It is four o’clock in the morning at Wayra Wasi, and the rich blackness of night still envelops the rainforest. Insects and frogs screech loudly, and birds call through the predawn air. Sleeping on the wooden floor under a roof of leaves, I am awakened by the sound of a cow’s horn and the steady pulse of a wooden drum.
This is a wake up call, an invitation to begin the day with the ritual practice of drinking Guayusa (Ilex guayusa), a culturally significant medicinal plant utilized by indigenous Kichwa people of the Ecuadorian Upper Amazon.
Guayusa is prepared as a tea made from the leaves of the Guayusa tree, and consumed only in the early morning hours, always beginning before sunrise. The preparation is brewed over an open fire and in certain circumstances may be combined with other ingredients gathered from the jungle.
For Kichwa people, Guayusa functions as both a multipurpose remedy plant and a ritual structure for cultural transmission and kinship building. Guayusa is prescribed for increasing energy, body aches, sore throat, improved dreaming, mouth rinse, and headache. While drinking, elders teach young children about the jungle, tell ancestral stories, or even pour boiling Guayusa over their own hand to demonstrate personal strength.
Eventually, the sun comes up over the vast ecosystem that is the Amazon rainforest, and the day begins.
Daytime birds and bugs come alive, and the sun shines through the dense canopy overhead. But with this sunshine, the reality of the conflicting aspects of Amazonia also becomes apparent. Large trucks come roaring down the dirt road carrying materials for the nearby oil well and pipeline system.
On the one hand, we are sitting within the Rucu Sacha, the Ancient Rainforest. On the other, we are in one of many Ecuadorian oil blocks assigned for petroleum exploitation and extraction.
This kind of activity has the most dire consequences for the indigenous people who have lived in this place since long before the first drop of oil was discovered. From ecosystem damage to loss of sustainable economic opportunity, numerous changes have occurred, and many communities of Amazonia are searching for creative ways to adapt to shifting paradigms within their homelands.
The livelihood of Amazonian Kichwa people is deeply rooted into their surrounding territory, and many therein look towards a future where ancestral wisdom adapted to current situations may provide cultural and ecological vitality in the region.
For this reason, certain communities have developed creative cultural immersion projects which at once invigorate local indigenous identity and simultaneously afford international travelers the opportunity to visit the Amazon directly, learn about local practices in an authentic manner, and build important cross-cultural connections which may last a lifetime. The rainforest itself acts as a stage for personal growth and exploration for many individuals, and the opportunity to be hosted there by those who know it best, while supporting local alternative economy, can be deeply impactful for participants.
This kind of immersion-based travel stands as an alternative to classical tourism, which at times can be destructive to local communities, objectify indigenous culture, and perpetuate division between native and outside forces.
When local hosts instead have the opportunity to share openly about what is important to them, and about their own lives and territorial knowledge, a deeper level of understanding and appreciation may be cultivated on both sides of the exchange. A tangible relationship with the jungle comes through this connection.
Swimming in the river, eating yuca or plantain, and breathing the fresh air of Amazonia imparts a a special understanding of the ecosystem and lifeways therein.
Immersion-based travel, where it is desired by local people, can seriously impact an alternative economy and serve to alter patterns of systematized oppression and poverty. In many locations within Amazonia, there are few to no fair economic opportunities for families to provide for themselves. Those employment opportunities which are available are usually linked to extractive industries.
Cultural centers that welcome international visitors with a fair monetary exchange can serve as an important 21st century link between indigenous identity and financial sustainability. Under this model, the eco-cultural center Wayra Wasi was created.
Wayra Wasi, or “House of Wind” in the Kichwa language, was birthed and built by native Amazonian people whose vision is to protect and transmit Amazonian wisdom, and cultivate a unique ecological and cultural awareness to those who visit.
The site sits on 250 acres of primary rainforest, includes rustic accommodation facilities built by hand, and welcomes visitors from anywhere in the world to visit for various projects and activities. The first of these endeavors is a two-week immersion for groups no larger than eight people, during which participants stay in wooden cabañas typical to the region and participate in cultural activities unique to the region.
During this two-week period, visitors to Wayra Wasi will take part in activities including: Drinking Guayusa before sunrise, guided walks through the rainforest learning about native plants and animals, medicinal plant preparation demonstrations, instruction in local ceramic techniques, harvesting yuca from the land, and learning to prepare chicha (a fermented yuca beverage central to numerous Amazonian cultures), introduction to Kichwa language, and a one-night stay at a biologically diverse laguna home to many unique plants and animals.
In the future, Wayra Wasi plans to utilize revenue from these groups in part to fund other community projects in the areas of reforestation, botanical research, and more. Volunteer groups may contribute to future projects as well, thus further deepening intercultural relationships.
For a very personal account of the psychological impact Amazonia can have on a person, check out this blog by an American visitor to Wayra Wasi.