It must have been around 3:30 a.m. when the alarm went off. I was in a shallow sleep and remember seeing Tyler across the room, already atop his covers, roll over and unlock his Blackberry to silence the wake up call. He took a deep breath, got up and quietly walked out the door and down the hallway. It was an unusually chilly night for Eastern Ecuador and I was buried under layers of fleece blankets on top of one of the bunks of the Runa house in the little town of Archidona. I’d always wanted bunk beds as a kid, and usually enjoyed the morning descent from the elevated dream-space as an adult. That morning, however, the breeze bit my skin and sent chills up my legs as my feet touched the cool tile floor. Joe Walker, a Peace Corps volunteer with Runa and all-round swell fella, sat up silently in the lower bunk as I rooted through my bag in the dark searching for the one longsleeved shirt I had in South America.
Team Runa is usually up and running bright and early, but a moon-lit start time is less regular. I had learned that there is already a lot going on in Amazonia by 3:30 a.m. and most of the time I was more than willing to lose a few winks to participate or witness what the jungle communities had to offer. That morning we were heading to Nueva Esperanza, a village about 45 minutes outside of Archidona for, what was for many of us, our first official guayusa ceremony.
The heavy yellow light of the street lamps pushed into the dim first floor of RUNA HQ. The interns Alex, Ben, Lucy, Nadine, Joe and I were joined by the general manager Fransisco as, el presidente, Tyler Gage, checked on our arranged transportation. Things can occasionally take longer than expected in Ecuador, and as we collectively noted that sunrise would soon be approaching, Tyler stepped out onto the empty street and worked some entrepreneurial magic – a single truck taxi suddenly turned the corner, spotted him and, even though the driver was on his way home and where we were headed was far out of the way, he agreed to not only take us to the community but also to return several hours later and pick the group up. The timely manifestation was greeted with a cheer, and we all piled into the truck which sped off out of town toward muddy roads, local fincas (farms) and denser jungle.
Guayusa ceremonies are reportedly thousands of years old. Ask a jungle-born Kichiwa native about guayusa and they will gladly tell you personal stories, local tales and ancient common knowledge about this infamous plant. They might refer to it as “medicine”, “the night watchman” or even just as a delicious brew. However they refer to it, it’s likely that they will also mention a guayusa morning ceremony. Waking up in the early pre-dawn hours, cooking up a big clay pot full of brew, telling stories, laughing and sharing with family and neighbors. Singing songs, discussing dreams, passing down knowledge to younger generations – hearing of such intimate community time feels very special, perhaps even sacred to us Westerners. I know it did for me, and I couldn’t wait to be part of such an experience.
We’d been on progressively narrowing gnarly dirt roads for awhile. The town of Archidona had been swallowed by treeline and there were fewer and fewer signs of inhabiting people. Suddenly, after a sharp turn, we could see a maloka (thatched roof hut) and a thin stream of smoke twisting up into the sky. That’s how it can be in many parts of the jungle – from one spot you think you’re in the middle of no where and just a few hundred feet away is the beginning of a spread out community. The sun had been teasing the sky with subtle kisses of light and our group arrived at Nueva Esperanza just as the sky began to wake from nighttime slumber and hold the illumination. I noticed an older woman carrying wood toward the fire in the maloka and saw about a dozen deeply tanned native faces. We were quickly greeted with smiles and introduced to the group. The woman who had carried the firewood began to scoop some amber colored liquid from a clay pot over the pit fire using a large pilche (gourd bowl/cup). She walked over to me and rapidly stirred the liquid in the first bowl with a second smaller pilche. I had never seen anyone do that and asked her what the purpose was. “It charges the guayusa with good (energy),” she said in Spanish as she smiled and handed me the smaller of the two gourds full of steaming liquid. It could have been her special energy stirring or perhaps it was my own excitement but that was the best cup of guayusa I’ve ever had.
