My Ecuadorian friend, Alejandra and I took the bus from Cuenca, for about 2 hours south and got off at the little village of Susudel. From there, a local resident in an old, tiny truck took us on down the valley for another 20 minutes on a narrow, winding dirt road to the 250 year old hacienda, named La Paz (The Peace).
Welcome to Susudel
The bus stops here in Susudel
This valley is known as Zhurac Pamba, meaning Place of Beginnings in the Quichua language. Quichua is one of the many indigenous nationalities of Ecuador. This is the ancestral home of Alejandro Valdivieso, affectionately called Taita Alejo. Taita is the Quichua word for Father. Indigenous languages often use terms of family, such as Brother, Sister, Mother, Father not only to describe a blood relative, but also as a form of honor for a position of wisdom and respect. These terms are applied toward people as well as a way to honor our connections to other life forms, such as Grandmother Ayahuasca, Grandfather Birch, Father Mountain and Mother Earth. Taita Alejo has earned this respect from the thousands of people he has touched in the past 20 years of sharing his knowledge.
Zhurac Pampa: The Place of Beginnings
La Paz: Taita Alejo’s ancestral home
From the first moment of arriving at Zhurac Pamba, I see the centrality of ceremony, awareness for the sacred and gratitude for life. We are greeted by several generations of dogs, chickens, ducks, geese, cats and a territorial tom turkey. I receive a now familiar welcoming hug and kiss from Taita Alejo. There is a tree heavy with ripe oranges, another with hanging pomegranate. The scent of flowering jasmine fills the air. Every visit, we see a few other people there as well – fasters coming or going on their Vision Quest, family, neighbors dropping by and government officials documenting the presence of the majestic condors. This time, Galo, an old childhood friend of Alejo’s, is there.
Dogs enjoy the warmth of the Sacred Fire
Galo; Taita’s friend since childhood
Sitting prominently in front of the hacienda is the ceremonial circle set by stones and log benches. Within the circle is the sacred fire that has been burning non-stop since December Solstice, 2012 and an altar of various objects around several tall San Pedro Cacti. In addition to creating sacred space, the ceremonial circle serves as a protection
around the entrance to the domed Temazcal, known in the North as the Sweat Lodge. I have a special kindred spirit here with the sweat lodge and Vision Quest. These are the basis of my own teachings from Ojibway Elder, Grandmother Keewaydinoquay of the Great Lakes since the early 1980’s.
Inside the Spanish influenced, adobe home, there is no electricity, a small trickle of running water in the kitchen sink, an outdoor shower with water from the lagoon, and plenty of good drinking water brought in. There is also a good supply of propane tanks for the stove and gas lantern to brighten the large, dark kitchen.
Taita Alejo and Alexandra
in the kitchen lit by propane lamp
As I begin our interview, Taita Alejo, Galo, Alejandra and I sit around the long, wooden kitchen table. Alejandra and Galo have both lived in the United States and speak Spanish and English. Alejandra does the translating for Taita and me. I learn that Galo and Taita Alejo, now in their late 60’s, played significant roles in the reawakening of the use of entheogenic plant medicines, such as San Pedro in Ecuador in the early 1980’s.
By Onani Carver
Translation by Alejandra Moreno
Interview: Part One Susudel, Ecuador February 2015
Taita: Galo knows San Pedro really well. He introduced me to San Pedro in the ‘80’s.
Onani (to Galo): Were you trained in the use of San Pedro?
Galo: All knowledge of San Pedro comes from San Pedro. There was a shaman who used San Pedro to cure people. He lived in the village of San Pedro outside of Loja. We started using it after experiences with LSD and mescaline from the U.S. We called it Gigantón, meaning “gigantic.”
Taita: It’s been called San Pedro since the time of colonialization, after St. Peter who “holds to the keys to heaven.” It is called Gigantón because when the medicine touches you, then you get to see and feel everything as gigantic beings. If you are aware, every time you take the medicine, everything grows. You will notice the presence of some of the rocks and trees, animals and people are bigger than what you normally see.
