This story ran recently in the travel writing blog Day Trips Travel Guide. It has a slightly unusual opening (me being incredibly ill), which nonetheless was the perfect jumping off point for a remarkable experience: being healed by shaman Baribu Geraga ‘Gustavo’ Mejia Makuna, pictured above. Gustavo and his family live in the Amazon, and we reached him after a long hike through the jungle outside Leticia, a border town at the southernmost tip of Colombia….
After years spent travelling to some of the more grim areas of the world without getting sick, the Patron Saint of Safe Travel, Saint Christopher, seemingly abandoned me. Here I was in a little hotel in Bogotá in Colombia, puking my guts out for the fourth day in a row.
In between throwing up, I stuffed my worn backpack with notepads, pens and camera for a trip into the Amazon to visit several indigenous groups. Was it possible to survive a trek through a steamy jungle while so ill? I was almost too weak to care.
The flight from Bogotá to Leticia on Colombia’s southernmost tip, booking into a hotel and meeting my guide and translator were all conducted in a haze of wretchedness. The guide, Elias Cuao, shook his head at my condition. The next morning I threw up again (for good luck?), squeezed into a dented yellow taxi and set out for the jungle, taking the two-lane highway out of Leticia to its end. Literally. The cab fled, leaving us staring at an oppressive wall of Amazon green.
I managed to keep up with Cuao, following him over a dozen bridges of felled narrow tree boughs, cut by the indigenous inhabitants of the forest, that provide a pathway through the Amazon’s circulatory system of streams and torpid rivers. Birds shrieked and squawked. Pendulous oropendola nests hung from tree boughs. Fluorescent blue butterflies the size of my hand flitted about within arm’s reach. About 45 minutes later, Cuao hooted: “Makuna! Makuuunnnaaa!” laughing as the words echoed through the canopy of branches. We had reached our first destination — an enormous one-room cabaña with a wall of vertical wooden planks and a steep roof made of grey-weathered interlacing palm fronds. Cuao was alerting Baribú Geraga ‘Gustavo’ Mejia Makuna, the group’s political leader (payé) and medicine man (kuraca), of our arrival. Gustavo, a 59-year-old man with a naked expanse of brown belly and genial expression, gave Cuao a bear hug then beckoned us into the “Big House.” We were directed to several rough-hewn log benches that were grouped around a tree-stump table. Cuao and Gustavo, as he liked to be called, shared a sacred ritual: stuffing enormous wads of pale green, finely ground coca leaves — the basis of cocaine — into their cheeks.
I flipped open my notepad and Gustavo began a singsong recitation, describing the spiritual and symbolic importance of plants like coca and tobacco and the gods associated with these plants. Then, for some reason — was I swooning? — Cuao stopped Gustavo and explained how sick I was, using the universal hand gesture for retching, much to my embarrassment. Gustavo spoke to Cuao who turned to me and said, “He will make you better.” Continue reading