In my first two days in Ecuador, I drove a motorcycle for the first time, fished in a river with a motor and electrical wires, and received a spiritual cleansing from a real shaman. Not a bad start. Such a good start, in fact, that I’ve broken this blog into two parts (just like the Kill Bill movies, except with less sword fighting).

Long before I came to Ecuador, I knew that I wanted to go to the indigenous town of Los Naranjos. My friend, Clay Martin, did two Peace Corps services – one in Ecuador and one in Panama, where I met him. When he heard about Keteka, he immediately recommended his former site in Ecuador and told me enough stories to hold my intrigue for over a year, and whenever I thought of Ecuador, I thought of his stories.

Alejandro paints his hair

Alejandro paints his hair

So my first full day in Ecuador, I found myself walking down a dirt road towards the source of the many stories. A few minutes later, Clay (who had just finished his Panama service and was visiting his old community) rolled up on a motorcycle, I hopped on the back, and we bumped our way into Los Naranjos.

The town is immediately relaxing. It is green everywhere you look and the locals are calm and friendly. I dropped my backpack near one of many bunk-beds in a tourist hut surrounded by jungle. Clay picked a couple bananas off a nearby tree and we munched and chatted.

That night, after a tour of the town, driving a motorcycle around a soccer field, and a game of Ecuador-style volleyball (you can kind of hold the ball and throw it), we joined his former host dad, Alejandro, in his shaman hut.

Now let me clarify something – Alejandro is an actual shaman. That is, every day, whether or not there are tourists about, Alejandro practices shamanism. People come from many different villages and cities to receive cleansings and other special ceremonies. He is often hired to travel to perform these same ceremonies. If no one hires him in a given day, he practices alone, claiming it gives him energy and strength.

My arms were sore from the volleyball game, so Alejandro rubbed a mixture of leaves and snake oil (whatever that is) on my arms. We sat before his shaman table and as he rubbed the soreness from my forearms, he explained how he interacts with his table.

Los Naranjos, Ecuador, Santo Domingo, Ts'achila

The Shaman Table

The table is covered with strangely shaped rocks, figures, and mysterious bottles of liquid. Any rock or small object with which Alejandro feels a connection goes on the table and he is then responsible for feeding and interacting regularly with them. He feeds by occasionally drinking various liquids on the table and spitting them on the rocks and he interacts by facing them through the low candle light, absorbing their energy. Many nights, Alejandro sleeps in the hut, next to the table, so that they can affect his dreams and he can learn from their messages. For example, a few days before Clay returned to visit, Alejandro dreamed that someone would bring him an object from another land and that that object would be important. Days later, Clay arrived with a small wood carving from Panama and Alejandro immediately put it on the table with the rocks.

Alejandro also explained that Tuesday and Friday are sacred days for Ts’achila shamans. It was Monday, so I would have to wait till the following night to receive a cleansing and a full shaman experience.

Here’s me eating a grub:

Tuesday morning, I joined Clay and several members of Alejandro’s family in the river for some fishing. Here’s the method: you connect two metal wires to a motor and run them parallel in the water, usually around two large rocks, then turn on the motor for about ten seconds, creating a current between the wires that shocks the fishes. While the motor runs, you wait on either side of the wires with nets to get any fish that pass through and get stunned. Once the motor stops, you jump into the water between the wires and pull the stunned fish out by hand. We got most fish from underneath rocks, where they were hanging out before getting stunned.

There’s not too much technique – you basically stick your arm in as far as you can under the rock, submerging your head if you have to, and pull the fish out and put them in a bucket. After about two hours of this, we filled a regular sized bucket with fish and returned home to eat them (delicious).

(By the way, I did get electrocuted once when I grabbed at a stunned fish while the current was still going (my hand was outside of the wires, but it still shocked me). It wasn’t painful, but literally shocking.)

After our fish dinner, Alejandro showed me how to paint your hair red with achiote seeds (a Ts’achila tradition) and your skin black with jagua fruit. His son painted a geometric pattern on my wrist that he said represented “the traveler’s road.” Fitting.

A few hours later, I joined Alejandro in his shaman hut for a full shaman cleansing. (Read all about it in Part 2, and find out how to have your own experience in Los Naranjos here)