In the Poné’s Chamber: The Magic and Charm of the Tsáchila

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The “Red-Colored Ones” that gave the city of Santo Domingo its name — the Tsachila — worship the annatto fruit, hold shamanic ceremonies in a candlelit underground chamber and have a tree especially for hugging.

I first learned of the Tsachila when planning a research trip to the country’s fourth largest city, Santo Domingo. A quick internet search revealed images of people dressed in a riot of color, the men with black and white striped skirts, leopard print waistcoats and bright red hair brushed forward into a point. The women wore multicolored skirts, sequined tops and ribbons in their hair. Bodies and faces were adorned with paint; necks were strung with beads. One thing was for sure: the Tsachila were snazzy dressers!

Ancient looms and ageless colors.

I promised myself I’d visit them, though it took me a long time to track down a place that really offered the authentic Tsachila experience. A several-hour bus ride and motor taxi haul later, amid exhaust fumes and a cacophony of running motors and beeping horns of backedup cars baking in the sun in Santo Domingo’s traffic, all I could think of was how could an indigenous ‘nationality’ live so close to such a relentless concrete jungle?

We stopped next to a lush green lawn and a couple of wooden huts with thatched roofs: the Mushily Cultural Center. A smiling man came out to greet me, his bright red hair modeled like a backwards Roman helmet. His bare chest was striped with black paint and decorated with a big necklace made from wooden beads. His arms, legs and face were also striped. A red sash topped off a wrap-around black and white skirt above bare feet. The image seemed to me like that of an ancient lance-throwing warrior from the pre-Columbian ‘Inca Wars’. But after the hour-long tour, walking along muddy trails and well-tended gardens, he told me the story of the Tsachila, and I quickly learned this was anything but a war-mongering people.

Curative infusion.

In 1660, the Tsachila were living in San Miguel de los Bancos near Quito when they were struck with a deadly epidemic of smallpox and yellow fever. With their people dying, shamans held a three-day ayahuasca ceremony to ask for guidance. During the ceremony, the shamans (known as ponés in their native tongue of Tsafiki) received visions of recovering from the disease by painting their bodies with black and red paint. When they went searching for the paint substance in the forest, one of them stepped on an annatto fruit, known in Spanish as achiote, and discovered the red paste inside. As per the vision, the Tsachila covered their skin with the substance and were indeed healed. To make sure all traces of the diseases were gone, the men cut their long hair and, in tribute to the medicine that had saved their lives, started to color it with achiote paste and style it in the shape of the red fruit. To the Tsachila, achiote represents life. They discovered the black body paint in another fruit, the mali, which they apply in stripes to honor the people who lost their lives in the epidemic and to protect against bad energy. To symbolize the lifesaving higher knowledge of the ponés, the men wear a mushily, a cotton doughnut perched on top of their red hair.

Achiote, or annatto, the sacred fruit of the Tsáchilas.

Following the epidemic, seven families moved from San Miguel de los Bancos to their current location. The closest city, Santo Domingo de Los Colorados (Santo Domingo of the Red- Colored Ones), was later named after them. There are now seven Tsachila communities living in the area and, in many ways, they still maintain their ancestral way of life. In other aspects, life has changed for the Tsachila in modern times. Education is bilingual, in Spanish and Tsafiki. The typical food is maite, a fish wrapped in a leaf and cooked over a fire, served with yucca, very similar to the traditional Amazonian maito dish. Traditional skirts are worn; black and white for the men in honor of the highly venomous equis snake, and rainbow colored for women. With the spread of Catholicism, the women started to wear bright sequined tops instead of being naked from the waist up.

The Tsachila are known for being skilled weavers and historically earned a living by making clothes spun from native cotton. These days, while they still make their traditional skirts, the modern clothing industry has rendered hand-weaving obsolete. Most of the cotton bushes have been cleared and the Tsachila now live mainly from agriculture, growing yucca, plantain, sugar cane, pineapple and citrus fruits. More recently, some villages have embarked on community tourism projects, which not only provide a source of income but also help to preserve their way of life. My motorbike taxi had taken me to Chigüilpe, home to the Mushily Cultural Center, one of the most organized projects.

