Medicinal adventures in the Amazon

*This post contains intricate details of my digestive system and all of its activities in the last week

I just returned from a week in the Ecuadorian Amazon. In theory, it was a fantastic experience. We saw incredible wildlife, plants, and had fun swimming in various lakes and rivers. However, I got sick, first with la gripe (flu/cold) and then my estómago (stomach). I am so grateful for all of my classmates, teachers, and guides who took care of me during the past week. For this blog post, I am going to write about the different facets of the Ecuadorian medical system that I experienced: a shaman, a free government health clinic, and herbal remedies.

I woke up with a cold the day we left for the Amazon. I was prepared with an arsenal of cold medications to ease the symptoms and I decided that I wasn’t going to let a little cold get in the way of an once-in-a-lifetime experience. The second morning of the trip we woke up early to go birding near the lake in Limoncocha. I definitely scared some birds away with my sneezing, but it was a beautiful morning and we saw some crazy cool birds. At this point, our guide notices that I can’t bird watch for five minutes without sneezing. He offers me an herbal tea remedy when we get back to the hostel. I thought that I was just supposed to drink the ginger tea, but no. First, I was to gargle this boiling hot tea. I didn’t know how to gargle, so after spilling a lot of tea on myself, I figured it out. Next, I inhaled the tea. I was supposed to inhale enough to fill up my sinuses, but the tea was very hot and I think it burned my nose hairs. I actually felt better after this treatment, so I left for a boat ride and hike through the forest with my group.

Sunrise on Limoncocha

A hoatzin, possibly my new favorite bird

We returned to the hostel for a traditional almuerzo (lunch) of soup, rice, beans, and vegetables. Right before our afternoon activity (exploring the lake and looking for caímanes), I feel it. You know the feeling. Incredible nausea, stomach cramps so painful that you can’t stand up, and instant body chills. I hastily run to our teacher, explain why I can’t go on the boat ride, and practically sprint to the bathroom. I’ll spare you the gory details, but the next couple hours involved vomit and explosive diarrhea. After a little while, I felt like I could venture away from the bathroom to lie on the hammock. All of my classmates and teachers were still out in the field, so I took advantage and rested on the hammock.

A man that I had seen in the kitchen during lunch brought me water and asked how I’m feeling. I told him about the events of the past couple hours. He left and retunred 15 minutes later with a handful of branches. He asked me to sit in a chair and told me that he was going to perform a ritual. He told me that after the ritual wasn’t going to throw up anymore. At this point, I felt so awful that I was willing to try anything. I sat in the chair and watched as he removed his shirt and rubbed it under his armpits and over his torso. He took a deep breath and began to rub his shirt on me, starting with my head and neck and finishing with my legs. After repeating this pattern several times, he put down his shirt and picked up the branches. He rubbed the branches on himself, and then turned to me. I suddenly felt as if I was in a tornado of leaves. I imagined the wind of the branches blowing the sickness out of me. He passds the leaves all over my body and the detritus stuck to my sweat. After five minutes the ritual was over and he returned to the kitchen.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this man’s name is Churi and he is a shaman, amongst many other things. “Churi” means something like “baby face” in Quechua. Luis is his real name, but nobody knows how old he is because he doesn’t appear to age. He was also the cook for our excursion and brought me tea at every meal to calm my stomach.

Churi, the shaman and cook extraordinaire

That evening our teacher prepared me several rehydration drinks and a tea to clean out my system. I was hesitant to drink the tea (my system felt pretty empty) but I drank most of it anyways. The next day I was still feeling pretty icky, so one of my teachers took me to a local medical clinic. At the medical clinic, I was surprised by the large presence of women. Ecuador has a machismo culture, so I was expecting to see a male doctor. Instead, I was greeted by a team of women who poked and prodded me and decided that I had some sort of bacterial infection. The nurse prescribed me two different kinds of antibiotics and told me that because it was a government sponsored medical clinic, the whole visit was free. That was a pleasant surprise!

The next couple days were filled with ups, downs, and lots of herbal tea. I spent most of my time relaxing in a hammock and appreciating the Ecuadorian Amazon from afar. I am back in Quito now and am feeling almost 100% again.

Before the last week, I was a huge proponent of modern medicine. I understand that when we are sick there is some sort of bacteria or virus in our body and that medicine will usually help us feel better. However, my experiences in the last week have made me appreciate a holistic approach to medicine. I honestly don’t know how much the shaman experience helped me, but the fact that Churi went out of his way to help me made me feel much better. I was taking nine pills a day for most of the week (antibiotics, anti-malaria, etc.), but I think the combination of medicine, herbal teas, relaxation, and positive vibes allowed me to heal.

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