Alissa and I choose a program called RICANCIE to introduce us to the jungle. RICANCIE is an organization run by 9 Quichua communities that created a community based ecotourism project. In their programs, you live within a Quichua community to learn about the history and culture of your chosen community and partake in their daily activities.
We choose the community of Rio Blanco, which is 1.5 hours out of the city of Tena and a 2 hour hike from the Napo river, because of its remoteness and the community's knowledge of medicinal plants. About 30 years ago, 5 shaman from a nomadic Quichua clan founded the village of Rio Blanco. Going from being hunter gatherers to farmers and cultivators was a drastic change for the people of the community, but the community soon began to prosper which was only facilitated by opening the village up to ecotourism and by selling their cocao beans.
Motorized canoe down the Napo River with our guide Ramon
Sangre de Dragón
Good for bruises, makeup, and inducing abortions
Our tour guide was Ramon, the 19 year old son of one of the original founders. Timid and shy, I was doubtful that he would be a good guide, but he soon proved himself to be attentive and knowledgable his own quiet and sweet way. We learned that Ramon was in University in Tena, a level of schooling that not a lot of Ecuadorians, especially those from remote parts of the jungle, reach. He lead us through our 2 hour uphill hike through the jungle and through the medicinal herb gardens of some of the homes in the community. Ramon broke apart leaves from each plant for us to smell, and each had its own interestingly distinct characteristics. We learned about many plants which can be used for things like headaches, sore throats, and wounds. Others such as Hierba Luisa and Canelo were good to make teas in the morning. One plant in particular that I found interesting was called Sangre de Dragon, or Dragon's blood. The sap from the tree was a liquidy black juice that Ramon said was a good analgestic and was also often used for bruises, makeup, and inducing abortions. Hm pretty multifunctional.
That night we met the other group traveling with us, a group of kids studying abroad from the University of South Florida. They came with a professor, Michael, who had been coming to Rio Blanco for over 10 years and knew the community members very well. Michael proved invaluable to Alissa and I because of his knowledge of the community, and let's be real, because he spoke Spanish and our Spanish still kind of sucks. It was from him that we learned about the history of the community, the tensions between the different tribes, and how the community began its ecotourism program. He also invited us to join them on their trip to the shaman, which was not originally on their itinerary. Ramon's father, one of the original founders, was also the senior shaman of the community and would conduct our cleansings.
Ramon explained that the process of becoming a shaman is long and arduous. Firstly, the future shaman must be the child of the elder shaman. Mostly boys are chosen for this task as it is seen as too hard for girls, although girls are not prohibited from becoming shaman. Most start training between the ages of 25 and 30, and are not allowed to have the title of shaman until at least the age of 40. During this time the shaman will learn the names and uses of many plants as well as numerous healing rituals. Ramon said that his father only had 2 sons, of which he is the older. I'm not sure if he wants to follow in his father's footsteps however, as he expressed interest in running a tour that travels throughout Ecuador. However he says that he is learning about many of the plants and rituals from his father.