Ancestral healing and tree hugging

The first stop on our tour was a hut used for medicinal steam baths by the ponés, who still practice a variety of ancient medicinal techniques. Inside was a hole in the ground and a wood fire with a pan of water over it. Before preparing a curative steam bath, the poné makes a diagnosis by passing a candle over the patient’s body and watching the flame. He then prescribes medicinal plants. Half of the leaves are boiled to make an infusion, which the patient drinks. The rest are placed in the hole in the ground along with fireheated rocks, which are splashed with water to create steam. The patient sits over the hole, covered in a blanket to absorb the vapor.

Next, we came up to a ceibo tree, which they believe is capable of absorbing negative energy. Spikes cover the upper trunk, while the lower trunk is naturally spike-free, apparently to allow for embracing. When the ceibo can’t take any more negative human energy, it heals itself by shedding its leaves. Judging from the peaceful vibe of the place, I figured there might be something to this type of therapy. I closed my eyes and put my arms around its smooth trunk.

The highlight of the visit is the underground ceremonial chamber, the domain of the poné. We entered via a tunnel with only he thatched roof visible above ground. As I sat, the outside world seemed to disappear. It occurred to me that the walls had absorbed the healing power of the countless ceremonies that had taken place there.

Mushily Tourist Center.

My guide explained to me that the poné uses the energy of rocks, trees, rivers and waterfalls to heal patients during ayahuasca ceremonies, energy cleansing sessions and floral baths. During these rituals, sacred songs are sung, accompanied by traditional instruments. I was given a demonstration of these, including the palo de lluvia (rain stick), a hollow branch filled with seeds, which sounds like falling rain. All the hairs on my arms stood up. How could I have fallen from the city streets into such an otherworldly experience?

I felt doubly moved when my guide showed me a beautiful spot overlooking the river and explained to me that, as the city has encroached, the water has become so polluted that the Tsachila can no longer drink, bathe, fish, or wash clothes in it. This is especially tragic considering that fish constitutes their primary food.

Tsachilas depend on fresh fish.

Our last stop, a demonstration of the marimba – a musical instrument that curiously features in both Tsachila and Afro-Ecuadorian traditions – filled the space with a beautiful sound. They say it emulates the surrounding streams and the way the water touches upon stones and boulders as it flows along.

A must-return

The experience had been so moving, I had to return. I brought my sister along. We were both hoping to try out the floral bath; she had also booked an ayahuasca ceremony. It turned out that my sister was the only guest at the ceremony that night and I was permitted to sit quietly on a bench and watch; an unforgettable experience, to say the least.

We were honored by the presence of the chief poné of the Chigüilpe community, Abraham Calazacón, who, with his two assistants, created a beautifully orchestrated spectacle of fire, music and song. After the ceremony, my sister told me that the healing that Abraham had given her had been incredibly profound. The ayahuasca itself was a strong purgative, but she remained entirely lucid throughout. She called it “ayahuasca lite”. By midnight, she was tucked up in bed and sleeping soundly.

The next morning, we got up at 6 am and put on our swim suits, ready for our floral baths. I had visions of lounging in a brass bathtub in the underground chamber, up to my neck in steaming water and flower petals, accompanied by the beautiful sounds of the Tsachila music.

Instead, one of Abraham’s assistants led us, shivering in the early morning mist, not into the underground chamber but into a small hut. He instructed me to sit on a stool and produced a bucket of water with leaves in it. From the bucket emanated a strong smell very much like garlic. What on earth….? Before I could enquire, the bucket of cold – COLD – garlic water was poured down my back. I gasped and spluttered with the sudden shock and my sister fell about laughing. “It’s your turn next,” I muttered.

After we had thanked Abraham for the hospitality and personal ayahuasca ceremony, we asked about the floral bath. “We thought you wanted the rejuvenating option!” he said. His eyes twinkled.

Information

Centro Turistico Mushily is located in the km.7 vía a Quevedo, Comuna Chigüilpe. It is open daily from 8am-6pm daily and offers tours for $5, with no reservation required.

Ayahuasca ceremonies are held every Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 7pm ($25 including breakfast). Overnight accommodation is either in guest cabins ($10) or camping (bring your own tent). Ceremonies should be booked at least one day in advance.

The easiest way to get to the Centro Turistico Mushily is by taxi from Santo Domingo ($8-10 each way). Alternatively, take an Ejecutrans bus from outside the Santo Domingo bus terminal that goes to Via a Quevedo ($0.30). Ask to be let out after 7km at Comuna Chiguilpe from where a mototaxi can take you the rest of the way ($1).

Contact

+(593 9) 80 20 4868 / +(593 9) 93 87 5463
Facebook: Centro Turistico Mushily

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