Into the rainforest : A week spent at Naku, a powerful healing center deep in the Amazon
Naku is a Runa-supported indigenous organization created by the Sapara people of the Ecuadorian Amazon that serves to protect, preserve, and share the ancient wisdom of the Sapara. Read more: http://www.naku.com.ec/
Snugly situated against the window of a five-person plane, I cling to a coconut and nervously listen to the Spanish pilot garble whirring within my giant headphones pre-take-off. I sip the coconut milk and check my seatbelt one more time, thinking to myself, this is REALLY HAPPENING.
As we get closer and closer to the ground, it becomes clear to me that the long stretch of what appears to be an old soccer field is, in fact, the landing strip for our plane. THUD we land on the ground with a solid thump, and the jungle journey has truly begun.
The Sapara tribe, a group indigenous to the Ecuadorian Amazon, has about 600 people left, with only 5 who still speak the native Sapara language. Runa Foundation has funded the construction of Naku, a healing center, about a 20 minute canoe ride from the main Sapara village, to increase income for the community as well as to share the Sapara culture, teachings, and healing medicine with as many people as possible. Somehow, I got invited along on this epic adventure to join my supervisor, Andy, as he took a doctor from California, Gary, and his family down to Naku to explore the option of bringing down some of his chronic patients. Also along for the ride was Tyler, the CEO and co-founder of Runa. He decided to come along last minute–what a crew!
Our Sapara greeting committee includes Manari, the shaman, or medicine man, we will be working with at Naku and what seems like the entire Sapara population. The official welcome ceremony commences, and we are handed a large bowl of “chicha,” which is made from the fruit of a Chonta Palm. The fruit is chewed, usually by the women, and then spit back into the bowl to be consumed. It was surprisingly yummy! After the chicha, we were each given traditional face paint and a Sapara name. Mine was “Kashikwa,” which means “Moon.”
After our warm welcome, we hopped into canoes which would take us downriver to Naku, the healing center. Our canoes were headed with one man at the front and one at the back, using long rods to push off of the bottom of the river and balance the boat.
Once we arrived in Naku, We were welcomed in with a ceremony that began with sniffing liquid tobacco. Smell, Manari explained, is extremely important to experiencing the jungle fully. The tobacco is meant to cleanse the senses and clear away any smells of the city–after about five minutes of coughing and wheezing, I did in fact feel much more ~clear~.
We woke up at 6:30 to begin the day with a cleanse: Manari asked us to remove our shirts and sit facing the river with our eyes closed. Each of us received a healing cleanse from Manari and two other shamans, Andris and Francisco. This involved some singing, the flapping of different large branches, and the spreading of the Chonta palm tree ash all over our bodies.
After the cleansing ceremony, we took a dip in the river to wash off the ash and get a refreshing start to our day. Next, we all set out to the ceremonial hut for dream-telling. We each went around and shared our dreams from the night before while Manari, Francisco, and Andris listened intently. If there was any “mal energia” in the dream, then Francisco would run to grab a cup of medicine while Manari and Andris began to blow smoke over the person to change the energy of the dream. Manari explained that they use signs from their dreams to decide what to do in the coming day: for example, seeing a Puma in your dream means that Manari’s father is watching over you, which means it will be a good day for hunting! And if you hear music in your dream, that is an immediate sign of “bad energy” or perhaps, coming danger in the day ahead. Best to stay home. After the dream circle and a hearty breakfast, we set out for a Chakra visit with Maria, one of the leaders in the village who gave us our Sapara names, and her mother, another leader in the village, Makushaba. They explained to us that planting and harvesting in the chakra is women’s work in their culture, and mostly laughed while they watched us struggle to dig holes with their “shovels,” or large sticks.
After “helping” in the chakra, we all came back to Naku and floated downriver for awhile, taking advantage of the strong current that makes the water a natural lazy river. We had a great dinner with some new guests, an Anthropology professor from McGuill University, Eduardo Kohn, three archaeology experts, and Michelle, a lawyer from Quito who came with them to help discuss oil rights with the Sapara people. What a line-up! I learned a lot from that dinner with Michelle, as she spoke about she and Eduardo’s plan to help protect Sapara oil from the Ecuadorian government. The three archaeology experts had brought with them a collection of ancient indigenous instruments and passed them around during dinner. Some of them were thousands of years old!
After dinner, we had the chance to hear Professor Kohn speak about his anthropology research, which has culminated in his book entitled How Forests Think. He explained that we need to re-understand the forest as a living entity with interests and perhaps, claims to personhood.
Before bed, Manari came to give us one last chat. He told each of us to ask ourselves the two most important questions: Who am I? and What am I? He instructed us to think on these questions for ten minutes before falling asleep, but not any longer, because that may lead to distressed dreams.
We again awoke at 6:30 am for a cleansing ceremony. I woke up inside my mosquito net at around 5:30 to the sounds of millions of birds chirping and crickets crackling. I frantically wrote down my dreams and threw on my bathing suit to begin day 3. At our dream circle this morning, I shared my dream, which involved Andy and I flying in a plane piloted by Obama. The plane kept doing flips while Andy and I screamed and had a blast as if we were on a roller coaster. Manari, slightly confused, but also amused, explained that this meant that I am trying to find my path in life (floating), but that I will have many stable spirits who guide me along the way. (Thanks Andy and Obama).
After our dream circle, we headed downriver in the canoe for about an hour to get to the trailhead for a day hike. I sat next to Maya, Gary’s daughter, and enjoyed learning about her life at Tufts University and also what it was like growing up in rural Northern California in an “intentional community,” where their family shared land and food with their neighbors. After the canoe ride, we set off on our hike. It was about a three hour hike, all in silence. Throughout the hike, we were supposed to think about Manari’s two questions: Who am I? What am I?
When we made it back to Naku, everyone seemed tired but refreshed from the time alone with our thoughts. At dinner, I was able to sit in on a planning meeting between Andy, Gary, and Manari for some of Gary’s future patients. Gary spoke in English, Andy translated into Spanish, and Manari then translated into Kichwa for Francisco and Andris, who sat closeby. It was a three-lane highway of languages swirling by, all in an effort to understand what health problems Gary’s patients had, what plants could potentially help, and what else Naku would need to provide to support these people. I only understood about 80% of what was happening, but enjoyed every minute.
We had our last dream ceremony this morning: we had all gotten pretty good at remembering/recounting them in Spanish at this point! We had our last breakfast and bid Naku goodbye. When we got to the village, we were once again greeted with Chicha and big smiles. The men performed a dance called the “Tiger Dance,” where they take their shirts off and sort of dance toward the women in a long chain. Once they get close enough, they grab the women’s hair and make roaring noises and everyone screams! In return, I got to share one of my favorite camp counseling skills–group songs! We taught them “This little light of mine” and “Father Abraham,” which were a hit 🙂 Then, we bought jewelry from some of the local women and said our last goodbyes. We jumped in the plane back and somehow, this time, I didn’t feel nervous at all. I hopped in the front seat and waved to all of our new friends below.
It’s hard to capture all of the lessons, magic, and learning that Naku helped me experience in one blog post. I will be thinking about this trip for such a long time to come–so grateful for the amazing humans I met and the spirit of the jungle that I have left with. Thank you Naku, and thank you Sapara people, for packing so much learning into four days.
By Allie Reichert
Runa Public Health Intern