Friday, July 29, 2011
21-June-2011: Jungle Medicine
Yesterday the other students and I pressed through the thick of the jungle to the Shuar community with which we're now staying. After a two hour bus ride and a five hour trek, we were all pretty tired, so we spent the evening getting acquainted with our friendly hosts. As I understand it, the "community" is in truth one large family consisting of a patriarch, his several wives, and their many children. The compound had several basic wooden houses (we rolled out sleeping bags and hung our bed nets in one such home), a dining building, a schoolhouse, several covered areas, and a schoolhouse. Oh, and lest I forget, the requisite soccer field and Ecuavolley court (like volleyball...but more Ecuadorian).
After dinner, the father and many of the children gave us a traditional welcome ceremony, which involved singing, dancing and ritual humiliation of the guests (maybe that last part was unintended). Then, we separated for bed and tried to avoid/ignore the innumerable cockroaches that skittered in and out of the cabins. Our host was genuinely confused at even our light squeamishness. "No pican," he said (they don't bite/sting). Why would they bother you?
In the morning, we rose with the sun and met our patriarch for a lesson in jungle medicine. You might have expected, given that this is our second intensive instruction on Shuar medicine, that much of our education would be a review. While this had some truth, the lessons emphasis and breadth were completely different. I can now tell you, with confidence, that there are now less than five key plants utilized for machete wounds. I suppose this makes sense. If I lived in the jungle, I'd want to know how to staunch bleeding pretty quickly too. My favorite strategy, however, wasn't a plant at all: it was an ant. When these aptly-named "surgical ants" bite your skin, they inject a potent vasoconstricting agent that promptly tightens surrounding tissues and slows the bleeding. Sweet...or as the locals say, "super chevre". We also saw a good deal of snake bite treatments. Turns out those are the priorities here - gaping bloody wounds and poisonous snakes. I saw one of the latter, though my parents will be happy to hear that I declined to pet him/her.
One of their most important plants, however, has no directly medicinal value. Instead, this powerful hallucinogen is regarded as a cultural essential to the health of the community. Much like other indigenous traditions around the world, the ritual surrounding this drug is as important as the experience itself. As Shuar come of age, they undergo a five-day preparation ceremony with increasing levels of worldly abstinence with each day. The final three days are passed without food, and the last day without water. Then, at the culmination of the personal journey, the participant takes the preparation in a sacred location and submits to its hallucinations. Our guide told us how he saw his wife and many of his children in those visions and experienced glimpses of the life that lay in his future. While there are a few other situations that call for the use of this powerful drug, he was adamant that none are as important or pressing as when a child has come of age.