Twenty years ago, one of my professors at the University of Waterloo spoke to me about a community deep in the heart of the Amazon called Sarayaku. She spoke about her many visits there, her connection to the people, how children would walk around with snakes coiled up their arms as pets. I was fascinated by her stories and despite many years of living and travelling in Ecuador, I never made it there.
Then, in the summer of 2016, I was working at a conference in Canada that brought together indigenous leaders when I heard someone mention the community of Sarayaku and how it had become a symbol of indigenous resistance against extractive companies in the Amazon. It was like a fire deep within me had been reignited and I knew that this time, I had to go!
Five months later, I led my first journey there.
With a little help from Google, I found articles and documentaries about Sarayaku and I was captivated by what I learned so I contacted them directly. José Gualinga answered my call. Since I’d watched the documentary, I knew exactly who José was. He was the President of the community that had led them in a fight against the Ecuadorian Government and a foreign oil company that had taken them all the way to the Inter-American Human Rights Court in Costa Rica where he and members of their community presented their case and won. They made history! Although I’d never met him, José was my hero.
Before reaching out to them, I had a dream. I was with José in his community and he was teaching me their traditional language, Kichwa. As we chatted online, I told him about my dream. He told me that in their culture, they believe that what we believe to be real life is actually the past, and that what we dream is real life. I knew that I had to meet him and when I finally did, it was like I’d come home to an old friend and a deep soul connection.
On my first journey to Sarayaku, I brought a group of three intrepid travellers. They were fantastic and definitely up for the adventure. We called ourselves, the Fantastic Four. Together we spent several days in Sarayaku and it was an experience that touched my heart in the deepest way and one that I will never forget.
On our third night, dark and heavy clouds hung over the Amazon as daylight slowly turned to night. Earlier that day, José came to me, telling me that he was about to perform a “limpieza” which is Spanish for “cleansing”, for a man in the community that was sick. He invited me to accompany him. I followed him to an opening in the village where I sat off to the side and watched. Sitting the ground in front of him was Antonio who a few days prior had climbed a tall tree in the forest. The branch he stood on gave out from beneath him causing him to fall to the ground, landing firmly on his feet. From that moment he had suffered severe pain in his upper thighs, an intense fever and dizziness that had lasted for three days. A visit to the community health clinic offered pills to bring down his fever but the intensity of his dizziness and pain in his body persisted.
José deeply inhaled the hand rolled tobacco and exhaled thick black smoke directly onto the crown of Antonio’s head. I watched in awe as it hung there, a pile of smoke resting and swirling on his head without dissipating at all. José then took a bunch of leaves tied together at the stems, shook them like a rattle and whacked Antonio repeatedly from head to toe. He then took a big swig of what I presume was alcohol and from his lips sprayed it like mist onto Antonio’s head and back. José did this many times. Eventually the smoke that he continued to blow into the crown of Antonio’s head, no longer lingered as it had before. Several days later I asked José about the tobacco smoke. He explained that when a person is healthy, blowing into the crown of their head is like blowing into a glass bottle that is full – nothing enters. But when a person is ill, they are empty and it’s possible to blow life force and positive energy back into their being. I was fascinated. It made so much sense!
The next step in Antonio’s healing process was to partake in an Ayahuasca ceremony. In this community and throughout the Amazon, Ayahuasca or “vine of the soul” is a sacred vine that is prepared together with the leaves of another plant, mashed to a pulp and boiled down to a condensed liquid over many hours. This combination of plants is a form of medicine that is taken in ceremony for the purpose of deep healing. It is a practice that Amazonian shamans have done since time immemorial. Just a few sips of this dark, bitter liquid takes shamans and their patients into altered states, inducing visions, allowing for communication with nature, and for healing on spiritual, emotional and physical levels. It can take up to an hour for the Ayhausca to take effect at which point the shaman begins to chant in a trance-like state. I’ve been told by shamans in Peru that the songs they sing are the spirits of plants speaking through them.
