A Visit To A Bolivian Medicine Woman

yatiriI’d never heard of a shaman until my first class on my first day of college. I’d signed up for “Magic, Witchcraft, & Religion” as an elective on a whim. It turned out to be one of my favorite undergrad classes and has been highly inspirational to my work as a travel writer.

The instructor was a short, plump woman of a certain age. She’d lived on a Hopi reservation while working on her doctoral thesis. She looked so exotic, always bedecked with ropes of beads, silver and turquoise necklaces and rings, and dangly earrings. She wore colorful indigenous skirts and told incredible stories, some of them involving the words “peyote” and “ayuhuasca.” She’d traveled all over the world. I wanted to be her.

So, it’s no surprise that I developed a fascination for indigenous cultures. Perhaps one of the reasons I find them so absorbing is because I don’t subscribe to any religion myself, so I find the concepts of animism, polytheism and shamanism particularly interesting. I’m spiritually bankrupt myself, although I studied holistic massage in the ’90s (big mistake), and through that developed a respect for certain alternative modalities of medicine.

But fortune-telling? Soul cleansing? Killing endangered species and then ingesting their body parts in foul-tasting teas? Um, no thank you. I find this stuff interesting, but I don’t believe in it, nor do I endorse anything that involves sacrificial offerings in the name of fortune, fertility or romance.

I once had my palm read on a press trip in Hong Kong. The fortune-teller, a wizened old man, examined my hand (at the time cracked and callused from my part-time jobs as a farmers market vendor and waitress), and asked my translator, “Why no marry? If no marry by 40, never marry. Health good, feet not so good.” Still single at 44, that asshole may well have sealed my fate, but on the other hand, my feet are in good shape.

%Gallery-186949%yatiri Still, despite my non-existent belief system, I was determined to visit a shaman while in Ecuador four years ago, simply because I was curious about the process, as well as what he’d have to say about my psyche. Unfortunately, my session proved impossible to organize on short notice, so when I went to Bolivia last month, I set about finding a contact pre-trip who could hook me up with a reliable medicine man or woman.

Throughout South America, there are variations on the type of people who perform services that, to our Western minds, are mystical, if not demonic. Depending upon the country or indigenous culture, this person might be male or female, and they can variously be considered a medicine… person, shaman, or witch. The most important fact is that rarely are these people practicing what we would consider the occult.

The function of most South American “medicine men/women” and their ilk is to provide spiritual guidance or assist with medical or emotional problems. Whether this involves medicinal herbs, potions, casting spells or purifying rituals is besides the point. For many people, particularly those from indigenous cultures, regular visits to these specialists is a way of life.

Amongst the Aymara people of Bolivia, such a person is referred to as a yatiri, and they may be male or female. While plenty of yatiris can be found in La Paz’s Mercado de Hecheria, or witch’s market, I discovered that the real-deal yatiris (i.e. ones that don’t cater to tourists) are located up in El Alto, a separate city that’s sprung up in the hills above La Paz. This mostly indigenous community is a sprawling cacophony of markets, ramshackle houses, shops, traffic snarls and street vendors, but it’s also an excellent representation of daily life for urban Aymaras.

It was here that my fixer/translator, a British woman who’s been living in Bolivia for 22 years and works as the office manager of a mountain biking company, found Dona Vicentá. A practicing yatiri for 10 years (she says she felt a calling), her services are requested across the continent, including by some prominent government officials.
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Dña. Vicentá agreed to see me thanks to a personal reference from a Bolivian friend of my fixer. She doesn’t usually take on gringos as clients, but for whatever reason she agreed to see me, as well as allow me to document my session. I was given a price range for a fortune telling and soul-cleansing session (the price depended upon just how much scrubbing my soul was in need of, so I steeled myself for the full fare, which was about $60).

My fixer and I took a cab up to El Alto, and there we met Dña. Vicentá in front of a community building. She was an adorable, sweet-natured Aymara woman with remarkably youthful skin, dressed in full cholita (highlands woman) attire. We walked to her “office” along a busy street. We came upon a row of squat, corrugated buildings, most of which had small fires burning in metal pans in front of each doorway. I learned that these were the workplaces of other yatiris. This area is popular with them, because of its prime location overlooking La Paz (above).

Location is, as they say, everything, and for yatiris, the double-whammy of having the soaring peaks of Huayna Potosi to the left, and Illimani to the right has significant cultural and spiritual meaning. It’s also where La Paz’s radio towers are located. This, explained Dña. Vicentá without a trace of irony, makes for excellent communication with spirits and helps her to better receive feedback on her clients. For the record, I believe she was utterly sincere, and for the sake of journalistic and personal integrity, I’d promised myself I’d submit to this adventure with a completely open mind.

