THE TIMELESS RAIN FOREST is watching over not only the graves of peoples who have disappeared but also over the wisdom they possessed. The great shamans of the Siona and Secoya look for it in visions.
A moon full and pale over the Aguarico River. This river may
not be as spectacular as the Napo, but its waters are more crystalline, and its fish more abundant. Here one finds some of the largest fresh water fish in the world. Nevertheless, the area around the Aguarico and its tributaries was relatively unknown
until, in the early seventies, the roads and footpaths opened the Oriente.
As a result, the ethnic groups who live along the Aguarico, the Cofan, the Siona and the Secoya, have had to face serious economic and socio-cultural pressures originating
from this new society that surrounds them.
THE YAGÉ RITE
Campo Eno, on the banks of the Aguarico. It is six in the
evening, when millions of crickets, as though obeying a sign
only they perceive, begin to fill the air with their metallic
sound. And it is time for the yagé (ayahuasca) rite to begin, a
time strictly prescribed, as are all aspects of the ritual
associated with the preparation and use of this hallucinogenic substance. Thus, one requirement is punctuality: at six in the morning, the person who cooks the yagé begins the process, and at
six in the evening the drink is ready.
Hilano, the curaca of the Siona group that lives in the area,
uses a stick to stir the thick, strong-smelling, coffee-coloured
"Whoever wishes to find wisdom must have the will, in addition
to a lot of courage, along with an almost innate capacity to
withstand suffering," says Hilano. And, in effect,
this is true. The hallucinogen makes demands on
the body and, in some cases, can causes physiological disorders.
"There are many who aren't able to withstand the effects of
yagé" Hilano adds. "Some go mad and only recover after
much time has passed."
When participating in the yagé ritual, the Siona and Secoya
don their finest cushmas, and paint their faces with stripes,
crosses, and designs representing the sun, along with other
symbols, using achiote, a dye they extract from annatto seeds.
Only freshly harvested seeds produce the dark red tones
desired. They also paint their arms and legs and tie flowers and
fragrant herbs around their arms. Finally, participants wear
headdresses, necklaces and feathers.
"The person who knows how to take yagé doesn't get drunk.
He remains calm when drinking it, as though he were drinking
chucula" Hilano explains. "I can't tell you how much I enjoy
taking yagé not for the drinking itself, but for the visions it
produces!" Hilano brings the gourd to his lips and drinks the contents
in one go. "With just one bowlful I can see the farthest
corners of the earth and of the heavens, for earthly visions end
and heavenly visions begin."
Those who have taken yagé are soon engaged in a lively
conversation. Bursts of laughter and loud shouts are heard.
Some imitate bird songs, others growl like wild beasts.
The Siona and the Secoya, the latter perhaps to an even
greater extent, are prized by their neighbors for the wisdom of
their curacas. In Ecuador, the Siona-Secoya are spoken of as a
single group. Both groups are descendants of the ancient
encabellados, or "long-haired ones," and the Pioje's, members
of the Western Tucano linguistic family. A number of travelers
have included the Cofan in this same group, though its members
belong to the Chibcha linguistic family and long ago
lived in the wilderness surrounding the headwaters of the
Aguarico and its tributaries. The Cofan, along with the Siona
and the Secoya, have been called cushmas, a word that refers
to their dress, a tunic originally made from llanchama, or bark cloth.