It´s amazing how quickly my life can change, and how easy it is for me to sink into a new form of living.  I am now living about 30 minutes south Puyo, just on the edge of the Ecuadorian Amazonía, with a man named Marco.  He happens to be one of the few practicing shamans outside of the interior forest (where some tribes still live relatively traditional lives), and for the next three weeks I will be learning from him, working for him, and doing a good deal of time-passing on the beautiful property he care-takes.  On Wednesday, after almost a full, lazy day of rain, we woke before sunrise to walk in the forest…

After about a half-hour of walking through cattle ground (mostly tall maiz-like grass spotted with palms), as the sun´s light gradually flooded the valley, we reached the first river.  ¿Tienes miedo de las alturas? Marco asked as we approached.  Well, No, normalmente no… This crossing didn´t change that: just a log, rather slippery, a foot wide and only 5 or 6 meters across to the other side.  I chose not to look away from the log as I stepped along, but in retrospect I´d guess the fall would have been about 12 feet.  Not bad.

From this first river, we continued through tall grasses– now more scarce among the forested pockets– and Marco pulled a bunch of tiny coconuts, still a bit bitter, down from a tree for us to suck on.  Further on we found a delicate menthol plant, roots pungent and refreshing, then a ¨crab´s claw¨, a type of thin red stalk with a rhubarb-like texture that subdues thirst.  Soon we found a couple of plants used in the wedding ceremonies of his ancestral tribe, the Andoas of Peru: a long thread-like vine that they would wrap over the shoulders and around the torso and waist of the bride and groom, then tied around their joined wrists to signify their union.  The ceremony then continued, rather bizarrely by Western standards, as such: the bride and groom were rubbed head to toe with an aphrodisiac plant whose leaves smell strongly of cloves and cinnamon, then lead to a bed of heart-shaped leaves on the ground.  To complete the marriage, they would then make love, all riled up from the aphrodisiac, in the middle of a circle of elder witnesses of the tribe.  After this, they would sit on a pile of ortigas (akin to stinging nettle) to awaken their energies and ensure a productive, fruitful life together.

I wish I could videotape every single conversation I´ve had with Marco.  It is all that fascinating.

The cinnamon-scented uagra simaiyucca, a traditional aphrodesiac.

On with the selva.  At the next river, Marco crossed with a rope swing but then accidentally let go of the rope… so, I proceeded to hack away at a nearby tree with his machete in order to fashion a pole to rescue the rope.  Machete hacking is harder than it looks, and I don´t fully understand how he can clear so many branches and ferns as he walks along– ching!  ching!– so nonchalantly.  We ended up walking along opposite banks after I caught, threw, and re-lost the rope over the river.  Boots off to avoid flooding my feet, steady does it through the current, and we arrived on the other bank.  Finally, selva primaria.  One of the only parcels this far west.

Almost immediately, Marco pointed out the sound of a jaguar off in the trees, alert to our smell, and he reminded me to stay close– don´t stray too far back– because jaguars always prey on the last person in line.  This species was relatively small of rosey-tan in color like a puma (though we didn´t see it)– the same kind that he once encountered at night, alone, stalking along the forest floor.  It´d scampered off when Marco finally directed his flashlight in its eyes.  He´s also run across a black panther, bigger and more aggressive, but it, too, snuck away rather than confront him.  Soon after the jaguar´s soft call faded, we stopped to smell the spicy bark of a tree and were soon running downhill after what sounded like a monkey, about 50 meters away.  After just a couple glimpses, Marco could tell it was only an ardilla, a type of squirrel.  Still looked like a monkey to me!

Eventually, after many more stops to look at plants and tree bark and listen to bird calls, we arrived at the Quindi Pakcha: Waterfall Where the Hummingbirds Nest.  All around were these bright red flowers, Labios de Mama Negra, which start as luscious lips and eventually turn into leaves, like a poinsettia.    The waterfall itself is small but magnificent, and the area around it is steadfast and calm, with huge fern fronds hanging over its banks, giant trees loaded with epiphytes at every bend, mosses and river shrimp and giant iridescent blue butterflies flapping downstream.  Like a dream, hidden yet more real than anything in ¨our¨ world: lemon tea, porches, reggaeton bumping from the cafe next door.

At the waterfall with Labios de Mama Negra.

Without much delay, we stripped to our swimsuits, gingerly stepped out along a log overhanging the cascada, and whump! jumped into the bubbly mess below.    Ah yes, before that, though, Marco asked if I´d been in any selva or river here before, and proceeded to rub a plant that grows all along its banks over my arms, head, and legs so that the river would accept me and keep me from harm.  It worked.  Swimming in that freezing water revived me like nothing had since the coast– the water smelled different from any I´ve ever jumped in, almost musty but still clean and fresh.

After we swam a bit, we sat on a rock in the river while Marco recounted more of his history.  It was at this waterfall, about 20 years ago, that his brother began to teach him and impart his shamanistic powers.  Each morning they would rise from their nearby camp just before 5 am in order to beat the hummingbirds to the waterfall.  The tiny colibrí bathed and drank at 5 am sharp every day, and the brothers came before them so that they could receive the full strength and power of the cascada.  He grew up very near to this spot, before there were roads or power or people.  His father died when he was just 4 years by falling from a roof he was fixing; he is suspected to have been negatively affected by a rival shaman, and Marco´s father actually foresaw his death under the influence of a powerful forest plant, maricahua, that shamans use to foretell the future, converse with plants, and solve mysteries.  Marco grew up here with his mother and brothers, tending small plots of yucca, papachina, and maíz heavily supplemented with the forest´s abundance: foot-long fish in every river, snakes, monkeys and meat from all kinds of other mammals.  Before the highway was built when he was 12, before people flooded the region to hunt and log and mine resources, before his family had the opportunities to watch TV, buy new conveniences, and listen to modern music, Marco and his family hunted with blow guns, tips laced with a precious mix of three rare jungle plants.  Their shirts and dresses lasted years out of necessity– they took the best care of them because they only had one.  When the highway first came, they were elated to have better contact with the outside world; it was a welcome treat and change from such a rustic life.  By the time Marco began school at 16 years old, he had begun to notice that the animals were scarcer–his only clue of a disappearing forest and way of life.  Still, after stopping high school in his early twenties, he didn´t fully realize the gravity of change in his homeland, and he proceeded to marry, have kids, and work in town.  When his brother, who´d learned the shamanic ways from their father before his death, began to pass on that wisdom– entering the selva and cultivating a vast knowledge of all the plants and animals there– Marco finally fully realized the irreversible changes that the highway has brought.  Now, organizations and citizens´groups are sometimes plagued by corruption and misguided decision-making in the face of intense pressure from extractive industries.  From where I stand, people like Marco– truly dedicated and determined to retain their dwindling oral knowledge and conserve what forest remains–are the brightest hope for this forest in a world gone mad for money and ¨progress.¨

River-crossing on Saturday with two Italian guests.

There is so much more to share, and I hope to upload photos and descriptions of more of the curative plants that I´m getting to know.  For now, here´s a short list of some of the things Marco and this forest could help you with:

Blood-coagulant to slow snake venom (bark), labor-inducer and pain relief (large pink flowers), abortions (leaves with blood-red spots), varicose veins (leaves with purple undersides), cancer prevention (small striped leaves), wart removal and circulation enhancer (tree with blood-red sap), stress reduction (long leaves), and removal of mal aire in a bath of several leaves.

I would love to hear more comments and questions, as I have way too much to share and could use some starting points!

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