matter, municipal boundaries are more of a concept than a reality in much of South America). Considered by the rest of Ecuador as the jewel of the south, this city holds a long memory of mining and agricultural wealth. But it’s the 21st century. The old days were nice and there will always be respect for history (Loja is one of the oldest cities in Ecuador), though I get a clear message here that folks want nothing more than a comfortable middle-class life.

And who can blame them? With the wonders of cable/satellite TV, dubbed Hollywood movies, and the Internet, all the excitement of the outside world beckons, and many here have answered. They have seen much that favors the attraction of a comfortable life and have decided to follow this dream. It’s the American dream, but it’s not exclusive to the US. This is also America, America of the South, and let no one forget it.

With a city of this size, geographically isolated though Loja may be, one can find most anything imaginable for leading the comfortable life. These days that also means that Loja has caught the eye(s) of travel and retirement media as the “new” Cotacatchi, which everyone who’s anyone knows is the “new” Cuenca. And for those who have followed these types of publications, we cannot forget that Cuenca of course was at one time the “new” Ajijic/San Miguel de Allende, and they of course were the “new” on and on and on…

So there is a small and slowly growing expat population here, and these retirement publications are all singing praises for Loja. Of course the result of this favorable press is that expats are moving here. But they are in no way as visible in Loja as the expats are in Cuenca, where they have seemingly taken over the Centro Historico, or are they as visible through sheer numbers, as they are in tiny Cotacachi. But expats are here and they do blog and the blogs make for some interesting reading.

Bolívar Enters Loja

Bolívar Enters Loja

As regards expat life, Loja is still in the first stages of “colonization” and this means that the transplants here are a hardy bunch, by necessity speaking Spanish, and who are quite content flying under the radar and not flocking or swarming as in the other locales. These new Lojanos are happily leading the middle-class life too and fitting in quite well with families tracing Lojano roots back in some cases to the founding of the city in 1546. Ah, but nice though it may be, that same middle-class longing is where problems arise.

Rafael Correa has changed the face of Ecuador like no other president before him. Regardless of how one applauds or rejects his views, his redistribution of wealth essentially made a new country. In multiple comparisons to other South American nations, Ecuador has lifted itself from an also-ran to a contender in virtually all aspects of social metrics. Correa’s administration has lifted more people from poverty than all of his predecessors combined and the country is now in the top tier of wealth, prosperity, and individual contentment across all factors of life in Latin America. Crime is down and happiness is up.

Because of the wealth re-distribution there is now in Ecuador a large sector of the population that not only can simply dream about material gain, but actually achieve it through individual effort. This has never happened before and the people who this message was intended for have embraced it whole cloth and gladly worked hard to move up the ladder; out with the old ways and all aboard for the new ones. Yet differences exist here in the beautiful and rugged south.

Unlike Cuenca, the cultural capital of Ecuador, or Cotacachi, near to the world market of Otavalo, or the main cities of Quito and Guayaquil, Loja is off the (international) tourist trail. It is at the bottom of an isolated valley, nearly 7,000 ft above sea-level, and surrounded by rough and mountainous mining country. Loja therefore is at the mercy of its geography, and as a result of these defining landforms the city, like any city anywhere in similar circumstances, has an insular outlook on life and the values that define it as a community.

Seeing the world of the outside and how the Loja of old compared to that world, and seeing progress as good thing, it was only natural that Loja too would be moving forward. If hard work and a clear vision were the antidotes to stagnation, then Lojanos were ready for their share of the rewards. It would be worth it for now and for the future. But at what cost?

When I arrived here last Thursday I had several immediate tasks before me. In order to stay on the road I have certain regular chores and the occasional “one-off” task that come up. This last week I needed to have some laundry done, a haircut, and some forms filled and mailed back to a US bank. I also wanted to purchase some palo santo.

This sweetly aromatic wood is burned in curandismo ceremonies and next week I begin a 12-day retreat hosted by 4 curanderos. The plan was to purchase quantities of palo santo for each of the shamans as symbolic offerings. Once I leave Loja I will be again in isolated country south of Cuenca and unable to locate such things. So Loja is where I had to find my palo santo.

Booking a room in a centrally located hotel in colonial cities has many benefits, not the least of which is convenience. There is a reassuring sameness to the layout of old Latin American cities. Each has a parque central: a green-space (sometimes more green in concept than in currency) which will have fronting it the city cathedral, the local governmental offices, and provincial and/or federal agencies as well.

Radiating outward from the park will be the supplementary and complementary businesses, shops, and other modes of commerce that keep the community operating. The tailors, the hardware stores, the cyber cafés, and pharmacies, restaurants, and more. Big cities and small pueblos; this layout is both regular and reassuring.

