It was about 11pm at night and the bus suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere. ‘This is us,’ Ruben beckoned to me.
We’d caught the very last bus from Pasto on a last minute get away to Sibundoy, deep in the valley of the department of Putumayo (i.e the world music series). We were going to vist Don Juan, an indigenous Shaman, or medicinal healer, who was having a ceremony of yagé in his maloka. We walked for what seemed like forever, every shadow and noise making me jump out of my skin: I am not one to voluntarily take country walks in the pitch black. ‘Are you sure there are no Guerilla hiding in the bushes?!’, I freaked. Ruben kept laughing at me: ‘this is one of the safest parts of Colombia.’ I wasn’t sure how reassuring that was, but wasn’t about to take off on my own, so I just tried to adjust my eyes.
We took a few wrong paths until finally saw a long driveway with a row of candles, and a strong smell of frankincense. In the maloka, a hexagon shaped house decked out with hammocks, were a group of people sat around a fire; heads-bowed. They were all about to go through a night-long ritual taking yagé, a cleansing ritual performed by the Shaman to clear illnesses and troubled minds. They were all locals from the community and for them these rituals are the equivalent of a monthly NHS check-up. We were not going to participate, but Ruben had offered to accompany the ritual music on his guitar, once the ceremony got underway.
After the group had drunk the medicine, they simply lay in hammocks or sat around the fire, waiting for the yagé to take effect. People say that you wake up in the morning with a completely clear mind and there have been some incredible stories. Juan is supposed to be extremely talented, reportedly having cured many cancers with his chants (apparently once he actually vomited a tumour). Ruben had once tried yagé when he wanted to give up smoking. The Shaman had placed a cigarette in his pocket to see if he still wanted it the next day. He didn’t. In fact, the next time he smoked a cigarette he was violently sick and his not touched one since.
One by one the participants were called up to the Shaman and stripped to their boxers as he fanned them with a massive plant and sang unworldly chants accompanied by the unlikely harmonica.
Out of respect I didn’t take any photos – but this is an example of the ceremony that I found on the internet!
One of the characters we met along their journeys was Andrés, ex-military, part time folk dancer and feeling the effects of having drunk a whole beaker of the stuff. He came and lay down next to us and said, ‘I speak Spanish, English, American, Mexican and Colombian – what you prefer?’ He then talked us through all the animals he was seeing. At one point he freaked out having a seen a lion and then relaxed as he realised it was Ruben’s guitar case.
I think I fell asleep but woke up in at various intervals during the night, partly from the cold, partly from the chants and music. It was fascinating to be part of.
In the morning Juan was back in his regular joggers and jumper, as if it had all been a dream. Andrés was building a castle out of the wood in the fire to protect his ‘princess’, which I later found out to be me as he donated many of his belongings to me including a Colombian football shirt and a toy green frog. ‘You have to accept them!’, Ruben said to me as he saw me eyeing the frog as a non-essential backpacking accessory.
As the locals slowly wandered off into the Sunday morning light, back to their communities, Ruben and I performed some of our songs we’d been practising for the gig around the fire. It was well received, and we started to feel a little more confident about the following Wednesday.
From Sibundoy we headed to Laguna de la Cocha, a beautiful lake surrounded by colourful houses and the tastiest trout I had ever had in my life!
Back in Palmira we had three days to prepare for our gig but it actually went well! Somehow last minute Colombian time keeping worked in our favour. We did start 3 1/2 after we were told we were performing, which made me quite nervous. ‘Is there any possibility this gig might not happen…?’ I asked Ruben tentatively, ‘Everything is possible.’ He laughed. ‘It is possible we may die today.’ (Maybe that sounds funnier in Spanish)
We were finally called to the stage and did our set for about 45 minutes. We did a mixture of English folk songs and Colombian traditional, as well as some more popular tunes. I loved it! We bought some local Santa Elena home grown wine to celebrate, and that same feeling as I had had many a time in Argentina: ‘I can’t believe we actually pulled that off!’
Our set list was:
El Pescador (Trad. Colombian Caribbean coast)
High and Dry – Radiohead
Parío la Luna (Trad. Pacífico)
Little Lion Man – Mumford and Sons (The ONLY one the uke was allowed in!)
Velo que Bonito (Trad. Pacífico)
Streets of London
The Parting Glass (Trad. Irish/Scottish)