Before and during my trip to South America I suffered from a health issue that meant I was continually bleeding for over a year. This was on account of using the contraceptive injection as a form of birth control when I was in my last year of university. The advice that I received from the staff at the university health centre was to have a second injection, followed by a third injection, not surprisingly this turned out to be terrible advice and only made the problem worse.
When I went back to the doctor, it was suggested that I was either pregnant or had contracted an STD. The problem with university clinics is that this is their diagnosis for pretty much all symptoms that students come in with. I wasn’t too concerned that I had become pregnant as my body was so pumped up with hormones that I very much doubted that I was able to conceive. Having an STD was more of a concern to me as I was aware that my partner had been unfaithful to me and that I was slightly at risk because of this.
I am a big believer in being tested when you change partners as it was not the first time I’d dated somebody who had cheated. Despite this, I still found the idea and having to have the test because they couldn’t think of another diagnosis rather repellent. In the end no solution was found and this continued in the months after university and was barely controlled by my having the take the contraceptive pill despite having no reason to take contraception as I had split with my then boyfriend.
After several trips to the family doctor back at home (which was worse than having an anonymous university doctor poke around inside me) they told me that the hormones were causing the erosion of my cervix walls which was causing the constant bleeding. I have later learned that the injection is better suited as a form of contraception to older women who have had children, as their hormones are more stable than those in young women.
After my experience at the age of 22/23 I would not recommend this as the contraception of choice and I knew other women who had similar issues with the injection, as well as other long-lasting forms of contraception that doctors and nurses have started to recommend during appointments to get the pill.
In the end, I went to on my trip without really getting the problem resolved so I continued to try and manage it whilst I was away. Whilst I was at the rescue centre in Ecuador my pill supply ran out so it became much more difficult to deal with, at this point, I left the centre to go to Otavalo for a few weeks before I returned to take over from Helen.
I originally found out about shamanism from some mad British couple in our Inca Trail group and from then onwards I constantly went on about this to Steph. That and seeing pink dolphins and working in a rescue centre were my favourite topics to bother her ears with.
Now, I was in Otavalo and no longer travelling with Steph who was not keen on seeing a shaman so it was a highly auspicious time to get involved in this experience. The only difficulty was that practitioners are hard to find in South America as there are plenty of fake shamans who exist to rip off tourists.
I met a group of girls who were drinking ayahuasca when there were drunken men in the same house which is not a safe situation in which to be out of it and experience a vision. I had seen beautiful paintings of ayahuasca and San Pedro cactus inspired visions. They were usually in a myriad of colours and included beautiful goddess-like women and mythical looking creatures. To this day I have a painting hanging in my house of what the artist called ‘a celestial experience’ and I have a great appreciation for the imagination and belief that led to its creation.
As I was reticent to spend time alone with a drunken fraudulent excuse for a shaman I was not actively looking to find one whilst in Otavalo, where my only plans were to study Spanish. However, it was by a tremendous stroke of luck that when Craig and I went to the local shisha bar we met Inga who turned out to be studying shamanism and lived with indigenous people. I was obviously excited by this so I took her number and arranged to meet with her after my course had finished.
She texted me and we went one afternoon to see a female shaman who was living on a farm in the countryside outside the town. I was very pleased that Inga was with me as I would have had no idea what to do or say as the shaman was very difficult to understand. The first part of the ritual involved giving cigarettes and candles to the old lady who used an impressive amount of lung power to blow cigarette smoke into the candle in order to summon up the spirits who would tell her about our health problems.
When she was done looking into the candle she gave us both a rundown of our potential issues, mine were a typical set of backpacker issues based around back, shoulder and stomach problems. We agreed with our separate analyses and then she agreed to treat us both and this involved taking our clothes off.
Inga and I had met only a week earlier and now we got to see each other’s breasts but we got to keep our knickers on. As we were all female and surrounded by a haze of smoke in a dingy shed with no windows, this wasn’t really too bad. The shaman looked at my nipple piercing and asked me if it hurt, and I said no it didn’t.
After we had given ourselves a smoke bath that involved wafting smoke from a small fire over our bodies the next part of the treatment was to rub us both down with an egg. The egg remains intact for the entirety of this process as the point is that as it is in contact with your skin it draws the toxins out of your body.
The shaman also blew smoke over the affected areas of our bodies. The next stage was to essentially set a bunch of stinging nettle plants on fire with alcohol and use them to beat us all over. Heat is often a big part of shamanistic rituals as it is seen to draw out the bad stuff from the inside, essentially in a similar way to how Westerners treat the experience of visiting a sauna.