Plant used to make ayahuasca
A common type of healing ritual is the cleansing ceremony which we were to take part in. The "limpieza" is a traditional ceremony that has been conducted by the Quichua community for generations. It consists of taking ayahuasca, a drink made from many plants containing hallucinogenic powers. Those that take the ayahuasca with the shaman follow him on a journey into the jungle and it is intended to clean the body of bad spirits such as sicknesses or evil ideas. Then one by one the people participating in the ceremony sit in front of the shaman while he gently beats you with paja toquilla leaves while reciting a chant. Not everyone that wants to be cleaned has to take the drink, and many avoid it since it makes most people vomit. Alissa and I both decided to try the ayahuasca along with three other kids from the USF group since hey, when else am I going to get the chance to try hallucinogens in the Amazon forest? After nightfall the ceremony commenced starting with the ayahuasca. The muddy looking concoction tasted exactly how I expected, like bitter Chinese medicine. We blew out the candles leaving us in pitch black darkness, and waited for the drink to take effect in the shaman before he continued the limpiezas of each participant. About 15 minutes later, I heard the sounds of many people vomiting over the side of the patio. Alissa and I didn't end up vomiting, but I definitely felt nauseous a while into the ceremony and the sounds of people puking their brains out in the background certainly didn't help. It's hard to say if I had an experience with the drink. I know that when I closed my eyes the world started spinning and I would see neon lights. I also felt like I was daydreaming on speed, and I'd see images of random things that didn't make sense. But when I opened my eyes I was oriented and didn't see anything at all. I'm going to assume that what I saw didn't mean anything, since I can't interpret anything out of a pixelated girl riding a pixelated unicorn into the sky. One of the girls, who was really severely vomiting, said she had a really good experience however. She said she got the answer to one a personal question she was focusing on, and the solution was something she hadn't thought of before. Michael also vouched that he had taken the drink on several occasions and had experienced the jungle journey with the shaman. He said sometimes it takes more than one time for the drink to have an effect, and the person taking the drink has to be extremely focused as well. I believe the drink definitely has some powers, but I'm not sure of what to make of the pixelated unicorns or sock puppet frogs I saw in my "visions." The ceremony was incredibly long, as each person got at least 10 minute cleansings with the shaman. Alissa and I couldn't make it through the whole ceremony as sitting in the dark for hours took its toll. The next day Michael told us that the shaman was actually having a fight with another shaman from a nearby village. It was incredible because he was coming in and out of his visions, making sure that those that were sick were ok while at the same time continuing with the cleansing and fighting with another shaman in his visions. We heard that afterwards he was so exhausted he couldn't even stand after the visions were finished.
The next day we particpated in "mingas" or communal work. The other guide, Edison, took us to his family home where they harvested yucca and plantain plants. We each got to uproot a yucca root, and in its place we put a branch of the plant which would regrow into another plant in 6 months. Afterwards we cleaned and peeled our yucca and learned how to make a chicha, a traditional fermented yucca drink. We were also baptized in a nearby stream and given a name in Quichua. I was baptized as Suma Huarmi, which means pretty girl or queen (hey, I didn't choose the name the guide did). We also gave our guides names in English as well for the closing ceremony we would have with the community. We named Edison Lewis and Clark because he was such an excellent guide, Ramon was baptized as MacGyver since he had a solution for everything and was always there to catch us right before we ate dirt, and Maximilian (the little brother of Edison) was baptized as the Mad Hatter since he helped make our leaf crowns and was a little jokester.
Waterfall we swam in
Supposedly was home to an anaconda before but legend has it the people
made peace with it and it hasn't bothered anyone since
During our last night in Rio Blanco some of the people of the village came to our cabanas for an intercambio or exchange of our cultures. The community shared traditional songs and dance in their traditional wardrobes, including one of a wedding ceremony. In exchange, we taught them the hokie pokie and I taught them how to make a paper boat that my grandfather had taught me how to do. In the end everyone participated in song and dance. It was a really nice little fiesta, and we all left feeling very unified even though our cultures were so different everything had to be translated in 3 languages. This community, with its unique culture and warm hospitality has definitely left an impression on me.
The new road they were so proud of and a traditional house built on stilts
During our last dinner, Michael brought up some changes he'd been noticing in the community. Recently the community has been beginning to prosper through its ecotourism project and production of produce. The fruits of their labor (no pun intended) are begining to modernize their community, starting with a road that was built last year from the edge of the Napo River to their village. They are so proud of this road, because it means that their children can more easily to go Tena for school and because they can bring their cocao, yucca and plantains to sell in Tena. However this has led to more destruction of the rainforest to make way for more fields. By next year they will have a generator that will provide electricity to all of the village. As Michael said, you can't blame them for wanting to develop their community and provide a better future for their children, but this is coming at what cost to the rain forest?
I wonder what will happen to Rio Blanco and to Ramon in the future. I wonder if the village will become just a tourist attraction and the virgin forest destroyed, and if Ramon will end up taking his father's place as shaman. I hope one day I can make it back to Rio Blanco to visit this beautiful community. I hope also that as it progresses to the modern age, it never loses its innocent charm.