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In tribal Ecuador there’s a novel cure for Alcoholism

Heaven and Earth have to move before some alcoholics will give up drinking.

In 1977, American anthropologist Barbara Butler began studying drinking habits in a village in the mountains of Otavalo, Ecuador. She had trouble keeping up.

For as long as the locals could remember, the village elders had drunk heavily in order to commune with their gods. But when the conquistadors arrived, the natives found the invaders’ 40% proof distilled sugarcane aguardiente was far more effective than their own fermented, 1% proof, corn drink of chicha. People began drinking to pass out.

In studying the villagers for her book Holy Intoxication to Drunken Dissipation, Butler would try to feign drunkenness, but would be caught out when she tried to sneak off, after everyone had hit the deck. She, too, would be made to drink until she passed out. Over the years, concern had escalated among the village womenfolk about drinking and drunkenness, and the villagers would openly refer to the elders as “drunk old men” and alcoholics.

Then, in 1987 – 10 years after Butler had begun her longitudinal study – Heaven and Earth did move: Otavalo was hit by a devastating earthquake and the villagers took it as a sign from God that they were drinking too much.

The alcoholics sobered up.

Two hundred kilometres east of Otavalo, in Ecuador’s jungle reserve of Cuyabeno, I joined 12 other backpackers on a river trip through lashing rain. We’d left our tarantula-infested huts to see a man who still uses intoxication to commune with the gods. From all I’d read about shamans, I was expecting a tripped-out raving lunatic to daub me with goat’s blood. Instead, we were greeted by a mild-mannered, genial 64-year-old, whose only alarming feature was a feather piercing his septum. In calm tones, he told us how Cuyabeno shamans were chosen for their ability to cope with the hallucinations from “a large, white, bell-like flower”.

191116513qnywox-lAfterwards, our guide asked if there were any questions. I stuck up my hand.

“Is that large, bell-like flower sometimes called ‘datura’?”

“Yes,” smiled the guide. “Exactly.”

My friend once ate a datura flower from a garden in Leicester, England. I’m just glad I wasn’t with him at the time – his mental health never recovered.

Datura is a highly toxic hallucinogen from the same family as deadly nightshade, the popular name for atropa belladonna. Atropa belladonna is the main ingredient of the atropine powder belladonna, used in the quack “belladonna cure” for alcoholics and addicts pioneered by New York’s Town Hospital. AA co-founder Bill Wilson received that very treatment at the hospital four times in one year. When Wilson had his vision of God in his hospital bed, not only was he suffering – by his own admission – the delusional effects of delirium tremens, he was also being treated with the hallucinogen belladonna. So it seems he saw God in the same way as Cuyabeno’s shamans.

Yet Wilson expected AA members to have the same “spiritual awakening” only through working his 12-step programme of recovery. After he read in William James’s book The Varieties of Religious Experience that some people see God when they are at rock bottom, he felt that a 12-step programme which deflates “ego”, makes people confess guilt and feel powerless would achieve the same effect. But it seems working the steps didn’t work for Bill. He entered an 11-year depression from 1940, and in later years he experimented with LSD. “He described his first experiences of the substance’s effect as being akin to what he had experienced in Towns Hospital the night his obsession with alcohol was lifted,” wrote Francis Hartigan, secretary to Bill W’s wife, Lois, in Bill W – A Biography of Alcoholics Anonymous Cofounder Bill Wilson. “Wilson is thought to have continued experimenting with LSD well into the 1960s,” added Hartigan.

On Isla Isabela in Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, my tour group was driven up the Sierra Negra volcano, passing hundreds of huge, white, bell-like flowers on the way.

“Are they datura?” I asked a holidaying couple from Quito, Ecuador’s capital.

“Yes,” smiled Francisco. “In the plains of the mainland, the women use the seeds to stop their husbands from drinking, by giving them nightmares.”

“What? They spike their alcohol?”

“No they’ll grind them up and put them in tea, then serve them that. Then, when their husbands complain about terrifying visions and nightmares, they just tell them that the alcohol must finally be sending them mad. They especially do it if their husbands have been beating them. It usually works in making them stop.”

The next day, I joined a cruise of the Galapagos Islands, which included snorkelling with penguins, swimming with sea lions, and chasing after white-tipped reef sharks. Surprisingly, I wasn’t hallucinating.

