He lay in the bed, half sitting, back propped by pillows and headboard, half lying, covered partially by blankets and ponchos. A big man, smooth brown skin, broad powerful shoulders and broad chest. Satin black hair, combed smoothly back and the long braided ponytail, traditionally indigenous.
Hands strong, wrinkled with the look of outdoors, years of manual labor. Working fields of corn and, of course, working the textile looms. His face rounded, firm; nose prominent.
It is his eyes, though. Dark brown irises, an intense intelligent understanding gaze. They never seemed to blink, the lids held in place by the casualness of his will. Just looked right at you and through you.
Off to the side, by the door, leaning against an ancient, years wearied, stained and gouged table lay a crude pair of crutches.
The room is bathed in graceful shadow. A single naked bulb hangs from the ceiling on a bare lonesome wire. The ceiling, high and wide. There is a partial second floor, loose floorboards holding odds and ends, dust settles on the collections of a lifetime.
As you enter through the rough-hewn dusty doors, on the left is the table, filled with stacks of papers, candles, a bottle of rum, a framed image of Jesus, an old electric clock, stopped at 8:34. To the right of the door is his bed.
Just beyond the wooden footboard, a short partition, then another bed, similar to the first, empty, heaped with blankets and ponchos, their rectangular shapes serving as protection against the cold Quinchu Qui night. Assorted old cabinets line the back of the room, and three makeshift chairs line the aisle.
Zulay Saravina, the indigena tour guide brought me late in the night to the home of her father, a native healer.
I walked through the doors into Don Antonio's cuarto, stood looking at the man reclining in bed, a Bible written in Quechua in his hand. He looked up, smiled and slowly laid the book aside.
Zulay stood there, introduced us, as her husband Alphonso walked in with their two-year-old baby girl, We all sat, gathered chairs around the bed, and spoke in a mixture of Quechua, Spanish and English.
He was full of questions. Wanted to know where I was from, what I did for a living, why I came here. Sitting patiently with him, at ease, I told him all. Told him I came to be healed.
Don Antonio sits up with a vigor that expresses his open interest and concern as he asks me what faith I practiced, staring with those intent eyes.
With a deep breath, I plunge ahead into unknown waters, unsure where this would lead, or to what purpose other than a general philosophical discussion as I espoused a near-traditional belief in the spirit of all-encompassing nature.
He nodded and began to relate his rock-firm belief in the one God above, and the messenger, Jesus Christ, as practiced in the Catholic Church.
Antonio went on to state that all his healing ability was merely the conduit for Jesus and a host of saints. Some of the saints he mentions sound more like Quechua gods.
I replied that our faith was Lo Mismo, one and the same.
Zulay broke in with tales of her father's healing abilities. Of the villagers who came to him with physical ailments and emotional distress.
She related the story of a woman, a villager with intense painful stomach problems who had visited modern doctors, whose western, imported chemically manufactured medicine had been ineffectual. She had gone to see the local curanderos, whose plant cures also were inadequate.
As a last resort, in pain and suffering, she came to the home of Don Antonio. He prayed with her. Her incurable distress disappeared, completely.
Zulay went on effusively, with shining eyes and her sharply defined features moving rapidly, as she spoke about her own child. Sleepless nights. Awake in the darkness, how the baby would keep Zulay and Alphonso up with her crying and coughing. That the doctors could not relieve the child's illness. In desperation, Zulay brought the child to the old man. He chanted and pacified the baby.
Later I was to see again how he worked with the child, how she succumbed to his gentle stroking and odd chanting. How the baby slept effortlessly.
I asked if he would be willing to work with me. That not only through the experience could I learn, that it was part of my own healing.
Silent for a moment, staring with those unblinking eyes, he inquired what was wrong.
Taking a deep slow breath, not quite knowing how to start, what to say, how it would be interpreted, I began. Describing a deep-seated spiritual crisis, a feeling of being lost in the world, knowing my desire to seek answers for myself, to understand the ways of traditional life and to learn the time-revered methods so common among diverse native cultures.
Told him about my own insecurity, fear of failure, unsure of my own ability to find the answers I was seeking.
The old man nodded slowly while listening. Now and then Zulay would translate something that I had difficulty saying in Spanish, into Quechua.
When I finished, Don Antonio and Zulay exchanged a few words in Quechua, then he asked me to sit beside him on the bed.
Moving next to him, feeling that immense presence as a bulwark, a firm assurance against my own hesitancy though still unsure, not knowing what to expect.
He takes a breath, begins to intone in a soft powerful voice. Calling on the presence of Jesus, a heaven full of saints, some indigenous gods, speaking in a mixture of Quechua and Spanish, he chanted.
