Spirit of the Forest: Shamans in Ecuador

By Brooks, Iris | The World and I, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Spirit of the Forest: Shamans in Ecuador


Brooks, Iris, The World and I


On a recent journey to Ecuador, my psyche was not as neatly packed away as my hiking boots, rain poncho, and appropriate photographic gear. The pressure was mounting as days before the trip I collected incomplete information about my upcoming sojourn. Could my partner Jon and I film and photograph Pre-Colombian artifacts in the museums? Would we have an opportunity to interview a shaman? Would we hear traditional flutes? And would I re-connect with my guide Walter, who a dozen years ago introduced me to the magic of the Achuar people and the beauty of Amazonia?

Ecuador offers cultural lore (celebratory festivals with colorful costumes and crafts), culinary delights (tasty locro potato soup and homemade ice cream from exotic tropical fruits), as well as adventurous excursions (hiking, biking, and horseback-riding) for travelers of all varieties. But our focus is to meet and document shamans practicing indigenous healing traditions in the remote rainforest where people live in harmony with the cycles of the natural world.

Our journey to the rainforest begins with a five-and-a-half hour excursion through the Valley of Volcanoes where we pass through small towns with fruit vendors, taffy-pullers, and sugar cane stalls while nibbling on Ecuadorian organic chocolate morsels made by Pacari. This van ride is followed by a flight of nearly an hour in a single propeller-plane (with 3 seats) dancing through the clouds above a canopy of dense, verdant unscathed forest and a meandering river. When we land on a dirt airstrip, we are ushered to a motorized canoe. During a short transitional walk between modes of transportation, a pygmy monkey--considered to be among the smallest monkeys in Amazonia-greets us.

Kapawi Ecolodge and Reserve is located in a tropical rainforest with over 300 tree species and 500 species of birds. Exhausted, yet exhilarated, we finally arrive at this inviting solar-powered, eco-friendly lodge near the Peruvian border. It is exciting to experience the rainforest with Kapawi as our home base. This rustic, yet comfortable lodge, run by the indigenous Achuar community, has a wooden walkway leading to our cabin. Like all the cozy huts, it is constructed in the traditional Achuar style without the use of any nails. Sitting on stilts at the edge of a marsh, our thatched roof cabin is adorned with white cotton drapes. Curved, floor-to-ceiling screens offer panoramic views and easy access to majestic sounds emanating from creatures large and small.

When our naturalist guide suggests we settle in and then head out for a sunset canoe ride on a tributary of the Amazon, I forget to consider I have been up since 4:00 am and am truly exhausted. The allure of an outing on the Pastaza River seems to outweigh the advice my body is trying to impart and as I hop off the boat, juggling a heavy camera bag on one shoulder, my wide brim hat obscures more than the sun. I hit my forehead against the metal awning pole with a force that doesn't knock me out, but leaves me reeling with a huge bump, whiplash, and a concussion.

It's not easy to find an icepack in the jungle, (a ten-day walk from the nearest road) but our resourceful guide directs the boatman to a steep, muddy bank where she is able to borrow one from a nearby community. The next day there is talk of early morning bird watching, but I am clear that my first activity is finding a shaman-not just to interview, but also-to help with the pain in my very swollen forehead. This requires first meeting with stately Antonio Chumpi Shaki, the Achuar community leader at the lodge, who explains there is a pre-scheduled community visit for our last day. I plead my case; we need access to a shaman as soon as possible, even if it requires traveling a distance. He agrees, explaining most people don't just drop in unannounced on a shaman (uwishin). You need to schedule an appointment. But I am willing to take my chances and see if the "doctor is in. …

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