Cleaning out the old and preparing for the new

Several years ago I lived for two brief periods with an Andean Indian family in Ecuador’s Northern Sierra and it was here that I became more deeply interested in traditional Andean medicine, discovering the unlikely benefits of, for example, bathing with stinging nettles and the alleviation of severe bruising, also with stinging nettles. There is also the even stranger (and ethically more controversial) diagnosis of illness using a live guinea pig. Any good scientific study should include some hands-on ‘empirical experience’, however, and I have never been one to shirk trying out some of the range of traditional treatments that many folk use hereabouts, the study of which forms such a core part of this project.

One of the commonest prophylaxis and treatment regimens addresses that range of human experience generally classed as psychosomatic disorders in conventional western medical understandings. Bathing with nettles, in which you must strip down to your (old) underwear and stand under an icy torrent of high altitude Andean river water while your assistant beats you front and back with a handful of stinging nettles, is probably one of the better known of these prophylactic rituals. It is held to cleanse you of the sort of ‘negative energies’ that might afflict you (or entire families) in a number of ways, from actual illness, through to what we might see as being mere misfortune.

Traditional healers in Cuenca's market

Ostensibly to visit some important archaeological and ethnographic collections, I headed towards the pretty colonial city of Cuenca in Ecuador’s southern sierra to spend the Christmas period there. It turned out to be far more than I had anticipated. Not only was there the wonderful ‘Pase del Niño Viajero’ carnival and fiesta, about the most vibrant and exciting event of its kind I have experienced, I also found myself down in the local indigenous market, trying out a pre-Christmas spiritual cleansing.

There were around half a dozen healers – curanderas – in all, gathered together under an awning at one side of the market, surrounded by fragrant piles of herbs and flowers, and also baskets of eggs. I selected one of these impressive, dignified ladies at random and explained my ‘problems’ to her. She was impassive and unsurprised and, bundling together a mixture of herbs, which included flowers of the ubiquitous if infamous ‘floripondio’ - Brugmansia spp – a powerful (and dangerous) hallucinogenic plant sometimes used by shamans in the region – she commenced beating me head to foot, front and back, muttering mostly unintelligible words, in which I occasionally heard the name of a saint or two. It was quite a vigorous beating; I could see why some of the small children brought there for cleansing by their parents, were howling in protest. After the herbal beating, she took a long swig from a bottle, gestured for me to close my eyes, and then sprayed me in the face with a concoction composed mostly of the local trago (sugar cane spirit) with ‘additives’. She then filled my cupped hands with another potent odoriferous concoction which I had to rub over my face and hair. The sweetness of the herbs and flowers gave way to the redolence of a cheap liquor establishment, and the instructions were not to bathe until the following morning. A humbling experience …

Traditional Andean herbs with Brugmansia spp flowers

Finally my curandera took an egg and rubbed it all over me, then broke it into a plastic bag and inspected it closely. The diagnosis was pronounced. I was a highly stressed person with a bit of a bad temper. Well, no surprises there! She suggested I come back for two or three more treatments, although sadly I had to leave Cuenca to return to Quito the following week. But perhaps I’ll take myself up to the Calle Roqafuerte here in Quito’s Centro Histórico where the local healers may be found. Anything that can cure of me stress and bad temper has to be worth it!

About this blog entry

This blog entry was posted on Friday 30th December 2016.
Dr Elizabeth Currie

Dr Elizabeth Currie is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Experienced Researcher and Global Fellow at the Department of Archaeology, and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of Health Sciences, University of York.

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