Galo: We learned how to cook it. I asked the woman there to make it. She cooked it for 3 days. The first time we cooked it, we used the whole plant; we didn’t know not to use all of it. That was 1982. Now, I’m here at Zhurac Pamba just to have a new experience with San Pedro. I don’t get into anything else. That’s Alejo’s job.
Onani: How does Taita decide to use different medicines- Ayahuasca, San Pedro, Tobacco, Temazcal, Vision Quest?
Taita: First thing is knowledge about people. At the beginning, I use Tobacco for everyone because it opens you. Smoking, blowing, burning, drinking, inhaling. I usually blow it up the nose, and also burn it in the fire, of course. As the healer, we are only tools or mediators. The connection is fire. The first time I provide Medicine is to connect with the fire. Through fire, then I choose what people might need.
Ayahuasca is to inform people. Ayahuasca is also used for cleansing, to make them lose their fear. It will always be a strong vision that comes through Ayahuasca. San Pedro is partly information about what Light is. It offers the strength that is required to heal from the things that Ayahuasca tells us. The courage is provided by San Pedro. Mushrooms are to celebrate with joy what we are to become. Mushrooms are total Light. I use 4 medicines, more or less – Tobacco, San Pedro, Ayahuasca and Honguitos.
Onani: How did you become Taita?
Taita: It has come to me. I began my vision quest for reasons other than becoming Taita, or sharing Temazcal. (Sweat lodge) It became necessary to change my vision. I saw another possibility for my spiritual growth through these experiences. I was forced to become who I am. It was during my own Vision Quest, which lasted 4 years. The Pipe, the Temazcal, the Vision Quest all came to me in the most unexpected way. I started receiving these gifts of healing. I manage to do these things because I have a prayer. I am not a shaman. I wasn’t looking for these gifts; they just came to me. Even this thing of being called a “Taita;” I don’t consider myself a shaman. The only thing I count on is my own “Reso,” my own Power. I allow myself to get into this possibility of helping others.
Alejandra: What is “Reso”? What does it consist of?
Taita: It is the allowance of the master, the teacher or the person who has power who lets you know you can do this. It’s being given the authorization to do something for the service of the people. Aurelio Díaz is my teacher and he gave me the Reso.
There should always be someone who is in a greater position than you, someone to turn to and guide you. Aurelio gave me my name, which means “the man who dances facing the sun in paradise.” He told me I am prepared and have the capacity to serve others. Now go ahead. I have Reso, which is my prayer, a purpose and his authorization.
Aurelio knows the energies of the earth. He has shown me a deep knowledge of energies – water, earth, fire and air. He has shown me not to doubt in these powers, to believe in those powers.
Aurelio came to Cuenca, Ecuador from his homeland of Mexico for the first time 20 years ago, in the 1990’s. This was my first time in ceremony. From this ceremony, I learned the only way to save Madre Tierra (Mother Earth) and all the future generations is to change people’s spirits.
I don’t consider myself a shaman; I just know I am capable of sharing the ceremonies. At that time, there was no place to hold ceremonies in Cuenca. They were prohibited, underground, disrespected, questioned. But people were requesting to have ceremony. We came here to Zhurac Pamba since it was my ancestral home. But it was during the time of a long, severe drought. It was very, very dry, too dry to have people here. Aurelio told me to establish a Purpose for the ceremony and I asked for rain. Aurelio gave an offering of tobacco and said, “If you want us to have ceremonies, then give us rain.”
We held ceremony throughout the night. Close to dawn, by the end of the ceremony, my arms were outstretched to the sky and I was pleading to the heavens. I knew this might possibly be the last time to be here because it was impossible to support life here. It was nothing like you see now. It was barren, only dust, nothing. I looked very high up. I saw a light way, way up high, coming down, coming down, coming down.
At a certain height, I saw it was a bencejo. (A large swallow) They have a special wisdom. They only come when it will rain. I watched the bird falling, falling, falling down. It almost touched the fire and then I watched it shoot back up. Aurelio’s wife, Virginia was there. I asked her is she had seen it. She’s not on Earth anymore; she’s in the heavens now. She passed over, so she won’t let me lie about this phenomenon.
I said to her, “It’s going to rain.” And she said, ”Yes. We might not be able to get out. Let’s get out of here!” The last person left and it started raining.