While living in Peru and Ecuador, I had participated in ceremonies which I found to be profoundly insightful and deeply healing on many levels. Then, by spending a significant amount of time doing yoga and meditation in Thailand and an instensive Shamanic Breathwork workshop on Cortes Island in Canada, I realized I could access these deeply altered states of consciousness through meditation and breath work alone. Each of these experiences have been powerful and life changing. They have blown my heart and mind wide open in ways that could never be expressed in words. For this reason, I find myself on a continuous journey of learning as I look to indigenous cultures for their deep wisdom and knowledge that our society through generations have lost.
To the community of Sarayaku, Ayahasca is a sacred plant that is used in ceremony and is not something they offer to visitors. It was not my intention to particpate in a ceremony during my time there but that evening José told me that his 93 year old father Sabino, one of the most knowledgable and powerful shamans in the region, would be performing a ceremony for Antonio and asked if I would like to join. I felt so honoured and grateful for the opportunity.
At 9pm, as I walked over to the thatch roof hut belonging to José’s parents, I found his 80 year old mother Corina, puttering about and getting ready for the ceremony. Over the course of our time there I sat with her many times, listening to her colourful and hilarious legends of how things came to be and stories about her life. They gave me such insight into her understanding the world and her life.
José’s father Sabino on the other hand was a man of few words. He moved slowly and dozed often. One afternoon after returning from a hike in the jungle, we found him steadying himself with a cane in one hand (which I actually think was a silver shower rod) and a machete in the other, skillfully clearing overgrown vegetation around his home. Tonight Sabino was sitting in his exquisitely carved wooden chair that looked more like a thrown. Carved out of the back of the chair was a large condor, and each of the arm rests were in the likeness of an anaconda and jaguar. At his side were a bunch of dried leaves tied together at the stem and a large pot with Ayahuasca that would be consumed by those participating in the ceremony.
This was not a ceremony for tourists. There were no mats or buckets provided for purging. This was a beautiful and authenic opportunity to gain insight into a world that is beyond the Western world’s comprehension of what medicine is. I felt such deep gratitude for being welcomed into this family and for José inviting us to join them.
I sat on a wooden bench accompanied by two members of the group I was leading and several members of the community as well. José was stretched out in a hammock, swaying beside me. After what felt like a long time, the wind began to pick up and just as Sabino began to chant, the fire distinguished itself completely. There we sat, engulfed in complete darkness.
As time passed, Sabino’s soft chant gradually became louder and the winds picked up with ferocity. Trees were swaying, branches were breaking and it felt as though the heavens were ripped wide open with thunder and lighting flashing through the sky all around us. The cracks of thunder were deafening and a bolt of lighting landed just meters away. Never in my life had I experienced a storm like this. I was in awe of the power of nature. Throughout it all, Sabino continued to chant.
The ceremony continued for what felt like several hours. Flashes of lightning lit up the sky, giving us glimpses of a ceremony that was unfolding before us. Sabino chanted songs in Kichwa. The sound of the dried leaves shook like a rattle. The thick smell of tobacco hung in the air with a deep orange glow lighting up the night as Sabino inhaled and blew smoke into the crown of Antonio’s head. This was truly one of the most memorable moments of my life and when I closed my eyes, I was overcome by the beauty of my visions. I was beyond grateful to be there.
I can’t say with certainty whether Sabino had anything to do with the power of that storm but José explained to me later that “lighting has the power to destroy epidemics, sickness, bad spirits and enemies” and he believed that his father had called the storm into being. If that is true, it would not be the first time I have seen a shaman command a change in weather patterns that happen immediately and with such intensity.
The following day brought blue skies and sunshine perfect for further explorations of the jungle. Later that evening I saw Antonio and asked how he was feeling. With a big, beautiful smile that spread across his face, he told me that he was all better. The pain in his legs, his fever and dizziness that had plagued him for days, had disappeared completely.