My session began with Dña. Vicentá asking me a few general questions, but nothing personally revealing. She asked me for a 10 boliviano note, which she added to a pile of coca leaves on a table. She then began picking up handfuls of the coca leaves, and divined their meaning based upon the way they fell. This lasted approximately 15 minutes.

I’m not going to tell you what she said, because it’s personal, but I can say that she was eerily accurate. Not just good-at-reading-people accurate – she literally nailed certain things that only a long-term therapist, if I had one, or my closest friends could possibly know. It didn’t freak me out so much as astound me, and after that, I began to pay closer attention.

Unfortunately, this is the part where my fixer and I learned that a visit to a yatiri is a two-part process (at the very least). Dña. Vicentá told me she had a client with a serious family matter waiting outside, and asked when I could return for my soul cleansing. Apparently, the process requires the yatiri to seek guidance from higher powers, in order that he or she might procure and prepare the correct offerings. In order for me to have a certain “blockage” removed that was prohibiting me from achieving certain things, Dña. Vicentá would need time to prepare (much of this was lost in translation, but I do know that a dried llama fetus was required).
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We explained to her that I was flying out of La Paz at 6 a.m. the following morning, and had no plans to return to Bolivia anytime soon. I actually felt a little distraught. Dña. Vicentá mulled things over and decided to perform a sort of mini-cleanse in order to help me in the interim, but only with the understanding that I would return to Bolivia for the full deal at some point (this I promised, as I do get to South America about once a year).

After about 15 minutes, Dña. Vicentá was ready for my ceremony. A small, incense-fueled fire was burning in front of the office. I was told to kneel on a blanket overlooking the city. She requested my wallet, so that my money would be blessed. She then used a smudge stick to purify me (above), chanting in Spanish and Aymara the entire time. It took about five minutes and when it was over, I felt strangely relieved – like I’d acquired some karmic insurance to tide me over. I thanked her profusely and we exchanged traditional cheek kisses in farewell.

So, now I’m back home and I have to say, it seems some of Dña. Vicentá’s predictions appear to be coming true. Of course, this may well have happened without her, and I prefer to continue to believe we make our own luck, or lack thereof, most of the time. As for the long-term outcome of certain things she told me, that remains to be seen. I do know I’ve given a lot of thought to a few things she pointed out about my nature (which, for the record, she deemed as fundamentally good), and I’m working on trying to change a few detrimental habits.

Do I now believe in witchcraft, shamans and spirits? No. But I’m willing to accept that perhaps there are certain people out there who are blessed with a type of insight that goes beyond what the human mind can readily comprehend. Or maybe Dña. Vicentá has just read some of my writing.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller/Jill Benton]

La Paz’s Museo De Coca: A Historical And Cultural Look At Bolivia’s Most Controversial Crop

coca leafHoja de coca no es droga.” “Coca no es cocaina.” You’ll see these sentiments, which are indeed accurate, on T-shirts displayed throughout La Paz’s tourist ghetto, which is centered on Calle Sagarnaga.

I should preface this post by saying I’m not a fan of recreational drugs (no judgement; I do live in Colorado, after all), so my recent trip to Bolivia had nothing to do with that. It’s unfortunate, however, that a certain type of traveler has made Bolivia a destination to obtain cheap coke, because it’s not doing the country any favors with regard to its reputation. But, if you know where to look, cocaine is available in abundance. If you know the right people, you’ll also find it’s the best-quality stuff available (sorry, Colombia). And yes, it’s illegal.

How do I know this if I don’t partake? Let’s just say that I’m a journalist, and I read a lot and talk to a lot of people. I’ve also spent enough time traveling in South America to understand the difference between coca leaf– the raw ingredient– and cocaine, the manufactured drug.

For thousands of years up until the present, coca leaf has been an integral part of the cultural, spiritual and economic psyches of Bolivia, Peru and Colombia. A member of the family Erythroxylaceae, coca is native to the Andean lowlands and highlands of western South America.

For aforementioned reasons, the plant is considered a high-value cash crop because it contains trace amounts of alkaloids, including cocaine. It’s important to note that ingesting the alkaloid is not the same as using the synthesized, concentrated form of the drug cocaine. Synthetic cocaine is, as we all know, a powerfully addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system. Since this isn’t an article about “Just Say No,” let’s get back to coca leaf, shall we?museo de cocaThe indigenous peoples of the Andes (primarily the extinct Incas, and the Aymaras and Quechua) have historically relied about coca leaf as a means of alleviating altitude sickness, fatigue, hunger and thirst. It also acts as a mild analgesic, and has been used to treat everything from digestive issues to fractures. Macchu Picchu is said to have been impossible to build without the aid of coca leaf. South American miners and other laborers also rely heavily upon coca leaf to help get them through the long hours required for their jobs (in a forthcoming story, I’ll post photos of Bolivian miners in Potosi, cheeks bulging with acullicos, or quids).