Loja Mercado Centro

Loja Mercado Centro

Among these surrounding stores will also be the mercado central. This will be the grand market selling everything from local produce (which in Ecuador is astounding in variety, beauty, taste, and incredibly low prices), meats: both the butchered and often the live still clothed in feathers or fur, toys for the tots, sweets for both the tooth and the heart, umbrellas, shoes and boots, basketware, items for the kitchen and home, and many, many other items in a large warehouse or series of warehouses with running kids, pleading mothers, hawkers for both licit and illicit goods; a fascinating place to watch one’s belongings while weaving through the always crowded aisles.

Loja’s grand market is barely 2 blocks from my digs, the Hotel Podocarpus, and after scouting it out on Thursday just before the 6pm closing, I knew that checking off my tasks would be a snap; there was even an internet café, so I could print out the forms for the bank. The central post office was 2 blocks in the other direction from my hotel. Perfect! At least mostly so.

After finishing up most of my tasks at the mercado with a $2 haircut (and it looks like a $2 haircut too!) on the top floor amidst the row of barbers, I set out to find the palo santo. In Quito, Cuenca, and many other communities along the major transportation routes, tiendas de remedios (shops selling folk remedies) seem to be on almost every street corner. Yet I couldn’t see any, either in the mercado or along the side streets lined with shops selling everything but remedios.

Mercado Produce

Mercado Produce

So I asked one of the vendors in the mercado who gave me a puzzled look and then pointed me off in some vague direction elsewhere, a common gesture when someone doesn’t know something but can’t bring ones’ self to admit it. So off I went to another sector, got the same treatment, and repeated this a number of times until the husband of one of the earlier vendors found me several aisles over and pointed out a tiny closet of a shop one more aisle down.

Finally! Success with what turned out to be the last remedio shop in Loja. It was getting late with rain threatening, so I was thankful that I did find my palo santo, and that the old man selling the flower-waters (floristas), trinkets, salves and such had 4 bundles left. He was both quite pleased and puzzled to find a gringo as a customer, and after our transaction admitted that not only was he the last, but that his supply of palo santo had dried up from over-developing the forests for farmland. He also told me that for 10 years or so, fewer and fewer people are following the old ways and that he was going to close down this last of the remedios in Loja.

In their climb up the material ladder, Lojanos have willingly forsaken indigenous ways and plowed up the once plentiful palo santo forests. For progress. Other communities here in Ecuador, ones located on busy and regular transportation routes still accept the old ways and have comfortably integrated them into newer ways of living. There is no real conflict in those cities and both beliefs of health and healing exist symbiotically. However, these folks here in Loja, walled in by the beautiful but culturally stifling mountains, concluded some time back that it was an either/or choice and made their move forward by saying goodbye to traditions that had been in place for millennia. Something was lost here in Loja.

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

Truly Sad To Leave Quito, But Justly Ecstatic To Find Otavalo

Inti-Raymi: Coming to a Pueblo Near Me, Otavalo Part I

Mahalo Bar

Mahalo Bar

The weirdest things popping up in the most unexpected places are really why I travel. I don’t quite know why I was surprised to find this establishment, because it was less than 2 blocks away from the local Baha’i meeting place which was also advertised in Quechua. For those who don’t speak any Hawaiian, “Mahalo” means “thank you” in that beautifully rippling Polynesian language. This bar, closed during the day, is on a main street here in Otavalo. Mahalo indeed.

It’s one thing to see the word mahalo in Waikiki, where you see it everywhere including on all the trash cans (of which there are countless, thank you City of Honolulu!). Yet that in itself can be a problem. So many tourists have seen it on the trash cans that many have come to believe that it means trash. So when, for example, a local cashier receives payment tendered and replies “Mahalo,” that Ugliest of Americans takes insult and escalates the misunderstanding further by behaving even more stupidly, thinking that they’ve just been called garbage. Jeez, mahalo nui loa, bubba.

(A piece of advice for those of you who probably don’t even realize that you’re Ugly: take some time to learn a few words before you visit a foreign country. And yes, Hawai’i really is a different country; it’s yet another item that you also might want to study.)

With that rant out of the way I can say that I arrived in Otavalo yesterday. I came to witness Inti-Raymi, the most important Ketchwa (there are nearly a dozen ways to spell this word, so don’t wait for any consistency from me) celebration of the year. Otavalo is the largest indigenous city in Ecuador. And Inti-Raymi pays respect to summer solstice, though please do not ask me how they can tell, being less than 100 miles from the Equator (equal days, equal nights, remember?). But it’s been celebrated for millennia so someone’s been keeping watch.

This morning I greeted sunrise by keeping up my Tai Chi practice here on the roof deck of the Hostal Curiñan (if you visit Otavalo, stay here, period!). Sure, it was sublime: watching the sun behind me lighting up the mountains across the valley, hearing the sheep and goats grazing across the road from the hostal, but it also was a time of revelation: I had made a mistake.