Don Antonio never takes his eyes off me. Ten minutes, fifteen, more time passes, he continues. He taps my forehead with his fingers, all the while reciting in that odd mixture of language. Then genuflecting in that recognizably Catholic way on himself, on me, and more chanting. Again he taps me, now on my right hand. Finally, he seems to yawn, blows in my face, and stops.
The Shaman asks if I had any dreams. I replied yes. Dreamed I was traveling, moving from place to place, no direction no purpose other than the necessity to keep moving. He thought silently for a moment, then responded:
"You have gifts. You were born with them and you should use them to help others. You can only be born with these special gifts, if you do not have them at birth they cannot be developed."
He continues: "You have amazing strength. That strength will carry and support you. I have seldom seen as powerful a person come into this room. You must continue seeking."
Deciding to go further with this man I ask for a Ritual. He requests a piece of clothing and I give him my jacket. Don Antonio takes the cloth in his hands, begins invoking the saints again, reciting prayers. Again he yawns, like breathing deeply. Then exhales into my jacket.
As he completes his exhalations and returns the jacket he requests that I remember my dreams that night.
Antonio explains that Tuesdays and Wednesdays are best for ceremonias. The Heavens were most receptive. I related my need to be in Quito and we settle on the following Friday. He requires a camisa, a shirt to keep till then, and that I should bring an apple when I return.
I slept that night, somewhat fitfully on the spare bed in his room. He and his wife on the other side of the short partition.
And dreamed. And smelled the cold musky air, the long years of moisture and farming on those blankets and wondered during brief wakeful moments why the old couple behind me never stirred.
In the morning, early, shortly after sunrise I wander outside the house into the fields, drinking the cool early morning mist, watching light caress the mountain-tops, observing a man plowing a nearby field behind two steers. Antonio, held up on crutches comes over.
He inquires about my dreams. I remembered two, partially. In one, I am in an airplane, flying somewhere. Have a seat by the window and am looking out toward the clouds. The Earth is obscured and I do not really know where I am headed, yet have a feeling it is toward great high mountains.
In the other, I am with a group of friends, all men. We all sit in an outdoor circle around a blazing fire. There are trees and forest all around. The woods were familiar and comfortable. We are drumming and singing.
Looking out on the fields with an approving wrinkle at the edges of his eyes, he relates his dream. He saw me working with children. I was in the middle of many young people from all over and was a teacher, but not a school teacher. Something other. He reiterated that I would find what I was seeking.
Leaving shortly for Otavalo, then Quito, I looked forward to returning on Friday.
The CeremonyCurious, anxious but otherwise in good spirits, I returned to Otavalo then headed for the village of Quinchu Qui and Don Antonio on Friday, as promised.
Not knowing what to expect, and not wanting to impose on the family, I sought a room for the night in Otavalo. Then met Zulay's brother, Caesar, in town.
Back up through dusty, rock-strewn, village roads, past the first village, Peguche, we arrived at the doorsteps of the red brick home, the first one built from brick in the village. That of Don Antonio.
He came to the front, greeting us, standing, leaning heavily on his crutches, smiling. A sensation of immaculate warmth flushes through me in the presence of this man.
Entering the house, we head straight for his room, and sit on the bed, side to side. The old man pulls out my camisa and I hand him the apple he had requested I bring. He holds the cloth in one hand, placing the apple on top.
Again the saints and gods are invoked. "In the name of Saint Anthony, Saint Ignacio, ...", a host of others, both Quechua and Catholic. The curandero requests aid for my journey, for my vision to be clear.
Coming to the end of the intonations, he gently beats the cloth with the apple, intoning; "Chunpa, Chunpa, Chunpa" rhythmically.
At the end, handing me the apple, he invites me to eat. Biting into its delicious sweetness, I am filled with gratitude and renewed conviction that without knowing how, I am on the Path. Tears welling up in my eyes, blurring vision. Just sitting with this man, who is now appearing so hazy through moist eyes, I have regained a sense of determination and confidence.
And then another quake hits me as Don Antonio smiles innocently toward me! The apple!
All week that had escaped me. Seeing it in his hand awakened a laugh. An AHA!
I have always used the apple as a symbolic culmination for various rituals. For me it represents the "Fruit of Knowledge and Wisdom". Perhaps Forbidden Fruit. It is a powerful device, a symbol to remember and to be grateful for all the teachings and gifts received.
And what was this about, anyway? My Search!
We spoke for awhile. Don Antonio told me that he had been praying during the week for me, that he felt I was one of the strongest men he had ever met. He kept emphasizing that I needed to enter the selva as soon as possible.
What I am seeking is there, in the jungle. He gave me the names of two Shamans to find. One of the Colorado Indigenous, the other, judging by the location, probably Jivaro. He invited me back, wanting me to return soon.
That night, in Otavalo, I slept in the shirt. In the morning I felt resolved to enter the Amazon, and that I needed to wrap up research in Quito quickly. The Jungle was calling.
Copyright 1994 Steven Gilman
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