That’s how I met Aurelio. I thought, “How can this be?” I don’t know, but I know there is something. If someone talks about a shaman, then I look to see what he or she does. I really pay attention to see what they know because they know things. They show you that you cannot doubt, that it is real. There are more stories, but I don’t want you to say I’m crazy. Hahaha!!!
Onani: I see many spiritual teachers go through some kind of difficulty. They are shown there is a different level of awareness, beyond this physical reality. Have you gone through anything like that?
Taita: So many.
Onani: An initial opening, like an initiation?
Taita: My initiation was foreseeing my children’s future. I’m not on this path related to any spiritual idea, only because of nature and the Earth. My foundation is keeping the environment alive. If there is no water, no sun, no wind, no earth, there will be no God. There will be no human to live and to pray to God. God does not exist if there is no one praying to God. I expect my children and grandchildren and great grand children to keep the hope of God here on this Earth. Y ahí voy. (And there I go.)
Alejandra: I imagine you are avoiding the use of the word spiritual. I assume you are trying to take this out of the context of traditions and religion?
Taita: My task is to change people’s souls. Not their spirit, because that is immutable, unchangeable. The souls of people can deepen by getting people to acknowledge the presence and communicate with the 4 elements – earth, fire, water and wind. Only by doing this will earth will have a future. That is my task. That is my Purpose given to me by my teacher. By giving Medicine, Temazcal and cleansing, the purpose of all these Medicines lead to a greater Purpose of being able to promote the connection of people and the importance of the elements.
Onani: You use the Pipe, Temazcal, Honguitos; a blending of many different traditions?
Taita: Yes, San Pedro, Ayahuasca, Vision Quest. They are all the different medicines of the Grandmothers and Grandfathers. They are all the same spiritual path.
Onani: Many indigenous cultures throughout the world went through a very, very difficult period of time of invasion and oppression. Their traditions became illegal and were called evil, wrong, crazy. And yet, they also have prophecies telling of a time when the teachings would go underground, would have to be hidden and secretive. The prophecies then say there would be a time of coming together and uniting. Now is a time of oneness. My own Ojibway culture has this prophecy. And the Maori people of New Zealand, as well. Is this a part of your tradition, like the Eagle and the Condor? Is this a time of coming together?
Taita: When people feel there is a risk of their survival, there is an immediate response to look for a solution. Every human being feels this. The hope is that humans can see the risk of survival is disappearing. We can change our vital attitudes toward what we have at this time we are living. We can be thinking about future generations to come. A Taita, an environmentalist, whose name is Arturo Eichler says “It is most probable humans will disappear before we achieve any change in attitudes.” It is easier to disappear than to change our way of seeing. But since the last thing we lose is hope, we keep fighting.
Onani: And that’s true on a personal level as well as a cultural level. Sometimes, it’s easier to just disappear or die from this lifetime than have the courage to face a personal change.
Taita: That is what the sacred medicines are for, to change that vision. Tradition says, “This is the way it is.”
I have seen changes throughout the past 20 years. People are making environmental changes and they didn’t used to talk about it. Even if it seems like nothing changes. The people are more aware; the politicians’ speech shows an awareness of things going on. We have Greenpeace! Hahaha! It’s a little change. . .
Onani: It’s often pain in someone’s life that forces a person to face their spiritual Purpose.
Taita: Now I’ll tell you what my Master told me once. How do you pretend to want to know Spirit if you don’t even know what’s really close to you? Spirit might be, we don’t know for sure. But what we have here is what we do know. First, we have to take care of this very basic level of what there is around us. What has been given to us are the elements, the earth, the immediate things of life. Nobody has come back from there to tell us anything, so we better take care of what we know here.
Onani – In Ojibway we have a word for that, Kewabna. It means, “Who’s to say?” Quién sabe? And that means, we don’t know, we don’t need to know, we are not meant to know. Trust the mystery.
Taita: To believe in God, you have to be a fanatic because you cannot prove God’s existence. You cannot give it a name. There is no possibility to know God. Rather than go look for that, stay with what we know here.