Coca is traditionally consumed in two different ways. It may be brewed into tea called mate de coca. I drank a lot of mate while on a trek in the Cordillera Real; you just take large pinch of dried leaves pour hot water over them. The flavor is … very hay-like.

Alternatively, the leaves are compressed into a ball, and tucked into the cheek. A pinch of ilucta (quicklime or a quinoa ash mixture) is added, which helps facilitate the flow of salivia and make the leaves more palatable (I tried this in a market in Potosi, and in no way did it make things remotely palatable enough for my gringo taste buds). This is the delivery system by which the alkaloids are absorbed into the body. In Bolivia, the act of chewing coca is known as picchar.

In recent years, much has been made of the medicinal benefits of coca leaf. Bolivian president (and former cocalero, or grower, as well as union leader) Evo Morales began lobbying the UN in 2006 to legalize coca, which would be an economic boon to the country, South America’s poorest. And that, perhaps, is the best reason to visit the Museo de Coca in La Paz.

The museo is located in what looks to be a former apartment in an old, colonial-looking building. It’s in the Mercado de Hecheria, the heart of La Paz’s backpacker ghetto (coincidence? I think not). Regardless of your reasons for visiting the museum, its overriding purpose is to educate visitors about the cultural/historical use of coca leaf, the economic importance of its cultivation in Bolivia and medicinal benefits.
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Photography is not permitted in the museum, but there are hundreds of vintage photos of cocaleros, indigenous peoples using coca leaf, the various species, and technical information on the chemical breakdown of the plants. There’s also a section dedicated to the manufacturing and history of cocaine, as well as the dangers of cocaine use (illustrated by some very dusty mannequins surrounded by gutter detritus). The museum patently goes to great lengths to distinguish the difference between plant and synthesized drug.

If you happen to be in La Paz, the Museo de Coca should be on your list of things to do. It’s highly informative and interesting (and sometimes, unintentionally entertaining), and more important, it’s a part of Bolivian culture and history that too often goes misunderstood.

The museo is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Sundays. Entry fee is about 10 bolivianos ($1.50). Calle Linares 906.

[Photo credits: tea, Flickr user MacJewell; sign and T-shirt, Laurel Miller]

Photo Gallery: La Paz’s Mercado De Hecheria

When I left my hotel yesterday morning to go investigate La Paz’s famous Mercado de Herchería (also know as the Mercado las Brujas, or Witch’s Market), I didn’t know what to expect. Would it be covered, dank and creepy, like the one in Quito? Would it sell freaky and endangered animal parts (please, god, no)? Would anyone kick my ass if I took stealth photos?

As it turns out, the Mercado de Herchería consists of a couple of gloriously decrepit cobblestone streets (Calle Linares and Jimenez). They’re lined with stalls selling folk remedies and objects designed to bring good luck; wealth; love; health; long life; or, in the case of one shop, a lasting erection. It’s fascinating, but not repellent. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed employing my crappy Spanish to ask shopkeepers what various objets are used for. I’m also fascinated by the cholitas (indigenous women from the highlands who live and work in the city); their elaborate costumes of tall bowler hats, voluminous skirts and alpaca shawls, embellished by waist-length twin braids, are stunning.

I’m also pleased to report that I saw no nearly extinct critters, just sea urchins and starfish in need of some reconstitution. I’ve also read that various creatures – probably very low on the evolutionary scale – are sometimes used in potions prescribed by the local yatiris, or witch doctors. The dried llama fetuses, however, are probably single-handedly responsible for putting the market on the map. As ghoulish as they appear to us, they’re used by the indigenous Aymara and other cultures as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth). You’re supposed to bury one beneath a cornerstone of a new house to ensure good fortune.

There’s nothing scary about the market, but it’s one of the most lively spots in the city, due to the number of hostels, budget hotels (mine, Hotel Fuentes, is adorable, cheap, and, it turns out, in the heart of the market), cafes, boutiques and souvenir shops. It’s a tourist spectacle, true, but tourism in Bolivia is of the most mellow kind. The mercado is also a true slice of daily life in La Paz. Who knows what you’ll end up lugging home?

Stay tuned for an account of my forthcoming visit to a local yatiri; I’ll be having my fortune told and my soul cleansed. I hope she has a sturdy scrub brush.

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[Photo Credits: Laurel Miller]