The discussions we had with the people of the village were fascinating in both content and in the way we communicated. Some individuals only spoke Kichiwa, others spoke Spanish as well and, while Team Runa had a variety of languages in our pocket, English was primarily being used when we spoke to one another. For certain, we were a diverse group – indigenous Kichwa who had never left the area and only knew their native tongue, an Ecuadorian city dweller with advanced education who knew little of the jungle, a young woman from Sweden, folks from all over the United States and all walks of life. Ages ranged from the single digits to close to 100 years yet there we all were sitting in the Amazon jungle together drinking guayusa, laughing, gesturing, translating for one another and, most importantly, listening.
A young villager presented a beat-up nylon string guitar which was passed around allowing several individuals to share songs adding yet another element to our communication – the language of music. The community medicine man sang some icaros (sacred songs) as he offered energy healing to a few people – villagers and visitors alike. Then, with the encouragement of Tyler, I spoke up and mentioned that I also had some music to share.
I brought with me an instrument from another indigenous culture. Some Aboriginal tribes of central Australia call it a Yirdaki but Westerners are more familiar with the name Didgeridoo. It is one of the oldest known instruments in the world and I was excited to share its sound with another ancient culture. The villagers invited me to play and I, somewhat nervously, improvised a short piece facing away from the group. Didges can create sounds ranging from low drones to buzzing trumpets to animal-esque growls and I wasn’t sure how folks in the community would respond to my bouncy rhythms. When I was done, there was a long drawn out moment of stillness and silence. I turned around to look at everyone. I will never forget the faces I saw. Tyler also scanned the villagers with a wide eyes and an anticipatory grin. The stunned and bewildered expressions lasted only a few seconds before an enormous wave of sound – laughter, cheer, claps, stomps and yells – rolled out from the group. They enthusiastically asked me to play more! So I did. Some folks started dancing or clapping with the beat and children started walking around me inspecting the long tube-like wooden didgeridoo as I played it.
Soon after I was done, I was flooded with great questions: “Did a shaman teach you how to play that?”, “Do you need to have special lungs for this?” , “What kind of animal does that sound like?”. It was wonderful. I explained to them what I could about how and why some Aboriginals used the Yirdaki in Australia and how I actually built didgeridoos myself and how anyone with a set of lungs can play the didgeridoo. The first to shyly ask to try and play was a young boy. I showed him how to buzz his lips and he soon got a strange bird-like sound to call out of the didge. Then, before I knew it, lots of folks were trying their lips at making sounds through the instrument. They even naturally discovered on their own the fun of playing over someone else in order for them to feel the vibrations more intensely (commonly called a sound bath). The rest of the group, still hanging around, continued to chat and laugh at weird noises being produced so early in the morning.
That was really the highlight of the sharing for me – the discussions we had in the language of music. I had, in those moments, a clear recognition of the power of sound, melody and rhythm in a way I had never experienced before. I actually teared up with joy. Regardless of the instrument, music is truly a unifying universal language. All cultures have music. Though the boy who first asked to play and I were from very different worlds, knew of wildly different things and likely had distinctly separate futures, we shared through the moments of music a strong connection of love. He knew… he could feel… exactly what I was “saying” through the didgeridoo. The same was true for the Spanish guitar songs and the Kichwa icaros. I know what they really meant, even if I cannot translate them verbatim. It is precisely that kind of sharing – the authentic connection of joy and what I would call love – that is at the root of not just guayusa ceremonies, but the very idea of community.
I can think of no word more appropriate to describe the overall experience of that morning than MAGIC. I had witnessed magic.
The work of RUNA helps to empower indigenous peoples of the Ecuadorian Amazon through sustainable agriculture which draws from and ties back into their ancient traditions. However, the real gift, in my opinion, is the creation of a platform upon which cultures, peoples and communities can share. In the Amazon, people often consider plants to have their own personalities, spirits or energies with which an individual can form a relationship. The Kichwa people are the “keepers” of guayusa and their relationship to it has given them a grand tradition of community and sharing. Now they have elected to share the plant with the world and RUNA is helping them accomplish that.
A cup of guayusa is more than just a way to wake up in the morning… or at least it can be. Guayusa can be a stepping stone to some pretty stunning magic. At least that’s where it took me. My hope is that the relationship does something equally astounding for countless others.
Written by Andrew Given
2010 Runa Intern