As we neared the shaman’s cabin on stilts, a teenage, cherub-shaped boy emerged from the door and led us up a set of exterior stairs into the main room with a long wooden bench against the back wall and a tiny stool in the center. Without a word, the boy disappeared, so we sat on the bench and waited. When at last Don Alfonso entered, I couldn’t help but stare. I knew what to expect, but seeing him in person was surreal. His crown and his arms were adorned with colorful macaw feathers. Several layers of beaded necklaces hung around his neck as well as more impressive necklaces made from the teeth of jaguars and shells of river creatures. Bright streaks of red dye from achiote seeds marked his weathered face. He sat on the stool, lit a cigarette, and waited for us to initiate an exchange.
Aunt Belén’s movement was so slight that at first I didn’t detect it. From her backpack, she slid out Uncle Enrique’s leather journal. It had been almost twenty years since I’d seen that book but I recognized it and the drawing she pulled out of it. She rose to her feet and approached the shaman. His eyes grew wide as she handed the drawing to him, and I knew what he was going to say before he said it. “The Cayramashi.” His voice was higher and wavered more than I expected. “The Cayramashi contains the wisdom of the greatest shamans.” He called out to his son who quickly came. He gave the drawing to the boy who, handling the paper carefully, disappeared into the back room. The shaman guided Belén to sit. He sang, his voice interrupted by periodic coughs, and waved a branch of dried leaves over her head. This, Colin later explained, was a limpia, and the shaman, despite the cigarette in his mouth, was not a chain smoker. The smoke served to cleanse the patient’s body of evil spirits. When he had finished, he took Belén by the hand to the back room. There was more singing, then silence. We waited for hours, filling our time by wandering around the cabin as Omar identified the plants and wildlife.
It was late in the evening before Don Alfonso emerged. “She has cancer,” he said.
We had traveled for sixteen total hours for the shaman to tell us what we already knew. But perhaps that’s what many great journeys do, confirm what we already know to be true.