A Powerful Ritual of Revival in the Amazon

DSC02574.JPG

I am woken by the sounds of the village starting to stir. Men are in muffled conversation and women go about their morning chores. The dim light of the fire reaches up to the palm leafed roof of my hut, where bats have been nesting above my bed. It is ludicrously early, 3.45am, over two and half hours before sunrise. Yet in many ways this place never sleeps. Night falls over the jungle and the nocturnally inclined kick into life. Meanwhile, Achuar fires are kept burning throughout the night. 

We are guests here and have been moving from village to village in Achuar territory in Southern Ecuador. On expedition with the Extraordinary Adventure Club we have come to immerse ourselves with these proud and fascinating Amazonian people. 

I walk with my adventure companion over to the fire in our hut. Men are huddled around it, shielding their gourds of Wayusa tea and staring into the fire, still in a dreamlike state. It feels like my own dreams that were so clear to me just a minute ago are already slipping from my grasp.  A little boy lifts his mosquito net and climbs down from his bed into his father’s arms, whilst a dog slinks through the circle of men to find a warm spot by the fire. 

I am handed a gourd of the Wayusa tea - an infusion made from a plant belonging to the same family as the herb used for the maté drunk by the Argentines. I have been advised to drink it quickly and to drink as much as I can. Highly caffeinated and containing mild emetic qualities, it is a central component of the Achuar morning routine. We have participated in every part of their custom and culture since we have been here, and so this has also become our routine. For me though, it is not without a sense of foreboding.

I drink it silently and with a dedicated focus. After three and a half gourds I feel a deep urgency to vomit. Getting up with as much composure as I can muster, I hardly make it twenty yards outside the hut, before erupting in a violent outburst as the tea comes straight back up. From deeper in the jungle I hear a roar as our Achuar host purges his tea with all the enthusiasm of a true expert. 

This extraordinary ritual is not just a stomach cleanse. A vocal and perhaps more theatrical performance is encouraged to relieve any tension and negative energy from the night and day before. So I give it my best shot, careful not to follow through from any other orifice! But after a promising start I notice the remainder of the tea is stubbornly resisting any departure from my stomach. Having been warned of the ill effects of keeping the tea inside I persevere. I don’t have a feather to tickle my tonsils as do the Achuar under these circumstances and so I am forced to put my fingers down my throat. The taste of insect repellent on my tonsils provides the perfect gag reflex as I grunt and groan may way through the purging of the remainder of the tea.

Having grown up in a society where we learn to mask aspects of ourselves and bury what we feel, I can tend to keep things bottled down. However, emotions are just energy in motion. Energy needs to flow freely if we are to really harness it. Much like this tea, it needs to flow through and out, if I am to leave the past behind and be truly present. Once I am sure I have everything out I rejoin our host by the fire and I am handed a bowl of manioc beer, the staple diet of the Achuar.

This is the time of the day where the Achuar having processed the energy of the night share their dreams with one another. Hugely imaginative in the way they interpret their dreams they usually convert them into favorable hunting omens and other desirable practical prophecies for the day. Will they go hunting today or not? Does the jaguar in their dream signify an opportunity or a danger? Bending the contents of their dreams for the needs of the moment I see this is an elaborate way of them setting their intentions for the day. 

I look outside and with the help of the rising sun the bend in the river is beginning to reveal itself through the dispersing mist. As night gives way to day I too cross the threshold into a waking state and find an emerging clarity and a physical revival within me.

We all have a morning routine of sorts. Personally, I meditate and journal. Both are ways for me to observe my thoughts and emotions and allow them to flow through me. Whilst it may not be for everyone, I do admire the simplicity of the Achuar routine. Social, deeply embodied and very effective, it is a way for them to be reborn into the world every morning. The routine of Wayusa drinking and dream sharing addresses the fundamental question of, ‘If I were to leave the past behind, how do I want to live today?’

Hamish Mackay-Lewis