The Galapagos Islands’ main town of Puerto Ayora has AA meetings at 10am on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at a venue described as “a lado Iglesia, Av Charles Darwin” – down the side of the church, on Charles Darwin Avenue. Some might say the address is ironic, but I’ve always wondered why creationists don’t just argue that evolution was God’s way of bringing man into the world.

On a Tuesday afternoon, I tried to find the venue. Down one the side of the church, at the Hotel Castro, I showed the receptionist the address I’d photographed from the AA website. She giggled – waggling her ample, brown cleavage in my face – and said: “Que es Ah Ah?

Down the other side of the church, I showed the receptionist at Galapagos Tours the same address on my camera. She tried to sell me a cruise. From the gist of it, she was telling me I’d snorkel with penguins, swim with sea lions and chase white-tipped reef sharks, and I wouldn’t be hallucinating. When I shook my head and pointed again at my camera, she frowned and said: “Que es Ah Ah?”

So there was no sign of the AA venue, and there was no number to ring. Surprise, surprise. If anything, AA showed worldwide consistency.

The next morning at 9.55am, I sat on the church steps, scanning the surrounding benches for signs of AA activity. Nothing. At 10am, I entered the church and peered out through a side door. A dog began snarling at me. I exited the church, went down the other side, through the offices of a radio station, and out the back. I spotted the same church side door. As I sidled up to it, I passed a doorway which framed a man sitting on a stool, clutching a big blue AA book. I doubled back, leant in, and said: “AA?”

191116513qnywox-lThe man beckoned me in. He spoke no English. My Spanish was terrible. I’d been learning from an audio course to which you are supposed to only listen, relaxed, without trying to memorize or write down anything. I’d listened to five hours of it and could barely remember how to say “hello”. I began conversing in Tarzan Spanish: “Me speak little Spanish, me from New Zealand, you from Galapagos”. But things started going rapidly downhill when I tried to explain that I was an alcoholic.

In Spanish, just as in English, there is a big difference between “soy borracho” (I am a drunk) and “estoy borracho” (I am drunk). I chose to say “estoy borracho” – I am drunk. The man looked horrified, made a motion for me to pray, then said “soy padre” – I am a priest. He told me not to move, then left. A minute later, he returned with a glass dish full of holy water, and walked over to a wardrobe, from which he pulled his ecclesiastical robes and a white scarf, which he kissed before placing over his shoulders. He told me to sit before him, incanted a few racily whispered prayers, then told me to lay my hands out flat, palms upwards, and begin reciting after him. The recited prayers – entirely in Spanish – were not easy to follow. It would have been an ordeal to continue reciting like that for five minutes – especially if I was drunk. The reciting went on for 20 minutes. My phonetic interpretations must have sounded ridiculous. I certainly felt ridiculous. I was then told to stand, and a little holy water was tipped over my head.

Que siente?” asked the priest.

Bueno,” I lied. I was worried the water was destroying the tape recorder in my top pocket.

Bueno?” he repeated, frowning. It was obviously the wrong thing to say. “Tranquilo?” he asked.

Si, si, tranquilo!” I nodded vigorously, water flying from my top lip. The priest smiled, and tipped the whole dish over me.

This was typical AA – first they suck you in with innocuous appearances; then, when they have you firmly in their clutches, they hit you over the head with the religious stuff. No wonder I was the only one who’d bothered to show up for the meeting.

After 20 more minutes of recited prayers, the priest led me into the church and pointed to statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, as if introducing strangers. It seemed he hadn’t believed me when I’d told him I was from a Christian family. He made me follow him in crossing myself.

“Spectacles, testicles, wallet, watch,” I muttered. The priest laughed when I screwed up the action.

I pointed at the clock on my camera; it said 10.50. “Tengo que salir once hora,” I said (Me need go eleven o’clock). The priest smiled, made me do 10 more minutes of badly recited prayers, then shook hands with me. He said “Amen”, hugged me warmly, then waved me off, smiling a smile of unusual joy.

I walked out into the burning sunshine feeling strangely elated. I wondered if I truly had been saved. Then I remembered the old story about the guy who used to bang his head against a wall all day. When his friend asked why he did it, he replied: “Because it feels so good when I stop!”

Sometimes, when Heaven and Earth move, it’s enough to make a recovering alcoholic start drinking again.

This is extracted from Mat Ward’s excellent ebook, ‘Around the World in 80 AA’s‘ where he tours the world investigating the phenomenon that is Alcoholics Anonymous. Buy it now.

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