A month previous, having just returned from living with 2 shaman families in Marona Santiago  and having received 2 serious visions via drinking Natem/ayahuasca, I had to start living my truths as revealed. And the second of the visions, the one that told me that my time in Quito was over, led to making this reservation at the hostal. Now the mistake was not staying at the hostal, since it is a piece of heaven in a heavenly place, nor was it in coming to Otavalo for Inti-Raymi, as I’m by now an exposed indigenous junkie. I need to be here, really. It’s not my fault.

No, the mistake was making the reservation for only 10 days. I don’t see how I can apprehend what I’m feeling all around me in such a short period of time. I know many people think that they can tour Europe in 10 days, but there’s no way I’m going to leave here in just a week and a half. The rest of Ecuador will simply have to wait.

Here’s a linear thought in a completely non-linear post: I know that there are more than one or two people who read this blog and who were disturbed by my moral descent through indulging in psychedelia with the Shuar. In my defense, I did mention in an earlier post about the many clinical trials going on in South America with both ayahuasca and DMT. Well, Johns Hopkins, a dreary 2-bit schoolhouse somewhere on the east coast, has also been hitting the hooch, as it were. Try this link on for size an then realize that it’s not all what you’ve been led to believe about those misbegotten 60’s hippies:

Could Psychedelic Drugs Make Smokers Quit?

And while you re-read the article therein linked, pay attention this time to the spirituality reference. Heaven really is where you find it.

Returning, somewhat, to Otavalo I can say that I’ve hated lantana since I first came to Hawai’i in the late 60’s. Back then I joined the Hawai’i Trail and Mountain Club and spent every weekend hiking mountain trails on O’ahu and also among the Outer Islands. Yet so many trails beginning in or near Honolulu were plagued with the wild overgrowth of this decorative little thornbush which raked my ankles and shins, leaving me criss-crossed with bloody scars (wear long pants? in Hawai’i?). Back then I read that it was introduced to the islands from a nursery in Cleveland some time in the 1890’s. Sometime later it somehow escaped someone’s garden. Thanks Cleveland.

I was born 40 miles south of the “Metropolis of the Western Reserve,” the home of the Cavaliers and the returned LeBron James, so it took some time to get over my resentment of Cleveland. Being, as I was, from Akron, we were always 2nd-class to our big brother, the “BigC.” I’m glad that I did get over it though, because I have learned to love the lantana in Ecuador. It’s a decorative bush or even a small tree in many yards in Quito. And here in Otavalo I just returned from the University of Otavalo campus where there is a lantana hedge several blocks long and in full bloom with tiny red and yellow flower clusters. Thanks you jardineros at U of O!

I was following a train of thought here; oh yes: Otavalo. What put the city on the map many years back is that it hosts the largest open-air market in South America (I haven’t personally verified this, but then paid journalists no longer verify either, listening Fox News?, so blame wikipedia). I’ve also heard that the Otavaleños are the most prosperous indigenous group in SA as well.

Now for that piece of info you won’t get an argument from me. With the steroidal 4dr pick-ups cruising town and the casas grandes sprinkled throughout the barrios, it is easily evident that money has been made here and continues to be made. Each Saturday the place is awash with cash-heavy tourists more than willing to trade their dinero for some of the best textiles, weavings, wood carvings, leather goods, “panama hats” (you get the picture) that one can hope to find anywhere. This stuff for sale isn’t junk either, though with some judicious bargaining one can certainly return home with quality artisanal products at far better than store-bought prices. Needless to say, these folks know how to do business. They’re indigenous, truly, but they’re not primitive.

Take for example this hostal. The delightful owners, Don José Miguel and Doña Matilde, along with Don J-M’s brother Joselito (“my brother Earl and my other brother Earl?” you bet!) also drive a monster truck, send a daughter away to college and have this fantastic lodging. (My opinion you can verify, BTW. Check out booking.com if you care to: Hostal Curiñan)

Otavalo

Otavalo

Wait though, that’s not enough for these gentle but focused hosts. Right across the road and uphill a bit they are building a bigger hotel! It will open in 6 months or so and will probably be just as ably run. However, if I return I’ll stick with this smaller version and it’s stunning views.

You might have realized that after 5 months of living in Quito, I’m hyped and on a roll, with thoughts, encounters, and possibilities racing through my little mind. It’s going to take several installments to explain the magic of Otavalo and the surrounding Imbabura Province. Please come back for more and I might infect you too with the wonder that’s all around me. This Sunday night I’ve been invited by my hosts to take part in the Inti-Raymi ritual of midnight cleansing under a 60’ waterfall. Now that’s going to be cool, up here in the mountains.

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.