An Afternoon with the Shaman

The bus turns off the Pan-American Highway onto a cobblestone road that runs straight, up the lower field-covered flanks of Imbabura volcano. Tan adobe houses, surrounded by muddy adobe-walled yards where chickens and black pigs wander, appear between the fields of tall corn entwined with climbing beanstalks. Their tiled roofs, grey with age, sprout with weeds

As we climb upward, a small village appears — several time-worn adobe houses with tiled roofs, a tiny tienda or market, and a few curious smiling Quechua children. The bus turns into this tiny village, and our driver carefully navigates between water-filled irrigation ditches that edge the narrow cobbled street. Old adobe houses front directly on the streets, leaving very little room for error.

Once through the village, the cobblestones vanish, and we wind our way up hills, around sharp corners, along muddy and bumpy roads, between misty cornfields, tethered pigs and cows, climbing ever upward. We gasp as the bus manoeuvres around a precious dairy cow that is tied to a tether right on the track’s edge.

The road becomes even steeper, and we find ourselves holding our breath as the bus slowly climbs through the rain. We come up a final rise, and the land flattens out.

This is our destination — the family home of Don Carlos, a local Shaman.

Through the mist we can smell the clean sharp scent of eucalyptus trees. Immediately behind us rise the cultivated flanks of Father Imbabura; away to the left, hidden by mists, is Mojanda; across the valley is Mama Cotacachi; and in the distance, unseen behind the low clouds to the right, rears snow-capped Cayumbe.

We are in a center of spiritual power, here between these four imposing volcanoes.
 Don Carlos’ dream is to create, here on his ancestral lands, a centre for the ‘Old Ones’ — the elderly people of his village who have nothing. In the centre he intends to build they can live and do honourable work. They will be encouraged to practice the crafts that they learned throughout their lives, and sell their products to support themselves.
 It was right here, in the field beside the bus, that his mother gave birth to this man — a child she knew would be special — and where we will have a ceremony of blessing.

Just behind the adjoining cornfield we see a small adobe house, its dirt yard surrounded by outbuildings. The enclosed yard is impeccably swept and clean. A few chickens and a friendly small dog greet us. A Quechua family emerges from the door — grandmother, father, mother, teenage children, and a lovely tiny girl.

They all greet us with smiles and handshakes even tiny Cindy. Although they speak only Quechua and a little Spanish, we understand that they feel honoured to have us visit. We feel honoured to be made so welcome.

We are all invited into their home, and shown into a low ceilinged room with blue adobe walls, and a woven reed mat in the floor’s centre. Lovely crafts are piled on tables around the perimeter — cozy hand knitted alpaca sweaters and hats, ponchos woven of natural wools, tapestry rugs, patterned bags, silver jewellery, and even the ubiquitous T-shirts with Ecuadorian logos. Here, out of the rain that is falling outside, we are dry and warm.

Don Carlos explains, through our guide and translator Steve, that we will be offered food. This integral part of the ceremony is a sharing of the bounty and blessing of Pachamama, the land that sustains the people.

A large clean white cloth is spread over the reed mat in the centre of the floor. Don Carlos brings in a huge steaming pot of boiled corn with oversized kernels on each cob. Next is a pot of newly boiled potatoes, round and brown-skinned. These are heaped onto the white cloth, and they smell very appetizing. Plates of sliced local cheese, mild, creamy and white and small dishes of the local pepper sauce are handed around. An enormous basin of a drink that is made from pulverized dried corn, slightly fermented, sweetened and diluted, completes the meal.

Don Carlos offers a blessing and we are invited to eat.

Using our hands, we dig in. The corn is firm, meaty and very good. The potatoes, along with a slice of the cheese taste delicious. We share the only two cups available, and sip the corn drink. It is warm and uniquely tasty.

After the meal, we return outside, to the field and the rain.

Don Carlos has drawn a large circle in the earth, divided into quadrants and with a charcoal fire at the centre. We space ourselves around this circle, with Don Carlos at one side where a division line intersects. All of us, including the Quechua family and our intrepid bus driver, participate in this blessing ceremony. Rain is falling and the mists have closed in on the peaks as Don Carlos begins.

In Spanish, he calls on Pachamama, our Mother Earth; Water, necessary for life; Air we breathe; and Fire — the Spirit within all of us, to bless this place.

Perhaps the falling rain is a sign of blessing from that element!

Throughout the ceremony, Steve and our guide, Santiago, translate for us, and a local man simultaneously translates into Quechua for the family. Each of us is given tobacco, which we hold next our heart and head, so that it can absorb some of our spirit power. The tobacco is then gathered and formed into one large roll with a cornhusk wrapper. It contains the collective spiritual power of the group. Once lit, it is passed around the circle and each of us draws in the smoke to absorb the collective energy.

With this smoke, which is a symbol of the spirit within us, with the burning of seeds and leaves of special plants and herbs, we participate in this ritual of sharing and combining our spirits. The Shaman calls on the power we all are a part of in this world and of nature and beyond.

We are encouraged to offer to the central fire both tobacco and special seeds, symbols of life and growth, and to bathe ourselves in the sweet-smelling cleansing smoke. We offer our thanks for this healing and blending.

An aura of power and spirit is almost visible, so strongly do we feel it.

Finally, Don Carlos calls on those who may require more specific healing to allow him to help them. Several people participate in this, each one individually stepping forward. Using smoke and ritual chants, he generously works with each of them.

By now, we realize we are quite wet and cold.

The rain has fallen, gently but continuously, and dusk is beginning to creep upon us. As we break from the circle and look up, the mass of Imbabura’s flank with its fields and farmhouses is visible behind us where the clouds have lifted.

The views are breathtaking. Across the valley, Cotacachi is partly visible, with a cap of white cloud. In the distance, the hills at the foot of Mojanda rise out of the mists.

Don Carlos tells us that he has felt our energy and spirits strongly, and he thanks us for our part in blessing this land that will give hope and new life to the Old Ones of his village.

We each thank the family for their generosity and hospitality, and even though we, and they, do not understand the words, the meanings are clear. The oldest daughter, a lovely, friendly girl of about sixteen, assures us that they will always keep us in their hearts. She thanks us for coming to share this ceremony and afternoon with them.

They will not forget us, and we will not forget them.

We troop into the bus, wet and shivering, and yet uplifted and exalted by all we have experienced. Leonardo guides our bus down the muddy roads, between the cornfields, through the village, and down the cobblestone street. Across the valley, lights are springing to life, as dusk and then darkness envelops this place, this lovely valley in a province of Ecuador.