Mama Maria climbed the stairs of her two bedroom concrete home in the small town of Iluman, Ecuador to get something. What could it be?
I had arrived to her place half an hour ago. It had taken the taxi a few minutes to locate her clinic, since the sign announcing she was a “yachak” or Andean indigenous healer was faded and hard to read. We had to ask several people, who all knew this 74 year old lady who has spent sixty years as an Andean healer. She began at age fourteen, learning from her father and grandfather.
Whenever I am in Ecuador, I make sure to have a limpia, or energetic cleaning. This is a wonderful way to clear our heavy energies. It is only natural that we sometimes begin to feel low in energy; without that spark of joy we once had. An Andean limpia can help to clear all this away as well as address any health issues we may have.
Mama Maria’s husband opened the door and let me in. He was less than five feet in height; wearing the traditional white pants and dark poncho of the region, his greying pigtail hung down his back. His feet shuffled, as he mumbled words in a mix of Quichua and Spanish that were indecipherable to me. He indicated that I should sit in the open air patio to wait.
A slight drizzle was coming down, moistening my face and clothing. The family wash was hung on steel lines across the patio; I wondered if it would dry. To my left, on the cement flooring of the patio, was a large pile of potatoes, each one a different shape and size. Dirt was still clinging to them. I surmised that they had been harvested recently.
Mama Maria bustled in, apologizing that she had been held up paying the light bill. She showed me the receipt. No worries, I told her. In fact, all of my experiences with Ecuadorian indigenous healers have had me waiting in patios and backyards. Andean time is of a different substance and texture than we find in Keene – more flowing and sensuous, less regimented and compacted.
I followed Mama Maria inside and found myself in a large, dim room with an enormous altar. As Mama Maria settled in, she handed me a white candle. I knew what to do with it: I passed it around my body, top to bottom, front and back too. And then I handed it back to her. She took it, muttered a prayer, and lit it, letting the wax drip on her work table and then placed the candle at the base of the altar.
She stared intently at the candle for a while, passing her hands over the flame, glancing at me and then back at the flame several times. “You are sometimes good, sometimes not so good,” she told me. “Your energy is not balanced.”
“Enfriamiento.” She explained. Cold. (In the Andean cosmovision, many illnesses and maladies are caused by too much cold or too much heat.)
And then she said she had to get something and headed upstairs. I was grateful she had stepped out for a few minutes, as this gave me an opportunity to examine her altar. I am forever fascinated by the altars used by Latin American folk healers of many traditions (including Santeria, curanderismo and Andean healing). Each altar is unique, yet they share certain commonalities. One being that there is always stones. Mama Maria’s altar had in the center a large black stone that must have stood about 18 inches high. Its top shape reminded me of some of the nearby mountain peaks surrounding this village. I found myself drawn to it – stone-lover that I am.
Mama Maria returned down the stairs holding in her embrace another large black stone. It seemed quite heavy for her. She placed next to the black stone I had been looking at. This new one was more narrow and pointier. “Taita Imbabura” she said.
Taita Imbabura. Or Grandfather Imbabura. This is the name of the highest mountain peak of the region. It is also the name of province where Mama Maria lives. All of the provinces in the Ecuadorian Andes are named for the most prominent mountain of the region.
In the Andean cosmovision of complementary duality, each mountain peak has its partner. Imbabura is considered to be a male mountain and his partner is Cotachaci (more rounded, slightly lower). When Cotocachi is snowcapped in the morning, it is said that Imbabura had been with her at night.
I realized that the two large black stones on Mama Maria’s altar represented Imbabura and Cotocachi. She called on these Spirits (and others) as she blew fire, brushed herbs, and splattered water all over my (almost) naked body.
As she went through these standard procedures for a limpia, she told me how wonderful to be able to practice openly their healing arts. Her father and grandfather had to hide their healing, or risk arrest, she explained. Some indigenous healers in fact were thrown in jail and their sacred altars confiscated. “Now,” she said triumphantly, “police are one of my biggest client groups. They often get negative energies due to their work and they appreciate the limpias. It makes them feel better.”
Mama Maria concluded by making several recommendations for follow up. One was to gather three types of herbs, boiling them for 20 minutes in a big pot of water and bathing with the liquid.
I returned from my limpia to the hotel room and began to read about “enfriamiento” or cold. I learned for the first time that many people can have too low body temperature and this can be a cause of health concern. I took my temperature and it was under 97. I have been following health practices to raise this low body temperature and am feeling better. Thank you Mama Maria. Thank you Imbabura and Cotocachi.