Onani: My Grandmother is half Native and half Scottish. She was brought up in a native village; one of the few children not sent to the boarding schools. The Old Ones wanted to be sure to teach her the traditions so someone can carry them on. She was rejected by both societies – mainstream and native. She understands the feeling of being rejected for who you are. She always said, “We cry the same tears and bleed the same blood. I will teach anyone with an open heart.” You teach many different people too.
Taita: If we want to promote something big to happen, we have to share in the wisest possible way. That is the way I received the teachings. I know people from the North that say it is better to allow the traditions to die rather than share them with those who are not from their own blood. They don’t like people outside their tribe using their traditions, like the pipe and other medicines. Aurelio made a worldwide opening of these traditions and he is not appreciated by his own people or the outside people. You can do an Internet search on him and you find him as a failure, many failures. People don’t speak well of him.
Onani: Yes, the same thing happened to my teacher, my Grandmother Kee.
Taita: Aurelio has many brothers and sisters. His grandfather came and said to his mother, “You have so many children. Give one to me, to live with me.” And Aurelio said, “She gave him me!” His grandfather was a medicine man. He met many different medicine people around his grandfather.
Onani: That’s just like my Grandmother too! Her grandfather was a medicine man.
Taita: When Aurelio grew up, he went to the United States and was working hard. As an inheritance, his grandfather left him a toolbox. It was a box of ceremonial tools. It was passed on to him. His mother asked, “What will you do with this? Will you burn this up?” So he was in charge of this box of ceremonial tools.
Aurelio knew spirituality in the Native Americas was never over. It was just very well hidden. And so the grandparents told him he would be in charge of a revival, helping bring it back again, sharing and spreading the traditions. So he has done this all over the world. Sweat lodges all over the world. Japan, China, England, Norway, all over.
Onani: And you have a center here at Zhurac Pamba where people can come and learn from the medicines.
Taita: No, I don’t consider this a center, just a point. It is a place where a person can, first of all, find a brother. Maybe start a Vision Quest and get acquainted with the traditions. Everything started here, the first Vision Quest, the first dance. An initial point, a starting point.
Onani: You also go other places and support people, like to their homes.
Taita: I work with many other people and organizations. I worked with Banco Central Pumapungo Museum visiting communities. We grew quite a bit with them. I worked with the Saraguro people, who now have developed a very special thing. They are recovering a lot of their traditions. But everything started here at Zhurac Pamba.
Galo (who had been listening for the past hour speaks for the first time): Alejo holds ceremony in the town stadium every time new authority comes into power, like the mayor. The whole town drinks San Pedro.
Taita: I have given 200 or 300 people San Pedro at the same time.
Onani (in amazement): What happens when the whole town takes San Pedro together?
Taita: I blew tabaquito up the noses of 200-300 people. The purpose of ceremony is to focus. It is not a great amount of Medicine. It is a little half hour to focus on their specific purpose together. They focus on the fire, the meditation, prayer. They are doing ceremony together.
And that’s why we have bicycle movement in Cuenca.
Onani: Huh? How does ceremony relate to bicycles in Cuenca?
Taita: At Pumapungo Cultural Museum, I was invited to the Native Walks. One time, there were no walkers, just a bunch of people on bikes. We drank the Medicine and focused on a purpose together. I had this idea – to ride bikes to work at least once a week. Now Cuenca has developed bike paths and bikes are available to anyone on Sundays. I am so pleased to see this little seed I dropped has started growing.
 Honguitos – Translates from Spanish meaning “little mushrooms,” commonly used for psilocybin mushrooms
 Banco Central Pumapungo – A wonderful museum and archeological park in Cuenca, Ecuador
 Saraguro – The name of a town south of Susudel as well as the name of the indigenous Quichua people of the region. The town and the Saraguro people retain much of their traditional customs, arts, language and dress.
 Tabaquito – A powdered mixture of 7 ceremonial plants and herbs using tobacco as a base.
 The evening Alejandra and I did an Ayahuasca ceremony at Zhurac Pamba, there were 3 other women who joined us – the director and 2 employees of an organization in Cuenca providing assistance for families in need. (Cuenca is the third largest city in Ecuador and the capital of Azuay Province.) The women wanted to experience an Ayahuasca ceremony as a possible addition to their program addressing the personal, systemic and historic nature of domestic violence and addiction.