May 3, 1999
Volume 51, No. 30
Oxford's McQuaide leads magical Amazon journey
Being drenched in a curious mixture of liquor and chewed-up herbs was one thing, but when the shaman started to breathe fire, Robbie Bishop got nervous.
Bishop, a sophomore biology major at Oxford, stood in only his boxer shorts in the middle of a tiny room in Pegucha, a hamlet in the Andean highlands of Ecuador, as part of a recent trip organized by Oxford sociology Professor Mike McQuaide. Bishop had been suffering from the stomach ailments so common when Americans venture south of the border--way south of the border, in this case--and the shaman was performing a healing a ceremony. First this curandaro, Spanish for "one who cures," gathered up plants from his sacred botanical garden, chewed them up and made a marinade (with what smelled suspiciously like vodka to McQuaide), then spat the gooey potion all over Bishop.
"Then the shaman takes a huge swig of this cheap men's cologne, puts a candle about a foot away from his mouth and starts blowing the cologne, which is mostly alcohol, and these blue flames are almost touching Robbie's body," recalled McQuaide. "I look at my students, and the other nine are plastered against a wall, absolutely transfixed, slack-jawed.
"My colleague [English Professor] Lucas Carpenter is in the back dissolving into guffaws and trying to press his hand over his mouth as hard as he can so as not to blow the scene," McQuaide continued, "and I'm sitting in the corner counting the ways I'm going to be sued. I actually flashed on Bill Chace pointing his finger at me, saying, 'But Dr. McQuaide, why didn't you protect your students from being burned to death in this hovel in Ecuador?' And I didn't have an answer."
Perhaps not to that question, but McQuaide and this unique Spring Break he organized answered a lot of questions for his Sociology 389R class. After taking a trip himself to the Amazon basin last year and interacting firsthand with a native shaman, McQuaide knew he had to take a group of students to experience the same thing. From March 5-14 he did just that, spending half the time in Amazon jungle and the other half in Ecuador's highlands, places like Pegucha.
Academically, the trip's purpose was to expose the students to a non-Western view of medicine and well-being. Health care in technologically advanced countries like the United States is based on the philosophical notion of "materialism," McQuaide said, studying what is wrong with the actual "materials" of the human body and fixing them. For many, if not most, Ecuadorians, both in rural and urban areas, healing is as much about the spiritual as it is the physical.
First the students braved the hardships of the Amazon jungle to visit with a shaman of the Oriente, the low-lying, eastern part of Ecuador. Guided by an apprentice shaman named Osvaldo, the group trekked into the rainforest. Once they arrived at the village, the shaman led them to his sacred garden and stripped off a length of ayahuasca bark, which he then brewed into a tea. Ayahuasca is a powerful hallucinogenic, much stronger than street drugs found in America, and drinking it enables the shaman to better communicate with the spirit world. None of his "patients" drink it. After entering the altered state of consciousness, the shaman called the group one by one into a dwelling for a spiritual session. What occurred then was just as fascinating to the students as it was to McQuaide a year earlier.
"I sat between his legs with my back to him in complete darkness, and he did some chants and rubbed some vines on me," Bishop said. "He kind of read everything that was going on in my life, and he was pretty accurate on a lot of the details, things only I would know about. It was really weird."
The trip was not without its surprises, both pleasant and otherwise. During the group's visit, Ecuador was plunged into nothing less than a national crisis, as its currency dropped 40 percent in value within a few days and the entire country went on "national strike." Furious Ecuadorians blocked travel in the country by taking chainsaws and dropping huge trees across roadways. McQuaide's group was trapped by just such a crowd of 100 young Otavalo Indian men, each armed with a rock "the size of a grapefruit," McQuaide said. If not for the presence of an Otavalo elder in their tour van, McQuaide admitted he has no idea what might have happened.
Another turn of fate, this one much less scary, was Bishop's healing in Pegucha. As they drove through the town, McQuaide and Osvaldo spotted the home of a shaman who just recently had hung out his shingle and opened for business. "There are probably still track marks on the road because we screeched to a halt so we could go investigate," McQuaide said. He plans to make this trip a yearly event and believes the 10 students who made the inaugural journey will sell it themselves by their testimony. Bishop certainly will.
"Two hours [after the healing ceremony] I felt better than when I left for Ecuador almost a week earlier," Bishop said. "I felt incredible, like a new person. I have no explanation for it. That trip was one of the most incredible experiences of my life; I couldn't in my wildest dreams have imagined everything that was going to happen to us. It was awesome."