Over winter session nineteen students and two professors went to Ecuador for the FL849 Winter Abroad trip. This trip happens every year and I’ve been going to Ecuador for five years now. For the most part we have stayed within a two hour drive of Quito, the capital city. Students have hiked, zip lined and shopped, all the while staying with Ecuadorian families, the biggest cultural component of the trip. Language is so intricately tied to culture and I always felt that being with people from the culture on a daily basis in Spanish was the best way for students to start to get a glimpse, however fleeting, of what it means to exist in another space that is not their own. I always felt that the “tour” part was fun and educational but only in addition to the family home stay.
During this most recent trip we had an experience that transcended language as well as my own feeble understanding of the complexity of Ecuador. We primarily stay in Andean territory on our trips, but this year I added a brief two day excursion to Tena, a city in the eastern part of Ecuador that is the gateway to Amazonía. To a gringo mind this is quite exotic and conjures up visions of very distorted movies about simple natives with magical powers and connections to dark forces. The movie Relic comes to mind. I felt that it would be good for my students to see another facet of Ecuadorian identity told from the point of view of Ecuadorians. We had done this earlier when we met with Kichwa people in Otavalo to learn their world view and have a Kichwa language lesson. We also met with APAK, an organization that is working to recuperate the Kichwa language and practices and keep them alive on the national level. You can find their videos on YouTube and learn some Kichwa if you are interested!
As part of the tour we visited a small Amazonian Kichwa village to see a shaman and to learn from the group, whatever they wanted to share, and to get a spiritual cleansing. This Kichwa group is different from the one in Otavalo. Kichwa people dispersed centuries ago and blended with other groups. This visit required us to go by bus on a dirt road inland, then cross a bridge on foot, and then have trucks take us to an outer village. From there we had to hike about a mile or so because no roads reached the village. We learned that no one had really left this village until the road we traveled on was built. It was pretty close to isolation and disconnection from the outside world.
We started the journey as it was approaching sunset. We used our cell phone lights to guide us along a muddy, rocky, wet path. It wasn’t dangerous, just rough. I was a bit upset because along the way my shoe broke and I walked in barefoot on one foot. I was upset, mostly embarrassed, because I didn’t like the idea of slowing down the group on our walk back. Needless to say, my energy was bordering on negative so I was working to calm that energy.
When we reached the village, it was pitch black out. We saw the lit torches and entered a choza, or hut. We all sat on wooden benches around the sides and waited as people were introduced in Spanish and English. The shaman entered and it was at that point I felt a shift in myself from “tour” to the awe of the genuine experience I knew I was about to witness. The shaman spoke only Kichwa because language is the connection to their beliefs and customs. Everything that would happen was explained to us. The shaman would drink ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic plant, that would open the doors of his mind so he could see what we had within us. After he drank the herb, we heard him go outside and spit. He was clearing his own body to receive what we energy we carried within us.
I was the first to receive a cleansing. I sat on a short stool because I was too tall to sit on the stool they normally use. I closed my eyes and breathed slowly. The cleansing started with a powerful spit in my face of the concoction he was drinking. He spit at me from all four sides. He then had a bundle of leaves that that he fanned over my body from head to torso as he chanted. He would put his mouth on my head and would suck out bad energy from time to time. This lasted for about 10 minutes; I’m not sure because I lost any sense of time. When the cleansing started, I saw black behind my closed eyes; as the cleansing processed, my eyes saw more light. When the cleansing was over, the interpreter told me what he saw in me with regards to my spirit. I thanked him and returned to my seat. Then those who wanted a cleansing sat in groups of three. We could hear him gag as his body was being filled with our energy. Then the cleansing was over.
For myself I wasn’t anxious anymore. I was humbled that this gentleman had allowed an outsider into his world, outsiders who threaten his way of life, and was willing to share with me what he saw. He and a few others accompanied us on the dark walk back. The feeling of what had happened was enhanced by the smells and sounds of the forest, and the complete blackness that enveloped us. The entire group was pensive, soaking in what had just happened. Regardless of the varying religious beliefs, the magnanimity of what had just happened was appreciated for the experience and for selflessness with which it was given. When we reached the clearing, the sky above was full of stars and I was again overcome with the feeling of the moment.
My inner eyes were opened to both my own ignorance and to how fragile we are as humans, how self-centered and arrogant we can be, especially in the West. We pretend to understand so much when really, the infinite knowledge around us is often outside our mental grasp because we won’t open ourselves to it. We later learned that these and other villages’ languages and ways of life are in danger because of encroachment from the outside. I wondered if our visit was a part of that danger? I know that some modern methods can benefit these communities but I often ask at what cost if in the end the culture and language disappear? I heard during the week that the Zapara language has only three speakers left. It’s painful to think of the extinction of a culture and its language.
As an educator that travels with students, I wrestle with the idea of the commodification of a people. Getting students to understand that the people we see as we travel are people, not objects or caricatures for us take pictures of or pretend to understand, is immensely important. We are strangers in their world and should recognize this, and open our minds to their ways and humble ourselves before them and thank them for allowing us to enter their space. Our visit to the Kichwa village showed me that we can learn outside a homestay if we open ourselves to the experience. I hope my students remember this as they retell their experiences.