She then proceeded to rub my stomach with a magical potion (a herbal alcohol-based solution) which was quite pleasant until she set fire to it, which was a slight shock to the system as I had no idea what the ritual involved before I had arrived. The flames only lasted for a few moments and then after a small rub of another lotion, we paid our money and we emerged from the shed slightly groggy.
Afterwards I had a feeling that I can only compare to when you leave the spa after you have been for a massage, although the experience itself was about as far from a beauty treatment that you can get.
Inga said that she felt great and her stomach ache had gone, but as she was biased towards shamanism for intellectual reasons I wasn’t sure whether to trust her opinion. Despite this when she asked me if I wanted to go to the changing of the season sweat lodge ritual with another shaman a week later my answer was as ever, an enthusiastic yes.
The ceremony was on the Saturday and I went with Inga and some of her Dutch friends, it was also attended by a Chilean family as well as the Ecuadorian hosts. This made the event quite a multinational affair and it was attended by followers of all ages from seven years old to sixty years old. An important part of the ritual was the usage of two powerful hallucinogenic substances which were concoctions made of ayahuasca vine and San Pedro cactus.
San Pedro is derived from the plant which grows in the Andes mountain range in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile and Peru as well as in gardens and houses around the world. It has been used for medicinal and religious purposes for both people and animals for well over 3,000 years and was popularised by the Moche tribe. I read that it is named after Saint Peter as the purpose is ‘to reach heaven while still on earth’. Needless to say in the US it has been made illegal to extract the psychedelic substance from the cactus but you are allowed to own one for strictly decorative purposes only.
Ayahuasca is a vine and the name can be translated to mean ‘vine of the soul’, ‘vine of the dead’ and ‘spirit vine’. It was discovered by Amazon dwelling tribes who claim that they were encouraged to use the vine by the plant spirits who drew them to taste it. The use of ayahuasca was very unpopular with Christian colonialists from European who documented this act as being the work of the devil. It has a controversial legal status as it is frequently mixed with other substances to enhance the psychedelic properties and has been made illegal in France for this reason. It is most famous for inducing vomiting, which is seen as part of the cleansing experience and something that I saw many times during the ceremony.
As part of the ritual we all snorted tobacco juice from a shell to clean out our sinuses and you smoke a big tobacco ‘cigar’ that is passed around and people talk about what it is that they want to know about themselves. We then took a shot of ayahuasca and then San Pedro as it was passed around.
The ceremony starts in the late evening and runs into the early morning so there is no rush and there are several rounds of hallucinogenics and everyone chants in between and the shaman wafts the fire so it is very relaxed.
Everyone wears shorts and a t-shirt as there is a pile of rocks on a fire in the centre of the tent then the shaman pours water onto, this makes it into a sweat lodge or makeshift sauna if you will.
After you’ve taken the substances (I didn’t finish my whole cup as I was afraid of hallucinating and losing control), you lie down or sit for the chanting and the singing. After you’ve had a hallucination you tend to throw up in a plastic bag so lots of people vomited.
I didn’t vomit as I didn’t let myself relax enough to let my brain have the chance to see anything. Inga said that she saw stick men doing mathematics and lots of people report seeing rainbows. People think that these hallucinations hold the answers to their lives questions, which they may do depending on how you interpret them.
As I didn’t vomit, my stomach really hurt. In the end, I made myself sick as I felt ill. In the morning you are given bits of meat and fruit to eat. After I exited the tent at 7am the shaman hit my bare skin with a nettle and spat alcohol on me. Buenos Dias to you to sir.
I didn’t keep in touch with Inga but I’m grateful for the experience that she welcomed me into as it was an authentic experience even though it probably doesn’t sound like that written down!
A postscript to this was that I didn’t have a period for 5 weeks and it was heaven! I believed at the time that I had been cured and technically I was because my periods went back to normal.
However, I have learned that these substances do stop your periods but in my case, that was exactly what I needed. My cervix did start bleeding again when I went back on the pill and I had to get it cauterised in the end. The pill also massively worsened my mental health problems and I would never take it again. Now I use a fertility app and condoms as I am done putting shitty hormones in my body.
After all this Shamanism and language learning I had a week to myself to do some tourist activities before I went back to the centre. I boarded the bus to the next place looking like a total wreck but I was so glad I had such a unique experience with good people, even if I was spat on as part of it.