Staring at the horrified faces of my clients across the smoke-filled room, I knew that the experience had been a bit too authentic for some.
Northern Ecuador’s fertile landscape is dotted with villages (pueblos) which are home to extremely talented artisans. Each pueblo had its own specialty: one is famous for its marzipan industry, another for its exceptional weavers, and yet another is know for its fine handmade leather goods. We visited many of the pueblos and my group loved the experience, in part due to the lack of other tourists.
I love pushing people out of their comfort zones; it is a big part of why I love leading tours. With this in mind, I brought my group to see a curandero (traditional healer) in the pueblo of Ilumán. Combining a curious mix of Christian and pagan beliefs, the curanderos attempt to cure all that ails by driving out illness and evil spirits. For centuries, the indigenous people in Ecuador have visited the curanderos throughout the country, seeking their unique healing methods. Western hospitals are often too far away, too expensive, and the indigenous population often has more faith in traditional healing methods than in western medicine. And why shouldn’t they?
Ilumán, at the foot of Volcan Imbabura, is where one goes for a professional spirit cleansing. I could use a good spirit cleansing. Now, I blame myself for not preparing my group for this particular visit, but this was primarily due to the fact that I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen to me. Having no guidebook to advise me or experience on choosing a traditional healer, I trusted the locals’ opinions. I ran around frantically asking locals about getting ‘cleansed’ while my group stood in the plaza with bewildering looks on their faces, snapping photos of the plaza’s surroundings and accommodating locals. The scene must’ve been unbelievably amusing to the local inhabitants with a crazy blonde gringa running around asking about curanderos. Eventually, one kind woman grabbed my hand and brought my group of 16 North Americans and I to her brother-in-law’s house.
Throughout the town, small plaques over doorways, marked the clinics of registered curanderos. Leaving my group out on the narrow street, I entered the healer’s home to meet him and his wife (who was also his assistant). The curandero was in his 50’s or 60’s, short and broad in stature with long greying hair neatly pulled back into a pony-tail, and spoke an incomprehensible mix of Spanish and Quichua (northern dialect of Quechua – language of the Incas). I’m sure his community understood him beautifully, but with only my Spanish language skills, I had generally no clue what he was saying.
He led me to the back room of his house which was very dark, quite small, and very smoky. Several guinea pigs squeaked from a cage in the corner. He proudly directed my attention to his ‘altar’ which was a collage of several crosses, many candles, a painting the Virgin Mary, dozens of small anthropomorphic figurines, different herbs, and bottles of unknown liquid. As I was admiring the eclectic mix of items, his wife kindly guided my group into the candle-lit space at which point 5 group members decided that whatever was about to take place, wasn’t for them. Fair enough. Part of me wanted to turn around and do the same thing…but I was their fearless (about to be ‘cleansed’) leader.
The spirit cleansing ceremony began with the curandero chanting to Pachamama (Mother Earth) to reveal the imbalance that afflicted me. Did I have an imbalance? Probably. While chanting, he first passed a candle over my body followed by an egg that he shook vigorously. Dramatically, he cracked the egg into a bowl (thankfully not over my head) and began examining it. Chanting softly then more loudly, he threw ‘jazz-hands’ up in the air then traced an outline of my body. My eyes were closed, but I heard the gasps from my group as his wife brought over a squealing guinea pig. Oh god…please no sacrifice. Please no sacrifice. I was extremely relieved that the guinea pig was merely passed over my body a couple of times then returned to its cage, alive and unharmed. According to the curandero, if I were really ill, my illness would’ve been transmitted to the guinea pig at which point a dissection would have occurred. Phew.
After medicinal herbs were whacked all over my face and body by the curandero, the really messy part began. I choked back coughing as a barrage of cigarette smoke was blown inches away from my face and all around my aura. Then aguardiente (high-volt sugarcane liquor) was spat all over me by the healer. Head to toe. As if the booze being spat all over me wasn’t bad enough, the curandero then began swigging a yellowish liquid (cologne) while chewing carnation petals before spitting the delightful combo at me repeatedly like a machine gun. Ugh. Apparently the chanting curandero was battering the pollution out of my aura. Were potent booze and cheap cologne really battering my polluted aura?
Feeling kind of humiliated, I stood before my group reeking of tobacco smoke, covered in booze, cologne, saliva, chewed flower petals, and herbs. I smelled like I’d been on a week-long bender in Quito. The curandero stepped away for a moment. Was the ceremony finished? Just as I breathed in a sigh of relief, he returned armed with matches and again with the bottle of aguardiente. Matches? Relief quickly turned to fear as I rapidly pulled back my long hair to prepare for whatever was coming next. For the grand finally of the cleanse, the curandero lit the liquor as he spat it in my direction in a kind of spiritual flamethrower fashion. The flames were intense but thankfully, the brow-singeing was kept to a minimum. As I checked my body to make sure that it was still intact, the curandero’s wife beautifully arranged a batch of herbs and flowers on the ground in front of me which the curandero lit. Clueless of what to do, he guided me to the fire and forced my foot (in sandals) to stomp it out signifying that the pollutants in my aura have effectively been extinguished. Intense. Super intense.
Euphoric and dazed, I thanked the curandero and his wife and bid adios to Ilumán. Concerned and curious members of my group repeatedly asked me how I felt – it could’ve been that the myriad of substances spat upon me had been absorbed into my system – but I felt amazing! In spite of smelling like an Ecuadorian nightclub and looking even worse, I felt cleansed. Would I do it again? You bet. This was my first spiritual cleansing, but it definitely wasn’t my last.
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