"The big trees of the forest are very powerful", claims my Achuar
guide Gilberto, standing in the shadow of a mammoth ceiba tree. "All plants and trees are people, but you can't see them normally. The tall ceiba earns great respect, but is also dangerous for newly born children. It whispers to them and makes them ill". He pauses and arches his neck back to look at the tree's top, some 40 m [130 ft
] up in the canopy. Walking through the forest with Gilberto, the green and brown morass of decay and destruction in turn comes alive. After an hour on a trail, his knowledge of plants, flowers, animals, myths and customs turns what seems like an impenetrable mass of life and death into a forest of revelation.
In common with many other Amazonian peoples, the Achuar
, who are part of the jivaro
linguistic family, don't separate the waking world from the dream world, the "real" from the "spiritual". They use hallucinogens such as naatam,
known more commonly as ayahuasca
, or "the truth vine" Banisteriopsis caapi
, under the guidance of a shaman for ritual trance purposes, a practice not recommended for the uninitiated. "When you take naatam
, the forest comes alive". For most people, the forest itself is hallucinogen enough. Although the missionaries have done their best to banish shamanism and prohibit the use of the forest's hallucinogens, both practices are still integral to the older generation of Achuar
Further on, Gilberto points out an arrow-leafed plant carpeting the forest floor. "The shishin
speaks kind words while you are in a trance. It is very friendly. The shamans brush it over the body of a patient, chasing bad spirits". Another plant, chirikiaspi
, gives the hunter strength and fortifies the lungs to be able to shoot monkeys high in the canopy with a blow pipe. "It also anaesthetizes the body", explains Gilberto, "making you feel numb and able to walk for days without much food", which is exactly what the Achuar
use it for: their territory is the size of Belgium or Maryland.
During the afternoon we sit on a little wooden bench drinking nijiamanch
, a slightly acidic, yeasty, milky-white broth. It is made by one the village women by chewing up manioc and spitting it into a big, earthenware pot where it ferments for a few days. It is said that this "beer", or chicha
as it's known in most of the country after its Quechua name, tastes of the woman who makes it. As practiced beer drinkers, we had no trouble quaffing it down from bowls continually refilled by the a local shaman’s first wife. Following Achuar
custom, we carefully avoided looking her in the eye as she served us.
Drinking strange beer, taking herbal teas, eating new foods, and learning about the day-to-day lives of the Indians of Ecuador's rainforest is a worthwhile and humbling experience. It is worthwhile as an opportunity to glimpse a way of life different in almost every respect to that with which we are familiar. Also because revenues from tourism undoubtedly play a part in protecting the fragile forests. Humbling because we are confronted with a totally alien environment which most of us would be unable to cope with alone and unaided. Most people come away from meeting jungle peoples in awe of their self-reliance and their apparently simple, uncluttered lives. Most regard their jungle trips as among their most lasting memories.
One of the most positive developments in the last five years in Ecuador has been the indigenous peoples of the Amazon - whether Cofan
- taking control of tourism. Although many lodges and operators in the Oriente, as Ecuador's Amazon is known, enjoy good relationships with the Indians, many do not. For this reason, Indian organizations and federations, increasingly active on the national political stage, have begun their own autonomous operations. Joining a community-based and community-benefiting tour couldn’t be easier in the age of the Internet: most of them are on e-mail. These tours are not for lovers of their creature comforts. You will eat, drink, wash and sleep as the Indians do. That's part of the fun, and the experience.