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The Witch Doctors of Ecuador

Sociology 231R – Social Change in Developing Societies, not an appealing title to most college freshmen. The course description, which revealed that the class was a seminar on traditional medicine, indicated that the course included a spring break trip to Ecuador. Sign me up.

Ecuador, a country which straddles the equator and the Andes Mountains, also straddles the ancient and modern eras. In its cities, accredited doctors practice modern medicine using state-of-the-art tools and techniques. In its mountain villages and jungles, Ecuadorians rely on individuals who are known to outsiders as medicine men, witch doctors, or shamans but who call themselves healers.

I met one shaman near the village of Otavalo. He lived with his family in a modest house. There was nothing distinctive about the stocky Otavaleño. If I had seen him on the previous day as I wandered through the crowded handicraft market in the valley below his home, I would not have remembered him. I knew, though, that many Ecuadorians, including the poorest villagers of Otavalo and the wealthiest businessmen of Quito, came to be healed in a small, bare room of this man’s house.

A little later, I stood naked in this room surrounded by the shaman’s assistants. The chanting men circled me carrying candles and bottles of whiskey. At some unseen signal, they began to spit mouthfuls of whiskey at me through the candle flames. Each time the liquid ignited, it illuminated the room in a flash of orange and blue before I felt a blast of heat and a spray of unburned liquor.

Eventually, they set aside their candles, and began rubbing smooth stones and fragrant petals over my body. Hands glided along my shoulders and back, smoothing tensed muscles. Finally, the shaman himself approached. As he took a drag on his cigarette, he pulled my head down to his and exhaled with his mouth pressed to the top of my head, infusing me with benevolent spirits.

The healing ceremony was fascinating and even cathartic. It was certainly rich in symbolism. After being purged in fire, I was made to smell of new flowers and a touch of tobacco. When it was over, though, I did not find that my biggest problem had gone away.

As a freshman in college, my world had come crashing down. When I had signed up for the trip, I thought I had a good idea of how the world worked. Physical forces, whether they were chemical, astronomical, or psychological, made things happen, and as human beings in the modern era, we were capable of understanding these forces if we could gather enough relevant data. Some people deluded themselves by believing in ghosts or miracles, but I had no use for superstitions.

This neat view of the world cracked when my professor suggested that shamans might have ways of acquiring knowledge through extra-sensory means. The very thought of this repulsed me. How can someone know something without seeing, hearing, or otherwise sensing it? It violates everything we know about how the world works! Still, here was my professor, a highly educated man of the modern era whose opinions I respected, telling me that he had witnessed shamans doing things that science could not explain, knowing things that they should not have known, and telling people things from their personal lives that they had not even admitted to themselves.

According to one story, a shaman had told a professor who had recently given up his favorite hobby, golf, that he should pick up a stick and begin hitting a white ball on a green field. In another story, the same shaman somehow knew that my professor’s sister in the States had fallen ill, though no one had mentioned the illness.

As we traveled around Ecuador, I struggled to make sense of these stories. In the capital, we visited the Quito Archaeological Museum. Now, here was something I could understand. All of Ecuador’s history was arranged in chronological order. The ancient era did not overlap with the modern era, and if there was an exhibit on shamanism, it consisted of a diorama of figurines in loincloths performing a ridiculous dance and, perhaps, a small collection of ghastly stone scalpels. This is how people of the modern world understand shamanism. Why can’t my professors see that?

Over the next few days, I continued in my disbelief. Isn’t it obvious to everyone that knowledge is acquired through scientific observation, not through palm-reading or hallucinations? Thoughts such as this were still running through my head when we arrived in Tena. A Latin American frontier town, Tena was the last outpost of the modern era in Ecuador. Beyond it was only the rainforest, and the people who lived in the rainforest stood with both feet rooted in a more traditional time.

With my classmates, I hiked three hours into the rainforest beyond Tena to stay with an Ecuadorian family at a tiny eco-tourism resort. The head of this family was a shaman. I certainly respected this man, who had made such an impression on my professor. I was impressed with the depth of his cultural knowledge as he explained the prehistoric carvings on ancient boulders. He did not convince me, however, that the rocks were living spirits or that they were capable of flight, and so I expected his healing ceremony to be much like the last one: interesting but irrelevant.

As the ritual began, we sat in pitch darkness. The shaman had just ingested a powerful hallucinogen, and his pupils were dilated so much that even candlelight would have blinded him. The drug gave him the power to see in the dark and the power to look inside of people. At least, this was how my professors had explained it.

He called for the first of my classmates to sit at his knees.

Then, something clicked. As I was sitting in darkness somewhere in the Amazon listening to a shaman chant while beating each of my classmates in turn with a bundle of weeds, I saw myself not as an outsider. Rather, I imagined that I was an indigenous person who had come to this shaman seeking help with some physical or social ailment, and I understood what the ceremony would have meant for such a person. Just as an Ecuadorian might have left this ceremony healed of a stomach flu or marital troubles, I had been liberated from my intellectual bind.

Two days later, I returned to the States and to the modern era. I found that I could not explain to my friends what I had learned in Ecuador. It remains ineffable for me to this day. I knew even then, though, that I had been changed profoundly.

Later that semester, I came down with a cold. I went to see the doctor.

Ben Cook is a co-author of Micronesia and Palau.

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