THE TRANSVESTITE SHAMAN
"A Shaman is a man or woman who is able, at will, to enter into a non-ordinary state of consciousness in order to make contact with the spirit world on behalf of members of his or her community."
Margaret Locke; Interview. 'Uncommon Wisdom', Fritjof Capra
Stepping out of the taxi, really no more than a road-weary old truck that has bounced through the jungle by-ways for ages, I stood in front of two weathered run-down wooden shacks on stilts. Observing both, the larger one seemed to possess some human activity about. With some hesitation I walked toward it.
Encountering children playing, inquired if they knew where I could find a certain Señor. They look at me with a giggle of playfulness and eyes wide in the natural curiosity of children everywhere and point excitedly toward the other hut.
Walk up a single cut log with rough chops that serves for steps to the bungalow, rising ten feet off the ground supported on thick round uneven wooden posts, just a short ways up from the banks of the Rio Puyo, and stand before the entrance, a short waist-high pegged-fence gate. The home is a single-storey structure, mostly open porch with a small 7 by 10 room tucked into a corner.
A fire constantly smolders in one corner, built up on a boulder and clay pit, sparks constantly escaping toward the dry straw and dead branches that are the thatch-roof overhang.
Also contained within the balcony is a long wooden bench, a worktable crowded with pottery, clothes hanging on lines, a mother hen tied to the table and half a dozen chicks scrambling about the floor, pecking between the boards for food and constantly ecking that baby chick cry.
The house is situated among a small group of run-down time-worn wood-frame shacks all on stilts along the banks of Rio Puyo. It's an old settlement, about forty minutes outside of the pueblo of Puyo, surrounded by jungle.
Nearby you can watch native Shuar Indians with painted faces and bright feathered head-dresses working fields or carrying loads along horse-trails.
The Shaman I am looking for is a native Shuar. Not so many years ago, this tribe was known as Head-Hunters. Now they are known as Jivaro.
A vision steps up to the gate and states that he is Don Emilio.
Introducing myself, I tell him of two friends in Quito that had recommended him, and that I am seeking information. He quickly invites me in, offers a chair, offers a cup of a whitish-looking thick drink called Chicha and conversation.
A quiet, energetic man, Don Emilio is about 5 foot 7 inches, lean, brown, compact and muscular. Wearing baggy blue pants, a tank-top shirt exposing broad chest, well defined pecs and biceps and a frilly headband around long black hair knotted in back.
Small expressive face, dark brown, the muscles on his arms, taut flesh, indicate a sense of youth about him, yet the straight piercing small eyes wrinkled on the sides look to contain the sadness of ages.
My friend Wolfgang mentions that he is around sixty five years old. Emilio won't divulge his age, with sloping wrinkles around those eyes and downturned lips he just indicates sadly that he has lived for many, many years.
Emilio's voice has a soft effeminate quality about it, and is consistent with the way his body moves. He walks in a femininely soft manner. Legs close together and hips swaying outwards.
One of the things this Curandero does for money is make pottery for sale in Puyo and other small Indigenous outposts around the Amazon.
Gathering a grayish brown thick mud from a spot along the river, he will sit for hours sculpting a set of animals or small jugs and bowls. Most of the work is done by hand, dexterous fingers bending and shaping the designs to his satisfaction.
He sits on a small stool on his porch overlooking the river, patiently and attentively painting such clay artifacts as earthen jugs, animals like frogs and jaguars and bowls of various sizes. Wielding small twigs and fine human hair, he lays down precisely the intricate detail of design using natural plant and earthen dyes.
Afterward, he sets these by hand into the fire, always glowing at one end of his porch, to glaze and harden.
There is a story about him, one of the many I have heard, that suggests a certain truthfulness once you meet him.
When he was younger, many years ago, he was married and had children. For quite a while he pondered what his biggest fear was. One day it came to him that his greatest fear was of appearing like a female, or worse, actually becoming one.
Wanting to confront this fear, he began to adopt the characteristics of a woman. He began talking in a female manner, a high pitched voice and pursed lips. His mannerisms transformed, such as his walk, now swishing hips, or angling his head in a womanly manner.
He began acting, then dressing like a woman, wearing his hair in a woman's high roll held in place by a pink lady's comb or tied with some colorful bow. His face, beardless, would transform into the features of a woman, and if you did not look too close, almost appear as if his smooth skin and eyebrows were made up with cosmetics.
This caused a great deal of stress and discomfort in his community, especially within his family. Yet he continued. He contended that to get beyond the fear, he must fully go into it.
He uses his ability to transform now as a technique to create reactions and transformation in others. At times he will be totally female and can cause quite a stir of insecurity, discomfort or even attraction among the Macho Hombres of the jungle.
Then, in an instant drop all illusion of the female and manifest an immensely powerful male presence that can intimidate even the most aggressive man.
I've seen him wrestle with strong teenage youths and throw them flying as casually as picking up a stone to toss into the river.
His teachings are mainly through the psychoactive vine, Ayahuasca, and through personal example. Whether in an altered state or otherwise he will create situations for you to observe your own behavior or make an illustration of some awareness he wishes to convey simply through authentic behavior that sometimes appears quite absurd.
Today, his wife and children live far away, in Lago Agrio, another village. He refers to them with a sigh of despondency and hopelessness. They could not bear the shamanic ways so common to those who are 'struck by lightening'.
Yet the villagers living in the small colony named Union Base (pronounced: "Oonion Bah-ze"), by the Rio Puto, love and adore him. His bungalow is by far the most popular in the area as many stop by day and night for Chicha, Traigo and socializing. Although there is no one individual identified as the village leader, for all intents the Curandero guides his community.
He is often called away to surrounding villages to lead community meetings and to heal all manner of illness.
The Shaman has developed quite a reputation in this small part of the Amazon for his eccentricities that cause so much reaction from all who meet him, his motivation and industry that keeps him constantly busy, and his authenticity as one who understands the ways of the jungle.
Certainly uncommon and perceptive, Don Emilio is quite remarkable in his skill as a Shaman and Ayahuascero, as I was soon to discover.
Copyright 1994 Steven Gilman
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