Last June I was two months into site and feeling ill, so, naturally, I was preoccupied with things that made me sick: slightly raw guinea pig, lettuce, street food, etc. 382 days later, I’ll share what I’ve learned about things that can make you well, according to some Ecuadorians. For the record, my landlord emphatically disagrees with shamanism of any kind.
La Ortiga: This is a stinging nettle common to many areas of Ecuador. In my family this is used topically to cure many aliments: muscle pain, stomach ache, arthritis, mal aire, and head aches. That’s just a short list of cures. Ortiga can be consumed as tea or eaten like a vegetable. It’s high in iron. My host parents collect the weed from the side of the road and hit themselves in the affected area to relieve the pain. My host dad told my program manger they’d cured me with ortiga, but he was just pulling her leg. She requested that he use the “soft” ortiga on me.
Oregano: Far less exciting than the ortiga, oregano is commonly prescribed for indigestion, nausea, and stomach pain. This one is packed in tea bags and can be found in most stores.
La Rana: This cure seems to be controversial. In my family, the frog is thought to cure very serious cases of mal ojo/ evil eye and serious illnesses that cannot be diagnosed. It is passed around the body of the patient and the frog will die, indicating that it has absorbed the sickness and the patient is cured. Froilan says that his wife, Lucha, was near death and their last resort was to take her to a shaman. The shaman passed the frog around her body; the frog died and Lucha recovered. I told this story to my landlord and he replied, “And who says the shaman didn’t just squeeze the frog?” Point and counterpoint. Ecuadorians disagree on this one. Shamanisim was prohibited, but is now tentatively allowed since practitioners consider it their cultural heritage.
El Cuy: Neither my landlord nor sister #1 believe in this one. Sister #1 will say that it is “brujearía”, or witchcraft. My landlord simply believes that all shaman are charlatans. Forgive me if you happen to be a shaman, those are his words. Some Kichwa families let their cuy roam free on the floor inside their houses because they are good luck, and/or protect the occupants from mal aire and mal ojo. Froilan, my host dad, agrees with the Kichwa belief that cuy can be used to cure. I’ve spoken to Ecuadorians who tell about cuy curing serious illnesses including cancer.
La papa: I thought I was paying attention when people mentioned natural cures, but somehow this one escaped me. In the last few weeks I’ve heard everyone from the snake oil salesman on the bus to my host mom talk about curing a headache with potato. The guy on the bus had this advice: “Ladies and gentleman, it’s easy to cure a headache. Now I will tell you how, free of charge. All you have to do to cure a headache is to make very thin slices of potato and place them on your temples.”
El Rojo: In some communities, the color red is seen as a protection from mal ojo and mal aire. More generally, it can be thought of as protection from negative energy. I spoke to a man from a Kichwa community in the Amazon and he defined it like this: “You can get mal aire if you shake hands with someone who has negative energy. It will cause a headache and vomiting. Until you are cured, and for three days after the treatment, you can only greet someone verbally, no kisses on the cheek or shaking hands.” People, pets, farm animals, and even objects like trucks will sometimes wear a red strip of cloth to protect them. I still don’t know the origin of this belief, and I’ll update this when I do find out. *This made for some interesting conversation with my teachers, so I’ll mention what they said this afternoon. Apparently, some people have more energy in their eyes and this is, according to one teacher, the reason that you need to protect things and people, especially babies, from their gaze. But, I still didn’t get the response I’d hoped for regarding why it should be red and not another color…
These are but a few of the most interesting cures I’ve learned about here in Ecuador. I’ve tried others that I didn’t mention like hugging trees to balance my energy, wearing eucalyptus leaves on my forehead and submitting to a burning newspaper being waved around my head to cure my headache. Ecuadorians who believe in this medicine do experience the health benefits, so I’ll keep trying. The tree hugging was surprisingly effective. Next up is the snake oil guy’s free potato cure.